Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the fifth edition of this column, and if you look back (2013, 20142015, 2016), we’ve rarely been wrong. Cry all you want in the comments section, but there’s no way your team is winning it all.

Ottawa Senators: The worst team to make the playoffs. Which makes it even funnier that their owner chose this year to “bet” on the Sens to win the Cup. Good ol’ Eugene Melnyk, the master of unreasonable expectations. Fact: the Sens were the only team to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential. They play a gimmicky system that severely limits their offense, and they play it because they’re not good enough to take on legitimately good teams straight up.

St. Louis Blues: According to the odds makers, the longest shots of the bunch. Bovada has the Blues at 33/1, and frankly, that might be generous. Even GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t think his players can win. Why else would he have traded Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the deadline? That’s not a move contenders make. Sure, the Blues won a few games down the stretch, but only because Jake Allen went on an unsustainable run. The Blues had their chance last year. Their window has closed.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A.k.a. last year’s Dallas Stars. The Leafs may have a dynamic offense, but they’re still terrible defensively. Only two teams, Buffalo and Arizona, surrendered more shots this season, and that’s no formula for success in the postseason. Don’t worry, Leafs fans, you’ll still have fun just being there in the playoffs. But until management finds a way to add another top-4 defenseman – preferably one that can help protect a freakin’ lead — there’s no hope of winning it all.

Nashville Predators: The definition of mediocre. The Preds are 11th in goals for, 15th in goals against, 16th on the power play, and 15th on the PK. Despite all the preseason hype, this team just never got rolling. It would play well for a week, then awful for a week, then well, then awful, and you get the point. Oh, and by the way, is it fair to question whether Ryan Johansen is truly a No.1 center, the kind the Preds thought they were getting when they traded Seth Jones to Columbus? After just 14 goals in 82 games, we think it’s more than fair. Bottom line: Johansen better start showing a little heart. Otherwise, those “soft” and “lazy” labels won’t be going anywhere.

New York Rangers: Granted, they had a better-than-expected regular season. But the Blueshirts still have the same Achilles’ heel: there’s just no way they can make a deep run with that defense. Other than Ryan McDonagh and maybe Brady Skjei, who is trustworthy back there? Who can make a positive contribution on a consistent basis? Who doesn’t need to be sheltered? Who still has gas left in the tank? You’re struggling to answer, and for good reason. The Rangers finished the season in an 8-9-4 tailspin. Even if Henrik Lundqvist is good, they’re gonna find it tough to make a run. And Lundqvist has not been good.

San Jose Sharks: Pete DeBoer would have you believe that this year’s Sharks are even better than last year’s group that went to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, he said that at the All-Star break, before the Sharks’ season-ending slide that cost them first place in the Pacific Division. Add injuries to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to the equation and the Sharks look like a team that peaked too early this season, one with an aging roster that’s going to have trouble matching the pace and intensity of the playoffs. In other words, what they looked like against the Penguins.

Edmonton Oilers: All it took was four first overall picks and the Oilers are back, baby! Way to go, guys. We thought you’d never make it. It’s funny to hear all the great things Peter Chiarelli’s done as GM in Edmonton, when in reality winning the draft lottery and getting Connor McDavid is the sole reason the playoff drought is over. (OK fine, maybe a bit of Cam Talbot too.) The problem is, a team needs strength everywhere to win the Cup, and the Oilers still have a blue line with no hint of a true No. 1 defenseman. Imagine a team winning it all with a top four of Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Kris Russell. You can’t imagine it, because it’s too ridiculous to even try.

Calgary Flames: The other team from Alberta that won’t be winning the Cup. To be fair, the Flames do have a good collection of skaters, both up front and on the back end. They’re probably a better overall team than the Oilers. Except they’ve got one, big problem: Brian Elliott cannot be trusted, and everyone knows it. One day he’s unbeatable, full of swagger and confidence, the next he’s in the depths of a horrendous slump, questioning everything. It’s way beyond the typical highs and lows that come with being a goalie. When Elliott loses his rhythm, he really loses his rhythm. And that’s not the kind of goalie who’s going to win you 16 stressful games.

Boston Bruins: The big problem with the B’s is their depth. Their third and fourth lines don’t produce enough – or anything, really — and whoever ends up on the bottom pairing, you know they’re going to be a liability. On top of all that, Zdeno Chara is 40 damn years old, and he’s still being tasked with No. 1 d-man responsibilities. That’s too much to ask of the NHL’s oldest defenseman, especially in a league that’s never been faster. The Atlantic Division is terrible, so the Bruins can probably win a round or two. But they won’t get any further than that.

Montreal Canadiens: You don’t win the Stanley Cup without a great center. Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Patrice Bergeron. That’s the bar you have to reach. And the Habs aren’t even close. Their centers are Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec, Andrew Shaw, and Steve Ott. They also have Alex Galchenyuk, though he’s not trustworthy enough to play the middle, apparently. Even with Carey Price in goal, it won’t be enough to overcome Montreal’s lack of talent at center. The playoffs are all about matchups, and the Habs can’t match up.

Minnesota Wild: One of the best teams to start the season, but one of the worst to end it. And there’s a simple explanation for that – the Wild’s luck was bound to run out, and that’s exactly what happened. Devan Dubnyk was never going to maintain the .936 save percentage he took into the All-Star break, and his teammates were never going to maintain whatever ridiculous shooting percentage they had. At the end of the day, the Wild are a good but not great team. The same thing they’ve been since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed on. Haven’t been past the second round yet.

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler is out at least two weeks, and it could be six. For a Ducks team that was starting to roll at just the right time, make no mistake, this is a devastating injury. Fowler led the Ducks in ice time (24:51), and with 39 points, he was their highest-scoring d-man. Now it’s up to the young guys to step up. Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour are only 23, and Shea Theodore is just 21. Also, watch for opponents to pick on the Sami VatanenKevin Bieksa pairing. If Randy Carlyle decides to put those two together, that’s a defensive disaster waiting to happen.

Columbus Blue Jackets: A nice story early on, when the power play was unstoppable and Torts looked like a motivational genius. But after a 27-5-4 start, the Jackets went 23-19-4 in their final 46 games, and their power play absolutely stunk (11.4%). If not for Sergei Bobrovsky, their record would’ve been even worse in the second half. Columbus still has a bright future, but a team doesn’t go from terrible to Stanley Cup champion in one year. These playoffs will be a good experience, but nothing more.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens had a legitimate shot to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. We say “had,” because Kris Letang’s injury is too much to overcome, even by a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To say otherwise would be to discount how well Letang played in last year’s playoffs. It was bar none the best hockey of his career. He was as important to the Pens as Duncan Keith to the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty to the Kings when those teams won it all. The defending champs will still be a tough out, but they’ll be an out all the same.

Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks may have gotten the band back together on defense, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Brian Campbell is 37 years old. Johnny Oduya is 35. These guys are not in their primes anymore. As the playoffs wear on, assuming the ‘Hawks can win a series or two, this roster is going to show its age.  And that includes 38-year-old forward Marian Hossa, who’s always been such an underrated part of Chicago’s dynasty. Hossa is still pretty good, but he’s not the player he once was. In the end, age catches up to everyone, and all those Blackhawks rookies that have been forced into the lineup aren’t good enough to make up for it.

Washington Capitals: All the stars have aligned for the first championship in franchise history. A cinch of a first-round opponent in the Leafs. The Penguins without their best defenseman. Whoever comes out of the Atlantic bracket should be no threat whatsoever, and let’s face it, the Western Conference isn’t so daunting anymore. It must be equal parts exciting and terrifying for the Caps and their fans, because it all looks so darn easy. The team has stayed remarkably healthy all season. It added Shattenkirk at the deadline. So… you know why the Caps won’t win? Because it’s never, ever easy. There’s always a Black Swan lurking, and doesn’t this tortured franchise know it. Blow it this year, Caps, and there will be no coming back from the devastation.

Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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Talk about making a great first impression.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Here’s some footage of his performance:

If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.