Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

***

This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

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.

Penguins, Lightning exits show playoff hockey differences

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Scotty Bowman had already coached six teams to the Stanley Cup championship when his high-powered Detroit Red Wings that won 12 of their first 14 playoff games couldn’t get the puck away from the New Jersey Devils and got swept in the 1995 final.

”They just shut us right down,” Bowman said. ”We were shocked, but it happens.”

The coach with the most Stanley Cup rings in NHL history wasn’t as shocked to see the Tampa Bay Lightning get swept out of the first round this postseason after tying the single-season wins record set by his 1995-95 Red Wings and finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league. He wasn’t surprised, either, when the same thing happened the same night to the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won two of the past three championships.

If the Calgary Flames can’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit against Colorado, it will mark the first time each conference’s top seed is eliminated in the first round.

More than any other sport, playoff hockey is a much different animal than the regular season because of increased emphasis on scouting and preparation, fewer penalties and even-strength goals, and more all-out shot-blocking and sacrificing. The way games are coached, played and officiated changes enough that the Lightning can go from being the best team for seven months to gone in seven days.

”The ice shrinks and you have less time, less space, the hits are harder, guys are not preserving energy over the course of a game,” said NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who won the Cup in 2003 with New Jersey. ”You’re exhausting it every shift.”

Tampa Bay looked so exhausted after winning 62 of 82 regular-season games that it lost four in a row to eighth-seeded Columbus, which didn’t even clinch a playoff spot until game 81. The Blue Jackets were by far the better team, and Bowman – who lives in Florida and frequents the Lightning’s press box – saw a totally different Tampa Bay team without top defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman because it couldn’t move the puck up ice without a strain on the top forwards.

Bowman compared it to what Detroit would’ve been like without Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who hardly ever made a mistake with the puck and made everything happen. The Lightning ran into a tough John Tortorella-coached forecheck, struggled to control the game against the disciplined Blue Jackets and all their star power couldn’t dig them out of a deep hole.

”During the season, Tampa would have the puck so much, the other team would get four, five or six penalties and, boom, their power play was at 28 percent and had the most goals in the league,” Bowman said. ”They were so hard to play against all year because they forced the other teams to take penalties. (Hedman and Stralman) are bringing the puck up, they’re in the (offensive) zone. The game changes.”

Star players also get much more attention in the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s top scorers, presumptive MVP Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, combined for five points against Columbus after averaging 1.3 a game during the regular season.

That problem isn’t limited to the Lightning. Two-time playoff MVP Sidney Crosby was limited to one point in the Penguins’ sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has one point through four games against Colorado.

Tampa Bay, Calgary and Pittsburgh all ranked in the top six in the league in scoring during the regular season. When Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens does an autopsy on the Lightning and Penguins’ quick playoff exits, he sees fundamental problems in other areas.

”I saw two teams that don’t defend very well, really don’t have a lot of structure in their D-zone and they didn’t have anything to fall back on,” said Stevens, who won the Stanley Cup three times with the Devils and now is an NHL Network analyst. ”They weren’t able to score goals, and they weren’t able to defend and therefore they’re not playing anymore.”

Belying a common misperception, scoring isn’t down much in the postseason so far: an average of 5.8 goals over the first 31 playoff games compared to 6.0 in the regular season. But after 77.8 percent of regular-season goals came at even strength, that number is 59.4 percent so far in the playoffs, which means each power-play goal is all the more important.

”You want to stay out of the penalty box,” Stevens said. ”There’s teams that their power play might’ve been average during the year but they find a way to get a few in the playoffs and make a difference and that can win a series for you.”

Or lose a series. Pittsburgh went 1 for 11 on the power play, and Tampa Bay went 1 for 6.

Of course, there are fewer penalties called this time of year. The NHL has said it wants officials to call games the same way in the playoffs, but referees don’t want to overreach when games are so tight.

”I was always told that penalties are like money and it’s like other people’s money in that you should be frugal with them unless the action demands a call,” said retired referee Paul Stewart, who worked 49 NHL playoff games during his career.

Stewart likens the first two rounds of the playoffs to a guy being so excited for a date that he gets a speeding ticket on the way, and because of that officials need to take extra care to rein in players. It’s easy for him to understand why players feel like there’s less room on the 200-by-85-foot ice surface than during the regular season because he has seen it up close.

”Players tend to cover a lot more ice because their speed level and their intensity level is up and where they might’ve dogged it a step or two here or there, they seem to put a little more churn in the butter,” Stewart said. ”They’re getting from point A to point B a lot faster and then they’re going to point C and point D where during the regular season they might only get to point C and now they’re hitting D, E and F because they’re all jacked up and they want to make sure that every 45-second shift is momentous for them.”

Stevens said a great regular-season team’s confidence can evaporate quickly and lead to a long summer of reflection.

”The teams that are undisciplined, the teams that get away from their game quickly and can’t stay with their game tend to get in trouble because you become a little reckless, you don’t manage the puck and then they feed the other team’s offense and then they tend to find themselves chasing,” Stevens said. ”They just have no answer and it’s frustrating for that team that can’t find their game, has no answers, the adjustments don’t work and you’re still working hard, you’re trying hard but you can’t find a way to win.”

Lightning GM BriseBois not overreacting to playoff loss

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said Thursday he is not going to overreact to the Lightning’s historically quick postseason exit and he still has confidence in coach Jon Cooper.

After tying the NHL record for wins during the regular season, the perennial Stanley Cup contender became the first team in the expansion era to be swept in the first round of the playoffs after leading the league in points. Three of the four games against Columbus were decided by at least two goals.

”What really compounds the disappointment is that we didn’t play anywhere near our best hockey during the series. And now, the question is why? Why didn’t we play our best when it mattered the most,” BriseBois said.

”The reality is it’s not something that I’m going to be able to pinpoint to any one thing,” BriseBois added. ”I know it would make it a lot easier for all of us if we could have a clear narrative. We lost because of, fill-in the blank. The reality is it’s a lot more complex than that.”

The Lightning won 62 games, matching the league mark set by the 1995-96. While the players said they believe they are a team built for success in the playoffs, an inability to get back to the Stanley Cup Final the past four years suggests otherwise.

”Now is not the time to make excuses, it’s a time to show some humility,” BriseBois said. ”It’s the time for us to lick our wounds. Roll up our sleeves, get to work and focus on doing what we need to do so that next year we’re more successful.”

Cooper, in the final year of his contract, was given a multiyear extension on March 26.

”My faith in Coop has not waivered at all,” BriseBois said.

Tampa Bay had three players – Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – score 40-plus goals. Kucherov had a league-leading 128 points, the most by any player since 1995-96 when Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux had 161 and teammate Jaromir Jagr had 149.

All three were mostly non-factors against the Blue Jackets.

Stamkos had one goal and one assist, and finished minus-8. Kucherov, suspended for Game 3 for a boarding penalty the previous game, picked up two assists and was minus-4. Point scored one goal and was minus-5.

”It’s just another opportunity wasted,” Stamkos said. ”We have all the players in place but at the end of the day you’re judged on winning championships. There’s no real words. We say a lot of things, but you have to go out on the ice and do it, and we didn’t do it.”

Tampa Bay scored 325 goals in the regular season – most by any team in 23 years – but was outscored 19-8 by the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets.

The first-round debacle was just the latest in a string of postseason disappointments. The Lightning held a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago in six games. In 2016 (Pittsburgh) and 2018 (Washington), Tampa Bay failed close out 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference finals.

This year’s collapse stung, too, because it not only came against a team the Lightning dominated during the regular season, but Columbus is also coached by John Tortorella, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

”We put ourselves in this position because we didn’t meet our expectations,” Cooper said. ”I’m going to relish the moment when we’re all back here again and we have met those expectations as a group.”

WARNING SIGNS?

The Lightning had a tendency to fall behind during the regular season, posting 29 comeback wins, an NHL record.

”In a lot of those games we out-skilled out of those games,” left winger Alex Killorn said. ”But in the playoffs, there’s times where you’re not going to be able to skill your way out of it. I think just we have to play a more playoff mentality throughout the season. Build your way into playoffs.”

PLAYER MOVEMENT?

Point is a restricted free agent who is in line for a potential offer sheet. Defensemen Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn are all unrestricted free agents.

INJURIES

2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman (upper body) played in Games 1 and 2 after missing the final four regular season games but sat out the final two playoff games. … Stralman (lower body) never got on the ice. … Killorn played Game 4 with a slight MCL tear that won’t require surgery.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blue Jackets cap off all-time upset, sweep Lightning

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Let this be a lesson.

A lesson that anything is possible, no matter the odds. A lesson in never writing off a team, no matter the circumstances. And a lesson that, no matter how good a team is in the regular season, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference come playoff time.

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off what many thought impossible, an upset for the ages after a 7-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night in Game 4 of their best-of-7 series.

Swept.

The Lightning certainly crashed (the first Presidents’ Trophy-winning team to be swept in the first round), and the Blue Jackets won their first playoff series in franchise history.

Gone are the horrors of that crossbar in overtime of Game 3 against Washington last year. So, too, with it, the agony of losing four straight after beating the Capitals twice in their own barn.

Columbus returned to the postseason this year with a vengeance, and my, oh my, did it ever show.

The formula for Tampa seemed simple enough. Do what you did all regular season: score at will, steal souls on the power play and suck the will out of teams with superb goaltending.

It’s a recipe that cooked up 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most ever in a season. But when the Lightning checked the cupboards for ingredients in Game 1, the cupboard was bare.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Sure, the Lightning exploded to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 1. They then gave up four straight and lost in spectacular fashion.

Why you ask? The Blue Jackets implemented a near-perfect game plan from the second period of Game 1, onward. A relentless forecheck stifled the Lightning. A commitment to blocked shots took away scoring chances. Providing great screens in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy made a great goalie seem mediocre. And finding scoring from the up and down the lineup, both on forward and defense, added a layer of guesswork that Jon Cooper and his troops had no answer for.

Since the 17:50 mark of the first period in Game 1, Columbus outscored 19-5.

The stat actually looks better given that the Lightning scored twice to tie the game 3-3 in the second period. But as things went all series, the Blue Jackets had an answer, scoring on a delayed penalty to regain the lead.

Tampa poured it on for nearly 18 minutes in the third before pulling Andrei Vasilevskiy. That last gasp effort resulted in three empty net goals against. The clouds cleared and the Blue Jackets emerged standing, virtually unblemished.

Vasilevskiy came into the game with a .866 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average, numbers that look nothing like his stellar regular-season statistics that may win him a Vezina in June.

He was at his worst in this series, allowing four more on 22 shots in this game, and had just one game above a .900 save percentage in the series.

Two-hundred feet the other way, Sergei Bobrovsky was sensational, especially in the second and third games of the series, and masterful in the third period in Game 4, turning aside all 13 shots the Lightning could muster.

It certainly didn’t help that Tampa’s best scorers only showed up in the final game. Steven Stamkos finally scored. So did Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov got two assists after being suspended for Game 3. The team was also without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman due to injury. It’s unlikely they would have mattered. They didn’t when they were healthy.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets’ best came to play. Matt Duchene finished the series with three goals and seven points. Artemi Panarin added two goals and five assists. Seth Jones contributed two goals and four points. Pierre-Luc Dubois picked a great time to find the score sheet, picking up three points in the final game.

John Tortorella said his team was ready for the challenge a week ago. Man, was he ever right.

Columbus proved us all wrong, and it was incredible theatre.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Five slumping stars who need to be better in a hurry

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The Stanley Cup playoffs are less than a week old, but two teams are already facing elimination and one other team is down 2-0 in their best-of-seven series. If certain teams want to avoid starting the offseason early, they’ll need their star players to step up before it’s too late.

The fact that the Carolina Hurricanes lost both of their games in Washington isn’t overly surprising. Even though they’re not in a great spot, they still haven’t dropped a game on home ice. On the other hand, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are both on life support. Both teams have no margin for error. One more loss, and they’ll be eliminated from postseason play.

In order to avoid being swept, both teams will need to get more from their best players. Getting contributions from depth bodies is great, but not when your stars are slumping. And it’s not just the Pens and Lightning, even teams that are tied need more from their franchise players before starting tonight/tomorrow.

Alright. So let’s break down the five NHL stars that need to step their game up immediately.

Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts being down 3-0 in their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets is the biggest shock of the first round so far (it’s going to be hard to beat). Tampa Bay has gotten nothing from their stars. With Victor Hedman injured and Nikita Kucherov suspended for Game 3, they needed something from Stamkos and didn’t get it. The 29-year-old finished Sunday’s game with a minus-2 rating and no shots no goal in 16:11 of ice time. He had 45 goals and 98 points in 82 games during the regular season, but he’s still looking for his first points of the series heading into Game 4. This is alarming.

Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins: We knew the New York Islanders could shut down opposing teams, but it was almost impossible to predict that they’d keep Crosby off the scoresheet in the first three games of their series. The Pens captain has played over 20 minutes in all three games and he’s played over 22 minutes in Games 1 and 3. The 31-year-old has accomplished a lot of incredible things during his career, but getting out of this hole doesn’t seem likely, even for him. In total, he’s fired six shots on goal in the series and he has a minus-4 rating.

Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs: Matthews received a ton of criticism last year after he scored just one goal and one assist in Toronto’s first-round series against the Boston Bruins. A year later, and we’re talking about the exact same thing. On a positive note, the Leafs managed to win a game in Boston, but with Nazem Kadri‘s impending suspension on the horizon, Matthews will have to take his game to another level. The 21-year-old has no points and eight shots on goal in the first two games of the series. If the Leafs are going to advance to the second round, they need their franchise center to start putting the puck in the net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Brayden Point – Tampa Bay Lightning: Let’s go back to Tampa. Point had an incredibly coming out party during the regular season, as he accumulated 41 goals and 92 points in 79 games. But much like Stamkos, he’s been invisible against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. The 23-year-old hasn’t picked up a point yet and he’s managed to fire just three shots on goal in three games during this series. Now that linemate Nikita Kucherov has served his one-game suspension, the two need to find a way to take over this series if the Lightning are going to avoid becoming one of the biggest disappointments in playoff history.

Brayden Schenn – St. Louis Blues: The Blues have a 2-1 series lead over the Winnipeg Jets, but they’ve done it without any production from Schenn. The 27-year-old has played at least 19:46 in each of the first three games of the series and he’s managed to take just three shots on goal (he didn’t have any in Sunday night’s home loss). Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko could stand to bring more offense too, but at least they’ve found the back of the net in the series.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.