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Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another 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.

Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, playoff schedule, NHL draft odds

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The NHL seeks to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup despite the COVID-19 pandemic, so with that, Tuesday ranks as a big day.

Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan, which includes a 24-team playoff format involving two “hub cities.” Plenty of dates still need to be determined, but there are key windows, such as “early June” for resuming skating in small groups, and “no earlier than the first half of July” for formal training camps.

Bettman & Co. also announced how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will work, and that “Phase 1” will take place on June 26.

Eastern Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

East final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

East (City 1) Round Robin for Seeding in First Round (regular season overtime rules apply):
1. Boston Bruins
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Washington Capitals
4. Philadelphia Flyers

East (City 1) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Western Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

West final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

West (City 2) – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Vegas Golden Knights
4. Dallas Stars

West (City 2) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

2020 NHL Draft Lottery Odds

Draft lottery includes seven teams who aren’t part of 24-team playoff format (12 per conference listed in standings above) plus eight teams who lost in qualifying rounds. The latter are referred to as Teams “A-H.”

1. Red Wings – 18.5%
2. Senators – 13.5%
3. Senators – 11.5%
4. Kings – 9.5%
5. Ducks – 8.5%
6. Devils – 7.5%
7. Sabres – 6.5%
==================
8. Team A – 6%
9. Team B – 5%
10. Team C – 3.5%
11. Team D – 3%
12. Team E – 2.5%
13. Team F – 2%
14. Team G – 1.5%
15. Team H – 1%

*rankings based on points percentage (lowest to highest in this case) as of March 11

“Phase 1” of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery is scheduled for June 26. The NHL currently plans “Phase 2” — involving teams who lost during the qualifying round, aka “Teams A-H” — to take place between the qualifying round and the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For a detailed look at the complex ins and outs of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, including how the first three “draws” work for the top three picks, click here.

NHL Awards: Draisaitl, Ovechkin among regular season winners

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Now that we know the NHL’s Return to Play format, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the 2019-20 regular season is considered over. That means all records and stats are final.

But what about those eight Qualifying Round series? That discussion is on-going, but if they were to count they would be considered playoff statistics.

That means we have a definitive answer to some regular season awards.

Handing out a few trophies

Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak share the Rocket Richard Trophy with 48 goals. It’s the ninth win for the Capitals captain and first for the Bruins forward. This is the third time the award will be shared and first since Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby tied with 51 goals in 2009-10.

• Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl wins his first Art Ross Trophy with 110 points. He was the only player to reach the 100-point mark and finished 13 points ahead of teammate Connor McDavid, who hit his jersey number, 97. Draisaitl also led the league with 67 assists and in posts/crossbars hit with 14.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

• The Bruins are the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners. They led the league with 100 points at the time of the March 12 pause and also own the best points percentage (.714) among all NHL teams. This is the third time they’ve won the award and first since the 2013-14 season.

Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak will share the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed since they both played at least 25 games. The tandem allowed 167 goals in 70 games played (2.39 goals allowed per game).

Other statistical notes

• Ovechkin will be denied a ninth 50-goal season. The Capitals had 13 games remaining on their schedule.

• McDavid will fall short of his fourth-straight 100-point season. Artemi Panarin (95), David Pastrnak (95), and Nathan MacKinnon (93) were all primed to hit 100 points for the first time in their careers.

• The Sabres will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. They played their last game on March 9, meaning it could be a very long off-season if we’re not seeing a 2020-21 season begin until November or December, at the earliest.

• Oh, what could have been for the Sabres. According to the NHL on NBC research team, if Buffalo had beat Montreal in regulation on March 12 (the day of the NHL pause), they would have jumped the Canadiens in terms of points percentage and would be set to play the Penguins.

• Detroit owns the top odds (18.5%) in the first lottery draw for the No. 1 overall pick.

• How good are Brady Tkachuk and Brad Marchand at getting under the skins of opponents? They led the NHL in penalties draw with 47 and 45, respectively.

• Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot is your ice time leader, averaging 22:30 per game. That’s 2:54 more than Drew Doughty, who finished second.

• Finally, David Rittich of the Flames is your shootout king with a 6-0 record and only two goals allowed on 21 shots against.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kim Pegula to AP: Botterill returning as Sabres’ GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has ownership’s backing to return for a fourth season despite overseeing a team that will miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year, team president and co-owner Kim Pegula told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Acknowledging the decision might be unpopular among some fans, Pegula said she and her husband, Terry, are confident in the job the GM has done. And while the plan all along was to retain Botterill before the NHL season was paused in March because of the pandemic, Pegula said it is even more important to do so now given the continuity he provides entering an uncertain and extended offseason.

“He’s our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said in a Zoom interview.

“I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

That doesn’t mean the Pegulas are satisfied, given the Sabres finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and couldn’t even qualify for the NHL’s expanded playoff format featuring the top 12 teams in each conference. The Sabres’ playoff drought is the league’s longest active streak.

“Believe me, I don’t think anyone knows the frustrations more than Terry and I do,” Pegula said. “Coach and Jason know they’ve got to show not only us, but they’ve got to show it to the fans. And they know that. They understand that.”

The Sabres’ offseason officially began with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the league was going forward with the expanded playoff format. With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo missed out on qualifying by the slimmest of margins: Montreal clinched the East’s final berth with 71 points in 71 games (.500), just ahead of Buffalo, which had 68 points in 69 games (.493).

The order could have been switched had the season not been postponed March 12, when the Sabres were in Montreal preparing to play the Canadiens.

Pegula backed the NHL’s playoff format, even though it cost the Sabres.

“Listen, we should’ve won another game or two back in the day. We didn’t. So that’s no fault of any other club. That’s on us,” she said. “Although I don’t like the way it concluded, but it’s the best thing for the league to conclude the season.”

Botterill and the Pegulas became the focus of fan criticism over the course of a season in which the Sabres experienced numerous peaks and valleys under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.

After getting off to a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres then went 2-8-2. The Sabres lost six in a row before a 3-2 shootout win over Washington on March 9, their final game.

The Sabres showed signs of playing with more structure and efficiency under Krueger, and yet still encountered stretches of inconsistency as a result of poor goaltending and a lack of secondary scoring.

Led by captain Jack Eichel’s career-best 36 goals, he, Sam Reinhart and rookie Victor Olofsson accounted for 78 of Buffalo’s 193 goals scored. Forward Jeff Skinner struggled in a second-line role by finishing with 14 goals and 23 points a season after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract.

The Sabres featured a lineup with an over-abundance of defensemen, even after the team terminated the contract of Zach Bogosian and traded Marco Scandella to Montreal.

Botterill enters an offseason in which he can finally begin reshaping a roster of over-priced and under-performing players. The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potentially constrict due to lost revenue.

In Botterill’s defense, he inherited a disjointed mix of a team put together by his predecessor, Tim Murray. The Sabres farm system also lacked NHL-ready depth as a result of a series of poor drafts and questionable trades.

Botterill still made several missteps, starting with his first coaching hire of Phil Housley, who was fired two seasons into his tenure.

Botterill has also taken a brunt of criticism for getting little in return in trading unhappy center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in July 2018.

Neither of the three skaters acquired by Buffalo in the trade have made much of an impact at the NHL level. Forward Patrik Berglund abruptly left the Sabres a few months into his first season and had his contract terminated by the team.

NHL announces return-to-play plans: 24-team playoff format, two hub cities

NHL return to play 24-team playoff Bettman
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While there are still details to work out, the NHL made key return-to-play announcements on Tuesday. The highlights include: how the 24-team playoff format works, potential choices for two “hub cities,” and information on the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery.

This post revolves around the 24-team playoff format and hub cities. Click here for more on the NHL’s return-to-play procedures for Phase 2.

One of the most important bits of new information is that NHL aims for formal training camps “no earlier than the first half of July.” We’ll get to that, and more, below.

NHL shares basic timeline to get through return-to-play phases; two hub cities details

Shortly after the pandemic pause, the NHL entered “Phase 1” of a return-to-play plan: players and staff practicing self-quarantining. The NHL shared the framework for the other return-to-play phases:

Phase 1: Pause and self-quarantineRegular season considered over. The NHL instituted the pandemic pause on March 12, with the regular season marked as ending as of March 11. The top 12 teams from each conference enter the 24-team playoff format, with positioning based on points percentage.

Phase 2: Noncontact skating for players in small groups at team facilities. The hopeful starting date for Phase 2 is early June. Again, this post covers the key points; if you want to read the 22-page NHL document, have at it.

Phase 3: Formal training camps starting “no earlier than the first half of July.”

Phase 4: 24-team playoff (including seeding games, play-in rounds) must still be determined.

The NHL also shared details on the two “hub cities” setup, including potential host cities:

– Chicago, IL

– Columbus, OH

– Dallas, TX

– Edmonton, AB

– Las Vegas, NV

– Los Angeles, CA

– Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

– Pittsburgh, PA

– Toronto, ON

– Vancouver, BC

* Each Conference is assigned a “hub” city with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation.

* Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the “hub” city with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas.

* Timing and sites will be determined at a future date and will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

How the 24-team playoff format works

The NHL shared the “competitive format” for the 24-team playoff setup in its return-to-play announcement. As you can see, “the round robin” pertains to the seeding for the top four teams in each conference. The “qualifying round” has previously been referred to as a “play-in” round. City 1 represents Eastern Conference teams, while City 2 will include the West.

Competitive Format

* In each Conference, teams seeded by points percentage.

Round Robin: The top 4 teams play for First Round seeding (regular-season overtime rules in effect)

Qualifying Round: The remaining 8 teams play best-of-5 series to advance to the First Round (playoff overtime rules in effect)

First Round and Second Round: Format (seeding vs. bracket) and series lengths to be determined

Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final: Best-of-7 series

* The winners from the Qualifying Round play the top 4 seeds in the First Round. Individual First Round series matchups remain to be determined.

City 1 (Eastern Conference)

NHL return-to-play East top 12

City 1 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Washington Capitals
  4. Philadelphia Flyers

City 1 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round

#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens

#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers

#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers

#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

City 2 (Western Conference)

NHL return-to-play West top 12

City 2 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Colorado Avalanche
  3. Vegas Golden Knights
  4. Dallas Stars

City 2 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round

#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks

#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes

#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild

#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.