Robin Lehner

Previewing the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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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: After failing to make the playoffs again, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had to shake up his roster. He didn’t really add a core player, but that’s fine considering he already has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat on his roster. Instead, he decided to surround those players with some more quality depth. He was able to bring Andrew Shaw back into the fold in a trade with Montreal and he also improved his defense by acquiring Calvin de Haan from Carolina and Olli Maatta from Pittsburgh. With all the uncertainty surrounding the health of goaltender Corey Crawford, he also signed Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. It’s hard to argue that Chicago isn’t better on paper heading into this season.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Blackhawks have a lot of high-end talent up front. Kane posted a 110-point season last year, while Toews added 81 points in 82 contests during a bounce-back season. They also have DeBrincat, who found the back of the net 41 times last year and Brandon Saad, who can do more than he did a year ago (23 goals and 47 points). It’ll also be interesting to see if Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini continue to improve at a rapid rate. The Blackhawks shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense this year.

Weaknesses: Even though they’ve added Maatta and de Haan this summer, their defense still has to be considered a question mark. How much will they be able to get from veterans like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith? Both players are in their mid-30s and you have to wonder how many minutes they’ll be able to log on a Chicago blue line that has to be better this year than it was in 2018-19. The goaltending situation, which was weak once Crawford went down last year, has been shored up by the addition of Lehner.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 2. It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks getting rid of Jeremy Colliton during or after his first full year behind an NHL bench. Of course, if things get really ugly for them this season, anything is possible, but it’s tough to envision them dropping deeper into the standings than they have been over the last couple of seasons. Colliton had success with Chicago’s AHL affiliate and although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll do well in the NHL, it should buy him some time when it comes to putting his team together.

[MORE: On Blackhawks’ goalie duo | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: Strome, Lehner and Shaw are the players to keep an eye on this year. Strome is a former third overall pick that couldn’t seem to put it all together with Arizona. After he got traded to Chicago, all he did was score 51 points in 58 games after being reunited with DeBrincat, his teammate in junior. Can he continue producing at that rate? Can the 22-year-old actually improve his scoring clip? He could develop into a real difference-maker for this Blackhawks team.

As for Lehner, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on the strong season he had with the Islanders in 2018-19. Can he produce similar results to last year now that he’s away from Barry Trotz’s smothering defense-first system? Will he play well enough to earn himself a long-term extension with a team that was only willing to give him a one-year deal? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered in this situation.

Shaw is back where it all began. He had a solid season with Montreal last year, as he scored 19 goals and 47 points in just 63 games. Those are significant numbers for a player that plays with an edge. The only question surrounding Shaw is whether or not he can stay healthy. He’s a small player that plays a physical style. The 28-year-old also has a long history with concussions.

Playoffs or Lottery: As much as the Blackhawks have added to their roster, it won’t be easy for them to sneak into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ll likely be battling with St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado for the final Wild Card spots and that’s a battle they might not win. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish in ninth spot in the West. They’ll be in the race until the end though.

MORE:
Blackhawks encouraged by strong second half under Colliton

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

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.

Islanders look to keep improving in second year under Trotz

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — The New York Islanders know about the moves other teams in the Metropolitan Division made in the offseason. It just doesn’t matter to them.

After finishing second in the division and reaching the second round of the playoffs, the Islanders return mostly the same roster and are confident they can be successful again in the second year under team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz.

”You look at our division, and you talk about teams definitely got better,” forward Jordan Eberle said Thursday at media day. ”The additions they made, sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. The nice thing with our group, we know what to expect. It’s just a matter of putting in the work, playing the right way.”

Thanks to a defensive-minded system in Trotz’s first year with the team, the Islanders finished second in the Metropolitan at 48-27-7. They followed that with a four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs when everything seemingly went their way. After a 10-day layoff to start the next round, nothing went New York’s way as the Islanders couldn’t rediscover their scoring touch and were swept by Carolina.

”I don’t think you ever really get over it,” captain Anders Lee said of the series loss. ”You learn from it and you take away from it what you can, but it’s always going to be there.”

The Islanders pursued forward Artemi Panarin in free agency to bolster the offense, but he decided to sign with the crosstown-rival Rangers. Still, the Islanders retained most of their own free agents, including Eberle, Lee and Brock Nelson

”I am not a believer in change for the sake of change,” Lamoriello said. ”We looked at our team and we felt the players that we wanted to bring back we were able to do that. … We’re happy with the people we have right now.”

After a different head coach in each of the previous three training camps, the Islanders have some continuity this year. They know what to expect with Trotz and look to replicate what they did well last season.

More things to know as the Islanders head into their first on-ice sessions on Friday:

GOALIES: One big change was made in goal, with the addition of veteran Semyon Varlamov to replace Vezina Trophy finalist and fan-favorite Robin Lehner. That gives Thomas Greiss his third goalie partner in three seasons. Greiss and Lehner were solid all season, sharing the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league.

Greiss enters the final year of his contract with Ilya Sorokin’s move from the KHL a possibility next season. Greiss was 23-14-2 with five shutouts, a .927 save-percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in 43 games last season. In four seasons with the Islanders, he is 85-51-13 with 10 shutouts, a .916 save-percentage and 2.69 GAA over 162 games.

Varlamov, who has started all but 17 of 448 games he’s appeared in over his 11-year career with Washington and Colorado, is coming off a 20-19-9 season with two shutouts, a .909 save-percentage and 2.87 GAA in 49 games for the Avalanche.

EYES ON DOBSON: A strong team defense was the Islanders’ blueprint last season, and they return seven defenseman in Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Devon Toews. Noah Dobson will get a long look in camp, but is a long shot to make the roster – barring a major injury or trade involving one of the entrenched top-seven in the unit.

”There’s a lot of good defensemen,” Boychuk said. ”So it’s just the competition, pushing each other to be the best we can.”

Toews had a strong camp a year ago, but began the season with Bridgeport of the AHL before being called up in December. If the 19-year-old Dobson, selected 12th overall in the 2018 NHL draft, doesn’t make the opening-day roster, he must be sent back to juniors.

WAITING FOR BELMONT: The Islanders will be entering the second season of an expected three-year arrangement to split home games between the Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center while a new arena is built at Belmont Park. The target start is the 2021-22 season.

Construction at the new site hasn’t begun, and the town of Floral Park filed a lawsuit this week to stop the project. However, Lamoriello was confident the arena will be built on time.

”My understanding is … everything is on schedule,” Lamoriello said. ”I have total confidence it will be there when they say it will be.”

Blackhawks encouraged by strong second half under Colliton

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A second straight season without playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is unacceptable for the Chicago Blackhawks of today. Having won three championships since 2010, the franchise established itself as one of the NHL’s elite teams, but not playing deep into April the last two years resulted in change.

Joel Quenneville and his three Blackhawks Cup rings were told to go after 15 games last season. Enter Jeremy Colliton, who was running the bench for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford. It was a drastic switch for a roster that features plenty of veterans, but after some time letting the new coach’s system sink in, the results finally began to show.

The Blackhawks recorded 39 points in 31 games after the All-Star break, third-most in the Western Conference over that span. They scored 112 goals, tied for fourth-most in the NHL, and vaulted themselves into a wild card race that they would ultimately fall short in by six points.

The takeaway from that final stretch was that the players saw hope that some continuity in their play, improvements defensively, and a full training camp and regular season under Colliton will pay off.

“It’s almost like we’re restarting again,” Patrick Kane told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour. “You can kind of throw those [championship] years out the window. I know we have a couple guys from those teams but a lot has changed in the NHL, a lot has changed with our team. 

“I don’t want to say we’re in a rebuild, but we’re just rebuilding the team we need to be to win a championship. With the roster turnover, with Jeremy having more experience, our veterans coming in as motivated as they’ve ever been, it bodes well for our team this year.”

[MORE: Colliton looking forward to camp with new-look Blackhawks]

While the offense was hot, the defense was not. Only three teams in the West allowed more goals than the Blackhawks did (102) post-All-Star break. The acquisitions of Robin Lehner, Olli Maatta, and Calvin de Haan aim to improve things on that side of the ice, but it will require more than the players whose main job is to keep the “Goals Allowed” column a low number.

“I think everyone’s got to buy into the system,” said Alex DeBrincat. “It took us too long to get to the point where we were pissed off and not wanting to get scored on. Last year we’d win games 7-6, but hopefully this year we can not let up that many goals and still be winning games and be in the race.”

The adjustments that Colliton implemented took time to settle in, especially the man-to-man defensive zone strategy. For Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, the changes were more than he realized at first. Playing under Quenneville for so long players were used to a certain rhythm of doing things, like the tempo of practices.

“But in games, I think our defensive system changed, all those things that just kind of came naturally with how I played defensively as a forward all changed overnight and there was definitely some adjustment where we were still playing pretty good but just couldn’t find a way to win games and get over that hump once Jeremy took over,” Toews said.

Those struggles early on under Colliton included an eight-game losing streak and three wins in their first 17 games after Quenneville’s firing. But 67 games of experience for the new coach means 67 games of knowing what buttons to push for each of his players and 67 games of identifying the weaknesses that need improvement. The Blackhawks’ veterans aren’t going to put up with another season ending without a playoff berth and the road back there begins with the buying of what the head coach is selling.

“Jeremy is so detailed. He’s thought of everything. His approach is incredible, his preparation is incredible,” Toews said. “He’s great at talking to us, letting us know what he’s thinking. We’ve got to respect that he’s the boss, he’s making those decisions and he’s taking that responsibility. As a captain you sometimes have your own opinions, but you’re not always going to see perfectly eye to eye. He’s one of those guys who’s willing to hear you out and talk to you on a daily basis. 

“But having said that, there’s no guarantees. We’ve got to come to training camp ready to work knowing that we’re going to have to work really hard to get back to where we were near the end of last season.”

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

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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: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Eight NHL teams in danger of regressing this season

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A week ago we looked at the NHL teams that could be on the verge of a bounce back during the 2019-20 season.

This week the focus shifts to teams that could be on the verge of sliding in the opposite direction. Does that mean these teams will be bad or miss the playoffs? Not at all. It just means they may not be as good or go as far as they did a year ago.

Which teams seem to have the most potential to regress this season? To the rankings!

Potentially significant regression

1. Columbus Blue Jackets. They still have some great young players and a lot of reasons for optimism from a big picture outlook, but the short-term window looks questionable because they lost a lot from last year’s team, including their two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is the big departure that hurts because he was one of the best goalies in the league and they replacing him with two unknowns at the moment.

2. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets’ regression started last year as they were nowhere close to the team they were expected to be in the second half of the season. They are bringing back much of that same roster, minus a few players on defense (including the big loss, Jacob Trouba). Patrik Laine should be better and more productive than he was this past season, but their salary cap situation is about to get messy and this team still has some real flaws.

3. New York Islanders. This season will be a big test to find out how much of their turnaround was Barry Trotz magic, or unbelievable goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. The Islanders were not a great offensive team and did not really address that this offseason, while they may have taken a step back in goal with Semyon Varlamov replacing Lehner.

Potential for a noticeable regression 

4. Calgary Flames. The Flames were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL a year ago, climbing to the top of the Western Conference standings. A lot of things went right along the way to help them get there. But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into this season. Will Elias Lindholm be a point per game player again? Does Mark Giordano, now age 36, have another Norris caliber year in him? Will the goaltending hold up? How much will they use Milan Lucic? This should still be a playoff team, but it is probably not the top seed in the Western Conference again.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The core is getting older and the supporting cast is not what it was a couple of years ago. The wild card here is Evgeni Malkin. If he is able to come back with a huge year it might be able to make up for some of the shortcomings elsewhere. The forwards are still good, but trading Phil Kessel for Alex Galchenyuk and signing Brandon Tanev may not be an upgrade. They have a great top pairing on defense but nothing but question marks behind them.

6. San Jose Sharks. It is actually a testament to how good this team was a year ago that it won as many games as it did and went as far as it did with the goaltending that it had. That same goaltending situation is still in place, but will the rest of the team be as good? Re-signing Erik Karlsson was a huge win during the offseason, but losing Joe Pavelski to the Dallas Stars could be significant.

Nowhere to go but down

7. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning had a pretty good offseason, and even though they traded away J.T. Miller for salary cap reasons they still found some nice bargains in Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon that could be nice depth additions. But let’s be real here, they are probably not going to win 62 games and be a 128-point team again. Funny thing is, no one in Tampa Bay will care if they end up getting handed the Stanley Cup at the end of the playoffs.

8. St. Louis Blues. The exact opposite situation as the Lightning. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the Blues end up having a significantly better regular season, especially if Jordan Binnington proves to be for real in net. But history has proven time and time again that winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task and has only been done three times since 1990.

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.