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PHT Morning Skate: Caps face elimination; Sweden claims gold at Worlds

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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.

• It’s do-or-die time for the Washington Capitals tonight in Game 6. [NHL.com]

• It’s not going to be another Capitals choke job, is it? [National Post]

• How missing the playoffs last spring helped the Tampa Bay Lightning make another trip to the Eastern Conference Final. [Tampa Bay Times]

Ryan Callahan had quite a performance for the Lightning in Game 5. [Sportsnet]

• George McPhee believed in his Vegas Golden Knights all along. [Review-Journal]

Paul Stastny knew he made the right choice to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Winnipeg Jets. He enjoyed his time there so much he’s open to re-signing. [Winnipeg Free Press]

Filip Forsberg‘s shootout goal helped Sweden has capture gold at the IIHF World Championship for the second straight year. [IIHF]

Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues saw his time at the World Championship end early with a shoulder injury. He should be fine for training camp, the Blues say. [Post-Dispatch]

• The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets will play in next season’s Kraft Hockeyville preseason game in Clinton, New York. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Will giving states the option to legalize gambling in the U.S. mean the end of “upper/lower-body injury” distinctions? [USA Today]

• Rick Tocchet is determined to get his Arizona Coyotes into the playoffs next season. [Arizona Sports]

• Daniel Alfredsson talks about his new life now as a hockey dad. [Sportsnet]

• A look at the future of the Carolina Hurricanes up front. [Section 328]

• Congrats to the Fargo Force for winning the 2018 USHL Clark Cup. [USHL]

• Interesting interview with former NHL ref Rob Martell about the officating in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [Weiss Hockey]

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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.

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 replace Tatar with Perron; Ehlers back for Jets

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Both the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets are getting some significant names back into their lineups for Game 4 of the 2018 Western Conference Final.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE; Game 4 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET]

The most significant addition is Nikolaj Ehlers, as expected. Interestingly, Jets head coach Paul Maurice decided to scratch Joel Armia instead of Jack Roslovic to make room for Ehlers. The Jets’ second line should be that much deadlier with Ehlers back alongside Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine; maybe this will help to solve some of their supporting cast riddles?

It’s also interesting – yet the Jets hope irrelevant – that Michael Hutchinson is dressing as Connor Hellebuyck‘s backup instead of Steve Mason.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights get one of their leading regular-season scorers back in David Perron. While Ehlers seemingly missed Game 3 with an illness, Perron was sidelined for Games 2 and 3.

Gerard Gallant must really like what he’s seeing from his team’s pluggers, because the return of Perron apparently means that Tomas Tatar loses this game of musical chairs. Tatar scored a big goal in Game 2, yet he only logged a little more than 10 minutes in these past two contests, so he may still reside in Gallant’s doghouse.

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.

Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets

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After scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the high-powered Winnipeg Jets offense has been pretty much completely shut down with only four goals in the 170 minutes that have followed.

That has helped put them into a 2-1 series hole entering Friday’s Game 4 in Vegas.

It is not quite yet “must-win” territory for the Jets, but avoiding a 3-1 series deficit and sending the series back to Winnipeg as a best-of-three would obviously be preferable for them.

Finding a way to make that happen is going to be the problem because there are a couple of issues right now facing the Jets, and they are somewhat related. One is impacting the other.

First is the fact that their secondary scoring has dried up a little bit over the past few games.

Going back to their second-round series against the Nashville Predators the Jets have scored 12 goals in their past five games, which is not exactly a great number. Even worse is that seven of those goals have come from just two players, Mark Scheifele (five) and Paul Stastny (two).

A lot of the support players — and core players — that have made the Jets offense such a dominant force this season have gone cold.

Patrik Laine has two goals in his past 12 games. After missing Game 3 to an unknown ailment Nikolaj Ehlers‘ status for Game 4 is not yet known, and he is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs. Kyle Conner has one goal in five games. Captain Blake Wheeler is still piling up assists, but has not score a goal in seven games. In all of their cases it is not for a lack of effort, especially in this series. They are still getting shots, still getting chances, still generating pressure and doing a lot of the things that should be leading to more goals.

In their past two games against Vegas — both losses — the Jets averaged 68 total shot attempts and 25 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Those numbers are exactly in line with what they have been doing for the entire postseason when they were lighting up the scoreboard and looking like an unstoppable force.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

That brings us to the other problem facing the Jets at the moment: The goalies get paid a lot of money, too, and right now they are going up against one that is playing at an almost unbelievable level.

There is nothing in the sport that can swing a playoff series in one team’s favor like the performance of a goalie. Right now the Jets are running into the same problem that the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks faced before them — they simply can not solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury was probably the biggest difference in Game 3 on Wednesday night and held off a ferocious Jets third period rally by making 15 saves, including a pair of diving highlight reel saves on Scheifele when the Vegas goalie seemed to be completely down and out.

At this point it’s not really an issue of “solving” Fleury. He is a 14-year NHL starter that has played 865 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). At this point there is nothing new to discover about him. His strengths and weaknesses are known and well established. Sometimes a goalie just gets into a zone and is seeing everything, stopping everything, and finding way to make impossible saves … and when they are not, every single break or bounce seems to go their way. They can run hot and cold, and when a goalie like Fleury gets into one of those hot phases there really is not much an opposing team can do except keep firing pucks and hoping that it finally breaks through.

As simplistic as it sounds, that might be the Jets’ best approach — and hope — at this point. Keep doing what you are doing and hope for the best. The process is sound. They are doing the right things and a lot of the same things they were doing earlier in the playoffs and during the regular season. They have just run into the wrong goalie at the wrong time and there may not be an adjustment that is going to matter as long as he keeps playing the way he is.

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

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.

Nikolaj Ehlers will not play for Jets in Game 3

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Some big lineup news for the Winnipeg Jets heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night as they will be without forward Nikolaj Ehlers.

Ehlers did not take part in warmups while rookie forward Jack Roslovic will draw into the lineup.

Brandon Tanev skated in Ehlers’ place on the second line next to Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine.

The 21-year-old Ehlers is one of the Jets’ core players and is coming off another strong regular season performance that saw him score 29 goals in 82 games. That success has not continued in the playoffs, however, as he has yet to score a goal in 13 postseason games. This will be the second game he has missed this postseason. According to Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun it is not a healthy scratch and Ehlers is dealing with some sort of undisclosed ailment.

Tanev, meanwhile, has been surprisingly productive in the playoffs and enters Game 3 with four goals and two points. In 61 regular season games he had just eight goals and 10 assists.

On the Vegas side, the Golden Knights will once again be without David Perron who will miss his second consecutive game. Tomas Tatar, fresh off of his strong Game 2 performance that saw him score his first goal of the playoffs, will once again play in his spot. Backup goalie Malcolm Subban was also not on the ice for warmups and will be replaced by Maxime Legace.

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

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.