Blackhawks should follow Rangers’ rebuild plan

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The Chicago Blackhawks sent shockwaves through the NHL on Tuesday by firing Joel Quenneville, their decorated head coach.

In a lot of ways, it paralleled the coaching change that happened in Los Angeles, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to a key player from their glory days of not-so-long-ago.

Much will be made of where Quenneville will end up next, but what about the path ahead for the Blackhawks?

The instinct might be to parallel the Kings in another way, by trying to squeeze every ounce out of what sure seems like a declining core group. Instead, allow me to recommend following a different path by another team not that far removed from contending: the soft rebuild of the New York Rangers.

As you likely remember, the Rangers essentially waved the white flag of rebuild heading into last year’s trade deadline, making painful choices such as sending Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay. In doing so, the Rangers stocked up on draft picks (including three in 2018’s first round), kicking a mini-rebuild into gear.

The Rangers still have plenty of work to do, yet you could at least see some light at the end of the tunnel.

If you ask me, that sure beats hoping that an aging roster will magically turn back the clock, even as evidence mounts that it’s no accident that Chicago’s fallen out of contention. The Blackhawks could glance at their old buddies in Detroit to see how dire things can get if you refuse to read the writing on the wall.

Let’s dig into what they should try to do, and why a soft rebuild makes sense.

Trade just about any veteran you can

Look, the Blackhawks are almost certain to stick with the $21 million pairing of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, for reasons that mix the voluntary and the involuntary.

What about some of their other pieces, though?

It’s fair to wonder if Stan Bowman simply views Brent Seabrook more highly than he’s seen throughout the rest of the NHL. Simply put, if there’s any way to get Seabrook’s $6.875M (through 2023-24!) off the books, Chicago should do it. Even if it means getting creative.

(Are we certain Bowman hasn’t called Peter Chiarelli, Dale Tallon, or Marc Bergevin about Seabrook? Maybe call them again, like during breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just saying.)

The market would likely be way stronger for Duncan Keith, and the Blackhawks might be wise to bite the bullet with the 35-year-old while he’s still playing at a high level. There’s a significant age gap, yet Keith could be Chicago’s McDonagh in that it would be a painful trade that may nonetheless be necessary for the future.

After all, a contending team might accentuate the positives (an affordable $5.54M cap hit, Keith’s abilities plus experience) over the drawbacks (age, a deal that runs through 2022-23).

Really, wouldn’t a budget team hoping to take that next step really jump at Keith’s contract, considering how the salary falls through the years?

Keith’s salary from 2018-19 on, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $4.5M
2019-20: $3.5M
2020-21: $2.65M
2021-22: $2.1M
2022-23: $1.5M

At minimum, the Blackhawks should not dismiss such questions if there’s any chance Keith would waive his no-movement clause.

There are other options if Bowman lacks the guts or desire to really swing for the fences.

Artem Anisimov stands as one of the easier calls. The Blackhawks are unlikely to get maximum value for Brandon Saad now, yet it might be worth it just to get his $6M off the books (while expediting the rebuild in the process).

There’s even some reason to at least kick around the name Corey Crawford. He’s 33, and his $6M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Maybe it would be best for both sides to move on, at least if other GMs are convinced he’s healthy?

Do note that Saad is the only player discussed above who lacks a no-trade clause, which highlights the notion that Chicago’s issues stem from Bowman’s missteps, as much as anything else.

On the bright side, the Blackhawks have developed a knack for finding diamonds in the rough in drafts, so why not give them more “darts to throw” through gutsy trades?

Unearthing gems

No doubt, there are right place, right time elements to Chicago’s great run. Being terrible at the perfect time allowed them to land Kane (first overall in 2007) and Toews (third in 2006). Being putrid for the remainder of 2018-19 could increase their odds at another blue chipper.

Yet, if the Oilers show us anything, it’s that you need to succeed beyond the no-brainers.

(Granted, Edmonton’s messed up those high-end picks, too.)

Looking at recent history, the Blackhawks could really reload with the additional ammo they’d potentially receive if they made especially courageous trades.

Consider some of the solid-to-great gems they’ve unearthed in recent years.

Henri Jokiharju is already becoming an important defenseman for the Blackhawks, and he was the 29th pick in 2017. Alex DeBrincat is a budding star, and he fell to the second round (39th overall) in 2016. Most years, you can find a nice diamond in the rough, including Brandon Saad (43rd pick in 2011) in his own right.

No doubt, potential gains would require pain. A proud franchise probably wouldn’t want to absorb the losses that increase the odds of landing a Jack Hughes-type franchise-changer in the lottery range. Trading players who played a big role in winning three contemporary Stanley Cups would entail taking a PR hit, and the awkwardness of asking players to waive no-trade clauses.

That said, Bowman’s shown the necessary courage to make cutthroat moves in the past, trading players like Dustin Byfuglien to stay under the cap. As painful as it was to, say, trade Teuvo Teravainen, Bowman’s also been proactive when it comes to addressing mistakes.

Moving legitimate core pieces would probably feel drastic even by those standards, but perhaps Bowman needs to channel his inner Bill Belichick and trade players a year early, rather than a year late?

By firing Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks highlighted their fork in the road, consciously or not.

One path is to hope that things will simply sort themselves out. Maybe a new voice could rekindle that old, championship magic?

From here, it honestly feels like Coach Q got as much as anyone could out of this group, and that the Blackhawks’ ceiling is now “first-round fodder.” With that in mind, maybe it’s best to take a step back now, in hopes of making a leap forward?

None of this is easy, but winning (and cap management) isn’t simple arithmetic either. Firing Quenneville couldn’t have been the most comfortable choice, and if the Blackhawks want to change things for the better, they need to make more difficult decisions.

Standing pat will only leave them sinking deeper.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Why there’s reason to believe in Coyotes

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When we last checked in with the Arizona Coyotes they had just dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild, had won just one of their first five games, and were off to what was quite literally one of the worst offensive starts in league history.

A lot has changed since then. In the five games since, the Coyotes have won four of them and are coming off of an especially impressive 7-1 demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the league’s best teams and a consistent powerhouse, on Saturday night. They have put their slow offensive start behind them and scored at least three goals in all five games (including at least four goals in four of the games), have won all four games by at least three goals, and now have one of the 10 best goal differentials in the entire league.

Yes, this is an extremely small sampling of games, and yes there is always the potential that it could be a mirage. It is, after all, very early in the season and sometimes what you see here is not what you are going to get over the course of 82 games. But I am here to tell you that there are reasons to believe that this is not a mirage, and that the Coyotes are finally starting to put it together.

First, they have had a remarkably stingy defense to start the season. One of the best in the league, to be exact.

Even when they were losing over the first two weeks they had only surrendered 11 goals over those five games. For their season, their 2.00 goals against average per game is the best in the NHL. They are allowing just 28.2 shots on goal per game, the fourth best mark in the NHL. In terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential they are sixth in the league, as is their scoring chance differential.

In other words, they have been dictating the pace and pushing the play in all of their games, and in all of the key areas of the ice. What crushed them at the start was the simple fact that they could not actually put the puck in the net. And while they are probably never going to be a consistently great offense as currently constructed, they weren’t going to keep shooting at the laughably low 1.6 percent they had in those games, either. As long as they kept generating chances and shots (as they have) they were eventually going to see some positive reward for that. Lately, they have.

The biggest problem for the 2017-18 Coyotes was that they had an impossibly bad start that saw them lose their first 11 games, and 18 out of their first 20. By the middle of November they were already seven points behind the second-worst team in the standings (at the time the Buffalo Sabres) even though they had played in two additional games at that point. It was a hole they were never going to climb out of no matter what they did the rest of the way. At the center of that horrendous start was the fact they spent most of that time without starting goalie Antti Raanta as he was sidelined for most of the first month of the season, and then took a little bit of time to get back to 100 percent once he was able to return to the lineup. In his place was a revolving door of backups that, frankly, were not ready for NHL action. The results proved to be disastrous.

Once Raanta got back into the lineup the Coyotes were a fairly competitive team.

Over the final 62 games of the season they were 27-26-9, which comes out to around an 84-point pace over a full season.

Still not enough to get into the playoffs, but enough to be competitive.It was over the final 30 games where things really started to come together, finishing with a 17-10-3 record, and beating a lot of really good, playoff bound teams in the process. At times decisively. A lot of it was due to the play of Raanta, as he was sensational once he returned to health, but it showed just how much of a difference competent goaltending can make for a young, rebuilding team.

He has been just as good to start this season, and now the team in front of him is helping him out by limiting the number of shots and chances he has had to face. Together, it has been a great combination for the Coyotes and given them a chance to win every single night, even if it hasn’t always resulted in an actual win. This is the important thing: The process is starting to get there. They are doing the right things a team needs to do to win, mostly control the puck and outchance your opponent. Overall, the Coyotes have played 40 games since Feb. 6 and have a 22-15-3 record during that stretch. That’s a half-season worth of games where they have played at a 96-point pace. That gets you in the playoffs in almost every season.

They are also going to have a really good opportunity to continue this recent stretch and stack up some early season points as their next four games are against Ottawa, Carolina and back-to-back games against Philadelphia. That is a big opportunity they have to take advantage of.

Also working in their favor this season is the fact the Pacific Division is a mostly uninspiring pile of mediocrity.

The Ducks and Kings are both lousy, and even with a better than expected start the Canucks will no doubt soon join them. The Flames are completely underwhelming, and the Oilers are still a giant mystery that will probably only go as far as Connor McDavid can carry them. The Sharks are going to be at the top and Vegas will probably overcome it’s slow start and get back on track, but after that the entire division is completely wide open. Nearly one month into the season the Coyotes and Sharks are the only teams in the division that have actually outscored their opponents.

This is a team with an excellent goalie in Raanta, whose .922 save percentage is third in the NHL since the start of the 2013-14 season (among 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 140 games) behind only John Gibson and Corey Crawford, and a roster in front of him that is starting to play lockdown defense. That combination can carry a team a long way, even with a mediocre offense.

Now that Alex Galchenyuk is back in the lineup they have a respectable 1-2 punch down the middle with him and Derek Stepan, and an emerging top-line winger in Clayton Keller. They still need a player like Dylan Strome to take a big step forward to help solidify the offense, but as long as they keep shutting teams down the way they have and getting the goaltending they are getting from Raanta (and what backup Darcy Kuemper has given them so far) they are going to be a difficult team to deal with.

The process in terms of the way they are playing and playing the right way has been there from the start of the season.

The results are starting to follow.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Early season NHL surprises and disappointments

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the league as a whole and where everyone sits nearly one month into the season.

Who are the early season elites? It is a lot of the usual suspects. Who are the early season surprises? Carolina, Arizona and Buffalo are all extremely competitive, and dare we say … good. Who are the early disappointments? Look no further than Philadelphia and St. Louis. Who are we just not sure about? Everyone from Edmonton, to Chicago, to Montreal, to even Colorado.

All of that and more!

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — I know, I know. They just got clobbered by Arizona. Tough way to end the week. But that loss ended what had been a seven-game point streak and they are still 7-2-1 on the season. And they still haven’t really gotten much of anything out of players like Steven Stamkos or Ondrej Palat yet. The fact they are still piling up wins when they have not really started to click yet is a testament to how good and deep this team is.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins — They just completed a four-game road trip through Canada where they went 4-0-0 and outscored their opponents by a 23-6 margin. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are firing on all cylinders right now.

3Nashville Predators — They were the Western Conference champions two years and the Presidents’ Trophy winners this past season. They have shown no signs of slowing down and might be even better this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — There are real questions about their defense and goaltending that need to be answered, and losing Auston Matthews for a month is going to hurt in the short-term, but when you still have John Tavares and Nazem Kadri to center your top two lines in his absence they are going to be just fine. We know they will pile up wins in the regular season and that they are going to make the playoffs. We just don’t know how far they will go once they get there.

Great start, but still skeptical

5. Colorado Avalanche — They have a great record, one of the best lines in hockey that is driving one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, and as of Monday a plus-14 goal differential that is tied for the best in hockey. Why the skepticism: They are still a bottom-10 possession team and they really haven’t had a daunting schedule yet having only played three teams that finished in the top-12 of the standings a season ago. They are 1-2-0 in those games.

[Related: Is the line of Rantanen, MacKinnon, Landeskog the NHL’s best?]

6. Minnesota Wild — The Wild remain a fascinating team when it comes to quality vs. quantity in the shots department. They are once again one of the bottom teams in the league in shot attempt differential. They are one of the best teams in scoring chance differential. There are not many teams that can pull that off. The Wild did it a year ago and, so far, are doing it again.

7. Montreal Canadiens — Of all the teams in this tier this might be the one I am most skeptical of because, well, I just don’t think they’re that good. They have, however, played pretty well so far this season and have the one X-factor that can really elevate them if he is on top of his game. That X-factor: Carey Price. He hasn’t consistently been at that level this season, though he has shown flashes of it. Max Domi has also been a huge surprise having already scored five goals in 10 games after scoring nine in each of the past two seasons.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Two games into the season it looked like Todd McLellan had one foot out the door and the team was doomed to be awful again. And who knows, maybe it will all still play out that way. But they are 6-1-1 in the eight games since and some people other than Connor McDavid are starting to provide some offense. Up is down. Down is up.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the Canadiens I’m not really sure how good this team actually is but they do have some players that can be difference-makers and carry them a long way. Patrick Kane is off to a great start offensively, Alex DeBrincat is emerging as a star, and Corey Crawford is a massive upgrade over Cam Ward and the goalies they were using a year ago. They are not the team they once were. They might still be … decent?

10. New Jersey Devils — They have cooled off considerably from their four-game unbeaten streak to open the year and that concerns me, because this was a very average team a year ago outside of Taylor Hall and the top line. Still reason to think they can be good, but maybe not as good as the 4-0-0 start.

Teams that are better than this

11. San Jose Sharks — In the category of “teams that are not going to be this low in the standings (or the power rankings) for much longer,” the Sharks are at the top of that tier. After winning just two of their five five games the Sharks have now won five out of six and have at least a point in six consecutive games. Erik Karlsson has not been the player they expected … yet. He will be. When he is, look out.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Everything went right for them a year ago, and so far this season their puck luck has changed. Don’t let that make you think this team is going to keep regressing. They are controlling 60 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in their games and have the second best scoring chance differential. It is a weird thing to say about a team in its second year, but they are somewhat of a sleeping giant early in the season.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They need to get Patrik Laine going, and they will, but the bigger concern might be the fact that Connor Hellebuyck‘s early save percentage is only .907. His play a year ago is a big reason why they went from middle-of-the-pack, bubble playoff team to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

[Related: What is wrong with Patrik Laine?]

14. Boston Bruins — There is quite a gap between what their top line is doing offensively and what the rest of the team is doing offensively. That is going to be a problem if it continues.

15. Washington Capitals — I don’t believe in Stanley Cup hangovers. I do believe the 2017-18 Capitals were a really good, top-tier team that had everything click and go in their favor at the right time and that so far this season they have not yet hit their stride.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I kind of cringe as to what this team might look like if/when Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are not there. Given the way Bobrovsky has played so far this season we are getting a little preview of that, and it is not promising. But Bobrovsky is still there for now, and he will play better. As long as he does, so will the Blue Jackets.

The upstarts and surprises

17. Carolina Hurricanes — This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their fifth game of the 2017-18 season until the end of November. They have not only won four of their past five to get back to .500 through their first 10 games, they have been one of the toughest teams in the NHL to score against.

19. Buffalo Sabres — There does seem to be a different feel around this team this year. Jeff Skinner has always been everything they could have hoped for him to be. Just a matter now of how long he will remain there.

20. New York Islanders — They have not been great, but they have also not yet been the cellar dweller I thought they would be at the start of the year. Given the way their underlying numbers look they still might very well end up there, but so far they have been competitive. Anders Lee is on his way to having the type of season that can make him a lot of money in a few months.

The disappointments

21. Florida Panthers — They are probably playing better than their record indicates as goaltending has really hurt them, but you can not start a season with only two wins in your first nine games and expect to easily make up that ground. Given the way the 2017-18 season played out this team should know that better than anyone.

22. Calgary Flames — This team just seems like it should be … better. I really don’t know what else to say other than that. They are just underwhelming.

23. Dallas Stars — Take what we just said about the Flames and repeat it here.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — At the start of the season I argued this was the NHL’s ultimate boom-or-bust team given the makeup of the roster and the questions on the blue line and in net. So far they are a bust.

25. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the toughest teams in the league to score against in 2017-18 and missed the playoffs because their offense stunk. They spent the offseason throwing money at fixing their forwards and entering play on Monday have the fourth highest goals per game in the league. Success! The problem: Now they can’t stop anybody. You know what it means when one part of the team works and the other doesn’t, and then when the other part works the part that had been working stops working? It means you are probably a mediocre team.

These teams are bad

26. Ottawa Senators — They haven’t been as bad as expected, but they still only have four wins in 10 games and have probably had a few players playing over their heads so far. It would still not surprise me to see them 31st when the season concludes.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They had a really impressive three-game road trip through Florida and Pittsburgh early in the year where they won all three games. But other than that this team has been about what we expected: A couple of good young forwards, a bad defense and only mediocre at best goaltending.

28. Anaheim Ducks — The injuries have not helped, but other than the play of John Gibson and Ryan Miller there is nothing positive about the way this team has played this season. Think about how bad your team has to play to have a pair of goalies with a combined .938 save percentage over 12 games, and only win five of those games. When those two see any sort of a regression the bottom could fall out on this team.

[Related: Ducks ask too much of Gibson and Getzlaf is not happy]

29. New York Rangers — This season is all about which young players will show some progress and which veteran players will play well enough to get traded for a nice return before the deadline later in the year. Brett Howden has been impressive.

30. Los Angeles Kings — The window on this team as a Stanley Cup contender has been emphatically slammed shut. A slow, dull, boring team that needs overhauled.

31. Detroit Red Wings — It took them until game No. 11, but they finally have a win in regulation. That is how things are going for the Motor City’s hockey team so far this season.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data provided is via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Foster to help Blackhawks for some morning skates

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CHICAGO (AP) — Scott Foster is going to help the Chicago Blackhawks at some optional morning skates after his memorable appearance as an emergency goaltender last season.

Foster joined regular goalies Corey Crawford and Cam Ward for practice Thursday morning before Chicago’s game against the New York Rangers.

Coach Joel Quenneville said Foster was receptive when they told him about the opportunity.

”I think he likes the idea, yeah,” a grinning Quenneville said. ”It beats the beer league.”

Foster is part of a crew of recreational goaltenders who staff Chicago’s home games in case of emergencies for either team. He was pressed into action March 29 against Winnipeg and stopped all seven shots he faced over the final 14 minutes of the Blackhawks’ 6-2 victory.

The 36-year-old Foster, an accountant who played college hockey for Western Michigan, became a fan favorite after his successful NHL debut. He was honored at the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas, and the team also paid tribute to him at its fan convention.

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

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.