Eric Staal

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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

Wild add Zuccarello, Hartman, as GM seeks more ‘hardness’

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild zeroed in on Mats Zuccarello as free agency approached, desiring his competitive drive and playmaking skills for a top-six forward group in need of a new look.

With a five-year, $30 million contract the right wing agreed to Monday when the market opened, Zuccarello has given the Wild another thirtysomething core player on a major deal. Even following their first postseason absence in seven years, though, general manager Paul Fenton was noticeably upbeat about the makeup of his roster.

”You’ve got to have a team that you’re going to field and let these young guys grow with it, so to me it’s just an insulation,” Fenton said, adding: ”He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if you really look at it. He’s been a healthy player.”

For the fourth line, the Wild also agreed on a two-year, $3.8 million contract with right wing Ryan Hartman, who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Dallas last week. That’ll probably be the extent of the summer maneuvering, Fenton said, with the post-injury recoveries of center Mikko Koivu (knee) and defenseman Matt Dumba (shoulder) now the most important developments leading into training camp.

Zuccarello has 355 points in 511 regular season games, including a combined 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for the New York Rangers and the Stars in 2018-19. The 31-year-old has 42 points in 73 career playoff games. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound native of Oslo who is one of only eight players in NHL history born in Norway , according to online database Hockey Reference, played his first eight-plus seasons with the Rangers.

In his first appearance with the Stars, Zuccarello registered a goal, an assist, and a broken right arm suffered while blocking a shot . He needed surgery and missed 17 games. Returning in April, Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 postseason contests for the Stars, who took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

”The way that this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team,” Fenton said, adding: ”I would like our team to play with a little more hardness and passion and excitement, and I think he’ll not only do it himself, but he’ll bring people along with him.”

With left wing Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter, Zuccarello and Koivu, four of the Wild’s top six salary cap charges this season will be carried by players 31 and older, but Zuccarello categorized himself as an ”in-between” guy on a team grooming an under-23 core of forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Zuccarello, a self-described ”hockey nerd,” was eager to immerse himself in a hockey-savvy market with a conveniently significant amount of residents with Norwegian heritage. He could also form a uniquely alliterative first line flank with Jason Zucker around veteran center Eric Staal.

The Wild scored just 210 goals last season, the fifth-fewest in the league.

”It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said.

Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

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The first big trade rumor of the offseason (it is currently the offseason for 29 NHL teams) was centered around a potential blockbuster that would have reportedly seen the Pittsburgh Penguins send Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that was thought to have included Jason Zucker (with the possible inclusion of a Jack Johnson for Victor Rask swap).

The rumored deal was reported by several outlets, including both the Minnesota and Pittsburgh chapters of The Athletic.

It now seems likely that the deal is not going to happen, seemingly because Kessel does not want to waive his no-trade clause to go to a Wild team that is probably pretty far away from a championship.

Based on everything that has come out of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of its Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, there is going to be some change this summer and a Kessel trade will likely be a significant part of that. At this point it is just a matter of when it happens and where he ends up going. It is not a surprise to hear his name in trade speculation, and it should not be a surprise when he eventually goes.

The surprise is that it was the Wild that came the closest to making a deal.

[Related: Can the Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?]

There is no denying that Kessel could probably help them because for all of his flaws he is still an elite offensive player.

He can still score goals, he is still an exceptional playmaker and passer, and any team’s power play could run through him and be better for it. Given that the Wild were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 14th on the power play this past season he is, in theory, the type of player they could use.

But these types of situations do not exist in a vacuum. What is so strange about the Wild making a play for Kessel is that it seems to run counter to everything they did in the second half of last season when they started to strip their team of core players, trading Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle, none of whom were pending free agents or needed to be traded when they were.

The return on that trio was mainly Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, a sequence of transactions that shed some salary off their cap and made the team slightly younger. The Rask, Donato, and Fiala trio is, on average, three years younger than than the Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund trio.

It seemed to be a sign that the Wild were looking to turn the page on a core that hadn’t really won anything, seemed to have reached its ceiling, and was looking to get younger and cheaper. General manager Paul Fenton again emphasized the team’s desire to get younger in his end of the season press conference. Whether or not the moves they made were the right ones remains to be seen (the Niederreiter trade was definitely not the right one) but it was probably a path that had to be taken at some point.

Throwing their hat into the Kessel ring, however, obviously runs counter to all of that.

The rumored trade, assuming it also included the Johnson-Rask swap, would have only saved them $500,000 against the cap and it would have made the team significantly older. Even if a team is looking to rebuild or retool (or whatever they want to call it) it still needs players to put a team on the ice, and you never want to turn down the opportunity to acquire good players when the opportunity presents itself.

But the Kessel pursuit, even if it ultimately failed, creates a number of questions for where the Wild are headed this summer.

Among them…

  1. Is this team, as it is currently constructed, a 32-year-old Phil Kessel away from being a contender in the Western Conference, and especially in a Central Division that includes Nashville, Winnipeg, an emerging power in Colorado, and a current Stanley Cup Finalist in the St. Louis Blues? If it is not, what are you trying to make that type of splash more for? And if you can not get him, are you going to pursue another comparable player?
  2. If you think it is just one of those players away, why the sudden rush to trade a player like Niederreiter (at what was probably his lowest possible value at the time) for an inferior player in Rask, or to make any of the moves you made at the trade deadline? What changed your mind in these past couple of months that you went from selling veteran players under contract to suddenly deciding you need to go get another veteran winger that can score?
  3. Beyond all of that, the most important question might be what this all means for Zucker’s future in Minnesota, as he once again found himself at the center of another trade rumor and another trade that almost happened? Why is one of your best two-way players burning such a hole in your pocket that you are seemingly desperate to trade him or try to use him as a trade chip?

When everything is put together it just seems to be a team that is kind of lost in what it wants or where it wants to go.

On-the-fly rebuilds do not usually work, especially when it is a team that is already lacking high-end talent at the top of the lineup. That path almost always seems to end up resulting in a complete rebuild anyway, only just a couple of years after it should have already started (see, for example, the Los Angeles Kings).

Not only are the Wild lacking in impact players, just about all of their top returning scorers from a year ago (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu) are going to be age 35 or older this upcoming season. Their best days are definitely far in their rear-view mirrors.

Trying to re-tool around mediocrity or aging and declining talent only extends the mediocrity and leaves you stuck somewhere in the middle of the NHL.

Successfully acquiring Kessel might have made the team slightly better (at least offensively), but probably not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way. It just would have added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has too many players like that.

But what it really would have been is just another strange, questionable transaction after a season full of strange, questionable transactions that didn’t seem to be necessary.

Where the Wild go from here this summer will be seen in the coming weeks, but the continuing trend of questionable transactions should be a cause for concern for the team’s fans when it comes to this new front office.

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Another shutout for Mrazek; Burns dominates for Sharks

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  • Jordan Staal scores another huge goal for the Carolina Hurricanes as they continue their playoff run.
  • Kevin Labanc scored a beauty of a goal for the Sharks.
  • Brent Burns dominated and made a little bit of history for the Sharks.

Carolina Hurricanes 1, New York Islanders 0 [OT] (CAR leads series 1-0)

If you like defense and goaltending, this might be the series for you. It took a little more than 64 minutes for someone to find the back of the net in this one, but Carolina’s Jordan Staal finally did it for the Hurricanes in their 1-0 win over the Islanders. Petr Mrazek was also outstanding in net by turning aside all 31 shots he faced for the Hurricanes as they continue their magical run.

San Jose Sharks 5, Colorado Avalanche 2 (SJS leads series 1-0)

Even without Joe Pavelski in their lineup the Sharks still have enough depth to beat just about any team on any given night, and they showed that in their 5-2 Game 1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night. The Sharks’ third line of Joe Thornton, Marcus Sorensen, and Kevin Labanc combined to score three consecutive goals in the win, while defender Brent Burns had a huge four-point night. While the offense was a huge part of the win, the Sharks’ penalty kill also came through in the second period as they successfully killed off a four-minute high-sticking penalty on Brenden Dillon to help swing the momentum in their favor. They responded by scoring three consecutive goals over the next eight minutes to take the lead.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks. It was the Brent Burns show for the Sharks on Friday night as he tallied four points in their 5-2 win over the Avalanche. Along with the offense, he also made a couple of great defensive plays, including an outstanding play to break up a 2-on-1 odd-man rush involving Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie in the third period. It is games like this that made him a Norris Trophy finalist for the third time in the past four years. He is just the seventh defender since 2010 to record at least four points in a postseason game.

2. Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes. Here is a quick look at how Staal’s week has been for the Hurricanes. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals to send the game to a decisive Game 7. In that Game 7 he scored the game-tying goal in the third period to help send the game to overtime where they would eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions. Then on Friday night he scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 series lead. He has always been an outstanding defensive center and strong two-way player, and he is having an incredible postseason for the Hurricanes.

3. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes. While Staal provided the only offense for the night, Mrazek did his part to keep the Islanders off the board with a 31-save shutout. It is already Mrazek’s second shutout of the postseason and the fifth shutout of his postseason career. That is an impressive number when you remember he has only appeared in 19 NHL postseason games and only has nine career postseason wins.

Highlights Of The Night

This was probably Mrazek’s best save of the night as he shut down New York’s Josh Bailey in the first period with this awesome glove save.

San Jose’s Kevin Labanc got the better of Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen on this play with an incredible move to set up the go-ahead goal for the Sharks.

Robin Lehner was not the problem for the New York Islanders on Friday as he matched Mrazek save-for-save during regulation. This second period stop on Gregg McKegg was his best of the night.

 

Factoids Of The Night

  • Jordan Staal’s overtime goal for the Hurricanes came 13 years to the day of his older brother, Eric Staal, scoring an overtime playoff game-winner during the 2006 playoffs. That was a pretty good postseason for the Hurricanes as they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • This was the seventh consecutive day of playoff hockey that at least one game went to overtime. The longest such streak is nine consecutive days during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • Burns set a new Sharks franchise record for most career postseason points by a defender. [NHL PR]
  • Big night for Joe Thornton as he became just the 24th player, and only third active player, to record at least 100 postseason assists. [NHL PR]
  • Mrazek became the third goalie in Hurricanes history to record multiple shutouts in a single postseason. [NHL PR]

Saturday’s Games

Game 2: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues, 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)

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.

Hurricanes control Game 3, shut out Capitals 5-0

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes won a home Stanley Cup playoff game, Warren Foegele was 13 years old and Dougie Hamilton was 15. A decade later, Foegele and Hamilton each scored twice during the Hurricanes’ 5-0 Game 3 win over the Washington Capitals.

The sold out PNC Arena crowd had been waiting 10 years for Monday night, and the Hurricanes gave their fans plenty to remember. Foegele opened the party 9:43 into the first period with his first career playoff goal.

The last Hurricanes player to score a playoff goal on home ice? Eric Staal in Game 4 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.

The good times were marred minutes later when Andrei Svechnikov was knocked out of the game after taking a punch during a scrap with Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. Carolina also lost forward Micheal Ferland with an upper-body injury following the opening 20 minutes.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But those two losses up front didn’t slow Carolina’s approach as they peppered Braden Holtby all night. The Hurricanes outshot the Capitals 45-18, and at one point Washington went 23:06 without a shot on Petr Mrazek. The second period shot totals were 18-1 in the Hurricanes’ favor.

Mrazek, by the way, now has five career playoff wins. Four have come via shutout.

As the Hurricanes kept Holtby busy, they would score four more times to put the game out of reach. Foegele added another early in the second period and Hamilton scored both of the Hurricanes’ power play goals to secure the victory.

It was an inspired effort by Carolina in front of their home fans, and one that will give them a boost in confidence as they look to even the series later this week.

Washington still leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

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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.