John Tavares

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.

Agent says Laine, Rantanen ‘not close’ to new contracts

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The list of RFAs without contracts is getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that every big situation is on the verge of being settled.

Agent Mike Liut represents two of biggest RFAs remaining: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), so it’s significant that he gave a not-so-optimistic update about their negotiations during a Wednesday interview on Sportsnet 650.

Around the 4:00 mark of that interview, Liut admitted that “we’re not close,” while adding that “nothing has gone on that we didn’t anticipate.”

Another key note in the Liut interview comes later on, as he largely shoots down the notion that Laine and/or Rantanen will do much to pursue contracts with European teams that include out clauses. Liut’s explanation was pretty simple: said teams might not want to deal with the potential disruption of Laine or Rantanen briefly being a part of their teams, only to leave (although injuries could change the arithmetic).

Anyway, let’s break things down a bit for both Rantanen and Laine.

Rantanen = Marner?

Liut acknowledged that he views Mitch Marner as the best comparable for Rantanen, pointing out that they both bring great strengths as playmakers, even if they go about doing so in different ways (Rantanen being at around 225 lbs., Marner … not). It’s not shocking that Marner is mentioned for Rantanen, in particular, and it presents an interesting challenge for the Avalanche.

Via Cap Friendly, the Avs currently have about $15.62 million in cap space, so theoretically they could accommodate an AAV in Marner’s $10.893M range. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Colorado would prefer that Rantanen not make $4M more than Nathan MacKinnon, whose ridiculous bargain $6.3M cap hit runs through 2022-23.

Rantanen will turn 23 on Oct. 29. So far in his career, he’s generated 80 goals and 209 points in 239 games (.87 points per game). Marner (turned 22 in May) has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 games, which translates to .93 points per game.

If people are going to downgrade Marner’s big 2018-19 season because of John Tavares‘ influence, then they can make a similar claim about MacKinnon’s benefit to Rantanen. Since Rantanen began his career with nine regular-season games in 2015-16, he’s played 1,632:31 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and just 552:24 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

MacKinnon and Rantanen clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but it’s nonetheless difficult to fully grasp how much Rantanen is worth on his own.

Of course, it’s not the worst problem to have, as Colorado is getting those cheap years with MacKinnon, and we know that the MacKinnon + Rantanen combo is dynamite.

Some unrest with Laine

Speaking of linemates, that talking point flared up regarding Laine and the Jets, as the sniper hasn’t been able to stick with the combo of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler with much consistency. Instead, his most frequent even-strength linemate has been Bryan Little.

His recent Finnish interview with iltalehti.fi created quite a stir in that regard.

To some extent, Laine has a point. He likely would have ended up with more than 30 goals and 50 points in 2018-19 (a significant drop from 2017-18’s 44 goals and 70 points) if he spent the majority of his shifts with Scheifele and/or Wheeler.

Of course, it’s fair for the Jets to wonder if they’d be better off loading up in that way — and not just to spread the offensive wealth.

Frankly, the criticisms of Laine’s two-way play aren’t totally out of line, at least when you’re debating just how much he should be paid. Consider his troubling multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for one quick look at his defensive warts:

According to Cap Friendly, the Jets have about $15.45M in cap space, which sounds promising until you realize that Winnipeg is looking to lock down not just Laine and Kyle Connor. One wonders if Colorado may be OK with Rantanen’s contract negotiations slipping into the regular season (maybe bumping down his cap hit long-term, like the Maple Leafs did with William Nylander), but TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted last week that the Jets would be better off getting one or both of Rantanen and Laine done before the regular season kicks in.

Of course, the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s future adds another wrinkle to the Jets’ already complicated dealings.

***

Each situation is different, and challenging in its own way.

Regardless, this figures to be a lucrative stretch for Liut. Puck Pedia places Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5M AAV as the highest AAV of any active Liut client, so even if the Jets and Avalanche “win” discussions with Laine and Rantanen, it’s likely that Liut will see a new top two once the smoke clears.

What’s a fair price for each player?

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues

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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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

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

Better or worse: The Blues are bringing back mostly the same team that won the Stanley Cup just a few months ago and that is generally a pretty good sign for a team’s chances. Whether or not they are any better or worse depends on your perspective and what your expectations are. There is a very good chance they finish as a better regular season team, but end up doing worse in the playoffs for no other reason than winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task. If they finish with, let’s say, 105 or 106 points but get eliminated in Round 2 or 3 a year after winning the Stanley Cup are Blues fans going to be disappointed with that result? Going to guess they will not be.

Strengths: Their defensive play. They are a lockdown team that is one of the best in the league at limiting shot attempts against and as long as they get competent goaltending are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against. They have two great blue liners in Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, do not really have a true weakness anywhere on their defense, and have one of the best shutdown centers in the league in Ryan O'Reilly. Their other strength: Having one of the league’s elite goal-scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only Alex Ovechkin (236) and John Tavares (183) have more goals than Tarasenko’s 182. Tarasenko has also played in fewer games than both during that stretch.

Weaknesses: It is probably more of a question mark than a “weakness,” but what will Jordan Binnington be able to do over a full season? His call-up was a turning point in the season and he fixed the team’s biggest early season flaw. But can he play at that level from the start of the year and maintain through the playoffs? That is the big unanswered question for the Blues entering the season and it will go a long way toward determining what they are capable of.

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Craig Berube has been behind the team’s bench for less than a year and in that time the Blues went 38-19-6 during the regular season (that is a 106 point pace over 82 games) and then won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. His coaching hot seat rating is a 1 out of 10. It is probably even lower than that.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Robert Thomas, Jaden Schwartz, and Robby Fabbri are three players to watch.

The final numbers for Thomas’ rookie season do not really jump off the page, but keep in mind that he was 19 years old and playing meaningful minutes for a championship team. That is impressive, and even though it did not always result in goals or points you could see the potential he has and why the Blues are so excited about what he is capable of in the NHL. Does he take a big step in year two?

Schwartz had what was probably the worst regular season of his career offensively, scoring just 11 goals in 69 games, a massive drop from what he normally produces. It was almost entirely the result of a 6 percent shooting percentage that was entirely driven by a lot of bad luck. Every other aspect of his performance was right in line with what the Blues expect and it was only a matter of time until he bounced back. He did just that in the playoffs with 12 goals in 26 games, exceeding his regular season total. There is no reason to believe he will not be a 25-30 goal scorer again this season.

Fabbri is going to be fascinating just to see if he can get his career back on track. He is talented and had such a promising start four years ago only to be robbed of three years due to injuries. Can he get some better injury luck and still become the player the Blues hoped he would be?

Playoffs or lottery: As long as Binnington does not have a massive regression there is no reason this is not a playoff team again. They were built to win a year ago and the slow start in the first half was simply the result of not having any goaltending. Once they fixed that, combined with the improvement they saw under Berube, this team was a machine. They are not going away.

More
Blues turn back the clock with alternate jersey
• 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.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

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.

Could Marner signing open floodgates for Laine, other star RFAs?

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As people anxiously awaited the RFA logjam to finally collapse, the belief was that the dominoes might start to fall whenever Mitch Marner signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs — at least if that impasse would clear up before the season.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Maple Leafs signed Marner for a hefty sum just as training camps began (Friday, to be exact), so now we must wonder if Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, and other key RFAs will start following like dominoes.

We’ve already enjoyed a taste of that with RFA defensemen. The Blue Jackets really got things rolling with a bridge for Zach Werenski, while the Flyers locked up Ivan Provorov long-term and the Jets got a proactive extension done with Josh Morrissey.

Of course, every situation is different. The Bruins haven’t inked Charlie McAvoy yet, for instance. With that in mind, let’s enjoy a quick refresher on some of the most important RFA situations that may speed up now that Marner got paid.

[MORE: Maple Leafs sign Mitch Marner to big six-year deal]

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor

Cap Friendly estimates the Jets’ cap room at about $15.45M, and even if Laine and Connor ask for less than Marner’s reported $10.893M, it’s tough to imagine them combining for less than $16M. Perhaps Winnipeg will gain newfound momentum to move a contract, such as Mathieu Perreault ($4.125M AAV for two more seasons)?

TSN’s Frank Seravalli details why the Jets have extra incentive to sort out the Connor and Laine situations before the regular season begins. Winnipeg’s already faced a tough offseason, but this can’t be easy. Maybe Kevin Cheveldayoff could turn lemons to lemonade by convincing both to come in at a reasonable cap hit, though?

Brayden Point

Entering the summer, it seemed like Point joined Mitch Marner as one of the most logical offer sheet targets, being that, like Toronto, Tampa Bay already has a lot of commitments to big-name, big-money players.

Of course, the Lightning also have those Florida tax breaks, that Florida climate, and a heck of a roster (playoff sweep or not), so the rumor is that Point brushed off any offer sheet interest quickly, and may be the latest Bolt to take less money than he’s truly worth.

Still … you wonder if Tampa Bay might want to take this down a notch or five.

Cap Friendly estimates Tampa Bay’s cap room at a bit less than $8.5M.

Mikko Rantanen

Frankly, there are quite a few analyses that put Point and Rantanen in Marner’s neighborhood.

In both Point’s case and that of Rantanen, their respective teams have one argument that the Maple Leafs lacked with Auston Matthews and John Tavares: “Hey, you can’t make more/too much more than Star Teammate X!”

Elliotte Friedman made a point along those lines regarding Rantanen versus Nathan MacKinnon, stating that the Avalanche would rather Rantanen not make $4M more than MacKinnon’s insultingly low $6.3M. The thing is, Colorado has about $15.6M in cap space, so Rantanen could certainly argue for about $4M more than MacKinnon, especially since that would still be less than Marner’s $10.893M.

Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk is a rung or two lower on the ladder than some of these bigger stars (he’s probably there with Connor, but we’ll see come negotiating time), but he still might want more than Calgary’s estimated $7M-ish in space. That could be a decent neighborhood for a compromise, however, as Johnny Gaudreau carries a $6.75M AAV.

Brock Boeser

With the Roberto Luongo weirdness costing them for about $3M and expensive additions like J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers, the Canucks only have about $4.1M in cap space. That could get … awkward, huh?

Travis Konency

Considering the money Chuck Fletcher threw around in making over the Flyers, you’d think Konency would want his piece of the pie. It’s not as high stakes as situations like Laine, but getting good value is crucial in this league. Cap Friendly puts Philly’s cap space at about $6.67M.

There are some other names floating out there, but the above situations are the biggest. Feel free to discuss players like Andrew Mangiapane in the comments.

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.