Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? Here are PHT’s picks…

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Not to brag, but half of PHT staffers correctly predicted the Los Angeles Kings would win the Stanley Cup last season. We’re back to try again in 2014-15. Feel free to add your picks below. Also, don’t forget to suggest we have no idea what we’re talking about. Like last year when all those people ripped two of us for picking the Rangers to make the Final.

Jason Brough: Tampa Bay Lightning over St. Louis Blues

The first thing that any Cup winner needs is great players. Analysis! (But seriously, sometimes people forget this.) Well, the Lightning have three players who have shown they can be elite at their respective positions. Steven Stamkos is, obviously, one of the best in the game. But there’s also Victor Hedman, who finished ninth in Norris Trophy voting last season, and Ben Bishop, who finished third in the Vezina Trophy race. Other things to really like about Tampa Bay: a deep defense, a strong contingent of contributing youngsters, a handful of experienced vets, and a good coach. Maybe I’m getting sucked in by a trendy pick and I should just play it safe with Chicago or L.A. But that’s boring, and this group that Steve Yzerman has assembled gets my nod.

Mike Halford: Pittsburgh Penguins over Los Angeles Kings

You guys remember what happened the last time Pittsburgh changed coaches, right? Granted, the switch from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma happened during the season rather than over the summer, but the fact still remains — there’s a new face behind the Pittsburgh bench, and that’s probably a good thing. There’s no denying the Pens got stale and frustrated under Bylsma, and it’s wise of Mike Johnston to preach (for now, anyway) that they should be enjoying themselves, rather than suffocate under the pressure of expectations. And hey, this is still a pretty good team. Pittsburgh has the NHL’s best player (Sidney Crosby), the best one-two center combo in the league (assuming Evgeni Malkin’s healthy), its best bottom-six forward depth in years and gifted puck-movers on defense in Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin — guys that can get pucks onto the forwards’ sticks. Too many people are sleeping on the Pens.

James O’Brien: Chicago Blackhawks over Montreal Canadiens

It’s easy to imagine the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings playing hot potato with the Stanley Cup for ages, yet with just one more season of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews being paid below market value, the clock may be ticking on Chicago’s staggering depth. Luckily, they still have the 2014-15 season to flaunt their almost unfair array of talent, and guys like Brandon Saad (and maybe eventually Teuvo Teravainen?) seem primed for great things. Oh yeah, it doesn’t hurt to employ Brad Richards when he has a) plenty to prove and b) money to earn. Meanwhile, out East, Montreal is positioned to take a big step forward after an often-promising 2013 postseason run. P.K. Subban and Carey Price are up there with any one-two punch, Alex Galchenyuk seems ready to leap and P.A. Parenteau bolsters a forward group that suddenly looks pretty deep.

Ryan Dadoun: St. Louis Blues over Boston Bruins

I (incorrectly) picked the Blues to win the Stanley Cup last season, and I’m sticking with that prediction for 2014-15. There’s no shortage of worthy contenders, but what makes me gravitate towards St. Louis is its elite defense and offensive depth. The big X-factor is Brian Elliott. In the past, when he was hot, he was one of the best goalies in the league. It’s just that, when he was cold, he was unworthy of a roster spot. But he’s been a superb backup in St. Louis, and at the age of 29, perhaps he can become more consistent as the number one goaltender. As for the Bruins, they have an elite netminder and a balanced offense. Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger, but he’s still a force, and they’ve got some great young defensemen that seem capable of taking the torch.

Cam Tucker: Chicago Blackhawks over Pittsburgh Penguins

Preface this by saying my prediction will almost certainly be wrong. But let’s get on with it anyway… The Chicago Blackhawks were one goal away from reaching last season’s Stanley Cup Final and their core group of players still includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. So they do have the top-end talent, and I’m not overly worried about their goaltending with Corey Crawford. I still think that in a very difficult Western Conference, this team will remain at or near the top, and when the playoffs conclude, they’ll be back atop the NHL like they were two years ago. The Penguins should’ve knocked off the New York Rangers last year and didn’t. It’s a gamble with them this season. They have a new coach in Mike Johnston and Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled at times in the postseason. But if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at their best, the Penguins should still be a force in the East.

Dhiren Mahiban: Chicago Blackhawks over Boston Bruins 

Chicago’s core is solid. More than solid, actually. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa up front along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya on the back end know what it takes to win, and will lead this team back to the promised land. The Blackhawks’ time to win is now, before Kane’s and Toews’ new monster deals kick in next season and some tough choices may need to be made. Add offseason signing Brad Richards, who will want to prove his doubters wrong after how things ended in New York, and this team has exceptional depth (I didn’t even mention Marian Hossa or Brandon Saad).  The Blackhawks have been the model of consistency — winning at least 44 games each season, excluding the lockout-shortened season — since 2008-09. There’s no big reason things will change this year.

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.