Getty Images

Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts NHL’s Second Round

3 Comments

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Boston Bruins

SEAN: Lightning in 6. The bump that Tampa hit towards the end of the season had some thinking that it could result in the New Jersey Devils giving them issues in the first round. That didn’t happen, and now healthy and with a likely less-tired Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, we’ll see a Lightning team that’s going to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins are coming off a tough seven-game series, and Tuukka Rask isn’t playing great, but the scoring depth that helped get them by the Toronto Maple Leafs will allow them to make this a series.

JAMES: Lightning in 6. As a perpetually groggy human, I put great value on rest. The Lightning basically got a bye week while the Bruins needed to grind out a seven-game series. Zdeno Chara is 41 and almost logged 30 minutes of ice time in Game 7, and it ended in regulation. The Lightning boast a comparable top line, better depth, their own behemoth star blueliner in Victor Hedman, and less wear and tear.

(Plus I might as well maintain some pick consistency, right?)

ADAM: Bruins in 6. There was a little too much made of the Lightning’s struggles down the stretch run, and winning round one in five games — even if some of the games were tight and close — was a pretty emphatic statement that they are still great. Still, there is just something about this Bruins team that seems a little better. I think the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line is going to be too much and for as great as Tampa Bay is I still think there are some areas that can be exploited there in a short series to be the difference, especially on defense. Don’t like the thought of Dan Girardi, for example, trying to match up with those forwards from Boston.

JOEYLightning in 6: The Bruins have the best line in the series with David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but the Bolts are deeper up front. Tampa is also better on defense with Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev and co. And after watching Boston’s first-round series against Toronto, it’s pretty clear that Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing better than Tuukka Rask right now.

SCOTTBruins in 7. I’m basically staying the course here. I picked the Bruins as my representative in the Stanley Cup Final out of the Eastern Conference, and while they had to grind out a series win in seven games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, I just feel, when running right, no one can beat them in the East — the Atlantic Division champions included. It’s probably less likely given that the Lightning had a week off and the Bruins will get only a couple days of rest. But I dug my grave and now I will lay in it. 

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

SEAN: Penguins in 6. Every time these teams meet in the postseason we do mental gymnastics to find ways to make ourselves believe the Capitals will finally do it. Every time they come up short, and we realize we should have known better. Here we are again. Penguins win until the Capitals break the spell.

JAMES: Penguins in 7Pick consistency helps again here, which is nice because this is a tough call, especially with Evgeni Malkin missing at least Game 1.

It’s tough to pick against the law of averages. Don’t forget that the three Sidney CrosbyAlex Ovechkin series were all close, with one series ending in six games and the other two going the full distance for seven. The Penguins also looked more than a bit leaky against Philly.

Still, the Penguins inspired doubt during the 2016 and 2017 runs, and they still got things done. They tend to create more chances than they allow and enjoy the luxury of rolling out multiple lethal scorers.

ADAM: Capitals in 7. I don’t know, man. They have to win at some point, don’t they? This Capitals team is not as good as the past two Capitals teams that could not do it, but they are still good! Everything seems like it is just there for them this season. Evgeni Malkin is hurt. Carl Hagelin is hurt. I do not think Phil Kessel is 100 percent healthy. Matt Murray has not played as well as he has the past two years. Everything is there on the table for them. The door is open. Just go through it!

JOEYCapitals in 7. Yes, I’m going to be that guy. The Capitals have exceptional depth down the middle, while Evgeni Malkin is banged up for Pittsburgh. He won’t play in Game 1, so he’s clearly hurting. If Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller continue playing well, the Caps will get the job done this time around.

SCOTTPenguins in 7. I took the Pens in six in the first round and they obliged me, and I’m taking them again (don’t let me down). 

Pittsburgh is the better team, despite what the standings suggested at the end of the regular season. Matt Murray is on his game (so is Holtby to a lesser extent, but he worries me). Evgeni Malkin missing Game 1 is a tough pill to swallow, but the Pens have own the Capitals, historically, in their playoff meetings. I don’t see that changing, even if the Caps push them to the limit. 

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets

SEAN: Predators in 7. They were my pick in the West and I’m sticking with it, even as they face their toughest test of the season. Last year’s run to the Final helped the Predators this season. They learned what it takes to go on a deep run and now that they’re healthy — for now! — and GM David Poile added depth in Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, Ryan Hartman and Mike Fisher, they can handle what Winnipeg offer, which is a scary offense with Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheiefele and Paul Stastny, among others.

JAMES: Predators in 7. Ah, now here is where leaning on past picks is especially helpful, as the Predators were my pre-season, mid-season, and pre-playoffs pick as champs. The Predators hold home-ice advantage and a coach I’m personally more confident in. Nashville doesn’t really have any major flaws, at least with Pekka Rinne playing at a high level. Winnipeg’s top-end talent is pretty scary, but this is the one opponent with the defensemen to potentially slow them down. A bit.

This should be an especially fun series, as you could argue this is a clash between the two best teams in the NHL.

ADAM: Predators in 6. They have been my pick in the Western Conference from day one and I just do not see any reason to change it. The Jets are awesome and should continue to be awesome for a long time with the young talent they have, but this Predators team just seems completely loaded and does not really have a significant weakness.

JOEYPredators in 7. The two best teams in the NHL are going head-to-head in the second round, which should make for an incredible series. The Predators arguably have the best defense in the league, while the Jets have one of the more explosive forward groups. There’s not much separating these two teams on the ice, but experience is on Nashville’s side.

SCOTTPredators in 7. Here’s hoping that his series goes the distance because everyone who loves watching hockey deserves that. The matchup is mouthwatering. High-powered offenses, Vezina-caliber goaltending and physicality for days. I picked the Predators to win the Cup this year, so I won’t pivot from that initial pick, but watching the Jets put on a masterclass in the first round has me second-guessing myself. The Jets, outside of Game 3, were simply dominate all over the place. The Predators, on the other hand, looked somewhat pedestrian in their series outside of their series-clinching Game 6 performance. This one is honestly a toss-up. I’m sticking with my initial pick, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jets move on either in the same number of games. 

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks

SEAN: Sharks in 6. I think the magic run ends here. Marc-Andre Fleury needs to post that .981 even strength save percentage during their sweep of the Los Angeles Kings because the Golden Knights only averaged 1.75 goals per game in the first round and all four games were decided by a single goal. The Vegas offense that averaged 3.27 goals per game during the regular season will need to find itself again going up against a Sharks team that destroyed the Anaheim Ducks. San Jose received contributions from up and down the lineup, and that’s with Joe Thornton missing the entire series. Add in the stellar play of Martin Jones (.979 ESSV%) and it could spell the end for Vegas.

This, according to my predictions, will result in a Jets-Sharks conference final, which will bring back all those playful jabs San Jose players threw Winnipeg’s way earlier this season.

JAMES: Sharks in 6. That stuff about consistency carries over here: I keep doubting the Golden Knights, they remain a blast to watch and prove me wrong. Why stop now? The Sharks have been a locomotive lately, rolling over the Ducks in impressive fashion. San Jose has the defenders to inhibit the Jonathan Marchessault line, top scorers who are lighting it up, and a unique weapon in Brent Burns.

ADAM: Sharks in 6. This Sharks team is really underrated and they are going to be a challenge for Vegas in a way that Los Angeles was not. They are fast, they can score, they have some youth, I don’t know if Marc-Andre Fleury can stop every single shot he faces again (well, almost every single shot he faces). I think the Sharks take it and continue to make surprising runs in the playoffs long after everyone gave up on them as a Stanley Cup contender.

JOEYGolden Knights in 7. The Golden Knights’ run will not come to an end in the second round. This doesn’t mean I’m selling the Sharks short, I just believe that the depth that Vegas has up front will make the difference. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Jones have been great for their respective teams, and that’s why this will be a tight series.

SCOTT: Golden Knights in 6. I picked both of these teams — Vegas and the San Jose Sharks — to lose in seven games in the first round. What a mistake that was. Given how well Vegas managed to play in their own zone and how dominate they were in goal to shutdown the Kings, if all stays the same, there’s no reason to think they can’t stop the Sharks in the same manner. The Golden Knights gave up the least number of high-danger scoring chances and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all of them when they did. That’s a hell of a recipe and another addition to the history books. 

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

Getty
Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

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.

Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

Getty
1 Comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Since 2013-14, Ilya Kovalchuk has been plying his trade in the KHL instead of the NHL. Really, with the year before including the abysmal, lockout-shortened campaign, we haven’t really seen much of Kovalchuk at this level since helping the Devils reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

For fans of beautiful hockey, such thoughts are borderline offensive.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough]

That said, Kovalchuk gave fans a lot to enjoy over 816 NHL regular-season games, even if many of those contests happened on some crummy Atlanta Thrashers teams. While there’s a lot of “what could have been?” with Kovalchuk, it’s also fitting that he left the NHL with exactly as many points (816) as games played.

The Los Angeles Kings make a lot of sense as the team he’ll return to the NHL with, too.

Most obviously, and also the point of most pressure, is that the Kings need Kovalchuk. They really need a shot in the arm, so landing arguably the most lethal shooter of his generation might just do that.

Yes, the Kings surprised many by making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even with Jeff Carter – the closest player they had to a Kovalchukian sniper – mostly on the shelf in 2017-18.

That’s great, but it only does so much to mask recent struggles. After all, the Kings were swept from the first round, have only won one playoff game since winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, and have missed the postseason altogether in two of the last four seasons.

Kovalchuk and the Kings are bonded by a scary question: “How much do they have left?”

The good news is that Kovalchuk performed well during his KHL sojourn, and seemed to be his usual self in international competition. Still, the aging curve can be especially unkind to snipers, and Kovalchuk’s a 35-year-old who’s been playing a lot of hockey considering he jumped straight from being the top pick of the 2001 NHL Draft to full-time duty with Atlanta in 2001-02.

At least his confidence hasn’t wavered all that much, as PHT’s Sean Leahy noted after Kovalchuk came to terms with the Kings.

“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.”

The situation he’ll be in with the Kings could make a big impact on how seamless his transition back to the NHL might be.

During Kovalchuk’s days with the Devils, he’d log a jaw-dropping amount of ice time (we’re talking “deployment usually reserved for top defensemen”-type stuff), and that would often mean spending tons of time playing the point on the power play. Los Angeles seems to have a simple-and-wise plan for Kovalchuk, considering his age and world-class shot: put him in Alex Ovechkin‘s “office.”

“We just want him to do exactly what [Alex] Ovechkin does,” Luc Robitaille said to The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman during draft weekend (sub required).

While we’ll have to see if it works in practice, this is a really bright idea on paper.

Speaking of things that make sense, at least in our minds, Kovalchuk and Anze Kopitar could form a symbiotic relationship that could pay big dividends for the Kings.

Kopitar would rank as Kovalchuk’s best center in ages, if ever, at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk presents a dramatic skill boost for Kopitar, who put up an incredible effort lugging Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo last season.

(All due respect to Brown’s bounce-back efforts and Iafallo’s scrappy work, but Kovalchuk presents a tantalizing upgrade. Ideally.)

Kovalchuk’s contract is another interesting element to this situation.

He could very well be a huge bargain, considering his skills at a fairly modest $6.25 million cap hit. Kovalchuk surely could have held out for more dollars, particularly on a shorter contract, but he made it clear that he wanted to compete too. (Granted, the sunny climes of Los Angeles probably didn’t hurt, either.)

On the other hand, Kovalchuk counts as a 35+ contract, so this could get ugly if it’s clear that the NHL game passed him by in a stark way.

If onlookers give Kovalchuk a fair shake as a talented player whose age will probably limit his all-around abilities, and maybe open the door for the normally-sturdy winger to maybe deal with the occasional injury, then this could be a happy marriage.

Talented players like Kovalchuk often open the door for out-sized expectations, and harsh criticisms, however, so this one could go either way.

Whatever happens, Kovalchuk makes this Kings team a lot more intriguing in 2018-19.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Adrian Kempe

Getty
Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

When people think of the Los Angeles Kings, they often think of an aging team.

That’s fair, but the Kings have been able to unearth some solid young talent, too. Adrian Kempe is one of those key players, and the hope is that the best is yet to come for the 21-year-old Swede.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

After going without a point in his first five games of 2017-18, Kempe exploded against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 18, generating his first NHL hat trick and adding an assist.

That began a run of nine points over five games, signaling to the NHL that Kempe was a player you’d need to game plan for, and not just because of his speed. As Curtis Zupke reported for the Los Angeles Times in November, Kings management was taking notice of his leap forward.

“He has the trust of the coaches, but we’re starting to see, to be honest with you, I can start to see some plays that we haven’t even seen,” Kings assistant general manager Mike Futa said. “It’s a testimony to how hard he’s working. … If we can start to mix in some North American muddy goals with that, that’s when your stats start to look different.”

Kempe brings things to the table that the Kings crave: youth, speed, and swagger.

Still, to tweak Futa’s phrase, the Kings would like to see certain stats look different.

Despite the considerable advantage of beginning 68.3 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone, Kempe’s possession stats were still pretty ugly. While analytics types will be disappointed in those numbers, old-school hockey people would be unhappy to see that he only won 38.5 percent of his draws.

So, yes, it’s promising that Kempe scored 16 goals and 37 points in 81 games last season, particularly since he only averaged 13:20 TOI. You can’t really blame a Kings fan for imagining the former first-rounder (29th overall in 2014) reaching even greater heights.

At minimum, Kempe could conceivably be given more reps on the power play. He averaged 1:07 PP TOI per game, far behind quite a few other Los Angeles forwards (injuries to Jeff Carter and Michael Cammalleri’s brief time in Los Angeles skew things a bit). Kempe rode some high percentages at times in 2017-18, yet getting more shifts on the man advantage could help him at least achieve similar stats, even if his luck levels out.

Of course, more ice time tends to come with better all-around play, so Kempe needs to clean up his two-way game if he hopes to see a significant increase in shifts. There also could be some challenges in getting those “offensive specialist” nods with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and possibly a healthier season for Carter.

Either way, Kempe’s a player to watch for the Kings, and possibly a crucial one when it comes to the team’s ability to remain viable as core players age.

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.

Ryan Ellis earns eight-year, $50 million extension from Predators

Getty Images
2 Comments

The Nashville Predators locked up another defenseman long-term as they agreed to an eight-year, $50 million extension with Ryan Ellis.

“Ryan is a huge part of our team on and off the ice and we are happy to have his leadership remain in our locker room for the foreseeable future,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We have talked about wanting to keep the core of our team together, and this is another opportunity to help us do so while continuing to compete for a Stanley Cup. Ryan is entering his prime and is one of the reasons why we feel this team has a chance to win every time we step on the ice.”

As TSN’s Bob McKenzie notes, the extension lacks any no-movement or no-trade clause, which is kind of what happens — if you’re not Pekka Rinne — when you work a deal with Poile.

Ellis is entering the final year of his current contract, which means he’s now tied to the Predators through the end of the 2026-27 NHL season. He’s now one of three defensemen on the team signed beyond the 2020-21 season.

That’s a pretty picture right there if you’re Poile, Peter Laviolette or a Predators fan. Arguably the best top-four in the league are signed for the next two seasons, which will again see the team on the short-list of Stanley Cup contenders. When you’re able to retain core pieces on very team-friendly deals, that’s how you build a group that can keep its elite status on an annual basis.

After returning from off-season knee surgery, Ellis was terrific over the final 44 games of the season. He scored nine goals and recorded 32 points while averaging over 23 minutes a night. He was Nashville’s best defenseman possession-wise with a 55 percent Corsi and was only behind Mattias Eklholm in Relative Corsi (4.63), per Corsica. He is dependable and productive and showed no ill effects from the injury.

The Predators will likely be among the leagues stingiest defenses in 2018-19 and Ellis plays a big part in that.

————

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.