Blues playoff chances will hinge on Jaroslav Halak

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The Blues have a new captain. They have new veterans to show the young core the way. They have two of the best young offensive blueliners in the league. They have players that were acquired last season who have had an entire offseason to get comfortable in their new city. Everything looks like it’s in order for the Blues to have a bounce back season this year. Yet still, no matter which way you look at the team, their success still comes back to one vitally important player: Jaroslav Halak.

Expectations were sky-high when he was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. He was coming off of a playoff run where he almost single-handedly led the Habs to the Eastern Conference finals. The Habs chose Carey Price, the Blues chose to obtain his services and sign him for a 4-year deal, and the rest is history.

Or is it?

Last season the Blues were supposed to take the next step in their progression as Western Conference contenders. They finished 6th in the West in 2008-09 and had all the makings of a young team on the rise. The 2009-10 season featured a plethora of injuries that caused a predictable slip in the standings. But last year? Last year, a healthy team was supposed to pick up where they left off in 2009. Long-term injuries to TJ Oshie and David Perron didn’t help—but there was more to it than just injuries.

Aside from the injuries, the Blues were supposed to have an elite goaltender who could help steal games and lead them back to the playoffs. His pedestrian numbers explain that he wasn’t an elite goaltender last year—but it was more than just statistics. David Rogers over on Frozen Notes explains that Halak’s second year in St. Louis will need more consistency:

“The four-year, $15 million question. I think most fans are willing to give Halak a pass on his first season in St. Louis as the number one goaltender. They won’t be able to overlook two consecutive mediocre years. We’ve seen him be outstanding and unbeatable at times yet it’s quite difficult to forget the times he has been out of position and beaten repeatedly from similar angles.”

Halak’s going to need to step up if the Blues want to fill all of their potential. The Canadiens traded him because he wanted to be paid like “the man.” Now it’s time for him to start earning it. If he can put together a season like his last year in Montreal, the Blues are a good bet to sneak into the playoffs next season. But if he’s the inconsistent, average goaltender from a year ago, there’s no way the Blues will be able to reach the postseason in the tough Western Conference.

He’s had a year to get used to his new surroundings. He has a great new mask. Now fans in St. Louis hope he’ll have a great new game to go with the new headgear in the not-so-new city.

Josh Archibald suspended two games for hit on Ryan Hartman

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After holding a hearing with Josh Archibald earlier on Friday, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspended the Arizona Coyotes forward two games for his “high, hard hit” on Ryan Hartman of the Nashville Predators.

The league’s explanation video explains that Hartman’s head was “the main point of contact” and that contact with the head was avoidable.

During the game itself (a 2-1 win for the Coyotes on Thursday), Archibald received a minor penalty. He doesn’t have a history of supplemental discipline at the NHL level, which may have prompted a lighter punishment. Hartman eventually returned to that loss for Nashville.

Here’s the explanation video via the NHL’s DPoS:

Archibald will be eligible to play for the Coyotes again on Nov. 23.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins’ Matt Cullen fined $1,000 by NHL for dangerous trip

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NEW YORK (AP) — Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen has been fined $1,000 by the NHL for a dangerous trip of Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Miller.

The infraction came during the first period of Thursday night’s game, a 4-3 victory by Tampa Bay. Cullen was assessed a minor penalty for tripping.

In announcing the fine, the league said Friday the money will go the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

Tavares living up to hype for Leafs with Matthews out

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot going on right now, and quite a bit of it is no good.

Auston Matthews‘ bad injury luck continues. The William Nylander contract impasse is dragging on far longer than most of us expected.

Good thing the Maple Leafs won The John Tavares Sweepstakes, then, right?

Thursday presented the latest example of that free-agent gift that keeps giving, as Tavares and the Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 in a game that was frequently filling. For some, it was a reminder that Tavares’ transition has been seamless compared to Erik Karlsson‘s growing pains with the Sharks. Such comparisons feel petty, really, when you consider just how joyous Tavares’ run has been so far with the team he rooted for (and slept on bedsheets for) as a child.

Consider that Matthews has last played on Oct. 27. Since then, Tavares has really embraced his role as the clear go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. While he was unable to generate a point in Toronto’s flat loss to the Flames in the first game following Matthews’ injury, Tavares has been trading off being electric and automatic since then.

The talented center managed to generate a point in every November game so far (five goals and five assists for 10 points). Tavares’ goal from Thursday also extended his goal streak to four games.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer provided praise heading into that Leafs – Sharks game that ended up being prophetic.

“I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not,” DeBoer said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.

“He’s just a special player.”

Indeed, Tavares showed that he can score ugly just about as efficiently as he can set up beautiful chances.

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t subsisting on Tavares’ shrewd play alone. Morgan Rielly continues to put up highly impressive offensive numbers from the blueline. While the Maple Leafs’ hit-or-miss defense can sometimes hang him out to dry, Frederik Andersen builds a case as an underrated goalie, including making 42 saves against the Sharks in that 5-3 win. Kasperi Kapanen is taking advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself, and Mitch Marner has been just about as explosive as many expected when it became clear that he’d line up with Tavares. Nazem Kadri is thriving as a second-line center.

Still, Tavares stands out for his consistency and versatility.

” … He’s been a leader,” Rielly told the AP after the Maple Leafs beat the Kings 5-1 on Tuesday. “He’s been a 200-foot player. He’s been putting the puck in the net.”

With respectable-yet-unspectacular possession numbers, it’s true that Tavares stands out most for his offense (23 points, including 12 goals, three of which were game-winners).

Even so, it’s heartening to see that Tavares can carry the Maple Leafs during those stretches where their deadly one-two punch goes down to just one (or, at least, a solid but less spectacular two in Kadri).

Considering a slightly-high 16.9 shooting percentage, perhaps Tavares will cool off during the grind of an 82-game season. So far, he’s living up to the considerable hype … and, besides, Matthews might be back in time to warm things up if Tavares suffers a cold spell.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Trading Ryans: Rangers get Strome, Oilers nab Spooner

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Perhaps mid-November is the time for lateral trades and troubling injuries?

Oilers fans probably tense up whenever their team makes a trade, yet this one is more of a shoulder shrug than a forehead-slapper: Edmonton receives Ryan Spooner, while the New York Rangers get Ryan Strome.

(Hey, stop yawning.)

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary (for each of the next seasons) to make the trade work; each forward now carries a $3.1 million cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

You really need to crane your neck to see the differences between Strome, 25, and Spooner, 26. Reactions have gone both ways as far as which team “won” the trade, as you might expect from a move that more or less merely shakes things up.

Plenty of people are, instead, merely enjoying just how negligible the difference is between the two forwards:

… Or using this as another opportunity to ridicule bumbling Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who acquired Strome in that ill-fated Jordan Eberle trade before the 2017-18 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz notes, this trade is mainly a reminder of past mistakes:

Chiarelli drafted Spooner during his days with the Boston Bruins, so that likely explains why he targeted the forward.

At least, that explains it beyond making a trade for the sake of making a trade.

While I’d argue that the Penguins edged the Kings by landing Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin, it’s most likely to be a small victory. The difference, on paper, might be even less obvious here, unless a change of scenery truly sparks one or the other. Strome’s possession stats have been better and their production has been comparable over the years. Maybe Spooner could find chemistry with Connor McDavid in a way that would allow Leon Draisaitl to play on his own line? From here, this is a marginal trade, but there’s always a chance it might be a little more fruitful than expected.

If nothing else, it could serve as a wakeup call. That sure beats the Oilers’ unfortunate tradition of trades being a kick in the gut.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.