What teams to watch out for during free agency madness

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Free agency kicks off at noon ET and with the doors swinging open to the shopping mall that is the NHL free agent market, it’s not quite like hitting Saks Fifth Avenue but more like digging through the dollar store to find that perfect gem. While there you’ll see a lot of stuff in the impulse buy area that might seem like a really good idea at the time, but after you give that player a contract that crushes your salary cap for the next five years, the buyer’s remorse weighs heavily.

While there are a lot of potential gems to be found out there for teams to use for the coming seasons, there are duds too and some teams are going to be more interesting than others to watch during free agency season. With the madness set to begin this afternoon, here are the teams we think will be worth keeping a close eye on.

Philadelphia Flyers
While the said they’re not going after Steve Stamkos, they’re going to be factors in free agency somehow. They’ve got a little money to play with and they’re looking for a little help along the wings and perhaps one more center. After all, banking on Brayden Schenn to step in instantly and be a big producer is asking a lot of a rookie. Perhaps a guy like Michal Handzus, who has played in Philly once before, would be ideal to fill in depth.

Along the wings, you could see the return of Simon Gagne to Philadelphia after a year away in Tampa Bay. He’s not likely to be back for the Lightning and he still loves Philly. He’d be a solid contributor there again if the Flyers had room for him. Another name to watch here is Erik Cole. The Hurricanes power forward scored 26 goals last year and his former coach in Carolina, Peter Laviolette, would be overly familiar with his game.

One other reason to watch Philly during all this? GM Paul Holmgren has proved himself to be totally nuts and will do anything. The Flyers could make a run at Brad Richards and Jaromir Jagr if they wanted to because Holmgren has shown he’s just that wacky to do it.

Florida Panthers
Seems crazy to want to keep an eye on the Panthers, doesn’t it? They could be the team that throws the free agent market into madness since, according to CapGeek, they’ve got nearly $22 million to spend to reach the salary floor. With that kind of cash needed to be spent and a free agent market ripe for the overpayment, the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon could be the foils for many teams looking to land players this year and looking to lock up their own players in the future.

A lot of markets have already been blown up thanks to deals made by Steve Montador, Christian Ehrhoff, and Florida’s own Tomas Kopecky and with the Panthers being forced to dig into their wallets they’ll either be making some crazy signings or end up involved in the trade market to acquire other fat contracts.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs GM Brian Burke is almost always worth keeping an eye on as it is, but during free agency it’s a fascinating case study. In previous free agency years we’ve seen him open the vault for defensemen like Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda. All right you win some and lose some. While the Leafs will be all in on trying to land Brad Richards, they’re a team that could use help at forward. They’re rumored to be hot for Maxime Talbot as well as Richards and they could stand to land another good defenseman as well.

Of course, if Burke gets a little spend crazy, they could wind up overpaying for both Richards and Talbot and even go crazy for a defenseman out of the blue. One way or another, the Leafs need to improve a bit and this free agency class might not be the best way to do it. Will fans in Toronto freak out if they stay quiet? We’ll see.

New York Rangers
The Rangers are another big market team with money to burn this offseason. They too will be all in after Brad Richards but should they not land him, we’re curious what their Plan B might be. After all, two years ago they came out of nowhere to deal Scott Gomez to Montreal and used that free cap space to sign Marian Gaborik. No one expected that to happen at all and Glen Sather will be under the gun to do something to help spark things in Manhattan.

The Rangers do still have to get RFAs Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan squared away but they need a little more than that to give Gaborik and others some help. Sadly for them there’s not too much to be found up the middle. Guys like Tim Connolly and Jason Arnott might not provide the answers the Rangers are looking to for production.

Richards or bust? It’s sort of looking that way.

Tampa Bay Lightning
They’ll be on Stamkos watch all day long, but they’ll be looking to fill ranks elsewhere. Sean Bergenheim appears destined for a new location and Simon Gagne won’t be coming back to Tampa. GM Steve Yzerman was able to push the right buttons last year to give Guy Boucher a team that he took to within a win of the Stanley Cup finals.

Who will the Lightning be looking for? You have to think they’ll be going with a similar attack plan this summer looking for diamonds in the rough. Guys like Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Pavel Kubina turned out to be great pickups that no one really thought much of at the time. All of them put together made the Lightning a very difficult team to deal with. With a free agent market filled with those sorts of players, the Lightning might do just fine casually shopping around.

Colorado Avalanche
Considering they’re a team without a starting or backup goalie at the moment, they’re going to be factoring in heavily in the market for any and all goalies available. The big prize is Tomas Vokoun but other names like Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Pascal Leclaire, Ray Emery, and Mike Smith are out there as starters. As far as backups go… Take your pick as there are plenty to choose from.

The Avs also have to get a little bit of money spent to get to the salary floor as CapGeek has them about $15 million below the floor. The Avs aren’t big spenders these days, but they’ll have to give some big money out to a few guys to get caught up.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.