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Push for the Playoffs: Time is now for Blue Jackets

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team interested in making the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

In fact, they look like a rather sad bunch who’ve lost their way in a three-team battle for two spots in the postseason. A western road swing has been a disaster for the Blue Jackets, who dropped a 4-2 decision to the Calgary Flames before putting in a worse effort against the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them 4-1.

So Columbus, who spent big at the trade deadline, find themselves three points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they have a game in hand, but that, alone, won’t do it. If this team is going to avoid all the embarrassment that comes with being the biggest spenders at the end of February and having nothing to show for it, they need to essentially win out at this point.

That begins with a test against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has nothing to play for other than pride and who were on a three-game heater before getting beat 3-1 by the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

Despite the three-point gap, the game in hand on Montreal and an uber-important matchup between themselves and the Habs this coming Thursday means Columbus still holds their destiny in their own hands. Columbus will be hoping the Carolina Hurricanes do them a solid and beat the Canadiens in regulation on Sunday.

That all might be a small consolation given the week that lays ahead. After Sunday’s game in Vancouver, they’ll fly across the continent home for two games on Tuesday and then again Thursday against Montreal. From there, they’ll head to Nashville on Saturday night and play back to back 22 hours later on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.

The fun times don’t end there, either.

They then head home for one game against Boston, get two days rest, and then finish the season with games against the New York Rangers on Friday and the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Yes, a back-to-back to close out the regular season where they might need wins in both to make the playoffs.

It’s a brutal haul, and they have no choice but to find success or polish up the Taylor Mades.

The good news is Sergei Bobrovsky could play Sunday after a nagging injury has kept him out of action. They need his heroics, and they’ll need more from the rest of their lineup, too.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Flyers vs. Capitals (12:30 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBC)
Coyotes vs. Islanders (3 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBCSN)
Blue Jackets vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.7 percent
Penguins — 99.8 percent
Islanders — 99.3 percent
Hurricanes — 96 percent
Canadiens — 62.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 42.8 percent
Flyers — 0.3 percent
Panthers — Out
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 86 percent
Avalanche — 59.2 percent
Coyotes — 32.4 percent
Wild — 19.1 percent
Blackhawks — 1.8 percent
Oilers — 0.9 percent
Canucks — 0.6 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Canucks — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Coyotes — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**

(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 120 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 108 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 102 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 95 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 40 goals


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, two rivals in the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to a one-for-one deal, but there are some crucial details to hash out to fully evaluate this fascinating trade between two hostile local rivals.

Salary retention is key, because if it were a vanilla deal, it would be remarkably close to even, pure cap hit-wise.

Both players are 31, and both Lucic and Neal will see their contracts run through four more seasons (ending after 2022-23). Lucic’s cap hit is $6 million, which is barely more than Neal’s $5.75M.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

As we await the crucial element of salary retention, let’s ponder both players.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least that peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

***

Stay tuned for the full details, as if the Oilers retain a substantial portion of Lucic’s contract, it might seem like a more equitable trade for Calgary. As it stands, though, well … some very bright Flames fans are very displeased.

At first blush, Neal seems more likely to provide some value. That’s especially true if he rekindles his considerable sniping touch, as he showed during prolific years earlier in his career, particularly riding shotgun with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. If you can’t score goals with Connor McDavid, you may be toast, and that’s one of the reasons Lucic flamed out on his way to the Flames.

This post will be updated with full trade details and analysis of both players, who have had great moments in the past but struggled mightily once joining the Flames and Oilers respectively.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

————

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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck