Zdeno Chara

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

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Round Robin teams with most to lose

With Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan kicking in this week, the possibility of the 2020 Stanley Cup being raised remains alive. In recent power rankings posts, we’ve focused on Qualifying Round storylines and matchups. But what about the teams who aim to thrive rather than survive. Today we discuss the top four teams in each conference who will compete in Round Robin for Seeding.

To be more precise, we’re wondering which top four teams have the most on the line. In this case, we’re focused on the top four teams in each conference’s outlooks during entire NHL playoffs, rather than just the Round Robin for Seeding.

Let’s rank them first to last as far as desperation goes in each conference. At the end, we’ll debate who has the absolute most on the line, and who’s playing with house money.

The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, so it seems fairest to start with the top four for the East.

Top four East (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Imagine if the Lightning draw the Blue Jackets at some point during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(Are you cringing too?)

While the Lightning are lucky that they get to jet-ski around a market like Tampa Bay, the rumblings will grow to a fever pitch if they fall short again. (Like, we might need to physically separate Andrei Vasilevskiy from Kenan Thompson.)

Yes, this franchise owns a Stanley Cup. But that was from the Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis – Brad Richards era. For all Steven Stamkos has accomplished, he’s had his heart and face broken in many NHL playoffs. At some point, it’s going to get awkward if Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman “can’t win the big one.”

(Speaking of cringing, wait for those takes.)

2. Boston Bruins

The 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners keep hiding Father Time’s coat and shoes. It’s not just Zdeno Chara hogging the Fountain of Youth/Lazarus Pit at 43, either. Patrice Bergeron remains dominant at 34. You might make a double-take when you realize Brad Marchand is already 32. Oh yeah, Tuukka Rask is 33, too.

You … gotta think the Bruins are peaking right? Right? I mean, I honestly felt like this group would hit the aging curve hard by now, yet they comfortably topped the NHL standings this season.

It’s not just about wondering if the window will close. Even before the pandemic pause, it seemed like pending UFA Torey Krug would represent a tight squeeze. If they want to bring Krug back, you’d think they’d need to break up some of the band.

As much as this group has accomplished, you have to think that Chara & Co. want a second Stanley Cup (and first for star David Pastrnak).

3. Washington Capitals

*Rubs eyes*

Wait a minute, is this really happening? Are the Capitals relatively unfettered by “must-win” pressure?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional Jakub Vrana, this roster’s getting a little up there in age. If for some reason you want to ponder your own mortality during the escape of watching hockey, merely ponder Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin Round Robin NHL
It works for Ovechkin, but still. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Braden Holtby‘s pending UFA status lingering, there’s still room for Capitals drama. No doubt, though, slaying that Stanley Cup dragon relieves most of the angst.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

For some, the Flyers kinda slipped up the ranks under the radar. This has been a team that’s mainly been playoff bubble material, at least when the wheels don’t fall off. Now they’re a Round Robin for Seeding away from possibly swiping the East’s top seed.

Don’t blame at least some of the Flyers for feeling pretty loose, then.

Yet … it’s not as if they’re playing with zero pressure.

Obviously, Philly can be a tough market. If the Flyers flounder, people will grumble about squandering a golden opportunity.

Also, for all the considerable youth on this roster, could this be a “sweet spot” between rising talent and aging stars? Claude Giroux (32), Jakub Voracek (30), and James van Riemsdyk (31) all might be heading toward a decline.

Top four West (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. St. Louis Blues

Like the Capitals, the Blues recently ended their franchise’s decades-long Stanley Cup drought. I’d wager there are some Blues fans who view the rest as “all gravy.”

Still, when you’re defending champs, you have a target on your back.

Combine that thought with Alex Pietrangelo possibly being out the door, and the temperature rises. What if this is the Blues’ best chance at a second Stanley Cup for quite a while? That thought won’t inspire the “Jaws” theme, exactly, but there’s some heat on the Blues.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

It feels deeply weird to put a third-year team on this list. Shouldn’t the Golden Knights enjoy basically a decade-long “honeymoon phase?”

Well, the Golden Knights are a deeply unusual expansion team.

Rather than being full of young debris, this is a full-flavored contender. And that goes right down to having some expensive players who are getting a little older. Not “Bruins” old, but the core Golden Knights might suddenly enter declines in the not-so-distant future.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury probably already hit a wall at 35. The Golden Knights made the smart investment to acquire Robin Lehner, but that could set the stage for drama. After all, if we’re being honest … Lehner probably should be the No. 1 guy for now.

The Golden Knights gambled earlier than expected, so if they leave with empty wallets, it will be pretty painful. Not “Joe Pesci’s gruesome death in Casino” painful, but painful.

3. Dallas Stars

The Stars should rank lower. As much as any team, it’s bewildering to realize that they’re basically a hot week from owning the top seed in their conference.

But, honestly, any team that’s thrown Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus this often faces some bleeping horsebleep if they end with a whimper.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Honestly, it feels like we’re still in the “rising fast” portion of the Avalanche’s growth.

While they’ve made some nice moves, you get the impression something splashier lingers down the road. They haven’t gone all-in by any stretch yet, and most of their core is still so young. Nathan MacKinnon‘s 24, Mikko Rantanen‘s merely 23, and Cale Makar‘s a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, this feels like the “young kids hit a bump in the road” part of the narrative. Sports can be strange even in pre-pandemic times, though, so who knows?

Round Robin Team with most, least to lose

• Lightning have the most to lose

If they fall especially flat, it could conceivably cost Jon Cooper his job. That’s absurd by any measure, and particularly now, but … it’s also far from unimaginable.

•  Flyers have least to lose

The best might be yet to come for this group, aside from the aforementioned aging players. Probably.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:
League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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.

Byfuglien and other veteran NHL free agent defensemen with unclear futures

NHL free agent defensemen Dustin Byfuglien Andy Greene
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After covering forwards and goalies, let’s close things out with a look at fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen.

Before we start, note that this isn’t about top defensemen available. Alex Pietrangelo likely only stands on the fringe between a huge contract or just a very big contract. Also, the sheer glut of defensemen means a lot of borderline players will either be off this list, or merely mentioned in passing.

A lot of stuff to consider with Buff

Going to an earlier post, health questions limit Corey Crawford‘s earning potential. Those issues loom even larger for very large defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

After missing the 2019-20 season, it’s unclear how close Byfuglien can be to full-strength. Most of all, Byfuglien must decide if he even wants to come back. And at what cost.

Being that Byfuglien turned 35 on March 27, he’d need a 35+ contract. That could be a Byfuglien-sized sticking point if the defenseman wants term in any deal.

All of that aside, even a compromised version of Byfuglien towers over many of the fringe options.

Other reasonably prominent fringe NHL free agent defensemen

Let’s go over a few of them, while Cap Friendly features a more expansive list that drives home the glut.

  • Mike Green — There were times when it felt like criticisms were way, way too harsh for Green. (Maybe it was fury at the fauxhawk?) The temperature’s changed in 2020, though. Most of the people who bashed Green have moved on to (insert latest offensive defenseman who might win a Norris). But there are just enough teams with nostalgia for Green that he might get a chance in his reduced, 34-year-old form. Consider the Oilers trading an actual draft pick for Green during the past deadline if you need evidence.

While Green’s defensive game slips with age, he also doesn’t provide that zip on offense, either.

It’s sadly not too surprising to see Green — and some other fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen — at the bottom of the ranks of this GAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

worst GAR NHL free agent defensemen Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey
  • While Green’s fellow 34-year-old defenseman Roman Polak plays a different style, he also finds himself in the dregs of that list. It’s even more common for some NHL GM to talk themselves into a hard-nosed Polak than it is for them to believe Green could rekindle his scoring touch, too. Both ideas seem ill-advised, although if you need to appease an old-school coach, maybe you throw them a bone by giving Polak a very cheap contract (that you can bury or get rid of)?
  • It was tough not to chuckle when the Islanders spent a second-round pick to acquire Andy Greene.

That’s not really a knock against Greene, generally speaking. He has some value as a defense-first defensemen. Instead, it’s just that the Islanders felt the need merely to add more of the same.

This isolated impact chart from Hockey Viz reinforces those points well enough:

Andy Greene iso NHL free agent defensemen
via Hockey Viz

Regardless, if the Islanders are willing to spend a prominent pick on Greene, the 37-year-old will probably draw some attention. By the muted expectations of this quantity-over-quality group, you could do worse … if you don’t pledge much money or especially term.

(There’s an argument that Greene is viable enough not to be fringe. Still, his advanced age makes it seem reasonable to list him.)

  • If your team must have someone like Polak, how about Justin Braun? The 33-year-old doesn’t bring offensive value, but he’s more useful defensively.
  • My guess is that there will be at least some market for Ron Hainsey. At 39, it’s fair to wonder how much Hainsey has left in the tank. That’s also a fair question for most of the veteran NHL free agent defensemen we’re discussing.

Veteran free agent NHL defensemen lightning round

  • I usually cut these lists off at 30+, but Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are two 29-year-old defensemen who’ve garnered more attention than I’d usually expect. Maybe they will again? Teams can get pretty desperate for defense.
  • I haven’t mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk until now because I feel like anyone who observed his work in 2019-20 would give him a low-risk contract. But just in case, the 31-year-old would be a standout if he’s “fringe” material.
  • There are plenty of defensemen who might retire as much for health reasons as a lack of interest. Factor in age, too, and you could mark that box for defensemen including Jonathan Ericsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Deryk Engelland, and maybe Andrej Sekera.
  • Again, there are quite a few middling options who may ride meager name recognition. Teams have regularly inflated the value of 33-year-old Michael Stone, for instance.
  • Are Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber still NHL defensemen? GMs will decide that too.

(In case you’re wondering, Zdeno Chara‘s calling his own shot, and expected to be back. So that’s why he didn’t get a mention only now.)

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.

Strong free agent goalie market takes a hit as Bruins extend Halak

Bruins extend extension Jaroslav Halak $2.25M free agent goalies
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In managing to extend Jaroslav Halak for $2.25M for 2020-21, the Bruins landed a nifty bargain. They also dealt a blow to what looks — at least on paper — to be a strong free agent market for goalies.

The Boston Globe’s Matt Porter reports that Halak’s contract includes a $1.25M bonus if he reaches 10+ games played. Those details don’t take away from this being a very nice deal for the Bruins.

Bruins extend Halak to keep together one of the NHL’s best tandems

Look, at 34, I’m not certain that Halak would have nabbed a starting job. From the Flames to the Hurricanes, I could certainly see places where the veteran goalie might make sense as a No. 1, but I understand if there was some apprehension. He’s had some injury issues here and there when asked to carry a larger burden.

But, at minimum, Halak carried the potential to be a strong “platoon” option.

Halak didn’t match Rask this season, but Rask likely deserves to be a Vezina finalist, so that’s no slight. Halak really makes that tandem even better, keeping Rask fresh while winning games. The Czech netminder managed a strong 18-6-6 record with a fabulous .919 save percentage. That’s actually a slight step back from an even better 2018-19 (22-11-4, .922) where he threatened Risk at times for the starting gig.

After a mild dip with the Islanders (.913 save percentage over four seasons), it seemed like Halak might slip into being “only” an average goalie. But, nope, when he joined his pal Zdeno Chara in Boston, Halak returned to sorely underrated status.

NHL teams were already warming up to “load management” even before the COVID-19 pause happened. Under those circumstances, Halak already served as quite the luxury for the Bruins.

Now, with discussions about squeezing games into smaller windows of time floating around? It only makes the team-friendly price that much more appealing.

The Bruins still need to strike a deal with pending UFA Torey Krug, while figuring out what’s next with Chara. Even so, this is a sweet deal for Boston. For Halak? If nothing else, he gains some certainty in uncertain times, and also gets to stick with a team that’s been a strong contender.

PHT takes a closer look at the Bruins:
• Looking at their 2019-20 season
Surprises and disappointments
Long-term outlook

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: 30-and-over

Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of Washington Capitals
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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 and players in their prime.

Connor McDavid and other exciting young players have taken part of the spotlight, but Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin remain the most prominent faces in the NHL. The next roster to enter this mythical best on best tournament consists of players 30-years-of-age-and-over. It has several of the League’s most accomplished players, including numerous skaters with multiple Stanley Cup rings and Olympic gold medals.

Line Combinations

First line: Alex Ovechkin – Sidney Crosby – Patrick Kane

Thoughts: Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks have fallen out of the limelight in recent years after an era of dominance that included three championships. However, Kane has remained one of the most productive players in the NHL and the thought of his on-ice vision combined with Ovechkin’s blistering slapshot strikes fear into the heart of any opponent. Crosby has the wisdom and skill to balance this line to formulate a trio only used in a video game environment.

Second line: Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronBlake Wheeler

Thoughts: The Bruins have had the most complete line in hockey and two/thirds of that trio reside here. Blake Wheeler has the offensive punch coupled with strong defensive instincts to fill the void left by David Pastrnak. This line will be relied upon to matchup with skilled lines from opponents but also will need to contribute on the offensive side of the ice.

Third line: Claude GirouxEvgeni MalkinJakub Voracek

Thoughts: Malkin has been one of the top centermen since bursting onto the scene in 2006-07 and should bring out the best from his new linemates. Giroux and Voracek each took a step backwards in terms of offensive production this season, but the Flyers have emerged as legitimate Cup contenders in Alain Vigneault’s first season behind the bench in Philadelphia. The effectiveness of this line will determine how far this team could advance in the competition.

Fourth line: Jamie BennAnze KopitarT.J. Oshie

Thoughts: Is there anything else a coach could want in his fourth line? A two-time Selke Trophy winner flanked by a power forward and a skilled winger with defensive awareness? This line will start in the defensive zone majority of the time and be needed to flip momentum of the game within the game.

First D pairing: Mark GiordanoJohn Carlson
Second D pairing: Zdeno CharaDrew Doughty
Third D pairing: Ryan McDonaghAlex Pietrangelo

Thoughts: The absence of Shea Weber is jarring at first, but what attribute is missing from this defensive group? The biggest question facing this collection of rearguards is, do they have the foot speed to keep up with the quickness each team in this tournament possesses?

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask
Backup Goalie: Ben Bishop

Just Missed: Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, Shea Weber

Captain: Sidney Crosby

Alternate captains: Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin

Analysis

The biggest advantage this team has over the competition is experience. Over half of the roster has a Stanley Cup championship under their belt and several players earned multiple championship rings in their respective careers.

Leadership will not be an issue with nine current NHL captains to help this team manage the emotions through this highly competitive tournament.

One area of concern is the speed of the game throughout the competition. Can the defense move the puck up the ice in a timely manner? Can the veteran forwards play at this pace each shift without sacrificing production? This team will be expected to play smart situational hockey and take advantage of special teams opportunities, but can they win even-strength matchups on a consistent basis?

There is an abundance of talent and wisdom up and down the lineup, but will they be able to dictate the pace and play the style they choose, or will they be forced to adapt to the opponents’ preferred style?

The answer to that question will determine how successful this team will be in this imaginary Best on Best tournament.

Surprising omissions

Phil Kessel: He was originally slated to skate alongside Bergeron and Marchand on the second line, but he doesn’t play a strong two-way game that his linemates would have demanded on a consistent basis. It was tough to leave a pure goal scorer like Kessel off the list, but his effectiveness is diminished if not playing in an offensive oriented role.

Steven Stamkos: The captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning is probably the most prolific player left off any roster in this tournament to date, but it was tough to find a spot for the skilled center. Crosby and Bergeron were no-brainers for this team, but the debate was between him and Malkin for the third line slot. The size and strength of the Russian forward were the deciding factors as that toughness will be needed throughout the tournament.

Shea Weber: He could easily slide into any spot along the blueline and the team likely wouldn’t suffer but tough decisions had to be made. The roster is not lacking in the leadership department and the three right-handed shot defensemen selected have the speed needed to keep up with the blazing speed of the competition.


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.