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Will Hoffman, Panthers get last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


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

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Golden Knights one win away from Stanley Cup Final

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The Vegas Golden Knights only need one win to reach the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Yes, really.

If that wasn’t enough, the Golden Knights also have three cracks at reaching the championship round if they need it. By holding on for a 3-2 win in Game 4, the Golden Knights continued to defy the odds in taking a 3-1 series lead against the mighty Winnipeg Jets.

(Looks through a thesaurus for more “unlikely” options …)

Game 4 felt a lot like Vegas’ Game 3 win, even as the Jets pushed that much harder to flip the script.

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 4]

Much like in Game 3, the Golden Knights were able to take an early 1-0 lead thanks to their impressive first line. This time around, William Karlsson cashed in on assists from Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to get that opening goal on the power play during an opening period that inspired some officiating complaints and involved a bloodied Mark Scheifele.

The Jets managed to tie things up 1-1 on a power-play goal of their own (somewhat refreshingly by Patrik Laine, who played a great Game 4 overall), yet that relief would not last long, as Tomas Nosek restored Vegas’ lead once again. Just like in Game 3, the Golden Knights would take a slim lead into the third.

For a significant chunk of the third period, it seemed like Marc-Andre Fleury would drag the Golden Knights through another harrowing barrage of shots on goal by Winnipeg. It was difficult to shake that impression through the first half-or-so of the final frame until a Kane-on-Leighton-like goal from Tyler Myers made it 2-2.

That goal and the Jets’ overall pressure made it seem like we’d see overtime and/or a 2-2 tie in this series.

Instead, Reilly Smith finally added another goal to his assists-heavy playoff points total, and it was a big one. Smith capitalized on a bad break for Dustin Byfuglien to score a semi-breakaway goal that caught Connor Hellebuyck by surprise (and caught him off of his angle):

After that 3-2 tally, Fleury gave a wet willy to any Jets’ comeback attempt, continuing what’s shaping up to be a legendary playoff run by stopping 35 out of 37 shots on goal. This is the third straight game where Fleury has been forced to make at least 30 saves, and he’s won all three, allowing just five goals.

Overall, the Golden Knights succeeded in ways that have been paying off for them for much of the playoffs: sometimes-dominant play from their first line, flourishes of blazing speed, and undeniable opportunism.

But, yeah, it’s also mostly about Marc-Andre Fleury.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Mark Scheifele bloodied, penalized (Video)

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Just about any group of hockey/sports fans probably believes that officials are out to get them at some point. Such feelings only intensify during high-profile moments like the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so the Winnipeg Jets are getting their taste during their first deep run.

To be specific, the Jets were left fuming during the first period of Game 4 (watch it on NBCSN now and stream it live here).

Winnipeg probably wasn’t very happy with Tyler Myers getting penalized on a hit on Ryan Carpenter, which drew the game’s first penalty, opening the door for William Karlsson connecting on a great Jonathan Marchessault pass for a 1-0 power-play goal.

Update: After Vegas’ eventual 3-2 win (more here), Tyler Myers expressed his anger about the Carpenter call.

“It was a [expletive], weak call,” Myers said, via TSN’s Frank Seravalli. “They were whistle happy at the start, then they put them away in the third. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, but it’s hard to play when you don’t know [the line].”

While Jets fans accused Carpenter of diving before that PPG, Jets coach Paul Maurice just about blew a gasket when Mark Scheifele received a retaliatory penalty for slashing Brayden McNabb. It’s tough to blame the Jets for getting angry, what with Scheifele being bloodied by the exchange. More than a few people think that the exchange should have at least prompted matching minors.

(Watch Scheifele’s righteous anger in the video above this post’s headline.)

As of this writing midway through the second period, the penalties swung the Jets’ way, either by merit, thanks to the controversy/Jets outrage, or possibly some combination of the two. Patrik Laine cashed in on a power-play opportunity, but the Golden Knights quickly regained their one-goal lead with a 2-1 goal by Tomas Nosek. The Golden Knights continue their remarkable run of quick responses to what would seem to be tide-turning goals for Winnipeg.

Nikolaj Ehlers drew another penalty moments ago, so the plot may only thicken … and maybe Golden Knights fans will take their turn to feel aggrieved?

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.