James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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NHL stars on knocking off Penguins, the ‘heavyweight champs’

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Each time Seth Jones felt like the Columbus Blue Jackets were dominating, the Pittsburgh Penguins went down the ice and scored. The series was over fast.

T.J. Oshie knows the feeling because the Penguins did it to the Washington Capitals often during playoff series the past two years.

“It kind of deflates what we’re doing and it’s hard to trust your game after that,” Oshie said.

Opportunistic, well-coached and talented, Pittsburgh has won eight consecutive playoff series to become the NHL’s only back-to-back Stanley Cup champion of the salary-cap era and the first since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now everyone’s trying to figure out how to stop the march of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins as they go for the three-peat.

“It’s not one thing,” Jones said. “There’s not a Crosby stopper. There’s not a Malkin stopper. You can’t put a stop on them. You just have to contain them.”

No one has contained them so far. The Penguins mowed through the New York Rangers, Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks to win the Cup in 2016 and then the Blue Jackets, Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators in 2017, and only three of those series needed seven games.

Patrick Kane acknowledged that while he and the Chicago Blackhawks used to be the standard after winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the Penguins have surpassed them. While the Los Angeles Kings rivaled the Blackhawks during their heyday, the Penguins have shown to be unbeatable when it matters most.

“It seems like they’re on the brink sometimes, and they find their way out of it,” Kane said. “Just watching games, it’s almost like you have that feeling that they’re going to win, especially in playoffs. Whether that’s the coaching staff or the players or just that organization, it seems like they have something pretty special going right now.”

If there are cracks in Pittsburgh’s armor, they came this offseason with the losses of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Trevor Daley and forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen. But Crosby, Malkin, goalie Matt Murray, winger Phil Kessel, top defenseman Kris Letang and coach Mike Sullivan remain, which explains why the Penguins are favored to win again and make it three in a row for the first time since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.

“When you get Sid, Geno, Letang on the team, you always have a chance,” said Fleury, who went to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. “That’s how I felt every time. When every season started I always felt like we had a chance to do great. I think they’ll be dangerous again.”

Usually the grind of playing over 100 games in a season wears on a team. Ryan Getzlaf, whose Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and lost in the first round the next year, said a team needs luck and a group that’s able to sustain a high level of game through fatigue the entire next year.

Now that the Penguins have sustained to win twice, no one’s betting against them doing it again.

“They’re a good team, and they’re going to continue to be a good team,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “They’re the heavyweight champs right now, and you’ve just got to knock them off.”

Easier said than done. Now maybe Murray will struggle with a heavier workload or the depth that Fleury said paved the way to the championships will wear thin.

But if there’s a blueprint to attacking the Penguins, it might be putting pressure on their blue line.

“You have to play a physical style, but also you have to play a skill style, as well,” Jones said. “You got to get to them, you got to get to the defensemen, I think and that’s something that teams may focus on.”

The Penguins won last spring with a no-name defense while being outshot 794-718, yet they found ways to win. Oshie said any potential Pittsburgh-killer must be more resilient, and Predators defenseman Roman Josi knows there’s a mental aspect to facing a team with so much success.

“Once you win a lot of series, you start to believe more and more and the confidence grows,” Josi said. “As an opponent you’ve got to get in there and believe that you can beat them. Obviously it’s tough. They’re a great team. But you got to have that belief.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Yes, you can probably take the Arizona Coyotes seriously now

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Even if you assume that intriguing young defenseman Jakob Chychrun won’t really be healthy until late in 2017-18, the Arizona Coyotes suddenly boast a remarkably promising defense after acquiring Jason Demers.

(Read more about that significant trade here.)

Demers joins a group including stud blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, underrated puck-mover Alex Goligoski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the best pure “defensive defenseman” in the game.

Jamie McGinn has quietly put together a solid career, yet his kind are easier to come by in the NHL, a league where competent top-four defensemen are at a serious premium. Just ask Coyotes GM John Chayka.

That top four has something for everyone, and generally boasts the sort of mobile, talented defensemen that are coveted in the NHL.

Ask yourself for a moment: how many teams, particularly in the Western Conference, can confidently say that they have a better defense corps than the Coyotes do right now? The Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames are immediate answers, while the St. Louis Blues likely boast a stronger group, too.

Things get a little fuzzier once you reach down the conference’s ranks.

The San Jose Sharks boast bigger strengths on the high-end with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, but the Coyotes might have them beat from a depth perspective. The Winnipeg Jets boast some interesting talent, yet you wonder if Paul Maurice is really harnessing that potential. And so on.

We can quibble over Arizona’s exact place among those groups, yet it’s difficult to dispute that, suddenly, the Coyotes seem respectable in that area.

They have the makings of a team that can make a surge in other areas, too.

If Antti Raanta can covert strong backup work to full-time difference-making (see: Cam Talbot, Martin Jones), suddenly the Coyotes are that much tougher to score against.

Stepan gives that forward group some credibility, while things could get interesting if Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and Dylan Strome take steps forward. And, really, a signing like this might inspire the Coyotes to push to add a little more offense.

(Maybe older guys [who can be more than mere mentors] like Jaromir Jagr or Denis Zaripov deserve at least an exploratory phone call right now?)

There are a ton of “Ifs,” right down to how well Rick Tocchet can mold what, to many, looks like a roster that’s about as polished as a ball of clay.

Don’t be surprised if the Coyotes become a chic dark horse candidate as previews start trickling in, though, either.

Trade: Panthers send Jason Demers to Coyotes for Jamie McGinn

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The Florida Panthers continue to hit the “reset” button on their brief analytics era now that GM Dale Tallon is fully back in charge. Sometimes that means making some dramatic moves.

The Arizona Coyotes certainly seem analytics-leaning, too, so it makes sense that they’ll reportedly be the new home for defenseman Jason Demers. The Panthers recently confirmed that they will receive Jamie McGinn in the trade.

It should be a fairly even swap from a cap-hit-standpoint, at least thanks to this wrinkle, via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Two teams moving in opposite directions

Again, the Panthers are really doubling down on Tallon’s vision, which seems to mean jettisoning “fancy stats guys.”

The Panthers already parted ways with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith around the time of the expansion draft. There were rumors of Keith Yandle being floated, but perhaps his deal isn’t palatable for suitors.

Demers is very much along those same lines, and it makes sense that the Coyotes would have interest in him.

This continues a dramatic makeover for Arizona. As crucial as the additions of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta might be (not to mention the exits of Shane Doan and now-former-head-coach Dave Tippett), the Coyotes’ defense corps now look remarkably modern. They’re inching up the ranks thanks to trades for Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson, along with the signing of Alex Goligoski. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has gone from feeling very alone on that blueline to being the leader of an increasingly formidable group.

On the other hand, these defensemen aren’t exactly cheap. The Coyotes have made some bold moves under progressive-minded GM John Chayka, yet that aggressiveness will also bring higher expectations.

And, if this ends up looking bad for the Coyotes, the analytics naysayers won’t hesitate to gloat.

McGinn is the kind of player Tallon might love

McGinn, 29, has two years remaining on a contract that carries a $3.33 million cap hit.

He’s a grinder with some skill, as he’s generated two 20+ goal seasons and managed 19 in another campaign. McGinn must be getting used to checking real estate listings, too, as this is the fourth time he’s been traded.

Demers has been around, too, as you can note from this interesting anecdote.

After venting about Lightning, Kucherov gets his wish: Stamkos on his line

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Whether Nikita Kucherov‘s complaints about his linemates were overblown or if the frustration was very real, it seems like he’s getting his way, at least early on in Tampa Bay Lightning training camp.

Kucherov spoke of how well he clicked with Steven Stamkos before the Lightning star went down with his latest hard-luck injury. He’s back with Stamkos (and Vladislav Namestnikov) so far, and the two key Lightning forwards provided glowing reviews of each other, as Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reports.

The comments border on the adorable at times, to be honest.

“I think sometimes we think the same way,” Kucherov said. “You can see it on the ice. I always know where ‘Stammer’ is going to be, and I’m sure he knows where I’m going to be. It’s just so much fun playing with him.”

It’s probably fair to say that Kucherov was a little harsh about his linemates in 2016-17. While it’s true that there was a lot of uncertainty in that regard, injuries forced head coach Jon Cooper’s hand. And, hey, you could do worse than Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, his two most frequent forward partners.

Still, this could be the right move for the Lightning, and not out of appeasing Kucherov.

Stamkos faces a challenge in producing after recovering from his latest health issues, and it’s plausible that he won’t be truly 100 percent for a while, if not maybe a full season. Having Kucherov on his line to open things up and make plays could be crucial for Stamkos and the Lightning in general.

Especially if other forwards like Johnson get healthier and show they can carry lines if the Bolts decide to go a little top-heavy.

Of course, lines change often, and the pre-season isn’t always the most reliable forecast for future combinations. It might not be such a bad idea for the Lighting to keep those two together, anyway.

Winnipeg Jets salary cap outlook after Little signing

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Even stretching back to when he was a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little has long been a worthy addition to any “underrated players” list.

While it wasn’t the sort of deal that’s guaranteed to collapse your salary structure, Little’s six-year, $31.75 million contract extension should ensure that he isn’t on many underpaid players lists.

PHT’s been mowing through many teams’ salary cap situations during this off-season, so why not continue with Winnipeg?

A unique challenge

Sometimes it’s fairer to “grade on a curve” when it comes to judging a team’s situation.

In the case of the Jets, it’s no secret that they sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to drawing in free agents. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.

Now, such thoughts don’t totally excuse the near-immunity that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice seem to enjoy, but it’s worth noting that the Jets might have more incentive than other teams to keep players in the fold because it’s not always so easy to draw people in.

Young players with dollars to earn

It’s been said before, and it’s true: patience is running low for the Jets. Well, aside from the whole “handing the GM and head coach an extension even though the franchise has never won a playoff¬†game” thing.

Anyway, this is a key season in many ways, including deciding which players to add to the core.

This post goes into great detail on Jacob Trouba likely costing the Jets a lot of money in the future, but there’s little doubt that, if they want to keep him – and they should – it probably won’t be so cheap this time around. Trouba, 23, will see his $2.81M cap hit expire after this season.

There are some expendable veterans with expiring contracts, but to keep this post from being Byfuglien-sized, let’s consider the most important players with short deals.

One interesting guy is Nikolaj Ehlers, whose rookie deal runs out after 2017-18. He’s shown serious potential already; if I were in Cheveldayoff’s shoes, I’d strongly consider signing him now rather than allowing him to pull a poor man’s Pastrnak/Draisaitl and drive up his value.

There’s not much they’ll likely be able to do to keep Patrik Laine from costing a lot, but at least he has two years left on his entry-level contract. (These are the windows that contending teams exploit, so we’ll see if Winnipeg can take advantage.)

Joshua Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck are other especially interesting pending RFAs to watch; long story short, the Jets have a lot of them to consider.

Key veteran decisions

The good news for Winnipeg is that the Ondrej Pavelec nightmare is over.

It’s also mostly good news that, unlike other NHL teams, they’re not tied to a goalie long-term. That could make for very helpful flexibility in this league.

Still, many GMs get queasy over uncertainty in net, so Hellebuyck only being under contract for one year and Steve Mason only having two covered might make some nervous. (Personally, it seems like a refreshingly positive situation.)

One really big consideration is Blake Wheeler.

Wheeler, 31, is worth a lot more than the $5.6M per year he’ll fetch for two more seasons. He’s getting up there in years, and if the Jets continue to struggle, it could be a tough call for both sides.

Tyler Myers‘ seemingly eternal $5.5M cap hit expires after two more seasons. What does the future hold for the towering 27-year-old?

The Jets should expect some relief when Toby Enstrom‘s $5.75M cap hit evaporates. He’s been a good soldier for Winnipeg/Atlanta, to the point that it’s surprising he’s only 32. If he’s back, one figures it would be for a steep discount. Chances are, the Jets will appreciate that extra money with some important, core players needing deals.

Worries

Dmitry Kulikov is settled in with a three-year deal, but he has a lot to prove.

Dustin Byfuglien is a force of nature, and a guy who deserves a Phil Kessel-type renaissance after frequently being a scapegoat (and also often being snubbed by Team USA). Even so, that huge frame could become a problem as he ages – Buffy is already 32 – and his $7.6M carries through 2020-21.

Little is a quality player, but his age and history of injury issues makes his contract a bit of a gamble.

Shrewd with Scheifele

Overall, there’s a lot to like with Winnipeg.

Mark Scheifele‘s deal might honestly deserve its own section. Scheifele, 24, has dreams of matching Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, but he’s already developed into a legitimate top-line center. He’s entering the second year of a contract that carries just a $6.125M cap hit, and it runs through his peak years (ending at 2023-24).

Expect that contract to climb the biggest bargain ranks, especially once we see Erik Karlsson and John Tavares get new deals.

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All things considered, the Jets’ situation looks very good.

That said, much like on the ice, some of the most important moments lie in the future.