Jesperi Kotkaniemi

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Wednesday Night Hockey: How quickly can Habs turn things around?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Canadiens are well on their way to missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. The last time they made the playoffs was in 2017 and that year they got bounced in the first round. Why are the Habs in this situation and how quickly can they fix this? Let’s take a look.

Montreal got off to a strong enough start this year, but things fell apart once Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron got hurt in mid-November. Once those two went down, the Canadiens proceeded to go on an eight-game winless streak. Joel Armia also missed a stretch of games and Jesperi Kotkaniemi was injured on two different occasions.

Sure, it helped when general manager Marc Bergevin signed Ilya Kovalchuk and traded for Marco Scandella in early January, but the damage had already been done. That’s why the Habs are in a tricky spot. Their team has veterans like Carey Price, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher on the roster, but they’re not willing to part with future assets for immediate help.

Now that Weber (lower body) is out indefinitely and the team is seven points out of a playoff spot, there isn’t much hope left for this season.

So what do they do?

Bergevin can sell off expiring contracts at the deadline. Kovalchuk, Scandella, Nate Thompson and Nick Couins could all be on the move. All four are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Maybe they hang on to Kovalchuk because he’s been that good and maybe Scandella, who is from Montreal, wants to continue his career at home, but if the right offers come along, those guys could be moved.

Things get way more interesting when you consider whether or not they’d move key players with term remaining on their contracts. For example, Petry and Tatar both have one-year remaining on their deals after this season. Would Bergevin consider moving those guys? When you look at the haul that Minnesota got for Jason Zucker, who has more years remaining on his deal, it might be tempting for Bergevin to make a similar deal.

It all comes down to how close they think they are to being a playoff team as soon as next season. What we know is that Bergevin isn’t interested in trading Weber and Price. If that continues to be the case, they almost have no choice but to go for it because those two aren’t getting any younger.

They tried landing Sebastian Aho with an offer sheet last summer, but that didn’t work. Typically, Montreal isn’t a free-agent destination of choice, so it’ll be difficult to add quality players that way. What it comes down to is whether or not they can land a high-end talent via trade. And would they be willing to part with certain young assets to make that happen before Price and Weber are no longer cornerstone players?

Assuming Bergevin gets to keep his job, this will be a massive period for him. Not only does he have to trade/acquire the right players, he has to make sure he’s taking the right approach with this team.

John Forslund will call the matchup alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury. Liam McHugh hosts the night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

With Alex Ovechkin just two goals shy of reaching 700 goals for his NHL career, NBC Sports has flexed into its second Capitals game this week, adding Washington’s game against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo, on Thursday night.

Thursday night’s coverage of Capitals-Avalanche will be the second half of an NHL doubleheader on NBCSN, immediately following originally-scheduled coverage of Flyers-Panthers, which begins at 7 p.m. ET. Pre-game coverage at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

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.

On defending against Canucks’ Elias Pettersson and how he’s officiated

Elias Pettersson
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Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson is one of the NHL’s brightest young stars and a dynamic playmaker that is capable of changing a game every time he steps on the ice. As such, he is also going to be the focal point for every team defensively and is the kind of player that they want to play against physically.

In just his second season in the league he has already been on the receiving end of some big — and controversial — hits that have resulted in ejections and supplemental discipline.

On Tuesday, in the Canucks’ 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, he was on the receiving end of a late hit from Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk that infuriated coach Travis Green after the game.

Here is the play.

It is not the worst hit you will see, but it is clearly late, unnecessary and at a time when Pettersson should not be expecting to be hit. There was no penalty called on the play, even as an official had a direct line of sight to the contact.

Here was Green’s commentary after the game, via TSN:

“I’m so frustrated with it. This guy is one of the best young players in the league. He gets hit and he’s totally defenseless. It’s two seconds after he lets go of the puck. I’ve watched it a couple times. He feels like there’s no way he’s going to get hit like that. He’s in a vulnerable position. Those are hits that the league is trying to get out of the game, especially against top young guys, top players in the league, and I think that Petey’s shown he’s one of those guys.

“And it’s frustrating for me as a coach to see some of the abuse he takes, where (it) doesn’t get called and he works through this. He gets frustrated and they keep, I know he’s not the biggest guy, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of a player that’s not ready to be hit. It’s very late. That should have been a penalty all day long.”

Neither player talked after the game, but Pettersson addressed it on Thursday, as well questions on the officiating towards him and the way he’s defended by teams across the league. You can watch his entire media availability here.

Pettersson clearly did not like the hit or the lateness of it, calling it kind of a dirty play.

Still, he insisted he is not the type of player to go to the officials looking for a call.

“The refs already have a tough job, I’m not looking for calls. I don’t want to have that reputation about me. If they say I’m embellishing or diving to get penalties — I’m not about that. I’m trying to play hard hockey with respect against my opponents. Of course sometimes I feel I should get a penalty, but that’s something I can’t control. All I can control is trying to play my best hockey.”

He later added:  “I know I get a lot more attention now. I can feel it, get less time with the puck, I feel like I always have a guy around me. I feel like plays like that isn’t what we want in hockey. It’s a late hit, I’m not ready for it. I’m ready for it at first, but then two or three seconds later the hit comes.”

Pettersson also said that Grzelcyk checked on him after the play to make sure he was okay.

A few additional thoughts:

1. The Canucks and Pettersson were absolutely right to be livid about that hit on Tuesday. The problem is I don’t see this as a Pettersson-Canucks issue as much as it is an NHL officiating issue. All too often the grace period for when a hit is acceptable seems to be extended far beyond what it should be. As long as it doesn’t result in an injury, a clear hit directly to the head, or somebody being hit from behind it tends to be ignored.

2. Pettersson does take a beating. Sometimes it gets punished. Sometimes it doesn’t. Along with this hit, other notable incidents include the game in Florida last season when he was body-slammed by Mike Matheson, the flying elbow he took to the face from Chris Kreider, and this incident with Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Grzelcyk and Kotkaniemi received no penalties and no league discipline, but Matheson was suspended two games while Kreider was ejected and fined (but not suspended).

3. While those punishments and penalties may seem frustrating and inconsistent for the Canucks, Pettersson does draw penalties far more than than most players in the league. Among the 498 players that have logged at least 500 minutes of ice-time this season, Pettersson is 16th in the league in penalties drawn per 60 minutes. Overall, he’s drawn 24 penalties this season. Though, it is worth pointing out — as the Athletic’s Thomas Drance did on Thursday) the overwhelming majority of those calls came early in the season and have dried up over the past two months. None of those numbers should matter, though. A penalty is a penalty and all anybody should be looking for here is consistency. That, again, is an issue that extends far beyond Pettersson and the Canucks.

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.

 

Where do Habs go from here?

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This season hasn’t gone the way many expected for the Montreal Canadiens. Last year, with expectations in the toilet, the Habs managed to push for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the regular season. Naturally, expectations were that they’d take a step forward and actually get into the postseason this time around. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look like that will be the case.

Last night’s home loss to the Edmonton Oilers extended their winless streak to eight games. It’s now the second time this season that they’ve gone through that long of a streak.

The first losing skid, which coincided with forward Jonathan Drouin going out of the lineup with a wrist injury, occurred between Nov. 16 to Dec. 1. During that stretch, they picked up three of a possible 16 points. The biggest issue then was that they seemed to lose all of their defensive structure.

They allowed between three and eight goals in all but one game and they surrendered four goals or more in six of those eight contests. That’s pretty surprising for a Claude Julien coached team. Sure, they’ve been without Drouin, Paul Byron, Joel Armia for a while now (Jesperi Kotkaniemi also missed a good chunk of time), but falling apart like that is not acceptable.

This time around, they’re not bleeding as many goals, but they’re blowing leads, making mistakes at crucial times and their confidence seems to be in the gutter. For example, during last night’s loss, they had a 2-0 lead in the second period. As soon as Oilers forward Riley Sheahan scored to make it 2-1, you could just feel that the Habs were going to blow it and they did. It’s too bad because they were the better team for 40 minutes.

Even though they’re playing better this time around, they’ve accumulated just one of a possible 16 points.

“I thought we learned a lot of stuff from the last one,” forward Philip Danault said of the two eight-game winless streaks, per the Montreal Gazette. “This time it’s different because we’re playing well, but we’re not getting results. We play with the lead and we can’t keep it. Early in the year, the third period was our best, but not now.”

Montreal now finds themselves nine points out of a Wild Card spot. The other issue is that there’s five teams between them and that last playoff spot. That’s a lot of teams to leap over for a playoff spot.

So, where do they go from here? 

The Habs have four potential unrestricted free agents that they could move before the trade deadline. Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella could all fetch a mid-round draft pick. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Danault, and Jeff Petry all have just one more year on their contracts. All four of those players will be unrestricted free agents in July of 2021.

Now, keeping Gallagher and Danault is a no-brainer. The Canadiens should work on re-signing those two players as soon this coming July. Tatar and Petry are different cases. Tatar is having a career year, as he’s up to 16 goals and 38 points in 45 games this season. He comes with a reasonable $4.8 million cap hit (Vegas is retaining some of his salary). Any team looking for a top-six winger could do worse than Tatar. He could also fetch a nice return for general manager Marc Bergevin.

As for Petry, he’s been an important piece of the defense over the last few years. While She Weber was sidelined with various injuries, it was Petry who picked up the slack. The 32-year-old has struggled over the last little while, but he’s a solid right-handed defender has a $5.5 million cap hit. Petry doesn’t have to be shipped out of town. The Habs have a lot of young defensemen coming through the pipeline and having Petry and Weber there to help those youngsters wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The other situation that needs addressing is Carey Price‘s contract. The veteran netminder hasn’t had much help in front of him this season, but he also hasn’t played at the same level we’re used to seeing him play at throughout his career. He has a 16-16-4 record with a 3.01 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage this season.

Price also has six years remaining on a contract that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million and he also has a full no-movement clause throughout the life of the deal. He won’t be going anywhere unless he wants to move somewhere else.

But if he is willing to somewhere else, can the Habs find a taker that’s willing him to give them something decent in return for their franchise netminder? Do they even want to trade one of their more important leaders in the locker room? So there are a lot of questions surrounding Price. The Habs need to decide which direction they want to go in.

Will Bergevin be the one to pull the trigger on these moves? Will they move on from their long-time general manager after this season? There’s no doubt that the pressure is on. The worst thing that could’ve happened was the team exceeding expectations last year. This group wasn’t ready to take the next step this year and they might still be a few years away from being a serious contender. This is a crucial part of the “reset”. Whoever the GM is needs to make sure he keeps/trades the right veterans.

It should be an interesting few months in Montreal.

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.

NHL injury roundup: Bruins’ Krug, battered Blue Jackets

Bruins Krug
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Not everyone healed up enough during the holiday break. This post runs down some of the biggest injury bits, including the Boston Bruins placing Torey Krug on IR.

Krug and other Bruins injuries

The Bruins limped into the break with just two wins in their last 10 games (2-4-4). Losing Krug only makes matters worse, especially with Charlie McAvoy also banged up.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said that Krug will be out through at least Dec. 31, while McAvoy is day-to-day. Boston will ask more of the likes of Zdeno Chara, starting with a home-and-home against Buffalo beginning on Friday.

Banged-up Blue Jackets

Columbus deserves serious credit for going on a hot streak (five straight wins, 6-0-2 in eight) considering mounting injuries. The Blue Jackets didn’t push into the East’s top eight, though, so they’ll need to persevere some more.

Cam Atkinson going to IR represents the toughest loss, but the sheer quantity mixes with such quality. The Blue Jackets expect Oliver Bjorkstrand to miss multiple weeks. Combine those two with Ryan Murray and Josh Anderson, along with smaller ailments, and the list becomes daunting.

John Tortorella deflected talk of injuries presenting such a challenge to the Blue Jackets, according to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline (sub required).

“It isn’t a challenge, it’s just the way pro sports are,” Tortorella said. “You have injuries, you plug a guy in and you go play.”

More injury updates and news

  • The Red Wings updated that Anthony Mantha will miss at least four weeks with an upper-body injury. Jeff Blashill indicated that the injury is to Mantha’s ribs. Jake Muzzin‘s hit on Mantha prompted concussion concerns, so this is a mix of good and bad news.

This list isn’t considered comprehensive. If you want even more injury details, check out Rotoworld’s injury report and player news updates.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Metropolitan Division dominance

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings it is all about the Metropolitan Division which is proving itself to be the best, most competitive, and top-heavy division in the league.

It is so good right now that as of Monday five of the league’s top-11 teams in points percentage (Washington, New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina) all play in it, and four of those teams (Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) are in the top-seven.

All five are also in the top-10 in goal-differential.

The Capitals look like they have a shot to win another Presidents’ Trophy and maybe a Stanley Cup, the Islanders are still locking things down defensively, the Penguins are playing like a legit contender even though they they have been the most injured team in the league, the Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league, and the Hurricanes are quietly surging along with a blossoming superstar on their roster.

Those teams also dominate the top of this week’s Power Rankings.

Where do they — and the rest of the league — currently sit?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. John Carlson is on pace to be the first defenseman since the 1991-92 season to hit the 100-point mark and the Capitals are on pace to win their fourth Presidents’ Trophy since the 2009-10 season.

2. Colorado Avalanche. If they can get Taylor Hall they would be the clear favorite to win the Western Conference, and maybe the Stanley Cup. They might be the favorite for both even if they do not get Taylor Hall.

3. Boston Bruins. Imagine how good they can be when they get Patrice Bergeron back.

4. Philadelphia Flyers. In any given week it feels like they could be a top-five team or a bottom-five team. Right now? Top-five. Losing Travis Konecny for now is going to be tough.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The way they are playing through significant injuries should make the rest of the Eastern Conference worried about what they are capable of when they start getting people back — including Sidney Crosby.

6. New York Islanders. They have come back to earth a little bit since that 17-game point streak came to an end, which is to be expected. Should not be a cause for concern yet.

7. St. Louis Blues. They could still use a little more offense, but the goaltending has been good enough to mask their flaws.

8. Winnipeg Jets. Forget the Vezina Trophy, Connor Hellebuyck is building himself an MVP case right now. Not saying he will win it, but he is building an argument.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei Svechnikov is starting to become a monster, leading the team in goals, points, and averaging more than a point-per-game. He is only 19 years old.

10. Arizona Coyotes. They are off to one of the best starts in franchise history while getting minimal goal-scoring from three of their top players (Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson). If they can get going they might be on to something here, especially with that goaltending duo.

11. Dallas Stars. With this goaltending they can make a lot of noise, assuming the goaltending keeps playing the way it has.

12. Minnesota Wild. A season that looked lost a little more than a month ago is now on the verge of being salvaged. The Wild have earned a point in 14 out of their 17 games (10-3-4) since the start of November and are climbing back up the standings.

13. Edmonton Oilers. There are a lot of cracks in the foundation. Still no depth, and since their 7-1 start they have managed to win just 11 out of 24 games. They are going in the wrong direction.

14. Vancouver Canucks. I don’t think even they expected J.T. Miller to be as impactful as he has been since they acquired him.

15. Calgary Flames. They have started to turn things around the past couple of weeks, and even Milan Lucic is on a two-game goal-scoring streak.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning. Two things have hurt their spot in the standings. The first is they have played a league-low 27 games. The second is they have been wildly inconsistent in the 27 games they have played.

17. Florida Panthers. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are incredible. The goaltending is still incredibly bad.

18. Toronto Maple Leafs. Every team in the Atlantic Division behind Boston is a jumbled mess of mediocrity, and I don’t think the Maple Leafs expected to find themselves in that pile. They have shown signs of going on a run since the coaching change, but it has not all come together yet.

19. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel is having a dominant, breakout season. Hopefully the Sabres can do enough around him so it does not go to waste.

20. New York Rangers. They are hanging in there and have given a lot of teams headaches lately. I don’t know if they are as good as their record, but having a superstar like Artemi Panarin and two outstanding goalies playing the way they are it is going to give a team a chance.

21. Vegas Golden Knights. Something is just off here. This team should be better than it currently is.

22. Nashville Predators. The usually dependable goaltending duo of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros is sinking their season at the moment.

23. San Jose Sharks. Speaking of teams that should be better than they currently are, the Sharks are in a lot of trouble after a miserable road trip through Florida. Teams that get blown out as often as this team does do not typically do very well.

24. Montreal Canadiens. They simply do not have enough depth to overcome the injuries to Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

25. Chicago Blackhawks. Robin Lehner has been a great addition and helped give an otherwise awful defensive team a chance to win. He just can not stop anything in the shootout.

26. Columbus Blue Jackets. We knew the goaltending would be a question mark, but the offense has dropped off even more than it was expected to.

27. Ottawa Senators. After a brief surge in the middle of November the Senators are back to their struggles. The biggest thing to watch here is where Jean-Gabriel Pageau ends up.

28. Anaheim Ducks. They have three wins in their past 15 games. Somehow two of those wins have been against the Blues and Islanders.

29. New Jersey Devils. John Hynes may not have been the right coach for the Devils, but he also wasn’t the biggest problem.

30. Los Angeles Kings. What do you do with Jonathan Quick? Trading him does not seem to be an option given his play. A buyout will be a significant salary cap hit for a long time. He also has shown no sign that his career is on the verge of turning back around.

31. Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings are trending toward “historically bad” territory this season.

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.