Its never a good thing when a team and player can’t manage to combine for the common good. Sometimes the player is a misfit, other times the teams flat fail to appreciate the talent of a player and put him in a role that bars him from success. Other cases are just a mismatch of player and system. Whatever the cause, there are several NHL players who could do so much better elsewhere.

Ryan Johansen – Columbus Blue Jackets

The Story:

Ryan Johansen and The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the end stages of a protracted, bitter, and public dispute over exactly what Johansen is worth for his second contract. Management is arguing that with only one season of notable performance he should take a more modest contract to prove last years 33-30-63 season wasn’t a fluke. The 22 year is likely pointing at other players with similar levels of success, who likely had more years with better rosters around them.

The most popular example is Ryan O’Reilly who in the final year of his entry level deal put up 18-37-55 in 81 games for the Colorado Avalanche. O’Reilly was rewarded with a contract worth $3.5m in year one and $6.5m for an average annual value of $5m. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is another comparable, who ended up with a big contract with similar but lesser production. You can look at Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner as well, in the third year out of juniors Johansen was more productive or healthier than most of the comparables, in some cases both.

Evander Kane – The Winnipeg Jets

The Story:

Kane has more goals in the last three seasons than any other Jets player, one of those seasons included a coaching change in season. He’s played under four different coaches in five seasons; John Anderson, Craig Ramsay, Claude Noel, and Paul Maurice, given how different those coaches are in temperament, experience, and style it would be hard to fault Kane if he wondered if management and or ownership had a clue and a plan. Kane is a rugged winger (drafted center) who has played in all situations and even contributed shorthanded goals. He hits, blocks shots, and has averaged over twenty minutes a night the last two seasons, yet he’s still treated as some sort of leper by the team.

If some or even most of what is said about him off ice is true maybe they are just sick of dealing with that. No matter what the cause, Evander Kane trade rumors are frequent enough to not be news and he’s only entering his sixth year.

Mark Giordano – Calgary Flames

The Story:

Giordano is one of the rising stars of the NHL. On a pretty bad team last year, he none the less was voted one of the best NHL defensemen by the writers of NHL.com this year. With a very friendly salary of just over four million this year and next, he can be moved for a considerable return to a team like Philadelphia or the Islanders who want to win soon. Giordano is 31 which is not old for a defenseman, but it is highly doubtful he’ll still be near peak if and when the Flames acquire enough talent to be a contending team. Better still, with less wins and more picks, they stand a better shot at getting not only good building blocks, but someone at the top end of the next NHL draft.

Reilly Smith – Boston Bruins

The Story:

Reilly Smith is part of the return for the trade that sent Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He came in last year and cemented Seguin’s old spot on Patrice Bergeron’s line, and proved himself a good and willing passer and a goal scorer. With the cap crunch and a stagnating pool of NHL ready talent in the AHL, the Bruins have had little room and less inclination to sign him when cheaper options are at hand. Even if Smith is asking for a more than reasonable $2.25m, the team is likely to see him as replaceable and should part with him as soon as possible for as much as they can get.

So there’s a fascinating article up over at CBC.CA. Tony Care has taken it upon himself to blame Dion Phaneuf and his contract for all that is wrong with the Leafs, or at least that’s how it reads.

According to the article Phaneuf isn’t a number one defenseman. Let’s take a look at that. Let’s ask three questions about that one. First; Can you name 30 or more better defensemen in the NHL? Second; Does Phaneuf contribute to the the Toronto Maple Leafs like a number one defenseman? And third, is he playing in all situations?

The first question is an obvious: NO. Can you name five better defensemen, sure easy as pie. Can you name ten better defensemen, probably. What that means is that Dion Phanuef isn’t an elite defenseman. But then again there are probably only about five or six of those in the NHL at most at any given time.

How much does Phaneuf contribute? Last year on a team that was middling for total offense, Phaneuf , who isn’t an offensive defensemen was still comfortably in the top 50 defensemen in scoring. He played a solid 23:33 of TOI a night with over six minutes a night on special teams. Roughly half of the players who averaged more TOI than Phaneuf last year did not make the playoffs. The highest sv% on the season or a Toronto goalie was .923 for Bernier over 55 games James Reimer in 32 games was at .911, the on ice sv% for Phaneuf last year was .928. That’s only slightly above what Bernier’s was, but significantly over where Reimer who played roughly 40% of the season managed.

When you climb deeper into the advanced stats, and look at zone starts and zone finishes, his raw offensive numbers get even more impressive, as does his on ice save percentage. Phaneuf started 61.2% of his shifts in the defensive or neutral zones. He finished just 53.7% of shifts outside the offensive zone. Ask your financial planner if they can consistently get you 7.5% increases on your investments, just be prepared to be laughed at. Then there’s the quality of competition he’s facing. He was 17th in the NHL last year for QoC Corsi, that’s ahead of the last three players to be awarded the Norris Trophy, and pretty much everyone else.

On the third count we have much of our answer earlier on. Phaneuf played more than 200 minutes more than the next Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman last year. His 17:27 of even strength time was second on the team. His 2:49 of shorthanded time was likewise second on the team. The 3:17 of powerplay time was first overall. No one on the team combined for more hit and blocked shots than Phaneuf either.

Would Phaneuf get less grief if he were an offensive minded player like Ottawa’s Karlsson or Pittsburg’s Letang, maybe, maybe not. Would the Toronto Maple Leafs have finished as high or higher in the standings with either Letang or Karlsson last year; unlikely.  Phaneuf is doing the heavy lifting defensively almost unaided, it doesn’t matter how many more goals either of those two scores, with as mushy as the rest of the lineup is defensively, it would be a not less for the Leafs to exchange him for that type of player.

Gary Lawless and other have decided that the Winnipeg Jets most recognizable defenseman, an All Star, Stanley Cup champion, and Olympian is just not good enough.

When you compare him to some of the defenseman who make a similar amount of money, you can see where some complaints about his defensive struggles can creep in.

  • Brent Seabrook is a consummate defensive defenseman often overlooked because he plays in Duncan Keith’s shadow.
  • Ryan McDonagh is quickly becoming one of the best known defensemen in the entire NHL. Part of that is playing for the New York Rangers, part of it is that he’s just that good.
  • Kevin Bieksa has some deficiencies, but has never been the focus of his team, he’s above average but not elite.

And then there are the players who make about the same who are not notably better than Byfuglien, and likely worse, or at least with questionable consistency and or frequent health issues.

  • Dennis Wideman, known for bobbling pucks at the blueline, and that’s perhaps the most noticeable consistency in his game, it should also be noted that no team with Wideman on it has ever made it out of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
  • Keith Yandle, probably the most comparable in on ice production. The biggest difference between the two is Yandle plays in a highly defensive system where there are several high end defensive forwards and good goaltending.
  • Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be lucky to named in the first ten by anyone not reading off the teams roster, and despite playing in front of a goalie with better stats than Big Buff, he’s got an on ice SV% that’s actually further below the #1 goalies Sv%.
  • Nicklas Kronwall is a bit better defensively, and again playing in front of better goaltending, but offensively? He’s played about 60 more games than the Jets blueliner, but has about half the goals.

No one burdened with glorious clue has ever called Dustin Byfuglien the best defenseman in the NHL. He is however one of he most recognizable due to his size, melanin level, skating ability and offensive prowess. He’s also hands down the most recognizable player on Winnipeg Jets. The same way people you used to say Joe Thornton could or should do more during the Boston Bruins 2000-01 season, there are upper ceilings on everyone’s talent and more importantly the fact that good player, great player or elite player they can only be in one place on the ice.

In the entire history of the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise, the team has never had any real depth. Their top six forwards after one and two, or very occasionally three have been a toss up. The top four in defense has largely been a matter of who had the endurance to play 22 or 26 minutes minutes and who didn’t. While Byfuglien can undoubtedly play better (possibly moving to right wing) he’s not the worst defenseman in the league, or even the worst in his pay bracket.  Whatever is wrong with Byfuglien’s play, and it does certainly have issues, Byfuglien isn’t even in the top 5 problems for the Winnipeg Jets.

The NHL has seen a lot of things in its time. Full fledged bench emptying brawls, skates that cut necks and knees, changes to the rules for icing, and even the glowing puck. Each of those has come and gone, and some will be seen again. The NHL and how it is perceived in the world have survived all of those things pretty well. I’m not sure the hockey world is ready to embrace Patrice Bergeron as a frequent flier in the church of sin.

Sure Bergeron plays on every inch of the ice doing whatever is needed to push the team along towards success. He’s killed penalties, played in all possible spots on the power play and skated with some highly questionable “N”HL talent some years. What he’s never done is be among the Bruins PIM leaders. Of the currently active Boston Bruins just three guys sit ahead of him, two of them got their with a combined seven fights, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand got their partly on reputation and partly because he’s Brad Marchand being Brad Marchand.

Any one who’s watched Bergeron play over the years has seen him frequently enter a battle along the boards or at the blue line, engage full force and walk away with the puck. What we haven’t seen him do is take many penalties. His career high for penalty minutes was during the 2009-10 season when he racked up just 28 over the course of 73 games. This season in a slim 36 games he’s already up to 25, including his first regular season NHL fight. A fight which came only a little over six months after a playoff bout with Evgeni Malkin.

The operative question is: Why? He hadWhen you add up with the number of penalty plays that can be laid at the feet of frustration in the last year or so, you have to ask what is causing this?

Possibility A:

  • He’s unhappy with the effort one or more of his teammates are bringing to the game night in and night out.

If so, he’s in theory trying to spark the team to more emotion, or maybe make himself trade able in the eyes of fans and management.

Possibility B:

  • He’s underwhelmed with the skill he’s been put between and wants to make sure the organization’s leadership sees it for themselves.

If so, he is simply lobbying for the team to spend to the caps that will coming along down the line and is hoping to see either more talent acquired for his line, or a reshuffling of the roster that allows him to play a more offensive part.

Possibility C:

  • He’s got one or more off ice issues that are eating at him.

If this is the case, much as Ovechkin’s slump when his grandfather died, it will work itself out, eventually.

Possibility D:

  • At the ripe old age of 28 he’s having some sort of midlife crisis.

Odd as it may sound, this could be true. He’s won at the WJC, won a Stanley Cup, won Olympic Gold, won Gold at the Spengler Cup, won gold at the World Championship, was an NHL Young Star his rookie season, won MVP & All Star at WJC, the Selke Award and the King Clancy award. Realistically, what else is there for him to do in the NHL or hockey in general?

Possibility E:

  • He’s sick to death of blatant calls not being made by officials and is simply more willing to defend himself now.

At one point Joe Thornton who is a likely hall of fame inductee almost retired because of the amount of nonsense he had to endure, Jumbo Joe is a whole lot bigger than Bergeron. The current crop of NHL officials is suspect on good days, and their aren’t many of those.

Whatever the reason(s) he’s getting more familiar with the penalty box, it is slightly disturbing. At his current pace he’ll likely finish the season around 60 PIMs. That’s more than double his previous high, and not something the Bruins can afford long term in their most valuable skater.

The rumors surrounding Evander Kane have been higher hip waders for two plus years. There’s his supposed off ice issues. There’s the rift that is said to exist between he and management and or coaches. There’s the fact that fans in 29 cities not named Winnipeg that are home to NHL franchises would love to have him. There is also the fact that the Jets are more likely to be tanking in February than looking to add depth for a playoff run.

The latest round of hot air and hearty keystrokes has Kane, the 30 goal scoring 22 year old who is 3rd in his draft class in goals and points headed to Montreal. On the exhaustive list of players the Jets would supposedly get in return for him are Max Pacioretty. Such a trade would free up an additional three quarters of a million in cap space the Jets don’t particularly need. What else it would do for the Jets is unknown.

The question is what is Evander Kane worth? If you use the Phil Kessel benchmark of two first and a second round pick, you may be at least in the right ball park. Kane has not scored as many goals in one season as Kessel has, but he’s also never had as much offense around him. On the plus side for Kane is much more physicality, no history of cancer and an ability to shrug off media attention.

If your the Winnipeg Jets, the return for your best young talent needs to be high. The teams needs are pretty noticeably: a center capable of excelling in the one or two slot, a long term solution in goal, and a 22+ minute a night defensive defenseman who can help protect whoever is in net from some of the NHL’s top talent. Getting experienced number one centers is not easy, just look at the number of guys the Calgary Flames have tried to put into that position. Right now the Anaheim Ducks have an embarrassment of riches in net, and one of their younger goalies would be good mix for a Winnipeg team still building. Dan Girardi who is a UFA this off-season fits the mold of a shutdown defender, as does the Boston Bruins Dennis Seidenberg.

Another way for the Winnipeg Jets organization to approach this might be to aim for adding quality second line and second pairing depth via the draft. If they could swing a deal for Kane and five or even four relatively high second round picks they might just be better off long term. In Atlanta as the Thrashers or now Winnipeg as the Jets the franchise has never been known for its depth. Is this the time to go for it? As it looks very much like they will have at least one top ten draft pick of their own in the near future, it might just be.

The biggest story of the NHL off season isn’t a trade, an offer sheet, an unfortunate death or even an absurd signing. It is the retirement of one of the most talented players in the NHL. Ilya Kovalchuk announced he would be leaving the NHL and returning to Russia through the New Jersey Devils website today. His official reason of wanting to be with his family is certainly a key component, but no one, even if they expect to recoup it walks away from the nearly eighty million he was due as Devil over the next few years easily.

The other contributing factors are a bit murkier, but we can certainly narrow down key components, the first of which is how little success such an enormous talent has had in the NHL. With Atlanta he was surrounded by rosters most of the USHL or CHL teams could have handily defeated in a seven game series, possibly in a sweep. The team continually drafted high despite being in a division that was the NHL’s punching bag for almost a generation. Two years ago when he finally got to the Stanley Cup finals after a season in which he should have won the Hart, the Ted Lindsey and gotten votes for the Selke, his hopes of winning the Cup were exsanguinated, largely by his own teammates and a body that had given more than it should be called upon to. Given the well documented financial troubles of the New Jersey Devils, he had to be convinced he was no going to get back to the Finals any time when he had a claim at being a top ten NHL talent.

Recognition is another element. Kovalchuk is good. He’s more than good, he’s the definition of elite. In his career he’s played with exactly one top ten offensively talented center, and he didn’t have Marc Savard for long. In the early years of his career he played with little in the way of NHL talent of any description. In his most recent four seasons he’s played in a very defensive minded system where he played 24-26 minutes a night with large amounts of it shorthanded. He leaves the NHL with two fifty goal season, three forty goal seasons, and four thirty goal seasons. Only once was he a first team All Star, he never won a single Hart trophy or Ted Lindsay, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the Canadian media and their xenophobia. Russian players get as much negative attention from the Canadian media today as Russia itself did from America during the Cold War. If a Russian player does something questionable or negative it will be talked about for years to come, a Canadian or Swede who did the exact same thing might have to suffer through a week of questions and recriminations. He’ll leave the NHL a point per game player, a solid two way player, and probably never even get mentioned for the hall of fame.

NHL stability is another question that has to have pooped into his head a time or two. During his there were two lockouts, one resulting in a whole season being wiped away. The team who drafted him had ownership more interested in pinching pennies and suing each other than in building a viable franchise. The team he was traded too and eventually signed to a long term deal with was bankrupt. The Coyotes were forever unstable. The Islanders are still a question mark. The Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets had issues that threatened their existence. The Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg. All Star and Winter Classic games, a major source of league revenue, were cancelled. And of course players have had to give back money to the league more than once.

The Devils will go on without him, as will the league, neither will be better off without him.

 

The Avalanche are in the midst of yet another signing saga. At present they’ve spent the past eight months holding their leading faceoff man and leading scorer from last season by the choke chain known as “RFA status”. The other marks in O’Reilly’s favor are nothing to sneer at. He had two overtime tallies, led the team in assists, won 53% of his faceoffs, potted four powerplay goals, played in all situations and generally contributed to the teams success.

The level of the teams success sheds a different light on his accomplishments, so does the fact that it was his third season and one where he more than doubled his career  assist and points totals on a team that finished 20th in the NHL. Anyone who doesn’t see the potential for steady growth for the 22 year old 200lb center is probably convinced we’ve seen the best from Taylor Hall and John Tavares. I don’t think anyone puts the ceiling for O’Reilly quite that high, but the chance for growth is coupled with one regression as well. He could just as easily turn into a half hundred other forwards like Peter Schaefer who got some ice time, got lucky and then fell apart when he had to repeat it.

If the Avalanche are determined not to give into his teams demands, where else he could land is a matter of finding a GM who sees O’Reilly continuing to get better, and has the assets and the inclination to go after him. Kent Wilson of FlamesNation thinks the Calgary brass must make a play for him. While it is unarguable that the Flames are a bit cool at the pivot position, what they have to offer up isn’t much. The Flames farm system is rated 23rd best in the entire league. Would a package of Jankowski, Seiloff and a 2nd round pick do the trick? And would that package actually be good for either team?

The Florida Panthers are currently underwater on faceoff win percentage, 23rd in the NHL in goals, and almost as poorly off in the east as the Avalanche are in the west. It’s highly unlikely any talks around the Panthers actually include Jonathan Huberdeau since the rookie is currently leading the team in goals, but perhaps Kris Versteeg is due for his sixth jersey since draft day and draft pick or two could accompany him back to the western conference. O’Reilly and Huberdeau could arguably be the best 1-2 punch at center in the Southeast division in a couple years.

Assuming Washington wants to make a shakeup, and they probably should, Backstrom and O’Reilly as a the moving points of the offense for the Capitals could actually get the team out of the lottery even before the seasons end, like Backstrom who Ovechkin has played longest and best with, O’Reilly is a left handed shot. Going back could be any number of pieces, ideally Carlson, although that would prove what just about everyone should suspect about McPhee, but Yevgeni Kuznetsov is a very attractive piece, if they can woo him across the pond, in some combination with Tom Wilson, Filip Forsberg and or picks should seal the deal.

It’d be nice to include the Wild in this list but there problem isn’t talent on the ice. The system in Nashville prevents offensive stars, and I don’t see the new GM in Columbus looking to take on a big contract for someone who seems likely to want to wrangle over it ever time. There are other teams who might make a move to juice their line up, but the Panthers, Flames, and Washington top the list of teams O’Reilly, at the right price makes sense for.

After writing up the top defensemen, I looked at the forwards and wondered if all the General Managers had taken vacation or just leave of their senses. The amount of talent left dangling is more than enough to fill out the top six for any team in the league.  In no particular oder, here are the best RFA’s to keep an eye on, and think about for your fantasy team.

  •  Tyler Ennis missed about a third of the season with injuries. This was his second full season in the NHL. While his overall numbers were lower, his points per game and stats become eye popping when you break them down. He put up a respectable .59 points per game as a rookie. In 48 games last season he was a solid .71ppg. He managed 19 takeaways 15-19-34 and +11 as part of a disastrous campaign for the Sabres. In March he put up 19 points in 16 games. The scary part is that he averaged just 16:09 of total ice time and under two minutes of powerplay time.
  • All Star Jamie Benn is somehow unsigned. The Stars had time and money to sign the aging and infirm Jagr, trade for Derek Roy, and no doubt get in a couple rounds of golf. He’s only gotten better year after year. Last years totals were career highs in goals, assist and points. Many would call him the best player on the team, few would put him outside the top three. Somehow he’s still sitting in cold storage given all the respect of a dusty can of store-brand peas.
  • Evander Kane is also on the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot list of players left to grow mold and discontent. The fact that he is still unsigned in August does nothing to dispel the rumors from early this year that he didn’t want to sign in Winnipeg. 2o year old 30 goal scorers aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Yet the 4th pick of the 2009 draft who had 173 hits, 31 blocked shots, and just 18 giveaways to his 35 takeaways last year is unsigned with training camp closer than the end of last years regular season.
  • Ryan O’Reilly, his agent, his fans and family are probably a bit confused this summer. Granted they have a good reason. Apparently to the Colorado Avalanche more than doubling your career totals in one year, leading the team in scoring and leading all forwards in ice time while playing in all situations aren’t enough to warrant a timely contract. No, I can’t figure that out either.

Yesterday Justin Schultz chose the Edmonton Oilers. Today his contract will be registered with the league. For the Anaheim Ducks this is an ugly blight on their off season. But things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. He was drafted back in 2008 and has had time to observe the Ducks organization in action for all that time. They’ve gone changed coaches, a player has been publicly and repeatedly scapegoated. Collectively the players on the ice have taken the first half of the season off two years in a row.

Then there is a drafting and development record that doesn’t deserve mention. Justin Schultz is 21 years old, he’s an adult. He didn’t choose the team that drafted him. And a team that doesn’t. compete well and douses its stars in public scorn isn’t someplace many will want to play there. When one of the biggest stars in the league who isn’t know for piping up does so just days before the draft maybe this. should be a wake up call.

Some might see this as a reason to change the CBA. I see this as a way to keep players who don’t feel a team offers what they needm or who may be toxic to stay out of low growth situations. As we saw with Jeff Carter thisyear and others in years past; unhappy players don’t perform well. What team really believes a miserable player is good for their team? Let it go, growand learn from it and move on.