Dear Abbey: NHL Community Asks Our Writer About the Playoffs, Kraken and More

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 24, 2021

Dear Abbey: NHL Community Asks Our Writer About the Playoffs, Kraken and More

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Welcome to the Bleacher Report NHL mailbag! It's the first of what I hope will be many.

    The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing, and there is a ton of hockey action yet to come this summer via the NHL Entry Draft and the expansion draft. It's an exciting time in the NHL, and we received a ton of questions on a wide array of topics.

    There is no shortage of opinions on the B/R app, so let's get to it and talk about the playoffs, the Seattle Kraken and rebuilds.

    Dear Abby gave advice, but this Abbey gives you hockey.

Is It Time for the Philadelphia Flyers to Rebuild?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Should the Flyers blow up their team up? Should they trade coots, giroux, and Jake? (@tony1688)

    Not yet. But maybe soon.

    The Philadelphia Flyers took quite a tumble to the bottom of the standings this season. Few could have predicted this after how the team performed in 2019-20. After struggling to get consistent goaltending since Ron Hextall was in net more than two decades ago, it looked like the Flyers had finally found their franchise goalie in Carter Hart.

    But Hart fell far short of the Vezina Trophy expectations this season. The 22-year-old went 9-11 with an .877 save percentage. The Flyers had the worst save percentage in the league (.883), and no team can win with that kind of goaltending, though it's not like Hart, Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon were getting much help from the defensemen.

    However, Hart seemed to struggle with the effects of the pandemic in the same way many others did. He recently opened up about what a challenging season it was for him, saying he felt lonely and isolated at times because of the COVID-19-related restrictions.

    "You kind of go home, and you're just in your own thoughts the whole time because you just sit and sit in your apartment alone," he said in his end-of-season Zoom press conference. "But things were a lot better at the end. I was feeling a lot happier and hanging out with the boys more, and I think that that was kind of a big part of my (improved) play toward the end."

    The Flyers had a big COVID-19 shutdown in February. There was little practice time and constant change in the lineups. General manager Chuck Fletcher gave his coach, Alain Vigneault, and the team some leeway because of pandemic-related circumstances beyond everyone's control. Vigneault said he needs a "normal season."

    However, looking at their contracts, the club is a bit cap-crunched, which doesn't leave much room to make offseason improvements. James van Riemsdyk and his $7 million cap hit might be exposed in the expansion draft. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere continues to be the subject of trade rumors. But Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier are signed through next season. Giroux, the captain, has a no-movement clause, but he does not have a no-trade clause.

    If the Flyers are a disaster out of the gate next season, then they should pull the plug, trade those two and maybe even more to be able to load up on picks for what is expected to be a couple of deep draft classes. They could end up with Shane Wright in 2022 or Connor Bedard in 2023.

    But for now, they deserve that chance to have a "normal season."

Is the Window Still Open for the Washington Capitals?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Assuming the Caps don't come back in the series or win the Cup this year, how much longer is their championship window? (@glmjr21)

    The Washington Capitals might be in win-now mode for another few years.

    They have significant money tied up in their top-tier forwards, with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie all locked up through 2024-25. Anthony Mantha and Tom Wilson are signed through 2023-24, and defenseman John Carlson will be in Washington through 2025-26. The club has two young goalies, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, who are still relatively cheap at this point in their careers (although Vanecek will likely be left exposed in the expansion draft).

    However, they have exactly $0 of salary cap space, and Alex Ovechkin is a pending unrestricted free agent. There are no large salaries coming off the books next season, and they have some RFAs in need of pay raises. We don't yet know what the salary cap will be next season, but it's expected to be $81.5 million for the third straight season. Much of the cap comes from the revenue created by fans in the stands, and we didn't have many of those this season.

    Ovechkin might be 35, but he appears to still be in his prime and is chasing Wayne Gretzky's all-time goals record. He's negotiating his own contract without an agent, as he did the first time around, but it doesn't sound like any sort of negotiation with general manager Brian MacLellan took place during the regular season.

    It may take some creativity to get Ovechkin signed, but as long as he's around and as long as the other heavy-hitters are too, the Capitals will be trying to keep that championship window open.

The Top of the 2021 Class

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Who goes first overall in the Draft? (@AleCimini)

    There is no easy answer to this question. If you thought last year's virtual draft was weird, this one is going to be even stranger.

    There was no easy way to scout draft-eligible players this year. The number of games each player played was different, and many had to join teams in Europe. The Canadian Hockey League had no uniformity in its leagues. The Western Hockey League staged a portion of its season before shutting it down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Hockey League canceled its season all together and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) played a full slate.

    In the United States, the USHL and the US National Team Development Program completed a season, but one of the top Americans in the 2021 draft class, defenseman Luke Hughes, was lost to injury in March, undergoing surgery for a lacerated tendon in his foot.

    Kids from the OHL went to Europe, but many of the European scouts employed by teams were sent home during the pandemic and can't get back over there because of various border closures and restrictions. Team scouts were left with grainy video footage of 17-year-olds in Slovakia or Slovenia, which leaves a lot to be desired. They couldn't see how they played off the puck, their demeanors on the bench or their practice habits.

    The recent IIHF U18 World Championship provided scouts an opportunity to see many of the kids in this upcoming class, with the exception of QMJHL players, and many came away somewhat underwhelmed. The stars of the tournament were Wright (Canada), Bedard (Canada) and Matvei Michkov (Russia), but all three of those players are underage.

    Is Canada's Brandt Clarke the best defenseman in the draft? Maybe, but it's tough to determine without Hughes playing in the tournament. Did American forward Sasha Pastujov do enough to warrant a first-round pick? Again, maybe. Did Canadian forward Logan Stankoven show that his 5'8” stature won't limit him? It's possible.

    But here's who I think goes first: Michigan's Owen Power.

    A rare draft-eligible player to spend the season playing college hockey, the Tower of Power is a 6'5" defenseman who was too old to play in the U18 tournament and didn't want to play in the U20 bubble, so the Mississaugua native is playing for the Canadian senior team in the IIHF World Championship in Latvia.

    This is his last and best chance to impress scouts, but here's what they already like about him: He's a great skater who moves well with deceptive quickness for a player his size, he has good offensive awareness, strong passing abilities and his defensive acumen and gap control are advanced for a player his age. Defense is typically the last part of a prospect's game to come along, but Power's instincts are already developed.

    There are questions about Power that remain, like why he relies on a half-developed slap shot instead of a strong wrister, but there are fewer questions with Power than with others.

'The Code'

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    When will the game lose the toxic retribution culture on display after Tavares was accidentally injured? Foligno fighting Perry was uncalled for. Perry could've taken it and not participated putting the Leafs at further disadvantage. (@Twillvin)

    I completely agree with your assessment of that pointless fight between Nick Foligno and Corey Perry in Game 1 of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens game on Thursday night.

    What happened to Toronto captain John Tavares was an accident. It was a sequence of events that Perry said made him "sick to his stomach." He attempted to pick up his leg to avoid a collision with Tavares and couldn't do it in time, and his knee clipped Tavares' head. The center was taken to the hospital and later released, but the damage was done in the minds of an old-school player like Foligno.

    Foligno, knowing the young players on the Leafs were likely shaken up by seeing their captain laying on the ice, thought he could jolt them back to reality and get them fired up if he fought the accidental offender.

    Perry looked like he didn't want to take it, but he's spent much of his career agreeing to bouts like that as one of the league's most notorious pests. He's also crossed the line from pest to downright dirty. His high hit on Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis in the 2020 Winter Classic (and his ensuing walk of shame down an extremely long Cotton Bowl ramp after his ejection) comes to mind as one of those instances. So Perry knows teams want to make him pay for his antics.

    Even though this was much different than squirting water into an opponent's glove, stealing a stick or laying out an opponent with a hit along the boards, these were two old-school players abiding by The Code that has existed for years. Foligno will be 34 later this year, and Perry just turned 36. This is how they have always settled these things, and they learned from the players that came before them.

    It's difficult for me to envision a game completely devoid of fights. It puts fans in the seats. But give it another decade, and the game will have a different relationship with retaliatory fights.

    Unwritten rules have been around for decades, but that doesn't mean they're here to stay. Don't tell Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, but as players, managers and coaches start to age out of baseball and hockey, these rules will gradually be erased. We are already seeing coaches who choose not to retaliate in certain situations and stiffer penalties for fighting in junior leagues.

    Hockey has a complicated history with fighting, and there are younger players and younger coaches who don't think it should be utilized in this manner.

How to Officiate the Officials

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    What is the best way the NHL can fix the inconsistencies in officiating and supplemental discipline? (@SantaClaude28)

    Let's address both of the officiating problems the NHL is facing: on-ice and player safety.

    The first step to fixing any problem is admitting there is a problem. The NHL tends to be a myopic league and the fact that commissioner Gary Bettman and the league fined the New York Rangers for speaking out against the Department of Player Safety and the former player who runs the department, George Parros, shows the league is not ready to admit there is a problem.

    The entire Rangers debacle was a mess of the league's own creation. The league declined to suspend Washington Capitals winger and repeat offender Tom Wilson for an altercation that resulted in Wilson wrestling star winger Artemi Panarin to the ice without his helmet. Wilson himself said he felt that incident was nothing but a "hockey scrum."

    Even if that's the case, there needs to be some clearer language on what constitutes a simple "hockey scrum." When wrestling matches like that become dangerous, then action needs to be taken in order to prevent players like Wilson and Nazem Kadri from doing those things again.

    The biggest danger is head hits, and the NHL needs to draw a clear line by saying anything that involves the head—be it hits to the head and neck area or moves to clearly injure the head and neck in a wrestling match—will not be tolerated. There will always be incidental contact to the head; it doesn't matter whether a player had the puck or was involved in a scrum, if the intent to injure is there, then players need to be taken out of the game.

    Parros is a former goon who never served a suspension. He was smart enough to know the rules and how to get around them. Wilson has clearly learned the same. There could be an argument made for not having a former enforcer at the helm of the department. A former player, coach or executive with more experience in dealing with head injuries might be a better choice.

    But ultimately, it's not on Parros to make the rules; it's on him to enforce them (no pun intended). Rule changes must be approved the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee before going to the Board of Governors for approval. So make the rules clear: Head hits and injuries of any kind result in automatic suspensions for the perpetrators.

Fixing the Officiating, Part 2

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    When it comes to some of the on-ice inconsistencies, the incident with Tim Peel exposed the biggest problem: game management. Makeup calls and selective calls are unfair.

    But these officials are human, so they are going to miss calls. The game has sped up to a level that they can't always keep up or get out of the way, which makes it difficult for them to call games by the book, and you end up with makeup calls. The league has allowed this, maybe even encouraged it. Why? Probably because this is not a governing body that has a particularly high amount of self-awareness.

    Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour has advocated for an extra official to be up in the stands to be able to review calls and spot missed infractions instantly.

    Brind'Amour has never been shy about criticizing the officiating. Last year in the playoff bubble, he went so far as to say the league is "a joke" because of the inconsistent officiating. He was fined $25,000 and the team tweeted out owner Tom Dundon's signature on the check, keeping with the theme of chirping the league.

    The Hurricanes coach's idea seems like it would help officials be able to officiate by the book. But again, getting back to my main point, nothing will be fixed until the NHL acknowledges that things need to be fixed. Don't hold your breath on that one.

It's Almost Time to Release the Kraken!

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Is there a chance Seattle goes the Vegas route and gets a bunch of picks and prospect(s) to not select certain players from teams? I feel like GMs may have learned from the Vegas situation. (@A1cMcG)

    The Vegas Golden Knights are a fascinating case study in how to build a team from the ground up. There is a clear blueprint in place for the Kraken, and if they hire Gerard Gallant as the head coach, then that could be an indicator that Seattle will try to replicate some of the Golden Knights' success.

    In order to sustain success in the salary-cap era, teams need to capitalize on their young talent. Carrying players on their entry-level contracts allows clubs to be able to pay their stars.

    The length of these contracts is dependent on age, but they can be no longer than three years, so development becomes crucial. The Kraken are likely looking at players they can acquire now who will help them in the next five years or even longer.

    So, yes, I do think they will stockpile some picks and some young prospects. However, the club is required to commit $48.9 million on its 30 expansion draft picks for next season. This is where players like James van Riemsdyk could be targeted. The 32-year-old is still good for about 20 goals each season and his salary-cap hit of $7 million will help them meet the minimum.

    General manager Ron Francis will be able to do a certain amount of back-channel negotiating, as all general managers do, but the Kraken will have to take some veterans.

    Do they take P.K. Subban's cap hit off the hands of the New Jersey Devils with a promise not to touch an emerging young forward? Subban doesn't have a ton of value but he's marketable. Jeff Carter is having a resurgent campaign with the Pittsburgh Penguins—could he be the key veteran for Seattle?

    I think they will throw a few curveballs, and here's why. I had an opportunity to talk to a few members of the organization in April, and it was clear to me that the club thinks it's important to forge its own identity. They have a mix of hockey lifers and some newcomers in their front office under Francis. Seattle intends to build one of the most diverse front organizations in professional sports, and they think this is possible because they're starting with nothing.

    They don't have to wait for someone to move on or retire to be able to make a bold, outside-the-box hire. They aren't entrenched in a certain way of thinking or drafting because the club hasn't drafted anyone yet. They get to build their own culture and set their own standards.

    We don't know much about what the Kraken will look like yet, but the one thing I do know is that the club is determined to do things its own way.