PHT Predicts: Second round of Western Conference Playoffs

The second round of the NHL playoffs gets under way tonight in Vancouver as the recently exorcised Canucks take on the first-round-monkey-off-their-back Nashville Predators to see who moves on to the Western Conference final. The Canucks are teeming with talent both offensive and defensive alike while the Predators are rising to the occasion in the postseason and making believers of them all over the league.

Whoever gets the upper hand in that series gets to take on either Detroit or San Jose for the right to go to the Stanley Cup final. In that series, a pair of old rivals renew pleasantries after the Sharks humbled the Red Wings in five games in the second round last year. Detroit is a bit more rested this time around compared to last season but the Sharks would like to get to the Stanley Cup final some day soon.

As for how we see things breaking down out West, we’re a bit more divided in thought than we were during the first round.

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 5. Nashville Predators

James says:

One must evaluate Vancouver’s performance in shades of gray rather than black and white terms. Yes, going to seven games after building a 3-0 lead made them look bad, but they played great hockey in Game 6 as well as Game 7. That decisive game was truly a display of the team’s power, though, as they boasted a ferocious forecheck, a creative offense and – oh yes – a quietly outstanding Roberto Luongo. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne will keep things from getting out of hand, but Nashville just doesn’t have the horses to keep pace with the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler.

The Predators could make things interesting if they take advantage of a Canucks team that’s less than 48 hours removed from a dramatic Game 7 win, but I think this will be that all-important short series for Vancouver. Don’t get me wrong, though; this five-game series will be akin to the Capitals’ tougher-than-it-looked set against the Rangers. I’d wager that the Canucks will win this series quickly, but they won’t ever be glad to face the bruising Predators.

Pick: Vancouver in five.

Joe says:

This series is intriguing to me for a thousand different reasons. It’s Nashville’s first time in the second round while Vancouver is looking to make the Western Conference final for the first time since 1994. History means nothing here though but I can’t help but wonder if Vancouver finally getting past Chicago regardless of what round it happened in is just what they needed mentally to roll through the playoffs. Neither Roberto Luongo nor Pekka Rinne dazzled in the opening round and while both teams showed glimpses of solid offense, I’ve got a funny feeling this one plays out similarly to how the Canadiens-Bruins series did with tight checking, defense, and scoring at a minimum. When it breaks down like that, I defer to the more talented team.

Pick: Vancouver in six

Who do you think takes this second round battle?

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 3. Detroit Red Wings

James says:

It’s stunning how many people are treating this series as a no-brainer for the Red Wings, especially since San Jose beat them in a tidy (if thrilling) five games in 2010 and the Sharks also took the 2010-11 season series 3-1.Yes, these teams are in different situations than last year. And yes, the thought of Tomas Holmstrom tormenting an already-fragile Antti Niemi gives me serious pause.

Still, I cannot shake the feeling that San Jose and Detroit carry the same core strengths and weaknesses – ridiculous offense, top-heavy defense and an average goalie – yet the Sharks happen to be considerably younger and resoundingly bigger than the Red Wings. There’s plenty of reasons to go with both teams, but my gut says to go with the Sharks.

Pick: San Jose in six.

Joe says:

This one is an instant contender for best series of the second round. There’s a genuine dislike between both teams. Joe Thornton comes up big against the Wings, Detroit gets driven nuts by Devin Setoguchi, and Antti Niemi has some of that leftover Chicago swagger from last year. Detroit meanwhile has Henrik Zetterberg coming back, Pavel Datsyuk’s brilliance, and the savvy leadership of Nicklas Lidstrom. You want a heavyweight battle, this is it.

In my mind, this one is destined for seven games. The X-factor here being how good Jimmy Howard can be in goal for the Wings. I think he’s just a tad better than Niemi and the Wings are very well motivated to avenge last year’s defeats.

Pick: Detroit in seven

Disagree with either James or I? Let us know in our poll

Lehtera: Trade from Blues to Flyers will be ‘good for me’

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Let’s be honest. Jori Lehtera felt like a bit of an afterthought in the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and some significant picks to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just consider the PHT headline: “Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract.”

That’s certainly a fair way to look at it, as the Flyers received the 27th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and a conditional first-rounder in the deal. Would they have gotten such a haul for Schenn if they didn’t absord Lehtera’s $4.7 million cap hit, which expires after 2018-19?

Again, it’s easy to lose track of the human factor, as Lehtera was moved from the only NHL team he’s ever suited up for. While he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the news brought out both good and bad emotions, the 29-year-old believes that he’ll benefit on the ice.

“I have no idea why (the Blues traded me), but I think it’s better for me that I got traded, so I don’t really care why,” Lehtera said. “That’s the business part of hockey. It’s always tough to leave when you know all of the guys and the city. But hockey-wise, it’s going to be good for me. I didn’t play well at the end, but I think a new start will be really good for me.”

It’s been an interesting few years for Lehtera.

His numbers have dropped from his nifty rookie season (14 goals, 44 points) to 2015-16 (34 points) and finally last season (22 points).

Context matters, naturally, as centering a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko inflated his numbers, especially earlier on.

Still, that couldn’t have been a promising trend for both the player and the team.

The challenge will be to really make a mark with Philly. With Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier, and possibly even Nolan Patrick in the way, Lehtera would have plenty of competition down the middle. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was asked to move to the wing on occasion.

Lehtera certainly has plenty to prove, but he also gets a chance to make a positive first impression. If he can make an impact, then he’ll make Flyers GM Ron Hextall look that much brighter in the process.

Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

***

To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.

Rick Nash at career crossroads in contract year

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has indeed done a great job managing the team’s salary structure. In that context, it might be tough to justify the idea of extending an aging power forward who will be 34 when his current deal expires next summer.

There are more than a few people who believe that the Rangers would be wise to bring Rick Nash back, however. Just recently, Josh Lipman made such an argument for Fansided and a similar thought surfaced from Jackson Heil of The Hockey Writers.

Of course, wherever Nash goes, he figures to see a decrease in pay – maybe a drastic drop – from the $7.8 million cap hit that expires after 2017-18.

For Nash, it’s a fork in the road during what’s been a somewhat odd career.

Nash is closing in on 500 career goals, as the winger already produced 416 in 989 regular-season games. He’s become quite the specialist in New York, scoring 127 goals vs. 97 assists in 315 contests with the Rangers.

On those playoff questions

As Rangers fans likely know too well, there have been some playoff headaches.

It’s wrong to say that Nash has never enjoyed postseason success. In 19 games during their 2015 run, he managed 14 points. He also had four points in what was otherwise a miserable five-game series for the Rangers against the Penguins in 2016.

His strange run of bad luck resurfaced this past postseason, so for all we know, Nash might not ever fully silence critics regarding his supposed lack of “clutch play.”

Best option available?

When people picture Nash’s future, many envision him hitting the free agent market in 2018.

The Rangers might not be so wise to outright dismiss bringing Nash back, though. New York boasts some nice forwards, but it’s plausible that Nash could remain one of their most reliable snipers, even at an advanced age. Lipman points out that Nash easily outclasses other Rangers during his time with the team from a sniping perspective; while he generated 127 goals during that time, the second-most prolific scorer was Derek Stepan, who only managed 90.

It’s worth noting that, despite being limited to 67 regular-season games in 2016-17, Nash still scored 23 goals. Nash generated 42 goals as recently as 2014-15, which was one of his only healthy campaigns with the Rangers.

Now, it’s rarely safe to assume that a player will become more durable as he ages, so that’s another concern to consider.

Still, if the price is reasonable, Nash brings a lot to the table.

The 2017-18 season stands as a year that could have a huge impact on Nash’s future. The Rangers should at least keep an open mind about being a part of his future beyond this next season.