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Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

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If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

————

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.

If Bruins keep getting secondary scoring, look out

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The Boston Bruins have long been considered a “one-line team,” and that’s not such a bad thing when that one line features Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

You’d think that the Bruins would have lost Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, what with that one line essentially being held scoreless.*

Nope. The Bruins won both of those games, which leaves them with a 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets to begin Round 2.

[Read all about the Bruins’ 3-2 OT win here.]

* – Bergeron scored an empty-netter in Game 7, but it was a 5-1 goal that barely beat the buzzer and meant even less to the outcome of that decisive contest.

Consider some of the less-obvious players who’ve come through for the Bruins lately, and we’ll ponder how likely it is that they’ll be able to continue to contribute.

David Krejci

But first, an obvious player, as Krejci is a player whose play (73 points this season, tying a career-high) screams that the Bruins really haven’t only been a one-line team, in the first place. It’s probably true that Krejci isn’t quite the pivot who topped all playoff point producers in 2012-13 (26, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), but he remains worthy of more attention than he gets on a team with justifiable spotlight-takers in Bergeron, Marchand, and Zdeno Chara.

The Bruins might end up needing even more from the supporting cast members below if Krejci needs to miss some time. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Krejci is considered day-to-day, and it’s possible he got hurt here.

Even if Krejci plays, there’s the chance he wouldn’t be at full-strength, so these players may need to continue to step up as the series moves on to Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; stream here).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Charlie Coyle

The headline-grabber, naturally, is Coyle. He was already heating up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Game 1 was his masterpiece, as Coyle scored the goal that sent Game 1 to overtime, and then tapped home the 2-1 OT-winner.

If you ever want a snapshot of how dramatically luck can shift from terrible to incredibly friendly, you could do worse than to look at Coyle right after the trade deadline versus Playoff Coyle.

Through 21 regular-season games after being traded to Bruins: two goals, six points, a pitiful 4.8 shooting percentage on 42 SOG.

Through eight playoff games: five goals, six points, an absurd 35.7 shooting percentage on 14 SOG.

Obviously, the truth about Coyle is somewhere between the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket during the regular season with Boston, and the player who’s scored a goal on his last three shots on goal.

Coyle finished 2018-19 with 34 points, but he generally strikes as a 40-50 point player, and has shown a decent ceiling with a career-high of 56 points in 2016-17. You can’t really expect spectacular scoring from Coyle, but if this run really heightens his self-confidence, he could really give the Bruins a chance to win the depth battle, at least some nights. That’s not as spectacular as scoring OT goals, but in the likely event that the top line starts scoring again, it makes the Bruins frightening.

Marcus Johansson

Goal scorers are the guys who “hit the long ball” to a great passer’s Maddux, but you merely need to watch replays of the two Coyle goals to see that Marcus Johansson was just as instrumental in those tide-changing tallies.

It’s tough not to root for a player like Johansson. When he was traded from Washington to New Jersey, it seemed like the Capitals got cap-crunched, and the Devils were really building something. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a bad hit by Johansson’s now-teammate Brad Marchand, Johansson suffered serious health issues, and really hasn’t been the same player.

The Bruins were smart to give Johansson a shot via a rental, though, and the B’s could really be onto something if he finds chemistry with Coyle. Johansson’s 30 points in the regular season are actually a lot more impressive when you consider that he was limited to 58 games played, and if he can stay healthy, the Swede could put together a stellar contract year (er, contract playoff run?).

Again, don’t expect Coyle and Johansson to do Game 1 things during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the chemistry and confidence could start soaring at this rate.

(And, hey, Coyle’s contract ends after 2019-20, so really, they’re both more or less playing for their futures.)

Jake DeBrusk

As the Bruins’ frequent second-liner alongside Krejci, DeBrusk quietly put up 27 goals despite being limited to 68 games. He had some memorable moments during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and remains a strong contributor for Boston. In fact, if Krejci misses time, DeBrusk could show how much havoc he can create on his own.

Sean Kuraly/Noel Acciari/Joakim Nordstrom

OK, these guys weren’t exactly high-scorers during the regular season, and their contributions might not be super-dependable. Acciari’s goal on Sergei Bobrovsky to start the scoring in Game 1, and Kuraly’s big 3-1 goal against Frederik Andersen in Game 7 of Round 1 were both goals that the netminders really should have had. Still, if those guys can get the occasional goal and avoid being deep underwater on tougher nights, that could be big. (Some nights will be easier than others.)

Kuraly, in particular, shows a nice burst that can cause headaches for opponents, and his possession stats have been positive so far now that he’s managed to get healthy enough to appear in the playoffs.

***

Don’t let some hit-posts and other near-misses fool you; the Bruins are still going to lean heavily on their top trio, and barring health issues or a truly profound cold streak, they’ll likely deliver.

You need another players to pick up during the grind of the postseason, particularly against teams that are gameplanning to stop Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. The Bruins have been getting needed contributions from their supporting cast, and while that luck is almost certain to eventually cool off, there’s a solid chance that Coyle and Johansson could be bigger contributions than they were during the regular season.

That makes the Bruins a scary postseason opponent, especially if Krejci’s issues are short-lived.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

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.

Coyle’s clutch as Bruins take 1-0 series lead vs. Blue Jackets

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Some deadline deals never work out for teams once they hit the playoffs. Others take a little time to find their stride.

And then there’s some that make an immediate impact.

While Charlie Coyle‘s arrival in Boston earlier in the year wasn’t much to write home about, his presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been nothing short of sensational.

And the Boston Bruins can thank Coyle for a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Round 2 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after he scored two monumental goals for the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime win on NBCSN on Thursday.

Coyle’s wasn’t the biggest name to get a plane ticket to a new destination. He was added depth for a Bruins team were bolstering their lineup for a run at Lord Stanley. But sometimes depth plays a crucial part for a playoff team, and Coyle now has five goals and an assist in eight playoff games with his new club.

Coyle came through in the clutch not once, but twice on Thursday.

Boston had jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period on a shorthanded goal by Noel Acciari (more depth) as Boston tried to deliver the knockout blow in a flurry of offense in the opening period.

The Blue Jackets withstood the storm, much like they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. As the game progressed, Columbus slowly found its stride. They hadn’t played in a week after sweeping the Lightning in the biggest shocker of Round 1. They looked, perhaps, too relaxed.

But when the third rolled around, a gift of manna emerged from the heavens in the forms of a 13 stretch where the Blue Jackets turn the game on its head.

Boston will probably say this one was just a blip on the radar after the win. Columbus, meanwhile, will say they stuck with it and use some solace.

Both statements have some semblance of truth embedded in them, but in a race to four wins, it only matters that the Bruins found a way.

And that way was directed by Coyle.

The former Minnesota Wild forward tied the game with less than four minutes remaining to ultimately send the game to overtime, where he’d write the conclusion to the story as he tapped in a perfect pass from fellow trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson to seal the victory.

Boston probably deserved to win, truth be told. The possession numbers and expected goals favored them heavily and they were able to rebound from the 180 that happened. The playoffs are as much about rebounding from adversity as they are about trying to avoid it altogether.


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

Blue Jackets’ magic hasn’t run out, pushes Bruins to Game 1 OT

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For a while there, the story of Bruins – Blue Jackets Game 1 seemed to boil down to Columbus failing to take advantage of a Boston team that came off a lengthy, challenging series against the Maple Leafs. But, instead of rest vs. rust, the focus is on Columbus pulling off another “did that really just happen?” moment.

The Blue Jackets hadn’t been able to get a goal past Tuukka Rask for most of Game 1, while Sergei Bobrovsky managed to keep Columbus in it when the team seemed to be shaking off rust (or simply getting outplayed by the Bruins).

It was only a 1-0 lead for Boston, though, and that flip-flopped to a 2-1 advantage for the Blue Jackets, as Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin scored two goals just 13 seconds apart. Check those goals in the video above.

The Bruins didn’t collapse after that stunning spree, though, as Charlie Coyle buried the 2-2 goal after a nice Marcus Johansson pass.

Round 1 provided hockey fans with 10 overtime games, and the first Game 1 of Round 2 now pushes it to 11. You can stream that game here; meanwhile, Blues – Stars Game 1 can be streamed via this link.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts Round 2

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So after a Round 1 that was full of unexpected endings, what can even expect from Round 2? How many more brackets might get busted over the next two weeks — if they weren’t already busted after what we just witnessed?

Here are some fun facts about Round 1:

• 14 of the 16 top point producers from the regular season are not in the Second Round

• 5 of 8 winning teams overcame a series deficit

• 7 of the top 10 regular-season teams eliminated

• 3 Game 7s – most in the opening round since 2014 (3 Game 7s in entire playoffs last year)

• Ten games required overtime, matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason.

• For the first time in NHL history, the top team from each conference and all division winners were eliminated in the opening round. Washington’s defeat guarantees that there will be a new Stanley Cup champion for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons.

• Only three other rounds in NHL history have featured two Game 7s that required overtime, with each occurring on either the same day or on consecutive days: the 1997 Conference Quarterfinals (2 on April 29), 2011 Conference Quarterfinals (April 26-27) and 2012 Conference Quarterfinals (April 25-26). No postseason in NHL history has ever featured more than two Game 7s that have required overtime.

• Overall, 10 of 46 games required overtime in the First Round (21.7%), matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason (10 of 84 GP; 11.9%).

Now let’s move on to Round 2. Here’s who we think will advance to the conference finals. Who do you have moving on?

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1