Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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

Previewing the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Sharks lost a lot this offseason, with Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Braun all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of talent (and goals) leaving, and while Braun wasn’t one of their top defenders he still played 20 minutes per night. That is a lot to replace in one summer and it would be awfully difficult to say right now that the Sharks, on paper, are better than the team that ended the 2018-19 season. They are still really good, but they have a lot to replace.

Strengths: It is the defense. How can it not be the defense? The Sharks have two Norris Trophy winners in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns leading their blue line, and both look to be contenders for the award for the foreseeable future. Their No. 3 defender, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is no slouch either. That is as good of a top-three as you will find anywhere in the NHL. The biggest key will be Karlsson staying healthy as he has missed 40 games over the past two years, including 29 a year ago.

Weaknesses: Until they show otherwise this team’s Achilles Heel will be in net. The Martin Jones and Aaron Dell duo was the league’s worst a year ago, and it remains a testament to how great the rest of the team was in front of them that the goaltending performance did not completely ruin their chances. Teams that get the level of goaltending the Sharks received tend to miss the playoffs. The Sharks not only still made the playoffs, they were a contender. With the team around them looking a little thinner in some areas it just puts even more pressure on the goalies to perform.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The most vulnerable coaches at the start of each season tend to be the ones that have been with a team for a few years, have high expectations, and have not yet won it all. That pretty much describes Pete DeBoer’s situation in San Jose. He would not seem to be in immediate danger, but if the Sharks get off a slow start or regress this season he might start to feel a little more pressure, if for no other reason than the old “shake things up” coaching change. He is a 6 out of 10 on the hot seat rating.

Three most fascinating players: Jones, Joe Thornton, and Kevin Labanc.

There is no way to sugarcoat Jones’ performance a year ago — it was bad. But for as bad as it was, his overall track record in the NHL is a mostly solid one. He backstopped the Sharks to a Stanley Cup Final appearance a few years ago, he has received Vezina Trophy votes in two different seasons (finishing 6th and 7th) and his overall numbers are at least a league average level. He is definitely capable of better than he showed. Was last year a fluke? Or was it a sign of things to come for him in the Sharks’ net? Not to put too much pressure on one player, but the answer to those questions will play a big role in what the Sharks are capable of this season.

Thornton is back for yet another run at that elusive championship. He may be 40 years old, but he showed a year ago he can still play a big role for a contender with 50 points and dominant possession numbers. The Sharks lost a lot over the summer, but being able to bring back Karlsson and Thornton were big wins for the front office.

Labanc has shown steady improvement every year he has been in the NHL and is coming off an impressive 56-point season that made him one of the team’s top scorers. That is why it was so surprising to see him sign a one-year, bargain contract as a restricted free agent this summer. It was a big bet on himself and if he can continue to develop into a top-line scorer he should be in line for a significant contract this summer. With Pavelsi, Donskoi, and Nyquist out the door he should get a pretty big opportunity to play an increased role in the offense.

Playoffs or lottery: They may not be as strong on paper, but this is still not only a playoff team, it is one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. They lost some talent, but they still have Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and Labanc up front, they have an elite defense, and while the goaltending is a question mark and a potential problem, Jones’ track record in the NHL suggests he should be better. Still one of the best teams in the Western Conference and the entire league.

MORE:
Sharks open camp with new captain after Pavelski’s departure
• 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Los Angeles Kings

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: A lot of things went wrong for the Kings a year ago, and it wasn’t just a lack of talent around the top players. The top players also had their own issues. Drew Doughty was awful. Jonathan Quick was one of the worst goalies in the league. Even the always dependable Anze Kopitar had one of his worst seasons in the league. Put it all together and it was a miserable season for the Kings. Bounce-backs from that trio alone should be worth a few extra wins, especially when it comes to Quick. Will that be enough to make a dent in the playoff race? Probably not, but they should be a little better just because it may not be possible to be any worse.

Strengths: If the big three of Kopitar, Doughty, and Quick can rebound the Kings still have two top-tier players (Kopitar and Doughty) and a pretty good goalie. They may not be what they were during their peak in the Stanley Cup years, but they can still make an impact. While the Kings’ front office has not really taken drastic steps to accelerate the rebuild by trading many veterans, they still have still managed to put together an impressive farm system that was only strengthened this offseason with the additions of Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev.

Weaknesses: While they have a promising farm system, a lot of the prospects are still a year or two away from making a noticeable impact in the NHL. So for the short-term the team is simply lacking talent at the NHL level, while the players they will be counting on the most are closer to the end of their careers than their peak. Kopitar, Quick, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, and Ilya Kovalchuk are all over the age of 32; Doughty turns 30 this season. Offensively, the Kings have been a stale, dull team that has significantly fallen behind the rest of the league for a few years now. Even in their most recent playoff appearance they seemed to be playing a different sport than the Vegas team that shut them down. The young players coming through the pipeline might help change that in future, but it will not be this season.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Todd McLellan takes over behind the bench, and while it would not be unheard of for a coach to get fired after just one year, it would take a pretty spectacular failure this season for him to not get at least a couple of years. So we will put his rating at a 2 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Kovalchuk, Quick, and Jaret Anderson-Dolan.

Kovalchuk is worth watching just to see if he still has anything left at the NHL level. His return to the league after a five-year run in the KHL was a disappointment, and he never seemed to fit in with the Kings’ previous coaching staff. Will a fresh start under McLellan help? Can he still be a 25-30 goal threat? The Kings need anything they can get offensively.

Quick has always been fascinating because his reputation across the league has always exceeded his actual performance. That reputation comes from his postseason play between 2012 and 2014 when the Kings were always playing for the Stanley Cup. To be fair, he was legitimately great in those postseasons. But if you look at his career as a whole his yearly performance hasn’t always matched that. He’s been a consistently good, but not always great starter. And that’s fine. You can win with that. You can not win with what the Kings received from Quick a year ago, which was one of the worst performances in the league.

Anderson-Dolan might be one of the young players in the organization that gets a chance to make an impact this season. The 2017 second-round pick had a five-game cup of coffee at the start of the 2018-19 season before being sent back to his junior team (where he excelled). His goal is to play the entire season in the NHL, and he just might get a chance to do that on a team that really needs some playmaking and talent down the middle.

Playoffs or lottery: The Kings might be a little better, but unless Quick and Jack Campbell play out of their mind in goal for 82 games the playoffs seem to be a real long shot for this team. That means it is back to the lottery.

MORE:
Kopitar on Kings’ season to forget, playing for McLellan
• 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.

NHL goaltenders getting concussions at an alarming rate

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Filip Chytil beat the last defender to the net, snapped the shot past Tuukka Rask and barreled over the goaltender he had just scored on.

Rask flipped his mask off, lay prone and needed assistance to get to his feet and to the Boston Bruins locker room. The goal counted and Chytil faced no repercussions.

Rask suffered a concussion.

”I think it’s brutal, but what can you do?” Rask said. ”The game’s so fast nowadays and space is limited. The guy’s driving wide and the D’s half a step late, then collisions happen.”

Those kinds of collisions are happening at an alarming rate over the past couple of seasons and goaltenders are getting hurt. Just two goaltenders were concussed in 2016-17, missing a total of 15 games, but over the past two seasons, 14 different goalies missed a total of 276 games with a concussion or head injury caused by everything from elbows and knees to pucks off their helmets.

This is a jarring statistic involving the most important position in hockey, but the NHL has not yet taken further steps to protect its masked men. In recent years, the focus has been on trimming the size of goalie equipment as a way to generate more offense and players are routinely coached to crash the net whenever possible. It adds up to putting the most valuable and vulnerable players on the ice at risk of head contact they can do little to avoid and often isn’t even penalized.

”We’re so dialed in on the puck, a lot of times you don’t see guys come from the side,” New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. ”As a player, you can always adjust your body, but if we adjust our positioning, we open up the net. You just have to stand there and I think in a lot of situations hope for the best when people come running into you.”

Hoping for the best isn’t exactly a reassuring strategy, but goalies say there is not much else they can do. Rask, who saw Chytil coming, said goalies mostly are at the mercy of their teammates, opponents and the officials.

”You’ve got to trust that your D-men are going to be there to help protect you and with the referees calling penalties and stuff with goaltender interference that they’re going to try and protect us, too,” said Anaheim Ducks starter John Gibson, who missed a combined 10 games with two separate concussions the last two years. ”What you try to do is know where guys could be coming from so you can brace rather than hitting you and you’re kind of blindsided.”

Goalies have different theories on why concussions and head injuries are up in recent years.

Ben Bishop of Dallas believes the overall decline in fighting correlates to the increase of players feeling like they can take liberties at the crease, while Washington’s’ Braden Holtby considers it part of how players are taught from a young age now.

”Most of those plays that are happening aren’t older guys that have been around,” Holtby said. ”It’s the younger generation where they’ve grown up with there’s no fear to go to the crease and that kind of thing.”

Others point to the inconsistency of goaltender interference calls, which can be as lenient as waving off a goal with no penalty and as severe as a two-minute minor. Holtby and his peers say a minor penalty is not much of a deterrent to keep players from crashing the net in hopes of a goal.

Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, said a two-minute minor penalty isn’t equitable to a goalie getting a concussion.

”I think the league has to (change) the rule,” Vasilevskiy said. ”Maybe it’s a few-game suspension.”

The NHL in recent years has taken steps to reduce hits to the head. Rule 48 instituted in 2010 makes virtually any hit with contact to an opponent’s head a penalty, but Holtby said head contact to goalies is ”not treated the same as everywhere else on the ice for some reason.”

Knowing teammate Marc-Andre Fleury has missed 38 games with three separate concussions over the past four seasons, Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault tries to be conscious of that when he goes to the net.

”For me, it’s just common sense,” Marchessault said. ”Goalies have no protection for that. They’re there in their net and I think everybody should respect more of their crease and be more severe, I think, on the goalie interference (penalties).”

Defenders have to think about it, too.

Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin said collisions like Chytil and Rask happen when players don’t have the right positioning, which is something that starts before the puck gets close to the crease and can be difficult to avoid.

”As a forward, your job is to get to the net, to get to the front of the net,” Slavin said. ”You’re trying to stop them as a defenseman from getting to the net, and they’re trying to be that net-front presence. Everything’s kind of colliding at the net, so I don’t how much you can actually stop that from happening.”

Concussion spotters in 2016 were given the authority to remove a player from a game if he exhibits visible signs of a concussion, and it applies to goalies. The policy came under fire early because backup goalies were coming in cold at important junctures of games.

Rask said spotters are doing a good job of being selective with goalies, who are becoming more accepting of looking out for their health.

”You need to take responsibility on yourself to realize if something’s not right that you need to at least get checked out,” Gibson added. ”With all the programs that they have now, maybe they miss it and you’re not feeling quite right, usually the trainer will come and ask you if you’re not OK or you feel something, and then there’s little tests you can go do in the back. And obviously if that doesn’t work, you’ve got to take some responsibility on yourself to say, ‘I’m not feeling quite right.”’