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PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors

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1. What changes do you see if the Washington Capitals fail to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins again?

SEAN: The first is an easy one: Barry Trotz is gone. The head coach is without a contract beyond this season and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan quietly received an extension in March. The next part is a trickier one. You’re not trading Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov. If Braden Holtby regressing from his first-round play, does that make trading him more palatable, should a team that’s part of his his modified no-trade clause come calling?

T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller signed long-term deals within the past year and Brooks Orpik still has three seasons left on his contract. John Carlson‘s likely not returning given what he’ll bring in on the open market, so where do you make bold changes? It might just be carving the bottom six and maybe a little on the blue line, but a major roster overhaul isn’t likely.

JAMES: It’s no secret that Barry Trotz lacks a contract extension with Washington, and we saw how such a situation played out for the Wild when it came to their GM who seemed to suffer from hockey’s version of “Groundhog Day.” If Washington fails to give its Penguins trilogy a happy ending, Trotz is almost certainly out.

Fascinatingly, John Carlson’s future is muddy either way. On one hand, losing might prompt the Capitals to balk at paying him the big bucks. If they win, a deep playoff run could conceivably price him out of Washington.

ADAM: I think the obvious is that Barry Trotz does not come back, but would it shock you to see a general manager change, too? I really don’t think they do anything drastic from a player standpoint. They’re not trading Ovechkin. They’re not trading Backstrom. They’re not trading Kuznetsov. Even though Grubauer looked good, they’re not trading Holtby. They might make some changes around the edges but I think the two big ones would be coach and maybe — maybe — the GM.

JOEY: Unless they’re ready to blow up their team, there’s not much they can do. I don’t think they’re going to unload Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin. Also, they inked T.J. Oshie to a long-term deal that might be hard to move. Even if they get bounced by the Penguins, they’ll probably still push to bring back pending UFA John Carlson, too. It’s hard to envision any major changes in Washington.

SCOTT: Figure out a way to go back in time and never trade Filip Forsberg. Then make a second stop at last July and never trade Marcus Johansson. And steal the Pittsburgh Penguins coach and general manager while you’re at it. That would be ideal for the Capitals, surely.

Realistically, it probably means Barry Trotz goes (although he might be gone even if they win the Cup). Not really his fault, in my opinion. Trotz is a good coach trying to lead a team that historically over the past decade can’t get it done in the playoffs, especially against their arch-nemesis in the Penguins. Then you got to figure out your goaltending situation and get that squared away. Two more years of Holtby until he’s an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps he needs to go to the same trainer as Devan Dubnyk and Connor Hellebuyck.

2. Will the time off for the Tampa Bay Lightning affect them against Boston Bruins?

SEAN: Any sort of rest during the Stanley Cup Playoffs is good for you, no matter how long. The Lightning will have had six full days off before Game 1 against the Bruins on Saturday. With the injuries that hit the lineup near the end of the regular season and Andrei Vasilevskiy publicly stating he was feeling tired, this will do nothing but benefit Tampa.

JAMES: It’s a huge plus for the Lightning, something Jon Cooper and even their owner acknowledged. Steven Stamkos probably benefits from a little more recovery time after he missed the end of the regular season, while we all know about Andrei Vasilevskiy’s energy questions. Meanwhile, the Bruins needed three shots to eliminate the Leafs, seeing Patrice Bergeron miss some action and Zdeno Chara log more than 28 high-stress minutes in Game 7 alone. Rest is worth the risk of “rust.”

ADAM: Not at all, I think it’s a huge advantage for them, especially for Andrei Vasilevskiy. There was already talk about him being tired and fatigued down the stretch and I thought they should have been resting some people off and on at the end of the regular season. Boston just played a marathon series, Tampa Bay is coming in fresh, I think it helps. I do not buy the “rust” factor here. Will it be the difference in the series? I doubt it. But I also don’t think it hurts.

JOEY: It might affect them for the beginning of Game 1, but judging by the speed and skill they have (especially up front), they probably won’t mind having guys like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson get an extended period of rest. Victor Hedman averaged almost 27 minutes in the first round, so they’ll probably have to lean on him heavily going forward. Rest can only help in that regard. Getting the extra time off, while Toronto-Boston battled to Game 7 clearly gives the Bolts an advantage.

SCOTT: In a good way, I believe. I’m of the opinion that several days off is better than grinding out a series win in seven games. The Bruins could use a breather after Toronto gave them all they could handle. Tampa might struggle in the opening game, but I think the rest pays off later in the round, both mentally and physically.

3. What do the Vegas Golden Knights need to do in order to slow the San Jose Sharks’ offense?

SEAN: They’re going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to throw up another .977 save percentage in this series. They also need to keep San Jose’s shots to the outside. The Sharks did a good job of creating high-danger scoring chances, something Vegas was able to prevent against the Los Angeles Kings. The Golden Knights were able to keep LA’s top threats at bay and slow down and already slow team en route to a sweep. They’ll have their hands full against a San Jose team that couldn’t stop scoring against Anaheim.

JAMES: For Vegas, the best defense will be a good offense. The VGK are built to be speedy and to keep the puck moving. Jonathan Marchesssault’s line can hog the puck at times. While the Golden Knights lack a shutdown defenseman like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, they’ve been pretty solid by committee. Naturally, it would also help if Marc-Andre Fleury continues to play the best hockey of his career.

ADAM: Hope Marc-Andre Fleury keeps playing the way he did against Los Angeles would be a big one. This is going to be a big challenge for Vegas because the Kings were probably the best possible round one matchup for them. Los Angeles was slow, had an anemic offense, and just isn’t very talented beyond its top four or five players. Vegas could easily exploit them. The Sharks are faster, more skilled, and are going to pose a much bigger threat offensively.

JOEY: Exactly what they did to the Kings in the first round. Sure, the Sharks are more dynamic than the Kings, but the Golden Knights have shown that they can dictate the pace of the game against most opponents. As long as they keep using their speed and depth to their advantage, they can match up with any team. Having a razor-sharp Marc-Andre Fleury should also help keep the puck out of the Golden Knights’ net.

SCOTT: The same performance they displayed in the first round against Los Angeles should do the trick. They limited the Kings to just three goals in the sweep. That’s bloody impressive. Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational in the series and needs to continue that path. And the rest of the players in front of them just need to stay the course. The Golden Knights gave up a league-low 25 high-danger scoring chances in the first round. That’s pretty conducive to winning. MAF’s save percentage in those 25 chances against? 100 percent. Keep on keeping on, really.

4. What will be the X-factor swings the Winnipeg Jets-Nashville Predators series?

SEAN: The Predators didn’t rely on just the Ryan Johansens, Filip Forsbergs and Viktor Arvidssons to carry the offense against the Colorado Avalanche. Their depth help lead the way and entering Round 2 it’s Auston Watson (4 goals, 7 points) and Colton Sissons (3 goals, 7 points) leading the team in scoring. Add in Nick Bonino‘s five points and Craig Smith‘s two goals and it’s a team that, when healthy, can fight back against an impressive Winnipeg offense.

JAMES: Discipline.

The Predators took the most penalties in the NHL – by a healthy margin – during the regular season with 372. Winnipeg was more in control, yet Dustin Byfuglien can lose his cool at times (with frightening results for his opponents and his own team) and both teams saw players suspended in their respective first-round series. Winnipeg (fourth, 64 PPG) and Nashville (sixth, 58 PPG) both finished in the top 10 in power-play goals during the regular season, so this might come down to who can walk the line between playing with an edge and shooting yourself in the foot with dopey penalties.

ADAM: Both goalies were amazing this season, but I also think both probably played over their heads a bit and could come back down to earth at any moment. If either one is going to do it might just be in a series against a powerhouse offensive team — and both of these teams are. So I think that’s my X-factor here: Which goalie is able to maintain his great season and not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

JOEY: Both teams have great goalies, a strong group of defenders, but there’s clearly a gap up front. I’m interested to see if the Predators forward can keep pace with Jets players like Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Filip Forsberg did his part in the first round, but it’ll be interesting to see who steps up if any particular game opens up. Viktor Arvidsson, who led the team in goals during the regular season, scored three points in six games in the Colorado series. He’ll need to shoulder more of the load this time around.

SCOTT: Goaltending. Jets coach Paul Maurice said this week that the goalie that gives up one less goal will win the series. I tend to agree. Both teams have firepower, don’t give up much on the back end, and are physical as anyone in the league. They both also have Vezina Trophy candidates this year. It’s like they cancel each other out in all facets. Connor Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts to close out the Minnesota Wild in five games and posted a 9.24 save percentage. Rinne had a shutout in Game 6 to see off the Colorado Avalanche and had a .909 save percentage, which is fairly pedestrian, if not below average. But it’s Hellebuyck who struggled to a .882 save percentage in four starts during the season series with Nashville.

They are both impressive netminders who have had incredible seasons in the crease. This series will come down to a showdown between the two and the winner will be decided by the goalie who plays the best.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

————

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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