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Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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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.

Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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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.

Boucher, Chiarelli, and a year of strange NHL decisions

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This has been a tough year for those who want NHL teams to hold people accountable for baffling, terrible decisions.

Jim Benning is still the GM for the Vancouver Canucks. The Detroit Red Wings are bloated with hideous contracts, yet Ken Holland just received a contract extension. Marc Bergevin continues to learn the wrong lessons with the Montreal Canadiens as P.K. Subban aims for another deep playoff run for Nashville. There was some logic to the Carolina Hurricanes essentially firing Ron Francis, but after seeing this string of decisions, it makes that choice seem awfully arbitrary.

Thursday provided the latest slew of head-scratchers.

In maybe the worst call of all, the Edmonton Oilers announced that Peter Chiarelli will remain GM despite a parade of cringe-inducing trades.

Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson addressed the future in a puzzling press conference on Thursday. You can watch the full deal in this clip:

Oilers Nation transcribed it by way of fans feelings and emoticons:

Yep, just about right. The early indications are that the Oilers will stick with Todd McLellan as head coach, that they might not trade Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, and that off-season changes might lean toward the incremental rather than the monumental.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for those who seek a meritocracy, and for Oilers fans who’ve endured jokes about Taylor Hall, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and other traded players who’ve flourished outside of Edmonton. There’s always the possibility that Chiarelli & Co. will learn from their mistakes, yet we’ve also seen many examples of NHL GMs “doubling down” on previous errors by handing out faulty extensions, refusing to cut their losses with waning talent, and maintaining a wrong-minded vision of what it takes to succeed.

More than a few people (raises hand) believe that the Oilers largely squandered Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract. Instead of finding a GM with higher odds of surrounding a generational, spellbinding talent with the supporting cast he needs, the Oilers seem content to cross their fingers that Chiarelli will … suddenly figure things out.

Yikes.

The feeling that teams are acting irrationally only increases when you consider Guy Boucher’s predicament with the Ottawa Senators.

One can quibble with Boucher – there’s a sentiment that, while he can bring out early returns, his style might wear thin quickly – yet he’s not even a full 12 months removed from helping a flawed Senators team come within an overtime goal of landing in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Boucher isn’t the one who handed out bad contracts like the Bobby Ryan deal, yet Senators GM Pierre Dorion admits that he hasn’t decided if he’ll bring the bench boss back for 2018-19.

Even if Dorion brings Boucher back, he seems to hand out an ultimatum:

Wow. That’s really something considering that, while Dorion has the excuse of the Senators working under a budget, there are genuine questions about whether he deserves to be back.

A lot of this seems unfair and irrational, but maybe that’s just life and sports.

(At least we can enjoy the second night of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a time when we celebrate teams that tend to make more smart decisions than foolish ones. If nothing else, this is all good news for those teams.)

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.

Biggest contract years for NHL playoff teams

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Technically speaking, NHL players only get paid for the 82-game regular season, aside from the pocket change that comes from certain bonuses for playoff wins.

In reality, a player can make a living off of a magical postseason run or two.

A strong couple of months could end up being costly in contract negotiations, yet greed can also be good in helping a team in the short run. Let’s take a look at the biggest contract year situations for all 16 of the teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In several cases, it’s not as much about deals that will expire after this season, but instead core players lining up for their first cracks at extensions in July.

It only seems fair to begin with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, even if their concerns are minor …

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

West

Nashville Predators

Biggest contract year: Nashville’s biggest concerns come down to the guys whose contracts end after 2018-19: Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne.

Still, there are a couple of RFAs who could mop up. Ryan Hartman needs to prove his value after being traded from the Blackhawks, while Juuse Saros could break the bank if something happens with Rinne and he goes on a big run.

Colorado Avalanche

Biggest contract year: Jonathan Bernier is at quite the fork in the road in his career.

The 29-year-old played a key role in keeping things going for the Avalanche earlier this season when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury, to the point that he probably did enough to earn another backup role. If he can author a big playoff run, then who knows what sort of offer he might be able to command?

With Varlamov’s own deal expiring after 2018-19, a red-hot run from Bernier could even force questions about a changing of the guard.

Winnipeg Jets

Biggest contract year: Connor Hellebuyck is a pending RFA who just broke the single-season wins record for an American goalie, going 44-11-9(!) with a fantastic .924 save percentage. If the Jets make a long-awaited but easy-to-imagine deep run, Hellebuyck will inspire many “buck”-related headlines.

The Jets also have Jacob Trouba and Paul Stastny to consider, while this playoff run will play a role in Patrik Laine‘s extension. Tough to imagine Winnipeg going through the summer without a new deal for Laine, whose rookie deal ends next season.

Minnesota Wild

Biggest contract year: Jason Zucker blew away career-highs in goals (33) and assists (31) this season, generating 64 points. He doesn’t have a huge body of work of scoring at this level (Zucker’s 47 points from 2016-17 were easily his best before this season), so proving it in the postseason could help him earn even more of a boost.

Matt Dumba generated a sneaky-great season of his own, scoring 14 goals and 50 points. The Wild are very lucky that these two players are RFAs.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vegas Golden Knights

Biggest contract year: The Golden Knights cleared up some concerns, such as handing Jonathan Marchessault a team-friendly extension. Even so, the Golden Knights may lead in greed.

William Karlsson is a pending RFA after leading the Golden Knights in scoring. Some of their biggest names are soon to be UFAs, including James Neal and David Perron. This team has a lot to prove and a lot to gain in the postseason.

Los Angeles Kings

Biggest contract year: For better or worse, most of this Kings team is locked in place. Tobias Rieder could be one of those “flavor of the month” types if he rides some high percentages.

Anaheim Ducks

Biggest contract year: Depth youngsters are looking to earn new contracts in Ondrej Kase and Brandon Montour.

Really, John Gibson might be the guy shooting for the most money in Anaheim. His dirt-cheap $2.3 million cap hit expires after 2018-19, so the Ducks will get their first shot at extending the underrated goalie in July. If he can get healthy and lead a surge, Gibson could drive up his price.

San Jose Sharks

Biggest contract year: Evander Kane generated 14 points in 17 games since being traded to the Sharks, and that includes a three-game drought at the end of the season. Few players had as much to gain or lose as Kane did coming into 2017-18, and that remains true entering the postseason.

Tomas Hertl also approaches free agency as an RFA.

[Want to follow the action? Here’s the full schedule, including where to watch.]

East

Tampa Bay Lightning

Biggest contract year: J.T. Miller could really market himself if he can produce alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

The Lightning stand out as one of the teams with the most interest in how this might grease the wheels for extensions, though. Kucherov’s due for an enormous raise over his almost-insulting $4.767M cap hit, while Ryan McDonagh‘s similar mark also runs out after 2018-19.

New Jersey Devils

Biggest contract year: There are quite a few depth players on expiring deals in New Jersey, yet the most interesting names are imports from the trade deadline in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.

So far, Maroon has been especially useful since being traded to the Devils, as he has 13 points in 17 games with New Jersey. It could really help him to prove that he can score without Connor McDavid‘s help.

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Boston Bruins

Biggest contract year: “Ri-Nash needs cash.” Both Rick Nash and Riley Nash are in contract years, with each forward set to be UFAs. Rick Nash probably grades out an “Incomplete” so far in Boston, as he’s only scored six points with the B’s, yet he’s been limited to 11 games played.

Considering how snakebitten Rick Nash has been, it would be pretty funny if he went on a tear in the playoffs. The Bruins wouldn’t mind, even if it would mean that his time would be short with Boston.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Biggest contract year: The Maple Leafs decided to keep rather than trade James van Riemsdyk, even though a lot of signs point to JVR moving on after this season.

For the second time in his career, he passed the 30-goal mark, collecting a career-high 36 goals. Still, this has been far from a fluke, as he’s scored 29 and 27 during other campaigns and has been a reliable 50+ point guy when healthy.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of deal he’ll command, and that’s doubly true if he helps the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins.

There are other notable names (Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Leo Komarov especially), but JVR is the contract year player to watch for Toronto.

Washington Capitals

Biggest contract year: John Carlson‘s long been a solid scorer for Washington, generating 37 points three times and even hitting 55 once. His contract year’s been one to note, though, as he topped all NHL defensemen with a whopping 68 points, including a career-high of 15 goals.

Carlson is poised for a big raise over his near-$4M cap hit. Piling on big postseason numbers would inflate that even more.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Biggest contract year: Boone Jenner fits the mold of a guy who could blow up for a playoff run, as right now, it’s really tough to truly gauge the value of a one-time 30-goal scorer who only managed 32 points this season.

Thomas Vanek and Jack Johnson both have a lot to play for, even though they’re in supporting roles for CBJ.

The biggest situations to eye are players whose deals run through 2018-19. Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski both could get extensions during the off-season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Biggest contract year: Some of the bigger concerns fall after 2018-19, although Jamie Oleksiak might be the latest member of The Justin Schultz Club: players who landed with Pittsburgh and then revitalized their careers (and paychecks). Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan also need to earn some dough.

Philadelphia Flyers

Biggest contract year: None of the Flyers’ goalies are locked up for all that long. Petr Mrazek‘s deal is expiring this summer, while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both see their contracts run out after 2018-19. Philly’s goalies pose plenty of questions, yet you’d think that motivation won’t be lacking.

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.

The Buzzer: Final Hart pushes, glory in garbage time

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Six of eight playoff matchups resolved, all 16 teams determined

During the afternoon, the Flyers finalized the East’s eight by beating the Rangers, pulling the plug on Florida’s surge. Late on Saturday, the Avalanche swiped the final West spot by beating the Blues. Get the lowdown on the matchups that have been determined here and learn how Panthers – Bruins will impact the rest of the East situation in this post.

#FiredAV

Not long after the Rangers’ regular season ended, they announced that Alain Vigneault has been fired.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Final Hart pushes

  • Heading into the 2018-19 season, Claude Giroux crossed the 90-point mark once (93 in 2011-12) and never reached 30 goals in a campaign. Giroux collected his first career hat trick in clinching a playoff spot for the Flyers on Saturday, pushing him to career-highs in goals (34), assists (68), points (102), and even plus/minus (+28). Giroux finished the regular season with a 10-game point streak, generating a ridiculous eight goals (all in the last five contests) and 11 assists for 19 points.

Giroux already courted some Hart buzz, but with this finish, he might just check all the boxes as far as being vital to his team’s success, getting the big numbers as one of the season’s 100-point scorers, and also coming up huge in key situations.

  • With two assists in Edmonton’s shootout victory, Connor McDavid finishes the season with 108 points. In this era, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see a player generate consecutive Art Ross victories and consecutive 100-point seasons. He won the Art Ross by a healthy margin, but the Oilers’ incompetence could very well cost him another Hart Trophy. That shouldn’t diminish another great season for number 97, even though he’s sure to be unhappy with the team results.

  • Nathan MacKinnon slowed down the stretch, so he probably won’t beat out a fierce group of Hart bidders. Still, he’s at least orbiting the discussion, and came through with a strong performance. MacKinnon collected the game-winning goal and an assist, finishing this season with 97 points. Remarkable stuff, especially since injuries limited him to 74 games played.
  • Alex Ovechkin fell just short of 50 goals in 2018-19, collecting two goals in Washington’s win to finish with 49. He’ll settle for yet another Maurice Richard Trophy, and a decent argument to be a Hart Trophy finalist.

Garbage time glory

(Yes, McDavid could fit in this category, too.)

  • With teams either punting on the season or, in many cases, resting players for the postseason, there were some weird results. The Flames bombarded the Golden Knights 7-1, and Mark Jankowski probably made someone big money in DFS, generating a random four-goal game. Wow.

  • Jamie Benn hasn’t had the greatest season, yet he finished it in a way that inspires hope for 2018-19. His natural hat trick helped the Stars spoil the Kings’ bid at improved seeding, and it’s the second hat trick in Benn’s past three games. Benn generated eight goals and two assists for 10 points in his last five games.
  • The Predators already locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, so they didn’t really need Filip Forsberg to generate a hat trick. Still, with nine points in his last five games, maybe he’ll come into the postseason on a high note after a solid but somewhat streaky season?

Highlights

If this is John Tavares‘ last goal and game with the Islanders, at least he’d be going out with style:

Too bad the Panthers didn’t roll with Nick Bjugstad alongside Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov a little sooner:

More factoids

Connor Hellebuyck‘s mark slips under the radar a bit, but might come in handy at the negotiating table (he’s a pending RFA):

Should they re-name it the Ovi Trophy?

Squandering Mathew Barzal‘s sensational rookie season has to sting.

Scores

Flyers 5, Rangers 0
Jets 4, Blackhawks 1
Bruins 5, Senators 2
Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 2
Islanders 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Panthers 4, Sabres 3
Capitals 5, Devils 3
Hurricanes 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Predators 4, Blue Jackets 2
Ducks 3, Coyotes 0
Avalanche 5, Blues 2
Flames 7, Golden Knights 1
Oilers 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Stars 4, Kings 2
Wild 6, Sharks 3

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.