Zdeno Chara

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.

‘Long overdue’: White NHL players find their voice on racism

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Brian Boyle is a 35-year-old grizzled veteran of 13 National Hockey League seasons who grew up outside Boston.

After seeing video of George Floyd’s death, Boyle wanted to say something. The Florida Panthers forward, though, wasn’t sure how and didn’t want it to come off the wrong way. He wound up calling former teammate J.T. Brown to ask some questions — and listen. Brown is 29, black and the only player so far to protest racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem of an NHL game, back in 2017.

The two talked about how Floyd’s death had affected Brown.

“I was kind of at his mercy,” said Boyle, who is white. “I just don’t understand this pain. I’ve never had to live this pain.”

Floyd’s death in police custody has touched off an extraordinary reckoning of race and race relations and sports has been part of it, from European soccer to the NFL. It has also made ripples in NASCAR, which like the NHL has predominately white athletes and, by most accounts, a larger fan base among whites than people of color.

NHL players have no sustained track record of speaking out on societal issues, perhaps part of the reticence that is generally found in hockey. There was no collective outrage after Akim Aliu, Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simmonds joined the list of players who have publicly described their personal experience with racism in hockey.

This time, the culture of silence was nowhere to be found in a league that is over 95% white.

Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players made statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protested in Dallas, Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Patrice Bergeron, Tom Wilson and others made donations. Jonathan Toews met with activists in Chicago.

“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “It can’t just be their fight.”

It was the kind of response San Jose’s Evander Kane hoped for when he called on white athletes to make their voices heard. Some called it “a perfect storm” — athletes, like everyone else, were at home during the coronavirus pandemic and able to focus on the graphic nature of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the visceral reaction.

“People, I think, are listening more,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Hired in 2017, she is the highest-ranked African American in the league’s hierarchy and reports directly to Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“While these things have been happening for a long time, I think the COVID pandemic has brought to light for many the racial pandemic,” Davis said. “To be able to just be paused and to stop and witness for nine minutes, somebody’s knee on someone’s neck and to watch the life be taken out of them … that’s your humanity (telling) you there’s something very wrong with that.

“I think that’s why people are speaking out. I think that’s why players are speaking out,” Davis said.

Seguin marched in Dallas along with retired goaltender Marty Turco and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned under the knee of a white police officer while his heart stopped. Seguin, a 28-year-old Canadian from outside Toronto, long believed matters of race were none of his business.

“It’s unfortunate that it took something of this magnitude to get people’s eyes open or myself having the accountability to realize and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to be better,’” Seguin said. “Am I part of the stigma because I haven’t thought about this, or haven’t really fully realized it or understood the history of it?”

Since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, hockey has been dotted with examples of racism. Just in the last decade, Simmonds had a banana thrown at him and P.K. Subban and Joel Ward were subjected to racist social media posts after scoring playoff game-winning goals. Smith-Pelly was taunted in the penalty box. As recently as April, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller had a video chat during the pandemic hacked by someone who posted a racial slur hundreds of times.

Junior and youth hockey are filled with similar stories, too, even amid determined and long-term efforts to diversify the sport.

“There’s clearly a racism problem in our sport,” said Kane, a 28-year-old Canadian from Vancouver who is part of a new effort by black players to do something about it. “It’s been pushed aside and covered up ever since I’ve been playing hockey. And that is a major issue that we need to suppress in a major way. That’s where being able to create a more diverse game, that’s where it’s going to start.”

Retired goaltender Ben Scrivens said he has “a healthy dose of cynicism” in seeing so many of his fellow white hockey players only now speaking out about racism. But he said it is nonetheless meaningful because players “can no longer claim ignorance” anymore.

“The fact that they’re putting themselves out there is a start,” Scrivens said. “And it also opens the door for them to be held accountable going forward.”

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been six months since Aliu’s comments on racism in hockey rocked the league. Bill Peters — who Aliu said used racist language toward him earlier in their careers — resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames and the NHL formed councils to address the issues. The growth in the number of players talking about racism now in the NHL seems logical, at least to Aliu.

“It’s a good step in the right direction, so I’m happy to see that,” he said, then paused. “But I feel like it’s long overdue.”

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.

Byfuglien and other veteran NHL free agent defensemen with unclear futures

NHL free agent defensemen Dustin Byfuglien Andy Greene
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After covering forwards and goalies, let’s close things out with a look at fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen.

Before we start, note that this isn’t about top defensemen available. Alex Pietrangelo likely only stands on the fringe between a huge contract or just a very big contract. Also, the sheer glut of defensemen means a lot of borderline players will either be off this list, or merely mentioned in passing.

A lot of stuff to consider with Buff

Going to an earlier post, health questions limit Corey Crawford‘s earning potential. Those issues loom even larger for very large defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

After missing the 2019-20 season, it’s unclear how close Byfuglien can be to full-strength. Most of all, Byfuglien must decide if he even wants to come back. And at what cost.

Being that Byfuglien turned 35 on March 27, he’d need a 35+ contract. That could be a Byfuglien-sized sticking point if the defenseman wants term in any deal.

All of that aside, even a compromised version of Byfuglien towers over many of the fringe options.

Other reasonably prominent fringe NHL free agent defensemen

Let’s go over a few of them, while Cap Friendly features a more expansive list that drives home the glut.

  • Mike Green — There were times when it felt like criticisms were way, way too harsh for Green. (Maybe it was fury at the fauxhawk?) The temperature’s changed in 2020, though. Most of the people who bashed Green have moved on to (insert latest offensive defenseman who might win a Norris). But there are just enough teams with nostalgia for Green that he might get a chance in his reduced, 34-year-old form. Consider the Oilers trading an actual draft pick for Green during the past deadline if you need evidence.

While Green’s defensive game slips with age, he also doesn’t provide that zip on offense, either.

It’s sadly not too surprising to see Green — and some other fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen — at the bottom of the ranks of this GAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

worst GAR NHL free agent defensemen Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey
  • While Green’s fellow 34-year-old defenseman Roman Polak plays a different style, he also finds himself in the dregs of that list. It’s even more common for some NHL GM to talk themselves into a hard-nosed Polak than it is for them to believe Green could rekindle his scoring touch, too. Both ideas seem ill-advised, although if you need to appease an old-school coach, maybe you throw them a bone by giving Polak a very cheap contract (that you can bury or get rid of)?
  • It was tough not to chuckle when the Islanders spent a second-round pick to acquire Andy Greene.

That’s not really a knock against Greene, generally speaking. He has some value as a defense-first defensemen. Instead, it’s just that the Islanders felt the need merely to add more of the same.

This isolated impact chart from Hockey Viz reinforces those points well enough:

Andy Greene iso NHL free agent defensemen
via Hockey Viz

Regardless, if the Islanders are willing to spend a prominent pick on Greene, the 37-year-old will probably draw some attention. By the muted expectations of this quantity-over-quality group, you could do worse … if you don’t pledge much money or especially term.

(There’s an argument that Greene is viable enough not to be fringe. Still, his advanced age makes it seem reasonable to list him.)

  • If your team must have someone like Polak, how about Justin Braun? The 33-year-old doesn’t bring offensive value, but he’s more useful defensively.
  • My guess is that there will be at least some market for Ron Hainsey. At 39, it’s fair to wonder how much Hainsey has left in the tank. That’s also a fair question for most of the veteran NHL free agent defensemen we’re discussing.

Veteran free agent NHL defensemen lightning round

  • I usually cut these lists off at 30+, but Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are two 29-year-old defensemen who’ve garnered more attention than I’d usually expect. Maybe they will again? Teams can get pretty desperate for defense.
  • I haven’t mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk until now because I feel like anyone who observed his work in 2019-20 would give him a low-risk contract. But just in case, the 31-year-old would be a standout if he’s “fringe” material.
  • There are plenty of defensemen who might retire as much for health reasons as a lack of interest. Factor in age, too, and you could mark that box for defensemen including Jonathan Ericsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Deryk Engelland, and maybe Andrej Sekera.
  • Again, there are quite a few middling options who may ride meager name recognition. Teams have regularly inflated the value of 33-year-old Michael Stone, for instance.
  • Are Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber still NHL defensemen? GMs will decide that too.

(In case you’re wondering, Zdeno Chara‘s calling his own shot, and expected to be back. So that’s why he didn’t get a mention only now.)

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.