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).

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.