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The 6 coaches and general managers that will impact NHL playoff race

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams make the postseason.

Here, we focus on six general managers and coaches that could stand out.

For 10 players that could impact the Stanley Cup Playoff races, click here.

1. Ken Holland (General manager), Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are outstanding. They are the best offensive duo in hockey and there probably isn’t anyone even all that close to them. For the second year in a row they are on track to finish among the top-four scorers in the league (literally top-two at the moment) while they carry an overwhelming majority of the Oilers’ offense. But two players on their own can only take an NHL team so far.

They need help, and it’s going to be up to Holland to provide it. He has some big decisions to make over the next few weeks and months, not only when it comes to the tricky situation regarding a new contract for Zack Kassian (this seems like an overpay waiting to happen) but also adding more depth to a team that can not continue to waste two superstars in the prime years of their careers.

2. Stan Bowman (General manager), Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks’ roster moves this past summer were the actions of a team and general manager that still believed it had a window to compete with its veteran core. So far, it’s hard to argue that it’s really worked. For as hot as they have been over the past few weeks they are still only on pace for 87 points this season and are currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Hardly an insurmountable deficit, but probably not as easy as it may seem.

The first problem: The defense is still lousy and a lot of their improvement has simply been from the goaltending performances of Robin Lehner (mostly him) and Corey Crawford. The second problem: Both goalies are UFA’s after this season, and Lehner in particular wants to be paid his fair market value. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is also a UFA.

How does Bowman play this? His offseason makes it look like he’s not ready to punt on the remaining prime years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But the team also still has flaws and has a couple of pending UFA’s that might have some value. Trading Lehner and/or Gustafsson would be putting up the white flag on the season. But is the team as currently constructed good enough to truly add to for a run? The middle-ground between Stanley Cup contender and rebuilding lottery team is a terrible place to be for an NHL team.

3. John Hynes (Head coach), Nashville Predators. This might be a long-shot, but the Predators are not totally out of this yet. Yes, they still have a six-point gap between them and a wild card spot, but they also have multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing, including FIVE on the second wild card team as of Sunday. Games in hand are not wins in hand, but it helps. The two biggest things holding Nashville back this season have been goaltending and special teams. The goaltending might be out of his hands, but special teams are one area where a coach can make a noticeable impact and special teams were the one area his recent Devils teams had the most success. Let’s see what he can do here.

4. Lou Lamoriello (General manager), New York Islanders. Lamoriello hasn’t been very active since taking over as the Islanders’ general manager, with his only noteworthy trade being the acquisition of Matt Martin before the start of the 2018-19 season. The time might be here for him to do something because this team just looks like it could use something different. They are closer to the playoff bubble than you might realize, they are still a bottom-10 team offensively, and they are just 13-12-3 in the 28 games since their 17-game point streak ended. They need another scorer (maybe two?) if they are going to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

5. Peter DeBoer (Head coach), Vegas Golden Knights. Based on what we have seen over the first half of the season the goaltending will probably be the biggest factor in Vegas’ second half, but all eyes are going to be on DeBoer given the circumstances around his hiring. Not only did he change sides in what has quickly become one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries, but he is replacing a coach in Gerard Gallant that had taken an expansion team to the playoffs in each of its first two seasons and was only point out of a playoff spot in year three when he was fired. Gallant helped set a high bar already in Vegas, and now Golden Knights’ management is betting that DeBoer is the person to get them a Stanley Cup.

6. Joe Sakic (General manager), Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is worth a mention here because he has one of the league’s most talented teams, plenty of trade chips to deal from, and more salary cap space to play with than every team but Columbus. He could add pretty much anyone he wants to a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky?; Merzlikins’ hot streak

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy analyze Alex Ovechkin’s hot streak; can he catch Wayne Gretzky on the all-time goals list? They react to Patrick Kane’s 1000th point, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith fighting each other, as well as Elvis Merzlikins leading Columbus’ recent run of success. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, who talks about his favorite memory with the team, and the lessons learned from the 2017 expansion draft.

0:00-1:34 Intros
1:34-10:15 Ovi’s recent hot streak; Caps favorites in East?
10:15-20:36 Kane’s 1,000th point; Blackhawks fighting for playoffs
20:36-38:00 Pierre interviews Craig Leipold
40:05-end Elvis Merzlikins fueling Blue Jackets’ hot streak

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Quenneville returns to Chicago with Florida Panthers

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CHICAGO — In some Chicago circles, certainly every one that includes a hockey rink, it’s just “Q.” Only one letter is necessary for a man so revered there is a Twitter account for his mustache with more than 40,000 followers.

Q returns Tuesday night.

Joel Quenneville leads the Florida Panthers into Chicago to take on the streaking Blackhawks for the first time since his wildly successful run in the Windy City ended some 14 months ago.

The 61-year-old Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup championships and nine playoff appearances in 10-plus years before he was fired when the team got off to a lackluster start last season. He was hired by the Panthers in April, setting up what almost certainly will be an emotional night for the coach and his former players.

“He’s like an icon in Chicago, whether it’s him winning three Stanley Cups, coming in and helping us become better players,” Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. “What he’s done here in his career is amazing, he’ll get a warm reception and it’ll be good to see him. We’ll try to get a win against him and enjoy the time.”

Quenneville coaching against his former team is the big headline, but it’s also a matchup of two surging teams hoping to carry their momentum into an extended break. Kane got his 1,000th career point when Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2 on Sunday night for its season-high fifth consecutive victory. Florida earned its season-best fifth straight win Monday night, topping Minnesota 5-4 on Noel Acciari‘s goal with 5.6 seconds left.

“Going into the break, so it will be an important game for both teams,” Quenneville said. “It will be fun being back there, for sure. Looking forward to it.”

Chicago had made just one playoff appearance in 10 years when Quenneville took over four games into the 2008-09 season, replacing Hall of Famer Denis Savard. Dale Tallon was the general manager for the Blackhawks at the time, and he hired Quenneville again with the Panthers.

The coaching change in Chicago sparked an unprecedented run for one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises.

Quenneville was the right choice at the right time for Chicago’s promising young core, and Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook blossomed with the former NHL defenseman behind the bench. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and they also reached the conference finals in 2009 and 2014.

“Well, all great memories. There’s been special years there,” Quenneville said. “You think of all the people that you got acquainted with; the staff, management, players, training staff, everybody you had some great memories with and some great times. The fans were always special as well. It will be fun to be back in the building.”

Quenneville has Florida in contention for its first postseason berth since 2016. Keith Yandle had a goal and three assists in the victory over the Wild, and Jonathan Huberdeau is heading to the All-Star Game for the first time.

When Quenneville was fired by Chicago, Jeremy Colliton was promoted from the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford to the top job. Colliton has been booed before some home games this season, but he sounds as if he is looking forward to the cheers for Quenneville.

“It’s a chance to honor Joel. It’s a big night for the organization,” Colliton said after the victory over the Jets. “He was great to me, so I want to honor him too. It’s a big part of the reason why I came here to begin with, because he was here.”

The Buzzer: Meet Matiss Kivlenieks; Booming Blackhawks and Blue Jackets

Matiss Kivlenieks Blue Jackets Blackhawks Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand played a big role in the Blue Jackets’ fifth consecutive win. The Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, where Bjorkstrand scored both of Columbus’ goals for a 2-1 win. The first one was unassisted, while Bjorkstrand generated the game-winner with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Blue Jackets sit in the East’s first wild-card spot … for the time being.

Bjorkstrand now has 14 goals, putting him in range of last season’s career-high of 23. He finished Sunday at 25 points in 37 games this season.

2. Matiss Kivlenieks, also Columbus Blue Jackets

Don’t blame hockey fans if they say, “OK, now the Blue Jackets are just inventing European goalies.” At least we can latch onto the funny name and prolonged hot streak of Elvis Merzlikins.

Kivlenieks, 23, made a splash during his NHL debut on Sunday. The Latvia native stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced against the Rangers, nabbing a win. Here are a few facts about Matiss, who might draw a few Henri Matisse references from an extremely select group of hockey fans:

  • Kivlenieks wend undrafted.
  • He didn’t exactly set the AHL on fire so far in 2019-20, going 7-7-2 with a weak .896 save percentage.
  • Kivlenieks didn’t really put up very good stats in the AHL in 2018-19 or 2017-18, either. He fared better during eight ECHL appearances in 2018-19, though, managing a .923 save percentage.
  • The “Joker” mask indicates that there’s a chance he is corny.

Numbers at lower levels guarantee little, but they’re better than nothing. Kivlenieks doesn’t really check that box, but then again, neither did Andrew Hammond. So who knows? Goalies: they’re odd.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks

Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks have won five in a row. To some degree, that boils down to hot play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who reached 1,000 points on Sunday).

Don’t discount Lehner’s role in helping Chicago persist in the playoff bubble, though. Despite a significant drop-off in defensive play around him compared to his Islanders run, Lehner continues to look strong in net. He made 36 saves on Sunday to improve to 15-7-4 with a strong .924 save percentage. That’s really not far off from last season’s outstanding .930 mark, which helped Lehner become a Vezina finalist.

Sunday presented some solid honorable mentions. Sidney Crosby collected two assists during the Penguins’ surprising comeback against the Bruins. (Check out Crosby’s no-look pass.) Lehner’s teammate Alex Nylander collected a goal and an assist, and so on.

Highlights of the Night

Justin Williams did more than just return to the Hurricanes and NHL on Sunday. He also scored the shootout-deciding goal and led a “Storm Surge.” (Read this for more on Williams’ triumphant return.)

Patrick Kane didn’t just reach 1,000 points. He did so in style:

Factoids

  • Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points. Consider this post to be its own factoids section on Kane’s milestone.
  • The Penguins joined the Panthers in generated three comeback wins from down three goals or more, according to NHL PR. (Pittsburgh also pulled that off in 2008-09.) The league notes that only three teams have generated more comeback wins from such deficits, all at four: the Red Wings in 1989-90, and both the 1983-84 Oilers and 1983-84 North Stars.
  • Uh oh. Connor Hellebuyck sports a troubling .897 save percentage over his last 16 games after managing a .933 mark during his first 16, according to TSN’s Statscentre. Hellebuyck grabs my current hypothetical Vezina vote in part because he’s carried such a burden for the Jets. Maybe he’s starting to wear down?

Scores

PIT 4 – BOS 3
CAR 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 2 – NYR 1
CHI 5 – WPG 2

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.

Patrick Kane hits 1,000 points, and Blackhawks are red-hot

People might really start to ask: “Can the Chicago Blackhawks actually make the playoffs?” They won’t have to ask when Patrick Kane will reach 1,000 points.

Kane managed the feat on Sunday. As you can see in the video above, Kane scored point 1,000 on a beautiful secondary assist. He set up Ryan Carpenter, who fed Brandon Saad for that milestone helper. The Blackhawks realized what happened very quickly, mobbing number 88 to celebrate his 1,000th point.

The atmosphere became extra festive as Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2, giving the Blackhawks five wins in a row.

Kane makes history with point 1,000

The Blackhawks winger wiped a tear or three away after realizing his accomplishment. Kane indeed made some history by reaching 1,000 points in 953 career regular-season games:

  • NHL PR notes that Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points, doing so at age 31 (and 61 days). Jeremy Roenick reached that mark at age 32 (and 13 days).
  • Kane scored his 1,000th point as the second-youngest of any Blackhawk, in general, according to Sportsnet stats. Denis Savard ranks as the only one who hit 1,000 at a younger age, doing so at 29 and 35 days.
  • NHL PR tweeted out a few other tidbits. Kane is the 10th player of U.S. nationality to reach 1,000 points, and ranks among only five who did so in fewer than 1,000 games. Again, Kane got there in game 953.

Impressive stuff. Sunday’s assist extended Kane’s current point streak to 10 games (four goals, 11 assists for 15 points). He’s on a similar hot streak to Jonathan Toews, his partner in crime.

Blackhawks heat up

Speaking of hot streaks, the Blackhawks are indeed gaining steam. This marks their fifth win in a row, and things look good when you zoom out. They’ve also won nine times in their last 12 games (9-3-0) and 11 in their last 15 (11-4-0).

This surge didn’t push Chicago into the top eight. Instead, they now have the same 54 standings points as the ninth-place Jets, although Winnipeg holds a game in hand. Both teams trail an assortment of Pacific Division teams for the two wild-card spots at 57 points, and the Dallas Stars for the third Central spot at 58.

Such gaps sometimes appear closer than they really are — have you met our frenemy, the “charity point?” — but it’s still promising.

Staying in fighting distance of a playoff spot also makes Kane reaching 1,000 feel sweeter, without the bitterness of Chicago’s recent struggles.

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.