Boudreau feeling confident about Wild’s chances to earn playoff spot

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With one victory in their last seven games as they cling to the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau is feeling confident about getting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and putting up a fight.

Appearing on the Paul Allen Show on KFAN Thursday morning, Boudreau went all Mark Messier on us.

“I can tell you right now; I’m not Joe Namath, but we are going to make the playoffs,” he said. “And we’re going to be somebody hard to deal with … I’m making that prediction right now.”

He followed that up later in the morning after the Wild’s skate ahead of their Friday game against the New Jersey Devils.

“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Boudreau said via the Star Tribune. “That’s about as elaborate as I want to get. You want me to predict how many wins we’re going to have in the last month and a half? No. But we’re going to make the playoffs.”

The Wild currently have a two-point cushion as the West’s second wild card, leading a crowded pack at the bottom of the conference standings. There are six teams within six points of Minnesota, and just to show how nutty the playoff picture is even the last-place Los Angeles Kings are eight points behind.

They’ve made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but have been unable to get out of the first round since 2015. But right now Boudreau said he feels his team is “on the edge of things being really good rather than being very mediocre.”

It hasn’t been an easy second half for Boudreau or the Wild, and it should make the upcoming NHL trade deadline interesting. New general manager Paul Fenton is still taking stock of what he has as he looks to reshape the team’s future. 

“There will be some hard decisions to make come the trade deadline, but in the next 10 days or so, it will be determined by just how people play,” Fenton told Dan Rosen of NHL.com last week.

Eric Staal, Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, Brad Hunt, and Anthony Bitetto are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Does the value of moving any of them for future assets outweigh that of keeping them and attempting to put up a fight against potential opening round opponents in Winnipeg, Nashville, San Jose, or Calgary? They’re already without captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Matt Dumba for the rest of the season due to injury, and are in need of Jason Zucker picking it up offensively. The Nino Niederreiter trade is not off to a good start from Minnesota’s perspective either.

When asked if the Wild’s current cushion remains tight come Feb. 25, the day before the trade deadline, Fenton put it simply.

“Then I’ve got a hard decision to make, a very, very hard decision,” he said. “To evaluate this team the next little bit is certainly the reason that we’re having this conversation right now.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Boudreau fumes; Are Blackhawks for real?

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Drouin / Phillip Danault

These two Montreal Canadiens forwards were Thursday’s two four-point producers. Drouin scored two goals and two assists, while Danault generated a goal and three helpers.

If you had to pick one for the top spot, it would probably be Drouin, as it really stands out how emphatic and confident he was. The once-maligned forward fired a whopping nine shot on goal, helping Montreal overwhelm Winnipeg.

(The Jets were not happy.)

There were a ton of very strong three-point performances on Thursday, but for the next two spots, goalies win out.

2. Anders Nilsson

Yes, the Ducks are terrible right now. On many nights, Anaheim’s been out-shot, even when the Ducks have fallen behind by quite a bit early on. Teams likely eased off the gas a bit, and the Ducks still didn’t put much pressure on opponents.

Thursday was a little different.

Nilsson needed to make 45 saves in this one, including a 1-0 first period where the Ducks generated a 17-8 SOG advantage. That’s quite the shutout, even against a team that’s basically in crisis mode.

3. Jordan Binnington

Hey, when you beat Andrei Vasilevskiy in a goalie duel, you’re doing something right.

OK, Vasilevskiy had this save and made 38 overall, but Binnington generated a 32-save shutout. The Blues needed every one of those in a 1-0 OT win, and Binnington delivered.

It’s also something of a “week-time” achievement award. Binnington’s been a huge part of the Blues’ bold surge back into the West postseason picture, and this win really highlighted that. Binnington’s only allowed four goals during a four-game winning streak, and his save percentage is now at .931 over 12 games.

Feel free to make other arguments in the comments, as Thursday was just brimming with great performances.

One not-so-great performance, though:

Boudreau’s had it

The Wild lost Mikko Koivu for the season, have lost four in a row, and should probably be sellers at the trade deadline.

Things are tense, and Bruce Boudreau has already been trying to squeeze every point out of a so-so roster. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he’s losing his cool, but he really let players like Mikael Granlund have it after Minnesota fell 4-1 to the also-struggling Edmonton Oilers.

” … There’s some players there that are just a shell of the players I’ve known for the last two-and-a-half years,” Boudreau said during a grim presser.

Did Boudreau also make a sly “Seinfeld” reference?

If things really get bad, maybe Boudreau quits one day, then tries to walk into the locker room as if nothing happened?

Highlights of the Night

Anton Khudobin gave Vasilevskiy serious competition for save of the night.

Connor Hellebuyck made a beautiful stop, too. He was a Winnipeg Jet who showed up.

Mathew Barzal with a beauty.

Scary moments

With so many games on Thursday, there were some injuries and other developments that might become clearer on Friday or the weekend.

But we already know of some scary moments. Evgeny Kuznetsov seems to have avoided injury after a highly questionable Ian Cole hit, but Cole was punched many, many times for doing so, thanks to Tom Wilson. The Ducks also must cross their fingers after John Gibson was accidentally walloped by a teammate.

Finally, there’s this scare for Oilers defenseman Kris Russell.

Factoids

Speaking of records, the Blackhawks are suddenly looking more viable thanks to a six-game winning streak. The standings don’t look that promising yet, but Chicago’s chances have at least risen above laughable all of a sudden.

Considering how dire things looked at times this season, being two points back of the second wild-card team (St. Louis) is impressive. The caveats are crucial and obvious: there are teams ahead, and most have games in hand advantages. But ask those Blues and they’ll tell you that things can turn around quickly, at least considering how lousy the West bubble teams have often been.

Scores

CAR 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
FLA 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
NYI 2 – NJD 1 (SO)
LAK 3 – PHI 2 (SO)
WSH 4 – COL 3 (OT)
MTL 5 – WPG 2
OTT 4 – ANA 0
VGK 4 – DET 3
STL 1 – TBL 0 (OT)
NSH 3 – DAL 2 (OT)
EDM 4 – MIN 1
CHI 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
SJS 5 – CGY 2
CBJ 4 – ARI 2

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.

Ducks are a mess and most obvious fix is also most painful

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On Wednesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights absolutely throttled the Anaheim Ducks. The score was 5-0, but it felt like Vegas could name its score, and they really took their foot off the accelerator during the third period.

Between injuries and Ryan Getzlaf‘s tendency to “ease into” some regular seasons, it’s likely tempting for the Ducks to explain their struggles away as the usual growing pains of a veteran-heavy team. After all, the Ducks’ mediocre record (8-9-3 for 19 points in 20 games) isn’t all that different from last season, when they were a fairly lousy 7-7-3 for 17 points in 17 games.

Those arguments provide a smokescreen for something that seems pretty clear if you’ve watched the team with any regularity: the Anaheim Ducks stink right now.

[Gibson was saving the day, until he couldn’t as often.]

Bottom of the barrel

Toggle through Natural Stat Tricks’ various team stats and you’ll see the Ducks rank in the basement in a ton of telling categories. Only the Islanders rank lower in Corsi For Percentage. Want to eliminate blocked shots from the equation? Oops, they fall all the way to last place.

Don’t try to use the “Well, they just give you the low-quality chances while taking away the high-price real estate,” as the Ducks generate 38.37 of the high-danger chances in their games, easily the worst rate in the NHL.

Too much jargon for you? They’re also the NHL’s worst team at even-strength when it comes to scoring chance percentage.

John Gibson looks like he was sent from some other hockey-playing planet like an NHL take on “Space Jam” lately, but even he can’t bail out the Ducks every night. That much was clear as he was pulled from Wednesday’s drubbing against Vegas.

Now, could you attribute some struggles to injuries? In the short term, sure.

Mounting evidence of an overmatched coach

The excuses start to melt away when you consider Randy Carlyle’s larger track record as a frequently – justifiably – criticized NHL head coach. Via Corsica Hockey, the Ducks have been the 11th-worst team in the NHL from a Corsi perspective since Carlyle took over in 2016-17. Carlyle’s previous work with the Toronto Maple Leafs provided ghastly results (second worst in Corsi during his run, also via Corsica), casting the veteran head coach as someone bandied about during ugly-funny analytics debates.

The Ducks have problems that are rooted deeper than Carlyle’s system. They had issues stemming from Boudreau’s days, and to some extent, they’re getting the bill for going all-in on the present and whiffing on their big chances.

That said, it doesn’t seem like the Ducks are going into liquidation mode, so the easiest (and potentially most effective) fix would be to admit that Carlyle’s ways simply don’t work in the NHL any longer. We could argue until our faces are blue about how long they haven’t worked, but the evidence is building that the Ducks are nearing a minor crisis.

You could almost imagine literal wheels of realization slowly turning for Carlyle and GM Bob Murray after the Ducks were brusquely swept from the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. Consider what Murray said about the Sharks playing “faster” than the Ducks:

“Are Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski really fast skaters? Are they?” Murray asked, via Eric Stephens, then of the OC Register. “I had one of them in Team Canada. No. They’re good hockey players. But if your team plays fast, you can make players faster. And that’s the first thing that has to be addressed around here.”

Hmmm, the Sharks played too fast for the Ducks, yet Murray himself admitted that San Jose might not inherently feature faster players? You almost wonder if that might come down to the style of play, and the coach’s scheme? Nah …

This internal struggle has spilled out multiple times, even if you can mix the moments of at least acknowledging reality with exhibits of old-school, possibly out-of-date views on the game. For instance, earlier this season, Carlyle spoke about the Ducks playing “too cute” and needing to be dirtier.

Now, some of that boils down to inane hockey buzzwords, but any objective observer can see that the game is shifting away from grunting, grinding, low-talent work to puck-moving defensemen, smaller players, and speed mixed with skill.

The good news is that the Ducks actually possess quite a few players who can play that game, although it does hurt their transition game to lose Cam Fowler for some time. That’s particularly true on defense, as Anaheim has some very solid defenseman, with Hampus Lindholm standing tall as the most underrated piece of the bunch. And, while Getzlaf has never been known for being fast, Murray’s done a decent job of supplementing this roster with some skaters, from Ondrej Kase and Pontus Aberg to an aging speedster like Andrew Cogliano.

Is it a perfect group? No, but if Murray doesn’t want to aim for a soft-reboot, he must think long and hard about pulling the plug on Carlyle. Even if that means powering up the, uh, hot-take factory?

Firing a head coach is always easier said than done, yet that’s especially true in this case.

Fool me once, shame on you …

After all, if Murray were to do this, he would essentially admit that he was wrong to hire Carlyle … twice. Murray stuck his neck out for the guy who was bend the bench for the Ducks’ Stanley Cup win, and this quote from hiring Carlyle shows how personal the decision was:

“Everything came back to Randy in the end,” Murray said in June 2016, according to The Globe & Mail. “I know in my heart that this is the right move at this time for this hockey team.”

This situation is another reminder that, as analytical as GM moves can often feel, things can get messy when you’re so close to decisions. Frankly, one can openly speculate that many other head coaches could’ve guided a Ducks team featuring Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger to a Stanley Cup at that time; in Murray’s eyes, though, Carlyle brought him to that summit.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see Murray and the Ducks doubling down on this decision, and considering how putrid the Pacific Division is, Anaheim could easily squeeze into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Is that really the goal for this aging team? Murray himself wondered if the Ducks would have been better off missing the postseason altogether last season, so you probably don’t need to visit the hot-take factory to realize that it might be wise to be proactive rather than throwing away another season with a questionable ceiling.

Yes, we’re just 20 games into the Ducks’ season, but these aren’t exactly new problems, and it’s tough to imagine all but the most modest improvements.

We’re easily at the point where Murray might need to make an “agonizing” decision once again. If not, Murray runs a serious risk of going down with what looks like a sinking ship, and the coach who’s left them adrift.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning hire former Ducks assistant coach Brad Lauer

The Tampa Bay Lightning announced the hiring of Brad Lauer as an assistant coach on Tuesday.

The 48-year-old spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks, but he was fired this summer after a “post-season evaluation.” The Canadian Press noted that, for all the Ducks’ success, Lauer ran a unit that ranked 28th in the NHL.

It’s easy to see why the Bolts would hire an assistant who was part of such a successful franchise in Anaheim, whether Lauer fell short or was just a scapegoat in his eventual firing.

He also has some experience as an NHL player, as he appeared in 323 regular season games.

The Lightning summarized Lauer’s career in their release:

Lauer, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, has spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks. He helped Anaheim to a 51-24-7 record and 109 points last season, tied for the most in the NHL’s Western Conference. The Ducks also ranked 11th in the league for average goals per game with 2.78 in 2014-15. They eventually lost to the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final. During the 2013-14 season Lauer and the Ducks had the best record in the West, going 54-20-8 with 116 points, one shy of a tie for the President’s Trophy. Anaheim was the NHL’s highest-scoring team that season, averaging 3.21 goals per contest.

Under Pressure: Anaheim’s goaltenders

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While GM Bob Murray went and made upgrades to his blue line (Kevin Bieksa) and forward group (Chris Stewart, Carl Hagelin & Shawn Horcoff) during the offseason, one area of concern heading into the 2015-16 season is the Ducks’ goaltending situation.

Anaheim did acquire Anton Khudobin from the Carolina Hurricanes at the NHL Draft, but it’s hard to say the 29-year-old is the solution to the Ducks’ problem of inexperience in goal. Khudobin, who made 34 appearances with the Canes’ last season going 8-17-6, has never played a Stanley Cup playoff game.

Khudobin is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season.

Frederik Andersen, who was the Ducks’ starter in 2014-15, looked great in the playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, but against an experienced Blackhawks team, he faltered down the stretch.

The 25-year-old was 35-12-5 in 54 regular season games posting a 2.38 G.A.A. and a .914 save percentage. He appeared in all 16 playoff games posting an 11-5 record. After a sweep of the Jets and a five-game series win over the Flames, he struggled against the Blackhawks.

Andersen failed to register a save percentage higher than .875 in any of the last four games of the Western Conference Final – the Ducks won just one of those games.

Given that it was just his second full season in the league, it’s clear Andersen’s career is trending in the right direction, but with a core group of forwards that includes Ryan Getzlaf (30), Corey Perry (30) and Ryan Kesler (turning 31 on Aug. 31), do the Ducks have time to wait for the Dane to gain the necessary playoff experience to help them win a Stanley Cup?

Andersen is a restricted free agent next summer.

John Gibson is the third goaltender in the fold with the Ducks heading into the 2015-16 season.

The 22-year-old was the Ducks’ opening night starter last October dropping a 6-3 decision in his native Pittsburgh. Gibson was sidelined by a groin injury in early November allowing Andersen to take the reins.

Once healthy, Gibson found himself in the American Hockey League. He made 23 appearances with the Ducks last season posting a 13-8-0 record to go along with a 2.60 G.A.A. and a .914 save percentage. He also played 11 games with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals going 6-3-2.

“I’ve got to believe Gibby, now that he’s healthy, he wants to play,” said Boudreau during his year-end media availability. “He’s not used to sitting on the bench. And I think Freddie has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be No. 1 and he won’t let it up. I would venture to guess it would be a pretty good battle.”

Gibson is heading into the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent next summer.

With a combined 27 games of playoff experience under their belt, the Ducks goaltenders are under pressure heading into the 2015-16 season.