Bobrovsky’s playoff revival leading Blue Jackets

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When Jarmo Kekkalainen decided to push all of his chips to the center of the table by acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline, it was one of the boldest plays of any general manager in recent NHL history.

The potential for the entire thing to blow up in his face and leave him completely empty-handed was a very real one.

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ two best and most notable players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — remained unsigned beyond this season, and Kekalainen added two more pending free agents to that mix while giving up several assets, and even more outrageous than all of that was the fact his team still wasn’t a lock to actually make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was not only a situation where most GMs would play it safe by not adding anyone, it was a situation where many GMs might have sold off their biggest assets and punted on the season (and we saw that very situation play out in Minnesota this year and in St. Louis a year ago). But this was an organization that has given its fanbase nothing but disappointment in its nearly two decades of existence and had never experienced life outside of Round 1 in the playoffs on the rare occasion that it did make the playoffs.

So instead of giving the fans more reason to question the team and doubt the commitment, they went in. All in.

With Duchene and Dzingel, the Blue Jackets had what looked to be a pretty strong team on paper and one that might be capable of making some noise should it actually, you know, make the playoffs.

There was just one big question floating around the team.

Could they count on Bobrovsky in net? That may sound like a harsh question but his career in Columbus has been a tale of two extremes and makes it a completely fair question to ask.

His regular season performance? As good as you could possibly hope for from a starting NHL goalie. Between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons there was not a single goalie in the NHL that had a better save percentage than his .923 mark. He also won Two Vezina Trophies, something that only 22 goalies in league history can claim, and was a top-five finisher in Hart Trophy voting twice. He wasn’t just good, he was great. That regular season performance is on the fringes of a Hall of Fame career if for no other reason than the Vezinas, as 18 of the 22 goalies that have won multiple Vezinas are in the Hall of Fame.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The problem has always been that once the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, something has happened to Bobrovsky’s performance, and it hasn’t been pretty.

I hate basing narratives around a player based on the small sample sizes of data the playoffs produce because there are so many variables that go into what happens during those games, and sometimes a player can simply go through a cold streak in the spring without it being a defining moment for their season or career. But with Bobrovsky it happened so consistently and so regularly (and so badly) that it has been impossible to ignore.

Before this season his career postseason save percentage was a horrific .899. Of the 29 goalies that appeared in at least 20 playoff games since the start of the 2010-11 season (when Bobrovsky entered the NHL) only one of them (Ilya Bryzgalov) had a worse number, while only three others (Brian Elliott, Devan Dubnyk, and Antti Niemi) had a number lower than even .910.

He wasn’t just the worst performing postseason goalie in the NHL, he was the worst performing postseason goalie by a significant margin. It was a jarring difference in performance and it made it easy to have doubts about what the Blue Jackets could do this postseason if he didn’t improve on it dramatically, especially with a first-round matchup against the best offensive team of this era.

It wasn’t a stretch to say that all of the pressure the Blue Jackets were facing after their trades was on the shoulders of their starting goalie, because a repeat performance of postseasons past would have completely sunk them no matter what Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel, or any of their other top players were able to do.

One thing you might be able to say about his postseason performance was that almost all of those games came against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, two teams that are loaded with offensive superstars, and two of which went on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating Bobrovsky. A lot of great goalies have looked bad at times against those teams, and Bobrovsky had the unfortunate bad luck of having to run into them in the first round in three consecutive playoff appearances.

Still, the performance is what it is and you can’t hide from the numbers. The Bobrovsky question was a very real one.

Just six games into the 2019 playoffs, he’s done his part to erase any of the doubts that may have existed due to his past postseason performances because he has been outstanding from the start of the very first game.

In Round 1, he helped shut down the high-powered Tampa offense and out-dueled a back-to-back Vezina finalist in Andrei Vasileskiy.

Even though the Blue Jackets dropped Game 1 against the Boston Bruins in Round 2, it wasn’t necessarily due to anything Bobrovsky did or did not do, while he was probably the single biggest reason they had a chance to even the series in Game 2, especially due to his play in overtime where he made highlight reel save after highlight reel save.

His .930 save percentage is third behind only Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop among all goalies for the playoffs that have been a redemption tour of sorts for him.

This also couldn’t have happened at a better time for Bobrovsky as he prepares to enter unrestricted free agency this July. Whether he changes his mind and re-signs in Columbus or goes elsewhere there is nothing that is going to boost his value as much as a dominant postseason run, and perhaps one that takes the Blue Jackets deep in the postseason.

With the talent the Blue Jackets now have at forward with Panarin, Duchene, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and on defense, where Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are a powerhouse duo at the top of their blue line, the fate of their postseason success was always going to be tied to what they could get out of Bobrovsky. With him playing the way he has so far the sky is the limit for this team.

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.