Hall beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Penguins dominate, Sharks sweep

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Wednesday’s scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Penguins lead 3-1):

Pittsburgh dominated from pillar to post in this one. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each had three points nights. Matt Murray, meanwhile, grabbed his second shutout of the playoffs in the win, which puts the Flyers on the brink of a playoff exit. Philly has just six goals in four games now and five of those came in Game 2.

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning lead 3-1):

Nikita Kucherov was a force in this one, scoring the twice and adding an assist while laying a massive (and controversial) hit on Devils’ defenseman Sami Vatanen, which knocked the latter out of the game. J.T. Miller tied the game in the first period and assisted on both of Kucherov’s goals for a three-point night of his own. Andrei Vasilevskiy, up for the Vezina this year, turned aside 27-of-28 shots.

Nashville Predators 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (Predators lead 3-1): 

The Predators held off a late comeback attempt by the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead back to Nashville. Colton Sissons and Craig Smith scored in the second period, following Filip Forsberg‘s highlight-reel first-period marker to give the Preds a 3-0 advantage going into the third. Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Kerfoot brought the Avs back to within one, but that was as far as they’d get. The Avs lost more than just the game as goalie Jonathan Bernier left after the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return.

San Jose Sharks 2, Anaheim Ducks (Sharks win 4-0):

Tomas Hertl scored 1:16 after Andrew Cogliano tied the game 1-1 in the third period to give the Sharks their second sweep in franchise history (they previous swept the Vancouver Canucks in 2013). The Ducks looked better than their Game 3 effort (just showing up would likely do that), but still only managed a single goal (and just four in the series). Martin Jones made 30 saves for the win. The Sharks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round after Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.

Three stars

Matt Murray, Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby each had three-point nights, but Murray’s 26 saves made sure the Flyers came nowhere near the Penguins as he picked up his second shutout of the series, sixth playoff shutout of his career and fourth in his past six playoff games. Those are some ridiculous numbers from the Pens’ No. 1.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: Two goals — the game-winner and the dagger into the empty net to ensure victory — capped off a big night for Kucherov, who has scored in all four of the series’ games thus far. Kucherov added an assist on the game-tying goal in the first period and laid a massive hit on Sami Vatanen (which could earn him a call from the league).

Filip Forsberg, Predators: Got the Predators off on the right foot with his first-period marker which, as you will see below, was from another world. He also assisted on Colton Sisson’s tally that gave the Preds a 2-0 lead in the second period. Forsberg now has five points through four games in the series.

Highlights of the Night

Forsberg’s theatrics:

Jones was a huge problem for the Ducks, as seen here:

Man deposited into bench:

Vezinalevskiy:

Factoids of the Night

Thursday’s schedule

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 2-1
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA, NBCSWA) — Blue Jackets let series 2-1


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

Avs’ Jonathan Bernier forced out of Game 4 loss

Bad news hit the Colorado Avalanche’s playoff hopes on Wednesday.

The Avs’ woes in the crease suffered another blow when the team announced that Jonathan Bernier would not return for the third period because of a lower-body injury.

It’s not known when Bernier got hurt. Andrew Hammond, the team’s No. 3, replaced the Avs’ starter for the final frame.

Colorado is already without Semyon Varlamov, who was ruled out the playoffs after a late-season injury after a collision with Chicago Blackhawks forward Tomas Jurco.

The Predators lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 after taking Game 4 with a 3-2 win.

Nashville had a scare of their own during the second period when Avs forward Gabriel Landeskog went to hit forward Ryan Johansen with an open-ice hit. As Landeskog approached, Johansen looked up and tried to duck out of the way but took what appeared to be Landeskog’s knee to his head.

Johansen had a tough time getting back to his feet and headed down the tunnel and out of the game once he did.

Johansen was not on the bench to start the third but eventually returned around the mid-way point of the period and played five shifts.


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

Which team is most likely to come back from 2-1 deficit?

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We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.

The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.

The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.

• New Jersey Devils

Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.

The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.

“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”

It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.

• Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.

As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.

Whether Couturier plays or not, Philadelphia will need more from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.

“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”

The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.

• Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.

You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.

Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.

• Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.

Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.

Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.

And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.

“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”

•Washington Capitals

This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.

The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.

Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.

“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”

Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.

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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.