Paul Stastny

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Mark Stone is unstoppable right now for the Golden Knights

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What Mark Stone is doing for the Vegas Golden Knights through three games against the San Jose Sharks should come as no surprise.

Stone has an NHL-best six goals and is tied for first on the team with eight points, already matching his career best in the postseason set during the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 in 16 fewer games. As part of Vegas’ second line that was built through free agency last summer (Paul Stastny) and separate trades in September (Max Pacioretty) and February (Stone), the trio have combined to record 22 of the Golden Knights’ 35 points.

“They’ve eaten us up this series so far,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. “We haven’t had an answer for them. You get three really good players playing at a high level right now. That’s part of the issue, and we have to find an answer to slow those guys down.”

A hat trick and five-point night during a 6-3 win in Game 3 only further cemented how good of a player Stone is and how important he’s been to the Golden Knight’s lineup.

“That’s one of the dominant games I’ve ever seen from a player in the playoffs,” said Pacioretty.

When the Sharks mounted a brief comeback to cut the Golden Knights’ lead from 5-1 to 5-3, there was one simple solution to stop the onslaught, according to Nate Schmidt.

“We sent Mark Stone out there,” he said.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stone, who signed an eight-year, $76M extension following the consummation of the trade, immediately clicked with his new team, scoring five times and recording 11 points in the final 18 games of the regular season. He hasn’t need any sort of adjustment period following his years in Ottawa, and certainly going from a lottery team to a Cup contender breeds quite a bit of inspiration.

“I just love being here,” Stone said. “I love playing in Las Vegas. I love my teammates, the fans, the city. This is why I came here, I want to play playoff hockey. We’ve had some success, sure, but we can’t dwell on it. We have to be good professionals and continue to get better.”

The Golden Knights’ second line is one of a handful of issues facing the Sharks ahead of Game 4. Joe Thornton will miss the game due to suspension and Regular Season Martin Jones appears to have returned after a solid Game 1 performance.

As DeBoer said, San Jose needs to find answers as they face a hole that could be too deep to dig out from.

Game 4 of Golden Knights-Sharks is Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Live stream)

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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.

Golden Knights, Capitals quietly on another crash course for Stanley Cup Final

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Everyone is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their record-pace. The Boston Bruins are riding high with an 18-game point streak. The St. Louis Blues started from the bottom and are now in third in the Central. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are all battling for their respective divisional supremacy.

Meanwhile, quietly in the nation’s capital, the Washington Capitals have won five consecutive games and are tied with the New York Islanders in points atop the Metropolitan Division. Even more quietly out in the desert, the Vegas Golden Knights have also won five straight. Does anybody remember that these were the last two teams standing last season? Because that’s what could very well happen again.

The Caps won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs both years to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Last season, they won the Metropolitan again but finished third in the East before going on to win their first Cup in franchise history. They’re in a similar position this year, just two points behind Toronto for third in the conference. Perhaps being a bit under the radar is where they thrive.

Washington has also shown the ability to flip a switch and turn back into the defending champions at a moment’s notice. Take last week’s game against Ottawa for example. The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 before they could blink against the lowly Senators early in the first period. But by the time the period was over, the score was tied. By the final buzzer, Washington had won 7-2.

With a league-leading 46 goals, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the offensive load for Washington once again this season. But the Capitals’ recent 5-game winning streak has been a demonstration of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year, as 13 different players have scored a goal and 18 players have registered a point in that span. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan did well to bolster that depth by adding defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Carl Hagelin, who have both already made contributions during their brief time in D.C.

Of course, the biggest difference between this Washington team and the one that hoisted the Cup is behind the bench. At the moment, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his Islanders seem to be the only thing standing between Todd Reirden and the franchise winning a fourth straight division title.

Out west, while Calgary and San Jose jockey for first place in the Pacific, Vegas has a stranglehold on third in the division. That means they’ll play whichever team finishes second between the Flames and the Sharks in the First Round, a tough match up for whichever team comes up short. Vegas has not lost since the trade deadline, Mark Stone seems to be gelling nicely with the now-healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like the Fleury of last postseason, stopping 109 of the 111 shots he faced during his four straight wins.

Very few expected last year’s expansion Vegas team to make a run to the Cup Final, if not for their lack of star power, then certainly for their lack of postseason experience. Well, they now have that star power and after coming three wins away from the Cup last season, there is no lack of playoff wisdom on this Golden Knights roster. Even their new pieces like Stone (2017 with Ottawa), Pacioretty (2014 with Montreal) and Stastny (2016 with St. Louis & 2018 with Winnipeg) have all played in a Conference Final.

Given the Capitals’ previous failures in the playoffs and the Golden Knights’ infancy as a franchise, it was a bit of a shock to see them both facing off for the Stanley Cup last season. Don’t be so surprised if it happens again this year.

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

Winnipeg’s Paul Stastny problem

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WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have quite the conundrum on their hands.

It’s nothing earth-shattering. It’s one of those problems you can file on the good-headache-to-have category, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed, one way or another.

The man central to the issue is center Paul Stastny

He’s the guy no one knew was coming to Winnipeg at the trade deadline until Kevin Cheveldayoff shipped a first rounder and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues to get, shortly after Blues general manager Doug Armstrong dangled Stastny in front of the playoff-charging Jets.

Everything clicked as soon as Stastny donned the Jets sweater in late February. The son of Hall of Famer Peter meshed immediately with superstar sniper Patrik Laine and the dancing Dane, Nikolaj Ehlers — two pillars of Winnipeg’s seemingly bright future.

Stastny slid perfectly in between the duo, providing a center that could play with the two gifted wingers. Stastny knew his role and played it well: feed the men on either side of him.

Laine and Ehlers gushed about Stastny, providing joy to the team and to fans alike.

The deal of the trade deadline was so satisfying that Jets are working hard to find a way to keep the goods for good.

And therein lies the problem.

How does a team with such a bevy of talent that needs to get paid to afford a player that’s tough to fit on the ledger?

CapFriendly will show that the Jets are currently at roughly $54.5 million when it comes to the salary cap. We know the cap will increase to $79.5 million this season, meaning the Jets have some $25 million to play with (and actually less when you consider they could have around $4 million in entry-level contract bonuses to pay out.)

To someone unaware of what the Jets are facing, it looks easy to fit Stastny in. But the Jets have 16 total restricted free agents, nine of which were on the team for most of the year and seven more in the minors.

And not all of them are low-priced restricted free agents either.

Connor Hellebuyck set several records on his way to being voted as the runner-up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina Trophy.

Winnipeg’s top pairing on defense in Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba need money, too. They’re one of the best shutdown duos in the league. Trouba is looking long-term and for big money, while Cheveldayoff may be able to get Morrissey to sign a bridge. Either way, the money needs to be spent.

The Jets then need to lock up third-line center Adam Lowry, wingers Joel Armia and Brandon Tanev and defenseman Tucker Poolman and Joe Morrow while also figuring out what to do with Marko Dano and several aforementioned minor leaguers (who only count if they play in the Show.)

[On Paul Stastny and his impact with the Jets]

That $25 million goes quick, and the Jets will have Kyle Connor, who led all rookies with 31 goals, versatile forward Jack Roslovic and, of course, Laine to pay coming up as well.

Stastny isn’t looking to play for a pittance, of course, so there are some scenarios that must occur to make this work.

Let’s delve into them.

Trade money away

The best way to make room is to clean out some space.

As we saw this weekend with the Washington Capitals, they needed to move Brooks Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit to make way for John Carlson’s eight-year, $64 million extension.

There are some options here for the Jets. Names that immediately come to mind are Trouba’s fellow d-man Tyler Myers, who’s cap hit for the Jets is $5.5 million per year, forward Mathieu Perreault at $4.125 million a year and goalie Steve Mason at $4.1 million with one year left on his two-year $8.2 million deal.

Trading Trouba isn’t desirable. He’s far too valuable an asset, but the Jets also have a kid named Sami Niku, who captured the American Hockey League’s best defenseman award in his rookie season, looking to earn a roster spot this season. If Trouba’s demands are too high, it might become the best option, but likely not until the 2019-20 season.

Myers is getting a lot for a third-pairing defenseman, but Jets head coach loves himself some Myers. Myers will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, however, and the Jets won’t be able to afford him at his current price point then regardless. Moving Myers would be an option that makes the most sense if there’s a market for him. He’s a big man capable of playing a lot of minutes, and there are teams that need that, so it’s surely a possibility if the Jets are willing to explore it.

That said, and as already mentioned, Maurice likes Myers and uses him a lot on the penalty kill, on the second power-play unit and Maurice has already chatted with Myers, a right-hand shot, moving to the left side this season to perhaps play with Dustin Byfuglien with Toby Enstrom departing as a free agent.

It’s unlikely a team will want to risk paying Mason after his injury-plagued season. And trading Perreault, who can play anywhere in the lineup and make any linemates better, shouldn’t make sense from an organizational standpoint. He’s too valuable, even if he’s a little overpaid.

Wizardry on the balance sheet

Figuring this out seems a futile endeavor.

There are a lot of unknowns with the RFAs right now. At this point, the Jets have just seven players signed to contracts past next season.

If Cheveldayoff could just get every player he possesses to sign Mark Scheifele-type deals, the Jets would have a better team than they already do. But that’s just not the case.

Sure, Morrissey may take a bridge. Lowry might, too. But Trouba likely won’t, and even if he heads to arbitration, will make more than the $3 million he’s commanding on his current bridge contract.

Hellebuyck needs to be paid like the elite level goalie he is.

It’s tight, to say the least.

Sign Stastny short-term

Hockey Analytics guru Matt Cane’s prediction of Stastny’s next contract is three years at roughly $5.4 million annually.

The problem for the Jets isn’t the 2018-19 season, it’s the one after.

With Winnipeg’s biggest contract — Laine — still a year away from kicking in, and with the shedding of other contracts at the end of next season — Myers’ $5.5 million, potentially Blake Wheeler’s $5.6 million and Mason’s $4.1 million — the Jets could give Stastny a home for a reasonable price on a deal that would make sense for all parties.

Wheeler is going to want a big raise after his 91-point season, but he’ll be 33 after next season and may price himself out of Winnipeg.

But if Wheeler stays, it’s not crazy to think that Wheeler, Laine and Connor could make well over $20 million combined beginning in the 2019-20 season.

Breakup and remain friends

As good as the fling was between Stastny and the Jets, getting him signed might just not make sense in the end.

Laine needs a center. So does Ehlers. Roslovic could grow into that role. The Jets were a better team with Stastny, but have young players become a year older and better by the same token.

It was good while it lasted, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Long story short

Much of this is guesswork. We look at the cap, we look at the players and we try to figure out what makes the most sense.

Simply, if Stastny wants to stay in Winnipeg, he needs to take less money and less term.

The benefit of him being in Winnipeg is he gets to play next to Laine and on a team that appears to have a solid window that’s open for a few runs at the Stanley Cup.

If he wants long-term security, he will look elsewhere. There will be no shortage of suitors willing to pay more, and for longer, for a productive center.

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