Roundtable: Teams that will fade; intriguing NHL awards races

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Which team having a good first month will fade as the season moves on?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Nashville. The Predators have enjoyed a solid first month-plus with a 10-7-1 record and a fourth-place standing in the Central Division. Points banked in October and November are important for when those up-and-down stretches hit every team during the season. What might catch up to Nashville is when the likes of Colorado and Dallas straighten things out and the current outrageous shooting percentages of top scorers Matt Duchene (12 goals, 21.4 SH%), Ryan Johansen (6 goals, 23.1 SH%), and Tanner Jeannot (5 goals, 16.1 SH%) come back down to earth. Juuse Saros has picked up where his Vezina-worthy 2020-21 season left off with an .932 5-on-5 save percentage through 15 games. He carried them to the playoffs last season, but he cannot be relied upon to handle that much responsibility for another five months of the regular season.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: New York Rangers. This feels as dangerous to say as Artemi Panarin is in open space, but the Rangers are just riding outrageous luck so far this season. They’re absolutely putrid in just about every fancy stat category. Not just on defense as many expected, but even at the deeper elements of offense. Talent-wise, they could figure things out. Their coach is still newly installed. But it feels like cheating to name a team that’s just-not-miserable, like the Sharks or Blue Jackets. The Rangers’ place is inflated, and if they don’t correct their process, they’ll flatten out in the crowded Metro.

(Side note: also, can’t risk drawing even more ire from Ducks Nation,™ can we?)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Detroit. The Red Wings have been a pleasant surprise, but I don’t see them as a playoff team when all is said and done. They are porous defensively and their early season success has been buoyed by a strong record against the Western Conference; against the Atlantic – the teams Detroit will face the most this year – the Wings have only won 2 of 8 games, getting outscored 34-21.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Anaheim. I think the Ducks finally have some long-term hope with guys like Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale, and Mason McTavish, those guys have the potential to be franchise cornerstones and something you can build around. The Ducks have lacked those long-term building blocks and it really held back their long-term outlook. But I am not sure I fully buy into them being a playoff team right now. Maybe John Gibson turns into superman John Gibson and carries them there, but I still think they are a year or two away from reaching that point.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorAnaheim. I cannot see the Ducks continuing to play this well. While most predicted the Ducks to finish in the basement of the Pacific Division, even behind the expansion Seattle Kraken, Anaheim has raced off to a 10-5-3 start as of Sunday night, good for third place in the Pacific. While Troy Terry and Ryan Getzlaf have been outstanding offensively, I cannot see them staying even close to their production in the early going. John Gibson has been outstanding in net but he will not be able to keep up with the onslaught that will occur. Still, they have been a great story thus far.

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Which major NHL award race is the most intriguing early on?

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Vezina. For me it is the Vezina because as of right not there are so many unexpected players at the top. Frederik Andersen‘s rebound is stunning to me, and how about Sergei Bobrovsky? Feel like that performance is not getting enough attention and if he keeps playing his way into that discussion you could be talking about a potential three-time Vezina Trophy winner. Only 12 goalies have ever done that, and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Vezina. Plenty of interesting races, but the Vezina’s mix of variety and novelty is a thing to behold. Before Sunday’s action, Jacob Markstrom already has five shutouts, easily his career-high. Sergei Bobrovsky could go from albatross to Vezina finalist. Former Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen is a frontrunner, as is the goalie (Jack Campbell) who backed him up. It’s not odd that John Gibson is in the mix, but it’s unexpected that the Ducks are good enough not to waste his efforts. Goalies aren’t much more predictable than tornadoes, so don’t be surprised if we check back in another month and the Vezina list looks dramatically different.

[NHL Awards races: Calder Trophy / Norris Trophy]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Vezina. Even if Andrei Vasilevskiy will eventually run away with this award, there have been some intriguing performances so far. Does Jack Campbell become the first Maple Leaf to win the Vezina in over a half century? How about Toronto’s previous No. 1, Frederik Andersen, who has taken Carolina to the top of the standings? Or another old teammate of Campbell’s, Jonathan Quick, who is having a career renaissance for LA at age 35? We also won’t overlook Igor Shesterkin or Ilya Sorokin, fellow Russians who man the nets for rival teams in New York City.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Calder. All the awards should be interesting but the Calder should be the most. Right now, Detroit has the top two candidates in Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider but the play of New Jersey’s Dawson Mercer has really surprised me. Raymond was selected fourth overall in 2020 and has 19 points which is tied for ninth place as of Sunday morning in the NHL. Mercer was selected 14 picks later and was not thought to be ready for the NHL this season. He was also regarded as more of a two-way center who had second line upside, but he has surprised so many early on with his offensive output as he has six goals and 12 points in 16 games. I think Seider will win it as he has been a major reason why the Red Wings are off to such a good start.  There are not too many rookie defensemen who will lead their team in power play time on ice but that is exactly what Seider is doing as he has 13 points thus far in 20 games. I think by the end of the season it will be Seider, Raymond and Mercer with Seth Jarvis finishing fourth.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Calder. It’s not a crazy thought that three Red Wings could end up as finalists for the award. Certainly three of them could be worthy of it at the end of the season between Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond, and Alex Nedeljkovic, who was a finalist in 2020-21. There also could be a decent crop of goalies in contention outside of the Detroit stopping. Jeremy Swayman and Spencer Knight might get games to play their way into the conversation. But the number of skaters having good starts will make it a fun race to watch. Dawson Mercer and Trevor Zegras are hot, while Cole Sillinger, Bowen Byram, Jonathan Dahlen, and Tanner Jeannot could make some noise if their production kicks up the rest of the way.

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What storyline has captured your attention the most so far?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe story that has intrigued me the most has been the play of the Seattle Kraken. So many people thought that it would be a repeat or close to it of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first season in 2017, but the Kraken have struggled mightily in the first six weeks of the season and have found themselves solidly behind most of the Pacific and in dead last with a 4-12-1 mark. They should have good goaltending with Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger but both have found out that playing with the Kraken is not the same as playing behind  the Colorado and Florida defense respectively. I thought at the start of the season that the Kraken would finish last because of a lack of offense, but their defensive play has been worse than I could have anticipated.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Apologies for going with the obvious, but how can you top “What will Connor McDavid do next?” Every other game, he’s accomplishing things you’re simply not supposed to be able to do in the modern NHL. Couple that with Leon Draisaitl arguably making an even bigger impact, and the Oilers become so must-watch, they might create a popcorn shortage.

(Add all that with how Connor McDavid seems to make some fans mad in the same way that pre-Stanley Cup Alex Ovechkin did, and you’re gaining even more entertainment.)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of history. Ovi has Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record in his crosshairs, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down at age 36, having moved from 7th to 4th on the all-time list already in the first month. An unexpected subplot this season is that he’s piling up assists as well, and is right up there among the league’s overall leading scorers. Beating out Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the Art Ross (an award he hasn’t won since 2008) would be another large feather in his cap.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: While we don’t know the full 50-55-man long lists for the countries participating in the 2022 men’s Olympic tournament, watching the play of some players who are not guarantees to make their respective rosters has been fun. Andrew Mangiapane had a strong World Championship and is playing his way into contention for Canada; While long lists were due in mid-October, can Troy Terry potentially serve as an injury replacement after his red-hot start?; Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of Russia’s first three players named to the team. Who will join him? Two of Igor Shesterkin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ilya Samsonov, or Ilya Sorokin will round out their goaltending trio in Beijing.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think it is probably Vancouver, just because this team is such a consistent disappointment. You look at the top of the roster, and it should be a team with a good foundation that is ready to compete right now. But they have absolutely wasted so much salary cap space on the wrong complementary players and the wrong defense that it is just this perpetual state of mediocrity and they keep letting the same people lead them through it.

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    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

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    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.

    Nashville Predators hire Andrew Brunette after firing John Hynes

    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    NASHVILLE, Tenn.– The coaching shuffle in Nashville is complete, with Andrew Brunette officially hired as the Predators coach a little over 12 hours after the team announced that John Hynes was fired.

    The moves are the first being made by incoming general manager Barry Trotz and come about six weeks after the Predators missed the playoffs.

    The 49-year-old Brunette spent the past season as a New Jersey Devils associate coach under Lindy Ruff and has previous head-coaching experience.

    He was promoted to interim coach of the Florida Panthers during the 2021-22 season and oversaw a team that set franchise records for wins (58) and points (122) in claiming the Presidents’ Trophy before being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. Brunette finished second in the Jack Adams Award voting for the NHL’s coach of the year.

    He becomes just the fourth coach in the history of a Predators franchise and returns to Nashville, where Brunette played for the Trotz-coached team during its inaugural season in 1998-99. Their relationship goes back to 1993-94, when Brunette played under Trotz, who was head coach of the Washington Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine.

    “I feel like this is coming full circle for my career – from pulling on the jersey for the first time 25 years ago to returning now to take care of some unfinished business,” Brunette said in a statement. “It has been awesome to see how this city and its fanbase have grown since I played here and I look forward to continuing the legacy and the culture behind the bench that Barry cultivated that inaugural season.”

    Trotz, meantime, has an eye on building on the Predators’ youth and offensively skilled players as he takes over as GM for David Poile, who is retiring at the end of June after 26 years overseeing the franchise.

    “We want to become more of an offensive team and Andrew specializes on that side of the ice – he lived it as a player, and he coaches it as a coach, Trotz said. “He is as good of an offensive teacher and power-play coach as there is in the game today. He will be great with our young players, and I know, because of his background as a player, he will connect well with our top, skilled players.”

    In Florida, Brunette coached a Panthers team that led the NHL with 337 goals and had the league’s fourth-best power-play unit.

    The Predators missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and the first under Hynes, who took over as coach during the 2019-20 season after Peter Laviolette was fired.

    Brunette, who is from Sudbury, Ontario, spent 16 seasons playing in the NHL, ending with a one-year stint with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011-12. He finished with 268 goals and 733 points in 1,110 career games split among six teams, including two separate stints in Minnesota. Brunette is one of 25 players selected in the seventh round or later to appear in more than 1,000 NHL games.

    Upon his retirement, Brunette spent seven seasons with the Wild in various off-ice roles, including assistant coach and assistant GM, before being hired by the Panthers as an assistant coach in 2019-2020.