Roope Hintz

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Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?

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In a lot of ways it’s pretty remarkable that the Dallas Stars were a double overtime, Game 7 loss (to the eventual Stanley Cup champions) from reaching the Western Conference Final.

In early December the organization looked to be a dysfunctional mess after the team’s CEO publicly put his best players on blast for not doing enough (even though they were carrying the team), while the roster around them was lacking in several key areas.

Even as the team turned it around in the second half and went on its run through the playoffs there was a pretty significant weakness throughout the roster.

Depth.

The 2018-19 Stars were the very definition of a “top-heavy” team that relied almost entirely on the top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, two elite defenders (John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen), and an outstanding goalie (Ben Bishop).

There were a few developments along the way that helped (the late season emergence of Roope Hintz, as well as the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello once he was healthy come playoff time), but the lack of forward depth was still a pretty significant Achilles Heel that was always going to hold them back when it mattered most.

General manager Jim Nill tried to address that on Monday with the free agent additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, adding to his extensive list of offseason victories that goes back to his first year on the job in Dallas.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players come with their set of risks.

In Perry’s case, he is 34 years old, played just 34 games in 2018-19, and has watched his production take a cliff dive over the past three years. In 2015-16 he was still an elite goal-scorer and topped the 30-goal mark (he scored 34) for the fifth time in six years. In three seasons since then he has scored just 42 goals. It is clear he is no longer a top-line player and given the Ducks’ willingness to buy him out, and the fact he had to settle for a one-year deal with a significant paycut shows just how far his value has dropped across the league.

The hopeful angle here is that it is a low-risk deal and that perhaps Perry can be capable of a bounceback season as the Stars catch lightning in a bottle.

It’s a long shot, but there is virtually no risk with it.

Pavelski is the player that provides the most reason for optimism because he is coming off of a monster season with 38 goals in 75 games. On a per-game level it was the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, and for the Stars to get him on a $7 million salary cap hit seems like a pretty strong deal.

The risk here is that Pavelski is entering his age 35 season and is coming off a season where he shot at a career-high 20.2 percent. That is important to keep in mind because he is highly unlikely to come close to that number in 2019-20, which means you should be expecting a pretty sharp decline in his goal production.

If he had shot at his normal career level in 2018-19 on the same number of shots he would have been a 23-goal scorer, which is the level he scored at in the two seasons prior.

The other factor here is that it is almost unheard of for a player that age to shoot at such a level. Pavelski was just the fourth different player in NHL history (at least as far back as we can track shooting percentage numbers) that scored on at least 20 percent of his shots (minimum 150 shots) in their age 34 season or older. Hall of Famer John Buyck did it three times (age 35, 37, and 40), Jim Pappin did it twice (age 34 and 35), and hockey legend Mario Lemieux did it once (age 35).

So there is not a lot of precedent for that sort of performance this late in a player’s career.

But the Stars don’t really need Pavelski to play at that level for him to make an impact.

They don’t need him to be a 40-goal scorer, they don’t need him to be a top-line scorer, they don’t need him to be the player to carry the offense.

They need him to be a secondary option that teams have to at least account for and worry about so they can not load up on trying to stop the Seguin, Benn, Radulov trio. Even if his shooting percentage regresses and he falls back to a 23-25 goal output that is still going to be a substantial upgrade for the Stars.

Just to get a sense of how thin the Stars’ forward depth was in 2018-19, they only had four forwards top the 30-point mark all season, and one of those players (Radek Faksa) had exactly 30 points. That was by far the lowest total of any Stanley Cup playoff team (the next lowest team had six such players).

They were also so bad that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice during even-strength play the Stars were outscored by an 84-65 margin, controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts, and were outchanced. In other words, they were a bad team when the three best players were sitting on the bench. Every team will see a drop in that situation, but this was an extreme drop. It was not until Zuccarello showed up via trade (and was then healthy) that they finally had at least the threat of a second-line option.

The Stars have the most difficult pieces to find when it comes to constructing a championship roster: Impact players at the top of the lineup, and as long as Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Bishop play even close to the level they were at this past season the foundation will continue to be in place.

They just needed the secondary options to complement them.

Perry is going to be a lottery ticket that may or may not work out. But Pavelski, even if he regresses and declines should at least give them one or two more years of high level play and be just what they need.

Related: Ten things we learned from crazy first day of NHL free agency

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.

Wild sign Mats Zuccarello: five years, $30M

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Things haven’t been going so great for the Minnesota Wild lately, but after a well-received 2019 NHL Draft, GM Paul Fenton added some playmaking and positivity by signing winger Mats Zuccarello.

The term is a little scary, though. Considering Zuccarello’s health history, and the fact that he’s turning 32 on Sept. 1, a five-year, $30 million contract gives some pause.

The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that, in addition to Zuccarello, the Wild are also expected to come to terms with rambunctious winger Ryan Hartman, possibly at two years with a $3.8 million total.

[PHT’S Free Agent Tracker]

With Zuccarello not re-signing with the Dallas Stars, it ties together the trade with the New York Rangers. If the Stars would have brought back Zuccarello with a new deal, they would have received a 2020 first-round pick from the Stars. Instead, it will be a third-rounder.

Tumultuous season for Zucc

The veteran winger experienced quite the highs and lows in 2018-19.

After dealing with injuries, Zuccarello really started to find some magic with Mika Zibanejad, ultimately generating 37 points in his final 46 games with the Rangers. New York decided to trade Zuccarello around deadline time, however, and moving to Dallas wasn’t the extent of Zuccarello’s drama.

During his first game with the Stars, Zuccarello was injured blocking a shot. He ended up playing only two regular season games with Dallas.

Yet, you can’t call his time with the Stars a bust, as he was brilliant during the Stars’ run that ended in Round 2. Zuccarello generated 11 points in 13 playoff games, really bringing Roope Hintz to a new level, and making Dallas more than just a one-line team. Dallas couldn’t beat St. Louis, but they really pushed the Blues, and Zuccarello made that attack more dynamic.

Now, the Wild are betting on Zuccarello doing the same, and for long enough that the term won’t be too regrettable.

The best-case scenario is that Zuccarello comes in and replaces some of the offense lost in the disastrous Nino Niederreiter trade (and also in losing Mikael Granlund), even though he’s a different winger from those two.

The worst-case scenario is that Zuccarello joins Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as long-term veteran commitments that look increasingly painful for a Wild team that is refusing to truly rebuild, possibly to its own detriment.

However things work out for the Wild, it’s tough not to feel great for Zuccarello, who’s earned every single thing he’s received in the NHL. That includes this $30M deal, although it remains to be seen if this investment will be worthwhile for Minnesota.

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.

Roundtable: Under-the-radar UFAs; offer sheet targets

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What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?

SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.

JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.

Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)

I’m not saying Talbot will be the next Robin Lehner, but maybe he could be the next Jaroslav Halak?

Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”

ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.

JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.

SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.

If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
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What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?

SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?

Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.

JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.

Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.

There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.

ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.

Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.

JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.

SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.

The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?

SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.

The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.

Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.

JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.

For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.

At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.

But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)

When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.

(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)

ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.

JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.

SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.

MORE: Top NHL free agents to sign, and ones to avoid

Why Joe Pavelski is an unusual free agent risk-reward case

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It’s kind of hard to believe it, but Joe Pavelski will turn 35 on July 11.

Frankly, Pavelski doesn’t really feel like a player who’s about to turn 35, so maybe it’s fitting that his next contract apparently won’t fall under the 35+ designation, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others note.

In a nutshell: 35+ contracts exist to keep teams from trying to sign veteran players to longer deals that are front-loaded to circumvent the salary cap, while the provisions also provide some protections for players fearing buyouts, AHL demotions, and other ignominious ends.

So, Pavelski not being eligible for that 35+ provision is great news for potential suitors, right?

Well … we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s remember how good Pavelski is.

Pavelski’s really good!

Either way, reports indicate that the market has been strong for Pavelski. In a free agent roundup on Friday (sub required), The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that Pavelski’s suitors are in the “double digits,” while Friedman reports that Pavelski’s had the luxury of rejecting teams who (in his opinion) aren’t close to contending. There are mixed impressions of Pavelski’s willingness to sign with the Minnesota Wild, for example, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo indicates that the situation is fluid (sub required there, too).

Bottom line: it sounds like Pavelski has plenty of options, and Friedman indicates that Pavelski is seeking term and a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

On its face, that’s great, and the down-the-line flexibility of Pavelski not being a 35+ contract makes multiple years far less intimidating to bidders.

Because, let’s be clear: Pavelski remains a fantastic player. While it’s unrealistic to expect a 38 goal in 75 game pace like Pavelski enjoyed last season, what with a 20.2 shooting percentage that’s high even for a quality shooter with a 12.5 career average, 2018-19 marked the third season in a row of at least 64 points. Before that, Pavelski was even better, generating 70+ points for three consecutive seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Pavelski’s scored 355 goals since coming into the NHL in 2006-07, ranking him 10th best. His 221 goals since the latest NHL lockout in 2012-13 is even more impressive, placing him at sixth, ahead of the likes of Steven Stamkos, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Phil Kessel.

It’s about more than scoring for Pavelski, too, as he checks plenty of “fancy stats” boxes, while also pleasing the old-school crowd by often playing through absolute agony during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

If you’re a team hoping to take the next step by adding Pavelski – or, in the case of the Sharks, by keeping him – then you might be wondering what’s not to like?

Risky business

Here’s a medium-hot take: 35+ contracts might sometimes protect teams from themselves – they tend to make foolish decisions on July 1, or thereabouts – and that hurdle might have been a blessing in disguise for those who want Pavelski.

Personally, I’d probably want to spend more on Pavelski on a per-year basis, while keeping his term low. That way, if Pavelski hits the aging curve — not outrageous, especially after the extremely painful year he endured — you can at least mitigate the risk in term.

Instead, Pavelski is basically like every other UFA, and considering his substantial talent (and intangibles?), he’ll be one of the biggest targets. That means he gets to pick and choose, which probably means big money (fine) and maybe the most term he can find (probably not so fine).

You merely need to look to Patrick Marleau as an example of how this could go wrong for a Pavelski suitor.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with the 35+ provision hovering as a red flag, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Marleau three years of term. In maybe the most predictable outcome ever, that deal went sour pretty quickly, especially when you consider how that extra year backed Toronto into a corner. They were able to get out of that bind, but at the extreme cost of a first-round pick. For a team that could really benefit from unearthing a difference-maker on a cheap entry-level contract, that really burns.

Again, Pavelski wouldn’t be on a 35+ contract, but signing an older player and not really worrying that much about the future can have adverse effects.

The Anaheim Ducks bought out Corey Perry, even though the benefits were actually … kind of minimal? Perry wasn’t 35+ (he’s 34, yet seems about five years older than Pavelski considering Perry’s decline), but he serves as a reminder that, actually, the buy out option isn’t always much of a boon, either.

A team could really take on some serious risks if they sign Pavelski for a considerable term. While there’s a risk with just about any free agent, those warning signs crop up sooner for a player who’s 35, and it’s not as though Pavelski’s lacking mileage even beyond his age.

Take the Stars, for example.

Right now, the idea of adding Pavelski is really enticing. The Stars struggled mightily to score beyond Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn, but with Roope Hintz rising, imagine how tough an out that team could be if they added Pavelski?

Fascinating, but if the term is excessive, then the Marleau parallels crop up, even though Pavelski wouldn’t be a 35+ contract.

In signing Pavelski, it would be that much tougher to squeeze everyone under the cap as time goes along. Miro Heiskanen could be in line for a huge raise once his rookie deal expires after 2020-21, and John Klingberg‘s bargain $4.25M cap hit only lasts through 2021-22.

There’s the thought that, if Pavelski was 35+, he might only sign for two or three years, in which case the Stars could funnel whatever he makes to Heiskanen or Klingberg. Instead, if there’s overlap, and especially if there’s overlap and Pavelski’s play plummets, then the Stars might have to bribe someone to take Pavelski off their hands, much like the Leafs with Marleau.

***

In other words, if Pavelski carried the greater risk of the 35+ contract, that might have … actually convinced teams to reduce their own risks?

Of course, this is also assuming that NHL GMs care, either way. In an auction-like setting such as the “free agent frenzy,” maybe GMs would have given Pavelski virtually the same, extremely risky deal, under even riskier 35+ circumstances. These executives aren’t always all that forward-thinking, particularly if their jobs are on the line.

Let’s recall what then-Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said about signing David Clarkson to a terrifying seven-year contract:

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now,” Nonis said back in 2013, via The Globe & Mail. “I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

As it turned out, Clarkson was someone to worry about from the very beginning, but the point stands.

Is Pavelski worth the risk of a longer contract? That depends on a number of factors, including how much term might bring the per-year number down, and how much a given team actually believes in their Stanley Cup chances.

Ultimately, though, if you’re a team-building nerd like me, you’re amused by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the heightened risk of Pavelski if he was a 35+ contract might have actually saved some teams from themselves. Pavelski’s been a great player, and could be great or at least very good in the near future, but Father Time’s punishment can be as sudden as it is cruel, so we’ll have to see how this all works out.

Be warned teams, even if that 35+ isn’t hovering like Michael Myers creeping on his next victim.

(Wait, is Michael Myers … Father Time?)

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

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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.