PHT Morning Skate: Where rookies take center stage

PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Dave Nonis hasn’t made any major moves since taking over as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager. That might change as the trade deadline approaches. (National Post)

With the Calgary Flames hopes of making the playoffs rapidly diminishing, the pressure is on going into tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. (Calgary Sun)

Forward Marcus Johansson was among the Washington Capitals’ best players in his return from a concussion on Sunday. (CSN Washington)

Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau is arguably the top contender for the Calder Trophy at the halfway point of the season. (NHL.com)

The Ottawa Senators has put enforcer Chris Neil on a line with 19-year-olds Mika Zibanejad and Mark Stone. That’s allowed the two rookies to focus a little less on playing a physical game. (Ottawa Citizen)

With Patrick Sharp (shoulder) sidelined, who should take top-six forward spot with the Chicago Blackhawks? (Chicago Sun-Times)

Forward Tyler Toffoli has excelled in his first full AHL season with 28 goals and 48 points in 55 games. The Los Angeles Kings promoted him on Sunday, so it might not be long before the 20-year-old makes his NHL debut. (AHL.com)

San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan likes the progress that forward Scott Gomez has made lately. (San Jose Mercury News)

You can watch the highlights of the Philadelphia Flyers’ 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres below:

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Sharks say getting Jones, Vlasic signed before camp ‘a priority’

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Doug Wilson has a busy summer ahead.

Decisions need to be made on veteran leaders Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, both pending UFAs. Those figure to be crucial negotiations but, to hear the Sharks GM explain it, there are equally vital deals to be reached with goalie Martin Jones, and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

“Both of them are extremely important to get under contract,” Wilson said yesterday, per NBC Sports California. “We can start those discussions in the next little while.”

Both Jones and Vlasic have one year remaining on their current deals, and are eligible to sign extensions on July 1. Wilson said it’s a “priority” to get them done before September’s training camp.

Jones, 27, is heading into the last of a three-year, $9 million deal with a $3M average annual cap hit. It’s safe to assume he’s in for a lengthy extension with a significant raise, given how good he’s been since joining the Sharks. He backstopped them to the Cup Final last season and has been one of the league’s busiest workhorses, starting 65 games in each of the last two years.

Vlasic, 30, has spent his entire 10-year career in San Jose. He’s developed a reputation as one of the league’s better defensive defensemen, strengthened by his role on Canada’s gold medal-winning side at the 2014 Olympics, and 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Vlasic’s current deal — a five-year, $21.25 million pact — carries an average cap hit of $4.25M. Wilson didn’t mince words in describing how good he thinks Vlasic is.

“Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league,” he said. “Marc-Edouard is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world.”

At this point, it’s fair to speculate when all these deals will get done. Wilson has a full plate with the four aforementioned negotiations, and also has to hammer out contracts for a trio of RFA forwards — Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney.

Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?

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Two years ago, Mike Babcock came to Toronto and predicted there would be “pain.”

He was right for one year. The Maple Leafs finished dead last in 2015-16, then got Auston Matthews as a reward.

But the pain didn’t last long, in large part thanks to Matthews. The Leafs made the playoffs in Babcock’s second season as head coach, and they even gave the Washington Capitals a good scare in the first round.

Now the question has to be asked — should the Leafs start going for it?

Your first instinct may be to laugh. But it is not such a ridiculous question when you consider Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Drew Doughty were all in their early 20s when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Mathews turns 20 in September, and he’s already one of the NHL’s best centers. Wingers William Nylander, 20, and Mitch Marner, 19, aren’t too bad either, and neither is 26-year-old center Nazem Kadri.

All four of those forwards are under club control for years to come. Also locked up long term is starting goalie Frederik Andersen.

If there’s a weakness, it’s the back end. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev can all move the puck well, but defensively they’re still suspect. What the Leafs could really use is a top-four defenseman who can match the Leafs’ pace while also killing penalties and shutting down the opposition’s top players. And if he can play the right side, even better.

Of course, you know who else could use a defenseman like that? The other 30 teams. Top-four defensemen are not cheap to get on the trade market. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers.

Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello met with the media Tuesday to reflect on the season, and also give his thoughts on the future. He said the Leafs have to be careful not to get complacent, that it only gets harder now. He was asked about the market for defensemen. He said it’s hard to gauge because of the expansion draft.

But Lamoriello also said, “There’s a five-year plan that changes every day.”

Which would suggest the Leafs are willing to accelerate their schedule — that they may, in fact, see an opportunity to compete for the Cup a lot sooner than they originally thought possible.

Consider:

The Penguins went from out of the playoffs in ’06, to losing in the first round in ’07, to the Stanley Cup Final in ’08, then won it all in ’09.

The Blackhawks went from out of the playoffs in ’08, to the conference finals in ’09, to a championship in ’10.

The Kings went from out of the playoffs in ’09 to winning the Cup in ’12.

So… if you were the Leafs, wouldn’t you see an opportunity, too?

Wild exit early, Fletcher stays positive — a familiar refrain in Minnesota

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If the NHL is a bottom line business, then the Wild’s season was a disappointment.

They finished second in the West, yet were upended in the opening playoff round to the wild card St. Louis Blues — a team they finished 17 points ahead of in the standings. Minnesota lost all three games at home, managed just one win, scored just eight goals and, perhaps most disturbingly, had a shorter postseason run than last year, when it lost in six to Dallas.

With that in mind, here’s what Wild GM Chuck Fletcher had to say at Tuesday’s end-of-year media availability.

When asked about his group: “It’s still a very good core. It’s a strong team.”

When asked about a major overhaul: “Wholesale changes? Absolutely not.”

When asked about the loss to St. Louis: “A disappointing five-game series that could have very easily gone either way.”

If this sounds familiar, well, it should.

At last year’s exit interview, Fletcher was a beacon of positivity. He insisted Minnesota was a team on the rise, not decline, and remained steadfast in his belief of the group despite media skepticism and a displeased fan base.

To his credit, Fletcher answered the critics.

Hiring Bruce Boudreau as head coach was a terrific move, and buying out Thomas Vanek to free up money for the Eric Staal acquisition worked out beautifully. The organization was also buoyed by how well four of its prospects — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — performed at the World Juniors. Given those are all Fletcher draftees, it was another feather in his cap.

Losing to St. Louis shouldn’t negate all that, and it hasn’t.

But should it alter the Wild’s perspective?

Remember, this season wasn’t a one-off. The core leadership group of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter has been together for five years now, and never advanced past the second round. And in the last two years, the Wild have won a grand total of three postseason tilts.

Some have suggested the bar needs to be raised.

Consider, for a moment, Chicago GM Stan Bowman. Like the Wild, the Blackhawks have been bounced in each of the last two opening rounds. And like the Wild, the Blackhawks were bounced really early this year — albeit in four games, rather than five.

Here’s what Bowman had to say in his end-of-year presser:

“Standing here April 22 is not the way we expected our season to end. And it’s a complete failure when you measure it against the expectations that we have of ourselves. We did not come even close to reaching the standard we have set over the years here. And that’s unacceptable.

“Any successes that we did experience this year are completely overshadowed by the abrupt ending to our season. It’s not close to good enough for anybody. And I think it’s time right not to take a look in the mirror and face facts.”

The biggest difference between the Wild and Blackhawks is that the Wild, quite justifiably, could argue they outplayed the Blues and the only thing keeping them from Round 2 was Jake Allen. Chicago was dominated by Nashville in nearly every statistical measure. So Bowman didn’t have that to fall back on.

But it’s the second part of Bowman’s statement that’s key. “Completely overshadowed by the abrupt ending to our season.” Things were over quickly for the ‘Hawks, just like they were for the Wild. But to hear Fletcher and Boudreau speak today, you couldn’t help but feel the organization believes it just wrapped the most competitive five-game, first-round series in playoff history.

Well, the Wild brass does anyway. For the players, the message seemed to be quite different. And quite telling.

“Right now, we can’t take any positives,” Koivu said, per the team’s Twitter account. “Just disappointment.”

PHT’s second-round playoff predictions, featuring the red-hot Random Thing Picker

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It was a tough first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for many of the so-called experts of the world.

Upsets included the Predators over the Blackhawks and the Blues over the Wild. The Rangers over the Canadiens was a quasi-upset, too.

Here at PHT, it was a mixed bag. Mike Halford and Cam Tucker each went an impressive 6-2. And so too did the Random Thing Picker, which as its name suggests, picks random things. (And picks them rather well, apparently.)

Of note, the Random Thing Picker and James O’Brien were the only ones to pick the Preds over the ‘Hawks. So congratulations to both robotic lifeforms on that bit of soothsaying.

Rounding out the rest of the first-round results, Adam Gretz and Joey Alfieri went 4-4, while at 3-5, O’Brien and yours truly couldn’t even crack .500. (Stupid Jake Allen.)

On to the second round!

Washington versus Pittsburgh (Stream Capitals-Penguins)

Brough: Capitals in 7
Halford: Penguins in 6
O’Brien: Capitals in 7
Gretz: Capitals in 7
Tucker: Capitals in 6
Alfieri: Capitals in 7
Random Thing Picker: Capitals

New York versus Ottawa (Stream Rangers-Senators)

Brough: Senators in 6
Halford: Senators in 7
O’Brien: Rangers in 7
Gretz: Rangers in 6
Tucker: Rangers in 6
Alfieri: Senators in 6
Random Thing Picker: Senators

St. Louis versus Nashville (Stream Blues-Predators)

Brough: Predators in 6
Halford: Blues in 7
O’Brien: Predators in 6
Gretz: Predators in 6
Tucker: Predators in 7
Alfieri: Predators in 6
Random Thing Picker: Blues

Anaheim versus Edmonton (Stream Ducks-Oilers)

Brough: Ducks in 7
Halford: Ducks in 6
O’Brien: Ducks in 6
Gretz: Oilers in 7
Tucker: Oilers in 6
Alfieri: Ducks in 6
Random Thing Picker: Ducks

Feel free to add your picks below…