Connor Hellebuyck

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The Buzzer: Neal, Marchand, others dominate on Tuesday

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Three Stars

1. James Neal, Edmonton Oilers

Neal might have already laid claim to the top star of Tuesday early in Edmonton’s win against the Islanders, as he completed a natural hat trick by the opening minutes of the second period. By adding a fourth goal in the third, he made it a consensus.

As you can note in this post, Neal now has six goals in just three games with the Oilers, one behind his full-season total with Calgary last season.

The true Neal is somewhere between this red-hot start and last season’s frigid flop. This is a guy who can sometimes drift through games (or fly off the handle in rage, particularly during his Penguins days) and then score big goals. He was a regular sniper before last season, even though he seemed to change locales with stunning frequency. If he can stay on Connor McDavid‘s line with regularity, Neal could have a big season.

He got off to a heck of a head start …

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

By their very lofty standards, the trio of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak were off to a slightly quiet start to 2019-20. Maybe that bit of yawning will stay in Vegas?

Marchand scored two goals and an assist in Boston’s 4-3 win against the Golden Knights, including what would end up being the game-winner. Pastrnak was there with him, scoring a goal and two assists. Bergeron was less robust at a mere assist, yet he dominated in the faceoff circle, going 18-7.

Consider this something of a multi-skater tie for second place. Drew Doughty got the last laugh against Matthew Tkachuk and the Flames, but both heated rivals generated three points. Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine were both deferential spirits, generating three assists each.

Feel free to consider this the nod to Tkachuk or those others if you prefer.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Yes, the Jets’ makeshift defense deserves credit for boosting Winnipeg to a surprising win against the up-and-down Penguins. Especially since defensemen like Tucker Poolman and Ville Heinola factored into the victory by scoring goals.

But Hellebuyck might have been the main reason why Winnipeg was able to hold up to the Penguins’ attack, even with a decimated defense corps.

He made 37 out of 38 saves, only yielding what seemed like an ominous Sidney Crosby goal 32 seconds in. If Dustin Byfuglien decides to extend his fishing trip into retirement, the Jets are going to need a lot of strong nights from Hellebuyck going forward.

Consider this very telling nugget an early factoid:

Highlight of the Night

The most memorable moments of the night might have involved Tkachuk vs. Doughty, from Tkachuk’s impressive tying goal (which, again, maybe shouldn’t have counted) to Doughty scoring in OT and doing a Hulk Hogan taunt. But you can see that here, so I’m going to cheat and add Braden Holtby providing another highlight reel stop instead:

Anyone else extremely curious to find out what his next payday will be like?

Factoids

Scores

CAR 6 – FLA 3
EDM 5 – NYI 2
WPG 4 – PIT 1
DAL 4 – WSH 3 (OT)
ANA 3 – DET 1
NSH 5 – SJS 2
LAK 4 – CGY 3 (OT)
BOS 4 – VGK 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Jets’ defense takes yet another blow ahead of game vs. Penguins

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When the Winnipeg Jets had their 2018-19 season end this past April, their defense was made up of the following players: Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Dmitry Kulikov. Not a great group by any means, but a formidable one that was good enough to help make the Jets a playoff team.

How many of those players will be in the lineup for them on Tuesday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Zero.

None of them.

Due to a series of roster moves and unfortunate circumstances the entire defense the team used a year ago is not available as the team prepares to open its current four-game road trip.

Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot all left the team over the summer (Trouba was traded to the Rangers; Myers and Chiarot departed in free agency), while Byfuglien stepped away just before the start of training camp to reportedly consider his future in the NHL.

All of that alone was enough to decimate their blue line.

The departures continued on Tuesday when the Jets announced that Kulikov has been given a personal leave from the team.

Morrissey, meanwhile, suffered an injury during warmups before the team’s most recent game against the New York Islanders and was held out of Sunday’s game. After practicing on Monday, coach Paul Maurice announced on Tuesday that the team is going to hold Morrissey out for at least another game (Tuesday in Pittsburgh) as a precaution.

This all means the Jets’ defense on Tuesday is going to include Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, Neal Pionk, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto and Tucker Poolman.

Combined NHL games for those six players: 350.

Heinola, 18, was the team’s first-round draft pick this past season and has played just three games so far, while Dahlstrom was claimed on waivers a week ago from the Chicago Blackhawks. Pionk is the “experienced” member of that group and was acquired over the summer from the Rangers in the Trouba trade. Calling that group a “makeshift defense” would be a monumental understatement.

Even though they are facing a Penguins team that is without two of its top three centers (Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad) it is still a dangerous team offensively with the Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel occupying the top line.

The Jets’ defense was always going to be a massive question mark this season, and it just seems to keep finding ways to get even more shorthanded. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck is going to need to play the best hockey of his career to keep this thing together.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

When will Jets sign Laine, Connor?

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Jets:

1. When will the team sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor?

Want to dominate headlines and sports radio in a Canadian market during the offseason? Simply wait to sign a new contract.

While a lot of attention has been on Mitch Marner’s situation in Toronto, it’s Laine and Connor who’ve taken center stage in Winnipeg.

Both are restricted free agents without new deals as training camp fast approaches. On one hand, it’s not all that surprising given the landscape with RFAs at the moment. Laine and Connor are just two names on a long list of big-ticket players who’ve played the waiting game with their respective teams.

But in a hockey-mad city, it’s led to a lot of speculation, fuelled further by the posturing that naturally arises.

It’s unlikely that either play anywhere but Winnipeg next year, but when will they play among the highest concerns. The Jets need to sort out some things in their top six in training camp, and both Laine and Connor are fixtures in that group.

For their success this season, they need both signed before camp begins.

2. How will the team fair on defense?

Some context: Take a middle-of-the-pack blue, subtract one of your top-pairing defenders and two veteran depth pieces and what are you left with?

The answer? Who knows.

Losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in one offseason is going to hurt any team. Losing them all in the span of a couple of weeks? Ouch.

Even if Myers and Chiarot aren’t premier blueliners, it still stings when half of your defensemen are their traded or leave in free agency.

The Jets couldn’t afford to keep Myers or Chiarot — and they’re better off for it based on what those two are making. Trouba, meanwhile, seemed destined to leave since he demanded a trade three years ago.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

Regardless of the reasons, the Jets are left with a very unproven bunch outside of Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. Nathan Beaulieu re-upped with the team after being acquired at the deadline and showed well when Morrissey missed a big chunk of time down the stretch due to injury.

Neal Pionk, who came Winnipeg’s way in the Trouba deal with the New York Rangers remains a mystery. Dmitry Kulikov is a stop-gap and the team will have to employ someone, likely Sami Niku, in a bigger role this season.

The dust will settle in training camp, but there’s a lot of questions needing answers on the back end.

3. Will Connor Hellebuyck return to his Vezina finalist form?

Hellebuyck went from finishing as a runner up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina in 2017-18 to being outplayed by his backup a season later.

All of Hellebuyck’s stats took a downturn, from his five-on-five save percentage dropping 11 points from .931 to .920, his overall save percentage dropping from .924 to .913, along with decreases in his high-danger save percentage.

And then there are his goals save above average, which went from being above average at 2.16 in 2017-18 to well below it in 2018-19 at -6.91.

No one saw more shots than Hellebuyck at five-on-five, a testament to Winnipeg’s poor play in front of him, especially in the second half of the season.

With questions on the blue line coming into this season, Hellebuyck will be up against it to rebound from a down year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Schwartz stuns Jets, completing Blues’ comeback in dying seconds

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These two teams finished with nearly identical records in the regular season, so it seems appropriate that almost every game in this series has been decided by a razor thin margin. This one was no different, though it had an extra element to it as the Blues surged to a 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues found themselves chasing almost immediately. Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored just 12 seconds into the game, exciting the hometown crowd, which started a “you look nervous” chant at Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Only the netminder wasn’t rattled.

Binnington held firm and while he did surrender a second goal, this time to Kevin Hayes, later in the period, he kept the Blues in this game early. A lot of credit also has to go to the Blues for their killing of a double minor to Robert Thomas midway through the first, preventing this game from getting away from them.

All the same, the Jets maintained their 2-0 lead for most of the contest. It wasn’t until 1:29 of the third period that the Blues finally got on the board thanks to a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly. He fired the puck in front of the net off a rebound, ending what had been until that point a shutout bid for Connor Hellebuyck.

Even after that, the period wasn’t all Blues. Winnipeg actually led in shots in the final frame 9-8, but the Blues continued to find ways to capitalize. Their comeback wasn’t without intrigue either. Brayden Schenn‘s game-tying goal needed to be reviewed because the net was dislodged at the same time the puck went in. Ultimately it was ruled as a good goal because Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien pushed St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist into the net, which is what dislodged it.

The comeback was completed with just 15 seconds to spare on a goal by Jaden Schwartz.

With that, the home team has lost every game in this series and four of the five contests have been decided by just one goal. Even with how close this series has been, this contest had a different tone to it thanks to the dramatic comeback. It will be a tough pill for the Jets to swallow, but they have to bounce right back to avoid elimination in Game 6.

Blues-Jets Game 6 from Enterprise Center will be Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Losing Stastny hurts, but doesn’t break Jets

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WINNIPEG — Losing out on re-signing veteran center Paul Stastny is a tough pill to swallow for the Winnipeg Jets. But they aren’t choking on it.

Sure, it will sting for a little while.

Stastny came in and found a nice home nestled in between sniper Patrik Laine and speedster Nikolaj Ehlers. The trio gelled immediately following the trade deadline after the Jets shipped a first rounder and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues for Stastny’s services in their eventual run to the Western Conference Final.

The Jets loved Stastny’s attitude, his leadership and his play from the outset.

And there’s no doubt Stastny made the team better — the Jets were 14-4-1 with him in the lineup. He was also great in Winnipeg’s second-round series against the Nashville Predators, culminating in a three-point game in the Jets 5-1 Game 7 victory,

They liked him so much they performed some roster surgery to try and make him fit, sending Steve Mason’s large contract to the Montreal Canadiens along with forward Joel Armia, who was due for a raise.

They offered him term. Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he tendered the same three-year contract length the Golden Knights gave Stastny.

And they presented him a team that seemingly has a wide-open window to win a Stanley Cup.

But what the Jets couldn’t match was the $6.5 million valuation Geroge McPhee levied on Stastny.

The Jets were simply priced out and Stastny chose to join a similar situation in terms of contending status for slightly more money than the Jets were able to offer.

Cheveldayoff said the Jets went to the very edge and then crossed it to try and bring Stastny back. The almighty dollar, in its almightiness, ruled the day.

“Hockey is a great game but can be an awful business sometimes,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on Sunday. “We put our best foot forward and maybe even six inches beyond even our best foot to make sure that we would have no regrets if it wasn’t good enough. Because at the end of the day, it was just a reality of what we could or couldn’t do given the good problems that we have in front of us in keeping this solid team together.”

Simply, they fell victim to their own success in developing top-tier talent. It’s not a bad thing, but you can’t always get what you want, a man named Mick Jagger once said.

“We’re at a point in time here where, and I keep going back and talking about when we played in the 2015 playoffs and Mark Scheifele got one assist or something like that in the playoffs, and you see how much of a driver he is right now,” Cheveldayoff said. “You see what the players that were young back then at 21 and are now 25, and you’ve got a good group of 20-, 21-, 22-year-old players that just went through a very rigorous experience in three rounds of the playoffs and they’re going to be better for it.”

The biggest thing for Jets fans to remember is that the team was already good sans Stastny.

When the trade deadline day opened on Feb. 26, the Jets had 37 wins and were sitting in third place overall in the Western Conference. With Stastny — and a little late-season fluttering by the Golden Knights — the Jets moved into second place by the end of the season, four points back of the Predators for the Presidents’ Trophy.

Reality bites sometimes, but it’s not biting the Jets in a hurtful manner.

Despite losing a top-tier second-line center, the Jets’ roster is filled with young, hungry talent. And a lot of that young talent has begun to blossom in such a way that it needs more than careful nurturing to grow.

The Jets need to water their crop with money.

The list this offseason — on that includes Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck, top defensive shutdown duo Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba and several other depth guys — is long. And it doesn’t include three other big-ticket items that are on the horizon, including a Laine contract that could touch double digits, rookie goal-scoring leader this past year Kyle Connor and 91-point forward Blake Wheeler, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Cheveldayoff has some finagling to do, and Stastny electing to head to Sin City may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, at least on the ledger.

With July 1 gone with the wind, and Stastny, too, the Jets can now focus their efforts on their hefty RFA contingent and perhaps ramp up the dialogue with Wheeler and Laine.

“When it’s all said and done, you guys are going to look at the salary cap and roster and say, ‘OK, how were they going to do this anyway?” Cheveldayoff said. “Again, we’ve got a good group of guys here and we’ve got lots of work ahead of us on our RFAs. That’s where things pick up on July 2.”

Cheveldayoff said he’s confident his internal stable of talent can fill the void. Perhaps Bryan Little has a bounce-back season. Or maybe Jack Roslovic takes the next step in his development and slides in between the two Scandanavians.

“Obviously when you have good young players it gives opportunities,” Cheveldayoff said. “But at the end of the day, the biggest thing, and I was reminded of the fact even walking over here, Josh Morrissey became Josh Morrissey because of the opportunity that he got and what he earned in training camp. We’re in a real good spot because Josh Morrissey has developed to where he has.

“So, Kristian Vesalainen, Nikolaj Ehlers, you’ve got to have coaches willing to play these guys when they’re young and give them opportunities. Back, several years ago, that’s all we had, that’s all we could do is play those young guys and let them grow and have our lumps with them. Now you’ve got a core of veterans, you’ve got a core of middle-aged kind of veterans, and you’ve got a core of young guys, and they’re all kind of moving in the same direction, and that’s pretty exciting.”

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