Jakub Voracek

NHL Playoffs: How should top four East teams approach Round Robin?

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[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

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-term outlook for Philadelphia Flyers

Long-term outlook for Flyers Provorov Couturier Konecny
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

When you look at the Flyers’ core, you should take a moment to appreciate the cleanup job Ron Hextall accomplished. The current regime took the baton and got off to a good run post-Ron, but give credit where it’s due. Hextall inherited a mess.

Now, sure, there are some risks.

One could see how the combination of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Kevin Hayes, and James van Riemsdyk could age poorly, and quickly. Concerns about the Flyers becoming the “next Kings/Sharks” are somewhat justified.

Yet … a lot of those risks are mitigated. Giroux’s contract ends after 2021-22, and there’s a strong chance he’ll still be worth the near-$8.3M. JVR and Voracek are both 30, but the terms could be worse. Same goes for Hayes; yes, it’s risky, but he won’t turn 28 until May 8. Chuck Fletcher (and Hextall) is guilty of some gambles, but not at the “slap the deed of your house on the poker stack” level.

Most importantly, nice to outright fantastic bargains give the Flyers leeway to roll the dice. After last season’s hiccup, Ivan Provorov looks like a gem, and a steal at $6.75M. Travis Konecny isn’t far behind at $5M, and both contracts run through 2024-25.

The Flyers really feasted on a deal with Sean Couturier, and the only bummer (for them, not Couturier’s accountant) is that a raise is coming from that $4.33M after 2021-22.

There’s a lot to like about the Flyers’ core, especially if the aging elements don’t rapidly go rotten.

Long-term needs for Flyers

Pondering the long-term needs of the Flyers, it’s clear the team needs some answers.

To start: how much is it going to cost to truly add Carter Hart to the core? The 21-year-old’s entry-level contract expires after 2020-21. Would it be better to lock him down as soon as possible, or see how he performs during a contract year? What kind of money and term would make sense for an extension?

While much of the Hart conundrums boil down to “good problems to have,” the Flyers need to find out about the future for players dealing with health issues. Beyond a frightening situation for Oskar Lindblom, Philly could use some insight on Nolan Patrick and Shayne Gostisbehere.

The latter found himself in trade rumors, yet “Ghost Bear” wasn’t exactly healthy. You don’t necessarily want to sell low on a player who can at least generate offense, and is still reasonably young (26) and generally cheap ($4.5M AAV through 2022-23).

Depth resonates as a need for the Flyers, at least if some of the above situations don’t work out.

Beyond depth, I also wonder: while the Flyers boast a strong core, can they really hang among the best of the best?

Long-term strengths for Flyers

Even as players graduate to regular or semi-regular NHL duty, the Flyers continue to hunt down strong draft prospects. Cam York, Morgan Frost, and Bobby Brink help the Flyers place eighth in Scott Wheeler’s prospect rankings (sub required), for example.

Could those players provide that extra “oomph” for this franchise?

It’s an enticing thought, especially as Travis Sanheim bolsters the bigger names, while Frost, Joel Farabee, and others attempt to make impressions.

The Flyers have a nice mix of veteran stars, budding younger stars like Provorov and Konecny, and those aforementioned intriguing prospects. Hart also made encouraging steps toward being that long lost goalie.

There are reasons to be optimistic about this team’s chances of being competitive for some time. What a difference a year makes, eh?

MORE ON THE FLYERS:
Breaking down their 2019-20 season
Biggest surprises and disappointments

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: 30-and-over

Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of Washington Capitals
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament. The first teams created were a 23-and-under and players in their prime.

Connor McDavid and other exciting young players have taken part of the spotlight, but Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin remain the most prominent faces in the NHL. The next roster to enter this mythical best on best tournament consists of players 30-years-of-age-and-over. It has several of the League’s most accomplished players, including numerous skaters with multiple Stanley Cup rings and Olympic gold medals.

Line Combinations

First line: Alex Ovechkin – Sidney Crosby – Patrick Kane

Thoughts: Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks have fallen out of the limelight in recent years after an era of dominance that included three championships. However, Kane has remained one of the most productive players in the NHL and the thought of his on-ice vision combined with Ovechkin’s blistering slapshot strikes fear into the heart of any opponent. Crosby has the wisdom and skill to balance this line to formulate a trio only used in a video game environment.

Second line: Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronBlake Wheeler

Thoughts: The Bruins have had the most complete line in hockey and two/thirds of that trio reside here. Blake Wheeler has the offensive punch coupled with strong defensive instincts to fill the void left by David Pastrnak. This line will be relied upon to matchup with skilled lines from opponents but also will need to contribute on the offensive side of the ice.

Third line: Claude GirouxEvgeni MalkinJakub Voracek

Thoughts: Malkin has been one of the top centermen since bursting onto the scene in 2006-07 and should bring out the best from his new linemates. Giroux and Voracek each took a step backwards in terms of offensive production this season, but the Flyers have emerged as legitimate Cup contenders in Alain Vigneault’s first season behind the bench in Philadelphia. The effectiveness of this line will determine how far this team could advance in the competition.

Fourth line: Jamie BennAnze KopitarT.J. Oshie

Thoughts: Is there anything else a coach could want in his fourth line? A two-time Selke Trophy winner flanked by a power forward and a skilled winger with defensive awareness? This line will start in the defensive zone majority of the time and be needed to flip momentum of the game within the game.

First D pairing: Mark GiordanoJohn Carlson
Second D pairing: Zdeno CharaDrew Doughty
Third D pairing: Ryan McDonaghAlex Pietrangelo

Thoughts: The absence of Shea Weber is jarring at first, but what attribute is missing from this defensive group? The biggest question facing this collection of rearguards is, do they have the foot speed to keep up with the quickness each team in this tournament possesses?

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask
Backup Goalie: Ben Bishop

Just Missed: Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, Shea Weber

Captain: Sidney Crosby

Alternate captains: Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin

Analysis

The biggest advantage this team has over the competition is experience. Over half of the roster has a Stanley Cup championship under their belt and several players earned multiple championship rings in their respective careers.

Leadership will not be an issue with nine current NHL captains to help this team manage the emotions through this highly competitive tournament.

One area of concern is the speed of the game throughout the competition. Can the defense move the puck up the ice in a timely manner? Can the veteran forwards play at this pace each shift without sacrificing production? This team will be expected to play smart situational hockey and take advantage of special teams opportunities, but can they win even-strength matchups on a consistent basis?

There is an abundance of talent and wisdom up and down the lineup, but will they be able to dictate the pace and play the style they choose, or will they be forced to adapt to the opponents’ preferred style?

The answer to that question will determine how successful this team will be in this imaginary Best on Best tournament.

Surprising omissions

Phil Kessel: He was originally slated to skate alongside Bergeron and Marchand on the second line, but he doesn’t play a strong two-way game that his linemates would have demanded on a consistent basis. It was tough to leave a pure goal scorer like Kessel off the list, but his effectiveness is diminished if not playing in an offensive oriented role.

Steven Stamkos: The captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning is probably the most prolific player left off any roster in this tournament to date, but it was tough to find a spot for the skilled center. Crosby and Bergeron were no-brainers for this team, but the debate was between him and Malkin for the third line slot. The size and strength of the Russian forward were the deciding factors as that toughness will be needed throughout the tournament.

Shea Weber: He could easily slide into any spot along the blueline and the team likely wouldn’t suffer but tough decisions had to be made. The roster is not lacking in the leadership department and the three right-handed shot defensemen selected have the speed needed to keep up with the blazing speed of the competition.


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

Flyers push winning streak to six games, eye possible Metro title

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The Flyers improved their winning streak to a season-best six games on Sunday, beating the Rangers in a home-and-home series. After an emphatic 5-2 win on Friday, the Flyers took care of the Rangers 5-3 on Sunday.

After falling behind 5-1, the Rangers made a late game of things, but the Flyers were in control of most of the contest.

Philly is suddenly seeing all sorts of possibilities open up with this hot stretch. In improving to 15-4-1 in their last 20 games, they’ve progressed from merely trying to make the playoffs to loftier dreams.

Flyers now on a season-best winning streak of six games, have a chance at Metro title

With the Penguins mired in a six-game losing streak (their worst stretch in more than a decade), the Flyers stand a real chance of earning some home-ice advantage. Actually, Philly’s ambitions don’t need to end there.

If things fall the right way, the Flyers could conceivably grab the Metropolitan Division title. They can’t rest on their laurels, though, as the Metro battles look tight:

Metro 1 – Capitals: 84 points in 64 games played (39-19-6)
Metro 2 – Flyers: 83 points in 65 GP (38-20-7)
Metro 3 – Penguins: 80 points in 64 GP (37-21-6)

Wild card 1 – Islanders: 78 points in 64 GP (35-21-8)

Philly’s power play put Sunday’s game out of reach. They operated with speed, too, scoring 29, 33, and five seconds into man advantages. Special teams was indeed special for the Flyers on Sunday, at least before they took their foot off the gas. Derek Grant scored the game’s lone even-strength goal.

Carter Hart looked pretty good in gaining just his fourth road win of 2019-20. (More on that strange disparity of home vs. road work here.)

Five different Flyers scored goals on Sunday, showing off the team’s improved depth. Jakub Voracek dealt a lot of the damage, collecting two points to give him six in these past two contests vs. the Rangers. The Flyers have scored at least four goals in every contest of this six-game winning streak.

The Flyers face a fascinating test in the Metro-leading Capitals on Wednesday, with coverage on NBCSN.

Tough times for Rangers, and a rough afternoon for Henrik Lundqvist

With Igor Shesterkin injured, the Rangers will need to call upon Henrik Lundqvist here and there if they hope to continue their improbable playoff push.

Chances are, if they keep it going, Artemi Panarin (two assists) and Mika Zibanejad (two goals, one assist) will continue to drive New York’s success. They certainly authored some of the Rangers’ best moments on Sunday, but the two stars need help — including from a fading former star.

Sunday represented an increasingly rare start for Lundqvist, and it showed. Of course, the Rangers team crumbled in front of him, but it couldn’t have been much of a confidence-booster for “King Henrik.”

People will wonder if the Rangers should have taken Lundqvist out after the Flyers built a 3-0 lead after the first period. After all, such decisions are often made as much to “send a message” to a team, rather than reflect on poor goaltending.

The Rangers need to make every stretch count, so these two regulation losses to the Flyers certainly sting.

That said, New York deserve at least a B+ after passing a bunch of difficult tests. They played eight of their past 10 games on the road before this sound Sunday stomping. Looking at the bigger picture, going 8-3-0 in a road-heavy stretch is pretty impressive overall.

Sunday wasn’t the greatest way to begin an important four-game homestand, but they need to shake it off. Lundqvist especially so.

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.

NHL on NBC: Flyers look to remain red-hot vs. Rangers

Flyers red-hot in 2020 Rangers preview
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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

For most of 2019-20, it looked like the Flyers would battle for a wild-card spot. Following some recent red-hot play, the Flyers might be able to aim even higher. Beating the Rangers on NBC on Sunday could strengthen their unlikely hold on the second seed in the Metro.

Could the Flyers actually pull this off against the plummeting Penguins? Such a thought is increasingly reasonable as Philly is in the middle of a five-game winning streak (while Pittsburgh lost its sixth in a row on Saturday).

Even if the Flyers merely settle for getting back in the playoffs, they’re looking more and more like a tough out.

More on the Flyers being red-hot for most of 2020

Most obviously, the Flyers hope to improve upon what is currently a five-game winning streak. Jakub Voracek reflected on Philly’s hot ways after collecting four assists in the Flyers’ 5-2 Friday victory against these same Rangers.

“We’re not there yet, but I think if we’re going to continue to play the way we do, we can make a run,” Voracek said, via Dan Rosen of NHL.com. ” … Everything has to be clicking. It’s clicking right now. We just have to make sure it’s clicking in a month and a half.”

The Flyers’ winning streak only begins to explain how red-hot they are. Since Jan. 8, the Flyers boast an impressive 15-5-1 record, outscoring opponents 77-53.

Gaining at least one round of home-ice advantage could be a real boon for this team, in particular. The Flyers are scary at home (23-5-4) while being merely middling on the road (14-15-3) so far this season.

Carter Hart probably displays the most dramatic disparity. The 21-year-old looks all-world at home in 2019-20, going 18-2-2 with an outstanding .941 save percentage. On the road, he turns into a sub-backup pumpkin (3-10-1, .855).

One would assume that some of those numbers are coincidental … but maybe a quirky trend could perpetuate itself? For all we know, the difference between the Flyers winning or losing a close potential playoff series could come down to who was at home in a Game 7.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Outlasting opponents

An 82-game NHL regular season is a serious grind. Smarter teams should find ways to preserve players — particularly prominent ones — for playoff battles and other bigger games.

It sounds like Flyers coach Alain Vigneault is paying such arguments some mind. James van Riemsdyk mentioned that he’s felt fresher than he has in years, as this great in-depth feature from NBC Sports Philadelphia notes.

Combining that “sports science stuff” with possibly possessing better skaters might explain the Flyers’ recent surge, not to mention how strong they are at closing out games. That NBC Sports Philadelphia piece points out that the Flyers have generated 79 third-period goals, managing a +25 differential.

“I think the way we skate. I think we’re skating really good and that’s why we’re winning a lot of games because we outskate the other teams,” Voracek said on Thursday. “The starts are so-so, the first periods are so-so, the other teams have a lot of energy, but the second and third periods, I think we’ve been really strong all season long.

“That’s really important for us, when it’s going down to the wire, we can be confident about winning the game.”

A hard-skating, open-minded team that’s hard to beat at home? The Flyers are sounding more and more like an opponent others want to avoid. We’ll see if that pattern holds against the Rangers on Sunday afternoon.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.

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.