Nazem Kadri

Roundtable: Slowing the Hurricanes; players ready to shine

What is the biggest obstacle the Bruins face in slowing down the buzzsaw that is the Hurricanes?

SEAN: Getting shots through. The Hurricanes did a phenomenal job against the Islanders in limiting their chances, while at the same time making the most of out of their own. The Bruins averaged 36 shots on net against the Blue Jackets and certainly possess the offensive weapons to make Carolina’s defense and goaltenders stay busy. Boston dominated possession against Columbus, but we know how good the Hurricanes are at retaining possession at 5-on-5.

The Bruins will also have to worry about the secondary scoring Carolina has been coming up with. Through two rounds 11 different players have scored for the Hurricanes and when it’s not Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravainen stepping up, it’s Jordan Staal or Warren Foegele contributing.

JAMES: With Boston’s core aging, and not shockingly often injured, their biggest limitations are their bodies. Consider the Hurricanes the stack of bodies Jon Snow needed to navigate in a memorable “Game of Thrones” battle, then: even when hurt, Carolina can send waves and waves against the Bruins. Both teams have a lot going for them, but the physical toll may prove challenging for the Bruins.

ADAM: Getting through that Carolina defense. It has been an underrated and overlooked group for a couple of years now, mostly because the goaltending behind it always wasted it and the forwards in front of it weren’t good enough for it to matter. No longer the case this season! The Hurricanes finally have some finishers up front and enough goaltending to not squander their great defensive efforts. This has been one of the best shot-suppression teams in the league for four or five years now and they are keeping it going in the playoffs. They are just a tough group to get through. They can skate, they can more the puck, they are great at taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes, and they just do everything you want to see from a modern-day NHL defense group.

JOEY: I think the biggest challenge for Boston will be literally slowing down the Hurricanes. Carolina is arguably the quickest team the Bruins have faced in the first three rounds of postseason, so it might be a little challenging for them to adapt to their newest opponent. Unlike Toronto and Columbus, the Hurricanes don’t play a gritty style. As Rod Brind’Amour pointed out during their first-round series against Washington, Carolina isn’t interested in going toe-to-toe with their opponents. They’ll be aggressive on the forecheck, but they aren’t going to beat up the opponent physically. Handling that speed won’t be easy for the Bruins. 

SCOTT: The Pressure. No one has more puck possession in these playoffs that the Carolina Hurricanes. And the speed. And the shot suppression. The Bruins have the most 5-on-5 shots in these playoffs while the Hurricanes have limited teams to 225, the least among teams remaining. That comes back to the relentless pace the Rod Brind’Amour demands of his players, and it works. The Bruins need to be able to deal with that. They’re going to be facing the quickest team they’ve seen yet and need to find a way to move the puck quickly to get around the forecheck, one that knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions and one that made mincemeat out of the New York Islanders.

RYAN: Stepping up in PNC Arena will be the Bruins’ biggest challenge. Carolina held Washington to just three goals over the Hurricanes’ three home games and they earned back-to-back 5-2 wins against the Islanders at home in Round 2. Of course, the Hurricanes will have to win a game in Boston for it to matter, but that’s far from an impossible task if Carolina’s defense and goaltending continues to perform as it has.

Are the Blues this season’s team of destiny considering where they were at the start of January?

SEAN: I think they’re the Western Conference version of the Hurricanes. Both teams took different routes to get the conference finals after spending the first half of the season near the bottom of the NHL. In fact, since January 3, the Blues (65) and Hurricanes (62) were two of the league’s top three point-getters, with the Tampa Bay Lightning sandwiched between them. They’re both great stories in their own way: The Blues turning things around after firing their head coach in November and Jordan Binnington playing incredible after making his debut in January, and then the Hurricanes with their “Storm Surges,” feud with Don Cherry, and phenomenal team that’s put them in yet another conference final. It would make for a superb Cup Final matchup if they can win four more games.

JAMES: I’d look at the Blues more as a sleeping giant awoken. We’ve seen teams fail to convert on possession dominance early in seasons, only to erupt when things start to come together. The Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles that way. The Penguins seem to make a habit of it. Honestly, it was perplexing that St. Louis wasn’t putting it together earlier this season … until they did. And then some.

(Honestly, the Islanders were the team of destiny, in my opinion. The destination just happened to be Round 2.)

ADAM: They sure seem like it. Watching them play and watching the way they play gives off the same sort of vibe I got from watching the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings and the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Definitely not as dangerous offensively as that Penguins team, but just in the sense that they control the puck so well and just look so dominant at times when they have it. They just look like a really solid team from top to bottom, and the way they close out that Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars was impressive. They completely dominated Games 6 and 7, even though the latter needed double overtime. They were clearly the better team in that game from the opening puck drop.

JOEY: I don’t know about all that. Were the Golden Knights the team of destiny last year? It probably seemed that way heading into the Western Conference Final last year, but they eventually lost in the Stanley Cup Final. Don’t get me wrong, the Blues are the story of the season in my mind, but I don’t think they’re the team of destiny. Let’s just appreciate the work Craig Berube has done with this group. He totally revamped the way they play and turned them into a contender over night. 

SCOTT: By default, I suppose. Getting past Winnipeg in the manner they did was impressive, but I wasn’t sold on Dallas and they struggled at times in that series. That said, take nothing away from their ability to get the job done. When push came to shove in Games 6 and 7, the Blues showed a cohesiveness that most teams just don’t have because most teams don’t go through all the ebbs that the Blues did.

That camaraderie will serve them well in the Western Conference Final, but I don’t think it’s enough to skewer the Sharks. The Sharks have their own brew of team connectedness. The Sharks haven’t exactly had the easiest road to get to where they are, here they are. And they’re just more talented, with myriad options when it comes to who can take over a game. The Blues have been a great story, but this round is likely their final chapter.

RYAN: I think the Blues were a good team from the start that just took a while to get going. It certainly helped that Jordan Binnington came in and became a dominant force from January onward. I don’t see them as a team of destiny though. I see them as a team that was perhaps, due to their bad start, underrated, but not to the extent that I would pick them to win the Cup. Of course, they’ve gotten this far so anything is possible.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

What under-the-radar player will shine this round?

SEAN: Jaccob Slavin really shouldn’t be considered “under-the-radar” considering his body of work since entering the NHL, but maybe now that the spotlight is greater more eyes will be opened to just how good he is at both ends of the ice. He currently leads the Hurricanes in points with 11 assists, is well into the positives when it comes to possession (55 percent Corsi), and is among the top defensemen this postseason in allowing the fewest shots on goal per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice.

JAMES: When Jake DeBrusk isn’t tormenting Nazem Kadri into a lethal suspension, he’s seemingly hitting a post per game. DeBrusk has been limited to two goals and five points in 13 playoff games, but that’s on just 5 percent shooting (40 shots on goal). He strikes me as due, although to be fair, I also thought the same way about Jamie Benn, who then missed Game 7 overtime-winner by a breath, so DeBrusk might not want my seal of approval.

ADAM: Am going to go with Robert Thomas in St. Louis just because he was starting to take on a bit of a bigger role in Round 2 and was really making an impact. He was great in Game 7 and has four points and is a plus-five in his past five games. To win a Stanley Cup you sometimes need a young player like this to emerge in the playoffs, and he might be the one this year.

JOEY: Kevin Labanc failed to pick up a point in San Jose’s second-round series against Colorado. He’s an important part of the Sharks power play so it wasn’t surprising to that unit struggle against the Avs. I think the points will start coming for Labanc in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks are deep enough that he doesn’t have to be the focal point of their offense, but he should be able to chip in with some valuable secondary scoring against the Blues. 

SCOTT: I picked Oskar Sundqvist last round and that was a dud, so let’s go curse another player. Coming off an injury that’s cost him a lot of time, the return of Micheal Ferland could be a big boost for the Hurricanes. Ferland can make an impact offensively and he’s a massive threat physically, which is something the Hurricanes are going to have to contend with from the Bruisin’ Bruins. Assuming he’s back, and reports suggest he’s on track to start Game 1, Ferland can rattle the Bruins in more than one way.

RYAN: Kevin Labanc certainly isn’t seen as one of the Sharks’ stars and he wasn’t a major factor in Round 2. He had 56 points in the regular season though and is someone who can step up in the Western Conference Final.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
Hurricanes/Bruins series preview

PHT Conference Finals predictions

PHT Morning Skate: Meaning of NHL regular season; Kadri regrets cross-check

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for April 25

• Format not to blame for wild Round 1 upsets. (Sportsnet)

• The cascade of issues that not having a Canadian team in the playoffs creates. (Angus Reid Institute)

• Perhaps your favorite team is out and you’re looking to cheat on them with a new team. Here’s a bandwagon guide. (CBC)

• The regular season means nothing. (FiveThirtyEight)

• Torn ACL likely to mean Zach Hyman will miss the beginning of next season. (NHL.com)

• Mike Modano getting himself into eSports. (TSN)

• A timeline of the recently-ended Calgary Flames season. (Calgary Sun)

• The tragic consequences of the NHL’s science denial. (The Atlantic)

• The seve…. eight deadly sins of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Deadspin)

• The Washington Capitals’ Russian contingent heading to the World’s after their shocking playoff exit. (TSN)

Craig Smith is none too pleased with the Nashville Predators season ending in Round 1. (Tennessean)

• Game 7 controversy could have a ripple effect in the college game. (Jamestown Sun)

• Dubas not playing games after Maple Leafs tossed. (The Score)

Nazem Kadri regrets his silly cross-check. (TSN)


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

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

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.

In a series full of questions, Maple Leafs’ Babcock short on answers

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Mike Babcock has done a lot of good things as head coach in the National Hockey League and elsewhere. But coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs won’t be something that he has a long chat with his grandkids about one day.

A second Game 7 loss in as many years against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night only added to Babcock’s (perhaps notorious) inability to push Toronto into the deep waters of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s now 8-12 as a bench boss in the postseason in Toronto and it might have been his worst in terms of decision-making.

How does Auston Matthews play just 15:18 of five-on-five time (18:48 total) in a game where the Bruins led 2-0 after the first period?

How does William Nylander, who finished with 12:55 in the game, not get linked back up with Matthews earlier than midway or so through the third? Why was he hobbled by his linemates?

Why did John Tavares not play in the mid-20s? The guy had 47 goals and was signed for a massive contract for his potential in these situations, right?

Why weren’t lines consolidated sooner so that the young, skilled superstars on the team could go out there and give it their best go?

Why was Patrick Marleau afforded 1:40 of power-play time when his record with the man-advantage was this poor? Why was he playing meaningful minutes in the third when the bench could have been shortened (and should have been) much sooner?

What would Sheldon Keefe do?

How long with this be allowed to go on?

No doubt, that last question is going to be hotly debated over coming days and weeks. Babcock is a great coach with aging ideas that aren’t working when they need to with a youthful lineup.

Never mind their now-52-year Stanley Cup drought — it’s been 15 years since they won a series.

Maybe Babcock has taken the team as far as they can go.

Nazem Kadri has lost his head twice now in the past two playoffs, throwing a massive wrench into the mix. Kadri, when calm, is effective and he showed that prior to losing his cool in Game 2. But getting suspended for the remainder of the series was as about selfish as it gets.

Babcock told the media in Boston after the name that not having Kadri impacted Nylander’s minutes.

That’s a bit of a stretch, however. And it reeks of unimaginative thinking, something that might cost Babcock his job.

Because when you’re staring elimination in the face, playing your eldest players over your younger, more skilled crop just doesn’t produce the same yield it once did.

Matthews et al needed to be playing. The talent suggests it. The investment made in these players suggests it.

Why doesn’t the head coach?


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

Pressure once again on Babcock, Maple Leafs in Game 7

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Trying to pick the winner of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely futile. It is there that one of the most random sports, at its most random time of year, descends into its most random madness where anything and everything can happen. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it so great and captivating.

It doesn’t really matter what happened in the previous six games of the series, or at any other point in the season because Game 7s usually come down to which goalie plays the best game for 60 minutes, or which team gets the right bounce at the right time. Those are things that are just impossible to predict before the game begins. You just have to watch and see how it all plays out.

With that said, I have no idea what is going to happen between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) , but I do know this much — the Maple Leafs better win.

Don’t care how. Don’t care why. Don’t care what the score is. They just need to win.

They better win for the short-term reputation of their core, and they better win for the long-term reputation of their head coach.

I’m not going to go as far as to say Mike Babcock is coaching for his job on Tuesday night, because there is literally no indication of that. Plus, deciding the fate of your coach based on one game is kind of a foolish thing to do anyway. At this point he is either your coach, or he is not.

But at some point these people have to win something.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And I’m not even talking about the Eastern Conference or the Stanley Cup itself.

Just something.

A playoff round, for example, would be a huge place to start for an organization that hasn’t played in the second round since before the salary cap era began (2004), and has built a roster that has championship aspirations right now. This isn’t a team whose window is still a couple of years away from opening. They are in it right now, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe Washington Capitals after Wednesday?) out of the picture this season the field is wide open for every team in the Eastern Conference.

But again, let’s just start with a round.

It would be huge for the best collection of young forwards in the NHL that was only strengthened this summer with the addition of John Tavares. At some point Round 1 exits — and a loss on Tuesday would be the third in a row — will not be enough for this core.

It would be huge for the highest paid head coach in the NHL whose actual results-based resume has not matched his reputation and league-wide standing in quite a while. At some point third place finishes (a Babcock coached team has not finished higher than third in its division since 2010-11) and Round 1 exits (he has not been out of Round 1 since 2012-13, and only once since 2010-11) will not be enough. I again go back to the fact that 25 different NHL head coaches have won a playoff series since Babcock last won one. If you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re not paying more than $6 million per season for those results.

It would be huge for Nazem Kadri, an incredibly valuable player, who once again failed his team by doing something completely reckless and senseless to take himself out of a playoff series. It would be an awfully bad look to have your team go out early, again, while you’re sitting in the press box for a significant chunk of the series for a totally avoidable reason. This will be the 14th playoff game between the Bruins and Maple Leafs the past two years, and Kadri has made himself available for only six of them. Would you be able to bring him back after that?

It is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the pressure is on everyone to win.

If Boston loses it would no doubt be disappointing for the organization and the fans. But this Bruins’ core at least has a championship to fall back on, and has at least made some kind of a run at some point in the past decade. It would be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be something that would make the organization take a long look at itself in the mirror and try to figure out why this sort of thing keeps happening.

But Toronto? A loss on Tuesday night would sink them into a sea of questions regarding their core, their coach, and just why in the hell they can’t get through this Boston Bruins team.

That will not be fun — or good — for anyone.

Anything can happen in a Game 7, but Toronto needs this one more than any other team playing in a Game 7 in this round.

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.