Fenton ramps up roster revamp as Wild still chase playoffs

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The patience Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton exercised last summer during his first offseason in charge has yielded to a more aggressive approach.

Fenton’s conclusion about the roster he inherited has become clear: The Wild needed to change their core of forwards before making some long-awaited advances down the Stanley Cup championship contending track.

Over the last six weeks, Fenton has dealt Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund leading up to the NHL trade deadline that passed Monday and served notice that the reshaping process will likely resume once the season is over.
Reaching the playoffs six straight times to match Anaheim for the longest active streak in the Western Conference has only produced two series wins, and Coyle and Granlund were on all six of those teams. Niederreiter was on all but one.

“That’s what I was brought here for, to make some changes,” Fenton said, later adding: “It has nothing to do with cap space or anything. It has to do with the talent level and where we are.”

Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund, all of whom were drafted in the first round in 2010, were each shipped off at age 26, just entering their prime years, but they each fetched a forward in his early 20s. By average age at the start of the season, no team in the league was older than the Wild.

“We were trying to get younger, faster and more skilled,” Fenton said, “and the last couple of acquisitions have done that.”

Here’s the twist: The Wild are still in control of a postseason spot. They’re tied with Colorado for eighth place with 19 games remaining for each team, taking a three-game winning streak to Winnipeg for a matchup Tuesday with the Central Division leader.

“I think that this team has the potential to make the playoffs,” Fenton said, “and if you make the playoffs, you never know.”

Niederreiter was sent to Carolina on Jan. 17 for Victor Rask (age 25), who had only one goal and one assist in 10 games after the trade until suffering a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the last six games. Niederreiter, meanwhile, has nine goals and six assists in 16 games for the Hurricanes.

But on Wednesday, Coyle was swapped for Boston’s Ryan Donato (age 22), who has one goal and three assists in three games. Fenton said he noticed a “different energy” since that deal. Granlund went to Nashville for Kevin Fiala (age 22). The trades, plus the season-ending knee injury to captain Mikko Koivu , have elevated the roles of youngsters Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette moved Fiala, who has 32 points in 64 games, up one line the past two games to play with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Fiala had two overtime goals in the playoffs before turning 21 and scored five times in his first 18 playoff games, but he broke his leg in a second-round game against St. Louis in 2017 when Nashville reached the Stanley Cup finals. Fiala followed up with a career-best season in 2017-18 with 23 goals, 48 points, 13 power-play points and 80 games, but the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft is a dismal minus-11 this season with only 10 goals.

Fenton drafted him as the assistant general manager for the Predators, however, and remained sold on his potential to provide the unique skill and speed on the rush that the Wild have been lacking.

“He’s got an electric stick. His vision is unique,” Fenton told reporters Monday at team headquarters. “He’s got this ability to find people in really close quarters.”

Fenton, who also reached a deal with center Eric Staal on a two-year extension after deciding not to trade him and his expiring contract, apologized for the timing of the Granlund deal. His fiancée went into labor Monday, expecting their first child. Granlund also had his 27th birthday Tuesday.

“We wish them nothing but the best, especially, hopefully, with a happy, healthy baby,” Fenton said.

Granlund, who was second on the Wild with 49 points, but like Niederreiter and Coyle never quite fulfilled the potential he came with, spoke optimistically after the Wild’s overtime win over St. Louis on Sunday about keeping the team intact.

“It’s a whole new feeling in the locker room. It’s much more fun,” he said. “We’ll just try to keep it up.”

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Trade: Predators make splash with Granlund, Wild get Fiala

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When rumors about the Nashville Predators moving Kevin Fiala really started to build, the worry was that they’d sell-low on a promising, but struggling, young player. Luckily, the Predators knew at least one person who’d appreciate Fiala’s skills: Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton.

With keeping up with the Winnipeg Jets in mind, the Predators made a bold move, sending Fiala to Minnesota for a very nice forward in Mikael Granlund. The deal appears to be one-for-one, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, and other reporters (including The Athletic’s Mike Russo.)

Predators receive: Mikael Granlund.

Wild receive: Kevin Fiala.

Predators keep pace

The Winnipeg Jets added a needed center in Kevin Hayes, so the Predators were smart to go out and get one of their own, and Mikael Granlund is a very nice find.

One nice bonus is that, unlike pending UFA Hayes, Granlund’s also not a rental — or maybe he’s one of those weekly rentals that old video stores offered. (R.I.P. Blockbuster, although those late fees were not cool.)

Granlund, 26, carries a $5.75 million cap hit through 2019-20, so Nashville gets him for two potential playoff runs.

Granlund generated 69 points in 2016-17, 67 last season, and has 49 points in 63 games. He’s a proven commodity with nice possession stats on what was a pretty sturdy possession team in Minnesota. The Predators’ second line had been struggling mightily this season, and while Kyle Turris‘ struggles have probably been exaggerated by injuries, the bottom line is that Nashville gets better down the middle.

It was clear that Fiala was losing favor with Peter Laviolette/the Predators in general. Maybe Fiala will be a great piece in the future, but the Predators get more of a sure thing in Granlund, and they didn’t just throw away the speedy winger for one run. GM David Poile sure knows how to make trades, huh?

Wild get younger

At 26, Granlund isn’t ancient, but Fiala’s four years younger at 22. There are certain underlying numbers that indicate that we haven’t seen Fiala’s ceiling yet, and in the long run, the difference between the two might not end up being as big as it seems today.

The Buzzer: Capitals, Predators even their respective series

Sunday’s results

Washington Capitals 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (series tied 1-1): The Capitals built up another lead on Sunday, but this time they didn’t let it go, tying up the Eastern Conference Second Round series in impressive fashion, although not without controversy. Washington got off to a fast start again with Alex Ovechkin scoring 1:26 in. From there, the Caps built up a 3-0 lead before Kris Letang pulled one back. Washington would add the empty netter to tie up the best-of-7 series. Lars Ellers had three assists in the game. Braden Holtby made 32 saves for the win.

Nashville Predators 5, Winnipeg Jets 4 (2OT — series tied 1-1): A thriller from beginning to end, including three regulation periods and 25:45 of overtime. Frantic action back and forth and a double-overtime winner from Kevin Fiala that sent Nashville into the stratosphere. The game had it all and the Predators avoided having to head to Winnipeg down 2-0 in the series. Ryan Johansen scored a pair, as did Mark Scheifele, and the latter has four goals in two games in the series. Nashville needed the line of Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith to show up in the series, and they left their mark on the game-winner.

Three stars

Braden Holtby, Capitals: Holtby had a solid bounce-back game, making 32 saves as the Capitals evened their series with the Penguins in a tidy 4-1 win. Holtby simply needs to be great if they want to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, and he was certainly that and more on Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Johansen, Predators: Call the Game 2 a must-win and then scored 27 seconds into the game for a quick lead. In the third period, he dipsy-doodled around Toby Enstrom to put the Predators up 4-3.

Mark Scheifele, Jets: Scheifele, like Johansen, scored twice in the game, including a massive goal with 65 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. Scheifele has four goals over the first two games of the series.

Highlights of the Night

Kevin Fiala’s beauty game-winner in double overtime:

Johansen did Toby Enstrom dirty on this one:

Here’s Dustin Byfuglien ragdolling two grown men with ease:

Matt Murray didn’t get the win, but he did get this save:

World class release:

Factoids of the Night

Monday’s action

Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 1-0

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks (NBCSN) — series tied 1-1


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

Predators’ Fiala notches winner in double overtime to even series with Jets

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Ryan Johansen called Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round between his Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets a must-win.

A little early for the distinction? Perhaps. But the thought of heading back to Winnipeg — and into the Whiteout — down 2-0 had to be a daunting thought.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

In a game defined by the resiliency of both teams, it was the Predators who outlasted the Jets as Kevin Fiala scored on a deke past Connor Hellebuyck on a 2-on-1 rush at 5:45 of double overtime even the best-of-7 series 1-1.

Simply put, it was a massive goal, a massive win and maybe a little redemption after a dominant performance in Game 1 left the Predators wanting in Friday’s 4-1 loss.

The majority of the 25:45 of free hockey that was played was a lesson in how manic the game of hockey can be. Chances, near-misses, desperate saves — all contained in some of the most exciting hockey thus far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The game arrived in overtime after a frantic battle between two determined teams in regulation.

If Game 1 didn’t live up to the hype after a lopsided game one way resulted in an unlikely win in the other direction, Game 2 certainly made up for it.

Mark Scheifele‘s goal with 1:05 remaining in the third period, with Winnipeg’s net vacant, capped it off and ensured the hype train would keep chugging along.

Prior to that, Johansen scored his second goal of the night to give the Predators a 4-3 lead with 14 minutes and change remaining in the game.

His first came two periods earlier, just 27 seconds into the game to give the Preds a quick 1-0 lead. The lead wouldn’t hold and the Jets scored twice in 29 seconds before the period was through, including Scheifele’s first of the game.

Nashville rallied in the second period, scoring twice to take a 3-2 lead into the third period. Brandon Tanev tied the game at 5:11 of the third, only to watch from the bench as the Johansen scored a beauty 34 seconds later to retake the lead, one that would last until Scheifele’s crucial equalizer at 18:55.

Pekka Rinne made 46 saves when it was all said and done, just 48 hours after he was removed from Game 1 following a poor outing.

Game 3 of the series shifts to Winnipeg on Tuesday night


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

PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Jets vs. Predators

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Let’s not kid ourselves here, if you’re a fan of the game of hockey, the second round matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators is the crème de la crème.

This isn’t throwing any disrespect or shade on the three other series going on around the league. It’s just the truth.

This matchup was on the tongues of fans in both markets and across the league before the playoffs even began. People wanted it, and they knew if both teams took care of business in the first round, they’d get it.

Now it’s here. And it’s massive in every measurable way.

Simply put, you have the two best teams in the regular season facing off against one another.

Nashville finished with 117 points and the Presidents’ Trophy while the Jets slotted in three points back with 114. The hype begins there and runs rampant as each storyline branches out.

Both teams possess Vezina Trophy candidates this season.

Both teams have great offenses, stout defenses and excel in special teams.

And the hits just keep coming: Patrik Laine vs. Filip Forsberg. Mark Scheifele vs. P.K. Subban. Dustin Byfuglien vs. anyone brave enough.

Can Austin Watson and Colton Sissons keep it up? Will Nikolaj Ehlers find his scoring touch? What about Kyle Connor? Will injuries derail the Jets or will discipline issues spell doom for the Predators?

The list is endless and enthralling.

Schedule

Surging Players

Jets: On offense, Scheifele finished up the first round series with four goals and five points while Laine had two goals and two assists. Byfuglien had five assists as he chipped in from the point, but his biggest contribution outside of production was the hurt he put on the Minnesota Wild, physically.

But unquestionably, the Jet that is surging the most at the moment is Hellebuyck, who bounced back from a tough Game 3 outing to post back-to-back shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to close out Winnipeg’s first-round series against the Wild.

Predators: The first round was the Austin Watson coming out party. Watson had four goals and three assists to match linemate Colton Sissons’ three goals and four assists for the team lead at seven points. Add Nick Bonino‘s five points and the Predators third line made up three of the team’s top six scorers during their six-game series against Colorado.

Forsberg wasn’t far behind, scoring four and adding two helpers. Meanwhile, Mattias Ekholm had one goal and five assists.

Struggling players

Jets: Winnipeg works so well as a unit that even when there is a lull offensively from a player, they’re aren’t always immediately viewed as being stuck in rut.

That said, Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored 29 goals in the regular season and rookie Kyle Connor, who had 31 in his inaugural NHL campaign, have just two assists apiece thus far. This isn’t to say the sky is falling on those two, and you could probably chalk up their first-round offensive struggles to trying to sort playing in the playoffs in the big leagues.

Still, both will be looking for improvement in the goal-scoring department in the second round.

Predators: Ryan Hartman cost the Preds a first-round pick at the trade deadline on Feb. 26 and he was a healthy scratch for Game 6. Hartman already missed Game 5 due to suspension after throwing his own pity party and then trying to take Carl Soderberg‘s head clean off.

Hartman needs to be better, and so does the line of Kyle Turris, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala.

Turris had no goals in the series, adding just two assists. Turris had 10 points in 19 games last year with the Ottawa Senators as they went on their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Fiala had a goal and an assist in the series and Smith had two markers. Turris’ line was solid during the regular season. That magic would be a welcomed addition to the second round.

Oh, and Mike Fisher could pitch in a goal or even a helper. He’s laid an egg through six games.

Goaltending

Jets: The backbone of the Jets, both in the regular season and through the first round.

Hellebuyck has been nothing short of sensational for the Jets this season. He posted a healthy 4-1 record with a .924 save percentage and two shutouts in the first round. Hellebuyck is able to string together solid start after solid start, and when he has an off night, like he did in Game 3, his ability to quickly forget it and move on is uncanny.

He’s a Vezina candidate for a reason and a problem the Predators must solve to move on.

Predators: Speaking of Vezina candidates, Rinne is likely the front-runner for the award this year, and his regular season was tremendous.

In the first round, however, Rinne looked fairly pedestrian, if not below average, with a .909 save percentage. Still, he backstopped the Predators to a 5-0 win in Game 5 with a 22-save shutout. And Nashville has all the ingredients in front of Rinne to make up for poor nights.

One area of concern for Rinne is his sub-.800 save percentage when facing high-danger scoring chances. It’s something to keep an eye on against a team that generates a lot of them.

This battle is paramount in the series. The Jets, even with their scoring prowess, have it all to do against Rinne if he’s on top of his game.

Special teams

Jets: Winnipeg’s penalty kill struggled in the first round, killing off infractions just 76.9 percent of the time. The Jets had the eighth best PK in the league during the regular season, so chalk this one up as an anomaly, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

The Jets were given just 13 power plays in the first round and converted on three of them for a healthy 23.1 percent success rate. Laine didn’t find the back of the net with the man-advantage as the Wild tried to take him out of the equation altogether. It didn’t help that they left Scheifele open twice, however. Winnipeg has a lot of weapons at their disposal on the PP. Nashville would do well to limit the number of times Winnipeg gets to deploy them.

Predators: The Preds were shorthanded 20 times during the first round but managed to kill off 90 percent of those. In theory, rinse and repeat should be on the menu, but the Jets are far more dangerous up a man than Colorado. Still, having Rinne in the crease and Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis to depend on in front of him is the envy of many.

Nashville’s power play was a bit of a bottom feeder during the first round, converting on just 15.8 percent of their 19 chances (three, for those who aren’t good at math, like me). That compares to their 21.2 percent during the regular season. If Winnipeg’s PK continues to struggle, Nashville could get back to that number.

Fancy stats

Jets: There’s not a better possession team in the playoffs thus far. The Jets are moving along with a 58.96 percent Corsi rating through five games, and showed their ability to dominate and hold teams in their defensive zone in some lopsided affairs against the Wild. Winnipeg’s expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) was highest at 61.9%.

Predators: The Jets might lead playoff teams in terms of possession, but right behind them is the Predators at 54.89%. The Predators had the edge between the two teams in medium-danger save percentage at .986 compared to Winnipeg’s .939. Nashvilles xGF% was third at 55.9%.

We’re splitting hairs here. Both teams are good in many analytical categories. According to TSN’s Travis Yost, “Winnipeg actually outchanced Nashville (53.5 per cent of scoring chances in their favor) over the five-game series, but Nashville did end up winning three of five games.”

Injuries

Jets: Laine missed Wednesday’s practice and Ehlers missed Game 5, both with “malaise” as Jets coach Paul Maurice preferred to put it. Maurice said he expects both to be ready for Game 1.

The Jets are without Mathieu Perreault, who has been out of action since picking up an injury in Game 1. Dmitry Kulikov (back) still remains sidelined. Backup netminder Steve Mason is nursing another lower-body injury but has been skating. Toby Enstrom, meanwhile, is finally back to practice after missing time with an ankle injury. His return could be a big boost for the Jets. Enstrom’s a solid puck-moving defender who is great at breakouts and works well beside Byfuglien.

Predators: The Preds emerged from the first round relatively unscathed. Watson missed team skates on Wednesday and Thursday but is expected to play. Otherwise, it appears all cylinders are firing for the Predators at the moment.

X-Factor for Jets

Some might say health, but the Jets have proved they can not only handle the injury bug, but spite it all together with impressive results. The Jets seem to click no matter who’s in the lineup. That said, they face a Predators team that can punish lesser players. But the x-factor here is goaltending. If Hellebuyck is on his game, the Jets are near-unstoppable.

X-Factor for Predators

Discipline. The Predators simply need to control their sticks and their extremities and take fewer minors. Nashville took 29 minor penalties (second most) in the first round and was shorthanded 20 times. They’re playing against the power play that clipped along at 23.1 percent in the first round and have Laine and Scheifele who can be devastating if given the opportunity with the man advantage. Nashville’s penalty kill was an even 90 percent against the Avalanche, but they can’t rest on that against Laine and Co.

Prediction

Predators in 7: I’m sticking to my pre-playoff pick, but it’s getting increasingly hard. The Jets were simply too good in the first round not to take notice and the Predators were largely pedestrian against the Avalanche to make this one a coin flip on paper.  The Predators gained a ton of experience last year, and they will have to lean on that in this series. The edge is razor thin, but the Predators are slightly ahead of the curve. I expect Nashville to tighten up defensively and not give Winnipeg’s stars the kind of space Nathan MacKinnon was afforded in the first round.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks
• 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

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