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How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

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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.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak nets four; Blackhawks hand Oilers first loss

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Three Stars

1. David Pastrnak, Bruins: Pasta scored four goals and recorded his fifth career hat trick as Boston doubled up the Ducks 4-2. His linemate, Patrice Bergeron, was the last Bruins player to tally four in a game when he achieved the feat on Jan. 6, 2018 against the Hurricanes. According to the NHL, Pastrnak is now the third player in Bruins franchise history, along with Barry Pederson and Cam Neely, to net five regular-season hat tricks before turning 24.

2. Victor Olofsson, Sabres: While Carter Hutton denied the Stars all afternoon during a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win, it was the rookie winger making history. The 24-year-old Olofsson recorded his fifth power play goal of the season and set an NHL record by becoming the first player to score his first seven career goals with the extra man. Via the AP, the Sabres’ 5-0-1 start has earned them a point in their first six games for the first time since a 6-0-2 start in 2008-09. Their 4-0-0 record at KeyBank Center is their best start at home since 2006-07.

3. Alex Stalock, Wild: Stalock’s 26 saves helped the Wild to their first win of the season with a 2-0 blanking of the Senators. The shutout was Stalock’s sixth of his career and first since Dec. 14, 2017. Minnesota’s shorthanded units get a shoutout here after killing off five Ottawa power plays. (The Senators’ power play, by the way, is now 0-for-17 on the season.)

Other notable performances
• Behind two goals from Brett Connolly, the Panthers erased a 4-1 deficit to top the Devils 6-4. New Jersey is now 0-4-2, their worst start to a season since they started the 2013-14 campaign 0-4-3.

Matt Barzal‘s goal with 27 seconds left forced overtime and Devon Toews completed the Islanders’ comeback with the winner as the Blues surrendered a 2-0 lead with less than six minutes to play.

Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen each had a goal and two assists as the Avalanche downed the Capitals 6-3 to improve to 5-0-0.

James Neal scored his NHL-best eighth goal of the season in a loss to the Blackhawks that ended Edmonton’s undefeated season after five games.

Highlights of the Night

Jonathan Huberdeau needed only 16 seconds to open the scoring vs. the Devils:

• Agile Brad Marchand:

• Former Capitals Andre Burakovsky made his first visit back to D.C. as a member of the Avalanche:

• Nice sequence here by the Avs, which was finished off by Nikita Zadorov:

Factoids of the Night
• The Stars’ 1-5-1 start is the team’s worst since the franchise opened with an identical record in 1990-91 when they were the Minnesota North Stars.

• The line of Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand have combined for 24 points through five games.

• Via AP, the worst start in Devils franchise history was 0-8-1 in 1974-75 when they were the Kansas City Scouts.

Scores
Bruins 4, Ducks 2
Wild 2, Senators 0
Panthers 6, Devils 4
Islanders 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Sabres 4, Stars 0
Avalanche 6, Capitals 3
Blackhawks 3, Oilers 1

————

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.

Sabres’ Olofsson sets NHL record with another power play goal

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The Buffalo Sabres continued their early season surge on Monday with a convincing and thorough 4-0 dismantling of the highly disappointing Dallas Stars.

During the Sabres rookie forward Victor Olofsson (also known as Victor Goal-ofsson) scored yet another goal to open the scoring early in the second period.

It was Olofsson’s fifth goal of the season and the seventh of his young career dating back to his debut during the 2018-19 season. Why is this goal noteworthy? Because all seven of Olofsson’s goals in the NHL have been scored on the power play. That makes him the first player in NHL history to open their career with seven consecutive power play goals (since power play goals became an official stat during the 1933-34 seaosn).

The Sabres’ power play has been dominant through the first six games of the season and is one of the biggest reasons they are off to such a strong start at 5-0-1. Obviously they can not rely on their power play unit to keep scoring at a 42 percent rate (as they are through Monday’s game), but it is not like that is the only source of offense. They also have 14 goals during 5-on-5 play through the first six games. No matter the situation, they are finding ways to score goals.

This start is no doubt creating a lot of excitement in Buffalo, but there is probably an equal amount of skepticism after the way the 2018-19 season unfolded. Even so, the Sabres and their fans have to be thrilled with the current record and place in the standings. Now they just need to do something they have not done in almost a decade and find a way to keep building on it.

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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.

Pastrnak scores 4 goals for Bruins; Marchand ducks retaliation

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The thing that makes the Boston Bruins so scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that even when they are not at their best they are still capable of making teams look powerless against them because of their goaltending and the strength of their top players.

That was on display on Monday afternoon when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-2, to improve to 5-1-0 on the season.

This was not the Bruins’ most complete game of the season, but it was good enough.

David Pastrnak is a goal scoring machine 

The Bruins’ big three at forward are as good as you will find anywhere in the NHL.

Everyone already knows about Patrice Bergeron and his two-way play that allows him to control the game in every situation.

Brad Marchand may not be Bergeron’s equal defensively, but he has blown by him offensively and has been a top-10 scoring forward for about four years now.

Then there is David Pastrnak, who might actually be the best pure goal-scorer out of the three and the one that gets talked about the least. That may soon start to change. He was my sleeper pick for the Rocket Richard award at the start of the year, and he dominated on Monday afternoon with his first career four-goal game, proving all of the offense for the Bruins in their win. It was just the second four-goal game by a Bruins forward over the past 20 years (Bergeron did it during the 2017-18 season, before that you have to go back to Dave Andreychuck in 1999).

He has three consecutive 34-goal seasons, including 38 a year ago in only 66 games. After his performance on Monday the only players with more goals than him since the start of the 2016-17 season are Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Auston Matthews.

This is already the third four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha.

There were only four four-goal games in the NHL during the entire 2018-19 season.

Marchand’s troll game is already in midseason form

This is Brad Marchand at his agitating best.

He manages to get an extra shot in at Anaheim’s Max Comtois along the boards, and when Comtois tries to respond and get a shot in of his own Marchand still finds a way to get the best of him.

Marchand does a lot of things that are dangerous and make people justifiably mad, but this right here is kind of funny.

Goaltending masks a lot of flaws

Sometimes even the best teams will need to rely on their goalie to get them two points, and fortunately for the Bruins they have two goalies in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak that are capable of doing that on any given day.

The duo entered Monday with matching .957 save percentages on the season as they continue to split the early season workload. On Monday it was Halak doing the work in net turning aside 30 of the 32 shots he faced.

This is a great setup for the Bruins because it gives them a No. 1 option in goal every single night, and by splitting the playing time it it allows Rask — still their best and most important goalie — to not get worn down over the course of a long season and be fresh when they need him most (during the Stanley Cup Playoffs).

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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.

Devils crumble again, blow another 3-goal lead to remain winless

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When Pavel Zacha scored his first goal of the season just one minute into the second period it gave the New Jersey Devils a three-goal lead over the Florida Panthers and seemed to send them on a path that might finally give them their first win of the season.

They not only failed to win their first game of the season, they ended up allowing five consecutive goals on their way to a 6-4 loss, dropping their record to 0-4-2 and sending them off the ice to a chorus of boos from their home fans.

Free agent acquisition Brett Connolly scored two goals for the Panthers to start the rally (including one with eight seconds to play in the second period), while MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari, and Evgeni Dadonov added third period goals to complete the rally and give the Panthers a much-needed win.

Three quick takeaways on the latest Devils’ meltdown to open the season.

1. This is the second time they have lost a three-goal lead

This is almost hard to believe, but Monday’s loss was already the second time this season the Devils have lost a game in which they have at one point held a three-goal lead. They have only played six games! Doing that twice in a full season is bad enough, but to have it happen within the first six games is just an awful look for everyone involved.

Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Jack Hughes can’t buy a break … or a point

For one split second on Monday it looked as if the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was going to finally collect his first point. He had the puck on his stick, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was down and out, only for Hughes to ring his shot off the post and stay out of the net. He slammed his stick in frustration and remained pointless through the first six games of his career.

This is the longest a No. 1 overall pick has gone without recording their first point since Steven Stamkos went seven games for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the 2008-09 season.

The good news for Hughes is that Stamkos went on to have a solid rookie season with a strong second half and starting the next year was one of the league’s best players. So it is obviously not time to worry about him or his development. The bad news for Hughes is he doesn’t have the same excuse Stamkos had for his slow start — a coach that didn’t want to play him right away.

3. Is it make-or-break time for John Hynes?

Not to put too much on one game, but the next time the Devils take the ice will be  at home against the New York Rangers, their biggest rival and the other big spending NHL team this summer.

These two teams and their rebuilds were always going to be measured against one other given their rivalry and the parallels that existed with their offseasons (the top two picks in the draft, big-name acquisitions all over each roster), and if the Devils lose that game to fall to 0-5-2 — well, Hynes’ already hot seat will no doubt increase a few degrees.

This is all part of a six-game home stand and if the Devils can not find a way to scratch out a couple of wins it is not a stretch to think that some major changes could be on the horizon for what has been one of the league’s most disappointing and underwhelming teams.

They are not just losing, they are getting crushed in every possible area.

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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.