PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Game 7 history for Ovechkin, Capitals

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

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

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

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

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

2008 

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

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

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

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

2009

April 28, first round: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

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

May 13, second round: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

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

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

2010

April 28, first round: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

Speaking of scarring moments …

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

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

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

2012

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

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

May 12, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

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

2013

May 13, first round: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

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

2015

April 27, first round: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

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

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

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

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

2017

May 10, second round: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

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

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

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

2018

May 23, third round: Capitals 4, Lightning 0

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

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

***

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

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

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invigorated after Game 7 win, Bruins look to Blue Jackets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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

So now what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will he respond?

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.