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Wild’s new GM faces tough task in finding ‘finishing touches’

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If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?

That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.

Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.

“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.

Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.

If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.

Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. SubbanShea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.

There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.

Jumping right into the deep end

The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”

Fletcher left quite a mess of long-term contracts, most obviously in challenging deals for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, so the Wild aren’t exactly bursting with cap space.

[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]

It’s up to Fenton to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.

If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.

Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …

Central issue

… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.

Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”

That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.

Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.

One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.

***

There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”

Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Swiss stun Canada, Sweden crushes U.S. in ice hockey semis

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Switzerland stunned title favorite Canada 3-2 to reach only its third final of the world ice hockey championship on Saturday.

The Swiss will play the gold medal game on Sunday against defending champion Sweden, which strode into the final by crushing the United States 6-0.

Canada and the U.S. will play for bronze.

”We obviously got motivated a lot playing them,” Switzerland defenseman Mirco Muller said. ”They’re the best country in the world, hockey-wise, and they have a great team here. It was a great battle for us.”

Canada goaltender Darcy Kuemper made some fine saves in the first period before Tristan Scherwey scored the go-ahead goal for Switzerland with 1:19 remaining in the first period.

Bo Horvat tied it in the second but Switzerland proved resilient, and Gregory Hofmann restored the Swiss lead on a power play.

Gaetan Haas struck again on a power play in the third, redirecting into the net a shot by Sven Andrighetto from the point.

Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past Swiss goaltender Leonardo Genoni to reduce the lead with 2:07 left in the final period as Canada pulled Kuemper for an extra attacker in vain.

”Switzerland played an unbelievable game,” Canada defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. ”From the drop of the puck they came at us hard in every facet.”

Genoni stopped 43 shots.

”It’s important that we win the last game,” Canada captain Connor McDavid said. ”We’re up to do it.”

Switzerland’s best results have been runner-up in 1935 and 2013. Sweden is going for a third world title in six years, and 11th overall.

”We’re the big underdogs (against Sweden),” Swiss forward Reto Schaeppi said. ”We have a chance if we play a really good game.”

Sweden beat Switzerland 5-3 in the preliminary round.

The Swedes set up their victory over the Americans with three goals in a 3:07 span midway through the second period.

”We didn’t play our best game but we put up a lot of goals,” forward Patric Hornqvist said. ”We still have some improvement to do for the game tomorrow.”

Viktor Arvidsson led Sweden with two goals and goalie Anders Nielsen made 41 saves for the shutout.

Trailing 1-0 in the second, the U.S. had a four-minute power play but allowed a short-handed goal by Magnus Paajarvi, who scored on a rebound after goaltender Keith Kinkaid stopped Mikael Backlund on a breakaway.

Hornqvist stretched the lead to 3-0 on a power play, and Sweden underlined its control when Mattias Janmark made it 4-0 just 11 seconds later.

Arvidsson added his second into an empty net in the final period, and Adrian Kempe finished it off with the sixth. Sweden earned its ninth win from nine games in this championship.

The U.S. pressured in the opening period, outshooting Sweden 16-8 and 41-19 overall. But it was the Swedes who went ahead. Arvidsson knocked in a loose puck in the crease following a shot from above the right circle by Filip Forsberg.

U.S. captain Patrick Kane, the overall scoring leader, failed to register a point for the first time in the championship.

”We just made too many mistakes and they capitalized,” Kane said. ”They’ve got a lot of good players over there and made us pay for those mistakes.

”It’s gonna be tough to regroup (for the bronze medal game) … but we have to do it.”

Kane leads U.S. into semis, Canada knocks out Russia

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals to lift the United States to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the ice hockey world championship on Thursday while Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime.

Switzerland pulled off a surprise by eliminating Finland 3-2 and defending champion Sweden edged out Latvia 3-2.

Kane claimed the third-period winner to take the outright lead in the scoring table on 19 points, a U.S. record, with eight goals and 11 assists and set up a semifinal against Sweden on Saturday.

”It’s my job to produce,” Kane said. ”It’s always nice to contribute offensively.”

The U.S. is looking for its first medal since picking up bronze in 2015.

”We came here to put ourselves in a position to try to win the gold,” Kane said. “We’re on the right path.”

The U.S. took control with a couple of goals in the span of 1:43 midway through the first period in Herning.

Kane beat goaltender Pavel Francouz from the right circle before Nick Bonino fed Cam Atkinson in front of the net to stretch the lead with a backhand shot.

The Czechs hit back in the second period. Michal Repik reduced the advantage on a slap shot and Martin Necas netted the tying goal on a power play.

”It’s a pity,” Czech forward Tomas Plekanec said. ”We created enough chances to win.”

In Copenhagen, Ryan O'Reilly scored 4:57 into overtime to knock out Russia while captain Connor McDavid had three assists, including on the winning goal.

Hunting its third title in four years, Canada will face Switzerland in the semis.

”Canada are a great team, they always are,” defenseman Roman Josi said after his Switzerland team beat Finland for the first time since 1972.

Defenseman Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past goaltender Igor Shestyorkin on a power play to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the first period before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doubled the advantage on another power play.

But Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev scored in the second period to tie the game.

Kyle Turris made it 3-2 to Canada in the third before Sergei Andronov leveled. Pierre-Luc Dubois put Canada ahead again but Russia answered with a goal from Artyom Anisimov.

Finland looked to be heading for victory after Markus Nutivaara‘s first-period goal, but Switzerland rallied with goals from Enzo Corvi, Joel Vermin and Gregory Hofmann in less than four minutes midway through the second.

”We didn’t start the way we wanted but we reacted in the second period and played very well from then on,” Josi said.

Mikko Rantanen cut the deficit to one goal in the third period.

”This wasn’t what we were looking for,” Finland captain Mikael Granlund said. ”They had the momentum in the second period and we were not able to turn it around.”

Sweden, which won all seven of its preliminary round games, beat Latvia thanks to goals from Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Teodors Blugers and Rudolfs Balcers replied.

Golden Knights’ top line could torment opponents for years

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The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault weren’t just a great combination “for an expansion team” in Game 2 of the 2018 Western Conference Final. No, they were too much for the loaded, ultra-talented Winnipeg Jets to handle, joining Marc-Andre Fleury as the main reason this series is tied.

Teams around the NHL have to hope that this combination is a mere flash-in-the-pan, because if not, they could be a fixture for quite some time.

And, the scary part is that two-thirds of that line is on the sort of team-friendly deals that can allow GM George McPhee to build a consistent contender, with no need to even consider expansion team caveats.

Let’s consider each player for a moment.

The next Martin St. Louis?

OK, Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t play exactly like the former Lightning star. For one thing, he shoots right-handed.

Still, there are broader, big-picture similarities. Both players went undrafted despite being productive players at other levels. They each took quite a bit of time to truly get a chance. St. Louis ended up breaking through in Tampa Bay, while Marchessault showed early signs of brilliance with the Bolts before lighting it up with Florida and then (well, if you spend a moment on Hockey Twitter, there’s a chance you’ll hear a joke about the Panthers trading Marchessault and Smith). Of course, each scorer had to fight so hard to grab attention because of the NHL’s dismissive attitude toward smaller players.

Like St. Louis, there’s the feeling that Marchessault might take some time to truly clue people in that he’s not just good, he could be great.

Consider his Game 2 performance: two goals, eight shots on goal, and generally one of those drag-your-team-on-your-back outputs. That second goal really crushed the Jets’ spirit after it looked like they might get back into the game. Accomplishing things like this with considerable frequency sure makes you look like a star:

Remarkably, Marchessault’s body of work at the NHL level is still slender for a 27-year-old, so maybe he’s playing a little bit over his head. Still, when you look at his work in the QJMHL and AHL, it’s clear that he produces wherever you put him.

Marchessault’s career-insecurity probably helps to explain why he signed what currently looks like an extremely team-friendly contract extension back in January. He’ll carry just a $5 million cap hit from 2018-19 to 2023-24, covering what would likely be the remainder of his prime.

That contract feels a lot like Viktor Arvidsson‘s with Nashville: a smaller, productive first-line forward who needed to gain notice by sheer force of will, signing a contract that’s all about long-term security, even if it means giving his team a possible bargain.

Then again, there’s a more local comparison to Marchessault’s contract …

No fooling

Maybe it makes sense that Reilly Smith was born on April 1, as teams have been fooled into giving up on him to a puzzling extent.

Smith, also 27, began his career as a third-round draft pick with Dallas. He didn’t really gain traction in the NHL until he joined the Boston Bruins as sneakily the B’s best takeaway from the ill-fated Tyler Seguin deal. Despite generating a 20-goal, 51-point season at 22 and a solid 40-point output in 2014-15, Smith was traded to Florida almost exactly two years later.

The pattern continued. Smith had a great first season with the Cats (25 goals, 50 points in 2015-16), dipped a bit a season later, and then was dumped to Vegas. Spoiler: that worked out really well for the Vegas Knights.

Smith’s strong debut season with Vegas probably flew a bit under the radar because of injuries. Despite being limited to 67 games, he was a regular scoring presence, collecting 22 goals and 60 points. For whatever reason, his shooting luck has dried up in the postseason, but he’s still racking up assists (as PHT’s Joey Alfieri spotlights here).

One of Smith’s standout assists came in Game 3 of Vegas’ eventual sweep of the Kings. Watch as the Golden Knights’ top line created havoc against Drew Doughty & Co., setting the stage for Karlsson’s first goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The delightful thing about Smith and Marchessault is that there’s ample evidence that, while their offense may ebb and flow, their possession games have been strong for much of their careers. At worst, they seem like they’ll be valuable players for Vegas for years.

Smith’s contract brings added value, too. He was traded to Vegas with a $5M cap hit that runs through 2021-22. One could easily speculate that McPhee was able to use his deal as a measuring stick for Marchessault’s asking price, which brings us to the wild-haired wild card of the trio:

Playing the percentages

There’s something fittingly “Vegas Golden Knights” about Karlsson’s place in this group.

While Marchessault and Smith very much fit into the misfits group in Vegas as players who were discarded by multiple teams, it feels safe to at least pencil them in as useful, if not dominant, top-six forwards. Karlsson’s much tougher to figure … yet he also topped the team with 43 goals and 78 points.

It’s almost unavoidable to hear doubters chuckle when discussing Karlsson’s incredible campaign. When it comes to the regular season, that’s fair. No one – not Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux – can sustain a 23.4 shooting percentage over the long haul.

The heartening thing for Karlsson and Vegas is that he’s been productive and dangerous during the playoffs, even as his luck is settling down. The 25-year-old has generated a point-per-game (12 in 12) despite a more earthly 13.5 shooting percentage.

He’s a slick, smart player who can really skate. There’s a lot to like, whether he’s a true first-liner or merely a very nice forward. If he can stick with Marchessault and Smith, Karlsson could remain a threat.

And that’s where it all gets interesting.

Karlsson needs a new contract, as he’s a pending RFA.

Will that 78-point season land him the sort of contract that Vegas might regret? Could both sides acknowledge that explosive season but also an otherwise skimpy track record of NHL success with Columbus and opt for a “prove it” contract? If Vegas offered a clone of the Marchessault deal, would that make the most sense?

***

There are a lot of questions there, but the good news is that Vegas is in a great position. If they make the right call(s) with Karlsson, they’ll have a prime-age trio of forwards who are currently sticking with – and sometimes skating right by – some of the best players in the NHL.

It should all be fascinating and fun to watch … but not quite as fun as watching Smith, Marchessault, and Karlsson exasperate defenders and fill highlight reels.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Preds, Jets lean heavily on Rinne, Hellebuyck in Game 7

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has years of postseason experience, including a couple Game 7s and a Stanley Cup Final.

Connor Hellebuyck has the Winnipeg Jets on the verge of their first Western Conference final in his first playoff appearance, and the best comparison he can make to the looming Game 7 in Nashville is playing for Hockey East championships back in college.

“I have yet to be scored on in one, so I like those odds,” Hellebuyck said. “This has nothing to do with that. This is whole new level and you’ve just got to get into the game as much as you can.”

Nobody has reflected the roller-coaster ride of this thrilling Western Conference semifinal between the NHL’s top two teams in the regular season than their Vezina Trophy finalists. Rinne has been pulled from not one but two games – both on his own ice – before staving off elimination in Game 6 with his second shutout this postseason.

“When you think about Game 7, as a team, as an individual, you’re just going to give it all and do your best and do it as a team and trust your teammates,” Rinne said Wednesday. “I think that’s the best formula and focus on your own team.”

Hellebuyck’s stats include a 2-1 record in Nashville in this series, which ends Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the only Game 7 of the second round this postseason. Hellebuyck gave up three goals in a 4-0 home loss Monday night , turning this into a winner-take-all game for the right to play Vegas in the conference final.

“We know it’s all on the line, and nothing in the past is going to bother us,” Hellebuyck said. “We can’t let it. This is going to be the most fun game we’re going to play and I think a lot of us are going to enjoy ourselves.”

RESTED RINNE

A Justin Timberlake concert Wednesday night pushed Game 7 to Thursday night, giving the 35-year-old Rinne two days of rest. During the regular season, the Predators goalie went 11-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average and .936 save percentage during the season when he got two days to rest between games. “It’s nice to have that extra day,” Rinne said.

EDGE IN EXPERIENCE

The eventual Stanley Cup champion in each of the past five seasons has won a Game 7 along the way. This is the Predators’ third Game 7. The Jets will become the 29th active NHL franchise to play a Game 7 on Thursday night. Nashville is among both the 14 teams to win their first Game 7 and the 10 who did that on the road, beating Anaheim in 2016 to clinch a first-round series.

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, 5-2 in Game 7s, is one of only four NHL coaches to win a Game 7 in each of four different playoff rounds (Pat Burns, Mike Keenan and John Tortorella). He also has 19 Predators who have at least one Game 7 on their resume. Jets coach Paul Maurice is 2-0 himself, though only seven of his Jets have played in a Game 7.

RAZOR-THIN SERIES

Nashville finished only three points (117) ahead of Winnipeg (114) for the Presidents’ Trophy, and this series has been about as close as possible. The Jets have more goals (22-18), while Nashville has more shots on goal (217-213). But even-strength shot attempts are 338 apiece with each team blocking 97 shots. The Predators have only three more hits (144-141).

TOP LINE MATTERS

Nashville’s JOFA line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson combined for eight points in keeping the Predators alive with a 4-0 win in Game 6. Winnipeg’s top line of Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele had eight points in Game 5.

“It’s the final game for one team,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “So, there’s lot of emotion, lots of excitement. But there’s definitely a calmness to it. There’s a finality coming. It brings out the best I think.”

THE DREAM GAME

“Ever since I started playing hockey, I was five years old, you put yourself in that position where you play a Game 7 in the playoffs,” Jets forward Mathieu Perrault said. “This is what we play for. So this should be the most fun we’ve had all year.”