PHT Morning Skate: Rangers-Flyers meet in pivotal Game 4

It feels like it was forever ago when the Rangers and Flyers last played, but the two will finally meet for Game 4 tonight in Philadelphia.

New York’s 2-1 series edge and goal scoring fortune in Game 3 made Flyers coach Craig Berube make the switch to Steve Mason in goal. The Rangers hope they’re rushing him back from injury as they hope to send the series back to Madison Square Garden up 3-1.

Elsewhere, a pair of key Game 5s are happening in St. Louis and Anaheim as those series are knotted up 2-2. Wins by the visiting Blackhawks and Stars could make Game 6 more difficult for the favored Blues and Ducks.

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a $1,000 Fantasy Hockey league for Friday’s NHL games. It’s $10 to join and first prize is $200. Starts Friday at 7pm ETHere’s the FanDuel link.

Game 4: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers [New York leads series 2-1] (7:00 p.m. ET — CNBC)

Something felt a little bit off in how things went down for Philly in Game 3. They were blitzed by the Rangers early on and weren’t able to recover and then made a switch in goal in the third period after Daniel Carcillo scored.

This series hasn’t been a bad one for Ray Emery, but with Mason getting the call for Game 4 the focus will now shift to that position. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said they know how they want to attack Mason, but talk is cheap in the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have been getting their offense sparked by 2004 Stanley Cup winners Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. St. Louis’ five points and Richards’ four points (as well as Rick Nash’s four assists) have their offense buzzing. Derek Stepan has also been impressive and their work against a Flyers defense that has its issues has shown through.

Game 5: St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks [Series tied 2-2] (8:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

If there’s something for the Blues to be worried about headed into Game 5 it’s that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews might be awake and making a difference. That was certainly the case in Game 4 where Kane was a force and had the overtime winner. If there’s an upside to find out of that for St. Louis, it’s that Chicago needed overtime to tie the series in the first place.

Plenty has been made of blowing leads in the postseason and Chicago is as guilty as anyone having done that in three of four games in the series. The difference in Game 4 was that the Blackhawks came away with the win instead of a crushing overtime loss like in Games 1 and 2.

A key for the Blackhawks in Game 5? Finding a way to shut down Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues youngster has four goals in the series and is the most dangerous player on the ice. With David Backes still out, Tarasenko has to become a marked man for the ‘Hawks defense.

Game 5: Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars [Series tied 2-2] (10:30 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

Any chance the Ducks might be getting a bit nervous? Game 4 saw things go south quickly with Ryan Getzlaf sitting out and Teemu Selanne a healthy scratch after not producing much. Add in a few in-game injuries and goalie Frederik Andersen getting chased out and suddenly things look terrifyingly messy for Anaheim.

That’s music to the ears of Stars coach Lindy Ruff who has seen Kari Lehtonen play outstanding in goal and Jamie Benn play like a man possessed offensively. The Stars have also found ways under the Ducks’ skin as was shown at the completion of Game 4 when things got a bit rough.

Dallas has been irritating in all facets though with key timing for their goals and a few carefully placed facewashes. The Ducks have to hope returning to Honda Center will settle them down or else Bruce Boudreau’s squad could be in big trouble.

Karlsson among those choosing to stay put, avoid free agency

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Erik Karlsson wanted some time and space.

When the San Jose Sharks acquired the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in a trade last September, he and his wife told them up front they wouldn’t sign a long-term contract until they played a season to see if it was a fit. They gave general manager Doug Wilson their word they would make a decision in enough time let the Sharks plan their offseason.

Karlsson signed two weeks before free agency opened.

”They were letting me play hockey and getting adjusted to everything, and that meant the world to me,” Karlsson said after signing for $92 million over eight years . ”I’m very happy with how everything happened and that they didn’t force me into making a decision earlier than this.”

Karlsson is one of several players who might have landed richer contracts via free agency and opted instead to re-sign with their teams. For Karlsson, Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes, Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Washington’s Carl Hagelin and Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn, staying put won out over the risk of the open market.

”You never know what’s going to be out there if you go to free agency,” Edler said. ”There’s a lot of factors coming up here in the next few years with the potential lockout (and) there’s an expansion draft (for Seattle).”

A lower than expected salary cap set at $81.5 million also means there will be less money available all around July 1.

Of course, it’s not like most of these deals were hometown discounts. Karlsson got the richest salary for a defenseman in NHL history, Hayes signed for $50 million and Skinner turned a career year into $72 million . No matter the cap, the possibility existed that free agent frenzy could land them bigger deals.

They just didn’t want to find out.

”Going to July 1 is nice, (but) it’s kind of nice to be able to get it over with and sign with a tremendous team,” Hayes said. ”July 1 and unrestricted free agency is definitely an intriguing idea. But when I sat down with my agent and we kind of thought about what type of team I’d want to go and where I’d fit into the organization and the team, the Flyers were at the top of the list.”

The Flyers acquired the rights to Hayes from Winnipeg in early June and had to sell him on the benefits of playing in Philly. Elsewhere, familiarity helped. Just as Karlsson and wife Melinda got to know the Bay Area and Sharks organization over nine months, Skinner’s 40-goal season in Buffalo convinced him to stay.

”Going through the process, you think about everything, you weigh the pros and cons,” Skinner said. ”We just didn’t feel the need to get to that point because I like it here and I didn’t feel like it needed to get to that point where I wanted to look elsewhere.”

Coburn, who took a pay cut to sign a $3.4 million, two-year contract , said Tampa feeling like home off the ice and ”unfinished business” on the ice made staying his family’s top choice. After finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.

”We have an unbelievable team here and I want to be a part of it,” Coburn said.

Hagelin feels the same way about the Capitals after playing only 27 regular-season and playoff games with them since late February. The 30-year-old feared Washington’s salary-cap squeeze might impede him from sticking around but was willing to take a lower salary than he could’ve gotten on the open market to get an $11 million, four-year deal with a team he believes can win a championship in that time like it did in 2018.

”I wouldn’t have signed with Washington if I didn’t believe there’s still a good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Hagelin said.

Edler last played a playoff game in 2014 and the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Combine that with him being 33 and it might have been easy to understand Edler wanting to test the market. Instead, he had no wanderlust and agreed to a $12 million, two-year deal after 13 seasons with the Canucks.

”I’ve said from the beginning that if a deal was available with Vancouver, that was my No. 1 priority,” Edler said.

Wilson, the Sharks GM, traded for Karlsson and now locked down an elite offensive defenseman for the rest of his prime. Wilson related to their situation because his wife is from Chicago, where he played his entire career, and took the chance that the Karlssons would enjoy San Jose enough to want to stay.

”We trusted in that process,” Wilson said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devils introduce Jack Hughes to New Jersey after big week

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Devils introduced No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes to New Jersey on Tuesday – even though he is already sharing the spotlight.

The Devils have given notice they might be re-emerging as a contender with an encouraging draft and the stunning acquisition of six-time All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. It has all gone a long way in turning pessimism into optimism for a team that finished with the league’s third-worst record and out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

”Adding a talent like Jack Hughes on Friday night and Saturday, P.K. Subban, obviously I think the Devils are back in business,” general manager Ray Shero said.

It started with winning the draft lottery in early April to the selection of Hughes, a center, with the top pick Friday to the trade for Subban, who immediately steps into the role as New Jersey’s top defenseman.

With 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall expected to return to form after an injury-marred campaign, 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier continuing his development and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri playing his best hockey, the Devils have a shot to do something in a league where the St. Louis Blues come out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

Devils majority owner Josh Harris can’t wait to the season to start, adding Devils’ fans are used to winning Stanley Cups – the last was in 2003 – and now is the time to start doing it again.

”Jack joining the franchise represents another turn in our goal to be elite,” Harris said at a news conference for Hughes at the Prudential Center. ”We said that we’re here not to do anything other than consistently compete and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.”

With parents Jim and Ellen sitting in the front row, the 18-year-old Hughes was soft spoken, confident and composed speaking on a stage that included Harris and Shero.

The Florida-born Hughes said he had no doubt he would be playing next season in the NHL for the Devils and he hopes to play a creative game.

It is just what the talent-starved Devils need. The past week was a major step in Shero’s rebuilding plan over the past four years. It started soon after he was hired with the trades for Hall and Palmieri, the draft of Hischier, another center, and now the selection of Hughes and the trade with Nashville for Subban and his $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons.

Hughes hasn’t stopped going since the draft. He returned to New Jersey with Shero, Harris and his parents on a private jet and spent the next few days making media appearances. He attended the New York Yankees game against Toronto on Monday night, sitting for 30 minutes with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and actor Adam Sandler.

He is eager now to return to suburban Toronto, where he grew up, and begin preparations for an 82-game season against men, and being a part of a team.

”I want to be Jack Hughes, not Patrick Kane or Matt Barzal,” Hughes said. ”I want to have my own flavor, my own excitement to my game.”

The 170-pound playmaking center mixed poise, drive, and sheer skating ability to score 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the Devils. Hischier had 20 goals and 32 assists as a rookie.

Hughes doesn’t see himself as competing with Hischier for the job as the top-line center.

”I think to win you have to have 1A and 1B,” said Hughes, who will wear No. 86 with the Devils. ”No team wins with just one really good center. Travis Zajac has been a really good center for a long time and I think the Devils are in a really good spot. In the NHL, I feel whoever I play with will be a really good player.”

Coach John Hynes is looking forward to using all his new talent.

”It’s exciting,” Hynes said. ”It’s what you want. You want guys to come in and give you a chance to win and coach some excellent players.”

And who is to say the Devils are done? They still have $25 million available in cap space.

”I feel with the pieces we have at this moment, we are a much better team than we were on Thursday,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. ”That’s encouraging.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Hughes picks No. 86; Gritty surprises fan

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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.

• Why did the Avs trade Carl Soderberg? (Mile High Hockey)

• Breadman will get dough wherever he ends up. (Postmedia)

• Jack Hughes to wear “flashy” No. 86. (ESPN)

• The Winnipeg Jets face cap challenges this summer. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking the free agent goalie market. (TSN.ca)

• One Toronto draft pick once trick-or-treated at Mike Babcock’s house. (Sportsnet)

• First-round pick says sister is better than him. (CBC.ca)

• Jarome Iginla atop the list of Hall of Fame candidates for 2020. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL’s secret spending cap: How a shift in escrow acts as a hidden force that discourages spending. (The Athletic)

• How the United States Hockey League prepared Ronnie Attard for the big time. (USA Hockey)

• A seven-year-old hockey fan wanted a prosthetic leg that repped his favorite team, and Gritty was happy to surprise him. (CNN)

• A list of the five frontrunners to sign Matt Duchene. (The Hockey News)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.