Mikhail Sergachev

Getty Images

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

4 Comments

Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Trade: Sabres nab Jokiharju; Blackhawks receive Alex Nylander

Getty Images
12 Comments

For the last few weeks, a thought has percolated: “Boy, the Buffalo Sabres are … kind of killing it, aren’t they?”

Sure, they might have paid too much for Jeff Skinner, but they kind of had to. After that, they landed Colin Miller for pennies on the dollar, took a flier on Jimmy Vesey, and signed Marcus Johansson to a very team-friendly contract. People also seemed pretty happy with their draft haul. It was tempting to write something praising this offseason for a nice bit of work, but there needed that one extra move to go from “scratching your chin in approval” to outright excitement.

Tuesday’s trade with the Chicago Blackhawks might just provide that extra push, as the Sabres added young defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for troubled (but still interesting, maybe?) prospect Alex Nylander. According to the Sabres, that’s the extent of the trade. There are no picks or prospects to warp things, so this is as simple as it gets: Buffalo’s betting on the young defenseman, while Chicago’s betting that they can pull a Dylan Strome with Nylander by getting more out of the struggling winger than Buffalo ever enjoyed.

Sabres receive: Henri Jokiharju

Blackhawks receive: Alex Nylander

To reiterate, the two young skaters have similar contract situations, too, so this is basically a pure one-for-one trade.

No joke

Considering the fact that Jokiharju was a 19-year-old rookie thrust into a prominent role on a Blackhawks defense that needed any help it could find, he fared surprisingly well. That argument is neatly made when you consider his stats relative to his more-experienced, but in many cases, more limited Blackhawks teammates:

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and others indicate, it seems like Chicago soured on the now 20-year-old, for whatever reason(s). PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed to Jokiharju as a reason to be optimistic about the Blackhawks just earlier today, and now he’s gone.

Jokiharju finished with zero goals and 12 assists in 38 NHL games last season, averaging a robust-for-a-rookie 18:59 average TOI. Along with Colin Miller, he gives the Sabres another promising right-handed defenseman, and that overall defense corps is looking better and better, what with emergence of wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, along with the solid addition of Brandon Montour. Jokiharju also gives the Sabres yet another nudge toward moving on from Rasmus Ristolainen, a polarizing blueliner who may be better off traded.

But, either way, there’s a lot of promise in Jokiharju, though apparently Chicago doesn’t see it that way.

Another reclamation project for Chicago?

Jokiharju is no slouch as a prospect, as the Blackhawks selected him in the first round (29th overall in 2017) and saw the Finnish defenseman make a remarkably swift jump to the NHL.

Make no mistake about it, though, Alex Nylander carries higher expectations. The Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in 2016, ahead of the likes of Mikhail Sergachev (ninth), Charlie McAvoy (14th), and Alex DeBrincat (soothe your wounds a bit if you’re a Blackhawks fan, he was an instant steal at 39th).

Nylander, uh, hasn’t lived up to that billing, yet the Blackhawks might see this as a sequel to The Thrilling Redemption of Dylan Strome.

That’s certainly possible, but I have some worries that it will work out that way. Much like with Strome in Arizona, it just seemed like Nylander was running out of chances to stick with the Sabres, but the difference in their AHL play provides some cause for concern. Strome generated 50-plus points in his last two AHL seasons, despite shuttling back and forth to the NHL a bit. Nylander’s AHL numbers are more modest: 31 points in 49 games this past season; just 27 points in 51 AHL games in 2017-18.

It’s more comforting to see your should-be-star at least dominating a lower level of competition as they’re struggling to acclimate to the NHL. Strome showed plenty of signs of that during his tumultuous times with the Coyotes; Jesse Pulujarvi’s limited runs with the AHL tend to result in nice production.

The Blackhawks might have more modest expectations for Nylander, yet you wonder if they’ve significantly undersold on Jokiharju’s value. It’s tough enough to find promising defensemen, let alone ones who are just 20 and are right-handed shots.

This point should be clear: considering how explosive Chicago’s offense can be, if Nylander can’t excel there, then you might just have to fasten the “bust” label to him.

***

Yes, the Blackhawks likely view their defense as improved, and they were hoping to add some supporting scoring. They’ve also had some luck with reclamation projects, particularly (somewhat) similar story in Strome.

As of July 2019, this sure feels like a pretty big win for a Sabres team that badly wants to improve its defensive personnel. If Nylander is the bust many feared, Buffalo managed to avoid squandering his name value. Instead, they landed an intriguing prospect who’s already shown some promise at the NHL level.

If you had to choose a side, and had to project based on what you know right now, who won this trade? Consider my vote strongly in the Sabres’ camp.

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.

Lightning limp into Game 4 without Hedman, Stralman

12 Comments

The Tampa Bay Lightning are facing a potential sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), and they’re going to have to find a way to win without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

Head coach Jon Cooper announced that Hedman and Stralman are out, while Alex Killorn is a game-time decision. Of course, the biggest lineup note is that Nikita Kucherov is back in the mix after sitting out Game 3 thanks to his one-game suspension, but these are big absences on the defensive side.

Via The Athletic’s Joe Smith, the Lightning will continue to roll with:

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a detailed, fantastic piece for The Athletic (sub required), Alison Lukan detailed how the Blue Jackets’ forecheck (by way of a 1-2-2 setup) has been giving the Lightning fits so far in this Round 1 series.

“(We are) trying to find ways to limit their opportunities through their speed and their skill,” Brandon Dubinsky said. “That’s making sure we play disciplined and stay above the puck. When you go, it’s about not getting beat up the ice, and if (a Lightning player) moves the puck and your partner goes, you have to make sure you get back and get ahead of that guy and reload for him.”

Earlier in Round 1, much was made about Hedman being on the ice for some glaring Blue Jackets goals, particularly a David Savard goal that was key in Columbus’ Game 1 comeback. It was tough to shake the impression that injury issues limited Hedman’s mobility, and the big Swede missing big games only strengthens that possibility.

Yet, as much as Hedman’s missed on the defensive side, his absence really hurts the Lightning’s ability to break Columbus’ system with crisp, clean passes (and also the ability to skate the puck up the ice, when that makes sense).

The Hedman loss stings, as you’d frankly expect when a team is missing a Norris-level defenseman. It also might push someone useful like Sergachev a little out of their (or Cooper’s) comfort zone.

On the bright side, Lukan points out that Kucherov isn’t just a great weapon for Tampa Bay in the offensive zone, but is also one of the Lightning’s best players when it comes to the transition game.

Heading into Game 4, the Lightning played into typical cliches by talking about taking things “one period at a time,” and there might be some wisdom within the well-worn words. More than anything else, the Lightning could really benefit from starting Tuesday’s contest with a lead, preferably an early one. If Columbus is chasing a score, the Blue Jackets might be a little bit more willing to “cheat” or get too aggressive, potentially opening up lanes and other opportunities for the Lightning to really get rolling.

Still, between the Blue Jackets’ commitment to clogging things up, officials generally putting away their whistles when it comes to obstruction, and Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bank-account-fattening brilliance, Columbus is unlikely to make this easy on the Lightning. Not having Hedman, Stralman, and possibly Killorn only makes the mountain taller.

The Lightning hope to avoid being swept by Columbus Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC (Live stream)

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.

Shocker: Blue Jackets blow out Lightning 5-1 to take 2-0 series lead

Getty Images
12 Comments

The Columbus Blue Jackets needed to pull off a stunning comeback to capture Game 1. Going up 2-0 in the series against Tampa Bay was a far cleaner affair as the Blue Jackets cruised to a 5-1 victory Friday night.

After winning a record-tying 62 games in the regular season, Tampa Bay came into this game with something to prove, but the Lightning didn’t play like a team that just got a rude wake-up call. Instead, Columbus carried its momentum from Game 1.

Cam Atkinson managed to squeak one through Andrei Vasilevskiy just 5:05 minutes into the game. Rather than answer back, Ondrej Palat took a hooking call at 11:40 of the first that led to Zach Werenski almost immediately scoring on a rocket.

Trying to spark his team, Lightning forward Brayden Point fought with Werenski. It certainly wasn’t a likely matchup, but it didn’t end up being a turning point in the game.

Matt Duchene scored his first career playoff goal early in the second period to put the Blue Jackets up 3-0. Werenski got an assist on that marker to earn the Gordie Howe hat trick. Mikhail Sergachev gave Tampa Bay a sign of life 5:00 into the third when he made it 3-1 and soon after that, Nick Foligno took a tripping penalty to give the Lightning the man advantage.

Tampa Bay had the best power play in the league during the regular season, but the Blue Jackets managed an impressive kill to drain whatever momentum the Lightning had built. From there it was just adding insult to injury as Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin each scored to turn what was already looking like a decisive win into a blowout.

The Blue Jackets spent the final 4:26 minutes on the power play because of Nikita Kucherov‘s boarding major. We’ll have to see if the league feels that one warrants further discipline.

“This is a five-alarm fire. We are facing adversity. Sometimes that’s good to face adversity,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game, per Pierre LeBrun.

What you’ll be hearing a lot about now is the fact that Columbus also started its Round 1 series against the Capitals with back-to-back wins in Washington last year. Of course, the Capitals won the next four games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. For Lightning fans, that’s a reason to remain hopeful. For the Blue Jackets, it’s a reminder that nothing has been decided yet.

Lightning-Blue Jackets Game 3 from Nationwide Arena will be Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

9 Comments

Sometimes you can’t help but think that we’re all just writing off the Columbus Blue Jackets without one puck being dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But then you give your head a smack, recompose yourself and realize that (insert deity here) might struggle against the behemoth that the Tampa Lightning have become.

Tampa is simply that good, and the reason why the secondary race (other than making the playoffs) was to finish in the first wildcard and avoid the unstoppable force in the first round. Sure, there might be that immovable object later down the line for Tampa, but Columbus certainly isn’t it. And that’s a bit of a shame given everything Jarmo Kekalainen did to improve his team (despite giving up nearly a full draft and a couple of nice farm pieces).

You see, John Tortorella can exclaim it from the top of Mount Everest that his team is up for the challenge. One, he has to. Two, well, he has to. But even then it’s a stretch.

There are levels to this, and Tampa is one that’s two or three floors above Columbus.

I mean, we’re talking about the far-and-away best offense in the NHL this year. We’re talking about a team with top point producer, a team with three guys with 40-plus goals, and a goalie that eats shooters for breakfast and snacks on the league’s best snipers.

Columbus needed to mortgage their future and take on massive risk by not trading pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline.

Tampa didn’t set an alarm that day.

Oh, and Tampa won 62 games, tying for the most ever in an NHL season. They never lost more than two in a row all season, and that only happened twice itself. There might not be a taller order in sports at the moment than the one that lies before Columbus.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | USA, SN360, TVAS
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Columbus @Tampa Bay | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUE JACKETS: It seems almost unfair to compare the two.

The Blue Jackets accounted for 256 goals this season, 12th most in the NHL if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. Cam Atkinson had a lot to do with it as he tucked 41 himself. Artemi Panarin had 28, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson each bagging 27 each. Oliver Bjorkstrand was fifth on the team and rounded out the 20-plus goal men with 23.

Columbus will continue to ride their top two lines (Panarin-Duchene-Atkinson and Dzingel-Dubois-Anderson) for consistent scoring, and they’ll likely have to produce even better to beat Columbus, and a lot of it may need to come five-on-five. Columbus had the 28th-ranked power play, which surprisingly isn’t the worst among playoff teams — it was better than both the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

LIGHTNING: Nikita. Kucherov. Say it with me now… Seriously though, Kucherov did things this season and no one had done in the salary cap era. Perhaps he felt snubbed that he didn’t get the Hart last season, and boy did he come with a vengeance. Kucherov scored 128 points to establish a new career mark, besting his previous total by 28 points in two more games played. He beat Connor McDavid by 12 points in the Art Ross race.

And we’ve only talked about one player so far

The Lightning had three players with 40-plus goals, with Kucherov and Brayden Point each scoring 41 and Steven Stamkos leading the pack with 45. Ten of their 12 forward had double-digit goals, with seven having more than 18 apiece. They led the league with 319 goals-for, 30 more than anyone else (and the only team to eclipse 300). They led the with a 12.2 percent shooting percentage. They led the league with a power play that ran at 28 percent. They just led the league. In everything that matters. It’s a brilliant offense.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. I mean, if there’s one series that this is most clear in, it’s this one. It’s the Lightning by miles upon miles. The best scorer, the best offense and the best power play. It almost seems unfair and barring something divine, the Lightning aren’t going to be held at bay.

DEFENSE

BLUE JACKETS: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be leaned upon heavily as they shoulder a massive task in trying to shut down Tampa. The pair are a formidable shutdown duo, for sure, but the depth starts to fall off after that.

Jones plays nearly 26 minutes a night, with Werenski at nearly 23. From there, every other defenseman on the team is under 20 minutes aside from the injured Ryan Murray.

Not having Murray stings. He’s missed the past 24 games with an upper-body injury and won’t be available for Game 1, at least. Murray had 29 points in 56 games prior to getting injured, so they’ll be missing some production back there, too.

LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman practiced on Monday and it appears he might be ready to play in Game 1 after suffering an injury on March 30, forcing him to miss the last week of action.

Hedman’s presence is crucial. His size, ability to play monster minutes and in all situations is a big key to this juggernaut of a team. But Tampa is deep, no doubt. They finished eighth in fewest goals-against and can also rely on some offensive production from their back end. If there’s a weakness, it might be in the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Jan Rutta.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. They have better depth and better scoring from the back end, both things that are paramount in the playoffs.

GOALTENDING

BLUE JACKETS: This is where the series could be decided.

If Sergei Bobrovsky and play out of his mind, Columbus has a snowball’s chance in hell, which is an improvement. If struggles, shut off the lights and head home. It’s over.

Bob’s season one of the worst of his career, statistically, with a .913 save percentage — a number that was made to look respectable as he closed out the season with multiple shutouts. Those numbers just won’t cut it against an offense of Tampa’s ilk.

LIGHTNING: Vasilevskiy is in a league of his own.

Like it or not, Vasilevskiy is probably winning the Vezina this year and he’s simply an elite goaltender who got a lot more rest down the stretch than he did last year. That means a more fresh Vasilevskiy. A more sharp Vasilevskiy. A quicker Vasilevskiy. That’s a goalie that’s tough to beat.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. Vasilevskiy brings it every night and hardly has a bad day at the office. He’s comfortable taking a lot of shots and he’s not going to be facing down a great power play. And Bobrovsky is hit or miss these days. And even if he hits, can he really deal with everything the Lightning will throw at him?

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Blue Jackets outgun the Lightning?

That’s really what it will come down to here. The Blue Jackets need to take advantage of every single opportunity they’re afforded and then play defense (tight gap, high pressure) like they’ve never done before.

Can they keep the status quo?

Basically, if the regular season Lightning shows up, this one is over before it begins. The Lightning need to remain the same team in the playoffs. They have a lot of pressure on them. They’ve earned it, given their season, and now need to respond to it.

PREDICTION

LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


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