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Explaining the unpredictable Round 1 results

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The story of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been all about upsets and a bunch of teams you’re not used to seeing this time of year making unexpected runs.

All four division winners lost in Round 1, five lower-seeded teams in total advanced, and a lot of the traditional powers that we have come to expect to be playing this time of year are already finished. Chicago and Los Angeles didn’t even make the playoffs. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Tampa were all bounced and won just three games (all from Washington!) between them. Winnipeg and Nashville, a Stanley Cup favorite for much of this season and a recent Cup Finalist, are also gone.

Other than Boston, San Jose, and St. Louis, we are left with a wide open field that is full of teams that are not normally here.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and obviously playing in Round 2 for the first time since then.
  • This is the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets have EVER made it this far in the playoffs.
  • The Dallas Stars are in the playoffs for just the third time since 2009, and in Round 2 for just the second time since then.
  • The Colorado Avalanche have not been in Round 2 since the 2007-08 postseason.
  • This is only the second time since 1993 that the New York Islanders have made it this far.

The two main talking points as to how we got here seem to revolve around the highly controversial playoff format, and just how meaningful the regular season actually is.

Let’s start with the latter point, regarding the regular season and what it means. When you see all four division winners go down in Round 1 it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the 82 games you just played didn’t mean anything and that just getting in is all you need. There might be some element of truth to “just getting in” being important, but let’s not overreact to one year here and just assume the regular doesn’t mean anything. Because it does, and winning your division usually does get you a pretty big advantage in the playoffs because it means you are playing one of the weaker teams in the field.

The results before this season show just how big of an advantage that is.

In the five previous seasons under this current playoff format division winners won their first-round matchup 14 out of 20 times, and usually did so relatively easily. Those division winners won their series in an average of only 5.2 games, and none of them needed a seventh game to advance.

On the six occasions that they did lose, three of them were in a seventh game and two of them were in a sixth. You had the occasional upset, usually in an anything can happen Game 7, but it wasn’t anything like this. 

Obviously Tampa and Calgary are the two big upsets, simply because they were top seeds in their respective conferences and because they went out with such a thud. Tampa was swept, while Calgary managed just one win against the No. 8 seeded Avalanche.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The only thing you can probably say about each one is they were playing teams that probably weren’t your typical “No. 8 seeds” going in to the playoffs.

Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline with rentals to bolster what was an already strong lineup that was probably better than its record had indicated all season (I was high on them around mid-January, even before the trades!) because the goaltending had sunk it so much. Throw in a Victor Hedman injury and a Nikita Kucherov meltdown on the Tampa side and suddenly the gap closes a little. That doesn’t excuse the rest of the Lightning’s no-show performance, but if you dig below the surface “top seed loses four in a row” you can at least start to rationalize it a little (but only a little).

Even though Colorado was 17 points worse than the Flames during the regular season, the Avalanche still have three of the best forwards in the NHL, all of whom can take over a game at any time, and they had the better goalie going into the series. That isn’t to say Mike Smith wasn’t the reason the Flames lost, but Philipp Grubauer was great in the Avalanche net (and the three superstar forwards were also great) and sometimes that is all it takes for an upset.

These are still stunning results, and even more stunning when you add them to the other division winners going out. It’s there that things start to become a little more reasonable (and this also includes Pittsburgh and Winnipeg going out) because the gaps between the teams just weren’t that large.

If they even existed at all.

The Capitals were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but only finished five points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had been one of the best teams in the NHL since January 1, storming into the playoffs playing on a level that only a handful of other teams in the league were at.

The Predators, Central Division champions, were seven points ahead of the Stars, and that gap had been shrinking for weeks leading up to the end of the regular season as the Predators started to fade and the Stars started to trend upward.

The Islanders finished three points ahead of the Penguins. The Blues and Jets finished with the exact same number of points.

A No. 1 seed going down in Round 1 isn’t unheard of in the NHL. It happens. Not regularly, but often enough that it’s not a total shock when it does happen. We also know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be a bit unpredictable because of the nature of the game where a hot or cold goalie can swing a series, an injury can hold a team back, or a couple of forwards can simply shoot the lights out for six or seven games and carry a team.

It is at times a completely random sport.

This postseason has just been a perfect of storm where all of it came together at the same time to produce what has been, so far, one of the weirdest and most unpredictable postseasons we have ever seen. The wild card teams were, in a lot of ways, better than your typical wild card teams we are used to seeing. The division winners were maybe a little more vulnerable for one reason or another (injuries, goaltending).

I don’t think it’s a statement on the league or the format as a whole, I think it’s just a statement on the sport itself in that sometimes weird things happen.

And that might be the simplest way to explain the 2019 playoffs: It’s been a weird year.

MORE Round 2 coverage:
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL trade deadline reactions

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

• Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas got most of his trade work done before the trade deadline. (Toronto Sun)

• The Vegas Golden Knights signed Nick Holden to a two-year contract extension on Monday. (Vegas Golden Knights)

• Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving tinkered with his lineup without giving much away. (Calgary Herald)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins did not add any defenseman on Monday but still need to figure out their defense pairings. (Pensburgh)

• The Montreal Canadiens failed to give their fans much clarity after a confusing trade deadline. (Sportsnet)

• The Edmonton Oilers added a ton of speed up front (Edmonton Journal)

• This trade deadline turned out to be uncharted territory for the Carolina Hurricanes. (Canes Country)

• The Buffalo Sabres players made their pleas on the ice and general manager Jason Botterill listened. (The Buffalo News)

• Despite some big rumors the Minnesota Wild stood pat at the trade deadline. (Star Tribune)

• Will Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort be enough to get the Calgar Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? (The Hockey News)

• The Philadelphia Flyers tried to bolster their lines. (NBC Philadelphia)

• Ilya Kovalchuk is a low-risk spark for the Washington Capitals. (Japers’ Rink)

• The Rangers are finally back after wild NHL trade deadline. (New York Post)

• Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman looks to the future. (Chicago Tribune)

• Don Sweeney added depth and financial flexibility at the NHL trade deadline for the Boston Bruins (Bruins Daily)

• It was tough to for Ottawa Senators fans to see Jean-Gabriel Pageau go, but it was great to see the return. (Silver Seven Sens)

• After a quiet NHL trade deadline Winnipeg Jets fans are going to expect some movement this summer. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The Buffalo Sabres were aggressive deals at the NHL trade deadlie. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

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.

First-round picks not for rent on NHL trade deadline day

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Not many first-round picks were in play at the NHL trade deadline Monday, except for contenders picking up players for now and the future.

The New York Islanders traded a conditional first-round pick to Ottawa as part of their trade for center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The Tampa Bay Lightning also parted with a first-rounder to get 26-year-old forward Barclay Goodrow from San Jose. The Carolina Hurricanes sent the New York Rangers a first round pick for 25-year-old defenseman Brady Skjei.

Goodrow has another year left on his contract, Skjei is signed for four seasons after this one and the Islanders locked up Pageau with a $30 million, six-year contract extension.

”He has signed an extension, and we’re delighted with that, especially with the age he’s at and what we feel he can bring,” Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

Tampa Bay also sent Vancouver’s first-round pick to New Jersey last week for Blake Coleman, and Boston gave up its first to get Ondrej Kase from Anaheim and shed David Backes’ contract. Other top teams were less willing to take that leap.

”I thought it was important that we kept our first-round pick,” said Washington Captials general manager Brian MacLellan, who traded a second-rounder, a third and a conditional third to get defenseman Brenden Dillon and winger Ilya Kovalchuk. ”I think if you want to add players at the deadline, you’ve got to spend seconds and thirds. And it’s whether you want to do the firsts.”

BATTLE OF ALBERTA

The Edmonton Oilers tried to give Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl some help by acquiring winger Andreas Athanasiou from Detroit and forward Tyler Ennis from Ottawa.

Edmonton sent 2020 and 2021 second-round picks and forward Sam Gagner to Detroit for Athanansiou, who’s a restricted free agent after this season. The Oilers also got winger Ryan Kuffner in the trade.

The Oilers got Ennis for a 2021 fifth-rounder and Sunday night acquired defenseman Mike Green from the Red Wings.

The Alberta rival Calgary Flames answered by getting defensemen Erik Gustafsson from Chicago and Derek Forbort from Los Angeles.

LEHNER TO VEGAS

The Vegas Golden Knights got goaltender Robin Lehner from the Blackhawks in a three-team trade that also involved the Maple Leafs.

Vegas traded backup goalie Malcolm Subban, prospect Slava Demin and a 2020 second-round pick to Chicago for Lehner.

The popular Lehner said he was excited to be going to Vegas, tweeting: ”Going to be a ride. Can’t wait to get there.” He is expected to back up Marc-Andre Fleury.

Toronto got a 2020 fifth-rounder for retaining part of Lehner’s salary and also sent prospect forward Martins Dzierkals to the Golden Knights.

SABRES ACTIVE

The Buffalo Sabres bought and sold on deadline day, getting wingers Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in a pair of trades.

Buffalo dealt a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick to New Jersey for Simmonds, a pending free agent, and traded forwards Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary to Pittsburgh for Kahun. The 24-year-old Kahun has 10 goals and 17 assists for the Penguins this season.

Simmonds, 31, adds depth to Buffalo’s forward ranks. The Sabres have been looking for secondary scoring behind captain and leading scorer Jack Eichel.

Trades juice up arms race in deep Metropolitan Division

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The Metropolitan Division was already the deepest and most competitive in the NHL.

Now the race to the finish is getting juiced up.

Nearly every Metro contender made a move ahead of Monday’s trade deadline to gear up for the playoff push. The first-place Washington Capitals got it started by acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, Pittsburgh answered by getting fellow veteran winger Patrick Marleau from San Jose and the New York Islanders got a major reinforcement in the form of center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who they signed to a $30 million, six-year extension.

And those teams weren’t alone. Carolina got immediate help by trading for forward Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen; Philadelphia made two depth forward moves by getting Derek Grant and Nate Thompson; and the Columbus Blue Jackets traded once-promising prospect Sonny Milano to Anaheim for forward Devin Shore.

Even the New York Rangers, whose recent hot streak put them within striking distance of a playoff position, kept forward Chris Kreider in the fold with a seven-year extension rather than dealing him away.

”Metro was pretty active,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”It is a tough division. Each team could beat the other team on any given night, you know, given good goaltending and I think every one of these teams thinks that they have a chance to come out of the Metro, which I believe they do.”

With seven teams in contention for four or five playoff spots, the arms race is on.

”I thought we were all pretty close going into it and now I think we’re all still close, only better teams,” MacLellan said. ”I think everybody did a good job in our division, and it’s going to be hard to get out of it.”

The Islanders traded conditional first- and third-round picks and a second to Ottawa for Pageau, who could be an ideal fit by adding offense. The Islanders rank 22nd in the league in goals per game, which probably won’t cut it when trying to compete with the high-scoring Capitals, Penguins and Flyers.

”You always have to wait and see,” Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. ”Sometimes I’ve seen the smallest move make a major difference.”

Washington and Pittsburgh each spent only a third-round pick to get a veteran looking to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. Kovalchuk joins a potent attack led by fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marleau will be a sentimental favorite with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.

”Patrick is a player who can play anywhere in our lineup,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He’s a good two-way player, provides leadership and will be a good fit with our team.”

Carolina paid the price of two roster players and two prospects for Trocheck, who has two more years left on his contract. Then, the Hurricanes strengthened their blue line amid injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce by getting Skjei and Vatanen.

GM Chuck Fletcher said the Flyers ”stuck to our plan” amid all the moves around the division.

Forwards Derek Grant and Nate Thompson are perfect for the Flyers’ mold as big, tough competitors who provide some needed depth. With Pageau’s price tag set so high, Philadelphia gave up only two fifth-round picks and a prospect to solve their need for centers and add size.

”They have always been a team that has had that confidence in the teams that they are hard to play against,” Thompson. ”Over the last few years, they have added speed and skill, but even their skilled guys are hard to play against and play with that snarl and I think that is something that you always think about when you play against the Flyers.”

Islanders bolstered with trade-deadline addition of Pageau

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NEW YORK (AP) — After standing pat at the trade deadline a year ago, New York Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello stressed that he didn’t believe in making a deal just to get a new player or two.

It had to be for the right players who would improve the team.

Lamoriello had the same message Monday after acquiring center Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa at this year’s deadline. The move came eight days after the addition of defenseman Andy Greene from New Jersey.

“I think the message to our players in both years is we believe in them and we will always try and make the team better,” Lamoriello said on a conference call.

“You have to be careful at the given time what the needs are and who the type of player is that you want in there and you target that. And if you don’t get that player, you don’t just make a move for the sake of doing it. Last year, we would have made a move if we could’ve gotten the player that maybe we felt could’ve added and not just been another player. Fortunately for us this year, we were able to get that player in that position.”

That’s a big step for an Islanders team that had frustrated some fans by failing to make significant moves at the deadline in recent years. However, when Lamoriello was hired in May 2018, he vowed to change the culture of a team that had missed the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 seasons.

He’s done just that.

Last season, the Islanders spent a big chunk of the season at the top of the Metropolitan Division before finishing second. They swept Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs when everything seemed to be going their way, then got swept by Carolina when they struggled to score.

This season, New York had a stellar start that featured a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) before cooling off and shuffling between third place in the division and the Eastern Conference’s two wild cards in recent weeks – even briefly falling out of a playoff spot entirely.

“I’ve heard only good things about the Islanders,” said the 27-year-old Pageau, who agreed to a six-year, $30 million extension following the trade. “I couldn’t be more excited to go on a team that’s going to be competing every year for a playoff, for a championship. … As a player, that’s what we play for, that’s what drives us.”

While Greene was brought on to help a defensive unit that was weakened after Adam Pelech’s season-ending Achilles injury last month, Pageau bolsters the Islanders in the middle. He will likely center the third line behind Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson, with Casey Cizikas on the fourth line once he heals up after a laceration on his left leg.

Pageau comes to New York after putting up a career-high 24 goals and 40 points – just three shy of his best – in 60 games with Ottawa this season. He had four goals and five assists on the power play, and three goals and three assists short-handed.

“It solidifies down the middle for a good period of time,” Lamoriello said. “(Pageau) is a player who fits right in with who we are, the way we play and the style we play. I don’t think there will be much of an adjustment period for him. … I don’t think there were many people out there that could have filled this need, and we were fortunate to get one of them that could.”

Lamoriello wasn’t concerned that Pageau’s extension – which comes after the team re-signed captain Anders Lee and fellow forwards Nelson and Jordan Eberle to big deals last summer – would be a hindrance this summer when Barzal and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews are restricted free agents.

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes,” Lamoriello said. “We certainly have every intention of signing our restricted free agents.”

Pageau was expected to join the Islanders on Tuesday ahead of their home game against the rival New York Rangers, but both he and Lamoriello were unsure if all the paperwork would be filed and approved in time for the newcomer to make his debut.

“I know playing the Rangers is a big rivalry,” said Pageau, who had four goals against the Rangers in a 2017 playoff game. “Obviously it’d be an exciting start to play the game.”