Torey Krug

NHL Playoffs: How should top four East teams approach Round Robin?

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While the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams fight to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Round Robin is merely for seeding. Such a scenario presents the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding teams (four in each conference) with many conundrums, including the age-old rest vs. rust debate.

PHT will take a look at such dilemmas for all eight teams in the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding, starting with the East. We’re going East first because the Bruins a) won the Presidents’ Trophy and b) addressed such debates recently.

We might as well go in order as they would be ranked, too.

Debates for East top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

Boston Bruins

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruce Cassidy said he’s open to the idea of resting players during the three-game Round Robin for Seeding.

“Would we like to win all three games? Of course, in a perfect world, but I think with all teams there’s going to be some sort of a preseason mentality worked in with how the lineups are constructed every game,” Cassidy said, via Haggerty. “But if the [veteran players] want to play every game then I’m going to listen to them. It’s their bodies and they would know best. Then in the last game in the third period we’re going to shut our eyes and hope nobody gets hurt in those situations.”

The Bruins are in a heightened situation. While it stings that they may lose the top seeding they earned with 2019-20’s only 100-point season, this is also a roster brimming with veterans.

Most obviously, Cassidy must manage Zdeno Chara (43) and Patrice Bergeron (34). Really, the list goes deeper even than Tuukka Rask, who’s 33.

Brad Marchand is 32, and stands as an example to other contenders. As you may recall, Marchand aggravated a previous hand injury before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it was coincidental, but Marchand’s top line struggled during that seven-game slugfest with the Blues. If teams like the Bruins want to go deep, they should emphasize caution most of all.

So, beyond the obvious, there are players who’ve been banged up like Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy‘s also dealt with bumps and bruises despite ranking as one of the younger Bruins.

Overall, the Bruins rank among the East Round Robin teams with the most incentive to rest key players.

[MORE: How should the West’s top four teams handle rest vs. rust?]

Tampa Bay Lightning

How should the team with the most to lose deal with the Round Robin for Seeding?

Imagine how badly things could play out for the Lightning. We all know that their historic 2018-19 season ended in a stunning first-round sweep. Kenan Thompson mocked it. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked really steamed.

What if the Lightning fall short under these strange circumstances?

It could cost Jon Cooper his job. And there’s the increased risk of scapegoating a lack of “preparedness” if the Lightning take a preseason approach to the Round Robin for Seeding.

You could definitely make the argument that the Lightning took a while to get back into their elite form in 2019-20, too.

But … the Lightning are smarter than to cave to bad takes, right?

Let’s not forget that the Lightning didn’t really take their feet off the gas during that 2018-19 regular season — not really. Rather than resting stars more aggressively, Nikita Kucherov and others chased history.

Personally, it really looked like Victor Hedman was far from 100 percent, even missing some of that first-round sweep.

This Lightning team boasts a fairly old defense beyond Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Hedman is 29 already. Steven Stamkos is 30 (ponders own mortality for a second).

Cooper needs to find the right balance. If there’s any hint of failure in that regard, the vultures may start circling.

Washington Capitals

Zooming out, the most logical choice would be for the Capitals to promote rest.

Almost every major Capitals player is 30 or older, with the rare exception of breakthrough winger Jakub Vrana (24). There’s also some incentive to see if Ilya Samsonov (23) is still sharper than Braden Holtby (30).

But 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin doesn’t sit out a whole lot of games. Maybe the unique circumstances (and lack of a Maurice Richard Trophy to chase) might change Ovechkin’s approach, yet it’s not a slam-dunk to sit him. As Cassidy said, coaches will at times defer to players. It wouldn’t be shocking if such an approach occasionally backfires.

All things considered, the Capitals joust with the Bruins for the East Round Robin team with the most to gain from resting aging stars.

Philadelphia Flyers

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the Flyers want to shake off rust.

For one thing, the Flyers boast several core players in the younger range. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are both 23, while Carter Hart is 21. The Flyers also are “playing with house money” as a team that could climb to the top spot if they end up hot during the Round Robin for Seeding.

But the Flyers have plenty of reason to be careful, too.

To start, the drop-off between Hart and Brian Elliott (or another goalie) looks pretty severe. You don’t necessarily want to increase injury risks with Hart, then.

Also, there are veterans to manage. Philly should aim to keep Claude Giroux (32) and Jakub Voracek (30) fresh, not to mention someone like Matt Niskanen (33). While Sean Couturier is only 27, he’s the sort of player you’ll lean on a ton in playoff situations. So you might want to tread lightly there.

Rather than overtaxing go-to guys, this could be an opportunity for others. Could Nolan Patrick crack the lineup if his migraine issues are behind him? Perhaps a prospect from Philly’s impressive farm system will make a jump?

The Flyers have a lot to like about this situation. Even so, they also need to avoid getting too greedy.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Round Robin teams with most to lose

With Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan kicking in this week, the possibility of the 2020 Stanley Cup being raised remains alive. In recent power rankings posts, we’ve focused on Qualifying Round storylines and matchups. But what about the teams who aim to thrive rather than survive. Today we discuss the top four teams in each conference who will compete in Round Robin for Seeding.

To be more precise, we’re wondering which top four teams have the most on the line. In this case, we’re focused on the top four teams in each conference’s outlooks during entire NHL playoffs, rather than just the Round Robin for Seeding.

Let’s rank them first to last as far as desperation goes in each conference. At the end, we’ll debate who has the absolute most on the line, and who’s playing with house money.

The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, so it seems fairest to start with the top four for the East.

Top four East (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Imagine if the Lightning draw the Blue Jackets at some point during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(Are you cringing too?)

While the Lightning are lucky that they get to jet-ski around a market like Tampa Bay, the rumblings will grow to a fever pitch if they fall short again. (Like, we might need to physically separate Andrei Vasilevskiy from Kenan Thompson.)

Yes, this franchise owns a Stanley Cup. But that was from the Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis – Brad Richards era. For all Steven Stamkos has accomplished, he’s had his heart and face broken in many NHL playoffs. At some point, it’s going to get awkward if Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman “can’t win the big one.”

(Speaking of cringing, wait for those takes.)

2. Boston Bruins

The 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners keep hiding Father Time’s coat and shoes. It’s not just Zdeno Chara hogging the Fountain of Youth/Lazarus Pit at 43, either. Patrice Bergeron remains dominant at 34. You might make a double-take when you realize Brad Marchand is already 32. Oh yeah, Tuukka Rask is 33, too.

You … gotta think the Bruins are peaking right? Right? I mean, I honestly felt like this group would hit the aging curve hard by now, yet they comfortably topped the NHL standings this season.

It’s not just about wondering if the window will close. Even before the pandemic pause, it seemed like pending UFA Torey Krug would represent a tight squeeze. If they want to bring Krug back, you’d think they’d need to break up some of the band.

As much as this group has accomplished, you have to think that Chara & Co. want a second Stanley Cup (and first for star David Pastrnak).

3. Washington Capitals

*Rubs eyes*

Wait a minute, is this really happening? Are the Capitals relatively unfettered by “must-win” pressure?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional Jakub Vrana, this roster’s getting a little up there in age. If for some reason you want to ponder your own mortality during the escape of watching hockey, merely ponder Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin Round Robin NHL
It works for Ovechkin, but still. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Braden Holtby‘s pending UFA status lingering, there’s still room for Capitals drama. No doubt, though, slaying that Stanley Cup dragon relieves most of the angst.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

For some, the Flyers kinda slipped up the ranks under the radar. This has been a team that’s mainly been playoff bubble material, at least when the wheels don’t fall off. Now they’re a Round Robin for Seeding away from possibly swiping the East’s top seed.

Don’t blame at least some of the Flyers for feeling pretty loose, then.

Yet … it’s not as if they’re playing with zero pressure.

Obviously, Philly can be a tough market. If the Flyers flounder, people will grumble about squandering a golden opportunity.

Also, for all the considerable youth on this roster, could this be a “sweet spot” between rising talent and aging stars? Claude Giroux (32), Jakub Voracek (30), and James van Riemsdyk (31) all might be heading toward a decline.

Top four West (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. St. Louis Blues

Like the Capitals, the Blues recently ended their franchise’s decades-long Stanley Cup drought. I’d wager there are some Blues fans who view the rest as “all gravy.”

Still, when you’re defending champs, you have a target on your back.

Combine that thought with Alex Pietrangelo possibly being out the door, and the temperature rises. What if this is the Blues’ best chance at a second Stanley Cup for quite a while? That thought won’t inspire the “Jaws” theme, exactly, but there’s some heat on the Blues.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

It feels deeply weird to put a third-year team on this list. Shouldn’t the Golden Knights enjoy basically a decade-long “honeymoon phase?”

Well, the Golden Knights are a deeply unusual expansion team.

Rather than being full of young debris, this is a full-flavored contender. And that goes right down to having some expensive players who are getting a little older. Not “Bruins” old, but the core Golden Knights might suddenly enter declines in the not-so-distant future.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury probably already hit a wall at 35. The Golden Knights made the smart investment to acquire Robin Lehner, but that could set the stage for drama. After all, if we’re being honest … Lehner probably should be the No. 1 guy for now.

The Golden Knights gambled earlier than expected, so if they leave with empty wallets, it will be pretty painful. Not “Joe Pesci’s gruesome death in Casino” painful, but painful.

3. Dallas Stars

The Stars should rank lower. As much as any team, it’s bewildering to realize that they’re basically a hot week from owning the top seed in their conference.

But, honestly, any team that’s thrown Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus this often faces some bleeping horsebleep if they end with a whimper.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Honestly, it feels like we’re still in the “rising fast” portion of the Avalanche’s growth.

While they’ve made some nice moves, you get the impression something splashier lingers down the road. They haven’t gone all-in by any stretch yet, and most of their core is still so young. Nathan MacKinnon‘s 24, Mikko Rantanen‘s merely 23, and Cale Makar‘s a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, this feels like the “young kids hit a bump in the road” part of the narrative. Sports can be strange even in pre-pandemic times, though, so who knows?

Round Robin Team with most, least to lose

• Lightning have the most to lose

If they fall especially flat, it could conceivably cost Jon Cooper his job. That’s absurd by any measure, and particularly now, but … it’s also far from unimaginable.

•  Flyers have least to lose

The best might be yet to come for this group, aside from the aforementioned aging players. Probably.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:
League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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.

Maple Leafs create intrigue by signing Mikko Lehtonen

Maple Leafs sign signing Mikko Lehtonen KHL
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The Toronto Maple Leafs made an interesting signing by landing defenseman Mikko Lehtonen.

Lehtonen, 26, topped all KHL defensemen with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) this season. Not surprisingly, Lehtonen represented Jokerit as a KHL All-Star. The Maple Leafs website notes that the KHL tabbed Lehtonen as defenseman of the month for three months in a row.

Jokerit director of player personnel (and NHL Central Scouting chief European scout) Janne Vuorinen raved about Lehtonen to Post Media’s Michael Traikos.

“I think his style fits well for Toronto,” Vuorinen said. “Torey Krug is a good comparison. He runs the power play well and gets pucks to the net with a good wrist shot. He was the best player in Europe, IMO. He’s ready to play in the NHL.”

Why the Maple Leafs signing Lehtonen is intriguing

You could call this an intriguing signing for a number of reasons:

  • The Maple Leafs managed to sign Lehtonen despite what Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston deemed “a long list of suitors.” Fans may delight in the belief that Lehtonen seemingly chose the Maple Leafs over the Canadiens.
  • Johnston reports that the Maple Leafs convinced Lehtonen to sign without any performance bonuses involved.
  • On paper, Lehtonen creates quite the logjam of left-handed defensemen.

Stretching back to 2018-19, Toronto’s deployed an abundance of LHD. Some of the names changed, but the puzzle remains.

To summarize: the Maple Leafs obviously will emphasize Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. From there, the Maple Leafs also have emerging defenseman Rasmus Sandin, pending RFA Travis Dermott, and now Lehtonen.

(It makes me wonder, at least a little bit, if Lehtonen really looked at Toronto as the easiest path to regular playing time.)

Could this be it for, say, Dermott? Might the Maple Leafs aim for a trade to balance things out a bit more on the right side?

Toronto seems willing to roll with defensemen playing on their off-side, if nothing else. While those scenarios don’t always feel optimized, sometimes it’s better to just put together as much talent as possible, and hope the other details work themselves out.

Getting possibly the best defenseman not playing in the NHL, and doing so with a cap-friendly deal? This seems like strong work by GM Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs.

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.

Strong free agent goalie market takes a hit as Bruins extend Halak

Bruins extend extension Jaroslav Halak $2.25M free agent goalies
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In managing to extend Jaroslav Halak for $2.25M for 2020-21, the Bruins landed a nifty bargain. They also dealt a blow to what looks — at least on paper — to be a strong free agent market for goalies.

The Boston Globe’s Matt Porter reports that Halak’s contract includes a $1.25M bonus if he reaches 10+ games played. Those details don’t take away from this being a very nice deal for the Bruins.

Bruins extend Halak to keep together one of the NHL’s best tandems

Look, at 34, I’m not certain that Halak would have nabbed a starting job. From the Flames to the Hurricanes, I could certainly see places where the veteran goalie might make sense as a No. 1, but I understand if there was some apprehension. He’s had some injury issues here and there when asked to carry a larger burden.

But, at minimum, Halak carried the potential to be a strong “platoon” option.

Halak didn’t match Rask this season, but Rask likely deserves to be a Vezina finalist, so that’s no slight. Halak really makes that tandem even better, keeping Rask fresh while winning games. The Czech netminder managed a strong 18-6-6 record with a fabulous .919 save percentage. That’s actually a slight step back from an even better 2018-19 (22-11-4, .922) where he threatened Risk at times for the starting gig.

After a mild dip with the Islanders (.913 save percentage over four seasons), it seemed like Halak might slip into being “only” an average goalie. But, nope, when he joined his pal Zdeno Chara in Boston, Halak returned to sorely underrated status.

NHL teams were already warming up to “load management” even before the COVID-19 pause happened. Under those circumstances, Halak already served as quite the luxury for the Bruins.

Now, with discussions about squeezing games into smaller windows of time floating around? It only makes the team-friendly price that much more appealing.

The Bruins still need to strike a deal with pending UFA Torey Krug, while figuring out what’s next with Chara. Even so, this is a sweet deal for Boston. For Halak? If nothing else, he gains some certainty in uncertain times, and also gets to stick with a team that’s been a strong contender.

PHT takes a closer look at the Bruins:
• Looking at their 2019-20 season
Surprises and disappointments
Long-term outlook

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.

Pod hockey: Leading plan for NHL return includes empty rinks

Get used to the concept of pods and pucks if the NHL is going to have any chance of completing its season, with the most likely scenarios calling for games in empty, air-conditioned arenas during the dog days of summer.

What is emerging as the leading plan involves bringing teams back in a few empty NHL buildings to complete some, if not all, of the remaining regular-season games before opening the playoffs and awarding the Stanley Cup for the 125th time in the past 127 years.

The most aggressive timetable would have players returning to their home rinks as early as May 15, followed by a training camp and possible exhibition games in June, a person familiar with discussions told The Associated Press.

The regular season would then resume in July, with the Cup awarded in September, the person said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because plans haven’t been finalized.

Commissioner Gary Bettman emphasized no decisions have been made and noted that government and medical officials will ultimately make the call on when sports can return. Still, the league and NHL Players’ Association have formed a joint committee to determine a path forward that could get games back on the ice sometime in July without fans in attendance.

The joint committee released statement Wednesday night echoing Bettman, saying they ”have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios.” However, they added they believed there was a possibility to return to small group activities at team facilities in mid to late May.

”When we feel that players are safe and we have enough testing and we have enough ways to get back on the ice for us, it’s probably going to be contained at playing at like four or five neutral sites,” Florida Panthers president Matthew Caldwell said. ”My guess is that we would start with either limited fans or empty arenas, so just the teams and their associated staffs.”

One scenario calls for teams playing each other at four NHL rinks around North America. Each would play about a dozen regular-season games to even out the standings and determine playoff seedings. Play was postponed with 189 total games remaining for the 31 teams.

Edmonton captain Connor McDavid, who is on the NHL/NHLPA committee that meets weekly, believes ”the fairest season is a full season” but that might not be possible. Players must approve any plan to return.

”Guys are preparing to possibly having to play in the summer,” McDavid said, ”and guys just want to play.”

That likely means playing in empty NHL buildings. The minimum league requirements call for arenas having at least four NHL-caliber locker rooms, a nearby practice facility and hotel infrastructure. They also cannot be located in a COVID-19 hot spot, though that definition is not clear.

”Among the scenarios we’re looking at is potentially as many as four (cities) because we need a lot of ice,” Bettman said on Sportsnet last week.

Bettman alluded to playing as many as three games a day, which would provide much-needed live entertainment on NBC Sports and other networks, many of whom have time to fill following the postponement of the Summer Olympics.

No fans would be in attendance and even broadcasters might be limited to calling games remotely. Mike ”Doc” Emrick, the voice of hockey in the U.S. for NBC Sports, has done it a few times for games staged overseas or outdoors.

”It was an interesting concept,” Emrick said. ”It’s not impossible because of high-definition now and because of the precision that you get with the cameras.”

The league is still exploring sites, though Bettman’s criteria puts places like Edmonton, Alberta, and Columbus, Ohio, on the list because practice rinks and hotels are all nearby. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said Toronto was in the running, and Bettman spoke to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney last week about Edmonton being one of the sites.

”We would obviously expect the league to prepare a very detailed plan to mitigate risk,” Kenney said. ”I gather the NHL is looking at finishing the season in arenas for television purposes without large crowds. Whether or not we could accommodate that, we do not yet know.”

Some projections suggest the NHL could lose up to $1 billion in revenue if the season is not completed. The financial hit would affect both owners and players based on the league’s revenue-sharing agreement.

There are still plenty of unknowns, ranging from when teams can re-open facilities and getting players back from Europe.

Still, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, has already suggested a way for sports to return: without fans and with players quarantined and tested often.

”On paper, this could definitely work if all of the athletes, coaches, medical staff and service workers around them are isolated for 14 days and test negative prior to coming together,” said Dr. Patrick Mularoni, medical director of sports medicine at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. ”You would need 100% strict adherence to staying away from anyone outside of the ‘bubble’ or the oasis and the virus wouldn’t get in.”

One concern among players is how much time they might have to spend playing in relative self-isolation and without their family for what could amount to months. There’s also the risk of infection, with hockey being a contact sport.

”Player safety’s been something that keeps coming up when I talk to guys around the league or guys on my team,” said defenseman Torey Krug, the Boston Bruins’ alternate NHLPA representative. ”Frequent testing is something that would probably help, but we’ve got to make sure that it’s really safe to even get to that point where we can even talk about it.”