Limping into the playoffs, Jets still confident vs. Blues

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WINNIPEG — Somewhere along the line, the Winnipeg Jets lost their way.

It’s as if the search for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs had been called off early. By Christmas Day, they already knew they’d be there. Firmly planted in first place in the Central Division, and with only one real threat to their throne to be seen, the Jets switched on autopilot somewhere around New Year’s Day. They had hit cruising altitude and kicked back to enjoy the flight.

Winnipeg proved a year earlier that they could be a dominant side. A season with 52 wins is a statement, and they made it. A four-point lead for first place in the Central on New Year’s Eve in the following season was further affirmation. A step forward. Winnipeg were the top dogs in the division. They won the territorial scrap in Game 7 in the second round of last year’s playoffs against the Nashville Predators. They owned the yard now and surpassed the Predators as Central favorites — and by extension, Cup darlings.

But the turbulence hit, and it struck hard, flinging around a Jets team that hadn’t experienced much adversity up until that point.

First, Dustin Byfuglien went down. Then he came back but was thrown to the sidelines once again a week later. Josh Morrissey was next 10 days after that. Byfuglien would miss 34 of the next 39 games and Morrissey would sit for the final 20.

The resulting tailspin exposed Winnipeg’s lack of adequate depth on defense. Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline day acquisition did his best Morrissey impression, but the Jets were forced to run Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov harder, and it showed.

Third-period leads weren’t a safe bet any longer. The Jets, who were 42-1-1 when leading after two periods a year earlier, finished with nine losses in the same scenario this season.

And that first place spot they held for much of the year was finally relinquished in Game 81 and they had to settle for second place in the division and a whole lot of wounds that needed to be licked.

Two devastating injuries mixed with a shot of complacency was a tonic the Jets ended up drinking.

“I think last year we were so set on proving ourselves,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday. “We’ve only been in the playoffs once and it was a short time. We really wanted to show that we could be a contender and we weren’t used to being in that position.

“[This year], we got off to such a good start that maybe a little complacency set in. But at the same time, you lose Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien at the same time and those are big holes to fill on the backend. I think the loss of both of those guys can’t be understated. They’re huge contributors to our team. Obviously, being comfortably in a playoff position since, basically, January, you kind of know where you’re going to be at the end of the year.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The eyes met the math with the Jets and their two halves to the season showed wildly different teams:

Jets from opening day to Dec. 31
50.91 CF% (10th)
50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
47.22 CF% (25th)
45.01 xGF% (30th)

An 18-goal month of November by Patrik Laine had him firmly planted where many felt he would be: racing Alex Ovechkin — Laine’s boyhood idol — to the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Laine had 24 goals as of Jan.1. He’d finish the season with 30, which is about all you need to know about how much of a struggle the second half was for the sniper.

Laine admitted Tuesday that he had a tough regular season. He didn’t really need to say the words, however. His body language outside of a stretch of three games where he had four goals, told the whole story. Dejected Laine had been seen around these parts before, but not nearly as long has he stuck around this time.

The 20-year-old Finn ended the season with one goal in 19 games.

“Well, based on my goal scoring it’s obviously not that high,” Laine said of his confidence meter.

Asked if he’s been studying the tendencies of rookie sensation Jordan Binnington, Laine smiled.

“I’ll probably watch something, but right now with my confidence I’ll just try to hit the net,” he said. “I think I had a tough regular season and playoffs are different. Now it doesn’t matter who scores, at least if somebody scores that’s good for us. Hopefully, I can help the team win. If it’s not goals, then something else. But there’s a lot of things we can do.”

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In a game that seemed to be more of an aberration than anything, the Jets trounced the Predators 5-0 in the middle of March.

In that game, Winnipeg’s potential was on full display. Their quickness dictated the game, stifling the Predators at every juncture. There was no let-up, either. They simply throttled a team many believe has the best defense in the show.

The Jets have been preaching from the pulpit and using that game as one this season where they displayed the ferocity they believe they can unleash beginning on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Winnipeg’s run-in was so poor and St. Louis’ was so good (although the difference in wins between both teams was actually just one), however, that St. Louis has been pegged by many as the favorites to move on.

And there’s merit to that.

Winnipeg’s record over the second half of the season would have had them sitting in a fight for a wildcard spot. No team not named the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record than St. Louis, who leaned on fantastic shot suppression and brilliant goaltending. The tables flipped, but the Jets feel certain they’re ready to up the ante.

“I think you’re going to see a team that’s been able to get up for the big games against really good teams all year,” Lowry said, listing of specifics, such as their win against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the year, among other battles.

“We know the team we are,” Mark Scheifele added.

Scheifele was an unstoppable force through two rounds last season and put up career-year numbers this year.

“We had our good stretches, our bad stretches,” he said. “We know what makes us a good team. It’s about putting it on the ice. It’s not about talking about it, saying what we’re going to do. It all comes down to putting it on the ice. Walking the walk.”

The Jets didn’t get the Vezina runner-up goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck as they did in 2017-18. Part of that was so-so start and was followed up by some big losses on the blue line. Hellebuyck has returned to that form, however. In his final 10 appearances of the season, Hellebuyck put up a .930 save percentage.

Is he ready?

“Yes, I am. I can honestly say that,” Hellebuyck said. “I like where my game is at. My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle.”

That battle commences on Wednesday night.

MORE: Jets vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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

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.

Fabbri finding a home with new opportunity in Detroit

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This season for the Red Wings is about developing youth. There are over 10 players currently on the roster who are 24 years old or younger, so getting the kids up to speed to continue this transition phase is vital if the franchise is to become a playoff team again.

One of those kids is a recent addition to the team — thanks in part to Darren Pang — and a player who was in need of a new opportunity after a couple of tough seasons.

Robby Fabbri left the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues for the Red Wings earlier this month in a trade that sent Jacob De La Rose to St. Louis. He signed a one-year deal with St. Louis in July, but when it was clear he wouldn’t have a regular role in the lineup, he asked to move on. So far, the change has paid off as through three games, the 23-year-old winger has two goals and four points, including two primary assists on Detroit’s last two game-winning goals.

“He’s been great. He’s a playmaker,” said Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin. “He gets the puck and it’s going to someone with a purpose after he’s got it. Adding a guy like that who can make plays and does it a lot, and he’s a crafty guy, he’s been an energy guy for us and a huge addition.”

Entering the 2014 NHL Draft, the Red Wings were interested in Fabbri, who scored 45 goals and recorded 87 points in 58 games with the OHL’s Guelph Storm during his draft year. But when they were on the clock, general manager Ken Holland announced Larkin’s name at pick No. 15. Six spots later, Fabbri went to the Blues.

“He was always dangerous with the puck and he always had the puck on his stick,” Larkin said about playing against Fabbri in their younger days. “He was one of those guys where being from Detroit, he’s from Toronto, you knew who he was and you knew going into the game that it’s Robby Fabbri, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to be a star out there. It’s cool to have that and be in the same locker room with him now and come up through the same draft. We’re pretty familiar with each other through events and just knowing each other through time. I’m excited that he’s here and I think he’s excited that he’s here.”

Fabbri got off to an okay start with the Blues, scoring 29 times in his first 123 games, but two ACL injuries in the same knee derailed the next year-and-a-half of his career. By the time he returned last season, he showed he could still play, but it would remain a process before he’d 100% be back to his old self.

A new team, a new chance. It’s all working out so far as Fabbri continues in a positive direction.

“We’re hoping we can get Robby back up to the speed he was when he first came into the league and he had lots of success,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill after the trade. “I talked to Ken Hitchcock and (Blues head coach) Craig Berube. There’s a belief there’s more in him. There’s opportunity. … [W]e have opportunity here, a clean slate and now he’s got to grab it. We need more scoring, he can potentially provide that, so I look forward to watching him play.”

For Fabbri, putting his injuries in the rearview will help him move forward with his new opportunity and help him be a consistent offensive presence on a Red Wings team hoping to begin a consistent move in the right direction.

“When you’ve been hurt with the massive injuries he’s been hurt with sometimes you can get a little bit cautious, so it takes a little bit of time to get away from that,” said Blashill. “I’m hoping he can play as hard as he has in the past and he can give [us] scoring depth.”

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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.

Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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The NHL on NBC’s Eddie Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, the former player and current analyst has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

Olczyk was recently named the NHL Hockey Fights Cancer Ambassador for the 2019-20 season and his new book “Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life” tells the story of his fight.

***

On February 21, at precisely 9:02 am, I was unhooked from my final chemo treatment. What a relief! It was incredible to be finally done — epic. I was done after six months. I had a bunch of family and friends call and congratulate me and I received so many texts from the hockey and horse racing worlds with exclamation points. Diana brought me a bouquet of helium balloons shaped like horses and dogs with the words You Did It. She almost flew away because of all the balloons. 

After that last round of chemo, I got rid of anything that reminded me of what I had gone through during those treatments—clothes, pillows, blankets. Anything that reeked of chemo, I disposed of. That felt really good. The week before I went to the mall and went on a shopping spree. I was about to embark on the rest of my life and the rest of my career. 

It was around this time that Illinois congressman Mike Quigley spoke on the House floor and addressed my situation. He had a Blackhawks jersey with my name and number brought in for display and talked about my battle and what I had been doing to raise awareness about the need for earlier screenings and continued research to find a cure. He described me as a native son of Chicago who has exemplified the heart, grit, and the character of the city we both call home. 

“Like many others who have faced cancer, he was concerned that he was letting people down and he began to question his mortality, but as he went through treatment and reflected on this ordeal Eddie started to recognize that it was okay to be scared,” Congressman Quigley said. “He knows it’s important to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with people getting colonoscopies at an earlier age. He knows that if he can help just one individual get a checkup sooner, he will feel like his battle with cancer was worth it. To Eddie and to all fighting cancer, stay strong and know we’re with you.” 

I was very grateful for him doing that. What an honor.

On March 8 I had the scan and the next day while traveling with the team to Boston, I asked Dr. Michael Terry, the Blackhawks team physician, if he had any update. He had been part of my illness from the start; I call him the captain of my doctors. 

He had access to the scan on his iPhone. He looked at me and said, “Edzo, from what I can see, it looks really clean.” 

I gave him a huge hug because I’d just dodged a huge bullet. After getting emotional, I took a couple of deep breaths. I wanted to yell something like what most hockey players do after they score a goal, but I was just overcome thinking about so much—my family, my kids, my friends. I just couldn’t wait to tell Diana that it looked good, but we still had to wait to hear from Dr. Mulcahy. 

It was a relief and a half that it was all gone. Thank God. I was so thankful for the physicians and the team that I had and the support I had. It’s always going to be with me, but I felt okay. We had come a long way since that first meeting with Dr. Mulcahy. Yes, it was absolute hell for six months. Going through the chemo was the most difficult part because there was a chance, God forbid, I’d have to continue with more treatment. 

I endured a lot and tackled it straight on and felt like I had conquered it. Now I had to recover and rid myself of all this medicine and tell my story to encourage people to go in for checkups and get colonoscopies. This is why we tried to be so open and outgoing without being overbearing. If you don’t feel good or you get to the age of 45, you’ve got to get checked, whether you have a history of cancer in your family or not. 

I called Diana after we deplaned and told her the news and we subsequently gave the heads-up to the kids. 

Four days later, at 5:07 pm, Dr. Mulcahy called and told me I was cancer-free. Diana was there with me and we didn’t do anything special other than maybe hug a little tighter when I got back home. It was like, “We did it. Let’s get as far away from this as we can.” 

On March 22, just before the start of the second period of a game at the United Center between the Hawks and the Vancouver Canucks, I went back on the air with Pat Foley to update people on my condition. He told the audience that because of what I had gone through, he had gotten a colonoscopy, as had Troy Murray and a bunch of Pat’s friends. He said my ability to go public with what I had gone through was tremendously inspirational and also heroic, because anybody who has gone through chemotherapy knows how devastating a situation that can be. 

Happily, I told everyone I was cancer-free. I reiterated as I had throughout my battle that it was a team effort, including the doctors, the entire Hawks organization, the National Hockey League, the people I worked with on TV, my family, my wife, my children, and my friends. If it wasn’t for my family, there was no way I could have gone through this. We all beat this. And I said I had done enough crying to last me a lifetime. 

Pat was so pumped. “You beat cancer, baby!” he exclaimed. 

Now that I was publicly revealing I was cancer-free, I wanted to reinforce to people who were battling cancer or knew someone going through it that they are not weak individuals. My message for them was to stay strong, believe they are tough, and believe they will beat it. I ended the interview by saying if I could inspire one person to stay away from this by going for a colonoscopy, then I guess it was well worth it. It tests your will to live. 

I did a bunch of interviews afterward, just as I had done since I went public with my cancer battle, so it was kind of like going full circle. It wasn’t easy but it’s a lot less stressful when you’re telling them the happy ending of the story. Sharing that news was such a relief. 

I subsequently underwent the hernia surgery in which they put an 8″x10″ piece of mesh in my stomach to seal it up and fix it. In a way, it also felt like the final touch on my long journey.

This excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/EddieOlczyk.

Bolt from the blueline: Avs rookie Makar off to flying start

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DENVER — Cale Makar is on the move these days – into his own place and into hallowed hockey territory. He’s just getting settled in, too.

The Colorado Avalanche rookie became only the fourth defenseman in NHL history to record 18 points through his first 18 career regular-season games. His teammates maintain that’s due to his ability to see the ice with a veteran’s vision and rarely making the same mistake twice.

His own appraisal is much more subdued.

”I still feel like a rookie,” said Makar, who moved out of teammate Matt Calvert‘s house this year to achieve another level of independence. ”I still have lots to learn.”

Those are precisely the words fellow defenseman Ian Cole wants to hear from the 21-year-old who was drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2017 and received his first taste of NHL action last spring in the playoffs.

”But what’s he going to say? ‘Man, am I good!”’ Cole cracked.

The numbers and early accolades do tend to suggest that, though. Makar was named the third star by the league for the week ending Nov. 10.

On Tuesday night, he scored his fifth goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Winnipeg. It was a game in which goaltender Adam Werner stepped in after starter Pavel Francouz was hurt after 31 seconds. All Werner did was turn in a 40-save shutout in his unexpected NHL debut.

It could be another injury for the Avalanche to weather in what’s already been a banged-up season. They’re currently without captain Gabriel Landeskog, forward Mikko Rantanen, goaltender Philipp Grubauer, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and defenseman Nikita Zadorov.

”It’s tough,” said Makar, who has 13 assists this season. ”At the end of the day, we have so much depth.”

Makar has given Colorado a big scoring boost.

A notable stat: The last rookie defenseman with more points than Makar through their first 18 regular-season games was Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, who had 19 for Los Angeles in 1980-81. The two other NHL blueliners with more points through 18 games were Hall of Famers Hap Day (21 points with the Toronto St. Patricks in 1924-25) and Harry Cameron (20 with the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18), according to research from NHL Stats.

Another noteworthy stat: Makar’s nine assists in October set an Avalanche record for a rookie defenseman in a month.

And another: His five straight games with at least a point to kick off the season matched the Avalanche record (since 1995-96) for the longest stretch to begin a career.

”He’s a guy that’s just so naturally talented,” Cole said. ”His maturity level is well beyond his years. He’s very analytical in the sense that when he sees something, we can talk through something and you can almost see him learning. He can catalog that.

”If I’m right in that assessment, he’s going to be very, very good very quickly and for a very long time.”

Last April, Makar signed an entry contract with Colorado after his Frozen Four run with UMass came to an end (he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top NCAA hockey player).

His first contest in an Avs sweater was Game 3 against the Western Conference’s top seed, Calgary. He made an immediate impact by becoming the first defenseman in league history to score a goal while making his NHL debut in the playoffs. Makar ended up with one goal and five assists in the postseason.

That jumpstarted his career. But it doesn’t lessen his learning curve, he maintained, through his first regular season.

”It’s just adjusting – whether it’s to the lifestyle or just the game schedule. Everything is different here,” said Makar, whose new place is within walking distance of most of his teammates. ”You have a lot more free time. It’s filling those times with useful stuff that’s going to help you. … It’s your job to worry about this.”

A little bit ago, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar sat down with his young defenseman after not seeing quite the same version of Makar he saw in the playoffs. They went over a few things – using his skating to work his way out of tough situations inside the ”D” zone and taking off if he sees openings in the neutral zone.

No need to tell him twice.

”He’s really implemented it in his game, and really bounced back in a hurry,” Bednar said. ”I feel really comfortable with where his game’s at.”