Sharks vs. Blues PHT 2019 Western Conference Final preview

Even though it is a rematch of the 2015-16 Western Conference Final it is probably not the matchup we expected this season.

The San Jose Sharks being here is in no way a surprise.

They loaded up for this season and built a team that should have had Stanley Cup expectations from the very beginning. Re-signing Evander Kane and acquiring Erik Karlsson to add to a roster that was already full of stars was a definite “win-now” approach to the offseason. Even though they were some valleys during the season, the Sharks have mostly met expectations. They are good. Really good.

It is the Blues that are a surprise.

After narrowly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago they were one of the busiest teams in the offseason in an effort to fix their offense, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, and David Perron to their forward group. At the mid-way point of the season it all looked to be for nothing because their goaltending dropped them down to the worst record in the Western Conference.

But since January they have been one of the league’s best teams, made a run at the Central Division title, and are playing like a true contender.

SCHEDULE
Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Monday, May 13, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 15, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Friday, May 17, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Tuesday, May 21, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Thursday, May 23, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
(All times ET, subject to change)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

The Sharks’ offense is clicking on all cylinders in the playoffs, averaging more than 3.07 goals per game. They have four of the top-eight individual scorers in the playoffs and played almost all of Round 2 without a 38-goal scorer from the regular season in Joe Pavelski. It’s a deep group that doesn’t have any real weaknesses and is loaded with impact talent. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl enter the series tied for the postseason lead in goals (nine) while the Sharks also have the two best offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

The Blues, meanwhile, have been … solid. They spent a ton of resources over the summer to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago, and improved it to the point where they could make a late season run at the Central Division and are just four wins away from the their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. They could use a little more from Vladimir Tarasenko, especially at even-strength, and he is probably due to bust out at any time.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. They have the deeper group and more impact players at the top.

DEFENSE

Just like at forward the Blues do not have quite the star power that the Sharks do on the blue line, but you can not argue with the results they get. The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season when it came to limiting shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances, and once Jordan Binnington took over in net all of that started to translate into fewer goals against. Alex Pietrangelo is playing great hockey this postseason and quietly making a Conn Smythe case for himself if the Blues can keep winning.

For San Jose, it’s all about the superstars. Burns and Karlsson might be one of the best duos any team has had on its defense since Anaheim had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They are the most dynamic offensive blue liners in the league and both control the pace of the game when they are on the ice. And they are on the ice A LOT. Burns is playing more minutes than any other player in these playoffs (by a wide margin) while Karlsson is playing more than 25 minutes. For at least two thirds of the game the Sharks have a Norris Trophy winner on the ice. That is a tough matchup for any team to deal with.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. When your blue line has three Norris Trophies (and maybe a fourth in a few weeks) that is a huge advantage.

GOALTENDING

This was the biggest question mark for both teams coming into the playoffs.

On the San Jose side, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell were statistically the worst goalie tandem in the league during the regular season and one of the worst any championship contender has ever had. Four games into Round 1, it was looking like that was going to be their undoing. But Jones caught fire starting in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights and has been pretty good ever since.

But can he keep that going? If he does, the Sharks might be completely unbeatable. If he doesn’t, it could sink a potential championship team.

One of the biggest reasons the Blues found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in early January was because their goaltending was getting torched on a nightly basis and it was sabotaging a team that was much better than its early season record indicated. They didn’t need someone to steal games, they just need someone to not lose them.

That is where Jordan Binnington came in and ever since making his first NHL start in mid-January he has been one of the most productive goalies in the league. He had a small slump early in Round 2 against the Dallas Stars, but rebounded nicely in Games 6 and 7.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. Jones has a more extensive resume and more of a track record, but Binnington is the better goalie at the moment.

SPECIAL TEAMS

On paper you would think that the Sharks would have a pretty significant advantage here, especially on the power play given the players they have their disposal. But it has not played out that way at all during the playoffs where both special teams units have been pretty much identical in their performance. Neither one has been great, neither one has been bad, they have both just been mostly average.

ADVANTAGE: Push, but with the qualifier that the Sharks have the potential to make this advantage IF their power play unit gets hot, which it is perfectly capable of doing.

PREDICTION

Blues in 6. On paper everything is there for the Sharks to take this. Star power. Depth. Everything they have done as an organization has been built around winning it all this season. But while the Sharks have some advantages, the Blues are no slouches and have been an incredibly good team for about four months now. The way they have played since Craig Berube took over behind the bench is at a Stanley Cup level and even though he has almost no track record in the NHL I am more confident in him being able to get through this series without a meltdown than I am in Martin Jones. In a close series, that might be the difference.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT Roundtable
• Conference Finals predictions

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.

Examining the options for Kings, Kovalchuk

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It seems that Ilya Kovalchuk‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings is going to be coming to an end one way or another in the not too distant future.

The team made him a healthy scratch on Tuesday night, and he will reportedly be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future as the team looks to get younger, shed salary, and finally begin turning the page over to a new chapter in a long overdue and much needed rebuild. The biggest question that remains with Kovalchuk is what, exactly, they are able to do with him.

Because of Kovalchuk’s contract the Kings options seem to be severely limited.

The key points regarding his contract…

  • He has one year remaining on it after this season at a salary cap hit of $6.25 million.
  • He is due a signing bonus in December worth $5.3 million, meaning any team that traded for him after that date would only be on the hook financially for a prorated salary of $700,000 for the rest of this season.
  • Because the contract is a 35-plus contract the Kings would still be on the hook for the entirety of his remaining salary cap hit if they were to buy him out or release him. And they would only be able to release him if Kovalchuk agrees to walk away from the remaining money he is owed, which seems unlikely.
  • His contract also contains a no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause, which could limit where he ends up in a trade.

Not an ideal situation to be in for the Kings.

The most logical option might be waiting until after his bonus is paid next month and digging back into the trade market when a team won’t have to commit as much financially. The issue, though, is still the fact that Kovalchuk is 36 years old, still has one year left after this one, and just hasn’t really been any kind of an impact player since returning to the NHL. He has scored at a 20-goal pace with the Kings, so there is still some offensive production there. Even with that he has clearly been a miserable fit in Los Angeles for where the team is and where it is looking to go in the future.

Are there any teams that would have an interest in taking that on? Look at it this way, if the Edmonton Oilers can move Milan Lucic‘s contract, there is absolutely a chance for the Kings to move this one.

Let’s speculate a bit on some potential landing spots.

New York Islanders. Before you completely dismiss this and yell about how he would never fit within their system or be good enough defensively to play for Barry Trotz, stop and think for a minute about who their general manager is. Lou Lamoriello is the one that went all-in on signing him to that original massive contract years ago with the New Jersey Devils, while there were also rumblings the team was interested in signing him when he returned to the league last summer. For as good as the Islanders have been they could still use another goal-scorer, there is history between the player and GM, and they have the salary cap space to take on that cap hit. It could be an interesting lottery ticket for a team that is still probably a piece or two away from really being able to make some serious noise in the playoffs. There are worse potential landing spots.

Columbus Blue Jackets. Another team with salary cap space that is in desperate need of offense. Even after their offseason  free agency exodus and slow start through the first month, the Blue Jackets do not seem ready to throw in the towel on this season. The problem: their offense has been completely non-existent to this point. Their goals per game average is the second lowest in the league, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings.

San Jose Sharks. The salary cap would make it complicated so there would have to probably be some maneuvering done to make it work, but the Sharks are already trying to win with a bunch of superstars from 2008 so why not add one more to the mix?

St. Louis Blues. Not sure how they would make this work with the salary cap, especially next season, so it is probably a really long shot in the dark, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for the next five months they could really use another goal-scorer.

Carolina Hurricanes. Now here is an intriguing option. If the Kings are going to trade Kovalchuk one of the options might include them throwing in a valuable asset (draft pick, prospect, young player) as a sweetener to convince another team to take such an ugly contract. Do you know what team has had a lot of success in making those kind of moves over the years? These folks. It’s how they ended up with Teuvo Teravainen, as well as an additional 2020 first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs for absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract. Would it really be a shock if they picked up the phone, gave the Kings a call, and said, “hey, we hear you have a contract you don’t want. Let’s talk about that…” This is right in their wheelhouse.

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.

 

Roberto Luongo back with Panthers as special adviser

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Roberto Luongo retired from the Florida Panthers. He just never left.

And now the goaltender is officially part of the franchise again.

Florida’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts has agreed to become a special adviser to general manager Dale Tallon, a move that has been in the works for some time and was formally announced Wednesday.

His hiring was no surprise: Luongo has been a regular fixture at games with the Florida front-office brain trust this season, only now wearing suits instead of skates and having conversations in press boxes instead of locker rooms.

”I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with Roberto during his time playing for the Panthers and am proud to welcome him to our franchise’s hockey operations staff,” said Tallon, who is both Florida’s GM and president of hockey operations.

The 40-year-old Luongo retired this past summer after 19 seasons in the NHL, 11 of them with Florida, and indicated then that he would be interested in staying with the Panthers in some capacity. His plan was to take some time and figure out in what role, and how quickly.

Turns out, the five-time NHL All-Star didn’t need that long to think.

Luongo and his family are remaining as residents of Parkland, Florida – the city where he lived at the end of his playing career – and since he’s sticking around, it was always assumed that he was going to be with Tallon again before long.

”Roberto always approached every game with an unmatched work ethic and we are confident he will take to this new role with the same passion,” Tallon said. ”A cornerstone player in our franchise’s history, we are thrilled that Lu will be a part of shaping our franchise’s future.”

Luongo joins Panthers senior vice president Shawn Thornton, director of player personnel Bryan McCabe and assistant coach Derek MacKenzie as former Florida players who have remained with the team after retirement in various key roles.

The Panthers are retiring Luongo’s No. 1 jersey on March 7, before a game against Montreal, his hometown team.

Luongo was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders, with whom he made his NHL debut on Nov. 28, 1999. Luongo then spent five years with Florida, the next eight with Vancouver and returned to the Panthers on March 14, 2014. His last game was April 6, two days after his 40th birthday.

Our Line Starts podcast: Crosby and Marner injuries; Montgomery’s comments

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Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp discuss how Pittsburgh and Toronto will be affected by the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Mitch Marner, and offer their reaction to Jim Montgomery calling out Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Pierre McGuire interviews Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet, whose story from his rookie year under Mike Keenan got Sharp and Jones reflecting on unique motivational tactics implemented by their old coaches

0:00-1:50 Intros
1:50-4:25 How will Toronto handle Marner’s absence
4:25-9:30 Crosby the latest Pens casualty
9:30-16:55 Jim Montgomery rips his top players
16:55-30:55 An early look at 2020 Hall of Fame candidates
30:55-42:25 Pierre McGuire interviews Rick Tocchet
44:30-End Unique motivational tactics from old coaches

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where 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

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”