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PHT Midseason Report Card: Central Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Chicago Blackhawks

Season Review: They’ve dealt with Corey Crawford being injured twice and Jeff Glass has been one of the heartwarming stories this season. But sitting last in a notoriously tough Central Division is unfamiliar territory for the Blackhawks. They’ve simply underperformed given the talent they possess. Grade: D-

Biggest Surprise: Alex DeBrincat. The second-round pick in 2016 has been sensational in his rookie season with 17 goals and 32 points in 49 games played. His 17.2 percent shooting percentage is stellar, and he’s defying the (perceived) odds at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.

Biggest Disappointment: Brent Seabrook has been a healthy scratch and Jonathan Toews is well off point-per-game production and Duncan Keith hasn’t scored a goal since last March. But Chicago’s biggest disappointment is a team effort. They’re simply too inconsistent. Scoring droughts have plagued this team this season and their power play is fourth-worst in the league.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Blackhawks won’t have to worry about a disappointing first-round exit this year as they’re unlikely to get into the playoffs as it stands. It might be time to give that roster a small detonation. Stan Bowman has worked his genius to keep his team’s competitive in the past. Now he may have to work that genius to get his team back to that.

Second half outlook: The Blackhawks have all the talent to work their way out of the basement in the Central. They’re only four points adrift of a playoff spot, but that can seem like 10 in a division that is as stacked as it is. That success hinges on the health of Corey Crawford, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Until he’s able to return, things don’t look great.

  • Colorado Avalanche

Season Review: Early on, the Avs season seemed to go as expected. They hit the lowest of lows last season, so some improvement was expected, but to be in a playoff spot at the All-Star break was something anyone would have thought. Of course, 10-game winning streaks are helpful, as is the ridiculous play of Nathan MacKinnon. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Mikko Rantanen is a point-per-game player. Nathan MacKinnon is having that breakout season many had been waiting for (and should be up for the Hart Trophy). Alex Kerfoot has had a great rookie campaign. Sam Girard is turning bona fide NHL defenseman. But Jonathan Bernier has been integral to the team’s recent success, highlighted during their 10-game winning streak where Bernier collected nine straight wins. He’s sitting with a .919 save percentage and is looking like the Bernier that played for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Biggest Disappointment: Matt Duchene is gone, and thus, so is the easy pick here. Some might point to Tyson Jost, but he’s been injured and thus is a little behind where some might have pegged him at the mid-way point. Nail Yakupov’s name could work here, but his career has been a disappointment.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Colorado is a young team that’s still rebuilding. They got a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene. If the Avs keep climbing up in the Division, it’s conceivable that Joe Sakic looks for some depth, but staying the course with a team that’s showing some positive signs should be the focus. The Avs aren’t winning the Cup this year.

Second Half Outlook: This team has found some much-needed chemistry and is gelling as a young squad. That bodes well for a good second half of the season if they can continue. But young teams can have young-team problems. Consistency down the stretch could be an issue and the Avs are by no means a lock for a playoff spot. A 10-game winning streak only got them to the second wildcard spot. The tough part now will be keeping it.

  • Dallas Stars

Season Review: The Stars have been a great home team this season, but have only begun to get things in order on the road, where they stumbled during the first two months of the season. Still, the Stars have worked their way into the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference thanks to improvements in team defense and goaltending.  Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: John Klingberg is a good defenseman. We knew this coming into the season. But to be in the running for the Norris might have been a stretch back in September. But that’s where Klingberg is at the moment, leading NHL defenseman in points (and sitting second on the Stars, behind Alexander Radulov and ahead of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin).

Biggest Disappointment: This one is easy: Jason Spezza. Spezza is forging a path to a career-worst year in terms of production. Early this month, he was made a healthy scratch, a coach’s decision by Ken Hitchcock stemming then from a five-game spell with no points and low ice time. Factor in that he’s counting $7.5 million toward the cap and the picture becomes even more clear.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy if it makes sense, but don’t sell assets. The Stars have a goalie in Ben Bishop and other talents they can build around going forward.

Second half outlook: The Stars play 11 games (including a six-game road trip) away from American Airlines arena in March and April. Given their position at the moment and coupled with their away record, it would appear that will be their biggest test in the second half if they can maintain where they are at the moment.

  • Minnesota Wild

Season Review: Spinning the tires. The Wild could be given a pass after some of the injuries they’ve dealt with – Devan Dubnyk and Zach Parise come to mind. It is a team that finished second in the division with, largely, the same roster, so the talent is there. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Matt Dumba makes some bone-headed plays. And then he makes some plays that leave you scratching your head, in a good way. He sits only behind Ryan Suter in terms of points and he’s averaging nearly 23 minutes per night. If he keeps it up, he’ll record a career-year in goals and assists.

Biggest disappointment: Marcus Foligno. He’s played better as of late, but that doesn’t excuse a rocky first half that saw him in the press box in December. The 26-year-old was supposed to bring depth to the lineup when the Wild acquired him in a four-player deal on the eve of free agency last year.

Trade Deadline Strategy: So many teams on the cusp of a playoff spot in this division that it’s hard to sort out which teams should buy and which should sell. The Wild have the talent to be much better than they are. We saw that last season. Perhaps a depth player or two on the cheap would help.

Second half outlook: Getting better away would certainly help. The Wild are one of four teams tied on 57 points and tied for the second wildcard spot, with Colorado holding the tiebreaker at the moment). The Wild have eight home games in February, which bodes well given their 17-4-4 record at Xcel Energy Center. But they have two big road games to start the month in Dallas and St. Louis and play Colorado twice in March. Those will be pivotal. The Wild are getting healthy and that could spell trouble for other teams around them on the bubble.

  • Nashville Predators

Season Review: The Stanley Cup finalists from last year have picked up where they left off, currently trailing the Winnipeg Jets by one point for tops in the division. They’re playing great at home (16-4-3) and have picked up points in 17 of 24 road games (13-7-4), a drastic change from this team a year ago. They have Pekka Rinne playing great along with the litany of talent in front of him, which is scoring at a better pace than last season. Grade: A-

Biggest Surprise: Kevin Fiala had 16 points in his rookie season last year. This year, he’s nearly doubled that in eight fewer games. The addition of Kyle Turris has certainly helped, making that line (with Craig Smith) a potent option that’s providing a secondary scoring threat. Fiala’s season including a nine-game point streak in December.

Biggest Disappointment: Perhaps the only disappointment on this Preds team is that Ryan Ellis has only been limited to nine games after offseason knee surgery. He returned earlier this month.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Bolster. The Preds Stanley Cup window is still wide open. Perhaps another player for bottom six depth. Not much needed on a team this good.

Second half outlook: More of the same. The Preds have been solid against their own division with a 10-3-2 record and just need to stay the course.

  • St. Louis Blues

Season Review: Man, did this team every navigate some tough injury problems to start the season, something that speaks to the depth in St. Louis.  Grade: B-.

Biggest Surprise: Brayden Schenn has been nothing short of spectacular since getting traded last year. Schenn, currently at the NHL All-Star Game, leads the Blues with 50 points and is tied for the team lead with 21 goals. Schenn hit 59 points in 80 games a couple years back. He looks set to smash that career-high.

Biggest Disappointment: The team waived Magnus Paajarvi this week, so scratch that idea. Jake Allen deserves a mention. Carter Hutton is sitting on a .943 save percentage this season while Allen is only sporting a .909. Hutton is the backup and producing numbers that Blues’ fans hoped Allen would. Also, where is Alexander Steen?

Trade Deadline Strategy: With all their injury problems, a couple of depth players wouldn’t hurt just in case.

Second half outlook: Jaden Schwartz’s return after missing two months is a huge boon for the Blues. Schwartz had 35 points in 30 games before busting his ankle. Now, with the line of Schenn, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko back together, domination could ensue once again.

  • Winnipeg Jets

Season Review: The best team heading in the to All-Star break. Yes, the Winnipeg Jets. What’s got them there? Great goaltending, for starters. A season worthy of a Hart Trophy nod for Blake Wheeler as well. And they’re just finding ways to win games, especially ones that, in the past, they would find ways to lose. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Undoubtedly Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets went out and got what they thought would be their No. 1 netminder in Steve Mason during free agency. Yeah. Not in Hellebuyck’s house. The second-year starter is in the Vezina conversation and is at the NHL All-Star Game along with Pekka Rinne. Who in Winnipeg thought the former would be the same conversation as the latter at the end of last season?

Biggest Disappointment: Dustin Byfuglien. It took him nearly half the season to score his first goal and has just two at the All-Star break. Couple that with some interesting defensive decisions and you have the makings of one of his worst seasons of his career, statistically speaking and otherwise.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy. The Jets have a legitimate shot at making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They seemingly have all the tools: a rededication to team defense, a high-scoring offense, great netminding and one of the best power plays in the league. They could probably use some depth on their fourth line and perhaps a seventh defenseman with playoff experience.

Second half outlook: Keep on keeping on. The Jets haven’t strung together a big losing streak this season, something that’s derailed them in the past. They basically play all of February at home at Bell MTS Place, which has become a fortress for them this season. The Jets just need to keep doing what got them to the summit of the division in the second half. Oh, and they’ll get Mark Scheifele back sometime next month. 

Previous: Atlantic Division / Metropolitan Division

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

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

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.

Capitals blow out Hurricanes in Game 5

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Much like earlier in this series, the Washington Capitals got off to a quick lead at home in Game 5. This time around, they never really let the Carolina Hurricanes back into the contest, and eventually turned the game into a blowout.

Washington won Game 5 by a lopsided score of 6-0, giving themselves a 3-2 series lead, and thus pushing the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination.

Nicklas Backstrom is best known for being one of the premier passers in the NHL, yet he continues to be one of the hottest shooters of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, pushing his postseason total to five goals. Backstrom finished with five goals in 20 games (but also 18 assists for 23 points) during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, and has never scored more than six goals during any single postseason run during his career … so yeah, this is an unusual sniping run for a Selke-level playmaker. Overall, Backstrom finished Game 5 with two goals and two assists.

Backstrom wasn’t the only big-name Capitals player who enjoyed a strong Game 5. Alex Ovechkin was a force, but physically and offensively, throwing his body around in a way that was reminiscent to his most boisterous, younger NHL days.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Ovechkin’s alertness and physicality factored into the 3-0 goal, which resulted in Ovechkin setting up a dagger Brett Connolly goal. Was Dougie Hamilton shying away from a potential Ovechkin hit before Ovechkin retrieved the puck? Was Hamilton just confused/pondering abstract art?

Whatever the case may be, that 3-0 goal sapped a lot of energy from the Hurricanes, as it made a third-period comeback go from difficult to nigh-impossible.

Tom Wilson‘s power-play goal 1:04 into the third moved the goalposts back even further, and then the Capitals really ran away with Game 5 thanks to additional goals by Alex Ovechkin and Nic Dowd, the latter scoring on a penalty shot.

Ovechkin ended up with a goal and two assists, while Braden Holtby pitched a 30-save shutout.

Overall, the defending champions looked very much like defending champions on Saturday. The Hurricanes have an opportunity to regain their composure when the series shifts back to Carolina for Game 6, but if Carolina wants to be the latest underdog to come through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll have to win two in a row — which means beating this Capitals team at home, where Washington seems to find yet another level. If Saturday is any indication, that won’t be an easy task, at all.

The Capitals aim to move on, while the Hurricanes hope to survive in Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The game’s airing on NBCSN. (livestream)

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.

Blues advance, Jets dumped from playoffs with a thud

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Yes, there were red flags for the Winnipeg Jets late in the regular season, yet even pessimists weren’t expecting a flat finish like this.

With the Jets’ season on the line, they offered up a largely flat effort against the Blues (PHT’s Scott Billeck nailed it when he compared Winnipeg’s urgency to that of a grazing cow), falling 3-2 in Game 6. With that, St. Louis wins the series 4-2, and will move on to Round 2 to take on the winner of the Nashville Predators – Dallas Stars series.

[The Stars looked stout in taking a 3-2 lead in that series.]

Chalk it up to the Blues’ suffocating defense, the exhaustion that comes with playoff hockey, the devastation of losing Game 5 in the waning seconds, or a number of other factors, but whatever’s at the root of this problem, the Blues removed them from the postseason like an unsightly weed.

Speaking of Game 5, the closing-moments hero Jaden Schwartz carried over his hot hand, scoring a goal per period to grab a hat trick, and give the Blues a 3-0 lead. While Schwartz’s work is absolutely worth heralding, you can expect the headlines in Winnipeg to revolve around a shockingly listless second period. The Jets sure didn’t look like a team with its season on the line – a team that wanted its season to end, perhaps – as the Blues controlled the shots on goal at 16-1 in the second period, and 27-6 through the first 40 minutes.

(You’d probably not be shocked to learn that one SOG in a period sets a new franchise-low for the Jets.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Jets a bit of life in making it 3-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, and Mathieu Perreault added a dash of very-late intrigue to make it 3-2 in the waning seconds. Patrik Laine even got a dangerous shot with just a few seconds remaining, but ultimately that final Jets was a case of too little, too late.

Winnipeg will now stagger into an off-season that isn’t likely to be easy, what with Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, and Kyle Connor requiring new contracts, and management needing to find some answers. On Saturday, the main question was ” … What happened?”

The spotlight will shine on the Jets’ blemishes after this effort, no doubt, but when a team struggles, there’s usually a reason for it beyond [insert some sort of cliche about “lacking fortitude”]. The Blues steamrolled into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where they almost wrestled away home-ice advantage in Round 1, and also came close to snaring the Central Division title.

One of the major stories of this postseason is teams carrying strong finishes from the regular season over into the games that matter the most, and you could argue that the Blues ended 2018-19 as hot as any team in the NHL. From a strong system, some great players like Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, to nice depth particularly with Schwartz, and a Cinderella story that might just be legit in Jordan Binnington, this Blues team has a lot going for it.

Did anyone really see this coming when the Blues fired Mike Yeo and seemed to be headed toward a troubling summer, while the Jets’ biggest question was whether they could win the division and go on a deep run? No, not really, but it would be foolish to doubt this Blues squad any longer.

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.

Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


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