Five Q’s: Kings-Blues series preview

1 Comment

1. Can Jonathan Quick rediscover his Conn Smythe Trophy form?

If April was any indication, yes.

While Quick’s overall numbers on the year weren’t stellar — 18-13-4, .902 save percentage, 2.45 GAA — his stats in the final month suggest he’s rounding into form.

The 27-year-old went 6-3-1 in April, posting a 2.25 GAA and, perhaps most importantly, a .917 save percentage.

The bigger question, though, will be if Quick can put together a string of consecutive efforts, something he accomplished last postseason but has had problems doing this year (Quick’s longest winning streak was three games, and he only did it once.)

2. Can the Blues score enough goals?

St. Louis finished 17th in the NHL in goals per game (2.58), but struggled to score in April. That included a stretch where the Blues notched just seven regulation goals in seven games…but they went 5-2-0 over that same stretch, alleviating some concern.

The playoffs, though, are a different beast.

Teams don’t have success if they’re not producing offensively — something St. Louis learned the hard way against the Kings last year, scoring just six times during a four-game sweep out of the second round.

This year, the offensive x-factor is TJ Oshie, who underwent stress fracture surgery (ankle) two weeks ago.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock says Oshie will be ready to go, and that’s key for St. Louis’ offensive outlook. The 26-year-old had 20 points in 30 games this year and led the Blues in power-play assists, with eight.

3. Elliott or Halak?

It’s the same question Hitchcock faced a year ago before naming Jaroslav Halak the starter for the opening playoff round.

This year, Brian Elliott’s the No. 1.

And with good reason. The 28-year-old was the league’s hottest netminder in April, capturing second star of the month on the strength of an 11-2-0 record, 1.28 GAA and .948 save percentage.

Of course, things can change quickly in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if Halak makes an appearance at some point, especially since he’s the more experienced postseason netminder, having backstopped Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010.

4. Who wins the physical battle?

The term “meat grinder” has been used to describe this series.

The Blues have two players in the NHL’s top-20 in hits (David Backes, Ryan Reaves) while the Kings counter with two of their own (Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford).

Both teams love to get in on the forecheck and punish opposing defensemen, so the battle could be decided by which blueliners are able to withstand the punishment.

Last year, LA made a conscious effort to take the body on Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, a strategy that paid off as Pietrangelo was banged up and nearly forced out of the lineup.

5. How much will the Kings miss Willie Mitchell?

Mitchell was an underrated piece of Los Angeles’ 2011-12 success. He scored a career-high 24 points during the regular season and shouldered a huge workload in the playoffs, averaging 25:19 TOI per game through 20 contests.

Only Drew Doughty played more minutes.

Mitchell’s loss will especially be felt most in two important playoff departments: penalty killing (he averaged a team-high 3:41 shorthanded TOI per game) and shot-blocking (led the Kings with 55).

LA will hope the void can be filled by trade deadline acquisition Robyn Regehr, but that might be asking a lot from a guy that hasn’t participated in the postseason since 2008.

For all the first-round playoff previews, click here.

Trade: Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract

Getty
1 Comment

Flyers GM Ron Hextall made a big splash at the end of the draft’s first round on Friday night, sending forward Brayden Schenn to St. Louis in exchange for Jori Lehtera, the 27th overall pick and a conditional first-round pick in 2018.

Schenn, 25, is coming off two pretty productive years with the Flyers, in which he scored 26 and 25 goals. He just wrapped the first of a four-year, $20.5 million deal — one that carries a $5.125M cap hit.

It’s a big get for the Blues, who now boast Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri, Paul Stastny and Alex Steen at forward.

That hit is largely why Lehtera is on his way to Philly. Coming off a “bad” season in which he struggled with injury and healthy scratches, there was speculation he’d be made available at the expansion draft — which he was — and when he wasn’t selected by Vegas, the likelihood of a trade was high.

Lehtera makes $4.7 million annually, through 2019.

With the 27th overall selection, the Flyers took Sault Ste. Marie center Morgan Frost. Frost finished fourth on the Greyhounds in scoring this year and had a strong playoff, with five goals and 11 points in 11 games. It was the second center Philly scored in the first round, having previously selected Nolan Patrick with the No. 2 overall selection.

And here are the conditions around that ’18 pick:

 

 

Vilardi falls down draft board, but thrilled to join Kings

Leave a comment

CHICAGO — If Gabriel Vilardi was disappointed after falling down the draft board, he sure hid it well.

The 17-year-old center looked and sounded positively ecstatic to be joining the Los Angeles Kings, who got him 11th overall Friday at United Center.

“There’s no words to describe it,” said Vilardi. “It’s just joy. All your life you work so hard for this, and then to hear your name called, it’s just an amazing feeling. Having your family there, it’s even better.”

That said, the consensus was that he’d be drafted a fair bit sooner. At the Stanley Cup Final, he was one of four top prospects that the NHL trotted out for reporters. The other three were Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, and Casey Mittelstadt, the first, second, and eighth picks, respectively.

If there’s a knock on Vilardi, it’s his skating. To really thrive in the NHL, it’ll need to get better. That’s why he’s off to Minnesota this summer to work with power-skating coach Barry Karn.

“I know what I need to work on,” he said. “I got a plan in place.”

Vilardi just won the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires. Now he’ll be joining a team that’s won two Stanley Cups in the last six years with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Drew Doughty.

“I watch Kopitar a lot,” Vilardi said. “I really like the way he plays. I think some of his attributes are similar to mine. He’s so smart with the puck. He’s tough to knock off the puck. I can’t wait to go there, meet him and take whatever I can from him and apply it to my own game.”

Related: Gabriel Vilardi deserves your attention

McPhee, Golden Knights begin process of stockpiling talent

Leave a comment

The Vegas Golden Knights used the expansion draft this past week to stockpile draft picks in exchange for not selecting certain players. General manager George McPhee’s haul helped the team collect 12 draft picks for this year, including three of the top-15 picks in the first-round (No. 6 overall, No. 13 overall and No. 15 overall).

McPhee ended up keeping all three of his first-round picks and followed through on his commitment of drafting their way to success.

With those picks the Golden Knights selected a pair of centers, Cody Glass from the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks at No. 6, and Nick Suzuki from the Owen Sound Attack at No. 13.

From there, they began to build up their blue line by taking Swedish blue-liner Erik Brannstrom with the 15th overall pick.

With that collection of assets it was reasonable to imagine that McPhee might try to package some of them together to move up from their own pick at No. 6 overall, perhaps even to make a run at Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick with one of the top-two picks.

McPhee made it sound like Glass was one of their primary targets and even suggested they had a deal in place (involving one of their second-round picks) to make a move for him if needed.

He did not need to.

When asked about the comparisons Glass drew to Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele, McPhee said it was a fair comparison.

In the end, keeping all three first-round picks is probably the best-case scenario for Vegas when it comes to building an organization from the ground up. Luck was not on their side in the draft lottery and they didn’t get an opportunity to get one of the elite prospects, and as tempting as it might have been to make a bold move up for one this is a team that is literally starting from scratch. It needs talent all over the ice and a lot of times the best way to find success in the draft is by giving yourself as many opportunities as possible.

McPhee certainly did that for Vegas in their first ever draft.

Getting drafted by Wings a ‘dream come true’ for Rasmussen

Leave a comment

CHICAGO — The first thing you notice about Michael Rasmussen is his size.

This is a big kid the Detroit Red Wings just drafted out of the Western Hockey League.

Rasmussen stands 6-foot-6 and weighs around 215 pounds. The 18-year-old center scored 32 goals in 50 games for the Tri-City Americans last season.

“I’ve got a big wing span, so I protect the puck well,” he said after going ninth overall Friday at United Center. “When I have the puck, I pride myself on not getting it taken from me.”

For the Red Wings, this is a big pick in another way. Amazingly, Rasmussen is the first top-10 selection the organization has made since 1991, when Martin Lapointe was drafted 10th overall.

In other words, GM Ken Holland better be right about this kid.

Read more: A very different draft for Detroit

To realize his potential in the NHL, Rasmussen knows he’ll need to get faster on the ice.

“Obviously, being a big guy it’s tough to get a bigger frame around,” he said. “It’s something I’ll work hard on this summer with my speed coach. It’s something I need to improve for sure.”

A Vancouver native, Rasmussen was naturally a Canucks fan growing up. He particularly admired the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel.

“They were always in the community and giving back,” he said. “That’s something I admire, even more than their play. They’re amazing leaders and amazing people. They’ve done a lot for the city of Vancouver.”

Now Rasmussen hopes to do a lot for his future home and team.

“I think it was one of my hopes that I could go to Detroit,” he said. “My combine meeting went really well. It was in my mind that this was a place that I really wanted to go to. It’s a dream come true definitely.”