Glove’n it: Hand pass a pivotal moment in Blues’ Cup run

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Craig Berube made a rare stop in the locker room after the game to address his players. It was important.

It was minutes after San Jose’s Timo Meier had gloved the puck to Gustav Nyquist and wound up being credited with the second assist on Erik Karlsson‘s winning goal in Game 3. It was a blatant missed call, but it was over. St. Louis was suddenly down 2-1 in the Western Conference final.

Berube told his players to forget about it, not to whine about it in interviews, and he set the tone after the game.

”Gotta move on,” Berube said that night. ”We all gotta move on from it and get ready for Game 4. Really that’s all you can do.”

Following the lead of their interim coach, the Blues did exactly that and their response embodied everything about a team that rode an unheralded rookie goaltender and a bruising style from last place in the NHL in January to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston.

”That was a thing that kind of showed our identity as a team,” defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said hours before Game 6 against the Bruins. ”How we did not just crumble under that – not just let it go, but we also turned into our advantage. We used that as fuel for the upcoming game. I think that speaks a ton of this team.”

It speaks to everything about the Blues’ journey. After missing the 2018 playoffs by one point, general manager Doug Armstrong loaded up: He signed forwards Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon and backup goaltender Chad Johnson, traded first- and second-round picks, top prospect Tage Thompson and roster players Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund to Buffalo for Ryan O'Reilly.

That was a pivotal moment in the eyes of longtime Blues defenseman Chris Butler, a St. Louis native.

”Growing up here, the teams were always good, but the Stanley Cup was never really in the question,” Butler said. ”It was, let’s make it 25 years in a row where they were just going to make the playoffs and everyone was kind of happy with that. And then you have a year there where you missed the playoffs, and then the bar was raised this summer.

”You bring in Ryan O’Reilly, you bring in Tyler Bozak, you make some big, gutsy-type trades and acquisitions and struggling for the first handful of months, then things started to click and guys kind of found their role, found their spot and it’s been fun as hell to be a part of.”

The team was mired in last place six months ago, but a bond was forged during a midseason stretch of 70 days without consecutive home games. Season-defining moments soon began piling up:

A night after five players heard “Gloria” repeatedly at a Philadelphia bar, Jordan Binnington began his ascension from fourth-stringer at training camp to starting goalie by posting a shutout in his first NHL start. A franchise-record 11-game winning streak. St. Louis native Patrick Maroon with the game-winning assist in the playoff opener the day after his grandfather died. Gunnarsson’s game-winner in overtime in Game 2 against the Bruins after telling Berube in a locker-room bathroom at intermission he needed just one more chance.

”Any team who wins there’s going to be bits and pieces throughout the season you look back and that was kind of a turning point or that was a big moment for the team,” Gunnarsson said.

No moment was bigger than Berube’s short but straightforward speech in the cavernous home locker room at the downtown St. Louis arena that has been a house of horrors for Blues teams of previous vintages. Berube wouldn’t let this one snowball, and it showed the confidence he has in his second NHL head coaching job.

”That’s a big moment to do that,” longtime friend Rick Tocchet said. ”That quieted the noise.”

If any organization was going to lose on a missed hand pass, naturally it’s the Blues, a team known for years of almost and not quite. At one point, St. Louis was eliminated on home ice by the eventual champion three years in a row.

That’s history Berube doesn’t care about. On this team with six new faces, his comments about the Sharks game resonated immediately.

”Chief came in and he just said, ‘It’s over and just focus on the next one,’ and that’s probably the best thing that we could’ve heard because at the time we were obviously a frustrated group,” defenseman Joel Edmundson said. ”It was one of those things where we could obviously sit on it or we could take it and use as motivation, hopefully. I think we did a good job of using it to our advantage. We came out the next game, I think we scored in the first minute or two.”

It was the first shift. Ivan Barbashev scored 35 seconds into Game 4, Binnington made 29 saves and the Blues marched on.

”It’s how you handle the adversity,” Binnington said. ”It was a key moment for us that we handled it properly and refocused.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.