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PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Teams under pressure, sleeper picks

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1. Which Round 1 series are you most looking forward to and why? 

SEAN: The obvious is Penguins/Flyers, but I’m real interested in seeing how the Vegas Golden Knights respond to their first playoff series. They have plenty of postseason experience on the roster but over the last month of the season they haven’t been playing their best hockey. But that’s the good thing about the playoffs, it’s clean slate and the focus is solely on one team. LA, meanwhile, is back and we’ve seen before how the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty can propel this team to success. Kopitar had a wonderful bounceback season and Doughty is in the Norris Trophy discussion. But will the Kings’ roster overall be able to handle the speed that Vegas will throw at them?

JAMES: Penguins/Flyers is almost always thrilling, and not just from a rubber-necking standpoint. Kings/Golden Knights should be a ball when you consider the absurdity of Vegas winning the Pacific in its inaugural season and the clash in styles at play.

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Those are just two other examples of great series, but for my money, Bruins/Maple Leafs has it all. You have two bitter rivals with plenty of history, some of it scarring. The Bruins aren’t just a great defensive team, as even with buckets of injuries, they only scored seven fewer goals (270) this season than the high-flying Buds (277). This series could be an instant classic between two blindingly talented teams.

Also, this series likely to produce at least once epic Mike Babcock scowl per game. Consider that the tie-breaker.

JOEY: Boston/Toronto should be a whole lot of fun. Both teams have a lot of good, young players that can play fast. But the most intriguing matchup in this series will take place between the pipes. I have no idea how the Frederik Andersen vs. Tuukka Rask matchup will play out. Both guys have had strong years for the most part, but it’ll be interesting to see what they can accomplish in the playoffs.

Obviously, having Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron go head-to-head is every hockey fan’s dream (or at least it should be). Having Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri lighting fires all over the ice doesn’t hurt either.

ADAM: Penguins/Flyers just because I really have no idea what is going to happen in that series. It’s set up to be really high scoring because neither team has great goaltending, they both have high-end players up front, and they both can score a ton of goals. They are also both capable of completely blowing the other one out. And while neither team really plays a physical style it’s still the Penguins and Flyers, it’s still the playoffs, and it is almost certain that it is going to turn into complete chaos at some point. Sign me up for it.

SCOTT: Many will say Toronto/Boston. It’s a great Original Six, I hate you, you hate me series, but for me, it’s Pittsburgh/Philadelphia. There’s simply more hate for each other in this one. And it’s not as much Sidney Crosby vs. Claude Giroux this time around as it is Crosby vs. Sean Couturier, which will be intriguing. Not to mention the Penguins are going in search of the three-peat. 

2. What team in each conference is feeling the most pressure to succeed this postseason?

SEAN: This is the one title the Capitals can claim. Another postseason filled with pressure to win. It was 20 years ago this spring that they last got past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2009, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs three times by the Pittsburgh Penguins and they could meet yet again in Round 2. First, however, they need to slay the Columbus Blue Jackets which won’t be an easy task and getting the first crack in goal is Philipp Grubauer, who’s been playing like a No. 1 for most of the season.

In the West, the Predators are built to win the Stanley Cup. They earned valuable experience in their run last year, but now anything short of a championship is a disappointment. GM David Poile bolstered his roster by adding Nick Bonino, Mike Fisher, Kyle Turris and Eeli Tolvanen up front, while Pekka Rinne is having a Vezina Trophy-type season in goal. Can he keep his play up for another two months?

JAMES: Compared to previous seasons, the Capitals probably feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders … yet it still comes down to Washington or the Lightning. Consider this a vote for D.C., as the baggage of multiple letdowns and Barry Trotz’s uncertain future make for quite the pressure cooker. At least they’re used to it, though, right?

Out West, the Jets could very well win the Stanley Cup, yet things could get really awkward if they struggle early against Minnesota. After all, the Thrashers/Jets haven’t won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series.

JOEY: I have to go with the Capitals in the East and the Predators in the West. Washington is an obvious one because they’ve iced a lot of good teams, but have failed to get past the second round of playoffs. This year, they didn’t come away with a Presidents’ Trophy, but they’re still one of the top teams in the league. Failing to get out of the second round would be seen as another disappointing end.

The Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they were pretty dominant this year. Failing to make another run will be seen as a disappointment. Nashville didn’t have much pressure last year as an eight seed, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to being top dog in the Western Conference.

ADAM: The easy answer in the East is Washington because, well, it’s Washington and at some point they have to get through that glass ceiling. If they don’t do it this year you have to wonder if Barry Trotz gets another chance or what sort of changes they make. But honestly, I think Toronto might be facing a lot of pressure simply because it’s Toronto and now that they are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and because the Toronto media is always out for blood, I feel like expectations are a lot higher this year and if they don’t get out of the first-round (remember, a Mike Babcock coached team has not gotten out of the first-round since 2013, and only once since 2011) I feel like the knives could be out a little. In the Western Conference I think it comes down to either Winnipeg just because they still haven’t won a playoff game yet, or Nashville simply because expectations are so high at this point. It almost seems like it is expected the Predators will be in the Stanley Cup Final again and anything less than that would be a disappointment.

SCOTT: In the East, surely it’s the Washington Capitals. They once again one the Metropolitan Division but once again, it doesn’t matter unless they can show up in the playoffs finally. Can Philipp Grubauer do what Braden Holtby hasn’t been able to do? Will the Capitals figure out a way to keep scoring? They’ve made the playoffs 10 times in the last 11 seasons. Their longest run in any of those 10 times? The second round. The pressure to prove they belong couldn’t be any higher.

In the West, I believe it’s on the Nashville Predators. Last year, they were the second wildcard. With no pressure, they made an improbable run to the finals. This year, reaching the same stage wouldn’t be surprising in the least. The Predators appear to have all the tools and they’re well-versed in using them. Anything other than a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals would be a disappointment.

3. Give me one sleeper team in each conference and why?

SEAN: Don’t sleep on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Good possession numbers, balanced scoring up front and a power play that improved eight percent since the trade deadline. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to be his regular season self unlike the past where he’s posted .929 and .898 even strength save percentages in his two previous postseason experiences. They have the right Round 1 matchup with the Capitals, a team facing plenty of pressure to win and hoping they made the right choice in goal with Grubauer.

The San Jose Sharks know how to win this time of year. It was only two years ago they pushed the Penguins to six games in the Final before falling short. While the focus in the West is on Nashville, Winnipeg and Vegas — rightfully so — San Jose is sitting there with a stingy defense, a balanced offense (with a big boost from Evander Kane) and good special teams. Their question mark is in goal and making us wonder which Martin Jones we’ll see. It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for him. How long is he leash considering how well Aaron Dell played behind him?

JAMES: Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets generated a fantastic 13-4-2 record. The only East team with a better record during that span is the Panthers, who fell a stride short of the playoffs.

With Artemi Panarin on a roll, the Seth Jones/Zach Werenski combo on defense, some nice depth players, and an elite goalie desperate to prove himself in the playoffs in Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets check a lot of the boxes for a dark horse candidate.

Honestly, all three California teams could feasibly make a run out West. If forced to pick just one, let’s go with the Ducks … at least if John Gibson can heal up soon. If not, pretend we never spoke of this.

JOEY: At one point, it looked like the Columbus Blue Jackets were never going to win another hockey game again, but they managed to right the ship. After a slow start, Cam Atkinson finally came around. He’s a big reason why the Blue Jackets are in the position they’re in. Facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions won’t be an easy task though. If they’re going to go on a run and surprise a few people, they’ll need Sergei Bobrovsky to steal the show. He’s certainly capable of doing that.

In the West, the San Jose Sharks seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Evander Kane, who they acquired at the deadline, has fit in perfectly to his new surroundings and he’s added another dimension to this team. After going through a rough patch last season, Martin Jones has also bounced back in the second half of the year. If Jones can give the Sharks some solid goaltending, they’ll have a chance to go a round or two. Obviously, having Brent Burns firing on all cylinders doesn’t hurt.

ADAM: I gave them the lowest chance to win the Stanley Cup in my pre-playoff Power Rankings but even if they do not win the whole thing I could see New Jersey causing some headaches. They have the (most likely) MVP, they play a fast, aggressive game, and they are getting a Tampa Bay team that kind of limped into the playoffs. Will it happen? Probably not, but I could see the Devils maybe upsetting the apple cart a bit. In the West I kind of want to say San Jose just because I feel like they are lurking under the radar quite a bit, had a surprisingly good season, and seem to have exceeded expectations all year.

SCOTT: In the east, it’s the New Jersey Devils. It’s the typical team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain against the team that placed tops in the Eastern Conference. We saw the same scenario play out last year with the Predators. The Devils finished the year on a 7-2-1 clip in their last 10-games and they have Taylor Hall, who may just be the hottest player in the league at the moment.

In the West, it’s tough to count out the Anaheim Ducks. They finished second in the division on the back of an 8-1-1 stretch to close out the regular season, including a five-game winning streak. The Ducks are far from favorites, but they ice one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL in John Gibson, give up fewer goals than most as a result and have playoff experience oozing from every pore. There’s nothing the core of the Ducks hasn’t seen in the playoffs.

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4. How far can the Vegas Golden Knights go?

SEAN: They’ve been doubted all season, and already fueled by being cast off by their previous teams, why not have something else to motivate them after an historic season? Despite a final few weeks where they were a tad inconsistent, playoff time is wakeup time. Getting out of the Pacific Division poses a challenge, but their speed can help them get by the Kings in the first round and then you wonder how beat up the Sharks/Ducks will be coming out of their series. 

Marc-Andre Fleury is a goalie who’s had his issues in the postseason, but in this situation, with his experience, is certainly someone you want in net. But will those who produced in the regular season see that continue in the playoffs? Can William Karlsson sustain his 23 percent shooting percentage? Can Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal find time and space to continue their scoring prowess? Can the special teams hold up and take advantage of situations when presented?

Vegas has already answered a ton of questions through 82 games. Now comes an entirely new set.

JAMES: Well, according to my own predictions, they’re most likely to see the dream end against Los Angeles.

Still, the Golden Knights get to see if their home-ice advantage extends to the playoffs when their opponents should be on their best behavior. And, while it’s conceivable that the other Pacific teams could catch fire (see question 3), there’s also a reason why they rank as sleepers: this division has been far weaker than the Central in 2018-19.

With that in mind, it’s not that outrageous to picture the magic lasting until the Western Conference Final. Even if the Central teams mash each other into paste, it’s tough to picture Vegas outlasting Nashville or Winnipeg, in particular.

So, if the stars align, they can win two rounds. I’d wager that they fall short against the Kings, which shouldn’t diminish this magical run.

JOEY: That’s a tough one. I can see the Golden Knights getting past the Kings, but I can also see them lose out to an experienced group that has Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and many others. But I’ve learned my lesson from the regular season, so I won’t doubt them. Still, I can’t see them getting further than the second round. I don’t think a trip to the conference final is in the cards for Vegas just yet.

ADAM: Honestly, I could see them in the Western Conference Final. The Pacific Division is a favorable field for them, I think they match up well with the teams in the division because of their speed, and they have that four-line recipe offensively that can be tough to match up with. A fast, high-scoring team with a suspect defense and Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Not like we have not seen that recipe go on a postseason run before.

SCOTT: When is reality going to catch up with this team? Is there even a reality other than the one they currently exist in? Vegas has defied all the odds in the regular season and now there’s a chance for them to continue to re-write the history books again. They face a tough Los Angeles Kings team that knows a thing or two about playoff hockey. Vegas took the season series 2-1-1, but L.A. scored more goals, 11-10 in those matchups. It was a close season series and that won’t likely change come puck drop in their first-round matchup. Personally, if think the Golden Knights could make the conference finals. They have a three-time Stanley Cup champion in goal and an uncanny ability to come back from deficits. I stopped betting against this team a long time ago.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

PHT’s 2018 Stanley Cup playoff previews

Lightning vs. Devils
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers

Predators vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Wild
Golden Knights vs. Kings
Ducks vs. Sharks

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

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.