Predators, Ducks ‘only going to get escalated from here’ as series shifts to Smashville

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Nashville Predators finally are facing their first real adversity this postseason, with the Anaheim Ducks eager to push, hit and poke them out of what’s already been a historic run.

The Predators insist they can play that game too — and keep their cool no matter what pesky Ducks center Ryan Kesler does.

Nashville center Ryan Johansen vented his frustration at how Kesler plays after the Ducks rallied twice in pulling out a 5-3 win Sunday night that tied the Western Conference finals at a game apiece. Johansen said he didn’t know how anyone could cheer for a guy like that constantly prodding and poking. Each picked up a penalty, with Johansen high-sticking Kesler off a faceoff.

“That’s playoffs written all over it,” Predators forward Colton Sissons said Monday. “Obviously, there’s some bad blood there, and they’ve been competing hard and battling all series. It’s only going to get escalated from here.”

Johansen wasn’t among the Predators who spoke once they landed in Nashville. After the game, he said he just has to focus on his game. Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said he hadn’t heard or read Johansen’s complaint about Kesler but defended his 24-year-old center.

“I can tell you that I just saw him on the plane, and he’s composed,” Laviolette said. “I saw him on the ice last night, and he’s composed. He’ll be ready to play.”

How much Kesler has gotten under Johansen’s skin and whether the 32-year-old veteran can shake the anchor of Nashville’s top line remains to be seen. The Chicago Blackhawks were unable to disrupt the Predators during their first-round sweep, and St. Louis won twice on home ice by drawing penalties in a series the Predators finished in six games.

So far, the Predators have matched the Ducks nearly hit for hit and still have the home-ice advantage in this series.

Game 3 is Tuesday night in Nashville, where the Predators have won nine straight playoff games dating to last year, including a league-best 5-0 this postseason. The streak started in Game 6 of their first-round win over the Ducks after Anaheim took both Games 3 and 4, outscoring the Predators 7-1.

That is why the Ducks feel pretty comfortable heading to Music City after avoiding an 0-2 deficit for a second straight series. They also have a 4-1 road record after sweeping Calgary and winning twice in Edmonton .

“We believe that we can go in any building and play with the teams that we’re up against and give ourselves a chance for success,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “I’m not saying we’re going to have success, I’m just saying we can give ourselves a chance for success.”

For some Ducks, this will be their first chance at hearing just how loud Bridgestone Arena is in the playoffs.

“I’ve seen games on TV and played there in the regular season,” said Nick Ritchie, a 21-year-old forward. “They’ll have a pretty big crowd, obviously. We’ve been a good team on the road. We’re just going in there and going to try to take care of business.”

That means crunching the Predators whenever possible, a style the Ducks play very well. That includes Jared Boll, who had only three points in 51 games during the regular season but has played each of the first two games against Nashville. The 6-foot-3 forward has three combined hits throwing his big body around, including a big check on Calle Jarnkrok in the opener.

The Predators also have been physical, and defenseman P.K. Subban said he thinks they’ve been doing a good job so far, particularly Johansen. The center has multiple points in three straight games and just tied the franchise record for most points in a postseason with 13.

“He competes every shift, and he’s a big part of our team and a leader up front in terms of … how he plays a 200-foot game,” Subban said. “He’s really valuable to our hockey club.”

The Ducks’ style might be taking a toll on the Predators’ power play. Nashville scored four goals on its first 10 power plays on the road this postseason but now are 0 of 8 on the man advantage against Anaheim, including failing to convert through 88 seconds of a 5-on-3 in the opener.

Now Laviolette will have the last change, though he didn’t tip his hand at any possible changes.

“I think the guys will be fine,” he said.

Related: Predators postseason run has turned Music City into Smashville

Can James Neal bounce back after ugly season in Calgary?

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James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.

One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.

The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.

But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.

That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.

As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.

Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.

Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?

So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.

He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.

Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.


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

PHT Morning Skate: Maroon’s future uncertain; Gillis wants NHL return

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Patrick Maroon isn’t sure if he’ll be back in St. Louis this season. (NHL.com)

• NHL commentators with rave reviews for Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland on Milan Lucic trade. (Edmonton Journal)

• After fives years away traveling the world and expanding his hockey mind, Mike Gillis is ready to return to the NHL — just not as a general manager. (Sportsnet)

John Tavares knows Mitch Marner will play for the Maple Leafs this season. (NHL.com)

• Jets could find great value in acquiring Stars’ Honka. (Winnipeg Sun)

• The Vancouver Canucks have improved more than any team in the Pacific. (The Canuck Way)

James Neal is feeling re-invigorated after move to Edmonton. (Global News)

• Colorado Avalanche star forward Mikko Rantanen isn’t going to the KHL. (Mile High Hockey)

• Flyers need impact from Hayes, Vigneault. (NHL.com)

• After years of stunted talks, Calgary may be ready to build a new hockey arena. (Globe and Mail)

• What it may take for a player to reach 50 goals or 100 points this season with the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

• Predicting how long the Penguins’ Stanley Cup window will stay open. (Pensburgh)

• The Predators should make a push for Nikita Gusev. (Predlines)

• Why Peter DeBoer is confident Sharks can fill Joe Pavelski‘s scoring void. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Coyotes need more offense from well-paid blue line. (The Athletic)


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

Blues, Sundqvist avoid arbitration with four-year, $11 million contract

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The St. Louis Blues locked up another piece of their Stanley Cup winning team on Sunday when they re-signed restricted free agent forward Oskar Sundqvist to a four-year contract.

Sundqvist, 25, had filed for salary arbitration and a hearing scheduled for this week.

That will no longer be necessary thanks to this new deal.

According to the Blues the contract will pay Sundqvist a total of $11 million, averaging out to a salary cap hit of $2.75 million per season.

The Blues acquired Sundqvist, as well as a first-round draft pick that was used to select forward Klim Kostin, prior to the 2017-18 season in the trade that sent Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins. After managing just a single goal and four assists in in 42 games in his debut season with the Blues, Sundqvist had a breakout season in 2018-19 with 14 goals and 17 assists in 74 regular season games.

He also played a big depth role in the playoffs by adding four goals and five assists in 25 playoff games.

With Sundqvist back in the mix the Blues now have two more restricted free agents to sign in forward Ivan Barbashev and defender Joel Edmundson. Edmundson has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4. The Blues have already successfully avoided arbitration hearings with starting goalie Jordan Binnington, forward Zach Sanford, and now Sundqvist, so it seems reasonable to assume they will be able to settle with Edmundson as well.

The Blues still have around $5 million in salary cap space to work with this summer.

More Blues content

• Binnington signs two-year, $8.8 million deal
Fabbri gets one-year deal from Blues
• PHT Stanley Cup Tracker: Maroon takes Cup back to St. Louis for some toasted ravioli

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.

Why Rangers should consider trading Chris Kreider right now

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The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.

It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.

With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.

Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.

Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.

What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.

It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.

If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.

Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.

Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.

The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.

They COULD do it.

But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.

Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?

For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.

That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.

The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).

Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.

Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.

There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.

This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.

It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.

Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.

Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.

You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.

Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.

As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.

Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.

But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.

The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.

They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.

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.