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Gavin McHale’s unforgettable night as Capitals’ backup goalie

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The calls started to pour in around 5 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

Gavin McHale, a former Western Hockey League goaltender whose NHL dream ended a decade ago, was finishing up practice with the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. The 31-year-old goaltending coach did what most do these days when work is over: he checked his phone.

What was different than other days was a screen littered with roughly 10 missed calls, most of them from Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and another from a random Pennsylvania number.

Both were calling about the same thing.

A few hours earlier, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tweaked something in his upper-body during an informal skate at Bell MTS Place. Holtby was slated to start Wednesday night’s game against the Jets, but whatever happened during that brief morning jaunt on the ice turned an expected start into a game-time decision.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirdan spoke with the media at 4:45 p.m. and not a peep was shared about Holtby. But the situation seemed in flux enough that McHale needed to be summoned.

By 5:15 p.m. CT, McHale had caught wind of the situation and was now in his car weaving through traffic to get to from the south end of the city to the Jets’ downtown arena. With the revelation that Holtby would sit due to injury, McHale was set to be signed to an amateur tryout contract and serve as Pheonix Copley’s backup.

“I don’t think I can say those words but (I’m) trying to tell everyone I know that’s close to me and get to the rink as fast as possible,” McHale said of the thoughts racing through his head.

McHale is one of several emergency puckstoppers in Winnipeg. When it’s his turn to be on-call he’ll get to the game with a guest — on Wednesday it was his mom, Val — and eat the press box meal before nestling into his seat to watch among media members and team staffers high above the ice. When the game ends, he exits along with 15,000 others.

Wednesday wasn’t like all the rest.

McHale wasn’t afforded his complimentary pre-game grub. He didn’t sit down next to his mother, either. She was joined by her husband, Ian, in the press box while their son was a few floors below in the visitors’ dressing room suiting up for the game.

“I think every single person in this room introduced themselves to me so it just made me feel a lot more calm and they just kind of let me do my thing,” McHale said. “They had to get ready for a game so it just made me feel really welcomed.”

By 6:40 p.m. CT, McHale, wearing No. 41 in Capitals away threads, stepped onto the ice for his first NHL warmup.

The only shots McHale would see on Wednesday were the ones whizzing by him during warmup, the first courtesy of Alex Ovechkin.

“I was hoping no one saw that,” McHale said afterward.

They did.

It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-7 netminder. But you can forgive him for giving up a few softies as he spelled Copley pre-game.

“Ah, pretty star-struck,” McHale said. “And then star-struck for the next three or four after that until I kind of settled in and the guys said a couple of things to me.”

Crazy enough, it’s not the first time McHale has had to make haste in an emergency role. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year.

On Feb. 16, McHale had to rush down from the press box during the second intermission of Winnipeg’s game against Colorado. Avalanche starter Jonathan Bernier picked up and injury, meaning backup Semyon Varlamov was summoned onto the ice and McHale had to quickly don his goalie garb for the final 20 minutes.

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[ABOUT LAST NIGHT] … “We’ll come get you if we need you.” – @nhljets assistant GM Craig Heisinger on October 4th, 2017, my first game as the Emergency backup. … I looked over at @kbabb9 and we chuckled, knowing that shit would have to go sideways for that to happen. … Since then, every time I’ve been working a game and a goalie gets knocked or nudged or twists the wrong way, my heart stops. … “Will this be the moment I throw an NHL jersey over my head for real?” … Last night was an odd game, the Jets pulling away from the visiting @coloradoavalanche. I even mentioned something to my guest, @c_hodgyyy in the second period when Avs goalie Jonathan Bernier got hit awkwardly. … As the teams skated out for the third period, I noticed the Avalanche had switched their goalie. Totally normal, especially when you’re down 4-0 after two periods. … But Bernier didn’t come out of the tunnel to take his place as backup… GULP. … I turned to watch Jets PR guy Scott Brown walking directly towards me with a smile on his face. … “You’re needed in the Avalanche dressing room. Let’s go.” … I turned to Colin and all I could mustre was “holy fuck” as I stood up and bee-lined it out of the press box. … I put my gear on as fast as I ever have, knowing that I was now one play away from stepping onto the ice in an NHL game. … My heart raced as I slung my equipment onto my body. Then, I realized my childhood dream of slipping a real life @NHL jersey over my head. … It was number 61 and the name bar had been taped over, but I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even get to keep it, but I can now say that I have dressed for an NHL team, albeit for half a period and I wasn’t even allowed to leave the dressing room. … No contract to sign. No fame (except in my small circle of family and friends) and not even a memento from the team. … But the opportunity to be one play away from PLAYING IN THE NHL? I’ll take any amount of proverbial shit in my pants for that. … #grateful #nhl #avalanche #jets #emergencygoalie #theshow #mchalestrength #tarpsoptional

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A little different, eh?

“It was kind of late in the game so it was a little bit of a different experience than getting the whole pregame experience and all that,” McHale said.

Just after 7 p.m. CT, McHale stood for the anthems at the entrance of the visitors’ tunnel across from Washington’s bench. Sporting a Capitals ball cap, he peered on for the next three periods.

At one point, Copley took a puck off the mask, dislodging it.

“I was thinking, ‘Get that thing on as fast as you can,'” McHale said.

Copley did, and he would go on to stop 21 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Jets.

McHale’s name will forever be on an NHL scoresheet. Playing time or not, he had made it to The Show.

“It’s definitely not something I thought would happen in the last 10 years since the career took a downturn,” McHale said. “But it was a pretty exciting experience.”

On Thursday, McHale returned to his coaching gig with a story to tell. He’ll now have some bragging rights, too, for his beer league buddies who play weekly at Bell MTS Iceplex.

“I think the biggest thing is that every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a person is a really important piece of what hockey players are. This was a pretty successful team last year, so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

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

Red Wings keep sending mixed signals about rebuild

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Every time I start to feel some doubt about questioning if the Detroit Red Wings are truly committed to rebuilding, something silly surfaces.

Wednesday provided the latest head-scratcher, as MLive.com’s Ansar Khan reports that the Red Wings are “committed” to keeping Jimmy Howard, and are likely to hand the 34-year-old goalie a multiyear extension.

Considering the circumstances, such a decision would be downright baffling.

Old goalies, and the same old mistakes?

Again, Howard is 34. Goalies might age better than, say, snipers, but even that might be changing, as the NHL gets speedier every year.

My guess is that Howard would receive a lower AAV than his current $5.29 million cap hit in an extension, yet I’d also wager that he’d be be paid far more handsomely with a proactive extension – with a team that sure seems more smitten with him than virtually any other front office in the league – than what he’d get on the free agent market.

The Red Wings would essentially be negotiating against themselves here.

If such a move came to fruition, it could be a prime example of a team falling too deeply in love with their own players, and Detroit is in this mess, in part, because GM Ken Holland’s had his blinders on when it comes to overpaying supporting cast members like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

Worse yet, the Red Wings already made a fairly bloated investment in an aging, fine-but-unspectacular goalie in signing 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier to a three-year contract at $3M per year.

Khan writes that “the Red Wings see no point in searching for a better alternative in July’s thin free-agent market,” which is confounding for a number of reasons. To start, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun recently noted there could end up being some rather interesting choices. As we’ve seen in cases like Robin Lehner so far providing a .928 save percentage at a $1.5M clip for the Islanders, teams can find serious bargains in reclamation projects (and, again, even Howard could possibly be much cheaper if he endures an average season). If nothing else, Detroit might be able to take a swing at a younger option.

What’s there really to lose if the Red Wings end up losing? Logically speaking, they’d likely benefit from tanking for a bit, so why spend what would likely be serious cash on creaky combination of Bernier and Howard?

Well, the more you wonder, the tougher it is to shake the impression that the Red Wings are either in denial of this truly being a rebuild, or refuse to believe that this process will take very long.

Holland & Co. really need to be objective and ask: what’s the ceiling for this situation?

Perhaps there are too many feelings involved here, which would only strengthen arguments that it might be about time for Holland to step aside as GM. If there’s any truth to rumblings about Steve Yzerman being the heir apparent, why saddle him with more risky contracts for older players?

I mean, unless Holland is actively trolling Stevie Y …

Howard’s value

Howard is a fine goalie, yet he’s far from irreplaceable.

The aging netminder’s save percentage is .917 this season, slightly up from his middle-of-the-pack save percentage of .915. That mark ties Howard for 23rd in the NHL among goalies who’ve played in at least three games this season. Not exactly “we can’t let this guy go” material.

This post isn’t meant to deny that Howard has value. Plenty of NHL teams could use a steady, experienced goalie, even if it’s fair to wonder how frequently Howard can flirt with elite play.

The Red Wings should take advantage of other teams’ goalie worries to net a nice return for Howard. It’s easy to picture the Flames, Kings, and other teams paying a decent ransom for Howard, especially if Detroit offered to take a short-term cap headache back to make the money work and receive even better future assets. Basically, there’s at least some room for Holland to make Howard the next Tomas Tatar: a perfectly suitable but contextually expendable player who could be moved for – hopefully – a strong return.

Even if a trade isn’t possible, let’s not forget that there have been multiple stretches where Red Wings fans and hot stove enthusiasts wondered if there was any way that the Red Wings could get out of what once seemed like an interminable Howard contract.

Now that they’re mere months of being liberated from that problem deal, they want to invest once again? The Red Wings must be snoozing through recent history classes.

***

To be clear, Howard’s an OK goalie. Sometimes he’s excellent; sometimes he struggles. It’s fine if you like him more than the average No. 1 guy. But, really, it would be pretty tough to make an emphatic argument that he truly moves the needle, especially since Howard isn’t getting any younger.

Keeping Howard around seems like the safe move. He’s familiar. The Red Wings don’t love the idea of bottoming out.

If they’re being honest, the Red Wings would admit that the risks far outweigh the rewards here. They also need to look in the mirror and realize that a rebuild is very much happening, and it will only drag on longer if they don’t embrace reality.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Red Wings need Larkin to step up in new era

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DETROIT (AP) — Dylan Larkin has suddenly become a veteran at the age of 22 for the Detroit Red Wings.

”It could be the first time I’m not the youngest guy on the team,” Larkin said. ”That’s why I’m growing out this beard.”

The rebuilding Red Wings are desperately hoping the talented, two-way center can quickly become a leader on and off the ice. They suffered a setback before the season even started when captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s back injury ended his career.

”It’s a massive loss,” general manager Ken Holland acknowledged. ”No one person is going to be able to replace one of the greatest Red Wings of all time.”

Larkin is likely the one player who can come closest to filling the void this season. He signed a $30.5 million, five-year deal last summer after leading the team with career highs in assists (47) and points (63) in his third season.

Detroit did not make the playoffs last year for the second straight year after earning a spot in the postseason 25 straight times. A lot will have to go right for the Red Wings to avoid missing out on the playoffs again, a three-year drought that would be their longest since 1979-83.

Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman led the franchise’s resurgence after being named captain in 1986 at the age of 21 until his retirement in 2006. Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom then wore the ‘C’ for the next several seasons before ending his career and starting Zetterberg’s run as captain.

”(Larkin) has a drive like those guys no doubt about it,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said as he prepared for his 15th season with the Red Wings. ”He stays on the ice late. Sometimes he’s on the ice before skates. And sometimes, he skates with Little Caesars (youth) teams because he just loves being on the ice.”

While Larkin seems like a likely candidate to become the next captain, he may have to wait.

”My guess is we would be we’d go with three alternates this year,” Kronwall said. ”Then over the next year or two, things will naturally have their way and the next guy will be the Red Wings’ captain for a long time. Larkin is a natural leader and hopefully he’ll take more steps to grow even more into that role and I would not be surprised if that happened down the road.”

UP FRONT

Detroit is retooling around a trio of promising, young forwards: Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou. All three signed multiyear contract last summer. Filip Zadina may not make an impact in the NHL right away, but teammates say the Czech winger taken No. 6 overall this year won’t take long.

”You can tell how he handles the puck and skates that he’s going to be something special,” Kronwall said.

THE D IN THE D

Defense appears to be the weakest part of the team. The back end is led by the 37-year-old Kronwall and Trevor Daley. Mike Green is expected to miss the season-opening game and it out indefinitely with a virus. Green signed a two-year contract worth $10-plus million after he had a season-ending surgery on his spine last spring.

IN NET

Detroit appears to have a solid tandem in goal: Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. Howard, who made his Red Wings debut nearly 13 years ago, was 22-27-9 last season with a 2.85 goals-against average. He may not have to play 60 games again because Bernier has 10 years of experience and played in at least 37 games the previous three years for three teams: Colorado, Anaheim and Toronto.

”We think we have a solid 1-2 punch in net,” Holland said. ”That should help us stay in games and be competitive.”

COACHING CONTINUITY

Coach Jeff Blashill enters the final year of his contract with a 104-105-37 record over three years.

”The team played hard for him and we lost 27 games by a goal,” Holland said. ”There’s no doubt he’s a better coach than he was a year or two ago because of the experience.”

CAPTAIN COMEBACK?

Yzerman stepped down as Tampa Bay Lightning general manager earlier this month to become a senior advise and speculation swirled that the move paved the way for the former Detroit star known as ”The Captain,” to return to run the Red Wings. Holland has two years left on his contract.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT’s 2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Metropolitan Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

BOSTON BRUINS:

Better or Worse: The Bruins didn’t make a major splash during the offseason, but they’re better simply because a lot of their young players are one year older. Guys like David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato are all capable of improving their overall game. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league when you consider Boston already has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.

Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.

2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.

MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.

BUFFALO SABRES:

Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.

Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.

Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.

2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.

MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56  to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.

Strengths: As we mentioned above, there are some good young forwards on this team. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are right at the top of that list. Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov are also coming through the pipeline.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.

2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.

MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.

FLORIDA PANTHERS:

Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.

Strengths: Have you seen Florida’s top two lines? They’ll likely open the season with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on their top line, and Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on their second line. Those are two lines that are capable of creating offense on a nightly basis. The Panthers will be tough to stop.

Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.

2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS:

Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

Strengths: Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.

Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.

2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.

MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.

OTTAWA SENATORS:

Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.

Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.

Weaknesses: Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.

2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.

MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:

Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.

Strengths: The overall depth of this team is scary. They’re loaded on the defense with McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. They also have Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson down the middle. And, of course, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde on the wings.

Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.

MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 

Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).

Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.

2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.

MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.

Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.

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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.

What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era?

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This was always going to be a tough season for the Detroit Red Wings. After stagnating for a few years with an aging and shockingly expensive roster, the front office finally started to commit somewhat to a rebuild and has spent the better part of the past year stockpiling draft picks and keeping an eye on the future.

Even with the offseason addition of Jonathan Bernier, the return of Thomas Vanek, and the re-signing of Mike Green there really wasn’t much reason to believe things were going to be much better than they were the past two years when the Red Wings missed the playoffs and failed to top the 80-point mark each season.

There is even less reason to believe that now following Friday’s news that the playing career of Henrik Zetterberg is now finished due to a back injury.

[Related: Henrik Zetterberg’s NHL career over due to back injury]

Celebrating his 38th birthday in less than a month, Zetterberg was obviously a fraction of the player he was during his peak years when he was one of the best two-way players in the league and a Conn Smythe winner. So this isn’t likely to significantly alter the Red Wings’ chances for the upcoming season, especially given where everyone expected them to be even with Zetterberg.

Still, he was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago (and leading scorer the year before) and was still a very productive player.

But even more than all of that it represents the true end of an era in Detroit.

Following the departures of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov in the early 2000s, ending that mini-dynasty era that produced three Stanley Cups, the Red Wings had a seamless transition into the next chapter of the franchise. There was no lengthy rebuild. There was no need to tear things down and start over. There were no down years. They were able to keep the machine rolling because they had two in-house superstars already developed in Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk that were ready to take over the top spots on the team. For the better part of the next decade they — along with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom — were the foundation and faces of a Red Wings team that remained one of the league’s elite, went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning one of them.

With Lidstrom’s retirement following the 2011-12 season, Datsyuk returning to Russia after the 2015-16 season, and now Zetterberg’s career coming to an end that chapter of the Red Wings’ history book is officially closed.

Niklas Kronwall still remains, but for as good as he was, those teams still belonged to the trio of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom. They were at their absolute best during the 2007-08 season when the Red Wings rolled through the rest of the NHL on their way to a championship that saw them completely outclass a Penguins team in the Final that had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa on it.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk were at the center of all of it. During the regular season the Zetterberg-Datsyuk duo spent more than 600 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and outscored teams by a 45-19 margin while controlling 65 percent of the shot attempts. They were untouchable. Shockingly, they were even better in the playoffs when the goal-differential was 14-3 and the shot share was over 66 percent.

And now, it is all entirely gone. So where do the Red Wings go from here?

Unlike the end of the previous Red Wings’ championship era, this transition is not going to be as smooth because there is not another Datsyuk or Zetterberg ready to take over.

While there are some intriguing young players that could be a part of the next contending Red Wings’ team (Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha specifically), their next great hope for a franchise-changing player is 2018 first-round pick Filip Zadina, a super talent and one of the best pure goal-scoring prospects in his draft class. For the time being, it looks like a gift that he was able to fall to them at the No. 6 spot and if all goes according to plan he could be the organization’s next building block. But it will take some time, and he will need some help. There is also the possibility that this Red Wings roster without Zetterberg, and with an aging, declining defense that doesn’t really have an impact player, could finish near the bottom of the league (perhaps even lower than last season’s 27th place finish) and play its way into the Jach Hughes derby.

There are also the salary cap ramifications of Zetterberg’s playing career coming to an end.

Currently, the Red Wings’ salary cap situation is a mess as they prepare to enter the 2018-19 season with one of the highest cap numbers in the league with almost no wiggle room at the top. For a team that’s won as little as the Red Wings have the past two seasons that is a staggering figure. But that, too, is going to start changing after this season. Zetterberg can be LTIR’d (at least until the inevitable contract dumping trade to Arizona or Ottawa or some other team looking to take on a big cap number) and they have another $18 million set to come off the books after this season when Kronwall, Vanek, Gustav Nyquist, and Jimmy Howard all head to unrestricted free agency.

There is not only no real reason for the Red Wings in their current state to re-sign them, there is probably no reason for any of them to remain on this roster past the 2019 trade deadline.

It probably took the Red Wings’ a few years too long to fully commit to a rebuild, and as long as players like Zetterberg were on the roster it was probably difficult to make that call because they obviously still wanted to try to complete as long as they had one of the organization’s legends still on the roster. Now that he is not, it is officially full steam ahead on the next phase.

The final big elephant in the room is who ends up making all of the calls on that next phase.

For now, it remains Ken Holland. But with Yzerman stepping down from the general manager’s role in Tampa Bay, and with Holland’s job performance coming under legitimate question in recent years, it is going to create obvious speculation for Yzerman’s eventual return to Detroit.

Yzerman already played a significant role in forever changing the fortunes of the Red Wings as a player when he arrived in the early 1980s when the team was at the bottom of the league.

It would only be fitting if he got a chance to do it one more time in the front office.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and CapFriendly]

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.