Nathan MacKinnon might be NHL’s most valuable asset

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There are few players in the NHL that have been more impressive and noticeable through the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs than Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.

He looks like he is shot out of a cannon on every shift and is one of the biggest reasons his team has a 3-1 lead on the Calgary Flames and is on the verge of knocking off the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

MacKinnon may not have the highest point total in the playoffs, but his impact has been massive.

The Avalanche have looked like the better team through the first four games, and one of the biggest reasons for that has been their team speed. They just look faster in every game, and at no time is that more evident than when MacKinnon and his line is on the ice.

There is no answer for him or anything he is doing, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the numbers to see it.

Following Wednesday’s come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win, MacKinnon is leading the league in total shot attempts (44), shots on goals (24), and scoring chances (25) and has been a driving force behind the Avalanche offense, just as he has been over the past two regular seasons where he has emerged as one of the truly elite players in the league.

He has been as dominant as it can possibly get at this level.

He is also one of the biggest current steals in the NHL when it comes to his total value under the salary cap, and from a team perspective has become the most valuable asset on any team in the NHL.

You won’t find anyone arguing that he is the best player in the league, but he is certainly on the very short list of players that stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Definitely top-10 at this point, maybe even starting to push the top-five. Just consider that since the start of the 2017-18 season only two players in the league (Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid) have recorded more points than MacKinnon, while only three have scored more goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He scored 41 goals and 99 total points in 82 games this season, and was at 39 goals and 97 points in only 74 games a year ago (that would have been a 43-goal, 107-point pace over 82 games).

That sort of offensive brilliance is incredibly rare, and MacKinnon is showing no signs of slowing down.

There are two things that make this such a steal for the Avalanche.

The first is that MacKinnon is still only 23 years old, meaning that he still might have his best and most productive days in the NHL sitting in front of him as most scorers hit their peak levels of production between the ages of 22 and 26.

The second is that the Avalanche have him under contract at only $6.3 million per season for four more full seasons after this one.

That means he is under contract for all of his peak years at an astonishingly low rate for the team.

That salary cap hit is only the 62nd largest in the NHL, and putting him right between Keith Yandle and Alexander Radulov on the league’s pay scale.

The Avalanche are going to be getting a bonafide superstar, throughout probably all of his prime years in the NHL, for a price that is probably equivalent to a really good, but not great, first-or second-line player. That is a totally bonkers contract, and it gives the Avalanche an enormous advantage when it comes to building their team around him.

Add in the fact that Gabriel Landeskog makes even less over the next two years, and the Avalanche have only $11 million committed to a pair of top-line stars.

That is one of the biggest reasons you have to be extraordinarily excited about the future of this team, no matter what happens in this series or the remainder of the playoffs.

MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen is as good of a trio as there is anywhere else in the league, and they are probably the biggest reason the Avalanche have made the playoffs the past two years.

Now they are on the verge of getting even more around them.

They have a top-four pick in Cale Makar that has made his arrival in the league and, in just two playoff games, already looks like he belongs. They have a pipeline of young players filled with the potential (some in the NHL already; some on their way) and another top-four pick coming this spring thanks to completion of the Matt Duchene trade. Because MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen are so young (and so cheap) they should all still be a part of the team that pipeline starts to make its biggest impact.

And because their two best players are tied to contracts that are probably for about half of what their market value should be, they have a ton of flexibility to not only keep their other young players (Rantanen, specifically) but also add around them. It is a huge advantage.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

Lightning have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure

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Not winning the Stanley Cup isn’t what makes the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning a failure.

Sometimes great teams simply don’t win.

There is no shame in losing in the Stanley Cup Final. Losing Game 7 of a conference final is nothing to hang your head over.  If their season had ended in that manner (again), or perhaps even in the second round against Boston or Toronto, there would have been some criticism and some doubt about their ability to finish the job, but the reaction wouldn’t have been anywhere near as harsh as it will be following their four-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Championships are rare, and a great regular season guarantees you nothing when it comes to hardware because there are so many factors that go into being handed that trophy at the end of the playoffs.

What makes this Lightning team a complete and total failure is the fact it simply no-showed in the playoffs. And even saying that may be letting this group off the hook more than they deserve.

This was not the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals outplaying a team for seven games only to lose because a goalie got white hot and played the series of his life. This was not a team playing well and doing things right only to go lose a long, drawn out seven-game series because a bounce or two didn’t go their way.

This was the best regular season team of the modern era, and maybe one of the best regular season teams ever, getting absolutely humiliated in four straight games. This thing was not even close.

Outside of the first 15 minutes of the series where the Lightning jumped out to an early three-goal lead, there was never a point in this series where you felt like they were close to breaking through, or that they were playing their game and simply being beaten by a goalie or some rough puck luck, or that they were going to get themselves right.

They just flat out got whooped.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A team that scored 325 goals during the regular season, and had three different 40-goal scorers, and outscored teams by more than 100 goals, was thoroughly dominated.

They managed just eight goals in four games. They were outscored by a 19-8 margin for the series, and 19-5 over the final 11 periods.

If you wanted to look for excuses, you could point to the injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the blue line, and especially Hedman’s. He is one of the key cogs that makes the machine run smoothly. But this wasn’t the first time they played without him this season and they never looked that bad without him.

And for as good as Stralman is, they only had him for 47 games during the season and still managed to win 62 games without him.

This is also a team that was deep enough and good enough to be without its starting goalie for an entire month and still went 12-3-0 without him.

You could also point to the fact the Blue Jackets are probably better than their final regular season record because the roster as currently constructed was only together for about a month-and-a-half. Maybe that, combined with the absence of Hedman in Games 3 and 4 and the fact he surely wasn’t healthy in Games 1 and 2, narrowed the gap.

But there is no way it narrowed the gap this much. 

You can’t fault anyone for injuries. But you can fault, say, Nikita Kucherov for taking himself out of Game 3 due to a reckless, selfish play. You can fault the offense for not showing up.

What makes this performance even worse for the Lightning is that it in a lot of ways validated any criticism they may have faced for falling short in recent postseasons.

As I wrote before the playoffs began, the Lightning were under a ton of pressure to win this year (probably more than any other team in the playoffs) not only because of what they did during the regular season, but because of the way they have fallen short in recent postseasons.

Again, this is a team that had a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and then lost three games in a row scoring only two goals. This is a team that in two of the past three years had 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final only to lose both, scoring just three total games in the four games they lost (they scored three goals in their Games 6 and 7 losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and zero goals in their two defeats a year ago to the Washington Capitals).

There is losing, and then there is collapsing.

The Lightning have developed a tendency for collapsing.

Now comes the hard part for the Lightning.

Now they have to figure out why this happened, why this team failed so spectacularly, and what exactly there is to do about it.

There is no denying the talent on this team, and it’s not like the group is without its share of success. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning have won more regular season games than any other team in the NHL, and the third most playoff games. The core that produced all of those wins is still locked in place and under team control, and most of them are still in the prime of their careers. It’s not like this is a situation that is screaming for a massive overhaul, and quite honestly, a massive overhaul is probably the worst thing they could do.

But it’s no longer unfair to ask if something is just off here.

Is it the coach? Is it the players? Or was it simply a team that had been ridiculously close in recent years, falling just short, simply falling on its face at the worst possible time?

In a vacuum any of the Lightning’s recent postseason losses are nothing to be terribly worried about on their own.

That’s sports. Your season is going to end short of a championship far more often than it doesn’t. But to keep losing the way they have, and to keep going out as meekly as they have when they have been in a position of control is something worth talking about.

Simply losing isn’t what is going to define the 2018-19 Lightning, or even this current core of players.

It is the way they have lost that is defining them.

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.

Kucherov handed one-game ban for boarding, misses Game 3

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Already reeling from being down 2-0 in a series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have to deal with their “five-alarm fire” without their best man equipped to douse the flames.

Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s leading point producer during the regular season, is banned from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round series on Sunday.

Kucherov lost his cool late in a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets on Friday, slashing Blue Jackets’ Markus Nutivaara and then, when he was on his knees in a vulnerable spot, drilling him into the half boards.

Kucherov was given two for tripping, a five-minute major for boarding and assessed a game misconduct on the play.

The league moved swiftly on this one after announcing the hearing late Friday.

George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, said while the hit isn’t excessively violent in nature, there are a number of other factors that play into it meriting supplemental discipline.

“Kucherov is control of this play at all times,” Parros said in the department’s suspension video. “This is not a play where Nutivaara falls to the ice suddenly or unexpectedly in a way that leaves Kucherov little time to react.”

Parros said the reason Nutivaara was on the ice in the first place was because of the trip Kucherov put on him prior to the hit, leaving the Blue Jackets defenseman in a defenseless position.

“Kucherov takes advantage of this situation to deliver a dangerous hit on a player in an exposed, defenseless position,” Parros said.

And above all this, Parros said that the department believes the incident falls under Article 18.2 of the NHL’s collective bargain agreement when it comes to “message send,” where an incident occurs late in the game, with a lopsided score and/or from prior events in the game.

“While we understand that frustration often occurs at the end of a game, dangerous or retaliatory plays delivered in the final minutes of a playoff game will be viewed in context and punished accordingly,” Parros said.

The Lightning are already in big trouble. They’ve been outplayed badly over the first two games and none of their big names — and there are a lot of them — are producing anything. They badly needed Kucherov to show up in Game 3 after having now points in the first two games.

It’s dire in Tampa, given the lack of point production.
• Nikita Kucherov – 0 points
Steven Stamkos – 0 points
Brayden Point – 0 points

Each of those guys had 40 or more goals this season and at least 90 points.

Three sides of the milk carton are already taken up, and you could easily fill up the fourth with others on the team. Hell, you might need multiple milk cartons just to address all those who are MIA.

With Victor Hedman’s status in question, the Lightning could be running with without last year’s Norris winner and this year’s likely Hart recipient.

Still, they are hopeful.


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

The Playoff Buzzer: Blue Jackets turn Lightning into ‘five alarm fire’

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  • The Columbus Blue Jackets take a stunning 2-0 lead and the Tampa Bay Lightning might be without Nikita Kucherov in Game 3.
  • The New York Islanders are in total control after frustrating the Pittsburgh Penguins again.
  • A surprising offensive star makes a big impact for the St. Louis Blues as they take a 2-0 series lead.
  • The San Jose Sharks power play and goaltending holds them back on Friday.

Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1 (CBJ leads series 2-0)

A year ago the Columbus Blue Jackets opened Round 1 by taking the first two games on the road against a division champion and a Stanley Cup contender. They ended up losing the series. They get a chance to make up for that this year by putting themselves in the exact same position after dismantling the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night, taking a 2-0 series lead. After the game Lightning coach Jon Cooper called the situation a “five alarm fire,” which doesn’t exactly sound encouraging. We will see how — and if — they put it out. Making matters worse: Nikita Kucherov, the MVP front-runner from the regular season, is likely to be suspended for Game 3 after an ugly boarding incident late in the game.

New York Islanders 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (NYI leads series 2-0)

The Islanders have the Penguins on the ropes and looking completely frustrated after two games. The Islanders are controlling the play and making things look easy at times while the Penguins can’t seem to get out of their own way when trying to exit the defensive zone. The series now shifts to Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon and the Penguins need a complete 180 turnaround from just about everybody on their roster to get back in this series.

St. Louis Blues 4, Winnipeg Jets 3 (StL leads series 2-0)

When you start a series on the road you start off hoping to take at least one of the first to so you can steal home-ice advantage. When you win the first two, well, that just puts you at a huge advantage and the St. Louis Blues are there right now after their 4-3 win on Friday night. Oskar Sundqvist scored two goals and Ryan O'Reilly scored the game-winner early in the third period.

Vegas Golden Knights 5, San Jose Sharks 3 (Series tied 1-1)

The San Jose Sharks had some problems on Friday night. Among them, the fact Martin Jones could not get out of the first period and they gave up five goals on 23 shots, and also a terrible power play performance that saw them go 1-for-8 while giving up two shorthanded goals. There is your difference in the game and why the series is going back to Vegas tied 1-1.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Matt Duchene, Columbus Blue Jackets. Games like this are what the Blue Jackets had in mind when they traded for Matt Duchene. He was incredible on Friday night, scoring his first career playoff goal and finishing with four total points in the Blue Jackets’ win that now has them half way to their first postseason series win in franchise history.

2. Oskar Sundqvist, St. Louis Blues. Before this season Sundqvist had scored just two goals in 72 NHL games. He matched that total on Friday night alone in the Blues’ 4-3 win and is now up to 16 goals in 76 games, including playoffs, this season. Everything is clicking for the Blues right now as they continue to play great defense and get balanced offense from all over their lineup.

3. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. For the second game in a row Eberle was an impact player for the Islanders, tallying his second goal of the series (this one the game-winner) and finishing with two points for an Islanders team that has looked even better than it did during the regular season. 

Highlight Of The Night

Eberle’s game-winning goal was a heck of a finish.

Factoids of the Night

  • This seems almost impossible to believe, but it is true: The Columbus Blue Jackets’ win on Friday night was the first time in the history of the franchise they have won a playoff game by more than one goal. This team is almost 20 years old! [Aaron Portzline]
  • Marc-Andre Fleury is one win away from tying Mike Vernon for seventh on the NHL’s all-time postseason wins list. [NHL PR]
  • This is the first time since 1983 the New York Islanders have had a 2-0 series lead. [NHL PR]

Saturday’s schedule

Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, Game 2 (WSH leads 1-0), 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators, Game 2 (DAL leads 1-0), 6 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, Game 2 (TOR leads 1-0), 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames, Game 2 (CGY leads 1-0), 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)

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.

Lightning’s Kucherov ejected for boarding; has hearing Saturday

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(UPDATE: Kucherov has been suspended for Game 3.)

After a dream regular season for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov the first two games of the playoffs have been a complete nightmare.

Not only is his team facing a 2-0 series deficit after blowing a three-goal lead in Game 1 and then getting completely dominated in Game 2, but the latter ended with him getting ejected and earning 17 total penalty minutes.

It could also lead to him missing Game 3 of the series as the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has already announced Kucherov will have a hearing on Saturday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The entire sequence began with Kucherov slashing Columbus’ Markus Nutivaara. After Nutivaara fell to the ice and was in a defenseless position against the boards, Kucherov skated up to him and drilled him into the boards. That resulted in a two-minute minor for tripping, a five-minute major for boarding, and a game misconduct.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

Given that the DoPS has already scheduled a hearing it seems likely that a suspension is on the horizon, and if Kucherov has to miss a game the Lightning are really going to be in a hole heading into Game 3 in Columbus on Sunday.

Related: Blue Jackets blowout Lightning to take 2-0 series lead

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.