Wednesday Night Hockey: Laine vs. Matthews debate

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

They went No. 1 and 2 overall in the 2016 NHL Draft and have played important roles in how both of their franchises have turned around their fortunes. So if you were an NHL general manager building a franchise, who would you take? Patrik Laine or Auston Matthews? The PHT staff weighed in.


LEAHY: The Laine vs. Matthews debate is the new Ovechkin vs. Crosby one that began with the 2005-06 NHL season when both entered the league and began their dominance. You have Laine, who is the new-age Ovechkin and is going to win a handful of Rocket Richard Trophies by the time he’s done and give the Jets at least 40 goals a year for the next decade plus. Then there’s Matthews, your Crosby in this scenario, who will collect plenty of Art Ross Trophies and maybe, like Sid’s done twice already, grab a few Richard’s as well.

So if you’re a GM and you have to start a franchise around one, the prevailing thought is you go with the center. Like in soccer where you want a strong spine down the middle of the pitch, an elite No. 1 center can take a team to another level. Think of how many NHL teams currently don’t have such a player and are suffering. Matthews is a player who can make his teammates around him better and while both are young have plenty of improvements to be made in their games, I would stick with the center.

It comes down to preference. Laine’s goal scoring will go unmatched over the next decade. Matthews could threaten a goal scoring crown, but ultimately develop into the better two-way player. The game of hockey wins as long as these two young stars are healthy and productive.

O’BRIEN: As much as I want to go the contrarian route and go for the funny quotes and funny facial hair of Laine, it’s got to be Matthews.

In most instances, you’d be obsessing about Laine’s goal-scoring, yet Matthews isn’t far behind in that regard. While Laine’s shot talent is almost unrivaled, Matthews has a killer release, and the Maple Leafs stars makes up some of the deficit with the sheer volume of pucks he sends on net.

One thing that got lost in the furor of Matthews’ four-goal debut was how complete his game was, right off the bat. Matthews has been doing so much damage at even-strength, so now that he’s getting more power-play time with the top unit, the sky’s the limit. As a reliable center, Matthews simply does more than Laine from an all-around perspective, as the Finn is, well, an unfinished project.

The beauty of both players is that, as much as they’ve shown already, we still haven’t seen their ceilings. Like I mentioned, Matthews hasn’t always gotten the top PP reps, and he could conceivably become a 20-minute workhorse. Laine scored his 44 goals in just 16:29 TOI per game last season, which feels pretty much impossible in the modern era.

Ultimately, you really can’t go wrong with either option. While this isn’t as fun as Fortnite-barbing, the truth is: when in doubt, choose the center.

GRETZ: Laine is an incredible talent and is the franchise-altering player the Jets needed to drag themselves out of perpetual mediocrity. Before he arrived they were always a team that had a lot of decent individual talent, but no piece to bring it all together.

Laine has been that player, and while he is not Alex Ovechkin (no one is), he makes that sort of impact and will probably be the player to end his run at the top of the goal-scoring list in one of these upcoming seasons.

Having said that, the choice still has to be Matthews. Like James said, when you are starting a rebuild and when most things are equal you always take the center over the winger. That is where championship teams are built, and while I’m not yet sold on Matthews’ all-around game (he still has some work to do 5-on-5), he is just as dominant as Laine is from a goal-scoring perspective and as a center is probably more likely to make the players around him better as a playmaker. Ultimately they are both going to be top-five talents for the better part of their careers and dominate the league, but I think you have to take Matthews.

ALFIERI: Let’s start by pointing out that both these players are terrific. They’re both elite when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the opponent’s net, but I’ve got to go with Matthews. First, I’ll always favor a center over a winger. Anybody who plays that position at a high level can impact the game more than an elite winger. There’s a ton of responsibilities both offensively and defensively that come with playing down the middle, and Matthews has shown that he’s capable of playing a complete game.

Many people assume that Laine is the better goalscorer (he might be), but Matthews scored 40 goals in his first year and he would have scored 40 again last year had he not missed 20 games. Although Laine has a wicked release, Matthews is able to change the angle of his shot at the last second, which makes him fool defenders and goaltenders on a nightly basis. That’s nothing short of incredible and not many players in the league are able to do what he does in that respect.

Give me Matthews.

BILLECK: I’ve had the benefit of watching Patrik Laine every day for the past two and a bit years. He dropped 36 goals in his rookie season and then finished runner-up to Alex Ovechkin. He can score goals. Everyone knows that. He’s transformed the Winnipeg Jets power play into one of the best in the league. His unit is lethal and teams are forced to choose between Laine at the top of the circle and Mark Scheifele in the slot. Team’s don’t often choose right because there’s no right option. Pick your poison, but know they both kill.

Laine is elite. There’s no question. But when you’re building a team around a player, outside of Ovechkin, you’re going to choose a center. Whether it’s Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrice Bergeron or someone else, the spine of a team is important and having an elite, franchise center is a must for any team vying for a Stanley Cup. So the choice here is Auston Matthews, despite all the danger Laine brings.

Matthews is the better 5v5 player. He’s the better defender. He’s the better two-way player. And he scores in a similar fashion. Laine is an incredible talent, don’t get me wrong, but Matthews just does more at this point in his career. If Laine turns into Ovi later on, my opinion could change. But Matthews is the more complete package at the moment.

Pre-game coverage begins with a special on-site edition of NHL Live at 6 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie from True North Square outside of Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Pre-game coverage will feature an interview between Roenick and Laine, as well as interviews with Matthews and John Tavares.

Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick travels to Manitoba to call his first game in Winnipeg since Dec. 29, 1995, when he served as the New Jersey Devils play-by-play commentator. The Jets defeated the Devils, 5-3, courtesy of a five-goal third period which began with a power-play goal from then-Jets forward and Emrick’s current broadcast partner Eddie Olczyk. Olczyk played parts of five seasons with the Jets (1990-93 and 1994-96), as well parts of four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1987-91).

In the second game of the Wednesday Night Hockey doubleheader, the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Colorado Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Bruins built Stanley Cup contender by doing everything well

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

If there’s a central theme to how both the Bruins and Blues build themselves into 2019 Stanley Cup Finalists, it’s that you don’t need to tank to build a great team. That’s the comforting part for the NHL’s other 29 teams, not to mention the one soon to sprout up in Seattle.

The less-comforting news is that the process can be best labeled “Easier said than done.”

Both the Bruins and Blues have made shrewd free agent decisions, found stars outside of the “no-brainer” picks in drafts, and swindled other teams with fantastic trades. Neither team has been perfect, but they’ve piled up enough smart decisions to build regular contenders … and now here they are.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This two-part series looks at the key moves for both teams, from lopsided trades to finding gems in the draft, not to mention making crucial decisions in free agency.

Drafting

The Bruins have been a competitive team for a long time, which means they’re not often getting lottery picks in the draft, and they’re often trading away first-rounders or high-round picks to improve at the trade deadline. They didn’t have their first-rounder in 2018 or 2013, as the two latest examples.

With their most recent high picks traded away over the years (Dougie Hamilton [9th in 2011], Tyler Seguin [2nd in 2010], and Phil Kessel [5th in 2006]), it’s remarkable how much of their core comes from the mid-first round and later.

  • Patrice Bergeron was a second-rounder (45th overall) in 2003.
  • David Krejci was a second-rounder one year later (63rd in 2004).
  • The Bruins selected Brad Marchand in the third round (71st overall) during the same 2006 draft where they also snared Kessel and Milan Lucic.
  • The 2014 NHL Draft ended the Chiarelli era in style, most notably with Boston landing star David Pastrnak all the way at the 25th pick. Sorry Robby Fabbri, but the Blues would love a do-over at pick 21. That draft also included Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.
  • The 2015 NHL Draft is infamous in that new GM Don Sweeney didn’t just pass on Mathew Barzal; he passed on Barzal three times from picks 13-15. While Jake DeBrusk has become a gem worthy of the 14th pick, Bruins fans can drive themselves up the wall imagining this already-strong Bruins core with one or more of Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), Thomas Chabot (18th), and Brock Boeser (23rd). That said, the Bruins did find solid defenseman Brandon Carlo in the second round (37th overall) so that 2015 crop still harvested talent.
  • And Sweeney’s group really redeemed themselves a year later, snatching fantastic blueliner Charlie McAvoy with the 14th pick.

It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing to consider all of the talent the Bruins found over the years, particularly in the non-obvious spots, and particularly since they traded away the few non-obvious stars they did land on.

Boston also landed Torey Krug as an undrafted player, so they’ve found ways to add serious pieces with apt scouting.

(Hockey db’s draft history listing is a great resource if you want even more, but be warned: you might fall down a rabbit hole or two.)

Trades

Yes, Peter Chiarelli deserves some ridicule for trading away Tyler Seguin in what ended up being a huge boon for the Dallas Stars. Blake Wheeler‘s one of the Bruins other “What if?” players, as he put up solid numbers from 2008-09 to 2010-11 before becoming a star for the Thrashers-Jets.

Overall, the Bruins’ best work hasn’t necessarily come in trades, but there have been some wins.

The biggest one came long ago, as the Bruins landed Tuukka Rask in a trade for … Andrew Raycroft back in 2006. (That groan you heard came from Toronto.)

Via the Bruins website, enjoy this amusing explanation from interim Bruins GM (and current Rangers GM) Jeff Gorton.

“We had an opportunity, with three good, solid goaltenders who are all number one goalies in the NHL, and they couldn’t all play for us,” Gorton said. “Andrew had some value and we were able to move him for a player we really like, who is along the lines of Hannu Toivonen.”

Heh.

More recently, the Bruins traded for Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, two deadline acquisitions who’ve scored some big goals during this playoff run after beginning their Boston run a little cold (and/or injured).

Mostly paying the right price in free agency

No doubt about it, landing Zdeno Chara as a free agent in 2006 was absolutely pivotal, and soothed some of the wounds from the Joe Thornton trade from 2005. Signing Chara ranks right up there with the most important moves of the last decade-plus.

As far as Sweeney’s run goes, things started off a lot like they did with the draft: a little bumpy.

The David Backes signing didn’t seem ideal when it happened in 2016, and that $6M price tag becomes a bigger drag with each passing season. That was an example of the Blues pulling off addition by subtraction.

Luckily, the Bruins have mostly avoided such setbacks. They wisely parted ways with Milan Lucic rather than signing him to a deal that’s become a nightmare for the Oilers. The addition of Jaroslav Halak was also very helpful when Tuukka Rask was struggling a bit earlier in 2018-19.

Really, the Bruins have done their best free agent work in locking up core players to team-friendly deals.

The biggest bargains come with the big three. Bergeron’s cap hit of $6.875M is almost insulting to the two-way star, and while he’s 33, the aging curve doesn’t seem too threatening with the deal running out after 2021-22. (Even if he hits a wall, the Bruins have been making out like bandits for long enough for it to be beyond worth it.)

Brad Marchand must regret licking the envelope* when he signed the deal that locked him to a ridiculous $6.125M cap hit through 2024-25. At 31, Marchand might eventually decline enough for that to be a problem, but he’s delivering at such a rate that most of the NHL should really envy the Bruins’ bargain.

* – Sorry.

The best deal might actually be for David Pastrnak, whose satanic $6.66M cap hit sure feels like a deal with the non-New Jersey devil. Pastrnak’s more or less a $10M forward making that discount rate, and the 23-year-old won’t need a new deal until after the 2022-23 season.

Getting the best line in hockey for less than $20M per year is honestly kind of absurd, and other contracts (beyond Backes) don’t really drag the team down, either. Trade rumors have swirled around Krejci and Rask for years, yet both are fairly paid, and their deals don’t really look like problems at all.

There’s probably a mixture of luck and timing to explain some of these bargains, but the bottom line is that the Bruins have been able to keep their core pieces together without breaking that bank. Doing so allows them to supplement those top players with the Charlie Coyle and Jaroslav Halak-type electrons who really boost this impressive nucleus.

If there’s any lesson to other teams, it’s to try to be proactive whenever possible when it comes to locking down your best players. Again, “Easier said than done.”

(As always, Cap Friendly served as a key resource for salary structure and contract information.)

Coach Cassidy

There was at least a slight fear that, when Claude Julien left the Bruins, it felt like an end of an era. Would the Bruins take a step back?

Nope. Instead, Bruce Cassidy’s been a breath of fresh of air for Boston. The Bruins remain a stout defensive team, and have been able to integrate young players into their system in fairly seamless ways. That’s a testament to Cassidy, who seems willing to innovate, as you can see from this piece from The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa (sub required).

As bright as Julien can be, it sure seems like Cassidy’s taken the Bruins to another level, or maybe a crucially different level. Either way, he’s been a stunning success so far.

***

To circle back, it hasn’t been one move, or even one type of moves that’s powered the Bruins’ success.

Instead, it’s about getting a lot of things right, from crucial decisions to smaller tweaks. It’s also important not to attribute the success to Don Sweeney alone, or even his staff, as key pieces were also put in place by Chiarelli and even Gorton.

It’s all easier said than done, but the Bruins have been doing a lot right, and for a long time. We’ll see if that hard work pays off in a second Stanley Cup for the core they’ve built during the past decade-and-a-half.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, 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.

Home sweet home: NHL execs flock back to familiar franchises

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NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Brodeur has been back with the New Jersey Devils for eight months and only walked by his statue once. It’s harder to avoid his banner hanging from the arena rafters.

Brodeur returning to the place he spent the majority of his career sparked a recent run of executives going home to work for organizations they’re synonymous with. Steve Yzerman last month went back to Detroit as Red Wings general manager. In the past week, John Davidson became New York Rangers president and Mike Modano went back to his Minnesota playing roots as Wild adviser.

Yzerman, Davidson and Modano don’t have to avoid statues but do have to balance being beloved by their respective fan bases with the new pressure of succeeding in the front office. There are plenty of recent examples of fan favorite homecomings that didn’t work out: Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo, Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Patrick Roy in Colorado are among them.

Still, the lure of going home is always strong.

”All the things with my banner in the rafters and my statue, this is what I did as a hockey player, but now I’m trying to leave my mark in a different way,” Brodeur said. ”I came back because I care about the success and the fans and the area. Regardless, you still feel the pressure because you want to do well. I’m a proud guy. I’m investing my time in this organization and I want to see them do well.”

While Brodeur and Modano are business-focused now, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Yzerman and Hall-honored broadcaster Davidson are right in the fire of trying to rebuild proud franchises into championship contenders.

Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times as Red Wings captain and is back in Hockeytown after eight years as Tampa Bay Lightning GM and another as an adviser. His family still lives in Michigan, he was tired of commuting and he considers the link to his playing days ”irrelevant” in undertaking this challenge .

”What I did as a player is done,” said Yzerman, who will work in the shadow of his No. 19 banner. ”I can’t do any more, good or bad. It really has no bearing on whether I’m a good general manager or not. I have a job to do.”

Davidson understands he has a tough job ahead to try to deliver the Rangers’ first title since 1994. After 13 seasons in St. Louis and Columbus gave him executive experience, parts of eight seasons as a Rangers goaltender and two more decades as team broadcaster before all that drew him back.

”I was here 28 years in a lot of different areas and that makes it a whole lot easier,” Davidson said after his introductory news conference Wednesday. ”I wouldn’t have left Columbus had I not been here originally and had a sense of home, a sense of people welcoming myself and our family back. …. It’s just this is a unique opportunity at a very unique time.”

When Davidson and wife Diana walked the streets of New York on Tuesday night, she turned to him and said, ”Doesn’t this just feel like we didn’t leave?” Thirteen years after leaving the broadcast booth to embark on a journey that has made him one of hockey’s most respected executives, he felt the same way.

Davidson was welcomed home like a conquering hero.

”There’s a lot of good feeling because John is a beloved person here in New York,” longtime broadcast partner Sam Rosen said. ”He was loved when he was a player, he was loved as a broadcaster and people now respect that he’s been a lead executive in the National Hockey League for more than a decade.”

Minnesota is in Modano’s blood after he was the North Stars’ first overall pick in 1988 and played there until the team moved to Dallas in 1993. Post-retirement, Modano spent three seasons as a Dallas Stars adviser, and while this isn’t the same franchise he played for, he’s excited to get back to where his NHL career started.

”It’s always been obviously a real sentimental thing for me, an emotional thing for me to start my career in Minneapolis and St. Paul back in the North Star era,” Modano said Thursday. ”I have a lot of fond memories with fans and friends and everybody involved in the hockey community there.”

Modano will work with owner Craig Leipold, who heralded the Hall of Fame center as ”an important part of our hockey culture in this state.”

The same is true of Brodeur in New Jersey after he backstopped the Devils to the Stanley Cup three times. His job as executive vice president of business operations is about as far away from the pressure cooker of tending goal as Brodeur can get, and it follows three hands-on seasons as Blues assistant GM.

”I went from my playing career right into hockey operations as an assistant GM, so the pressure and the day to day operations was always big,” said Brodeur, who sold his old house to Devils coach John Hynes and rents while traveling back and forth to St. Louis. ”You figure from the first day I walk into the NHL to last year, for me, every game, you get the mood swings, you got everything. I was kind of looking forward to kind of sit back and just kind of look at the big picture instead of the daily grind. It’s been a great change for me and for me family to be able to handle that.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who won the Cup with the 1994 Rangers and returned as an adviser, isn’t worried about the heavy expectations on Davidson or Yzerman to make the most of a second act.

”Steve Yzerman, John Davidson – any of these people that are in these positions that are successful, they put the pressure on themselves to be successful and to have a positive impact,” Leetch said. ”As much as there is outside pressure from media and the big city and fans, it’s really internal.”

AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.

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

Bruins’ veteran quintet could be key in latest Cup bid

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BOSTON (AP) — When the Boston Bruins take the ice against the St. Louis Blues, they will do it with a core group of veterans who know what it’s like to hoist the Stanley Cup – and have it slip from their fingers.

Patrice Bergeron can still remember the instant euphoria and accompanying adoration from across New England that came after the Bruins outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the Cup in 2011.

He just as easily recalls the emptiness in 2013 when the Bruins lost the final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

”I think it makes you appreciate and makes you understand how hard it is to get to this point,” Bergeron said.

He is one of five current Bruins that were on both of those teams, along with Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara. Apart from Chara, who was 33 in 2011, Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask were all in their 20s during both runs. Defenseman Torey Krug was as a member of the ’13 team that came up short, arriving the season after Boston won it in 2011.

Nine years later Chara is now 42 and the 20-somethings are now grizzled NHL veterans as they prepare to take on the Blues.

It’s cast them all in the leadership role for another youthful and hungry Bruins team, built with many players about to experience this stage for the first time with Game 1 coming up Monday night.

It’s a position they have all willingly accepted.

Chara said this season has been a great teaching tool for them.

”It takes a lot to just get into the playoffs,” Chara said. ”We saw a lot of our games went to Game 7. First round. Second round. You have to realize how special it is to be in the final and what it takes. At the same time, you haven’t accomplished anything. You haven’t won anything.”

St. Louis coach Craig Berube knows the Bruins are deep and the veteran players are a key part of the team.

”Chara is still a good player, he’s a force out there, a big guy and he’s difficult to play against,” Berube said. ”Overall, their team’s a skilled and fast team and their goalie has played extremely well so far in the playoffs.”

Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who is in his second season leading the B’s. He struggled in his first go-around as a head coach in Washington, going 47-47-9 over two seasons from 2002 to 2004.

The past two seasons in Boston, Cassidy said, he has gone from being apprehensive about speaking up around his best players to setting an agenda and then leaning on his veterans in the locker room to help implement it.

”I think this leadership group is second to none,” Cassidy said. ”I don’t know if I’ll ever have – wherever this career takes me – a group like this to work with. I said that since probably the second week of our job here. These guys are fantastic, and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

Though he has a reputation of letting his anger get the best of him at times, Marchand said he’s going into his third Cup final with Boston as even-keeled as ever.

”I think when you’re part of a team like that you expect it to last a long time,” he said. ”You don’t realize how one change in a team can really drastically affect how things play out. One player change. One injury. One call. You don’t realize what it takes to get back to the finals and how fortunate you are to get there.

”And so this time around I think I’m more appreciative of being here and at the same time more calm, I guess, in a 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

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, 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.