Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning

Which team in either conference can give the Lightning the toughest matchup?

SEAN: Still believe it’s the Capitals. Washington was able to do a good job of shot suppression in the Eastern Conference Final last year against the Lightning, and they have mostly the same roster. Losing Michael Kempny will hurt, but they also have Braden Holtby behind the blue line. The same Holtby who posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 a year ago.

JAMES: Honestly, there’s a credible threat every step of the way, including a relatively formidable Round 1 opponent in Columbus. My pick is the Penguins, for two simple seasons: 1) this accounts for two rounds of wear-and-tear and 2) Pittsburgh ranks as one of the few teams with firepower that at least approaches Tampa Bay’s ridiculous arsenal. I believe the Bruins/Maple Leafs are better teams than the Penguins, but I’d wager that Tampa Bay enters Round 2 far fresher than whoever wins that Boston – Toronto slugfest. With Matt Murray quietly finishing the season on a hot streak, the Penguins formula of “potent offense + deeply shaky defense + Murray standings on his head” might just pay dividends for another run.

(But no, the Lightning are winning it all.)

ADAM: The Lightning are clearly the favorites here but no team is unbeatable, and if anyone is going to knock off the Lightning it is going to be a team that has high-end talent at forward that can match them (or at least come close to matching them) and a really good goalie. I see two or three teams that fit that in the Eastern Conference. Boston is definitely one. Washington is one if Braden Holtby can get back to a Braden Holtby level of play. Pittsburgh is one if Matt Murray keeps playing the way he has since returning from injury in December. Those are the teams that I can see giving them the toughest fight. Boston would be the interesting one here because if both teams get through Round 1 you are going to have another situation where you have the two best teams in the league playing in Round 2 (the Bruins were tied with the Flames with 107 points for second best record), and the Bruins were every bit as good as that record indicates. That would be a brutally tough matchup that early in the playoffs for the Lightning.

JOEY: I feel like the Boston Bruins have the best chance of knocking out the Bolts. They’re not as deep as the Lightning (nobody is), but they found a way to overcome adversity throughout the year. The Bruins finished the year in the top five when it comes to man games lost due to injury, so their depth players also had to step up in 2018-19. Getting Tuukka Rask back on his game will be the key though. For the Bruins to sink the Lightning, they’ll need their goaltender to be better than Andrei Vasilevskiy. That might be asking a lot of Rask, but he’s shown that he can elevate his game when his team needs him most. It’s a shame these teams would have to meet in the second round though. Assuming this matchup happens at all, it will be a great series with a lot of high-end offensive players. 

SCOTT: Boston. Cut out the final game of the season for both clubs and two of their four matchups were affairs settled by one goal and the other was Boston winning convincingly 4-1. Sure, Tampa won three of four, but the Bruins showed they could run with the Lightning. Boston is the only team that compares. They ooze talent, too, and a good series featuring stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask would throw a real wrench into things for Tampa. If Boston can remain disciplined, I think they could do it. And I’ve picked them to win the Cup this year because I believe they can be Tampa’s kryptonite.

RYAN: I picked the San Jose Sharks to win the Cup, but I think Pittsburgh or Washington will give the Lightning a really tough fight in the Eastern Conference Final, assuming that matchup happens.  Honestly, the Lightning don’t have an easy road to the Cup.  Even in the first round, while I fully expect the Lightning to beat Columbus,the Blue Jackets can’t be discounted.  If Sergei Bobrovsky plays at his peak and trade acquisitions Matt Duchene/Ryan Dzingel step up in the playoffs in a way they haven’t since being acquired by Columbus then the Blue Jackets could surprise people.  It’s a big if and the more likely scenario is that Tampa Bay will at least get past Columbus, but the point is despite winning 62 games in the regular season, the Lightning are far from untouchable.

Which team’s goaltending will be the reason they don’t make a Stanley Cup run?

SEAN: It’s hard to choose between San Jose and Calgary, but considering the season they had and expectations, I’d pick the Flames over the Sharks by a hair. Bill Peters has done a wonderful job in making them stronger on both sides of the ice. But the duo of Mike Smith and David Rittich gives me pause about thinking they could challenge for the Cup. You can’t win in the playoffs without having a number of tight, low-scoring games. I don’t see either goalie being capable of stealing a handful of a games to push the Flames ahead.

JAMES: It may actually come down to which coaches would actually change goalies if things went south, and which ones would stubbornly go down with the ship. I feel like the Flames would be quicker to move away from Mike Smith (on an expiring contract) than the Sharks would with Martin Jones (who’s terrifyingly signed through 2023-24). So, the Sharks are the biggest worry to me.

Allow one wild card, though: Vegas. Marc-Andre Fleury played to end the season, but he missed quite a bit of time with injury, and I can’t help but worry that Gerard Gallant ran the veteran goalie into the ground. If MAF is some mixture of rusty, injured, and/or beat-up, the Golden Knights could be in big trouble.

ADAM: As much as I do not trust the Calgary Flames’ situation, and for as hit-and-miss as Marc-Andre Fleury has been at times this season, and for as bad as Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff history is, there can be no other answer here other than the San Jose Sharks. You can not hide from the worst team save percentage in hockey and two of the worst individual goaltending performances in the league. This team has everything to be a Stanley Cup contender this season except for the goalie.

JOEY: I have to go with San Jose. They have all the tools to go on a long run, but Martin Jones’ play has left a lot to be desired this year. If he can go back to playing like he did a couple of years ago, the Sharks would have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Without him, they could get bounced in the first round. That’s how big of a factor he’ll be for them this postseason. He doesn’t even have to be great, but he needs to make sure he’s not the reason his team loses big games. 

SCOTT: San Jose, who edge out the Calgary Flames because the Flames have two goalies they can turn to. Martin Jones had a .896 save percentage this season. Yes, a sub .900 save percentage on a team that finished in second place in the Pacific Division. While that might cut it in the regular season (and really, I don’t know how it did), it won’t in the playoffs. Just ask Sergei Bobrovsky what saving fewer than 90 percent the of shots you face in the playoffs means. Heck, you don’t need him to answer that. It means no playoff series wins.

RYAN: If the Sharks fall short, it will be because of Martin Jones.  He certainly left plenty to be desired in the regular season.  The Calgary Flames are another team that stands out with its questionable goaltending

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Who will be this year’s John Druce, the player who delivers an unlikely scoring surge?

SEAN: It may not last very long, but how about a nostalgic run from Jason Spezza, who only scored eight times during the regular season for the Stars. It was only three years ago he popped in 13 in the postseason for Dallas and 12 years since he scored 20 during the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Cup Final.

JAMES: When you’re looking for the next Chris Kontos/Devante Smith-Pelly/Fernando Pisani, you can do worse to look for someone fighting for a future job. With a cap crunch coming, Ryan Callahan has to know that the Lightning want to get rid of his $5.8 million contract one way or another. Callahan seems like the type who could have one of those inspiring runs where a veteran scores a bunch of unexpected goals.

Bonus choice: Teddy Blueger, because I smile every time I see his name, and is even better when he goes by Theodore. Also, he played a stretch with Phil Kessel on his line, so maybe that would happen again.

ADAM: Just keeping thinking the St. Louis Blues keep this roll they have been on going throughout the playoffs, and Oskar Sundqvist has quietly had a really good season with 14 goals, 17 assists. Maybe he does not reach double digits in the playoffs, but I could see him scoring quite a few big goals in the postseason.

JOEY: I’ll go with Bruins forward Chris Wagner. He found a way to score 12 goals for the Bruins while playing a bottom-six role. He’s a physical player that has 21 games of playoff experience. The Bruins can’t just rely on their top line plus David Krejci to get the job done. They need everyone chipping in, so I expect someone like Wagner to step up along the way. 

SCOTT: I’d like to take David Backes here for fun, but he may not play that much. Since I’ve got he Bruins winning the Cup, however, it’s a good bet that it would be someone on Boston. I’m going to go with Marcus Johannson. He was pretty solid in a couple of the Washington Capitals playoff runs. Teams facing Boston are going to have a tough time with their two top lines, meaning more to feast on for the bottom six. Johansson hasn’t done too much in his time with Boston, so now is the time to introduce himself in a big way.

RYAN: It’s a stretch, but as long as we’re talking about unlikely, I’ll say Derek Ryan.  He’s a 32-year-old late bloomer with 41 career goals and no NHL playoff experience, but he’s something of a hot-and-cold player offensively with some pretty good hot streaks to his name. He’s going into the playoffs on one of those hot streaks with six goals and 13 points in his last 13 games.

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

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

Seth Jones #3 and Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets talk
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents

Josh Anderson (RFA)

Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)

Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)

Vladislav Gavrikov

Jakob Lilja (RFA)

Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)

Ryan MacInnis (RFA)

Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)

Devin Shore (RFA)

Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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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.

Devils make donation for medical equipment

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The owners of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils have made a six-figure donation to the state’s largest health care system for medical equipment to ensure the safety and proper protection of all healthcare workers and first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Devils co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer and RWJBarnabas Health announced the donation Tuesday without saying the exact amount. They described it as “significant and impactful.” The money was given to RWJBarnabas Health’s Emergency Response Fund to help combat the challenges faced by the medical community and its personnel.

RWJBarnabas Health has more than 35,000 system employees who treat thousands of patients daily in hospitals throughout the state.

The RWJBarnabas Health Foundation plans to acquire a variety of personal protective equipment, including N95 respirators and surgical masks, gloves, gowns, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, eye protection, and other necessary medical equipment that’s critically needed.

With the NHL season suspended by the virus, the Devils on Monday packed their medical equipment in the Prudential Center and sent 7,000 pairs of gloves, 10,000 hand sanitizers and all their soaps, sprays and cleaning material to the health care network, a team spokesman said.

The donation came on the same day as Harris and Blitzer made a six-figure donation made to the city of Newark to support a program that provides gift cards for groceries to city families in need. The spokesman said the hospital donation also was six figures.

The Devils have spoken to state authorities and offered to make the Prudential Center available should it be needed for use as a temporary hospital.

Stanley Cup contenders staying ‘optimistic’ about games resuming

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The NHL pause has made us all dream of the day hockey returns and we can finish the 2019-20 season.

That rings true for players as well, and there’s a strong feeling among teams that owned Stanley Cup dreams before everything shut down.

The defending champion Blues are reside atop the Western Conference and showed no signs of a Cup hangover through 71 games. Nearly three weeks since the NHL suspended the season, a potential repeat isn’t sitting heavily on the mind of their team captain.

“I don’t think any of us are thinking about [playoffs], we’re more just worried about taking care of ourselves and our loved ones,” Alex Pietrangelo said during a Tuesday video conference with reporters. “I think at the time, yeah, it’s frustrating, but again, we’re all optimistic that maybe we’ll have the chance to play again this year. So maybe we’ll have the opportunity. 

“The good thing about the break, is this time of year everybody’s banged up. We go through a lot during the year, so could be an opportunity to rest up. If we do get back, it’ll be one helluva playoff.”

The Blues had been without Vladimir Tarasenko since Oct. 24 due to a shoulder injury. He was expected back around the start of the playoffs, so a prolonged break would allow a return to full health and provide a boost to the defending champions.

Two teams hoping to derail the Blues’ repeat chances are the Avalanche and Stars, who entered the break in second and third place, respectively, in the Central Division. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said that this was the most confident he’s felt in his teams title chances since he entered the league.

“We were chasing down St. Louis and we’re two points behind with a game in-hand and we knew we had them coming up in game 82, last game of the season,” Landeskog said. “We were dealing with a lot of injuries and some key guys were out, but guys were starting to come back, so it came at a bad time. Some people would say it came at a good time because it’ll allow us come back and be healthy, but then again, we don’t know how long it’s going to last for either.”

The Stars are 10 points behind the Avalanche and trying to fend off the Jets and Predators, who are both right behind them in wild card spots. A break was certainly helpful, but the players are all itching to put their skates on again and play.

“It’s frustrating. We’re all in the same boat,” said Dallas captain Jamie Benn. “For the break, it couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We were slipping a bit. We lost six in a row. I know our group was like, all right, this ain’t so bad, but now that it’s been a few weeks and we don’t know how much longer it’s going to be, I think we’re all just wishing we could get back out there on the ice.”

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

MORE:
Players doing what they can to stay in shape during NHL hiatus
Crosby, Ovechkin fine if NHL chooses to go right to playoffs
McDavid on NHL resuming play: ‘A fair season is a full season’
Rask’s gas, McLellan no fan of No. 1 pick tournament, return of D-Boss?

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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.

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Blue Jackets surprises Elvis Merzlikins
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

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Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.