Mailbag: Lehner’s Vegas Future; Playoff opportunities for last place teams

Mailbag: Lehner’s Vegas Future; Playoff opportunities for last place teams

with Logan Thompson i Hill of Adin Having performed well so far, along with Thompson’s low salary cap hit over the next three seasons, does Vegas try to move Robin Lehner this offseason? — @GLaSnoST9

The answer is yes, but a couple of points about this one:

1. It’s too early to tell if the Thompson/Hill goaltending tandem is good enough to lead the Vegas Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup championship. It’s been strong so far with Thompson’s .934 save percentage and Hill’s .925 entering Tuesday, two big reasons why the Golden Knights are off to the best start in the NHL this season at 11-2 -0. But between them they have 94 career NHL starts, including 28 by Thompson. I need to see more, much more. And that’s what this season will offer, because Lehner won’t be back after having hip surgery in the offseason. Thompson and Hill will get a chance to show if they can handle it, which brings me to my second point…

2. Trading Lehner is absolutely something the Golden Knights will entertain, but with realistic expectations. After this season, he has two years remaining on a contract that carries an NHL salary cap hit of $5 million. And he’s coming off major hip surgery. To trade him, the Golden Knights may have to retain the salary or take on a salary in exchange. I don’t see how it can be a 100 percent settlement. But it’s a move the Golden Knights will look into, especially if Thompson and Hill prove themselves throughout the season.

3. Let’s not forget that Hill is in the final year of his contract and can become an unrestricted free agent after this season. If he plays well enough, he could be out of Las Vegas, and the Golden Knights will be looking for another goaltender, especially if they find a suitable trade for Lehner. If healthy, Lehner could be that other goaltender. I think Vegas would prefer not to have a $5 million backup, assuming Thompson, who is signed through the 2024-25 season at an average annual value of $766,667, proves his worth as a starter over the course of this season, but it is an option that is on the table.

Of the four teams currently in last place in their respective divisions (Ottawa, Columbus, San Jose and St. Louis), do you see one team (or more) turning around and making the playoffs? Any other teams near the bottom (Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Arizona, Montreal)? — @TrishTheMiddle

Let’s talk about the eight teams you brought up, starting with the top four, or in this case, the bottom four. I won’t have the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks making the playoffs, and maybe the St. Louis Blues and the Ottawa Senators.

My first thought is to say that the Blues will turn around after 3-7-0 and find their way, but I’ve been shown very little to say that will happen. I understand that they are supposed to be good, that they are supposed to be a difficult team to play against, that they are supposed to have a quality goalkeeper and a strong penalty kill. But this season they have had none of those things. It’s too early to say they can’t turn it around. They have played 11 games. Let’s see where they stand after they play their 20th game of the season on November 25th.

I still think the Senators will be fighting for a playoff spot throughout the month of March, but their struggles now don’t surprise me. Even with the additions of strikers Claude Giroux i Alex DeBrincatand porter Cam Talbot, now healthy, is still a young team that lacks deep defense. And losing the center Josh Norris a shoulder injury hurts. He is one of the first six players in the lineup until he is at least re-evaluated in January. The good news is that you don’t need surgery; the bad news is that it won’t be coming back anytime soon. It’s no wonder they’re allowing 3.45 goals per game, struggling on the penalty kill and in the bottom 10 in shots against per game. I thought this was going to be a team that had to overcome their defensive issues early in the season and that has been a struggle. But they will learn and grow. They should improve. But I didn’t think they were a playoff team to begin with, and I obviously don’t think so now with a 4-7-0 record.

Of the other four, I have to assume that at some point the Pittsburgh Penguins will start to turn and burn, but if they don’t clean up their defense it won’t happen. Mike Sullivan is arguably the best coach in the NHL, or at least in the top five, so I’ll still side with the Penguins (4-6-2) to find out. The Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens are not playoff teams, but they will be spoilers. They will ruin the season of at least one team that has legitimate playoff aspirations. There is no pressure on the Ducks, Coyotes and Canadiens to make the playoffs this season. Teams with zero pressure can be the most dangerous between March and early April.

Is the NHL becoming the NBA? Average goals per season has increased. If you want an NBA game, notice that it’s mostly about offense. Does this trend extend to the NHL? Active defenders who move with the puck are a mainstay in most lineups. Will this continue? — @theashcity

This is an interesting and astute observation. I can’t say the NHL is becoming the NBA, but I see the comparison and it holds. Scoring goes up in the NHL, just like in the NBA. The average goals per game in the NHL last season was 6.3, the most since 1995-96 (also 6.3). The NBA has exceeded 110 points per game per team in the past four seasons. It hasn’t been that way in the NBA since the mid-1980s, and before that the 1960s and early 1970s. I think the improvement of the three-point shot and the emphasis on making that shot is a big reason for the increased scoring in the NBA. There is no comparison for that in the NHL. But the NHL was averaging 6.42 goals per game in 195 games this season entering an 11-game stretch Tuesday. The NBA once again tops 112 points per game per team. In the NHL, eight players had at least 100 points last season, the most since 12 reached that mark in 1995-96. Toronto Maple Leafs Center Austin Matthews scored 60 goals, becoming the first American-born player to reach the mark and the first player to do so in a decade (Steven Stamkos, 2011-12). Four players scored at least 50 goals, the most in 16 years. Seventeen scored at least 40, the most in 26 years. I could go on, but you get the point. The NHL went on a scoring spree last season and I don’t see it stopping.

As Arizona Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong told me this week sitting with, teams are studying offense and finding new ways to score, using analytics as a guiding tool to create habits that lead to goals. I think the crop of young defensemen in the NHL is making a big difference, as are the players Cale Makar (Colored Devessall), Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks), Rasmus Dahlin i Owen Power (Buffalo Sabres), and others. But to me it’s more about all the skilled skaters that have come into the NHL in the last five years and the ones that will go on. They have all been developing their skill for years with skill coaches, skill camps and the like. And they are encouraged to show off their skill and try new things. The NHL was too rigid in the past. It’s not anymore. It’s not the NBA, where the individual shines above the team in my opinion, but individuals shine more in the NHL now, at least in my opinion. It won’t change because that’s what the young players know. They will grow and more will come in, more skills will be encouraged to come out.

You talked about technology last week, so here’s a technology-based question. When will the NHL use it to check if a goal is hit with a high stick or not? It’s black and white and easy to do. Lots of marginal calls in the first month. — @martmonk

The NHL reviews all goals to determine if they crossed the line in a legal manner. This includes goals scored with what could be a high post (the puck hit over the crossbar). Every goal is reviewed in the NHL’s situation room in Toronto. Goals scored with a potential high post are not part of the coaches’ challenge rule, so the review is initiated by the Situation Room.

If by technology you mean something that doesn’t exist in the NHL yet, like chips in the post to determine if it’s over the crossbar, that’s another problem. Using stick chips as an example would be difficult to do because of the various equipment companies that manufacture and produce sticks in the NHL. There are CCM, Bauer, Warrior and Easton to name a few of the biggest and most popular. You should develop the technology and get them all to use it on their poles. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I will tell you that there is a lot of red tape involved in doing it, and that’s before you have the technology available.

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