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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.

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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.

The Buzzer: Lightning back in first, Varlamov hurt, Ducks gain ground

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Players of the Night:

Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay Lightning: Paquette scored twice and added an assist as the Lightning thumped the New York Rangers 7-3 on Friday. Paquette had five shots on goal and the Lightning threw 50 at Ondrej Pavelec to regain first place in the Atlantic Division. Tampa matched its regular-season record for points with 108.

Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche: The duo (but mostly Varlamov) combined for the first combined shutout in Avs history on Friday. Varlamov made 30 saves in 53:31 before he was injured in a collision with Chicago Blackhawks forward Tomas Jurco. Bernier finished the game, making three more saves to complete the blanking.

Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks: Double R scored the OT winner to give the Ducks a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings, putting the Ducks into the first wildcard in the Western Conference, one point back of L.A. The Ducks have a game in-hand on their California counterparts.

Highlights of the Night:

Domingue’d

Hello, Andrighetto:

MacKinnon saves:

Juke and jive:

Rakell’s OT winner was special:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 1

Maple Leafs 5, Islanders 4

Lightning 7, Rangers 3

Avalanche 5, Blackhawks 0

Ducks 3, King 2 (OT)

Golden Knights 4, Blues 3 (OT)


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

Lias Andersson scores in NHL debut; Kuznetsov’s near-lacrosse goal

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The Washington Capitals are dominating, chasing individual trophies, and the Atlantic Division title. The New York Rangers enter the second intermission down 4-1, are playing out the stretch after waiving a white flag on the season, and often look like a mess in their own end.

So, tonight’s game hasn’t exactly been hockey’s answer to “three yards and a cloud of dust.” It’s been more like an arcade-style video game.

But, hey, those video games can be cartoonish fun.

The coolest moment came as Lias Andersson scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game for the Rangers. You can watch it in the video above this post’s headline. Shots of his family celebrating that milestone goal really make it fun to watch.

Speaking of fun to watch, Evgeny Kuznetsov really embraced the video game mentality, nearly scoring a glorious lacrosse-style goal against Ondrej Pavelec. Sadly, he came up just short:

Retired forward Patrick O’Sullivan explains why such goals are so rare. Heck, attempts are very rare at the NHL level, period:

Personally, lacrosse goals invading hockey always goes back to Mike Legg scoring a memorable one for Michigan many moons ago:

Is that Legg goal burned into anyone else’s memory?

Update: Filip Chytil also scored his first career point for the Rangers, though this isn’t his NHL debut. Still, getting an assist in your third career game isn’t too shabby.

The Capitals ended up winning 4-2.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers pull Georgiev after trip to Ovechkin’s office

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With none of the pressure of chasing a playoff spot, the New York Rangers get to play fast and loose, giving young players a shot. The Washington Capitals took advantage of all that space, and they rolled to an early 3-0 lead at Alexandar Georgiev‘s expense.

Alex Ovechkin scored from his “office” for the third goal about midway through the first period, collecting a goal from his familiar-yet-unstoppable wheelhouse.

Ovechkin did so on the power play, giving him 45 goals during the 2017-18 season, and 603 goals (and possibly counting). He still hasn’t hit his 1,000th regular-season contest yet, as this is game 997.

The other goals were probably tougher for the Rangers to take, even though they weren’t all on Georgiev.

T.J. Oshie was afforded far too much time and space with only Georgiev to stop him, as three Rangers approached Nicklas Backstrom at the blueline. Backstrom made a nice pass (an even more common occurrence than Ovechkin scoring from his office?) and Oshie scored his 17th goal of the season.

After that 1-0 goal, Matt Niskanen enjoyed a ton of time close to the net. He eventually waited out Georgiev to get just enough room to score a sweet, funky 2-0 tally:

Ovechkin’s 3-0 goal made it three goals on just six shots on goal, and Georgiev got the hook in favor of Ondrej Pavelec.

With an impressive .926 save percentage coming into tonight’s game, Georgiev has been quite effective in tougher circumstances during his auditions for the Rangers. It was curtains for the 22-year-old early on Broadway on Monday, though.

Update: To be fair, Pavelec just allowed a goal to Evgeny Kuznetsov, so this could just be a long night for the Rangers.

It was a pretty one, too.

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.

Rangers in danger of slipping out of playoff race

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At this rate, the New York Rangers might not even need to debate their possible fate as trade deadline sellers.

Tuesday presented the latest dispiriting loss for the Rangers as they fell 6-3 to the Anaheim Ducks despite generating a 44-31 shots on goal advantage. NHL.com’s Lisa Dillman collected some morose quotes from Henrik Lundqvist – who certainly had a tough night – but Mats Zuccarello most succinctly captured the mood and discomfort.

“It’s hard to be positive in times like this but nothing is going to help by thinking negative,” Zuccarello said. “I think we’ve got to take a lot from this game. A lot of guys stepped up, a lot of guys played good. But we gave up too many easy goals and you’re not going to win hockey games like that.”

Lundqvist didn’t make it through the first period (16:21) before making way for Ondrej Pavelec, but that wasn’t the only telltale sign of struggles for the Rangers.

Alain Vigneault said he “saw enough” after J.T. Miller made a turnover, gluing the young forward to the bench. One can understand sending messages, yet Miller’s been a key scorer for a team that needs any boost it can get.

This was the play in question: Ryan Getzlaf picked off Miller’s pass, leading to Adam Henrique‘s breakaway goal.

No one likes mistakes, but such decisions revved up the latest round of “Fire AV” talks from Rangers fans, who frequently cringe at lineup choices involving younger players such as Pavel Buchnevich.

Trouble ahead

So far, the Rangers have lost the first three games of their road trip (combined score: 13-6) and close the stretch off with a Thursday date against the Sharks in San Jose before getting what might be a much-needed All-Star break.

While this current road trip is nearing an end, the Rangers are going to pay for their home-heavy start to 2017-18 with what could be a blistering month-plus of challenges beginning in February. From Thursday’s game in San Jose to a March 10 contest in Florida against the Panthers, the Rangers play seven games at home versus 13 on the road.

They already trail the Capitals, Devils, Flyers, Penguins, and Blue Jackets at the moment, with very little separation from the Islanders in the Metro races. Such a stretch could really douse any momentum the Rangers have toward making a playoff spot, a possible reality that management seems aware of, as rumors swirl that they’re considering being trade deadline sellers.

And really, a big fall might just convince the Rangers to “pull off the Band-Aid” and retool.

Selling points

You could argue they already dipped their toes in the water by trading away Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for futures.

Yes, such moves opened up room to sign Kevin Shattenkirk, but the Rangers generally got younger, and there are opportunities to do more of that. Consider some of the trade chips the Rangers boast:

After dealing with some truly puzzling puck luck for much of 2017-18, the goals are really starting to come for Nash. He scored two goals against the Ducks, representing his third multi-goal output in his last five games (six goals, one assist).

Nash has his critics, but he could be a scary weapon if asked to be more of a secondary scoring option after years of being asked to carry much of the offensive burden for the Rangers and previously the Blue Jackets.

  • Would the Rangers part ways with a young, pending RFA like Miller or Kevin Hayes?
  • Also, there are some guys with expiring deals in 2018-19 who would maybe stand as too bold to move, but could fetch quite the price. Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh are justifiably beloved by much of the fanbase, yet their affordable contracts could make them highly desirable. McDonagh is 28 and Zucc is already 30, so if it’s rebuild time, those guys might be beyond their primes by the time a rebound is complete.

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Moving Grabner and Nash makes the most sense, but the Rangers have to do some serious soul-searching.

At least they’ve seen this coming, and the next few weeks could very well provide that final push to sell mode.

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.