If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.
They really could not have played it any closer.
They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.
For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.
The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.
On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.
Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.
Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.
On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).
They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.
The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.
In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.
What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.
The Jets did none of that.
Literally, they did none of it.
They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.
Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.
Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.
You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.
The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.
There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.
How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.
The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.
They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.
You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.
Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perrault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.
Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.
Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.
- Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
- Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
- Hendricks, Perrault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perrault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
- The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.
So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.
This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.
Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.
They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.
They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.
Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.
Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.
The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.
They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.
When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.
Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.
But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.
A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.
If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.
Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.
Hockey really is funny sometimes.
Late in the regular season, two strong teams seemingly got better when the Boston Bruins lured Ryan Donato from Harvard while Eeli Tolvanen came over from the KHL to join the Nashville Predators.
Fans of both teams waited with baited breath to see them join their squads, yet right now, it seems like they’re struggling to gain traction during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s take a look at each situation.
Donato lost in the shuffle
The Boston Bruins have seen their 3-1 first-round series lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie against the Toronto Maple Leafs. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes frustration for the dominant top line of David Pastrnak – Patrice Bergeron – Brad Marchand and is calling for more production from Rick Nash.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s done plenty of “tinkering” lately, yet if the most recent lines are any indication, Donato is still losing that game of musical chairs.
Whether it’s Tommy Wingels or Danton Heinen, the Bruins have mixed different forwards in, but Donato’s been absent most of the time, even when Bergeron was a surprise scratch. At this point, it’s fair to be confused, especially when you consider that Boston has enjoyed so much success by handing young players the car keys rather than distrusting them like many other teams do. It’s quite baffling for a Bruins team that currently looks a bit too dependent upon a few players to beat red-hot Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.
Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones discussed the merits of choosing Donato over the likes of Wingels:
Through six games in this series, the Bruins dressed Donato once: in Game 2. He didn’t get much of a chance, receiving just 9:24 of ice time.
Now, it’s fine that they did as much there, as the Bruins dominated their way to a 7-3 win. Still, it doesn’t exactly give Donato much of an opportunity to prove himself, either.
The 22-year-old’s generally been running with his real opportunities so far in the NHL, too. Donato did so most dramatically in his NHL debut on March 19, scoring a goal and two assists against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a heck of a statement for someone who was still worrying about grades.
His NHL career amounts to a small sample right now, but Donato made a compelling argument that he could help the Bruins with supplemental scoring. Through 12 regular-season games, Donato collected five goals and four assists for nine points. He never went more than two contests without generating a goal or an assist.
While Donato received the cushy zone starts you’d expect from a fresh face, he did his part by generating nice possession stats.
Sure, the jury’s out on whether he can be a consistent point producer at the NHL level … but it’s also bewildering that the Bruins wouldn’t look to him for a possible scoring boost.
If nothing else, Donato could make sense in a role as an offensive specialist, ideally adding some creativity to a power play that needs it. After scoring five power-play goals through the first two games in this series, the Bruins have only connected once in the past four contests, going 1-for-9. Some of that might be a matter of referees rarely reaching for their whistles (they only received three power-play opportunities in the series’ three games in Toronto, really emphasizing home-ice advantage?), but Donato could give them as shot in the arm.
Not doing so could lead to a lot of soul-searching if the Bruins fall in Game 7. Even if they advance, they really need to think long and hard about giving Donato more reps.
Tolvanen not yet fitting in
The Donato situation in Boston is more confounding because he’s shown that he can produce at the NHL level, and he’s also been thrust into prominent scenarios thanks to the Bruins’ wave of injuries.
Despite riding a wave of hype to North America, Eeli Tolvanen remains stuck in a holding pattern with the Nashville Predators.
Tolvanen failed to crack the Predators’ lineup during their six-game series against the Colorado Avalanche, even with Ryan Hartman receiving a one-game suspension. Much like Boston, Nashville saw its power play dry up after a hot start; the Predators went 0-for-9 during the last three games of that series. You’d think such relative struggles might have opened the door for Tolvanen to get a look, but that didn’t happen.
To be fair, Tolvanen hasn’t shown a ton so far with Nashville.
He only suited up for three games, failing to score a goal or an assist. It’s not as if this is a matter of bad bounces alone, as Tolvanen only managed three shots on goal, with all three SOG coming in his third appearance.
While Donato’s likely further along in his development at 22, Tolvanen is just 19 and isn’t that far removed from being drafted (30th overall in 2017). There’s a solid chance that Tolvanen simply is not ready.
That said, the Predators are readying for what could be an epic second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets. If they want to win, they’ll likely need to play some of their best hockey, so they’d be foolish not to at least consider putting Tolvanen back in the lineup.
The Bruins organization has seen firsthand how a talented rookie can revitalize a series, as Tyler Seguin memorably gave them a big surge after being a healthy scratch during Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup run.
Considering the championship aspirations of both teams, they’d be wise not to dismiss their intriguing rookies.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Losing the Stanley Cup last June wasn’t what hurt Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg the most. Seeing how painful the loss was for veteran center Mike Fisher proved even more agonizing.
”That was probably the worst feeling for me personally,” Forsberg said. ”Seeing the look on Fish’s face, how close it was and obviously didn’t know then if he had another chance. And yeah, he’s definitely one of the guys that I would love to win for.”
One final shot at the Stanley Cup that’s eluded Fisher throughout his 17-year career wasn’t the priority last August when the 37-year-old center announced his retirement . The Predators, who always wanted him back, persuaded him to return late in the season with some help from Fisher’s wife, country star Carrie Underwood.
Fisher says the support means a lot to him.
”It also means you’re getting old too,” Fisher quipped.
”You don’t have too many chances. But part of this coming back too wasn’t just about me, it was about the guys too and you figure try to help a group and do it together,” Fisher said. ”That’s the thing about team sports and hockey is just having that fun together. There’s nothing like it. So it’s definitely more than just about me the old guy winning. It’s so much greater than that for sure.”
Nashville wanted Fisher back for his skills on the ice and his experience.
Fisher can play both ends of the ice and can win face-off battles in the defensive zone. He also has played 1,104 regular-season games in his career. In this postseason, only Toronto’s Patrick Marleau (182) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton (160) have played more postseason games than Fisher (140) without winning a Stanley Cup.
The 6-foot-1 center now is in the playoffs with a Presidents’ Trophy winner. After finishing off Colorado in six games Sunday night, Nashville awaits a showdown with the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
Knowing the Predators had a great team was only part of why Fisher came out of retirement. Spending time with good friends added to the attraction.
”You look at your career and playoffs are what you do and so much fun,” Fisher said. ”I’ve had the opportunity to have some pretty good runs. But you look back and those are really fun times that you enjoy and you remember with guys. And so it’s good memories.”
Fisher helped the Predators win their first Western Conference title last spring to reach the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final. Then they lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Fisher didn’t make a decision on retirement until August.
The Predators made sure to protect themselves while waiting.
General manager David Poile signed Nick Bonino as a free agent away from Pittsburgh. In November, Poile acquired center Kyle Turris away from Ottawa as part of a three-team trade giving Nashville plenty of depth at the position.
The Predators kept the door open to their former captain. They started talking more in December, knowing the depth needed to play into June. Underwood also kept asking Fisher what he wanted to do. The husband and father who had focused on building a house and a hunting show finally said yes.
A chance to win the Cup was too good to pass on, then again Underwood could have just decided to kick Fisher out of the house.
”That might’ve been part of it,” Fisher said with a laugh. ”But yeah, definitely it’s good to be back. She’s a big fan. She’s going to be at all the games she can.”
Fisher announced his return at a news conference Jan. 31 . He spent February working his way back into shape and signed a one-year, $1 million deal for the rest of the season Feb. 26 when NHL rosters expanded at the trade deadline. Fisher, who had 18 goals and 24 assists last season, scored in his first game back , a 4-3 win in Vancouver on March 2.
Against Colorado, Fisher centered Nashville’s fourth line. He averaged 11 minutes, 16 seconds per game in the first round while winning 75.5 percent of his face-offs.
Forsberg said Fisher looked like himself from his first game back and obviously is more comfortable with each game.
”Really good guy to have around the team,” Forsberg said, ”and he’s been awesome.”
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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though they were the “underdogs” in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, they have to be disappointed a with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.
The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.
Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.
Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.
Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.
Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.
Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.
That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.
“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.
“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”
The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.
The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.
There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.