Training Camp Battles: Southeast Division

With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Previous entries: Northeast Division, Pacific Division, Central Division.

Current entry: Southeast Division

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for studlydudley.jpgAtlanta Thrashers

Contributor: Laura Astorian from Thrashing the Blues.

The battle for who’s going to be the best third liner on the team’s a big one. No, I kid. I kid. The Thrashers are a bit stacked with grinders, and defense… but regardless of who makes the cut there we’re ok. It’ll be goal again – if Pavelec can play consistently like he did at the start of last season, we’ll be solid. Instead I think that we might be relying on Mason to be SuperBeard yet again.

Defense’s under some competition that no one expected. There’s a log jam there now since Buff’s been moved to D, so now the question is about who’ll be our 7th defenseman – Valabik or Kulda? Kulda could play in the NHL this year, and Boris was looking much better last year before his leg exploded.

Our biggest weakness is a lack of a big scorer, though I broke it down the other day on SB Nation Atlanta and realized that scoring in general isn’t an issue – just having that one go-to guy. Honestly, after watching everyone predict the Thrashers’ offense when we had Kovy, maybe not having a big guy isn’t a bad idea.

Not sure about having a player come out of nowhere, but Patrice Cormier’ll come out of camp ready to make an impact. He won’t score a bunch, but he’ll be a solid checker who will intimidate and lead the youth by example – he took charge at prospect camp. Alex Burmistrov could stand a little bit of a chance – the kid is fast and has wonderful aim – but I wonder if he’ll be up to snuff as far as Dudley’s size standards go. He was about 180 at camp, so he needs to add a little bit more.

Thumbnail image for truutu.jpgCarolina Hurricanes

Contributor: Carolyn Christians from Canes Country.

Unlike last preseason, the Carolina Hurricanes depth chart is completely wide open among forwards, with only two of twelve positions etched in stone. Beyond Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter who are locked in as the top two centermen, we have no idea how the lines will be sorted out by the opener in Helsinki. The pressure’s on Coaches Paul Maurice and Ron Francis to find the right mix of wings to complete the top six and optimize the talents of Staal and Sutter. And then finish the job by assembling the bottom six from scratch. GM Jim Rutherford has made it clear that the Canes are in “transition” and going younger. Two familiar 31-year- old veterans, Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov, are facing contract years. These two wingers, each with up-and-down careers, will be in a battle for top ice time, competing with a hungry pack of youngsters (e.g. Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty, Jeff Skinner, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, shall I go on?) pushing hard to grab their spots. With six pre-season games before heading to Russia, we can expect some entertaining hockey over the next couple weeks.

The most intriguing position battle at camp this year? Easy: Third-line center. The contest seems to be between two rookies, Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe and Cornell’s Riley Nash. Though the consensus is that sniper Jeff Skinner, the Canes 2010 draft 7th overall pick, will be moved to wing “If and When” he joins the fray at the NHL level, I can’t eliminate the possibility he might also stay at center, and compete for the job. Among the veterans, Jussi Jokinen, Patrick
Dwyer or even Tuomo Ruutu’s names have been mentioned. Could AHL All-Star Jon Matsumoto challenge the field at camp, after three full seasons with the Flyers’s affiliate Adirondack Phantoms without a single NHL call-up?

The Canes have a ridiculous number of quality right shooting offensive defensemen (Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, Jamie McBain, and Bobby Sanguinetti), but I’m concerned they’re missing enough back-end muscle to preserve Cam Ward’s view of the action. The only reliable stay- at-home type is Tim Gleason, who, at 27, emerged last season as the team’s heart and-soul (and on occasion, blood-and-guts) strong man. Will the league’s top minute-muncher Joni Pitkanen, known for his stellar, albeit risky, breakout passes, take up some of the slack and be a consistent power in the D-zone? Perhaps big man, and Nic Wallin look-alike, Jay Harrison, hampered by injuries last season, then re-signed to a barebones one-year deal in April, will finally become a NHL force to be reckoned with. My money is on young Brett Carson, who I expect will continue to quietly develop, and will earn a place as a regular in the top-four, with the right size and attitude to get the job the done.

While Rutherford’s preseason stump speech repeatedly suggests there is a roster spot waiting for first round pick Jeff Skinner if he shows he wants it, I expect Skinner will have his 9-game tryout, but beyond that, I’d give him a 60% chance of sticking it out the whole season. What’s the point of rushing?

After the jump, The Litter Box covers the Florida Panthers, Raw Charge forecasts the Lightning and Storming the Crease underlines the Capitals’ biggest battles.


Thumbnail image for vokounstays.jpgFlorida Panthers

Contributor: Donny Rivette from The Litter Box.

Florida is in a rather unique position in that no real “battles” are being waged for an opening day roster spot. Given the large number of new and existing contracts involved, a prospect will really have to knock socks off of GM Dale Tallon and coach Peter DeBoer to earn placement so quickly. Fortunately, the majority of those deals are of the single-year variety: no less than seven veterans – from captain Bryan McCabe to Cory Stillman to Chris Higgins and so on – are staring at unrestricted free agency in 2011, and logic suggests most will be dealt at or before the trade deadline.

The most serious competition probably rests in goal, surprisingly enough. Veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun – still one of the league’s best, and a pending UFA – is secure in his job, at least until the deadline. Florida has a wealth of talent at the position, first and foremost of which is Sweden’s Jacob Markstrom, widely accepted as the best goaltender outside the NHL. Though he’ll start in AHL Rochester, he’s now a trade away from what’s certain to be a long career in the bigs, and few prospects have shown the hunger he has for the starters’ role. Scott Clemmensen has two years remaining on his deal, so barring a bizarro offer thrown Florida’s way, he’s with the organization for that length. And that’s not a bad situation…he’s an older backup with tremendous success as a Devil. Took some time to adjust to the Panthers’ odd All For One and One For Me motto of last year, but when he became comfortable it was lights-out on the competition. Same with his time at the World Championship. Another A-List blue-chipper, Marc Cheverie has a drive similar to Markstrom, which will make life for current Amerks’ goalie Tyler Plante more than interesting. Brian Foster is a bit down the ladder, but owns an impressive resume himself. Long story shortened: All are under contract, and one will be left in the dirt. Florida already loaned out Rochester’s Alex Salak to the SEL, so something has to give.

A glaring weakness is the Panthers players’ lack of familiarity with their own organization. Been a lot of turnover, as Tallon weeded the minors of deadwood and accumulated 13 picks in seven rounds during this summer’s Entry Draft. Such a coup must eventually be balanced for, and the younglings among the ranks have little to no experience working alongside each other, along with a clash of cultures as the “Dale” boys are weaved among the “Keenan/Martin/Sexton” clan. This can be remedied over time, and employing a club liason in the form of ex-Cat captain Brian Skrudland can only improve the working relationships of all involved. Also: we’re talking about 19-year olds; a little slack, please.

Fans are unquestionably hoping to see 2010 3rd overall pick Erik Gudbranson make the club out of camp. Having seen him personally several times in the past week, I’ll stand by the stereotype: dude’s an exceptional specimen of size, strength, and maturity. And a wicked – but effective – mean streak. Does he pull a Kulikov and play himself into the lineup? Perhaps, but Tallon wisely built on defensive depth through the summer just in case the Kingston behemoth isn’t quite ready for prime time, effectively placing promotion in the hands of the 18-year old himself. Not to worry…this kid will be the face of the Panthers for a decade.

Thumbnail image for simongagne6.jpgTampa Bay Lightning

Contributor: John Fontana from Raw Charge.

Key position battle: Lower line wings

With the grand revamping of the Lightning this offseason – additions of Simon Gagne, Dan Ellis, and Pavel Kubina among others – there are still things yet to be settled on the Lightning roster. While the high-profile battle may be on goaltending, or the absolute makeup of the Lightning defense (which will have eight players carried on the roster), the clear battle is in the makeup of the bottom six forwards – specifically on the wings.

While the Bolts should be set with their third and fourth line centers (Dominic Moore and Nate Thompson), the question needs to be asked just who plays next to them? A total of eight forwards (Teddy Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, Chris Durno, Adam Hall, Eric Perrin, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, along with European imports Johan Harju and Niklas Persson) are in a battle for what will likely be four rosters spots. This doesn’t include on-the-cusp prospects (Ashton Carter, Dana Tyrell) or longtime organizational depth (Paul Szczechura, Blair Jones) who will also be in camp.

Who, of these names, fits best alongside Moore and Thompson is anyone’s guess. Settling these lower line slots is the first challenge of Guy Boucher’s coaching career in Tampa.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for georgemcpheecapsgm.jpgWashington Capitals

Contributor: Rob Yunich from Storming the Crease.

The Washington Capitals, after a first-round exit that followed a President’s Trophy-winning regular season, hardly made any changes. The biggest question mark is the center position on the second and third line. Otherwise, Mathieu Perrault and Tomas Fleischmann seem to be the favorites to fill those roles, with uber-rookie Marcus Johansson making a strong push to be occupy a spot on the opening night roster.

On defense, the other big question mark, the top five spots seem to belong to Tom Poti, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. John Erskine and Tyler Sloan have contracts for this season, but they hardly will scare anybody.

GM George McPhee is notoriously tight-lipped, but with many low-priced free agents still out there for the taking, a defenseman might be added with the approximately $5 million of available room under the salary cap (according to capgeek.com). Otherwise, the Caps will depend on the roster of the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears to fill any vacancies.

Note: Rebecca from Japer’s Rink also submitted a Capitals piece, which can be found here.

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    Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better coaching?

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    Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

    WASHINGTON CAPITALS

    Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the conclusion of this current season. He entered the year with no job security, no sense of what his future would hold and still steering his troops to the top of the heap in the Metropolitan Division, and now, the Stanley Cup Final.

    Washington’s start to the season didn’t help and rumors of Trotz’s pending axing swirled. But the man who sits fifth all-time in coaching wins turned his team around.

    Trotz has found another gear behind the bench and has guided the Caps with calmness during these playoffs. It’s paid off. The Capitals were able to exercise their demons against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then come back from being 3-2 down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Oh, and he did this:

    VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

    There isn’t a world where Gerard Gallant doesn’t win the Jack Adams this year for top bench boss in the NHL. He’s simply done the unthinkable with a team no one expected to be competing, never mind being one of two teams set to do battle for the Stanley Cup.

    Look, Gallant was given a bunch of players from all over the league and a mandate to try and figure out how they all fit together, who plays on what line. Who pairs with who on defense. What the power play and penalty kill look like. It was a tall task to begin with, but Gallant has nailed it every step of the way.

    There’s been lots of talk of how poorly the Panthers fared when they lost both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. But one of Florida’s biggest losses was firing Gallant and leaving him on the side of the road.

    That decision paved the way for Gallant to join the Golden Knights and smash nearly every record by an expansion team ever.

    Gallant has given his players the controls. Mistakes don’t mean less ice time. Gallant has inspired his team and doesn’t have them playing scared. It’s a perfect approach and one that’s evidently paid off.

    Advantage: Golden Knights

    Trotz is a great coach, but there’s just something about the spirited way Gallant has Vegas playing that simply cannot be denied. We’ve seen it all season and all playoffs.

    2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

    • Who has the better forwards?
    Who has better defense?
    • Who has better special teams?

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

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    Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

    WASHINGTON CAPITALS

    There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

    And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

    One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

    VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

    Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

    The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

    Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

    Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

    Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

    Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

    Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

    Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

    2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

    • Who has the better forwards?
    Who has better defense?

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    No contract, no problem: Trotz guides Caps into Cup final

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    ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) One of the lasting images from the Capitals’ playoff run came the morning of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

    Usually Alex Ovechkin hustles around the rink in a hot lap prior to the morning skate. Only this time it was 55-year-old coach Barry Trotz, who answered the call from his players to do the lap.

    “I was worried about the turns,” Trotz said. “The rudders haven’t been sharpened all year. … I almost bit it at the end there trying to imitate Ovi.”

    The Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 that night to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, but they might’ve won Game 7 at that moment. Rarely in previous postseasons had Trotz been that relaxed, the result of an unusual situation.

    Trotz went into the season without – and still doesn’t have – a contract for next season, a circumstance that almost never happens to an experienced coach of a team with legitimate postseason hopes. But in a strange way, being a lame-duck coach might’ve helped Trotz not feel the pressure of past early exits and played a positive role in getting this far.

    “I think it could be the same effect on a player, too, that’s becoming a free agent,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “He’s basically becoming a free agent as a coach, and what effect does that have? Do you have your best year when you’re a free agent?”

    Trotz has. Even with the fifth-most victories of any coach in NHL history, until this spring he hadn’t made it past the second round in 18 previous seasons with the Nashville Predators and Capitals. He called it “luck of the draw,” running into championship-bound teams from Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

    This improbable Capitals run that continues with Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday in Las Vegas is not luck. It’s parts Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby, and also the right moves by Trotz. He called on Philipp Grubauer to start the first round in goal before switching to Holtby in Game 2 against Columbus and watching him get on a roll. He put Jakub Vrana on the top line not long before the rookie scored the winner in Game 5 against the Penguins and pushed all the right buttons on rest and preparation.

    Teams tend to read cues from a head coach, and those have been positive.

    “I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things.”

    Despite back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, MacLellan and Capitals management didn’t offer Trotz an extension.

    Before the playoffs, Trotz said he hadn’t lost any sleep over his status and referred questions to MacLellan and owner Ted Leonsis. In March, Leonsis said he doesn’t talk about contracts, and MacLellan has repeatedly stated that any talks would wait until after the playoffs. There are currently no vacancies in the NHL.

    Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach at $6.25 million, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville is next at $6 million and Montreal’s Claude Julien comes in at $5 million. Those three have combined to win the Cup five times.

    Trotz’s price tag has gone up however the Final goes against the Golden Knights.

    “He’s probably going to benefit from this, too,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s done a good job managing it. To come in this year with so many questions – not from my point of view the lineup questions were that a big deal – but just the emotional state of our team coming in to start the year and how to handle that, I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

    Trotz survived a 10-9-1 start that culminated with 6-3 and 6-2 losses at Nashville and Colorado, and the Capitals winning 12 of their next 14 games might have saved his job. Players’ response to Trotz reading them the riot act showed he certainly hadn’t lost the room.

    But a journey of self-discovery last summer went beyond not having a contract.

    “It gave me just some clarity on what defines me, what defines us, what defines you,” Trotz said. “If you don’t win any awards or anything, I’m not going to look at you any different. If you’re a good person and you treat people right and you live your life right, then I’m going to think really highly of you. If you don’t, I’m not going to think so much of you. And I started getting that clarity that everybody looks for the wrong in people rather than the right and it gave me a lot of clarity. And some things happened in my life that allowed me to see that and it’s been good.”

    Happy, relaxed Trotz has made more appearances in these playoffs than buttoned-down, terse Trotz. He hasn’t soured amid the road bumps this postseason.

    The Capitals have followed Trotz’s even-keeled approach and even been upbeat following losses. Like his players, he’s enjoying the ride.

    “Playoffs are fun,” Trotz said. “They are a grind. But they’re fun. And they should be treated as fun. They’re sort of all the hard that you have to put in just to get there and it takes even more hard work to go farther, but it is fun. I’m finding I’m having a blast during the games.”

    More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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

    Golden Knights success raising stakes for next NHL expansion

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    SEATTLE (AP) — From his office about 1,000 miles away from T-Mobile Arena, Tod Leiweke has watched the Stanley Cup playoffs with a growing appreciation for what is taking place in Las Vegas.

    He was keeping an eye on the Golden Knights even before he became president of Seattle Hockey Partners LLC, the group looking to bring an expansion NHL franchise to the Pacific Northwest. Once he took charge of Seattle’s efforts , Leiweke’s interest intensified, just as Vegas began its run to the upcoming Stanley Cup Final.

    ”They’re playing the game with great joy and they’re having fun and it’s just inspirational to watch,” Leiweke said. ”We’re absolutely loving it and living vicariously through them.”

    The Golden Knights’ success in their inaugural season has been unprecedented as Vegas prepares for Game 1 on Monday night against the Washington Capitals. It’s also seemed to have heightened the expectations for the next wave of NHL expansion.

    Seattle is on deck. If the NHL awards the city a franchise, it could be on the ice as early as the 2020 season. It would require a $650 million expansion fee and a renovated arena. There’s also talk of future growth, with Houston mentioned regularly as a possible destination for the league.

    NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has met with new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who is certainly more open to acquiring an NHL franchise for Houston than former owner Les Alexander. Seattle is certainly further ahead in the process by showing interest, but Houston has the arena and a potential owner already in place for the near future.

    For now all the focus is on what’s happening in Seattle. And if Leiweke is feeling any additional pressure for his potential franchise given Vegas’ success on and off the ice, he’s not showing it.

    ”Well, to tell you the truth, I guess someone could interpret it that way that there’s all of a sudden this unusual pressure on us but in fact all they’re doing is helping us,” Leiweke said. ”They’re showing us how successful this league could be, the brilliance of the game, they’re showing us what happens when a team comes together and plays inspired hockey. We don’t at all see it as anything other than just a great thing for the National Hockey League. Those that come before us will set the table for us. When I think about what they’ve done my endorphins go off and I have such admiration and we’re truly inspired by it.”

    The indications about six weeks ago, when Leiweke was hired, led those involved in the expansion process to believe some type of conditional approval would be granted by the NHL Board of Governors during their June meeting, to be followed by full approval in September. The staggered approach was to make certain construction on the arena would begin in late October as scheduled.

    That has changed. Bettman told The Associated Press this week that the Seattle expansion won’t be formally addressed next month.

    ”What we have said to the people – David Bonderman’s group – is we’re on your timetable. There’s information that needs to be gathered after information is submitted. We have to finish doing our due diligence and our homework. We need to have the timetable understanding as to when the building’s going to get done. We can move as fast or as slowly as you want. There’s no rush,” Bettman told the AP. ”We’re in the middle of the process. They’re doing their homework, and they’re proceeding on two fronts because they’ve got to renovate a building and they’ve got to pursue the team and they’re doing both very nicely. They’re working with the city, they hired Tod Leiweke.

    ”Is it going to be on the June agenda? No. After that, could it be September? Could it be the annual meeting in December? It’s possible.”

    Leiweke was hoping to have a true rooting interest in the finals, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were ousted in the Eastern Conference finals by the Capitals. Leiweke was the CEO of the Lightning from 2010-15 and was part of the group that turned around the organization, both with its on-ice success and in the stands, rejuvenating a fan base that had slumped following Tampa Bay’s title run in 2004.

    The experience in Tampa Bay gave Leiweke an understanding of what it’ll take for Seattle to have a successful franchise. And while it may not be on par with what Vegas is accomplishing, Leiweke sees no reason why Seattle won’t have a chance to be a contender from the start.

    ”I won’t be foolish enough to say we’re going to make it to the Stanley Cup (Final) in our first year but I believe that we can absolutely build a team that is long-term competitive here,” Leiweke said. ”So when we think about this we don’t say look, we’re resetting a goal and our goal is to make the Stanley Cup in year one. But our goal is to replicate a good part of what they’ve done by building an incredibly competitive program where those players are proud to pull on that sweater.”

    AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

    More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

    MORE:
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
    • Stanley Cup Final Schedule