PHT’s 2019-20 Eastern Conference predictions

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

An historic season ended in a sweep. The Islanders used Barry Trotz’s defensive genius to reach 100 points. Those “Bunch of Jerks” in Carolina became everyone’s darlings. The Maple Leafs once again fell short at the hands of the Bruins. And the Senators, well, in the words of GM Pierre Dorion they were “a team.”

A lot has happened since. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky went elsewhere in the Eastern Conference. Joel Quenneville is now behind the bench in Florida. Ray Shero and the Devils went all-in to get back into the playoffs, as did their rivals in the Rangers.

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Wednesday night, so let’s take a conference-by-conference look at how we’re feeling about where teams will finish and who will rep the East in the Stanley Cup Final. Playoff teams are outlined in red.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: WESTERN CONFERENCE / STANLEY CUP]

Let us know in the comments how you see both Eastern Conference divisions shaping up.

EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION

SEAN: The one good thing about being swept in Round 1 last season was the fact that the Lightning got plenty of rest this summer. That extra time of thinking about how it all went so horribly wrong should serve them well in 2019-20. Dominating the regular season as they did, Tampa took their foot off the gas in the second half and lost that edge that cost them dearly against the Columbus Blue Jackets. That won’t happen again.

JAMES: The Lightning had a meltdown last year, sure, but this team has shown an aptitude for deep playoff runs during the Stamkos era, and they’re so loaded that I just can’t pick against them. Do I feel good about it considering how foreboding the Atlantic is? Of course not.

JOEY: Tampa Bay has to get over the hump at some point, right? They were swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and I think they’ll learn from that experience. Oh, and they still have a dynamic roster. Brayden Point is signed, they made small additions like Pat Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk and Curtis McElhinney. This is the year.

ADAM: I think the Washington Capitals have another championship run in them. Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are in contract years and should be on top of their games, the team is still really good around them, and they had a couple extra months off after their 2018 Stanley Cup run.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams
Breakout players, bold predictions for 2019-20

Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock on Wednesday after a terrible start to the 2019-20 season. We already know what direction the Maple Leafs are going to go in — it is Sheldon Keefe’s team now — but Babcock’s future remains unsettled.

Even though his tenure never produced the results it was expected to in Toronto, he is almost certainly going to get another head coaching job in the NHL in the not-too-distant future as long as he wants one. And given his reputation and the fact his name still carries a ton of respect among NHL teams there will probably several options for him when the time is right.

Let’s take a look at what some of those potential options could be.

It could happen, it might make sense, and it might actually work

Vancouver Canucks. Based on their roster moves the past couple of years it is easy to get the sense Canucks management believes the team is closer to winning than it might actually be, and that could put a ton of pressure on the current head coach if they don’t start producing better results. Travis Green is in his third year behind the team’s bench and while they have shown incremental improvement every year, they have hit a pretty big wall the past couple of weeks and are starting to regress back down toward the no-man’s land in the standings they’ve taken up residence in the past few years. How tempting would the opportunity to land a big-name coach be for Canucks ownership if things don’t turn around in the coming weeks and months?

While Babcock’s last two-plus years in Toronto turned into a disappointment where a change was necessary, he did help get things going in the right direction when the Maple Leafs were at a comparable stage to where the Canucks are now.

Minnesota Wild. It is a matter of when, and not if, the Wild make a coaching change. They have one of the worst records in the league, they are almost certainly going to miss the playoffs for a second year in a row, and a new general manager is going to want his own coach. It is not a great roster, but there is still enough there that a coach like Babcock could do enough to get them to a playoff spot where they bow out in Round 1.

My goodness, this fit might actually be perfect.

It is a real long shot, but still worth considering

Seattle. He takes a couple of years off, continues to get paid by Toronto in the short-term, then becomes the first head coach of the Seattle Kraken/Sasquatch/Sockeyes/Evergreens/Whatever they might be. Given that this team is going to have the same expansion draft rules as Vegas, and with the way Vegas has become an immediate contender, expectations are going to be absurdly high for Seattle to repeat that. An established coach with a championship pedigree would also be a big splash at the beginning. The one potential problem here might be that Seattle’s new front office seems as if it is going to be heavily invested in utilizing analytics and we just saw what happens when Babcock works with a more analytically inclined front office.

He just retires. He goes nowhere. He just rides off into the sunset, makes the occasional appearance on TV as an analyst during the Stanley Cup Final or the Winter Olympics, says goodbye to coaching, and does whatever he wants to do with his free time. The competitor in him may not be ready for this, but just pretend for a second that you were 56 years old, had already accomplished all of the highest honors you could in your chosen profession (in this case a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals) and had millions of dollars sitting in the bank with many more coming your way over the next few years. Wouldn’t you at least consider retiring? Of course you would. And no one would blame you. Honestly he would probably be crazy not to consider this.

It will get suggested, but it probably shouldn’t happen

Chicago Blackhawks. I’m not saying Jeremy Colliton won’t be the solution in Chicago, and I am not even sure this would be a good fit (it probably wouldn’t), but the Blackhawks seem determined to try and squeeze everything they can out of their remaining core, and who is to say Stan Bowman’s desperation to keep that window open couldn’t lead to him at least considering a move like this?

On the other hand, if you just fired your three-time Stanley Cup winning coach, and then within a year fired his replacement only to hire another veteran coach that has been less successful than the Hall of Fame coach you already fired it might paint the picture that you don’t really know what you’re doing and don’t have much of a plan.

San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are still trying to get that elusive championship. A slow start probably put Pete DeBoer on the hot seat and would have made this sort of swap very tempting, but with their improved play of late things have probably cooled off in that regard. This also doesn’t seem like a good fit. What the Sharks need right now is a better goalie, not a better coach.

A return to Detroit: No. Don’t even think about it. Not happening. Shouldn’t happen. Time to move on.

More on Maple Leafs and Babcock

Maple Leafs fire Babcock and replace him with Keefe
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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.

Q&A: Nicklas Lidstrom on his toughest losses, influence of Brad McCrimmon

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Nicklas Lidstrom spent this past weekend in Toronto taking part in the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame Weekend of festivities. He captained one of the teams during Sunday’s Legends Classic and watched as another European player, Vaclav Nedomansky, was enshrined Monday night.

While the former Red Wings captain, a 2015 inductee, is one of four Swedish players in the Hall of Fame, he sees more and more European players who will find their way to Toronto in the near future.

“I think we will have more representatives and more Europeans coming in as they get older,” Lidstrom told NBC Sports this week. “I know [Marian] Hossa’s been mentioned, Pavel Datsyuk is coming up, Henrik Lundqvist, the Sedin twins are coming up. Just talking about Swedes, but in general I think you’ll see more Europeans as these guys get older.”

Lidstrom has spent part of the fall promoting his book Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection, which was released in October.

We spoke with Lidstrom this week about his book, what current defensemen he enjoys watching, and what the “Perfect Human” isn’t good at.

Enjoy.

PHT: You write in the book about your first contract with Detroit and thinking you’ll play a few years and then go back home. What was behind that thinking and were there times later in your career where you contemplated that again?

LIDSTROM: “I didn’t really know what to expect when I first signed with the Wings. I didn’t know what it was like living overseas and playing in the NHL, playing almost twice as many games as I did in Europe at the time. That’s why in my mind I said I’m going to give it a try anyway and play a few years and see how it goes. If I’m not successful I can always move back and play in Sweden again. My mindset wasn’t to play 20 years or play a real long time. It was more just get used to playing and living in the U.S. and the NHL.”

PHT: You also wrote about Brad McCrimmon and how big of an influence he was on you in those early years. Did any of the lessons he taught you — on or off the ice — influence in how you dealt with younger players when you were the veteran?

LIDSTROM: “Yeah, one of the things he mentioned was that you’ve got to go to work every day, meaning you don’t take days off and you’ve got to work hard every day. He said if you do that then you’re a pro. If you do it well you can be a star. That’s something I tried to help younger players with as well, [telling them] just got to go there and work hard and feel good about yourself leaving the rink every day.”

PHT: A lot of players quoted in the book talk about how hard it was to get you off your game. Were you always like that as a player, even as a youth?

LIDSTROM: “No, as I matured and got older I developed that. In my junior years, not that I would lose my temper real bad, but I would try to get even or slash someone back if someone was trying to get under my skin. I would sometimes get sucked into that as a junior player. As I matured and as I got to know the game a lot more and became better I was able to keep my emotions intact and focus on the game.”

PHT: You play through a few different eras of the NHL. Today, there are no Derian Hatcher type defenseman. You have to be a good skater, be able to move the puck well. How do you think a 21-year-old Nick Lidstrom would do in the NHL in 2019?

LIDSTROM: “I think I would have adapted and adjusted to the style of today’s game. That’s what I had to do as a 34-, 35-year-old when they changed the rules in 2005. You have to adjust. You were taught to grab and hold and put your stick around someone’s waist, that was how you were taught when you first came into the league. All of a sudden, that’s a penalty every time you do it, so you had to adjust. As a young player I think I would have been able to adjust to that style, too. I was a mobile defenseman in a younger age, so I think I would have been able to adjust to that type of style earlier, too.”

PHT: Who are the defenseman you enjoy watching the most today?

LIDSTROM: “There’s so many good, young players today. Good skaters, they’re good at moving the puck. They wanted you to be big defenseman and maybe the real skill guys were a couple of every team, or three, four at the most, and now you see the opposite. Now you see skill is what team’s are looking for. They’re looking for skating defensemen and guys that can move the puck and be part of the offense. 

“I saw Rasmus Dahlin here in Sweden a couple of weeks ago when they played Tampa and seeing his style of play, how confident he plays with the puck. Cale Makar, I haven’t seen him play live but I’ve watched some highlights of him recently, too. They’re all good skaters and they can move the puck and they can be part of the offense. There’s a lot more mobility on the backend than there used to be.”

PHT: And the exciting thing is guys like Dahlin and Makar, they’re playing at that level right away. It’s not as if they’re older veterans.

LIDSTROM: “That’s what’s so impressive. Rasmus is 19 and Cale [is 21]. I’m so impressed with how they come in and really take charge of the game. You didn’t see that when I came in or even 10 years ago you didn’t see many players that young coming in and being so important to their teams. That’s another thing that’s impressive: how the young guys and young stars of the league have been able to step in and contribute right away.”

PHT: For all of the team awards you’ve won — Stanley Cups, gold medals — is there a loss in your career that still bothers you to this day when you think about it?

LIDSTROM: “Always when you think back at some of the losses, the one we had in the Olympics in 2002 against Belarus in the quarterfinals was a tough one. That was a real tough loss for us where we were huge favorite and came out on the wrong end of it. 

“The last Stanley Cup Final that I played in, 2009, was hard, too. We beat Pittsburgh the year before. We had a good team and they had a good team, too, which is why it went to seven games. It was disappointing losing that Game 7 at home.”

PHT: When that puck was squirting out to you in Game 7, were you confident you were about to score before [Marc-Andre] Fleury dove across?

LIDSTROM: “No, I can’t say I was confident because the puck was kind of coming on my off side, so I couldn’t get a lot on it. If the puck had squirted out on the other side it would have been like a one-timer. I had to focus more on getting it on net, but I didn’t get as much on it as I would have liked. That’s why when it came from the off side it makes it a little harder to get all of it. I wasn’t overly confident at all that I would score. I knew it was only within seconds of the buzzer, too, so I knew I had to get a shot off quick.”

PHT: Finally, you’ve had the “Perfect Human” nickname for a long time. But tell me, what is something Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t good at?

LIDSTROM: [laughs] “My wife would tell you a bunch of things. I was so detailed in getting ready for games and focusing on everything around the game, but away from the rink my car could be dirty, I could be sloppy with dishes or things around the house. You’re not as focused as you were at the rink. Those kinds of things.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Life after Babcock; goalie gambles not paying off

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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.

• Confidence should be gained for the Maple Leafs now that Mike Babcock is gone and Sheldon Keefe is in. [Toronto Star]

• The fun is gone in Toronto. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Babcock is out, but now the pressure is upped on management. [Leafs Nation]

• “The NHL has to stop letting player safety depend on referees’ judgment calls.” [RMNB]

• “Why punching your opponent in hockey is fine but spitting on him is not.” [The Guardian]

• A look at Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and other NHL players carrying large offensive burdens for their teams. [ESPN]

• Jamie McGinn has been released from his tryout with the Blues, while Troy Brouwer inks a one-year deal. [Blues]

• Some goalie gambles haven’t paid off for a number of GMs. [Yahoo]

• It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Sabres’ blue line. [Die by the Blade]

• In good news for the Sabres, assistant coach Don Granato, who’s been out since Oct. 1 while battling severe pneumonia, was back at practice on Wednesday. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The Blue Jackets have faced a pretty tough schedule to start the season. [1st Ohio Battery]

Yanni Gourde should not longer be considered underrated; he’s just that good. [Raw Charge]

• Sharks’ Evander Kane pushes growth of hockey at Oakland middle school. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Finally, a great development for Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash last April:

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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.

USA Hockey snub leads Alex Carpenter on Chinese adventure

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Once Bobby Carpenter’s flight from Beijing touched down in Boston, he raced to the Lawrence Larsen Rink in nearby Winthrop, Massachusetts, to catch his daughter’s Canadian Women’s Hockey League game.

Time was of the essence because, immediately following the game, Alex Carpenter was boarding a flight for China, of all places, with her new Shenzhen Vanke Rays teammates.

It was late January 2018, and Carpenter had gone some eight months without seeing his daughter while he coached Kunlun, the Chinese team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Just as important, this also represented his first chance to speak to Alex personally since she was surprisingly left off the U.S. Olympic team preparing to play at the Winter Games in South Korea.

”I wanted to talk to her and make sure she was positive when she went over,” recalled Carpenter, who spent 18 seasons playing in the NHL. ”So, I just kind of said, ‘This is great. I’m glad you’ve got somewhere to play right now. Don’t worry about the other thing.”’

Some two years later, Alex Carpenter has no regrets or hold any lingering resentment over being left off a team that would go on to win its second gold medal and first since 1998.

”I don’t think it’s worth being bitter about. It was outside of my control,” said Carpenter, who had helped the U.S. win four previous world championships and a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Games. ”It was decisions they made and I can’t do anything about it now.”

What matters is U.S. college hockey’s top women’s player in 2015 is back on the national team after helping the U.S. win its fifth consecutive world championship and ninth overall in April.

And the former standout at Boston College is still benefiting from her decision to play in China.

Carpenter is now in her third season playing for the Vanke Rays, who switched to the KHL-backed Women’s Hockey League after the CWHL folded last spring. The therapeutic move to leave her frustrations behind in North America has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the 25-year-old.

”I think you just kind of learn to put things behind you and know that’s not the end of the world,” she said. ”I couldn’t have even imagined this in a million years. Sometimes you still can’t believe that you get to do this much traveling and playing in such a great league.”

Through games Tuesday, Carpenter is leading the eight-team league with 14 goals and 34 points in 14 games, while juggling her national team duties and the jet lag that comes with it.

Earlier this month, Carpenter traveled from China to Pittsburgh to participate in the U.S. team’s training camp, which included two exhibition games against Canada. Then, she was back on a flight to Krasnoyarsk in central Russia, where she had two assists in a 6-3 win on Nov. 13.

”You kind of get used to it after a while,” Carpenter said of a travel schedule in which the Vanke Rays’ closest road game is about a nine-hour flight. ”You just sleep when you can, eat when you can. It’s pretty basic.”

The key is she’s still playing, while many of her national team counterparts are relegated to practicing and competing in the occasional barn-storming game following their decision to not play professionally in North America and its lone remaining league, the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

The quasi-boycott came in the aftermath of the CWHL’s demise and led to the world’s top players to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and push for a new league with a sustainable economic model.

Carpenter supports her colleagues and keeps track of developments in China. And it’s not lost on Carpenter that she and her Vanke Rays teammates are treated far better and have more access to resources than she had during her one NWHL season with the Boston Pride in 2016-17.

”We’d show up to rinks and not have dressing rooms until an hour or two before the game,” she said. ”Those kind of brought me back to my youth days.”

In Shenzhen, Carpenter has her room and board paid for, and players have daily ice times set aside and access to a workout facility. Carpenter made an impression at the recent Team USA camp on coach Bob Corkum, who noted she was in better game shape than players who elected to stay in North America.

”She’s as good as she wants to be,” Corkum said. ”Offensively she’s off the charts.”

Corkum replaced Robb Stauber and isn’t interested in what happened in the past. Upon welcoming Carpenter back at a camp in January, Corkum informed the entire team that he and his staff would strive to develop an open and honest relationship.

”I don’t really know what happened with the last people, and I would prefer to keep it that way, and treating Alex like any other player,” Corkum said. ”She’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for the women’s game. I expect to see a lot more from her in the years to come.”

Bobby Carpenter has moved on, too. Not happy with how his daughter was treated before the 2018 Winter Games, he’s proud of how Alex has taken advantage of this opportunity.

”In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Carpenter, who spends many early mornings watching his daughter’s games on YouTube. ”I think she’s focused on today, which is really important. If you’re focused on today, you work hard because it’s today. You don’t take anything for granted.”

The Vanke Rays are a multi-national squad which lists seven Americans, including national team defenseman Megan Bozek, six Canadians, and Finland national team goalie Noora Raty. Aside from playing, they’re also asked to help develop women’s hockey in China in advance of the 2022 Winter Game in Beijing.

The experience has provided Carpenter a unique perspective in seeing the women’s game grow, while also seeing the deficiencies that still exist.

”Obviously, we’re all together and fighting for the same things,” Carpenter said. ”I would love to see the day where we can be able to play professionally within North America.”

Should that happen, she’ll face a big decision over whether to stay in China.

”I’d have a lot of thinking to do,” Carpenter said. ”But it would definitely be pretty amazing to see that within your own country, and I think that would definitely sway my decision to come back.”