Stanley Cup Playoff race: Second half record every team needs

4 Comments

With half of the 2019-20 season officially in the books we are starting to get an idea as to which teams have a realistic chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and which teams do not. It’s extremely rare for teams to overcome point deficits of even four or five points at this stage of the season, and the standings rarely change much down the stretch.

There are, of course, exceptions to that. They are rare, but they do exist. Every team currently on the outside of the playoff picture is going to look at the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues as a reason for optimism. Exactly one year ago today they were 17-20-4 and needed a near miraculous second-half turnaround just to get into the playoffs. They finished the regular season on a 28-8-5 record from that day on, nearly came back to win the Central Division, then went on a run through the playoffs to finally claim the franchise’s first ever championship.

All it took was finding a new franchise goalie out of nowhere to completely alter their season. Not everyone has that card to play in the second half.

But, if you are a fan of a team currently on the outside of the playoff picture, let’s take a quick look at what that team is going to need to do the rest of the way to make the playoffs.

Let’s start with the Eastern Conference

Right now the Philadelphia Flyers hold the second Wild Card spot in the East and with their current points percentage are on track for 96.4 points this season. So let’s say the cutoff to make the Eastern Conference playoffs this season is 97 points (it was 98 points a year ago, but we will stick with 97 for now).

Here is a complete look at the Conference showing what every team has currently done, and what they will need to do the rest of the way to reach the 97-point mark.

Teams are ranked by their current points percentage. 

Washington, Boston, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have all given themselves a pretty good cushion and have some margin for error in the second half. They basically have to play just a little over .500 (Washington and Boston could actually play below that) the rest of the way and still have their spot secured.

Carolina and Toronto also look to be a solid position, but don’t have quite as much margin for error.

Philadelphia and Florida have almost nothing separating them (a game-and-a-half basically), while Columbus is going to need to maintain its recent hot streak for the next few months.

Everyone after Columbus? They are going to need a miracle. Is there a roster there that you can see making a Blues-type turnaround? Who there is just a goalie away from fixing it? Nobody.

Now the Western Conference

The target for the West is slightly lower than the East, and right now the line to get is sitting at 95 points.

Same deal as above, let’s look at where everyone is and where they have to get to.

The West is definitely the weaker of the two conferences. Once you get beyond the Central’s Top-three of St. Louis, Colorado, and Dallas everything just devolves into mediocrity. Arizona, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vegas, and Vancouver are all kind of lumped in together in the Pacific, and you know at least three of them are getting in because of the divisional playoff format.

Yes, it appears as if Edmonton is actually in a position to salvage this season and get Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl back to the playoffs.

Everybody after Vancouver is in a world of trouble.

It is a testament to how much Nashville struggled in the first half that it still needs that sort of second half just to get a wild card spot in what is a very watered down Western Wild Card race.

The same thing is true for San Jose, only with even more emphasis. How does that roster, sit in that spot, in that conference?

Can the Sharks do it?

If there is a team in the NHL that could possibly do what the Blues did a year ago that might be the one you look at — at least before Logan Couture’s injury. It is a team that is built to win now (just like the Blues were), a team that still has high-end talent (just like the Blues did), and could fix a lot of problems with a significant upgrade in goal (like the one the Blues got).

But I just don’t know that this Sharks team has shown any sign of actually being able to do that, or the desire to actually pursue a goaltending upgrade.

Add in the fact their top forward is now out for several weeks and this season that was supposed to be one more Stanley Cup push for Joe Thornton looks like it might just end up being a completely wasted 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.

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.

Killorn, Lightning jet ski their way to NHL return in ‘Bolts are Back’

Leave a comment

During some of the dog days of the pandemic pause, Alex Killorn gathered Lightning teammates for some tremendous-cheesy “Dock Talk” videos. It only makes sense, then, that he gathered the gang (“the boys?”) for the best segment yet to celebrate the NHL’s return to play. Yes, the “Bolts are back,” indeed.*

* – In small groups

Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and other Lightning teammates celebrated this announcement — on jet skis, with humor — to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are back in town.”

(Warning: that song will probably get in your head if you watch the video above. Maybe it already is?)

Enjoy some of the best moments of Killorn’s great “Bolts are back” video.

Splashy highlights of Killorn, Stamkos, other Lightning players in “Bolts are back”

Killorn makes his “directorial debut” with an honestly very nice overhead pool shot. The video starts strong with Stamkos and Killorn being goofy on their jet skis.

Stamkos "Bolts are Back"
What, Stamkos didn’t spring for fancy airpods? (via Killorn)

In a moment of poor sportsmanship/skismanship, an unnamed Bruin (or, most likely, someone wearing a Bruins shirt?) gets splashed. Figure this one out, Internet. I believe this is the same person who gets dumped in the water (while wearing a Maple Leafs shirt?) later on?

Bruins guy in "Bolts are Back"
Well, that’s rude. (via Killorn)

While there’s plenty of room for debate, I’d argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy (aka “Big Cat”) earns the nod for best cameo. We catch him lifting weights, and grunting something — maybe “you’re the man?” — before spotting his Lightning pals.

Vasilevskiy Big Cat "Bolts are Back"
Do goalies need to be that ripped? Asking for Dominik Hasek. (via Killorn)

Like many great filmmakers, Killorn tackles class when he features Lightning teammate Anthony Cirelli in one of the more memorable sequences of “Bolts are Back.” Notice that Cirelli (“Rocco”) is waiting tables before being summoned. You see, Cirelli is on an entry-level contract. Is his artificially deflated contract being referenced by Killorn?

Clearly.

Judging by Cirelli abandoning his duties, it’s not only good that the Bolts are back, and so seemingly is the NHL. It’s also promising that Cirelli’s due a raise as a pending RFA.

Other cast members

Not every appearance was as strong as a grunting big cat. Then again, maybe it boils down to repeat viewings, because Mikhail Sergachev‘s fanny pack and cat moved up the power rankings over time:

Sergachev cat
Almost a dog-like pose? Not complaining. (via Killorn)

Clearly, Braydon Coburn and/or Killorn are well-schooled on action movie tropes. At least, that’s my headcanon for Coburn being interrupted while cutting wood. Doesn’t that happen in every thriller involving a reluctantly returning hero? Anyway, Coburn joining the group with an open shirt earns one of the bigger laughs:

Braydon Coburn cameo
Alrighty then, “Kobayashi.” (via Killorn)

Killorn isn’t yet at that “obsessive auteur director” level just yet, as I imagine a control freak would have been maddened by the imperfect skiing V:

imperfect V "Bolts are back"
Maddening. (via Killorn)

(Seriously, who is the straggler? Could Cirelli’s jet ski not keep up? Class rears its ugly head again.)

Killorn ties it all together with another great joke: “The Bolts are back” — in small groups.

"Bolts are Back" -- in small groups
(via Killorn)

Killorn actually might be right about the whole “breakout influencer of the year” thing, honestly.

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.

Puck Treasures: The Mario Lemieux candy bun

1 Comment

Puck Treasures is all about showcasing unique pieces of hockey memorabilia. Have an interesting item? Send us an email at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

You know you’ve made it when you get something named after you. It could be a street, a school, a beer… maybe even a candy bar.

We know the famous “Reggie” bar named after baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson in the late 1970s.

Those “Reggie” bars were produced by Standard Brands’ Curtiss Candy Company. After several ownership changes, the D.L. Clark Company, based in Pittsburgh, decided in 1992 to honor the captain of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

Behold, the Mario Lemieux Bun!

Worthpoint.com

Each bun, which featured chocolate, peanuts and caramel, contained one Lemieux hockey card. Select packages included cards autographed by Le Manifique. Check out Sal Barry’s review of the three-card set.

According to the Post-Gazette, Lemieux became the first Pittsburgh athlete with his own candy since the Bubby Bar, named after Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister. It was also the first time an NHL player was featured on an internationally marketed candy bar.

There are still some Mario Buns available on eBay, if you’re interested in collectibles or eating 27-year-old candy.

Too bad they couldn’t have teamed up with Jaromir Jagr peanut butter a few years later for a mega-powers bar.

PREVIOUS PUCK TREASURES:
The 170-year-old hockey stick valued at $3.5 million

————

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.

Criticism doesn’t alter Sabres GM’s plan to build with youth

2 Comments

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jason Botterill is very much aware of the criticism he’s attracted overseeing a Buffalo Sabres team that extended its playoff drought to nine years by failing to even qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team format.

That doesn’t mean the general manager is going to his alter his vision in continuing to build the organizational depth and developing young talent.

“There’s always urgency in this position, and I’m not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice,” Botterill said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday, a day after the Sabres were officially eliminated following the league’s decision to forego the remainder of the regular season.

“When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here,” he added. “We want our young players to step in and put them in positions where they can succeed, where they can help out our core players right away.”

Though Botterill saw glimpses of his team being competitive under first-year coach Ralph Krueger, there wasn’t enough consistency to extend the Sabres’ 50th anniversary year after games were placed on pause due to the pandemic in March.

With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo finished 13th in the Eastern Conference standings with a .493 points per game percentage. The Sabres were edged out from securing the final spot in the expanded format by Montreal (.500).

Buffalo’s playoff drought is the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short of matching the league record shared by Florida (2001-11) and Edmonton (2007-16).

For now, Botterill has ownership’s backing after Kim Pegula this week told The Associated Press the GM’s job is secure for a fourth year.

Buffalo’s season featured a series of peaks and valleys. Following a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres proceeded to go 2-8-3 over their next 13 games. And after a 7-3-1 run put the Sabres in striking distance of the playoff race in February, the wheels fell off with a six-game skid.

“We had too many poor streaks to combat the good streaks,” veteran forward Kyle Okposo said. “One of the keys to making the playoffs and playing well season is to manage those skids. We need to find a way to do better at that.”

Okposo is preaching patience by saying he sees promise in the Sabres developing players, and the simplified structure introduced by Krueger.

“I know people are mad, and they want to win. And we want to win, too,” Okposo said. “But we are going in the right direction, and I think that’s the message I have for fans.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Captain Jack Eichel scored a career-best and team-leading 36 goals, including nine game-winners. Forward Victor Olofsson finished with 20 goals and had been leading NHL rookies in scoring before missing 15 games with a lower-body injury. Second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin finished fourth on the team with 40 points (four goals, 36 assists) in 59 games.

LOW POINTS

Forward Jeff Skinner finished with 14 goals and 23 points, a year after scoring a career-best 40 goals, which led to him signing an eight-year, $72 million contract. Defenseman Zach Bogosian had his contract terminated after refusing to report to the minors. Goalie Carter Hutton won his first six starts before going 0-8-4 in 13 appearances, and finished the season 12-14-4.

BUSY OFFSEASON

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 potential constrict due to lost revenue.

Buffalo’s cap space stands to be eaten up with Olofsson, forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Brandon Montour and goalie Linus Ullmark the most notable players eligible to become restricted free agents.

Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents include forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larrson and late-season addition Wayne Simmonds.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Though Botterill hasn’t ruled out adding experienced talent through trades or free agency, he also expects several youngsters to compete for jobs next season. The candidates includes former first-round draft picks Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, who spent last season developing in the minors. Then there’s 2019 first-round pick, center Dylan Cozens, who has completed his Canadian junior eligibility.

DOWN DAHLIN

Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with Dahlin.

“It’s tough to be here in Sweden with all my Swedish buddies going back and playing, and I’m staying here at home,” Dahlin said via a Zoom call. “It (ticks) me off a little bit.”