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Ducks vs. Sharks: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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This all-California battle seems to be flying under the radar, but this one should be a physical, back-and-forth series between two good teams.

After dropping three games in a row to Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis in early March, the Ducks managed to turn their game and their season around. That loss to the Blues came on Mar. 12, but they responded by winning five of their next six contests (5-0-1). The Ducks had a let-down game against a horrible Vancouver team on Mar. 27, but again, they were able to rattle off five wins in a row to close out the year.

Anaheim ended up finishing the season with fewer wins than San Jose, but their 44-25-13 record (101 points) was good enough to put them in second place in the Pacific Division, which means they’ll have home-ice advantage in the series. That’s good news for the Ducks, as they had a solid 26-10-5 record at the Honda Center.

Even though the Ducks finished with one more point than the Sharks, who had a 45-27-10 record (100 points), Anaheim came away with just one win during the four games between these two teams in 2017-18. San Jose may have won three of the four clashes, but most of these games were extremely close. Three of those four games were decided in a shootout. Only once did a team get blown out, and that was Anaheim when they fell 6-2 at home on Jan. 21.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A few of San Jose’s top players got off to really rocky starts this season. Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones struggled early on. Pavelski had just four goals and eight points in his first 19 games, but the 33-year-old still managed to finish with 22 goals and 66 points. Burns failed to score in his first 20 games and he racked up only seven points in his first 19 outings. Like Pavelski, Burns finished strong, as he had 67 points when it was all said and done. As for Jones, he lost his starting gig to Aaron Dell for a while, but he managed to get his game back together.

SCHEDULE:

FORWARDS: 

Anaheim: Rickard Rakell led the Ducks in scoring this season, as he had 34 goals and 69 points in 77 games. He had a great year, but the biggest reason why he led the team in the points department is because Ryan Getzlaf missed time due to injury. The Ducks captain had 61 points in just 56 contests. It was another disappointing season for Corey Perry, who failed to hit the 20-goal mark for the second year in a row (17 goals, 49 points in 71 games). Outside of Rakell, the other two Ducks that hit the 20-goal mark were Ondrej Kase and Adam Henrique. You all know about Ryan Kesler and how he’s capable of getting under the opposition’s skin. He has to stay healthy.

San Jose: Pavelski and Logan Couture (34 goals and 61 points) were the Sharks forwards that finished with the highest amount of points in 2017-18. San Jose also got valuable contributions from Tomas Hertl (22 goals and 46 points), Timo Meier (21 goals and 36 points) and Joonas Donskoi (32 points in 66 games). But the deadline acquisition of Evander Kane changed the game for them. Kane had nine goals and 14 points in 17 games after being traded from Buffalo on Feb. 26.

Advantage: A slight edge to the Sharks. The forward depth these two teams possess is fairly close. Getzlaf is probably the best forward on either side, but the Sharks have slightly more high-end options in Pavelski, Couture and Kane.

DEFENSE:

Anaheim: The Ducks have one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, but they’re currently dealing with a significant injury. Cam Fowler suffered a shoulder injury earlier this moth. He’s expected to miss anywhere between two-to-six weeks, so it’s entirely possible that he misses the entire first round. Even without Fowler, Anaheim still has Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Veteran Kevin Bieksa, who isn’t as effective as he once was, is considered questionable with a hand injury.

San Jose: Burns is obviously the key piece of the blue line for the Sharks. He led the team in points and he averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. Justin Braun (33 points) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (32 points) are the other important defensemen on the team. San Jose’s group of blue liners have the ability to move the puck as efficiently as any other team in the league.

Advantage: Sharks. If Fowler was healthy, this wouldn’t even be a discussion, but with him sidelined the gap has been closed. Burns, Vlasic and Braun have an edge over Linholm, Manson and Montour, but it isn’t as far as some may think. Again, things change on the blue line because of the Fowler injury.

GOALTENDING: 

Anaheim: John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury. Veteran backup Ryan Miller stepped in and did a solid job, but there’s no denying that Gibson is the best option for Anaheim. The 24-year-old was really good for the Ducks this season. He didn’t grab as many headlines as some of the other star goalies in the East, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was Anaheim’s MVP in 2017-18 (he had a 31-18-7 record with a 2.43 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage). It sounds like he could be ready for Game 1.

San Jose: As we mentioned earlier in this story, Jones had a tough start to the year but he bounced back down the stretch. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 30-22-6 record with a 2.55 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage. He’s capable of playing solid games in the postseason (he had a 1.75 GAA and a .935 save percentage during last year’s playoffs), but that still wasn’t enough to get them out of the first round.

Advantage: Anaheim. Gibson has the ability to be the difference maker in this series. If he stays healthy and he continues to play like he did at times this season, he can propel the Ducks to the second round.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Anaheim: The Ducks weren’t so hot on the man-advantage this season, as they ranked 23rd in the league in that category. Of all the teams in the playoffs, only the Blue Jackets converted on the man-advantage less often than the Ducks. On the PK, things were a lot better for them. Anaheim had the fifth-best penalty-kill at 83.2 percent. Only Los Angeles, San Jose, Boston and Colorado were better in that category.

San Jose: As we just mentioned, the Sharks had the second-best PK unit in the entire NHL at 84.8 percent (they were just 0.2 percent away from matching the Kings). The Sharks were slightly better than the Ducks on the power play, but they still finished with the 16th ranked unit on the man-advantage (20.6 percent). Burns is the straw that stirs the drink on the power play.

Advantage: Sharks. They have a better penalty kill and power play. That’s significant, but there isn’t a huge gap between these two teams when it comes to special teams.

X-FACTOR:

Anaheim: Corey Perry can be a game-changer for the Ducks, but they need him to score more goals than he did during the regular season. If he regains that scoring touch, he could change things for the better. Perry had four goals and 11 points in 17 games during Anaheim’s run to the Western Conference Final last season.

San Jose: As we saw after the trade deadline, Kane made a huge difference for the Sharks. He was engaged, productive and he was one of their better players. He hasn’t played any playoff hockey in the NHL, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the postseason. The pending unrestricted free agent should be motivated to keep the ball rolling this spring.

PREDICTION:

Ducks in six games. These two teams are as evenly matched as any of the opponents going head-to-head in the first round. San Jose may have a slight edge up front, on defense (with now Fowler) and on special teams, but the Ducks have similar quality. They aren’t too far behind the Sharks in those categories. Anaheim has a net advantage between the pipes and they also have experience on their side. They managed to get to the Western Conference Final last season, and they have the ability to do that again this year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Mixed feelings about Anaheim’s ‘Mighty Ducks’ retro-themed third jersey

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When you’re mining nostalgia, there’s a risk of making us old, crusty types grumble about messing with our memories. One of the biggest ways to do that is to fall short when it comes to mixing the old with the new.

(But really, the biggest hurdle comes from our own faulty memories. That’s a discussion for a totally different blog, though.)

The Anaheim Ducks seem to realize that a significant chunk of their fans – and hockey fans who might buy sweaters even if they can’t stand Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf – prefer the goofy, yet lovable, “Mighty Ducks” logo. Between the charm of those looks and the bland, corporate font vibe they have going on right now, it’s pretty easy to understand the appeal.

So, the Ducks are rolling with the old-school look for their third jersey … well, kind of.

The team’s press release mentions that Guy Hebert, the goalie many associate with the team’s early days when they’re not thinking about Paul Kariya, was on hand to model the hybrid retro-new duds. As a reminder, here’s one of the uniforms Hebert sported back in the team’s duckling stages.

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The Ducks’ press release does a good job of capturing the vague “something’s not quite right” feeling about these third jerseys. Their hearts seem to be in the right place, yet there’s just enough “meh” to make this more of a double than a home run.

Anchored in black, the third jersey features the original “Mighty Ducks” crest with eggplant and jade striping from the Ducks iconic look of its inaugural 1993-94 season. Linking the team’s past and present, the jersey incorporates new into old with a touch of the Ducks current orange coloring represented in the crossed hockey sticks of the team’s original mark. Anaheim’s current jersey number and letter styling is used in the new third sweater, providing a cohesive look to the team’s 2018-19 uniform kits, while the interior collar denotes the franchise’s 25th silver season. The first of its kind to subtly incorporate each of the seven colors (Eggplant, Jade, Anaheim Ducks Orange, Anaheim Ducks Gold, Anaheim Ducks Silver, White and Black) the Ducks have worn throughout the club’s 25-year tenure, the jersey also features silver as a primary accent color in both the triangle of the crest and yoke, paying tribute to the team’s generational milestone.

As someone whose artistic abilities peaked at “doodles during high school lectures,” maybe I’m not the person to ask here, but I’d argue that it’s pretty tough to “subtly incorporate” seven colors.

While comparisons to the Sharks’ look rank as some of the better jokes related to this reveal, the unveiling actually reminds me a bit of the Los Angeles Kings. You see, they decided to evoke the Wayne Gretzky silver-and-black look:

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… Yet, at the same time, tinkering in a way that makes grumbly folks like me grumble. In the Kings’ case, the grumbling came from tweaking the logo.

via Getty

Each nostalgia-themed jersey got a lot right, and if you asked a focus group to pick favorites, they might go with the new looks. That’s the thing, though. When you’re milking hazy memories, you bring out people’s fussy sides.

Should the Ducks have just followed the Coyotes’ lead in essentially putting out a carbon copy of their old sweaters, rather than this tweaked look? That’s not for us to say.

Actually, scratch that. They should have. This is still pretty cool, though.

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.

Is Dumba’s five-year, $30M a good deal for Wild?

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Matt Dumba‘s been enjoying a meteoric rise up the rankings of the Minnesota Wild’s most important players. Now he’s getting paid as such.

The Wild confirmed that the 23-year-old defenseman signed what should be a fascinating contract to ponder over the years: five years, $30 million (so a $6M cap hit). With that, Dumba becomes the Wild’s third-highest paid player, trailing only the twin monster contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

It’s really remarkable to look at how much Dumba’s numbers leapt during the last three seasons. In 2015-16, he generated 10 goals and 26 points in 81 games despite modest ice time (16:50 per game). Dumba then saw a better role in 2016-17, collecting 11 goals and 34 points while averaging 20:20 minutes per night. Last season is when his numbers went from good to great; he generated an impressive 14 goals and 50 points while logging 23:49 per contest.

While the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs were generally frustrating for the Wild, Dumba’s work provided a tantalizing argument that the best may still be to come. Ryan Suter was on the shelf, so Dumba took charge, averaging a whopping 26:58 per playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets, and not really looking out of place in the process.

That said, Dumba’s possession numbers have generally been pretty run-of-the-mill, so this contract is far from unanimously approved. Wild GM Paul Fenton made some interesting comparisons between Dumba and P.K. Subban, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required).

“The risk has certainly allowed him to score in double-digit goals, for one,” Fenton said. “It’s hard to find right defensemen who have the ability to game-break, if you will. He’s got a bomb. You look at how guys have molded themselves over the years, there’s a risk-reward factor. P.K. Subban basically does the same thing in a lot of lights. You’re looking at him and saying, ‘Oh my god. He tried that in that particular point in the game or that position in the game.’ As he matures and goes forward, I think it will smooth itself out.”

The dream scenario is for the hockey world to look at the value of Dumba’s contract as an extension of Fenton’s days with the Predators, as Nashville’s knack for signing blooming defensive stars to team-friendly deals can be seen in the bargains for Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. (Subban, as Norris-worthy as he tends to be, isn’t cheap at $9M per year.)

Paying Dumba $6M per season might seem steep today, yet considering the gold rush on defensemen now that Drew Doughty/Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed and Erik Karlsson‘s eventually awaiting a Brinks truck, this could very well be the sort of pact that ages very well.

Then again, it’s no doubt that people are making jokes about other long-term Wild commitments that haven’t exactly aged like fine wine.

During the past three seasons, Dumba’s tied with Ellis for 15th place among NHL defensemen in goals scored with 35. His 110 points during that frame tie him with Jake Muzzin for 29th. When in doubt, you pay young defensemen who can generate offense, and Dumba certainly fits that bill.

(This also allows the Wild and Dumba to avoid salary arbitration.)

Minnesota stands in an odd spot as far as the future goes, as you can notice from all the mockery related to the Parise and Suter deals. As a team that’s been consistently good but rarely able to find the next gear to great, some will be queasy about another player receiving another meaty contract.

That’s not Dumba’s fault, nor is it on Fenton, who is still just beginning his run as Wild GM. If Minnesota’s taking the next step anytime soon, it will be on the back of strong play from young pieces, and Dumba ranks among their most important talents.

For the most part, this is a very fair example of “the cost of doing business,” as Dumba brings a lot to the table. Still, if he remains mixed at best defensively and the Wild struggle overall, the heat could turn up on the player and his team for this contract. So, again, this one will be fascinating to look back on once we gain hindsight.

(Personally, it seems more than reasonable, but time will tell if that inkling is correct.)

This summer stands to get even costlier for the Wild, as Jason Zucker needs a new contract after a breakthrough of his own. His salary arbitration hearing is currently set for July 28, so expect movement on that front in the next week.

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.