Back to Class: Where March Madness is already underway

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night as Maine host No. 4 New Hampshire at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Hockey East and the WCHA will wrap up their final weekend of conference action this weekend while Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, and ECAC all start their conference playoffs. It’s a veritable full weekend of playoffs for everyone if you want to look at it that way as even those who aren’t yet in their postseason are still jockeying for position.

In Hockey East, the battle for the top spot is on between UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire, and Boston College. Any of those four teams could wind up in first, while Boston University and Merrimack are just outside the top four. Landing in the top four means getting home ice in the first round of the conference playoffs.

In the race for the No. 1 seed, the series to watch is between Lowell and Providence as they’ll have two games to see if they can figure things out. Lowell, thanks to freshman standout and Winnipeg Jets prospect goalie Connor Hellebuyck, lead Hockey East but Providence sits two points back. BC and New Hampshire are each one point out and they’ve got teams from the bottom end of the conference to deal with.

Boston College faces 7th place Vermont while UNH faces a Maine team trying to solidify their spot in the conference playoffs. Only the top eight move on and Maine is trying to keep UMass out. The Minutemen have a pair of games with Merrimack to contend with. Only Northeastern won’t be making the playoffs.

In the WCHA, there’s no threat of missing the playoffs as all 12 teams make it. Figuring out who wins the MacNaughton Cup (first place in the regular season) isn’t quite so easy. St. Cloud State could’ve wrapped it up last Saturday, but were humbled by Michigan Tech. Now, any one of five teams could win the regular season title.

SCSU has a two-point lead on Minnesota and North Dakota and are four up on Minnesota State and Wisconsin. The two weekend match-ups to watch here feature St. Cloud against Wisconsin and Minnesota St. facing North Dakota. Earning the top spot at the end of the season means getting to face a bad Alaska-Anchorage team in the opening round of the conference tourney.

If that’s not enough to get you juiced up, three conferences have their playoffs getting started on Friday night. Here’s how things shape up for them:

CCHA: The top-five teams here all get byes into the quarterfinals. Only difference being that No. 4 Ohio State gets No. 5 Ferris State there. Miami, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan are the top three teams here. Your first-round best of three matchups see the winners re-seeded. Alaska hosts Michigan State, Michigan hosts Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State gets Bowling Green.

ECAC: All 12 teams make the playoffs and the top four get byes in the first round. Quinnipiac, Rensselaer, Yale, and Union can rest easy this weekend and wait to see what carnage is unleashed with the other eight teams in their best of three series. Dartmouth hosts Harvard, St. Lawrence faces Colgate, Brown hosts Clarkson, and Princeton takes on Cornell in New Jersey. Winning teams are reseeded for the second round. RPI blog Without A Peer shows off how the second round could play out.

Atlantic Hockey: Top four teams have byes (Niagara, Air Force, Holy Cross, UConn). Winners of the first round are re-seeded. The first-round best of three pairings are: Robert Morris-Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst-Army, Canisius-Bentley, and RIT-American International. Anyone on the NCAA tournament bubble (16th in Pairwise) is rooting for Niagara to steamroll through here without issue.

If, somehow, that’s not all enough for you the Division III NCAA tournament gets underway tonight and winds up on March 16 with the national championship game. St. Norbert will be looking for their third title in a row but this writer would like to see Oswego State take it all. That’s called an “alumni plug.”

(Photo: Lowell Sun)

Marc Bergevin’s tenure has slowly but surely made the Canadiens worse

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Let’s go back in time a few years to the summer of 2012.

The Montreal Canadiens are coming off of a disappointing 2011-12 season that saw them miss the playoffs, change head coaches, and fire their general manager. To fill those vacancies they hired Marc Bergevin away from the Chicago Blackhawks to serve as their new GM and brought back Michel Therrien for his second stint behind the team’s bench.

The big hire here would be the Bergevin one because he was the one responsible for shaping the direction of the team and is still doing so today.

Despite the struggles on the ice during the 2011-12 season there was still a promising young core in place that he was inheriting in which to build around.

  • Max Pacioretty was 23 years old and coming off of his first 30-goal season.
  • P.K. Subban was 22 years old, already starting to blossom into a star, and was about to enter a season where he would go on to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
  • They had a young franchise goalie in Carey Price.
  • They had a 22-year-old Lars Eller who had doubled his offensive production from his rookie season and a 20-year-old Brendan Gallagher set to make his debut the following season
  • On top of all that they had the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, a selection that would ultimately be used on Alex Galchenyuk.

At times over the past six seasons the Canadiens have had some success. They went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013-14, went to the second round in 2014-15, and topped the 100-point mark three times. It hasn’t been a totally disastrous few years. You could easily — and justifiably — make the argument that some of that success was driven in large part by having Price mask a lot of the team’s flaws and carry it further than it probably otherwise should have gone. But it was still success in the short-term.

The important question to ask at this point is if the Canadians organization is in a better place today than it was six years ago when Bergevin was hired to re-shape the organization. That is, after all, the goal of a GM: To make their organization better than they found it.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Bergevin has done that, while the young core that he inherited has slowly but surely been squandered.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been good moves here and there.

Getting Pacioretty signed to a long-term contract extension that paid him less than $5 million per year was one of the biggest steals in the league. Signing Alexander Radulov in his return from the KHL added some desperately needed talent and creativity to a stagnant offense. Today, though, Pacioretty is entering the final year of his contract and is the subject of trade speculation. Radulov, having been unable to work out a new contract with the Canadiens after his one year with the team, is in Dallas and coming off of a career-best season that saw him score 28 goals and 72 points for the Stars.

And the rest of the players mentioned above? That group of Price, Subban, Galchenyuk, and Eller? Only Price remains, while the trio of Subban, Eller, and Galchenyuk has been traded for a package of players and assets that amounts to Shea Weber, Max Domi, Joni Ikonen and a yet-to-be-used 2018 second-round draft pick (No. 62 overall).

Look at those two groups of players and then ask yourself which group you would rather have on your team this season and in the immediate future with all of the circumstances considered.

It’s not that Weber and Domi are bad or can’t provide value for the Canadiens. But how are the Canadiens better for having them instead of what they had?

Look at the fact that P.K. Subban, who was traded straight up for Shea Weber after the 2015-16 season, is four years younger, has been more productive the past two years, and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season. Weber, meanwhile, is entering his age 33 season, coming off an injury shortened season, and is signed until he is 40 at more than $7.8 million per season. Combined with Price, the Canadiens now have two players, both of whom are already over the age of 30 and have likely already played their best hockey, signed through 2026 at a total salary cap hit of more than $18 million. You can’t fault them for signing Price because he has literally been the backbone of the team, but given the ages, salary structure, and positions they play it is a very unique core for a team to build around. Unique does not always mean good.

During that same offseason the Canadiens made the decision to trade skill for more grit and toughness (a trend they followed all season in their roster transactions) when they sent Lars Eller, still under contract for two more years at a salary cap hit of $3.5 million, to the Washington Capitals for two second round draft picks (one used to select Ikonen, the other one to be used this weekend).

They then turned around and traded two second-round draft picks in 2016 to Chicago for Andrew Shaw and signed him to a six-year, $23.4 million contract extension — in other words, slightly more money than they were paying Eller.

Again, it’s not that Shaw is necessarily a bad player, but are the Canadiens better today for it?

If nothing else the optics of it look bad after Eller played a massive role in helping the Capitals win the Stanley Cup this spring.

Last summer there was the free agent signing of Karl Alzner, giving the Canadiens what is currently one of the oldest defensive lineups in the league, and one that is severely lacking in mobility and offensive production. Between Weber, Alzner, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn and David Schlemko the Canadiens will open this season with five defensemen age 30 or older. Together, they will take up nearly $22 million in salary cap space. That coincided with the trading of top prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin. The jury is still very much out on that trade but year one of the Drouin era in Montreal probably did not go as planned considering that Sergachev, an 18-year-old defenseman, finished the season just six points shy of Drouin’s offensive output.

Then there is the most recent move to trade Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Domi.

This comes after years of not really being sure what to do with Galchenyuk. Through all of it, Galchenyuk still managed to produce at a consistent top-six level as a player you could pencil in for 20 goals and 50 points every year. Domi, who is only a few months younger than Galchenyuk and about $1 million cheaper under the cap, is coming off a two-year stretch that has seen him score 18 goals in more than 140 games.

Keep in mind that Galchenyuk has scored fewer than 18 goals in a single season just once over the past four years, and that when when he scored 17 during the 2016-17 season … in only 61 games.

There are a lot of reasons to like Domi’s potential. There is reason to believe he could bounce back. It is, however, not a given and the question yet again must be asked … how are the Canadiens better after this? 

The answer, yet again, seems to be that they really aren’t.

And this has pretty much been the story of the Marc Bergevin era in Montreal: They’re not really that much worse, but they’re not really that much better.

Most of the trades (here is the full list) are inconsequential that don’t really hurt or help either team involved. But when it comes to the big moves involving the key players they all seem to end up making the Canadiens marginally worse or leave them in a slightly worse situation, whether it be from a talent perspective, a salary cap perspective, or some combination of the two.

None of them have really been a complete disaster (though, the Subban-for-Weber swap could drift that way depending how Weber ages in the coming years), but none of them have really done anything to improve the situation. Perhaps even more than the actual results is the thought process behind the moves, where grit and size seems to take precedence over skill and talent. It has left them with a mediocre team that lacks goal-scorers and skill and has committed an awful lot of money to get older and less skilled.

No general manager is perfect. Mistakes will happen and they will make bad evaluations from time to time. But when those little mistakes keep happening over and over again they eventually add up into one big mistake that leaves you in a hole that is difficult to get out of.

This should be concerning for Canadiens fans when they realize Pacioretty could be traded. Or that the Canadiens are open to potentially trading the No. 3 pick this year.  It is entirely possible one or both could get moved in the coming days.

If history is any indicator it probably won’t be a total disaster. But it probably won’t be great, either.

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.

Darryl Sutter has retired from coaching

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Afters spending nearly two decades behind an NHL bench as a head coach Darryl Sutter is officially calling it a career.

That is what he recently told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis when the subject of the Washington Capitals’ suddenly vacant coaching spot was brought up.

Combined with his playing career that started in 1978 that is four decades in the NHL, and in Sutter’s mind that is enough.

Via Sportsnet:

“Forty years, that’s enough,” said Sutter, 59, when asked if he’d consider the Washington gig that became vacant when Barry Trotz resigned following this month’s Stanley Cup win.

“No way, I’d be too far away from the grandkids.”

During his coaching career Sutter spent time behind the bench with the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, taking the latter two to the Stanley Cup Final. His most successful tenure was definitely his time with the Kings where the team won the Stanley Cup in both 2011-12 and 2013-14.

He most recently coached the Kings during the 2016-17 season, after which he was let go as the organization attempted to retool following its second non-playoff season in a three-year stretch.

Sutter told Francis that he would have listened had the Flames called regarding their coaching vacancy when Glen Gulutzan was recently let go and replaced by former Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters.

At this point, though, he is happy with the life he now has.

Again, from Francis

He now insists following a winter of contemplation there’s no situation that could tempt him to leave his ranch to relocate once again with his wife, Wanda, and son, Chris.

“I love my schedule now – that’s the best way to put it,” he said.

“I enjoy watching the game on TV and I pull for certain players and I’m totally at peace with not coaching.

That’s for sure.”

With 634 wins during his coaching career Sutter ranks 14th on the NHL’s all-time wins list and is one of just 18 coaches to have won the Stanley Cup at least two times. Aside from Sutter, the only coaches with multiple Stanley Cup wins that are not currently in the Hall of Fame are Mike Sullivan and Joel Quenneville (both still active as NHL coaches) and Pete Green and Cecil Ivan, both of whom coached in the 1920s.

As a player, Sutter spent eight seasons as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, scoring 161 goals and 279 points in 406 career games.

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.

Capitals will open 2018 season, raise banner against Bruins

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Given the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, the fact they have met in the playoffs three years in a row, and the way the Capitals were scheduled for the Penguins’ banner raising game at the start of the 2016-17 season it seemed like a natural fit to have the two teams meet in Washington to open the 2018-19 season.

After all, the Capitals finally conquered their postseason demons to win their first Stanley Cup and went through their long-time rivals to make it happen. What better way for them to celebrate than to raise their banner with their long-time rivals in the house?

Nice thought for Capitals fans, but it will not be happening.

On Wednesday, the NHL announced all of the home openers for the 2018-19 season, and while they probably had the right color scheme for the Capitals’ opponent, they ended up picking a different team.

The Capitals announced that their banner raising home opener will take place on Oct. 3 against the Boston Bruins.

Just 24 hours later the Capitals will be in Pittsburgh for the second half of a back-to-back to open the Penguins’ season.

The complete NHL schedule will be released on Thursday.

Here’s the full list of 2018-19 season openers:

Anaheim Ducks: Monday, Oct. 8 vs. Detroit
Arizona Coyotes: Saturday, Oct. 6 vs. Anaheim
Boston Bruins: Monday, Oct. 8 vs. Ottawa
Buffalo Sabres: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Boston
Calgary Flames: Saturday, Oct. 6 vs. Vancouver
Carolina Hurricanes: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. New York Islanders
Chicago Blackhawks: Sunday, Oct. 7 vs. Toronto
Colorado Avalanche: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Minnesota
Columbus Blue Jackets: Friday, Oct. 5 vs. Carolina
Dallas Stars: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Arizona
Detroit Red Wings: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Columbus
Edmonton Oilers: Thursday, Oct. 18 vs. Boston
Florida Panthers: Thursday, Oct. 11 vs. Columbus
Los Angeles Kings: Friday, Oct. 5 vs. San Jose
Minnesota Wild: Saturday, Oct. 6 vs. Vegas
Montreal Canadiens: Thursday, Oct. 11 vs. Los Angeles
Nashville Predators: Tuesday, Oct. 9 vs. Calgary
New Jersey Devils: Thursday, Oct. 11 vs. Washington
New York Islanders: Saturday, Oct. 6 vs. Nashville
New York Rangers: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Nashville
Ottawa Senators: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Chicago
Philadelphia Flyers: Tuesday, Oct. 9 vs. San Jose
Pittsburgh Penguins: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Washington
San Jose Sharks: Wednesday, Oct. 3 vs. Anaheim
St. Louis Blues: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Winnipeg
Tampa Bay Lightning: Saturday, Oct. 6 vs. Florida
Toronto Maple Leafs: Wednesday, Oct. 3 vs. Montreal
Vancouver Canucks: Wednesday, Oct. 3 vs. Calgary
Vegas Golden Knights: Thursday, Oct. 4 vs. Philadelphia
Washington Capitals: Wednesday, Oct. 3 vs. Boston
Winnipeg Jets: Tuesday, Oct. 9 vs. Los Angeles

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.

Rasmus Dahlin could provide Buffalo with much-needed boost

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Former defenseman Mike Weber is all too familiar with the Sabres’ lean years while spending a majority of his eight NHL seasons in Buffalo.

There were high-priced free agents who failed to pan out and one draft-pick bust after another. Weber made the playoffs just twice, with Buffalo eliminated in the first round both times.

And then there was the so-called “tank season” in 2014-15, when Sabres fans openly rooted for the team to finish last for the right to draft either now-Oilers captain, Connor McDavid, or Buffalo’s eventual pick, Jack Eichel.

As it happens, Weber also enjoyed a glimpse into what could well be the Sabres’ more promising future following an eight-week stint with Frolunda, Sweden, last fall. Weber had an opportunity to play alongside defenseman Rasmus Dahlin , the highly touted 18-year-old projected to be selected by Buffalo with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft on Friday night.

Perhaps, Weber said, things might finally be looking up in Buffalo.

“I really, truly believe you guys are going to be getting a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent,” said Weber, now an assistant coach with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.

“This first overall pick puts a stamp on it, put whatever happened in the past in the past,” he added. “Hopefully, it’s something you guys can look back on at the suffering and rebuilding and tanking and all of this stuff where you can sit there and kind of laugh about it.”

Though “suffering” might be overly dramatic, it resonates in Buffalo because that’s the word former general manager Darcy Regier repeated numerous times during an end-of-season news conference in April 2013 where he braced fans for a top-to-bottom roster overhaul.

Five years, two GMs, four coaches and three last-place finishes later, the Sabres remain stagnant while in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought.

The team has not topped 35 wins in each of the past five years. And forward Ryan O'Reilly closed last season by suggesting a losing culture has crept into the locker room.

Dahlin has the potential of injecting hope in Buffalo with his exceptional skating and play-making abilities. Weber compares Dahlin’s speed to that of Senators captain Erik Karlsson, and shiftiness to former Red Wings star forward Pavel Datsyuk.

“I still bleed blue and gold,” Weber said, referring to Sabres colors. “And the possibility of him being a cornerstone going forward and helping the organization and the city win a championship is pretty special.”

Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who maintains a home in suburban Buffalo, can sense the buzz Dahlin has generated.

“Buffalo needs a boost, and the fans have been waiting a long time for it,” Bowman said. “People I know that have had tickets for a long time are excited.”

The Sabres have been in freefall since losing Game 7 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals to eventual champion Carolina. Some of Buffalo’s bleakest moments:

BLACK SUNDAY

That’s what Sabres fans refer to July 1, 2007, when Buffalo lost co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in free agency. Days later, rather than losing yet another star, the Sabres matched the Oilers’ qualifying offer to Thomas Vanek by re-signing the forward to a seven-year, $50 million contract. Buffalo has not won a playoff series since.

MONEY FOR NOTHING

In 2011, the Sabres made splashes by acquiring defenseman Robyn Regehr in a trade with Calgary, and signing defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a 10-year, $40 million contract and forward Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million deal. Regehr played just 105 games in Buffalo before being traded to Los Angeles. Leino and Ehrhoff played three seasons before the Sabres bought out their contacts.

TRADE WINDS

Former GM Tim Murray’s most significant trade in his rebuilding plan came on Feb. 11, 2015. He dealt defenseman Tyler Myers, forwards Drew Stafford, Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux and a first-round pick to Winnipeg to acquire forward Evander Kane, defenseman Zach Bogosian and prospect goalie Jason Kasdorf. Kane is now in San Jose. Kasdorf played just one game in Buffalo. Bogosian has combined to miss 108 games due to an assortment of injuries over the past three seasons.

POOR DRAFTS

Of the 15 players selected by Buffalo in the 2010 and `11 drafts, only four made the NHL and combined to play 144 career games for Buffalo. Of the 23 players Buffalo drafted from 2005-’07, only nine played in the NHL and none topped 400 games.

BAD BREAKS

Aside from losing the NHL draft lottery after finishing last in both 2014 and `15, the Sabres lost out to Toronto in the Mike Babcock coaching sweepstakes in May 2015. The Sabres thought they were closing in on a deal before Babcock announced he was going to take an extra day to reconsider. Babcock signed with Toronto and the Sabres hired Dan Bylsma, who was fired after two seasons.

FRANCHISE LOWS

In finishing last in 2013-14, Buffalo scored 150 goals, the fewest in the NHL’s post-expansion era. The following season, the Sabres scored 153 goals and were shut out a franchise-worst 14 times. This past year, the Sabres won 11 home games, matching their fewest in any season.

AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report.