How the latest moves may influence the NHL’s power structure

Sean Reynolds and John Shannon talk about the moves that Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving made on Day 2 of the 2017 NHL Draft and what to expect come free agency July 1st.

Back in March, when yet another predictably uneventful trade deadline was unfolding at a snail’s pace, the one silver lining was the commonly echoed belief that the looming summer would bring with it all of the frenzied movement we’d been craving.

It may have taken excruciatingly long for that action to finally come, but those forecasts proved to be accurate when the expansion draft-induced freeze was lifted and the transactions flowed in one after another in rapid succession in advance of this weekend’s annual entry draft.

With the benefit of a few sleeps to let the news sink in properly, let’s get a lay of the land by mulling over some of the weekend’s most notable takeaways and what implications they may have on the league’s power structure.

Arizona Coyotes

No one has been more active than the Coyotes over the course of the past week, putting into motion a series of consequential moves both on and off the ice. In that span of time they’ve bid farewell to:

a) The league’s second-longest tenured coach (only Joel Quenneville has been with his current team longer than Dave Tippett had, who took over behind the bench all the way back in 2009).

b) The player whose name and face is most synonymous with the franchise on sheer longevity alone, having been around since day one following their relocation from Winnipeg.

c) The goalie who almost singlehandedly carried them to the most successful single season in the organization’s two decade long existence, taking them all the way to the Western Conference Final (and in the process giving them the only two series victories they’ve still had to this very day).

The Hockey PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

We won’t get into the optics of the behind the scenes stuff, the reported power struggle between the ownership, management, and coach, and the manner in which they may have handled those various departures here. Instead we’ll focus on the player personnel side of things, and the influence they’ll have on the on-ice product.

Purely from that perspective, it’s awfully difficult to argue with any of the changes the Coyotes have made to their team. In short order, they’ve addressed some of their most glaring organizational needs by acquiring a cheap goalie who seems ready to spread his wings and eat a lion’s share of the starts for the first time in his career, a top-of-the-lineup centre that can shepherd their young wingers through their early developmental years, and another reliable defenceman that can either perfectly complement Oliver Ekman-Larsson or maybe more optimally prop up a second reliable pairing on the back-end. And most importantly they did all of it without necessarily sacrificing any of their fundamental core assets, or tying up their money in poison-pill contracts.

I still think it’s fair to have some reservations about the moves and what they represent with regards to the organization’s philosophy and mandate. While the Coyotes are unquestionably a better hockey team today than they were at this time last week, where does that ultimately get them? And is the price they’ll pay for those marginal gains worth it in the grand scheme of things considering everything they’d gone through to get to this point in previous years?

While all of the losing they were doing was understandably taking its toll on everyone involved, at least the direction and endgame were very clear and sound in principle – they were purposefully stripping everything down and starting from scratch, trying to accumulate as much young talent through the draft as possible out of necessity.

Now it seems like they’ve either reversed course on the fly, or tried to just expedite that process because their position is no longer tenable for a number of reasons. Whatever the motivations may be, it’s hard to blame them for actively trying to change that widely held perception of them and their own gloomy outlook. At this point even a certain modicum of respectability would be a welcome sight in Arizona.

Calgary Flames

There’s no question that the Flames paid a steep price to acquire Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders, relinquishing three premium assets in future draft capital. But considering the combination of their current position in a supremely softened Pacific Division and their specific need for a defenceman to round out the top four on the blue line, the calculated bet Brad Treliving is making here seems completely justifiable at this point in time.

It may have snuck up on people who weren’t paying attention, but the combination of Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano established itself as one of the best defence pairings in the league last season. It’s no coincidence that the team’s performance as a whole took off the way it did around the time Glen Gulutzan put the two together, with the two of them having their play show up amongst some fairly elite company (the following are the only pairings to have spent at least 500 minutes together and controlled north of 55% of the shot attempts during that time):

Pairing Shared 5-on-5 Minutes Shared Shots For % Shared Goals For %
Ekholm and Subban 1049.14 55.3 50.7
Giordano and Hamilton 953.09 56.7 66.2
Krug and McQuaid 883.53 55.4 46.9
Orlov and Niskanen 750.31 56.3 61.7
Lindholm and Manson 716.36 55.4 53.2
Schmidt and Orpik 564.47 56.3 65.8
Petry and Markov 563.35 56.1 60.4
Hedman and Stralman 516.58 55.2 61.5

As great as they were, the issue was what happened when those two weren’t on the ice. Regardless of what combination they tried on their second and third pairing – aside from a briefly intriguing cup of coffee for Brett Kulak, which they mysteriously went away from – they struggled as a team to keep their heads above water, signalling a clear flaw in the way their roster was constructed and an obvious need for them to address:

Pairing Shared 5-on-5 Minutes Shared Shots For % Shared Goals For %
Brodie and Wideman 655.45 50.3 32.6
Engelland and Jokipakka 316.53 45.2 57.1
Brodie and Stone 288.24 46.5 64.7
Brodie and Engelland 257.44 48.2 48.0
Engelland and Bartkowski 255.42 45.3 44.4
Engelland and Kulak 230.51 51.7 53.8

One of the more disappointing stories in the league as last season went along was Treliving’s inability to find that additional defenceman that was capable of playing with T.J. Brodie and shoring up their play on the back-end beyond the top pairing. Assuming Hamonic’s struggles last year can be explained by injuries (and whatever else was in the water in Brooklyn that dragged the entire team down) and he returns to his form from previous seasons, it seems like they’ve finally solved that problem and found their long-term solution.

If they’re able to either add another useful depth piece in the coming weeks, or just finally trust young players like Kulak and Rasmus Andersson to eat up the remaining third-pairing minutes, there’s a legitimate case to be made that the collection of talent the Flames have assembled on their blue line has them right behind the Ducks and Predators as the third best defence corps in the NHL.

None of which is to say that I don’t like the move from the Islanders perspective, because it’s a distinct possibility that this turns out to be one of those mutually beneficial trades that helps both teams reach their respective goals. The only problem is that it’s difficult to evaluate the move in isolation, because – much like the other New York team and the big trade they partook in – this feels like it’s a prelude for another move that’s still yet to come.

Assuming they’re able to use the newfound financial flexibility (and draft capital) to add a piece that’ll improve their team somewhere else (like potentially the heavily rumoured Matt Duchene buzz) then I’m all for it. To be determined.

Edmonton Oilers

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Edmonton Oilers just made the mistake of selling low on a supremely gifted winger.

While it’s understandable that people in Edmonton were frustrated last season with Eberle as his output dried up, it sure seems like he just fell victim to the unpredictable whim of the way a puck bounces. Unless you believe he suddenly had his shooting talent cut in half dramatically at the age of 27, he seems like a perfect candidate to return to form and score somewhere between 25 and 30 goals once again in 2017-18 (especially if he lands permanently in the cushy spot to the right of John Tavares):

Season Shots Per Hour Individual Shooting % League Avg. Shooting %
2010-2011 14.11 11.4 10.45
2011-2012 13.78 18.9 10.53
2012-2013 13.48 12.0 10.57
2013-2014 13.49 14.0 10.43
2014-2015 11.85 13.1 10.39
2015-2016 14.45 14.5 10.58
2016-2017 16.19 9.6 10.74

Eberle certainly isn’t a player without his own flaws, but it’s tough to reconcile the reasons for his jettisoning out of town and the measly return the Oilers now have to show for him. While Ryan Strome technically is cheaper, younger, and carries a certain brand name prospect pedigree, his first few spins around the league have left a lot to be desired. He’s scored at an underwhelming 14 goals-per-82 games pace thus far in his first four seasons, constantly bouncing around the Islanders’ lineup and failing to lock down a permanent role. Unless they were specifically targeting Strome themselves, it seems hard to believe that he was the best piece the Oilers could’ve gotten back in a one-for-one swap.

If the driving force for the deal was more financially oriented as has been speculated with their top two players soon needing big money extensions, then why did they immediately turn around and spend those savings (and then some) on Kris Russell like the money was burning a hole in their pockets?

Provided that Cam Talbot holds up with a similar repeat performance, the Oilers are once again poised to be very good next season. It’s extremely feasible that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take yet another step in their natural progression towards cementing themselves as one of the league’s most potent duos, and it’s plausible that someone like Jesse Puljujarvi steps up and takes advantage of the newfound opportunity on the wing that’s been left by Eberle’s departure.

But don’t let that distract you from the fact that there are legitimate questions about the moves Peter Chiarelli is making here. They’re doing themselves a disservice by not taking full advantage of having the league’s best player currently still making peanuts on an entry-level deal, something they’ll surely lament once that luxury is no longer available to them.

Pittsburgh Penguins

It’s tough to say which of the following revelations was the most surprising of the bunch at the time it occurred (and still to this very day really):

a) The St. Louis Blues including Ryan Reaves on their protection list for the expansion draft.

b) The Penguins trading two assets for Reaves at the draft

c) The Blues being vindicated for (a) because as it turns out Reaves is evidently viewed as a more valuable trade chip in this current market than David Perron was/is

The rationale for the Penguins here was telegraphed from a mile away. They felt like teams were taking liberties on their star players (particularly Sidney Crosby) throughout the post-season, and they believe that having an enforcer like Reaves in the lineup will act as a deterrent, preventing teams from continuing to do so.

Beyond the obvious flaws in logic with that line of thinking in general, what makes the move particularly perplexing is how explicitly it goes against the grain of the successful recipe the Penguins have stumbled upon en route to their back-to-back championship campaigns.

One of the major driving forces for this run they’re on has been the facelift they’ve undergone with Mike Sullivan behind the bench, adapting to the new realities of the modern game and playing to the strengths of their own personnel. At their best, the Penguins are able to play a mesmerizingly fast brand of hockey, coming at their opposition in relentless waves that have proven to be exceedingly difficult to recalibrate to and contain defensively.

They’ve been able to play that way in large part due to the exemplary job they’ve done of drafting and developing skilled forwards who can keep up with that frantic pace and contribute offensively regardless of their stature, and then loading up their lineup with them to complement the big name stars.

It’s difficult to see how exactly Reaves fits in with all of that, considering that as a player he’s essentially the antithesis of everything they represent and attempt to accomplish as a team. What’s interesting here is that aside from the occasional cameo by Tom Sestito, the Penguins haven’t really made a habit of using up a valuable lineup spot on a player of that ilk over the past two seasons and that’s certainly not a bad thing. If anything, the Penguins have ironically actually been at the forefront of the league-wide trend that’s seen fighting start to get phased out of the game.

Season Penguins Fighting Majors League Rank
2014-2015 33 5th
2015-2016 9 29th
2016-2017 12 29th

From the Blues perspective, the swap was ultimately a no-brainer regardless of how well-liked Reaves may have been by his teammates and the local fan base. Even if you’re understandably skeptical in the probability of prospects panning out into anything of note, in terms of possible future outcomes, the likelihood of one of the two young players they just acquired turning into a useful contributor far exceeds them regretting the day they traded away a 30-year old fringe fourth liner.

I would’ve ultimately given St. Louis its own section in the category of winners if it weren’t for the exorbitant price they also paid for what’s ostensibly a power-play specialist in Brayden Schenn on the very same day.