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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

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

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.

Devils keep it simple after years of aggressive moves

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The New Jersey Devils making a big, splashy (usually smart) move was starting to feel like a summer tradition along the lines of waterslides and family vacations.

Such aggression paid off pretty tangibly, too, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy while leading the Devils to an unlikely berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many franchises would take this as a sign to continue pushing chips further into the table. Instead, the Devils are electing – at least currently – to stay quiet, including allowing trade deadline additions Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner to walk.

That trend continued on Tuesday, as the Devils locked down some in-house supporting cast members to affordable contracts. GM Ray Shero handed Blake Coleman a three-year contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit, while Stefan Noesen signed for one year at a similar $1.75M AAV.

Coleman, 26, seems like a solid enough bet. He generated 13 goals and 25 points in 79 games last season despite a modest 8.9 shooting percentage and equally modest reps (an average of 14:24 TOI per game). Considering heavy usage in the defensive zone, his possession stats were respectable.

The story is more or less the same for Noesen, 25. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games despite even sparser ice time (13:17 on average) and managed even stronger possession stats while being placed in comparable defensive situations as Coleman.

Overall, this seems like solid stuff for useful (but not ground-breaking) players.

Maybe most importantly, the Devils seem like they aren’t putting too much weight in a postseason run that might be difficult to replicate. At the very least, New Jersey can’t reasonably ask Hall to improve on his fantastic 2017-18 campaign; anything close to that would be gravy.

Granted, there are a few things that actually could shake out better.

Most obviously, Cory Schneider might get his game back together. Despite two consecutive seasons you could probably describe as “backup-level,” his career save percentage remains strong at .920. Maybe this is the “new reality” for the 32-year-old netminder, but there’s also the chance that he might get his game back together. Goalies are tough to predict.

Regardless, the Devils must continue to wade through the Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Stanley Cup winners. Alongside those Capitals and Penguins, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Hurricanes will be formidable in 2018-19. If New Jersey takes a step back, at least it wouldn’t be after signing risky free agents. They’d probably generally be better off waiting for opportunities to strike, as they’ve done in the past.

(Speaking of leveraging opportunities, perhaps Marcus Johansson will enjoy better health luck next season? His concussion issues ranked as one of the things that didn’t break well for the Devils during what was otherwise a remarkable season.)

No NHL team really gets everything right, and a fair amount of luck is involved in building a winner, but smart franchises try to pile up as many smart moves as possible. Shero’s getting a lot of the big ones right, yet this summer, it seems like he’s making some solid, smaller calls.

Then again, maybe he’s just biding his time for another surprise?

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk confident he’s bringing ‘high level’ of play to Kings

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“I’m a young 35.” That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk described himself to reporters during a conference call over the weekend.

If you follow the Russian forward on Instagram, you’ll see that while he’s on the back nine of his hockey playing days he’s doing his best ensure he’s truly a young 35.

Готовь сани летом💪🏻👍🏻🔝… Nice workout with @primal_joe 🔥👌

A post shared by Ilya Kovalchuk (@ilyakovalchukofficial) on

“You just have to train a little more the older you are,” he said.

There are a lot of miles on Kovalchuk’s 35-year-old body. He has over 1,000 professional games played between the NHL and KHL, including 137 games the last two seasons between SKA St. Petersburg and international duty with Russia. Last month, he agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings — a team with a lot of experience and age, including 10 players who are at least 30 years old.

That’s not a problem in the eyes of the Kings, who lost out in pursuit of him eight years ago and are happy to bring him in to help with their offensive needs.

“He’s very explosive,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NHL Network last month. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [score] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s [Jeff Carter] or it’s [Anze Kopitar] — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”

The Kings have been desperate for scoring having averaged 2.68 goals per game over the last three seasons, good for eighth-worst in the NHL on that span. Kovalchuk netted 30 goals in each of his final two KHL seasons and his 63 points in 2017-18 equates to approximately 72 points over an 82-game season, per Rob Vollman’s latest translation factors. But while there are exceptions to the rule, production from forwards usually nosedives as they get up in their 30s. The supporting cast in LA will play a big part in how much this contract pays off.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

An exceptional talent over his career, you don’t expect Kovalchuk’s production to disappear as soon as he puts on a Kings jersey this season. But it will be interesting to watch, especially on a team that’s been so desperate for scoring.

“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” he said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, Carter, [Dustin] Brown — those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score – we just need to get to our goals.”

Kovalchuk “retired” from the Devils following the 2013 lockout-shortened season but said he followed the league during his time back home in Russia. He sees how the game has changed over the last five years and he’s eager to prove he can be a productive NHL player again.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “All the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level of where I can play.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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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.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


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