Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Sometimes you can’t help but think that we’re all just writing off the Columbus Blue Jackets without one puck being dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But then you give your head a smack, recompose yourself and realize that (insert deity here) might struggle against the behemoth that the Tampa Lightning have become.

Tampa is simply that good, and the reason why the secondary race (other than making the playoffs) was to finish in the first wildcard and avoid the unstoppable force in the first round. Sure, there might be that immovable object later down the line for Tampa, but Columbus certainly isn’t it. And that’s a bit of a shame given everything Jarmo Kekalainen did to improve his team (despite giving up nearly a full draft and a couple of nice farm pieces).

You see, John Tortorella can exclaim it from the top of Mount Everest that his team is up for the challenge. One, he has to. Two, well, he has to. But even then it’s a stretch.

There are levels to this, and Tampa is one that’s two or three floors above Columbus.

I mean, we’re talking about the far-and-away best offense in the NHL this year. We’re talking about a team with top point producer, a team with three guys with 40-plus goals, and a goalie that eats shooters for breakfast and snacks on the league’s best snipers.

Columbus needed to mortgage their future and take on massive risk by not trading pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline.

Tampa didn’t set an alarm that day.

Oh, and Tampa won 62 games, tying for the most ever in an NHL season. They never lost more than two in a row all season, and that only happened twice itself. There might not be a taller order in sports at the moment than the one that lies before Columbus.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | USA, SN360, TVAS
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Columbus @Tampa Bay | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUE JACKETS: It seems almost unfair to compare the two.

The Blue Jackets accounted for 256 goals this season, 12th most in the NHL if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. Cam Atkinson had a lot to do with it as he tucked 41 himself. Artemi Panarin had 28, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson each bagging 27 each. Oliver Bjorkstrand was fifth on the team and rounded out the 20-plus goal men with 23.

Columbus will continue to ride their top two lines (Panarin-Duchene-Atkinson and Dzingel-Dubois-Anderson) for consistent scoring, and they’ll likely have to produce even better to beat Columbus, and a lot of it may need to come five-on-five. Columbus had the 28th-ranked power play, which surprisingly isn’t the worst among playoff teams — it was better than both the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

LIGHTNING: Nikita. Kucherov. Say it with me now… Seriously though, Kucherov did things this season and no one had done in the salary cap era. Perhaps he felt snubbed that he didn’t get the Hart last season, and boy did he come with a vengeance. Kucherov scored 128 points to establish a new career mark, besting his previous total by 28 points in two more games played. He beat Connor McDavid by 12 points in the Art Ross race.

And we’ve only talked about one player so far

The Lightning had three players with 40-plus goals, with Kucherov and Brayden Point each scoring 41 and Steven Stamkos leading the pack with 45. Ten of their 12 forward had double-digit goals, with seven having more than 18 apiece. They led the league with 319 goals-for, 30 more than anyone else (and the only team to eclipse 300). They led the with a 12.2 percent shooting percentage. They led the league with a power play that ran at 28 percent. They just led the league. In everything that matters. It’s a brilliant offense.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. I mean, if there’s one series that this is most clear in, it’s this one. It’s the Lightning by miles upon miles. The best scorer, the best offense and the best power play. It almost seems unfair and barring something divine, the Lightning aren’t going to be held at bay.

DEFENSE

BLUE JACKETS: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be leaned upon heavily as they shoulder a massive task in trying to shut down Tampa. The pair are a formidable shutdown duo, for sure, but the depth starts to fall off after that.

Jones plays nearly 26 minutes a night, with Werenski at nearly 23. From there, every other defenseman on the team is under 20 minutes aside from the injured Ryan Murray.

Not having Murray stings. He’s missed the past 24 games with an upper-body injury and won’t be available for Game 1, at least. Murray had 29 points in 56 games prior to getting injured, so they’ll be missing some production back there, too.

LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman practiced on Monday and it appears he might be ready to play in Game 1 after suffering an injury on March 30, forcing him to miss the last week of action.

Hedman’s presence is crucial. His size, ability to play monster minutes and in all situations is a big key to this juggernaut of a team. But Tampa is deep, no doubt. They finished eighth in fewest goals-against and can also rely on some offensive production from their back end. If there’s a weakness, it might be in the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Jan Rutta.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. They have better depth and better scoring from the back end, both things that are paramount in the playoffs.

GOALTENDING

BLUE JACKETS: This is where the series could be decided.

If Sergei Bobrovsky and play out of his mind, Columbus has a snowball’s chance in hell, which is an improvement. If struggles, shut off the lights and head home. It’s over.

Bob’s season one of the worst of his career, statistically, with a .913 save percentage — a number that was made to look respectable as he closed out the season with multiple shutouts. Those numbers just won’t cut it against an offense of Tampa’s ilk.

LIGHTNING: Vasilevskiy is in a league of his own.

Like it or not, Vasilevskiy is probably winning the Vezina this year and he’s simply an elite goaltender who got a lot more rest down the stretch than he did last year. That means a more fresh Vasilevskiy. A more sharp Vasilevskiy. A quicker Vasilevskiy. That’s a goalie that’s tough to beat.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. Vasilevskiy brings it every night and hardly has a bad day at the office. He’s comfortable taking a lot of shots and he’s not going to be facing down a great power play. And Bobrovsky is hit or miss these days. And even if he hits, can he really deal with everything the Lightning will throw at him?

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Blue Jackets outgun the Lightning?

That’s really what it will come down to here. The Blue Jackets need to take advantage of every single opportunity they’re afforded and then play defense (tight gap, high pressure) like they’ve never done before.

Can they keep the status quo?

Basically, if the regular season Lightning shows up, this one is over before it begins. The Lightning need to remain the same team in the playoffs. They have a lot of pressure on them. They’ve earned it, given their season, and now need to respond to it.

PREDICTION

LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.

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


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

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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