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Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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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 Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

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 Morning Skate: Kotkaniemi has surgery; Avs aren’t one-line team

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

• Hilary Knight wants to help iron out the logistics of a women’s hockey league. “I’ve been able to work with some great partners and I’m extremely grateful for that, but I want that opportunity for the next girl or the next young woman that’s graduating college or the next woman that’s going to play at the professional level.” (Forbes)

• ESPN looks back at Dominik Hasek’s 70-save performance in a shutout win over the New Jersey Devils. “You’d probably have to put him on top of the greatest goalies,” Martin Brodeur said. “For the great players, the more you see of them, the more you get them. Like with [Wayne] Gretzky, I got him, but I played more against Mario Lemieux. And I was able to see the effect that he had. Dominik is in the same vein.” (ESPN)

• The Hockey News argues that the NHL shouldn’t change the playoff format. (The Hockey News)

• Jack Todd argues that there’s reason to be optimistic heading into next season if you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. (Montreal Gazette)

• How did the New Jersey Devils defensemen perform based on quality of competition this season? (All About the Jersey)

• Find out how the Tampa Bay Lightning went from winning 62 games in the regular season to none in the playoffs. (SB Nation)

• Hockey fans keep suggesting that the Colorado Avalanche are a one-line team, but they’re deeper than you might realize. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Blues are now the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Travis Yost argues that the Buffalo Sabres should definitely extend Evan Rodrigues. (Buffalo News)

Jaccob Slavin is the most important Carolina Hurricane. (Cardiac Cane)

• Why has home-ice advantage meant so much to Carolina and Washington in their series? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The second-round series between the Stars and Blues will feature two great goalies. (NHL)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights compare Eakin major to infamous call against Saints

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In case you’re wondering: yes, the Vegas Golden Knights are very unhappy about Cody Eakin receiving a game misconduct and five-minute major for cross-checking Joe Pavelski, which opened the door for the San Jose Sharks scoring an staggering four goals on the ensuing power play.

The Sharks would eventually fight back from a 3-0 deficit with that power play, although they needed OT to beat the Golden Knights 5-4, which means the Sharks won the series 4-3.

Here’s the hit, which left Pavelski bleeding, and needing plenty of help to leave the ice surface. (Pavelski didn’t return, and the extent of his injuries remains unknown.)

Whether you believe that was the right call or not, it absolutely swung the game, at least for a time. The Golden Knights were up 3-0, and it seemed like they could weather most things … but a power play that wouldn’t end even if the Sharks scored multiple goals? That wasn’t most things.

Credit the Golden Knights for playing well after the shock of that, even scoring a goal to send Game 7 to overtime, but that doesn’t mean they put that call aside.

The most colorful quotes probably come from Jonathan Marchessault, the player who scored the goal to send the game to overtime, and who had a strong Game 7 overall.

“It’s the same thing as that football game, the Saints, it changes the whole outcome,” Marchessault said, via Sin Bin Vegas’ transcription. “The refs just got involved in the game and now our summer starts. Now five [expletive] months until game one.”

Marchessault is referencing the missed pass interference call from the Saints – Rams NFC title game back in January, which drew an admission of a mistake from the NFL.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski has more from Marchessault, though a warning: Marchessault’s comments apparently rank as NSFW and not very family-friendly.

It seems like Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant kept it together a bit more, or at least used more PG-friendly language.

“Last season we lost in the Stanley Cup Final, and that was hard,” Gallant said, according to Jesse Granger of the Athletic. “But tonight, this is worse.”

No doubt, officials will be scrutinized for that call. The NHL might even feel compelled to tweak the way calls are made because of it. That much, we’ll need to wait and see.

Yet, there are some questions from Vegas’ end. Yes, it’s difficult to kill five minutes of power play, especially against a Sharks team that a) is extremely dangerous, b) was furious after seeing Joe Pavelski hurt, c) had already failed on four power plays, and d) smelled blood with its season on the line. Still, should Gallant had called a timeout to try to ease some of the momentum, and calm things down? Could Marc-Andre Fleury have stopped at least one of those four goals? As the anger subsides, the Golden Knights should grapple with some of those questions, even if they leave a bitter taste.

Much like the Rams advancing to the Super Bowl, the Sharks eliminated the Golden Knights and will face the Avalanche in Round 2, whether that finish seems unfair or not. The Golden Knights will have to face bitter months in trying to avenge this loss.

And, true, they might also lose some money if the league decides to fine them for criticizing the officiating.

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 Playoff Buzzer: Bruins, Sharks in Game 7 heaven after clinching respective Round 1 series

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  • The Toronto Maple Leafs must hate facing the Boston Bruins in Round 1. They’re now 0-for-3 in attempts to beat them in the opening series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after the Bruins beat them 5-1 in Game 7
  • 3-1 down in the series. 3-0 down in the third period of Game 7. And somehow, some way, the San Jose Sharks are off to the second round

Bruins 5, Leafs 1 (BOS wins 4-3)

It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as recent Game 7s between these two clubs, but the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead, survived an onslaught in the second period and then found three more in the third as Mike Babcock failed to adjust in time. The Leafs are now 8-12 under Babcock in the playoffs over the past three seasons and are out of the playoffs after spending big money on John Tavares and bolstering their back end to get Jake Muzzin prior to the trade deadline. All for naught, and a lot of questions that need to be answered in TO.

Sharks 5, Golden Knights 4 [OT] (SJS wins 4-3)

How do you explain this one? Down 3-0 in the third period, the San Jose Sharks are sent a gift from the heavens in the form of a controversial five-minute major assessed to Cody Eakin. Then this happened:

PHT’s James O’Brien has the rest in the link above.

Three stars

1. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks

Four points in a span of four minutes and change, including the go-ahead goal to cap off one of the greatest comebacks in hockey history (and sports, too).

Labanc assisted on the three goals that led to a tied game, all on the power play after Eakin’s major. Quite the turnaround for Labanc, who had one goal coming into Game 7.

Oh, and he set one record and matched another:

2. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

Couture sparked the comeback, scoring seven seconds into Eakin’s major.

“The message was that’s one, let’s go,” Couture said after the game.

After Tomas Hertl scored his sixth of the series to pull San Jose to 3-2, Couture joined him with his sixth to tie the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Rask had the kitchen thrown at him in the second period but stopped 12 of 13 in the frame to preserve a 2-1 lead. That effort (along with his 12 first-period saves) seemed to propel the Bruins in the third. Boston found three more goals, including two into an empty net and shut down the Leafs who were out of options and out of ideas to solve Rask.

Unlikely star of the night

Barclay Goodrow, San Jose Sharks

Goodrow barely played in regulation, going minus-3 and then he was stapled to the bench in the overtime period.

“Legs were fresh,” Goodrow joked following the game.

Fresh enough that he made sure the Sharks moved onto Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two playoff goals for Goodrow. Two game-winners.

Highlights of the night

Goodrow’s series clincher in OT:

Sometimes big goals come from lower down the lineup. This one was massive:

Factoids of the night

Bizarre video of the night

Wednesday’s game

Game 7: Hurricanes at Capitals (Series tied 3-3), 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)


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

Sharks eliminate Golden Knights in unforgettable Game 7

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If someone ever snickered at you for claiming that anything can happen in the hockey playoffs, merely direct them to Game 7 of the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks.

At the tailend of a thrilling overtime period (did these two teams really just play a double-OT Game 6?), Barclay Goodrow became the unlikely series-clincher in one of the least likely Game 7 comebacks you’ll ever see. The Sharks advance to Round 2 and a matchup against the Colorado Avalanche after beating the Golden Knights 5-4 in OT. San Jose wins the series 4-3.

But they had to do that after falling behind 3-1 in the series, and carving their way out of a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. It’s the sort of game hockey lovers will pour over for ages, and fans of both teams are unlikely to forget.

All things considered, that unlikely Goodrow goal seems fitting.

How we got to overtime, against all odds

On the strength of great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, a Cody Eakin goal that required a review for a high-stick, and a groaner of a 3-0 goal for Max Pacioretty, it sure looked like the Golden Knights were going to skate away with Game 7. Then Eakin became a much bigger story than the fellow who scored what seemed, at the time, like a big goal.

In a scary moment, Eakin hit Joe Pavelski, who hit the ice in an extremely scary way. Fair or not, the officials ejected Eakin from Game 7, whistling him for a game-changing major penalty.

The Sharks went on to score an absurd four goals on the power play, flipping a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 Sharks lead. With less than seven minutes remaining in the third period, the Golden Knights had to come to grips with the first lead change of this series.

The Golden Knights failed to score on a power-play opportunity of their own, but Jonathan Marchessault delivered after Vegas showed serious resiliency in trying to come back, and a stunning Game 7 went to overtime.

And the rest is … well, NHL history, and the Sharks will turn to a Round 2 series against the Avalanche. Credit the Golden Knights for forcing this contest to OT, but they couldn’t win it, and now their fans get a taste of something other hockey fans – particularly those of the Sharks – know all too well: the feeling of shock, and also, feeling like they were on the wrong end of the refs’ whistles.

What a game, what a comeback, and what a series.

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.