New Chicago Blackhawks head coach Trent Yawney. (AP \'05/Nam Y. Huh)
New Chicago Blackhawks head coach Trent Yawney. (AP \'05/Nam Y. Huh)
The Stars and Kings seem poised for a second-half rebound. Image by: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. These are our picks for teams that will rebound in the second half.
With the all-star break this weekend, we're officially at the mid-way point of the season. Every NHL team has played between 44 and 50 games, and it's certainly time to start scoreboard and standings watching. Thanks to the NHL's artificial parity there are a lot of teams right on the playoff bubble.
That means some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. With that in mind, here are our picks for teams currently on the outside that will sneak in come April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa simply has too much talent not to pick things up in the second half and sneak back in (its possession numbers put them in the top half of the league). Steven Stamkos has the league’s second-best points-per-game average, and he’ll be a huge boost when he returns from injury. They also have a nice trade chip in Ben Bishop that they can use to shore up the blueline (Kevin Shattenkirk, anyone?). This team very much reminds me of the Kings, one that knows there’s no need to blow it out in the regular season when playoff seeding is meaningless. Not only will the Lightning make the playoffs, they’ll make a strong push for the Cup. (Edward Fraser)
Los Angeles Kings
About this time five years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were mucking around the Western Conference, losing almost as many games as they were winning and flirting with both a playoff spot and disaster. And we all know how that turned out. After 46 games this season, the Kings are once again mucking around the west, winning a couple more games than they’ve lost, not able to score much and not looking like much of a contender. That will change. First of all, Jonathan Quick has to come back at some point and March seems to be the target date. So the Kings will win the trade deadline when a rested and motivated Quick gets back into the net. Second, the Kings are too good, too experienced and too pedigreed for this to continue. Look for the Kings to make a second-half surge, aided by a healthy Quick in the last quarter, and squeak into the playoffs. Just like they did five years ago. (Ken Campbell)
The Dallas Stars will have to pass four teams if they expect to make the post-season, but they have two of the best offensive horses in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to lead the charge. I expect the Stars to do something about their goaltending before the trade deadline and when they do squeak in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them favored if they matched up against Minnesota in the first round. (Brian Costello)
One could have been predicted the Lighting would take a step back this season, but not even the most bold prognosticator would have picked the Bolts to be last in the Eastern Conference with the all-star break in the offing. The injury to Steven Stamkos has hurt in a big way, but Tampa Bay still has an incredibly talented roster that is simply underperforming right now. That hasn’t been helped by the lack of consistency from either of their goaltenders. The good news is that with 34 games remaining, the Lightning are only five points out of the final Atlantic Division playoff berth and five points back of the final wild-card spot. That is far from insurmountable for a team that boasts Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman. Stringing together a couple wins could have Tampa Bay right back in the mix. (Jared Clinton)
The Kings are hovering around a playoff spot right now and have been doing it without star goalie Jonathan Quick. Once he returns (a timeline would be nice, but what can you do?), Los Angeles gets a huge boost. Even though Peter Budaj has pretty good stats, I think the Kings will just play bigger with Quick back, because he can be that security blanket. Also, Anze Kopitar has four goals right now and there’s no way his pace stays that low. The big man is shooting at five percent right now, down from 14 percent the year prior. If he even moderately gets on track, the Kings will be back in the post-season, no problem. (Ryan Kennedy)
The Blues face a tough decision with pending UFA defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk -- keep him and try to make a playoff run, or trade him at the deadline.
St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was the subject last summer of considerable trade speculation. For weeks, there was talk that Blues GM Doug Armstrong was shopping the 27-year-old rearguard, who's eligible this July for unrestricted free agency.
Armstrong apparently set a expensive asking price for the puck-moving blueliner: From the Boston Bruins, both of their first-round picks in the 2016 draft plus right winger David Pastrnak. The Detroit Red Wings, meanwhile, spurned Armstrong's request for promising left winger Dylan Larkin.
Unable to find any takers, Armstrong opted to retain Shattenkirk for this season. The trade chatter eventually faded. But with the March 1 trade deadline less than six weeks away, the rumors are resurfacing.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman wonders if Armstrong might shop Shattenkirk as a rental player to a playoff contender and use the cap savings to address other roster issues. With the Blues carrying Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko as right-shooting defenders, Friedman feels they've got sufficient depth to handle that move.
By peddling Shattenkirk to a playoff contender, the club getting him gets a boost while he bolsters his value in this summer's free-agent market. Friedman acknowledges Armstrong's previous high asking price, but wonders if he might lower it and use the cap savings to bring in something that helps the Blues now.
The Edmonton Oilers were linked to Shattenkirk last summer, but it's believed he was reluctant to go there. Friedman wonders if he'll reconsider joining them in a short-term situation.
TSN's Frank Seravalli also ponders the possibility of Shattenkirk becoming a playoff rental. He notes the Blues aren't as strong as they once were. With the Oilers in playoff position and considered buyers at the trade deadline for the first time in years, Seravalli proposes offering up a conditional first-round pick to the Blues.
Seravalli's colleague Darren Dreger suggests a “trade and extend” scenario could boost Shattenkirk's trade value. In other words, he gets dealt and signs a contract extension with his new club.
Dreger said the Blues defender is willing to consider several options. Among them, the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and even his former club, the Colorado Avalanche.
Of those on Dreger's list, all but the Sharks and Ducks need a top-four defenseman. San Jose is already solid on the right side with Brent Burns and Justin Braun. Anaheim's overstocked with good young defenseman and need scoring depth at left wing.
Pierre LeBrun believes the Blues could entertain offers for Shattenkirk. However, that doesn't mean they're keen to move him.
Trading a pending UFA would be an uncharacteristic move by Armstrong. He usually retains those players to help his club in the post-season, despite the likelihood of losing them for nothing to free agency in the summer.
Still, trading Shattenkirk before the deadline could be worthwhile to bolster a weakness elsewhere. While not as strong as in recent years, the Blues remain a playoff club. A significant move that addresses their weak points could improve their championship hopes.
If Armstrong moves Shattenkirk to a contender for a high draft pick, he could bundle that pick with a prospect and attempt to pry a quality player from a non-playoff club.
The Blues must improve at center, where the depth drops noticeably beyond Paul Stastny. If Armstrong wants a rental player, he could pursue Martin Hanzal of the Arizona Coyotes. If his preference is someone with term on his contract, Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche could be an option.
With goaltender Jake Allen struggling of late, perhaps Armstrong could use the freed-up cap room to bring in a reliable starter. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a playoff team, but they could attempt to move Marc-Andre Fleury to protect Matt Murray in June's expansion draft.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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The Bruins have dropped back-to-back games to non-playoff teams, resulting in calls for coach Claude Julien’s job. But Julien has continuously put the Bruins in a position to win, and firing him now could be a big mistake.
Claude Julien has been here before. When the Bruins missed the post-season in 2014-15, there were calls for his job. Again, narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015-16, it was believed he was on the hot seat. And now, with Boston dropping back-to-back games to opponents who are deeper in the lottery hunt than they are in the mix for post-season play, the talk of the Bruins showing Julien the door has started to heat up again.
It’s not hard to understand the argument from a pure wins and losses standpoint, which is what the game boils down to at its very core. The Bruins are 48 games into their season and only barely holding on to the second spot in the Atlantic Division. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are nipping at Boston’s heels and faring better than the Bruins when it comes to points percentage.
And looking at recent results, the argument stands. Boston has lost to the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings — five non-playoff teams — in their past 10 games. Winnable games are turning into head-shaking losses and none have been quite as confounding as the Bruins squandering a three-goal lead heading into the second period against the Red Wings on Wednesday.
Despite back-to-back defeats, which have been paired with poor performances, the Bruins would do well to take a deep breath, look at the bigger picture and keep moving forward with Julien at the helm.
While the results have left much to be desired, Boston has been anything but poor in terms of putting themselves in the best position to win games. The hockey world has come to learn over the past few seasons the importance of controlling play and grinding teams down with puck possession, and it’s by those metrics that the Bruins have been almost inarguably one of the league’s strongest teams.
Consider that this season, no team has been as outright dominant in the possession game at 5-on-5 as the Bruins. They currently boast a 55.3 percent Corsi For percentage, sitting even ahead of the same Los Angeles Kings who have built a reputation of being the league’s most savvy possession team. When breaking it down game by game, too, the Bruins have been incredible in terms of winning the possession battle. In 39 of the team’s 48 outings, Bruins have completed the game with a possession rate over 50 percent at 5-on-5. They’ve been remarkably strong at owning play at even strength.
So, what’s gone wrong? Well, you can start with the team’s shooting percentage, which is downright atrocious. As of Thursday, Boston sits 29th in the league with an abysmal 6.17 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 through 48 games. The only team who’s fared worse is the Florida Panthers, and that’s by a mere seven-hundredths of a percent. To put that into context, when it comes to shooting percentage, only five teams in the past five seasons have finished with a shooting percentage lower than the Bruins’ current rate.
One need look no further than Patrice Bergeron for an idea of how poorly things have gone in Boston when it comes to actually finding the back of the net. Bergeron, a 10 percent shooter throughout his career, is on pace to fire more shots on goal this season than in any campaign prior. At his average shooting percentage, one would expect him to net close to 30 goals. Instead, he’s 45 games through his season with 10 markers to his name and is shooting at 6 percent. Bergeron’s struggle has been indicative of the roster’s trouble as a whole.
Julien’s detractors may posit that possession doesn’t exactly mean the team is getting scoring chances, and that a number of these pucks could be fired from the outside or low-scoring areas. And while that’s somewhat true — Boston is averaging only 7.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for 22nd in the league — it’s not as though they’re allowing enough chances against that it should be coming back to bite them as hard as it has. The Bruins are allowing 6.62 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the only team with a better mark is the Minnesota Wild. The difference between the Wild and Bruins in scoring chances for? Little more than half a chance per 60 minutes, yet Minnesota has nine more points in the standings with five games in hand.
Patience is often difficult to have in situations such as the one facing Boston, but there’s no reason to believe this won’t right itself over the back half of the season. There’s even recent evidence to suggest the Bruins are playing in a way that still makes them as much a Stanley Cup contender as any other club. Both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 Kings had great possession numbers — 54.7 and 56.8, respectively — with 5-on-5 shooting percentages that either were the league-worst mark or close to it. Both seasons, the Kings turned things around come playoff time and proceeded to win the whole thing. The same went for scoring chances, too, as the Kings were among the leaders in scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 in both of their Stanley Cup years. That’s the same company the Bruins are keeping, sitting seventh in the league at 52.8 percent.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Bruins’ fortunes are going to change. The Kings have continued to remain near the top of the league in underlying numbers only to narrowly miss the post-season in 2014-15 before getting ousted in the first round this past season. In a game where a single bounce can decide who wins and who loses, sometimes all you can do is put yourself in the best position to have that bounce go your way. Right now, though, those bounces aren’t happening for Boston.
None of this is to mention that Julien has done an admirable job with a roster that boasts a mixture of high-end talent and questionable depth. Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci are a stellar group of top forwards, but a bottom-six that consists of Riley Nash, Jimmy Hayes, Austin Czarnik and Tim Schaller isn’t all that inspiring. Defensively, the team is still working to get back from the loss of Dougie Hamilton, even with Brandon Carlo looking increasingly like a future top-pairing guy. And it’s hard to fault Julien for being stuck with backups who have won one of 11 games when Tuukka Rask has gotten the night off. That’s simply not his fault.
All this is to say that firing Julien isn’t the answer. It wasn’t in 2014-15, wasn’t in 2015-16 and it’s not now. If there’s a change to be made and the Bruins are set on getting a new voice behind the bench, let that come in the off-season, because Julien’s coaching chops have earned him the right to see this one through given the job he’s done with a roster that could be much worse off without him. If the Bruins are going to get out of this hole, it will be Julien who leads them out of it, and if this Boston team wants to make noise going forward, keeping Julien at the helm is the way to do it.
(All advanced stats via Corsica)
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The numbers released by the CHL would have you believe minimum wage for players would cripple some teams. But we need a lot more information.
In an effort to get out in front of the story and win the case in the court of public opinion, the Canadian Hockey League last night released some of the financial information it had previously been trying to keep from the prying eyes of everyone outside its inner circle. It’s a curious move to say the least. And when you look at the numbers, you get the sense that the CHL is cherry picking on the same level as an out-of-shape beer leaguer who constantly hangs out at the opponent’s blueline.
The CHL has crafted its message, complete with an expert opinion saying teams would have to consider ceasing operations if they had to pay players minimum wage, giving people just enough information to portray themselves as downtrodden philanthropists interested only in providing entertainment and helping young men realize their NHL dreams, without really telling us where the money trail actually leads. Well played.
For example, if we are to take the numbers of the CHL’s unaudited financial statements provided to an Alberta court for an upcoming lawsuit at face value, then we’re to believe that the Ontario and Western Leagues combined to generate revenues of $136.7 million in 2015, but cannot afford to pay roughly 850 of its employees minimum wage. The WHL claimed revenues of just over $80 million in 2015. The cost to pay the players minimum wage in that league would be about $300,000 per year per team for a total cost of about $6.6 million, which would amount to about 8.25 percent of total revenues.
What business in any part of the real world would be able to claim revenues of more than $136 million, then try to convince people that it couldn’t afford to pay 850 of its employees minimum wage? Welcome to the world of junior hockey where it seems no matter how much money a team makes, its expenses seem to rise at the same rate. How the heck are these people ever expected to make a go of it?
Let’s take the WHL as an example. According to the report done by the accounting firm KPMG, the league’s overall revenues in 2015 were higher in the five years between 2012 and 2016 than they were any other year, but somehow the league managed to lose more money that year than any other year. The numbers say overall league revenues were $80.2 million, with a pre-tax overall loss of just over $2 million. As far as expenses are concerned, $7.5 million went to advertising and promotion, $6.6 million to administration and a whopping $67.5 million to the ubiquitous “other operating expenses.” In fact, in 2015, other operating expenses increased almost $5 million from the previous year, then were cut by more than $6 million in 2016. Even though the WHL managed to trim $6 million in fat from other operating expenses in 2016, it posted a pre-tax profit of only $691,000.
So in order to get the entire picture, we’re really going to need to know what those “other operating expenses” are. And until we know them, we don’t know even close to the entire picture of whether the losses are real or a case of creative accounting. For example, has anyone stopped to ask how exactly the Erie Otters managed to lose $150,000 and be forced into bankruptcy while going to the OHL final and having one of the greatest players in junior hockey history in their lineup? Or how the people who purchased the team didn’t seem to mind forking over $10 million for a supposedly bankrupt, money losing team? It sure makes you wonder about the line in the CHL’s news release that said, “Goals around asset appreciation are lower/limited in the CHL versus other major sporting leagues.” It sure makes you wonder if that’s the case when the Sudbury Wolves can be purchased for $250,000 in the 1980s and sell for $11 million 30 years later, all the while appreciating by 4,400 percent. (And that’s for a team that generally underachieved, missing the playoffs nine of those seasons and one that plays in an antiquated building that needs to be replaced.) Franchise values and the fact that these teams are sold for many millions of dollars has to be part of the equation here.
The CHL earlier this year scoffed at a report the defense had done by a sports economist who had no access to its numbers because the league refused to provide them. That economist used economic modelling instead of creative accounting. Then the league releases a report from their sports economics expert that is based on financial records only it was allowed to see. Which one is more accurate? Well, it’s hoped we’ll find that out after the sides meet next week to determine whether the full financial picture can be made public, not just snippets of it.
Until then, a lot of this is white noise that should be taken with a mountain’s worth of salt.