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Bishop, Lehner, Vasilevskiy are 2019 Vezina Trophy finalists

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Awards season shifts to the crease as the three finalists for the NHL’s top netminder were unveiled on Saturday.

The nominees, voted by the league’s 31 general managers, including Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The award was first presented by Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens,1926-27 in memory Georges Vezina, who died in 1925 from tuberculosis. Prior to the 1981-82 season, the goaltender(s) of a team with the fewest number of goals allowed during the regular season was awarded the trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Ben Bishop: Bishop was superb all season, leading all goalies with a .934 save percentage, finishing second in goals-against average with a 1.98 and third in shutouts with seven. Bishop came to life down the stretch, going 8-0-1 in his final 10 appearances as the Stars grabbed the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference. He had three straight shutouts during that span, setting a franchise record for longest shutout streak at 233:04. His .934 save percentage was also a franchise record and the eighth-best by any goalie in league history. Bishop was 27-15-2 in 46 games.

The case for Robin Lehner: Lehner had a turnaround season for the ages, overcoming some personal demons and switching teams from Buffalo to the New York Islanders. Lehner thrived in his move across state, posting the second-best save percentage in the league at .930, third in goals-against at 2.13 and tied for fourth with six shutouts. Lehner’s season play really shined between Dec. 18 and Jan. 10 where he won eight straight games. He, along with Thomas Greiss, formed a formidable one-two punch in the Islanders’ crease, one that ultimately helped the Isles into the postseason after losing John Tavares to free agency last summer. The Islanders went from worst in goals-against to first, a feat only done once before in NHL history. Lehner was 25-13-5 in 46 games.

The case for Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy posted 39 wins in 53 games and was a big reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62. Vasilevskiy won 18 of the first 21 games he appeared in to get Tampa to the feat, including a 10-game winning streak between Feb. 9 and March 5. Vasilevskiy’s best play came after a loss. In fact, he only lost consecutive outings once all season, posting a 13-0-1 record following a defeat. He finished third last season and has a good chance to take home the hardware this year.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy


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

Foligno, Lehner, Thornton are 2019 Masterton Trophy finalists

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On Friday, the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced the three finalists for the 2019 Masterton Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks have been voted the three finalists after the PHWA’s local chapters submitted nominations at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters getting the trip to Las Vegas in June..

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Nick Foligno’s story: Foligno helped Columbus earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year by scoring 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 73 games, while simultaneously attending to health issues affecting two of his three young children. The Blue Jackets captain, 31, is skating in his seventh season with Columbus and ranks third on the club’s all-time goals (125) and assists (162) lists.

“I feel like we’ve become a stronger family and that’s how I’m always going to look at it. I think it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better leader, hopefully, for this team,” Foligno told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m going to take it all in stride, but my family is my most important thing in my life and (the Blue Jackets are) my second family.”

Robin Lehner’s story: Lehner (25-13-5 record, 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage, six shutouts) and teammate Thomas Greiss won the 2018-19 William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team allowing the fewest regular-season goals, helping the Islanders post their highest regular-season points total (103) since 1983-84. His best NHL season on the ice came on the heels of revealing addiction and mental health issues in a self-penned article for The Athletic during training camp.

“I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie,” Lehner wrote. “I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”

Joe Thornton’s story: Thornton, 39, overcame major injuries from the prior two seasons, suffering a torn ACL and MCL in both his left knee (2017) and right knee (2018). His rehabilitation work, detailed in the San Jose Mercury News, served as an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. The leader among active NHL players in career assists and points (413 goals, 1,065 assists, 1,478 points in 1,566 games), Thornton concluded his 21st NHL campaign with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games, helping the Sharks qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons.

Thornton scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 13 and passed a pair of NHL legends on April 4, leapfrogging Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) into 12th place on the all-time games list and Steve Yzerman (1,063) into eighth place on the all-time assists list.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy

————

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.

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Deep playoff push could mean big money for these Islanders

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Greed can sometimes be a good motivator in sports. So, for all we know, the lure of new contracts might just drive the New York Islanders during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Players in contract years made a significant impact in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Robin Lehner carried over momentum from his outstanding regular season, making 41 saves. Jordan Eberle shook off bad memories of a rough postseason past with the Oilers to generate a goal and an assist. Brock Nelson had a goal, too.

As Game 2 nears on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Livestream), consider these players with extra motivation … including some who can’t even sign extensions yet.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

UFAs with much to gain or lose

Lehner, 27, expiring $1.5M cap hit: You won’t see a better example of a player taking full advantage of a “prove it” contract, and Lehner may only add to his earning power if he can nullify the Penguins’ firepower during Round 1.

Eberle, 28, expiring $6M cap hit: After scoring 25 goals and 59 points during his first Islanders season in 2017-18, Eberle’s numbers dropped quite a bit to 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Those are acceptable, but not impressive stats, maybe slightly influenced by playing in a very defensive-minded system. Few players can gain or lose as much money as Eberle might during this postseason, as a hot 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs might make a suitor (or the Islanders) forget about a so-so regular season.

Anders Lee, 28, expiring $3.75M cap hit: When Lee was a surprising name on top snipers lists, many attributed his success to merely playing with John Tavares. That criticism lost steam in 2018-19, as Lee scored 28 goals and 51 points. He’ll get a raise starting next season, it’s just a matter of by how much.

Brock Nelson, 27, expiring $4.25M cap hit: Nelson has generated 20+ goals in four of his last five seasons, and generated 19 during the one he fell short (in 2017-18). His 25 goals this past season fell just short of tying a career-high, while Nelson did indeed set a new career-best mark with 53 points, ranking third on team scoring. Both Nelson and Lee are big forwards who can score, so they can drum up some serious interest if the Islanders balk at their asking prices.

Valtteri Filppula, 35, expiring $2.75M cap hit: Filppula’s been a picky shooter for a long time, yet even by his standards, 2018-19 season was a one where he made his shots count. His 17 goals came with a 21.8 shooting percentage, so that puck luck and his age make Filppula a buyer beware. Another great value signing for the Isles this season, though.

Technically not as pressing, yet …

Mathew Barzal, 21, rookie contract ends after 2019-20: For obvious core players of Barzal’s ilk, you really have two contract years, as the Islanders could theoretically sign Barzal to an extension as early as July — if he wants to. Barzal probably would at least like to wait a while and see how much money RFA forwards such as Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point rake in, so he may be more prone to let it ride.

Still, with the heartbreak the Islanders went through with John Tavares, maybe they’d push a little more for an early extension? It would be a big PR win, and there’s always the chance that Barzal would value the peace of mind of getting that out of the way.

A strong postseason would give him yet another strong talking point to ask for big dollars, whenever the two sides really hammer out a deal. Barzal’s off to a strong start, after all.

[Barzal already showed the poise of a veteran in Game 1]

Thomas Greiss, 33, $3.33M cap hit through 2019-20: No offense to Greiss, but the Islanders would prefer not to see him in net anytime soon.

Yet an offensive explosion from the Penguins, or an injury to Lehner could very well force Greiss into action. While he has term next season, Greiss has to be thinking about his future, at least to some extent.

After all, his chances of getting another contract changed dramatically over the last year. In 2017-18, Greiss suffered alongside Jaroslav Halak on an Islanders team that allowed the most goals in the NHL. One year later, Greiss posted nearly identical numbers to Lehner as the two combined to allow the fewest goals in the NHL.

A prolonged Islanders run could plausibly require contributions from both of their goalies after outstanding regular seasons, and that could also drive up Greiss’ earning power. It’s tough to imagine Greiss getting an extension being that he’s already 33, but who knows?

***

Naturally, hockey players are motivated during any postseason, not just when they’re in contract years. Even so, it’s probably human nature to get that little extra push when your future is uncertain, and that thought could make the above Islanders even more exciting to watch than they already would be.

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Livestream)

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.

The Buzzer: Spectacular debut to end season; Many records broken

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(UPDATE: Here’s the full Round 1 schedule with dates and TV info.)

Round 1 matchups are set

The Predators winning the Central Division was the biggest tournament-altering moment of the last night of the regular season. You can now see all eight series matchups here, with additional information.

Those who didn’t make it …

Get to cross their fingers and hope that their team wins the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery. Get the lowdown in this post.

Kucherov, Lightning hit 128

In a remarkable moment of symmetry, both the Lightning and Nikita Kucherov will end 2018-19 with 128 points. On the way, the Bolts tied the NHL record with 62 wins. This post is basically the factoids on those specific accomplishments, and they’re really something.

Three Stars

1. Ryan Poehling

For Poehling, this wasn’t just the last game of the season, it was also his first NHL game. So what did he do? He celebrated it with a hat trick and a shootout-winner, that’s how. Yes, it is indeed worth a post of its own.

In what was one of the other highlights of the night, legendary announcer Bob Cole ended his broadcasting career while Poehling began his in a memorable way:

2. Robin Lehner

Lehner put a bow on a remarkable regular season, making 29 saves for his sixth shutout of 2018-19. He did so in just 46 games played (43 of those being starts), going 25-13-5 with a tremendous .930 save percentage.

With Thomas Greiss being almost as good in 2018-19, it’s unlikely that Lehner built up the volume of games (and to some voters, most importantly wins) to be a serious Vezina threat. Nights like these should stand as a reminder of just how special his season has been.

Then again, Lehner and Greiss combined to win the William Jennings Trophy for the lowest GAA, so they get fitting recognition as a tandem.

Now, the question is: can he back it up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? For all of the Penguins’ flaws, they have a knack for making even the hottest goalies look cold.

3. Oliver Bjorkstrand

If the Blue Jackets hope to upset the mighty Lightning, they’ll probably need more than just a strong series from Artemi Panarin and for Sergei Bobrovsky to finally overcome the ghosts of playoffs past.

Someone like Bjorkstrand pitching in would really help. He’s been absolutely on fire during the last 10 games, firing in an impressive nine goals and two assists for 11 points. Bjorkstrand managed all of his assists in one game: Saturday’s 6-2 thumping of the Senators, where the winger also scored a goal.

Bjorkstrand’s shown signs of being a dangerous player in the past, including at lower levels than the NHL. He could be an X-factor in the first round … if Columbus manages to keep things close, at least.

Highlight of the Night

Scratch that, let’s call this what it is:

One more Gritty video

Gritty vs. goalies? The Flyers are embracing their history, right?

Factoids

Scores
TBL 6 – BOS 3
STL 3 – VAN 2 (SO)
MTL 6 – TOR 5 (SO)
CBJ 6 – OTT 2
BUF 7 – DET 1
NJD 4 – FLA 3 (OT)
CAR 4 – PHI 3
NYR 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
NYI 3 – WSH 0
NSH 5 – CHI 2
DAL 3 – MIN 0
EDM 3 – CGY 1
WPG 4 – ARI 2
LAK 5 – VGK 2
SJS 5 – COL 2

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).

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.