Stephen Johns

Alex Ovechkin 700th goal Capitals celebrate
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Roundtable: Playing out rest of NHL season; 2019-20 memories

Should the NHL return to playing games in a timely matter — a very big unknown at the moment — how would you play out the rest of regular season and/or the playoffs?

SEAN: A unique situation calls for a unique solution. Even if regular season games are able to be played, there may not be time for a typical two-month playoff schedule — unless you’re keen on things potentially going deep into the summer.

Depending how the league resumes its schedule, let’s take the top 10 teams in points or points percentage in each conference. The bottom four teams would play in a one-game play-in playoff game with the winners playing the two best teams in the conference. From there, we’re back into brackets with re-seeding happening in Round 2. 

The change here is that series lengths would be shortened. The opening two rounds are best-of-three with a 1-2 format and the final two games of the series played on back-to-back days. The conference final is best-of-five in a 2-3 format — again, back-to-backs and a day off before a potential Game 5 — and the Stanley Cup Final remains a best-of-seven with a 2-3-2 format. (All dependent on arena availabilities, of course.)

Let’s just play hockey soon, please!

JAMES: To avoid bleeding out too much of 2020-21, jump straight to the playoffs … well, after a quick, attention-grabbing detour.

To avoid being far too kind to teams who finished in the wild-card positions when the game of musical chairs got cut short abruptly by a record scratch, I think a “play-in” situation would be fairest.

Basically, if you look at each conference, there are the two wild-card teams, at least two bubble teams right there with them, and two other teams somewhere floating in the distance. You could form an interesting little NFL-like elimination tournament with byes. Let me explain.

Collect those six teams per conference to create two elimination bubble tournaments for two wild card spots in each conference.

  • The top two wild cards from each conference get a “bye” to the second round in separate brackets.
  • Top wild cards could be who finished in the WC positions at the time of the pause. That said, it might be more fair if the top seeds were based on points percentage. Either way, determine two byes for each conference. (Let’s assume that business would be mostly as usual otherwise, aka that teams are traveling to different cities for games. One could imagine a scenario where the league would instead want to limit travel even more … but let’s just assume business close to usual.)
  • Round 1: third I bubble team hosts the sixth bubble team, while the fourth hosts the fifth.
  • Round 2: winner of third/sixth bubble team travels to face first bubble team, winner of fourth/fifth goes on the road against second.
  • Playoffs begin with two wild cards per conference who seem to have “earned it,” while also providing grab-your-popcorn made for TV drama. Also, the teams who did the painstaking work of getting one of their division’s top three seeds get to shake off the rust and avoid injuries.

This isn’t perfect, mind you. Chicago and especially Montreal would be extraordinarily lucky for this break. One might instead lean toward, say, having four bubble teams face off for the two spots (basically boiling it down from two elimination rounds to one). That’s “cleaner,” but wouldn’t be fair to, say, the Panthers or Rangers.

ADAM: The longer this goes on the harder it is going to be to fit in more regular season games, play a full postseason, and then have anything that even resembles a normal offseason to give players a proper rest before starting another 82-game season next fall.

To me, there are only a couple of options here.

The first one is that, assuming we can get started again in a timely manner, you just scrap the regular season. You take the normal playoff teams (top three teams in each division plus the two wild cards) based on points percentage, give them a week or two to practice and get back closer to game shape, and you begin the playoffs. That is unfair to the bubble teams, yes, but if we are being realistic here the standings are probably not going to change that much in the regular season games that were remaining.

The other option is that if you insist on playing more regular season games to make it fair for everyone in the playoff race, you adjust the playoff schedule, maybe taking the first (and maybe even second) rounds from a best-of-seven, to a best-of five. Or maybe make the first-round a best-of-three. Not ideal for anyone, and certainly not something I want to see full-time in the future, but this is a rare circumstance that no one saw happening.

JOEY: I just don’t see how you can miss two months of action, come back, have training camp and then play out the rest of the regular season. I don’t think the league has enough time to do that. Come in, play an exhibition game or two and then you jump right into the playoffs (if they’re insistent on having a champion this year). Instead of having a regular season and shortening each playoff series, just jump into the playoffs.

How would you go about deciding who gets in and who doesn’t? Either go with points percentage or make sure the top 12 teams in each conference have a shot at a playoff spot. Technically, the top 12 teams still had at least a small percentage of making the playoffs. Start the postseason with play-in games and then jump right into it when you get down to eight teams in each conference.

My suggested playoff format would work like this:

12th seed vs. 9th seed
11th seed vs. 10th seed.
Lowest seed remaining vs. 7th seed
Highest seed remaining vs. 8th seed.

The winner of those two matchups get to qualify as the Wild Card teams.

I realize that giving teams like Montreal and Chicago a shot at making the playoffs isn’t fair or ideal, but you have to make the numbers work somehow, and having 12 teams makes sense. Neither of the current Wild Card teams in each conference were guaranteed to make the playoffs, so it’s not like they’re being totally robbed by this format I’m proposing.

Once the “play-in round” is over, then you have the playoffs like you would normally have them.

SCOTT: Based on the latest CDC recommendations, we are at least two months away from returning to action. There will be a severe time crunch to get games in without impacting the 2020-21 season too severely. In addition, there needs to be time for the offseason activities such as the NHL Draft and free agency.

There are five teams in each conference that are above 82 points.

In the East, there should be a play-in game/series between the Penguins and Flyers. In the West, the Oilers should host the Stars. This could be a best of three series if time permits, with the other teams skating in exhibition games to get warmed up.

After the opening-round series are decided, the four teams remaining in each conference will participate in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It is tough to imagine a scenario where we will be able to witness a postseason that lasts two-plus months, but this concept allows the NHL to generate playoff revenue and award the Stanley Cup.

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What’s your favorite memory so far of the 2019-20 NHL season?

SEAN: I’m a sucker for a feel-good story and we could certainly use some of those at the moment. Two that stood out to me this season happened a few weeks apart in February.

First, Stephen Johns missed 22 months dealing with post-traumatic headaches. He returned Feb. 3 and scored in his first game back. Making the moment all the more sweeter was that his parents were in attendance for that Stars win at Madison Square Garden.

Then you had the emotional Ottawa return for Bobby Ryan on Feb. 27. It was only his second game back since completing the NHL/NHL Players’ Association assistance program for alcohol addiction. That’s enough of a feel-good moment right there, but the Senators forward had other ideas.

During a 5-2 win over the Canucks, Ryan recorded a hat trick, with two of the three goals coming in the final 2:08 of the game.

JAMES: I racked my brain trying to debate the merits of EBUG vs. a goalie scoring a goal vs. Brad Marchand biffing a shootout chance, and then I realized I was the one who biffed it. Of course my favorite moment of 2019-20 was the Matthew Tkachuk vs. Zack Kassian feud.

I’m not necessarily the most blood-and-guts hockey fan. The danger of the sport has its place, but to me, it really just heightens the incredible skill involved. The Connor McDavids of the world soar down the ice and make balletic magic happen while walking a tightrope of injury. That’s more thrilling than sloppy fights between two people who might be damaging their brains.

But the Kassian – Tkachuk feud was so much more than Kassian grotesquely rag-dolling Tkachuk around.

There were the Tkachuk hits, and the dopey machismo of him telling Kassian to get off the tracks if he didn’t like it.

It’s all amplified by the Battle of Alberta, and two division rivals fighting over relevant playoff positioning.

The trash talking was absolutely glorious, from Tkachuk’s barbs to Kassian’s ominous threats. Let’s not forget that Tkachuk is a legit two-way All-Star, and while Kassian isn’t in Tkachuk’s league, he can still play enough to flirt with keeping up with Tkachuk on a night where Kassian’s puck luck is booming.

The charitable chicanery of the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton really sealed the deal, though. Glorious stuff, and this took me so long that I might need to put up a billboard to remind myself not to forget that splendor so easily.

(Simpler times, eh?)

ADAM: Have to go with Andrei Svechnikov bringing the lacrosse goal to the NHL, and then doing it again. I always liked Svechnikov because I think he has a chance to be a superstar in the league and is going to eventually help the Carolina Hurricanes do great things.

Then he went and did that.

Critics will say it is not that complicated of a move and that any NHL player can pull it off. That may very well be true. But no one ever had the courage to actually do it. Then he did it again.

JOEY: It has to be Alex Ovechkin’s chase for 700 goals. There’s no guarantee that we’ll see anyone else hit that number and if they do, it won’t happen anytime soon. It was a great story line. Everyone across the hockey world was checking in, paying special attention to Ovechkin and the Capitals. His run has also sparked a debate about whether Wayne Gretzky is the greatest goal scorer of all-time. I’ve also caught myself trying to do the math when it comes to Ovechkin possibly being the first to 900 goals. It was a great story and I’m glad to see he managed to reach the milestone before the NHL went on its pause.

SCOTT: The race between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes for the Calder Trophy has been fascinating to watch this season. Traditionally, defensemen need more time to round out their game and adjust to the level of competition in the NHL. Both Makar and Hughes have each tallied 50 or more points and have had enormous impacts on their respective NHL clubs.

Adam Fox is also another young blueliner playing big minutes for the New York Rangers. He would be in the rookie-of-the-year conversation, but Makar and Hughes have been a clear step above.

All three skaters played hockey at the collegiate level prior to this season and have begun to pave the way for more NCAA athletes to get opportunities to jump right to the professional level.

The NHL could potentially get even younger if teenage defenseman are able to influence the game as much as Makar, Hughes and Fox have during their inaugural seasons.

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

FRISCO, Texas — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Stephen Johns played in his first game in almost 22 months when the Dallas Stars visited Minnesota on Saturday night.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old defenseman hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

DALLAS — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

PHT Morning Skate: The case for boring Buffalo Sabres; John ‘Norris’ Carlson?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Leaning toward a boring style of hockey might not excite Sabres fans, but injuries might force Buffalo’s hand. (Die By the Blade)

• Speaking of the Buffalo Sabres, how can they jumpstart Jeff Skinner once he returns. Travis Yost explains it pretty simply: put him back with Jack Eichel. (Buffalo News)

• Bill Daly admitted to ESPN on Ice that the league is concerned about Alex Ovechkin and others skipping All-Star Games. Frankly, it’s tough to imagine this trend ending during a time when sports teams are becoming more intrigued by “load management.” Maybe the NHL should expect less in this regard, at least for high-mileage veterans like Ovechkin and Marc-Andre Fleury? Just saying. (ESPN)

• The Flames signed defenseman Rasmus Andersson to a significant extension. It’s a six-year deal with a $4.55 million AAV. Wow. (Flames)

• The Predators fired Peter Laviolette, but GM David Poile blames the players, not the coaches, for the team’s predicament. (On the Forecheck)

• Capitals defenseman John Carlson continues to enjoy a season for the ages — and aged. Alex Ovechkin calls him “John Norris,” so is Carlson’s middle name Chuck? (Five Thirty Eight/Featurd)

• Add Dylan Strome to the concerning list of Blackhawks injury. If you’re like me, the screenshot of Strome’s injury will make you cringe. Yikes. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• The Stars loaned defenseman Stephen Johns to the AHL. Consider this a fantastic sign, as Johns hasn’t played since 2018-19 because of “post-traumatic headaches.” Here’s more information on post-traumatic headaches, as that term feels fairly new. In a nutshell, it sounds like migraines might rank among Johns’ concussion-related symptoms? A smart person can feel free to chime in on that. (Stars)

• Adam Gretz goes deep on “the Kris Letang discussion.” (Pensburgh)

• Which players should the Avalanche target at the trade deadline? (Mile High Hockey)

• Speaking of the deadline, Mark Borowiecki acknowledges being anxious about his fate with or without the Senators. (TSN)

• Micah Blake McCurdy posted an interesting thread that spotlights skyrocketing scoring in the NHL, among other trends. (McCurdy’s Tweets)

• “They’re coming for you one day — all of us, no matter what, you’re going to get fired.” That’s what Paul Maurice had to say about the many coaching firings recently. Interesting to hear that from Maurice, who is one of those coaches who’s quietly found work for a staggering amount of time relative to his teams’ modest successes. (Chris Johnston’s Tweet)

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.