Roundtable: Bold predictions for 2019, future outdoor game locations

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Give us two bold predictions for the second half of the season.

SEAN: Joel Quenneville sits out the 2018-19 NHL season and picks his spot in the summer… and that spot will be Florida. 

It’s look like a third straight season without the playoffs for the Panthers and that won’t sit well with owner Vinnie Viola. With a name like Quenneville (among others) on the market, will he lose patience with Bob Boughner in hopes of a quick fix? The Chicago Blackhawks will be happy to get Q’s $6M off their books and would certainly prefer if he goes somewhere outside of the Central Division. 

Panthers GM Dale Tallon hired Quenneville in Chicago as a scout in 2008 before naming him as Denis Savard’s replacement at head coach.

Artemi Panarin goes back to Chicago.

It doesn’t look promising that he’ll re-sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets. But given how good the team’s been this season, GM Jarmo Kekalainen can’t deal him (and Sergei Bobrvosky) by the NHL trade deadline next month. He might as well load up and try to help his team make a deep playoff run. 

When the free agent market opens up, Panarin will return to where his NHL career started and help the Blackhawks attempt a turnaround. The financials will require Chicago GM Stan Bowman to get a little creative with the salary cap, but he’s done it before. It will just be interesting to see what the cost on his end will end up being.

JAMES: Mark Giordano wins his first Norris Trophy.

Sometimes voters for sports awards – hockey and otherwise – decide to hand something of a “lifetime achievement” award to a player who’s never won the big one, particularly if there isn’t that no-brainer choice in a given year. Why, yes, I am gesturing wildly toward “The Departed,” why do you ask?

We’re at the point where Giordano’s felt like a dark horse Norris candidate since the political term was first hatched. The Flames look like they’ll comfortably grab a playoff spot, and Giordano continues to be an elite defenseman, currently ranked fifth among D scorers. I get the impression that voters aren’t totally sold on runaway scoring machine Morgan Rielly, and no one else is far ahead of Gio & Co., so this could be a year without an Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns leaving everyone else in the dust.

At 35, this could be Giordano’s last great shot. Such a narrative could resonate with voters who need a “tiebreaker.”

The Maple Leafs load up for the playoffs.

The bill is coming for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, while the Lightning are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Toronto also has some flaws on defense, at least when you compare them to some of the other big contenders, particularly in Tampa and Nashville.

Those factors would already inspire some aggressiveness, but consider that the Maple Leafs are slated to have an absolute ton of cap space around trade deadline time. It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Toronto lands an Alex Pietrangelo-type big fish during that shopping spree, potentially changing the complexion of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the process.

ADAM: The San Jose Sharks get it together and go on a deep playoff run.

Maybe even back to the Stanley Cup Final. I know they have not played up to expectations so far this season, but the fact they are still within striking distance of the top spot in the Pacific Division is a pretty good indication of the talent level they still have and how vulnerable the division is. The Pacific is wide open for the taking and I could see them beating any of the two teams they might have to play in that portion of the playoffs. They also have three of the NHL’s elite defensemen on their roster and that is going to be a huge advantage come playoff time.  They also still have a little bit of salary cap space and can probably figure out a way to squeeze in one more addition to load up for one more big run in the Joe Thornton era.

The Oilers will trade a core player.

Not sure when (Trade deadline? At the draft? Early in the free agent signing period?) but I can see it happening. It will not be Connor McDavid, obviously, so that leaves Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. This team is once again going nowhere, they have nobody else outside of the aforementioned two core players to trade that would bring a significant piece in return, they are going to be up against the salary cap once again, and GM Peter Chiarelli keeps talking about how he would love to have another puck-moving defensemen and how hard they are to find and acquire. At some point something has to give and you have to think he might try to do something to find one, and that is probably the only ticket. The problem, of course, is the previous time they tried to do this it backfired fantastically and is one of the big reasons the team is in its current situation. There is also the fact that Peter Chiarelli has a terrible record when it comes to trading impact players. One of Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins will be playing for somebody else before the end of next year.

JOEY: The Buffalo Sabres are going to fall out of the playoff picture. I know they were everyone’s sexy surprise pick at the beginning of the season, but I think they’ll come back down to earth. Jack Eichel will continue to be great, but I just don’t know if Jeff Skinner will keep scoring at this rate and I think Carter Hutton will go back to being a backup goalie. Sorry, Buffalo!

The team that will replace the Sabres in the playoffs is the Panthers. I think the pressure is on in Florida, so they’ll make some kind of blockbuster move to improve their team. The Panthers are seven points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the final Wild Card spot in the East as of right now. By game 82, they’ll be in that final Wild Card spot. They went on a run last year, and they came up just short. That won’t happen this time around. Getting a goalie or keeping Roberto Luongo healthy is a must for this to happen.

SCOTTBlake Wheeler wins the Hart trophy. 

While Nikita Kucherov leads the league in points and Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up two-thirds of the NHL’s best line, to me, Wheeler is the one out of the four that makes his team tick in all situations.

Whether he’s leading the rush five-on-five or making one of the nicest cross-seam passes in the NHL on the power play, the Winnipeg Jets depend on Wheeler and they’d have a tough time without him.

Wheeler is one of the assist lead and is on pace for 100-plus points. He won’t benefit from east-coast bias, but he could benefit from a vote split between the two Colorado stars, especially if he hits that 100-point plateau.

The Vegas Golden Knights go deep again … and maybe this time win the Stanley Cup. 

This looked very far-fetched earlier this season. The Golden Knights were eating every bit of regression that was being fed to them by all the pundits. But they’ve settled into the team they were last season and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like his old self again.

That’s a scary prospect for the rest of the Western Conference. Fleury, in particular, was so good in the first three rounds that other good teams couldn’t get a sniff of the back of the net. Couple that with the experience the Golden Knights gained last year from their long run and from losing the Cup, there’s a good mix that could turn into something special once again.

They even have some money to play with around the trade deadline and could be a tempting suitor for other sellers around the league.

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We now know the NHL’s 2019-20 outdoor game schedule. What’s your ideal location and matchup for an outdoor game?

SEAN: Lambeau Field would be neat. Ohio Stadium would be fun. But let’s wait a few years and get one in Vegas at the new NFL stadium. The franchise has done everything right since entering the NHL and when you consider how well-versed that city is in the entertainment field, having the spectacle (if they don’t get an All-Star Game first) of an outdoor game there would be really cool.

It’s a market that loves hockey and a market that tunes in to any hockey if you check the national ratings. (NBC thanks you, Vegas). Get the Golden Knights some sweet alternate jerseys and put them on the ice against a hopefully improved Los Angeles Kings or, if Marc-Andre Fleury is still tending goal, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

JAMES: An NHL outdoor game at Lambeau Field

The NHL has covered Notre Dame Stadium, and already crossed Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park off the list. Novelty is a big bonus with outdoor games, so how perfect would it be to host one of those events at the NFL field famous for “frozen tundra?”

The teams involved could be negotiable, honestly, but I’d lean toward the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, as they haven’t been in as many outdoor contests as two other stronger options in the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.

It’s really all about that frozen tundra, though.

Actually, maybe we should get the Carolina Hurricanes involved in case they could deploy their version of “The Lambeau Leap?” That would add some tension to the game, for sure.

ADAM: When it comes to the outdoor games we have covered almost everything there is to cover. Classic baseball stadiums. NFL stadiums. Big college football stadiums. The service academies. All of them have been done.

There are still a few big college football stadiums you could go to. The much-talked about Penguins-Flyers game at Beaver Stadium would still be intriguing to see, but that would be three Penguins vs. Flyers outdoor games in four years (the one at Heinz Field two years ago and the one at Lincoln Financial Field this season) and I just can not see that happening. Plus, Penn State does not seem all that interested in it.

The Horseshoe in Columbus would be intriguing and get the Blue Jackets involved in an outdoor game. There is also the one type of venue that the NHL has not yet explored — A race track. Bristol Motor Speedway is (*looks at Google maps*) about four hours from both Nashville and Raleigh and has already hosted a college football game. Why not a hockey game? Still, though, that’s a ton of seats to fill and I have not seen any indication that is something that is even on the radar as far as a discussion goes. So with that said, I think I will stick with something more realistic and go with the Blue Jackets vs. the Washington Capitals at Ohio Stadium.

JOEY: I’d like to see an outdoor game be played in Montreal between the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs at Percival Molson Stadium. It’s not an overly large venue (it holds just over 20,000 spectators), but it’s a beautiful location at the base of Mount Royal and it would feature two rivals that haven’t gone head-to-head in an outdoor game yet. I think that would generate quite a bit of buzz around the NHL.

SCOTT: Call me crazy, but what about an outdoor game at Wembley Stadium?

Take Washington and Pittsburgh, with two of the games biggest global stars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and send them to England, where you could tap into the European hockey markets, and play in front of 90,000 fans.

The NHL has been all about expanding its global market. They’ve been to China, Finland and others this season alone. Maybe the next step is hosting an outdoor game outside of North America.

Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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How did they pull this off?

During most playoff years, we ask this of the players. And, no doubt about it, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed a lot of perseverance fighting through bubble life to win the Stanley Cup. Doing so while Steven Stamkos played three minutes qualifies as “How did they pull this off?” material.

But, in the case of the 2020 Stanley Cup being handed out following the playoffs, this time we’re talking about the NHL, and everyone involved in keeping the playoff bubble from bursting.

It’s still surreal that we got this far.

NBC’s own Doc Emrick narrated the unlikely journey that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which you can watch in the video above.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This unlikely journey took us from second training camps, play resuming on Aug. 1, and a field of 24 teams narrowing down to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning. As Emrick says, it felt like a dream, but it came true for the NHL, even if it happened amid a nightmarish time.

Time will tell when the 2020-21 season may begin, but either way, it will be tough to forget the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if you’re not a Lightning fan.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

More on the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup

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.

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

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If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

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After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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.

NHL successfully completes bubble Stanley Cup Playoffs

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It began 63 days ago and ended Monday night with a new NHL Stanley Cup champion.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play plan in May, there was lots of skepticism that we would see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. The plan was to start August 1 and finish the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in late September with bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It was a big challenge, but worth the effort.

“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution,” Bettman said in May.

When puck dropped on the Penguins-Flyers exhibition game July 28 from Scotiabank Arena, it was different. No crowd, piped in atmosphere, and plenty of uncertainty about how the following two months would go. But round after round confidence grew that this postseason would be completed without issue. Week after week the NHL announced their latest round of COVID-19 test results, and in total, 33,174 tests were given with not one returning positive.

Yet, Bettman held off on celebrating until it was his time to award the Cup to the winning team’s captain. He was able to do just that, posing for the annual photo at center ice inside Rogers Place — this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. 

“To be in this place, at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly, overwhelming,” Bettman said before awarding Victor Hedman with the Conn Smythe Trophy and presenting the Cup. “It’s a testament to everybody that participated in our Return to Play and it’s a testament to a great Stanley Cup Final from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.”

[Lightning needed to ‘feel failure’ before earning Cup success]

The on-ice celebration, like everything else in life since March, was different. There was no raucous crowd celebrating with the players; no media on the ice grabbing postgame soundbites. It was like it had been for the last two months: the Lightning, altogether, taking part in a post-Cup tradition under unique circumstances.

What hadn’t changed were the emotions of winning. This postseason was a grind on everyone involved. The Stars and Lightning have been away from their families and inside bubbles since July. Hotel rooms became their home away from home. Video games, FaceTime calls, and the occasional time outside were highlights of off days. The road to the Cup Final was different, but when the players gave their thumbs up to the Return to Play plan they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one’s coming up, first day of school, hockey tournaments, my daughter making the swimming team, my other daughter going to her first dance class,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper last week. “Where do you want the list to go?”

“There won’t be one thing about bubble life I’m going to miss,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness.

It’s over now. Six and a half months after the league and world paused, we finally have a 2019-20 NHL champion. The Lightning and Stars won’t ever forget this experience.

“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Hedman afterward. “But it’s all worth it now. We’re coming home with the Cup.”

MORE:
Bubble won’t be back for full 2020-21 NHL season
Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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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.