Sean Couturier

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

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

While the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams fight to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Round Robin is merely for seeding. Such a scenario presents the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding teams (four in each conference) with many conundrums, including the age-old rest vs. rust debate.

PHT will take a look at such dilemmas for all eight teams in the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding, starting with the East. We’re going East first because the Bruins a) won the Presidents’ Trophy and b) addressed such debates recently.

We might as well go in order as they would be ranked, too.

Debates for East top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

Boston Bruins

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruce Cassidy said he’s open to the idea of resting players during the three-game Round Robin for Seeding.

“Would we like to win all three games? Of course, in a perfect world, but I think with all teams there’s going to be some sort of a preseason mentality worked in with how the lineups are constructed every game,” Cassidy said, via Haggerty. “But if the [veteran players] want to play every game then I’m going to listen to them. It’s their bodies and they would know best. Then in the last game in the third period we’re going to shut our eyes and hope nobody gets hurt in those situations.”

The Bruins are in a heightened situation. While it stings that they may lose the top seeding they earned with 2019-20’s only 100-point season, this is also a roster brimming with veterans.

Most obviously, Cassidy must manage Zdeno Chara (43) and Patrice Bergeron (34). Really, the list goes deeper even than Tuukka Rask, who’s 33.

Brad Marchand is 32, and stands as an example to other contenders. As you may recall, Marchand aggravated a previous hand injury before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it was coincidental, but Marchand’s top line struggled during that seven-game slugfest with the Blues. If teams like the Bruins want to go deep, they should emphasize caution most of all.

So, beyond the obvious, there are players who’ve been banged up like Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy‘s also dealt with bumps and bruises despite ranking as one of the younger Bruins.

Overall, the Bruins rank among the East Round Robin teams with the most incentive to rest key players.

[MORE: How should the West’s top four teams handle rest vs. rust?]

Tampa Bay Lightning

How should the team with the most to lose deal with the Round Robin for Seeding?

Imagine how badly things could play out for the Lightning. We all know that their historic 2018-19 season ended in a stunning first-round sweep. Kenan Thompson mocked it. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked really steamed.

What if the Lightning fall short under these strange circumstances?

It could cost Jon Cooper his job. And there’s the increased risk of scapegoating a lack of “preparedness” if the Lightning take a preseason approach to the Round Robin for Seeding.

You could definitely make the argument that the Lightning took a while to get back into their elite form in 2019-20, too.

But … the Lightning are smarter than to cave to bad takes, right?

Let’s not forget that the Lightning didn’t really take their feet off the gas during that 2018-19 regular season — not really. Rather than resting stars more aggressively, Nikita Kucherov and others chased history.

Personally, it really looked like Victor Hedman was far from 100 percent, even missing some of that first-round sweep.

This Lightning team boasts a fairly old defense beyond Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Hedman is 29 already. Steven Stamkos is 30 (ponders own mortality for a second).

Cooper needs to find the right balance. If there’s any hint of failure in that regard, the vultures may start circling.

Washington Capitals

Zooming out, the most logical choice would be for the Capitals to promote rest.

Almost every major Capitals player is 30 or older, with the rare exception of breakthrough winger Jakub Vrana (24). There’s also some incentive to see if Ilya Samsonov (23) is still sharper than Braden Holtby (30).

But 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin doesn’t sit out a whole lot of games. Maybe the unique circumstances (and lack of a Maurice Richard Trophy to chase) might change Ovechkin’s approach, yet it’s not a slam-dunk to sit him. As Cassidy said, coaches will at times defer to players. It wouldn’t be shocking if such an approach occasionally backfires.

All things considered, the Capitals joust with the Bruins for the East Round Robin team with the most to gain from resting aging stars.

Philadelphia Flyers

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the Flyers want to shake off rust.

For one thing, the Flyers boast several core players in the younger range. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are both 23, while Carter Hart is 21. The Flyers also are “playing with house money” as a team that could climb to the top spot if they end up hot during the Round Robin for Seeding.

But the Flyers have plenty of reason to be careful, too.

To start, the drop-off between Hart and Brian Elliott (or another goalie) looks pretty severe. You don’t necessarily want to increase injury risks with Hart, then.

Also, there are veterans to manage. Philly should aim to keep Claude Giroux (32) and Jakub Voracek (30) fresh, not to mention someone like Matt Niskanen (33). While Sean Couturier is only 27, he’s the sort of player you’ll lean on a ton in playoff situations. So you might want to tread lightly there.

Rather than overtaxing go-to guys, this could be an opportunity for others. Could Nolan Patrick crack the lineup if his migraine issues are behind him? Perhaps a prospect from Philly’s impressive farm system will make a jump?

The Flyers have a lot to like about this situation. Even so, they also need to avoid getting too greedy.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Long-term outlook for Philadelphia Flyers

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

Pending Free Agents

The Core

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

Now, sure, there are some risks.

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

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

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

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

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

Long-term needs for Flyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-term strengths for Flyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

A best on best mythical tournament: Players that missed the cut

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament. The first teams created were a 23-and-under, players in their prime and players 30-and-older.

While the other teams in this mythical competition secured the best players from each age bracket, there were still plenty of high-impact players available to form another super team. This roster was able to take a unique combination of characteristics from players of all ages and create a team that is very well-balanced. They have the star power to skate stride for stride with the other teams in the tournament, and the depth to not only survive a long series but potentially thrive.

Line Combinations

First line: J.T. MillerSteven StamkosVladimir Tarasenko

Thoughts: It was surprising to slide Miller onto the top line, but he has finally lived up to his potential playing with elite talent on the Vancouver Canucks. He is 17th in the league with 72 points this season and skating alongside two highly skilled players should only increase his offensive production. Tarasenko has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury but his body of work speaks for itself.

Second line: Anders LeeJohn TavaresPhil Kessel

Thoughts: Lee had his only 40-goal season playing alongside John Tavares two years ago with the New York Islanders and has remained one of the league’s best net-front presences since No. 91 signed with Toronto. Patrick Kane echoed Mathew Barzal’s suggestion that Lee was one of the best puck tippers in the entire NHL. Kessel should also add an element of speed and an ability to score to balance out this dangerous trio.

Third line: Elias PetterssonAleksander BarkovWilliam Nylander

Thoughts: All three of these players are on the cusp of being superstars and each one should have a sizeable chip on his shoulder. This tournament would be a perfect opportunity for these players to elevate their status from up-and-coming players to established stars. Barkov has the entire skillset to bring out the best in each of his linemates on both ends of the ice.

Fourth line: Ondrej PalatSean CouturierTom Wilson

Thoughts: Wilson was an interesting player to include in this tournament, but he has proven in the past that he possesses the offensive skill to go along with his tough style of play. Couturier has become one of the top shutdown centers in the league and will be a contender for the Selke trophy for years to come. All three individuals understand the commitment it takes to be sharp in their own end of the ice without diminishing their offensive abilities.

First D pairing: Quinn HughesShea Weber

Second D pairing: Ivan ProvorovErik Karlsson

Third D pairing: Miro HeiskanenBrent Burns

Thoughts: There is not much else you need on a blueline but the biggest question facing this collection of defensemen: is Hughes is ready to handle top line minutes against the high-scoring lines from the opposition? If not, Provorov and Heiskanen are more than capable of sliding up the lineup and the group has more than enough talent to compete against any combination of forwards.

Starting Goalie: Carey Price

Backup Goalie: John Gibson

Just Missed (again): Nicklas Backstrom, Brock Boeser, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Suter, Jonathan Toews

Captain: Shea Weber

Alternate captains: John Tavares, Steven Stamkos

Coach: We have not had this category for our other teams, but is there a better coach in the league to motivate players passed over than John Tortorella? He didn’t have much success with Team USA in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but his performance behind the Blue Jackets’ bench this season has been superb after the departure of several key stars.

Analysis

Even though these players missed the cut for the initial rosters, this group of misfits is still a formidable team that could stand its ground against the competition. Whether its firepower, depth, size, speed, skill, toughness or any other critical characteristic a team needs to compete, this group of players is not lacking in any department. Without the restrictions of players fitting into a certain age bracket, this team has a strong mix of diverse skillsets.

One characteristic that stands out amongst this group is their size. Each line has a strong net-front presence and the ability to pin a team in their own zone for long stretches of time.

Despite the collection of prolific talent there are a few questions up front. Was Miller a one-hit wonder in Vancouver playing on the top line or can he replicate his production from this past season alongside Stamkos and Tarasenko? Will Tavares and Lee instantly find their chemistry?

Similarly to the 30-and-over team, can the third line win matchups against the top lines from the opposition? In addition, can the veterans on the blueline bring out the best in the three young lefties in the defensive group?

Even though there are plenty of questions and these players were pushed aside from the original rosters, this group has a legitimate shot to win the tournament.

Surprising omissions

Brock Boeser: It was a close call between him and Nylander for the third-line right-winger position, but the Canucks forward has not established himself as an elite winger just yet. In a few years this could be a very different discussion but at the current time, Nylander has been the more dynamic player.

Ryan Suter: A solid minutes-eating defenseman is an ingredient any roster could use during this tournament, but the other three left-handed shot defensemen were harder to omit. Suter’s veteran presence will be missed but Hughes, Provorov, and Heiskanen have developed into elite defenseman faster than anticipated.

Jonathan Toews: The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks has justifiably developed a reputation as one of the top two-way centermen in the NHL. He was within striking distance of crossing the 70-point mark for the second consecutive season. Toews was a very tough player to leave off the roster, but Couturier and Barkov are just a cut above.


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

Flyers continue ascension with eighth straight win

The Philadelphia Flyers have flown under the radar this season but now sit atop the Metropolitan Division alongside the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals lost in overtime to the New York Rangers but currently own the tiebreaker due to one additional victory in regulation and overtime. Each team has 87 points to date in 67 games this season.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Sean Couturier scored 26 seconds apart in the third period and the Flyers extended their winning streak to eight games after a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday.

Ivan Provorov and Michael Raffl also scored as Philadelphia swept a set of back-to-back games against divisional opponents.

Justin Williams netted the Hurricanes’ lone goal, but they fell for the fourth consecutive game. Carolina trails the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.

Newly acquired Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei turned the puck over behind his own net and Aube-Kubel took advantage to expand the Flyers’ lead to 3-1 early in the third period. Shortly after, Couturier buried a rebound to put the game out of reach.

Alex Nedeljkovic made 28 saves in his second start of the season for the Hurricanes.

Provorov opened the scoring when he collected his own rebound and deposited a backhand 18:23 into the first period. Flyers defensemen have scored an NHL-best 44 goals this season.

Raffl doubled the Flyers’ advantage midway through the second period. Scott Laughton picked up his second assist of the night on the play.

Injuries piling up

Prior to the game, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell announced Brett Pesce underwent surgery on his right shoulder. The defenseman is expected to be sidelined for the next four to six months.

He originally injured his shoulder against the Toronto Maple Leafs February 24.

In addition to Pesce, Sami Vatanen had a setback Thursday morning and is not expected to make his debut for Carolina in the near future.

“This is a tough injury. He came off (the ice early); that’s not good,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour told reporters this morning. “We were hoping to get him closer to playing. Now it looks like he’s further away.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlasting opponents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.