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Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

***

This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

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.

Roope Hintz becoming important part of Stars lineup

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If you didn’t know who Roope Hintz was before the start of the postseason, you probably weren’t alone. But the 22-year-old has already found a way to leave his mark on the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With his team trailing 2-1 in the best of-seven series against the Predators, the young Finn scored a pair of goals in Dallas’ 5-1 victory over Nashville in Game 4. Even before scoring his first two goals of the playoffs, he kept finding a way to stand out for all the right reasons.

“He’s generating chances, and in Game 1, I thought he was the one that dictated our drive play to their net,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant, but last game he was very effective and (in Game 4) the puck goes in. It’s good for your confidence, but we know what he brings to our team.

“He’s a legitimate top six (forward) and he’s made our team have two lines.”

One concern surrounding the Stars is their scoring depth. Yes, they have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, but secondary scoring has been an issue in previous seasons. Hintz and veteran trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello have formed a nice partnership on the Stars’ second line. Together, they’ve combined to score five times in four games.

Hintz put up nine goals and 22 points in 58 games with the Stars during the regular season, but it became increasingly clear that he was getting more and more comfortable as the season wore on, as he managed to accumulate 17 of those points in the final 30 games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But his journey to being a second-line player for the Stars had its fair share of bumps, especially in 2018-19. Between Oct. 20 and Jan. 20, he was assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars three times. As disappointing as that must have been for him, it was probably for the best.

“You’ve got give credit to the staff there,” Montgomery said, per the Dallas Morning News. “Every time Roope went down, he came back a better player. … The last time he came up, he took his game to another level.”

The difficult part for him will be to maintain this level of play and production for the remainder of the playoffs, but he’s off to a very encouraging start. Even though the Predators are probably a deeper team, the Stars have found a way to make this a best-of-three series because of their power play and secondary scoring.

Let’s see if they can pull off the upset.

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blowouts, nail-biters, and a scary fight

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  • This time, Auston Matthews and John Tavares came out on top, while Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand were nullified in the Maple Leafs’ win.
  • The Hurricanes really overwhelmed the Capitals in the biggest of Monday’s two blowouts.
  • In another tight-checking affair where every mistake counted, the Predators gained a 2-1 series lead against the Stars.
  • Nathan MacKinnon remains red-hot, Cale Makar had a tremendous debut, and Johnny Gaudreau‘s line had a really rough night. That’s a formula for a blowout, and that’s what happened as Colorado froze the Flames.

Maple Leafs 3, Bruins 2 (Toronto leads 2-1)

After going pointless in Boston, a change of scenery was kind to Auston Matthews, who scored his first goal and first assist of the series. Frederik Andersen remains absolutely on-his-game, and as mentioned above, Toronto was able to slow down Boston’s vaunted top line, at least for one night. It wasn’t easy, but Toronto won Game 3, and has a chance to really build a strong lead in this Round 1 skirmish.

Hurricanes 5, Capitals 0 (Washington leads 2-1)

The first two games were tight, but the Capitals managed to “hold serve” with two wins at home. The swing in Carolina was an extreme one, as Carolina absolutely ran away with this one, with Dougie Hamilton and Warren Foegele enjoying the biggest offensive outputs. (Jordan Staal also had two assists, while Petr Mrazek managed an 18-save shutout.) Speaking of swings, one outcome left clouds over this result, as Andrei Svechnikov was clearly hurt in the losing end of a surprising, one-sided fight with Alex Ovechkin. More on that here.

Predators 3, Stars 2 (Nashville leads 2-1)

You could argue that Ben Bishop made the difference in winning Game 1 for the Stars; you can definitely make that argument for Pekka Rinne in Game 3 for the Predators, too. Rinne made 40 saves, and Bishop allowed a couple of goals that might haunt him, and that was enough for Nashville to “regain home-ice advantage,” as they say.

Avalanche 6, Flames 2 (Colorado leads 2-1)

Wow. This wasn’t just a situation where “Mike Smith was Mike Smith,” i.e. the shaky goalie many expected, but one who didn’t show up in Games 1 and 2 (where Smith was fantastic). Smith had his struggles, but this was just an out-and-out rout, as Colorado  dominated virtually every facet of the game, from taking a 3-0 first-period lead on. The Flames have a lot of work to do to get back on track after this setback.

Once more, that fight

Get the full lowdown here, but the clip below includes that bout, plus reactions from both Ovechkin and Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour. Brind’Amour was not pleased.

Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne

Rinne stopped 40 out of 42 shots against the Stars, only allowing goals by Mats Zuccarello and Tyler Seguin. So far, Stars – Predators has frequently come down to which goalie (Rinne or Bishop) blinks first, and in Game 3, Rinne was far superior. It’s tough to argue that anyone was more singularly crucial to a victory on Monday than Rinne.

Also, he provided a highlight of the night candidate with this save sequence:

2. Nathan MacKinnon

The speedy center almost managed a hat trick on Monday, but two goals and one assist stands as a strong output, too. If it weren’t for Mark Stone, MacKinnon might just be on the biggest role of any forward right now. Colorado’s top players vastly outplayed Colorado’s best in Game 3, and while Johnny Gaudreau and others are struggling, that remains a tall feat.

3. Warren Foegele

Much like MacKinnon, Foegele had a big three-point night with two goals and one assist. The 23-year-old also managed an assist in Game 2, so Foegele now has four points in his past two playoff contests. Not bad for a player who finished with 15 points in 77 regular-season games in 2018-19.

Highlight of the Night

Combine that Rinne save with a great Filip Forsberg goal and the Predators provided some of the evening’s best highlights, so let’s go with their 3-2 win against the Predators, in general:

Factoids

Tuesday’s games
Game 4: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets (Columbus leads 3-0) (7 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream
Game 4: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins (Isles lead 3-0)(7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)
Game 4: Jets at Blues (St. Louis leads 2-1) (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, Live stream)
Game 4: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 2-1) (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, Live stream)

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.

Granlund’s goal the difference as Predators edge Stars in Game 3

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Mikael Granlund‘s seeing-eye shot with 8:19 left in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and helped give the Nashville Predators a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 3. Nashville now leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; USA).

The Predators stormed out to a 2-0 lead 14 minutes into the second period as they kept Ben Bishop busy in the Dallas net. Eight minutes after Rocco Grimaldi scored his second goal of the series, Nick Bonino floated a pass to Filip Forsberg, who then added another highlight-reel tally to his resume.

Dallas continued to battle back and broke through minutes after Forsberg’s goal when Mats Zuccarello netted his second in three games. Tyler Seguin would connect after some great work behind the Nashville net by captain Jamie Benn to even the score at two.

Not long after Seguin’s goal, Benn had a glorious chance of his own, but he was denied by the left pad of Pekka Rinne, who finished with 40 saves.

“Just desperation,” Rinne told NBCSN’s Joe Micheletti afterward about the save. “It was a good save at the time.”

But an icing call three minutes later put the Stars in their own zone for a faceoff and unable to get a change. Kyle Turris won the draw and Granlund wired a shot that got by Bishop for the eventual game-winning goal.

Stars head coach Jim Montgomery threw out Benn, Seguin and Alex Radulov in hopes of finding an equalizer, but Rinne and the Predators stood strong to during a third straight one-goal game.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.