P.K. Subban

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Previewing the 2019-20 Nashville Predators

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: Dumping P.K. Subban‘s contract for little return to clear salary cap space for Matt Duchene is an interesting move because it deals from a position of strength (defense) to fill a position of need (forward). The Predators had one of the worst power play units the NHL has seen in quite some time and desperately needed another playmaker up front. Duchene’s contract carries some long-term risk, but it satisfies a short-term need and they still have a really good defense even without Subban. Duchene’s addition, combined with a full season from Mikael Granlund (who should be better than he was after joining the team from Minnesota at the trade deadline) makes this forward group significantly deeper. That probably makes the team a little better overall.

Strengths: It is still on the back end. Even without Subban the Predators still have an outstanding defense with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm as the established veterans, while also having 2016 first-round pick Dante Fabbro starting to emerge. Behind them, the team has No. 1 caliber goalies in Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Rinne is 36 and is going to start passing the torch to Saros, but he hasn’t really slowed down much and is still capable of playing at a high level.

Weaknesses: Until proven otherwise it is the power play unit because there was nothing productive about this unit a year ago. They finished the regular season 31st in success rate, were one of the worst power play units in the league at getting shots on goal, and then followed up that performance by getting completely shut out in their Round 1 loss to the Dallas Stars. You don’t need a great power play unit to win, but you still need to get something from it. The Predators received nothing from theirs all year.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Peter Laviolette is an outstanding coach with a great track record of success in the NHL. He wins a lot, he has taken three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final, and his name is on it once. You can do a heck of a lot worse than him behind the bench, and if you are going to fire someone with that resume you better be darn sure you are getting a clear upgrade. But coaches like him get fired all the time, especially if ownership thinks the team has become stale. The Predators may not be at that point just yet, but the 2018-19 season was a bit of a regression and a small (emphasis on small) step in the wrong direction. Because of that we will put Laviolette’s hot seat rating at a 5, with a chance to move in either direction.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Juuse Saros, Mikael Granlund, and Viktor Arvidsson are three players worth watching.

Saros just because he is going to start seeing more playing time in net. He is probably already good enough to be a clear No. 1 on a significant number of teams around the league and gives the Predators a great 1A and 1B situation with Rinne. He has a .920 save percentage so far in the NHL and is the team’s long-term solution in goal.

Granlund was a huge addition at the trade deadline from the Minnesota Wild but really struggled after the trade, managing just two goals and five assists in 22 games (regular season and playoffs combined). He is better than that and has shown the ability to be a 70-point player in the league. If the Predators can get that version of him it could be a game-changer for their offense.

Speaking of game-changers on their offense, Arvidsson has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers in the league since he became a regular in the Predators’ lineup. The 2018-19 season was his best performance to date, scoring 34 goals in only 58 games. That is close to a 50-goal pace over 82 games. Can he repeat that performance this season?

Playoffs or lottery: Definitely the playoffs, it is just a matter of what kind of playoff team they are going to be. On paper, this still looks like a Stanley Cup contender and potentially one of the best teams in the NHL. They had the same look a year ago only to take a small step back during the regular season and then quietly exit in Round 1 of the playoffs.

More
Predators being bold with term, but are they being smart?
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Commissioner for the day

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When NHL players descended on Chicago earlier this month for the annual Player Media Tour NBC Sports bestowed upon them the power of league commissioner for a day. Putting themselves in Gary Bettman’s shoes, we asked the players what changes they would make to the game on or off the ice. Escrow was an obvious choice, but we wanted the players to get a little more creative than that.

Changing overtime and the offside review were popular answers, but there were also some interesting ideas to come out of the exercise, like what Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had to say.

Here’s what the players told us when we asked them, “You’re NHL Commissioner for the day. What change, on or off the ice, would you make and why?”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Get rid of the escrow. That’s an easy one. And get rid of the offside [review].”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “I’d like to see less penalties. I’m a little bit biased, I like the older school game. When I sit back and watch the old NHL and watching guys like Pavel Bure and [Sergei] Fedorov still put up the numbers that they did with guys draped all over them, sometimes in the league we forget what those guys had to go through to earn the numbers and the seasons that they put together. I think sometimes we go a little bit too far this way. But nobody’s perfect. … Maybe just let the guys play a little bit more, let a little bit more stuff go. Every game there’s a controversy of some sort and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I’m pretty happy for the refs to get a little bit more help, to be able to watch replays so it’s a fair game for everyone. After that, just make sure you have a good relationship with the players. I think that’s a big thing that they’re respectful from both sides and both parties. That’s something which I think we have with [the league].”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably get rid of the trapezoid.”

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: “I would take away the offside challenge because now every time you score a goal you’re looking at the referee [waiting for a signal] and you jump on the bench still waiting, waiting. They can cancel it at any moment. That’s not good, especially in intense games. Sometimes you score a goal and [the team] challenges and there’s a TV timeout and it just kills the speed of the game and kills the momentum, too. I know it’s helping sometimes but I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this, when you score a goal and you’re still waiting for the ref to decide if it’s allowed or not. You can’t really get the full emotions of scoring a goal — especially if you get a 2-on-1, for example, and you have a pass from behind and you don’t know how your feet were [crossing the blue line]. I don’t think it makes sense.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I always say, just because our travel has been so ridiculous these last bunch of years, I would change the schedule into little weekend series, similar to baseball. Let’s say you go to Winnipeg, you play them three times. You go to Dallas, you play them three times and you don’t go back there. We’ve had so many road trips going somewhere, coming back, going somewhere, coming back — just one game here, two games there, one game there. We’re always practicing, driving to the airport, flying. To me, that’s one of the things maybe other teams, at least in the East, don’t deal with as much as we do.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “As a centerman let the offensive center on a power play get to choose what circle he gets to take the draw on, and that’s after the team has already put their guys on the ice. Maybe you can catch more centerman on their off side.”

Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets: “I would change no offside, so no blue lines. I think that would make the game a lot more fun, especially if you’re an offensive guy. I think the fans would like that, maybe a lot more goals, open up the game a little bit more.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I would probably [remove] the offside [review]. It slows the game down. It takes momentum away from the game. It’s a fast game and they’re trying to slow it down.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “I’d put more than just two games in Sweden. I would have probably around 20 games.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The Olympics. For small countries like where I’m from, Denmark, it’d be an honor to play in the Olympics one day. We’ve never made it. I think we have a very good chance to make it next time and not being able to play in those [games] if we were to make it would not be fun.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: “Smaller nets, bigger equipment for the goalies. Five-on-five overtime, six-on-six.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I would change the dress code. It wouldn’t be no dress code, I think it would be more casual. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie every game, kind of like the NBA a little bit. Probably more like the NFL.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “[Auston Matthew’s] a stylish guy. Me, I’m not that stylish. I like wearing suits. [I’d like to see] for some of the guys to express more of their personality. You see the basketball guys walk in, some of them wear suits, some of them wear those fun outfits that really gets people talking. That might be a good thing to implement.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I would extend 3-on-3 overtime to 10 minutes.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “Longer overtimes. I think 3-on-3 is super exciting, and shootouts are exciting, too, but 3-on-3 comes with so many opportunities and so many chances. I think if you extended it even a couple of minutes you’d have more games decided in OT rather than having it go to a shootout.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d make the nets bigger so I can score more.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Most underrated player

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Moves make clear Preds’ early playoff exits not good enough

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — P.K. Subban now is with the New Jersey Devils, and Matt Duchene finally is a member of the Nashville Predators.

That sends as clear a message as possible that last season was not nearly good enough.

”It’s a message from the front office that just willing to do anything that’s going to make our team better,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said Thursday. ”I always personally feel like it’s on players when things don’t go as planned or as you wanted them to go. I think it’s the nature of this game. There’s always going to be changes, and you just got to get used to it.”

The Predators held off both Winnipeg and St. Louis to win a second straight Central Division title only to be ousted by Dallas in the first round. St. Louis went on to win its first Stanley Cup.

General manager David Poile wasted no time boosting offense, first trading away his highest-paid player in Subban to New Jersey. That created the space needed to sign Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million contract at the start of free agency.

The Predators remain confident this revamped roster can win Nashville’s first Stanley Cup and reverse the trend of exiting the playoffs earlier each season since winning the 2017 Western Conference title.

Some things to watch during the Predators’ training camp that starts Friday with on-ice testing:

POWER PLAY

The Predators had the NHL’s worst unit with the man advantage last season, and coach Peter Laviolette hired Dan Lambert (pronounced lam-BAIR) as an assistant coach this summer to help fix that issue. Lambert has had lots of experience working on the power play and spent the last two seasons as head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs. Spokane led the WHL scoring on 29.1 percent of its power play chances and converted at a 36.1 percent rate in the postseason.

Nashville has plenty of room for improvement, especially after going 0-for-16 on the power play against Dallas in the playoffs.

JOSI’S CONTRACT

Captain Roman Josi is ready to work and leave the business of his next contract to his agent. Josi is heading into the final year of the contract he signed in June 2013 that pays him $4 million this season. Poile made clear at the end of last season that signing Josi to an extension was a top priority once they could start talking July 1. That likely will have to wait with the Predators having $600,000 in salary cap space. That is projected to jump to $21.4 million next season.

DUCHENE’S LINE

Laviolette will have to figure out who Duchene will be playing with and whether to split up Nashville’s top line of center Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Laviolette’s options include pairing Duchene with Mikael Granlund, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith.

YOUNG PREDATORS

Eeli Tolvanen attracted so much attention when he joined the Predators after playing for Finland in the 2018 Winter Olympics. He lasted four games with Nashville last season before being sent to Milwaukee in the AHL where he had 35 points in 58 games. Tolvanen will be in camp trying to stick around longer this time around.

Defenseman Dante Fabbro joined the Predators last season in time to play four games before appearing in all six playoff games. Now the Predators have to figure out if the 6-foot, 189-pound defenseman should keep playing with veteran Dan Hamhuis or if he should partner with Josi or Mattias Ekholm.

TOP GOALIE

Rinne went 30-19-4 with four shutouts as the undisputed starter, while Juuse Saros won 17 games with three shutouts as his backup. Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, and the 2018 Vezina Trophy winner said he knows he’ll have to fight for every game with Saros ready to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.