Three major challenges facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who won’t be the champs in 2016

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The Chicago Blackhawks lost to an excellent team in the St. Louis Blues. If a few bounces had gone their way, they could’ve beaten that excellent team.

But they lost, and now, for the first time since 2012, they’re out after the first round of the playoffs.

While the future isn’t exactly bleak in Chicago, GM Stan Bowman does face some significant challenges going forward.

Salary-cap strapped

The good news is Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still young, each just 27 years old. The bad news is they’re really expensive now, each with a cap hit of $10.5 million.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about the challenges of having two superstars take up so much of the payroll. Naturally, it’s the depth that suffers. Currently, the Penguins have a bunch of kids on cheap contracts who are contributing, and that’s been absolutely vital to their success. 

In Chicago, it was the blue line where depth was the big concern this season. The ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Oduya. Instead, they relied on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk to log top-four minutes behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Van Riemsdyk played well, but it was a lot to ask of him, and sometimes he faltered. Two other rookies —  Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg — never earned the coach’s trust, forcing David Rundblad into the lineup. (The Blues, meanwhile, had this kid by the name of Colton Parayko….)

If van Riemsdyk, Svedberg, and Gustafsson can continue to get better, the ‘Hawks might actually be pretty solid on the back end next season. There’s also still Ville Pokka in the minors, and perhaps they’ll pursue a veteran in free agency.

Up front is where the depth concerns could be greatest in 2016-17. Will the ‘Hawks be able to keep Andrew Shaw? What about Andrew Ladd? The former is a restricted free agent who’s in line for a good-sized raise. The latter is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Chicago really can’t afford to overpay a player at that point in his career.

GM Stan Bowman has tried in the past to move Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit (through 2016-17), and he’ll no doubt try again this offseason. But no team is going to take that on for free. They’ll want something in return, like one of the Blackhawks’ prospects.

Which brings us to…

The prospect pool

It lacks elite talent — a consequence of not missing the playoffs and making trades for immediate help.

The ‘Hawks do have a handful of youngsters in the system who could one day make an impact at the NHL level, including forwards Mark McNeill, Vince Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz. On defense, there’s Pokka and Gustav Forsling.

But they didn’t have a first-round pick last year (they traded it to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), and they don’t have one this year (they traded it to Winnipeg for Ladd, along with Marko Dano).

The ‘Hawks know better than anyone that even great rosters need to be constantly refreshed with young talent. A number of key contributors to last year’s championship — guys like Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Saad — weren’t on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. They were all drafted and developed in the years after, helping replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Kris VersteegTroy Brouwer, and Dustin Byfuglien.

The infusion of young talent is going to be doubly important now, because…

An aging core

This is a sensitive topic, but here’s the reality — Marian Hossa is among the oldest forwards in the league. He’s still a very good player at 37, but his production did decline significantly in the regular season.

Yes, Hossa showed in the playoffs that he can still bring it. He scored three times against the Blues; had a couple of assists, too. The reason that guys like Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zdeno Chara can remain effective for so long is that they were so great in their primes. Even after they decline, they’re still really good.

But they do decline. All of them. It cannot be avoided. Nature says so. Their fans can kick and scream all they want. Won’t help.

In a related story, Duncan Keith is 32 and Brent Seabrook is 31. Keith has played 833 games in the NHL, plus 122 more in the playoffs. Seabrook has played 844 games, plus 119 more in the playoffs. There are a lot of miles on those bodies.

To clarify, nobody’s saying those two aren’t good anymore — heck, Keith is only one year removed from one of the greatest playoff performances ever by a defenseman — but they will start to decline. Even if it’s a gradual decline, the NHL is so closely contested, and those two have been so vital to the Blackhawks’ success, that it will be felt.

Oshie, Carlson lift Capitals over Bruins in mid-season test

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The 82-game regular season is a marathon for NHL teams, but at various points of the season you want to measure yourself up against a top team in your conference.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins 3-2 at Capital One Arena.

John Carlson scored the go-ahead goal 4:42 into the third period to help propel the Capitals. T.J. Oshie scored twice and Braden Holtby made 30 saves as the Capitals collected their seventh win in the previous eight games.

David Pastrnak scored his NHL-leading 26th goal for Boston but the Bruins have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1).

Oshie often overlooked

Whether it’s Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson or Holtby, Oshie is often neglected when listing the Capitals’ star power.

Since being acquired in July of 2015, Oshie has been a consistent offensive threat for the Capitals in the previous four-plus seasons. He has averaged 25.5 goals and added his 12th and 13th of this season in stellar fashion on Wednesday.

Oshie made a quick deke to his forehand before ringing a shot off the crossbar, but then finished his own rebound to even the score early in the second period.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a highlight-reel goal. The American forward danced around Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton before converting a nifty deke 3:30 after his first of the game.

While other players in Washington’s lineup receive credit for the Capitals’ strong play in recent years, Oshie should not be forgotten about as he has proven to be a key piece to the puzzle in Washington.

Pastrnak remains red-hot

The Czech winger has solidified himself as one the best pure goal scorers in the NHL today and recorded his 26th goal of the season on Wednesday. No. 88 is on pace for 67 goals this season and has helped the Boston Bruins secure a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division.

Pastrnak tallied a short-side snipe to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead against the Capitals Wednesday. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was able to complete a cross-ice pass because centerman Patrice Bergeron skated hard to the net in order to create an open passing lane.

If Pastrnak is able to continue this torrid pace, he could be in line to collect a lot of hardware at the NHL Awards show and help the Bruins collect a trophy they fell just short of last season.

Ovechkin’s office

The sign of dominance in any competitive sport is if you can continue to repeat an action while your opponent is aware of what is coming.

For Alex Ovechkin, his presence from the left circle throughout the course of his career has been spectacular. The captain of the Washington Capitals has recorded 299 of his 679 goals (44%) from the left circle or above. And since the 2012-13 season, 54% of his goals have come from that spot on the ice.

NHL teams will continue to game plan and know exactly where No. 8 will be on the ice, especially when Washington is on a power play, but his excellence from that area should be viewed in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky’s operation from behind the net.

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

Flyers vs. Avalanche livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flyers and Avalanche have both won six of their last seven games and each enter this matchup in playoff position in their respective conferences. This is the first of two meetings this season as these two will play at Philadelphia on Feb. 1.

Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, is having another standout season. After MacKinnon’s breakout season in 2017-18 (39 goals, 97 points), he upped those totals last season with two more goals and this season he’s tracking towards another career-best year. MacKinnon ranks third in the NHL in points (47) and is tied for fourth in goals (19) this season.

Travis Konecny leads Philadelphia with 28 points this season and is tied with Oskar Lindblom for the team lead in goals (11). Konecny took a hard, open-ice hit from Mark Borowiecki late in the first period on Saturday and did not return – he’s out indefinitely with a concussion. The 22-year-old Konecny was having a career season, on pace for 30 goals and 76 points.

Sean Couturier (22 points), Claude Giroux (21) and Jakub Voracek (21) are next on the team in scoring. Couturier has scored 30-plus goals each of the last two seasons as he’s totaled 76 points both years (his career high). Giroux already has four game-winning goals this season (as many as he had all of last year). Voracek has five points in the last five games (all assists).

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk – Morgan Frost – Tyler Pitlick
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesJoel Farabee
Chris Stewart – Mikhail Vorobyev – David Kase

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimJustin Braun
Shayne GostisbehereRobert Hagg

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareValeri Nichushkin
Matt NietoJ.T. CompherTyson Jost

Nikita ZadorovSamuel Girard
Ryan GravesIan Cole
Calle Rosen – Mark Barberio

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Peter DeBoer out as San Jose Sharks head coach

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The San Jose Sharks cut ties with head coach Peter DeBoer Wednesday evening. Bob Boughner will take over behind the Sharks bench on an interim basis.

San Jose has lost its last five games and currently sits in sixth place in the Pacific Division with a 15-16-2 record. The Sharks have been outscored 15-3 in the previous three games.

“When you have had a level of past success, change is never easy, but we feel this team is capable of much more than we have shown thus far and that a new voice is needed,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said in a statement. “As a team and as individuals, our play has not met expectations this year and our level of consistency has not been where it needs to be. This group of individuals who will lead our team moving forward are very familiar with our players, and we think this change can provide our group with a fresh start.

“Under the leadership of Pete, along with Steve, Dave and Johan, our franchise accomplished some great things, culminating in reaching the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. We want to thank them for their contributions to our organization’s success over the last four years.”

DeBoer was not the only coaching change. Assistant coaches Steve Spott, Dave Barr and goaltending coach Johan Hedberg were also relieved of their duties.

Boughner will be the boss behind the bench and will be joined by associate coach Roy Sommer, assistant coach Mike Ricci and goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov. Dan Darrow will remain in his current role of assistant coach, video.

The Sharks are the fifth team to make a coaching change this season along with the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

San Jose will host the New York Rangers Thursday.

Bruins vs. Capitals livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The top two teams in the NHL meet for the second of three matchups this regular season (Washington won 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 16 at Boston). Both clubs have been on recent hot streaks, but each is coming off a loss in its most recent game on Monday night

Each of these teams has won the regular-season points crown in recent years – Boston 2013-14, Washington 2015-16 and 2016-17 – but in each case lost in Round 2 of the playoffs. A Presidents’ Trophy winner has not won the Stanley Cup since Chicago did it in 2012-13 and the last team to do it in a full season was Detroit in 2007-08. The Presidents’ Trophy winner has not made the Conference Finals since 2014-15 (New York Rangers).

Patrice Bergeron missed seven games with a lower-body injury and returned on Monday, scoring his first goal since Nov. 8 – Pastrnak and Marchand assisted on the goal. The B’s top-line center picked up right where he left off as he had seven points (all assists) in the final four games before his injury. Bergeron now has 25 points in 22 games this season.

Nicklas Backstrom returned on Monday after missing eight games with an upper- body injury. Like Bergeron, he also scored in his return (had an assist as well), and also like Bergeron, he had a point streak going before his injury, with an assist in the final three games before missing time.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenCharlie CoyleBrett Ritchie
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Jonas SiegenthalerRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Stunning Numbers: John Carlson edition

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Bruins-Capitals from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.