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Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

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

NHL, NHLPA agree to four-year CBA extension, Return to Play MOU

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We’re another step closer to hockey resuming after the NHL and NHLPA reached a tentative agreement on a Return to Play Plan and a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Collecting Bargaining Agreement.

The deal adds four years to the current CBA and updates the league’s off-season critical dates calendar. A four-year extension means the new CBA would expire Sept. 15, 2026. The current agreement was scheduled to expire Sept. 15, 2022.

The next step is the approval process, which means the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA’s Executive Board, and then the full union membership need to sign off on it.

[MORE: NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season]

Once all approvals are in order, training camps for the 24-team tournament will begin Monday, July 13 in their home cities. On July 26 teams will then travel to their respective hub cities — likely Toronto or Edmonton — and the Qualifying Round will begin on August 1.

While the hub cities have yet to be officially announced, it’s expected that Edmonton will host the Western Conference and Toronto will serve as the main site for the Eastern Conference. Rogers Place (Edmonton) will likely be the site of the conference finals and 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

WEST
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Oilers vs. No. 12 Blackhawks
No. 6 Predators vs. No. 11 Coyotes
No. 7 Canucks vs. No. 10 Wild
No. 8 Flames vs. No. 9 Jets

EAST
• Capitals
• Flyers
• Bruins
• Lightning

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens
No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers
No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers
No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets

The Qualifying Round series will be best-of-five, while the top four teams in each conference will play three games with points percentage used as a tiebreaker to determine seeds Nos. 1-4 in the East and West. All series beginning with the First Round will be best-of-seven and teams will be re-seeded.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

————

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Fun ways the free agent frenzy could go

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With at least some of the NHL future getting less muddy, it sure looks like the next “Free Agent Frenzy” will take place on or around Nov. 1. Unfortunately, an expected flat $81.5M salary cap could make the NHL “Free Agent Frenzy” more of a flurry.

But managing a flat salary cap — likely by shedding players they didn’t want to expel — is a job for overwhelmed GMs, particularly of big-market teams. For the rest of us, we can fill some time by daydreaming about different NHL free agent scenarios. (Some more realistic than others.)

Back in April, Adam Gretz ranked the top 20 (possible) NHL Free Agents. Being that Sean Leahy recently looked at the best destinations for assumed top 2020 NHL Draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, how about we combine those ideas?

In other words, what are the best destinations for some of the NHL’s top free agents? Actually, scratch that. Let’s go with the most fun NHL free agent situations. They occasionally might even make sense!

1. Avalanche go on one-year NHL Free Agent Frenzy with Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NHL fans have watched too many “super teams” form in the NBA. In some of those cases, said NBA stars flexed their leverage by agreeing to shorter deals. LeBron James left Cleveland after getting a hometown ring. Kawhi Leonard can eat apples elsewhere if the whole Clippers thing doesn’t work out.

In the case of this hypothetical scenario with the Avalanche, it would be more of an “everybody wins” scenario — except maybe Colorado’s competition. Consider these factors:

  • Pietrangelo would just block promising young defensemen like Bowen Byram working into the mix with Cale Makar if Pietrangelo signed a long-term deal. But if it was short? He buys Colorado time and can maybe hand down some life lessons to those kiddos.
  • Taylor Hall has suffered enough. Let’s get him on a good team, which Colorado … at least has a good chance of being for the foreseeable future. Right? Possibly?
  • Let’s be honest, with all of the financial turmoil going on, Pietrangelo and Hall might not enjoy much of a market. Truly, Pietrangelo might be better off taking a one-year deal to stay in St. Louis. But that’s not as fun (unless you’re a Blues fan).
  • The Avalanche figure to have a lot of money to burn, but I’m not sure that it would be wise to risk Hall and Pietrangelo hitting the aging curve. This scenario basically buys everyone some time for longer-term solutions, while taking a big swing at a 2020-21 Stanley Cup.

Now, some will point to that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and that was kind of a disaster.

To which I retort: we’d get to talk about that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Was it as much of a disaster as we thought? (Sounds like quality content either way.)

2. Buffy to Buffalo

Just imagine the bad puns and headlines that could come from Dustin Byfuglien reviving his career with the Buffalo Sabres.

As much as anything else, the Sabres and their fans need some joy. Adding a much-needed defenseman who’s as flat-out as unusual as Byfuglien would be pretty fun, if you ask me.

Could it be another disaster? Sure, but in that scenario, at least cruel people would have fun? I think it’s worth the risk. (<— Person not signing any of these checks.)

3. Hurricanes and Robin Lehner, an NHL Free Agency story of “Finally”

Despite putting up fantastic numbers for two seasons, Robin Lehner can’t seem to get the sort of stability he wants. Despite putting together deep and talented teams, the Hurricanes are always a few netminding meltdowns from throwing all of that shrewd team-building away.

Frankly, I was a little surprised the Hurricanes shrugged their shoulders at Lehner last summer. Sure, they’re analytics-leaning with Eric Tulsky calling a lot of shots (although I wonder if Don Waddell “went camping” by acquiring Brady Skjei and his not-particularly-fancy-stats?). But Lehner seemed like a buy-low candidate, particularly in signing a low-risk, one-year deal with the Blackhawks during the 2020 offseason.

Maybe it’s finally time for Carolina to take the plunge?

OK, so the smarter move might be to continue going shorter term. Perhaps Corey Crawford would take a shorter deal than what Lehner is clearly seeking. Jacob Markstrom might be the craftier addition, if the Canucks let him walk.

Lehner and the Hurricanes would rank as the more interesting story, though.

4. Can Braden Holtby halt the sinking of the Sharks?

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Speaking of interesting narratives that might not be as wise as they look on paper, Holtby to the Sharks would be fascinating.

Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been disastrous for the Sharks lately. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, though, as the Sharks defense often hangs its goalies out to dry.

In Holtby, you have a Stanley Cup winner whose overall body of work is highly impressive. For a Sharks team tormented by playoff letdowns, Holtby’s postseason resume shines especially bright (Stanley Cup win, .928 save percentage over 89 career playoff games).

Yet, on the other hand, things have been bumpy for Holtby for some time. His game had already been slipping, but it really dipped badly in 2019-20 with a disturbing .897 save percentage. Holtby probably will demand a hefty contract thanks to his prior work, too.

So … there are a lot of red flags here. That said, the Sharks are pretty desperate. At minimum, it would be interesting to see if that gamble would pay off for San Jose.

Assorted fun NHL free agent scenarios of varying realism

  • As interesting as it would be for Joe Thornton to ship back up to Boston, I keep going back to Thornton with the Winnipeg Jets for some reason. The Jets would actually be a sensible landing spot for someone like Torey Krug, but Thornton chasing a Stanley Cup with the Jets just feels right.
  • The Maple Leafs are going to experience an agonizing cap squeeze. If Kevin Shattenkirk took another one-year, low-dollar deal, maybe Toronto would come calling? He’s the sort of double-edged sword defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs more than hurt them. But oh, how that hockey-crazed media and fan base will overreact to those mistakes …
  • The Blackhawks seem pretty deep in a “just try to outscore their problems” phase. Is there a better defenseman for that pursuit than Tyson Barrie? I mean, probably, but that could make for a white-knuckle ride.
  • Let’s get Evgenii Dadonov to a California team. With any luck, Dad would attend a Padres game.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

NHL announces nine additional COVID-19 positive cases

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The National Hockey League says 35 total players have tested positive for the coronavirus over roughly the past month.

The league says 23 of 396 players checked for COVID-19 at team facilities have tested positive since voluntary workouts began June 8, a 5% rate. In that same period of time, it is aware of 12 additional positive test results.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association on Sunday night agreed on protocols to start training camps and resume the season. That includes daily testing once games get under way for players, coaches and staff.

Resuming is contingent on each side approving an extension of the collective bargaining agreement and the return to play agreement.

PHT Morning Skate: Four Blues players, one coach test positive for COVID-19; Future for Rask

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

Blues players test positive for COVID-19, and other return-to-play issues for NHL teams

• Four Blues players and one coach tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the team to cancel practices late last week. It sounds like the Blues will attempt to resume activities on Monday. [According to various reporters, including Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

• Beyond trying to start things back up, what’s next? Lou Korac of NHL.com reports that the Blues players who tested positive for COVID-19 are likely to miss the beginning of formal training camps (aka “Phase 3”). [Korac on Twitter]

Last Monday, the NHL announced that 26 players (15 of at least 250 who participated in Phase 2; 11 who weren’t participating in activities and team facilities) tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began on June 8. This bumps the player count to at least 30 during Phase 2.

• Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan recently said that assistant Jacques Martin is expected to be a full participant during the potential NHL return. Plenty of coaches are at a noteworthy age, considering the heightened risks for serious complications from COVID-19 for older people. At 67, you’d understand if Martin decided not to participate, or to scale back in some way. That’s not the case, at least according to Sullivan. [Pittsburgh Hockey Now]

Other hockey links

• Some early thoughts on the proposed changes to how the CBA works as the NHL and NHLPA work to hash out an extension. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Jim Matheson believe that it is “big gulp” time for prospective NHL free agents. Go ahead and scratch off some 7-Eleven jokes, then read up on the predicament many are in. [Edmonton Journal]

• Last week, PHT evaluated how the Kings might use the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. While we discussed a few scenarios, the piece focused quite a bit on Quinton Byfield vs. Tim Stutzle. Mayor’s Manor goes deep on that comparison, too, and adds a wrinkle: assessing Lucas Raymond as the possible second pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, too. [Mayor’s Manor]

• Speaking of going deep, Joe Haggerty breaks down what the future might look like for Tuukka Rask. With retirement sounding unlikely any time soon, what happens after Rask’s contract expires following the 2020-21 season? The Bruins could extend Rask as soon as this summer, but there’s a lot of cap uncertainty going on right now. [NBC Sports Boston]

• As far as Finnish hockey has come, Aatu Raty has a chance to break new ground. Could he be the first Finnish player to go first overall? It’s a long way until the 2021 NHL Draft, but Mark Masters spoke with Raty about the possibility. [TSN]

• Did the David Clarkson contract set the stage for the Maple Leafs to turn things around? For all we know, it may have accelerated certain processes, such as hiring Brendan Shanahan, who cleaned house of many of the people who … well, thought that Clarkson contract was a good idea. [Leafs Nation]

• Kevin Kurz shares the fascinating story of Ned Colletti. “MLB GM to NHL scout” isn’t a common career path, so expect an uncommon story. [The Hockey News]

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.