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Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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The Conference Finals have reached the halfway point as we continue to inch our way to a Stanley Cup Final that will be … well … let’s just say a very unexpected matchup no matter who ends up playing in it.

The four teams remaining would all provide a fascinating story in their own right and have had some incredible individual performances that have helped drive them to this point. So let’s focus on those once again and check back in with our Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings.

The top of the list still has Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he is starting to get a bit of a challenge from one of his opponents in the Western Conference Final. As well as one of his teammates.

To the list!

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. He was in the top spot when looked at this more than a week and literally nothing has happened to change that. If anything, he has only strengthened his case as he now has the Golden Knights just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. No matter how many times you think that sentence it never stops being outrageous. Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, specifically his two acrobatic saves on Mark Scheifele in the third period, are his signature moment so far this postseason. What does it do to his legacy if he leads a first-year expansion team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance (or wins it?!) and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way? Big things, obviously.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. He has already set the NHL record for most road goals in a single postseason with 11 of them. Overall, he has a league-best 14 goals … in only 15 games! Keep in mind that no player has scored more than 14 goals in a single playoff run since Sidney Crosby scored 15 for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. Before him you have to go all the way back to Joe Sakic (18) in 1995-96. It seems like he is a guarantee for two points every single night.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. We had Ovechkin in the second spot in our last update and his drop isn’t at all a reflection on the way he has played — he has been consistently incredible. It is just that there are simply two players that, at this point, are just a little bit better. In all honestly pretty much any of the players in the top-three (Fleury, Scheifele, Ovechkin) could easily be in the top spot without much of an argument.

4. Jon Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas’ top line has been a nightmare for teams all year and Marchessault has been at the center of a lot of it. He is also proving that his 30-goal season a year ago with the Florida Panthers was not a fluke. He is now up to 17 points in 13 games this postseason and has at least two points in six of his past nine games. How did the Florida Panthers allow this to happen?

5. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. He had a three-game stretch at the start of the Boston series where he did not record a point. Outside of that he has found his way onto the scoresheet in every playoff game the Lightning have played and enters Game 4 on Thursday night riding a four-game point streak. He has been the engine driving the Lightning all year.

6. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Holtby has been an incredible playoff goalie throughout his entire career and is finally getting the goal support to make people notice it. Still one of the most mind-blowing Holtby stats is that he has been on the losing end of 14 games in his playoff career where he has allowed two goals or less. He has lost four games where he has allowed only one goal! He has consistently produced for the Capitals. He has deserved better. This year he is getting better and is a big reason why the team is so close to finally reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

7. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. From strictly an entertainment perspective he might be at the top of the list. Point-per-game player on defense, playing 26 minutes a night, plays a devastatingly physical game, has players bouncing off of him like he is a brick wall when they try to hit him, and he can drag multiple players around the ice by himself like they are nothing.

8. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. He is playing 19 minutes per night (tops among all Lightning forwards) and has more even-strength points than any other player on the team. In just his second year in the NHL he has quickly become a key part of this core. Perhaps the lesson for the rest of the NHL here should be to not be afraid to take the undersized player if he proves he can put the puck in the net. The Lightning haven’t been afraid to do it and have built a team that has been in the NHL’s final four in three of the past four years.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

Seth Jones #3 and Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets talk
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents

Josh Anderson (RFA)

Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)

Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)

Vladislav Gavrikov

Jakob Lilja (RFA)

Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)

Ryan MacInnis (RFA)

Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)

Devin Shore (RFA)

Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Devils make donation for medical equipment

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The owners of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils have made a six-figure donation to the state’s largest health care system for medical equipment to ensure the safety and proper protection of all healthcare workers and first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Devils co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer and RWJBarnabas Health announced the donation Tuesday without saying the exact amount. They described it as “significant and impactful.” The money was given to RWJBarnabas Health’s Emergency Response Fund to help combat the challenges faced by the medical community and its personnel.

RWJBarnabas Health has more than 35,000 system employees who treat thousands of patients daily in hospitals throughout the state.

The RWJBarnabas Health Foundation plans to acquire a variety of personal protective equipment, including N95 respirators and surgical masks, gloves, gowns, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, eye protection, and other necessary medical equipment that’s critically needed.

With the NHL season suspended by the virus, the Devils on Monday packed their medical equipment in the Prudential Center and sent 7,000 pairs of gloves, 10,000 hand sanitizers and all their soaps, sprays and cleaning material to the health care network, a team spokesman said.

The donation came on the same day as Harris and Blitzer made a six-figure donation made to the city of Newark to support a program that provides gift cards for groceries to city families in need. The spokesman said the hospital donation also was six figures.

The Devils have spoken to state authorities and offered to make the Prudential Center available should it be needed for use as a temporary hospital.

Stanley Cup contenders staying ‘optimistic’ about games resuming

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The NHL pause has made us all dream of the day hockey returns and we can finish the 2019-20 season.

That rings true for players as well, and there’s a strong feeling among teams that owned Stanley Cup dreams before everything shut down.

The defending champion Blues are reside atop the Western Conference and showed no signs of a Cup hangover through 71 games. Nearly three weeks since the NHL suspended the season, a potential repeat isn’t sitting heavily on the mind of their team captain.

“I don’t think any of us are thinking about [playoffs], we’re more just worried about taking care of ourselves and our loved ones,” Alex Pietrangelo said during a Tuesday video conference with reporters. “I think at the time, yeah, it’s frustrating, but again, we’re all optimistic that maybe we’ll have the chance to play again this year. So maybe we’ll have the opportunity. 

“The good thing about the break, is this time of year everybody’s banged up. We go through a lot during the year, so could be an opportunity to rest up. If we do get back, it’ll be one helluva playoff.”

The Blues had been without Vladimir Tarasenko since Oct. 24 due to a shoulder injury. He was expected back around the start of the playoffs, so a prolonged break would allow a return to full health and provide a boost to the defending champions.

Two teams hoping to derail the Blues’ repeat chances are the Avalanche and Stars, who entered the break in second and third place, respectively, in the Central Division. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said that this was the most confident he’s felt in his teams title chances since he entered the league.

“We were chasing down St. Louis and we’re two points behind with a game in-hand and we knew we had them coming up in game 82, last game of the season,” Landeskog said. “We were dealing with a lot of injuries and some key guys were out, but guys were starting to come back, so it came at a bad time. Some people would say it came at a good time because it’ll allow us come back and be healthy, but then again, we don’t know how long it’s going to last for either.”

The Stars are 10 points behind the Avalanche and trying to fend off the Jets and Predators, who are both right behind them in wild card spots. A break was certainly helpful, but the players are all itching to put their skates on again and play.

“It’s frustrating. We’re all in the same boat,” said Dallas captain Jamie Benn. “For the break, it couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We were slipping a bit. We lost six in a row. I know our group was like, all right, this ain’t so bad, but now that it’s been a few weeks and we don’t know how much longer it’s going to be, I think we’re all just wishing we could get back out there on the ice.”

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

MORE:
Players doing what they can to stay in shape during NHL hiatus
Crosby, Ovechkin fine if NHL chooses to go right to playoffs
McDavid on NHL resuming play: ‘A fair season is a full season’
Rask’s gas, McLellan no fan of No. 1 pick tournament, return of D-Boss?

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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.

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Blue Jackets surprises Elvis Merzlikins
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

***

Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.