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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can focus on his defensive play as a No. 2 center. Image by: Andy Devlin/Getty Images
The Oilers are very likely bound for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to their success.
Without a doubt, the resurgence of the Edmonton Oilers this year is being driven by Connor McDavid. The sophomore phenom is in position to win the Art Ross or the Hart or both, while his team is firmly locked in a playoff position for the first time in more than a decade.
I feel at this point we're past talking about if the Oilers will make the post-season and can move on to what they will do once they arrive there. Because as great as McDavid has been for the offense, the Oilers will need balance. And that’s where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes in.
Remember the Nuge? He’s not exactly obscure, being a No. 1 overall pick overall. But like fellow Edmonton lifer and linemate Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins has toiled in Alberta for years without playoff hockey. That’s about to change and for a player who has largely been out of the limelight for some time, Nugent-Hopkins will be crucial to Edmonton’s long-term success this season.
Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is below his usual career offensive clip, but the Oilers are also winning a lot more and have a healthy McDavid in the lineup ahead of him.
“Every team in the league has two or three scoring lines now, it seems,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously Connor’s a great player and I want to produce offensively as well, but I have to be a 200-foot player and grow my defensive game.”
Nugent-Hopkins is a decent possession player and is better on faceoffs than McDavid, though neither is great. The Nuge can take on tough defensive assignments and that will be important going forward, unless the Oilers bolster their forward corps with a trade for another responsible center.
It’s interesting to see where Nugent-Hopkins is at this point in his career. He was the top prospect in the 2011 draft, though it wasn’t a fever year in that regards – while Adam Larsson and Gabriel Landeskog were also thought of highly, the best players to date from that class are probably Johnny Gaudreau (104th overall), Nikita Kucherov (58th) and Mark Scheifele (seventh).
Nugent-Hopkins was seen as a slight player with incredible vision who may have needed one more year of junior before hitting the big time, but he bucked those predictions and went straight to Edmonton, earning All-Rookie Team honors in the process.
Unfortunately, in the center’s six NHL seasons, he has already had six coaches with the Oilers. That’s one of several factors that have kept Edmonton out of the playoff picture and undoubtedly hurt the development of some players (Nail Yakupov comes to mind). But with Todd McLellan now in his second year with the squad, Edmonton has a coach who has seen a fair share of playoff games and owns a Stanley Cup ring from his days as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“He’s been great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s definitely an experienced guy, being in San Jose for a lot of years. He brought that to us – we were a younger team and we still are. He keeps us accountable and definitely teaches us, so it’s good.”
The next step will be the most fun and the most daunting. All of a sudden, there are expectations for the Oilers outside of Northern Alberta. We all want to see how this team will handle playoff hockey and while McDavid is the head, he can’t be expected to go it alone. Cam Talbot must be great in net and the defense will have to hold up. If Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can be that secondary scoring threat while also playing sound 200-foot hockey, the Oilers will be more than just a nice story in the post-season.
John Tortorella became the first American-born coach to reach the 500-win mark, but Peter Laviolette managed the feat in fewer games and the numbers point to him being the best American NHL coach of all-time.
John Tortorella is used to making headlines, but when he did so as the first American-born coach to win 500 games in NHL history, it was reason to consider Tortorella among the greatest American-born big league coaches of all time. He has the Stanley Cup, the Jack Adams Award, the milestone 500th win and he’s climbing the all-time wins list with each passing victory.
But it’s hard to argue that Tortorella is the greatest American coach the NHL has seen with Peter Laviolette hot on his heels.
On Sunday, Laviolette did what Tortorella had done one month earlier: he became a 500-game winner, the second American-born NHL bench boss to hit the half-grand mark. The thing is, though, Laviolette’s climb to win No. 500 has been more impressive than Tortorella’s and it would seem as though it’s only a matter of time before Laviolette finds his way back on par or above Tortorella on the all-time wins list. And purely statistically speaking, it’s hard to argue with Laviolette being not just the better of the two bench bosses, but the best American-born NHL coach in history.
For some, putting Laviolette in the same conversation as Bob Johnson or Herb Brooks is akin to hockey heresy. There’s reason for that. The accomplishments of Johnson and Brooks are legendary. Johnson is arguably the greatest coach the NCAA has ever seen, a Hall of Famer twice over and a Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91. Johnson had his NHL tenure cut short, tragically passing away in November 1991 to brain cancer. Brooks was likewise a standout coach in the NCAA, a Hall of Famer three times over and most famous for leading the United States to gold at the 1980 Olympics. Sadly, Brooks passed away in August 2003 as the result of a car accident.
The legacies of both Johnson and Brooks are untouchable and their importance to the game as coaches in the United States will never be matched. For both, though, their greatest work and most lasting mark was made outside the NHL — Johnson at University of Wisconsin, Brooks for his part in the ‘Miracle On Ice.’
It’s hard to know where Johnson’s career would have gone had he been able to continue coaching. The 1991-92 Stanley Cup seemed a given, at the very least, but beyond that it’s impossible to say. He finished with 234 wins in 480 games behind the bench, and went 41-35 in the post-season. As for Brooks, he coached 506 games and has a perfect .500 points percentage — 219 wins, 219 losses, 66 ties and two defeats in extra time. In the playoffs, Brooks went 19-21. From a purely statistical point of view, neither matched what Laviolette or Tortorella has accomplished in the NHL.
So if Johnson and Brooks are removed from the discussion, the debate comes down to Laviolette and Tortorella, with a handful of present-day coaches sprinkled in. Despite who’s added to the mix, though, it’s hard to choose anyone but Laviolette as the best American-born coach the league has seen.
While Tortorella was the first to 500 wins, it took him 1,028 games to pick up the milestone victory. By comparison, Laviolette added win No. 500 to his resume in game 970. The 58-game difference in coaching tenures is significant, too, because Laviolette is only 12 games back of Tortorella for the title of winningest American-born coach in league history. Tortorella has a career points percentage of .544, and Laviolette bests that with a mark of .577. And when it comes to the post-season, Laviolette has a decided edge.
Over the course of their respective careers, both Laviolette and Tortorella have seen the playoffs eight times. Over that span, Tortorella has been one-and-done on four separate occasions, while Laviolette has advanced to the second round five of eight times. Both have two post-season runs that went beyond two rounds under their belt and both have a Stanley Cup victory — bookending the lockout with Tortorella winning in 2003-04 with Tampa Bay, Laviolette in 2005-06 in Carolina — but Laviolette has the edge with a second trip to the final. He led Philadelphia to an Eastern Conference championship in 2009-10 and came two wins shy of adding a second Cup to his trophy case.
From a win percentage standpoint, Laviolette holds the edge, too. In 102 playoff games, his teams have won 52. Tortorella’s squads, by comparison, are below .500 in post-season action, dropping 43 of 89 games.
As far as accolades go, the only thing separating the two is a Jack Adams Award. Tortorella won coach of the year for his job in Tampa Bay during the Lightning’s title-winning season, and there’s a fair chance he’s adding a second Jack Adams this season for the job he’s done in turning around the Blue Jackets. Laviolette, on the other hand, is a two-time finalist, coming a single vote shy of the award in 2005-06. Tortorella can have the individual awards, though, because there’s a good chance it’s Laviolette who holds the edge in victories when both coaches call it a career.
The debate about who is a better bench boss — Laviolette or Tortorella — is likely to continue until their careers are done, and it’s only going to get more crowded at the top. In just eight seasons, Dan Bylsma is already at the 300-win mark at the helm of a young Sabres team that is building for the future, Mike Sullivan’s Penguins have won 63 of 100 games under his direction and recently fired Jack Capuano is knocking on the door of his 235th win, which would put him one ahead of Johnson.
But right now, if you had one game to win and needed to choose one American-born coach, Laviolette’s numbers have shown that he’s the best bet to get the job done.
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Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Image by: Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Nothing has gone the Stars’ way in what was supposed to be a Cup-contending season. With so many injuries and many pending free agents, becoming a seller could be their best strategy.
We should’ve seen it coming, really. The Dallas Stars were a seriously flawed hockey club. But their strengths were just so intoxicating.
They blitzed the NHL with 3.23 goals per game last season, topping all 29 other teams, even the potent Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Dallas boasted the league’s best tandem of elite scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Defenseman John Klingberg broke out with a 58-point sophomore year and finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting. The Stars won the hotly contested Central Division with 109 points, finished with the NHL’s second-best record and came within one victory of the Western Conference final.
So we can forgive ourselves for being so jazzed about their 2016-17 potential that we picked them to reach the Stanley Cup final. This team was as fun as any in hockey last year. In reality, though, it had some holes and chose not to address them in the off-season.
The first was goaltending, of course. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, the infamous $10.4-million tandem, ranked 38th (.906) and 40th (.905) among the NHL’s 44 qualified leaders in save percentage. The Stars as a team ranked 24th out of 30 teams in SP at .904. Lehtonen and Niemi were inconsistent throughout the playoffs, and while each had his moments, they wilted in Game 7 of the Central Division final against St. Louis and ultimately cost Dallas the series. I spoke at length with Stars GM Jim Nill over the summer, and he was convinced his goalies deserved another shot. He shot down rumors of a Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury acquisition. To briefly revisit that interview:
“Right now we’ve got two goalies that came in and, say what you want, but they got 50 wins for us and we got second overall in the league, so something had to go right.
"Unfortunately, all anybody’s really remembering is our last game of the year against St. Louis. Nobody remembers the game before that where Kari stood on his head to get us into Game 7. There were definitely times in the season where they would’ve liked some games back. But that’s kind of on our whole team. Every team goes through that. I really think they’re going to be better this year. It was kind of a feeling-out process last year, and now they’ve both settled in. We’re status quo, and they’ve got the ability to be better than last year, which I hope turns into even more wins for us next year."
Well, it hasn’t. The opposite happened. Lehtonen and Niemi continue to bleed goals this year. Niemi sits 37th in SP at .902, Lehtonen 39th at .899. The Stars have slid to 27th in team SP. I caught up with Nill again this week, though, and he was quick to defend them.
“To be fair, they haven’t been our issue,” Nill said. “Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
He’s right. The Stars’ penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, their power play 19th. And there’s further statistical validity to the idea Lehtonen and Niemi don’t deserve all the blame. Lehtonen’s advanced metrics actually suggest he’s been much better than advertised, as he rates well above average in even-strength SP, low-danger SP and medium-danger SP. Niemi has been outstanding stopping low-danger shots, rating right up there with the league’s best. The problem: both goalies have been weak against high-danger chances, Niemi against medium-danger ones too, and the Stars just happen to specialize in allowing those. They rank third last in the league 5-on-5 in expected save percentage, which is how likely the average shot is to go in, and that reflects the quality of chances surrendered.
That’s where the second major flaw we ignored comes in: team defense. The Stars were a powerhouse of possession on the offensive side of the puck last year but were subpar defensively, often peppered with shot attempts from their opposition. They overhauled their blueline in the summer, trading Alex Goligoski’s rights and letting Jason Demers and Kris Russell walk in free agency. The plan had pros and cons. On one hand, it wasn’t the worst idea to change up a D-corps that was mediocre anyway, and the Stars had a truckload of promising young D-men ready for NHL roles, from Stephen Johns to Esa Lindell to Julius Honka to Patrik Nemeth to Jamie Oleksiak. On the other hand, it probably would’ve been best to rely on one of two of those guys in major roles – not all of them.
Honka’s only appeared in eight NHL games this season, and his possession numbers actually look quite good. But every other member of the Stars’ D-corps, including the rookie group, free agent signing Dan Hamhuis and even vets like Johnny Oduya – has gotten lit up. The “best” mark in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 among the entire group is Johns’ 56.11. Klingberg has found himself a healthy scratch more than once. The Stars rate 26th as a team in Corsi Against. They were below average defensively last year, ranking 19th, but their offense bailed them out.
This year, the scoring hasn’t been around to mask the flaws. Benn has battled several injuries, having core muscle surgery at the start of the season, injuring his foot a few weeks ago and breaking his nose over the weekend. Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky are out with long-term injuries. Valeri Nichushkin returned to the KHL. The Stars have slipped to 15th in offense at 2.69 goals per game. A lot of that can be blamed on rotten luck, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s happened.
“I never like to make excuses, I don’t believe in it, but with the parity in the league and the condensed schedule, injuries made it tough,” Nill said. “We started on the wrong foot, with six of our top nine forwards injured.”
So the Stars’ huge strength has been neutralized, and their flaws have dragged them down in the standings. They’re 19-20-9, four points out of a Western Conference wild-card position, buoyed by a whopping nine overtime or shootout defeats.
“Our special teams have been terrible, especially our penalty kill.”
Now Nill has some tough decisions to make. This team boasts a ton of talent and, for all its struggles, remains surprisingly alive in the playoff race. The optimistic line of thinking would have Nill finally pursue a goaltending upgrade in the form of Bishop, Fleury or perhaps Semyon Varlamov and seek veteran help on defense. After all, Nill has so many good young ‘D’ prospects that he could spare one or even two. While he didn’t suggest this week to THN.com any trades were imminent, he left the door open a crack when I asked him about goaltending, suggesting “we always want to make our team better.”
Chasing a Stanley Cup at this point, though, would be a mistake. The Stars still have a bright future, but they’re best off accepting 2016-17 as a disaster year and coming back strong. Why?
First off, Benn just can’t get healthy, or at least he doesn’t look it. He hasn’t been himself. He’s as tough as any player in the sport, having not missed a game last year after surgeries on each hip during the 2015 off-season, but that may work against him right now. To get the peak Benn, Dallas would probably be best off resting him for an extended period and saving him from himself. Worrying about a playoff hunt won’t allow that to happen.
“We’ve had discussions and he says he’s healthy,” Nill said. “But is he ‘healthy but not healthy’? Only he can answer that. He’s been adamant that he’s healthy, though. We have not discussed shutting him down. “
Secondly, the Stars still have an extremely promising group of prospects, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Why mortgage away a Honka or Lindell or Johns, or a forward like Jason Dickinson or Denis Gurianov, when the playoffs look like a long shot right now anyway? Dallas can spend another year developing the kids.
Most importantly, Dallas’ salary situation suggests there’s a ton to gain by folding up the tent and deciding to sell. They have some extremely attractive pending unrestricted free agents to rent out. Plenty of teams would trip over themselves to get Patrick Sharp and his three Stanley Cup rings. Same goes for Oduya, a two-time champ with the Hawks, who has proven he can eat huge minutes as top-four blueliner under playoff pressure. Heck, the Hawks might be wise to reacquire both. Patrick Eaves has enjoyed a major breakout year, with 17 goals already, but he’s 32 and injury prone. Why not cash in that chip? Jiri Hudler and Lauri Korpikoski are UFAs as well. The Stars could further pack their system with picks and prospects with a nice trade-deadline fire sale.
Lastly, waiting until summer to fix the goaltending situation might come in handy. After this season, Lehtonen and Niemi have one year remaining on their contracts. They suddenly become much easier commodities to move. It’s unlikely the Vegas Golden Knights claim one of them, but GM George McPhee might see some appeal to picking up an expiring deal for the purpose of flipping for picks at the 2018 trade deadline. Nill might also be able to target a salary-floor team to pick up one of the goalie’s contracts, the way Arizona did with Pavel Datsyuk last June. That would free up money to then pursue Bishop in free agency.
Picture a 2017-18 Stars team free of several expensive veterans, armed with a young D-corps now boasting another year of experience, with a fully healthy Benn and a brand new No. 1 goaltender in Bishop, not to mention countless extra picks and prospects to throw around after acquiring them as a seller at the 2017 deadline. That could make Dallas a real contender next fall. Getting to that point requires a white-flag approach for the rest of 2016-17, however. If the Stars keep struggling into February, Nill should strongly consider it. He acknowledges that route is a possibility, especially with all his UFAs. It’s too early to quit on the year, though.
“We’re still on the playoff bubble,” he said. “If we win four or five in a row, we’re right in the thick of it again. The next three weeks will determine a lot.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
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Kevin Shattenkirk and Ben Bishop
The trade deadline is only five weeks away and with the Blues and Lightning both struggling, they could be in the market to make some major trades. Perhaps, even with each other.
With the NHL's March 1 trade deadline nearly five weeks away, several notable pending unrestricted free agents are garnering considerable attention in the rumor mill. At this point, St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop top the list of potential trade candidates.
According to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, things are quiet on the Bishop trade front. He thinks the 30-year-old netminder could finish the season with the Lightning. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, a swap of Bishop for Shattenkirk.
Some of the stars mentioned as possible trade fodder still have term left on their contracts. For the last several weeks, Colorado Avalanche forwards Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog were frequent subjects of conjecture among NHL insiders.
Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury has also been the subject of media trade talk. The 32-year-old is signed through 2018-19 at an annual salary-cap hit of $5.75 million. Because the Penguins want to protect Matt Murray in the June expansion draft, it's assumed they'll try to move Fleury at the trade deadline.
Having such noteworthy talent frequently mentioned as possible trade candidates provides some spice to a stagnant season for player movement. It remains to be seen, however, if any of those stars end up with new teams by the trade deadline. There are plenty of variables that must be addressed.
Until a week ago, the possibility of Shattenkirk being traded seemed absurd. The Blues were comfortably entrenched among the Western Conference playoff clubs. Despite his UFA status in July, it appeared they would retain him for the post-season.
However, the combination of Jake Allen's struggles in goal and a lack of skilled depth at center have the Blues in danger of tumbling out of playoff contention. That set tongues wagging that perhaps Shattenkirk could be in play.
Some pundits envision Shattenkirk being dealt as a rental player to a playoff contender so as to free up salary-cap space for a deal with another team for a goalie or center. Others speculate he could be moved in a one-for-one swap.
Bishop and Fleury should be attractive trade options for clubs seeking experienced goaltending help. But among the playoff contenders, only the Blues, Dallas Stars and perhaps the Calgary Flames could be considered possible landing spots.
Given Bishop's UFA status, clubs with interest in him won't be willing to part with very much. With the Lightning now at the bottom of the Atlantic Division and their playoff hopes fading, they could prefer a return that provides immediate help. Offering up a draft pick and a prospect won't do.
Bishop carries a no-movement clause, but he reportedly considered waiving it last summer to join the Flames. That deal feel through, but it does suggests he won't stand in the way of a deal to a club he deems acceptable.
As for Fleury, he could prove a worthwhile insurance policy this season for the Penguins. Murray's recent injury history could be a concern. They could decide to retain Fleury for the remainder of the season and worry about moving him once the playoffs are over.
Fleury's modified no-trade clause could also make it difficult for the Penguins to move him. If they can't find any trade partners before the June 17 due date for submitting their expansion draft protection list, they could buy out the remainder of his contract.
Duchene and Landeskog are younger assets who could prove attractive for clubs in need of scoring depth. The Avs' reportedly high asking price for both players, however, will complicate things.
While the Avalanche require a much-needed rebuild, Terry Frei of the Denver Post believes GM Joe Sakic shouldn't settle for lesser offers near the trade deadline simply for the sake of making a trade.
Duchene or Landeskog could be dealt before the deadline. However, the assumption of the punditry is Sakic could wait until this summer in hopes of finding better offers.
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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