PHT Stanley Cup Final Roundtable: Vegas’ speed, X-factors

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How will the Washington Capitals be able to counteract the Vegas Golden Knights’ speed?

SEAN: Physicality helps, but the Capitals have also found themselves susceptible to an odd-man here and there, so smart decision-making on that end will be important. The Capitals won neutral zone battles against other fast teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, so if they’re able to successfully slow Vegas down in the middle of the ice and force them to adjust, that will result in fewer successful zone entries and the potential turnover or two.

JAMES: There may be an olden times Star Wars meme for this answer. The thing is, the Capitals don’t necessarily need to slow things down and gum up the works to win. For the sake of our collective moment-to-moment entertainment, let’s hope that such measures are viewed as nuclear option, not the default.

Take a moment to ponder how dangerous the Capitals looked when things went wide open during their various series. The Penguins won Game 1 in round two, yet early on, it seemed like Washington might author a blowout based on their scary work on the rush. The Capitals have the horses to out-chance the Golden Knights, if they want to.

ADAM: Speed has been one of Vegas’ biggest advantages all season and that has been especially true in the playoffs. They overwhelmed Los Angeles and San Jose and at times made Winnipeg — a pretty fast team! — look slow. The thing is, I’m not really sure there is much Washington can do to combat that. At this point the two teams are what they are and play the way they do. You’re not going to get faster at this point. I think the key for Washington is to be disciplined, not take penalties, get continued strong goaltending from Braden Holtby to keep them in games, and capitalize on their power plays and win the special teams battle.

JOEY: The Kings, Sharks and Jets weren’t able to stop Vegas’ speed, so it’s unlikely that the Capitals will be able to do so. One thing the Caps did well in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final was limit dangerous scoring chances. The Lightning got their looks, but it appeared as though the Caps were able to keep them to the outside. I think that’s the key more than anything else. The Golden Knights are fast. Preventing them from using their speed will be tough. That doesn’t mean Washington can’t win the series anyway.

SCOTT: By doing the same sorts of things they did against the Penguins and the Lightning: be physical, win the game in the neutral zone and get an early lead. Vegas is nearly unstoppable once they score first. Make them chase the game. The Capitals are no slouches either in the speed game. They were able to work off the counterattack against the Lightning and they have some speedsters that can catch Vegas’ so-so defense looking. Question then becomes: Can they beat Marc-Andre Fleury

Can the Golden Knights win without their depth forwards making an impact?

SEAN: No. Six of their 30 goals from forwards have come from their bottom six. It’s worked through three rounds, but eventually they’ll need some contributions from others, right? The thing is, the goals from Ryan Reaves, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Nosek were pretty meaningful. So while their depth may not score in bunches, they have a timely way of making a mark.

But Gerard Gallant probabty doesn’t want to continue to rely on his top six, especially his first line, to carry the offensve load. The Capitals have received scoring from a number of contributors, and that’s played a big role in their success. That will likely continue into the Final. Vegas will need to counteract that.

JAMES: No, this time around, they need to add to their recent formula of “Fleury and the Jonathan Marchessault line will do almost everything.”

The bright side is that it’s conceivable that others might step up. The long break from the 2018 Western Conference Final gives David Perron as good a chance to be healthy as just about anything. James Neal only has four goals during this postseason, yet with 56 shots (just a 7.1 shooting percentage), the pending free agent could be poised for a breakout. Let’s also remember that Erik Haula offered a 29-goal, 55-point regular season. And, hey, maybe Gerard Gallant and Tomas Tatar squeezed in a heart-to-heart during the long layover?

ADAM: If I have a concern with the Golden Knights heading into this series it is probably the fact that their top-line has been carrying them offensively lately. That can work in the short-term as long as that top-line is scoring, but there is going to come a point where that trio stops scoring two or three goals every game. Who is going to pick up the slack at that point? One of the things that powered Vegas’ offense all season isn’t just the fact that it had that great top-line, but that it didn’t really have a weakness on any of its lines. It was pretty much one first line and two second lines and maybe a third line. That has kind of dried up a little bit in the playoffs. The good news: It is the same cast of players, so the potential is still there for it return. But if it doesn’t that is going to be an awful lot of pressure on one line to keep carrying the offense and that is not always a great recipe for success.

JOEY: Their depth scoring has been lacking throughout most of the postseason and they’ve managed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final so clearly they can do it. If James Neal, Erik Haula, David Perron and others don’t produce more, it just means that there’s more pressure on the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Marc-Andre Fleury will have more pressure on their shoulders. If those guys continue to play lights-out, Vegas will have a chance. But getting some of the other forwards to contribute will help take the pressure off those guys.

The Capitals can get offensive contributions from their top three lines, so staying step-for-step with them will be tough for Vegas if only one line is clicking. But again, the Jets had plenty of firepower and that didn’t stop the Golden Knights from taking them out in the Western Conference Final without a huge contribution from their depth forwards. It’s not ideal, but it can happen.

SCOTT: No. Sure, Vegas’ top line has done much of the heavy lifting but their scoring falls off starting with their second line.

Erik Haula and James Neal on the second line have combined for seven goals in 15 games and their other linemate, David Perron, is still nursing that goose egg.

Alex Tuch has been a godsend at times in these playoffs, but he’s not carrying this team by any means. Nor is Ryan Reaves, and Tomas Nosek, who both scored perfectly timed goals but can’t be expected to produce much.

I expect Washington to pay special attention to Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, so Vegas’ second line needs to start rolling.

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

What is the biggest X-factor in the series for both teams?

SEAN: Special teams.

The Capitals’ power play is very, very dangerous having scored on 28.8 percent of their opportunities this postseason. The Golden Knights’ man advantage unit has been fine, but only scoring at a 17.6 percent rate in eight fewer power play opportunities compared to Washington. Vegas’ penalty kill unit, meanwhile, has been strong with a 82.5 percent success rate, compared to that of Washington’s, which sits at 75.4 percent.

Both teams have played eight one-goal games in these playoffs, so you can imagine how important it will be to capitalize on special teams chances.

JAMES: The coaches.

Will Barry Trotz be willing to unleash the hounds if it looks like Vegas is giving up more chances than it is creating? As fantastic as Gerard Gallant has been in letting these Golden Knights play an aggressive style and seemingly not harping on every little mistake, I wonder if some Bad NHL Coach tendencies are starting to crop up. There were too many third periods against the Jets where Vegas went into turtle mode, and Fleury was able to stem the tide. I’m not so sure that will work when Washington has the luxury of going to “Ovechkin’s office” when they really need a goal.

More and more, in the modern NHL, a winning coach is one who’s willing to trust his players. If either bench boss leans too heavily toward risk aversion, that might just swing this championship series.

ADAM: Honestly I think the biggest X-factor here is simply Marc-Andre Fleury. Yeah, goaltending is always the biggest thing in a playoff series, but with the way Fleury is playing right now he might be what ultimately decides this. If he keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds it may not matter what Braden Holtby does at the other end of the ice or what the Capitals do as a team. It is awfully difficult to bet .950 goaltending in a best-of-seven series, and that is pretty much what Fleury is doing right now. But what if he regresses just a little? If he has even a little bit of a slip up with the way Vegas is only getting offense from one line at the moment that could shift it all back to Washington. So basically I think the X-factor for both teams is simply how Fleury plays.

JOEY: I’m going with goaltending.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been terrific throughout the postseason and Braden Holtby has really turned it on over the last two weeks. Beating either goaltender isn’t going to be easy, so whichever team gets the better play between the pipes will likely take care of business. These teams are so evenly matched that a mistake here, or a bad goal there can be the difference between winning the Stanley Cup and going home empty-handed.

If Fleury’s save percentage continues to hover around .950, there’s a very good chance that the Golden Knights will win it all. If Holtby continues to play like he did in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Final (he’s also been very good for more than two games), the Caps will be tough to stop. The pressure is on these two goaltenders to continue playing at a high level.

SCOTT: It’s 100 percent Marc-Andre Fleury.

If he continues his near-.950 save percentage (.960 in 5-on-5 situations), I don’t think it matters what Washington does. Teams simply can’t take four games against a team that’s getting, historically, some of the best goaltending in the playoffs. The Capitals have gotten to the Cup Final on the back of Holtby’s .924 (.939 in 5-on-5 situations). That’s a good number, but it’s not God-like and is beatable.

If Fleury regresses, however, all bets are off. Washington has a bevy of shooters and the best power-play specialist in the league. Fleury was able to muzzle the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. If he can do it against Ovechkin and Co. we’re going to see some crazy history being made.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

 

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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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 Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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.

Florence Schelling becomes first woman GM of top-level men’s team

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SC Bern of Switzerland’s National League has named Florence Schelling as its new general manager. The appointment makes her the first woman in such a role in top-level men’s hockey.

“We were looking for a young, fresh, visionary and intelligent person,” SC Bern CEO Marc Luthi told Berner Zeitung. “We looked at what the Swiss market had to offer – and came to the conclusion that there was no proven sports director available who would suit us.”

“We came to the conclusion: Florence is the person we are looking for and want,” added Luthi. “Yes, Florence will be a pioneer, probably worldwide in her new role. But she’s young, fresh, she’ll bring a new perspective and break up existing structures.”

The 31-year-old Schelling, who previously coached Switzerland’s U18 women’s team, was one of the best goaltenders in the world during her career. After debuting internationally at 15 at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, she spent the next 14 years representing Switzerland. She helped the country earn bronze at the 2012 Women’s Worlds and the 2014 Olympics, where she was voted tournament MVP. Both tournaments also saw her named best goaltender.

Before excelling on the international stage, Schelling was a four-year starter at Northeastern University and a 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist.

Bern were National League champions in 2019 but ended up ninth out of 12 teams this season. One of Schelling’s first duties after she begins next week is to find a new head coach.

“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” said Schelling, via IIHF.com. “We had a couple of discussions about working together and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”

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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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

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In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports