Stanley Cup Final Roundtable: Game 7 X-factors, Conn Smythe contenders

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Is Tuukka Rask the only Conn Smythe candidate at this point, win or lose? Is there Blues player who has a shot?

SEAN: With what Rask has done this postseason, he probably should take it, win or lose, but there is a strong case for Ryan O’Reilly. He’s second in scoring among all players and has picked up his offensive game in the Stanley Cup Final with four goals and seven points. Since the award is for the entirety of the playoffs, outside of the San Jose series where he had a measly one goal and five points, he’s produced regularly and played a huge part in shutting down the top offensive threats on the other side of the ice.

JAMES: Look, points aren’t everything, but it says a lot that only two players who’ve scored more points than Logan Couture‘s 20 (Brad Marchand with 23, Ryan O'Reilly at 21). Not ideal when Couture’s Sharks were eliminated on May 21, and even then, Couture was on a three-game pointless drought.

For years, I’ve grumbled about should-be Conn Smythe winners losing out just because their teams didn’t win. In my opinion, Jarome Iginla and Chris Pronger should have had at least one playoff MVP apiece. No one deserves the Conn Smythe more than Rask, whether the Bruins win or the Blues break their Stanley Cup curse.

ADAM: I am 100 percent certain that if the Blues win someone on their team will get it, that does not mean I have to agree with it. Rask is everything the playoff MVP should be, win or lose. He has been the best player on the ice the entire postseason, he has played at a historically good level for his position, and is quite literally the single biggest reason his team is here. Without him playing the way he has they lose to Toronto or Columbus in the first or second round, and he pretty much broke the Hurricanes early in the Eastern Conference Final series. While the Blues have a great team and a lot of excellent players having really good postseasons, there is not one player on the team that reaches that level we have seen from Rask. If I had a vote, it is Rask win or lose.

JOEY: I think Rask has been unbelievable throughout the playoffs, but I don’t think I’d give him the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Bruins don’t get the job done in Game 7. In my mind, there are a couple of worthy candidates if the Blues hoist Lord Stanley. First, Ryan O’Reilly has to be a strong candidate. He’s put up points and he’s been terrific on the defensive end, too. I know there was a point last round where he didn’t produce as much, but he has to be up there. I also think Alex Pietrangelo has to be considered. He’s logged some heavy ice time and he’s been productive, too.

SCOTT: Rask is the only choice, although history has defied that many times over. But you can’t tell me for a second that Rask hasn’t been the best player for the majority of it. I can field an argument for Ryan O’Reilly, but only because it’s become increasingly rare for a non-winning team’s player to get the award. Given that, if St. Louis wins, it likely gets placed into the hands of ROR. And that would be shame to not recognize, win or lose, what Rask has done to get the Bruins this far.

RYAN: Ryan O’Reilly has an outside shot of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy if St. Louis takes Game 7, but even then Tuukka Rask is the heavy favorite.  The only scenario where I think Rask would fall short of the award is if he absolutely collapses in Game 7.  Assuming he at least has an okay game, he’ll win the Conn Smythe even if the Bruins lose.

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Who is your X-factor for each team and why?

SEAN: Ryan O’Reilly has been the engine for the Blues in the Cup Final. He’s played a strong two-way game that has put him ahead of the line on the roster for Conn Smythe Trophy consideration. For the way he leads that top line and how he’s been successful at helping neutralize the Bruins’ top line at times through six games, they’ll need him at his best one more time. Tuukka Rask has not had a game this postseason with a sub-.900 save percentage. That’s huge, and it’s a reason why the Bruins will need him again in an anything goes Game 7. 

JAMES: David Perron‘s been able to possess the puck in the offensive zone, and has 16 SOG in the series, but only a goal and an assist to show for it. A player with his skills could break open a tense situation like a Game 7. Speaking of being limited to only a goal during this series, Patrice Bergeron‘s stuck at a single tally despite 21 SOG (though his three assists give him a solid four points in six games). I’d wager that Bergeron is playing through an injury, but even with that in mind, the all-world, two-way center feels due for some puck luck. What better time for that to happen than Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final?

ADAM: Jaden Schwartz was so white-hot for the Blues for most of the playoffs and he’s just kind of disappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. He was never as good as he looked in the first part of the playoffs, he was never as bad as he looked during the regular season. There’s a middle ground there and the middle ground is a darn good player. I think he’s due to make an impact in this series and maybe score a big goal for the Blues. On the Boston side, I think I am looking at Jake DeBrusk. He has points in four of his past five games and seems to be getting better as this series goes on.

JOEY: I’m going back to Pietrangelo here. The Blues will need him to play 24 or 25 minutes (more if Game 7 goes to overtime) and they may need him to help set up some of his teammates, especially on the power play. All the players mentioned by others on this list will be key, but Pietrangelo is one of the key veterans on the team. As for the Bruins, I’m looking for David Pastrnak to come up with some big goals. He’s gone hot and cold at different points this postseason but Boston needs him to come up big on Wednesday night.

SCOTT: Brad Marchand. He knows how to get the job done in a Game 7 to decide the Stanley Cup Final. If you’ve done that once, it’s often more experience than anyone else has on the ice. The Bruins have five players who’ve been in this spot before. Marchand had two goals and three points as a rookie in 2011. The pressure didn’t seem to get to him that day. With several more years and now on a third Stanley Cup run, and the demons of 2013 still fresh enough pinch, I think Marchand plays a big role.

RYAN: Jordan Binnington has been more hit-than-miss in the playoffs, which is impressive for a rookie, but there nevertheless have been misses.  For the Blues to win Game 7, Binnington needs to be at the top of his game.  Patrice Bergeron is a big X-Factor for the Bruins.  He’s been somewhat quiet at times in this series, having been held off the scoresheet in four of the first six games.  He’s also minus-four and has averaged 17:31 minutes, down from 19:10 over the first three rounds.  He has the power to change the course of a game though, both on the ice and through his leadership.  A big night from him would make all the difference.

Finally, let’s hear it: Who wins Game 7?

SEAN: It’s Game 7, nothing that happened in the previous six games matters. Discipline, top players getting shut down, hot goaltending… this is the final game of the season and everyone knows what’s on the line. I think the Bruins shake off the Blues’ attempts at establishing their forecheck and rough and physical style and eek out a close out. Jordan Binnington has been fine, but Tuukka Rask has been unbelievable. 

JAMES: I’m on the record of having no sweet clue what will happen, and this series has been almost jarring in its tonal shifts, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blues win it all. I picked the Bruins head into the series, and as impressive as St. Louis has been, this Boston team seems like it has that fabled “extra gear.” So, I’ll choose Boston, with about as much confidence as someone has picking an AFC team other than the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl.

ADAM: Have been picking the Blues in every series from the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and am not going to go away from that now. They have been better on the road all postseason, they have always bounced back after tough games, they have been an outstanding team from top to bottom for months now. They win it.

JOEY: I had the Blues winning the series in seven games at the start so I have to stick with that now. Jordan Binnington will have a big say in who wins this game. If he struggles like he did in Game 6, the Blues will have a hard time winning it all. If he turns in another solid performance, there’s a good chance that this game will be low scoring. Give me St. Louis.

SCOTT: I picked the Bruins from the beginning on the playoffs and they haven’t let me down yet. Rask has been unbeatable in games that matter most and Bruins top line and power play seemed to get back to form in Game 6. Boston wins 4-1.

RYAN: My prediction going into this series was Blues in 7, so I’ll stick with that.  St. Louis has done a great job of bouncing back throughout the playoffs.  They just need to do it one more time after dropping Game 6.

Blues-Bruins Game 7 from TD Garden in Boston will be Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC (live stream).

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

The break ended shortly thereafter.

Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

“I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

“Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”

Seattle Kraken sign GM Ron Francis to 3-year extension through 2026-27 season

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SEATTLE — Ron Francis was initially approached about extending his stay as the general manager of the Seattle Kraken back in the winter, but putting finality to the decision took longer than expected.

The Kraken kept winning and pushed what was mostly a formality to a secondary need until after Seattle’s unexpected playoff run finally ended.

“At that point it was kind of verbally done, just kind of a few little small details. And then we get into the playoffs and busy and it kind of got put on the back burner and I didn’t want it to be a distraction with the team and where they were at,” Francis said.

That finality came when the Kraken announced Francis had signed a three-year extension through the 2026-27 season. Francis originally signed a five-year deal when he became the first GM in franchise history back in 2019 and the new contract will kick in starting with the 2024-25 season.

“I’ll never forget the day that he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready to do this,’” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said. “But today is another great day for our fans because not only did he come and build, he is going to stay here and continue to build this franchise.”

Seattle reached the second round of the NHL playoffs in its second year of existence, following a challenging first year where it underachieved and was among the worst teams in the league.

But Francis navigated through that difficult first season and helped land the pieces that turned Seattle into a playoff team in the second year without mortgaging future opportunities or putting the Kraken into challenging salary cap situations.

“He has been the leader that’s gotten us to where we are today. And he is the leader to take us to the next level,” Seattle co-owner Samantha Holloway said.

Seattle is the second stop for Francis as an executive after spending seven seasons in the front office of the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis started as director of hockey operations before becoming the general manager in 2014. Francis was let go by the Hurricanes after the 2018 season.

Seattle jumped at the chance to bring the Hall of Fame player in to lead the front office. Seattle’s expansion season was a major underachievement with the Kraken going 27-49-6 and finishing last in the Pacific Division with 60 points. But Francis was able to move veteran players to stockpile draft picks and left enough salary cap room to make some key moves entering the second season.

Seattle signed free agent forward Andre Burakovksy, traded for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand and inserted rookie Matty Beniers into the lineup on Seattle’s top line from the first day of the season. The results on the ice couldn’t be argued. Seattle went 46-28-8 and reached 100 points, knocked off defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Dallas in seven games in the conference semifinals.

“It’s been a real team effort. I’m sitting up here today and they’re saying good things about me, but it’s a much bigger picture than just me,” Francis said. “I’m excited to be here for a few more years and hopefully everybody’s opinion doesn’t change, but we’re going to stick to the plan and continue building it the right way so we can be a great franchise for multiple years.”

Francis also stuck with coach Dave Hakstol after that difficult first season. He may be the next in line for a contract extension from the team after a season where he was recognized as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for top coach in the league.

Maple Leafs hire Brad Treliving as team’s new general manager

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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TORONTO — Brad Treliving has a new job.

And the Maple Leafs have a new plan.

Treliving was hired as Toronto’s general manager less than two weeks after firing Kyle Dubas.

The 53-year-old Treliving left the Calgary Flames in April following nine seasons that included five playoff appearances and two 100-point seasons.

“Brad brings a wealth of knowledge from his years of experience as a general manager and hockey executive in Calgary, Arizona and beyond,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “He has earned tremendous respect amongst his peers throughout his years in the NHL and has built excellent relationships at all levels within the game.”

Treliving joins the Leafs at a crucial juncture in the wake of Shanahan’s stunning dismissal of Dubas on May 19.

The Original Six franchise, whose Stanley Cup drought stands at 56 years, won a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades with a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning this spring, but then lost to the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers in five games.

Dubas, who had been Toronto’s GM since 2018 and didn’t have a contract beyond June 30, suggested at an end of season news conference May 15 he wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in the role – at least in part because of the stress on his young family.

A roller coaster five days followed, with Shanahan ultimately firing the 37-year-old Dubas despite previously wanting to keep his GM, and the now-unemployed executive eventually indicating to his boss he wished to stay.

Treliving is the third GM – joining Dubas and Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello – hired in Toronto by Shanahan, whose so-called “Shanaplan” aimed at getting the storied franchise back on its feet when he came on board in 2014 has seen unparalleled regular-season success, but just that one series victory in eight attempts.

“I’m thrilled to join an Original Six team and recognize how much the Maple Leafs mean to this community,” Treliving said. “This is a very exciting day for my family and I.”

Treliving has a lot to deal with as he settles into his new office at Scotiabank Arena.

Treliving, who served in the Phoenix Coyotes’ front office for seven seasons before arriving in Calgary, will have to decide the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe, while stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander can sign contract extensions as of July 1.

Matthews and Mitch Marner have full no-movement clauses ready to kick in the same day. Nylander will have a 10-team list.

The NHL draft is also set for the end of June in Nashville, Tennessee, while the Leafs have 12 roster players primed to hit free agency at noon EDT on July 1.

The Flames, who missed the playoffs this season, won the Pacific Division in 2021-22 under Treliving before falling to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round.

Johnny Gaudreau then stunned the organization by leaving Calgary for the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency last summer. Fellow star forward Matthew Tkachuk added another wrinkle by informing the team he didn’t plan to re-sign.

Treliving subsequently dealt the winger to Florida as part of a package that included forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar heading to southern Alberta.

Huberdeau then signed an eight-year, $84 million contract extension with the Flames that kicks in next season.

Tkachuk, a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as playoff MVP, and the Panthers open the Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Despite the departures of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, the Flames looked like contenders ahead of the 2022-23 season.

The acquisition of Huberdeau and the signing of center Nazem Kadri was expected to fill the void left by Gaudreau and Tkachuk, but the mix wasn’t right for a group led by hard-nosed coach Darryl Sutter.

Huberdeau and Kadri finished well off their career-high points totals of the previous season – the former went from 115 with Florida to 55 in Calgary – while subpar goaltending was an issue much of the season.

Treliving now turns his attention to Toronto.

Just like last summer, he has lots of work to do.