First off, there is no “next” Jonathan Marchessault or Nate Schmidt. The two Vegas Golden Knights players have become linchpins for the team’s success. Not to mention the case studies in teams undervaluing their own players. A more self-reflective hockey man will wonder what 40-goal scorer could be hiding on their AHL grassy knoll. A less-reflective one won’t care about 40 goals hiding inside a grassy knoll. Somewhere between the two is the smart GM focusing on the nuances.
Jim Nill is an intelligent GM. Self-awareness in this business goes a long way, and he’s shown it. Hopefully that self-awareness includes knowing that “nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”
Daniel Kahneman’s nutshell of the focusing illusion is a convenient hockey way of saying that Marchessault’s success was completely unpredictable (as it was with Karlsson), and worth only momentary reflection. But that doesn’t mean you can’t focus on buying low in the right places.
Dallas is a savvy cap team. Sure they could shell out plenty of cash for Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Paul Stastny, or John Carlson. But that’s not as fun as finding half-a-Nash at a quarter of the cost. So where should Dallas be looking for upgrades that won’t cost what their value is really worth?
Defense Wins With Blue Chips
Okay, I lied. Yes, Marchessault and Karlsson are complete anomalies. However, Schmidt is not. Schmidt is the collateral damage of what happens to any contending team. Once you’re winning with a certain core, it’s hard to take a chance on young players to step in. That’s especially true of a team’s blue line, where it’s harder for prospects to make an immediate impact. Schmidt was Washington’s blood sacrifice for keeping their blue line core intact (sort of, they’re actually a weird exception but never mind annoying details). The same was true of Nick Leddy in Chicago (and to a lesser extent, Stephen Johns). And Shea Theodore in Anaheim (who I advocated trading for before he became an expansion victim; I’d pat myself on the back but my other proposals probably didn’t age well).
The list goes on, and that’s what puts Dallas in a prime position to trade for a prospect. They’re going to get younger this season, and with a new string of coaches, they can afford to take a risk on youth.
Flyers GM Ron Hextall Won’t Get Fleeced, But One Can Try
The Philadelphia Flyers blue line is solidified with Ivan Provorov, Andrew MacDonald, Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Radko Gudas. That’s one spot left for a prospect on an already relatively young core for a contending team who may also have an eye on John Carlson, or Mike Green in free agency (they currently have $17 million in free cap space, with no significant UFAs to resign). That means someone is ripe for the taking, and Philadelphia has a lot of someones.
Travis Sanheim wouldn’t come cheap. The smooth skating 6’4”, 180-pound former first rounder played 49 games for the Flyers. Philadelphia’s coach Dave Hakstol couldn’t find room for him after a dramatic hiccup that led to a goal against, and subsequently reduced his playing time until he was sent down to the AHL. Sound familiar?
Certain analysts would have you believe that elite prospects should already be playing solidified minutes at 22 years old, that strong small sample sizes require “on the fly” context, and that sarcastically referring to coaches as “stupid” should remind the rest of us that we’re just keyboard plebes. Smarter analysts believe that better is always better.
Sanheim was nearly a point per game in 18 contests for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Per Natural Stat Trick, at the NHL level, he was second on the team in scoring chances against (first among all Flyers defensemen), and third in shot attempts for per hour. He’s doing exactly what you want from your puck-moving defenders. The 2018-2019 Dallas Stars team will likely have room for a young prospect to take over with Marc Methot having just one year left. Sanheim is a far better prospect than Gavin Bayreuther, and Dillon Heatherington. What would it take to have this as Dallas’ top six?
Esa Lindell — John Klingberg
Miro Heiskanen — Julius Honka
Travis Sanheim — Stephen Johns
Hopefully whatever Nill could afford — within, but just beyond, reason.*
Reading the AHL playoff report from our friends at Broad Street Hockey, the idea that Hakstol will suddenly trust Sanheim sounds like a bridge potentially too far. In addition, Philadelphia has two other prospects regarded in similar esteem: 6’5” Philippe Myers (another smooth skating blueliner who plays a more hybrid style), and 6’7” Samuel Morin (their prized first rounder from 2013). In my opinion, Myers would be the better get of the two. Though right-handed, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have four right-handed blueliners. There was a time (?) when Dallas had six lefties, after all. Unfortunately, Myers would likely cost more. Morin won’t be ready once the season starts due to a torn ACL, and Ron Hextall deliberately let Brandon Manning walk to make room for one of their prospects.
Speaking of potential, let’s talk about Calgary’s Rasmus Andersson. I’ll take a page out of Ian Tulloch’s book on this one and just let readers look at this graph. Andersson is too good for that league.
AHL players under the age of 22 with a relative goal share of eight percent and beyond since 2005 include Ryan Pulock, Brandon Montour, Matt Dumba, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Carlson, Tyson Barrie, and — you get the point. With TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic injured towards the end of the season, Andersson was able to get more than just chicken fingers in the nacho box. It’s hard to imagine the Calgary Flames finding room for him in the near future. He’s the perfect player to consider if Dallas has soured on Julius Honka or Stephen Johns. Although there’s no reason why they should, especially in Honka’s case, and especially when you consider their side-by-side comparisons. It’s worth noting that their tracking data is closer, with the caveat that Ken Hitchcock’s system has its fingerprints all over it and was something Josh Lile revealed was a teamwide phenomenon. Since Andersson has moves like this, Jim Nill can think of him like a high deductible: it might hurt short-term, but if it costs a better premium on the long run, it’s worth it.
Discount Schmidts and Honorable Mentions
Haydn Fleury’s possession stats for the Carolina Hurricanes do not look good. For a player who was drafted above William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers — and a franchise who is making even their most talented players available — the 6’3”, 200 pound defenseman is the kind of player who could probably be bought for magic beans. Would a change of scenery be what it takes to break out the young prospect on a team brimming with blue line prospects?
If there’s anybody you can trust to draft a good defenseman, it’s the Anaheim Ducks. At 21 years old, Jacob Larsson didn’t get the benefit of the doubt under Randy Carlyle, but the two-way Swedish blueliner put up a reasonable amount of helpers (13) in 50 games for the San Diego Gulls.
Winnipeg prospect Sami Niku is another intriguing left-handed defenseman. Just 21 years of age, the seventh round pick was fifth in AHL rookie scoring, with a higher points per game average than Josh Morrisey during his Moose run. He was also second in the entire league in primary points per games played. All in all (in all), not a bad player.
The Next March Assault
He’s not the next Marchessault. He’s the next Nic Petan (officially an RFA). And it’s absolutely mind boggling that he can’t win a spot on a Winnipeg Jets roster that could boast more blue chip offense in its forward core if it wanted.
Other than “why the heck did we pass on this guy for Remi Elie?” you might be asking yourself what’s so great about two goals in 15 games. Well, nothing obviously. However, maybe the real question is — how often do NHL coaches overcomplicate their rosters with balance over chemistry?
Petan is a playmaker. During his NHL stint, Paul Maurice stuck him with a rotating cast of fourth liners (Jack Roslovic being the exception; another player Dallas would be wise to ask about). Despite this, he was still fourth on the team in shots per hour, eighth in individual shot attempts per hour, and ninth in unblocked shot attempts. He was also a point-per-game player in the AHL, which is pretty darn impressive. I’m not in the #TradeSpezza camp, but if Dallas finds a trade partner for Jason Spezza (and interest in him is stronger than you’d think), Petan could be the perfect stylistic replacement.
Keeping it Feared (and Honorable Mentions)
Austin Czarnik is another undersized forward (and center) who was over a point per game in the AHL, with a better goals for percentage than Yanni Gourde. He’s also a UFA and he can also play right wing, which Dallas could desperately use. In addition to all this, he led the AHL in primary points on the power play with 24 (another skill Dallas could use given it’s lack of anything approaching efficiency on their second unit).
As our Pittsburgh friends were keen to break down, his comparison to Marchessault is not just dust in the wind. There are real analytics backing the hype, but don’t just check out those numbers. Check out those highlights.
He’s 5’9” and 160 pounds. He might not fit the “Dallas profile” of forwards they like, but if this organization isn’t doing some soul searching after the talent they’ve passed up in recent years for the sake of big body hockey, then they can postpone any plans for a Cup parade during this century.
Speaking of Austin, the Calder Cup Final has allowed Texas to look at whether or not their own backyard have some gems. When you sift through the numbers, it’s possible Dallas could poach talent from their own farm.
Here’s the thing though. When you’re looking for contributors, it’s always best to sift through the noise of special teams. You want to look at who gets it done in the 80 percent of each game (which is even strength). Of Texas’ top three performers in estimated goals per hour at even strength during the regular season, one is a UFA (Curtis McKenzie), one never even got a real chance (Jason Dickinson), and one has been healthy scratched and juggled down (never up) the lineup (Denis Gurianov, who was technically second and shares the spot with McKenzie in even strength estimated goals).
Sheldon Dries and Roope Hintz have been the hot names during Texas’ Calder Cup run. Many believe Hintz has already played his way onto the roster. Dries is somewhat of a dark horse pick. I don’t see it in Dries, personally. His goal-to-assist ratio is way too imbalanced. That’s usually not a big deal, but his shooting percentage was above average, and his point totals were too low to get excited about despite some worthwhile on-ice talent (think Brett Ritchie’s 2016-2017 “breakout” season). But Hintz looks like a can’t miss roster player (how high his ceiling is, however, remains to be seen).
Jim Nill has been willing to poach from the AHL opposition, as he did when he brought Stephen Johns in because of his play with Rockford. If he has his eye on the Toronto Marlies, then there’s no way he hasn’t come away impressed by left winger Carl Grundstrom (10 points in 14 playoff games as a 20-year-old as of this writing) and left-handed defenseman Travis Dermott. Neither would come cheap (especially Dermott, who is a functional Maple Leaf at this point, and someone Kyle Dubas personally scouted). Nor does the newly minted Toronto GM project to be the type who would undervalue them. Still, it can’t hurt to ask. Just because Kyle Dubas has read Thinking, Fast and Slow like every other moneyball geek doesn’t mean he’s immune to the very biases Kahneman writes about (at least that’s what I tell my fantasy GM self).
Always Be Closing
I doubt you made it this far, but if you did, you’re probably saying “but these are all just unknowns. I want big veteran names who can play now. What’s the point in trading a maybe for another maybe while Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg are in their primes?”
Better is always better. Philippe Myers is a better prospect than Reese Scarlett. Carl Grundstrom is a better prospect than Curtis McKenzie. Travis Sanheim is a better prospect than Gavin Bayreuther. Austin Czarnik is a better prospect than Justin Dowling. How much better? We don’t know. But the better the prospect, the better their prospects.
I bring this up in the context of Dallas because their lack of development will create another season in which the Stars will still go into the upcoming season looking for secondary scoring — and potentially more certainty on the blue line — elsewhere instead of their own backyard. You can only fire and miss on free agency so many times, to say nothing of their shelf life. Eventually your drafts need to bail you out, and there’s no guarantee that their current crop can excel at the level they need to in the NHL. If you can’t upgrade from within, upgrade from outside.
Dallas is giving their professional team the shake-up it needs with some very savvy coaching hires. Now it’s time for that shake-up to trickle down to the lower levels. Dallas will need their veterans and prospects contributing alike. This offseason should be a call to action at every level. Luckily, it’s never too late to fleece a hockey GM. Or learn from your mistakes.
*Please don’t @ me intelligent, discerning Philly fans. But if Hextall said yes to Marc Methot, Roope Hintz, and Brett Ritchie for Sanheim and Petr Mrazek (who is leaving anyway), I’d do it. (I feel like the fact that this stings for Dallas means it’s not a terrible offer, but I can’t imagine Philly fans agreeing.)