Corey Crawford

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The 6 coaches and general managers that will impact NHL playoff race

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams make the postseason.

Here, we focus on six general managers and coaches that could stand out.

For 10 players that could impact the Stanley Cup Playoff races, click here.

1. Ken Holland (General manager), Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are outstanding. They are the best offensive duo in hockey and there probably isn’t anyone even all that close to them. For the second year in a row they are on track to finish among the top-four scorers in the league (literally top-two at the moment) while they carry an overwhelming majority of the Oilers’ offense. But two players on their own can only take an NHL team so far.

They need help, and it’s going to be up to Holland to provide it. He has some big decisions to make over the next few weeks and months, not only when it comes to the tricky situation regarding a new contract for Zack Kassian (this seems like an overpay waiting to happen) but also adding more depth to a team that can not continue to waste two superstars in the prime years of their careers.

2. Stan Bowman (General manager), Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks’ roster moves this past summer were the actions of a team and general manager that still believed it had a window to compete with its veteran core. So far, it’s hard to argue that it’s really worked. For as hot as they have been over the past few weeks they are still only on pace for 87 points this season and are currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Hardly an insurmountable deficit, but probably not as easy as it may seem.

The first problem: The defense is still lousy and a lot of their improvement has simply been from the goaltending performances of Robin Lehner (mostly him) and Corey Crawford. The second problem: Both goalies are UFA’s after this season, and Lehner in particular wants to be paid his fair market value. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is also a UFA.

How does Bowman play this? His offseason makes it look like he’s not ready to punt on the remaining prime years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But the team also still has flaws and has a couple of pending UFA’s that might have some value. Trading Lehner and/or Gustafsson would be putting up the white flag on the season. But is the team as currently constructed good enough to truly add to for a run? The middle-ground between Stanley Cup contender and rebuilding lottery team is a terrible place to be for an NHL team.

3. John Hynes (Head coach), Nashville Predators. This might be a long-shot, but the Predators are not totally out of this yet. Yes, they still have a six-point gap between them and a wild card spot, but they also have multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing, including FIVE on the second wild card team as of Sunday. Games in hand are not wins in hand, but it helps. The two biggest things holding Nashville back this season have been goaltending and special teams. The goaltending might be out of his hands, but special teams are one area where a coach can make a noticeable impact and special teams were the one area his recent Devils teams had the most success. Let’s see what he can do here.

4. Lou Lamoriello (General manager), New York Islanders. Lamoriello hasn’t been very active since taking over as the Islanders’ general manager, with his only noteworthy trade being the acquisition of Matt Martin before the start of the 2018-19 season. The time might be here for him to do something because this team just looks like it could use something different. They are closer to the playoff bubble than you might realize, they are still a bottom-10 team offensively, and they are just 13-12-3 in the 28 games since their 17-game point streak ended. They need another scorer (maybe two?) if they are going to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

5. Peter DeBoer (Head coach), Vegas Golden Knights. Based on what we have seen over the first half of the season the goaltending will probably be the biggest factor in Vegas’ second half, but all eyes are going to be on DeBoer given the circumstances around his hiring. Not only did he change sides in what has quickly become one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries, but he is replacing a coach in Gerard Gallant that had taken an expansion team to the playoffs in each of its first two seasons and was only point out of a playoff spot in year three when he was fired. Gallant helped set a high bar already in Vegas, and now Golden Knights’ management is betting that DeBoer is the person to get them a Stanley Cup.

6. Joe Sakic (General manager), Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is worth a mention here because he has one of the league’s most talented teams, plenty of trade chips to deal from, and more salary cap space to play with than every team but Columbus. He could add pretty much anyone he wants to a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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

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

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

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

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

1. Lehner wants his fair value

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

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

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

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

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Goalie goal! Rinne scores goal as Predators get first win for Hynes (Video)

If the Nashville Predators are going to turn their season around under new coach John Hynes they are going to need better play from their goalies. Pekka Rinne provided that on Thursday night in a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks by not only stopping 29 of the 31 shots he faced, but by also scoring the first goal of his career in the closing seconds.

That is correct, friends. We have a goalie goal!

Just after Nick Bonino scored an empty-net goal to give the Predators a two-goal lead, the Blackhawks pulled goaltender Corey Crawford for a second time in a desperate effort to get back in the game.

It gave Rinne the opportunity to do this.

Rinne’s rare company

With that, Rinne becomes the 12th different goalie in NHL history to be credited with a goal. He is the first since Mike Smith during the 2013-14 season. Rinne is just the seventh of those goalies to score their goal by actually shooting the puck in the net. The others were credited with goals by being the last player to touch the puck on an opponent’s own goal.

That was the perfect way to wrap up a huge win for the Predators.

The Predators needed this win

Not only is it their first win with Hynes behind the bench, but it is also two huge points in the standings as they try to make up ground in the playoff race. They now sit four points behind the Winnipeg Jets with two games in hand. Given those games in hand, as well as their consistently strong 5-on-5 play this season, there is definitely still a path to the postseason here.

They just need more performances like tonight from Rinne. Not necessarily the goal, but the way he helped slam the door shut in the third period.

After jumping out to an early 3-0 lead, the Predators had to hang on as the Blackhawks mounted a furious rally. Rinne stood tall, and they even got a clutch effort from their penalty kill in the final minutes when Chicago had a chance to tie the game.

Along with Rinne and Bonino, the Predators also received goals from Viktor Arvidsson, Matt Duchene, and Colin Blackwelll. Blackwell’s goal is his first in the NHL.

Related: Predators name John Hynes head coach 

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.

Francouz continues to impress in win over Blackhawks

goalie Pavel Francouz #39 of the Colorado Avalanche in the third period
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Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen each scored in the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pavel Francouz made 31 saves in his 10th victory and continued his impressive rookie campaign.

MacKinnon extended his point streak to six games with a pretty bar-down goal which went on to be the eventual game-winning goal.

Corey Crawford made 32 saves, but Chicago fell for the third time in four games.

Francouz continuing to push for more playing time

The Czech goalie returned to the net and the Avalanche returned to their winning ways. Francouz has made a strong push to be considered the starting goaltender with a 5-0-1 record in his past six games and a stellar 10-2-1 overall mark this season.

His calm demeanor in the crease has inspired confidence in the Avalanche skaters and allows them to play with a natural freedom on the ice. Philipp Grubauer returned from a lower-body injury and started the only regulation loss during the 9-1-1 stretch for Colorado.

Francouz has only played 15 games this season but could find himself in between the pipes when the puck drops in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Burakovsky producing

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic paid a hefty price this summer to bring in Andre Burakovsky but the talented Russian winger has fit in nicely with the Avalanche. The 24-year-old notched his 13th goal of the season with a nifty wrist shot from the top of the left circle that caught Corey Crawford off guard to give Colorado a 3-1 lead in the second period.

The Avs’ biggest roster challenge was lengthening the lineup and getting the necessary secondary scoring needed to advance in the postseason. Burakovsky has helped fill the need and is on track to surpass his career high in points and set himself up for a nice payday this summer.

Note:

Duncan Keith returned for Chicago after missing the previous nine games with a groin injury. The alternate captain recorded six shots on goal in 23:16 of ice time.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Blackhawks need shake up in goal

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

For the first time in a long time, the Chicago Blackhawks came into a season with a goaltender that could push Corey Crawford or at least fill in for him if he were to sit out for an extended period of time. Bringing in Robin Lehner was smart because he makes them better at the position and he came with a low-risk, one-year contract. But what do they do between the pipes after this season?

Both Lehner and Crawford are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st. That means that the Blackhawks can blow up the position and go in a totally different direction this summer if they want to do that. That could be a tempting way to go.

It’s not surprising to see Crawford’s play has dropped off quite a bit over the last couple of years. He’s missed so much time with concussions and vertigo that it was only normal that he was going to start to dip at some point. Also, he’s 34 years old so this is natural regression too. His expiring contract will free up $6 million on the cap.

As for Lehner, he was unable to find a long-term contract when he hit the market last July, so he opted to sign a one-year, $5 million deal with the Hawks in free agency. Overall, he’s put up much better numbers than Crawford and he’s been more consistent.

But the reality is, if the Blackhawks decide to go in a completely different direction between the pipes next season, they’d be able to free up a significant amount of salary. Sure, they’d have to find and pay two other goalies, but they’d likely be able to do so at a much lower cost.

Obviously, they could also decide to bring back one of the two, which would make sense from their perspective. As of right now, you’d have to believe that if they bring one guy back, it should be Lehner. The 28-year-old is younger than Crawford and he has a 7-6-4 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage. On the flip side, Crawford owns a 6-9-2 record with a 3.08 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage.

Every team was reluctant to commit to Lehner last summer. Will that change next July?

Lehner’s proven to be a solid goaltender. He can get the job done. But given where the Hawks are as a franchise right now, it might make more sense to just go in a different direction completely. They haven’t made the playoffs in years, they’re in the basement of the Western Conference standings as of right now and they just seem stuck as a franchise.

What’s the best option(s)?

They could always opt to sign someone in free agency, they can draft and develop someone until their ready to takeover, or they can make a trade to land a new body.

If you look at the potential free-agent list for 2020, Braden Holtby‘s name jumps out at you right away. He’s a former Stanley Cup Champion, he’s 30 and he’s going to be expensive. Holtby is older than Lehner, but he’s a much more proven commodity. If the Capitals can’t find a way to get their starting netminder under contract, Chicago would have to be considered a landing spot for him. But again, the Blackhawks just aren’t very good. Does committing to a player like Holtby make sense?

Instead of drafting someone and waiting for them to develop into a starter, they could also just make a move for a young goalie that’s being groomed in a different organization.

For example, Cayden Primeau in Montreal would be a perfect candidate for the Blackhawks. The Canadiens already have Carey Price, Primeau is two years removed from being drafted, he’s already in the professional ranks, and he’s been reliable during his first AHL and NHL stints.

This seems like the best way to go.

It doesn’t necessarily have to Primeau, but the Canadiens have been scouting the Blackhawks and their farm team quite a bit over the last few weeks, so this is the example that makes the most sense in this case.

Can general manager Stan Bowman pull something like that off?

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. For the first time, NBC Sports will feature two ‘Inside-the-Glass’ commentators on this week’s Wednesday Night Hockey broadcast, as Eddie Olczyk will join analyst Brian Boucher to call the action from ice-level. John Forslund will handle play-by-play duties from United Center in Chicago, Ill.

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.