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NHL on NBCSN: Should Chuck Fletcher blow up or retool Flyers?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

SEAN: This season is long gone, so Chuck Fletcher will need to make some big decisions between now and the Feb. 25 trade deadline. By the end of February he’ll have been Flyers GM for nearly three months, more than enough time to get a feel for the organization and have an idea the best way forward to turn around their fortunes.

Flyers brass wanted someone with a “bias for action” to replace the patient Ron Hextall. You can be sure the team will be aggressive in trying to become a playoff team in 2020, but at what cost?

Wayne Simmonds will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so he’ll have some suitors. He’s 30 and his offensive output has diminished this season. He’s an easy one to cut bait on and bring back a return full of futures. After that, do you rip up the core that’s been together for years like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek? At their ages, they still have good years left, you’d hope. And with the development of Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick up front and Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere on the backend, plus the future in Morgan Frost, Philippe Myers, Joel Farabee, there’s no reason to blow it up. Factor in Carter Hart getting an extended run due to the numerous injuries that have hit the position and you can still see some bright spots ahead.

A number of Flyers are having down years, which will happen given their current state of mess. But players like Giroux, Voracek and Gostisbehere still have lots of term left on their contract, making them difficult to deal away.

The Flyers have never been shy about spending money to improve, so it’s realistic that with a smart off-season (No 13-year contracts, Chuck!) that may include hiring a replacement for interim head coach Scott Gordon they can be back in the playoff mix in 2019-20.

JAMES: During almost a decade with the Wild, Fletcher took some massive swings for the fence. He was able to make contact here and there, but that franchise will need to deal with his whiffs for ages.

With that in mind, there might be some hesitation in Philly, but let’s be honest: Hextall’s firing came, in large part, because management was already getting patient with the slow-burn approach. The “microwave” solution will have to do, which means smaller (but still unpleasant) moves like trading away Simmonds, rather than really hitting the reset button in parting ways with Giroux or Voracek.
Besides, it would take multiple drafts to compile many of the assets Philly already has. Beyond Giroux and Voracek, the Flyers have to fantastic young defensemen in Provorov and Gostisbehere. Couturier is the sort of two-way beast teams crave for playoff battles. Konecny and Patrick are both the types of forwards who could theoretically make leaps forward under the right coach.

Of course, there’s a lot of arduous work to be done, including answering the age-old question of finding a competent goalie. This dismal 2018-19 season might obscure this notion, but people (myself included) were intrigued by what this group could accomplish if they took the next step. Maybe Fletcher can push steer them in that positive direction? Taking that risk makes a lot more sense than starting from square one all over again.

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JOEY: I really don’t think the Flyers have to blow this thing up right now. I realize that Giroux, Simmonds and Voracek are older players, but this team has a lot of youth on the roster and in the pipeline. There’s no need to sell off veterans or make sweeping changes. This team has what it takes to get back on track in the near future. If it doesn’t happen this year, it should happen fairly soon.

Patrick, Konecny, Gostisbehere, Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Couturier are all 26 or younger. Most teams in the NHL would kill to have a young core made up of players that are that talented. Add guys like Hart, Frost, Myers and Isaac Ratcliffe, and you’ve got another group of youngsters that are close to making it to the NHL.

I feel like the Flyers were a victim of the success they had last year. No one really expected them to make the playoffs in 2018, but they did. So now that they’re struggling this season, it’s a much bigger deal. Look, I realize that they should be better than they’ve been, but some key players have had down years.
The organization has fired a GM and a head coach this year, so they just have to give Fletcher the opportunity to make a few small tweaks to see if they can salvage this situation. Don’t blow it up.

SCOTT: The time is now, isn’t it?

New coach, new GM — a fresh start in upper management and a fresh set of eyes at some big problems. Sure, Fletcher has made some interesting moves, but he also made a playoff contender, too.

They’ve lost seven straight and are in the basement of the Metropolitan Division and are a couple flights of stairs away from the bottom of the entire league. You’re already setting yourself up for a good draft pick, and there are some juicy prospects lining up for this coming draft in late June.
You have guys like Simmonds who will command a nice return at the trade deadline from a team looking to break the bank as they take a run at the Stanley Cup. Cash in now. Perhaps it’s time to shop Giroux, too. Look, nobody wants to fire it all into the Sun, but at what point do you have no other choice. Have they not been trying to re-tool on the go already?
There are some good players to build around still, but it’s not going to take some re-tooling on the fly to get it done this time. Look where that sort of thing got St. Louis — last place in the Central Division.
And they simply can’t let Hart go to waste and add another tombstone in that goalie graveyard.

Do it right.

ADAM: When Fletcher took over my opinion was that he shouldn’t do anything drastic or potentially detrimental to the long-term outlook of the team to try and salvage this lost season. He needed to take the rest of the year, let it play out, see what the team needs, find a permanent coach (whether it is Joel Quenneville or somebody else), and go from there. I still think that has to be the case when it comes to the bigger moves. But for as awful and dysfunctional as this season has been, I am still not sure if this is a “blow-it-up” type of situation.

I came into this season thinking the Flyers were a boom or bust team that could either make the playoffs and do fairly well, or totally fall flat on their face.

The X-factor for which path they would follow was the goaltending.

And, well, obviously the goaltending has sent them on the wrong path.

I don’t think this is a terrible team. They have a good mix of veteran stars (Giroux is still great. Voracek is good. Couturier is outstanding) some really good young players that can be part of something, and who knows, maybe even a shot at a top lottery pick. With better goaltending this season is probably going in a very different direction and we’re having a different conversation right now. Remember, this was a playoff team a year ago and I don’t think the forwards and defenders are playing that much worse this year. It’s the goaltending that has crushed them. Again. Fix that and maybe you have something decent here.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Flyers-Capitals from Capital One Arena. Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones and Anson Carter will handle studio coverage.

Avs get mostly good news about Rantanen’s injury

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When you first see footage of Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen‘s injury from Monday, you’ll probably say “gah!” and maybe feel a little sick to your stomach. Then you’d assume that he will be out for quite a long time.

All things considered, then, the Avs’ Wednesday update is about as close to good news as you could reasonably expect.

Coach Jared Bednar announced that Rantanen is week-to-week with a lower-body injury, and that the Avs might know more about the 22-year-old’s status early next week.

Losing Rantanen for days is rough, so this isn’t necessarily cause for a full-on party, but worthy of a sigh of relief. Especially when you recall this gruesome sight:

/appetite loss warning

via Sportsnet/Youtube

“Week-to-week” is obviously a vague window, so this additional bit of insight from Avalanche play-by-play announcer Marc Moser provides comfort:

It’s never ideal to lose a star like Rantanen, but the Avalanche are positioned reasonably well to weather the storm. They’re off to a strong 7-1-1 start for 15 standings points, leaving them a four-point edge over the Predators for the Central Division lead. It’s early in the season, so hopefully Rantanen will get to heal up completely for when the games matter the most — and with the Avs off to such a blistering start, they must be thinking about the playoffs a bit already.

And, actually, that might provide another silver lining: Colorado is being forced to look at different combinations beyond Rantanen + Nathan MacKinnon (and usually Gabriel Landeskog).

Could someone like Andre Burakovsky or Joonas Donskoi flourish on the top line? Finding out could provide highly useful intel for the future. If the Avs run into a team that can slow their dynamic duo (maybe an opponent like the Blues with Ryan O'Reilly?), it might be good to have a Plan B where MacKinnon and Rantanen can run their own lines.

It’s been understandable that the Avalanche haven’t run such experiments in the past, as they made it into the playoffs in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 by slim margins. This strong start might just afford them the luxury of testing some hypotheses.

… But don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad to lose Rantanen for weeks.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.