Keith Yandle

AP/CP Survey: 48 percent of NHLPA reps favor playoff change

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Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.

That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most of those support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.

This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and met in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.

”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”

Savard was among 15 player representatives (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) others said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.

The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are going to a Game 7 in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row with each series going at least six games.

”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”

Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.

Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.

”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”

The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.

The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.

A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.

”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”

That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.

But this format is locked in through at least next season.

Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.

”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?

”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that. It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Nathan MacKinnon might be NHL’s most valuable asset

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There are few players in the NHL that have been more impressive and noticeable through the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs than Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

He looks like he is shot out of a cannon on every shift and is one of the biggest reasons his team has a 3-1 lead on the Calgary Flames and is on the verge of knocking off the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

MacKinnon may not have the highest point total in the playoffs, but his impact has been massive.

The Avalanche have looked like the better team through the first four games, and one of the biggest reasons for that has been their team speed. They just look faster in every game, and at no time is that more evident than when MacKinnon and his line is on the ice.

There is no answer for him or anything he is doing, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the numbers to see it.

Following Wednesday’s come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win, MacKinnon is leading the league in total shot attempts (44), shots on goals (24), and scoring chances (25) and has been a driving force behind the Avalanche offense, just as he has been over the past two regular seasons where he has emerged as one of the truly elite players in the league.

He has been as dominant as it can possibly get at this level.

He is also one of the biggest current steals in the NHL when it comes to his total value under the salary cap, and from a team perspective has become the most valuable asset on any team in the NHL.

You won’t find anyone arguing that he is the best player in the league, but he is certainly on the very short list of players that stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Definitely top-10 at this point, maybe even starting to push the top-five. Just consider that since the start of the 2017-18 season only two players in the league (Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid) have recorded more points than MacKinnon, while only three have scored more goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He scored 41 goals and 99 total points in 82 games this season, and was at 39 goals and 97 points in only 74 games a year ago (that would have been a 43-goal, 107-point pace over 82 games).

That sort of offensive brilliance is incredibly rare, and MacKinnon is showing no signs of slowing down.

There are two things that make this such a steal for the Avalanche.

The first is that MacKinnon is still only 23 years old, meaning that he still might have his best and most productive days in the NHL sitting in front of him as most scorers hit their peak levels of production between the ages of 22 and 26.

The second is that the Avalanche have him under contract at only $6.3 million per season for four more full seasons after this one.

That means he is under contract for all of his peak years at an astonishingly low rate for the team.

That salary cap hit is only the 62nd largest in the NHL, and putting him right between Keith Yandle and Alexander Radulov on the league’s pay scale.

The Avalanche are going to be getting a bonafide superstar, throughout probably all of his prime years in the NHL, for a price that is probably equivalent to a really good, but not great, first-or second-line player. That is a totally bonkers contract, and it gives the Avalanche an enormous advantage when it comes to building their team around him.

Add in the fact that Gabriel Landeskog makes even less over the next two years, and the Avalanche have only $11 million committed to a pair of top-line stars.

That is one of the biggest reasons you have to be extraordinarily excited about the future of this team, no matter what happens in this series or the remainder of the playoffs.

MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen is as good of a trio as there is anywhere else in the league, and they are probably the biggest reason the Avalanche have made the playoffs the past two years.

Now they are on the verge of getting even more around them.

They have a top-four pick in Cale Makar that has made his arrival in the league and, in just two playoff games, already looks like he belongs. They have a pipeline of young players filled with the potential (some in the NHL already; some on their way) and another top-four pick coming this spring thanks to completion of the Matt Duchene trade. Because MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen are so young (and so cheap) they should all still be a part of the team that pipeline starts to make its biggest impact.

And because their two best players are tied to contracts that are probably for about half of what their market value should be, they have a ton of flexibility to not only keep their other young players (Rantanen, specifically) but also add around them. It is a huge advantage.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

The Wraparound: Leafs need to ‘just play harder’ in Game 3

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

As if a series against the Boston Bruins wasn’t difficult enough, the Toronto Maple Leafs will face an additional test now that they’ll likely be without Nazem Kadri in Game 3 of the best-of-seven series. (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

Kadri will have an in-person hearing today for his cross-check to the head of Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk. Anytime the Department of Player Safety offers you an in-person hearing, you’re looking at a longer suspension. So without Kadri at his disposal, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will likely move Patrick Marleau or William Nylander to center.

One of the keys to Toronto’s success is the production they get from their centers. Kadri found a way to accumulate two points in two games in this series, but Auston Matthews is still searching for his first point. The pressure has been on him already, but without Kadri he’ll need to take his game to another level as soon as Game 3.

In Game 1, he was on the ice for 15 shot attempts for and 19 against (CF% of 44.12). In Game 2, the 21-year-old was on the ice 19 shot attempts for and 27 against (41.3 percent). One area in which he improved from Game 1 to 2 was in the scoring chances department. In the first game, his team didn’t have a high-danger scoring chance with him on the ice and they gave up four. On Saturday night, Matthews was on the ice for five high-danger scoring chances for and three against. Improvement (all stats via Natural Stat Trick)

One thing the Leafs have going for them, is that they’re going back home, which means Babcock will have last change. Can he get Matthews easier matchups in the next two games of series?

And this isn’t just on Matthews’ shoulders. The Leafs need a better effort from top to bottom if they’re going to take a lead in this series after Game 3.

“We need to get into them instead of letting them get into us,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “Getting off to that start and establishing your game first and just playing harder.

“I thought they played harder than we did (in Game 2), I thought we played harder than them the (game) before. The series is now a best of five, it’s in our building, we need to establish our game first (in Game 3).”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 3: Capitals at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-0): Hurricanes fans will get their first live taste of playoff hockey in a long time. If their team has any shot of coming back in this series, they’ll have to find a way to get the job done on home ice tonight. Falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series against the defending Stanley Cup Champions is never a good idea, so they have to come out ready to go from the start. (CNBC, Live stream)

Game 3: Predators at Stars, 9:30 p.m. ET (series tied 1-1): The Stars found a way to win Game 1 on the road and they managed to force overtime in Game 2. You’d have to think that they’re fairly confident now that the series is heading back to Dallas tonight. The big question mark in this series is the Predators’ power play. Can they get it going before it’s too late? (NBCSN, Live stream)

Game 3: Flames at Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (series tied 1-1): Even though the Avs failed to find the back of the net in Game 1, they’re still heading home all tied up in this best-of-seven series thanks to an OT goal by Nathan MacKinnon. Colorado isn’t as deep as Calgary, but they have enough high-end talent to make this interesting. (CNBC, Live stream)

NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh, Keith Jones and Keith Yandle, begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Paul Burmeister, Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter will anchor CNBC’s studio coverage throughout the Capitals-Hurricanes and Flames-Avalanche games.

Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle will join NBC Sports’ Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage as a guest studio analyst today, April 15, and Tuesday, April 16. A 13-year NHL veteran, Yandle played parts of nine seasons with the Coyotes organization, including the first seven games of his NHL career during the 2006-07 season, when he skated alongside former Coyote and current NHL on NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick. Yandle was Florida’s representative at the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, and recently completed his third season as a member of the Panthers where he currently serves as an alternate captain.

TUESDAY’S SCHEDULE: 
Game 4: Lightning at Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Game 4: Penguins at Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Jets at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Game 4: Sharks at Golden Knights, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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.

Panthers were wise not to blow things up at trade deadline

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Let’s face it. Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has earned the criticisms he’s absorbed over the years.

The blunders surrounding moves like shedding both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith are well-documented, and the critiques are very much justified.

With the Panthers primed to miss the playoffs for the third straight year (and continue their drought of playoff series wins that stretches back to 1995-96), there was some concern that the Panthers might get antsy and blow things up a bit. Rumors circulated that the Panthers might have had some interest in trading Mike Hoffman, or even more troublingly, Jonathan Huberdeau.

Instead, the Panthers did very little, beyond the seemingly inevitable Derick Brassard trade.

Well, sometimes the best move you can make is no move at all.

Many people were excited about the Panthers’ chances this season after their strong finish to 2017-18, particularly when you consider Florida’s best forwards. Florida could win many best-versus-best battles with a stockpile of Aleksander Barkov, (a healthy) Vincent Trocheck, Evgenii Dadonov, Huberdeau, and Hoffman.

Those forwards (plus some useful defensemen in Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Michael Matheson) couldn’t outchance and outscore Florida’s problems, particularly in net, but what if you added, say, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to an already-impressive mix?

After the trade deadline, Tallon made it clear that the Panthers want to go big in free agency.

“We’ll be very aggressive after the season,” Tallon said on Feb. 25, via the Panthers’ website. “We have lots of room now. We have lots of picks. We’ll turn this into a positive thing. We had some bunt singles, to scratch and claw to improve our organization on a daily basis, and then we’ll eventually hit the home run.”

Affording those sluggers

Indeed, the Panthers moving contracts to clear up space (such as Bjugstad’s $4.1M cap hit) opens up room for Florida to work with. Cap Friendly places their cap spending at a bit more than $61M for 14 players heading into 2019-20, and it’s conceivable that the Panthers could fill roster spots with potentially useful players on entry-level deals, including Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett.

So, there could be quite a bit of room for Panarin and Bobrovsky, but if Florida wanted them both and the combined price tag fell around $20M, it might require some tweaking — even if rookie contracts for Borgstrom and Tippett keep spending down a bit.

The Panthers’ buckets of draft picks might be just as useful for moving problems out, as those picks might actually be for drafting prospects. They’ve really piled them up lately, as Jameson Olive of the Panthers’ site notes:

Looking ahead to the draft, Florida now owns a total of nine picks in 2019 and eight in 2020, including two picks in the first round, two in the second, three in the third and four in the fourth.

Would a package of certain picks convince, say, the Senators to take on James Reimer ($3.4M cap hit through 2020-21) and get to the cap floor? Perhaps Tallon’s old buddies in Chicago would involve picks in a deal for Corey Crawford if a Bobrovsky contract didn’t happen?

There are a number of ways the Panthers can open up space for Panarin in a home-run swing, including the admittedly grim idea of Roberto Luongo‘s quite legitimate injury concerns ultimately landing him on LTIR.

But credit the Panthers with giving themselves a chance at a grand slam, rather than just a solo homer …

Calling their shot

Because, frankly, the Panthers have been through enough rebuilds and quasi-rebuilds at this point. The stage is set for 2019-20 potentially being the old Babe Ruth/Owen Nolan “calling their shot” moment.

With a congested market for forwards at the trade deadline, getting the maximum return for Mike Hoffman didn’t seem realistic. And, honestly? The Panthers wouldn’t be likely to top Hoffman’s considerable sniping skills at his $5.188M cap hit, which expires after 2019-20.

(Huberdeau’s incredibly valuable, too, and his bargain $5.9M is cost-controlled through 2022-23.)

Adding Panarin, or even a consolation prize like Matt Duchene, to an already robust group of forwards could make the Panthers downright scary.

The goaltending situation is trickier, but considering how injury-plagued and generally disappointing this season has been for the Luongo – Reimer tandem, it’s also easy to imagine the Panthers upgrading in that regard.

Going big after Bobrovsky would be awfully risky — although maybe Panarin + Bobrovsky would accept a mild discount as a package deal? Maybe they’d even be willing to go that much lower for the Panthers, who allow for certain tax breaks as a Florida team?

***

There are big stakes here, and the Panthers could really suffer if they swing and whiff.

Instead of this being an off season because of contract distractions or just plain-old goalie struggles, 2018-19 Bobrovsky could be, more or less, the Bobrovsky we might expect going forward.

It’s plausible that Panarin, Duchene, and other, more valuable forwards will decide to re-sign with Columbus after all, or want to join a more established team than Florida.

There are nightmare scenarios where Plans A-Y fall through, and the Panthers waste a ton of money on an ill-advised Plan Z.

Still, for a franchise that’s often felt aimless, the Panarin target seems like something to shoot for. There’s already considerable talent on hand in Florida, and there’s room to work with to really bring things to the next level. It was wiser not to take a few steps backward, even if it remains to be seen if they can land the big leap that awaits.

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.

WATCH LIVE: 2019 NHL All-Star Game on NBC

The 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday night on NBC, with four teams vying to share a $1 million prize.

Coverage gets underway at 8 p.m ET, with puck drop between the Central Division all-stars and the Pacific Division all-stars set for 8:15 p.m. ET. That game will be followed by the Metropolitan Division all-stars battling the Atlantic Division all-stars.

The winners of both games will square off for a deciding third game, with a cool $1 million on the line.

[WATCH LIVE – NHL ALL-STAR GAME 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

Atlantic Division

F Jack Eichel, BUF
F Nikita Kucherov, TBL
F Auston Matthews, TOR
F Jeff Skinner, BUF
F David Pastrnak, BOS
F Steven Stamkos, TBL
F John Tavares, TOR
D Thomas Chabot, OTT
D Keith Yandle, FLA
G Jimmy Howard, DET
G Andrei Vasilevskiy, TBL
Coach: Jon Cooper, TBL

Metropolitan Division

F Sebastian Aho, CAR
F Cam Atkinson, CBJ
F Mathew Barzal, NYI
F Sidney Crosby, PIT
F Claude Giroux, PHI
F Kyle Palmieri, NJD
D John Carlson, WSH
D Seth Jones, CBJ
D Kris Letang, PIT
G Braden Holtby, WSH
G Henrik Lundqvist, NYR
Coach: Todd Reirden, WSH

Central Division

F Patrick Kane, CHI
F Nathan MacKinnon, COL
F Ryan O'Reilly, STL
F Mikko Rantanen, COL
F Mark Scheifele, WPG
F Blake Wheeler, WPG
F Gabriel Landeskog, COL
D Miro Heiskanen, DAL
D Roman Josi, NSH
G Devan Dubnyk, MIN
G Pekka Rinne, NSH
Coach: Paul Maurice, WPG

Pacific Division

F Johnny Gaudreau, CGY
F Clayton Keller, ARI
F Connor McDavid, EDM
F Joe Pavelski, SJS
F Elias Pettersson, VAN
F Leon Draisaitl, EDM
D Brent Burns, SJS
D Drew Doughty, LAK
D Erik Karlsson, SJS
G Marc-Andre Fleury, VGK
G John Gibson, ANA
Coach: Bill Peters, CGY

The NHL All-Star Skills event took place on Friday.

McDavid was one against crowned the winner of the fastest skater, clocking a time of 13.378 seconds for his third consecutive triumph in the event.

Gaudreau retained his title in the puck control contest, finishing with a time of 27.045 seconds to edge out Kane.

Lundqvist is the oldest all-star among this year’s cast, but the “King” would take his throne, recording 12 straight saves in the Save Streak contest.

Draisaitl showed his peers how it was done in the Premier Passer event with a time of 1:09:088.

Carlson took home the hardest shot, blasting a puck 102.8 MPH.

Pastrnak was first up in the Accuracy Shooting event and his time of 11.309 seconds went unmatched.

[RELATED: 2019 NHL All-Star Skills: Winners, funny moments, Gritty]

If you haven’t yet, take some time today to watch P.K. Subban’s excellent All-Star Special that air after Friday’s All-Star Skills. Subban had several guests appear on his show, including 13-year-old Ty Cornett, who reached out to Subban earlier this month after experiencing racism while playing youth hockey.

And if you’re looking for more ASG coverage, don’t forget to read these stories from PHT’s Sean Leahy, who is on the ground in San Jose and has been providing top-notch coverage from the event.

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