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Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “when, not if,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, like the ones they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

***

If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, then this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

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.

AP/CP survey: Players pan delay of game, goalie interference

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The pace and excitement of 3-on-3 overtime isn’t just a thrill for hockey fans – NHL players love it, too.

An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams found that 97% of those polled enjoy the league’s current overtime format during the regular season. The survey also found there are other rules the players are less thrilled with, ranging from delay-of-game penalties to confusion about goalie interference.

For Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, the worst rule in hockey is resolving a game with a shootout when overtime fails to produce a winner.

”I don’t really like the shootout,” he said. ”I think you just play 3-on-3 and eventually someone will score.”

The survey found that 30 players like the 3-on-3 setup. Only Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas said he did not, preferring the previous 4-on-4 setup better. He and said having fewer players on the ice is too much like ”summertime hockey.”

”You work your bag off 60 minutes 5-on-5 and then all of a sudden it’s 3-on-3, a speedier, faster guy pretty much wins,” he said. ”I think 4-on-4 would be more hockey-like situations than 3-on-3.”

Still, his peers said they love it. Playing a five-minute 3-on-3 period provides a fair way to end the game while allowing fans to see some pure skill, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares said.

”(It’s) exciting and you see the best players in the world with that type of time and space,” he said. ”It goes to show it’s a good way to end games. There’s no perfect science to this. We want a winner, but we can’t play forever. It’s a great way to showcase the talent, the skill of the game.”

The pace can be tough for the guys on the ice, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said.

”I hate it as a goalie, but I like it as a hockey fan,” he said. ”I think it’s better than the shootout, for sure. And I know it’s not perfect, but it gets you a decision, it gets people excited, you see some amazing skill and the way the league is now, it’s a great showcase for what these guys can do.”

The NHL moved away from 4-on-4 overtime in the 2015-16 regular season in a bid to create more space on the ice, allow for more goals and reduce the number of games going to shootouts. In the postseason, overtime is in 20-minute, sudden-death periods at 5-on-5. There are no shootouts.

Dylan DeMelo of the Ottawa Senators loves 3-on-3, but said there is one tweak he’d like to make. The defenseman said he wants to see a rule that would stop players from taking the puck over center ice and then back again to regroup. He thinks that would make OT even more entertaining.

There are a number of other rules players would love to see changed, including 63.2 that stipulates a delay of game penalty when a puck is shot or batted over the glass.

”I don’t think it should be a penalty. I think it should be the same as an icing. Whistle, faceoff in your end, no ability to change,” said Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, one of five players (16%) who said the rule is the worst in hockey. ”A penalty for a play that has a high chance to happen in a course of a game or a (penalty kill) or whatever, it seems a little drastic.”

For other players, the uncertainty around what constitutes goalie interference is particularly irritating. Three players, or 10% of those in the survey, said the inconsistency was their least-favorite part of the NHL rule book.

”What is goaltender interference and what’s not?” said Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse. ”Maybe having more of a clear line, but any time you talk about something within the game, things happen so fast out there that judgment calls and whatnot, they’re hard to make.”

According to the league, there are only two situations where goaltender interference should result in a disallowed goal: if an attacking player stops the goalie from being able to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, or an attacking player intentionally or deliberately makes contact with the goalie.

Some players say what counts as interference in one game might not be the same in the next.

On Friday, Flyers goalie Cam Talbot tweeted his dissatisfaction with how the rule was applied in the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.

”Once again the NHL goalie interference review is flawed,” wrote Talbot, who was not part of the AP/CP survey. ”Someone that’s played the game in the blue paint should be in the situation room. Games are being lost in the playoffs and it’s not right. (hash)inconsistent.”

Three players said what they most dislike are offside reviews. Nine others named other rules, including tripping being called alongside diving, and the ban on time outs being used when the puck is iced. Eleven players did not provide a specific answer.

”Rules are the rules. I just follow them,” said winger Anders Lee of the New York Islanders.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Grubauer could carry Avs, if playoff history doesn’t repeat

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Philipp Grubauer is a Stanley Cup champion, but you can’t blame him if he doesn’t really feel that way.

Grubauer wrestled the Washington Capitals’ starting job away from Braden Holtby with a superior 2017-18 regular season, but things fell apart to start Washington’s Round 1 series. The Columbus Blue Jackets stormed off to a 2-0 series lead, and with Grubauer allowing four goals in each of those losses, the Capitals turned to Holtby. And the rest (including Grubauer’s time with the Capitals) is history.

Grubauer admitted that “last year was tough” to NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski, yet he also explained his resiliency to the Denver Post’s Kyle Frederickson, whether that boiled down to earlier career struggles, the mixed feelings of being left behind during that Capitals run, or his bumpy start as a goalie with the Avs.

“You can fall in a hole and get really miserable,” Grubauer said, “or be positive and wake yourself up.”

And, goodness, did Grubauer ever wake himself up down the stretch.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

After playing at a below-backup level in his first 21 games (a putrid .891 save percentage) of 2018-19, Grubauer was splendid after the All-Star break, sporting a tremendous .948 save percentage over those 16 games.

That was absolutely crucial, too, as Semyon Varlamov struggled with injuries and inconsistency, while the top line couldn’t drag the Avs to the same number of wins, what with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen both being hurt at times, and Nathan MacKinnon falling in frustration. Grubauer wasn’t the MVP for the Avalanche all season long, but they wouldn’t have barely outlasted the Coyotes for the West’s final playoff spot without him.

And his teammates know it.

“Gruby has been unreal,” MacKinnon said, via the Denver Post. “He’s been our best player the last 20 games. We’re very fortunate he’s been so good because you can’t ask that much of a goaltender.”

If you need visual evidence, feast your eyes upon this outstanding save against Blake Wheeler from late in that postseason push:

It’s fair to question if Landeskog and especially Rantanen will be their usual selves during Game 1 on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream), or during much of this Round 1 series, in general. Even if they are their usual dominant selves, the Flames boast two lines that could bring almost as much, if not more, to the table than Colorado’s top guns.

Yet, with Mike Smith serving as the Flames’ Game 1 starter despite struggling to the point that people wonder if he might torpedo Calgary’s chances, Colorado’s best hopes likely lie with Grubauer vastly outplaying Smith. That’s especially true if the two teams’ possession trends continue into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, Grubauer has only appeared in four playoff games during his career, suffering through an .835 save percentage and winning just one of those contests. That’s a tiny sample size, and one that’s spread out over three different postseason runs, but the bottom line is that people can be unforgiving when it comes to playoff stumbles, and the Flames could rank as a very unforgiving opponent.

Grubauer made the difference to the Avalanche squeezing into this postseason, and we should expect Colorado to lean on him just as heavily against the flammable Flames’ attack.

Avalanche – Flames Game 1 from the Scotiabank Saddledome will happen Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Here is the livestream link.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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.

WATCH LIVE: 2019 NHL Draft Lottery and NBCSN playoff preview

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The 2019 NHL Draft Lottery will be held Tuesday night in Toronto with 15 teams hoping luck is on their side as they vie for the chance to select either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko.

For the last four years, the draft lottery has taken place during the first-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL announced last month that it is going back to the old way and holding it the night before the opening round begins.

Per the NHL, here’s how it will work:

The 2019 NHL Draft Lottery will consist of three drawings: the 1st Lottery Draw will determine the club selecting first overall, the 2nd Lottery Draw will determine the club selecting second overall and the 3rd Lottery Draw will determine the club selecting third overall.

The odds for the remaining teams will increase on a proportionate basis for the 2nd Lottery Draw, based on which club wins the 1st Lottery Draw, and again for the 3rd Lottery Draw, based on which club wins the 2nd Lottery Draw.

The 12 clubs not selected in the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery will be assigned 2019 NHL Draft selections 4 through 15, in inverse order of regular-season points.

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Via the NHL, the allocation of odds for the first Lottery Draw of the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery is as follows:

(Fewest Points to Most)               Odds
Colorado Avalanche (from OTT)  18.5%
Los Angeles Kings                         13.5%
New Jersey Devils                         11.5%
Detroit Red Wings                           9.5%
Buffalo Sabres                                 8.5%
New York Rangers                          7.5%
Edmonton Oilers                             6.5%
Anaheim Ducks                               6.0%
Vancouver Canucks                        5.0%
Philadelphia Flyers                          3.5%
Minnesota Wild                                3.0%
Chicago Blackhawks                       2.5%
Florida Panthers                              2.0%
Arizona Coyotes                              1.5%
Montreal Canadiens                        1.0%

Following coverage of the Draft Lottery, NBCSN will host a playoff preview show analyzing all of the Round 1 matchups of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 60-minute program will include live interviews and reports with analyst Mike Milbury in Boston to preview Maple Leafs-Bruins, NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May to discuss the Hurricanes-Capitals series, and NBC Sports California host Brodie Brazil to examine the Golden Knights-Sharks matchup.

Liam McHugh will anchor the program alongside analysts Keith Jones and Anson Carter. Kathryn Tappen will serve as an on-site host in Toronto for NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

MORE: NBC Sports 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Playoff picture after Thursday: Only one spot left

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For the final week of the 2018-19 NHL regular season we will take an updated look at the Stanley Cup Playoff picture — what the standings look like, the potential matchups, who clinched, and set the stage for Friday’s biggest games.

The Avalanche clinched the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, while the teams above them in the Central Division are jockeying for positioning, with the Predators on top, at least for now. The Penguins and Hurricanes clinched spots out East, while the Capitals locking down the Metropolitan Division was rough on Montreal, who lost to the Capitals in regulation. That Habs loss made it a big day for the Blue Jackets … who didn’t even play on Thursday.

For some big numbers and highlights, check The Buzzer.

p – Presidents’ Trophy y – division x – clinched (via NHL.com)

Thursday’s East playoff clinchers

  • The Carolina Hurricanes clinched a spot, their first since 2008-09. They are currently ranked as the first wild-card team, but have a chance to pass Pittsburgh and take the third Metro spot, depending upon how the final days of the season pan out. It’s also possible that Columbus could push Carolina to the second wild-card spot.
  • For the 13th season in a row, the Penguins clinched a playoff spot. As mentioned before, they could lose their current spot (third in the Metro) to Carolina. That said, the Penguins also have a chance to jump to second in the Metro, though the Islanders reduced those odds by beating the Panthers on Thursday.
  • The Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, and left the Canadiens’ playoff hopes dreadfully wounded.
z – clinched conference x – clinched playoff berth (via NHL.com)

Thursday’s West playoff clinchers

  • The Avalanche clinched the final playoff spot in the West. As you can see above, the Coyotes stand at 86 points, so they’d max out at 88 if they won their last game. It’s unlikely, but there’s a slight chance the Avs could overtake the Stars for the first wild-card spot. Considering how much of a grind it was for Colorado to lock this spot down, the Avs would probably be wiser just to rest Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog (with Landeskog’s health being easy to question, considering that he seemed to return to the lineup far earlier than expected).
  • Nothing clinched beyond spots there, but the Central Division title race is coming down to the wire. The Predators have the edge after winning and the Jets losing in overtime. The Blues took care of their end by winning, giving them a shot at either the division crown or a round of home-ice advantage.

THURSDAY’S SCORES

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

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs — series clinched

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Sharks vs. Golden Knights — series clinched
Predators vs. Stars

FRIDAY’S BIGGEST GAMES

Blue Jackets at Rangers (7 p.m. ET): If the Blue Jackets win any of their next two games, they’re in. They can also crawl in by gaining two points over those final two games, but considering the exhausting few months they’ve had — both on and off the ice — it sure would be more pleasant to just win on Friday, right? The Rangers have every incentive to lose out, as maybe they’d fall behind the Sabres and/or Red Wings and improve their draft lottery odds. It’s tough to imagine there being a lot of incentive to spite John Tortorella (did Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist like Torts??), but then again, the Red Wings were just on a six-game winning streak, so it’s also not so easy to get players to tank.

Stars at Blackhawks (8:30 p.m. ET): This could be a tricky “trap” game in that the Blackhawks are a proud bunch, and also because as flawed as Chicago has been this season, that offense can often be explosive. If the Blackhawks make this about trading goals, consider that the Stars have only averaged 2.56 goals per game this season, the fourth-worst average in the NHL. They’re the only team in the bottom 12 to secure a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs because they’re even better at preventing goals, but just saying. As mentioned earlier in this post, there’s a remote chance Colorado overtakes Dallas for the higher wild-card spot, so Dallas has at least some motivation. Enough to value “staying sharp” over resting key, leaned-upon players? That’s up to Jim Montgomery.

(Personally, I’d rest the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, so they’re less likely to be horse-blank when the games matter.)

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.