Three Periods: Voracek's sleek start; Fleury risk & reward; NHL notes

Three Periods: Voracek's sleek start; Fleury risk & reward; NHL notes

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Jakub Voracek’s hot start; Marc-Andre Fleury’s contract extension; and notes on Vladimir Tarasenko, the Washington Capitals, the Colorado Avalanche and the quotable Dallas Eakins.

FIRST PERIOD: Voracek loses pounds, adds points for Flyers

Jakub Voracek is not getting carried away, and neither should we. The Philadelphia Flyers winger ranked second in the NHL in scoring entering Thursday night, one point behind Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the reigning MVP. But it’s November. Early November.

“I wouldn’t get too confident,” Voracek said. “It’s only the beginning, and we can talk about 55 games in.”

Voracek is lighter, faster and playing better than ever for the Flyers. (USA Today)
Voracek is lighter, faster and playing better than ever for the Flyers. (USA Today)

Yet this hot start highlights a player who has been good – and is capable of getting better. Voracek has 18 points in 12 games. When we talk about 55 games in, at least we should be talking about an impact player who is on pace for career highs.

Voracek is so talented that the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted him seventh overall in 2007, and the Flyers acquired him in a package for Jeff Carter in 2011. He put up 22 goals and 46 points in the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2012-13 season, which projects to 37 goals and 78 points over a full 82-game schedule. He put up 23 goals and 62 points last season, career highs by the numbers, but drop-offs in relative terms.

Coach Craig Berube suggested he lose weight. Voracek trained hard, cut carbs and shed about 10 pounds from his 6-foot-2 frame (he’s listed at 214 pounds.) He showed up to training camp in excellent shape. Chairman Ed Snider took note and told reporters Sept. 14 he had “the ability to become a superstar.”

“He’s faster, and he’s got more gas from start to finish,” said general manager Ron Hextall. “It’s made a huge difference for him.”

More important, Voracek said, is that he’s another year older, another year more experienced and in a position to succeed. He’s 25 now. He’s in his seventh NHL season already. He’s skating with center Claude Giroux, who finished third in the scoring race and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Giroux said. “With that kind of confidence and skill, it’s dangerous.”

The Flyers say Voracek has improved defensively and that has helped generate offense, and the numbers say he has been a good possession player. He leads the Flyers in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage at 52.8, which means the Flyers have had 52.8 percent of the shot attempts when he has been on the ice at 5-on-5. Giroux and usual linemate Michael Raffl, now injured, are both right behind at 52.6.

Add it all up, and it has added up to points. Voracek entered Thursday night tied for the NHL lead in assists with 13.

“He knew he could be a special player if he put everything together, and he’s starting to do that,” said Flyers goaltender Steve Mason, who also played with Voracek in Columbus. “When he’s going, he can take over a hockey game. He’s getting rewarded with the points right now, and from our standpoint, we just hope he keeps it going.”

SECOND PERIOD: Lots of risk in Fleury extension, but maybe some reward

Jim Rutherford took over the Pittsburgh Penguins in June. From the start, the former NHL goaltender and veteran GM supported goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and Wednesday he signed Fleury to a four-year, $23 million contract extension with limited trade protection. Fleury has a no-move clause, meaning he cannot be buried in the minors. He can submit a list of about a dozen teams to which he cannot be traded.

Fleury is a polarizing player, and this is a polarizing deal. It has elicited lots of loud opinions for and against. My opinion: The contract is reasonable relative to other goaltenders’ deals, but a lot of goaltenders are overvalued. And what was the rush? Why not at least wait and see how Fleury fared throughout the regular season and playoffs before committing to him?

After internal debates, Pittsburgh decided to stick with Marc-Andre Fleury as its No. 1 for the foreseeable future. (USA Today)
After internal debates, Pittsburgh decided to stick with Marc-Andre Fleury as its No. 1 for the foreseeable future. (USA Today)

Just know the Penguins were well aware of all the arguments and risks, and they had healthy, internal debates themselves. Some key points:

— Look at the percentage of the salary cap. When Fleury began his current deal in 2008-09, his $5 million hit was 8.8 percent of the $56.7 million cap. His $5 million hit is 7.2 percent of the $69 million cap this season. His $5.75 million hit would be 8.3 percent of the cap next season if the cap stays the same, and the cap is expected to keep rising. His $5.75 million hit would be 7.9 percent of a $72 million cap, or 7.1 percent of an $80 million cap, and so on. In that context, he gets a raise, but he isn’t making as much as he did at the start of his last contract and could end up making less than he does now.

— Look at this comparable: Fleury will turn 30 on Nov. 28. The Dallas Stars’ Kari Lehtonen will turn 31 on Nov. 16. Lehtonen is in the first year of a five-year deal with a cap hit of $5.9 million. So the Pens are paying Fleury less than Lehtonen over the same term, and he’s one year younger. Fleury’s career save percentage is .911. Lehtonen’s is .915. (Lehtonen doesn’t have much playoff history to judge, but what history he does have is unimpressive – an .874 save percentage over eight games. Fleury, for all his poor playoffs, has had good ones, too.) In that context, this is a decent deal.

— The Penguins felt if they waited until after the playoffs to sign Fleury, they would have ended up paying more. Remember that the Vancouver Canucks gave a 34-year-old Ryan Miller a three-year deal with a cap hit of $6 million last summer after he didn’t come through in the playoffs for the St. Louis Blues. Next summer’s free-agent market looks thin, and it’s all supply and demand. Fleury’s price might go up.

— If not Fleury, who? How much would Antti Niemi cost if he hit the UFA market? Karri Ramo? Michal Neuvirth? Cam Talbot? Jonas Gustavsson? How much would another goalie cost in the trade market – in both dollars and assets? Replacing Fleury might have been easier said than done.

Look, the Penguins might have been better off letting Fleury walk. They could have found someone to give them .911 goaltending for less than $5.75 million and opened cap space to add more depth. There is a risk that Fleury will struggle in the playoffs again and the Pens will be stuck, unable to move him. It was only 2013 when Fleury posted his fourth straight sub-.900 save percentage in the playoffs and lost his job to Tomas Vokoun.

But there could be reward here. Fleury is ultra-talented. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft for a reason. He works hard and is in great shape. He’s popular with his teammates, close to Crosby. He made strides last season working with a sports psychologist and a new goalie coach, Mike Bales, who tweaked his technique, toned down his aggressiveness and gave him a base to which to return in tough times. He’s off to a good start this season with a .931 save percentage and a league-leading three shutouts, and now he doesn’t have to worry about his contract anymore. It is possible he could improve – or at least get hot – and go on another Cup run.

Chris Osgood won a Cup early in his career, like Fleury. He racked up wins despite ho-hum save percentages by playing on a great team, like Fleury. He lost his job with the Detroit Red Wings, but he came back later in his career and put up his best numbers ever – a .930 save percentage in the 2008 playoffs, winning the Cup, and a .926 save percentage in the 2009 playoffs, losing the Cup final. The goalie he faced in the final those two years, of course, was Marc-Andre Fleury.

THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL

The Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko is scoring in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of situations. (AP)
The Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko is scoring in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of situations. (AP)

— Vladimir Tarasenko is tearing it up, entering Thursday night with seven goals and nine points in his past five games for the St. Louis Blues. What’s so impressive is how he can beat you so many ways. Oct. 28 against Dallas: He wires a wrist shot; holds off an opponent, cuts to the middle and scores; then one-times a rocket on the power play for the OT winner. Nov. 1 against the Colorado Avalanche: He pings a slapshot off a post and in, then deflects another shot for another goal. Monday night against the New York Rangers: He weaves through four opponents and scores with the Peter Forsberg move, then wins it in the shootout with a quick fake and shot. Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils: He holds the puck on the power play, cuts into the right circle and snaps one.

— The Washington Capitals will be OK. They have lost five straight under new coach Barry Trotz, including an overtime loss, but their underlying numbers suggest they are possessing the puck and suffering bad luck. The Caps entered Thursday night fifth in 5-on-5 Fenwick close at 54.9 percent, meaning they had taken 54.9 percent of the unblocked shot attempts at 5-on-5 when the game is close (tied or within a goal in the first and second periods or tied in the third period). They were 22nd in PDO, or combined save and shooting percentages, in the same situation at 98.4.

— The analytics community expected the Avs to regress this season, and they sure have so far. The Avs were a poor possession team last season when they went 52-22-8. They ranked 27th in 5-on-5 Fenwick close at 46.8. They have been a poor possession team this season while starting 3-6-5. They entered Thursday night ranked 28th in 5-on-5 Fenwick close at 43.6. The difference is almost purely PDO. They were third 5-on-5 at 101.8 last season; they were 22nd at 98.9 this season entering Thursday night. The question is whether that will make the Avs rethink their philosophy on shot quality – taking good shots in the offensive zone, allowing outside shots in the defensive zone. Coach Patrick Roy said in a radio interview Thursday the Avs would play more zone on defense and less man-to-man.

— Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins, on teaching players to be competitive: “That’s probably the most difficult job there is as a coach. People are wired a certain way. They have certain DNA. And when it comes to that, there are different ways to go about it. The one thing you don’t want to get caught in is, every 10 days you have to try and jump-start a guy. If you are jump-starting your car every 10 days, you are probably getting rid of it.”

— Ads are reportedly coming to NHL sweaters. Just think of the possibilities: Buffalo Wild Wings can advertise on four different sweaters – Buffalo’s, the Wild’s, the Wings’ and (Anaheim mascot) Wild Wing’s!