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PHT’s Season Preview Roundtable: Blue Jackets, Rinne’s future, surprise teams

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1. You’re Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. How do you handle the Panarin/Bobrovsky situations?

SEAN: I go all-in until the trade deadline. The Metropolitan Division will be a battle, and if you’re going to lose these guys in free agency, might as well load up for a Cup run and try to make your way through three rounds of playoff hockey. Kekalainen has the fallback of using the Feb. 25 trade deadline to flip them both should the season not go as planned. It’s a difficult spot. These are two huge pieces of your team and pieces that can help you win. No GM wants to have a Tavares situation and watch two elite players walk for nothing next summer.

JAMES: While Panarin isn’t interested in an extension and Bobrovsky’s situation is cloudy, Kekalainen received serious peace of mind by receiving an extension of his own. With that in mind, he – or in this exercise, I – can feel far more comfortable if it becomes clear that the best option is the nuclear one: trading both.

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Panarin’s allowed Columbus much latitude here, so the question essentially becomes closer to “When?” than “If?” Here’s where Kekalainen and I might differ, though: if the best trade package revolves around “futures” rather than “currents,” then so be it. This franchise is restless about winning a playoff series, but with Seth Jones at 23 and Zach Werenski at 21, it’s not as if the situation is now or never.

Resolving Panarin-Bob in the best way possible may just come down to timing.

[Metropolitan Division Preview]

The Bob situation is a tougher call because an extension might not be best for the team, rather than the goalie. Bobrovsky is already 30. It’s fascinating that Bob might want the same deal as Carey Price, as Price’s $10.5M per year looks especially scary considering that the deal just began while he’s … 31. Yes, the same age that Bob would be.

If $10.5M was the rare, would Bobrovsky at least dial his term demands to a less-imposing range of say, 5 seasons? If I’m Kekalainen, those are the answers I would need. If the answers aren’t positive, then trading both might really be the best – if most painful – thing to do.

The thing is, people will wonder how you could move a $7.425M goalie, yet things get easier during the trade deadline. Also, teams that want to win get more desperate. What if the Flames are on fire (sorry) but Mike Smith goes on IR? What if things are coming together for the Stars, but Ben Bishop is on the shelf or in a deep slump? Contenders could conceivably offer a huge price to rent Bob.

ADAM: You have to let the season play out. Yes, the possibility of losing one or both of them for nothing as free agent sucks. But you’re a playoff team, you’re probably going to be a playoff team with them. As long as you have a realistic chance to do that you have to take a run at it and see where you can go. If the team falls out of the playoff picture by the deadline, or is on the bubble, and you are sure you can’t get them signed, then by all means make them available and see what you can get. But until it reaches that point you make a run with this group.

JOEY: I think you have to do your best to convince both players that Columbus is where they need to be. That might be easier said than done, but you have to pull out all the stops for these two guys because they’re the two most important players in the organization. Panarin put up 82 points last season and he’s still going to be just 27 years old when free agency hits. That’s a talent worth trying to keep. As for Bobrovsky, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for years now, but some teams aren’t willing to pay goalies top dollar. Still, Kekalainen has to do everything he can to make these players feel like they need to be Blue Jackets. This team still hasn’t won a playoff round, and they won’t be doing that anytime soon if they lose those two players.

If, for whatever reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t willing to commit to being Blue Jackets after they’re eligible to sign extensions on January 1st, Kekalainen has no choice but to move them both. Even if the Jackets are in a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose those guys for nothing in the summer. 

SCOTT: If you trade them now, say buh-bye to the playoffs. Panarin is the only point-per-game player the Blue Jackets have. Hell, he was the highest scoring player on the team by nearly 30 points and the highest scoring forward by almost 40. Panarin is the type of player you build around, so if money is the issue, PAY. THE. MAN.

Of course, it appears Panarin doesn’t want to be there, so whenever the best possible deal presents itself is when you need to pull that trigger. That’s the reality of the situation. You need — NEED — to get the best possible return given how talented he is and what you’re losing.

Still, you need to try your damnedest to convince Panarin to stay.

And that applies to Bob as well.

Bobrovsky, like Panarin, is one of the best at what they do. No Bob = no playoffs.

But if it comes to it, they have to go by the deadline. You can’t do what the Islanders did last summer and watch your best player(s) walk for free. The return at the deadline probably isn’t what it would be now, or a month or two into the season once the injury bug hits someone in the league. A tricky road to cross.

2. Will this be Pekka Rinne‘s final season with the Nashville Predators?

SEAN: Juuse Saros appears to be ready to take over the No. 1 role in Nashville, but Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and has been such a huge part of that franchise for the last decade. I can see Poile wanting to keep the tandem in place in the future as long as Saros take strides and Rinne doesn’t take a huge step back. A short-term deal — a bridge-type extension — could be ideal considering their salary cap situation, allowing for a transition phase.

[Central Division Preview]

JAMES: With the Ryan Ellis extension settled, the Predators don’t really have any enormous contracts to settle for 2019-20 (although Kevin Fiala is a gem). With that – and Juuse Saros’ ridiculously cheap contract – in mind, Nashville could enjoy the basically unprecedented luxury of a gradual transition from Rinne to Saros over a couple of seasons. Goalies are unpredictable, so why not try to convince Rinne to spend more time with the only team he’s known? The guy’s made a ton of cash, seems to love Nashville, and could conceivably move on, say, after 2019-20.

There’s logic to parting ways for both sides, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this will be his second-to-last season.

Then again, I thought Ellis would leave for greener pastures, so take that prediction with a grain of salt.

ADAM: It certainly looks that way. His age, combined with the fact that his replacement is already in the building and will probably get more of a role this season makes it seem inevitable. He was a great goalie for a long time in Nashville but I think this season is it for him there. Eventually Saros has to play because he might be too good to keep on the bench.

JOEY: I know Rinne’s heading into the final year of his contract, I know Juuse Saros is going to push him for the number one job and I know Rinne struggled in the playoffs, but I don’t think the Predators will want to lose him. He’s been with them for his entire career and he’s been a valuable contributor throughout the years. On the flip side, he’s also going to have to accept a decrease in pay if he’s going to stick around beyond this year.

Rinne is scheduled to make $7 million this season. He won’t be getting that kind of money again going forward, but Saros’ new deal only pays him $1.5 million per year for the next three years, so the Preds could be able to “splurge” to bring back Rinne on a short-term deal. The 35-year-old shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave a Predators team that has a real chance at success over the next few seasons.

SCOTT: Ideally, no.

Ideally, the Predators find a way to sign him to a shorter deal that takes him to the end of his career and provides a smooth transition as Saros turns into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. A one year deal, even, given the cap crunch for Nashville doesn’t come until after the 2019-20 season when Roman Josi is going to need big money.

Of course, that ball is in Rinne’s court. He’s the UFA at the end of this season and there are teams out there that would want the services of a guy one year removed from winning the Vezina. How many would line up is yet to be determined, and he’s not getting any younger, but GMs take risks and Rinne is still a good goalie, despite his blunder in the playoffs last year.

Any short-term contract likely means a pay cut for Rinne, who really doesn’t need to take a pay cut unless he wants to remain in Nashville.

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3. What level of regression — if any — will the Vegas Golden Knights experience this season?

SEAN: George McPhee did a good enough job refueling the tank this off-season that the monumental drop-off that many were expecting after last season shouldn’t go down. William Karlsson won’t be chasing a Rocket Richard again and Marc-Andre Fleury may play at a Conn Smythe calibre again, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny will help with scoring depth and they still have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to make a big splash to stay in the mix in what will be a brutal Western Conference playoff battle.

JAMES: Quite a bit, yet I believe that they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Losing Nate Schmidt for 20 games is a big blow, as the inevitable toll of injuries hasn’t even kicked off. That defense could be in trouble, for real this time. While the top line is very good, I expect them to at least cool down from last season’s “molten lava” state. The drop could be really steep for Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention “Huh?” successes like Deryk Engelland. On the bright side, it was brilliant to bring in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. They might just make the difference between getting in the playoffs and barely missing out.

ADAM: There almost has to be some. William Karlsson might be a good player, but he’s not 43 goals good. Marc-Andre Fleury is a really good starting goalie whose career has done a 180 from where it was five or six years ago, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that same level of play over another full season, especially at his age. I don’t know that Erik Haula is a 30-goal scorer every year. So there is definitely some potential for regression there. That said, don’t you kind of make up for that by adding players like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty? And even if the aforementioned trio does regress, they are not going to suddenly become bad. They just might go from great to really good.

JOEY: The Golden Knights lost David Perron and James Neal in free agency, but they replaced them with forwards like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which makes them even better (on paper at least) heading into this season. And, don’t forget, they had to overcome the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury early on in the season. If Fleury plays between 50-60 games, that definitely makes them better, too. 

[Pacific Division Preview]

Vegas may not get repeat performances from every player that had a career year in 2017-18, but as a team, I think they’ll be more than just competitive. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Knights and Sharks are battling for the Pacific Division crown throughout the year. They know they have a first line that works in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and now they also have Stastny and Pacioretty playing a second-line role. This team will be just fine.

SCOTT: I guess this depends on whether you think all the career years that were had in Vegas last season were just a fluke.

I don’t. Vegas good great deals in the scrap bin that was the expansion draft and they immediately found some uncanny chemistry. George McPhee didn’t stand still over the summer, either. The addition of Paul Stastny was bigger, and then getting Max Pacioretty was bigger. Those guys can make up for any regression we might see from the likes of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Remember, this was a team that dealt with crippling goaltender injuries and still managed to win the Pacific Division. I’ll stop betting against this team until they give me a reason to.

4. What team that is flying way under the radar and could surprise people this season and why?

SEAN: They came within a point of the playoff last season, and with a year under their belts with head coach Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers appear ready to take that next step. There are a lot of other teams in the East to get excited about, which could allow the Panthers to fly under the radar this season. Between Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov up front, and Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in the back, there’s a very strong core there. Add in the potential of youngsters Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom and Sunrise, Florida could provide us with a big surprise this season.

JAMES: The Florida Panthers have been the subject of ridicule for some time, but they looked like a dangerous team late last season. Barkov and Trocheck give them a one-two punch at center that can hang with just about any other duo. As brittle as Reimer and Luongo are, both goalies are capable. There are some great supporting cast members, and we could see the ascent of intriguing young players such as Henrik Borgstrom. These Cats can play.

[Atlantic Division Preview]

ADAM: Not saying they will do it, but it would not shock me if Arizona really came out of nowhere this season. Their entire season was made last season when they got off to that terrible start. It is not a coincidence that Antti Raanta played in almost none of those games. When he was in the lineup they were not only competitive, they were pretty good. Now they have Alex Galchenyuk coming in, I still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player, and they have a top-tier defenseman. The Arizona Coyotes are my sleeper team.

JOEY: The Arizona Coyotes. Yes, I realize that they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the last few seasons, but they ended last season on a high note. They also had a positive offseason, as they were able to get Oliver Ekman-Larson re-signed and they added a talented center in Alex Galchenyuk, who could be a big-time difference maker once he gets healthy. Even though the ‘Yotes are still a little young, they could be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19. The fact that Antti Raanta looked a lot more comfortable in a number one role toward the end of last season is an encouraging sign. 

Today’s NHL is all about being young and fast, and the Coyotes are certainly both of those things. They may still be a year away from earning a postseason berth, but they could still shock a lot of people as soon as 2018-19.

SCOTT: The Buffalo Sabres. Rub your eyes. Splash some water on your face. Pinch yourself. But the fact of the matter is the Sabres went out and made some moves this summer in an effort to get better. And they weren’t empty moves. Skinner. Berglund. Hutton. Sheary. Oh, and some kid named Dahlin. Sure, Dahlin was the product of a disastrous season, but he’s an immediate upgrade to their defence. Casey Mittlestadt should play an important role as well. I said it before, but I believe Buffalo have gone from the joke of the NHL to a team that could work its way into the *gasps* playoff discussion this year.

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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.

Flames-Jets stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Flames-Jets stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Flames and Jets. Coverage of Game 4 begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Flames-Jets stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calgary scored three goals on the power play en route to a four-goal win. The Flames led 3-2 midway through the game before scoring the final three goals. Winnipeg played a second straight game without Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine – who were both injured in Game 1.

Calgary has not won a playoff series since 2015 when they defeated Vancouver in the opening round. Last postseason, the Flames were the top seed in the West but were upset in the opening round in five games by Colorado. Calgary could join Carolina as the first teams to win their series.

It’s been 33-year-old Cam Talbot outdueling Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck in this series. This is especially interesting because entering this matchup it wasn’t even clear whether Talbot would be Calgary’s starter. 27-year-old David Rittich started 48 of Calgary’s 70 games during the regular season.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flames-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET – CNBC (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

 

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs Game 3 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shutout in Game 1, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs’ first goal of the series with four minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2. This snapped Joonas Korpisalo’s 96-minute shutout streak to start the postseason. Captain John Tavares scored on a breakaway in the third period before Morgan Rielly’s empty-netter.

With less than two minutes to play in the third period, Jake Muzzin was taken off on a stretcher after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand. Muzzin was down on the ice for an extended period of time before being taken to a local hospital. He was discharged overnight and returned to the team hotel but has been ruled out for the remainder of this series.

Neither team has scored a power play goal in this series, with both teams going 0-for-6 on the man advantage through the first two games. Toronto went 0-for-5 on the PP in Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Flyers keep rolling, will play for No. 1 seed in East on Saturday

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The Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL when the 2019-20 season was paused, and they are not slowing down during the league’s restart.

They kept rolling on Thursday afternoon with a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Round-Robin play to take another big step toward the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

After beating Boston on Sunday, the Flyers are now 2-0-0 in the Round-Robin phase and will have a massive game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

The winner of that game will be the No. 1 seed in the East while the loser will be second.

The Capitals and Bruins will play for the No. 3 seed on Sunday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from the Flyers’ latest win…

1. The story for Philadelphia on Thursday was their depth, as it wasn’t their top stars driving the win.

Backup goalie Brian Elliott got the start in goal and stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the win, while Scott Laughton scored two more goals to give him three already in the return to play. That does not include the overtime winner he scored in the exhibition game against Pittsburgh. He also added an assist on Travis Sanheim‘s second period goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead.

Both goals were scored because of slick passing plays.

The first one was off a ridiculous no-look feed from Travis Konecny.

2. The Flyers raised quite a few eyebrows over the summer when they acquired the RFA rights to Kevin Hayes and then gave him a massive seven-year contract. Hayes is a good player, but it just seemed like a huge commitment for a player that probably wasn’t considered a core forward. Just one year into his contract and he is looking like a huge pickup in the short-term. After a strong regular season performance that saw him score 23 goals in 69 games, he already has four assists in the return to play and factored into all three goals on Thursday. It is still fair to wonder how that contract will look toward the end of it, but if he helps the Flyers bring a championship back to Philadelphia nobody is really going to be concerned about that.

3. And let’s be very clear about something: the Flyers bringing a championship to Philadelphia this season is not an outrageous thought. It could happen. This team looks like a legit contender right now and is still clicking on all cylinders. Before the NHL pause they had won 19 out of 26 games, and since returning to play have completely dominated the Boston Bruins and Capitals, outscoring them by a 7-2 margin in the two games.

There is little to suggest it is a fluke, either. During the regular season they had very strong underlying numbers at 5-on-5 (on the positive side when it came to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals), they finally have a solution in goal (Carter Hart), and they have very quietly assembled a strong group of depth players to complement the core of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. They were so dominant on Thursday that they limited the Capitals to just 17 shots on goals, including only two from Alex Ovechkin.

4. As for the Capitals, the absolute best they can hope for in seeding is the No. 3 seed in the East if they can beat the Bruins in regulation on Sunday. They had a little bit of a scare on Thursday when center Evgeny Kuznetsov took an awkward fall late in the first period. He was able to return to the game eventually. The Capitals are also still playing without top defenseman John Carlson who has yet to play in Round-Robin play.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Canucks blank Wild, move a win away from advancing

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The Canucks are a win away from their first postseason series victory since 2011 thanks to a 3-0 win in Game 3. Brock Boeser, Antoine Roussel, and Elias Pettersson provided the goals, while Jacob Markstrom stopped 27 to blank the Wild.

Unlike in Game 2, there was no late push from Minnesota. They controlled possession and 5-on-5 scoring chances (per Natural Stat Trick), but Markstrom was there for his first career postseason shutout. After Boeser scored in his second straight game, the Wild continued pressing for a goal. They had five high-danger scoring chances to the Canucks’ one in the second period, but again it was the Canucks goaltender making save after save.

The backbreaker came early in the third period in one of those “good chance at one end, leads to goal at the other end” situations.

There were several opportunities in front of Markstrom, but the Wild couldn’t cash in. Quinn Hughes‘ clearance around the board then flipped over Brad Hunt‘s stick and an anticipating Roussel picked it up for a breakaway before chipping a backhand over Alex Stalock‘s glove for a 2-0 lead.

The shutout was another game where you’re left wondering when the Wild’s offense will show up. They’ve yet to score to at even strength in the series and their power play is 0-for-13 in the last two games.

Vancouver will have a chance to ice the series in Game 4 Friday night (10:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Hartman with a dangerous hit on Pettersson

Fortunately, Pettersson was not injured on the play. The Canucks forward was involved in a puck battle along the boards and as he bent over Wild forward Ryan Hartman hit him from behind.

Hartman was sent to the penalty box with minors for boarding and roughing after getting involved with J.T. Miller. Will the NHL Department of Player Safety have anything to say about the hit?

Stalock’s fantastic save

The Minnesota netminder has done his best to keep his team involved games. He added to his list of strong saves in the series in the third period to keep the Canucks lead to just 2-0.

Bo Horvat would like a do-over.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads series 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.