PHT Power Rankings: Win or lose the Conn Smythe should belong to Rask

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This much should be obvious: If the Boston Bruins win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream) starting goalie Tuukka Rask is going to be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

If that situation plays out, it is simply going to be his award.

Brad Marchand has been great. Patrice Bergeron has been outstanding. Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have carried the defense. Charlie Coyle has turned out to be a huge trade deadline pickup. All of them would be a worthy contender (or winner) in any other season. But for as good as they have all been none of them have played a bigger role in the Bruins’ postseason success than Rask, and he has done it from the very beginning of the playoffs with a consistency and level of dominance that should have erased any doubts his harshest critics may have ever had about him as a big-game goalie.

He is the biggest reason the Bruins have reached this point and the single biggest reason the St. Louis Blues have not already won their first Stanley Cup.

His performance this postseason is as good as we have ever seen from a goalie, highlighted by a .939 save percentage that ranks among the NHL’s all-time best.

He is just the fifth different goalie in NHL history to play in at least 20 playoff games and have a save percentage higher than .935, and he is the only goalie that has done it twice.

In his 23 appearances this season he has recorded a save percentage below .912 just five times. He has had zero games with a save percentage below .900. Just for context on that, every other goalie this postseason has had at least one such, while 15 different goalies had at least two.

His Stanley Cup Final counterpart, St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington, has had eight such games.

His save percentages by series have been .928, .948, .956, and .924.

No matter the metric, whether it is in any one individual game or the postseason as a whole, he has been sensational.

So sensational that the Conn Smythe Trophy should probably be his whether the Bruins win Game 7 or not.

It is not completely unheard of for a member of the losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as it has happened five times in NHL history with Detroit’s Roger Crozier (1966), St. Louis’ Glenn Hall (1968), Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach (1976) and Ron Hextall (1987), and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003) all doing it. It is obviously extremely difficult to do, but it can happen when all of the right circumstances are in place.

It usually involves a goalie (as four of the previous ones were) putting together an incredible postseason where they help carry their team for the entire postseason and then loses to a team that does not really have a clear favorite of their own. That would pretty much describe the Blues if they win Game 7. Their success is not related to any one great individual performance that has stood out above the pack. At any given time it has been one of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Jaden Schwartz carrying the offense, but none of them have done it consistently throughout the playoffs. Their goalie, Binnington, has really only been okay with moments of brilliance surrounded by obvious flaws and some downright bad games.

If the Blues win history and all modern precedent suggests one of their players will end up winning the Conn Smythe, but if we are being objective about this the true MVP of the playoffs has been standing in Boston’s net all postseason. The outcome of Game 7 is not going to change that. Without him playing at the level he has played at the Bruins have not already been eliminated in this series, they may have very easily been eliminated in Round 1 (against the Toronto Maple Leafs) or in Round 2 (against the Columbus Blue Jackets).

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take one more look at the 2019 Conn Smythe race where Rask is rightfully at the top of the pack on a tier all his own. Everyone else is (or should be) fighting for second place.

To the rankings!

The favorite

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He has simply been the best and most impactful player on the ice in the playoffs and is probably the single biggest reason this series is still going on. His numbers are among the best we have ever seen from a goalie in a single playoff run and he has been so much better than everyone else that even if the Blues win Game 7 it should probably be his to take home. The chances of that actually happening are slim (there is plenty of precedent that says the series winner will get the MVP) but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree.

[Related: Rask the rock steps up for Bruins in Game 6]

If the Blues win

2. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues. He has probably done enough in this series to get the award if the Blues take Game 7. He may not have consistently been the team’s most productive player or top scorer in the playoffs, but he is still probably their best all-around player and for much of the Stanley Cup Final has beaten Boston’s Patrice Bergeron at his own game as a top-tier two-way center. It is supposed to be an award for the entire postseason, but recency bias takes over in the Stanley Cup Final and O’Reilly has been a monster for the Blues in the series with four goals and three assists. He goes into Game 7 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He played better than his numbers illustrated earlier in the playoffs, then he went on a white-hot run at the absolute best time for the Blues starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. As mentioned above the Blues do not have a clear-cut favorite at this point but the way Tarasenko put the offense on his back over the past month (six goals, five assists over the past 12 games) would make him a worthy candidate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The long shots but still worth a mention

4. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. We have had Marchand at the top of the rankings for much of the playoffs, mostly because he has been awesome and probably their best overall player not named Rask. But we are dropping him down a few spots here for two reasons. First, he has had a quiet series against the Blues and that will no doubt impact voters when it comes time to cast their ballots (whether it should or not). Second, and most importantly, if the Bruins win Game 7 it just seems impossible to believe that anyone other than Rask will be taking home the MVP. That does not take away from the postseason Marchand has had, just that he has probably become a distant second on his team in the playoff MVP race.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ defense was shorthanded for much of the regular season due to injury and that trend has continued at times in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara missed a game earlier this postseason and has played the past two games with a (reported) broken jaw. Matt Grzlecyk has been sidelined since Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Charlie McAvoy missed a game earlier in the playoffs due to suspension. While all of that has been happening Krug has been the one constant on the team’s blue line in the playoffs, appearing in every single game and putting up huge numbers offensively. He is the team’s third-leading scorer entering Game 7 with 18 points, including six in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues.

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. If the Blues win he would be a nice sleeper choice because of what he did prior to the series. He has gone quiet against the Bruins, but his hot streak in previous played a huge role in helping the Blues to reach this point. 

7. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins. After a slow start to his Bruins tenure after the trade from the Minnesota Wild Coyle ended up being everything the Bruins hoped he would be in the playoffs, adding a necessary secondary scoring boost to the lineup. Like Marchand and Krug (and anyone else on the Bruins) he has almost zero chance of taking the award away from Rask if the Bruins win, but he has still proven to be a huge addition that has helped drive the Bruins’ run.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
• Bruins push Stanley Cup Final to Game 7 by beating Blues
• Special teams an issue once again for Blues in Game 6 loss
• St. Louis newspaper gets roasted for ‘jinxing’ Blues before Game 6

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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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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 New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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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 New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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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.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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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 New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

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