Islanders vs. Penguins: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you would have told people at the start of the regular season that not only would the Pittsburgh Penguins be playing the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that the Islanders would be the team with home-ice advantage, you probably would have been laughed at for having such a ridiculous take.

But that is the situation we have in front of us as the two teams meet starting on Wednesday night.

The Penguins were always expected to be here. They have been one of the league’s most successful teams for more than a decade and extended their postseason streak to 13 consecutive seasons. During that time they have played in five Eastern Conference Finals, four Stanley Cup Finals, and won the Stanley Cup three times, including two of the past three years. The playoffs, in the words of defenseman Kris Letang following their postseason clinching win against the Detroit Red Wings, are the bare minimum expectation for this group.

The Islanders, on the other hand, were never supposed to be here. At least not this season.

After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and then losing John Tavares over the summer, it seemed like the team and its fans were going to be in for a long, difficult season, even with the hiring of a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz.

But hockey lends itself to quick and sudden turnarounds like this because it is often times the most unpredictable of the major sports, especially if you get the right performances from the right players at the right position.

Trotz helped improve the league’s worst defensive team, and a stunning goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss helped the team return to the playoffs and challenge for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division all season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE

Wednesday, April 10, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 12, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 14, 2019, Noon: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 16, 2019, 7:30 p.m.: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 18, 2019, TBD: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | TBD
*Saturday, April 20, 2019, TBD: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins | TBD
*Monday, April 22, 2019, TBD: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders | TBD

FORWARDS

PITTSBURGH: Everything obviously begins and ends with the big three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, but it is more than them. Jake Guentzel scored 40 goals this season, the additions of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann helped solidify the team’s depth, and even though Patric Hornqvist has gone quiet in the second half he can be the type of pest that you will hate by the first period of Game 2 in a best-of-seven series.

NEW YORK: This is now Mathew Barzal‘s team, and even though his numbers took a little bit of a step backwards in year two he is still an elite playmaker and an incredibly exciting player. He is a tremendous building block for any organization. The Islanders have a decent core of top-six forwards around him in Anders Lee, Joshua Bailey, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle, but they enter the playoffs as the lowest-scoring team in the field with only 223 goals. Nashville (236) is the only other team that did not score at least 240.

ADVANTAGE: Pittsburgh, by a lot. This is the one area in this series where one team has a pretty decisive advantage. Barzal is great and the Islanders have some pretty good players around him in Lee, Bailey, Eberle, and Nelson, but the Penguins have superstars and elite scorers up and down their roster.

DEFENSE

PITTSBURGH: The key here for Pittsburgh is going to be the health of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. Together, they are as good as it gets in the NHL. In more than 910 minute of 5-on-5 ice-time this season the Penguins outscored teams by a 56-32 margin with them on the ice and controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Neither one has been healthy as of late, though, with Letang missing a significant chunk of the final two months and Dumoulin being sidelined for the final four games. There is a significant drop on the blue line after those two, and there is reason to be concerned with both their second-and third-defense pairings.

NEW YORK: The Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era a year ago and came back this season to give up the fewest goals in the league. There was a lot of improvement in their defensive play, but they were still only average in terms of shot suppression, 16th in high-danger scoring chances against, and 23rd in total scoring chances against. Better … still not great. Goaltending played a big role in that improvement.

ADVANTAGE: It is probably even. The Islanders do not have anybody on their blue line that compares to Letang (or the pairing he and Dumoulin can form), and that is an edge for Pittsburgh. But they also don’t really have any glaring weaknesses, either, and that can be an advantage for New York.

GOALTENDING

PITTSBURGH: Since returning from injury on December 15 Matt Murray has a .930 save percentage, fifth best in the league among all goalies with at least 20 appearances during that stretch, and a 25-9-5 record. He had a terrible start to the season, but once he returned to health he was everything the Penguins needed him to be and at times in the second half a season-saver for them.

NEW YORK: Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss might be the real MVP’s for the Islanders this season as they combined to form the league’s best goaltending duo and helped turn the Islanders from a defensive laughing stock into league’s best goal prevention team.

ADVANTAGE: Islanders, but barely. Overall the Islanders finished the season with the league’s best overall and even-strength save percentage and took home the Jennings Trophy. The Penguins finished fourth and sixth in those two categories respectively. Murray has the playoff pedigree of being a two-time Stanley Cup winner — while being great in both postseasons — but the Lehner-Greiss duo has been just a little bit better this season. 

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will Phil Kessel be a difference-maker for Pittsburgh?

When the Penguins were winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 Phil Kessel was one of the driving forces behind that success. He has also been one of the best postseason performers of his era, but slumped badly in the postseason a year ago. His 2018-19 season has also been a bizarre one to watch unfold because his overall production has been as good as it has ever been, but he has still found himself in the crosshairs for criticism because he hasn’t always looked good and his even-strength goal-scoring dried up so much. But when he gets rolling he can be one of the best wingers in hockey and he showed signs of getting back to that level down the stretch.

 How can the Islanders match up with the Penguins’ talent at forward?

The Islanders were a tremendous success story this year over 82 games, but when it comes to a best-of-seven series matchups are a huge factor. The big concern here for the Islander is going to be down the middle as they try to match up with the trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Bjugstad. The Penguins definitely have the advantage with the former two, and Bjugstad is no slouch as a third-line center. Valterri Filpulla and Casey Cizikas have had outstanding years compared to the preseason expectations for them, but they are going to have their hands full in this series.

PREDICTION

PENGUINS IN 6. This is going to be a tight, evenly played series that could easily go the distance. The Islanders’ goaltending is going to give them a chance every night, but the Penguins might have just a little too much talent at the top of the lineup for the Islanders to match up with.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.

Flames’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

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In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

UPDATE: The Flames announced in an update that Brodie has been discharged and is doing well in recovery at home with his family.

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.

Islanders place Andrew Ladd on waivers

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New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello announced that the team put forward Andrew Ladd on waivers on Thursday, and from the sound of things, it’s unclear if we’ll see Ladd in the NHL again.

That said, Ladd’s $5.5 million AAV doesn’t expire until after 2022-23(!) so it’s possible that this saga may not be over.

For now, the Islanders are putting Ladd on waivers with the plan of assigning him to the AHL. Ladd had been on a conditioning stint while on LTIR as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in March, and Lamoriello said that the Islanders hadn’t seen enough from that conditioning stint to have him resume playing. Setting such a standard would always make sense, really, but especially so with the Islanders humming along with an impressive 13-3-1 record so far in 2019-20.

Ladd’s longer-term future is fuzzy, and Lamoriello didn’t want to speculate about his chances (or lack thereof?) to play in the NHL again.

Newsday’s Andrew Gross clarifies that Ladd won’t need to be taken off LTIR to make this happen, which is relevant considering the whole $5.5M thing.

Ladd’s signing ranks as one of the many cursed 2016 free agent contracts, joined by Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo (the player he essentially replaced for the Islanders), David Backes, Loui Eriksson and more.

To be fair, Ladd had some utility if you looked beyond disappointing numbers for the money at times with the Islanders, but again, it’s hard to get too thrilled about such positives when the price tag was so steep. Still, he had some aptitude, particularly defensively, during his first two seasons for the Islanders, as illustrated by this Hockey Viz heat map:

Looking at Ladd’s contract structure at Cap Friendly, there’s the remote chance that the Islanders might be able to move that $5.5M cap hit (LTIR-bound or not) as the deal goes along. Ladd’s actual salary slips to $4M from 2020-21 through 2022-23, and it’s split up by a $3M signing bonus and $1M base salary each year. Maybe a team hoping to hit the cap floor might be willing to eat that cap hit to inflate their numbers for assets after the signing bonus is already paid, even if that would most realistically be able to happen heading into 2022-23? Perhaps the Islanders could bribe the Seattle expansion franchise to eat that deal, much like Vegas ended up doing with David Clarkson‘s contract?

Ultimately, those details are mostly the concerns of whoever is handling the Islanders’ cap situation in the future, and perhaps other teams hoping to squeeze every ounce of value out of an offseason.

Unfortunately, whether Ladd ever plays for the Islanders (or any other NHL team) again, it’s clear that the Islanders didn’t get much value from signing the former Winnipeg Jets captain.

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.