Casey Cizikas

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups

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We now know who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer and who will have a long wait until next season.

With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Western Conference matchups]

(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens

Regular season recap

At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.

How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).

The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.

Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins needed both goaltenders this season. Murray started the year, Jarry took over and was named an All-Star Game replacement, and it was Murray getting most of the work down the stretch.

It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.

Season series

Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.

Injured players who could return

Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.

An ankle injury kept Jonathan Drouin out for Montreal’s last six games and an upper-body injury sidelined Tomas Tatar for three matchups. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen), who was in the AHL at the time of his injury, is not expected to play again this season. Victor Mete could be back after suffering a fractured foot in February.

Storylines to watch

This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…

Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?

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(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers

Regular season recap

It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.

New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.

The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.

Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.

Season series

Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.

Injured players who could return

Leg injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen had them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Given the time between games potentially being played, the Hurricanes blue line could be bolstered with those two back on the ice. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, may not be back in time from shoulder surgery. His timeline was 4-6 months back in March.

Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.

He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.

Storylines to watch

Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?

[MORE: Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal]

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(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers

Regular season recap

Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.

Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.

While the offense will rely heavily on Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mike Hoffman, they also have received good depth production. Noel Acciari potted 20 goals, Brett Connolly hit for 19, and Frank Vatrano hit for 16. It remains to be seen how much they’ll miss Vincent Trocheck, who was dealt to Carolina in February, bringing back a package that included Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.

That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.

Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.

J.G. Pageau was acquired at the trade deadline to assist an offense that needs firepower. The Islanders don’t generate a ton of even strength chances and only feature a pair of 20-goal scorers — Brock Nelson (25) and Anders Lee (19).

Season series

Islanders lead season series 3-0-0. Last meeting: Dec. 12; an Islanders 3-1 win.

Injured players who could return

After receiving 90 stitches following a frightening skate-to-the-eye injury in March, Johnny Boychuk should be back on the Islanders’ blue line. Casey Cizikas, who suffered a skate laceration, is also expected to be ready to go. An Achilles injury put defenseman Adam Pelech out of the lineup in January and it would be a stretch to see him back this summer.

Storylines to watch

The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.

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(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets

Regular season recap

The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.

Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.

Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.

The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.

Season series

Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.

Injured players who could return

Could Josh Anderson come back by late summer? He was given a 4-6 month recovery period and it’s been nearly three months since he underwent shoulder surgery. The extra time off bodes well for Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), and Alexandre Texier (back) among the Blue Jackets’ long list of walking wounded.

For the Leafs, Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration), Jake Muzzin (hand), and Andreas Johnsson (knee) should be good to go when play resumes.

Storylines to watch

On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What is the Islanders’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the New York Islanders.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Islanders will need to lock up a couple of critical restricted free agents this upcoming offseason but have a lot of components signed to long-term extensions.

The acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the NHL Trade Deadline solidified their depth down the middle for years to come. Mathew Barzal has the potential to blossom into an elite centerman while Brock Nelson and Pageau can flip flop between the second and third line. Heart and soul player Casey Cizikas will continue to anchor the fourth line.

New York also has several of its top-nine wingers in place, including Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle and captain Anders Lee.

The newest addition to the core will be goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who is expected to come to the NHL at the start of next season. The Islanders drafted Sorokin in the third round of the 2014 draft and the Russian netminder has spent the past six seasons in the KHL. He has long been considered one of the best goalies not playing in the NHL. Throughout his career with CSKA, he never finished with a save percentage below .929 and is expected to produce at a similar level in North America.

Islanders goalie coach Mitch Korn has helped develop some of the League’s best goaltenders and Sorokin could be next in line.

Long-Term Needs

While the Islanders have a lot of their core signed to long-term contracts, the organization still needs a high-scoring winger to manufacture offense.

The Carolina Hurricanes swept the Islanders in a second-round series during last year’s postseason as they won four straight and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. New York only managed to score five goals in those four games and were unable to solve its offensive deficiencies.

The Islanders play a fundamentally sound defensive system but need someone who can create offense on their own to change the momentum within a game. Barzal has a chance to be that type of game-breaker in today’s NHL but you need more than one player with that skillset.

In addition to their lack of offensive punch, the Islanders lost their defensive structure when Adam Pelech was lost for the season in early January. General manager Lou Lamoriello thought he solved the problem with the addition of Andy Greene from the New Jersey Devils but the Islanders went 2-5-4 in the 11 games he played and finished in a seven-game skid.

Coach Barry Trotz and his staff need to examine why the absence of one player impacted their system as much as it did.

Long-Term Strengths

The impact a coach has on any given team has long been disputed, but the effect Trotz has had on the Islanders is undeniable.

Ever since Trotz inked a five-year contract with the orange and blue, he brought a credibility to the team on the ice. The Islanders became one of the most defensively sound teams in the league and instantly became a playoff contender. With Trotz behind the bench, the Islanders will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a consistent basis.

Besides strong leadership behind the bench, the Islanders have developed a strong culture inside the locker room. Players play for one another and there is a system of accountability that was lacking before Trotz arrived.

Overall, the Islanders should be in the playoff discussion for years to come with a disciplined structure, strong goaltending and a true difference-maker behind the bench. However, in order to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and not just a team that qualifies for the postseason consistently, they need to add a dynamic forward.

MORE ON THE ISLANDERS:


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

Lamoriello says Islanders would match Barzal offer sheet

Lamoriello Islanders would match Mathew Barzal offer sheet
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If an opportunistic NHL team sends Mathew Barzal an offer sheet, Lou Lamoriello claims that the Islanders would match it.

Lamoriello briefly but authoritatively stated as much in an … often brief and authoritative Q&A with fans on the Islanders website. Here’s his exact answer:

It is our intention to not allow it to get to that point, but should that happen, the answer is yes.

Lamoriello also mentioned that:

  • The Islanders expect intriguing goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin to play in North America next season, and specifically with the Islanders.
  • The team believes Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas would be ready if play resumes.
  • Meanwhile, Lamoriello said Adam Pelech is expected to be ready by (2020-21) training camp.

But, yeah, that Barzal bit is the most interesting. Let’s ruminate on the situation for a moment.

A Barzal bidder could be a threat if Islanders, others face cap crunches

As of this writing, Cap Friendly estimates the Islanders’ would-be cap space for 2020-21 at about $12.62 million. Of course, that estimate would be based on an $81.5M ceiling. Usually, we assume there will be at least a modest increase, and the league pointed to that happening … until the coronavirus pandemic put the season on “pause.”

Now that the league is on pause, there are all sorts of questions. While the biggest ones are about whether the league could hand out the Stanley Cup (and how), financial worries also linger. It sure sounds like it will be difficult to even maintain an $81.5M cap, let alone raise it.

It’s tough to picture a team being cutthroat during such a time, especially in an NHL where credible offer sheets are about as rare as Lamoriello approving of a high jersey number and mustache combination.

But things can change quickly, and if life and sports go back to something approaching normalcy, one could imagine a perfect opportunity for someone to try to poach Barzal with an offer sheet. Generally speaking, such offer sheets are often designed to hurt the team to match thanks to certain structural quirks. (The Flyers front-loaded their offer to try to get Shea Weber, for instance.)

A Barzal offer sheet could hurt maneuverability even if Islanders match

For better or worse, the Islanders have handed out a lot of term to forwards lately.

Anders Lee (29, $7M cap hit through 2025-26), Brock Nelson (28, $6M, 2024-25), Jordan Eberle (29, $5.5M, 2023-24) and Josh Bailey (30, $5M, 2023-24) already represented a pretty substantial group with its fair share of risks. Then Lamoriello added Jean-Gabriel Pageau (27, extended at $5M AAV through 2025-26) to the mix.

The Islanders would do what they need to do to retain Barzal, as Lamoriello said. Even so, a strategic offer sheet could create an especially tight fit.

Such thoughts make you wonder if the Islanders might want to get something done ASAP with Barzal, but back in January, he indicated talks will wait.

“We want to make the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, take a run at the Stanley Cup, and after that we’ll figure [the contract] out,” Barzal said during All-Star weekend, via NHL.com.

A few weeks ago, Elliotte Friedman surmised that an offer sheet could indeed come for Barzal, and it’s easy to see why.

Barzal is vital to Islanders, compares well to Marner

If you’re a team in need of an impact player, wouldn’t Barzal be worth at least as much as Mitch Marner‘s $10.893M AAV, if not more? After all, Barzal brings all of that speed and production at center.

Compare Barzal and Marner based on multiple season RAPM charts at Evolving Hockey, for example:

With 60 points in 68 games, Barzal leads all Islanders scorers, which puts him on track to top team point production for three straight seasons. While he hasn’t matched that explosive rookie year of 85 points in 2017-18, Barzal’s been able to avoid Barry Trotz’s doghouse.

His value to the Islanders is abundantly clear, and won’t be lost on potential suitors. It would be surprising if anyone snatched Barzal away, but that offer sheet threat could really drive up the price for the Islanders.

Perhaps a team might snare a player away who’s a few rungs lower down the ladder with an offer sheet considering the economic turbulence, though?

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Flames land top NCAA free agent; Rielly wins in transition

Flames land NCAA free agent Connor Mackey, Colton Poolman, Morning Skate
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flames recently signed two NCAA players to bolster their defense: Connor Mackey and Colton Poolman. Frank Seravalli goes into detail on the Flames’ “two-year pursuit” of Mackey. Seravalli deemed Mackey the No. 1 NCAA free agent available this spring, making Mackey quite the get for the Flames. (TSN)

• Oilers GM Ken Holland spoke with Mark Spector about resolving the situation with Jesse Puljujarvi, which will be a challenge whenever there’s an actual chance to address it. In that same piece, Ken Hitchcock praised Puljujarvi as at least a useful third-line type player, while admitting he isn’t sure Puljujarvi will end up being more than that. (Sportsnet)

• Lou Lamoriello answered fan questions on the Islanders website, which meant a lot of Lou-like non-answers, sometimes comically so. (Yes, he even briefly discussed his fascination with lower jersey numbers.) Later on Sunday, we’ll ponder Lamoriello saying the Islanders would match a Mathew Barzal offer sheet. There’s other noteworthy information, though. The Islanders expect Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas back if play resumes this season/playoffs, while Adam Pelech should be ready for training camp before 2020-21. (Islanders)

• Could the Penguins actually keep their first-round pick from the Jason Zucker trade if the season isn’t completed? Pensburgh goes over that, and in doing so, lays out some of the tricky questions the NHL would face if COVID-19 forces more than just a pause for 2019-20. (Pensburgh)

• Helene St. James hands out best and worst awards for the Red Wings. In doing so, St. James posits that Justin Abdelkader will be waived and sent to the AHL in 2020-21. (Detroit Free-Press)

• Steve Simmons went looking for a phone number in an old phonebook, and found himself pausing to remember several names from the past. (Steve Simmons)

• How Malcolm Subban and Brendan Perlini could make strange history for the Blackhawks. Could Subban end up having the shortest “career” with the Blackhawks ever? (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Andrew Berkshire takes a look at defensemen who excel at that transition game, with Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly leading the pack. (Sportsnet)

• Fun 2020 NHL Draft angle from McKeen’s Hockey: the most polarizing prospect from each region, starting with Antonio Stranges in the OHL. (McKeen’s Hockey)

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.

Johnny Boychuk needs 90 stitches after skate to face

Islanders
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New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk was injured on Tuesday night when he was hit in the face by the skate blade of Montreal Canadiens forward Artturi Lehkonen in the third period of their game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

It was a terrifying scene as it happened, especially as Boychuk frantically scrambled off the ice holding his face.

On Wednesday, general manager Lou Lamoriello issued an update on Boychuk’s status.

The official word is that while Boychuk needed 90 stitches to repair the cut, there is no damage to his eye and, according to Lamoriello, he should be “fine.”

“Johnny Boychuk is okay,” said Lamoriello when addressing the media on Wednesday. “There has been no damage to his eye. He had quite a night. He felt the skate blade get his eye, but fortunately it just got the eyelid. It took 90 stitches to fix, a plastic surgeon took care of it. I don’t want to exaggerate with the stitches because they do use very small stitches, but there were 90 of them. He will be fine. It’s just a matter of time with the eye opening up and him feeling good.”

It goes without saying that 90 stitches to your eye-lid area is major deal, but given the circumstances Boychuk is very fortunate this situation did not turn out far worse.

This is the third significant injury the Islanders have had to deal with this season due to a skate blade cut.

Cal Clutterbuck missed more than two months after he suffered a cut to his wrist from Patrice Bergeron‘s skate back in December.

Casey Cizikas has also been sidelined for the past 10 games after a cut to the leg.

Lamoriello also issued an update on Cizikas on Wednesday.

“Casey is coming along as quickly as he can,” said Lamoriello. “He is walking, he is doing all of the things he should be doing. Hopefully we will get him back on the ice in the next week or so. Then it’s a process of him just getting his strength back. I would say he is at least another couple of weeks away.”

Related: Islanders’ Boychuk injured by skate blade

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.