Ramblings: Thoughts on Murray, Jones, Marner, Byfuglien, Ehlers, some post-mortems and more (Apr 22)
Four teams were eliminated last week. Here are my thoughts on those teams, the players, and what the future holds…
First, kudos to Dustin Byfuglien, who reached deep down and pulled out some extra career mojo. He struggled with injuries all year and as a 34-year-old it has to be concerning. But production-wise, he’s been right there. His 0.74 points/gp this year was his best in seven seasons. He had eight points in six playoff games and was Winnipeg’s top player. His production next year will still be stellar, though I would not count on more than 65 games.
Disappointment of the first round for the Jets has to be Nik Ehlers, who went pointless. He actually has zero goals in 21 career playoff games. The entire campaign for Ehlers – his fourth, by the way – was a write-off thanks to a shoulder injury. I consider him a buy-low this summer and consider next year his true (potential) breakout season. Although I would stay away from him in next year’s playoff pool.
Was also disappointed in Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey – just one assist each in the six games. It’s as if they can’t thrive at the same time as Big Buff. If the Jets ever get all three of them going and divide the PP time evenly, the team would be hard to stop.
As a Patrik Laine owner in one of my leagues, I was happy to see him regain his mojo in the postseason. He still wasn’t quite the game-breaker he could be on a nightly basis, but definitely the one game he was massive. It’s enough to set my mind at ease that he’ll be fine. He has to be disgusted with his 50-point season and early playoff exit. If that doesn’t motivate him to push hard this summer, nothing will.
Of the eliminated teams, Winnipeg is in the best cap shape, looking at over $25 million in cap space, depending on where the cap is set. That’s a lot of flexibility even if they do have to fill a dozen roster spots with it.
I think we knew in our bones that this wouldn’t be Winnipeg’s year. We just didn’t have the confidence in this team that we had a year ago. All season long there were problems with consistency and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck never really found his mojo. But I believe in this team – the depth, the cap situation, and the goaltender. I think this season was just a learning experience and I am bullish on the Jets for 2019-20.
I was disappointed in the way Elias Lindholm had such a nosedive down the stretch and then in the postseason. He had nine points in the final 21 games of the campaign, giving him 11 points in the last 26 games that he played in all. This is a guy who finished with 78. On one hand, at 24 years of age he is still a player on the rise, not even at his prime yet. On the other hand, it’s as if opponents had him figured out. He was even removed from the big line later in the playoff series against Colorado. I think his spot on that line is cemented, but I don’t believe he will repeat his 78-point season. I think he’ll get back there again in two or three years, but next year will be a small regression. And pay special attention to any signs of slowing down in the second half.
I was disappointed in the way Bill Peters switched things up when the playoffs started. The Flames went into the postseason on a roll and all of their lines were doing great. Auston Czarnik had 12 points in his last 25 games with minimal ice time. That’s great depth production, but he didn’t get a sniff of playoff time until Game 5 when he saw five minutes of action. I would have also had more patience with the 3M line and kept them together to the end. I understand swapping out Lindholm for Sam Bennett, who was their playoffs top scorer, but the 3M line to me needed another chance.
I like what I am seeing in rookie defenseman Rasmus Andersson. He had 15 of his 19 points in the second half, and he added two in five playoff games. His PP ice time was 2:39 per game in the postseason and I wonder if he will leapfrog TJ Brodie on the PP depth chart next season. At the very least he will take a step in that direction.
This summer the Flames will have about $12 million cap space depending on where the new cap will be. This will be needed to sign Matthew Tkachuk (at least $9 million, in my opinion, or close enough to it), Sam Bennett ($4 or $5?), Andrew Mangiapane ($2 million or more?). This team will need entry-level deals on the roster, meaning Juuso Valimaki will make the team, and likely Dillon Dube as well. Trading Czarnik and filling that spot with a minimum-salary earner would save another half million. A Czarnik trade to the right team would put him back on my radar. Trading Michael Frolik (one more year at $4.3 million) will help. But bottom line is they have to be kicking themselves over and over again for that James Neal signing – he has four more years at $5.75 million and he was scratched last game when they absolutely needed their best players in the game. Which means they don’t consider him one of their 23 best players.
During the last game I started thinking long and hard about the following. Is it time to do a mini-retool? The Pens can keep pushing with the Sidney Crosby – Evgeni Malkin duo and over the next three years perhaps they can win one more Cup with some lucky match-ups and timely hot streaks. Or they could trade Malkin, who will be 33 in the fall, and free up $9.5 million in cap space each of the next three years and likely bring in a tidy return. Instead of having a decent chance for the next three years, perhaps this would mean having one tough year, and then four or five years of competing. The Penguins have zero cap space this summer, unless the cap rises by a couple million bucks. But how on earth can they re-sign Zach Aston-Reese and Marcus Pettersson? A lot of ugly contracts on the books right now (Erik Gudbranson $4 million next two years, Jack Johnson $3.25 million next four years, and even Patric Hornqvist at $5.3 million next four years – he’s 32 years old). A full-blown rebuild will happen in two years if they don’t do a minor re-tool this summer, and I think a re-tool would need to involve a Malkin trade. But they’d have to be creative.
The Penguins were beat by a hot goalie and a sound system. Unlike with Tampa (below), I don’t put as much onus on the players. We can’t let them completely off the hook – Crosby and Jake Guentzel getting just one point is inexcusable, but in a four-game sweep against a red-hot goaltender this stuff happens. The real concern for Pittsburgh fans is that it’s a key season lost, when they are running out of key seasons (“key season” defined here as prime Malkin – Crosby years).
The Pens made an interesting signing on the weekend. Teams only get 50 contracts so using one on an undrafted European always catches my attention. And with the cap crunch this is especially true because they need as many minimum-salaried players as possible. Oula Palve is a 27-year-old from Finland who led his TPS team in scoring with 51 points in 53 games and he finished seventh in Liiga scoring. He is on Team Finland at the Worlds, but has not gotten into a game yet.
Tampa Bay Lightning
I think the most common explanation for this shocker is the right one – TBL coasted over the final month of the season and without that desperation game in March or April, they had trouble finding that fortitude when it was needed. Yes, preparation is on the coach, but these are professional players and they shouldn’t be left off the hook. That being said, while they did lose to a team that they beat by 30 points in the regular season, Columbus was not 30 points worse than them. From mid-March onward, their actual playoff roster started to mesh. The Blue Jackets added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, but as I noted last week they also added a player who has been much better than Dzingel over the past two months: Oliver Bjorkstrand. Last week I pointed out that Bjorkstrand scored at a 36-goal pace over his last 40 regular season and playoff games, and since he scored last game that actually gives him 19 goals in his last 41 games (so a 38-goal pace, after half a season). They also added Alexandre Texier, who has added a third wave of attack that the Jackets never had. Two goals and three points in four games during a key playoff series for a youngster with virtually zero NHL experience? Yes please. You can read our scouting report on Texier here.
What let the team down was the lack of leadership, desperation and clutch play of the forwards. With no exceptions. Erik Cernak, a rookie defenseman who wasn’t even in the league to start the season, led this team in playoff scoring with three points! Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Braden Point, JT Miller and the so-called playoff-clutch player Tyler Johnson all combined for two goals. They combined for 169 in the regular season. This team has a good, deep organization with what looks to be maybe $8 million in cap space this summer. Braden Point should get at least $10 million this summer (it would be far more, but since Kucherov recently signed for $9.5 I can’t see Point going too much higher). As of today, this team doesn’t have near the cap room. And with four UFA defensemen to sign or replace, and a couple of depth forwards to sign, that’s probably $5 or $6 million used up right there. The Lightning will probably move Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat or JT Miller – and likely two of those four. This would just mean an expanded role for Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde and Mathieu Joseph, with a couple of kids moving up into the vacated depth roles. The conveyor belt that Steve Yzerman left behind can run successfully through this difficult summer – but won’t be able to sustain things if this happens again.
Alex Barre-Boulet is my pick to make the jump next year, joining a long list of smaller players (5-10, 170) that TB has brought along slowly, such as Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde.
I heard on FAN590’s Ben Ennis show, JD Bunkis (I think it was him) said that Tampa Bay could not be excused for having two injured defensemen because “Columbus was without their best defenseman – Ryan Murray”. I normally wouldn’t choose this forum to argue that point, but then he was so insistent on this as fact that he repeated it four or five different times during the segment. And since I can’t raise an argument with a guy talking through my car speaker, I’ll do it here… because I can. It is a fact that Murray has had an amazing rebound season and let’s be honest it could be considered the first and only “good” season of his career. But Seth Jones is by far and away the best and most important defenseman on this team. Even if Murray could play 80 games, which he can’t – so why count on him as your “best” – he isn’t as strong as Jones in, well, most categories. Look at the player comparison tool of the two players here. Hits, BLKS, points, IPP, SOG are no contest, and even PKTOI is similar.
Anyway, Murray is a great No.4 or even a No.3 defenseman and good for 60 games per year, and as long as you don’t expect more than that, I think any team would be very happy with him. But Columbus is quite familiar with playing Murray-less games, certainly more familiar than Tampa Bay is in playing Hedman-less or Stralman-less games. So yes indeed Tampa Bay can use these blue-line injuries as a third explanation (read: excuse) on top of the two I already provided.
Tough to be a hockey fan in Canada as we watch our best Stanley Cup Playoffs representation in years go down the tubes in an awful hurry. Not in terms of bulk (i.e. just three teams made it), but in terms of true Cup contention. The Flames looked great and were my pick to come out of the West. The Jets have a bright future and if they could put it all together they would have done damage. The Leafs have a chance to deep now that Tampa Bay is out of the mix, but just when they have Boston on the ropes they let them crawl back.
I really liked Morgan Rielly’s game, both Friday and Sunday. It was a high-risk style but very entertaining. It cost the Leafs in giving the Bruins several huge chances, but I think it created more for the Leafs than it hurt and I’ll take that trade. He seemed to really take control, almost as if he felt responsible for Toronto’s entire offense.
Speaking of “entire offense”, how about Brad Marchand? Nine points in six games leads the Bruins. He’s had two three-point games in the last three, both were Boston wins. The Leafs are doing a fine job of shutting down David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron (four points in six games is probably the best you’re gonna do with those guys), but stifling Marchand will be key for Game 7 Tuesday. Also, the sky is blue and grass is green.
Mitch Marner had two points in Game 1 and looked as though he and John Tavares will just run rampant over the Bruins from that point onward. But Marner has just two points in five games since then as the Bruins have been effective in shutting him down. He has just one SOG in the last three games combined. The last time he was held to one shot over a three-game span was November 16-20, 2017.
Nothing to say about the Vegas – San Jose game as only three goals were scored and it went to double-overtime. I watched it, but nothing jumped out at me other than the surprise of a shorthanded goal being the game winner. It was the first time in NHL history that a multi-OT game was decided by a shorthanded goal.
With a 2OT game it’s always fun to look through the TOI totals of the players. Vegas managed to still keep their fourth line at 12 minutes of ice time, while William Karlsson was the only forward to reach 30 minutes at 30:25.
The Sharks kept things a little more balanced, with their fourth line hovering around 16 minutes (including Gustav Nyquist a forwards-low 15:38). Brent Burns led all players with 42:32 of ice time, as you would expect. The Sharks were outshot 59-29 so of course they were going to win the game, that always seems to be the way. And I trash on Martin Jones so much in this space that it’s only fair that I give him his props this week. An amazing performance that makes me wonder why he doesn’t do that more often.
See you next Monday.