Time to step up — Backlund signs one-year deal with Flames

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Mikael Backlund will get a great chance to show his stuff next season. The 23-year-old Swedish center has signed a one-year, $725,000 deal with the Flames, the announcement coming in the wake of Olli Jokinen’s departure for Winnipeg.

In a related story, next season might also be Backlund’s last chance to prove his worth with the team that drafted him 24th overall in 2007.

“Mikael has an opportunity to step up and attempt to secure a top two-line center position with our club,” said Flames GM Jay Feaster in a release. “He is a very talented player who skates well, has excellent vision and possesses a strong skill set. As we have discussed with him, Mikael needs to work on his consistency and his focus in order to break through in a top six role and start to define his role on our team. We are excited about the level of competition that should exist in camp this fall and we expect Mikael to be in the thick of those battles.”

Backlund should receive ample playing time with wingers like Jarome Iginla, Jiri Hudler, Curtis Glencross and Alex Tanguay. Michael Cammalleri is a natural winger, though he may have to play center.

Backlund had a tough 2011-12 with just four goals and seven assists in 41 games. He missed the last two months of the season with an arm injury.

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Related: Jokinen won’t be back in Calgary

Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “if, not when,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out, reported friction with the likes of head coach Mike Sullivan or not?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, such a they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

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If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, that this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

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.

PHT Time Machine: Top 1970 Cup Final moments beyond the Orr goal

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Boston Bruins’ 1970 Stanley Cup Final win over the St. Louis Blues and some of the significant moments in that series that were NOT Bobby Orr’s game-winning goal.

It is not uncommon to see replays of Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup clinching goal around this time of year because it is one of the most well known plays in NHL history. It will no doubt be even relevant this season because the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins is a rematch of that series.

For the Blues, it was the third year in a row they qualified for the Stanley Cup Final by coming out of the NHL’s “expansion division” and the third year in a row they were swept by one of the league’s Original Six powers.

That series has become known almost entirely for Orr’s game-winning goal (his only goal of the series, by the way) but it was far from the only notable development, play, or performance in that matchup.

We are using our latest PHT Time Machine to look at some of the moments that history may have forgotten.

Blues goalie Jacques Plante was saved (literally) by his mask

Following a four-year retirement in the mid-1960s, Plante made his return to the NHL at the start of the 1968-69 season as a member of the second-year Blues franchise, and alongside fellow future Hall of Famer Glenn Hall won the Vezina Trophy (which was at the time awarded to the goalies on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league) and helped lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues relied on three goalies during the 1969-70 season (Ernie Wakely also saw significant playing time as Hall had retired after the 1968-69 season only to come out of retirement during the season) and entered the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins with Plante in net.

But mid-way through the second period disaster struck when Phil Esposito deflected a Fred Stansfield slap shot, striking Plante squarely in the forehead and knocking him unconscious. He would spend several days in the hospital.

The recap and description of the play (this from the May 5, 1970 Edmonton Journal) is jarring.

This is the play.

Plante would never play another minute in the series, and it is impossible to wonder what would have happened in the series had he not been injured. He only played five games in the playoffs that year for the Blues, finishing with a 4-1 record and an almost unheard of (for the time) .936 save percentage.

The duo of Hall and Wakely finished with a 4-7 record (with all four wins belonging to Hall) and a sub-.900 save percentage in the playoffs, while both struggled in the series against the Bruins.

Wakely, who dressed as the backup at the start of the series, replaced Plante in Game 1 and surrendered four goals before giving up six in the team’s Game 2 loss. He was replaced by Hall for Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis, and while he fared marginally better he was no match for the Bruins’ relentless offensive onslaught.

Plante’s mask saving his life and from further injury came just a decade after he popularized the use of the goalie mask and helped to make a staple of NHL equipment.

This Was The Bruins’ Return To Relevance

Throughout much of the 1960s the Bruins were the laughing stock of the NHL’s original six.

Between the 1959-60 and 1966-67 seasons the Bruins won just 149 games, and were one of just two teams that had failed to win at least 230 during that stretch (the Rangers won 177). They never made the playoffs during that stretch, only twice finished out of last place, and never finished higher than fifth.

But in starting in 1966 things started to change for the Bruins.

Orr made his debut as an 18-year-old during the 1966-67 season and immediately started to transform the team, the league, and even the way the game was played, forever altering what we could expect from defenders with the puck.

One year later they made one of the most significant trades in franchise history when they dealt Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte to the Chicago Blackhawks for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Stanfield. It was a deal that turned out to be laughably one-sided in the Bruins’ favor and helped build the foundation of a team that would not only finally return to the playoffs after an eight-year drought, but also win two Stanley Cups between 1970 and 1972.

Esposito and Hodge were all-star level players on those Stanley Cup winning teams, while Stanfield proved to be an outstanding complementary star that was a virtual lock for at least 25 goals and 70 points every year he played in Boston.

This probably wasn’t the best of the early-mid 1970’s Bruins teams, but it will always be a significant one for snapping what had been a 29-year championship drought with a legendary postseason performance that included a 10-game winning streak. After winning Games 5 and 6 in Round 1 against the New York Rangers, the Bruins then swept the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2 before sweeping the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.

The series itself wasn’t really all that competitive, either. While the Blues had been swept in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the previous two seasons against the Montreal Canadiens dynasty they still managed to hold their own in each series, losing several games by just a single goal.

This series was not that. The first three games were all blowouts in the Bruins’ favor, while the Bruins held a commanding edge on the shot chart in every game and ended up outscoring them by a 20-7 margin.

John Buyck was the feel good story and offensive star for Bruins

There is always that one veteran player on every championship team that has been around forever, experienced defeat, and never had their chance to lift the Stanley Cup. They become the sympathetic figure for the postseason and the player that “just deserves it because it is their time.”

For the 1969-70 Bruins, that player was John Buyck.

Buyck had been a member of the Bruins since the start of the 1957-58 season and was a rock for the team every year. And every year the Bruins just kept losing. Finally, at the age of 34, the Bruins broke through and got him a championship and few players on the team played a bigger role in that win.

Buyck finished the series with six goals, including a Game 1 hat trick that helped the Bruins set the tone for the series.

He scored at least one goal in every game in the series, while his Game 4 goal tied the game, 3-3, late in the third period and helped set the stage for Orr’s winner.

It was a big moment for the entire organization as almost no one on the team had ever experienced a championship season.

That core would go on to win another Stanley Cup during the 1971-72 season. The Bruins would have to wait until the 2010-11 team to win another one after that.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has the better special teams?
• PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Blues vs. Bruins: Three questions about the Stanley Cup Final

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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 Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

1. Will Binnington join ranks of other rookie Cup winners?

Ken Dryden. Matt Murray. Patrick Roy. Cam Ward. Jordan Binnington? If he helps lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup title, he will become the fifth rookie goaltender to achieve that feat. We already know about his integral role in the team’s turnaround this season, and his strong play has continued into the postseason.

Binnington has already set the Blues franchise record for wins in a single postseason (12), and if he should win four more, he would be the first rookie in NHL history to win 16 games in a single playoff. A Calder Trophy finalist, he’s posted a .926 even strength save percentage en route to the fourth and final series.

2. Is there any way to slow “The Perfection Line?”

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak lead the Bruins in scoring and enter the Cup Final coming off a dominant Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final where they combined for eight points against the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchand is up to 18 points this postseason and is sure to surpass his career high of 19 which was set when during the team’s Cup run in 2011. He’s been so productive this spring that he can become the ninth player in franchise history to record a point per game in consecutive playoffs after he tallied 17 points in 12 games last season.

Pastrnak, meanwhile, needs five points to become the fourth active NHLer to record multiple 20-point playoffs before turning 24 years old. The other three are all Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

One more point for Bergeron would give him 100 career points and another goal would tie him with Johnny Bucyk for fourth on the Bruins’ all-time playoff goals list. He’s currently the NHL leader with six power play goals this postseason. He’s also three power play markers away from tying the NHL record held by Mike Bossy (1981) and Cam Neely (1991).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Will special teams be the difference?

The Bruins’ power play has been dominant through three rounds, entering the Cup Final clicking at a 34% success rate. The Blues’ man advantage units have been fine, but are far behind Boston at 19.4%. The Bruins scored at least one power play goal in their four-game sweep in the conference final and tallied seven total against the Hurricanes. St. Louis saw their extra man unit finish the Western Conference Final strong going 5-for-15 over their last four games.

Bergeron leads the Bruins with six power play tallies, while Vladimir Tarasenko is tops for the Blues with five.

The Bruins have also been strong on the penalty kill, killing off 86.3% of power play chances by their opponents. During their current seven-game winning streak they’ve killed off 23 of 24 power play opportunities.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Experience necessary in Cassidy’s evolution as head coach

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Bruce Cassidy’s first impression as an NHL head coach did not go over well with his players.

At 37, Cassidy was the youngest head coach in the league when the Washington Capitals hired him in 2002. He was entering a difficult situation for someone with no experience at that level. Walking into a dressing room with veterans like Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Olaf Kolzig, among others, and trying to lead a team that had just missed the postseason was a tough situation to be in.

And so, as the 2003 Washington Post story goes following his firing, Cassidy’s greenness in the coaching realm was clearly evident.

“It was bad right from the start,” an anonymous Capital told Jason LaCanfora. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”

Cassidy’s Capitals made the playoffs his first season, but the 2003-04 season would be the end of his time there. After 28 games and an 8-16-1 record, he was fired. Between the record and the growing discord between the head coach and his players, the relationship wasn’t going to last the entire season. 

In fact, the coaching change was made a week after Cassidy apologized for wondering aloud if the family lives of his players was affecting his play. This was a Capitals team that featured Kolzig, who’s son is autistic; Brendan Witt, who’s wife had a life-threatening battle with sepsis; and Jason Doig, who’s wife had recently given birth.

Those comments, which were the final straw for many Capitals players, did not sit well in the room.

“I just don’t think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league,” one player told LaCanfora. “All of the little things matter.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fast forward 15 years and Cassidy is in his fourth stop as a hockey coach since those forgetting days in D.C. After being dismissed by the Capitals he was an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2005-06 season before moving on to take the head coaching job with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. In 2008 he joined the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence as an assistant and was promoted before the 2011-12 season to head coach. He quickly improved the AHL Bruins and was named one of Claude Julien’s assistants in 2016. Just 27 games into that season Julien was fired and he was handed a second opportunity.

Looking back now at his 107 games in charge of the Capitals, Cassidy admits he wasn’t comfortable being such a young head coach for a veteran group. “To be honest, all I learned was I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then,” he said this week. “I was young. I really had no NHL experience.”

There was so much experience in that Capitals room that Cassidy was intimidated, unable to take charge and be a leader — vital traits for any head coach.

“These guys have been around, so it probably took me a while to just walk in there, be comfortable and say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ and still have the confidence and still be a good communicator while you’re doing that,” he said.

It was a familiar situation when Cassidy took over for Julien in 2017, though the 4,808 days between getting the Capitals’ and Bruins’ gigs allowed for plenty of personal growth. When he walked into that Bruins dressing room for the first time as boss, again there was that abundance of experience staring him right back in the face. Scanning the room, the name plates above the stalls read Backes, Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask. Stanley Cup rings and thousands of NHL games under their belts — another veteran team, except this time he was better prepared.

“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate, different ways to see the game, how to delegate, how to use your staff, how to use your top-end players to help you find that common goal. I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around there’s a lot more experience at this level.”

That experience has paid off. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL. They made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in charge, with at least one extra round added each year, culminating in this Cup Final appearance, the franchise’s first since 2013.

The skills Cassidy acquired and improved upon since his first time as an NHL head coach have been aided by a Bruins team that has a strong core, talented leadership, and a buy-in attitude of his players.

“I think this leadership group is second to none and I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with,” he said. “I’ve said that since probably the second I got the job here. Those guys are fantastic and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.