Five Thoughts: Ben Eager’s rough night emblematic of Sharks struggles

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Game 2 brought more of the same for the Sharks against Vancouver that we saw in Game 1. For the Sharks that means a lot of bad things. Slow-footed defensive play, bad reads and reactions, and uncovered MVP-type players around the ice. Throw in the careless penalties and you’ve got an even uglier result. Of course there’s plenty to carve up after such a display in the Canucks 7-3 Game 2 win so let’s just get to it.

1. Ah, Ben Eager. Never before has a fourth line part-time goon made such an impression in the playoffs. After Eager’s brutal Game 2 performance that saw him nearly single-handedly derail San Jose’s chances, it’s tough to think that we’ll see him again in Game 3. After all, when you take six penalties worth 20 minutes in the box, including a late 10-minute misconduct you’re not really generating a lot of goodwill for your team. Two of Eager’s minor penalties turned out to be killers in different ways.

Eager’s boarding call in the second period against Daniel Sedin came moments after Patrick Marleau dropped the gloves with Kevin Bieksa as a means to spark his team after Vancouver had taken a 3-2 lead. Eager’s dumb move in trying to gain some retaliation against one of the Canucks’ big guns turned out to be deflating. Eager’s tripping penalty against Mason Raymond in the third period ended up turning into a Chris Higgins power play goal that sparked a four goal third for Vancouver.

Add in his nonsensical celebrating after scoring on Roberto Luongo with 2:33 left in the game and being down by four and you’ve got yourself a perfect goat for everything that went wrong for San Jose. Eager’s actions all game long were the exact sorts of things the team doesn’t need when trying to beat the best team in the NHL. Coach Todd McLellan says Eager is 100% ready to go in Game 3 so it will be fasciating to see just what we get out of him there. He can’t possibly have a game worse than he did in Game 2… Can he?

2. One reason why the Canucks are the best in the league are the Sedin twins and over the first two games of this series, they’re showing just why they’re so dynamic. Daniel Sedin has 2 goals while Henrik has a goal and 4 assists through the first two games. They were brutally damaging on the power play in Game 2 and in Game 1 it was all about Henrik getting things done.

After a Nashville series that saw both guys get shut down hard they’re showing how vitally important Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were to the Predators success. Even the Sharks’ one “shutdown” guy Douglas Murray couldn’t keep up with the twins tonight. That doesn’t bode well for the future of the series for San Jose. The Sharks will have to figure out some kind of game plan to keep them quiet. Perhaps getting the last change at home will be the switch they need.

3. While frustrations will always bubble up in a game where you’re getting smacked around late, there’s something to be said of the lack of theatrics in Game 2. No diving, no flopping around, no over-selling of any calls or potential calls. Instead, we got more of the old school agitation from the Sharks. The late game scrums, Eager’s nonsense, and lots of chatter between everyone. The Sharks kept trying to push the Canucks buttons and the Canucks resisted everything.

More than a few times in this game things could’ve gotten ugly as the Sharks kept trying to goad Vancouver’s pests into doing something stupid and none of them took the bait. Instead, the Canucks’ stiff upper lip turned out to be all the agitation they needed as the Sharks continually made mistakes and took bad penalties. For all the rightful flack the Canucks get for their theatrics, their calm, cool reserve tonight makes them seem more dangerous.

4. The Sharks have shown in their previous four games that when the third period rolls around, their legs get tired and the game slows down for them. In Game 2, however, the slowdown started in the mid-second period. The Canucks started to lock down the pace of the game and the shot totals bear that out as Vancouver outshot San Jose 14-9 in the second and then 11-9 in the third. With things only getting worse as far as that goes, it’s tough to figure just what coach McLellan can do to get things right to make sure the Sharks don’t fall apart late in games.

5. Once again during the postgame the topic of certain players not getting it done came up for the Sharks. McLellan said that the time has approached to stop hiding who his problem players are and while he wouldn’t admit who he thinks they are, it’s up to us to figure that all out. Right now, the top candidates in need for an improvement are Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

While the defense is having issues of their own, Heatley and Setoguchi haven’t produced offensively the way they’re both capable of. Setoguchi played great against Detroit but he’s been a total non-factor against Vancouver. Heatley’s been on and off most of the playoffs and the majority of that being mostly off. It’s a perpetual issue for him in the playoffs but if he can find that “on” switch at some point, the Sharks will be able to keep up better offensively.

Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Kevin Fiala

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

Not that long ago, Kevin Fiala breaking his left leg might have totally derailed his career. At minimum, that sort of the thing would have at least set him back a few years.

Such a thought had to surface for some observers during the Nashville Predators’ 2017 Stanley Cup Final run – Fiala was sidelined during the second round – especially since blinding speed ranks as one of his strengths.

How could such a thought not occur in the back of someone’s mind after seeing this?

Instead, this happened not much more than a year later:

That double-OT goal against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 2 of that competitive series was the cherry on top of a breakthrough year for Kevin Fiala, who just turned 22 on July 22.

Rather than floundering after coming back from that injury, Fiala found outstanding chemistry with Craig Smith and Kyle Turris once the latter landed in Nashville. Fiala scored 23 goals and 48 points in 2017-18 after debuting in 2016-17 with 16 points in 54 games. Oh yeah, he also looked like his speedy self in the process.

And, really, there might be more where that came from.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure]

It doesn’t hurt matters that the puck tends to go in the right direction when Fiala’s on the ice. His possession numbers were highly promising last season, and his heat maps indicate that Nashville should make it a point to give Fiala even more opportunities. You can make a strong argument that he deserves a bump up from his TOI average of 15:09 per game from 2017-18, even though Nashville also needs to dole out ice time to a strong top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Granted, his rookie deal is set to expire after 2018-19, so the Predators might want to follow up that proactive Ryan Ellis extension with an extension for Fiala before he shows that he’s capable of even bigger things. Frankly, Fiala could generate the sort of follow-up that could break the bank.

To little surprise, Predators GM David Poile seems aware of Fiala’s potential as another rising contributor, as he noted back in January.

“If you look at his development curve as a stock, I would say it’s going in the right direction and you might want to invest in Kevin Fiala,” Poile said, via NHL.com.

No doubt about it, the Predators must have felt relief once it became clear that Fiala still has world-class wheels.

Even so, we’ve seen plenty of speedy skaters produce middle results in the NHL. It’s one thing to be fast; it’s another to combine speed with creativity, smarts, and finish to really move the needle. Fiala showed plenty of signs that he has that ability, showing why the Predators selected him 11th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

As you’d expect, there were still signs of growing pains here and there. That’s something that happens to players Fiala’s age even if they’re not coming off of a catastrophic injury.

On the Forecheck’s season review cannot help but linger upon some of Fiala’s mistakes, including some foolish penalties. That series against the Jets featured peaks and valleys, as while Fiala scored that huge game-winning goal, Peter Laviolette also sent a message to him by way of a healthy scratch.

Really, some of that stems from young players often taking the fall when it comes to healthy scratches.* Coaches often go back to what they “know” and what feels most comfortable when their teams struggle, and wet-behind-the-ears players sometimes lose that game of musical chairs.

Fiala can avoid that situation in the future by accumulating reps and numbers, not to mention Laviolette’s trust.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see such developments manifest themselves in more ice time, responsibilities, and other signs that Fiala is ascending even further up the ladder. Either way, Fiala seems like he’s going to play an important role for the Predators, and it’s been a quick ascension.

* – Though, the other side of that coin is older players of waning relevance. Scott Hartnell fits that bill, and he’s the one who took Fiala’s spot.

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.

Under Pressure: Pekka Rinne

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

It’s not every day that you read about the defending Vezina Trophy winner being under pressure heading into the hockey season, but that’s the case in Nashville with Pekka Rinne. He was brilliant during the regular season (that’s why he won the Vezina). He posted a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against-average and a stellar .927 save percentage in 59 games.

So, why is the 35-year-old under pressure coming into 2018-19? Let’s take a look.

FIrst, Rinne is coming off a terrible performance in the playoffs. In what should have been a great head-to-head matchup against Winnipeg, the veteran stood out because of his lackluster play.

This wasn’t his finest moment:

The Preds were expected to compete for the Stanley Cup, instead they were bounced in the second round and Rinne’s below-average play was a big reason why they didn’t get by the Jets.

“I obviously feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. “Tough. Tough to swallow. Tough to understand.

[2017-18 review]

“And obviously, you know, the biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight.”

A few weeks of poor hockey doesn’t undo everything he accomplished throughout the regular season, but it certainly puts his future in question (at least a little bit). The Predators will probably be fine whether Rinne is dominant or not. They’re blue line is stacked and they have enough quality forwards to make them one of the better teams in the NHL. Getting stellar goaltending would obviously help.

Secondly, Rinne is entering a contract year. After he makes $7 million this year, he has the potential to become an unrestricted free agent. And it’s not like they don’t have someone that could potentially replace him. Juuse Saros has been terrific in limited duty.

The 23-year-old will be entering his third year as an NHL. In 26 games last season, he posted an 11-5-7 record with a 2.45 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage. He’s been solid. We don’t know how he’ll respond to potentially being a number one goalie (we’re not even there yet), but the Preds would be wise to give him a heavier workload in 2018-19 so they can find out what he’s capable of doing.

They also signed Saros to a three-year, $4.5 million contract extension, which means he’ll be on a very reasonable contract for the foreseeable future.

If he continues to play as well as he has and they increase his number of appearances, he could be pushing Rinne out the door sooner than later. Again, we’re a far cry from that actually happening, but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Starting next season, the Predators will have over $25 million committed to seven defensemen, which means they might opt to spend less money between the pipes. So, the success of the team probably won’t depend on Rinne, but the pressure on his shoulders stems from the fact that he could be on his way out the door next summer.

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.

It’s Nashville Predators day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

2017-18:

53-18-11, 117 pts. (1st Central Division; 1st Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-3 vs. the Winnipeg Jets, second round

IN:

Dan Hamhuis
Zac Rinaldo
Connor Brickley

OUT:

Mike Fisher
Alexei Emelin

RE-SIGNED

Ryan Ellis
Juuse Saros
Mikka Salomaki
Ryan Hartman

It was supposed to be their year.

A year removed from the Stanley Cup Final. An intact team from the previous year that had a wealth of playoff experience under their belt, one of the best defensive cores in the league and one the NHL’s best goalies.

And by all accounts, the Predators lived up to their expectations in during the regular season with the top record in all of the NHL and the Presidents’ Trophy to show for it.

But that all came crashing down in the second round against the Winnipeg Jets.  The Predators were stretched to the limit against the speedy Jets. They forced a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t repeat the magic they had shown the year before.

The loss rendered the Predators’ season an abject failure. A team oozing with talent managed to shoulder the expectations that were levied upon them, by outsides sources, and their own lofty standards given their makeup.

Nashville showed just how difficult it is to get back to the Cup Final. And how being the best team in the regular season hardly translates to being the best team in the postseason. Their regular season showing was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their playoff run was not.

Now, the Predators press on with, once again, largely the same squad.

They added some talent to the back end in Dan Hamhuis, who replaces Alexei Emelin, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy, but struggled in the playoffs, will give it another go. And the team locked up the future heir to Rinne’s throne — Juuse Saros — in case there’s a big regression in the elder’s game.

And we’re not forgetting that Ryan Ellis is going to be on that back end for the next eight years.

This season should see the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen after he completed the world hockey hat trick last season, playing in the world juniors, the world hockey championships and the Olympic Games.

Make no mistake: The Predators are primed for another run. They’ve suffered defeat in the 11th hour now, and also learned what it feels like not to live up to expectation.

The question now is, can they add those two negatives together and get a positive: a Stanley Cup banner.

Prospect Pool:

• Eeli Tolvanen, RW, 19, Jokerit (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Tolvanen looked the part in the KHL this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 17 assists in 49 games as a rookie. He was named the KHL’s player of the week six times, its player of the month twice and attended the KHL All-Star Game, along with stints with Finland at the junior, senior and Olympic levels throughout the season. He’s a gifted skater, a saavy sniper and still can be disciplined defensively. The Predators have a budding superstar in Tolvanen.

• Dante Fabbro, D, 20, Boston University (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

Fabbro will head back to Boston University for his junior season after putting up nine goals and 29 points in his freshman year. Fabbro helped Canada win gold at the world juniors and the Preds felt he was ready to make the jump to the pro game, but Fabbro decided another year in college was worth it.

“We feel that he’s ready to play pro hockey,” said Predators assistant general manager and director of scouting Jeff Kealty. “That’s a personal decision on his end. On our end of things, we feel that he’s ready to be a pro hockey player.”

Preds fans will be worried they have another Jimmy Vesey on their hands. That wound still stings. That said, Fabbro progressed well in his first season in Boston and another year there isn’t a bad thing. There’s still time for him to move to the AHL next season, or perhaps right into an NHL role.

• Emil Pettersson, C, 24, Milwaukee Admiral (AHL) – 2013 sixth-round pick

Pettersson’s stock took a nice bump due to a solid first season in the American Hockey League, with 13 goals and 33 assists in 72 games, and the fact that Nashville dealt prospect Vladislav Kamenev to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that brought them Kyle Turris last November. Another good showing in Milwaukee could offer him some opportunities with the big club this season. Nashville has a great spine at center, so breaking into it will require an injury or an outstanding performance during training camp.


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