PHT’s Season Preview: 30 questions, 180 answers

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We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2016-17 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:

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

Jason Brough: Winnipeg. The Jets made the right choice by waiving Ondrej Pavelec. You worry about their structure and discipline, but there’s enough young talent on that roster, led by Mark Scheifele.

Adam Gretz: I will say Carolina, because I always say Carolina. I love their defense and eventually they have to get goaltending that is good enough to get them in. That has to happen at some point, right?

Joey Alfieri: Montreal. Carey Price‘s knee has held up through the World Cup and one preseason game and if he can stay relatively healthy this year, the Canadiens will return to the postseason.

James O’Brien: The Bruins’ long-term outlook is troubling, but they have the goods to make that small step back into the playoffs. They only missed last season in a tiebreaker, after all.

Cam Tucker: I want to say the Carolina Hurricanes. But I’ll go with the Boston Bruins. Mainly because I don’t see the Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs.

Mike Halford: Montreal. A healthy Price doesn’t just get them back into the postseason, it makes them a contender to come out of the East.

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

Brough: Minnesota. The Wild’s core is getting old, and there’s not enough youth to stem the decline. Signing Eric Staal and making him the No. 1 center was an act of sheer desperation.

Gretz: Detroit. Another core player (Pavel Datsyuk) is gone, another one (Henrik Zetterberg) is another year older, and I still don’t trust their defense.

Alfieri: Minnesota. I’m with Jason on this one. That’s an old team and they didn’t do much to get younger or faster this offseason. I like the Bruce Boudreau hire, but it won’t be enough.

O’Brien: Philadelphia. Ron Hextall knows what he’s doing, but the good stuff won’t really come until after 2016-17 when cap space really clears up. Expect some growing pains in the meantime.

Tucker: Detroit’s streak of 25 consecutive post-season appearances is great, but they were underwhelming last year. No Datsyuk now. Henrik Zetterberg is a year older. Feels like the end of an era.

Halford: The Red Wings, who are in serious trouble. They did nothing to upgrade their aging blue line, and now both Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are banged up.

3. One team that isn’t getting enough respect is…

Brough: Vancouver. The Canucks probably won’t make the playoffs, but they won’t finish dead last with 65 points either.

Gretz: Probably Montreal. I hate what they did over the summer and I hate the way they play, but a healthy Carey Price is going to make a big difference.

Alfieri: Florida. They have a great bunch of young players that will be looking to take the next step. For a team that finished at the top of the Atlantic division, no one is talking about them as serious contenders.

O’Brien: Los Angeles. The Kings remain possession demigods, their important defensemen are in their primes and Anze Kopitar is beyond legit. Their championship window is open.

Tucker: The Hurricanes. Lots of young, talented players. Good puck possession team. I think they’re capable of surprising some teams in the East this season.

Halford: Carolina. I love everything Ron Francis has done there… aside from the goaltending.

4. One team that’s getting too much respect is…

Brough: Florida. It’s funny, last year, I picked the Panthers as the team that wasn’t getting enough respect. I still like what they’re doing, but they haven’t won a playoff round yet. Let’s just hold our horses on these guys. (I obviously disagree with Joey that they’re not getting enough love.)

Gretz: I’ll say Los Angeles. Still a good team, but they have a lot of core guys that are starting to get older and I have doubts about their ability to consistently score enough.

Alfieri: Chicago. Before you throw stones at me, hear me out. Yes, Toews, Kane, Panarin and Keith are still around, but the supporting cast has taken a hit over the last few off-seasons. I’m not suggesting they’ll miss the playoffs, but maybe they aren’t as elite as some people think.

O’Brien: Last year, people overlooked the Sharks too much. This time around, are red flags being ignored? Because yikes, that core is scary old.

Tucker: The Kings. Didn’t make the playoffs in 2015, got eliminated in the first round in 2016. I think they’re a playoff team. Just not the juggernaut they used to be.

Halford: Dallas. Absolutely decimated by injury right now, and a major candidate for a slow start. Also, that “who’s your starting goalie?” question isn’t going away, much to Lindy Ruff’s chagrin.

5. The worst team in the NHL will be…

Brough: Columbus. The Jackets were terrible last year, and they haven’t made many changes. I like their young blue line, and I do think there’s hope for this club. But Sergei Bobrovsky will need to be really, really good if they have any hope this year.

Gretz: Columbus. And it doesn’t look very promising long-term, either.

Alfieri: Not to be redundant, but I think it has to be Columbus. They have a few nice pieces, but that roster simply isn’t good enough right now.

O’Brien: John Chayka is working magic in Arizona, but the current roster looks weaker than that “hide the coin” trick.

Tucker: The Canucks. And they’ll pick No. 2 overall in the draft, missing out on the one guy they really need, Nolan Patrick, because they’re the Canucks.

Halford: Columbus. I’m not making the same mistake as last year. John Tortorella is gonna run this team into the ground.

6. The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs 25 straight seasons. Will they keep the streak alive?

Brough: No, I think this is the year it ends. Frans Nielsen can probably replace last year’s version of Pavel Datsyuk, but that blue line just isn’t good enough.

Gretz: As I mentioned above, no. The Red Wings have been flirting with this for a couple of years now and I think this is the year it happens.

Alfieri: Nope. Datsyuk is gone, Zetterberg’s production has dipped and that group of defensemen isn’t good enough in today’s NHL.

O’Brien: Yes, on the strength of their young forwards and Petr Mrazek. But it won’t be pretty with that sketchy defense. Missing the playoffs might be better for Detroit, actually.

Tucker: No. They’re on the decline, and there are other teams in the East on the rise.

Halford: No, and an aside — how weird will it be to see the Red Wings in the draft lottery?

7. The Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs 10 straight seasons. Will they miss them again?

Brough: Yes. The Oilers are still too thin on defense. They should be better than last season, but I’ve said that before and regretted it.

Gretz: Yes, but a full season of Connor McDavid is going to get them a little bit closer.

Alfieri: No. The Oilers will shock everyone this year and sneak into the playoffs. They still have some deficiencies on the blue line, but I think McDavid (and the depth up front) will carry this team into this postseason this year.

O’Brien: Yes. With the Oilers, let’s just assume they’ll fail until they prove otherwise.

Tucker: Yes. But I think they will be in a fight for a wild-card spot right up until the final few games of the season.

Halford: Yes. They’re going to be exactly like Team North America at the World Cup — tons of fun, great to watch, but goaltending and defensive lapses will keep ’em out.

8. Will the Washington Capitals finally get past the second round of the playoffs?

Brough: No. I picked them to win the Cup last year and they let me down. My answer is out of spite.

Gretz: I am going to say yes. They will probably have to get through Pittsburgh to do it, and that almost certainly sends Capitals fans into a panic, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think Washington could win a best-of-seven there. We were an overtime Game 6 from getting a winner-take-all game last year.

Alfieri: Yes. The Capitals continue to disappoint every spring, but this is the year they get it done. Don’t ask me why, they just do.

O’Brien: Yes, this Capitals team is seriously stacked. That forward group is extra-frightening.

Tucker: Yes. #CapsThirdRound2017. I know. Worst hashtag ever. But still, the Capitals have plenty of talent and it will happen.

Halford: Yes. My answer is out of spite for Brough.

9. Assuming Sidney Crosby will be healthy for the playoffs, how confident are you that the Pittsburgh Penguins could repeat as Stanley Cup champs?

Brough: Surprisingly confident, considering there hasn’t been a repeat champ in almost two decades. I still can’t believe how easily the Pens handled the Sharks. The series went six games, but it wasn’t even close.

Gretz: Not very. It’s not that I don’t think they are good enough, I am just going based on history and logic here. There is a reason nobody has done it in nearly 20 years. They will still be one of the top teams in the league, but a lot has to go your way to win it once. Even more has to go your way to win it two years in a row.

Alfieri: I’m not confident. There’s depth up front and depth in goal, but a lot of what they do hinges on Kris Letang. Can he stay healthy after a short summer?

O’Brien: I’m confident that the Penguins are for real, but I’d still go with “the field” over Pittsburgh. So, technically: not confident. Technically.

Tucker: Well, I’ve got the Capitals going beyond the second round, so not very confident I guess.

Halford: Not very. They’re in a three-way race with the Caps and Bolts to come out of the East. (Four if you count Montreal, which I have). So I’m 25 to 33.3 percent confident.

10. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be decent, could be a disaster) is…

Brough: Anaheim. The Ducks have the talent. But an aging core full of strong personalities, with Randy Carlyle as the coach? Yeah, I could see that going sideways.

Gretz: Montreal. Carey Price could put the team on his back and Shea Weber could score 25 goals. Or the house of cards collapses again and Therrien gets fired in a month. Then there is Alexander Radulov and where he fits and what he can still do. So many amazing things can happen here and it can all go in any direction at any time. My eyes are glued to them.

Alfieri: It has to be Montreal. I think they’ll be fine, but there’s no team that’s more of a wildcard than the Canadiens. If Carey Price goes down again, forget about it.

O’Brien: Colorado is a tough nut to crack. Sure, there’s talent on paper, but what if those horrific possession stats weren’t all Patrick Roy’s fault? Then again, what if it WAS all Roy’s fault?

Tucker: Hurricanes. They’ve got plenty of good young players and I think they could push for a wild card in the East. Depends on the goaltending duo of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, so…?

Halford: Winnipeg. The Jets are absolutely loaded with talent, speed, youth, etc. etc. So much relies on their goaltending, though, which is why they’re the ultimate wildcard.

11. What is the most dangerous assumption that you’ve seen people making?

Brough: That the Blackhawks will be fine, just because they’re the Blackhawks. There are so many wild cards in that forward group. There was a reason Stan Bowman kicked the tires on Nail Yakupov.

Gretz: That all of Philadelphia’s young defensemen are going to pan out exactly as planned. Things almost never work out that well with prospects. One will probably be as good as expected (or better), one will probably be decent, another will probably be a bust. We’ll just have to wait to find out who does what.

Alfieri: That Henrik Lundqvist will be able to keep the Rangers competitive. Lundqvist is still great, but he’s getting older, and have you seen the group of defensemen in front of him? Marc Staal and Dan Girardi aren’t getting any quicker.

O’Brien: That Carey Price will be Carey Price. So far so good, mind you, but it’s dangerous to assume that a player can seamlessly return from an injury (even a superstar like Carey Price).

Tucker: When it comes to the Panthers, I’m guilty of thinking they’re a Stanley Cup contender this year. Plenty to get excited about with this team. They’re going in the right direction. But they may still be a year or two away from being a conference champion.

Halford: That the Stars won’t miss Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers on the back end. Those guys played big minutes for them last year, and Dan Hamhuis isn’t so young anymore.

12. The team that should be most worried about its goaltending is…

Brough: Still the Dallas Stars, just like last year. Jim Nill has done everything well there, except that.

Gretz: Carolina. They are still sticking with Cam Ward, who has been below average for a few years now, and I don’t think Eddie Lack was quite as good as they hoped he would be last season.

Alfieri: Dallas. All the other pieces are in place for them to be legit cup contenders, but their goalie situation is holding them back.

O’Brien: Nashville. In three of the past four seasons, Pekka Rinne put up backup-type numbers. That won’t fly if the Predators want to make that next step.

Tucker: The Ducks. John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier? Could be a challenge.

Halford: Dallas, but you can write any story you want.

13. The player with the most to prove is…

Brough: Eric Staal. See my answer to No. 2.

Gretz: Whoever is standing in the crease for the Dallas Stars on any given night. Everything about that team is Stanley Cup ready. Except for the goalies.

Alfieri: Alexander Radulov. There’s no doubt that the talent is there, but we’ll see how much his attitude has changed. He’s saying all the right things for now, but what happens when the going gets tough.

O’Brien: Frederik Andersen. Toronto is tough on goalies, and the Maple Leafs handed him $25 million before he even played a game for them. Hot take: that situation could really go sour.

Tucker: P.K. Subban. Most were highly critical of Habs GM Marc Bergevin for making that trade. Subban even said this trade was more about personality than hockey. The Preds started right away in marketing him to their fans. He’s in a new, enthusiastic market with a team that should content in the West.

Halford: Nail Yakupov. Easiest answer of the bunch.

14. A young player (not a rookie) who really needs to take the next step is…

Brough: Robby Fabbri in St. Louis. After losing David Backes and Troy Brouwer, the Blues will need Fabbri to build on his impressive rookie season.

Gretz: Derrick Pouliot in Pittsburgh. A top-10 pick that is supposed to be a top-pairing defensemen should have probably already taken that next step by this point in his career.

Alfieri: I’ll go with Nathan Beaulieu. You may have heard that the Canadiens traded P.K. Subban away this summer. They’ll need a mobile guy (he’s also a former first round pick) to eat a lot more minutes this season.

O’Brien: How much better will the Sabres be? Robin Lehner‘s play will likely answer that question. Contract year pressures bring it up a notch, too.

Tucker: Jonathan Drouin. He was productive in the playoffs, salvaging his 2015-16 season after all the speculation — following his public trade request — about his future with the Lightning. Only eight goals and 42 points in 91 regular season games, though. Think he’s capable of far more.

Halford: John Gibson. So much of Anaheim’s season is riding on the guy. And it’s a huge season for the Ducks.

15. A rookie (not Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, or Jesse Puljujarvi) who could win the Calder Trophy is…

Brough: William Nylander in Toronto. He tore it up in the AHL, and you know he’ll get plenty of publicity playing for the Leafs.

Gretz: Dylan Strome in Arizona. His numbers in the OHL were consistently ridiculous and he is probably the best of the already impressive young core in Arizona.

Alfieri: Zach Werenski. As some of us mentioned above, the Jackets aren’t very good, which means their talented young d-man should get plenty of ice time this season.

O’Brien: Matt Murray. His injury and Marc-Andre Fleury makes this risky, but his talent and the team in front of him could make for great numbers.

Tucker: Sebastian Aho. Productive 2015-16 Finnish league season with 45 points in 45 games. May not be able to fly under the radar for very long in Carolina.

Halford: Jimmy Vesey, at the ripe ol’ age of 23. Like last year’s winner, Artemi Panarin, he’s older and more experienced than the field. Should prove beneficial.

16. The best free-agent addition will be…

Brough: Brian Campbell in Chicago. I no longer worry about the Blackhawks’ defense. (The forwards, as mentioned, are a different story.)

Gretz: Keith Yandle in Florida. They gave him a ton of money, but he is one of the most productive defensemen in the entire league, and has been for quite some time. He is going to be a great fit for a team that needs more offense from its blue line.

Alfieri: Andrew Ladd. I don’t love this contract long-term, but with Okposo gone, he’ll have a great chance to produce in Brooklyn.

O’Brien: Jiri Hudler. The Stars paid just $2 million to land a forward who scored 76 points in 2014-15. Much like with Campbell, it almost feels like cheating.

Tucker: Dale Weise! No…seriously, Kyle Okposo. Proven scorer from the Islanders. Wonder what he can do playing alongside someone like Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel.

Halford: Loui Eriksson. The Canucks won’t be good, but he’ll make an impact, either on the top line with fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin, or by giving Vancouver’s second line a boost.

17. The pending UFA you’re most curious about is…

Brough: Brent Burns is the big one, but I think he’ll re-sign. I’m curious to see where Ben Bishop goes, because there’s no room in Tampa Bay to keep him.

Gretz: Burns’ teammate, Joe Thornton. How much longer does he want to keep playing? Will he finish his career as a Shark? What would he get on the open market as a 38-year-old? He will still probably be a top-10 player in the league.

Alfieri: Kevin Shattenkirk. Multiple teams were interested in trading for Shattenkirk this summer, but it sounds like the price was pretty steep. With Vladimir Tarasenko and Paul Stastny making $7-plus million and Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester signed long-term, will the Blues be able to lock up Shattenkirk, do they deal him or do they let him walk in July?

O’Brien: Ben Bishop’s been great in Tampa Bay, looking sharp in the playoffs and landing two Vezina nominations. He’s likely out of town at some point, so who gets a potential franchise goalie?

Tucker: Newly signed Kris Russell. What will the Oilers do if they’re out of it by the deadline and another team needs a defenseman? Or, could he turn his one-year contract into something more long-term?

Halford: Did Tucker really say Kris Russell? Anyway, definitely Bishop.

18. One big-name player who will get traded mid-season is… 

Brough: Martin Hanzal from Arizona. He’s a pending UFA, and the Coyotes are long shots to make the playoffs.

Gretz: Ben Bishop. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the future, I can’t see Tampa Bay wanting to lose an asset like Bishop for nothing, and somebody like Dallas is going to need him.

Alfieri: Patrick Marleau. This is the year it finally happens. After years of speculation, the Sharks will unload the pending UFA.

O’Brien: Kevin Shattenkirk. Someone else might recognize the value seemingly downplayed by the Blues.

Tucker: My original answer was going to be Nail Yakupov. Timing is everything. I’ll say … Ryan Miller? Maybe a contending team suddenly needs a goalie around the trade deadline, and he’s a pending UFA? Hey, it worked out great for the Blues! I’d like to change my answer to Bishop.

Halford: Jarome Iginla, once Colorado falls out of the race. It’ll be the 2013 trade deadline all over again. CONFIRMED!

19. In terms of this season ALONE, which team will win the Shea Weber for P.K. Subban trade?

Brough: The Predators. Subban is a perfect fit for Peter Laviolette’s system, and he’s already a hit with the fans. Weber, meanwhile, is a great warrior, but there are a lot of hard miles on that 31-year-old body.

Gretz: The Predators. Nashville has the best defensive situation (talent, salary cap, age) in the league and I think we are going to see Subban’s game reach a level we have never seen before.

Alfieri: Give me Nashville. Subban will thrive now that he’s away from ultra conservative coach Michel Therrien.

O’Brien: Predators. The real question is: will Subban score more points than Erik Karlsson?

Tucker: I see a trend happening here. So I’ll say Montreal. Shea Weber’s slap shot ripped a hole in the net during the 2010 Olympics.

Halford: Nashville. I don’t want to say Shea Weber is done — far from it — but he’s definitely on the back nine of his career. Are we all forgetting how bad he was in Game 7 against San Jose?

20. Connor McDavid versus Sidney Crosby – once again assuming Crosby will be healthy, who will finish with more points?

Brough: I’ll take McDavid. And you know why? Because Crosby had the most points of his career (120) in his second season.

Gretz: Crosby. They will end up No. 1 and 2 in the Art Ross race.

Alfieri: Crosby. McDavid might be the next great superstar, but when Crosby got hot last season there was no stopping him.

O’Brien: McDavid. I have a weird feeling that Crosby deals with nagging injuries while Connor gets the health luck he lacked last season.

Tucker: Sidney Crosby. But not by much. Let’s just hope both remain healthy for the entire season.

Halford: Patrick Kane.

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

Brough: For the record, I always get this wrong. So congratulations, Michel Therrien, I pick you.

Gretz: The John Tortorella era in Columbus was fun.

Alfieri: Like Adam, I think Tortorella gets the boot in Columbus.

O’Brien: Canucks management could make Willie Desjardins the fall guy for a slow start. Don’t forget, Travis Green is down in Utica.

Tucker: Willie Desjardins. He’s been on the hot seat for a while. If the Canucks start poorly, it’s difficult to justify to the fan base that Desjardins should stick around.

Halford: Claude Julien. Suffice to say I don’t have the highest of hopes for Boston this year.

22. The NHL general manager on the hottest seat is…

Brough: Chuck Fletcher in Minnesota. He’s spent a lot of his owner’s money, and Bruce Boudreau is his third head coach. The Wild have only won two playoff series since Fletcher came aboard in 2009.

Gretz: Marc Bergevin. You don’t preside over the biggest collapse in the history of the Montreal Canadiens and then respond by trading the face of the franchise without sitting on a seat that is at least a little bit warm.

Alfieri: I’m going with Fletcher as well. He hasn’t done much to make that team better over the last few years. He better hope Boudreau can figure this thing out.

O’Brien: Jarmo Kekalainen is basically Fletcher if his expensive teams didn’t even make the playoffs.

Tucker: Marc Bergevin. I feel like I’m going to have a Frank Costanza moment here (skip ahead to the 0:14 mark of the clip).

Halford: Bob Murray. He’s got some onerous contracts, the team is getting old, the pressure is on and I feel like the Randy Carlyle re-hire could be a disaster.

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

Brough: I’m tempted to say Montreal with a healthy Carey Price. But that’s too easy, so I’ll say Winnipeg, with Connor Hellebuyck playing the role of Matt Murray. (P.S. — I don’t think this is the year Canada’s drought will end.)

Gretz: Toronto. I know. That is crazy. But it’s mainly because out of all of the teams in Canada I can at least reasonably figure out what the Maple Leafs’ long-term plan is. And it might eventually work. This is also another way of saying all of the Canadian teams are very far away from winning the Stanley Cup.

Alfieri: I guess it has to be Montreal, but let’s be real here…no Canadian team is winning the Stanley Cup this year.

O’Brien: Yikes, Montreal I guess. Get it together, gang.

Tucker: The Canadiens. Carey Price is already a great goalie, but he will morph into a brick wall — like, an actual brick wall the size of the net — and that’s how it will be done.

Halford: Montreal by default. I actually think the Habs will be pretty good —  healthy Price, way tougher and nastier to play against — but even if they’re just OK, they’re still the best of the lot. Woe Canada.

24. Will NHL players participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea?

Brough: I’ll say yes, with 60 percent confidence. If they were so dead set against it, they wouldn’t even be trying to get the IOC to cover the costs.

Gretz: Definitely. It seems like we go through this will-they-or-won’t-they situation every four years and until they don’t actually go, I am convinced they will find a way to make it work.

Alfieri: I think they’re going, but who knows? Hockey fans will riot if they don’t. (Or maybe they won’t, who knows?)

O’Brien: I’m saying no in hopes of reverse-jinxing the league into doing the right thing. Wait, does that nullify the reverse-jinx? This is hard.

Tucker: Yes. You can showcase your best players to a completely different part of the world, a completely different market. Be foolish not to.

Halford: They’ll go. The players want it too much.

25. I’ll be a happy hockey fan if…

Brough: The league admits it’s become too hard to score goals. Because admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Gretz: Sort of related to Jason’s answer, but if we, as a hockey-watching community, can finally accept that even the best players will at some point go a long time (8-10 games) without scoring a goal and not freak out every time they do.

Alfieri: Just give me more goals and I’ll be happy. I don’t need every game to end 6-4, but just more goals overall, please.

O’Brien: More teams follow the lead of the exciting, aggressive Pittsburgh Penguins.

Tucker: Alex Ovechkin wins the Stanley Cup. One less narrative to worry about.

Halford: St. Louis wins one for the Gipper and makes a playoff run for Ken Hitchcock. I like Hitch. I’ll miss his sweet HOCKEY sweater.

26. I’ll be a sad hockey fan if…

Brough: The Arizona Coyotes don’t announce an arena deal soon. It’s the story that never ends. I want it to end!

Gretz: This turns out to be Jaromir Jagr‘s last season in the NHL.

Alfieri: The NHL announces that it won’t go to the Olympics.

O’Brien: We never progress beyond an era of 60-point seasons being (accurately) labeled as really good.

Tucker: Every Canadian team is shut out of the playoffs. Again. One more narrative to worry about.

Halford: Sidney Crosby’s season is derailed by this concussion. Would be awful.

27. What is an under-the-radar story that you’ll be following even if most people aren’t?

Brough: The Ottawa Senators are the definition of under the radar, but I’m very curious to see how they do, especially with Guy Boucher behind the bench. If the Sens were in a big market, they’d be a far more popular soap opera.

Gretz: Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we kind of forgot about Taylor Hall being in New Jersey. He is one of the elite players at his position and gives the Devils exactly what they need.

Alfieri: I’ll play off what Adam said. I’m really curious to see what Adam Larsson does in Edmonton. Most of the fans believe the Oilers got fleeced in that deal.

O’Brien: Liberals vs. conservatives, hockey edition. Will teams drift more toward “new” ways of thinking or will the grit-minded types win out?

Tucker: Auston Matthews in his first season in Toronto. Just kidding. The play of the Colorado Avalanche under new coach Jared Bednar. He doesn’t have the name recognition of Patrick Roy, obviously. But he’s done some very good things coaching in the minors.

Halford: The Islanders potentially leaving Brooklyn. Heck, the Islanders in general. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin all gone. Three-headed goalie monster. Plenty of storylines in play.

28. Last season, you were dead wrong about…

Brough: Mike Sullivan. After all those years as John Tortorella’s right-hand man, I didn’t think he was the guy to solve the Penguins. I was wrong. Incredibly wrong.

Gretz: The Carl Hagelin trade making a difference for Pittsburgh. As in, I did not think it would. Oops.

Alfieri: The Montreal Canadiens. They started 9-0-0, but what a collapse.

O’Brien: Christian Ehrhoff didn’t work out so well.

Tucker: Um, where do we start? Well, I had pretty much written off the Penguins when they made their coaching change, so that’s one. There were a few others, but you only asked for one.

Halford: Everything positive thing I said about the Blue Jackets.

29. The prediction you’re least confident about this season is…

Brough: Not a prediction per se, but my skepticism about the Blackhawks’ forwards may be overdone. There’s talent among those youngsters. It just hasn’t been proven at the NHL level yet.

Gretz: I will go back to the first one I made at the top and the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. There is a lot to like about that team. There is also a lot that can go wrong.

Alfieri: I picked the Oilers to make the playoffs, so this one is fairly obvious.

O’Brien: Just one? Picking a coach to lose his job and a team to be the worst keeps getting tougher.

Tucker: The Capitals making it past the second round. Thanks, Pittsburgh.

Halford: I’m pretty down on Dallas, so of course the Stars will win 67 games and sweep their way to the Cup.

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

Brough: It turns out Subban’s teammates in Nashville don’t like him either, but the Preds win the Cup because that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway.

Gretz: Shea. Weber. Norris. Trophy. Winner.

Alfieri: My “Oilers make the playoffs” prediction wasn’t enough? Fine. The Kyle Okposo signing will be a flop. He’ll score less than 20 goals in his first season with Buffalo.

O’Brien: Alex Radulov saves Michel Therrien’s job. Just ruminate on that one for a moment.

Tucker: The Maple Leafs make the playoffs, clinching a spot on April 8 with the Penguins and Phil Kessel in the house. *Thumbs up*

Halford: Torts wins the Jack Adams.

Bruins, Blues set to clash in bruising Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — When the NHL altered its rules with an eye toward speed and skill, this is not the Stanley Cup Final it had in mind.

Hockey is becoming less of a big man’s game, offense is up and it’s faster than ever. Then there’s the big and tough St. Louis Blues facing off against the bigger and tougher Boston Bruins in the final that shows size still matters in the playoffs.

”They are physical, we’ll be physical,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. ”I don’t think we shy away from that type of game.”

The past decade-plus has been a study in the NHL getting younger and quicker, and previous champions like Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 exemplified that. The 2019 champion will show there are still many kinds of blueprints for winning, though skill is still needed along with size and physicality.

When the puck drops on Game 1 Monday night, the bruises will begin in what should be a throwback series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

”At this point you’re going to get both teams coming out of the gates laying their hits,” big Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”It’s going to be a heavy series. It’s hard to say how much physicality will be going both ways. I’m sure guys will be looking to get their licks in.”

Boston and St. Louis don’t lack high-end skill, from goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington to scorers Brad Marchand and Vladimir Tarasenko. They do resemble their coaches – Cassidy, who has become a mature, straightforward communicator and Craig Berube, a no-nonsense, team-first guy who has turned the Blues into a north-south, no frills team.

These teams are in many ways mirror images of each other based on their gritty styles and how tough they are to crack.

”The two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after his team was eliminated by the Blues in the Western Conference final. ”Everybody talks about skill and speed, there’s room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don’t think it’s an accident.”

It’s certainly no accident that the Bruins and Blues like to make opponents black and blue. Bruins forward Danton Heinen said physicality is what he and his teammates have tried to deliver all year long and will continue to, but the Blues figured out last round that they need to be more selective about dishing out punishment.

”You can’t just run around out there,” St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist said. ”When you’re going to hit, you need to hit with a purpose.”

The purpose now is to lift hockey’s hallowed trophy. After Bruins center Patrice Bergeron played the 2013 final with broken ribs and a punctured lung, there’s not much guys won’t do this time of year at their own expense.

”This is the Stanley Cup. This is what everyone plays for,” Boston forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”It’s going to be fun, physical and pretty intense, so hopefully the body holds up for everybody here.”

GOALIE DUEL

With a league-best 1.42 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rask is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Rask is in his second final as a starter after being on the Boston team that lost to Chicago in six games in 2015.

”It’s a team sport,” Rask said. ”Everybody has to pull their load. That’s the only way you can win.”

All the Blues is win, win, win no matter what since Binnington made his first NHL start in early January. They won 30 of their final 45 games to get into the playoffs, and Binnington has a 2.36 GAA and .914 save percentage in the playoffs.

No goalie has won the Conn Smythe since Jonathan Quick with Los Angeles in 2012.

CUP EXPERIENCE DISPARITY

The Bruins and Blues play similar styles yet have very different levels of winning this time of year.

Five Boston players – Rask, captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci – are still around from the 2011 Cup-winning Bruins, and Joakim Nordstrom won in 2015 with the Blackhawks. St. Louis has two players with Cup rings, though even that should have an asterisk because Jordan Nolan (2012 and 2014 Kings) hasn’t played since January and Oskar Sundqvist (2016 Penguins) only skated 20 regular-season and playoff games with Pittsburgh that year.

”Our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Of course, a year ago the Washington Capitals had only one Stanley Cup winner in Brooks Orpik before Alex Ovechkin lifted it in Las Vegas. Armstrong is banking on his players earning their experience in the final.

”Hopefully a year from now we’ll say, geez, St. Louis has got a lot of championship experience,” Armstrong said.

MAY SWEEPS

To say this has been a weird playoffs would be the understatement of the league’s 101-year history. Top seeds Tampa Bay and Calgary were knocked out in the first round along with fellow division winners Washington and Nashville, and the Lightning were actually swept by Columbus.

But there has also been a strange pattern with sweeping teams that the Bruins hope is a coincidence and not a trend related to too much time off. The New York Islanders swept Pittsburgh in the first round, then got swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Carolina? Yeah, swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Bruins.

Boston also beat Columbus after the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning, making teams that won their previous series four games to none a combined 0-3 so far.

”It’s something that naturally you’re going to think about a little bit,” DeBrusk said.

INJURY WATCH

Attrition to the San Jose Sharks helped St. Louis get through West final, and despite their physicality, the Blues and Bruins have been fairly fortunate when it comes to injuries this postseason. St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn missed the past three games with an upper-body injury but returned to practice wearing a full shield over his face, and forward Robert Thomas skated Saturday after leaving early in the third period West final clincher Tuesday.

Dunn is unlikely to play in Game 1 but could be available later in the series. Thomas is expected to play despite not practicing Sunday.

The Bruins have had a week and a half off to heal up, which is good news for captain Zdeno Chara, who was injured and didn’t play in Game 4 of the East final. They got a bit of a scare when Marchand jammed his left hand after bumping into teammate Connor Clifton during an intrasquad scrimmage to stay sharp during the long layoff.

Marchand missed practice Sunday, but coach Bruce Cassidy said it was for maintenance and expects Boston’s leading scorer to be good to go for Game 1.

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

Bruins ready to shake off rust, use experience in Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON — You ask the Boston Bruins how they’ve spent their 11-day break between the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final and the most popular response is sleep.

“Rest is a weapon,” former Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher liked to say. And sure, any NHL player at this time of year would love to get some additional rest between series but nearly two weeks off isn’t ideal. It’s why head coach Bruce Cassidy organized a full scrimmage Thursday night in front of a full crowd at TD Garden. Keeping that sharpness is key and Cassidy and his staff have tried to figure out ways to maintain that ahead of Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

But all that time off grew old fast for the Bruins. Whether they caught up on sleep, cleaned out the DVR, enjoyed the nice spring weather, or spent time with their families, puck drop can’t arrive soon enough.

“You just want to play this time of year,” said forward Brad Marchand. “Nobody wants to practice. Guys just want to play. … This time of year no one needs to practice, no one wants to practice. You want to play the games.”

The start of Game 1 of the Cup Final is always interesting to watch. There’s an initial feeling out process that takes place before both teams finally settle into their systems, the nerves go away and the series officially begins. For the Bruins, they might start off slow given their extended break, but it’s not something that will stick.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“You can shake off some rust and we might have a little bit of that, but fatigue is something you can’t shake,” said forward Sean Kuraly. “We’ve taken it in stride. It was the hand we were dealt. You take it like anything else in the playoffs.”

Assisting the Bruins in that department has been their veteran leadership. Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask played in the 2011 and 2013 Cup Finals, winning one and losing one. While when breaking down the Bruins and Blues you can see plenty of similarities between the teams and how they got to this point, there’s one area where Cassidy believes they have an edge.

“Experience,” he said. “I just believe that our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge. Some people disagree with that once you’re here, but I believe it will give us an edge. I think it’s helped us a lot this week in the preparation, with all the down time, and hopefully going forward that is an advantage for us.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.

Finland defeats Canada for gold at IIHF World Championship

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Marko Anttila helped lead Finland to its third world hockey title, scoring the tying and go-ahead goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada on Sunday.

Anttila tied it at 1 on a power play early in the second period and the Finnish captain made it 2-1 early in the third. Harri Pesonen added an insurance goal with five minutes to play.

”It’s awesome,” forward Toni Rajala said. ”It’s something that you know might only happen once in your life, but even before the game it felt great. I wasn’t too nervous about it. I was enjoying it. The team played an awesome game again. We played together, played 60 minutes. Kevin was awesome in the net. We were blocking shots. They were good today, but we were a little bit better. Three goals was enough.”

Kevin Lankinen made 42 saves for Finland, allowing only Shea Theodore‘s first-period goal.

”It’s an amazing feeling,” forward Jere Sallinen said. ”I don’t even know how we won. It’s unbelievable. We’re a pretty good hockey country. Maybe it’s a miracle on ice, something like that. Going back to Helsinki is going to be amazing. I think there’s a lot of people waiting there for us. Anttila – he’s a beauty.”

Matt Murray stopped 19 shots for Canada. Finland also beat Canada 3-1 in the round-robin opener.

”It was a long tournament. A lot of fun, a lot of good guys,” Canadian defenseman Damon Severson said. ”I think we deserved a medal. We had some spells where maybe we didn’t, but overall we played a really good tournament. It’s unfortunate we got the wrong medal. Finland played a good game, the only team to beat us in this tournament was them, twice, and they played some good hockey.”

Anttila also scored Saturday in Finland’s 1-0 victory over Russia. The Finns knocked off two-time defending champion from Sweden in the quarterfinal. Draft-eligible Kaapo Kakko led the team with six goals.

Finland also won titles in 1995 in Sweden and 2011 in Bratislava.

Earlier, Russia beat the Czech Republic 3-2 in a shootout for third place. Russia was outshot 50-30 through 70 minutes of play, including 10 minutes of sudden-death 3-on-3 overtime, then outscored the Czech Republic 2-0 in the shootout on goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev.

Unflappable Binnington won’t be affected by Stanley Cup spotlight

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BOSTON — The question was delivered after a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in February — a victory that came after the St. Louis Blues’ saw their 11-game win streak snapped a few nights earlier.

The Blues has just played their ninth game of the month that finished within two goals. They were in the middle of turning around their season and the backbone for the change in fortune was a 25-year-old rookie goaltender who hadn’t made an NHL start until this past January. All those tight hockey games surely had to have brought out a few nerves in Jordan Binnington, right?

“Do I look nervous?”

“No.”

“There’s your answer.”

That line was put on a t-shirt, which has sold throughout St. Louis since, with even some of Binnington’s family members grabbing a few. 

That win came in Binnington’s 18th career NHL start. But way before that game at the end of February, his teammates already knew that he was pretty unflappable.

“It’s just how he is,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo during Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “He’s pretty quiet. He just goes about his business. That quote’s obviously funny but every day he just shows up, does what he has to do. For us, it’s enjoyable when he does stuff like that because we get a kick out of it.”

The quiet confidence that Binnington possesses has been an integral part in helping get the Blues to within four wins of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Even after defeats, that memory is erased from his head and he’s looking forward as “don’t look back” is a big mantra with head coach Craig Berube. The same can be said for his goaltender, who has only lost consecutive starts twice this season, both coming in the playoffs.

“If you want to be successful, you want to have that demeanor, you can’t let things affect you and nothing seems to bother him,” Pietrangelo added.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Binnington even has a tie to the Bruins organization after having been loaned to their minor league affiliate in Providence last season since the Blues didn’t have their own AHL team. While sharing one with the Colorado Avalanche, general manager Doug Armstrong was allowed to place one goaltender with the AHL team in San Antonio. That goalie ended up being Ville Husso. Armstrong then alerted his fellow GMs that if anyone was looking for an experience netminder on loan, Binnington, who rejected a move to the ECHL, was available. That’s when Bruins GM Don Sweeney reached out and a deal was made.

Binnington played 28 games last season in Providence and three more in the Calder Cup playoffs.

“They were nothing but good to me,” Binnington said of AHL Providence. “The Boston Bruins prospects are in good hands, I can tell you that. It was a great city and I’m very fortunate they took me in. Met a lot of good people.”

“It would be disingenuous to say that this was all part of the master plan, bring him in January and be here today,” said Armstrong. “But what he did do is he never quit on himself and that’s what I take away.”

After that experience, Binnington still had to continue fighting for a place in the NHL. He began the 2018-19 season in San Antonio and waited for his opportunity. 

It took 164 AHL and 40 ECHL games, but his chance came in January as starter Jake Allen continued to struggle. A 2-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers was not only the birth of the team’s victory anthem — Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” — but also Binnington usurping the No. 1 job, reaching the Cup Final, becoming a 2019 Calder Trophy finalist, and him likely cashing in this summer as he’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent on July 1.

All that time waiting for an opportunity didn’t damper Binnington’s confidence.

“I realized a couple years ago I was in a situation where my back was against the wall,” Binnington said. “Got to handle it right, and I’ve just had this belief and hunger in myself to be the best I can be and make the most of my talent. I’m very fortunate to be coming to a team like this and it’s been a pretty special season so far.”

Binnington’s teammates have enjoyed being up close to witnessing his journey over the past four months. Who knew that night in Philadelphia in early January would lead to this? 

The 49 starts since have prepared Binnington for this moment as his team plays on the biggest stage. Some players who have never played in a Cup Final might be feeling the butterflies right now, but to Binnington it’s just another series. There’s no spotlight big enough that will made him prepare and execute his game any differently.

“I think that’s where experience comes in and you learn that confidence comes from preparation,” he said. “You want to be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you and that’s kind of the way I look at my life now and hockey specifically. I think that’s an important way to look at it.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

————

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.