Speed of Avs, Flames on display in first-ever playoff meeting

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DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames have never crossed paths in the playoffs.

Not in the days of Joe Sakic or Jarome Iginla (who later would become an Avalanche player). Not in the tenure of Bob Hartley (he coached both, including the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title in 2000-01).

The first time certainly figures to be an edge-of-your-seat affair: Both teams are quick in transition and can fly up and down the ice. The Flames were 3-0 against the Avalanche this season and outscored them by a 14-10 margin, including a game on Nov. 1 in which they trailed 4-1 and scored five straight in the third to earn a 6-5 win.

Game 1 of what could be a track meet will be Thursday in Calgary .

”Both teams can skate. Both teams can make plays, have an in-your-face style,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”So we have to be prepared for that.”

The Flames are coming off a season in which they accumulated 107 points to secure the top seed in the West. The last time they had at least that many points was 1988-89, when they won the Stanley Cup title over Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s a Calgary squad that features the likes of top scorer Johnny Gaudreau and a deep core of defensemen led by 35-year-old Mike Giordano . Coach Bill Peters hasn’t announced if he will start 26-year-old David Rittich or 37-year-old Mike Smith in net.

As for the pressure of being the top team in the West, the Flames insist they aren’t feeling any.

”We’re not worried about what others are saying,” Sean Monahan said on the team’s website. ”We’re worried about this group in here.”

Colorado was in desperation mode down the stretch thanks to an extended rough patch that started around Christmas. The Avalanche regrouped, weathered some injuries and locked up the No. 8 seed for a second straight season.

Last season against Nashville, they were simply glad to get in (the Avs lost in six games).

This season, they want to make some noise.

”We gave Nashville a lot of respect,” Nathan MacKinnon said. ”We’re going to give a little less respect and try to win the series.”

This provides a big boost: Mikko Rantanen, who’s been out since suffering an upper-body injury on March 21, will return to the lineup. In addition, Philipp Grubauer has found his groove while stepping in for Semyon Varlamov. Grubauer went 7-0-2 over his last nine starts.

Colorado is led on the offensive end by MacKinnon, who had 99 points this season – the same number as Gaudreau. In addition, Tyson Barrie ranked among the highest-scoring NHL defensemen with 59 points.

Now, it’s time to take it up another level. What exactly that entails, captain Gabriel Landeskog can’t quite explain.

”Maybe that’s exactly what it is – everything changes,” said Landeskog, who set an Avalanche record with 20 third-period goals. ”Everything is that much more intense.”

Things to know before the two teams meet in the postseason for the first time:

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER: At 35, Giordano is coming off a regular season in which he was an NHL-best plus-39. He’s a contender for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the top defensive player. ”We have a good group in here, a really good team,” Giordano said. ”We’ve got to bring that confidence into Game 1.”

BEARDED WONDER: The playoffs haven’t even started and Sam Bennett already has an impressive beard. ”I shaved this morning and it already came back,” Bennett cracked. ”I have a bit of a head start on this one.” He may shave it down to a mustache.

BACK IN ACTION: Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson had to watch the playoffs last season after hurting his knee. It was a painful blow after helping build the team back into a contender. ”I love playing for this team, this city and organization, so I put a lot of onus on my shoulders,” said Johnson. ”It feels good to go back-to-back in the playoffs for the first time in a long time.”

BRING ON THE NOISE: Colorado is bracing for the noise inside the Scotiabank Saddledome. ”We’ve seen some loud buildings in the playoffs,” Landeskog said. ”Every single building is loud in the playoffs. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

FINISHING STRONG: Colorado went 8-0-2 late in the season to clinch a spot. Calgary closed out the regular season 9-5 after dropping four straight. ”We did a good job toward the end of the season, fought through a little stretch where we weren’t playing our best hockey and had a great finish to the year,” Gaudreau said on Calgary’s website. ”We’re excited to get the playoffs going.”

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

Flyers’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

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The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers could use breakout season from Nolan Patrick

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The success or failure of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers will largely depend on the performance of starting goalie Carter Hart.

If he is good, the Flyers will probably be good. If he is not, there is a pretty good chance it will be more of the same from a year ago.

But for as important as Hart’s development is, the Flyers have another talented, highly touted young player on this roster that could help move them closer to a playoff sport with a big season. That player is 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Thanks to some lottery luck the Flyers were able to rocket up the draft board and land Patrick, adding a potential impact player to the organization at a time when it probably was not expected. Two years into his career and he has shown some flashes of the potential that made him such a promising draft prospect, especially during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he was one of the Flyers’ best players in their Round 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that series he was always looking like he had a chance to do something spectacular on any given shift. It may not have resulted in big numbers, but you could easily see the talent.

He seemed to be a prime breakout candidate heading into 2018-19 based on that showing and progression throughout his rookie year. It did not quite happen as he pretty much duplicated his mostly solid but unspectacular rookie performance while also seeing a concerning dip in his possession and shot attempt numbers.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

A top draft pick not immediately becoming an All-Star level player isn’t necessarily a huge concern. Not everyone is going to step right into the NHL and be Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Those players are rare, and there is usually a pretty steep learning curve for players trying to break into the league at 18, 19, or 20. There are a lot of really accomplished forwards in the league today that were high first-round draft picks and whose first two years were comparable to Patrick’s at a similar age, including Aleksander Barkov, Phil Kessel, Bo Horvat, Elias Lindholm, Josh Bailey and even Patrick’s own teammate, Sean Couturier.

Most of those players (specifically Barkov and Kessel, also top-five picks) started to take significant steps in year three.

That has to be what the Flyers are looking for from Patrick this season.

He does not need to be an All-Star right now, but there should at least be some kind of sign in his production and performance that he can start to trend in that direction.

If it does not happen in year three, it will probably be time to start wondering just what type of player he is capable of becoming.

The Flyers still have a couple of All-Stars at the top of their lineup in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier, they still have some really good secondary players, and they might finally have the goalie they have been trying to find for decades. There are question marks and holes that still need to be filled for sure, but there is the basic framework of a potentially good team here at some key positions at the top of the roster. Patrick emerging as a top-line player would help them get a lot closer to actually being a good team once again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers’ Hayes under pressure to produce after big contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

In his short time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Chuck Fletcher has already proven to be far more aggressive than his predecessor (Ron Hextall) in building the team’s roster and re-shaping the organization.

His biggest player move to date might just be the sequence of events that saw him acquire the unrestricted free agent rights to forward Kevin Hayes, and then promptly sign him to a massive seven-year, $50 million contract.

The $7.1 million cap hit per season places him third on the team (behind only Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) and among the top-50 players in the entire league. That sort of contract is going to bring some serious expectations regardless of what we already know about the player.

What we know about Hayes is this: He is a pretty good player and would be a fine complementary piece for a Stanley Cup contender. He will help the Flyers and probably make them marginally better.

But when you are one of the highest paid players in the league, taking up 9 percent of your team’s allotted salary cap space, and signed for seven years the expectation is going to be a lot higher than “pretty good player” and simply making the team a little better. For that price and that commitment you need to be getting an impact player that is going to dramatically change the outlook of your team.

For as solid as Hayes has been throughout his career he has never really come close to being that sort of player.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Patrick the X-factor]

He has never scored fewer than 14 goals in a season, but has scored more than 17 just once (this past season).

He has failed to top the 40-point mark just once in five years, but has only topped the 50 point mark in a season one time (again, this past season).

He is not a player that dramatically drives possession and flips the ice territorially in his team’s favor (career 48 percent Corsi player; only twice over 50 percent in a single season).

You can pretty much pencil him in for 15 goals and 45 points every year and probably never miss the mark on him. He is consistently good, but never really takes a step above that. Now that he is entering his age 27 season it is fair to wonder if he will ever do that.

The question that has to be asked is if he continues to produce and play like he has over the first five years of his career how much patience will Flyers fans have for that? More importantly, how much patience will the Flyers themselves have for that?

Every dollar a team spends in a salary capped league is a dollar they can not spend on someone else, and tying up more than $7 million per season in a player that is only giving second-or third-line production without dramatically impacting the game in other areas is something that can quickly turn out to be problematic for a team that has hopes of building a contender. There is a reason most long-term free agent contracts end in either a trade or a buyout; teams have to pay a premium for a player that has probably already played their best hockey for someone else.

Hayes is a fine NHL player, but for the price the Flyers paid to get him they will probably need him to be more than that if they want to avoid buying out his contract or frantically trying to trade it in a couple of years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Is Carter Hart the real deal?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Let’s take a look three questions facing the 2019-20 Flyers:

1. Is Carter Hart the real deal? 

This is the same sort of question that’s being posed about Jordan Binnington this offseason.

Both Hart and Binnington began their seasons, loosely, around the holidays. That meant they didn’t play full campaigns and weren’t exposed to the rigors that a full NHL season can bring.

But if you’re a Philly fan, you have to like the sample size you were given. Hart didn’t exactly fold under pressure. If anything, he seemed to thrive in the environment and fans certainly got behind him.

That being said, the expectations have been turned up to max at this point. And that’s where the real challenge for the 21-year-old begins.

And given his tender age, one could question whether or not he’s being rushed — even with his breakout performance in the second half.

For him to build off last year, the team in front of him has to follow. The Flyers allowed the second-most five-on-five goals last season. Team defense was flat-out atrocious at times, yet Hart put up a respectable .917 save percentage.

Hart may very well be the real deal. It’s up to the Flyers not to ruin that.

2. What impact will Kevin Hayes have? 

On paper, $50 million over seven years is a lot for a guy who has reached 50 points just once in his five-year NHL career.

But let’s put the money aside for a second and look at where Hayes may help the squad.

As the team’s de-facto second-center, Hayes now allows Claude Giroux to move out to the wing, where he scored 102 points two seasons ago. Giroux is a point-per-game player at center, surely, but diversifying and adding 20-ish more points isn’t a bad thing, and Hayes allows for that.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | Patrick the X-factor]

As the team’s second-line center, Hayes’ presence also allows Nolan Patrick to move to the third-line role where the former No. 2 overall pick can develop his game further while facing lesser competition. Patrick, despite his high draft position, could have used a year in the American Hockey League. He wasn’t afforded that chance.

Hayes can also bring solid contributions to the penalty kill, a real sore spot for the Flyers last season. He should complement Sean Couturier well in that regard and it should boost the teams 26th ranking at the same time.

3. Are the Flyers reverting to old ways? 

It’s a question I asked back in June after the Hayes signing and I think it still is worth pondering now.

Ron Hextall tried to do what has made other teams successful in the long run — a slow build, through the draft, developing talent in house and building up an asset base. His patient approach clearly wore on the impatient higher-ups in Philly.

Enter Chuck Fletcher. He’s the exact opposite of Hextall, preferring a win-now-style approach that has included trips to the bargain bin while casting a large contract to a middle-of-the-road centerman.

Methodical rebuilds aren’t a Philly thing. But maybe they should start, especially is Hart shows to be a legitimate No. 1 this season. That’s something you can build around, however enticing it might be to think you can just win now.

The last thing the Flyers need is to heap so much pressure on a young Hart that he implodes because of it. There’s been enough of that sort of thing with goalies in Philly over the years.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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