Paul Stastny

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Pavelski returns for Sharks’ Game 7 vs. Avs

Joe Pavelski‘s devastating, frightening, and tide-turning injury happened during that unforgettable Game 7 against the Golden Knights in Round 1. It’s honestly remarkable that he’s returning one round later, as the Sharks’ courageous captain is suiting up for San Jose in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2 on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN; stream here).

Hockey players have trained us to marvel at improbable comebacks, so far some, this almost feels like old hat. Then you remember the horrifying sight of Pavelski bleeding from his head stemming from that awkward fall after a hit by Cody Eakin and then Paul Stastny, and you realize just how brave Pavelski is. Especially since he also had a goal scored off of his mouth not that long ago, too.

At this time of year, it’s fair to wonder if Pavelski will be at full-strength. People sometimes forget that this isn’t always just a matter of toughness; a team must also make the difficult judgment call regarding whether that player isn’t so battered and bruised as to be a detriment on the ice. The Sharks clearly believe that Pavelski can make enough of a net positive than any physical limitations are worth the trouble.

It looks like Pavelski might line up with Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl, at least if warm-ups are correct. The Sharks have plenty of different options if they want to go with fresh looks, including putting Pavelski back with his old pal Joe Thornton.

The Sharks aren’t the only team with key players at less than 100 percent. Mikko Rantanen seemed to struggle after a hard hit by Brent Burns in Game 6. While Rantanen returned  to the eventual Colorado win, he didn’t really look totally mobile.

That’s the thing about the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s a battle of attrition, and Pavelski’s jumping back into it with the stakes at their highest.

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.

Sharks hope for Pavelski’s return before Game 7 against Avs

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Captain Joe Pavelski was getting staples put into his bloody head when the San Jose Sharks staged an epic comeback in Game 7 of the opening round against Vegas.

Now that the Sharks have been forced into another ultimate game after missing a chance to eliminate Colorado in an overtime loss on the road, they are hopeful of getting their leader back on the ice for the first time since then.

Perhaps the biggest question heading into Game 7 at the Shark Tank on Wednesday night (9 p.m. EDT, NBCSN) is whether Pavelski will be healthy enough to make a dramatic return against the Avalanche. Coach Peter DeBoer said that will happen as soon as doctors give him the OK.

”I’m not hiding anything,” DeBoer said Tuesday. ”He’s day to day. He’s getting better every day. We’re going to make a decision on game days whether he’ll be available or not.”

The winner of the game advances to play the winner of Tuesday night’s Game 7 between Dallas and St Louis.

Pavelski’s injury happened midway through the third period in Game 7 against Vegas on April 23 with San Jose trailing 3-0. He was cross-checked by Cody Eakin after a faceoff and then bumped by Paul Stastny before falling awkwardly to the ice head first. The impact of Pavelski’s helmet slamming the ice knocked him out briefly and caused him to bleed from his head.

A dazed Pavelski was helped off the ice by his teammates and then had eight staples put in his head to stop the bleeding. While that was going on, his teammates scored four power-play goals during the major penalty to Eakin that even Pavelski acknowledged was not warranted.

San Jose ultimately won the game on Barclay Goodrow‘s overtime goal to advance to the second round. Pavelski was unable even to travel to Colorado for Games 3 and 4 but got back on the ice while his teammates were away last week. He made an emotional appearance at the Shark Tank during the third period of Game 5 to fire up the crowd and traveled to Denver for Game 6 where he took part in the morning skate.

”It still really is day-to-day,” Pavelski said before Game 6. ”Wish I had a set-in-stone answer – go here, do this and be ready. We’re taking everything into play.”

No matter what happens with Pavelski, the Sharks will need better performances from several of their other forwards who have been mostly invisible this series. San Jose was supposed to have the better depth up front but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Joe Thornton and Kevin Labanc have gone five straight games without a point, Evander Kane and Marcus Sorensen haven’t recorded a point for four straight games and the fourth line has generated almost no offense.

Colorado has six forwards with at least two goals this series, including secondary options like J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost, Colin Wilson and Matt Nieto. The Sharks have just three with Couture’s three goals all coming in a Game 3 win, Tomas Hertl‘s two coming in a Game 5 victory and Timo Meier scoring one of his two into an empty net.

Compher scored twice in regulation in Game 6 and assisted on Jost’s goal as well as the Avalanche managed to get the game into overtime despite its top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen being on the ice for all three San Jose goals in regulation.

”They’ve been unbelievable all playoffs, all season,” Compher said of Colorado’s Big Three. ”The depth guys, we’ve got to step up when we can. Guys were stepping up all over the place and that’s why we’re in the spot we are.”

That spot is one win away from Colorado’s first appearance in the conference finals since 2002. Getting there hasn’t been easy. The Avalanche had to knock off the top seed in the West, Calgary, in the first round and has never led in this series with the Sharks taking all the odd-numbered games and Colorado answering after that.

Even the Game 6 win at home proved treacherous with the Avalanche blowing a one-goal lead three times before finally winning on Landeskog’s overtime goal.

”We knew it wasn’t supposed to be easy, nobody said it was going to be,” Landeskog said. ”For us we try to reload. As frustrating as it was to keep losing those leads we tried to reset and go back at it.”

Facing elimination isn’t a new feeling for the Sharks, who won three win-or-go-home games in the first round against Vegas when they overcame a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in franchise history.

This veteran team is playing its third Game 7 at home in the past four years, having beaten Nashville in the second round in 2016 and the Golden Knights two weeks ago.

”Instead of a fear or a nervousness there’s an excitement about them,” DeBoer said. ”We do have guys that have participated in them in the past. Does that count for anything? I don’t know. I’d like to think it does. I do know this. Our guys have a comfort level in big games.”

AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.

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Golden Knights ready to turn page, look toward next season

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights’ second postseason didn’t last nearly as long as their first but general manager George McPhee said ”there will be no pity parties” after the way it ended, and the team is already looking forward to next year.

”We’re going to take the rearview mirror out and move forward and put a real good team on the ice next year and go compete again,” McPhee said Thursday during his season-ending news conference. ”This is a good team; it’s built for the long run.”

After losing in the Stanley Cup Final last postseason, the Golden Knights were eliminated from this year’s playoffs in the first round when the San Jose Sharks came back from a 3-1 series deficit and then erased Vegas’ 3-0 lead in Game 7. The Sharks got a boost when Vegas forward Cody Eakin was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for a cross-check to San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, who was knocked out after crashing to the ice. The Sharks scored four power-play goals and then won the game 5-4 in overtime.

”You always get better from losing like that,” coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s tough to swallow for the last couple of days. But today, I’m moving on. We move on, we’re not going to make excuses. We’re disappointed, definitely, because we had a real good hockey team, but I’m not disappointed in the way our hockey team played and competed all year and the playoffs.”

Vegas endured plenty of adversity during the regular season, overcoming a 20-game suspension for defenseman Nate Schmidt and a bevy of injuries, including to Alex Tuch, Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and a season-ending lower-body injury to Erik Haula.

”We talk about last year a lot being the perfect season, with no ups and downs; this year we had some,” Gallant said. ”This year we had to battle and compete and find a way to make the playoffs. As we know we got spoiled here pretty good two years in a row in the playoffs and going to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s not easy to make the playoffs.”

But with the acquisitions McPhee has orchestrated, the Golden Knights figure to be a major player in the Pacific Division next year.

The Golden Knights have potent scorers Stastny, Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, Reilly Smith and Tuch locked up for several years, along with three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Other things to know as the Knights head into the offseason:

MARCHING ON: Marchessault was outspoken after the Game 7 loss about how the league needs to institute video replay for major penalties during the playoffs and had an expletive-laced tirade about the referees.

He offered no apologies Thursday for his outburst and said he was ready to move on.

”We’re at the point where it’s over with, it’s in the past, whatever happened is just going to make us stronger,” Marchessault said. ”We’ll be right up there again, like this year.”

KARLSSON FUTURE: The most crucial offseason decision will be whether forward William Karlsson signs long-term with the team. After scoring a career-high 43 goals and 78 points during the 2017-18 season, Karlsson and the team agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million contract. Now, after a significantly less productive season – 24 goals, 56 points – both camps will be pressed to determine his worth.

”We’ll get to work on it shortly and hopefully get it wrapped up,” McPhee said. ”He had a real good season, he’s a good player. We’d like him to sign long-term with us and we’ll get to work on it.”

Karlsson said he would prefer to sign long-term.

But with the additions of Pacioretty and Stastny prior to the season, and Stone at the trade deadline, the Golden Knights went from having plenty of room under the salary cap to having very little wiggle room.

EAKIN SPEAKS: Eakin spoke for the first time since the last game and was at times borderline emotional when discussing the Game 7 penalty.

”Everyone saw the play and knows what happened and we can’t think about it anymore, really,” he said. ”I think mistakes were made, but it’s a fast game, that kind of stuff happens and that’s all you can say about it.”

HAULA’S RETURN: Haula figured to be an integral part of Vegas’ forward depth until a lower-body injury ended his season just 15 games in. Haula had been seen wearing a knee brace at the practice facility, but McPhee said Thursday it wasn’t Haula’s ACL.

”It’s not something I wish on anybody, things can always be worse,” Haula said. ”You kind of reinvent the wheel when you’re out for that long. It’s kind of an interesting process. I never thought when it happened that I could even be on the ice. I was close to joining the team at practice and that was great.”

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Golden Knights’ owner says NHL executive apologized for Game 7 penalty

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The owner of the Vegas Golden Knights said Thursday a senior NHL executive phoned him to apologize for a penalty called during Game 7 of his team’s loss to the San Jose Sharks.

Owner Bill Foley said the call came the morning after Vegas lost 5-4 in overtime Tuesday night to end the first-round series. Foley said at a news conference the call came from an executive who is ”about as senior as you can get,” but he did not want to identify him.

The play in question was a major penalty on Cody Eakin of the Golden Knights that Foley described as ”infuriating.”

The owner said the executive admitted it was a ”bad call” and the league did ”acknowledge” it. Foley added that the apology made him ”feel a little better after that.”

Foley said he was sitting with injured forward Erik Haula in a suite at SAP Center when Eakin cross-checked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski in the chest with 10:47 to play. Paul Stastny bumped Pavelski as he fell to the ice, where he was knocked out and bleeding on the ice.

The officials conferred on the unreviewable play while a dazed Pavelski was helped to the locker room with a towel pressed to his head. Eakin was assessed a 5-minute penalty for cross-checking and a game misconduct. The Sharks scored four goals on the ensuing power play.

Series supervisor Don VanMassenhoven said the major penalty was given because the cross-check caused a significant injury.

”The game was ours, it was over, 3-zip,” Foley said. ”We were looking, saying ‘all we gotta do is play some defense, play defense and stay out of the box.’ Within 30 seconds, 5-minute major. It wasn’t a penalty. Painful.”

San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said Pavelski is listed as day to day but is not expected to be cleared for Game 1 of the second-round series against the Avalanche on Friday night.

DeBoer downplayed the league’s call to Foley.

”I haven’t gotten many of their calls where they made a mistake,” DeBoer said. ”There were a couple earlier in that series where I would have appreciated a call. We’re past that. We’re on to the next opponent now.”

AP sports writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.

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