"What a way to start the free-agent period."
- Oilers GM Steve Tambellini on signing Justin Schultz
The Panthers have been helped in a big way by Jonathan Huberdeau’s return, but there are other teams set to benefit from an important piece getting healthy in time for the homestretch.
Jonathan Huberdeau’s return has given the Florida Panthers a shot in the arm over the past month. In eight games, he has four goals and eight points, has managed 25 shots on goal since his return and is skating more than 17 minutes per outing while once again forming a formidable trio with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.
Not only that, but in the time since he made his season debut at the start of February, the Panthers have dropped just two of eight games, rocketed right into the thick of things in the Eastern Conference wild-card race and are even on the cusp of potentially landing themselves a divisional playoff berth.
Now, as the deadline approaches, Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon, acting as GM while GM-turned-coach Tom Rowe mans the bench, said that he’s going to be looking to add another offensive boost to his lineup if at all possible. However, no matter who Tallon plans or manages to add at the deadline, it’s hard to fathom they’ll have anywhere near the impact that Huberdeau has had since he stepped back into the lineup. In that sense, the best addition the Panthers will likely have made at the deadline won’t come from a trade, but simply by the return of an important player from an absence.
While it’s the Panthers who are benefitting from a healthy lineup now, they aren’t the only club that stands to get a boost just around the deadline when a formerly ailing player gets back into action. There are five players currently sidelined who stand to make an impact for their respective teams upon returning:
5. Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks
Donskoi has been out of action for the past month, over which time he’s missed 12 games. That may not seem like a massive loss, but Donskoi has proven he can bring his A-game at the toughest time of the season. During the Sharks’ run to the Western Conference title and Stanley Cup final in 2015-16, Donskoi scored six goals and 12 points in 24 games while playing bottom-six minutes. That’s the kind of production teams look for from their depth players come playoff time.
Unfortunately, Donskoi hasn’t been near as productive this season with six goals and 15 points through 44 games. Even still, he’s proven he’s a threat to get the hot hand at any point. He scored 11 goals and 36 points in his rookie campaign, and that was no mistake. If he gets back soon, he could get some reps in right before the time the Sharks will need him most.
4. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Sidelined since the start of the season, Quick’s return appears to still be a week or two away, but that puts him in line to be back in the Kings’ net by the time the final month of the season is upon us. That’s great news for Los Angeles, especially if the team can manage to sneak into the post-season. Goaltending can steal a series, and Quick has stood on his head in past playoff appearances. The hope has to be that he’s in game shape by the time he gets back, though.
If Kings fans, or anyone else for that matter, is wondering why Quick isn’t higher on this list, there’s an easy answer. As good as Quick may be, Peter Budaj has played pretty well over the course of the campaign. Quick will be an improvement, but it’s not going to be like going from a shooter tutor to a brick wall.
3. Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers probably want to bolster their roster at the deadline as they get set for their first playoff appearance in a decade, but they might not have to do all that much to solve the depth problems on their blueline if Nurse comes back and plays like the top-four defender he’s capable of being. One of the bigger concerns facing Nurse has to be whether he’ll be in game shape or not. He hasn’t played since Dec. 1, and that’s a long time for a 22-year-old to be away from game action to expect him to come back and be effective immediately.
Nurse can be the perfect depth shut down guy once he’s back, though. He doesn’t need to play big minutes, but against a deep team, someone like Nurse could pay dividends late in the season and into the playoffs. As important as depth forwards are, having the depth defensemen to match up against a team that can roll four lines can be as crucial to post-season success.
2. Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders
Hamonic’s last game came in early January when the Islanders were in the midst of their struggles. The team has turned things around under interim coach Doug Weight in Hamonic’s absence, however. And while there’s a good chance some team in the hunt will improve their blueline in a big way with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, the Islanders stand to get their own top-four defender back in Hamonic. That’s going to be a big boost for New York.
That said, this season hasn’t been a great one by Hamonic’s standards. Despite the fact he was scoring at a better rate that he had during the 2015-16 campaign, his ice time was down three minutes per game through the early part of this season. Weight might have a different plan for the defender, though. If Hamonic comes back and performs like the legitimate top-three defender he is, the Islanders stand to add a top-four defender to their blueline without giving up so much as a seventh-round pick.
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have had an incredibly frustrating season and losing Stamkos as early as they did didn’t help one bit. By the 18th game of the season, the Bolts were without their captain for the foreseeable future, and he’s missed more than half the season with his knee injury. There’s still no definite return date for Stamkos, but he was given a four-to-six month timeline when he fell injured. That would indicate he could be back come the middle of next month or possibly just as the season closes. Things are looking positive right now, too. He recently practiced in full gear, per the Tampa Bay Times.
Stamkos’ game-breaking ability is something the Lightning have been missing for much of the season. While Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin have been contributing wonderfully this campaign, the Lightning have consistently had one of the league’s elite offenses over the past few seasons. This year, however, the Bolts rank 16th in goals for with 161. That’s not up to their usual standard, and Stamkos being sidelined hasn’t helped one bit.
The uncertainty surrounding Stamkos puts him at the top spot on this list with a caveat, however. He doesn’t help Tampa Bay near as much if the Lightning can’t somehow turn the tides late in the season and earn a spot in the playoffs. They’re only four points out with 23 games remaining, but it’s going to take some work and some favorable results around the league for the Bolts to sneak in. If the roster includes Stamkos, the likelihood of Tampa Bay making a late run go up drastically.
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Matthew Tkachuk. Image by: Getty Images
The Calder Trophy race will likely come down to Patrik Laine vs. Auston Matthews, which means in this Year of the Rookie, a lot of really good freshmen will not even be finalists.
There will be one winner and three finalists for the Calder Trophy this season and based on how impressive the rookie crop has been, it all seems inadequate. But hey, these kids are elite athletes and they don’t want your participation ribbons anyway. But for the sake of putting into perspective just how good this year’s Calder race is, I’d like to present you with the top five players who will not win rookie of the year this season.
In order to set this field, let’s first deal with the actual contenders: Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are your favorites. Zach Werenski, Matt Murray and Mitch Marner are your dark horses, yet all have very nice cases to be made. When us writers fill out our awards ballots, we get five slots to fill out and I would presume this cohort would be on the majority of them (so as you will note, two of these players will be “snubbed” from the announced list of three finalists, even though they probably got a ton of lower-ranking votes).
But who will be the true snubs? My top five:
Matthew Tkachuk, Flames: He’s the heavy on Calgary’s most effective possession line and one of the Flames’ top scorers. Tkachuk’s chemistry with Mikael Backlund and Mikael Frolik has been a great boon for the team and the rookie’s combination of skill, aggression and ability to agitate is unparalleled among his rookie peers. Most other years, he’d be a finalist for sure. Ranks fifth in rookie scoring right now.
Ivan Provorov, Flyers: Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev is the only rookie to average more ice than Provorov and has slightly better stats, but I’m not a psycho: no voter outside of the 416 area code is going to put four Leafs on a ballot. Provorov plays against top lines and averages nearly a minute more of penalty-kill time than Zaitsev, so it’s not exactly tokenism to put him ahead of his Russian countryman. Offensively, he’s only slightly behind Shayne Gostisbehere among Flyers blueliners and offense is Ghost Bear’s thing.
William Nylander, Maple Leafs: As I just mentioned, you can only have so many Leafs on the ballot, but Nylander has compelling arguments for inclusion. He is now Toronto’s best possession forward and has more points than all rookies outside the Big Three forwards Laine, Matthews and Marner. Nylander leads the NHL in power play points among freshmen (which you can take as a positive or a negative – I call it the Dave Andreychuk Gauntlet) and is now playing alongside Matthews, which could increase his numbers. One weakness? He has been shuttled around the lineup by coach Mike Babcock – which is normal for a rookie, but doesn’t help his Calder efforts.
Brandon Carlo, Bruins: As the Bruins ponder life without Zdeno Chara, another tall drink of water with great reach and shutdown ability comes to town. Carlo is playing with ‘Z’ and more than holding his own, playing against top lines and logging lots of minutes. Only Zaitsev and Provorov skate more among rookies. Carlo is also chipping in offensively, with all of his 14 points coming 5-on-5 except for one shorthanded, and he ranks second on the Bruins in penalty-kill time. Boston has the best PK unit in the NHL, to top it off.
Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes: A solid possession player and one of the top scorers on a bad team, Aho is definitely off the radar in terms of Calder buzz, but again; in a regular year he’d at least be in the conversation. Already has his first NHL hat trick and is playing on Carolina’s top line, while logging some penalty-kill time on the league’s second-best unit.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s production over the first two months of the season had some concerned, but he’s been a near point per game player since the start of December, which just so happens to coincide with the Capitals’ run up the standings.
The Washington Capitals are riding high right now. With 22 games left in the campaign, they’re seven points clear of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Metropolitan Division, the Caps hold a five-point edge in the Presidents’ Trophy race and there aren’t many, if any, teams that have fared much better over the past month.
For the Capitals, their run to the top of the league’s powerhouse division really kicked off in December. A few days into the month, Washington was fourth in the Metropolitan, trailing the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Penguins, neck-and-neck with the Philadelphia Flyers and only a single point up on the New Jersey Devils. But as the month progressed, the tide turned in Washington and the Capitals have gone on to post a 28-6-5 record since the start of December.
The reasons for Washington’s run to the top of the division have been plenty. Nicklas Backstrom has taken his game to another level this season, and he’s been as good as we’ve seen him in several years, contributing at more than a point per game clip. Then there’s Braden Holtby, the Capitals’ all-world goaltender, who has been every bit the brick wall the Capitals hoped he would be when they shelled out big money to keep the netminder. And, of course, Alex Ovechkin has been Alex Ovechkin, teeing up pucks and blasting them home one shot at a time. But one underrated aspect of the current run, especially with the way Backstrom has risen into contention for the Art Ross, has been the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The 24-year-old entered the season coming off of a career year, scoring 20 goals and 77 points during the 2015-16 campaign. Believed to be finally hitting his stride, there were high hopes for Kuznetsov to start the year, but he had failed to live up to those early on. Through the first month of the season, a span of 14 games, Kuznetsov had only two goals and seven points, and by the time November was over, the painfully slow start had reached its worst point. At the 21-game mark of the season, Kuznetsov had registered only three goals and nine points. He was on pace to go from a 77-point player to hitting the mid-30s after his breakout year.
As the Capitals have started to pick up steam, though, so has Kuznetsov. In fact, since the start of December, the only Capital with more points than Kuznetsov is Backstrom and only six other players league-wide have been as prolific. In his past 39 games, Kuznetsov has scored 11 goals and 38 points, putting him into a tie with the league’s scoring leader, Connor McDavid, and ahead of the likes of Ovechkin, Mark Scheifele and John Tavares over that same span. His 11 goals aren’t exactly tops in the league since the start of December but Kuznetsov, who’d probably fancy himself more of a set-up specialist than triggerman, has 27 assists since December kicked off. The only players better? Backstrom and McDavid, with 31 and 29 assists, respectively.
Kuznetsov turning his season around should’ve been seen coming, though, because the rate at which he produced consistently across the past season appeared to be anything but a fluke. At 5-on-5 in 2015-16, Kuznetsov registered 2.54 points per 60 minutes of action, and it’s no shock that he’s back in that range again this season thanks to his scoring surge, contributing 2.34 points per 60 minutes this season. It’s not just five-a-side where Kuznetsov is contributing, though, as he’s also put up nine power play points in the past 39 games. And his overall scoring rate since the start of December, which is a hair from a point per game, would have him setting a career-best for points had he been able to get the scoring started right from the get-go.
The only real concern surrounding Kuznetsov now is that he could see his shooting percentage plummet. He’s shooting at a nearly 12 percent clip right now — and a ridiculous 12.2 percent at 5-on-5, up from 7.75 percent in 2015-16 — which is almost a full 1.5 percent above his career average. If anywhere, that’s where Kuznetsov’s scoring could start to fall off. The good news? His assist totals per 60 minutes are also down, and if there’s less lamp lighting but more perfect passes in Kuznetsov’s future, the Capitals will surely take it.
From goaltending to coaching to scoring to depth, there are dozens of reasons why the Capitals stand to be one of the favorites heading into the post-season. But one of the biggest unsung heroes with the way everyone on the club has contributed this season is Kuznetsov — last season’s standout has, in a way, been this season’s underrated stud. He stands to be an X-factor heading into the playoffs, and if Kuznetsov can keep it going into April, the Capitals stand to benefit in a big, big way.
(All advanced stats via stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
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Patrick Eaves. Image by: Getty Images
Looking at the players available at the trade deadline, there are some who will be worth the asking price, and others who would actually make teams worse.
The craziest hockey day of the year is nearly upon us: deadline day. Rather than give into the wildness, let’s instead get logical and look at the numbers.
There are some eyes rolling in the back of the class, but with so many games and so many teams it’s hard to know every player in the league as intimately as the guys on your own squad. That’s where stats help a lot, especially advanced stats that dig a bit deeper than traditional box scores. When you watch the game, what you notice most is which team is creating chances and dominating the run of play, and over time the best players will generally have the best differentials. It’s not the be-all, end-all, they gotta score on those chances too, but they’re helpful in determining who’s helping and hurting. None of it replaces watching the game, but it sure helps illuminate strengths and weaknesses of players, especially those you haven’t seen much of.
With that in mind, we have you covered. We’ve already got our very own Matt Larkin’s top 30 trade candidates here, and now I’ve added some useful numbers to his list to help suss out the good from the bad.
Age and contract are obvious (and guys with term are in bold) and then I’ve added their per-game production right beside their relative shot rates (5-on-5, score/zone/adjusted) to put a focus on who’s scoring and who’s driving play. Then at the very right is their Game Score for the season (coloured by where they fit on a typical depth chart based on performance) as well as how many wins my model suspects they’re worth based on their last three seasons of Game Score. There are other metrics to be mindful of, but that should give a rough estimate of value.
Here’s the list (with goalies omitted because, well, voodoo) along with some additions from the TSN trade bait list to get to 30 after taking out already traded players and those pesky goalies.
That’s the list, now here’s the fun part. Based on these numbers, here’s which guys teams should target and avoid.
The Big Three: Yeah, Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are pretty good. If you’re a contending team that can afford the cost they might be enough to get the team over the edge. Shattenkirk is an incredible D-man and he would be a home run. Very few D-men provide more value than he does from the back-end, but he obviously comes with rental risk. The Colorado boys at least come with term, but that makes their asking price higher. My model has soured on them a bit this year and they appear as “second liners” on the chart above, but I think that’s the Colorado stench clouding things. They’re legit top line talents and can change the mix of any team’s top nine.
Patrick Eaves: I’ve had a soft spot for Eaves ever since I did projections for the 2015-16 season using war-on-ice’s WAR metric. Dallas was coming off a playoff miss and the projections had them winning the division that year, which they did. Part of that was really solid forward depth, and Eaves was a big catalyst. He was a guy on the fringe who had legitimate top six upside, and we’re seeing that play out this year. Put him with some stars and watch him go. He’s the second highest goal-scorer this season from the list above. A great complementary piece for a scoring line and you absolutely can’t go wrong at $1 million. He pushes play, too, which is a nice bonus to his scoring touch.
Martin Hanzal: Not many players get respect in the desert, but Hanzal deserves it. He could very well be the missing piece to a contender puzzle as he’s a legit second line center that thrives in a shutdown role and plays a complete 200 foot game. The Coyotes are nearly three shot attempts better at both ends of the ice when he’s on compared to when he’s off. Imagine adding that to a team’s third line? They’d be one of the best third lines in the playoffs and a matchup nightmare. He might cost a lot to acquire and a bidding war might put him on the other list quickly, but he’s a guy who is still worth targeting and should be on everyone’s wish list.
PA Parenteau: Are analytics folk the only people who actually like Parenteau? He gets bounced around the league, he can’t sign a deal longer than one season, he doesn’t get much money, and sometimes he gets waived right after signing. I don’t get it. And now he’s back on the trade block because of these one year commitments. Great secondary scoring, drives possession, very cheap, what’s not to like here?
Undervalued D-men: There’s a few here, and that’s because evaluating defense is very tough. The highest defenseman from Buffalo on this list costs more and is much worse. Cody Franson should be the guy to grab there and he’ll likely cost much less to acquire. He’s fallen off since his days in Toronto, but he’s still a dependable player who suppresses shots at a terrific rate. They may be in pillow soft minutes, but all that means is he’ll crush a sheltered role and a team wouldn’t have to worry about sending him over the boards at 5-on-5 like they do with other bottom-pairing D-men. He’s right handed, too. A very easy pick-up. I think Brendan Smith and Michael Del Zotto also fall in to this camp as they’ve been solid shot rate drivers in the past (though Del Zotto has taken a step back this year). All three are having a down season and it won’t take much to pry them out as a result. They’ll help teams win more than some of the other D-men on the market. Speaking of which…
Overvalued D-men: Let’s just list them all: Johnny Oduya, Roman Polak (who has since been taken off Matt’s list, but I’ll leave here), Kyle Quincey and one more who I referenced above who gets his own blurb below. These three are relics from a bygone era: the shutdown D-man. The only thing they really shut down is any semblance of offense as they fail to get the puck out of their own zone. The market is starting to reflect that as guys like Polak and Quincey come in at the bottom of the list, but then there’s Johnny Oduya at the top and I don’t understand it. Well, I do, he’s got Cup rings and a sparkling defensive reputation, but hockey isn’t a 100 foot game (to his credit his numbers have been a little better this season than usual). Offensive guys get slagged for being one dimensional, but you never see the same comments hurled toward these type of defensemen. There are legit shutdown D-men out there, like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Chris Tanev, but the guys available aren’t that. Not even close. They’re likely going to hurt whichever team acquires them. Mobility on the back-end is vital in today’s NHL and these guys don’t have that skillset.
Especially Dmitry Kulikov: If there’s one player to completely avoid at the deadline, it’s Kulikov. To say he’s been among the league’s worst defensemen this year may sound unfair, but it would probably be accurate, too. He’s been bad. It’s not just this year either, he hasn’t been all that good for the past couple seasons. He’s one of the league’s biggest drags on shots at both ends of the ice and this year his scoring has dried up, too. His Game Score this year is better than just one regular defenseman: Josh Gorges. That’s. It. Over the last three years he’s averaging a 16 point pace and is a net negative six shot attempts relative to his team. At $4 million, any team that acquires him is paying way too much for someone who really only makes them worse, not to mention the cost to acquire him. The Panthers knew that much when they moved him in exchange for the very underrated Mark Pysyk who’s been doing just fine this year. There aren’t too many landmines this year, but he’s the biggest one.
Over-performers: Two names stick out: Thomas Vanek and Brian Boyle. Fine players, sure, but not as good as they’ve been this season. Vanek was just bought out last summer and after years of decline, but he’s had a nice bounce back season with a 65 point pace. Here’s the thing, his personal shooting percentage of 15 percent is his highest since 2013-14 and the same goes for his on-ice shooting percentage. At 33, I have my doubts he’s back to scoring the way he was in his prime and I’d expect some regression. There’s also the red flag on defense where he’s declined from -5.1 relative shot attempts against in 2015 to -6.4 in 2016 and -7.4 this year. Those are brutal numbers, near the bottom of the league. In Brian Boyle’s case, he’s always been a fine third line guy who’s looked much better this year after a shooting percentage increase of his own. The price to acquire him is really high and while he’s obviously useful, don’t expect this year’s numbers to continue.
Expensive Veteran Wingers: Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Patrick Sharp – these would’ve topped the trade bait list in years past, but at ages 39, 40 and 35, respectively, that’s not the case anymore. Each of them are still mostly effective, okay players, but with their contracts in mind there’s simply no value paying much for what is now bottom six talent (though, there’s an argument to be made for Sharp as a second liner in the right situation). Is the veteran experience worth the lack of on-ice value? I personally have my doubts. Iginla and Doan are the elders here and while their shot rates may look nice, keep in mind those relative numbers are on basement dwellers; they likely won’t push play much on better teams. Sharp is a better option, but he’s also the most expensive one.
Young Reclamation Projects: There are three kids rumoured to be on the move on TSN’s trade bait list, and I’m happy Matt didn’t have them on his list because they’re just not very good. Anthony Duclair is 21 and was the prize of the Keith Yandle trade and after a big 2015-16, he’s fallen off quickly. Turns out you won’t score on 19 percent of your shots forever. The guy barely takes more than one shot per game and is a ghost on defense. He’s the best one of the three though and may actually be worth the risk for a bounce back. The other two though… not so much. Mikhail Grigorenko was the prize of the Ryan O’Reilly trade and he hasn’t worked out either. Imagine being 6.5 shot attempts worse on a team as bad as the Avs because that’s what Grigorenko is working with. But even he isn’t as bad as Curtis Lazar, who somehow has hype behind him. Somehow. He’s got one point in 32 games this season and is one of the league’s worst possession players at minus-24 net shots per 60. Blame his linemates if you want, because Chris Kelly and Chris Neil are terrible, but even they’re doing better than him. Young reclamation projects are nice gambles on most deadlines, but this time around it’s hard to see as much upside given how these three have played.