Jacob Trouba

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

Losing Jacob Trouba hurts, and the defense also waved goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (with addition Neal Pionk arguably being a net negative). Kevin Hayes was clearly a rental, but either way, they once again have a 2C problem with him gone.

Strengths: Assuming the Jets sign RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg still boasts some serious firepower on offense. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we didn’t see the best out of that forward group at times in 2018-19. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler produced enough to overlook some possession numbers that were at-times middling, but it was a frustrating year for Laine, while Nikolaj Ehlers hopes to shake off a brutal playoff series where he went pointless.

Weaknesses: Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are quality defensemen, but that defense group is troubling overall — at least when you’re trying to endure the rigors of a tough Central Division. The Jets could really struggle in their own end, especially if last season’s expected goals nosedive was a sign of a new normal, rather than just a blip on the radar.

Troublingly, it’s not certain that Connor Hellebuyck will bail them out of mistakes; he was fabulous in 2017-18, but then fell back down to Earth with a .913 save percentage last season. It’s unclear if Hellebuyck can bail the Jets out if their defense ends up being as weak as feared.

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorUnder Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Normally, I’d lean almost toward 10, but Paul Maurice is some kind of coaching vampire. The dude’s somehow been consistently a head coach since 1995-96, even though team success has often been fleeting. You’d think the calls for his head would have been even louder considering how the Jets’ play plummeted basically once the calendar hit 2019.

Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart really captures that meltdown dramatically:

Yikes.

When you look at the Jets on paper, you expect more than we saw in 2018-19. How much is that on the players underachieving (or bad luck), and how much does it boil down to a coach who … frankly, hasn’t accomplished enough to make you think “that guy should be a head coach for decades.”

Because Maurice is nearly indestructible, let’s bump that 10 down to an 8 or 9. Turn on the microwave if Laine, Connor, and/or Dustin Byfuglien miss a chunk of the early season and the Jets really sink, though.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien.

In the cases of Laine and Connor, they remain RFA situations to watch. They’ll also carry a ton of pressure if they get paid more than people believe they’re worth. These are two players with quite a bit to prove already, and may only bring higher expectations with fatter wallets.

Byfuglien, meanwhile, is fascinating under almost all circumstances — a true anomaly of a player. Humans this large aren’t supposed to be able to rove like Byfuglien can, and he’s a truly unique combination of skill and nastiness. At his size and his age (34), it’s fair to wonder when Byfuglien might buckle under the burden of what will likely be a heavy workload post-Trouba and Myers.

Playoffs or Lottery: As gifted as Winnipeg’s top-end players are, it feels like they’re more likely to fight for a wild-card spot or Central second/third seed than run away with the division, conference, or Presidents’ Trophy. This team had serious problems toward the end of last season, and it’s unclear if they’ve solved them, particularly after losing important players like Trouba.

Even considering some of the red flags, it would be a surprise if the Jets missed the playoffs altogether, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Rangers begin training camp with goal of making the playoffs

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The New York Rangers have two clear goals this season: to keep improving and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The addition of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer helped accelerate the team’s rebuild, and now the Rangers believe they are ready to take the next step in the second year under coach David Quinn.

”We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said Friday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York, ‘Obviously it’s something we want to accomplish. The moves we made over the summer are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing over the last 16, 17 months. Within the walls of our locker room and the walls of this building, we feel good about the direction we’re going in and we’re going to continue to get better daily.”

The Rangers went into rebuilding mode by dealing some veterans at the trade deadline in 2018 and continued it at last season’s deadline. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14. New York had just five wins in its last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 20 points out of the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team that began training camp with on-ice testing on Friday has even higher expectations than the one that left for the summer five months earlier.

”I want improvement,” Rangers team president John Davidson told reporters one day earlier: ”Playoffs is a goal for sure, but there’s got to be improvement the right way that you can count on long-term to get gratification out of the season.”

Quinn believes the familiarity the returning players have with his system should help their second training camp together get off to a better start than a year ago. And they should be better prepared for their coach’s physical demands.

”They certainly have done everything we’ve asked them to do away from the rink,” Quinn said. ”They look in better shape, they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature. We just want to continue to build on the progress they made last year.”

Signing Panarin in free agency was a big boost. The 27-year-old had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. He brings career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.

Kakko was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, and Trouba was acquired in a trade with Winnipeg and then signed as a restricted free-agent.

Davidson, who rejoined the organization in May after stepping down as the president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, knows Panarin well.

”He’s competitive, really competitive,” Davidson said. ”The big spots in games, he likes to find a way. … He’s’ a guy that’s going to show up for work every day and you don’t have to worry about him.

”He’s very strong, strong on the puck, strong in loose-puck battles.”

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into their first practice sessions on Saturday:

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Henrik Lundqvist back for his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worst of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage. It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off a solid season as the backup, going 14-13-4 with a 2.91 GAA. The 23-year-old could be challenged for the No. 2 spot by Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, who has come over from the KHL.

Davidson and Quinn both said they don’t have a target for games in mind for Lundqvist, but don’t want to overuse him.

”We want him to have a great season so that when we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh,” Quinn said.

LINE COMBINATIONS: Quinn said he plans on starting camp with Pavel Buchnevich joining the first line with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil will get a look at centering the second line with Chris Kreider on the left wing and possibly Kakko or fellow rookie Vitali Kravtsov on the other side.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden will get chances in the middle on subsequent lines. Ryan Strome is likely to start out on a wing, but could also see some time at center.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: The Rangers haven’t had a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh at the deadline in 2018, and there doesn’t appear to be a standout favorite to fill that role.

”I think we’d like to have a captain but that’s something that’s going to evolve,” Quinn said. ”We’re in a situation where it’s going to happen and the captain will pick himself in a lot of ways.”

Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

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Things already seemed potentially bumpy for the Winnipeg Jets heading into 2019-20, and now it’s unclear how long it will take for Dustin Byfuglien to sort out a personal situation.

The Jets announced on Friday that Byfuglien has been granted a leave of absence, and head coach Paul Maurice wasn’t able to provide a potential timeline for Byfuglien’s return. The most Maurice could provide was that it would interrupt the team’s next opportunity to skate, but beyond that, it seems unclear.

Maurice did assert that nothing “sinister” is going on, and noted that Byfuglien and his family are healthy.

After a frustrating end to 2018-19, there are quite a few factors that indicate that things could start off a little shaky:

  • Again, Byfuglien might “miss some games” … or not. Either way, Byfuglien hopes to put behind last season, where he was limited to 42 regular-season appearances (and six playoff games).
  • Key RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still are without contracts at this moment. It’s unclear when their negotiations will be settled, and if they’ll stretch into the actual regular season.
  • Winnipeg lost some significant pieces during this offseason, undoubtedly in part to make room for Laine and Connor, with Jacob Trouba, Kevin Hayes, and Tyler Myers being the most notable losses.
  • Their schedule might also contribute to a bumpy beginning. The Jets begin 2019-20 on a four-game road trip, and play five of their first six games away from home. Such a stretch doesn’t guarantee struggles — especially if the Rangers (Oct. 3) and Devils (Oct. 4) remain works in progress — but on paper, it does seem like a challenge amidst all of that upheaval.

It will also be interesting to see how well Byfuglien plays, whenever he’s ready to return.

Byfuglien managed four goals and 31 points last season, which is pretty impressive considering that he produced that much offense in just 42 games. Byfuglien’s underlying numbers were excellent to boot.

That said, it remains to be seen if Byfuglien can stay on the ice with better consistency (assuming he can work out the off-the-ice matters he’s currently dealing with). As a truly unique physical presence, it’s been interesting to see him age quite well so far, but you never know if a big, Byfuglien-sized drop might come soon, as he’s already 34.

Overall, both the Jets and Byfuglien face a bit more uncertainty than they’ve carried in quite some time, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the player and the team both managed to pull off a strong 2019-20 … even if a bumpy start also seems plausible.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.