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PHT Morning Skate: Diving into problems for Devils, Canadiens

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• William Douglas profiles the hockey journey of Joonas Oden in the latest edition of Douglas’ “Color of Hockey” series. Could Oden’s journey include playing with the Seattle expansion franchise? (NHL.com)

Connor McDavid recently turned 23, so Frank Seravalli put him in elite company. (TSN)

• NJ.com’s Steve Politi argues that Devils co-owner Josh Harris needs to “look in the mirror” when pondering the team’s problems. (NJ.com)

• Speaking of the Devils, there’s early evidence that they’ve improved during third periods after replacing John Hynes with Alain Nasreddine. (All About The Jersey)

• Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe takes Erik Karlsson and other players to “contract court.” (The Athletic [sub required])

• Blackhawks fans should relax about the team’s negotiations with Robin Lehner. My take: he’s been fantastic, again … but what kind of package would a contender send to Chicago to land such a talented goalie? If Chicago isn’t asking that type of question, even if they prefer an extension, then I would be worried. (The Rink)

• On the subject of pending free agent goalies, Jimmy Howard‘s really struggling. With Jonathan Bernier injured, the Red Wings might lean on him even more. Doesn’t seem like an ideal situation, folks. Maybe they should put him in situations to succeed so (wait for it) they can trade him to a contender? Just saying, part II. (Detroit Free-Press)

• More goalie talk: Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin continue to dominate for the Stars. Can they keep it up? My feeling parallels that of the Islanders: if not, they should at least be commended for doing it for 1.5 seasons. Pretty tough to maintain such dominance in an unforgiving NHL. (Dallas Morning News)

• Brodie Brazil dares to wonder if the Sharks might be turning it around. (Goaltending ranks among his three reasons.) I dare to wonder if it’s already too late. (NBC Sports California)

• Andrew Berkshire breaks down what broke down for the Canadiens in 2019-20. (Sportsnet)

• The Blues Jackets keep defying those who assume they’re down for the count. (Jackets Cannon)

• Capitals fans vote on the team’s best jersey design. Allow an opinion: the general rule is: less bird, the better. (Nova Caps)

• More jersey design banter: Hockey By Design ranks the Maple Leafs sweaters from worst to first. (Hockey By Design)

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.

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

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.

 

Preds GM makes rare mid-season coaching change hiring Hynes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nashville’s David Poile did something he has rarely done in nearly 40 years as a general manager: He made a mid-season coaching change after being fed up with the Predators underachieving.

Poile hired former New Jersey Devils coach John Hynes as the third coach in franchise history Tuesday, less than 24 hours after firing Peter Laviolette. The Predators announced the hiring Tuesday before a morning skate in preparation for their home game against Boston, after which Nashville embarks on a three-game road trip.

Poile said the Predators are much better than they have performed this season with some players way playing below their potential or the team’s expectations.

“For me personally, this has been the hardest year that I’ve ever had because we have been totally unable to meet expectations for ourselves on the ice …,” Poile said. “There’s been a lot of criticism of our play. There has been a lot of inconsistencies with our play. So many games that we’ve played this year I felt we were going to win the game, and for whatever happened that win and that point was taken away from us.”

Poile fired Laviolette and associate coach Kevin McCarthy on Monday after the Predators (19-15-7) had dropped four of five games. They are 11th in the Western Conference standings with 45 points.

This marked the sixth NHL coaching change of the season.

Hynes, 44, was 150-149-5 as head coach with the New Jersey Devils, who fired him Dec. 3 despite signing him to a multiyear extension last January. He was let go after a 9-13-4 start that left New Jersey in last place in the Metropolitan Division and with the NHL’s second-worst record.

Poile was not deterred by Hynes’ recent struggles, saying the coach is a great leader.

“He has a great track record of both effectively developing younger players and successfully motivating veteran players,” Poile said. “We’re confident that he’s the guy to cultivate a winning culture in our locker room.”

New Jersey hired Hynes before the 2014-15 season, and he led the Devils to six more points than in their previous season. He guided the Devils to the 2018 playoffs for the first time since 2012 in a season when Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy for scoring a career-best 93 points in 76 games. Hynes also helped develop Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.

Hynes has spent time in the AHL as head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for five seasons after being an assistant coach. He also spent nine seasons on the staff of the USA Hockey National Team Development program, including as head coach from 2003-09 working with players like Patrick Kane, Jimmy Howard, Phil Kessel, Jimmy Hayes and Jason Zucker.

“The Nashville job is special,” Hynes said. “I’m very excited to be able to work with this team. It’s very talented, it’s well built. There’s a lot of different dimensions, and it comes from an extremely successful tradition.”

The native of Warwick, Rhode Island, coached the Americans to gold at the 2004 World Junior Championship, their first medal there since 1997.

Poile also announced that long-time NHL defenseman Rob Scuderi will be an interim assistant coach, transitioning from his role in the Predators hockey operations department.

Laviolette went 248-143-60 in 5 1/2 seasons with Nashville, reaching the playoffs each of his first five seasons. The Predators lost to Pittsburgh in six games in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. They won the Presidents’ Trophy and made it to the second round of the playoffs in 2018. They were eliminated in the first round a year ago.

Captain Roman Josi said it’s always sad to see men like Laviolette and McCarthy go what they did to help Nashville reach new heights in the past couple seasons.

“Now it’s a wake-up call for us players,” Josi said.

Poile traded defenseman P.K. Subban, Nashville’s highest-paid player, and signed free-agent forward Matt Duchene to a $56 million, seven-year contract on July 1. But the Predators sputtered through the first half of this season. They hadn’t won more than two straight games since a four-game streak in late October.

“I know we all feel bad in here that we didn’t do what we needed to do to be where we should be at, but no time to have our heads down,” Duchene said. “We’ve got a big game against a really hot team (Tuesday night). We’re not too far out, lots of games in hand, so we’ve got to make it count right now. Half a season left.”

Blackhawks old and new lead rally to beat Red Wings

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January might seem a little early for “must-win” games, but the Chicago Blackhawks cannot afford to fall to lesser opponents. The Detroit Red Wings managed a 2-0 lead on Sunday, yet Chicago rallied to win 4-2.

Kane delivers as usual for the Blackhawks

Hyping up Red Wings – Blackhawks as a battle of two teams trying to build for the future makes sense.

Sure, Patrick Kane leads the way for Chicago. Kane remains far-and-away the driving force of the Blackhawks’ offense, generating his 54th point of the season when he assisted on the first goal of Dylan Sikura‘s NHL career:

But as dominant as Kane is in the present, youngsters drove both sides’ successes.

Red Wings, Blackhawks can look on bright spots for future

First, Filip Zadina scored the 1-0 power-play goal. The sixth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft — who many picked to go fourth or even third instead — stumbled a bit during his development, including dealing with injuries. Shots like that goal remind that he has plenty of time to succeed, and Zadina is delivering reasonably overall, generating 10 points in 18 games so far this season.

Fresh faces paced the Blackhawks’ comeback, too.

Two Dylans scored in just 45 seconds during the second period. Dylan Strome (third in 2015) continues to be a nice point-producer for Chicago, collecting the 2-1 tally. Then, it was that Dylan Sikura goal. Promising defenseman Adam Boqvist (eighth in 2018) ended up producing the game-winner, his second goal of 2019-20.

The sexier Dominik Kubalik goal could have happened after Duncan Keith sprung him for a breakaway, but Jimmy Howard narrowly avoided that with a save. Kubalik instead scored an empty-netter, giving him 12 on the season, second among all rookies.

Sports fans love to imagine potential magically turning into production, but that doesn’t always work out. Sikura, for example, took 44 games to score his first NHL goal.

Still, if a few of the Kubaliks, Stromes, and Zadinas work out, both franchises might be able to wiggle out of these post-dynasty stupors.

The Blackhawks made sure that there’s at least a slight chance that they might end their playoff drought in 2019-20 by not losing to a Red Wings team that, scrappy or not, can’t seem to protect a lead. Sunday represents what they hope is the start of a strong homestand, and playoff push.

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 on NBCSN: Time for Predators to make their move

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This season has not gone as planned for the Nashville Predators.

They enter Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, and in the middle an ugly stretch that has seen them lose three out of their previous four games.

It is all very unfamiliar territory for the Predators. After being one of the league’s best teams over the previous five years but always falling just short of climbing to the top of the NHL mountain, they tried to shake things up this season. They dealt from their depth on defense by jettisoning P.K. Subban‘s contract to create salary cap space to add another impact player at forward. Matt Duchene ended up being that player.

On paper, the roster looks like a contender. They still have a deep defense even without Subban thanks to the presence of Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. And while they may not have a superstar forward, but they are very deep and have seen their offense dramatically improve from where it was a year ago. They are sixth in the league in goals per game, and even though the power play is still not very good, it is not as historically inept as it was a year ago.

The two big issues that have held them back are a lack of a consistency, a struggling penalty kill, and a shocking decline in their goaltending.

The latter issue is no doubt a big driving factor in the first two.

Entering play on Sunday the duo of Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saraos has the second-worst all-situations save percentage in the NHL, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings’ duo of Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. In no situation are they worse than on the PK where they have stopped just 79 percent of the shots they have faced, a mark that is by far the worst in the NHL and well below the league average.

Goaltending is always going to be the one position that makes-or-breaks team’s season, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that if Rinne and Saros had spent the first half playing up to their normal levels that the Predators would be in a dramatically different in the standings. That’s also something that should give Predators fans optimism that this season isn’t yet lost. Even though they find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at the halfway point and a few points back, they still have games in hand and have a lot of key ingredients in place to win. This is a team that is probably significantly better than its record indicates. If their goaltending can ever get itself back in track in the second half this is a team that may not go away quietly given the improved offense.

Now would be a pretty good time for that to start happening.

A four-point deficit in the playoff race may not seem like a huge gap to make up, but only about 20 percent of the teams facing such a deficit at this point in the season actually end up overcoming it. Points are hard to make up in the standings, and games in hand don’t necessarily equate to “wins” in hand. So it’s time for the Predators to try and build on Saturday’s big win in Los Angeles and try to stack some wins together to begin making up that ground, and the schedule certainly creates quite an opportunity for that.

Starting with Sunday’s game in Anaheim, seven of the Predators’ next 10 games for the rest of January are against teams that currently reside in the bottom half of the league standings.

If they are going to get back in the playoff picture and gives themselves a chance to make some noise, that process has to start now.

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.