Tanks for nothing: Some NHL teams can’t win for losing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jack Eichel has difficulty accepting the sorry state of the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t had a sniff at the playoffs in the three years since his celebrated arrival.

”When I got drafted, if you would’ve said we’d be in this position, I probably would’ve told you to give your head a shake,” Eichel told The Associated Press.

Instead, it’s the 21-year-old shaking his head in disbelief over a franchise that’s finished no better than 14th in the Eastern Conference since 2012-13 and in jeopardy of finishing last in the overall standings for the third time in five years.

This isn’t what anyone – from since-fired GM Tim Murray to Sabres fans encouraging the team to tank – were anticipating during the 2014-15 season. That’s when Buffalo was in a race to the bottom for the right to draft one of the two touted, generational prospects: Eichel and Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall by Edmonton.

What’s worse for Eichel is seeing other teams jumping ahead of Buffalo in the rebuilding process.

”You look at Colorado and some of these teams, New Jersey, that make a quick turnaround and all of a sudden they’re in the playoff hunt,” he said.

If misery likes company, the Sabres aren’t the only ones stuck in a rut.

Whatever watershed moment the 2015 draft was supposed to represent by infusing game-changing talent to the NHL’s neediest teams, it has yet to make more than a ripple in the standings.

Eichel hasn’t made a dent in the Sabres’ fortunes despite averaging nearly a point a game. For all of McDavid’s offensive exploits and earning NHL MVP honors last season, the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the second time in his three years.

Instead, the 2015 draft serves as a cautionary example of how bottoming out doesn’t guarantee instant turnarounds.

With the exception of Toronto, three of the teams, including Arizona, with top-five selections in 2015 have already been eliminated from this year’s playoffs, and a fourth, Carolina, could join them soon.

So much for the tanking tenet held by several NHL executives, who thought the best way to build a champion was to start by losing big.

Pittsburgh did that in building its three most recent Stanley Cup champion teams with two No. 1 draft picks (Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) and a No. 2 (Evgeni Malkin). Chicago’s three most recent Cup winners followed the Blackhawks selecting Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 the following year.

And yet, there are exceptions.

Detroit won four titles from 1997 to 2008 despite not drafting higher than No. 19 from 1992 to 2013.

Boston has had a top-10 pick just twice in 10 years.

Just look at the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have clinched a playoff berth and are leading the Pacific Division with a team cobbled together from scratch.

”A lot of teams have a lot of good hockey players, but there’s not many Malkins and Crosbys in the NHL. No, we don’t have them,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s all about being a team. And we’ve been a team since Day 1.”

This year, Nashville is leading the NHL with a roster featuring one top-five draft pick, forward Ryan Johansen, who was acquired in a trade with Columbus, and no other player selected in the top 10.

”You don’t always have to be real bad for a few years to win,” Predators veteran forward Mike Fisher told The AP.

Goalie Pekka Rinne credits Predators management for assembling the team through trades and identifying talent in the later rounds of the draft. The Predators feature six players Nashville selected in the fourth round or lower, including Rinne, an eighth-rounder in 2004.

”We’ve never had to rebuild,” Rinne said. ”And for a guy like myself being here for a long time, it’s nice to have that. You don’t have to waste any years.”

Having a wealth of high picks is no guarantee.

Florida has made the playoffs twice since 2001-02 despite having a top-10 pick 10 times over that span.

The Oilers have made the playoffs once since 2010 despite selecting first four times.

The New York Islanders will miss the playoffs for a sixth time since selecting John Tavares with the No. 1 pick in 2009.

After 2015, there are even fewer benefits to finishing last after the NHL altered its draft lottery formula. Now, the last-place team is assured of nothing more than the No. 4 pick, as opposed to No. 2.

Coyotes forward Brad Richardson questioned whether teams adopting a strategy to lose had lasting effects.

”I don’t want to say tanking, but when you do tank, I think it sets a precedent in your organization that it’s OK to lose, and you’re showing the young guys that losing’s acceptable,” Richardson told The AP.

HOLLAND’S FUTURE

Red Wings GM Ken Holland told The AP he has received no assurances from the team he’ll return for a 21st year, despite reports indicating he will be back.

MLive.com on Tuesday cited an unnamed person in reporting Holland will be back ”with or without a contract.” The Detroit Free Press quoted a person familiar with the situation saying ”he’s going to be back as the GM,” but reported it’s unclear how Holland’s contract will be structured.

Holland, in a text to The AP, declined to discuss whether he’d return without a contract, saying: ”I’ll talk when the final decision has been made.”

LEADERS (Through games Monday)

Points: McDavid, 99. Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 45. Game-winning goals: Sean Monahan (Calgary) and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), 11. Rookie points: Mathew Barzal (Islanders), 78. Goals-against average (minimum 40 games): Fleury (Vegas), 2.12.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Top spot in the overall standings could be on the line Sunday, when the Western Conference-leading Predators travel to play East-leading Tampa Bay.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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.