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Where they stand: Central Division

As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands.

Previously: Atlantic Division, Metropolitan Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Summer summary: A last place finish in the Central Division meant a very early start to the off-season for general manager Stan Bowman. There was a desire for some change, but their salary cap situation prevented any big free agent pursuits. Earlier this month, Marian Hossa’s contract was off-loaded to the Arizona Coyotes along with Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle. As part of the package coming to Chicago, Marcus Kruger, who had been dealt from Carolina to Arizona in May, returns to the Windy City after a season to forget with the Hurricanes in 2017-18.

The draft would bring Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist at No. 8 overall and free agency would see Bowman acquire some depth in all three areas of the ice. Veteran forward Chris Kunitz joined on a one-year deal; defenseman Brandon Manning signed on for two seasons; and Corey Crawford will have a new backup in net with the addition of Cam Ward.

More to do? Bowman didn’t move Hossa’s $5.25 million cap hit to stand pat. Bolstering the blue line and adding a winger could certainly be in the plans, if the price is right, of course. Some rumored names that may be of interest include Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes and Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens. Given how many deals the Hurricanes and Blackhawks have completed over the years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see something else happen this summer between the two teams.

Where they stand? The Blackhawks’ summer feels like it deserves an “Incomplete” grade knowing that Bowman probably isn’t finished reshaping his roster. A lot of their success in 2018-19 depends on the health of Corey Crawford, who was a Vezina Trophy candidate before an upper-body injury suffered just before Christmas ended his season. The team has said they’re expecting him to be ready for training camp, but there’s so much of a mystery around his injury that it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

Colorado Avalanche

Summer summary: The biggest splash by the Avs this summer was acquiring Semyon Varlamov’s likely successor in Philipp Grubauer during a draft weekend trade. Also picked up in the deal was Brooks Orpik, whose legendary time with the team didn’t last long as days later he was waived and bought out.

Free agency didn’t see any earth-shaking moves as GM Joe Sakic brought in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole on three-year deals. Both players are familiar with head coach Jared Bednar after having played for him in the AHL.

More to do? Sakic still has $14 million in cap space to play with, per Cap Friendly, but they appear to be done unless something interesting comes on the horizon. The Avs had a great bounce-back year, lead by a MVP performance out of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, one of the league’s most underrated young players.

Where they stand? Ready for their youth to provide support. Outside of Mackinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, Alex Kerfloot had a solid rookie season, and the expectations are that Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher can build off good years to aid their stars. The health of Varlamov, who’s entering the final year of his deal, is a hanging question, but Grubauer showed last season that he’s capable of taking on the reins of the No. 1 job.

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Dallas Stars

Summer summary: Two playoff-less seasons meant change in Big D. Ken Hitchcock retired and Jim Montgomery was brought in. Fan favorite Antoine Roussel left for greener pastures in Vancouver, Val Nichushkin returned after two seasons in the KHL, and veterans Blake Comeau, Roman Polak and Anton Khudobin were signed.

More to do? Nill has to be weary about his cap space going forward seeing as how Tyler Seguin is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and an extension for the 26-year-old won’t come cheap.

Jason Spezza enters the final year of his deal carrying a $7.5 million cap hit and declining production. There was talk of him potentially being a buy out candidate, but it looks like he’s staying with the hope his shooting percentage can go back to normal. 

There are some young players expected to take the next step and those like Mattias Janmark and future Selke Trophy winner Radek Faksa expected to continue trending upward to help the likes of Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov up front.

Where they stand? It’s a big season for the Stars. They’ve facedexpectations the last few years and fallen short. Another disappointing season and it could be a change in the GMs chair that happens next spring. A lack of big additions to the roster after losing out in the John Tavares sweepstakes means Nill is betting on improvements from many of his players.

Minnesota Wild

Summer summary: It’s been an off-season mostly about retention for new GM Paul Fenton. While the Wild added depth in J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks, they avoided arbitration and re-signed Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to long-term deals.

More to do? Fenton was reportedly exploring some trades but it’s going to be a very similar roster in October. The new GM is and will be hamstrung by the pricey, long-term contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both 33, and the roster as constructed doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, especially when you consider the competitiveness of the division.

If Fenton can sell high on Staal, who’s coming off a 42-goal year, that will go a long way to alleviating a bit of a cap crunch the Wild are in. They currently have nearly $2 million in cap space left, per Cap Friendly, so any big move(s) would have to see money moving out.

Where they stand? Three straight first round exits and a new boss means head coach Bruce Boudreau is probably feeling some heat for 2018-19. The Wild were middle of the pack offensively and defensively last season, and the health of Parise and Suter are of big concerns on both ends of the ice.

Nashville Predators

Summer summary: You won’t see much change on the Predators’ roster come October. GM David Poile spent the summer re-stocking their AHL side, retaining Juuse Saros and Ryan Hartman and bringing back old friend Dan Hamhuis.

Other than Mike Fisher retiring again, there are no notable losses on the roster. Given the strength of the Predators, there wasn’t a need for Poile to made a bold move this summer. Heck, he usually saves that kind of thing for middle of the season. He still has plenty of cap room (about $8 million) and could find himself working with defenseman Ryan Ellis on an extension at some point this season.

More to do? Yeah, there’s money to spend, if needed, but after adding Hamhuis this week, the blue line is set and after re-signing Hartman they appear good up front as well. Plus, a full season of Eeli Tolvanen, who played only three games after coming over from Finland in the spring, will be like a new addition.

Where they stand? As Stanley Cup contenders, as they were a year ago. Poile’s never been one to shy away from making a big move where he sees the chance to strengthen an area. There doesn’t seem to be big any holes at the moment, and we’re probably going to be in for another battle between the Predators and Jets for the division crown and Western Conference supremacy.

St. Louis Blues

Summer summary: Doug Armstrong wasn’t satisfied with how last season ended and spent his summer improving his team. Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson were shipped out in order to bring in Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres. David Perron was brought back after four seasons away. Tyler Bozak was signed to help down the middle. Hometown boy Patrick Maroon returned home to St. Louis to help on the wing and Joel Edmundson is back to help the blue line.

Carter Hutton, who posted a .936 even strength save percentage in 32 appearances behind Jake Allen last season, left for a three-year deal in Buffalo. Replacing him, Armstrong went out and signed veteran Chad Johnson to a one-year deal.

More to do? With very little cap space, there’s not much to be done unless the right offer comes Armstrong’s way. The Blues were one of the NHL’s lowest scoring teams last season (226 goals for), which is where Bozak, Perron and O’Reilly come in.

Where they stand? The Blues missed out on the playoffs by a point last season. But as he did the previous season with Kevin Shattenkirk, Armstrong saw the signs and traded a star player with an expiring contract (Paul Stastny) and acquired assets for the future. Improvements were made, but it will all boil down to what kind of season Allen has in net. A .918 and .919 even strength save percentage in each of his last two seasons will put the pressure on him to help, not hinder, the team this coming season.

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Winnipeg Jets

Summer summary: It was a summer about retaining talent, not adding for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. His list of restricted free agents was long and he managed to keep his big names in Winnipeg, while one — Josh Morrissey — is still waiting for a new deal.

Connor Hellebuyck, Adam Lowry, Marko Dano, Brandon Tanev, Tucker Poolman were among the names re-signed this summer. Jacob Trouba is also returning after an arbitrator awarded him a one-year, $5.5 million contract, but the question becomes how long will he stay?

Helping Cheveldayoff in re-signing some of his stars was the trade of Joel Armia and Steve Mason to the Montreal Canadiens. There’s still $10 million of cap space remaining with Morrissey the last big name to be re-signed. The next year will be an interesting one with Blake Wheeler set to become a UFA next summer, Patrik Laine eligible for an extension as an RFA and whatever the future holds for Trouba.

More to do? As mentioned, Morrissey’s the final big name left unsigned, but like their division rivals in Nashville, it’ll be a familiar roster on the ice in October — one that didn’t require much change given how strong it is. Cheveldayoff would certainly like to gain some clarity on Trouba’s future at some point this season to determine a path to either keep him in the fold or flip him for something that could either help them for a Cup run this coming spring or for the 2019-20 season.

Where they stand? There’s no reason to believe they won’t again be challenging to represent the West in the Cup Final. The roster is stacked and Hellebuyck took huge strides last season in showing he’s a true No. 1 in the NHL. As long as they remain healthy, it should be another successful season in the ‘Peg.

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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.

Tough night for Blackhawks in playoff race

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Even though the Western Conference Wild Card race is a jumbled mess where nobody seems determined to want to secure the two spots, and even though the Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past month, they still have very little margin for error the rest of the way.

That is the punishment for a terrible start to the season and the challenge that is trying to gain all of that ground back in the second half. No matter how well you play in the second half, a bad first half can make it all irrelevant.

That is why Friday was such a tough night for the Blackhawks.

First, they had a head-to-head meeting with the Colorado Avalanche, one of the teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in your classic four-point game in the standings. A regulation win either way would be massive for whatever team ended up getting it, and in this case it turned out to be the Avalanche who came away with a 5-3 win in what was a back-and-forth game.

J.T. Compher‘s goal with just under six minutes to play went in the books as the game-winner for the Avalanche while Carl Soderberg put the game away with his second goal of the game (and 21st of the season) with an empty net goal while the Avalanche were killing off a 6-on-4 disadvantage in the final minutes of regulation.

That leaves now leaves the Avalanche two points ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings while Colorado still has a game in hand.

As if that was not bad enough for the Blackhawks, while they were losing to Colorado the Minnesota Wild were picking two important points against the Detroit Red Wings to move back into the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, sitting one point ahead of the Avalanche and three points ahead of the Blackhawks.

With all of that in the books on Friday night, here are where things stand for the Blackhawks…

They are obviously not out of it by any means because, well, you can see standings and what the current field looks like, but that is not an ideal spot to be in.

The Blackhawks have done well to try and salvage their season and get back into the race, thanks in large part to an incredible run by Patrick Kane (who extended his point streak to 20 games on Friday) and some great play by Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome (all of whom also contributed to the offense on Friday), but there are a lot of signs that it is not really a sustainable run and that this team still has a lot of holes.

Elsewhere in this race, this was a huge night for the Avalanche who have now won three in a row and four out of their past five. Their season started to spiral away from them after a white-hot start and it is a near miracle they are still this close to a playoff spot considering they only went 8-17-6 between Dec. 1 and Feb. 12.

The Wild, meanwhile, have lost their captain Mikko Koivu to injury for the rest of the season, have made two trades involving veteran players that have almost certainly made them worse in the short-term, and have only won three of their past 12 games and are still currently in a playoff position.

The Western Conference Wild Card race, folks. It is … something.

Related: Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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.

Strong debut for Duchene as Blue Jackets dominate Senators

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On Friday morning Matt Duchene took a short walk down the hall from the home locker room in Ottawa, leaving behind the remnants of the Senators roster, and joined his new team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the visiting locker room to prepare to be in the lineup later in the day.

For the Blue Jackets, it was a sign that they are trying to push all of their chips to the center of the table and attempt to go all in with what they have this season, perhaps trying to take advantage of what little time they have left with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky before they hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

For the Senators, it was a continuation of their scorched earth rebuild that is only likely to continue in the coming days with the inevitable trades of Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel.

On Friday night, both teams played as one might expect given all of the circumstances as the Blue Jackets rolled to a 3-0 win and, for the time being, returned back to a playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

It was not really a competitive game, either, as the Blue Jackets doubled up the Senators on the shot chart, scored a shorthanded goal, and just completely dominated a young, overmatched lineup.

The Senators, who have already scratched Stone and Dzingel for precautionary reasons in an effort to protect their most valuable trade assets, have been stripped of almost all of their most dangerous offensive weapons over the past year and are a shell of the team that was in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final not even two full years ago. The result in the short-term has been a skeleton roster that has been shutout twice over the past 24 hours and has been outscored by a 7-0 margin during those two games.

Overall it was a successful debut for Duchene with his new team, even if it did not result in him recording a point on the stat sheet.

He spent the night playing on the team’s top line alongside Panarin and Cam Atkinson, while his 19:12 of ice-time was third among Blue Jackets’ forwards. He recorded five total shot attempts, three of which were on goal, while Blue Jackets also held a commanding 16-8 shot attempt advantage and a 12-4 scoring chance advantage when Duchene was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

Next up for the Blue Jackets will be Duchene’s home debut on Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks. He seems ready for what is ahead of him, telling Brian Hedger of the Columbus-Dispatch on Friday that the Cannon used to celebrate Blue Jackets’ goals “scares the sh*t out of me every time.”

Related: Blue Jackets power up for playoffs by adding Matt Duchene

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.

Penguins ready to enjoy Stadium Series, but focus is on two points

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

PHILADELPHIA — For a number of the Penguins, they can claim “outdoor game veteran” status. Twelve of them have played in at least one Winter Classic or Stadium Series game, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way with four experiences outside.

But Saturday’s Stadium Series meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers will be a business trip for the Penguins, as is most outdoor games for the road team. There are fewer family members around and not as big of a demand for tickets as it was two years ago when these teams played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. 

The Penguins’ can’t be too concerned with the pomp and circumstance that comes with being involved in an outdoor game. There are two big points on the line as they find themselves tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets on 71 points and relegated to the second Eastern Conference wild card spot due to a tiebreaker.

“We have to approach it the same way we approach every game right now,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who’s played in two outdoor games. “We have 21 games left. Every one of them are really important.”

“This team especially, they’ve had plenty of big games in their time,” said forward Nick Bjugstad, who will be an outdoor game first-timer on Saturday. “You can’t just really look at it as such a big spectacle. Obviously, enjoy the moment, enjoy being lucky enough to be able to play an outdoor game in front of all these people, but at the same time it’s just the same mentality of every game, and the same focus that you should approach. The adrenaline will be going pretty good with all these fans, especially in Philly. I’m sure they’ll be nice and rowdy for us. It’ll be pretty fun.”

After a 4-0 trouncing by the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at home, the Penguins are eager to get back out there and erase the memory of that defeat. The loss put them at 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and flirting with the notion of a playoff-less spring for the first time since the 2005-06 season, Crosby’s rookie year.

The Penguins are aware of their current situation in the standings and head coach Mike Sullivan sees it as an opportunity for his team to embrace. The players certainly understand every game is a chance to clean up the finer details, which could help them in the consistency department going forward.

“We just have to find ourselves. Last game was not our best and we all know it,” said Patric Hornqvist. “I think this is a great opportunity for us to actually have some fun and embrace this atmosphere. [If we] make sure we do the little things right we’re going to come out on the right side.”

MORE 2019 STADIUM SERIES:
Why Scott Gordon chose Elliott over Hart for Stadium Series start
Rain could be an issue for Penguins-Flyers Stadium Series game
Scott Hartnell Q&A

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on-site in Philadelphia alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and Jeremy Roenick.

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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.

Why Scott Gordon chose Elliott over Hart for Stadium Series start

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

PHILADELPHIA — Through Scott Gordon’s four-minute explanation as to why Brian Elliott will start Saturday’s Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins over Carter Hart you could feel how tough of a decision it was for him.

Having coached Hart at AHL Lehigh Valley until both were promoted on the same day back in December following the firing of Dave Hakstol, Gordon has seen Hart’s growth as a professional on two levels now. 

Since the recall of Hart and “interim” tag put on Gordon, the Flyers have taken 35 out of a possible 60 points to put themselves just in a bit of a race for an Eastern Conference wild card spot. Those postseason hopes, however, took a big hit this week with back-to-back losses to Tampa Bay and Montreal this week, leaving them seven points back with 21 games to go.

Hart had to be pulled in both games with Elliott impressing the head coach in relief.

“The hard part [is] if I had to go with my heart, 100 percent, the easy decision is to pick Carter,” Gordon said Friday after the Flyers’ practice at Lincoln Financial Field. “I think the world of him. I’ve been so impressed with how he’s been able to come up here and play, and it really bothered me to have to make the final decision as to not playing him. Two weeks ago it was looking like that was going to be the decision.”

Hart was disappointed, but understood Gordon’s choice of playing Elliott.

“For sure, you want to play. You want to play every game,” Hart said. “Right now, even though it’s an outdoor game, it’s a crucial two points for us. The last two games I haven’t been at my best and Brian’s done a good job coming in relief both times. It is what it is, you can’t control that. What you can control is how you respond to it. 

“It’s disappointing, but you’ve got to approach it the right way and can’t let it set you back. You’ve just got to come back ready to work and we’ve got a lot of hockey coming up and that’s where the focus is at.”

When Gordon broke the news to Hart on Friday, he made sure to emphasize just how valuable the 20-year-old netminder has been to the Flyers. He was called up during a rough time in the season and carrying the expectations that he was the franchise’s “goalie of the future.” He’s exceeded those expectations so far and has played himself into the Calder Trophy conversation while helping the team make a late-season charge at the playoffs.

Gordon wanted to choose Hart as Saturday’s starter, but approached the decision as if it were any other regular season game. If any of his goalies were pulled two games in a row he was going to switch it up for that third game. Outdoor game or not, he was making his choice in the best interest of the team at the moment.

“This game on Saturday, we’re looking at Moose [Elliott] the way he played the last two games, he’s played really well, and if he’s able to get us a win [Saturday], when it’s all said and done it’s about what’s going to get us into the playoffs and that would be the first step,” Gordon said. “Does he give us the best chance? Based on performance right now, yeah. If we base it on performance from a week ago or last Sunday, we’re probably talking about Carter. Right now, given the way it’s gone, I just felt like I wanted to give our team the best chance for Saturday to win.”

(You could ponder the thought that this is a way for the Flyers to showcase a healthy Elliott before Monday’s NHL trade deadline.)

Elliott found out he was starting just before the Flyers took to the ice late Friday afternoon. He had missed two months due to a lower-body injury and worked himself back, which included a brief AHL stint.

After how the last two games went, the 33-year-old Elliott wasn’t sure what Gordon’s decision would ultimately be. He would have been happy just to play a backup role and sit on the bench. Now he’ll be between the pipes in front of 70,000 fans under the lights.

“Going back and getting a chance to play these last two games and feeling good about it and feeling good about my game, I know it was a tough decision to make,” Elliott said. “[Hart] was a big part of getting this team to this situation that we’re in and chasing a playoff spot right now. It’s a tough decision. I don’t envy that has to make it.

“For me, you just have to put all those things to the side and try to enjoy the moment and go out there and try to be the best for the guys in front of you.”

MORE 2019 STADIUM SERIES:
Penguins ready to enjoy Stadium Series, but focus is on two points
Rain could be an issue for Penguins-Flyers Stadium Series game
Scott Hartnell Q&A

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on-site in Philadelphia alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and Jeremy Roenick.

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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.