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NHL Playoff Push: Eastern Conference playoff field could be set tonight

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It is entirely possible that when Tuesday’s schedule of games is completed all eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference will be set.

At the moment there are still three spots up for grabs with four teams competing for them. All four teams are in action on Tuesday night and if the Florida Panthers are unable to defeat the Nashville Predators it opens the door for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils to all clinch spots in the playoffs.

Here is a look at the Eastern Conference standings entering the day.

So here is what is at stake for Tuesday.

  • If Columbus beats the Detroit Red Wings and the Panthers lose to the Predators then the Blue Jackets are in. If Columbus loses to Detroit in overtime or a shootout and the Panthers lose to the Predators in regulation that will also clinch a spot for the Blue Jackets. A Columbus win would also move it into a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Flyers are facing the exact same scenario as the Blue Jackets. A win over the New York Islanders, combined with a Panthers loss, puts them in the playoffs. An overtime or shootout loss combined with a regulation Panthers loss does the same thing. A Flyers win combined with a Blue Jackets loss (or a Flyers point and the Blue Jackets getting no points) would also move them into a tie with Pittsburgh for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Devils need to beat the New York Rangers and get a loss from the Panthers in regulation.

The other big game in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night is of course the one in Tampa Bay where the Bruins have a chance to open up a four-point lead over the Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and for the top spot in the conference.

You can catch that game on NBCSN.

The big news for the Bruins on Tuesday is that they are getting Charlie McAvoy, one of their top defenseman, back in the lineup as they continue to get all of their top players back at just the right time of the season. Without him and Zdeno Chara over the past couple of weeks the Bruins still found a way to keep collecting points. With them in the lineup they have been nearly unstoppable.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the only clinching scenario in play relates to the Predators and their quest to wrap up the Central Division and the No. 1 seed in the West.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Here are the standings entering the night.

The Predators have three different paths to clinching the division.

A regulation win over the Panthers, or a regulation loss by the Winnipeg Jets to the Montreal Canadiens, or the Predators losing in overtime or a shootout combined with a Jets regulation loss would all produce the same result: A division title for the Predators.

A win will also clinch the top spot in the West. If they lose in regulation a Jets regulation loss combined with a Vegas Golden Knights loss to the Vancouver Canucks would also do the trick.

When it comes to the other playoff races in the Western Conference none of the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks are in action on Tuesday night.

The San Jose Sharks, however, could take another step toward securing home-ice advantage in the first-round with a win over the Dallas Stars. The Sharks enter the day two points ahead of the Kings and three points ahead of the Ducks.

If the Playoffs Started Today

Tuesday’s Important Games

New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Detroit Red Wings vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Montreal Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Florida Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET
Dallas Stars vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Tank Watch!

The Canucks and Red Wings have been trending in the wrong direction over the past week or so as it relates to improving their draft lottery odds. The Canucks enter Tuesday’s game against Vegas having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Red Wings are taking a three-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game against Columbus. The Canucks are currently sitting in 27th place in the NHL, two points back of the Red Wings. Montreal, hosting Winnipeg on Tuesday, is just behind them.

The other team that has been slowly climbing the standings recently has been the Arizona Coyotes, a team that has jumped out of the basement with a strong fourth quarter of the season. It is possible that they could find themselves tied with Vancouver after Tuesday’s game. The Coyotes are in Calgary on Tuesday night to play a Flames team that  has been tumbling down the standings for a couple of weeks now. That has been great news for the New York Islanders who own their first-and second-round picks as a result of the past summer’s Travis Hamonic trade.

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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.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.