Risk Factors: Philadelphia Flyers edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Philadelphia Flyers

1. The defense. Duh. A concern even prior to losing Kimmo Timonen (blood clots), the blueline is Philly’s biggest issue heading into this season — something head coach Craig Berube confirmed following a 6-3 exhibition loss to the Rangers.

“They’ve got to turn it up — they’ve got to play better,” Berube said of his blueline, per CSN. “It’s not just on them. It’s a team thing.

“We have to play better defense.”

The Flyers’ D has its problems. First and foremost is mobility, or lack thereof: Mark Streit (37 in December) and Nicklas Grossmann (30 in January) aren’t winning any speed-skating competitions while Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn are more physical defenders than agile ones.

There are also continuity and chemistry issues. Of the projected top six — Streit, Grossmann, Coburn, Schenn, Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto — only Coburn has been with the team for more than two seasons as the Flyers have constantly tinkered with their defensive mix. Schenn found a comfortable partner in MacDonald last year when the Isles blueliner came over at the deadline, but now Schenn’s paired with Del Zotto (who was signed in August as a stopgap replacement for Timonen), meaning MacDonald now skates with Coburn on what the club is calling its “top” pairing. That leaves Streit and Grossman as the other unit.

And if the blueline is hit by injury? Yikes. Reserve depth consists of journeyman Nick Schultz and whoever they can call up from AHL Lehigh Valley. Philadelphia was remarkably fortunate with regards to health last season — Streit, Coburn, Schenn, Timonen and Grossman combined to miss just 12 games — so it’s scary to think what the blueline might look like if one (or more) of the top six get hurt.

Finally, there’s Philly’s lack of an elite, top-line, heavy-minute shutdown guy. It’s something even GM Ron Hextall admits is missing.

“I’ve said it time and time again. We maybe don’t have that top guy, that No. 1 guy, but probably 20 teams in the league say the same thing,” he said, per NJ.com. “We’re going to go with the guys we’ve got.”

2. Steve Mason has expectations. Mason entered last season as a reclamation project in progress, looking to beat out Ray Emery for the No. 1 gig while playing on a relatively modest ($1.5 million) contract. Now, things are dramatically different; the 26-year-old is Philly’s clear-cut starter, one of the NHL’s 20 highest-paid goalies and counted on to maintain the form that saw him go 33-18-7 with a .917 save percentage and 2.50 GAA last season.

That requires consistency, though, and consistency has never really been Mason’s strong suit.

After one banner campaign in Columbus, he struggled to match that level in the three seasons following and battled with the mental side of things — “I think a lot of things here just got into his head,” former Jacket and current Flyer R.J. Umberger said at the time. Mason also struggled right around the time the ink dried on his three-year, $12.3 million extension with the Flyers, finishing January with a 5-5-1 record and .889 save percentage.

It’s also worth noting that, in Columbus, Mason had three years to try and rediscover his game. Tough to imagine Philly — a notorious goalie graveyard — giving him similar leeway.

3. The Vinny distraction. Roughly one year after giving Vincent Lecavalier a five-year, $22.5 million deal, the Flyers openly shopped him around the league. Ottawa, Nashville and Edmonton were just a few of the rumored landing spots for a guy that arrived with great fanfare, but is now a problem the team doesn’t really know how to solve.

The issue, in a nutshell: Lecavalier is 34 and slowed a bit, but still an offense-first guy that needs a quality role to be productive. That, however, doesn’t mesh with Berube, who wants sound two-way play and defensive responsibility from his big-minute centers — hence Vinny’s demotion to the fourth line last year and the on-again, off-again shift to left wing.

The Flyers need to find somewhere for Lecavalier to play. At first, they hoped it’d be in another city and now — well, at least to start the season — it’ll be back at center, where he’s the No. 3 behind Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux.

But how long will that last?

It’s no secret Berube has issues with Lecavalier, something made crystal clear during the summer when Berube was asked how Lecavalier should deal with all the trade rumors:

“Get over it,” [Berube said].

Berube’s response to apparently being stuck for another season with an aging four-time All-Star whose defensive liabilities outweighed the 20 goals he scored in 69 games as a new Flyer in 2013-14?

“He just needs to change his game a little bit,” Berube said during a recent interview. “We talked about that after the season and he’s willing to do that.”

The change is reflected in Lecavalier’s projected wingers this season: Michael Raffl and R.J. Umberger, energy guys that aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess. There’s no guarantee the trio will click and if they don’t…well, what then?

The bottom line is this: Lecavalier signed in Philly to be the No. 2 center in Peter Laviolette’s uptempo system, then got blindsided three games into his Flyers career when Lavvy was dumped and Berube took the reins. Now he’s playing in a role that doesn’t really fit his skill set, for a head coach that doesn’t really know what to do with him. It’s a distraction already. And it could easily get bigger.

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream: NHL Return to Play round-robin game

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Saturday’s round-robin matchup between the Avalanche and Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be 2.

Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. The Golden Knights, even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), has scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period.

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing in his 14th consecutive postseason, the longest active streak among the top four major professional sports leagues. New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick has played in 13 straight postseasons; the Pelicans are currently attempting to reach the NBA Playoffs, which begin on August 17.

In Jared Bednar’s first season in charge just over three years ago, Colorado finished last in the NHL with just 48 points. Now they boast Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar and an enviable goalie tandem in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche vs. Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 8, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Lightning-Flyers, Avalanche-Golden Knights play for top seeds

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Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t fit to play until he says so.

The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. EDT, NBC) that will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.

”Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. ”As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”

The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.

Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.

”Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”

Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.

Tampa Bay-Philadelphia will decide which team faces Montreal after the Canadiens knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

”We know they got some top players that have a lot of skill and they got a really good power play,” Hart said of the Lightning

In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado (3 p.m., NBC). The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.

”The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”

Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.

The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.

The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.

With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.

”We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. ”It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”

Kraken hire Everett Fitzhugh as club’s first broadcaster

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken have hired Everett Fitzhugh as the club’s first broadcaster, the team announced Friday.

Fitzhugh is believed to be the first Black team broadcaster hired by an NHL franchise. He has spent the past five seasons as the director of media relations and broadcasting for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Fitzhugh served as the play-by-play broadcaster for the club.

”As someone who’s worked in hockey for over a decade and who has a long-held passion for broadcasting hockey, to be named a part of the broadcast and content team for a brand-new NHL franchise – particularly one with an organization as strong as the Kraken – is a dream come true,” Fitzhugh said in a statement. ”Getting to the NHL has always been my goal.”

Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said Fitzhugh came highly recommended by those the team consulted with in making the hire. Fitzhugh’s exact role will be determined at a later date.

Fitzhugh was one of three front-office hires announced by the team. Seattle also hired Jonny Greco as the senior vice president of live entertainment and game presentation, and Lamont Buford will serve as vice president of game presentation.

The Wraparound: First Round seeding up for grabs Saturday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your roundup of Friday’s wild postseason action.

• Friday was Elimination Day as the Oilers, Penguins, Predators, Panthers, and Wild all exited the postseason.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Golden Knights, 3 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream: Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be #2. Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. Even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), the Golden Knights have scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period. The Avs have been spreading the love on offense. Through two round robin games, each of Colorado’s six goals have been scored by a different player – two from defensemen (Cale Makar and Ryan Graves) and four from players in their first season with the Avalanche.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestreamThe winner of this game will become the #1 seed in the East; the loser will be the second seed. Tampa, owner of the league’s best regular season offense (3.47 goals/game) has scored five goals in its first two games… and they’re without Steven Stamkos, who will not play against the Flyers after missing Tampa’s first two round robin games with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out indefinitely. Carter Hart, who will turn 22 on Thursday, is expected to start after Brian Elliott got the nod in Philly’s last game vs Washington. Hart stopped 34 of 35 shots in their 4-1 win vs Boston last Sunday in his postseason debut, becoming the youngest Flyers goalie to win a playoff game.

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

SUNDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN