Five Thoughts: Vancouver on a mission to be playoffs ultimate heel team

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With just one game to feed our brains, we managed to have a lot to talk about this morning. Let’s just get right to it because this morning’s Five Thoughts are a lot to chew on. Be patient, at least we’re not discussing the Royal Wedding. Hockey is joy.

1. I remarked a bit on Twitter during last night’s game that a lot of what Vancouver does during the game for the serious NHL watcher is enough to make them really dislike how the Canucks play hockey. Ryan Kesler seemed to embellish a tripping call against Patric Hornqvist in the third followed up by a Roberto Luongo dramatic flop after Mike Fisher was stopped on a shorthanded breakaway that saw Fisher ever-so-slightly bump Luongo after the fact. Add this on top of GM Mike Gillis’ complaints about officiating in the last round and you’ve got yourself one very unlikable team.

The Canucks talent level is high enough that they don’t need to do things like this, yet they do. Think back to the last series when we saw Daniel Sedin fall to the ice dramatically after a slight nudge and about the only comparison I can come up with is to a rival sports team in an afterschool special who you know is already really good yet they do jerky things because they can and it helps them get an unnecessary edge. Here’s to hoping the theatrics will come to an end eventually, but it’s doubtful. Every great drama needs a heel and the Canucks are running with it.

2. After how bad things looked in the first round for both Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne, they both seemed to answer the call well in Game 1. Luongo earned the shutout after stopping 20 shots as the Canucks defense made life miserable on the Predators. It was Luongo’s second shutout of the playoffs and a nice first step for him after such a tumultuous first round against Chicago.

The real first star, however, was Rinne. Rinne was stellar in stopping 29 shots for Nashville and while Chris Higgins’ goal eluded him in the second period, Rinne was fantastic in resisting the Cancuks’ attack. He gloved down virtually everything and looked like the goalie that’s the most serious threat to Tim Thomas for the Vezina Trophy. If these two can keep this up throughout the series we’ll have enough goaltending highlights to last us the rest of the playoffs.

3. Predators coach Barry Trotz was really unhappy with how his team played in Game 1 and that’s more than understandable. The Predators aren’t an offensively proficient team in the first place but 20 shots is bad no matter what. Take that and the fact that Nashville was so poor in the faceoff circle and you’ve got yourself a handful of reasons to be really angry. Knowing how this Predators team is, expect Game 2 to be a lot more intense. Vancouver has to be prepared for it or else Nashville will grind them right off the ice.

4. While we’re busy watching the playoffs, the drama surrounding Winnipeg just gets all the more fascinating. With the recent talk of Atlanta now being in the mix to be bought and moved to Winnipeg should things in Phoenix get straightened out makes it almost certain in my mind that we’ll see a team playing in Manitoba next year. Which one it is still remains to be seen.

What’s adding to the intrigue of all this is this: What happens should things in Arizona not work out and the Coyotes move back to Canada? What happens with the Thrashers and their apparent awful mess in the front office? Atlanta’s problems have been bubbling below the surface for some time now but it appears things there have gotten bad enough so that now they’re David Thomson of True North’s booby prize should the Coyotes stay put. What a sad mess.

5. After all the yelling and kvetching we do about blows to the head and the seeming inaction that happens with awful hits from behind, the one seemingly very legal hit we’ve seen all playoffs is the one whistled for a penalty. Keith Ballard’s incredible hip check on Jordin Tootoo was something made for highlight reels and very legal according to the vast majority of eyes that watched it.

It’d be nice of officials were as vigilant on actually awful hits as they are on ones like this that look visibly stunning but are just a healthy part of the game. Officials don’t want to be the guy that boots a call on an actually dirty hit so now they’ll send off anyone on anything that looks or sounds scary. No one wins that way.

Penguins shouldn’t rush to replace Bonino

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Nick Bonino was an important player for Pittsburgh the past two years. So when he signed with Nashville on July 1, it was natural for Penguins fans to want an immediate replacement.

But for GM Jim Rutherford, finding a new third-line center may take some time. The Penguins might even start the season without knowing who it will be.

What Rutherford wants to avoid is panicking and being forced into a mistake. All the other general managers are well-aware of what he needs. He’s probably been thrown a few anvils already.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while.”

If nothing is done by the start of the season, the Penguins could give someone like Jake Guentzel a chance to take over Bonino’s role. Or, if they’d prefer to keep Guentzel in the top six, maybe a youngster like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese would be game to try, at least on a temporary basis.

It should be noted that Rutherford has proven a savvy mid-season trader. In 2015-16, he brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, a couple of veterans who played big roles on the way to a Stanley Cup title. And then, last season, he acquired Ron Hainsey, who likewise played a key part in a championship.

Perhaps owing to that experience, Rutherford says he’s more comfortable waiting to unearth a solution than “trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not.”

In fairness, it’s not easy to just replace a productive third-line center whose salary was a bargain. The Penguins had Bonino for a cap hit of just $1.9 million, and he turned his time in Pittsburgh into a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Predators.

One potential target that’s come up in speculation is the Maple Leafs’ Tyler Bozak, who just so happens to be Phil Kessel‘s good friend and former center.

Bozak, 31, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, a status that naturally lends itself to trade speculation.

But with a $4.1 million cap hit, making room for Bozak could be a challenge for the Penguins. And on top of that, the Leafs are bound to ask a fair bit for a guy who had 55 points (18G, 37A) last season.

That’s why it’s so hard to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. The Penguins were lucky to bring back mostly the same roster last season.

Things will be different in 2017-18.

Related: Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”