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Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

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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 Perreault, 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, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — 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.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: King Clancy nominees; Rutherford mad at Flyers fans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Each team unveiled their nominee for the King Clancy Award, which is given “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” Ryan Getzlaf, Zdeno Chara, Tyler Seguin, P.K. Subban, the Sedin twins are all on the list. (NHL.com)

• Winning three Stanley Cup titles in a row would be a great accomplishment for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but a successful year would be making it out of the Metropolitan Division bracket. Anything beyond that is gravy. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• Pens GM Jim Rutherford wasn’t happy with Flyers fans after they threw beer can on the ice following their team’s Game 6 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy sat down for a Q&A with Sports Express. He talked about Nikita Kucherov‘s ability to torment goalies, Evgeni Nabokov’s influence on him, and much more. (Raw Charge)

• Paul Maurice’s playing career came to an abrupt ending, but he managed to transition into coaching pretty quickly. Even though he had doubts early on, everything worked out. (Featurd)

• After a great season, the Avalanche decided to give Jared Bednar a one-year contract extension. Also, don’t be surprised if the team becomes even younger than they were this year. (Denver Post)

• There’s been rumblings about Erik Karlsson being on the trade market. Most teams would jump at the opportunity to acquire a player like that, but here’s three reasons why the Rangers should stay away. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Minnesota Wild decided to part ways with GM Chuck Fletcher for a few reasons. Cap management, the losses in the expansion draft and the struggles they’ve had in the entry draft are three of the reasons he got let go. (Hockey Wilderness)

• This gay ECHL referee hasn’t had it easy during his time in the hockey, but he keeps pushing forward with his sights set on the NHL. (New York Times)

Jim Howard of Puck Junk recently came across an audio yearbook on the 1979-1980 New York Islanders. The record touched on the Isles’ journey from an expansion team to Stanley Cup Champs. (Puck Junk)

• The Vancouver Canucks need a lot of help on defense heading into next season. They can either hope to win the right to draft Rasmus Dahlin, or they can go after John Carlson in free agency. (TSN)

• Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura was back on campus after spending some time with the Chicago Blackhawks down the stretch. (College Hockey News)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ovechkin powers Capitals to another second-round series vs. Penguins

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When the Washington Capitals lost the opening two games of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice — including a Game 2 loss that seemed to only add to their playoff torment — it seemed as if they were headed for another bitterly disappointing exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then they changed goalies.

Then Alex Ovechkin promised they were going back home tied at two.

Then they finally got a playoff bounce to go their way.

Then they won four games in a row, including Monday’s 6-3 Game 6 decision in Columbus, to eliminate the Blue Jackets and move on to the second-round where they will meet a very familiar nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the third year in a row.

For now, though, the focus remains on what the Capitals accomplished in Round One and the way Ovechkin helped put the team on his back and lift them to the series win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Do not let anybody ever tell you that Ovechkin doesn’t come through in the playoffs. If they try to, they are wrong. Horribly wrong. Laughably wrong. After his two-goal effort on Monday, he is now up to 51 goals and 98 total points in 103 career postseason games.

His 0.49 goals per game average is the second-highest among active NHL players that have played in at least 50 playoff games, trailing only Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

His 0.96 points per game average is sixth among that same group, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Getzlaf.

He has never had a postseason series in his career where he did not score at least one goal. Don’t think that sounds impressive? Consider that out of the top-25 active postseason goal-scorers in the NHL, all of them — except for Ovechkin — have had at least one postseason series where they were held without a goal. Only four of those players have had fewer than two postseason series without a goal. Scoring goals in the modern day NHL is difficult. It is even more difficult in the playoffs. There is something to be said for that level of consistency.

He brought it in the first-round against the Blue Jackets scoring five goals and adding three assists. He had at least two points in four of the six games, including three of the Capitals’ wins.

On Monday, those two goals were massive for the Capitals, scoring them just six minutes apart in the second period to help them open up a 3-1 lead. The second goal was a vintage Ovechkin power play goal that he scored from his office on top of the circle.

The greatest sign of dominance in professional sports is when the other team knows exactly what you are going to do, where you are going to do it from, and how you are going to do it, and they are still powerless to stop  you. That is Alex Ovechkin on the power play.

That power play unit was 9-for-27 in the series.

Now the Capitals move on to the second round where they have to play the team they’ve had issues trying to solve. The Penguins and Capitals have met in the playoffs 10 times before. The Penguins have won nine of them, including in the second-round in each of the past two seasons and all three times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era.

Will this be the year the Capitals get over that hump? They are not quite as deep as the teams that could not do it the past two years, but Braden Holtby appears to be locked in in net after regaining his starting job and Ovechkin is playing great. Both are great signs. If the past three matchups between these two franchises are any indication it is sure to be an amazing series that probably goes the distance.

Get ready for it.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: McAvoy needs to step up; 2018 mock draft

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Keelan Moxley (the young girl that Brett Connolly had a hard time getting a puck to last week) finally got to meet the Capitals forward. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Overtimes between the Capitals and Blue Jackets have made this series exciting, but it’s starting to take a toll on players and fans, too. (The Hockey Writers)

• Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy needs to find a way to be more involved in this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (WEEI)

• There’s a few reasons why the Winnipeg Jets managed to dispose of the Minnesota Wild in five games. Their play on home ice and Connor Hellebuyck are right at the top of the list. (NHL.com)

• Now that Tomas Hertl is completely healthy, the Sharks are expecting him to take his game up another notch. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Even though the second round is on the verge of beginning, the Vegas Golden Knights are as healthy as they’ve ever been. (SinBin.Vegas)

Andrei Vasilevskiy is a man of few words, but he made quite the statement in Tampa’s first-round series against the New Jersey Devils. (Tampa Bay Times)

• NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke discussed the challenges and next steps his group has to undertake in order to get a team running by 2020-21. (MyNorthWest.com)

• Finding a general manager might not be so easy for the Carolina Hurricanes, but Rod Bring’Amour is definitely willing to serve as a head coach. (Raleigh News & Observer)

• The St. Louis Blues invited their season ticket holders to paint the ice, so one fan took the opportunity to mock a controversial offside decision. (The Sports Daily)

• Blackhawks forward Anthony Duclair reached out to a youth hockey player in Nova Scotia that was the victim of a racial slur. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)

• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)

• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)

• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)

• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman suspended one game for illegal check to head

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When the Nashville Predators attempt to close out their series against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night they will be without forward Ryan Hartman.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday afternoon that Hartman has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg during the Predators’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.

Here is the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

He was given a two-minute minor penalty for charging on the play. It happened early in the third period.

It turned out to be a pretty eventful night for Hartman as he was also penalized in the second period for roughing and holding the stick during a sequence that saw him get speared by Avalanche forward Sven Andrighetto.

Andrighetto was given a roughing penalty during the sequence, but to this point has not received any supplemental discipline for the spearing incident.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This is already the fourth suspension of the playoffs as Hartman joins Drew Doughty (one game), Nazem Kadri (three games), and Josh Morrissey (one game) as players to sit for at least one game.

There was only one suspension during the entire 2017 playoffs.

The Predators acquired Hartman at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Victor Ejdsell, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. In 78 games this season between the two teams he scored 11 goals to go with 20 assists. Three of those goals game as a member of the Predators. So far in the first-round series against Colorado he has scored one goal for the Predators.

Related: Avalanche to start Andrew Hammond in Game 5

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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.