Around the rink – March 17; Goaltending battle in Nashville highlights a busy night

All times Eastern

7:00 p.m.

Philadelphia @ Atlanta

Philly can gain a little breathing room on the Caps for the lead in the East with a win. Atlanta is fighting to stay in the hunt for the playoffs and a win helps keep them in the race four back of Buffalo. Atlanta’s been better of late but you worry that they may have slipped back far enough to be kept out of the playoffs. Four of Atlanta’s last five games have gone to overtime. Handing out the free loser point this time of year makes everyone cringe.

Detroit @ Columbus

After beating the Caps last night, Detroit looks to roll onward towards locking up the Central Division. Detroit’s got an eight point lead on Chicago for the Central and with fewer games left in the year, it’s almost inevitable the Wings are winning the division and a top three seed in the playoffs. Columbus would love to help slow that down but they’ve lost eight of their last nine games including four in overtime or the shootout.

7:30 p.m.

Tampa Bay @ Montreal

Perhaps the night’s most curious game as a Montreal win in regulation gets them to within two points of catching the Lightning for fifth in the East. Both Pittsburgh and Boston should be keeping tabs on these two teams as they’re likely who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs in one way or another. Montreal’s won seven of their last ten games and are within four points of Boston for the Northeast Division lead. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is in a funk, losing six of their last eight games and they’re five points back of Washington for the Southeast Division lead.

New Jersey @ Ottawa

A big road game for the Devils as a win helps keep the dream alive. It’s also the first of their five remaining back-to-back sets of games as they’ll be at home tomorrow against the Capitals. Figuring out a way to navigate those sets of games and keep winning is going to be tough for them. Ottawa, meanwhile, is again looking like one of the worst teams in the league as not even Craig Anderson has been able to stand on his head enough of late to get them back to winning.

Toronto @ Florida

Speaking of keeping dreams alive, the Maple Leafs got an other-worldly performance out of James Reimer last night to give the Leafs a win to keep them within four points of Buffalo. A win tonight might make the faithful in Toronto go catatonic in fear of having their hearts broken with so few games left in the season. Florida won’t be a pushover team even in spite of them essentially being done.

8:00 p.m.

Boston @ Nashville

It’s a Vezina Trophy showdown in Nashville with Boston’s Tim Thomas facing off against Pekka Rinne of the Predators. We know that Thomas has garnered most of the praise and early ballots as the favorite for the goaltending prize, but Rinne has been there with him step for step.  Thomas leads the NHL in save percentage at .938 and Rinne is second with .928. Thomas also leads in goals against average at 2.03 while Rinne is right behind him with 2.09. We know that Rinne hasn’t been getting nearly the same attention but you wonder just where the Predators would be without Pekka Rinne. Our guess, well out of the playoffs and struggling. Perhaps there’s another trophy for Rinne to go after if he leads the Preds to the playoffs.

8:30 p.m.

Chicago @ Dallas

While Chicago hopes to jump back up the standings into the middle of the playoff pack in the West, Dallas would like to avoid being put in danger of being bounced out of the top eight. Games like this are going to make the race out West thrilling because any team taking a loss, never mind a losing streak, has a brutal effect on their chances of making the postseason. Dallas sits in seventh right now a point ahead of Anaheim and Calgary and two ahead of Nashville. Chicago is in sixth but a win could vault them up to fourth.

9:00 p.m.

Colorado @ Calgary

Colorado proved themselves worthy enough to blow a 2-0 lead to Vancouver last night to help the Canucks clinch the division and a playoff spot. Calgary hopes they’ll be woeful enough to help them jump back into the top eight of the West playoff picture. With Anaheim winning last night, Calgary slipped out of the playoff picture thanks to losing the tiebreaker with Anaheim. Calgary is banged up and could use help from recently recalled Ales Kotalik. Hey, when times get rough you get desperate and for Calgary, they’re hoping they haven’t run out of gas just yet.

Phoenix @ Edmonton

The Coyotes have been rolling of late winning four of their last five games and find themselves in fifth place in the Western Conference because of it. Dealing with the much maligned Oilers in their house tonight should work out ideally for them. On the other side of things, Edmonton is in the hunt for the #1 pick in the draft this year and they’re the leaders in the clubhouse four points worse than Ottawa. Don’t worry Oilers, Adam Larsson will be yours soon enough.

10:30 p.m.

St. Louis @ Los Angeles

All right so the Blues are essentially toast and after losing to Anaheim last night we’re sure they’ll want a measure of revenge against the Kings. Sadly for them, the Kings have been playing great of late. The Kings are on a four game win streak and sit in fourth place in the West. These standings can be fleeting but the Kings finally look like they’ve got it all together. Jon Quick continues to be incredible in goal and the addition of Dustin Penner appears to be just what they needed.

Minnesota @ San Jose

The last hurrah of the Minnesota Wild? This might just be it. The Wild are four points back of Anaheim for the last playoff spot and they’ve lost three games in a row. Another loss really sinks their hopes of making the playoffs and falling any further out of the race with so few games remaining crushes their chances. The Sharks will be without Dany Heatley who’s been suspended for cheaply elbowing Steve Ott in the head. If they can keep things rolling along, they can keep the Coyotes and Kings off their heels in the race for the Pacific Division.

Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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Talk about making a great first impression.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Here’s some footage of his performance:

If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.