AP

Tough times for Maple Leafs during recent California trip

1 Comment

A trip to California provided at least a temporary setback to the playoff dreams of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Three games in four nights against the San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks can be a difficult task for any club, whether they’re at the top of the standings, middle of the pack or at the bottom. For the Maple Leafs, full of youth and an abundance of talented stars-in-the-making, they were able to secure only a single point out of a possible six, which obviously does nothing to help their playoff ambitions.

The trip was capped off Friday with a 5-2 loss to the Ducks — and former Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and goalie Jonathan Bernier.

It was a game Toronto actually had the lead in before Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell scored just 16 seconds apart and Anaheim took back the lead for good. Sami Vatanen, left all alone to bury a Ryan Getzlaf pass, put it further out of reach as the Ducks capitalized on defensive breakdowns from a young team that coach Mike Babcock lamented afterward.

From the Toronto Star:

The pant-dropping moments were junior-hockey-worthy mistakes. Marner and Connor Brown, the latter one of the Leafs’ most impressive forwards in Thursday’s game in L.A., both made turnovers that keyed goals. Babcock called timeout, huddled the troops, offered what appeared to be a stern lecture.

Marner was benched, at least briefly, playing 4:13 in the second period – considerably less than his usual minutes. But by the time Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen found himself alone on the back door less than two minutes into the third period — Ryan Getzlaf’s cross-eye threading setting up the one-timer — the Leafs seemed beyond redemption.

“I thought we did tons of good things but I didn’t like the free goals we gave them,” said Babcock, per the Toronto Sun. “I thought we gave them three of them. The NHL is too good a league to think you are going to outscore your mistakes.

“You have to take care of the puck, you have to check right and you have to know what you are doing without the puck. It was evident on three of those goals we didn’t.”

A fruitless trip to California does not doom an entire season, though it’s certainly far from ideal at this time of year and given what is at stake.

The Maple Leafs were only one point out of a wild card spot prior to puck drop for Saturday’s schedule of games. They were also two points out of third place and four points out of second in the Atlantic Division.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: NHL announces second round openers

Getty Images
6 Comments

We have one game left in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins will do battle at TD Garden Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Game 7 with the winner advancing to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As we wait for the full second-round schedule, the NHL has released the start dates and times for opening games of each series, including the situations depending on whether the Bruins or Maple Leafs win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Thursday, April 26

• The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will kick off at 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) from Capital One Center in Washington, D.C.

• Out West, the San Jose Sharks will visit T-Mobile Arena and the Vegas Golden Knights for their opener at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN).

Friday, April 27

• The top two teams in the NHL will meet in the first game of their best-of-7 at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN) as the Nashville Predators play host to Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets.

Saturday, April 28

If Boston advances, the Bruins and Lightning will play Game 1 at 3 p.m. ET (NBC) at AMALIE Arena in Tampa.

If Toronto advances, the Maple Leafs will get their Hockey Night in Canada timeslot and visit the Lightning at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flyers await free agency with rare luxury: a ton of cap space

Getty
4 Comments

Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall is rapidly approaching “be careful what you wish for” territory.

For years, Hextall has been cleaning up whatever Flyers cap messes he could (sorry, Andrew MacDonald), breaking the franchise’s pattern of going after splashy, expensive moves that can sometimes blow up in their faces (sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov). Now, with what could be a ton of cap space looming in the off-season, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that Hextall is expected to receive “free rein” in free agency.

(If the cap ceiling is at $80 million, they’ll have about $22 million in room, while a Jori Lehtera buyout could push that above $25M.)

“Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster,” Holmgren said, via Carchidi. “If that’s the decision he wants to make moving forward, he’s got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what’s right for the organization.”

That brings us back to “be careful what you wish for.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Hextall’s shown poise and patience in earning himself a clean slate, and this is his reward. That said, big moves can often be the downfall of a GM. Consider how Chuck Fletcher’s Wild era crumbled under the weight of the Ryan SuterZach Parise contracts, how the Flyers have regretted past moves, and how Ron Francis was undone in part by the ill-fated Scott Darling signing as just a few examples of mistakes that can cost people jobs.

With that in mind, here are some tips for Hextall.

One rule for them all

Let’s begin with an idea that seems far-fetched, but must be considered: any team that can land John Tavares should do whatever it can to make it happen. There’s a strong chance that he’ll just re-sign with the New York Islanders, but if not, the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with.

Goalie considerations

Rather than making Bryzgalov-style huge moves in net, Philly’s instead targeted value in goalies. That worked out very well in their Steve Mason sign-and-trade, while it’s been bumpier with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

While the position is once again a headache for Philly, Hextall should be pleased that they’re at least not stuck with problem contracts. Elliott and Neuvirth are both cheap, and their contracts expire after 2018-19.

This gives the Flyers the flexibility to do whatever they want with the goalie free agent market. As of this moment, notable UFA goalies include Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Chad Johnson. The RFA list boasts higher ceilings yet would likely require some maneuvering via a trade; the Sabres might decide to part ways with Robin Lehner while the Capitals may decide that it would be better to gain assets for Philipp Grubauer rather than giving him a raise to back up Braden Holtby.

With Carter Hart waiting in the wings as the top goalie prospect in any NHL system (or, at worst, one of the top goalie prospects), the Flyers would likely look for a short-term upgrade if they decided to make a move. Maybe Carter Hutton would be the right fit?

Risk/reward

As usual, there are “buyer beware” situations for 2018 free agency.

On one hand, you have players who’ve inflated their values with career years they’re unlikely to match. The Flyers probably weren’t in the market for John Carlson considering their young defensemen, but even if they were, they’d be better off exploring a cheaper avenue.

With expensive, long-term contracts for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in mind, the Flyers need to be careful when it comes to pondering some of the more intriguing UFA forwards. James Neal seems like a prototypical Flyers forward, yet he’s also already 30, as just one example. Scorers like Evander Kane and former Flyer James van Riemsdyk are enticing, but most if not all of them will ask for the kind of term that could really sting.

Hextall might be better off avoiding the splashier moves, instead either a) seeing which players end up inexplicably being PTO fodder, which seems to happen every summer and/or b) going for guys lower on the radar. Could Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ian Cole, or Michael Hutchinson help out, and do so at cheaper rates? The Flyers might be better off going in that direction, as they’ll want to continue to give their own drafted players opportunities to seize prominent roles.

The Flyers also need to set aside some money for future extensions. Ivan Provorov figures to be expensive when his rookie deal expires after 2018-19. A decision regarding Wayne Simmonds‘ future is looming, as he only has one year left on his deal.

With Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere locked up on bargain contracts, some of the big conundrums have been settled by Hextall’s deft work, but there are still some key decisions to be made, especially if management wants to hedge their bets in net alongside Carter Hart.

***

All things considered, the Flyers might actually be better off trying to improve by making trades.

If I were in Hextall’s shoes, I’d try to pry Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman away in swaps. The Flyers would get at least one season to see how such additions fit into their system, maybe opening the door for a team-friendly extension.

Either way, this summer stands as a fascinating fork in the road. This team showed signs of delivering on the potential prospect hounds have been hyping up. On the other hand, you never know how quickly your window of opportunity can close, particularly if Giroux, Voracek, and others slide.

Hextall has a great opportunity ahead of him, but that opportunity brings with it increased expectations. The honeymoon is about to end, and now he must guide the Flyers through those next, painful steps toward true contention.

Be careful what you wish for.

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.

In trying to keep out Penguins fans, Capitals continue great, petty tradition

Getty
27 Comments

The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are really gearing up with the second round looming. Why limit the pettiness to social media?

Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland passes along word that the Washington Capitals are attempting to take a page from the Vegas Golden Knights in barring unwanted Pittsburgh Penguins fans from their home games in round two.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The specific plan would (at least attempt to) prohibit fans from putting up special pre-sale tickets up for re-sale, again echoing the Golden Knights’ plan (which you can read more about in this post). Here’s an excerpt from the email Oland unearthed at RMNB:

We are offering Club Red 365 members the first opportunity to purchase additional limited inventory at preferred pricing through this exclusive pre-sale. Tickets purchased through this special offer will not be eligible for resale posting as we plan to create an amazing atmosphere in the building where we want all fans Rocking the Red in ALL CAPS.

That seems a bit silly and could even be a sign of mild insecurity, but also seems … kind of great?

For one thing, this series could go either way, and the last thing Capitals fans want to deal with is gloating Penguins devotees crowing about the Pens possibly stealing some games in Washington. Especially with the opportunities for high-profile gloating.

Some might be chagrined by teams taking measures to keep out opposing fans, yet if you ask me, it’s all fair game, especially if the arena’s going to be sold out anyway. (If you’re, say, the Ottawa Senators or some other team having trouble filling the building during a playoff game, then maybe you have to be more accomodating.)

Like it or not, this measure follows a pattern of behavior by the Capitals and for some NHL teams overall.

As Oland’s piece notes, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t been shy about trying to figure out ways to keep Penguins fans out of his building. The AOL executive apparently even punched up his own computer program to try to do the trick. This latest measure is simply the latest strategy, as the Capitals have also tried to curtail an influx of hostile fans by restricting purchases by region and similar limitations.

And, again, the Capitals are far from the only NHL team trying different ways to maintain their home-ice advantage.

The Golden Knights provided a nice blueprint for trying to limit Kings fans when you consider the close proximity between the two franchises. The Nashville Predators have taken similar steps before and appear eager to do so again as their clash looms with the Winnipeg Jets and their passionate fanbase. Checking through PHT’s archives, we’ve seen plenty of examples, including one stretching back as far as 2012 when the New Jersey Devils ran a “No Blue” campaign against the New York Rangers.

(Feel free to mention some other similar campaigns in the comments, as there have probably been a ton of them.)

If such tactics make you grind your teeth, consider this: Penguins fans will almost certainly find their way to Capitals home games, possibly even in large numbers. There’s likely no way of avoiding such a situation in this technological age, particularly if Pens fans are aiming for spite.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s all in good fun, and it might even provide another talking point as these two rivals meet in the second round for the third year in a row.

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.

Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

Getty
15 Comments

If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perrault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perrault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perrault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.