Back to Class: Your PHT NCAA tournament preview

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year in college hockey. The NCAA tournament field is set and the regionals get under way starting on Friday. Once this weekend is through, we’ll know who will be headed to Tampa for the Frozen Four set for April 5 and 7 at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The tournament’s top four teams are Hockey East tournament champions and No. 1 ranked Boston College, CCHA tournament runner-up Michigan, ECAC tournament champs Union College, and WCHA tournament champions North Dakota. Those four are the top seeded teams in their regions and set the table for what could turn out to be a memorable tournament.

That’s enough talk for now, here’s how the field of 16 breaks down.

Northeast Region – Worcester, MA (March 24-25)

source:  1. Boston College vs. 4. Air Force
2. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 3. Maine

A bracket with the top team in the country as well as the defending national champions will grab your attention. Should the seeds hold here, a regional final with BC and UMD would be as dramatic as it gets. With Chris Kreider (pictured) and Johnny Gaudreau for BC and Hobey Baker Award finalist Jack Connolly for UMD, there’d be plenty of star power. UMD might have to worry about Maine, however, should Hobey finalist Spencer Abbott be able to play. Abbott was knocked out of action against BU in the Hockey East semifinals.

Atlantic Hockey champions Air Force come into the tournament as the 16th overall seed and have a history of being hard to eliminate. Just ask Michigan who was upset by Air Force in the first round back in 2009.

East Region – Bridgeport, CT (March 23-24)

source:  1. Union College vs. 4. Michigan State
2. Miami University vs. 3. UMass-Lowell

What you don’t know about Union College could come back to burn you. The Dutchmen powered their way through the season on the back of Hobey Baker Award finalist goalie Troy Grosenick (pictured) and top scorers Kelly Zajac and Jeremy Welsh. They’re fast and their power play is dangerous.

The highlight game of this region features Miami and Lowell, however, as the Redhawks are many people’s favorite to go to Tampa. Miami boasts Hobey finalist Reilly Smith and his 30 goals while Lowell has freshman Scott Wilson who leads them in points. One guy they might be without, however, is their second leading scorer Riley Wetmore. His absence hurt them in the Hockey East tournament as they were knocked off by Providence.

Midwest Region – Green Bay, WI (March 23-24)

source:  1. Michigan vs. 4. Cornell
2. Ferris State vs. 3. Denver University

Michigan and Cornell stand out as the featured game of this region and for good reason. They’re two premiere programs with historic legacies. The two haven’t met in the NCAAs since 1991 when Michigan took them down in three games. It’ll be a goalie battle between Shawn Hunwick of Michigan (pictured) and Andy Iles of Cornell. Having Ferris State there lurking as the two seed is intimidating as they sat at No. 1 for a while this season.

The only question they’ll deal with against Denver is which Denver tournament team will show up. Denver will either wind up going deep or get bounced in the first round in lackluster fashion. Going without star forward Jason Zucker won’t help their chances of knocking off the Bulldogs.

West Region – St. Paul, MN (March 24-25)

source:  1. North Dakota vs. 4. Western Michigan
2. Minnesota vs. 3. Boston University

This is the region of death, plain and simple.

North Dakota and Minnesota just met this past weekend in the WCHA semifinals where the Fighting Sioux scored six unanswered goals to win 6-3. With future NHLers like Brock Nelson (pictured), Danny Kristo, and Corban Knight the Sioux are tough. No doubt the Gophers would like to get another shot at them, but they’ll have to get through a mercurial BU team that’s very capable of making a run themselves.

It’s not like the Sioux have it easy either as they’ll have to fight through coach Andy Murray’s Western Michigan team that just won the CCHA tournament over Michigan on Saturday. Surviving this region should earn the winning team a special commendation.

Trade: Capitals bank on Hagelin having more left in the tank

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The Washington Capitals acquired Carl Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, hoping a former fixture of the Pittsburgh Penguins can help them repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Here’s the full deal:

Capitals receive: Carl Hagelin

Kings receive: 2019 third-round pick, conditional sixth-round pick in 2020.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the Kings will retain 50 percent of Hagelin’s salary/cap hit, which would be the second time a team retained a portion of the winger’s salary, as the Penguins retained a small chunk of his cap hit earlier this season in the Tanner Pearson trade.

Washington likely looks at Hagelin as a replacement for Devante Smith-Pelly, who cleared waivers on Thursday.

Kings add fuel to rebuild

While the Kings take on a portion of Hagelin’s contract for the remainder of 2018-19, he’s set to be a UFA, so this is a short-term cost for Los Angeles.

When you look back at the two Hagelin deals Los Angeles was involved with, they essentially turned Pearson into cap space and picks. Pearson carries a $3.75M cap hit through 2020-21, which isn’t particularly useful for a rebuilding team.

The Kings’ biggest building block for the future came in getting the Maple Leafs’ first-rounder (and two prospects) for Jake Muzzin, but this Hagelin swap buffs up the quantity for Los Angeles. Along with having their original seven picks in 2019, the Kings now have Toronto’s first-rounder, Washington’s third, and the Flames’ fourth (so 10 overall).

Capitals’ side

Washington very much needed the Kings to retain salary in this move, as Hagelin’s reduced cap hit ($1.875M) leaves the Capitals with about $116,682 in projected cap space for the trade deadline.

During some of his best recent days, Hagelin was the “H” on the Penguins’ “HBK” line, provided speedy support to compliment Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Hagelin also faced the Capitals as a good fit for the New York Rangers, so Washington has plenty of firsthand experience with Hagelin.

It sure seems like those playoff battles took their toll on the 30-year-old, however. After being limited to three points in 16 games with the Penguins, Hagelin didn’t have much more luck with the Kings, managing only five points in 22 games.

Naturally, production isn’t everything, and that point makes Hagelin more interesting.

Along with bringing valuable speed and battle-tested experience to the table, Hagelin checks a lot of the possession boxes, even as his scoring has dipped in 2018-19.

Considering the snug cap situation the Capitals are in, this addition makes a lot of sense. It also furthers the Kings’ goals of building toward the future by tearing down the present. Rate this as a modest win-win for both sides, with Hagelin’s playoff work determining how it will really matter for the Caps.

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.

Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

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

NHL on NBCSN: Predators look to move into Central’s top spot vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

There’s no better time than now for the Nashville Predators to re-take the lead in the Central Division.

The Winnipeg Jets hold a one-point lead over the Predators and still have two games in hand (three after tonight), but the Jets have been wallowing in a bad slump at the moment, leaving the door open for Nashville to waltz right on through if they can down the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday on NBCSN.

The problem for Nashville is they haven’t played particularly well, either, with five wins in their past 10 games (Winnipeg has four). A three-game losing streak last week has been met with wins in two of their past three games most recently, but the Preds got rolled 5-1 in Vegas over the weekend before bouncing back in the third period to beat the Dallas Stars 5-3 on Tuesday.

“We just had more speed, more attitude, and we just worked harder,” Roman Josi said. “We weren’t happy with the way we played in Vegas, and we had two days here to sit on it. We knew we had to play a lot harder to be successful, and we did that tonight.”

Like the Jets, Nashville could use a piece or two at the trade deadline to cover off its consistency issues. The Preds have already added size to the lineup with the acquisitions of Brian Boyle and Cody McLeod. Boyle’s scored twice already in his new threads and has been the net-front presence that was lacking in the lineup.

“If we can improve our club we’re going to do that,” general manager David Poile said. “I’m comfortable with what we have and filling the holes I thought we had.”

Poile might be saying the right things, but it’s obvious his team could use more scoring. Viktor Arvidsson‘s 26 goals in 38 games have been a revelation, especially since he missed nearly two months with a broken thumb.

But one player can’t carry the load forever. And some of Nashville’s top names aren’t helping the cause at the moment

Filip ForsbergSeven goals in 19 games since returning from injury.
Ryan Johansen: 11 goals in 60 games.
Craig Smith: Two goals in his past 18 (is third on the team with 16 goals)

The scoring issues up front have been less of a concern thanks to the success they’ve found on the backend.

Only the San Jose Sharks (172) have more points by defensemen than the Preds (163).

Josi and Matthias Ekholm sit second and third on the team in points, with Josi on his way to a career-year if he can keep it going. He has 13 goals already (career-high is 15) and is sitting at 49 points (career-high is 61). He’s averaging 0.79 points per game.

He’s caught fire recently, too, scoring five goals and adding eight helpers in his past 10 games.

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen with Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.


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

PHT Morning Skate: Duchene’s sticking to business; Tavares’ character

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

• The subject of intense trade speculation, Matt Duchene is just trying to go about his business. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Isles’ stand up for John Tavares after his character is called into question by former NHLer. (Sportsnet)

• Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon talks Don Cherry amongst other things in interview. (News & Observer)

• Filip Zadina to get an opportunity in Detroit after the trade deadline. (Detroit Free Press)

• What will the Chicago Blackhawks do at the trade deadline? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Ilya Kovalchuk would be a Kings’ treasure for another team. (Rotoworld)

• The Rangers’ rebuild is one no one is talking about. (Yahoo Sports)

• Speaking of the Rangers, should they keep Kevin Hayes? (Blue Seat Blogs)

Wayne Simmonds to the Boston Bruins would still be the latter’s best option. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Low-risk, high-reward trade might be the best course of action for the Golden Knights come Monday. (Sin Bin Vegas)

• Despite his struggles, Devan Dubnyk hasn’t lost the confidence of those around him. (Star Tribune)

• A new wave of black players ready to make an impact in the NHL. (NHL.com)

• When Tiger Woods, Hootie, a future MSU hockey coach and Lord Stanley’s chalice crossed paths in East Lansing. (The Detroit News)

• The key to the Islanders’ defensive success. (The Point)

Aleksander Barkov, the NHL’s best-kept secret. (Panther Parkway)

• Discipline is an issue that must be addressed by the Sharks down the stretch run. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• The inside story of Arizona State University’s hockey team’s meteoric rise. (The Score)

• Finally, a look at how they made the rink for this Saturday’s Stadium Series game (8 p.m. ET; NBC) at Lincoln Financial Field:


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