Roundtable: Binnington’s Calder hopes, Tampa’s challengers, Blue Jackets’ pressure

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Despite his number of games played, will Jordan Binnington garner enough support to win the Calder Trophy?

SEAN: It’s going to be hard to unseat Elias Pettersson as winner for rookie of the years, but certainly Binningon can make a challenge. He’ll likely get around 10 starts the rest of the regular season, putting him in 30 games player territory.

Only four goaltenders have won the award in the last 25 years with Martin Brodeur playing 47 games in 1994, the fewest of any netminder who took home the Calder. Binnington leads all goalies with at least 20 starts in even strength save percentage (.941) and is tied for third in the NHL with five shutouts. That’s all quite good for a guy who wasn’t a regular until Jan. 7.

But when the PHWA submit their ballots, Binnington likely won’t pass Pettersson for the award, but he definitely deserves a trip to Vegas in late June as one of the 2018-19 Calder finalists.

JAMES: The gap is simply too large between Elias Pettersson and everyone else, but I wonder if Binnington’s fantastic season might spark up some conversations about getting more Calder attention for non-forwards in the future.

In a slower season (like, say, when Nail Yakupov won a Calder), Binnington would be getting far more consideration, and Rasmus Dahlin or Miro Heiskanen would also get more hype. When it comes to the main awards, people often sequester goalies to the Vezina and skaters to the Hart, barring a truly transcendent season from a netminder. The Calder doesn’t allow such latitude, and I wonder if we may gradually change the way we measure different accomplishments.

It’s far too easy to dismiss just how enormous an impact Binnington’s made. He’s won 16 games despite being limited to just 20 starts (and 22 games played), which almost feels like it should be impossible. Pettersson’s special, and should probably be a unanimous choice (don’t get weird about it, Buffalo/Dallas/St. Louis beat writers), but Binnington saved the Blues’ season.

JOEY: I just don’t see it happening. Binnington has been terrific since taking over between the pipes for the Blues, but the fact that he’ll likely play in just over 30 games means that he can’t overtake Canucks forward Elias Pettersson in the race for the Calder Trophy. Pettersson has slowed down a bit, but he’s still a point-per-game player in his first season. What Binnington has done definitely puts him in the mix, it just doesn’t put him over the top. He probably won’t mind falling short in this race considering his team will be playing meaningful games in April. The 25-year-old’s short tenure in the NHL has been a huge success regardless of whether or not he’s named rookie of the year. 

ADAM: In any other year where there wasn’t a clear cut favorite that played in significantly more games I would say yes, because he has been that good and has quite literally been the savior of the Blues’ season. Okay, maybe not the savior, but definitely one of them. I just think Elias Pettersson is so far ahead of the pack and so outstanding that it would be really tough to unseat him. Point-per-game in his first full season in the NHL, and as electrifying as he is? Definite rookie of the year for me. Binnington probably definitely gets in the top-three, but the award is Pettersson’s.

SCOTT: He should be considered, but he won’t be because of when his rookie season began. The problem comes down to this all starting in early January and not in early October or November. He’s a victim of things outside of his control, like waiting half a year to give the kid a shot.

I get it, Jake Allen was the guy. Again, it’s just nothing something Binnington could control. But he deserves to be on the ballot and deserves to win the award. Why? Because while Elias Pettersson has been great, he hasn’t single-handedly put his team into the playoffs quite like Binnington has. This raises the prospects of him garnering some Hart votes, too. Call me crazy, but in its purest form, few have been as integral to their team’s success like Mr. Winnington.

[PHT’S PUSH FOR THE PLAYOFFS]

What team in the East poses the biggest threat to the Tampa Bay Lightning come playoff time?

SEAN: It’s not a big list, but you have to believe the Washington Capitals will take what they did last spring in the Eastern Conference Final and use it again against an even better Lightning team. 

If they’re to meet again it will once again be in the third round where the Capitals will have likely use the same approach as Barry Trotz did a year ago. If Todd Reirden keeps the same game plan, it’s slowing down the pace and suffocating the Lightning’s stars. Tampa was blanked in Games 6 and 7 last May, unable to solve Braden Holtby. 

Washington also managed to limit Tampa to only 24.8 shots per game in the seven-game series. As dangerous as their arsenal is, if they aren’t getting shots on goal, it’s hard for them to keep up their explosive offense. It’s a big challenge, but the Capitals know they can do it in a series.

JAMES: I find myself waffling between the Lightning’s likely second-round opponents: the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, a.k.a. my choices for second and third-best in the East.

It’s dangerous to imagine everything going right when it hasn’t always actually come together on the ice, but I just can’t shake the impression that Toronto has the higher ceiling.

With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri down the middle, they’re one of – maybe the only – teams that could credibly hang with the Lightning’s deadly forwards. Both the Bruins and Maple Leafs have goalie(s) who could conceivably have a better best-of-seven series than Andrei Vasilevskiy, too.

So Toronto has a shot, but it’s not outrageous to look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Lightning as the NHL’s closest answer to a Golden State Warriors-style juggernaut. Luckily for Tampa Bay’s opponents, upsets are more common in the NHL … but the Bolts remain heavy favorites to win it all.

JOEY: The Bruins have been red-hot since the start of 2019. They’ve been just as good as the Lightning and they’ve found a way to do it despite missing David Pastrnak. Boston has one of the top lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak (when healthy), they have secondary scoring with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and a few others, they’ve got a solid group of defensemen, and they have a great one-two punch between the pipes with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. If anyone can take down the Lightning in a seven-game series, it’s the Bruins. 

ADAM: It is going to either take a great team with superstar talent all clicking at the same time, or a team with great goaltending. Or more likely a team that has both. When it comes to the latter, the Boston Bruins stand out to me as someone that could do it. They may not be able to match Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower or depth, but they have two starting caliber goalies that are both playing at an extremely high level this season. Washington is definitely a threat because of the talent they have at the top of the roster and as we saw last year if Braden Holtby gets on a roll at the right time he can change a series and a season. Then there is Pittsburgh. For as mediocre as they have looked for most of the season they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and presumably come playoff time, a healthy Kris Letang. Matt Murray is playing like a true No. 1 goalie again and they might be a good matchup for one another.

SCOTT: Boston. Tampa made Toronto look like a JV squad on Monday night. Boston beat them 4-1 earlier this year and lost a close 3-2 decision. Simply put, Boston has the experience and the skill to run with Tampa, and with Tuukka Rask playing as well as he is, if there’s anyone that can duel Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s the guy to do it at the moment in the East.

Now, with that said, can any team in the East (or even the West) go toe-to-toe with the Lightning over seven games and win four of them? I’m not sure that’s possible at this point. Tampa can make the best teams look like they belong in the American Hockey League (no disrespect to the AHL, but you get the point).

Boston has the only outside shot in my opinion, and everything would have to go right.

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If the Blue Jackets’ big gamble doesn’t pay off with a playoff berth, should that be the end for Jarmo Kekalainen and/or John Tortorella?

SEAN: I don’t believe there will be a cleaning of house should the Blue Jackets’ fail to either get in the playoffs or get out of the first round. I do think there will be a shortening of the leash, especially for Tortorella if that happens as we head into next season.

Kekalainen’s big moves at the deadline were one to push the franchise forward and accomplish something they’ve never done in 17 seasons: win a playoff round. It’s a big bet, but one that should be applauded next time we complain about a general manager sitting on their hands and standing pat rather than try and improve their team.

JAMES:  A thought has lingered in my mind this season: what if Artemi Panarin simply wants out because of John Tortorella?

Torts is brighter than his dimmest rants would indicate, but would it be that surprising if players found him gruff and intimidating, maybe leading to embarrassments in the film and locker rooms? Tortorella’s been around forever, and as his successes become more distant in the rearview mirror, I think that missing the playoffs should probably be it for him.
That’s a sad thought from an entertaining quote standpoint, and perhaps the Blue Jackets might flinch on replacing either their coach or GM after giving both of them extensions heading into this season. But what does it say about Columbus’ front office if they view this year as a time to go all-in and then they miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs altogether? Kekalainen’s been around since 2013 and Torts has been around since 2015. You have to wonder how many chances they’d need to get things right if they fall short here.
If Columbus misses, I’d move on, despite my belief that Kekalainen’s a pretty good GM.

JOEY: I really didn’t like what the Blue Jackets did at the deadline. I felt like they were in a unique situation given the contract statuses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Adding more high-end free agents doesn’t make that situation better. If the Jackets fail to make the playoffs, I don’t think Kekalainen or Tortorella lose their jobs, but I feel like they’ll be on the hot seat going into next season. Even if they get into the postseason and lose in the first round, jobs will be on the line going into next season. 

ADAM: Should it? That is a tougher question to answer than “will it?” Because if they miss the playoffs I think it would be awfully difficult for ownership to rest easy looking at this situation. You give up almost your entire draft class for rentals, you may lose some or all of them, you may lose your two best players that were already on the roster, and then you have to deal with the brutal look that is going all in as a buyer and falling on your face. But I also think that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the result more so than the process. Even if they do get in the playoffs they are probably not winning the Stanley Cup, so you are still going to be sitting there at the end of the season with no championship, no draft picks, and maybe a bunch of free agents walking out the door. If you want your GM to be aggressive and “go for it” I don’t see how you can punish him for doing just that, because he theoretically put his team in the best possible position to succeed. If it doesn’t, at that point it comes down to the coaching staff and the players themselves. Truly one of the most fascinating teams to watch down the stretch, because what they do is likely to have huge implications on what the upper management and ownership does in the summer.

SCOTT: I mean, for Kekalainen, he’d be gone as soon the word eliminated appeared beside the name of the Blue Jackets, no?

He went out, kept the two players that would have brought in a decent haul at the deadline, brought in two players who cost them most of this year’s draft and could conceivably have nothing to show for it come July 1… at least the league’s punch line (Ottawa) was able to recoup some goods when they lost everybody.

Torts goes, too. If they don’t make the playoffs and somehow manage to keep Kekalainen, then Torts takes the sword for him. If Kekalainen goes and a new general manager is hired, I assume they look at Torts in the same way — had a bunch of talent handed to him and couldn’t do anything with it. Goodbye.

It’s win or bust for both of them.

NHL on NBCSN: Sharks look to take bite out of Wild’s playoff hopes

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As of right now, the Wild and Sharks are both sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. That’s right around where the comparison between these two teams ends. The Sharks have all but clinched a postseason berth, while the Wild are fighting for their playoff lives.

Minnesota GM Paul Fenton was pretty active at the trade deadline, as he shipped Charlie Coyle to Boston and Mikael Granlund to Nashville. They got back some pretty good players in Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, but there’s no denying that they took a step back in order to get a little younger.

Many were inclined to believe that those moves would result in the Wild falling out of the playoff picture, but here they are. Now, it’s important to realize that they are far from being in an ideal situation. Minnesota has 74 points in 69 games. The teams behind them are right on their heels. The Coyotes have 73 points in 68 games and the Avalanche had 72 points in 69 games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In fairness to the Wild, they’ve had a tough stretch of games since the start of March. They opened the month by beating the Flames in Calgary and they dropped a pair of shootout decisions against the Nashville Predators on Sunday and Tuesday before surprisingly taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-0. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Friday’s 6-2 loss to Florida was devastating.

“It just felt like we weren’t ready when the puck dropped and we got behind early and we weren’t able to get the shifts back to back to get the momentum back,” said veteran forward Eric Fehr, per the Wild’s website.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened. It seemed from the start of the game we didn’t bring any part of the game we brought last night. It’s unfortunate. This was a game we needed to win and we let it go.”

The good news for Minnesota, is that Victor Rask is expected to make his return to the lineup tonight. He’s been out for almost a month with a lower-body injury.

This is a huge stretch for the team. Starting tonight, they’ll begin a five-game home stand. Four of the teams they’ll be hosting are in or near a playoff spot, as they’ll take on the Sharks, Stars, Rangers, Islanders and Avalanche.

This will either make or break their season.

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.

Wild aren’t going away, despite injuries and trades

You’re to be forgiven if you had already written off the Minnesota Wild this season because, well, it was a pretty easy thing to do.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were in the middle of a stretch where they had lost nine out of 10 games, were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and surrounded by a pile of teams that all seemed to be in a better position to make a run at a playoff spot than they were, and the roster was in the process of being torn apart by trades and injuries.

Already playing without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba, they also lost their captain, Mikko Koivu, for the remainder of the season.

As if those two injuries were not enough, there were the trades that saw Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund all get shipped off in exchange for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala. Those trades allowed the Wild to get younger and a little cheaper, but it didn’t seem to make the team much better in the short-term (or even the long-term where a couple of those trades are still questionable moves).

There was every reason to believe the season was teetering on the edge of collapse not long after coach Bruce Boudreau all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

Somehow, even with all of that adversity and roster upheaval, the Wild have managed to collect a point in seven consecutive games (winning five of them) and still have a hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference, sitting two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and only two games back of the St. Louis Blues for the third spot in the Central Division.

Their past five games alone have been against Calgary, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Nashville (twice) and they managed to come out of that stretch with eight out of a possible 10 points. That is three of the top teams in the Western Conference and a fourth (St. Louis) that is one of the hottest teams in the league. And they came out way better than could have reasonably been expected going in.

What is driving that recent success?

For one, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk deserves a lot of credit for playing some outstanding hockey over that stretch, posting a .935 save percentage and a 5-0-1 record. If you get a .935 save percentage (and let’s not forget backup Alex Stalock posted a .953 mark in his one appearance during that stretch, too)  you are going to have a chance to win a lot of hockey games no matter what the rest of your roster looks like or who you are playing on any given night.

They have also received some big contributions from some of their newest acquisitions.

Since arriving from Boston in the Coyle trade Donato has been one of the team’s best offensive players with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Fiala also had a big game on Tuesday night with a pair of goals against his former team to help the Wild secure at least a point in the standings.

Eric Staal has also been on a role as of late with nine points over the past seven games.

[Related: Zach Parise having sneaky good season for Wild]

Put all of that together and suddenly the playoffs don’t just seem to be a possibility for the Wild, they seem to have a great chance to punch their ticket even with all of the chaos that has happened within.

It certainly helped that they caught Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville when they did, because while all three are the top teams in the West, none of them have really played their best hockey as of late.

It has also helped that the competition for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference has thinned out dramatically.

Vancouver, Chicago, Edmonton, and Anaheim — teams that were all within a point or two of a playoff spot just a couple of weeks ago — have fallen back out of the race and now sit as many as seven points back. None of them, realistically speaking, are a serious threat to the Wild (or anyone else in the playoff race, for that matter).

The two biggest threats on the outside remain Colorado and Arizona, while Minnesota still has a head-to-head game remaining with each.

A couple of weeks ago the Wild were a battered team whose roster was in the process of being broken apart and were one of nine teams fighting for what would only be three playoff spots.

Today that potential playoff race has been whittled down to just five teams fighting for the same three spots.

The Wild are not only one of the five teams still in it, they are probably sitting in a better position and playing better than at least three of them. That might be all they need to get in the postseason and give themselves a chance.

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.

Predators reclaim top spot in Central, Wild pick up huge point

At some point you have to think all of the players the Minnesota Wild have lost over the past few weeks, whether by injury or trade, is going to catch up to them.

Even though they fell to the Nashville Predators in a shootout on Tuesday night, 5-4, they still managed to pick up a huge point in the standings by taking the game to overtime and extending their current point streak to seven games. They are 5-0-2 during that stretch and are guaranteed to remain in a playoff position in the Western Conference through the end of the night on Tuesday.

Considering what this team has gone through this season it is a pretty incredible accomplishment.

They’ve already lost Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu to injury.

They traded Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund.

On Tuesday they got another scare when forward Jason Zucker had to briefly leave the game with what looked to be a fairly significant injury only to see him return to the lineup.

Given where the Wild were in the standings when they started trading off players, and at one point had lost nine out of 10 games leading up to the trade deadline, they probably should have been out of this race long ago. But here they are, still hanging around. By this point we know the bottom of the Western Conference field is as weak as it has been in years, but it is still impressive this team has overcome the adversity it has over the past couple of weeks to still have a shot to get in.

Kevin Fiala, who was acquired from the Predators on deadline day in exchange for Granlund, played a big role in helping to keep them afloat on Tuesday when he scored a pair of goals against his former team, including the game-tying goal late in the third period.

But let’s not forget about the Predators here because this was a huge night for them, too.

Their win, combined with the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, put them back into the top spot in the Central Division for the time being. They have not been playing their best hockey as of late, but they have still won five of their past eight games to keep going back-and-forth with the Jets at the top of the Central.

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.

Which teams will win the West wild-card races?

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For quite some time, the Eastern Conference’s bubble races seemed confined to a few good teams, while the West wild-card skirmishes felt like they might come down to who would mess up the least.

As March begins, the West’s battles look a little more like those out East, even if the West teams are behind their bubble brothers by about four of five points.

With all due respect to the scrappiness of the Chicago Blackhawks (63 points, 64 games played) and Vancouver Canucks (63 points, 65 GP), the West’s two wild-card spots look like they’re going to come down to two of four teams, in order of their standings positions: the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Arizona Coyotes.

In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to parse out who will win out, to the point that you’d probably be best wagering on the standings remaining in this order … mainly because it’s just that close.

All four teams have played 64 games. There’s not a huge disparity in home/road splits, as only the Wild have one extra road game (and thus one fewer home game).

Take a look at snapshots of each team to get an idea of how snug everything is. Again, teams are listed in order of their standings placement heading into Friday’s games.

WC1: Dallas Stars: 32-27-5, 69 points, 64 GP, 32 regulation/overtime wins.

Split: 10 homes remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 4-6-0 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: Tragic, as Mats Zuccarello broke his arm 40 minutes into his first game as a Dallas Star.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Zero left against Coyotes.
  • Two remaining against Wild: @Min on March 14, close season home vs. MIN on April 6.
  • Two home games left against Avalanche: March 7 and 21.

Key stretch(es): From March 5-23, the Stars play eight of 10 games at home.

WC2: Minnesota Wild: 31-27-6, 68 points, 64 GP, 30 ROW

Split: Nine games left at home and on the road

Recent play: Four-game winning streak, 5-4-1 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: On paper, you’d  think they’d be minuses, as they shipped out more established veterans in Mikael Granlund (for Kevin Fiala) and Charlie Coyle (for Ryan Donato). Yet, Donato’s off to such a hot start for his Wild career (six points in 4 games, one overtime game-winning goal) that those moves don’t seem like such subtractions at this moment. Shipping away Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask a little further out, though? Not much is polishing that one.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two remaining against Stars: Home on March 14, season-closer in Dallas on April 6.
  • One left against Coyotes: At Arizona on March 31.
  • One left against Avs: Home on March 19.

Key stretch(es): Five-game homestand from March 11-19.

Ninth: Avalanche: 28-24-12, 68 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 6-2-2 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Pretty quiet, as the Avs settled for a modest addition in oft-traded forward Derick Brassard. Then again, the Senators selling off means that Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder figures to be quite the future “upgrade.”

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two road games against Stars: March 7 and 21.
  • One road game against Wild: March 19.
  • One home game versus Coyotes: March 29

Key stretch(es): After they get through a run that includes three of four road games starting on Friday, the Avs’ schedule is pretty home-heavy, including a four-game homestand from March 9-17.

Tenth: Coyotes: 31-28-5, 67 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Five-game winning streak, 8-2-0 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Not much.

Considering how hot the Coyotes have been – they’re basically the West’s version of the Carolina Hurricanes – you’d think the ‘Yotes added a big name that “galvanized the locker room.” Sorry, Michael Chaput, but improvements seem to be internal, rather than external.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • One road game versus Avs: March 29
  • One home game against Wild: March 31.
  • No games left against Stars.

Key stretch(es): The Coyotes are three games in (all wins) to a seven-game homestand, so they have four home games left from March 2-9. They play six of their next eight games at home from March 2-16. After that, they’ll go on a four-game road trip (March 18-24), which puts them at six of eight games on the road from March 11-24.

So, taking advantage of the upcoming opportunities (while mitigating the challenges that follow) will be key.

***

Again, if there are advantages, they are subtle. The Coyotes get the least amount of say, in that they only face the other three wild-card teams two times total, while the other three get four games to “control their destinies.”

Which two teams do you expect to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Could a team like the Blackhawks or Canucks defy considerable odds by leapfrogging into position? Can any of these teams threaten the Flames, Predators, or Jets in a potential first-round series?

There are quite a few questions to answer over the next five weeks (or so) of hockey, so expect a fascinating finish.

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.