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Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators

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The Ottawa Senators were one goal away.

One goal. One shot. One bounce. One lucky break. Any of those would have worked.

That was it. That was all they needed to have a chance to pull off what seemed to be, at the time, the impossible. After being a mostly middle-of-the-road team for the previous decade, the Senators came out of nowhere during the 2016-17 postseason with first-year head coach Guy Boucher and trapped their way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Given where the team was coming from, it was a stunning, shocking run and it would have been impossible for them to get any closer to the Stanley Cup Final without actually getting there, losing a double overtime Game 7, on the road, to the defending — and eventual — champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

For two months, Senators fans were able to experience something incredible, unexpected, and wonderful.

Unfortunately for them, it also may have been the worst possible thing that could have happened for the long-term outlook of the team.

That playoff run and everything that has happened since should be yet another cautionary tale for every team in the league to not overreact to the success or failures of a single playoff run.

Just one year later, the management team has decided to kick off a massive rebuilding project that was officially accelerated on Thursday with trade of franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson for a return that could only be described as — in the official words of the Senators’ own PR arm — “six assets.”

[Related: Erik Karlsson traded to Sharks as roster teardown continues]

It seems outrageous to say because it is literally the primary objective of every team in sports, but sometimes winning can be costly. Because half of the league ends up making the playoffs every season, the success or failure of those teams — and the players within them — is mostly measured strictly by what they do once they get to the playoffs. This mindset can have devastating results for teams that don’t really know what they have — or what they are doing — because they get fooled by something that happened over one or two months and may not be an accurate representation of their team.

Sometimes playoff success, or failure, is a big stupid mirage.

On the same day the Senators traded the best player they have ever had for pennies on the dollar, the Dallas Stars were signing Tyler Seguin to a massive eight-year contract extension, giving him a significant raise from his current contract that has been one of the biggest steals in the league. The Stars only have him on their roster today because Seguin’s previous team — the Boston Bruins — decided they had to trade him when he was still a 21-year-old with superstar potential because they weren’t sure he fit their team culture following a postseason run where he did not totally dominate. The Bruins could have had Patrice Bergeron and Seguin down the middle of their lineup for the past five years at a combined salary cap hit of around $12 million. It would have been the envy of every team in the league. But they just had to trade him for … reasons. It was a foolish, knee-jerk reaction decision that may have cost them a legitimate shot at another Stanley Cup.

The Senators had the exact opposite situation play out.

Instead of thinking a bad playoff run made them worse than they actually were, a surprising playoff run had them thinking they were better than they actually were.

The results are, today, potentially crippling.

Looking at things objectively, the 2016-17 Senators were every bit as average as every recent Senators teams that preceded it. They were a bottom-10 team in shot attempt differential. Their overall record was only 12th best in the league. They were actually outscored during the regular season, the only playoff team in the league that year to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential (and one of only five over the previous six years). But because Craig Anderson played great in the first two rounds, and because Bobby Ryan went on a hot streak at the right time, and because Karlsson put the team on his back and literally carried it so much that he actually received a Conn Smythe vote despite not even playing in the Cup Final, the Senators were able to pull off a couple of upsets and go further than anyone anticipated.

Their response was to not only go all in on that group of players, but to try and add to it.

After trading a top prospect for Alex Burrows at the 2017 deadline and immediately signing him to a two-year contract extension (a contract that has since been bought out), the Senators opened the 2017-18 season by paying what could end up being a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene: giving up Kyle Turris (a really good center that is pretty comparable to Duchene) and a draft pick that will almost certainly be top-five selection.

At the time, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion was ecstatic with the move and called it a no-brainer that could help the team reach the next level.

“Sunday was a great day for the Senators franchise,” said Dorion in his first meeting with the media following the trade. “After a great playoff run last year, we feel we’ve added an elite forward to our group … someone we feel that can help us take to the next level. We’ve acquired a player that we’re really excited about acquiring. We felt this deal for us was a no-brainer in what we had to give up.”

The Senators were 7-3-5 at that point in the season. Good enough to keep games close and get to overtime and collect some points, but still decidedly average in every possible way. They were the fourth-worst possession team and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. It still looked like a house of cards. Then the bottom quickly fell out afterwards on the ice, while the organization descended into turmoil off of it.

Now, not even one year after adding a significant piece to its roster in the hopes of “reaching the next level,” the NHL roster is in the process of being gutted in a scorched earth rebuild. It is not just who has been traded that makes it all so — for lack of a better word — embarrassing for the Senators. It is how it has all happened.

After trading Mike Hoffman to the San Jose Sharks for what amounts to a bad contract in Mikkel Boedker, a fringe prospect, and a late-round draft pick, the Sharks turned around and almost immediately flipped Hoffman to the Florida Panthers — a team in Ottawa’s own division — for what was probably a better return (a collection of better draft picks — including a second-rounder in 2019 — and no bad contract).

Obviously the circumstances around Hoffman’s trade out of Ottawa are not as simple as “rebuilding team trades good player.” It was clear the Senators had to move him, and had to move him quickly. So they didn’t have a ton of leverage there. But they still ended up getting the worst of the two returns in the trades involving their own player! All it did was enable San Jose to dump a contract it didn’t want to help clear some additional salary cap space for another big addition before the start of the season.

The big addition turned out to be Karlsson.

That’s right: After basically helping the Sharks clear salary cap space to put themselves in a position to acquire Karlsson, and after being embarrassed in the series of transactions, the Senators went right back to that same team and traded their franchise player to them for “six assets.” And you know the Senators know they got taken in the previous trade because they attached this condition to the next trade:

If Karlsson is on an Eastern Conference roster (reserve list) during the 2018-19 season, the Senators will receive an additional first round pick from the Sharks no later than 2022.

The only possible reason that condition could exist in such a trade is because the Senators know San Jose embarrassed them in the previous trade.

Now the Senators are in a brutal position.

Given the plan recently outlined by owner Eugene Melnyk and the recent trade of Karlsson, it is simply a matter of when, and not if, Duchene and Mark Stone get traded.

They are going to enter year one of this rebuild as the early favorites to be the worst team in the league this season and they have no true cornerstone player coming through the pipeline to center a successful rebuild around. Typically teams in this position plan on starting that rebuild around a top draft pick, but the Senators won’t even have that luxury this year because their 2019 first-round pick is in the hands of the Colorado Avalanche as a result of the Duchene trade.

The condition on that trade is that Ottawa had the option of sending its first-round pick in either 2018 (which turned out to be No. 4 overall) or 2019 to Colorado. The Senators chose to keep the No. 4 in 2018 and send the 2019 one to Colorado.

Given everything what has been said by the people in command of this now three-ring circus it is a very curious decision.

On one hand, it is awfully difficult to give up the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and it might be a tough sell to your locker room to essentially tell the players returning, “you guys stunk last year and we think we’re going to be worse this year.”

But if your goal is to rebuild the team through prospects, and youth, you have to put yourself in a position to get a superstar. The Senators had to know their best hope would be the top of the 2019 draft and Jack Hughes. Why do I say that? Because Dorion said on Thursday that this has been the Senators’ plan since February, and that they pretty much knew Karlsson was going to be traded because he would bring the best return in their rebuild.

[Related: Highlights from Eugene Melnyk’s bizarre Senators video]

If you know Erik Karlsson is going to be traded, and if you know you’re going to put a team on the ice in 2018-19 that is going to be made up primarily of rookies and new players (at least according to Melnyk’s plan), then you have to realistically look at that team and say “this team is probably going to be worse.”

Does it really matter what the players in that locker room think about that strategy when, by your owners own admission, almost none of them are going to be in there within the next year anyway?

Now, given the NHL’s new lottery process having the worst record in the league doesn’t guarantee you the top pick or even a top-two pick. But it still gives you the best chance. Once the Senators ended up with the fourth pick in 2018 and didn’t win the Rasmus Dahlin lottery, they should have sent that pick to Colorado (and this is not hindsight on my part; I already made this argument before the draft this year and before the Karlsson trade). If this team is as bad as we are anticipating it could be and probably will be, the Senators probably wouldn’t end up any worse off than fourth or fifth overall anyway and would at least still have the hope of getting a franchise-changing player in which to give their fans some amount of hope.

It sure beats the nothing they have to look forward to now.

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues vs. Bruins full schedule, TV info

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The St. Louis Blues have eliminated the San Jose Sharks in six games, and now the the 2019 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set.

Beginning with Game 1 on Monday, May 27 at TD Garden, the Blues will battle the Boston Bruins.

If a Game 7 is needed, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011. The Blues went to the Cup Final in each of their first three years in the NHL, with their last appearance coming in 1970. They are looking for their first championship.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series

(All times ET, subject to change).

GAME 1 
Monday, May 27: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

GAME 2

Wednesday, May 29: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET,  NBCSN

GAME 3

Saturday, June 1: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN

GAME 4

Monday, June 3: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 5

Thursday, June 6: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 6

Sunday, June 9: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 7

Wednesday, June 12: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*If necessary

————

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues reach first Stanley Cup Final since 1970

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  • For the first time since 1970, the Blues are going to the Stanley Cup Final. Remarkably, they’ll face the same opponent in the Bruins. To make it to Round 4, they had to dispatch the Sharks, which they managed in Game 6 on Tuesday.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 1 (Blues win series 4-2; 2019 Stanley Cup Final begins on Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [full schedule and TV info])

Once again, the Blues raced off to a hot start, with David Perron giving them a 1-0 lead just 1:32 into Game 6. They ended the first period up 2-0, and while the Sharks put up a stubborn fight on Tuesday, it didn’t really feel like the contest was ever in doubt. Any time the Sharks seemed to push to make things closer, the Blues either stomped out their scoring chances or scored a gut-punch of a goal. San Jose simply ran out of gas, although St. Louis would argue that it was because they emptied the Sharks’ tank.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ryan O'Reilly

“ROR” generated three assists in Game 6, and none of those helpers came on the empty-net goal.

It was a strong all-around effort from O’Reilly even beyond the scoring, as he finished Game 6 with a +2 rating, went 12-6 on faceoffs, and delivered a hit during 18:28 TOI. O’Reilly had been kept off of the scoreboard for three consecutive games, so this is a nice outburst for the two-way center as he readies for what’s sure to be some tough matchups as St. Louis pivots to preparing for the Boston Bruins.

2. Jordan Binnington

Thanks to some great play from the likes of Colton Parayko, the Blues were mostly able to keep the battered Sharks to the perimeter. There wasn’t a whole lot of room to work with, which remains consistent to the way St. Louis has played for most of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and really how the Blues have played for the last few months.

Binnington’s steady presence in net is the number one reason that can work, though.

For most of the third period, the Blues sat on what began as a 3-1 lead, while the Sharks desperately pushed for goals by way of a 10-3 shots on goal advantage during the final 20 minutes. None of their attempts worked well enough to bring them back into the game, as Binnington ended the night making 25 out of 26 saves, including some key late stops against Evander Kane and especially Logan Couture.

Can the remarkable rookie win the goalie duel against Tuukka Rask? It figures to be one of his toughest tests yet.

3. David Perron

This was a great team effort for the Blues, making it tempting to place someone like Parayko as one of the three stars.

Yet, it’s worth mentioning Perron, particularly since he’s one of those forwards who keeps putting up points, yet continues to be overlooked. Perron helped the Golden Knights make it to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and now he’s back in Round 4 during his latest run with the Blues.

Perron finished Game 6 with a goal and a primary assist, with his goal being especially important. Again, it was the 1-0 tally very early on, allowing the Blues to nurse (and enhance) another 1-0 lead quickly into a contest. The Blues are tough enough to score against when all things are even, but become even more oppressive when they have a lead. This is now the fifth time they’ve scored a goal within the first two minutes of a game during this run, and the Blues are 5-0 in those games.

Bigger names like O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz have been heating up lately, but Perron is the type of player who might be able to swing what could be a tightly matched series versus the Bruins.

Factoids

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and 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.

Blues move to Stanley Cup Final after sinking Sharks

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The last time the St. Louis Blues made it to a Stanley Cup Final, it was all the way back in 1969-1970. They were swept by the Boston Bruins during that long-ago visit, with Bobby Orr’s famous leaping goal putting a bow on things. So, the current-day Blues hope that this … “rematch” goes far better.

To get this far, the Blues had to beat the San Jose Sharks, the team that most recently knocked them out of a Round 3 series back in 2015-16.

An injured Sharks team just didn’t have enough to push through the bruising Blues in Game 6 on Tuesday, as St. Louis won 5-1 to win the series 4-2. With that, the Blues will take on what’s sure to be a well-rested (maybe too rested?) Bruins team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

An empty-netter inflated the score in Game 6, and Tyler Bozak‘s 4-1 insurance tally happened fairly late in the proceedings, so this one was pretty close at times. That said, the Sharks ultimately only got so close before the Blues pulled far ahead.

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

Tough start, and finish, for Sharks

Being without Joe Pavelski, Erik Karlsson, and Tomas Hertl was already a tough way for San Jose to start Game 6, and didn’t really get better from there, as David Perron deflected a puck past Martin Jones to make it 1-0 for St. Louis just 1:32 in. Things looked pretty dire for the Sharks heading into the first intermission, after Vladimir Tarasenko‘s power-play goal made it 2-0.

Credit the Sharks for continuing to fight, but credit the Blues for taking it to the Sharks to give San Jose little hope of actually winning that fight.

Dylan Gambrell ended up being one of the Sharks who drew into action thanks to all of those injuries, so he made for a great story by scoring his first NHL goal in his first playoff game. The Sharks embraced that added life, briefly, as Logan Couture almost scored before Colton Parayko cleared the puck from Jordan Binnington‘s crease. But it remained 2-1, and Gambrell’s goal ended up being a fun footnote instead of a turning point.

Not long after that brief surge, the Blues got their two-goal lead right back. Brayden Schenn‘s been agonizingly close to scoring for a while now, so he was clearly relieved when he scored the 3-1 goal on the power play. Maybe that goal drought explains the creativity of Schenn’s sword-sheathing celebration?

Blues, Binnington shut the door

It wasn’t just Schenn who was struggling to score late in this series. The Sharks, as a team, were just as cold when it came to piercing the Blues’ defense, and during the rare moments when they found space, Binnington was usually up to the task.

The Blues were clearly content to sit on their 3-1 lead during the third period, and Binnington made sure that such a strategy worked out. He made some tremendous saves against Evander Kane and Logan Couture, including stopping Couture on a semi-breakaway, earning a big cheer from an appreciative crowd in St. Louis.

The Blues won Game 4 by a score of 2-1, then handed the Sharks a disastrous 5-0 defeat in Game 5. So, during these last three games, San Jose only managed two goals overall. Heading into the postseason, it seemed like Martin Jones would be the problem if the Sharks fell short. While Jones faced his highs and lows, the Sharks’ seemingly explosive lineup simply ran out of firepower.

***

Now, the Sharks must face an uncertain offseason with Erik Karlsson, Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Gustav Nyquist heading toward unrestricted free agency. As much as this run has been about the likes of Hertl and Timo Meier (a pending RFA) emerging as the future of the Sharks alongside Couture, the Sharks’ path ahead seems a little murky. This was a memorable and exciting run for the Sharks, yet it ends with that all-too-familiar empty feeling.

The Blues, meanwhile, face a straightforward future, but one that likely brings plenty of bumps in the road. Beat the Bruins and win that first-ever Stanley Cup, or repeat decades-old history.

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.

Bruins will scrimmage to stay sharp for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins think they’ve found a way to stay sharp for the Stanley Cup Final while waiting a total of 10 days between games.

The Eastern Conference champions will hold a public intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday night, and coach Bruce Cassidy said he’ll try to maintain a regular game-day schedule so that the players will get back in the routine before the opener of the championship series on Monday.

”We’ve got some ideas we bandied around. We came up with this one,” Cassidy said on Tuesday, the Bruins’ fifth day off since sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the East finals. ”We’ve had good practices, but this will be a little bit different.”

The Bruins needed seven games to dispatch the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, then had one day off before starting the second round against Columbus. They finished off the Blue Jackets in six games, and had two days to rest before Game 1 against the Hurricanes.

But that series ended Thursday, and the Bruins haven’t even had an opponent to prepare for yet. The St. Louis Blues took a 3-2 lead into Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night.

”If St. Louis wins … we can start a little bit of that prep for special teams,” Cassidy said. ”If not, we’ll just go through the basics.”

Cassidy said last week he would reach out to other teams to get pointers on how to handle long layoffs. Among them: the New England Patriots, who routinely have a first-round bye, in addition to a two-week break before the Super Bowl.

The Bruins coach said on Tuesday that he touched base with all of the teams in town, as well as some of the Boston players from the 2011 and ’13 teams that went to the Final and other NHL coaches who have had long breaks. But he declined to share their advice.

”We’ll take what we thought was relevant to us and go from there,” Cassidy said, acknowledging that a seven-game series is different than preparing for a Super Bowl. ”In the first game, we want to be good. We want to be sharp. We want to be on time. We want to win. But we have a bit more luxury than say a one-and-done.”

The scrimmage will be two, 25-minute periods, with two officials on the ice. But some rules will be ignored in the interest of situational drills and keeping everyone healthy.

Cassidy said he may create a four-on-four situation as well as a six-on-five for a potential end-of-game, pulled goalie scenario. The checking line will face off against the top line, and players might switch teams to get the matchups Cassidy wants to work on.

Individual players, including goalie Tuukka Rask, will decide how much they want to play.

The winning team will earn … something.

”They will put something on the line,” Cassidy said. ”That’s something I have to discuss with them. I think that’s important. What it is it could be something very minimal, or whatever it is they want to decide.”

Other than that, the coach said he will be happy if everyone comes out of the scrimmage healthy. He said it will be no different than practice, when players know not to check their teammates, but because of the increased stakes, he will talk to the team about it.

”This isn’t a physicality contest out there. It’s compete on pucks. It’s play with some pace,” he said. ”I think we’re smart enough. That will be the message I relay to some of the younger guys: We’re doing this for a reason. But the reason is not to injure anybody.”

Fans can attend Thursday’s scrimmage for $20, and park for $10; popcorn will be free for children. Proceeds will go to the Boston Bruins Foundation.

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