Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

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.

 

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

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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

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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.