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Testing Letestu: What each PTO is up against heading into training camps

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In most cases, an NHL team hands out a PTO to a player for a reason: their services aren’t in very high demand.

Usually, that’s because said player doesn’t really bring a ton to the table. Sometimes the deficit is more on the evaluators, though, as some good players have had to deal with reluctant buyers. Maybe a veteran isn’t done yet. Perhaps a younger player simply didn’t receive fair opportunities. After all, the Golden Knights showed that one team’s player who didn’t need to be protected could turn into another team’s key, difference-making performers.

Heading into training camps this time around, there could be some diamonds in the rough … or at least players who are good enough to help a team in a depth role. Let’s take a look at PTO situations to gauge who has a chance, who should get a look even if they fall short, and so on.

Mark Letestu (pictured), Florida Panthers

Just about every year, there is a player who’s surprisingly needing to accept a PTO. Letestu is that candidate this time around.

Letestu’s a versatile player who can score a bit, keep his head above water in tough assignments, and win faceoffs at a nice clip. He might not be perfect, but it’s hard to imagine him not making sense as, at worst, a 13th forward somewhere.

One cannot help but wonder if Florida might struggle to find a spot for him, though. Cap Friendly lists 15 forwards, and while I’d personally take Letestu instead of Micheal Haley and Troy Brouwer without flinching, those guys have contracts. Owen Tippett could also barge into the argument and take a spot as well.

Again, Letestu should be in the NHL in 2018-19, it just might not be with Florida.

Emerson Etem, Los Angeles Kings

If nothing else, Los Angeles could use Etem’s speed. Etem also ranks as a feel-good story, as landing a tryout with the Kings brings back memories of the California native drawing cheers in L.A. during the 2010 NHL Draft.

Good times:

Despite the Kings’ limited depth talent, there are quite a few obstacles in the way of Etem landing a legitimate spot. If it comes down to Etem or, say, Gabriel Vilardi, the smart money is on Vilardi. Maybe he’d beat out a lower-end forward if all things are equal, but those players have guaranteed contracts. Los Angeles’ cap crunch – The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman notes that the Kings may only carry 13 instead of 14 forwards – doesn’t necessarily help Etem, even if he’d likely come at a low cost.

Perhaps a two-way contract would work for Etem and the Kings if he impresses during his PTO? Etem spent last season between the AHL and Swiss league, anyway, so it might not be such a bad deal. From the Kings’ perspective, they’d have an experienced player who they can call up

Jeff Glass (unofficial), Calgary Flames

Let’s group the feel-good stories together.

At age 32, Jeff Glass finally got a chance to play in the NHL, and ran with that opportunity early on. Now he gets to try out for the team he grew up rooting for, as Sportsnet’s Eric Francis notes, although the Flames haven’t announced the PTO officially yet.

“When I was a kid my dad would get tickets from work once or twice a year so I have fond memories of watching them play at the Saddledome,” Glass said, via Francis. “I grew up idolizing Trevor Kidd. Him and Rick Tabaracci were the Flames goalies when I was young and I got to go to his goalie schools here in town. Kidd was the man. He had the cool gear – I loved everything about him.

“It’s kind of cool wearing the Flames jersey. What a small world.”

The Flames might be bringing Glass in mainly because they’ll want extra goalies available considering their preseason trip to China. He’ll need to defy the odds to hurdle the Flames collection of young backup hopefuls: Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons. At least he’s used to being a long shot.

Jason Garrison and Scottie Upshall, Edmonton Oilers

With Andrej Sekera out for the season, it makes some sense for the Oilers to give Garrison a look, although I’d be much more interested in KHL-bound Cody Franson.

Garrison’s already battling with depth defensemen Jakub Jerabek and Kevin Gravel, and don’t count out Evan Bouchard. Garrison’s big shot could be useful on the power play – that might be his primary theoretical use at this point in his career, as he’s a far cry from the nice player he once was – so Bouchard’s offensive skills could make Garrison that much more redundant.

The Oilers … march to the beat of their own drum (yeah, let’s put it that way) when it comes to assessing talent, but even Edmonton will expect better from Garrison than what he did in an admittedly small sample of eight games with Vegas:

Aside from quibbling about who they’re taking a look at, you can’t really fault Edmonton for checking.

You also couldn’t fault Garrison for picking fellow PTO Scottie Upshall’s brain about acing a tryout. After all, as Connor McDavid noted, the dude knows how to earn a spot even if he can’t seem to get a traditional contract offer.

Personally, Upshall seems like a more appealing addition than Garrison. Upshall seems reasonably useful in a fourth-line capacity, even when taking on far from glamorous assignments (St. Louis had him start 30.8-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and a ludicrously low 22.3-percent in 2016-17). He’s generally regarded as a pretty solid skater.

It wouldn’t be shocking if it came down to Upshall or Kailer Yamamoto, a player who almost feels like the exact opposite of Upshall: he’s an exceedingly young, offense-leaning, small-ish forward who didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal yet. Upshall vs. Yamamoto/other depth forwards should be interesting to watch, and perhaps an opposing team might scoop up the veteran if Upshall doesn’t make the cut?

Simon Despres, Montreal Canadiens

Somewhat like Etem, Despres is a still-young, former late-first-rounder now trying to claw back into the league.

The 26-year-old defenseman currently stands as a sad “What if?” question, as the concussion he suffered from a Tyson Barrie hit set Despres’ career back:

Can he earn a spot on a sputtering Montreal team? Well, the roster is loaded with defensemen – even if it’s quantity over quality – so that is a pretty tall task. The Habs love hoarding former first-rounders, though, so a two-way contract might not be the worst option for both sides. Training camp/preseason games might not provide sufficient opportunities for Despres to show that he can still be viable at the NHL level.

Mark Fayne and Marcel Noebels, Boston Bruins

Fayne has 389 regular-season games of NHL experience, showing promise at times during his Devils days. Still, he bombed with Edmonton, to the point that his last NHL reps came in 2016-17, when he only suited up for four games. His AHL numbers aren’t going to generate much demand.

Noebels is a 26-year-old forward who hasn’t appeared in an NHL game yet, spending the last few years in Germany playing for the Berlin Polar Bears. He did go in the fourth round (118th overall by Philly) in 2011, for what that’s worth.

Much like the Flames, the Bruins are playing exhibition games in China, so my guess is that is the main reason why Fayne and Noebels received PTOs.

***

Of all the players above, I’d wager that Letestu is most capable of making a Lee Stempniak/P.A. Parenteau-type impact as a PTO who accomplishes something beyond the “replacement level.”

He doesn’t distinguish himself from the field as far as opportunities go, however, as it’s a packed field of forwards in Florida.

Who do you think will make the cut, if anyone?

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.

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Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.

Lamoriello, Trotz orchestrate Islanders’ big turnaround

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NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz say they didn’t know exactly what to expect from the New York Islanders this season.

There were plenty of questions after the Islanders gave up 293 goals – the most in the NHL since 2006-07 – while missing the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 years. There was uncertainty on offense when star center John Tavares left in free agency for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

”There were a lot of unknowns. We had no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello said. ”Whatever expectations there were, there were really none one way or another.”

The answers have come in the form of a stunning one-year turnaround that has the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. New York gave up a league-low 191 goals, charged to second place in the Metropolitan Division and just swept the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Knowing some had picked them to miss the playoff again, players just shrug it off.

”That’s kind of been a little bit of the story line here and we’re used to it,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as team captain. ”That’s just the way it’s been, not just this year, it’s kind of always been that way. This year we’ve really taken it on and run with it.”

Both Lamoriello and Trotz say they knew they were going to give up fewer goals with a better defensive approach.

”We wanted to play a certain way,” Trotz said. ”We knew we could fix the goals against, that’s commitment and that’s work ethic, detail and structure.”

The 76-year-old Lamoriello, whose long career includes building the New Jersey Devils into an NHL power a generation ago, vowed to bring a culture change to the Islanders when he took over as the president of hockey operations last May. A few weeks later, he fired general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight.

Trotz was hired as coach in June, days after he led Washington to its first Stanley Cup championship and then abruptly resigned in a contract dispute. The hiring was celebrated by the Islanders’ rabid fan base, which has seen just one postseason series win since 1993 – a far cry from the glory days of winning four championships in a row.

After losing Tavares, Lamoriello went about filling the roster with players with winning experience. Veterans like Leo Komarov, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 35, were brought in to help the development of youngsters like Anthony Beauvilier. And 27-year-old Tom Kuhnhackl, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, was also a solid addition.

”We were looking for good people, the people who have won,” Trotz said. ”That’s so important for our growth as an organization and a group coming in. We looked for character people and Lou did a great job.”

The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s swarming, defense-first system.

”It’s helped us all along,” said forward Josh Bailey, now the longest-tenured Islander in his 11th season with the team. ”It’s a big part of our identity and I think the more results we’ve seen as the season went on, the more belief (it fostered) in one another and what we were doing, and trust in our staff and everyone.”

A big question in the offseason centered on goaltending after Robin Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner was with Buffalo the previous season and left a game down the stretch because of a panic attack and was subsequently treated for alcohol and drug addiction and also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life when he joined the Islanders, and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and five shutouts while Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and six shutouts. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner started all four games in the series against the Penguins, limiting them to six goals on 136 shots, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

The focus on defense has meant playing with more discipline. And while a few players enjoyed boosts in their offensive production, it meant reductions for others, including Mathew Barzal, Lee, Bailey and Jordan Eberle. The sacrifices have resulted in more overall success.

”We play as a team,” Trotz said. ”I think everybody has given up a part of themselves to be a part of something greater.”

The coach points to a road trip in December that became a springboard for the rest of the season. They had lost five of the previous nine after the Thanksgiving weekend, and then won three of four, shutting down high-scoring lines for Colorado and Dallas.

”I think from that point we really trusted our game,” Trotz said. ”We were sort of in-between a little bit and that sort of galvanized the group.”

In the second game after Christmas, the Islanders went to Toronto and shut out the Maple Leafs 5-0 in their first game playing against Tavares. It was part of a stretch in which the Islanders went 16-2-3 from Dec. 8 to Feb. 2 to jump to the top of the division.

”I came into this team and talked to the guys straight in the summer and a lot of the guys said ‘We’re going to go far,”’ Lehner said. ”That just grew during the season when the system started to jell and we started playing together.”

They Islanders say they’re not simply satisfied with just getting to the second round, where they will face either Carolina or Trotz’s former team, the Capitals.

”We’re nowhere near where we want to be at,” Bailey said. ”You have to win four (series) to win it all.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

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