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Patience pays off for Jets in building Stanley Cup contender

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If their five meetings from the regular season are any indication of what is to come, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are probably going to pummel each other over the next two weeks in what looks to be the best matchup of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They finished the season with the top two records in the league, while the Predators won the season series by taking three of the five games, with all of them being tight, fierce, chaotic contests that saw Nashville hold a slight aggregate goals edge of just 22-20.

They really could not have played it any closer.

They are both outstanding teams. They are evenly matched. The winner will almost certainly be the heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final no matter who comes out of the Pacific Division bracket.

For as similar as their results on the ice were this season, the teams have taken two very different paths to reach this point.

The Predators have been a consistent playoff team in recent years, and while they have a strong core of homegrown talent (Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, etc.), a large portion of this team has been pieced together through trades, including two of the biggest player-for-player blockbusters in recent years. They also made the occasional big free agent signing. They traded for Filip Forsberg. They traded Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. They traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. They traded for Kyle Turris. They signed Nick Bonino away from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have been bold and aggressive when it comes to building their roster.

On the other side, you have the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has been the antithesis of the Predators in terms of roster construction.

Since arriving in Winnipeg at the start of the 2011-12 season the Jets, under the direction of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, have taken part in one of the most patient, slow, methodical “rebuilds” in pro sports, and in the process demonstrated a very important lesson of sorts.

Sometimes it pays to do absolutely nothing at all.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On the ice, the Jets have been a mostly mediocre team since arriving in Winnipeg, continuing the tradition the franchise had established for itself during its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Before this season they made the playoffs once in six seasons in Winnipeg and were promptly swept in four straight games (just as they were in their only playoff appearance in Atlanta).

They were never among the NHL’s worst teams, but they were also never good enough to be in the top-eight of their conference. They were mediocrity defined.

The lack of success was at times baffling because it’s not like it was a team totally devoid of talent. It also at the same made complete sense because the single biggest hurdle standing in front of them was the simple fact they never had a competent goaltender or one true superstar to be a difference-maker.

In other words, they were basically the Canadian version of the Carolina Hurricanes.

What stands out about the Jets’ approach is they never let the lack of success lead to overreactions. We have seen time and time again in the NHL what overreactions due to a lack of success can do to a team. It can lead to core players being traded for less than fair value. It can lead to teams throwing good money at bad free agents and crippling the salary cap for years to come. It can lead to a revolving door of coaching changes. When all of that works together, it can set a franchise back for years.

The Jets did none of that.

Literally, they did none of it.

They have had the same general manager since 2011-12 even though before this season he had built one playoff team.

Despite their lack of success when it came to making the playoffs, they have made just one coaching change, replacing Claude Noel with Paul Maurice mid-way through the 2013-14 season.

Just for comparisons sake, look at how many coaching changes other comparable teams have gone through over that same time frame. Buffalo is on its fifth coach (and third general manager). Dallas will be hiring its fourth coach this offseason since the start of 2011-12. Calgary, after the hiring of Bill Peters on Monday, is on its fourth coach. Florida is on its fifth.

You want significant roster changes? Well, there has not been much of that, either. At least not in the “roster move” sense.

The Jets never tore it all down to the ground and went for a full-on rebuild. It took Cheveldayoff four years on the job before he made a single trade that involved him giving up an NHL player and receiving an NHL player in return. Even since then he has really only made one or two such moves.

There are still five players on the roster left over from the Atlanta days — Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Chiarot, who was a draft-pick by the team when it was Atlanta — even though it has now been seven years since they played there. The fact so many core players still remain from then is perhaps the most surprising development given how much the team has lost during that time.

How many teams would have looked at the team’s lack of success and decided that it just had to trade a Blake Wheeler? Or a Dustin Byfuglien? Or a Bryan Little? Or a Tobias Enstrom? Or, hell, all of them? You see it all the time when teams don’t win or lose too soon in the playoffs or don’t accomplish their ultimate goal. At that point a core player just has to go. Have to change the culture, you know? Have to get tougher and make changes. The Blackhawks got swept in the first-round a year ago and decided they had to trade Artemi Panarin to get Brandon Saad back because they had won with him before. The Oilers were a constant embarrassment and decided they just had to trade Tayor Hall and Jordan Eberle to help fix that. Montreal just had to get rid of P.K. Subban.

The Jets, to their credit, recognized that their core players were good. They were productive. They were players they could win with if they could just find a way to add pieces around them and maybe, one day, solve their goaltending issue. The only significant core players the Jets have traded over the past seven years have been Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane. Ladd was set to become an unrestricted free agent when he was dealt at the trade deadline two years ago and a split between the Jets and Kane just seemed like it had to happen at the time of his trade.

They have also refrained from dipping their toes into the free agent market.

You know what happens when you avoid free agency? You don’t get saddled with bad contracts that you either have to eventually buy out, bury in the minor leagues, or give up valuable assets to get rid of in a trade. Free agents, in almost every instance, are players that have already played their best hockey for another team, and you — the new team — are going to end up paying them more money than their previous team did. It is not a cap-friendly approach.

Only one player on the Jets’ roster is set to make more than $6.2 million over the next two years (Byfuglien makes $7 million). The only players on the roster that were acquired via NHL free agency are Matthieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov.

Mason and Kulikov, who combine to make $8 million the next couple of seasons, are probably the only bad contracts on the roster, and both are off the books within the next two years. Oddly enough, both were signed before this season. Neither has made a significant impact.

Looking at the Jets’ playoff roster you see how this team has been pieced together.

  • Five players were leftovers from the Atlanta days (where three of them — Enstrom, Little, Chiarot — were drafted by the team then).
  • Only four players — Myers, Joe Morrow, Joel Armia and Paul Stastny — were acquired by trade.
  • Hendricks, Perreault, and Mason are the only players to have appeared in a playoff game that were acquired as free agents (Perreault — due to injury — and Hendricks have played in one each; Mason played one period in the first round).
  • The rest of the team, 12 players, were all acquired via draft picks.

So what did the Jets do well to get? Focus on the latter point there. They kept all of their draft picks, they hit on their important draft picks, and they got a little bit of luck in the draft lottery at the exact right time to allow them to get the franchise player — Patrik Laine — that they needed.

This is where the Jets have really made their progress, and it is not like they did it by tanking for lottery picks.

Between 2011 and now the Jets have picked higher than ninth in the NHL draft just two times. Only once did they pick higher than seventh. NHL draft history shows us that there is usually a significant drop in talent and expected production between even the second and eighth picks. No matter where the Jets have picked in recent years they have found NHL talent — top talent — with their first-round picks.

They got Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011. He is a core player and among the top-four goal scorers and point producers in the NHL from his draft class.

They got Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012. He is also a core player and a top-pairing defender.

Josh Morrissey was the 13th pick in 2013.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth pick in 2014 and is the third highest point producer and goal scorer from that class.

In 2015 they picked Kyle Connor (one of the top rookies in the NHL this season) at 17 with their own selection, then got forward Jack Roslovic at 25 with the pick they acquired in the Kane trade.

The next year in 2016 they had the ping pong balls go their way to get Laine at No. 2 and had another first-rounder (Logan Stanley) as a result of the Ladd trade.

They pretty much not only hit on every first-round draft pick they had between 2011 and 2016 (Stanley is the only one of the eight not currently on the team) but in most of the cases probably got more than the expected value from that pick.

When you combine that with a core that already top-end talent like Wheeler, Byfuglien, Enstrom, and then finally give them competent goaltending you have the force that the Jets have become this season.

Will this sort of approach work for everybody? Probably not (and if I’m being honest, I was highly critical of the Jets’ approach on more than one occasion over the years), and it requires an owner and general manager that has an almost unheard of level of patience in professional sports to stick with it. And let’s face it, sometimes you do need to make changes. I’m not advocating for say, the New York Islanders, to just keep letting Garth Snow do whatever it is he is doing. And maybe the Jets would have been a playoff team sooner had they made a better effort to find a goalie, for example. You also need to have a little bit of luck when it comes to the draft.

But there are still some important lessons that the rest of the NHL can take from the Jets’ patient approach, especially when it comes to keeping your good players even when times get tough, and not thinking that all of the answers to your problems are available on July 1 when everyone acts like they have a blank check to sign whoever they want.

A few years ago Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets jokingly asked who had a better first day of free agency, then-general manager Dave Nonis, or a potato. The joke being that the potato had a better day because it was an inanimate object that couldn’t do something dumb. I don’t mean this is an insult to Cheveldayoff, but the Jets for the past seven years have basically been the potato in the sense that they just sat back and did nothing except keep their good players, keep their draft picks, and not sign overvalued players in free agency.

If you do nothing, you can’t mess up.

Today, the Jets might actually win a Stanley Cup because of it.

Hockey really is funny sometimes.

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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.

How should Columbus feel about its season?

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though Columbus was an “underdog” in its first-round series against the Capitals, Columbus has to be disappointed with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.

Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.

Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.

Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.

Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.

“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.

“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”

The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.

The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.

There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.

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.

Capitals sticking with Philipp Grubauer for Game 2

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After losing Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz announced on Saturday that he is sticking with goalie Philipp Grubauer for Game 2 of the series on Sunday night.

Grubauer’s rise to the top goaltending spot in Washington is one of the more interesting first-round developments, simply because he has managed to unseat one of the best goalies in the league over the past few years in Braden Holtby.

On one hand, it’s somewhat understandable.

Holtby had a down year by his standards and Grubauer has been excellent down the stretch.

But Holtby isn’t just some guy or some random goalie that we’re talking about here. He has been in the top-five in Vezina Trophy voting three years in a row and in the top-two in each of the past two, winning it in 2015-16. Even more, he’s been mostly pretty great in the playoffs during his career, entering the season with a .932 save percentage in 59 postseason games. That is the second highest save percentage in NHL history among goalies that have played in at least 50 postseason games (he is just .001 behind Tim Thomas’ mark of .933).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Still, the Capitals are sticking with guy that is probably “the hot hand” at the moment.

“I thought he was fine, there was nothing in that game that would make you say, why don’t you make a change,” Trotz said on Saturday (via Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Washington).

“Philip was really was good. I thought in that game we had the game, we kept letting off the floor. They got back into that game, then in the third period we took a couple of penalties that were unnecessary and they got back in the game. Then going into overtime you’re a shot away. All that being said it was a special play by Panarin, and there are very few people that can make that shot. He made that shot. We’ve got some guys that can do the same thing. We’re going back with Gruby, we have a lot of confidence in him, and he’ll be ready.”

Two things are very true there: It was a special play by Panarin (watch it here!), and penalties did get the Capitals in trouble in the third period. Tom Wilson‘s hit on Alexander Wennberg resulted in Thomas Vanek‘s power play goal to tie the game at two, erasing the two-goal advantage Washington had built earlier in the game on an extended power play of their own. Then, after regaining the lead, Andre Burakovsky took a terrible tripping penalty that sent Columbus back to the power play allowing Seth Jones to tie the game.

Since Dec. 1, the Capitals are 14-5-2 when Grubauer starts while he has a .936 save percentage, second best among goalies with at least 20 starts during that stretch.

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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.

Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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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.

Artemi Panarin completes Blue Jackets comeback with incredible OT goal (Video)

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The Columbus Blue Jackets needed a forward that could take over a game.

They got one in Artemi Panarin and after making a huge impact during the regular season, he helped lift the Blue Jackets to a 4-3 overtime win on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.

After Seth Jones scored on a power play late in the third period to send the game to overtime, Panarin scored the game-winner by completing an incredible rush where he blew past Dmitry Orlov and then casually roofed a shot under the crossbar, beating Capitals goalie Phillip Grubauer from a sharp angle.

You can see it in the video above.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Columbus’ acquisition of Panarin was one of the great moves of the offseason.

For as good as the Blue Jackets offense was a season ago (they finished sixth in the NHL in goals scored) they still lacked a go-to-forward that could be a difference-maker. A player that other teams had to constantly worry about every time he was on the ice.

Panarin has been all of that and so much more.

In his first season with the Blue Jackets he showed that his production the past two years in Chicago was not simply the result of playing alongside Patrick Kane (if anything, it seems now that Panarin seemed to help elevate Kane). He set career highs in assists (55) and total points (82) and was one of the most dominant possession-driving forwards in the NHL, finishing the regular season with a 57 percent Corsi rating (also the best mark of his career).

In his first playoff game with his new team he scored a goal (the game-winner), picked up an assist, and was a 63 percent Corsi player (26 shot attempts for; only 15 against for the Blue Jackets with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play).

In other words, another dominant night.

The Blue Jackets had to overcome an early two-goal deficit, and then another deficit late in the third period, to get the win.

More from this game

Alexander Wennberg exits game after hit to head

Blue Jackets’ Josh Anderson ejected for hit from behind

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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.