Your definitive PHT NCAA hockey tournament preview

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College hockey’s version of March Madness gets underway this afternoon and the 16 teams that are in the tournament, they know that one loss ends their season. How do things shake out in the four regionals? Safe to say we’ve got 12 curious games to get us through the weekend.

Here’s the quick and the dirty on the first round games as well as my idea on how things shake out as the road to Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four sets up.

Northeast Regional – Manchester, NH

1. UMass-Lowell vs. 4. Wisconsin

Lowell took down their first ever Hockey East tournament title while Wisconsin roared through the WCHA to win that conference’s tourney. For a 1-4 game, this one’s a doozy. The Badgers have the tourney history, while the Riverhawks have been rolling since December. Lowell will go as far as freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck takes them.

Players to watch: Connor Hellebuyck (G – FR) for Lowell. Nic Kerdiles (F – FR) for Wisconsin.

2. New Hampshire vs. 3. Denver University

Both teams bowed out of their conference tournaments early. Both teams landed extended vacations before the NCAAs. Who does the break help? Who does it hinder? New Hampshire has home ice and Denver didn’t do well in 2010 when they headed east for the tournament. Hmm…

Players to watch: Kevin Goumas (F – JR) for New Hampshire. Nick Shore (F—JR) for Denver.

East Regional – Providence, RI

1. Quinnipiac vs. 4. Canisius

It’s the top seeded team in the tournament against the last seeded team. In the NCAA basketball tourney that usually means the top team wins in a walk. Not so for the hockey tourney. That said, Canisius is on a roll after winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament. Then again, they were not overly good this season. Quinnipiac lost in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament to Brown. This could wind up being the closes of the 1 vs. 4 games in this year.

Players to watch: Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell (G – SR) for Quinnipiac. Kyle Gibbons (F – JR) for Canisius.

2. Boston College vs. 3. Union College

An intriguing match-up of what could’ve been last year’s national championship game had Union beaten Ferris State in the national semis. BC is the perennial vampire of the playoffs. They’re not done until you put the stake through their heart. Union is on fire having won their way through the ECAC tournament on their way to the title. The Dutchmen are a chic pick to make the Frozen Four out of this region and that’s just what Boston College (with Jerry York back behind the bench) likes to hear.

Players to watch: Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau (F –SO) for BC. Wayne Simpson (F – SR) for Union.

Midwest Regional – Toledo, OH

1. Notre Dame vs. 4. St. Cloud State

The Fighting Irish battled their way through to win the final CCHA tournament and earn a No. 1 seed. Lucky for them they get to face the WCHA’s co-regular season champs from St. Cloud State. Some reward. Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish played strong throughout the playoffs while St. Cloud disappointed in the Final Five. This one’s an honest to goodness toss-up, but keep in mind that the Huskies did not fare too well out of conference this season (swept by Northern Michigan and New Hampshire, lost to Rensselaer).

Players to watch: Anders Lee (F – JR) for Notre Dame, Drew LeBlanc (F –SR) for St. Cloud.

2. Miami University vs. 3. Minnesota St. – Mankato

The Redhawks have become a fixture in the NCAAs. Unfortunately for them, they have yet to win a national title. They came up short in the CCHA tournament so they’ve got motivation to prove they’re better than that. Minnesota St. is making their first appearance in the NCAAs since 2003 and don’t look for them to take the “glad to be selected” approach. They’re a darkhorse team to come out of this region.

Players to watch: Austin Czarnik (F – SO) for Miami, Matt Leitner (F – SO) for Minnesota St.

West Regional – Grand Rapids, MI

1. Minnesota vs. 4. Yale

The Golden Gophers were a co-dominant force this season along with Quinnipiac and are the definitive No. 2 team in the tournament. Getting rewarded with a mercurial Yale squad doesn’t make life easy for them. If they run into the Bulldogs team that has goalie Jeff Malcolm stopping everything and them pushing the pace offensively, Minnesota will have their hands full. If they get the Yale team that “showed up” in the ECAC semis and consolation game, it’ll be a walk in the park as they haven’t scored a goal since the ECAC quarterfinals against St. Lawrence.

Players to watch: Erik Haula (F—JR) for Minnesota and recently traded for Jarome Iginla prospect Kenny Agostino (F –JR) for Yale.

2. North Dakota vs. Niagara

The formerly Fighting Sioux boast perhaps the best offensive one-two punch in the tournament with Hobey Baker finalist forwards Danny Kristo and Corban Knight. They’ve combined for 99 points this season alone but Niagara boasts a Hobey finalist of their own in junior goalie Carsen Chubak. You can debate the competition he’s faced but his numbers do all the talking (1.91 GAA, .938 SV%). North Dakota is capable of winning it all, but Niagara will look to give them fits.

Other players to watch: Rocco Grimaldi (F—FR) for North Dakota, Giancarlo Iuorio (F—SR; 21 goals) for Niagara.

Prediction: Keep in mind I’m terrible at predictions (but you knew that by now) but I like UMass-Lowell, Boston College, Minnesota St., and North Dakota to make it to Pittsburgh. If I go 0-for-4 on those picks, I won’t be the least bit surprised. There’s no overly dominant team with a gift-like road to the Frozen Four this year.

PHT Morning Skate: Craig Button’s final mock draft; 24 players that could be traded

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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 Edmonton Oilers signed Matt Benning to a two-year, $3.8 million contract extension on Tuesday evening. (NHL.com/Oilers)

• TSN hockey analyst Craig Button put together his final mock draft ahead of Friday’s NHL Entry Draft in Dallas. Rasmus Dahlin is locked in as the top pick, but there’s a lot of intrigue after that. (TSN.ca)

• This will be the 50th edition of the NHL Entry Draft, so TSN.ca ranked all 49 first overall picks made throughout history. It’s not exactly shocking to see Mario Lemieux at the top of the list. (TSN.ca)

• Drafting first overall on Friday night will be huge for the Buffalo Sabres organization. GM Jason Botterill is looking at this opportunity as a celebration for the player they pick (cough, cough Dahlin) and the team. (Buffalo News)

• Brady Tkachuk has the unenviable task of following in his father and his brother’s footsteps, but he’s planning on making it work. (AZ Central)

Mike Hoffman, Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk have all been on the move recently and there could be more trades coming. Sportsnet takes a deeper look at 24 players that could be dealt this summer. (Sportsnet)

• Speaking of Domi, check out the interview his father, Tie, did on Montreal radio on Tuesday afternoon. The older Domi referred to the city of Montreal as “hockey’s shrine”. That’s significant praise from a former Maple Leaf. (TSN 690 Radio)

• Now that the Senators have unloaded Hoffman, where do they go from here? Can they get Erik Karlsson signed? Can they hit the jackpot in the draft? We’re about to find about. (Silver Seven Sens)

• Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo doesn’t think Hoffman will have a hard time fitting in with the Panthers. (Sun-Sentinel)

• Predators defenseman P.K. Subban wants to see Alex Ovechkin continue celebrating his Stanley Cup title. “Listen to me. He deserves it. I’m very happy for him. I don’t think there’s going to be anyone who says he didn’t deserve to win the Cup. He’s played a long time and at a very, very high level. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t have a (Stanley Cup) ring before.” (NHL.com)

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.

Senators face long odds in ‘winning’ Erik Karlsson trade

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The Ottawa Senators needed to get rid of Mike Hoffman as soon as possible, even if they took a loss, which the Sharks and Panthers made sure of on Tuesday.

Maybe it’s a product of the bar plummeting incredibly low, but at least the Senators pulled off the Band-Aid quickly, by their poor standards. Losing the trade is akin to pulling off more skin than expected when removing that bandage.

[Senators land poor deal for Hoffman; Sharks then move him to Panthers]

On the scale of roster triage, the Hoffman situation was certainly important, but making the best of the Erik Karlsson situation is as close to “life or death” as it gets for an NHL franchise (beyond more straightforward issues such as bankruptcy and arena deals).

In virtually every situation, a team giving up a star player ends up losing a trade by a large margin. History frequently frowns on that side, even if context points to it being a no-win situation for the unfortunate GM in question.

Infinite crisis

This would be a desperate situation for any team, but the stakes seem downright terrifying for GM Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators. Just consider the short version of their profound, gobsmacking organizational dysfunction.

  • They lost Mike Hoffman for quarters on the dollar, and he’ll still be in the Atlantic Division after the Sharks flipped him to Florida. The indication is that Ottawa was unwittingly part of a “three-team trade.”
  • Senators fans might become allergic to the phrase “three-team trade,” as the Matt Duchene swap looks awful already. Colorado made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, got a first-rounder, and an intriguing player in Sam Girard. The Predators added Kyle Turris. Ottawa may only have Duchene for about a season and a half, as he’ll be up for a new contract after 2018-19. If you were Duchene, would you want any part of the Senators?
  • Assistant GM Randy Lee was suspended as a harassment investigation is underway. That story surfaced mere weeks before the Hoffman/Caryk/Karlssons fiasco forced Ottawa’s hand.
  • Fans really want Melnyk out as owner. Franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson feels the same way.
  • After an unlikely run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, the Senators endured a brutal season, and their future outlook is grim. Not great when you consider that the team is likely to send its 2019 first-rounder to Colorado.

Again, that’s the back-of-the-box summary of Ottawa’s woes. It doesn’t even touch on Guy Boucher’s strangely harsh treatment or the fairly reasonable worries that someone might actually send a rare offer sheet to excellent forward Mark Stone.

Amid all that turmoil, it’s well known that the Senators are in a bind with Karlsson, as it’s very difficult to imagine the superstar relenting and re-signing with Ottawa. They’re at a serious risk of losing him for nothing as he approaches UFA status next summer, and he’s under no obligation to sign an extension if a team trades for him. Karlsson also has some veto power via a limited no-trade clause.

So, while the Senators gain some advantages that come with trying to trade Karlsson during the off-season (possibly as soon as this week with the 2018 NHL Draft approaching), his trade value suffers because a team would only get one guaranteed run with the Swede rather than the two they would’ve landed via the trade deadline.

No doubt, Dorion balking during the trade deadline will be mentioned if this goes sour.

The Senators certainly could’ve landed a better package for Hoffman during that time, and Karlsson’s value may have been higher then, too.

Ryan only makes things more difficult

For those who scoff at there being any doubt at all about the Karlsson point, don’t forget just how much of a star he really is. Contenders may go all-out for Karlsson now that they have the room to work with, and maybe someone could even convince him to agree to terms (official or tentative) in a hypothetical deal. In that scenario, the Senators might actually land a strong deal for their crucial blueliner.

Much like during the trade deadline, there’s a major stumbling block beyond the other context clues: Bobby Ryan‘s contract.

TSN’s Frank Servalli ranks among those who report that a Karlsson deal may still need to include Ryan’s albatross deal ($7.25M cap hit through 2021-22).

No doubt, the Senators would like to get rid of Ryan’s lousy contract, but that’s where this situation could really get awkward. Ottawa could severely limit the returns for Karlsson if they attach the Ryan mistake to it. Would the Vegas Golden Knights even give up a package such as Shea Theodore plus “picks and prospects” at this point, as Servalli points to, especially if it includes Vegas’ original first-rounder Cody Glass? Is Theodore + Glass + picks good enough if it even landed Karlsson?

From a PR standpoint, the Senators would likely be wiser to get the best-looking deal for Karlsson, and then move some futures to a rebuilding team to house Ryan’s contract. One might “or they can just suck it up and deal with Ryan’s contract,” but … Melnyk.

Ultimately, it was almost inevitable for the Senators to “lose” in some way regarding Karlsson, unless they beat the odds and convinced him to sign an extension.

There are degrees of losing when it comes to managing these assets, though, and the Senators face a real risk of turning a tough situation into a full-fledged disaster. Dorion is in an extremely difficult spot here, and the Senators’ recent history points to more heartache and aggravation.

One way or another, we may find out soon if they can salvage this situation.

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.

Artemi Panarin involved in trade rumors again

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One reaction to the head-spinning series of trades that sent Mike Hoffman to the Florida Panthers was that the trade market for big-time forwards dried up considerably. Would the Montreal Canadiens see less interest in Max Pacioretty with Hoffman off the table and the Panthers no longer shopping, for example?

Well, we might not need to worry about the market drying up, depending upon how one very interesting situation plays out.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets are “testing the market” for Artemi Panarin after Panarin revealed that he’s not yet ready to discuss a contract extension.

Panarin, 26, can become an unrestricted free agent after his $6 million cap hit expires following the 2018-19 season. One can absolutely understand why Panarin would want to maximize his value during the summer of 2019. Despite earning a Calder Trophy in 2015-16 and basically being a star since he entered the NHL following a strong KHL career, Panarin’s been in a tough spot when it comes to leverage, whether it be during his Chicago Blackhawks days or now with Columbus.

So it makes a lot of sense that Panarin wants the freedom to “test the market” himself.

It also is sensible that Columbus wants to gauge its financial future regarding Panarin and others.

The 2019 summer stands as a terrifying obstacle for the Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky stands alongside Panarin as a pending UFA who could be in line for a big raise (even more than Bob’s current cap hit of $7.425M).

If that isn’t enough to make you mutter a “yikes,” consider that superstar defenseman Zach Werenski and coveted backup Joonas Korpisalo are both slated to become RFAs next off-season.

To recap: the Blue Jackets don’t know how much it would cost to retain Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Werenski after next season.

/insert another yikes.

By just about every measure, Panarin proved that he wasn’t merely Patrick Kane‘s running mate during his first season in Columbus. Panarin’s 82 points weren’t just a career-high, they also topped all Blue Jackets scorers by 25 points.

(Seth Jones came in second with 57. You have to reach all the way down to rookie Pierre Luc-Dubois’ 48 points to find the next highest-scoring Blue Jackets forward. Yeah.)

Oh yeah, Panarin was also a force during Columbus’ series against the Washington Capitals, scoring an overtime game-winner that oozed swagger:

That skill and swagger will come at a cost, and maybe the Blue Jackets would be forced to cut their losses via a trade? If Panarin is truly available, then any contender should go big to try to land him. His skills and affordable $6M cap hit make him a true game-changer.

Of course “testing the market” doesn’t mean that the Blue Jackets are likely to make a move. This could be more like dipping a toe in the water rather than diving in the deep end.

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the response you would expect:

“Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Still, it’s fascinating to imagine all of the possibilities. Could the Vegas Golden Knights absorb some of Columbus’ other cap worries to grease the wheels? Might the Penguins improbably move Phil Kessel in some sort of mega-trade? Maybe the San Jose Sharks would get in on the star winger, or could it be the offense-needy Blues? (Remember, Vladimir Tarasenko campaigned enthusiastically for Panarin before he signed his first NHL deal.)

It’s all a lot of fun to think about, as people arguably still don’t realize how great Panarin is.

Well, it’s fun to get your imagination going unless you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then you’re fearful that your team’s first true “gamebreaking” forward might just break your heart.

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.

Will Hoffman, Panthers get last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

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.