Torey Krug

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

PHT Morning Skate: Marner rejected offer sheets; CBA talk

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Mitch Marner rejected a couple of offer sheets because he only wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (NHL)

• Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney is expecting to have some conversations with defender Torey Krug, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. (NBC Boston)

• Did the players hand Gary Bettman a victory already? (The Hockey News)

• Cooler heads prevailed with the NHL’s CBA extensio. (Edmonton Journal)

• Just one game in and Jack Hughes is already flashing his potential. (Nj.com)

• Zamboni with Whalers logo is sold to scrap yard. (WFSB)

• How the Vancouver Canucks should deploy rookie defender Quinn Hughes. (Daily Hive)

• The New York Rangers prepare to start a new era of hockey on Wednesday. (Elite Sports NY)

• The Canucks and Brock Boeser were able to compromise, but difficult days are ahead. (Sportsnet)

• The Edmonton Oilers could really try Connor McDavid‘s patience. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Can Max Domi maintain his offensive impact in a move back to the wing? (Habs Eyes On The Prize)

• Jim Montgomery and the Stars will use the preseason to adjust to some rule changes. (Dallas Morning News)

• Alex Nylander makes strong first impression with Chicago Blackhawks. (NBC Chicago)

• Top-five key players to a successful season for the Washington Capitals. (Stars and sticks)

• Dylan Larkin by the numbers (Red Wings)

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Previewing the 2019-20 Boston Bruins

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but only marginally so. Marcus Johansson provided a nice boost to Boston’s depth scoring as a rental, and now he’s gone. But, really, for a team that was as competitive as the Bruins — and has been as competitive as long as the Bruins have managed to be — this was a manageable offseason.

Strengths: The Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak remains in the conversation of best lines in the NHL, and plenty put them at number one, period. They dominate games not just by scoring in buckets, but by hogging the puck to a staggering degree. That trio likely stands as the biggest reason why the Bruins deployed an explosive power play last season, but Torey Krug deserves credit there, too. Being able to keep Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo in the fold should help the Bruins be strong on defense (for the most part). Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak was a strong goalie pairing last season, and David KrejciJake DeBrusk have created an effective second line duo that doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves.

Weaknesses: There’s little sense ignoring the threat of Father Time, as plenty of key scorers and both Bruins goalies are on the wrong side of 30. The Bruins must also keep an eye on Zdeno Chara, and not just because he’s at risk of missing parts of the early season with injuries. He’s slowing noticeably, so the Bruins can’t get too sentimental. It’s not outrageous to worry if the Bruins might go back to being a little top-heavy again.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Cassidy’s seat should be as cool as the other side of the pillow, with his greatest dangers coming in practice.

That said, the Bruins have high hopes, and if they falter, there might not be a ton of patience. We don’t know how long this team’s window of contention may stay open, what with so many key players battling the aging curve. It’s also worth noting that ownership is changing from Jeremy Jacobs to his six offspring, so there’s a mild risk of the Bruins turning into an NHL answer to “Succession.”

I’d rate it as a two (or maybe three) out of 10.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle, and Tuukka Rask.

Marchand is always interesting. Sometimes, because he’s performing at an all-world level. Other times, it’s because he’s being hockey’s most obnoxious troll. Plenty of times, he’s both.

In Coyle’s case, he gets a fuller taste of life as a member of the Bruins after getting his feet wet coming in around trade deadline time. This is a contract year for Coyle, so a lot of money is on the line, and it’s tough to say what kind of price tag he’ll demand.

Rask has occasionally been the scapegoat when things go a little sideways in Boston. That’s the life of a $7 million starting goalie. Fair or not, if Rask stumbles to begin 2019-20, people will wonder about the psychological aftershocks of a tough Game 7 loss against the Blues.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have shown us how a few players can seemingly age overnight, and a proud team can plummet all the way down to the cellar. The mileage on Rask, Bergeron, Krejci, Chara, Halak, and even Marchand should not be ignored, particularly after a deep playoff run.

Still, this Bruins team was fantastic last season, and should be very strong again. Matching last year’s deep run is unlikely to be easy thanks to a formidable Atlantic Division, but the playoffs are a good bet.

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

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.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

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

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 camps opening with list of unsigned free agents

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P.K. Subban doesn’t want to give advice to all the unsigned young players around the NHL. He just vividly remembers his own experience as a restricted free agent.

Before he signed a short, so-called “bridge” contract, he took some motherly advice.

“My mom picked up the phone and called me and said: ‘P.K., listen, you’re young still. You have lots of time. If you’re ready to go and play, go play,’” Subban recalled. “And I went and played and won the Norris Trophy.”

Almost a dozen prominent restricted free agents remain unsigned on the eve of training camps around the league, and several situations threaten to linger into the season, like Subban in 2013 and Toronto’s William Nylander a year ago. Maple Leafs teammate Mitch Marner, Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point, Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor could all be conspicuously absent when camps open this week.

“Everybody’s waiting on somebody to make a move,” Toronto center Auston Matthews said. “I’m surprised there’s lots of guys. It’s not just (Marner). You’ve got a lot of really good players that aren’t signed yet. I guess everybody’s just kind of playing the waiting game.”

Dominoes could start to fall after Columbus signed restricted free agent defenseman Zach Werenski to a $15 million, three-year deal and New Jersey gave forward Pavel Zacha $6.75 million over three years . The salary cap is a concern: Toronto will have to use long-term injury allowance to get Marner under contract, Tampa Bay has less than $9 million in cap space for Point, Boston is roughly $7 million under with McAvoy and Carlo unsigned, and Winnipeg has $15 million for both Laine and Connor.

“Everybody’s got room to do what they need to do,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “You’re not looking at situations where the restricted free agents haven’t been made substantial offers. It’s they and their agents want more. I respect that.”

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said he would like all those players to have the contracts they want but acknowledged, “That’s not probably the world we live in.” The ongoing contract stalemates have sparked plenty of questions about the lack of rights for restricted free agents and the trend toward younger players wanting to cash in on their second contracts.

“The team has you in a certain situation where you have no rights, so you don’t have much of a say,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. “That’s how it’s set up. Those guys will make their big bucks later on or whatever. It’s just how it works.”

Krug said, “If you just look at the star power, it’s potentially damaging to some teams” if they can’t get their restricted free agents signed in time for the start of the season. Nylander missed the first two months last season when contract talks were at an impasse. Things could also drag out with Marner and others.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said he would like all those players to have the contracts they want but acknowledged, “That’s not probably the world we live in.” The ongoing contract stalemates have sparked plenty of questions about the lack of rights for restricted free agents and the trend toward younger players wanting to cash in on their second contracts.

“The team has you in a certain situation where you have no rights, so you don’t have much of a say,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. “That’s how it’s set up. Those guys will make their big bucks later on or whatever. It’s just how it works.”

Krug said, “If you just look at the star power, it’s potentially damaging to some teams” if they can’t get their restricted free agents signed in time for the start of the season. Nylander missed the first two months last season when contract talks were at an impasse. Things could also drag out with Marner and others.

The Bruins without McAvoy and Carlo and the Flyers without Provorov and Konecny are in a similar spot. Boston could be without half of its top four on defense.

“It doesn’t bother us,” goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “I think it’s more for the general managers and coaches that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Based on his own experience, Krug said, he thinks it can be a distraction not to have key players in camp. He also believes what players are doing in their downtime matters.

“Are they still training, or are they sitting there pouting and wondering, ‘When am I going to sign and when do I actually have to get serious and ramp things up?’” he said. “It’s a different circumstance for all players. (But) once you show up, the contract’s over with and you just start playing.”

Whenever that happens to be.