PHT’s Season Preview: 30 questions, 180 answers

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We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2013-14 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:

1. Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, or Alex Ovechkin: Who will have the best season, with individual and team success taken into account?

Jason Brough: Crosby. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’s the best player of the three, on the best team of the three.

Mike Halford: Crosby. Plenty of motivation after losing the Hart to Ovechkin (Ovi now leads Sid 3-1 in that category) and another disappointing playoff exit.

Joe Yerdon: Crosby, and it won’t be close unless he’s injured again. He was on a record pace last year before his jaw got smashed.

Ryan Dadoun: Sidney Crosby. His injury history is obviously a concern, but if he can finally stay healthy, then he could surpass his career high of 120 points.

James O’Brien: At some point, Crosby has to shake his Forsbergian injury luck, so why not 2013-14? This team is loaded and Sid remains almost unstoppable.

Cam Tucker: Alex Ovechkin. He’ll be extra motivated to have a good season in part because the Olympics are in Russia.

2. The biggest worry for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks is…

JB: Motivation. Some of them struggled with it last time they won the Cup. One of the many reasons repeat champions have been rare.

MH: Getting worn down. One, this was an unusually short offseason. Two, almost all their key players look to figure prominently in the Olympics. And three, they’re the champs. Everybody’s going to be gunning for them.

JY: The Los Angeles Kings. The Blues will knock them around in the division, but the Kings are built to win the Cup again as well.

RD: Whether or not their young complimentary players can perform as advertised to give them a solid bottom six and, to a lesser extent, general fatigue.

JO: Injuries. Marian Hossa is the most obvious example, but the 2013 run put tough miles on everyone.

CT: Health. With an even shorter offseason than normal, the wear of last season’s playoff run may still take its toll early on.

3. True or false: the Red Wings have a better chance to win the Cup than the Senators. (A.k.a. was Daniel Alfredsson right?)

JB: True. The biggest concern remains the defense, but it grew leaps and bounds last season, thanks to a masterful coaching job from Mike Babcock.

MH: True, based purely on experience. The likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Kronwall know what it takes to win a Cup; Ottawa’s talented, but lacks the veteran know-how.

JY: Can I say “push?” No? I’ll say true then, as they return a team that was a win away from beating Chicago.

RD: Neither team strikes me as much more than a second-round squad this season. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Detroit; the presence of Alfredsson is the thing that tips the scales.

JO: True, but by a very slim margin.

CT: True. Ottawa will be tough in the East, but the Sens don’t yet have players on their roster with that championship experience.

4. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the most likely to make the playoffs this season is…

JB: Philly. Too many good players on the Flyers, and I have more confidence in Ray Emery than I had in Ilya Bryzgalov.

MH: Dallas, which greatly improved its two main areas of need — defense and center. The Stars will also benefit from new head coach Lindy Ruff, who has nearly 600 career wins.

JY: It’s hard to not like the Oilers for this role. Yes, early injuries, but that youth has to evolve eventually…right?

RD: The Philadelphia Flyers. They have so much talent and I think their goaltending will be less of an issue this season.

JO: New Jersey. Losing Ilya Kovalchuk hurts a lot, but this team was better than its record in 2013 and added some enticing pieces, especially Cory Schneider.

CT: Hard to imagine the Flyers missing the playoffs again, although with goalies like Ray Emery and Steve Mason, making them is no guarantee.

source: Getty Images

5. The Edmonton Oilers have the longest playoff drought in the NHL, at seven straight seasons. Will they finally make it this year?

JB: Yes. So long as they can tread water early in the season with Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the sidelines.

MH: Nope. Still too many question marks on the blueline and, perhaps more pressingly, in goal. Devan Dubnyk’s never won more than 20 games in a single season.

JY: Looks like I just answered this question. Yes, they’ll make it as the fourth seed in the Pacific Division.

RD: No, but they’ll be close. They still have depth and defensive issues to work through.

JO: No. Big injuries to start and will probably struggle defensively.

CT: Yes. Young crop of talented forwards is augmented by an improved group of veteran players. Time to take the next step.

6. Of all the teams that made the playoffs last season, the most likely to miss the playoffs is…

JB: Anaheim. It’ll be a long fall for the Ducks, from second in the West to out of the top eight.

MH: Toronto. Last year feels like it was a bit of smoke and mirrors, as the Leafs were routinely out-possessed and had unsustainable shooting percentages.

JY: I’m coming out of left field here a bit and saying Anaheim. Their defense is nerve-racking. Luckily they can score a bit.

RD: The New York Islanders. Losing Mark Streit hurts and I’m not sure how much longer Evgeni Nabokov can be heavily leaned on.

JO: The Isles. There’s a lot to like about what Garth Snow is building, but it looks like they’re sleeping on goaltending until Brooklyn.

CT: Montreal Canadiens. There is an awful lot riding on goaltender Carey Price, who didn’t have the best season in 2013.

7. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs make it back to the playoffs?

JB: Yes, they’ll sneak in. Two capable goalies makes it doubly possible one of them gets hot.

MH: No. See above.

JY: They’re close. They could be the team that steals a spot from the Metropolitan Division. Right now, I’m leaning towards no.

RD: Just barely, but yes. I didn’t like much of what they did this summer, but I like their goaltending a lot and I think their offensive core is solid.

JO: Despite a circus-like offseason, my gut says Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf contract years will squeeze this odd bunch in.

CT: Yes. After the disappointment of collapsing in Game 7 of the first round against Boston, they’ll be hungrier to prove they belong in the postseason.

8. The worst team in the NHL will be…

JB: Everyone’s going to say Calgary, so I’ll say Nashville. How is this team going to score?

MH: Calgary. Did anybody answer differently?

JY: The Calgary Flames, and it won’t even be close.

RD: The Calgary Flames. At least they’ve taken steps to build for the future.

JO: Calgary.

CT: The Tampa Bay Lightning. This isn’t a bad thing. Finishing at the bottom gives them more of a chance at selecting first overall in 2014.

9. The winner of the Presidents’ Trophy will be…

JB: Chicago. I said earlier that the ‘Hawks may struggle with motivation, but I meant more in the playoffs, when the intensity really picks up and prices have to be paid.

MH: The Blues. Ken Hitchcock has racked up the regular season wins (.670 winning percentage) since coming to St. Louis in 2011. Expect that trend to continue.

JY: Chicago Blackhawks. They’re still the team to beat and still have a ridiculously loaded roster.

RD: The Chicago Blackhawks. It helps that the Central Division is, in my mind, the weakest in the NHL.

JO: The super-deep Blues, at least if they can hold off Chicago in a cozier version of the Central Division.

CT: The Pittsburgh Penguins. Too much talent and it will come to the forefront as the season progresses. But the Penguins are judged by playoff performances.

10. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be good, could be awful) in the NHL is…

JB: Edmonton. So much talent there, but we said that last year, didn’t we? The “we’re too young” excuse has expired.

MH: Ottawa. There’s potential for the Jason Spezza-Bobby Ryan combo to rack up huge numbers…but it’s also possible Alfie’s departure is too much to overcome.

JY: Montreal. Does Carey Price bounce back? How does their defense hold up? Do their young forwards improve? I like them, but I wouldn’t throw money on them.

RD: Columbus. I don’t have a ton of confidence in Sergei Bobrovsky being better than solid, but if he plays like he did in the second half of the 2013 campaign, they could be good.

JO: Colorado. That offense could be deep and explosive but the D remains porous and their goalies are a huge coin flip.

CT: Columbus. Narrowly missed playoffs in lockout-shortened 2013. But that that Metropolitan Division appears highly competitive.

source: Getty Images

11. True or false: Roberto Luongo will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. For me, elite is in Vezina Trophy consideration, so this isn’t a huge slap in the face. He’ll probably be above average. I’m just not loving the vibe in Vancouver these days.

MH: True. Luongo will get massive playing time this year as there’s literally nobody challenging him (all apologies to Eddie Lack). Could be like his first season in Vancouver, when he played a career-high 76 games and earned a Vezina nomination.

JY: True. The fans were on him hard and now he’s won them over showing what a great guy he is on Twitter. Like in “Gladiator” you win the crowd, you win your freedom.

RD: You mean statistically or in the eyes of public? Statistically, I think he’ll be an elite goaltender, but every cold stretch he has will scare people.

JO: True (after a rocky start).

CT: True. He may start slow, because that’s what he does. But after Oct. 31, he’ll settle into a groove.

12. True or false: Tim Thomas will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. I think he’ll help the Panthers quite a bit though. Which says a lot about the goaltending they got last year.

MH: False. Too much time away from the game, and he’s playing on a Florida team filled with inexperienced players.

JY: False. He won’t be elite, but he’s not going to be bad either. Florida just needs competency in goal. He will do that.

RD: False. At best, I think he’ll be above average, but I don’texpect him to carry the Florida Panthers in his comeback season at the age of 39.

JO: False, but he could be above average.

CT: True. He should be, if nothing else, refreshed from his sabbatical from hockey. And Thomas has always had a knack for proving his critics wrong.

13. If the Devils make the playoffs, their starting goalie will be…

JB: Martin Brodeur, because he’s Martin Brodeur. Schneider will have the better regular season though. I don’t think the Devils will make it anyway.

MH: Cory Schneider.

JY: Cory Schneider. The team will do right by Martin Brodeur until it starts costing them games. Schneider will bring the consistency they need.

RD: Martin Brodeur, even if Schneider has a better season.

JO: Cory Schneider, and it’s not even close.

CT: Cory Schneider. Martin Brodeur has had a fine career but he’s also 41 years of age.  Schneider’s entering his prime.

14. The team that should be most concerned about its goaltending is…

JB: Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury has been awful the past two postseasons; Tomas Vokoun is 37 and dealing with a pretty serious health issue.

MH: Minnesota. Niklas Backstrom turns 36 in February and missed last year’s playoffs with a groin injury. If he falters, the gig falls to Josh Harding, who filled in admirably during the postseason but has significant health concerns of his own.

JY: It’s cliché but it’s Philadelphia. Steve Mason and Ray Emery could split to be great, but last season’s sample sizes were pretty small.

RD: I’ll cheat and go with Columbus. Not because I think Bobrovsky is the worst starter out there by any stretch of the imagination, but because Columbus is extremely dependent on Bobrovsky, who is in turn a big X-Factor.

JO: The Flames, unless they actually want to lose.

CT: The Vancouver Canucks. What do they do if Roberto Luongo gets injured or doesn’t perform? Eddie Lack, their current back-up, has never played in an NHL game.

source: AP

15. A young player who you expect to burst onto the scene is…

JB: Charlie Coyle in Minnesota. Seems like he has a great attitude. Zach Parise’s been raving about him.

MH: Boone Jenner. Big, physical forward that will open the season on Columbus’ top line with Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.

JY: There are so many choices here that I’m going to pick two: Seth Jones and Valeri Nichushkin.

RD: Aleksander Barkov. He’s talented, has already played against men, and should get his fair share of opportunities in Florida.

JO: Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg, especially if he’s lining up with Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi.

CT: Morgan Rielly. Will begin the season in Toronto. Presence of young defensemen can come with a high number of mistakes. But can’t deny the talent.

16. Will Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller re-sign with the Sabres?

JB: No. I see Vanek in particular as a chip the Sabres can turn into some assets at the deadline.

MH: No. Buffalo will at the center of about 1,983 rumors heading into the trade deadline.

JY: I think they’re both elsewhere next year. Both guys could fetch huge returns for what will be one of the youngest teams in the league this year.

RD: No, I think Vanek will be traded by the deadline and Miller might end up walking as a free agent. I wouldn’t completely rule out Miller getting traded too, but trading a starting netminder midseason is rare.

JO: Vanek stays, Miller goes.

CT: No. In Miller’s case, it would appear his past few seasons in Buffalo have produced a fractured relationship with teammates, the franchise and fans.

17. Will Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf re-sign with the Leafs?

JB: Phaneuf, yes. Kessel, I’m not so sure. Does he really like playing in a market like Toronto? I don’t get the sense he does.

MH: Yes. Can’t envision a scenario where Toronto loses its captain and leading scorer.

JY: Kessel will stay and the Leafs will pay up huge for him to do so. Phaneuf should stick around but I suspect he’ll be gone after this year.

RD: Phaneuf should, but I’m not as confident about Kessel. I think what Kessel does will be partially dependent on what kind of season Toronto has.

JO: Yes, both do.

CT: No. Even with the salary cap expected to go up, the Leafs may have to turn in another direction if both are asking too much.

18. Will Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau re-sign with the Sharks?

JB: I’ll say yes, but Thornton will have to take a hometown discount after the Sharks locked up centers Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.

MH: Yes, and so will Dan Boyle. Sharks GM Doug Wilson said he’s already spoken — and will continue to speak — with all three about extensions.

JY: Yes they will. The Sharks don’t really do “change” and they’re still top players in the league. They won’t get giant, long-term deals however.

RD: I think they both will end up finishing their careers in San Jose.

JO: Both take less money to stay in sunny San Jose.

CT: Yes. Patrick Marleau has never played for another NHL team so it’s easier to believe he would stay so as to potentially finish out his career in San Jose.

19. One big-name player that will get traded before the deadline is…

JB: Mike Cammalleri. No reason for Calgary to give the 31-year-old a big extension at this point in the rebuild.

MH: Paul Stastny. The Avs have an embarrassment of young riches at center in Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, and Stastny’s a UFA at season’s end.

JY: Keith Yandle. Coyotes GM Don Maloney has been dying to add another top-six forward and they’re loaded with defensive depth. Gotta give to get.

RD: I already said Vanek, but I’ll throw Marian Gaborik in the mix too. Like I said, Columbus is a wild card and if things don’t go as planned for them, I think they’ll put Gaborik on the block.

JO: Ryan Miller. Bonus guesses: Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.

CT: Does Steve Ott count as a big-name player? Entering final year of his contract, and other teams would love his toughness.

source: AP

20. The player with the most to prove is…

JB: Kris Letang. Got absolutely shredded by the critics for his playoff performance, and deservedly so. The Pens then gave him a $58 million contract extension. A lot of people thought they’d be better off trading him.

MH: Alex Pietrangelo. He played hardball with the Blues and was rewarded with a massive contract — now, the pressure’s on to prove he’s worth $45.5 million (and deserves a spot on the Canadian Olympic team).

JY: Claude Giroux. He didn’t have a great season last year and the Flyers missed the playoffs. He’ll have a lot of weight on his shoulders to get them back.

RD: Roberto Luongo, but I want to give an honorable mention to Ray Emery. After all the setbacks he’s endured, he’s slowly worked up to the point where he can fight for a starting job on a talented team. That opportunity is there now and it might never come again if he has a bad season.

JO: Marc-Andre Fleury could maintain his spot as Pittsburgh’s franchise goalie or land on the trading block based on his performance.

CT: Martin St. Louis. He’s small, he’s skilled and he’s getting older. But should be motivated to try and make Canada’s Olympic team.

21. True or false: Tyler Seguin will have a big year for the Dallas Stars.

JB: True. I’m expecting at least 70 points out of the 21-year-old. (Yes, remember, he’s still only 21.)

MH: True, because of an increased opportunity and role with the Stars. Remember that Seguin only averaged 17 minutes a game last year, and that was his highest TOI average in three seasons with the B’s.

JY: True. He was on pace for a 30-goal season last year in Boston even in spite of being a supposed party hound. He’ll flourish in Dallas.

RD: I think he’ll largely meet expectations, which in my mind translates to about 70 points.

JO: True, just make sure to give Jamie Benn credit, too.

CT: True. He got traded from a Stanley Cup contender because of his act off the ice. If that doesn’t wake him up, what will?

22. The best offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Brenden Morrow. He’s not what he used to be, but he’s perfect for the Blues.

MH: Jarome Iginla in Boston. Never gets hurt, is a perfect replacement for Nathan Horton and, despite talk of his demise last season, still managed to score 23 points in 28 games for the Penguins.

JY: Mikhail Grabovski in Washington. Mike Ribeiro gave them a taste of what it’s like to have a really good No. 2 center last year. Grabovski will be even better in Washington.

RD: Vincent Lecavalier. This free agent class wasn’t stunning overall, but Lecavalier is a great forward at a fair price.

JO: The Washington Capitals grabbing Mikhail Grabovski for peanuts.

CT: Mike Ribeiro. Re-united with former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett. Seem to have a good rapport together.

23. The worst offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Nathan Horton. Don’t trust him to stay healthy.

MH: Valtteri Filppula in Tampa Bay. In seven NHL seasons, he’s only scored more than 40 points once. He’s also got to deal with the weight of heightened expectations (you know, signing for $25 million) and the inevitable “replacing Vinny” narrative.

JY: Considering how much Ryane Clowe has already been banged up in training camp, looking ahead to five seasons of that in New Jersey seems ominous.

RD: Valtteri Filppula. One good season – and not even his contract season – was apparently good enough to warrant $25 million.

JO: David Clarkson.

CT: Dustin Penner. At a price of $2 million this season, it’s not a terrible signing. But he’s underachieved in each of the last four regular seasons.

24. The first head coach to be fired will be…

JB: Claude Noel in Winnipeg. I thought he’d get the axe last season, so let’s go double or nothing.

MH: Claude Noel. Just seems like a matter of time.

JY: Mike Yeo in Minnesota. Some Wild fans were crowing to have Yeo sacked this summer even after making the playoffs. Tough crowd there and lots of pressure to win.

RD: Kirk Muller. This is a team that needs to be a serious contender for a playoff spot and if the Hurricanes underperform, I think they’ll change coaches rather quickly.

JO: Claude Noel, even though his GM isn’t providing him with much. Particularly in goal.

CT: Claude Noel. Jets are entering their third year back in Winnipeg and if they struggle, expect public outcry. And coaches are expendable.

25. True or false: Alain Vigneault’s first season as head coach of the New York Rangers will be successful.

JB: True, the Rangers will respond to a different voice. But can we stop acting like he’s the nicest guy in the world and the NHL’s version of Mike D’Antoni? He can still be hard on players, and he’s hardly a run-and-gun coach.

MH: True, if only because they respond to a new voice in the room. The Rangers looked burnt out under Tortorella last season.

JY: True. He’s not the offensive God-send some are making him out to be, but the culture change there will do wonders for the Rangers.

RD: True. The Rangers are a good team with some gifted forwards and a great goalie that should find success under Alain Vigneault.

JO: True, a smashing success.

CT: True. He’s a good coach, for starters. The team on the ice isn’t bad, either. And they have a top goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.

source: Getty Images

26. True or false: John Tortorella’s first season as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks will be successful.

JB: False. The Torts hiring reminds me of the time the Capitals tried to change their style. I think the entire Canucks organization is a bit lost right now.

MH: False, though it probably won’t be Tortorella’s fault. The window looks like it’s been closing on Vancouver in each of the last two seasons.

JY: True, to a point. He’ll get the accountability from the players the front office wants but if they can’t stay healthy it’ll look like a failure.

RD: False. I think Luongo will have a statistically great season and Vancouver is a capable team, but I don’t see Tortorella taking them very deep into the playoffs, which is what he was brought in there to do.

JO: True, at least if making the playoffs is the standard. (Though I guess if AV got fired after making them, it isn’t.)

CT: False. What counts as success in Vancouver is, at the very least, a berth in the Western Conference final. Seems beyond that team’s capabilities.

27. The Canadian team with the best chance to win the country’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 is…

JB: Vancouver. Considering what I said in my previous answer, this says a lot. But if Torts can help the Canucks get their swagger back, they’ve got the forwards, defensemen, and goalie to make another run.

MH: Ottawa. Which probably says more about the state of Canadian teams than it does the Senators.

JY: Ottawa. They’ve got the goaltending, offensive depth, and defensive skill to make a deep run. Their biggest issue will be escaping their division.

RD: Vancouver by default. I don’t think there will be a Canadian team in the conference finals.

JO: The Vancouver Canucks, even though they’re treading water.

CT: The Ottawa Senators. Nice run last year and they have solid goaltending in Craig Anderson.  But the team might not be at that level yet.

28. True or false: Phoenix Coyotes fans will show up to support their team.

JB: False. This will take some time. The Coyotes’ brand has been badly damaged in that market.

MH: True. It’s amazing what, you know, actually having an owner can do for club morale.

JY: True. Things can’t really get worse there and the new ownership seems dedicated to making the fans happy. Team-supported tailgating? Heck yes.

RD: False. I don’t think they will see a huge jump in interest compared to 2013.

JO: False, at least unless they make the playoffs.

CT: True. But only in the playoffs, provided the Coyotes make it that far.

29. True or false: the NHL will announce at least one expansion team in the next year.

JB: False. Seattle is coming relatively soon though.

MH: False, though it could happen during the 2014-15 campaign.

JY: False. I can’t see this happening for at least two years.

RD: False. But maybe in a couple years.

JO: A Supersonic truth.

CT: True. The Pacific Northwest is intriguing to the NHL, as per deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Lots of smoke there. Has to be fire.

30. Finally, make a crazy prediction that probably won’t happen, but on second thought, you never know…

JB: The Florida Panthers will go from worst to, well, not first, but the playoffs. Tim Thomas wins the Vezina, then retires to run for President.

MH: Poor weather conditions lead to the first-ever canceled outdoor game.

JY: Hyrbid icing becomes such a raging success that the NHL adopts a “Beat the Icing” event at the All-Star Skills Competition in 2015. Somehow, Tim Thomas will win it.

RD: We’ll have two players that reach the 60-goal mark this season.Stamkos and Ovechkin have done it before and look great going into this season.

JO: Jarome Iginla will score more goals than years he’s lived (36).

CT: An all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final. No Canadian team appears to be at a championship level and even if it were the case, in a numbers game alone, the odds are still stacked against this happening. But dare to dream for this Canadian.

NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Both star-laden rosters are also getting completely healthy and back to full strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have William Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s solid stretch of play

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Andrei Vasilevskiy will be back in goal Thursday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be the netminder’s first appearance since a fractured foot knocked him out of the lineup a month ago. 

That loss could have spelled danger, even for a strong team like the Lightning; and general manager Julien BriseBois could have gone out and plucked a goalie off waivers or made a trade for the short-term. Instead, they rode Louis Domingue (and Eddie Pasquale for one start) to a 12-3-0 record and enter this matchup between the NHL’s top two teams on a seven-game winning streak.

***

It was Nov. 2017 when the Lightning acquired Domingue from the Arizona Coyotes as an insurance policy. When Vasilevskiy’s backup at the time, Peter Budaj, got hurt, Domingue stepped into the No. 2 role and ended up starting 11 games last season.

Having already been an NHL starter in Arizona and having worked previously with Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, it seemed like a good fit. Domingue’s play in 2017-18 earned him a two-year, $2.3M extension and he’s proven to be worth every penny so far. Not bad for a guy whose career was in limbo just before he landed in Tampa.

In Domingue’s 14 starts since Vasilevskiy’s injury he’s posted a .919 even strength save percentage while facing the second-most shots at 5-on-5 (374) over that span. It hasn’t always been pretty — he’s allowed three or more goals eight times in that stretch — but when you’re on the NHL’s top-scoring team, they’ll bail you out on a bad night more often than not.

“When your starter goes down and you know this isn’t a couple of days thing, it’s a month thing, now you’re looking saying ‘Holy cow, I’m going to be starting a bunch of games in a row here,'” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “So mentally there’s a hurdle there to get over. He was probably sitting there saying I’ve got to make every single save. When you start putting a little too much pressure on yourself… he just needed to relax a little bit and understand we’ll get some goals, just make the saves when you can and if you can help bail us out sometimes, do it. That’s what he’s done of late and been really confident in net.”

Also, during most of his run, Domingue wore a neat mask during Hockey Fights Cancer month which featured drawings done by kids being treated at Children’s Cancer Center of Tampa Bay.

As Vasilevskiy returns, the Lightning now know they have a proven No. 2 behind him who can instill confidence in teammates when he gets the call. And with Vasilevskiy having started 64 games last season, Domingue’s presence will allow Cooper to rest his starter when needed — an issue that came up last season.

“It’s a team sport and the reason you’ve got guys in line waiting to play is in case injuries happen,” said Cooper. “You don’t want anybody get to hurt, ever, but you can lose your starting goaltender for a month or so. That’s 15 or 16 games. Somebody’s got to fill that void and step in and Louis has done an unreal job.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Hindsight is 43/35 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That’s how many goals and assists William Karlsson put up for the Vegas Golden Knights after the Blue Jackets let him go in the most recent NHL expansion draft. They also sent first- and second-round draft picks to Vegas to unload David Clarkson‘s contract and hold on to forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

”I think we’ve looked at probably 100 times already that, ‘Could we have done something different the last time around?”’ Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Probably not. You’re going to make some mistakes and you might let the wrong guy go. You do your studying, you do your evaluation of your players and you do your projections and it’s not an exact science.”

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021, when Seattle enters the league. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.

”We might get to a situation where we’re like, ‘Boy I don’t want to lose any of these guys,’ so a team may have to do it again,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. ”But we’ve lived it now and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it. And if you’re going to (make a trade), you’re going to make sure it’s for the right person. You’re going to be like: ‘I’m giving up a lot of assets here. Is this the right thing to do?”’

McPhee held all the leverage that summer, and he stockpiled talent as a result. Because only seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender (or seven skaters at any position and a goaltender) could be protected, a lot of deep teams were stuck with core players unprotected and willing to do almost anything to keep them.

Just some of the ”fear factor” moves: The Wild traded prospect Alex Tuch and let center Erik Haula go to Vegas to keep Matt Dumba. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault. The Islanders traded a first-round pick to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. The Ducks traded Shea Theodore to clear Clayton Stoner’s salary and keep Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. The Penguins even sent a future second-round pick to ensure Vegas would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota’s GM, figured out the hard way that expansion means every team loses something. Now with Philadelphia, his approach will likely be to lose as little as possible to Seattle.

”No matter what you do you’re going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. ”You either let them make the choice for you or you try to help them out by making sure you’re keeping the things you want to keep. It was a great process to go through and I’m sure there were some lessons learned, but at the end of the day, if you have too many players than you can protect, you’ve got to pick your poison.”

A popular choice last time? Teams giving up players to clear salary-cap space. That was the impetus for the Fleury move and others, but so much time to prepare could reduce the need for those trades in the summer of 2021.

”That’s just one thing that I see could happen, that if the teams aren’t financially strapped against the cap then they don’t have to make those sacrifices of young players to get the cap relief,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said.

With two full offseasons until Seattle can plunder 30 NHL teams (Vegas will not participate), a lot of GMs are already planning ahead. Offices in Columbus and Dallas have already been the scene of some long-range preparation while acknowledging a lot can change between now and then. Nill said teams will likely need to decide whether someone is a ”core player” or someone who isn’t going to be around in the future.

All GMs will need to grapple with the impact of no-movement clauses in player contracts that the NHL decreed must be protected in any expansion draft. Ottawa lost defenseman Marc Methot, in part, because Dion Phaneuf wouldn’t waive his no-movement clause. Now that GMs know the rules, deals through 2021 could be affected.

”You’re reluctant to give no-move clauses at any time, but certainly with knowing what your expansion protected list is going to be, I think that will make teams a little more cautious,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said.

According to PuckPedia , there are already 36 players with no-movement clauses for 2021-22. The Penguins, Stars and Blackhawks lead the league with four players each. Don’t be surprised if GMs attempt to change some of those situations to put themselves in a better spot.

”You don’t want to fill your protection list with guys that you have to protect because of the clauses in their contract,” Kekalainen said. ”You want to fill it with the guys you want to protect, so you want to leave that option to yourself.”

DE-IMPROVED PENGUINS

After sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh is 6-2-2 in its past 10 games to surge up the standings. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has stepped up for injured starter Matt Murray, is a big part of that with his 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage over that time.

”I’m not surprised,” Rutherford said. ”Casey took the long road to the National Hockey League. He worked at it. He’s worked very close with Mike Buckley, our goalie coach, and he’s a goalie that really worked on his fundamentals.”

The Penguins activated Murray off injured reserve Wednesday. Even with Murray’s return, don’t expect Pittsburgh to keep DeSmith on the bench for long.

”You have to have two goalies because if you want to have a long run in the spring, you can’t wear your No. 1 goalie out,” Rutherford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division face off Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 25; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 39; Points: Rantanen, 52; Ice time: Seth Jones (Columbus), 26:29; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.91; Save percentage: Rinne, 9.32.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed from Vancouver.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: 2018 U.S. Hockey HOF class inducted; Weezer at Winter Classic

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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.

• Former Michigan coach Red Berenson, three-time Olympic medalist Natalie Darwitz, Nashville Predators GM David Poile, Leland “Hago” Harrington, the first American-developed player to record a hat trick in the NHL, and ex-NHL referee Paul Stewart were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday night. Late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson was honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy. [U.S. Hockey HOF]

• Weezer will be your 2019 NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET; NBC) entertainment at Notre Dame Stadium when the Boston Bruins take on the Chicago Blackhawks. [Hollywood Reporter]

• The “college hockey line” is working quite well for the Bruins. [Bruins Daily]

Andrei Vasilevskiy is on the verge of returning for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He could be in goal tonight vs. Toronto. [NHL.com]

• Will the Detroit Red Wings ultimately decide to trade Jimmy Howard or keep him? [Detroit News]

• Guy Boucher’s future is among many questions the Ottawa Senators need to answer. [TSN]

• Brent Flahr follows Chuck Fletcher from Minnesota to become the Philadelphia Flyers’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager. [Flyers]

• Teenage defensemen are taking over the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Speaking of teenage defensemen, Miro Heiskanen is living up to expectations with the Dallas Stars. [ESPN]

Connor Hellebuyck has rebounded nicely, which is good for the Winnipeg Jets. [Sportsnet]

• A look at Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving’s penchant for dealing first-round picks. [Flames Nation]

• The Derick Brassard trade has done what it was supposed to do. [PensBurgh]

• Teams playing above their heads need to be realistic about their playoff chances. [Yahoo]

• Looking at the NHL’s best forward duos this season. [Nucks Misconduct]

• Ken Hitchcock is having quite the positive affect on the Edmonton Oilers. [The Point]

• A high school club hockey player has been suspended indefinitely from USA Hockey activities after he struck a defenseless player twice with his hockey stick during a game on Sunday. (With video) [WFAA]

• Finally, Darren Dreger was on Wednesday Night Hockey to talk about the the rumors in the trade market:

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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.