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Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

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.

Connor McDavid betting favorite to win MVP, even though he’s still on Oilers

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Connor McDavid was the best player in the NHL during the 2017-18 season.

He won the scoring title for the second year in a row (the first player in more than 15 years to win it in consecutive years), he topped the 100-point mark for the second year in a row, he was voted by his peers in the league as the most outstanding player for the second year in a row, and had he played on a team that was anything other than a raging season-long dumpster fire he probably would have been a lock to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP for the second year in a row.

At the very least he would have a finalist.

But because he did play on a team that was a raging season-long dumpster fire, we were treated to another season-long debate on what value means and he ended up finishing fifth in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar and Claude Giroux.

Even though the Oilers are bringing back largely the same roster that finished with the fourth worst record in the Western Conference and was nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot, McDavid is set to enter the 2018-19 season as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award this upcoming season.

The folks at Bovada issued some preseason MVP betting odds on Thursday, and McDavid at 10/3 was at the top of the list.

As long as he stays healthy he is probably going to be the best player in the league once again and, quite honestly, the only thing that can probably stop him from winning the MVP is if the Oilers stink again.

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is second at 13/2, while Toronto Maple Leafs teammates Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin round out the top-five, each at 10-1.

The reigning MVP winner, New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, has the sixth best odds at 15/1.

Here is the complete list that Bovada released on Thursday:

Connor McDavid — 10/3
Sidney Crosby — 13/2
Auston Matthews — 10/1
Alexander Ovechkin — 10/1
John Tavares — 10/1
Taylor Hall — 15/1
Nikita Kucherov –15/1
Nathan MacKinnon — 15/1
Mark Scheifele — 15/1
Anze Kopitar — 18/1
Evgeni Malkin — 18/1
Patrick Kane — 20/1
Claude Giroux — 25/1
Brad Marchand — 25/1
Steven Stamkos — 25/1
Vladimir Tarasenko — 25/1
Jack Eichel — 33/1
Jamie Benn — 40/1
Patrik Laine — 40/1
Nicklas Backstrom — 50/1
Filip Forsberg — 50/1
Johnny Gaudreau — 50/1
Ilya Kovalchuk — 50/1
Evgeny Kuznetsov — 50/1
Artemi Panarin — 50/1
Tyler Seguin — 50/1
Blake Wheeler — 50/1
Logan Couture — 66/1
Phil Kessel — 75/1
Joe Pavelski — 75/1
Aleksander Barkov — 100/1
Jonathan Marchessault — 100/1
David Pastrnak — 100/1
Alexander Radulov — 100/1

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Seguin’s future; Pacioretty on ‘horrible’ season

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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.

Jamie Benn and Snoop Dogg are now BFFs. 

• If Tyler Seguin doesn’t sign a long-term extension with the Dallas Stars and becomes available, would a reunion in Boston make sense? [NBC Boston]

• Brady Tkachuk officially signed his ELC on Monday. Where does he see his future? “I think it’s with Ottawa and in the NHL. I think I’m physically ready and mentally ready for the grind. I think I’m definitely ready and I’m going to get better as the year goes on.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• Despite all the trade rumors, Max Pacioretty is ready to return to the Montreal Canadiens after a ‘horrible’ season. [Sportsnet]

• The four options, per IIHF president Rene Fasel, for the 2022 Winter Olympics: The NHL and NHLPA agree to send players; use a similar setup as Pyeongchang 2018; use under-23 players; no hockey at all in Beijing. [Inside the Games]

• Bill Foley on the Vegas Golden Knights’ off-season and what he wants to do with the team’s pre-game intro next season. [Las Vegas Sun]

• Why bright futures are ahead for both Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic. [TSN]

• Is it time for an NHL playoff format change? [Pensburgh]

• Why January 1, 2019 is a very important date for Jacob Trouba, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Kevin Hayes, and Brock Nelson. [The Hockey News]

• The fans have spoken an the Vancouver Canucks will be wearing the electric skate jerseys a handful of times during their 50th anniversary season in 2019-20. [Canucks]

• Can the New York Rangers win if they don’t have elite talent sprinkled on their roster? [Blue Seat Blogs]

• How does the current Toronto Maple Leafs blue line compare to that of the defending Stanley Cup champions? [Leafs Nation]

• Why Ryan Johansen deserves your respect. [Predlines]

• How Todd Reirden’s staff in Washington will aid him as head coach of the Capitals. [Stars and Sticks]

• The Minnesota Wild and the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps are teaming up. [NWHL]

Zach Aston-Reese is healthy and confident heading into the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. [NHL.com]

• Would it make sense for the New Jersey Devils to take on a bad contract if there’s a decent sweetner involved? [Pucks and Pitchforks]

• Could Shawn Matthias be heading to Switzerland? [Swiss Hockey News]

• Hey, Teuvo Teravainen… not bad, kid:

Getting ready for the season😎 #teuvotuesday #golf #puukäsi

A post shared by Teuvo Teräväinen (@teravainenteuvo) on

Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers.

Hockey nerds, would you like a fun activity? C’mon, the season is far away, you know you want one …

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Ask yourself a question: what are the best contracts in the NHL, under two parameters:

1. The contract must have some term on it. It was a great run, Erik Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, and Max Pacioretty. (Pours one out for John Tavares‘ ridiculous, recently expired deal.)

2. It can’t be a rookie contract, because that’s cheating.

Waits …

Waits some more …

Pencils up, you can stop scouring Cap Friendly now.

For my money – it’s not my money, I can barely afford to run a team in DFS – the best contract in the NHL is probably that of Nathan MacKinnon. He was a (deserving) Hart finalist for the low-low price of a $6.3 million cap hit. If that wasn’t enough, MacKinnon is somehow just 22, and his dirt-cheap cap hit runs for five more seasons.

(Joe Sakic just took a second to stop smirking about the Matt Duchene trade to smirk about MacKinnon’s contract.)

One can debate this topic from dawn until dusk – heck, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall‘s deal is in the discussion, too, though not for much longer – but I’d argue that the Florida Panthers rank among the teams who boast the most great contracts.

Specifically, this franchise is doing a wonderful job of signing fantastic forwards to equally fantastic deals. They’re paralleling what the Nashville Predators are doing with their defensemen: sign guys, usually with proactive extensions, to fairly long-term deals before they’ve fully blossomed.

The result: a slew of contracts that give a budget-conscious team a real chance to compete.

(Yes, it’s more than a little bit amusing that the Panthers biffed the expansion draft by giving away Reilly Smith [a nice $5M value even then] and Jonathan Marchessault [who signed a team-friendly deal in the middle of his first Vegas season, also for $5M per year], yet Florida still boasts so many great deals. There are advantages, you see, to being bad for a long time, not to mention operating in a state that gives sports teams certain tax advantages.)

Take a look at the great deals, and ones that at least qualify as good.

Aleksander Barkov – Panthers fans might have been screaming “Barkov” during that MacKinnon/Hall/etc. discussion, and with good reason. You could make a strong argument that the rising Selke-caliber forward’s deal is the biggest steal at $5.9M through 2021-22.

Like MacKinnon, Barkov is just 22, as he was selected one spot after the speedy Avs center. It turns out Florida was quite smart in doing so, despite the mild surprise.

Barkov set a ton of career-highs (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points) despite seeing his usage flip-flop from beginning about 60-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone before to beginning close to 60-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18.

He’s a legitimate, tide-turning top-line center, and Barkov’s making a relative pittance. He’s also not alone in being a bargain, even if he’s the best value of this bunch.

Jonathan Huberdeau‘s cap hit matches Barkov’s $5.9M, although Huberdeau’s deal runs through 2022-23. In this way, Huberdeau-Barkov parallel Johnny GaudreauSean Monahan as players with similar deals, with both being great values, even if one shines brighter than the other.

We’ll probably move Huberdeau up the bargain rankings more if he can stay healthy, as he did in playing all 82 games in 2017-18. So far, he’s shown the ability to drive puck possession in his own right, seeing a similar increase in defensive work last season. He matched Barkov’s 27 goals, and while he didn’t score as many points, 69 is still a new career-high.

Vincent Trocheck – For a while there, Trocheck was Florida’s other best-kept secret, behind Barkov.

It’s going to be tough for the underrated center to slip under the radar if he matches or exceeds last season’s 31 goals and 75 points, though. Trocheck’s possession stats slipped after some masterful years, yet those could very well go up if Huberdeau stays by his side, as was the case late in last season.

Trocheck is another fantastic steal at just $4.75M through 2021-22.

Evgenii Dadonov – It might seem weird for a 29-year-old to break through, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider how fantastic Dadonov was during his first season after a KHL sojourn.

Other GMs might not feel like it makes sense – or is fair – that a guy who just scored 28 goals and 65 points is making just $4M per year for two more seasons, but it fits into the pretty picture Florida is painting.

Nick Bjugstad – You could knock Dadonov, and also Bjugstad, for enjoying their best days when they landed on Aleksander Barkov’s line. It’s certainly a factor to consider, as Barkov clearly makes his linemates better.

Should the Panthers really care, though? Like Dadonov, Bjugstad suddenly seems like a bargain if he can stick on one of those top lines, maybe more so than trying to carry a line by himself. Bjugstad’s season totals weren’t amazing (19 goals, 49 points), but consider that he scored 10 goals and 27 points in just 35 games following the All-Star break.

Cooking with fire once he landed with Barkov suddenly makes his $4.1M for three more seasons look like quite the boon.

Mike Hoffman? – It’s too early to tell how Hoffman will fit in with the Panthers, as discussed in greater detail here.

Still, a guy who’s scored 20+ goals for four straight seasons and at least 56 for three consecutive years is probably at least a solid value at $5.188M per year (through 2019-20). Chances are, if Hoffman hits the Barkov lottery –  or clicks with Trocheck – then he’ll look like a steal, too.

***

So, to review, here are the good-to-great forward deals:

Barkov: $5.9M, four more seasons
Huberdeau: $5.9M, five more seasons
Hoffman: $5.188M, two more seasons
Trocheck: $4.75M, four more seasons
Bjugstad: $4.1M, three more seasons
Dadonov: $4M, two more seasons

This gives the Panthers quite the window to compete, and maybe thrive at a level many aren’t expecting. That’s especially true if these steals coincide nicely with rookie contracts for Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and if the veterans on this team can hang on for a few more seasons.

Panthers management received well-earned ribbing for mismanaging the transition back to GM Dale Tallon, and Tallon’s stumbled a time or two.

Even so, between “The Computer Boys” locking up some good contracts, and Tallon helping with a Dadonov here and Hoffman trade there, the Panthers are in an awfully interesting position.

Now they just need to actually put it all together, and preferably for a full season, instead of a few months.

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.

Three questions facing Dallas Stars

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

For even more on the Stars, read today’s posts:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

1. Can Jim Montgomery get the most out of them? Or at least maximize the fun?

Virtually every coach in sports history says all the right things when they first get hired. In landing his first NHL job in a pretty nice gig in the Stars, Montgomery’s doing his part.

“Doing his part” means using some optimistic language, even when concrete details are scarce. You can see a lot of that in his Aug. 8 interview with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen.

“I want to be the same coach I’ve been,” Montgomery said. “I want to be a coach whose teams are known for being relentless and the culture we create is selfless. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as we’re going toward the right direction. It’s all about being team-first. That’s the biggest challenge for any coach at any level.”

No, you are yawning.

During his time at the University of Denver, Montgomery laid out his “process” at “The Coaches’ Site,” and it’s … kind of adorable. It includes these seven goals:

So, what is the process? It’s made up of seven things.

1. 50 hits in a game

2. Win 60 percent of our face offs

3. Give up three or less odd man rushes

4. Commit to blocking shots

5. Win the special teams battle

6. Win the net front battle

7. Take zero undisciplined penalties

Heh.

Really, the only concerning part is that he wants to keep things “boring and simple,” yet hopefully he just means that tactically, in a K.I.S.S. way.

Because, honestly, it borders on criminal to ice a hockey team featuring Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg yet be “boring.” The Stars leaned in that direction far more than they should have, particularly under Ken Hitchcock, after briefly lighting up the NHL as one of the most entertaining squads in recent memory.

Before you say that exciting hockey isn’t winning hockey, consider the recent successes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, not to mention overachievers like the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils.

In many cases, it comes down to getting the most out of your roster. Does anyone really think that the Stars are better off trying to play old-fashioned, slow-down hockey when you consider the strengths of this roster? If you think the answer is no, please consult the dour pile of drool that was last season.

Allow me to dream up a best-case scenario for NHL teams: when in doubt, let talent, speed, and skill take over.

2. Is the Central Division simply too stacked?

It’s important to realize that, even if things go well, the Stars simply might not boast the same ceiling as the cream of the crop in the Central.

The Jets and Predators both hold an edge in depth, and each could match the Stars’ high-end when things went their way. The Blues got a lot better this summer, possibly passing Dallas “on paper.” The Wild and Avalanche can’t be totally disregarded after landing in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it’s a little early to write off the Blackhawks.

If you were to run the 2018-19 season hundreds of times, how often would the Stars end up coming out on top?

Don’t get it twisted; they certainly could go on a great run. There’s some exquisite talent on this roster, and it’s perfectly plausible that Montgomery will optimize where other coaches minimized. Plenty of teams would trade their core for Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg.

Still, they’re far from the favorites, and it won’t be easy.

3. Will they finally get their money’s worth in net?

Ben Bishop was solid in 2017-18 (26-17-5, .916 save percentage), which by recent Stars’ standards probably felt like re-living the best years of Marty Turco or putting that FUBU sweater back on Ed Belfour. That’s not necessarily the work they were hoping for from the big goalie, particularly since they halted their more attacking style in bringing him (and Hitchcock) in.

This was a quieter than usual off-season for the Stars (so far?), yet one of the bigger moves came in net, as they brought in a – hopefully – more reliable backup in Anton Khudobin, mercifully ending the Kari Lehtonen era.

Between Bishop (31) and Khudobin (32), the Stars are allocating $7.417 million in cap space to two veteran goalies.

After years of throwing money at a problem that persisted nonetheless, will Dallas feel good about its goalie expenditures for the first time in ages?

No doubt, the play in front of Bishop and Khudobin matters. Montgomery’s system (50 hits!) could provide a protective cocoon for those netminders, or perhaps a more modern approach would give them more margin of error on the scoreboard to win games?

Each goalie’s succeeded more than a few times in the NHL, so there’s hope that they can at least patch up this weakness, if not make it a strength. Of course, the Stars would likely tell you (through gritted teeth) that goalies aren’t very easy to predict.

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.