Tom Wilson

It’s Washington Capitals Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

2018-19
48-26-8, 104 points (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.

IN
Radko Gudas
Richard Panik
Bredan Leipsic

OUT
Brooks Orpik
Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin
Matt Niskanen

RE-SIGNED
Carl Hagelin
Jakub Vrana
Christian Djoos
Chandler Stephenson

2018-19 Season Summary

For the first time in franchise history, the Capitals came into a season as defending Stanley Cup Champions. Captain Alex Ovechkin had been waiting to hoist the cup over his head for years, and when he finally got to do it he made it count. He and the Caps partied and partied and partied throughout the summer. Did it affect them heading into training camp? Not really.

The Capitals still managed to come away with the Metropolitan Division crown and they finished third in the top three in the Eastern Conference standings. Unfortunately for them, their regular-season success didn’t transform into a long playoff run, as they went head-to-head with the Eastern Conference’s version of Cinderella, the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Capitals won the first two games of the series at home before dropping Games 3 and 4 in Carolina. When the series shifted back to Washington for Game 5, the Caps came out and dominated 6-0 to put the ‘Canes on the brink of elimination. What happened next was quite surprising. Carolina came out and won Game 6 at home and they finished the job by beating the Caps in their own building in double OT.

It was a stunning end to another relatively successful season for Washington.

“The core guys played well in the playoffs, I thought,” general manager Brian MacLellan said, per NHL.com. “It was the people around the core that could have been criticized a little bit. So we changed the people around the core. Hopefully, we addressed what we thought was the reason we lost to Carolina.”

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

It’s tough to argue with MacLellan’s logic here. Ovechkin had nine points in seven games, Nicklas Backstrom had eight points in seven games, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was a little quiet in the road games of the series, still finished with six points in seven games, while Tom Wilson and John Carlson each had five points in the series.

Brett Connolly, Andrei Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen all had just two points in the first round matchup. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three players weren’t brought back. In fairness to Connolly, he signed with Florida during free agency and the Caps didn’t have a ton of cap space to bring him back. Niskanen was shipped to Philadelphia in a trade and Burakovsky wasn’t extended a qualifying offer.

“We ended up having a good year,” MacLellan said. “But in the playoffs, it was inconsistent, for me, and I don’t know if it’s a fatigue thing or some other thing that we realized the battle that was ahead of us and weren’t up to the challenge. I’m not sure. I don’t have the exact thing pinpointed, but because of that, we felt we needed to change the group a little bit.”

With Brooks Orpik retiring, the Caps decided to add Radko Gudas from Philadelphia. He’ll add some sandpaper to the back end. They also brought in Richard Panik, who had 14 goals and 33 points in 75 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season. How much will these additions add to the core group?

There are other question marks surrounding this team heading into this year that we’ll tackle at PHT throughout the day.

MORE:
• 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.

Capitals have some huge decisions to make with key players

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have one of the more complex juggling acts in the NHL over the next year.

His team is just one year removed from its first ever Stanley Cup and is still, as currently constructed, a championship contender that should be one of the best teams in the league this season. They still have their core of stars in place, and they have worked to improve the depth around them with the recent additions of Carl Hagelin (before the trade deadline this past season), Richard Panik, and Garnet Hathaway.

For this season, everything is in place right for another run at a championship.

It is what happens after this season when things will get complicated as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Alex Ovechkin will be set to enter the final year of his contract.

Those are three of the most important players in the history of the Capitals franchise and the backbone of the team that finally brought the Stanley Cup to the district.

It is almost kind of hard to believe that Backstrom and Ovechkin are so close to the end of their deals given how long those contracts were. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that began during the 2008-09 season, while Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract for the start of the 2010-11 season. Given how much the Capitals have received in return from those two they might be two of the best contracts signed during the salary cap era (honestly, the only other contenders are the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo in Pittsburgh).

Now they are starting to reach their end because father time is a relentless monster that is always chasing after each and everyone of us. Time really does fly.

MacLellan’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep them, and which one to let go if it should come to that.

Let’s start with the obvious one: As long as he wants to play in the NHL it is almost impossible to believe that Ovechkin will ever wear a sweater that is not the Capitals. He is one of the “one team” icons in the sport, and there is no way Ted Leonsis is going to let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (and perhaps even reach it) with another team. That is just not going to happen. He stays.

But there is nothing the Capitals can do with Ovechkin’s contract until next July. They can, however, sign Backstrom or Holtby at any point starting right now.

This is where the big decision might have to come in, because given the constraints of the salary cap it is hard to see how they can fit all three on the team beyond this season.

The Capitals have a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, and already have 15 players under contract for 2020-21 and 13 players under contract for the 2021-22 season. Trying to figure out what the salary cap is going to look like in either of those years is nearly impossible right now, but the Capitals already have $62 million committed to their 2020-21 roster and nearly $50 million for the year after.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a lot, and they not only have to worry about re-signing their superstars, but also filling out the remainder of the roster around them.

When it comes to prioritizing between Backstrom and Holtby the most sensible investment would seem to be Backstrom. He is a No. 1 center, still one of the best players in the world, and should continue to be a top-line performer into his 30s.

Will he decline some? Almost certainly. But what he gives the Capitals will still be better than the alternatives they might realistically be able to acquire.

That leaves Holtby. The problem the Capitals will have with Holtby is you already saw what his next contract might look like this summer when Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers. That is going to be a massive contract to squeeze in under the cap when taking into account Backstrom’s next deal (which will probably be a raise, and maybe a significant one, from his current contract) and the eventual extension for Ovechkin (almost certainly $10 million-plus per season).

The only real to realistically do that is going to be shipping out another significant player in a trade.

Tom Wilson? T.J. Oshie? Dmitry Orlov? Or perhaps a combination depth players that are signed to term. The Lars Eller, Hagelin, and Panik trio will combine for $9 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons, all for depth players well into their 30s. Will that be the best use of salary cap space? (This is the risk with signing depth players to long-term contracts.)

But that is IF the Capitals want to make that sort of a commitment to Holtby.

He has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career and is still capable of shining in big moments and carrying the team when he is on top of his game. But over the past two seasons (and including the Stanley Cup year, when he did not even enter the playoffs as the starter) those moments have not been as frequent. He has started to shown signs of slowing down, and investing a seven-or eight-year contract into a goalie that will be 31 years old in the first year of his next deal could be too big of a risk.

If the Capitals have to move on from one of their big-three, Holtby is the most logical choice. He is the one that is probably least likely to retain most of his current value in future seasons, and even though he has been a top-tier goalie for so many years he is also probably the one they have the best chance of replacing.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby era has been an incredible success in Washington, winning two Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup all in the past four years.

But with their current contracts coming to an end it is entirely possible that one of them — probably Holtby — will be finishing their career in a different uniform barring some other significant change elsewhere on the roster.

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.

NHL Free Agency: 10 things we learned on a crazy July 1

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As far as free agency signing days go this July 1 turned out to be one of the wilder ones we have seen in years.

The New York Rangers landed a star, the Montreal Canadiens utilized the offer sheet option, there was a blockbuster trade that significantly altered two potential Stanley Cup contenders, and one general manager uttered one of the weirdest quotes you will ever read regarding a signing.

We take a look at all of those storylines and more with 10 things we learned on a crazy free agent signing day.

1. Montreal’s offer sheet did not go far enough

Credit to Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens for exploring every possible option when it comes to trying to make their team better. It has been far too long since a team signed a restricted free agent offer sheet, and when word first surfaced that the Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho there was an immediate sense of excitement that free agency was about to get interesting … right up until the terms of the deal were released.

The five-year offer comes with a salary cap hit of $8.45 million per season and would require the Canadiens to give up a first, second, and third-round pick if the Hurricanes do not match.

It is an offer the Hurricanes seem almost certain to match, especially given the reaction of general manager Don Waddell at his press conference discussing the offer. Waddell said he was surprised the offer was not higher, and that he may take all seven days to decide on whether or not to match it because it may prevent Montreal from signing other players and he may not want to help them out. He also joked that it saved him a lot of time because now he will not have to spend the summer negotiating a new contract. Those are the words of a general manager who is confident and comfortable in what he is doing. He is matching.

The Canadiens capped their offer at $8.45 million per season because going any higher would have increased the compensation to two first-round picks as long as it remained under $10.568 million (anything higher than that would require four first-round draft picks).

The first question here is if you are going to go this direction, why make an offer that can so easily be matched? Given how good Aho is, it’s not like he wouldn’t be worth a $9-10 million contract for the next five or six years, especially since he will be in the prime of his career at his peak level of production. He is a star with the best days of his career directly in front of him.

The second question is why not target a player on a team in a more dire salary cap situation? It was reported on Monday by Pierre LeBrun that the Canadiens had also considered making an offer to Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point before focussing on Aho.

Had the Canadiens made a similar offer to Point (who also would have been worth it) the Lightning would have almost certainly had to clear salary cap space in another move just to create enough room to match it.

It was a great idea in theory and a bold move. It was simply not bold enough.

2. The New York Rangers are back in business

At least one team that calls Madison Square Garden home was able to finish the deal and lure in a top free agent this summer.

The Rangers paid a significant price for Artemi Panarin, but it continued what has been a potentially franchise-shifting offseason for the team.

One year ago they were telling their fans to prepare for a lengthy and painful rebuild.

This summer they added a bonafide star (Panarin), a potential star (Kaapo Kakko), and a top-four defender in Jacob Trouba.

Is that enough to get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2019-20? Maybe not, especially in a Metropolitan Division that is setting itself up to be a complete free-for-all, but all of it definitely puts the rebuild on an accelerated path.

Free agency is always a risk and more often than not the long-term contracts signed on July 1 are going to end up as buyouts or trade fodder a couple of years down the line, but Panarin is the rare exception that it is worth it to go all in on. He still has several more years as an elite player, and in his first four years in the league has proven to be one of the best and most productive forwards in the league.

If you are going to hand out a big contract, you better make sure it is a star and an impact player.

The Rangers did that.

3. The Maple Leafs and Avalanche both got what they needed

Congratulations to Tyson Barrie for finally getting his hame removed from the “always on the trading block but never actually traded” list.

He is on the move to Toronto, along with Alexander Kerfoot, in the blockbuster deal that sends Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche.

It continued what was an extremely active day for the Maple Leafs that saw them overturn a significant chunk of their roster for two very big reasons: Clearing salary cap space to secure restricted free agent Mitch Marner, and also improving a defense that was the obvious Achilles heel of the team the past couple of years.

With the departures of Jake Gardiner (well, he is likely to depart) and Ron Hainsey in free agency, as well as the trade of Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa, there were an awful lot of holes on that Toronto defense.

There had to be another shoe to drop.

The other shoe was Barrie.

He is a massive addition to the Maple Leafs’ defense and gives them a very formidable top-three along with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. The fact Colorado is picking up half of Barrie’s contract also helps given Toronto’s salary cap situation.

As for Colorado, Kadri gives the Avalanche a great second-line center to play behind Nathan MacKinnon, and along with the free addition of Joonas Donskoi greatly improves their forward depth.

Kadri is an outstanding player due to his shutdown defensive play and 30-goal potential, but his inability to control himself proved costly for the Maple Leafs in consecutive postseasons.

If he can stick to playing hockey without crossing the line and getting himself suspended at the worst possible time he is going to help.

Losing Barrie hurts, but the Avalanche have an exciting crop of young defenders coming through the pipeline that are ready to make an impact in the NHL with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram all ready to take over.

They also have an absurd amount of salary cap space and could still complete another move to replace Barrie. They are still in business and still building something that could be special.

[Related: Maple Leafs, Avalanche make blockbuster trade involving Kadri, Barrie]

4. The Penguins did not learn their lesson

For the second year in a row the Penguins gave a bottom-of-the-lineup role player a long-term contract that defies pretty much any and all logic given their roster and salary cap situation.

Signing Brandon Tanev for $3.5 million per season is, on its own, probably a defensible signing. The cap hit is not terrible, and probably not far from what someone of his skillset should get on the open market. He will do nothing for your offense, but he is a good defensive player, he can kill penalties, he plays hard, he can help you form a good fourth line. There is nothing wrong with him as a player. But as I argued on Sunday following the Phil Kessel trade, the key for the Penguins was always going to be what they did with their newly acquired salary cap space and how efficiently they could use it.

They failed.

There is no reason to give a fourth-liner a six-year contract, just as there is no reason to give a third-pairing defender a five-year contract, just as there is no reason to acquire another third-pairing defender that makes $4 million per season.

On their own, each of them is a little mistake and a small mis-use of limited salary cap space.

On their own, none of them alters the franchise in a positive or negative direction.

But when you add all of them together all of those little mistakes turn into one big mistake and suddenly a team that is constantly talking about how tight the salary cap is and how little wiggle room they have under has more than $10 million committed to bottom-line, replacement level players.

Despite the general managers insistence they still have holes on defense, especially when it comes to moving the puck, and they are still going too far in their quest to be “tough to play against” and finding “pushback.”

Tom Wilson broke them three years ago and he is still in their heads today.

5. The Canucks are still a rudderless ship

The Canucks have an emerging superstar in Elias Pettersson and another top-line player in Brock Boeser.

That is great.

But then what?

General manager Jim Benning seems to be stuck between trying to orchestrate a rebuild while also still trying to put a winning team on the ice, but hasn’t picked a direction or done a good enough job with either approach to send them toward a set path.

They paid a steep price to get J.T. Miller in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the draft, and while he’s a fine player he doesn’t do anything to move the needle in a meaningful direction.

On Monday, he gave Tyler Myers a huge contract that you might want to say is a buyout waiting to happen, except it is a contract that is loaded with signing bonuses which pretty much makes it buyout proof.

In the end, the Canucks seem destined toward another season where they finish 24th or 25th in the league standings and miss the playoffs by a mile, but are not quite bad enough to get the best lottery odds.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Florida had money to spend and got one of its targets

The Panarin-Sergei Bobrovsky package deal didn’t work out, but the Panthers at least got one of them.

But did they get the right one?

Bobrovsky definitely fills a much bigger need in the short-term as the team’s new No. 1 goalie, but he carries significantly more risk given his age and the position he plays.

He is definitely the more boom-or-bust signing.

As long as Bobrovsky is at his peak and playing at the level he has shown over the past seven years he could be the missing piece to get the Panthers back in the playoffs as soon as this season.

But how long do you trust a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to play at such a level?

If he doesn’t, they are on the hook for a massive salary cap hit at one of the most impactful and important positions on the ice.

The other intriguing layer to this is the Panthers just used their first-round pick on … a goalie.

Obviously you are not going to draft for need in the NHL draft because most players are so far away from making an impact and you just want the best player that you think has the best chance to become a star. But goalie is a little different because you only get one of them on the ice at a time, and the Panthers just their first-round pick on a player that, in an ideal world, they will not need to count on and rely on for another five or six years.

Not saying it is wrong. Not saying it is bad. It is just … interesting.

7. Jim Nill makes his yearly big splash

Another year, another offseason championship for Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars.

Every year he finds a way to bring in big-name players, and he pulled it off again with Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

Perry is a total wild card but there is almost no commitment to him or risk with that signing. If he turns out to be done, the Stars don’t really lose anything. Maybe they catch lightning in a bottle and can squeeze some value out of him.

Pavelski seems destined to follow the path Patrick Marleau took when he left San Jose by being really good for one more year, just okay for the second year, and then be a potential buyout before year three.

He could still make a major impact this season.

8. Minnesota is still a total mystery

The Wild have made some strange moves over the past year, gutting their roster of veterans in an effort to get younger and cheaper, and then turning around this offseason and trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players.

They tried and failed to get Phil Kessel.

They succeeded in getting Mats Zuccarello on a five-year, $30 million contract, resulting in one of the weirdest comments you will ever read from an NHL general manager.

That is your general manager, Minnesota.

You are in … some kind of hands?

9. The Islanders are stuck in neutral

By re-signing captain Anders Lee they managed to bring back three of their top unrestricted free agent forwards (Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson being the other two), and that is obviously a big deal even if Lee’s contract looks like a potential long-term trap given his age.

Other than that, there isn’t much happening here for this team.

They missed out on Panarin, the circumstances around the departure of Robin Lehner creates more questions than answers, while they replaced him with an older, more injury-prone, and probably lesser goalie in Semyon Varlamov and then committed four years and $20 million to him.

As it stands right now, they are bringing back mostly the same team — one that struggled to score goals — with a different goalie.

This will be a big test on whether the Islanders success in 2018-19 was goalie driven, or if it really was the work of Barry Trotz and his defensive system behind the bench.

10. The Blackhawks are not comfortable with Corey Crawford‘s health

What other conclusion can you jump to after the signing of Robin Lehner?

When healthy Crawford is a top goalie in the league and one of the most impactful players on the Blackhawks roster. He has been the difference between the team winning and losing for the better part of the past two years … when he plays.

The problem is he has not always been available due to injury and they have not had anyone capable of even coming close to replacing him.

Given their other offseason additions (Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, re-acquiring Andrew Shaw) it is pretty clear the Blackhawks are trying to win now and re-open their window for contention with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. Given that, you don’t sign a potential starting goalie if you are completely comfortable with the status of your current goalie.

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.

Arbitrator upholds Voynov suspension but says he served half

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — An arbitrator upheld Slava Voynov’s one-season NHL suspension Thursday but is giving him credit for serving half of it in 2018-19.

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended the former Los Angeles Kings defenseman for the upcoming season and the 2020 playoffs after determining he committed acts of domestic violence. The NHL Players Association appealed the ruling.

Arbitrator Shyam Das upheld Bettman’s decision that Voynov should be suspended for the equivalent of one NHL season but found he should be credited with having already served 41 games of the suspension last season. So Voynov will now be eligible to return midway through next season.

This marks the third time Das has reduced a suspension in the past eight months. He reduced Nashville forward Austin Watson‘s suspension for domestic violence from 27 to 18 games and later shortened Washington enforcer Tom Wilson‘s suspension by six to 14 games for repeated on-ice hits to the head.

The Kings, who terminated Voynov’s $25 million contract in 2015 but retain his rights due to his status on the voluntary retired list, said in a statement Thursday that he will not play for Los Angeles.

”We will now determine the impact of the arbitrator’s decision on our rights to the player and consider our options going forward,” the team said.

The league said in a statement that it was satisfied the arbitrator supported the penalty in regards to the severity of Voynov’s actions.

The league added that ”while we do not believe Mr. Voynov was entitled to any ‘credit’ for time missed, we accept Arbitrator Das’ conclusion that the precise factual context here was unusual – including the fact Voynov has not played in the NHL since October 2014, and that he did not play professional hockey at all during the 2018-19 season.”

The NHLPA said in a statement that ”this fundamental due process right is designed to ensure that, even in difficult cases involving domestic violence, the NHL’s disciplinary procedures and decisions are fair and consistent. The NHLPA continues to work with the NHL to educate players about domestic violence.”

Voynov’s agent, Roland Melanson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Voynov was suspended indefinitely in October 2014 after being arrested and accused of abusing his wife. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, left the United States to go back to Russia and in July had the conviction dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles. His most recent suspension was imposed in April after he applied for reinstatement.

The 29-year-old Russian last played an NHL game on Oct. 19, 2014. He won a pair of Stanley Cup titles with the Kings in 2012 and 2014.

Since his last NHL game, Voynov played three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. NHL players didn’t compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Roundtable: Round 1 surprising players; toughest road to Stanley Cup Final

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What player surprised you most (good or bad) in Round 1?

SEAN: Entering Round 1, there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence in the Calgary Flames goaltending. They had enough talent to get by the Colorado Avalanche despite the up and down play from Mike Smith and David Rittich during the regular season. While they went out in five games, you can’t place any blame on the play of Smith, who posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a .935 high-danger save percentage, via Natural Stat Trick.

JAMES: Johnny Gaudreau, and frankly, the Flames’ top players overall, Matthew Tkachuk included. It’s one thing for Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to dominate – they tend to do that when they’re even remotely healthy – but Calgary must be stunned by just how severely the strength vs. strength matchups went in Colorado’s favor. The Lightning getting swept was the biggest upset of Round 1, but the Flames’ play was the most upsetting.

ADAM: I almost think I have to go with Warren Foegele, even though I hate — HATE! —  the play that knocked T.J. Oshie out of the series and thought he was fortunate to not get suspended for it. But if you would have told me at the start of their Round 1 series with the Washington Capitals that not only would the Hurricanes win, but it would be Foegele that ended up leading the team in goals I would have laughed in your face. He only had 10 goals and 15 total points all season and finished the first round with four goals and six points in only seven games. Totally out of nowhere for me.

JOEY: Jordan Eberle had a tough regular season, but he really came to play in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did Eberle get his name on the scoresheet at least once in every single game but his team also controlled nearly 54 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice. He was also on the ice for 21 high-danger chances for compared to just eight against. The Islanders forward picked a heck of a time to put it all together, as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. They’ll need him to keep performing at this level if they’re going to make it through to the next round.

SCOTT: Oskar Sundqvist. For a long time, Sundqvist was just that got that got pasted by Tom Wilson in the preseason. After watching him for six games in the series against the Winnipeg Jets, you start to see more than just that nasty hit. Against Winnipeg, he was physical, he produced, adding two goals and two assists in the series, and he played meaningful minutes alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn on the second line (including a five-shot effort in Game 6).

RYAN: Warren Foegele had 10 goals and just 15 points in 77 games in the regular season, but he managed to be a factor in the first round. He had two goals and an assist in Game 3, scored just 17 seconds into Game 4, and chipped in another goal in Game 6. With six playoff points, he’s tied for second place in the Hurricanes’ scoring race, though I don’t expect him to be nearly as effective going forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Which Round 2 team do you believe faces the toughest route to the Stanley Cup Final?

SEAN: The most immediate challenge for the Colorado Avalanche is facing a San Jose Sharks team coming off the emotional high of a 3-1 series comeback and an epic Game 7 to advance to Round 2. That could benefit them early on in the series if the Sharks are still riding those emotional waves. But if Good Martin Jones is what we’re going to see, then the Avs are in for a challenge. The Blues and Stars would pose a similar challenge in going up against stingy defense and good goaltending. Plus there’s the change in play at how the Blues have played since January and the Stars finally finding an identity under Jim Montgomery down the stretch.

JAMES: The Blue Jackets, by a hair. I don’t think you can emphasize enough how unlikely that Lightning sweep was. We can dig through reasons all day, yet Columbus played at a high level — and the Blue Jackets had to. Next, they face a focused, versatile, and dangerous Bruins team. While a would-be third-round opponent seems less foreboding on paper, Columbus still isn’t in a spot to take anyone lightly. The West is likely to provide a robust opponent in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, too. There are plenty of other arguments because there aren’t many easy outs in this tournament (if Colorado goes deep, they’ll have a case), but the Blue Jackets get my vote.

ADAM: Honestly it is still probably the Blue Jackets for me, just because I think they have to play the most complete team still standing in Round 2. This was always going to be their issue for me in the playoffs, the fact they got stuck in the hardest bracket and that even if they got through Tampa Bay, they were going to have to face another top team in the very next round. If they get through this they will have more than earned their spot in the Eastern Conference Final and it would probably be one of the most impressive postseasons runs we have seen in quite some time.

JOEY: I have to go with the Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round, but all that did was get them a date with one of the stingiest teams in the league. That’s not to say that Carolina can’t beat the Islanders over seven games, but their journey to the next round definitely won’t be an easy one. Also, if they do find a way to win their second-round series, they’ll have Columbus or Boston waiting for them in the next round. No matter what happens though, they’re playing with house money at this point.

SCOTT: Columbus. Sorry, but can lightning strike twice? The Bruins are going to grind much harder than Tampa, and they likely know that they’re the frontrunners now with Tampa gone and the rest of the division winners. That’s going to provide some extra steam in the engine. Can Columbus beat Boston? After Round 1, anything can be done. But if we’re talking toughest route to the Cup, it’s got to be the team that has to knock off the first- and second-ranked teams in the NHL to get there. It’s an incredible tale to tell if they do. 

RYAN: The Avalanche. Although Martin Jones continues to give me pause, I still believe the Sharks are ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup and the Avalanche will have to go through them to get any further. Even if the Avalanche manage to pull off that, they’ll have to face the winner of the Stars-Blues series. The Blues are a great all-around squad while the Stars have an elite offensive core supported by a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal, so either of those teams would make life very difficult for the Avalanche even if they do manage to get past San Jose.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks