Jason Brough

Can the Stars prove their doubters wrong?

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The Dallas Stars did two things Sunday in Minnesota:

1. They hung on to beat the Wild, 5-4, and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

This was the encouraging thing.

2. They got outscored 4-1 in the third period, coming oh-so-close to blowing the 4-0 lead that they’d managed to build in the first 40 minutes.

This was the worrying thing.

All things considered, it was a very Dallas Stars way to close out a series. The Stars led the NHL in offense during the regular season, but finished 19th in goals-against. Because of that, many wondered how they’d fare in the playoffs, where that old cliche about defense winning championships is repeated for good reason.

Next up for the Stars? The punishing St. Louis Blues — one of the best defensive teams in the league, with a gang of heavy hitters, not to mention the assassin that is Vladimir Tarasenko.

No disrespect to the Wild, but this will be a much tougher test for the Stars.

Dallas winger Patrick Sharp won three Stanley Cups in his time with the Blackhawks. He knows what it took for that team to keep winning deep into the postseason.

“We won in Chicago because we protected our net well and we limited chances for the other team,” Sharp told PHT in December.

“I know there were some big-time forwards and defensemen there that got a lot credit for scoring goals, but we knew the identity of the team was defense-first, and that’s what we’re preaching in here as well.

“We’ve got some world-class players that can put the puck in the net, but when we have success, it’s playing well away from the puck, it’s protecting our goaltender and playing from the back end out.”

The Stars did, at times, play well defensively in the first round. They shut out the Wild in the first game, then won the next, 2-1.

Granted, they surrendered 16 goals over the next four games, but the bottom line is that they won the series, and they deserved to win the series.

Scoring goals and winning hockey games. It’s what the Stars have been doing all year.

We’ll see now what they can do against the Blues.

Goals against of past six Stanley Cup champs
2014-15 Blackhawks (2nd, 2.27)
2013-14 Kings (1st, 2.05)
2012-13 Blackhawks (1st, 2.02)
2011-12 Kings (2nd, 2.07)
2010-11 Bruins (2nd, 2.30)
2009-10 Blackhawks (6th, 2.48)

Three major challenges facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who won’t be the champs in 2016

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The Chicago Blackhawks lost to an excellent team in the St. Louis Blues. If a few bounces had gone their way, they could’ve beaten that excellent team.

But they lost, and now, for the first time since 2012, they’re out after the first round of the playoffs.

While the future isn’t exactly bleak in Chicago, GM Stan Bowman does face some significant challenges going forward.

Salary-cap strapped

The good news is Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still young, each just 27 years old. The bad news is they’re really expensive now, each with a cap hit of $10.5 million.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about the challenges of having two superstars take up so much of the payroll. Naturally, it’s the depth that suffers. Currently, the Penguins have a bunch of kids on cheap contracts who are contributing, and that’s been absolutely vital to their success. 

In Chicago, it was the blue line where depth was the big concern this season. The ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Oduya. Instead, they relied on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk to log top-four minutes behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Van Riemsdyk played well, but it was a lot to ask of him, and sometimes he faltered. Two other rookies —  Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg — never earned the coach’s trust, forcing David Rundblad into the lineup. (The Blues, meanwhile, had this kid by the name of Colton Parayko….)

If van Riemsdyk, Svedberg, and Gustafsson can continue to get better, the ‘Hawks might actually be pretty solid on the back end next season. There’s also still Ville Pokka in the minors, and perhaps they’ll pursue a veteran in free agency.

Up front is where the depth concerns could be greatest in 2016-17. Will the ‘Hawks be able to keep Andrew Shaw? What about Andrew Ladd? The former is a restricted free agent who’s in line for a good-sized raise. The latter is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Chicago really can’t afford to overpay a player at that point in his career.

GM Stan Bowman has tried in the past to move Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit (through 2016-17), and he’ll no doubt try again this offseason. But no team is going to take that on for free. They’ll want something in return, like one of the Blackhawks’ prospects.

Which brings us to…

The prospect pool

It lacks elite talent — a consequence of not missing the playoffs and making trades for immediate help.

The ‘Hawks do have a handful of youngsters in the system who could one day make an impact at the NHL level, including forwards Mark McNeill, Vince Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz. On defense, there’s Pokka and Gustav Forsling.

But they didn’t have a first-round pick last year (they traded it to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), and they don’t have one this year (they traded it to Winnipeg for Ladd, along with Marko Dano).

The ‘Hawks know better than anyone that even great rosters need to be constantly refreshed with young talent. A number of key contributors to last year’s championship — guys like Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Saad — weren’t on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. They were all drafted and developed in the years after, helping replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Kris VersteegTroy Brouwer, and Dustin Byfuglien.

The infusion of young talent is going to be doubly important now, because…

An aging core

This is a sensitive topic, but here’s the reality — Marian Hossa is among the oldest forwards in the league. He’s still a very good player at 37, but his production did decline significantly in the regular season.

Yes, Hossa showed in the playoffs that he can still bring it. He scored three times against the Blues; had a couple of assists, too. The reason that guys like Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zdeno Chara can remain effective for so long is that they were so great in their primes. Even after they decline, they’re still really good.

But they do decline. All of them. It cannot be avoided. Nature says so. Their fans can kick and scream all they want. Won’t help.

In a related story, Duncan Keith is 32 and Brent Seabrook is 31. Keith has played 833 games in the NHL, plus 122 more in the playoffs. Seabrook has played 844 games, plus 119 more in the playoffs. There are a lot of miles on those bodies.

To clarify, nobody’s saying those two aren’t good anymore — heck, Keith is only one year removed from one of the greatest playoff performances ever by a defenseman — but they will start to decline. Even if it’s a gradual decline, the NHL is so closely contested, and those two have been so vital to the Blackhawks’ success, that it will be felt.

Playoffs were ‘great learning experience’ for Panthers

Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44), left wing Jussi Jokinen (36) and center Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrate with defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (7) after Kulikov scored an open-net goal during the third period of Game 2 in a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Islanders, Friday, April 15, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) There was a stretch in the regular season where the Florida Panthers seemed like they were getting every break, helping them put together what became a franchise-record 12-game winning streak.

And then came the postseason, when it seemed like no bounces went Florida’s way.

The Panthers played a six-game series against the New York Islanders, found themselves trailing in only two of those games – and lost the series anyway, doomed by three overtime losses and three games where Florida could not hang on to leads. So with that, the season came to an end in April once again for the Panthers.

Except this time, the sense of optimism about what’s coming might be more real than ever before.

“It was a great learning experience for a lot of our young kids,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was a lot of kids’ first playoff experience. We’re a real young team and we’ll be better next year.”

The Panthers have a group of young stars who should be together for years — Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith among some of them. They have a goalie in Roberto Luongo who turned 37 and still had one of his best seasons. They have Gallant, who might be a frontrunner for NHL honors after leading the Panthers to the Atlantic Division title.

If they can keep Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers will be a popular pick to go a long way next season.

“Nobody picked us to finish first place in the Atlantic and we had 103 points and we came a long way,” Gallant said. “And I think anybody who knows our hockey team, knows the character, how good our young players are and how good we’re going to be for the next number of years. … I know going forward we’ve got a great team.”

Here’s some of the issues facing the Panthers as their offseason begins:

JAGR STATUS: The 44-year-old led the Panthers in scoring with 66 points, has been an invaluable mentor to linemates Barkov and Huberdeau, and probably rivals Luongo as Florida’s most popular player. His postseason was frustrating in that he was on the ice for 163 shifts and finished with a mere two assists, extending his playoff goal drought to 37 games (spanning 100 shots and 852 shifts). The sense is that the Panthers will know quickly if he’s coming back. It’s his call; the team absolutely wants him to return.

CAMPBELL’S CONTRACT: D Brian Campbell has been with the Panthers for five years, and played in all 389 games that the team had (including playoffs) in that span. An unrestricted free agent now, some might point to his age – he turns 37 next month – and wonder if Florida should keep him. Others could point to his career-best plus-31 rating this season and quickly realize what he meant to the Panthers in this turnaround campaign.

MITCHELL’S FUTURE: Continuing the what-happens-next trend, D Willie Mitchell missed Florida’s final 42 games and there were reports that he’s considering retirement because of concerns over past concussions. Mitchell is a free agent, has served as the Panthers’ captain and teammates said he still had a role in the postseason run even while not being on the ice.

BOLLAND’S ANKLE: Forward Dave Bolland‘s health is a big question, and unlike the Jagr, Campbell and Mitchell matters this one might not get answered for a while yet. He’s only two years into a $27.5 million, five-year deal – and his 2015-16 season ended in mid-December because of an ankle problem that has dogged him for years. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner, though it remains most unclear if Bolland will be able to help the Panthers going forward.

ON-ICE CHANGES: While the young core of the Panthers is going to be around for a while, expect Florida GM Dale Tallon to look for help on special teams when free agency begins. The Panthers were in the NHL’s bottom third this season in both power-play success (16.9 percent) and penalty killing (79.5 percent). The backup goaltender spot will also have to be addressed, with Al Montoya (12-7-3, 2.19) now a free agent.

Related: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

Larkin, Glendening, and Skjei added to U.S. world championship squad

Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders in the third period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP
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The end of the playoffs for the Red Wings and Rangers meant some new additions to the United States squad that will compete in next month’s world championship in Russia.

Detroit forwards Dylan Larkin and Luke Glendening, along with New York defenseman Brady Skjei, have received and accepted the call.

They’ll join a roster that already included the likes of Auston Matthews, Kyle Connor, Noah Hanifin, and Thatcher Demko.

It’s another young team for the Americans. Matt Hendricks, 34, is the only player in his 30s.

The United States picked up a bronze in last year’s tournament, with a roster that featured college stars Larkin, Jack Eichel, Jimmy Vesey, Alex Lyon, and Mike Reilly.

Related: Demko added to U.S. squad

Milwaukee Bucks say ‘no plans for the NHL’ at new arena

A rendering of a proposed new Milwaukee Bucks arena is shown during a press conference Wednesday, April. 7, 2015, in Milwaukee.  (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
AP
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Milwaukee’s new arena for the NBA’s Bucks will be hockey-compatible, but don’t count on any big push to land an NHL franchise.

“There are no plans for the NHL,” Bucks spokesman Jake Suski told the Milwaukee Business Journal.

The basketball team will operate the new arena, which is slated to open in 2018. It’s expected that Bucks ownership will pursue hockey events like the NCAA’s Frozen Four and/or NHL exhibition games.

Of note, Milwaukee’s AHL team, the Admirals, will not be tenants in the new building; instead, they’ve signed a 10-year lease to play at UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena, starting next season.

Related: Hey, what about Milwaukee?