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Panthers trade for Hoffman is a bit of a gamble

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Deal is a win for Cats, but off-ice controversy and on-ice decline leave reason to be cautiously optimistic.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Dale Tallon is certainly one of the more interesting hockey minds currently working for an NHL team. The work he’s done rebuilding the Panthers franchise is nothing short of commendable; when he took over back in 2010, the team had missed the playoffs in nine straight seasons and had just finished in 28th place with a 32-37-13 record. The prospect cupboard was relatively bare, and the best players on the roster were Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton.

Under Tallon, the Panthers have built themselves into a competitive team, one that made the playoffs in two of the past seven seasons and missed out on the postseason by just one point last year. The team’s young core almost exclusively consists of players Dale Tallon drafted (Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, and Nick Bjugstad), and the future of the franchise is bright.

Still, he’s made two of the biggest managerial blunders of the past decade or so. Signing Dave Bolland to a 5-year, $5.5 million dollar AAV contract was hilariously misguided (to the point where anyone with access to the internet could have pointed out that it was a bad idea!), and losing both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith at the expansion draft (while only getting a fourth-round pick in return) made no sense at the time, and now only looks worse in hindsight.

Given Tallon’s history, I was a bit concerned when I glanced at my phone last week and saw a text message from my brother simply stating, “How about them Cats?“. After looking up the reason for my brother’s text message, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dale Tallon actually made a good trade, acquiring Mike Hoffman and a seventh-round pick from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2019 second-round selection and two 2018 draft picks (fourth and fifth round).

On the surface, this trade is clearly a win for the Panthers. WIthout giving up a first-round pick or a player from their current roster, they added a 28-year-old forward who has topped 20+ goals and 30+ assists in the past three seasons while on a $5.19 million dollar AAV contract that lasts until the end of the 2019-2020 season.

There are some factors at work under the surface, though, mainly the harassment and stalking allegations against Hoffman’s fiancée. From the Ottawa Citizen’s article:

Melinda Karlsson, née Currey, has filed an application for an order of protection against the longtime girlfriend of Senators forward Mike Hoffman — alleging a campaign of harassment that plagued the Karlssons after the death of their son and through much of the last NHL season.

”Monika Caryk has uttered numerous statements wishing my unborn child dead,” says Melinda Karlsson’s sworn statement to the court.

Erik Karlsson, too, was allegedly targeted.

”She also uttered that she wished I was dead and that someone should ‘take out’ my husband’s legs to ‘end his career.’

In an Instagram post following his son’s death, Erik Karlsson posted a photo of Axel’s tiny footprints. In the post, Karlsson thanked the city and the team’s fans for their love and support and wrote: “We feel very lucky to be Axel’s parents. Even though he was stillborn, we know we will hold him again one day under different circumstances and the joy he gave us will be with us forever.”

The post garnered more than 10,000 comments, with the overwhelming majority of them expressions of support and sympathy for the couple. However, one comment, posted by user @sandydandy45, stood out: “I feel bad for the baby he didn’t have a chance with Melinda popping pain killer medication everyday.”

These allegations aren’t something to be taken lightly and Twitter posts by the spouses of former teammates indicate that they believe Caryk did indeed harass Melinda Karlsson, though Caryk and Hoffman deny the allegations.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and the Panthers clearly believe that they have a locker room culture (between both the players and the wives/girlfriends of players) that is capable of handling whatever situations may arise due to Hoffman or his fiancée’s actions.

The potential off-ice issues with Hoffman aren’t the only concern surrounding the former Saint John Sea Dog. His on-ice play certainly slipped last season, with a bump in power play production masking a decline in 5v5 scoring. Here’s a look at Hoffman’s performance in 5v5 point production over the course of his career.

His rookie season (and 1.41 rate of goals per hour) was mostly fueled by a 14.1 percent shooting percentage at 5v5, so some decline in his second and third seasons isn’t too much of a concern - Hoffman was still scoring goals at a rate expected of a top-six forward (48th in the league among players with a minimum of 250 minutes played in 2015-2016 and 104th in 2016-2017).

A look at his shot-rate metrics doesn’t exactly paint a better picture.

Hoffman’s on-ice expected goals numbers have dropped significantly in the past two seasons, and he posted the worst season of his career in 2017-2018. Though there was a slight uptick in the number of shots Hoffman took per hour, there was also a decrease in shot quality. His individual rate of expected goals per hour has dropped over the course of his career, to a low of 0.52 last season.

Hoffman has covered up the decline in 5v5 scoring with an increase in his power play production. The consistent power play time Hoffman saw the past two seasons led to a rate of 3.84 primary points per hour, which ranked 57th in the league over that time span. If Hoffman were on the Panthers, he would have led the team in power play production. Jonathan Huberdeau is close at 3.75, but the next closest Panther is Vincent Trocheck at 3.24, which is 121st in the league.

Digging a little deeper, there’s also a clear reason for the decline in Hoffman’s 5v5 production over the last two seasons. Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 neutral zone trap isn’t exactly the ideal system for a goal-scorer to play in, and the whole team was less offensively-minded than the rest of the league. From 2016-2018, the Senators ranked 22nd in the NHL, averaging just 2.17 goals per hour at 5v5. In the two years prior, the Senators averaged 2.31 5v5 goals per hour, good for 10th in the league.

With that in mind, Hoffman’s 5v5 stats look a little less discouraging. Playing in Dave Cameron’s system (which didn’t involve a strict neutral zone trap), Hoffman ranked 7th in the entire league in 5v5 primary points per hour (among skaters with 500 minutes played between the two seasons). His teammates averaged around 1.7 percent better in shot and expected goals metrics when playing with him. He drove offensive chances while on the ice and utilized one of the league’s better wrist shots to convert on those chances, driving point production for his line.

The past two seasons, Hoffman hasn’t been great at 5v5. He’s still been a decent goal scorer, but his goal-scoring rates have been in decline and a drop in his shot metrics certainly should be cause for some (mild) concern. Given the off-ice controversy and decline in on-ice performance the past two seasons, there’s evidence that we should at least temper our expectations for Hoffman, and hope that a change of scenery helps reinvigorate the 28-year-old.

Getting away from Guy Boucher’s system and the tension in the locker room this past season might help Hoffman re-gain some of his 5v5 scoring touch. Playing alongside any combination of Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov, and Nick Bjugstad should also help Hoffman. He’s shown that he has the skills needed to succeed as a top-six forward, and his presence in the lineup should provide a boost to one of the league’s weaker power plays.

At the end of the day, this trade made the Panthers better. Depending on how Hoffman performs, and how much of a positive impact a change in coaching system can have on his play, there’s a chance the trade made the team significantly better, without giving up a lot of assets. Hoffman’s contract expires in 2020, so if he doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans, they can let him go in free agency and open up a spot in the top-six for Owen Tippet, Henrik Borgstrom, or any other prospect they may have in the pipeline. Dale Tallon has (rightfully) caught a lot of heat for some of the decisions he made last season. The 2018-2019 season is off to a better start.