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It’s Edmonton Oilers day at PHT

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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 Edmonton Oilers.

2017-18

36-40-6, 78 pts. (6th in Pacific Division, 12th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Tobias Rieder
Kyle Brodziak
Mikko Koskinen
Kevin Gravel

OUT:

Anton Slepyshev
Iiro Pakarinen
Eric Gryba
Yohann Auvitu
Laurent Brossoit

RE-SIGNED:

Ty Rattie
Ryan Strome
Drake Caggiula
Matt Benning

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough: Darnell Nurse | Three questions]

No team had quite the optimistic forecast for this past season quite like the Edmonton Oilers did.

And no team failed quite as hard as the Oilers did as they shouldered those lofty expectations.

Coming off a season where they took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games in the second round on the back of stellar playing from Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot, nearly everyone figured the Oilers had finally rid themselves of the disappointment that had plagued them for years.

McJesus had led the Edmontonians out of the darkness and into the promised land.

By Christmas this past year, however, things got turned around. The question went from how far they would go in the playoffs to if they’d make the playoffs at all. Much sooner than anyone predicted, the answer came as an emphatic ‘no.’

The team with arguably the best player on earth watched their miserable season come to a merciful end long before the final date on the regular-season calendar.

The Oilers came into the season perhaps the league’s most promising hockey club and left it as its most disappointing.

And it was all made worse for fans in the upper half of Alberta as they watched Taylor Hall guide his New Jersey Devils to said promise land while picking up the Hart Trophy along the way.

One slap in the face after another.

A new year means a new beginning for the Oilers, although the additions of Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak probably aren’t going to inspire notions of the team improving over the offseason.

Darnell Nurse still remains and a restricted free agent, with reports suggesting he isn’t looking to sign long-term right now given how tight the Oilers are to the salary cap. Nurse took a nice step in the right direction this year on the backend, setting new career highs in goals, assists and, of course, points, as he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2016-17 season.

Statistically speaking, McDavid had a wonderful year, posting his best season as a pro after eclipsing the 40-goal mark for the first time and putting up a league-leading 108 points despite the team around him.

What McDavid needs most are consistent linemates.

Postmedia’s Michael Traikos summed it up well last week:

McDavid’s linemates last year ranged from rookies learning the ropes (Kailer Yamamoto and Ty Rattie) to centremen-turned-wingers (Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) to whatever warm bodies Edmonton had lying around. No combination seemed to last more than a month. Nothing clicked.

Find McDavid some solid linemates, and you’ll likely have three players who become the league’s most potent trio on the scoresheet.

The Oilers will usher in the new season with a lineup that won’t look much different, so that won’t be an easy fix.

They will still have an underperforming Milan Lucic (despite general manager Peter Chiarelli’s attempts to trade the overpaid power forward). They still have the same defense that contributed to allowing the fifth most goals against last year. And they still have the same offense, that without McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, would have a missing ad on the side of a milk carton.

McDavid is going to have to work with what he has. The Oilers don’t have the cap room to change that, it appears. Talbot is going to need a better showing than his .908 last season, his worst on record in terms of save percentage, and a season that saw his goals saved above average (GSAA) go from 23.59 to -1.37.

The good news is that a swath of Edmonton’s youngsters took a step forward last season. Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton’s third overall pick in 2016), Ty Rattie and Jujhar Khaira all progressed, as did the aforementioned Nurse, and Andrej Sekera will be fully healthy to start the season on the blue line.

The hope is that the kids will play bigger roles this year, and they just might.

Prospect Pool

Kailer Yamamoto, RW, 19, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Yamamoto could get a full-time gig with the Oilers this season and maybe he’s the guy that can gel with McDavid. Yamamoto put up another solid year in the Western Hockey League with 64 points in 40 games, a year shortened after playing nine games with the Oilers to start the season and his time with Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships, where he earned a bronze medal. Yamamoto is quick, likes to dish the puck and can also find the back of the net. One of McDavid or Draisaitl is going to inherit him.

Evan Bouchard, D, 18, London Knights (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick 

A smooth-skating defenseman that can play all three phases of the game, rush the puck and score? This sounds exactly like what the Oilers blue line could use, and that’s what they got when they drafted Bouchard out of the Ontario Hockey League this past June. Bouchard had 25 goals and 87 points in 67 games with the Knights last season and had five more points in four playoff games. There are rumblings that he might not be automatic to return to junior, but there’s also an argument to be made not to rush the kid to the Show.

Ethan Bear, D, 21, Bakersfield Condors (AHL) – 2015 fifth-round pick

Bear played in 37 games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. One part of that was due to injury, a concussion that hampered him and the Condors, who missed him in his absence. Bear put up six goals and 18 points last season as the Condor’s top defenseman and saw a lot of time on the blue line on the power play. The second part is that he got an 18-game stint with the Oilers at the end of the season and showed his worth with one goal and four points during that span. His prowess on the power play was also tapped into by the Oilers, who had him playing 1:50 per game with the man-advantage.


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

Bruins fan Matt Damon wowed by Stanley Cup

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When you think of Matt Damon’s connection to Boston, you’re most likely going to recall “Good Will Hunting,” and maybe make some bad jokes about apples and/or Ben Affleck. If forced to make a Boston sports connection, there’s likely the urge to compare him to Tom Brady, his occasional lookalike.*

Apparently Damon is also a Boston Bruins fan, or at least he came off as a one in the video above. If nothing else, he’s impressed by the sight of the Stanley Cup, which qualifies him as “human.” Damon was presented with the Stanley Cup while he was on hand for the Indy 500, which is airing on NBC (stream here).

There’s some good stuff as Damon explains that he was in Vancouver right after the town, um, handled the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win poorly; Damon said he was going to work, which is hilarious and adorable. There’s also some old-school Stanley Cup trivia in the video, so that should be fun to watch even if you’re not a Damon fan.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final takes place between the Bruins and St. Louis Blues at 8 p.m. ET on Monday on NBC. Click here for the full TV info.

* – Dangerous observation: Damon kinda sorta looks like Sidney Crosby from certain angles, doesn’t he? /ducks

OK, maybe that comparison is a stretch. But Damon’s looking a bit less like Brady these days, right?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better special teams?
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has the better defensemen?
• X-factors
• PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Marchand says left hand is ‘good’ heading into Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins winger Brad Marchand says his left hand is fine heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

He sat out Boston’s practice Sunday after being given a ”maintenance day” by coach Bruce Cassidy. But Marchand showed no visible signs of discomfort and didn’t wear any braces on his hand as he met with reporters.

”I just told Butchy I wanted a day off. I’ve had enough of practicing,” Marchand said with a smile when asked about his status for Game 1 on Monday night. ”I’m good.”

Cassidy echoed Marchand’s assessment, saying ”he’ll be ready to go.”

Marchand tweaked his hand during the Bruins’ intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday when he bumped into Connor Clifton in front of the net. Sunday was the first practice Marchand’s missed since the Bruins beat the Carolina Hurricanes on May 16 to advance to the Cup Final.

Marchand is Boston’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 18 points (seven goals and 11 assists). He had 100 points (36 goals and 64 assists) during the regular season.

He says that bumps and bruises are simply part of the game at this time of the season and is nothing he is getting worked up about.

”There’s always things that come in. Guys get hurt in practice and stuff like that,” Marchand said. ”But I think we’re feeling pretty good in the room. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. You play with what you have and you play as healthy or unhealthy as you are this time of year. At the end of the day there’s no excuses. . They have guys that are banged up, too.”

This will be the third Stanley Cup Final for Marchand. He was 22 years old in 2011 and in his second NHL season when Boston beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the franchise’s sixth championship. But he said the Bruins’ 2013 Cup loss to the Chicago Blackhawks sticks with him more.

”It was devastating,” Marchand said. ”It still hurts to this day. I probably look back more on the loss and what I would do differently, than the win. You lose something like this, you’re a lot closer with the hurt. It never leaves you. Hopefully we don’t feel that again.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “when, not if,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, like the ones they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

***

If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, then this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

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.

PHT Time Machine: Top 1970 Cup Final moments beyond the Orr goal

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Boston Bruins’ 1970 Stanley Cup Final win over the St. Louis Blues and some of the significant moments in that series that were NOT Bobby Orr’s game-winning goal.

It is not uncommon to see replays of Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup clinching goal around this time of year because it is one of the most well known plays in NHL history. It will no doubt be even relevant this season because the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins is a rematch of that series.

For the Blues, it was the third year in a row they qualified for the Stanley Cup Final by coming out of the NHL’s “expansion division” and the third year in a row they were swept by one of the league’s Original Six powers.

That series has become known almost entirely for Orr’s game-winning goal (his only goal of the series, by the way) but it was far from the only notable development, play, or performance in that matchup.

We are using our latest PHT Time Machine to look at some of the moments that history may have forgotten.

Blues goalie Jacques Plante was saved (literally) by his mask

Following a four-year retirement in the mid-1960s, Plante made his return to the NHL at the start of the 1968-69 season as a member of the second-year Blues franchise, and alongside fellow future Hall of Famer Glenn Hall won the Vezina Trophy (which was at the time awarded to the goalies on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league) and helped lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues relied on three goalies during the 1969-70 season (Ernie Wakely also saw significant playing time as Hall had retired after the 1968-69 season only to come out of retirement during the season) and entered the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins with Plante in net.

But mid-way through the second period disaster struck when Phil Esposito deflected a Fred Stansfield slap shot, striking Plante squarely in the forehead and knocking him unconscious. He would spend several days in the hospital.

The recap and description of the play (this from the May 5, 1970 Edmonton Journal) is jarring.

This is the play.

Plante would never play another minute in the series, and it is impossible to wonder what would have happened in the series had he not been injured. He only played five games in the playoffs that year for the Blues, finishing with a 4-1 record and an almost unheard of (for the time) .936 save percentage.

The duo of Hall and Wakely finished with a 4-7 record (with all four wins belonging to Hall) and a sub-.900 save percentage in the playoffs, while both struggled in the series against the Bruins.

Wakely, who dressed as the backup at the start of the series, replaced Plante in Game 1 and surrendered four goals before giving up six in the team’s Game 2 loss. He was replaced by Hall for Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis, and while he fared marginally better he was no match for the Bruins’ relentless offensive onslaught.

Plante’s mask saving his life and from further injury came just a decade after he popularized the use of the goalie mask and helped to make a staple of NHL equipment.

This Was The Bruins’ Return To Relevance

Throughout much of the 1960s the Bruins were the laughing stock of the NHL’s original six.

Between the 1959-60 and 1966-67 seasons the Bruins won just 149 games, and were one of just two teams that had failed to win at least 230 during that stretch (the Rangers won 177). They never made the playoffs during that stretch, only twice finished out of last place, and never finished higher than fifth.

But in starting in 1966 things started to change for the Bruins.

Orr made his debut as an 18-year-old during the 1966-67 season and immediately started to transform the team, the league, and even the way the game was played, forever altering what we could expect from defenders with the puck.

One year later they made one of the most significant trades in franchise history when they dealt Pit Martin, Jack Norris, and Gilles Marotte to the Chicago Blackhawks for Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Stanfield. It was a deal that turned out to be laughably one-sided in the Bruins’ favor and helped build the foundation of a team that would not only finally return to the playoffs after an eight-year drought, but also win two Stanley Cups between 1970 and 1972.

Esposito and Hodge were all-star level players on those Stanley Cup winning teams, while Stanfield proved to be an outstanding complementary star that was a virtual lock for at least 25 goals and 70 points every year he played in Boston.

This probably wasn’t the best of the early-mid 1970’s Bruins teams, but it will always be a significant one for snapping what had been a 29-year championship drought with a legendary postseason performance that included a 10-game winning streak. After winning Games 5 and 6 in Round 1 against the New York Rangers, the Bruins then swept the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2 before sweeping the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.

The series itself wasn’t really all that competitive, either. While the Blues had been swept in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the previous two seasons against the Montreal Canadiens dynasty they still managed to hold their own in each series, losing several games by just a single goal.

This series was not that. The first three games were all blowouts in the Bruins’ favor, while the Bruins held a commanding edge on the shot chart in every game and ended up outscoring them by a 20-7 margin.

John Buyck was the feel good story and offensive star for Bruins

There is always that one veteran player on every championship team that has been around forever, experienced defeat, and never had their chance to lift the Stanley Cup. They become the sympathetic figure for the postseason and the player that “just deserves it because it is their time.”

For the 1969-70 Bruins, that player was John Buyck.

Buyck had been a member of the Bruins since the start of the 1957-58 season and was a rock for the team every year. And every year the Bruins just kept losing. Finally, at the age of 34, the Bruins broke through and got him a championship and few players on the team played a bigger role in that win.

Buyck finished the series with six goals, including a Game 1 hat trick that helped the Bruins set the tone for the series.

He scored at least one goal in every game in the series, while his Game 4 goal tied the game, 3-3, late in the third period and helped set the stage for Orr’s winner.

It was a big moment for the entire organization as almost no one on the team had ever experienced a championship season.

That core would go on to win another Stanley Cup during the 1971-72 season. The Bruins would have to wait until the 2010-11 team to win another one after that.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has the better special teams?
• PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
• Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.