Ramblings: Predators Playoff Potential, President’s for the Capitals, Scheifele Dominant (Mar. 29)

by steve laidlaw on March 29, 2016
  • Hockey Rambling
  • Ramblings: Predators Playoff Potential, President’s for the Capitals, Scheifele Dominant (Mar. 29)

Predators playoff potential, President's for the Capitals, Scheifele's dominance and more.

Yesterday was apparently, “don’t sleep on the Predators” Monday for the national media as Pierre LeBrun had a feature for ESPN and Ryan Lambert wrote one for Puck Daddy. The Preds totally deserve it, having climbed from the playoff bubble to within striking distance of the stumbling Blackhawks for third in the Central. They have the defense, and now the scoring depth thanks to the Seth Jones/Ryan Johansen swap and recently they have the goaltending.

Pekka Rinne got rocked last night after giving up three goals on 10 shots in just 11 minutes but he has been quite good since the All-Star break with a 13-4-3 record with a .916 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. His save percentage in that stretch actually dropped four points just from last night’s performance. But the point is that he has been much better than he was before the All-Star break. Probably not enough to make up for a bad season. But maybe if you were able to squeak into the playoffs and enjoy the fruits of your patience.

How has Rinne turned it around? He started stopping some high danger scoring chances. Looking back at Lambert’s examination of Rinne from just before the All-Star break that kick-started his turnaround (possibly by coincidence. Let’s not confuse correlation with causation.)

In the last year or so, his save percentages across medium- and low-quality shots are more or less where they should be — though again, if you're facing fewer low-quality chances, which Rinne is, that cuts out some percentage-padding shots that would otherwise help you considerably — but he's had a lot of difficulty on high-quality chances relative to career norms for much of this season. And that's despite a brief spike in December.

I was discussing the Nashville turnaround with Neil Parker yesterday and Michael Clifford chimed in with this nugget:

The Predators are allowing more dangerous chances at even strength, yet Rinne has been able to stop more of them. Good sign of a turnaround. He has also helped the Predators kick their penalty killing up a notch. They still rank just 20th in penalty killing but have killed penalties at a top-five rate (85.0%) since the All-Star break, after killing them at just 79.1% before the break.

For many of you, the question is about what this means for Rinne going forward. There’s enough inconsistency here to drop Rinne out of the elite tier. I was reluctant to do so but even with the turnaround he still hasn’t been better than league average, which is by definition, not elite.

He still has the big contract and no really competition in Nashville so he’ll get the bulk of the starts and for a team with all the talent the Predators have that should equal a lot of wins. He’s probably in and around the Martin Jones level, outside the top 10. Of course, these things are cyclical and perhaps Rinne bounces back. We also don’t know exactly how each goalie will be affected by the new goalie equipment changes. I’d suggest that if Rinne is losing some ability to stop high danger chances that this is the result of a decline in athleticism, which would mean the new goalie equipment will hasten his decline in the NHL. I’m excited to see what happens, either way.

The interesting question for the Predators, and you could say the same for the Sharks, Blues and Stars is whether or not anyone takes them seriously after years of playoff flameouts when proven commodities like the Kings, Blackhawks and Ducks (if you give this group any credit for the ’07 Cup) all loom as powerhouses in the West.

Neil suggests that the Blackhawks’ hopes of repeating aren’t that strong in his recent Playoff Report Card piece. I tend to agree. Winning back-to-back is just hard. Too many hard miles. Another finals run would mean something like 200 games for the Blackhawks core in the last year and a half. Of course, this is a team that has shown they can flip the switch in the past so they cannot be ruled out. Remember, they stumbled heading into the playoffs last season before hitting their stride in the playoffs, especially as deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette started to fit in mid-way through that run.

You also cannot sleep on the presence of Marcus Kruger who recently returned from injury. His ability as a penalty killer and defensive centerman could shore up some of the team’s biggest weaknesses.

Back to the Predators, however. The one thing we now know for certain is that they will not be getting help from the college ranks as top prospect Jimmy Vesey has declared his intention to test free agency this summer:

Vesey has scored 56 goals in 70 games in his last two seasons of college. He was offered the moon from Nashville: Poile said Vesey was offered a top six role, playoff ice time and “a chance to burn a year of his entry level contract.” As we discussed on our podcast, there was strong talk that Vesey was promised a top-line left wing position, playing with Ryan Johansen.

I was all set to make Vesey my dark horse for playoff pools. Now, things shift around to some of the other talent on the Predators roster. That the Predators made part of their deadline strategy to not go and acquire another forward who might block Vesey only to have him shift gears has to be disappointing for the management team in Nashville and for fans. Given how many deadline acquisitions have failed (including the Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg deal that Nashville has benefited greatly from) you have to wonder if this isn’t a blessing in disguise. Obviously not making a deal and signing Vesey would have been the ideal scenario but if you were losing Vesey anyway not making a deal may still work out.

What’s really silly is that if the Predators ultimately lose Vesey they’ll get no compensation but the Blue Jackets still owe the Canucks a draft pick for signing a coach they fired. These are two separate issues but it still irks me.

I really respect Vesey’s choice though. He put the value of an education above the millions offered in the NHL and gambled that he would stay healthy enough to still potential earn those millions. He also created the opportunity to choose his own destiny. He’s not entirely a free agent as he is limited to signing an entry-level deal but he gets to choose where he’ll work in an industry where few get that choice. This is clearly a player motivated by something other than financial greed.

If the reports are true that he told the Predators he would sign with them once his college season was done, then I do have some issues. But we’ve no idea the exact specifics of the situation. How much was he being hounded? Maybe he just said that to get the Preds off his back? Or maybe, even with a Harvard degree in his pocket, he is still a 22-year-old kid, relatively new to the world, particularly the professional world and is subject to nuanced whims and desires. The point I want to emphasize is nuance. This is a life decision. It isn’t black and white. He has to weigh many factors.

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Big win for the Avalanche to hang in a playoff race they are nearly out of. That they pulled off a road victory, without either Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene is a superb show of resilience.

Carl Soderberg was shutdown by Philadelphia and Minnesota over the weekend but he has seen a spike in minutes since Duchene and MacKinnon went down, having skated over 17 minutes in each of the last five games. He has three points in those five games.

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A rare dominant victory by the Capitals last night. Rare, for the past few weeks anyhow. They thumped the Blue Jackets 4-1, while outshooting their opponents 40-22. This is just what they doctor ordered as the Capitals have locked up the President’s Trophy but they still need to remain engaged.

The Caps got scoring from 10 different players last night and neither of their top two scorers got in on the action. This is what separates these Capitals from past failures. They have the depth to produce goals even when the big guns are shutdown or the officials inhale their whistles.

Sure, the Capitals aren’t an entirely dominant 5-on-5 team but they do still win the possession battle more often than they lose it. They also have some elite scorers and solid goaltending capable of buoying them to the best 5-on-5 goal differential in the league. This does mean they’ve got a high PDO (indeed they are second highest in the league behind the Rangers), which isn’t particularly reliable. But there is more good than bad with this team.

Waiver wire dreamboat, Andre Burakovsky, was one of the Caps held off the board last night. He is scoreless in four straight. This is the first time he has gone more than two games without a point since before Christmas.

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There were some concussion concerns with Claude Giroux but there’s no way he was missing time at this point in the season. He’d need to be bedridden to keep him out of action now. Does that mean the concussion protocols weren’t followed? I really shouldn’t be speculating but based on what went down with Dennis Wideman, the NHL is still turning much of a blind eye to this stuff.

Giroux scored the overtime winner with an assist from Shayne Gostisbehere. No surprise as the have been two of the most dominant performers at 3-on-3 this season.

Sean Couturier continues to be a sneaky and consistent source of offense. He has points in nine of the last 11 games with 10 total in that span. Mostly just single-assist performances but the steadiness is rather remarkable.

Huge thumbs up to Steve Mason for his second half. His 0.924 save percentage is tied for sixth among goalies since the All-Star break. Some surprising names on that list. For instance, Ryan Miller is fifth. I’d written Miller off as a tire fire months ago.

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Mark Scheifele refuses to settle down. Screw breaking out next season. He’s basically doing it right now. He is tied for fourth in scoring since the All-Star break with 28 points in 27 games. He is up to 52 points in 65 games (a 66-point pace). Can you imagine where he might be at had he not missed most of December due to injury? Scheifele has six games remaining and I’m not ruling out a leap to the 60-point plateau, which is right about where I’ve been thinking about pegging him for next season. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.

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Jimmy Howard and the Red Wings damn near gave it away but the held on to beat the Sabres 3-2 in order to keep pace with the Flyers. Keeping pace may not cut it but it’s what they have to do.

Look for Petr Mrazek to get the start tonight given the back-to-back situation. The Red Wings have two more back-to-backs down the stretch, which could mean more Jimmy, especially if Mrazek’s struggles continue.

Niklas Kronwall registered an assist to give him four points in five games since returning from a brief injury. This is a nice little run at the end of what has been mostly a terrible season for Kronwall. He has really been a shadow of his former self. I do wonder if he has a bounce-back in him like Zdeno Chara has had after being miserable last year. Missing the playoffs and having a full off-season of recovery might be the best thing possible.

The same goes for Henrik Zetterberg whose multi-point game last night was his first in over a month.

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Recent college free agent signing Casey Nelson has been a hit with the Sabres. He has assists in each of his first two NHL games, while seeing some second unit power-play time. Don’t get too excited as he has averaged under 15 minutes per game but he’s worth getting intrigued about.

Sam Reinhart has four goals and 12 points in 14 games this month. Definitely finishing his rookie season the way you would like to see. Bodes well for him to take another step forward next season. Maybe he even cracks 30 goals.

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As promised, Victor Hedman is producing without Anton Stralman in the lineup. The big defenseman scored a goal and an assist in over 24 minutes of action while leading the Lightning in power-play time. I can’t think of the last time Hedman saw such a prominent role on the power play. It looks good on him though.

No Nikita Kucherov for the second straight game after he blocked a shot on Friday night. He’s only day-to-day so not much concern but also little consolation to fantasy managers missing out on important games.

Valtteri Filppula returned for the Lightning and skated some big minutes with Steven Stamkos. He was held scoreless, however.

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I like that the Ducks found a prominent role for Shea Theodore even though Sami Vatanen made his return to the lineup last night. Theodore skated 19:54, while Vatanen skated 20:49 and both saw heavy power-play usage, though neither more than Cam Fowler.

I don’t trust Theodore to play a prominent role come playoff time, when Kevin Bieksa and Simon Despres should be back in the lineup but I like that he gets a chance to contribute whenever he is put in the lineup. Ultimately, I think Theodore is going to breakout big time next season as the Ducks appear set to lose one of Vatanen or Hampus Lindholm this summer. They’ve already got Fowler, Despres and Bieksa locked up for solid money, and then they have Ryan Kesler’s fat new deal to contend with, all while on an internal budget. Plus, they have the depth to lose one without it being a crippling loss. They might even have some say in the destination if they make a trade.

I think that the Ducks will keep Lindholm, while Vatanen moves on. This would open up a hole for Theodore as the #1 offensive defenseman on the team and I suspect he will take the opportunity and run with it the way young defenders like Gostisbehere, John Klingberg and Torey Krug have in recent years.

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No Johnny Gaudreau last night:

Probably for the best. It was a road game so he wouldn’t have produced anyhow.

In his stead, Hunter Shinkaruk and Derek Grant skated on Sean Monahan’s wings. Monahan had a dominant three-point showing.

Also dominant was the Flames’ third line with Sam Bennett scoring a pair of goals and Joe Colborne continuing his reign as a great waiver wire pickup with a goal and an assist. Colborne now has seven goals and 11 points in his last 12 games.

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Disappointing news for the Coyotes:

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Marc-Edouard Vlasic still has no timetable for his return. It’s hard to see the Sharks putting up much of a fight come playoff time if they don’t have Vlasic back but they did lay the smack down on the Kings last night.

Joonas Donskoi has been a bit banged up but got into the lineup for nearly 15 minutes last night. No offense for him, however.

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Big time news for those in the H2H finals over the next couple of weeks:

Steen is owned in 82% of Yahoo! leagues so perhaps you won’t find him available but if you do, he makes a great pick up.

It will be interesting to see how this impacts the Blues’ lineup. The pairing of Paul Stastny and Robby Fabbri is #1-2 in team scoring since the All-Star break. They are unlikely to be broken up. Steen likely returns on David Backes’ wing, which might spark the captain.

Before one gets too excited about the Blues getting healthy at the right time, neither Jay Bouwmeester nor Carl Gunnarson will play tonight.

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The Blackhawks expect Corey Crawford back in time for playoffs but the secretive nature of this injury suggests we may not see him again in the regular season:

“We think he’s going to be ready,” Quenneville said. “He’s close, but we still don’t see him on the ice. I can’t answer that certainly, but we expect him to be ready.”

That puts even more value on Scott Darling. Darling hasn’t been great since taking over the crease a couple weeks ago but his overall numbers are essentially league average with a 9-7-3 record, a 2.48 goals-against average and a 0.917 save percentage. League average is perfectly acceptable, especially out of a waiver pick up. Darling is available in two thirds of all Yahoo! leagues.

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No surprise but Dion Phaneuf and Clarke MacArthur have both been ruled out for the rest of the season. This does open up some more power-play time for Chris Wideman.

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With this weekend’s news that Nail Yakupov requested a trade out of Edmonton we get all sorts of speculation. Mark Spector has a great piece about how things went wrong for Yakupov in Edmonton even before he was drafted:

But that morning proceeded strangely. Head amateur scout Stu MacGregor would ask the scouts to vote, and then he would leave the room. He’d come back with some alternate criteria to describe the type of player the Oilers wanted to choose, and they’d vote again.

 

Every time, the vote came back the same. Nine votes for defenceman Ryan Murray, and two for Nail Yakupov. Truth be told, one of those Yakupov votes had started as a vote for Alex Galchenyuk, then morphed into support for Yakupov.

It’s hardly a secret that GMs hold the hammer with regard to first round picks, especially lottery picks. That Steve Tambellini over-ruled his scouting staff is damning but his tenure was fraught with issues so this isn’t really news.

I really hated the Yakupov pick as an Oiler fan. I wanted the team to take Galchenyuk. While, Galchenyuk has had a bumpy ride in Montreal, he has still definitely been the better of the two. Murray looks like a real keeper now that he has gotten past some injury woes.

I still think Yakupov has potential. It will be interesting to see where he lands this summer. He will almost certainly be moved in the off-season.

One thing to consider is that with the expansion draft looming you can’t expect anyone to give up much of anything for a player they are unlikely to be protecting come next summer but it might take an expansion team for Yakupov to land in a spot with the room to give him a top-six role.

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Steve Laidlaw is the Managing Editor of Dobber Hockey. Follow him @SteveLaidlaw.