NHL On NBC

PHT’s 2018-19 Pacific Division Preview

(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

• Atlantic Division Preview
• Metropolitan Division Preview
• Central Division Preview

At the start of the 2017-18 season there was an expectation that the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final would come from the Pacific Division. The oddsmakers, misguided as it may have turned out to be in hindsight, believed it would be the Edmonton Oilers, and that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights would be one of the league’s worst teams.

Not exactly how it all played out.

Once the games started getting played the Oilers turned out to be a season-long mess and disappointment, while the Golden Knights came out of nowhere, rolled to a division title, and then won the Western Conference before losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Following an unexpected season on the ice, there was a ton of significant roster movement within the division with San Jose, Vegas, Los Angeles, Calgary and Arizona all making significant changes to their roster.

Who ended up getting better and who ended up getting worse? Let us take a look around the Pacific Division as we continue our PHT Divisional previews.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

Better or Worse: Nobody stays the same in professional sports; you’re either doing something to get better or you’re doing something to get worse. And by not really doing anything to get better over the summer it makes me want to say the Ducks might be a little worse, especially given everything that happened around them in the division this summer where San Jose, Vegas, and Los Angeles all made big moves to strengthen their team. Still a good team, but not really much better than they were.

Strengths: The Ducks’ strength is definitely on the back end where they have Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson leading the defense, and then have the duo of John Gibson and Ryan Miller in net. When healthy Gibson is one of the best goalies in the league and Miller was outstanding last year as a backup when needed.

Weaknesses: Corey Perry‘s injury is going to be a major blow to a team that was already lacking in offense. They are going to need Ondrej Kase to take a big step in his development and get a little more out of Jakob Silfverberg to make up for it. 

2017-18 Highlight: Crushed by injuries down the middle the Ducks addressed it by trading Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique. A few weeks after the trade Henrique scored one of the best goals of the NHL season against his former team when he did this.

MVP Candidate: Ryan Getzlaf may be entering his age 33 season but he is still an impact player and top-line center. He has scored at a point-per-game level the past two years and still makes everyone around him better.

Playoffs or Lottery: Even with the injury to Perry this is still probably a playoff team — especially in this division — but one that may be behind San Jose and Vegas within the the division.

ARIZONA COYOTES 

Better or Worse: They will be much better. They showed huge improvement in the second half of the 2017-18 season  just by having a healthy Antti Raanta in the lineup, and then they went and added Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner over the summer. I also still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player and they will also be getting a full season Jakob Chychrun on defense.

Strengths: Thanks to the additions of Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk over the past year the Coyotes have a pretty decent 1-2 punch at center. Combine them with the potential of Dylan Strome, the presence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson on defense, and Raanta in net and they have a nice foundation down the middle to build from.

Weaknesses: Depth is probably the big one, and it is not just related to any one position. It is almost everywhere except for maybe center. Depth on the wings, depth on the blue line, depth in goal. The talent at the top of the lineup is intriguing and very good, but there just is not enough to complement them just yet.

2017-18 Highlight: Once they got him in the lineup Raanta was everything the Coyotes could have hoped for him to be, and his highlight of the year was this post-to-post glove save against the Montreal Canadiens.

MVP Candidate: It is probably going to have to be the Raanta show for the Coyotes this season. How much of an impact did he make on the Coyotes a year ago? In the games where he earned a decision they played at a 90-point pace (21-17-6). In the games where he didn’t? They played at a 47-point pace. A lot of their problems in the overall standings came from that brutal 1-12-1 start, a stretch where Raanta only played two full games.

Playoffs or Lottery: They will be much better and there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about where this team can go and what it can be in the future but they still have a little more work to do before they get there. It will be another lottery season, but they will be at the back end of the lottery as opposed to the top of it.

CALGARY FLAMES 

Better or Worse: James Neal is a nice addition, but is he enough to make the team better than it was last year, when it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs? Something to keep in mind here: Neal scored 25 goals and finished with 44 total points in 71 games for Vegas a season ago. He is their big offseason addition. Micheal Ferland, who was included by the Flames in the trade that sent their best defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, to the Carolina Hurricanes, scored 21 goals and finished with 41 points in 77 games. Add in the fact you lost your best defender and it’s hard to see how the roster is better.

Strengths: For all of the things that went wrong for this team a year ago they do have three outstanding young players to build around in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk. All three of them are age 25 or younger and were all among the team’s top-three scorers a year ago.

Weaknesses: It is an extremely top-heavy team offensively, and while Neal might help he is probably not enough of a difference maker to take them from 26th in goals scored to the level they need to be at offensively to contend. The defense without Hamilton is also going to be a question mark because T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic both struggled last season, while Mark Giordano is another year older.

2017-18 Highlight: This is a weird one, but their 2-0 win in Anaheim at the start of the season snapped what had been a 25-game losing streak at the Honda Center that dated all the way back to the 2004 season. That is a remarkable losing streak in one building.

MVP Candidate: How can it be anybody other than Gaudreau? He is one of the best offensive players in the league and is coming off of a monster season that saw him record 60 assists and 84 total points. He is also entering his age 25 season, typically the year players hit their peak offensive production in their careers.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were 11 points out of a wild card spot (and 16 points back of a top-three spot in the Pacific Division) and I don’t see enough improvement here to make up that much ground. They are a lottery team.

EDMONTON OILERS 

Better or Worse: They could really go either way here. If the fix the special teams units that ruined their 2017-18 season they should be better, especially if Oscar Klefbom is healthy and returns to form. But they didn’t really make any meaningful additions to a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points.

Strengths: They have Connor McDavid. Period.

Weaknesses: Perhaps the best way to put this would be to reference you to a story from the Edmonton Journal over the weekend that looked at the players on the roster bubble in training camp and point out the fact that every single player listed at right wing is listed as being on the bubble. My goodness, that is bleak. Also bleak: The defense. And the goaltending. And basically everything that is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

2017-18 Highlight: This assist by McDavid to set up Patrick Maroon is truly something to behold.

MVP Candidate: McDavid is the odds on favorite to win the MVP award at the start of the season, mostly because he is the best player in the world at the moment and is coming off of back-to-back scoring title and 100-point seasons. He is going for a third consecutive scoring title, an accomplishment that is incredibly rare in NHL history. To get another MVP award though he is going to need the team around him to be better.

Playoffs or Lottery: As incredible as it may seem for a team that has the best player in the league, they are probably a lottery team again. For the third time in four years. There just is not enough talent around McDavid to make them a contender.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Better or Worse: He may be 35 years old but Ilya Kovalchuk will be a big addition for an offense-starved team. Will he be a 50-goal, 90-point player? Not a chance. But he should be at least capable of 30 goals and 60 points, something that would make him one of the most productive players on the team.

Strengths: They are one of the best defensive teams in the league with one of the best defensive players in Drew Doughty. They haven’t finished lower than 10th in goals against since the 2009-10 season and are consistently in the top-five. No team in the league gave up fewer goals a season ago.

Weaknesses: Simply put, it’s offense. Even with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and the addition of Kovalchuk this is simply a mediocre at best offensive team and has been for a few years. They

2017-18 Highlight: Kopitar was the Kings’ best player all year and was perhaps at his most dominant in a 7-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche when he scored four goals.

MVP Candidate: The one that was the runner-up a season ago, Kopitar. He is one of the best two-way players in the league that offers a game-changing combination of top-tier offense and shutdown defense.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have missed the playoffs in two of the past four seasons and have not made it out of the first round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. They have been, pretty much, a bubble playoff team for the past four years and there really is not much to suggest that is going to change this season.

SAN JOSE SHARKS 

Better or Worse: Better. Much better. They should have a full season of Joe Thornton (injured) and Evander Kane (acquired at the trade deadline and signed to a contract extension) and they acquired a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson. It would be a shock if they were not better.

Strengths: With Karlsson and Brent Burns they have three of the past seven Norris Trophies on their blue line and a player in Marc-Edouard Vlasic that gets votes every year. There is not a better top-three anywhere in the NHL on defense.

Weaknesses: They are not many. If we were to reach here we could say they were a middle of the pack team a year ago offensively, finishing 14th in goals scored and 16th on the power play, but you have to figure both of those numbers can easily go up this season given the additions.

2017-18 Highlight: Logan Couture scored 12 more goals than any player on the Sharks this past season. None of them looked better than this goal against the Winnipeg Jets.

MVP Candidate: Going to go with Karlsson here, simply because he is going to play a ton of minutes on what should be a Stanley Cup contender and assuming he is 100 percent healthy should have a monster year. Especially playing on a team that has Stanley Cup level talent around him.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were second round playoff team a year ago made some pretty significant additions to the roster, including one of the biggest pick-ups over the summer in Karlsson. They are not only a playoff team, they are a Stanley Cup contender.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS 

Better or Worse: Even though Henrik and Daniel Sedin were at the end of their career and as good as they were in their prime, they were still two of the Canucks’ best players and among their top-three scorers. They are now gone. The players coming in from outside the organization to replace them: Jay Beagle and Antoine Rousell on long-term contracts to be fourth-liners. They are a worse team today.

Strengths: The biggest strength on this team will be getting Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat back for full seasons after both missed 20 games a year ago. Boeser is one of the league’s bright young stars and should be the Canucks’ best player for the foreseeable future.

Weaknesses: Goaltending is going to be a problem. Jacob Markstrom is the starter but has never really been anything better than average at any point in his career. The duo of him and Anders Nilsson is going to have to exceed any reasonable expectation anyone might have for them to help make this team competitive, especially playing behind the defense.

2017-18 Highlight: You could not have scripted a better farewell game in the NHL for the Sedins than this.

MVP Candidate: Brock Boeser finished the 2017-18 season as the Canucks’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer. He did that as a 20-year-old rookie in his first full season of NHL action, and despite missing 20 games due to injury. He is their best player by a mile.

Playoffs or Lottery: One of the worst teams in the league from a year ago that did not really get any better in the offseason. They are not only a lottery team, they are a potential Jack Hughes team.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS 

Better or Worse: I don’t know if they will be “better” in terms of results on the ice, because that would mean actually winning the Stanley Cup, but the roster on paper certainly looks better with the additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. Sure, they lost James Neal and David Perron, two really good contributors on the 2017-18 team, but the two players coming in to replace them are better.

Strengths: Their top line was one of the best in the NHL a season ago, and while there is every reason to believe that William Karlsson and Reilly Smith will regress a bit, they should still be very good. Jonathan Marchessault is also every bit as good as he showed. They also have an outstanding goalie.

Weaknesses: For as good as their top-six is — especially that top line — their bottom six is definitely lacking a little bit. The fourth line received a lot of praise in the playoffs, but I’m not sure how well it holds up over an 82-game season.

2017-18 Highlight: The whole season was a highlight, but their Western Conference clinching game against the Winnipeg Jets was the culmination of a truly remarkable, totally unexpected season.

MVP Candidate: Marchessault showed that his 30-goal season from the 2016-17 season in Florida was anything but a fluke by following it up with a dominant performance in Vegas, earning himself a long-term contract extension.

Playoffs or Lottery: Nobody should expect another run to the Stanley Cup Final, but this should still be a playoff team and probably even a strong contender in the Western Conference.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Game 7 history for Ovechkin, Capitals

Leave a comment

Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs ends on Wednesday with the Washington Capitals hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Stream here).

This series has already been a study in contrasts, and the “old vs. new” storyline really pops when you consider the Game 7 experience of both teams.

While the Hurricanes employ “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams (a nickname that makes him grit his teeth, apparently), the team as a whole is mostly new to this. It says a lot, really, that current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour was the team’s captain in 2008-09, which was the last time the Hurricanes a) made a playoff run and b) played in Game 7s.

While the Hurricanes recently broke a decade-long playoff drought, the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once (2013-14) since 2007-08, so if you want to get cute about it, this is almost the matchup of “Mr. Game 7 vs. Team Game 7s.”

Well, the Capitals are team Game 7s by volume, more than overall success. Now that we’ve acknowledged Justin Williams as Our Elimination Overlord, and recall that Jordan Staal‘s been here before – albeit a long time ago – let’s consider the Capitals’ recent history in these deciding games, with copious assistance from the all-around wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.com.

2008 

April 22, first round: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT) 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nicklas Backstrom was on one of his hotter sniping runs then, as he is now, as the Swede scored his fourth goal of that postseason in this defeat. Alex Ovechkin got a goal and a primary assist, authoring the first chapter in his anthology of being scapegoated despite strong playoff play. Ovechkin finished the 2008 run with four goals and five assists for nine points in seven playoff games; so far during this 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ovechkin has four goals and four assists for eight points in six contests.

Joffrey Lupul ended up scoring the overtime-clincher in that long-ago Game 7.

2009

April 28, first round: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

Some early evidence that Washington was able to grind out ugly, playoff-style wins, even then. While Backstrom nabbed an assist, this win was heavy on old names. Semyon Varlamov was only tasked with making 14 saves. Alexander Semin was a goal scorer and so was … Sergei Fedorov. Yes, in case you forgot, Fedorov briefly played for the Capitals.

May 13, second round: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

For some Caps fans, there are still scars from this loss.

After this series lived up to the hype for six games (remember dueling hat tricks between Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin?), the Game 7 match was mostly anticlimactic. Ovechkin had tormented Marc-Andre Fleury for much of that Round 2, yet MAF made a huge save early, and the Penguins scored the game’s first five goals to win handily. Ovechkin managed his 11th goal of that playoff run, but absorbed one of his earliest rounds of excessive playoff blame.

2010

April 28, first round: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

Speaking of scarring moments …

The Capitals were a buzzsaw in 2009-10, until they ran into Jaroslav Halak, who enjoyed a spectacular run where he confounded both the Caps and the Penguins. Washington generated a gaudy 42-16 SOG advantage in this Game 7, yet the Habs completed their upset win thanks largely to Halak playing out of his mind.

It felt like Michael Cammalleri scored every Montreal goal during their run, but it was Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore who scored in this Game 7. Ovechkin settled for an assist despite firing 10 of those 42 SOG.

This was the first Capitals Game 7 of the PHT era, so check out Ovechkin taking responsibility for his struggles.

2012

April 25, first round: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

The Dale Hunter era was brief in Washington, and honestly … mercifully so. Those Capitals series were tough to watch, what with Ovechkin receiving reduced ice time, although it helped Braden Holtby write the first bullet points in what’s becoming an impressive playoff resume.

May 12, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

Henrik Lundqvist got the best of Holtby and the Capitals in a close, clogged-up Game 7. Luckily, Barry Trotz helped the Capitals find a better balance between playing snug defense and still accentuating their offensive strengths, because the Hunter era was not pretty.

2013

May 13, first round: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

The Penguins rank as the Capitals’ biggest historic nuisance, but Henrik Lundqvist must come in a respectable second place, right? Lundqvist pitched a Game 7 shutout, prompting Backstrom to play into narrative hands by discussing the Capitals “learning to win in the playoffs.”

2015

April 27, first round: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s had some time to perfect celebrations in big situations.

He’s really added that extra skilled player to the Capitals’ mix (along with T.J. Oshie), and Kuznetsov has a certain “ice water in his veins” tendency. It’s not his most famous goal, but Kuznetsov scored the game-winner in Game 7 against the Islanders here.

May 13, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, telling Lundqvist that it was going to be a long day. That was some fun trash talk, but it was Lundqvist who was laughing in the end, once again, after Derek Stepan scored the overtime game-winner. Holtby played admirably in defeat, as he’s been a reliable big-game performer for the Capitals for some time.

2017

May 10, second round: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

Remember when this was supposed to be the end of a window for Stanley Cup chances for Washington, or at least the Capitals’ best chances?

The Caps showed why they won a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy by gritting their way out of a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins, but that was forgotten once Washington lost this tight, heartbreaking game to Pittsburgh. This represented Fleury’s last moment of one-upping Ovechkin before he was Vegas-bound.

Trotz was shaken by the Game 7 loss and deflected questions about Ovechkin, etc. The next year became hockey history, but this sure seemed to put the wheels in motion for Trotz to leave, anyway, right?

2018

May 23, third round: Capitals 4, Lightning 0

Ovechkin scored what would stand as the game-winner just 62 seconds in, Tom Wilson collected two assists, and Andre Burakovsky‘s two second-period goals really iced this one (with Backstrom pitching in an empty-netter for good measure). Wilson also got into a fight, while Holtby managed a 29-save shutout. If there’s a BINGO board for the Capitals in Game 7 situations, then you’d probably win with that combination.

Who would have thought that the Lightning would suffer far greater heartache during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, by the way? (Too soon?)

***

As you can see, the Capitals’ big guns often show up in Game 7 contests, particularly Ovechkin and Holtby, yet they don’t always come away with those series wins. The Hurricanes might be wise to assume that they’ll only be able to contain, not stop, Ovechkin. The veteran star sure seems to begin his Game 7 performances with early goals, so that’s another situation to watch.

Overall, it should be a fun Game 7, even if it’s a familiar experience for the Capitals.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Stream here).

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 name on the back matters: NHL is now marketing its stars

Leave a comment

Connor McDavid is eager to shrug off personal stats, awards and achievements and put the focus on his team in Edmonton.

Yet there he is on the cover of a video game or in a commercial for a bank.

Auston Matthews is the face of the franchise in Toronto. But he also got razzed by his Maple Leafs teammates for doing a stylish fashion photo shoot for GQ magazine.

”It was a lot of fun,” Matthews said. ”Kind of something that definitely got you out of your comfort zone.”

The rink for long decades has been the comfort zone for so many hockey players who put their full energy into the sport and are indoctrinated from a young age that the logo on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back.

That team-oriented part of hockey culture remains entrenched, but the NHL is finally beginning to market its stars as the NFL and NBA have done with great success.

As dynamic players like McDavid, Matthews and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau settled in Canadian markets and star power spread to smaller cities without much hockey tradition, marketing players and not just teams is essential to growing the NHL’s fan base. For a sport that generally sees its TV ratings drawn from fans of the two teams playing – and where the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t pull in nearly as much as the Super Bowl or NBA Finals – it’s a concerted effort to build up personalities and players’ brands to become more popular.

”It is a changing landscape,” said Judd Moldaver, Matthews’ agent and senior vice president of Wasserman Orr Hockey. ”Hockey players are such fantastic athletes and fantastic people that I believe the hybrid of playing for the logo on the front but also being able to optimize your individual situation. I think the two can coexist.”

Matthews, McDavid, Nashville’s P.K. Subban and other stars are sharing more personality than players of previous eras like Mario Lemieux and even Wayne Gretzky. No longer is it seen as selfish for Subban to host a late-night talk show or for Matthews to shoot a cellphone commercial.

”Why not try? Just because the person next to me doesn’t think that they can host their own show doesn’t mean that I can’t,” Subban said. ”What people have to understand is we’re at the rink three hours a day. We have a lot of time. We have days off, we have travel days and obviously there’s certain points in the schedule where you can’t do anything but hockey because of the way the schedule’s set up and the travel. But outside of hockey, a lot of times I don’t go home. I have meetings, I have different things that I’m doing. I have all these other interests.”

Showcasing those interests is part of the NHL’s shift. The league this season debuted a ”Skates Off” series of vignettes with a player from all 31 teams to show what they are like off the ice, including Jack Eichel being a guest DJ at a Buffalo classic rock radio station, Victor Hedman sharing his love of flying planes and Seth Jones showing his cooking talent.

”It’s nice to see those personalities come out,” said Nick Foligno, a teammate of Jones’ in Columbus. ”That’s how you grow the game. You look in other sports and the personalities come out, and that’s what fans are drawn to.”

NHL chief content officer and executive vice president Steve Mayer knows this. Since joining the league in late 2015 after 20 years at talent and sports giant IMG, he has helped lead the charge to put more focus on star players whose abilities and personalities could play a role in attracting younger fans who are attached to social media in the digital age.

”Other leagues do this, and we really don’t do it as well – we want to get better at it,” Mayer said. ”Other leagues it doesn’t really matter sometimes: You just tune in to watch the guy play. And we need to do that even more. … I want to be able to have fans even in (another) town (who) cannot wait to see Connor McDavid come to town because we have marketed him as one of our greatest players. I don’t know whether that happens enough.”

The NHL, Mayer said, has no interest in abandoning the team culture of hockey. But after a 2016 Magna Global study showed the average age of NHL fans rose 16 years over a span of 16 years – essentially stagnant – experts praised the league for trying to create more buzz among millennials and Generation Z.

”They recognize this, and they’re in a cultural shift, a cultural transformation within hockey,” said Stephanie Tryce, assistant professor of sports marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. ”Generation Z is about a lifestyle. They’re interested in things like social responsibility and they celebrate more of their identities than in the past, so that’s going to force hockey to continue to make inroads into other markets like the Hispanic/Latino market. It’s a market that you can’t ignore, but it’s also a market that historically hasn’t been in hockey. So you have to grow that.”

Matthews is at the center of that. His father is from California, his mother is from Mexico and he grew up in a nontraditional American hockey market in Arizona. Moldaver works closely with Matthews’ parents to chart a course for off-ice endeavors, from commercials and endorsement deals to philanthropic efforts, all of which continue to grow for the 21-year-old.

McDavid’s star began at an even earlier age, and the 2017 NHL MVP who has arguably surpassed Sidney Crosby as the greatest player in the world is finding his voice off the ice, too. When NFL Canada asked Rams and Patriots players at the Super Bowl who McDavid was, several thought maybe the prime minister or an actor. Work is ongoing to make him more recognizable outside hockey.

Hockey is such a team sport that individualism has for decades been frowned upon. Adidas senior director Dan Near said it’s a delicate balance to try to sell personalities but not stray too far from the team.

”I think there’s a fine line between doing it to promote yourself a little bit and being cocky, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys that do a great job of treading that line,” Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan said. ”You’re starting to see guys be promoted a little more, and it’s nice because then you get to see some individual personalities come out, and in a sport where you’re so often wearing helmets and gear, people don’t get to relate to you face-to-face.”

Teams have been reluctant to some of the league’s efforts sometimes until they see the final product. Mayer recalls showing owners and general managers clips of potential ideas and seeing the hesitancy for propping one player up before they understand the wide-ranging plan to give the NHL more exposure.

Initiatives like “Stanley Cup Confidential” where a player from each of the league’s 16 playoff teams shoots a daily cellphone video is another baby step.

”We are not here to break the culture. We’re just here to show that certain players are dynamic and have personality,” Mayer said. ”Players are starting gradually to see, you know what, it’s OK. I’m not disrupting the locker room and it’s OK to show personality and have some fun and smile.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Invigorated after Game 7 win, Bruins look to Blue Jackets

2 Comments

BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins needed performances from up and down their roster to outlast the Toronto Maple Leafs in yet another seven-game slugfest between the Original Six franchises.

Boston will literally have just a day to enjoy its 5-1 win over Toronto in Game 7 on Tuesday night, with their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with Columbus set to open at TD Garden on Thursday night.

But that’s just fine with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.

”I don’t mind the quick turnaround necessarily when you’re playing well,” Cassidy said. ”Our last two games we have played well. I thought the start of this series we had time off, we rested players. We had a couple of practices and all of a sudden maybe it’s too much information. I think they were overloading. This way they won’t be able to get so (overloaded).”

Cassidy is giving his players the day off Wednesday while his coaching staff breaks down film and puts together a game plan for the Blue Jackets. The plan is to do just a morning review with players Thursday before taking the ice for Game 1 in the evening.

Though Boston has the home ice-advantage in the series, the Bruins are expecting it to be tough defend against a team that stunned a Lightning team that tied an NHL record with 62 victories in the regular season.

Bruins fourth-line center Sean Kuraly, who came up big with a goal and an assist in Game 7 against Toronto, is a Dublin, Ohio native and well aware of the buzz Columbus has created around his home state.

”They’re playing really well and probably one of the hottest teams in the league right now after taking down Tampa,” Kuraly said. ”They’re going to be a really tough team.”

Boston went 2-1-0 against the Blue Jackets in the regular season with a 7-4 road loss back on March 12, a 2-1 overtime win in Boston March 16 and 6-2 victory in Columbus on April 2.

”The good news is we saw them three times late in the year. That’ll help with our preparation, should help with the players,” Cassidy said. ”We know they were physical against Tampa. They came after them. They got key saves. Power play was lights out. So, we got our hands full. Listen, we’re looking forward. I think it’ll be a good matchup for us. I think the teams are similarly built, so it should be a good series.

Part of Cassidy’s optimism about the quick turnaround stems from Boston’s health, which he said may be better than it’s been at any point this season.

Boston was also able to win in different ways against Toronto.

Bruins got eight goals in the first six games from stars Brad Marchand (four), Patrice Bergeron (two) and David Pastrnak (two). But they relied on third- and fourth-liners Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Marcus Johansson to key their offense in Game 7.

Boston also has been efficient on power plays, going 7 for 16 (43%) so far this postseason, while allowing only one short-handed goal. Meanwhile, Boston’s defense has been able to stop opponents’ chances, going 13 of 16 on penalty kills (81%), including a crucial 2 for 2 in Game 7.

And perhaps most importantly, netminder Tuukka Rask is playing some of his best hockey. He had 30-plus saves four times against Toronto, including stopping 32 of 33 shot attempts in Game in the series-deciding win.

”I personally felt good from the start of the series. I felt pretty good all year, obviously the workload hasn’t been too much so I feel fresh,” Rask said. ”It’s all about feeling confident, preparing yourself the right way, trusting your teammates. We battled hard all year and it showed again today.”

Coupled with the fact that the Bruins had to fend off elimination in Game 6 at Toronto to force the Game 7 and it adds up to a lot of confidence throughout their locker room.

”Relentless. Resilient. Whatever you want to call it,” Bruins forward Charlie Coyle said. ”We were down almost every part of that series and you battle back each game, tie it, pull things over and we pull it out when need be. … There’s never any panic in our game and that starts with our leadership and it’s huge to have those guys lead the way.”

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

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

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

10 Comments

Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

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.