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Winnipeg Jets reaping rewards after buying into team defense

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WINNIPEG — There was a time in Winnipeg where a one-goal lead would end in a one-goal loss. A time when no lead was safe and it was oddly better to see the Jets trying to climb back from behind than leading heading down the home stretch.

The Jets have learned much since those days, as evidenced by their top spot in the Central Division.

A 90-second 6-on-4 to close out Sunday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks highlighted a new shift in how the Jets conduct their business on the ice.

The above scenario may have spelled doom more often than not in years gone by, but Sunday illuminated how the Jets have been able to overcome those demons and forge ahead with a new philosophy that deploys calmness instead of frantic, poise instead of instability.

The Jets simply bore down when times became tough late in Sunday’s game. Those 90 seconds showed the evolution of the maturity within the team’s defensive structure. They didn’t allow a single shot to touch All-Star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and time simply expired for the Canucks, who couldn’t solve Winnipeg’s riddle.

“I think we’re able to play in those tight games, those low-scoring games and feel we can win those,” said defenseman Josh Morrissey, who has been the Jets best blueliner this season. “I think that’s been a big growth point for our time.”

Indeed.

Winnipeg’s buy-in defensively has ushered in some outstanding results.

Hellebuyck has been nothing short of spectacular between the pipes for the Jets this season, with his recent All-Star nod a testament to an overall turnaround that went from him coming into the season as the No. 2 to the Michigan native being mentioned in part of any conversation that includes the name Vezina.

While the Jets have benefitted from timely saves from their No. 1, Hellebuyck has benefitted from the five in front of him.

No starting goalie in the NHL has seen less high-danger shot attempts than Hellebuyck.

Not Andrei Vasilevskiy. Not Sergei Bobrovsky. Not Tuukka Rask.

“That’s part of the thing where we want to limit the chances against… limiting that second and third opportunity… sort of by not panicking in those situations when a scrum happens or a chance against happens and being able to have some poise and sort it out, so to speak,” Morrissey said.

[Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived]

The buy-in from the fifth youngest team in the NHL, and one that scores more goals than all but three other NHL outfits, is remarkable.

“I think they have a real strong understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing (defensively),” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Sunday’s win. “We’re still young in just age on some guys, but the overall structure their understanding’s good. I think the back end has really helped. You take two centers (Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry) out of your lineup it puts an awful lot of stress on your defense.”

Maurice has spoken at length about the reasons he feels his team has figured out the defensive aspects of the game of hockey. He touched on part of the equation on Sunday.

“Having six NHL defencemen makes a difference,” Maurice said, alluding to the fact the Jets spent very little time healthy on the blue line last season. “Being healthy on the back end makes a difference. They control an awful lot of the play. (We’ve got a ) goaltender who’s got a lot of confidence in the pipes. And I go back to center ice. We’ve asked Blake (Wheeler) and Andrew Copp to be really strong and they have been.”

Even the team’s most offensive and offensively gifted player is seeing the light.

“As a team, it doesn’t matter if we’re chasing or leading, we want to play the same game,” said Patrik Laine, the Finnish phenom who leads the Jets with 21 goals this season. “We want to play tight defense and give them nothing and try to be patient. We can’t open up our game.”

Laine, who played his 100th NHL game only recently, has stumbled at times this season. His offensive capabilities haven’t left him, even if his confidence has at times this year, but he’s had little choice but to work on the game played in his own zone.

And the 19-year-old seems to have a keen understanding of what lies ahead for the Jets as they grind toward their second playoff berth since relocating from Atlanta in 2011.

“It’s going to be like this for the next couple of months but everybody here in this locker room is comfortable with that kind of game and that’s the reason why we’re winning,” Laine said. “We’re a tight defensive team and we’ve got to score on the few chances that we get.”

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: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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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.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


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

Predators land another steal in signing Saros, Rinne’s heir apparent

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Nashville Predators GM David Poile hasn’t lost his knack for signing promising young players to outstanding value contracts.

Monday represents the latest coup, as goalie-of-the-future Juuse Saros signed a dirt-cheap deal: three years, just $4.5 million overall (so a $1.5M cap hit). That’s truly fantastic stuff for a goalie whose career save percentage is a superb .923.

Now, obviously, the sample size is small for the 23-year-old. That save percentage was accrued over 48 games, with all but one of those appearances happening during the last two seasons. Still, his numbers are promising at other levels, so there’s some credence to the notion that he could end up being a strong NHL starter.

Considering some of the money being thrown around at backups this summer, the Predators landed a great deal even if Saros doesn’t reach his considerable ceiling.

One would think that this only solidifies the passing of the torch from Pekka Rinne to Saros, but we’ll see. Rinne’s $7M cap hit expires after 2018-19, and at 35, you have to wonder if a decline is looming.

The beauty of getting three years of Saros’ services at such a cheap price is that the Predators aren’t boxed into a corner, though. If they feel most comfortable with a slower transition from Rinne to Saros, possibly morphing into a platoon, that’s an option (especially if, after fattening his bank account, Rinne signs his next deal for a palatable price). There are also some other scenarios: Saros could give the Predators 2-3 years of starter-level work at a cut rate, or Nashville could pivot to a different paradigm in net altogether.

(Honestly, would it be that shocking if Saros ends up being a better goalie than Connor Hellebuyck, for instance?)

Simply put, most – if not all – of the NHL’s other GMs should be jealous of Nashville’s unusual mixture of potential production and flexibility at the goaltending position. Those other GMs should take notes.

[It’s been a great day for Nashville, who also signed Ryan Hartman for cheap.]

Speaking of masterful GM work, this signing swings back to one of Poile’s greatest strengths: locking up promising players to team-friendly deals either before a breakthrough happens or right as it begins.

Consider some of the beautiful contracts he’s put together, leveraging RFA situations and tax-related perks:

  • Again, that Saros salary is sweet, and Rinne’s $7M goes away when Nashville needs to lock down other pieces.
  • Ryan Ellis is about to end a five-year contract that carried an almost comically low $2.5M cap hit. He’ll get paid on his next deal, and deft moves like these make it more feasible for him to stick with the Predators. Ellis is 27, so Nashville landed some of his peak years.
  • Filip Forsberg is a legit game-breaker. The 23-year-old’s cap hit is just $6M through 2021-22 (he’s three years into a six-year contract).
  • Viktor Arvidsson‘s bargain contract is no secret. He’s a top-line, 25-year-old winger making $4.25M per season through 2023-24(!).
  • Nashville boasts two 28-year-old defensemen also on enviable contracts. Roman Josi‘s ridiculous $4M contract ends after 2019-20, a seven-year deal among the best in recent NHL memory. Mattias Ekholm ($3.875M per year, six seasons, ends after 2021-22) is right there with Josi and Ellis as great blueline bargains.
  • Just about anyone can sign a first-rounder to an entry-level contract, but it’s worth noting that Eeli Tolvanen didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal. If he can live up to the hype, the Predators would get three seasons of his sniping at a ludicrous price.

It almost feels like cheating, right? Most NHL front offices would pop open some champagne if they nabbed two of those steals, let alone the litany of bargains Poile has landed.

Now, sure, there are some expenditures. P.K. Subban absolutely ranks as elite, but $9M isn’t cheap. (He’s worth it, but that isn’t cheap.) Ryan Johansen‘s a little rich at $8M and $6M for Kyle Turris looked a little shakier when he was something of a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, it’s not outrageous to picture Johansen and/or Turris delivering at a nice level, especially since those deals will account for less and less of each season’s cap percentage.

Once again, it looks like the Predators knocked one of the park with a signing when it comes to Saros.

For all we know, the conglomeration of smart moves could net the Predators a Stanley Cup, and possibly more than one. That said, a lot can happen, so you never know if all of this promise will come to fruition during the rigors (and thanks to the randomness) of the postseason.

Either way, other GMs could learn a lot from David Poile, as this is a masterwork of team-building.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Henrique’s great fit with Ducks pays off with $29 million extension

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As the New Jersey Devils went through a transition this season, it became clear Adam Henrique’s role had changed, and his production took a hit. A late November trade and a new role with the Anaheim Ducks fueled a turn in the right direction — one that has resulted in a five-year extension for the 28-year-old forward.

The Ducks announced on Monday that Henrique, who still has one year left on his deal, signed on through the 2023-24 NHL season with a total contract value of $29.125 million. The $5.825 million cap hit, per The Athletic’s Josh Cooper, puts him fifth-highest on the team beginning with the 2019-20 season.

(Now that Henrique has signed an extension with the Ducks, per the conditions of the deal New Jersey will receive a 2019 third-round pick from Anaheim.)

In 57 games in Anaheim during the regular season Henrique scored 20 goals and recorded 36 points. He found great chemistry on a line with Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase as the trio put up terrific numbers together. The trade was one that filled needs for both sides and both Henrique and Sami Vatanen, who went to New Jersey, immediately found fits in their new locations.

“With us, it puts him back into a more offensive role, which I think he’s going to love,” said Ducks general manager Bob Murray earlier this season. “He’s not old by any means. Sometimes when teams rebuild or reboot, or have this process, maybe it’s time for people to get a change of scenery. It doesn’t mean they’re bad players.”

The work continues for Murray, who has Henrique’s restricted free agent linemates and Brandon Montour to re-sign this summer. Then there are extensions for Jakob Silfverberg and John Gibson, who both have one year left on their current contracts, to figure out. Add all that to the fact that Murray vowed changes after a disappointing playoff exit, plus Ryan Kesler‘s questionable status for next season and a roster re-shaping could be in the plans.

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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.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.