2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 16 questions for every team

6 Comments

So here we are. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived and 16 teams enter this week with dreams of playing into June and being the only ones to win 16 games over the next two months. There are contenders, pretenders, surprises, and usual suspects.

But as the chase for the Cup begins, there are plenty of questions to be answered. Here is one question for every team in the 2019 postseason.

1. Will the Capitals repeat?

Only one franchise — the Pittsburgh Penguins — has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998. It’s difficult to repeat. There’s roster turnover to deal with, bounces not going your way for another season, injuries to overcome, and just the pressure of winning 16 playoff games. There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened a lot. The Capitals had little change in personnel since last season, but losing Michal Kempny for the season will be a big blow to their blue line.

2. Which Martin Jones will show up for the Sharks?

Jones enters the playoffs coming off the worst regular season since he became an NHL No. 1. His .896 even strength save percentage, which was dead-last among goaltenders with at least 45 appearances. That pales in comparison to the .925 ESSV% he posted entering the 2016 playoffs when he helped the Sharks reach the Cup Final. San Jose has all the tools to be a contender in the West, but it’s goaltending that could hinder any chance at making a deep run.

3. Can anyone stop the Lightning?

62 wins, 128 points, the Presidents’ Trophy, the probable Hart Trophy winner, and three 40-goal scorers. Tampa is the overwhelming favorite to win the Cup, and with all that comes the pressure to complete an historic season by winning that elusive 16th playoff game. The Lightning have reached three Eastern Conference Finals since 2015 and dropped the 2015 Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve been building to this type of season since promoting Jon Cooper. Now it’s a matter of finishing the job.

4. How long will the Blues’ resurgence last?

The story’s been told a thousand times. Last in the NHL on Jan. 3, St. Louis was revived after Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo and Jordan Binnington took over the starter’s job from Jake Allen. They finished a point out of the Central Division crown and now face a Jets team that isn’t the unbeatable force some imagined they would be. The confidence in that room has gone from wondering who might get dealt away as the season wasted away to pulling together and seeing a path toward a deep Western Conference run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

5. What kind of goodbye will Panarin and Bobrovsky give the Blue Jackets?

It’s no secret that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky will likely leave Columbus when their contracts expire this summer. That is one of the reasons why GM Jarmo Kekalainen was aggressive at the NHL trade deadline. The idea behind it? Load up and make your best shot before your two biggest stars walk in the summer. Facing the best team in the league in Round 1, there won’t be any pressure on the Blue Jackets, which could be a positive for them.

6. Who will emerge as the Flames’ No. 1?

Who do you trust more: Mike Smith or David Rittich? Calgary were the regular season champions of the Western Conference, and while their offense is dynamic and their defense is strong, goaltending could be their undoing. The Flames are quite good at shot suppression (NHL-best 28.1 shots allowed per game), they were a middle .918 at 5-on-5 save percentage. Smith is the expected starter for Game 1 against the Avalanche.

7. Are the Bruins’ being overlooked in the East?

The East has plenty of storylines with the Capitals looking to repeat, the Lightning trying to continue an historic season, the Islanders aiming to keep a surprise turnaround going, and those “jerks” in Carolina hoping Cinderella’s slipper fits. Meanwhile, the Bruins are sitting there as sleepers — a team clearly capable of winning the Cup. Since firing Claude Julien in Feb. 2017, Boston has the second-most wins (117) and points in the NHL under Bruce Cassidy (256). His message has gotten through and the top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has been dynamite. They’ll need more from their depth if they’re to get through three rounds and make the Cup Final.

8. Will the Golden Knights make another deep run?

General manager George McPhee wasn’t satisfied after last season’s memorable run to the Cup Final. Vegas’ success in their first year changed the gameplan for the franchise, so McPhee went out and strengthened his team by adding Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty before the season and then Mark Stone at the February trade deadline. The depth up front is there, as is a strong defensive unit. Add in a healthy Marc-Andre Fleury and those are the ingredients for a viable contender.

9. How will the Penguins find consistency?

While they finished the regular season strong with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline, the Penguins have had plenty of ups and downs. They managed to drop nine of 10 games at one point, feature a power play that, while dangerous, allowed the shorthanded goals (15) in the NHL, and had a knack for blowing leads late in games. The talent is all there for another Cup run, and a number of players on their roster were on the 2016 and 2017 championship teams, it’s just a matter of not digging holes for themselves.

AP Images

10. Can Ben Bishop stay healthy to lead the Stars?

Injuries limited Bishop to 45 starts this season, but he was phenomenal posting a .938 even strength save percentage and seven shutouts. If he can stay healthy, following notable injuries in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and 2016 playoffs, Dallas is more than capable of knocking off the Nashville Predators in Round 1.

11. How hot is Mike Babcock’s seat in Toronto?

They brought John Tavares home and traded for Jake Muzzin. The Maple Leafs are stronger than last season but by no means are they the Cup contender many thought they’d be entering the postseason. There are plenty of issues affecting the team and they once again face a difficult Round 1 matchup against the Bruins. If they fail again, how does this change the conversation about Babcock’s future in Toronto? The expectations are sky high, and falling short yet again will only up the noise about whether he can lead them over the hump.

12. Are the Jets primed for an early exit?

Winnipeg brought the “White Out” to the Western Conference Final last season before being dropped by the Golden Knights. This season, they face a tough Round 1 matchup against the Blues and enter the series with a 14-14-3 record in their final 31 games. Not the look of a contender. They blew a chance to win the Central Division and now face one of the best teams in the second half of the season. Healthy additions to the blue line in Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien will help them try to slow a Blues offense that’s averaged three goals per game since January.

13. Can the Islanders’ defense cool the Penguins?

We knew that Barry Trotz’s defensive magic would work eventually after arriving on Long Island, but this quickly? The work of Piero Greco and Mitch Korn with their goaltenders earned the duo the Jennings Trophy this season, and the blue line has been stout ending the year with the 10th fewest shots allowed at even strength. The Penguins have the fourth-most shots at 5-on-5 and feature a dangerous power play. The Isles’ defense will be busy, but have shown their up to the task of slowing any opposing offense.

14. Do the Avalanche have enough to make some noise?

The top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen combined for 106 goals this season. The rest of the Avalanche team scored 152 combined. Championships are won with depth and Colorado will need others to step up and contribute in order to have a chance against a strong defensive unit in Calgary.

15. Can the Hurricanes find quality in their quantity of shots?

Carolina were third in the NHL in even strength shots on goal, but finished 15th in 5-on-5 goals for. It all added up to a 7.17 shooting percentage, per Natural Stat Trick. Braden Holtby faced the seventh most shots at EV this season, so he’s used to being busy in net and will be well-prepared for the Hurricanes’ shooting prowess. But facing a team with as many offensive weapons as the Capitals employ, Rod Brind’Amour’s team will have to make their shots count.

16. Will Kyle Turris show up for the Predators?

The last time Turris scored fewer than 10 goals and played more 11 games in a season was 2008-09, his first full NHL season. This season has been one to forget as injuries and inconsistent play limited him to seven goals in 55 games. He was a ghost last spring scoring zero goals and recording three assist as Nashville exited in Round 2. If the Predators are to have a formidable second line, they’ll need him to find his production again. By the way, he has five years and $30 million left on his contract.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

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

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

————

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.

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who might are in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

Getty Images
2 Comments

Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

NHL Seattle
2 Comments

NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

————

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

Getty Images
2 Comments

Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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