Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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1.Chvíľe bez slov…..sedim a užívam si krásne výhľady na prekrásne lesy, údolia a rieky.Nechávam sa stratiť v počúvaní rozmanitej prírody a jej života. 2.Som vďačný že som mohol stráviť vzácne chvíle v prírode a naučiť sa od Ekológa,Ochranára a Dokumentaristu Erika Baláža viac ako chrániť a predchádzať ničeniu a ťažbe v našich krásnych lesoch ,znečistovaní riek a potokov ,nelegálnemu odstrelu divej zveri a hubeniu hmyzu. #priroda #lesy #udolia #rieky #zver #zivot #voda #chranit#mysmeles #strazcadivociny #krasnakrajinka #erikbalaz #bezzasahovost—————————————————————- 1.Moments of silence ……just sitting and enjoying amazing views on beautiful mountains,valleys and rivers.Letting myself to get lost and listening the sounds of life in surrounding nature. 2.I am thankful to be able to spend some time with Ecologist,Conservationists and Documentarist Erik Baláž and learn more how to protect the devastation and unnecessary logging, pollution of rivers and streams,pouching Wild animals and insects extermination. #nature #wildlife #animals #forest #riverside #valley #water #protectthenature #erikbalaz

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Islanders sign Brock Nelson to six-year contract

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After a stunning 2018-19 NHL season that saw them reach Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Islanders have some big work ahead of them this summer as they not only work to add some firepower to their lineup, but also keep some of their most important players in place.

Forwards Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson — three of the team’s top-five scorers this season — as well as Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner are all eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. That is a lot of big names to keep while also maintaining enough flexibility under the salary cap to build around them.

On Thursday, they made sure at least one of those players will remain with the team when they announced a six-year contract extension for Nelson.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the Islanders, but it is reportedly worth $6 million per season according to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple.

The 27-year-old Nelson is coming off of a career-year that saw him score 25 goals (second best on the team) and finish with 53 total points (third on the team).

Originally a first-round pick (No. 30 overall) by the Islanders in 2010, Nelson’s career has been about as steady and consistent as a player can be. He has missed just 12 games since entering the NHL during the 2013-14 season (with 10 of those coming during his rookie season) and has been a lock for at least 20 goals and 40 points every season. You know he is going to be in the lineup and you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get from him offensively.

Is that level of production worth $6 million per year? It might be pushing it and it might be a slight overpay from a team standpoint, but the Islanders didn’t really have many other options here. If they had let Nelson walk they would have needed someone to replace him and there weren’t many (if any) realistic options on the free agent market that are going to outperform Nelson for a better price, and they only have five draft picks in their 2019 class to use as trade chips.

With Nelson’s contract now completed, the Islanders have 17 players under contract for the 2019-20 season at a total salary cap hit of $53.7 million. Assuming an $83 million salary cap that still leaves them with more than $29 million in cap space to fill out the remainder of their roster.

That should be more than enough to re-sign Lee, Eberle and Lehner if they choose, while also working out new deals for restricted free agents Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle.

Mathew Barzal, who has one-year remaining on his entry-level contract, will also be eligible to sign a new contract on July 1.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

It was the Kaapo Kakko show vs. Canada at IIHF World Championship

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Kaapo Kakko will likely wind up with the New York Rangers as the No. 2 overall pick in next month’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. On Friday, he showed why New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero should have second thoughts about going with Jack Hughes with the top selection.

During Finland’s 3-1 win over Canada in their opening game of the 2019 IIHF World Championship, the 18-year-old forward scored twice, including this highlight-reel goal in the first period.

Kakko’s profile on Elite Prospects tells you what we saw on that goal. 

“A quick-thinking winger, Kakko never seems to be in a rush. He reads the game exceptionally well and finds himself a step ahead while the play is still developing.”

As soon as the Thomas Chabot turnover lands on Arttu Ilomaki’s stick, Kakko takes off up ice as he sees how the play is developing. Toni Rajala’s touch pass then sends Kakko through Chabot while Brandon Montour takes a penalty in an attempt to stop him. Then the young Finnish forward shows off his edge work and smoothly beats Matt Murray for the opening goal.

The top prospect was later out on the ice as Finland defended their 2-1 lead late in the third period. Kakko, who was named “Player of the Game,” created a turnover and then finished off Canada with an empty-netter to complete his memorable night.

Kakko is eyeing history during the 2019 Worlds. If Finland wins the tournament, he would be the youngest player to ever win gold at the U18, U20 and senior World Championships.

2019 NHL DRAFT FIRST-ROUND ORDER
1. New Jersey Devils
2. New York Rangers
3. Chicago Blackhawks
4. Colorado Avalanche (from Ottawa Senators)
5. Los Angeles Kings
6. Detroit Red Wings
7. Buffalo Sabres
8. Edmonton Oilers
9. Anaheim Ducks
10. Vancouver Canucks
11. Philadelphia Flyers
12. Minnesota Wild
13. Florida Panthers
14. Arizona Coyotes
15. Montreal Canadiens
16. Colorado Avalanche
17. Vegas Golden Knights
18. Dallas Stars
19. Ottawa Senators (from Columbus Blue Jackets)
20. New York Rangers (from Winnipeg Jets)
21. Pittsburgh Penguins
22. Los Angeles Kings (from Toronto Maple Leafs)
23. New York Islanders
24. Nashville Predators
25. Washington Capitals
26. Calgary Flames
27. Tampa Bay Lightning
28. Conference final losing team with fewest points
29. Conference final losing team with most points
30. Stanley Cup Final losing team
31. Stanley Cup winner
————

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.

Stars count on another great Game 7 from Ben Bishop

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With goals being very tough to come by during this Round 2 series, it’s only natural that the goalie matchup of Ben Bishop vs. Jordan Binnington looms large over Game 7 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

There are some fun narratives to wrap around the situation, too. Bishop, 32, is no stranger to big games, with 48 career playoff games to his name, and a sparkling .927 save percentage to combine quality with that quantity. Jordan Binnington, 25, only has 45 NHL games combined (33 regular season, 12 playoffs) in his career so far, yet he’s been a revelation for the Blues. It’s a shame that Bishop never seemed to provide Binnington tutelage during his growth as a goalie (as far as I know?), as this situation just begs for a “master vs. pupil” storyline.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the elephant/Bishop-sized goalie in the room: is Bishop even truly healthy enough to play in Game 7 after being shaken up by that scary Colton Parayko shot that preceded a controversial goal in the Blues’ Game 6 win over Bishop’s Stars?

As with just about any prominent injury during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, those of us outside of a team’s inner circle can only speculate about a player’s health. We can only read what we can from Game 7 itself on Tuesday, and skeptically take the Stars’ word for it about Bishop being OK.

So, let’s play along and believe that Bishop is good enough to go for Game 7.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars think Bishop could be Game 7 difference-maker

With that in mind, Bishop’s experience comes to play in the very specific, very pressure-packed setting of Game 7s. He’s experienced two such contests during his NHL career, winning both and earning a shutout (and even an assist) in each Game 7 back during the Lightning’s charge to a defeat in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

As Matthew DeFranks reports for the Dallas Morning News, Stars coach Jim Montgomery does indeed believe that Bishop’s experience will come in handy.

“Yeah, for sure it is a big advantage when your goaltender has been in these games before,” Montgomery said. “He’s been to the Stanley Cup finals, and he’s had success in these kinds of games. … He’s very even-keel. The way he approaches his games, whether it is a regular season or a Game 7, Bish is always dialed into the right mind-set to give him success.”

Again, the Stars are opening themselves up to criticism if Bishop isn’t truly healthy. In years past (see: Martin Brodeur against the Avalanche; Pekka Rinne versus the Predators), a few early Game 7 goals allowed can be lethal in a tightly matched series. The Stars have a highly qualified backup in Anton Khudobin, so if Bishop gives up a regrettable goal or two — maybe top shelf stuff that he, erm, can’t reach right now? — then people will question the decision not just to go with Khudobin.

Yet, when you look at Bishop’s big-game performances, and his dominant work this season (especially lately), it’s easy to see why the Stars would lean on him.

Bishop’s two Game 7 shutouts

Actually, with that in mind, it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s a deeper look at Bishop’s two Game 7 experiences from that Lightning run. It gives some insight on how alert and impressive Bishop was, and is also a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NHL. Admit it: this makes 2015 seem like ages ago, although maybe global politics also make those memories seem ancient, too.

April 29, 2015: Lightning beat Red Wings 2-0 in Game 7 in Round 1.

If you remember this game, you might recall it as Tampa Bay being pretty fortunate to get out of that series … and by a lot of indications, that Game 7 looks that way in retrospect.

There was an ice-in-the-veins moment for Bishop, as he went way out of his net, Hasek-style, to try to thwart a Drew Miller chance. It almost backfired, as Miller flipped the puck over Bishop, but it didn’t result in a goal.

Braydon Coburn‘s goal was the only moment where either goalie allowed one, as the second tally was an empty-netter, which Bishop earned an assist on. Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout against the Red Wings, while the Lightning’s goal came on just 16 shots against Petr Mrazek. Natural Stat Trick lists some interesting numbers that back up the Red Wings carrying the play, sometimes glaringly.

Tampa Bay did keep most of the Red Wings’ chances to the outside, as Detroit only enjoyed a more modest 5-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances at even-strength. That could be a key element to Game 7 between the Stars and Blues; Jim Montgomery’s system (and defenders like John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen) has done a great job of mostly keeping chances to the perimeter, which can make Bishop feel that much more unbeatable when he’s “on.”

May 29, 2015: Lightning beat Rangers 2-0 in Round 3

The storylines were pretty rich with this one.

Heading into this Game 7, much was made about the “mystique” of playing such a big contest at Madison Square Garden, particularly against a very sharp Henrik Lundqvist. That wasn’t just media-friendly hyperbole, either; the Rangers had been undefeated in Game 7s at MSG at the time, and the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for the 2014-15 season. As impressive as the Lightning were even then, it’s fair to place them as the underdogs in that one, after being the favorites against the stalwart Red Wings in that Round 1 matchup.

The Lightning did a much better job of controlling play against the Rangers in that Game 7 than they did against the Red Wings two rounds earlier. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Bolts generated a 10-4 high-danger chance advantage at even-strength, and Bishop needed only a fairly modest 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Interestingly, in both Game 7s, the score was tied 0-0 through the first two periods. A more “nervy” goalie might have been rattled by the low margin of error, but Bishop seemingly kept his emotions in check.

***

The Stars are a different team than the Lightning were, and Bishop’s an older goalie, but it’s still interesting to ponder the past. If Bishop’s anywhere near full-strength, then the Blues might just have to cross their fingers for a goal or two in Game 7.

At least if the right kind of history repeats for Bishop and the Stars.

Game 7 of Stars – Blues takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday; You can watch it on NBCSN and stream it here.

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.

Islanders optimistic after turnaround despite playoff exit

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Despite getting swept in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the New York Islanders know they made big strides in their turnaround first season under president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz.

Predicted by many experts to miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 seasons, the Islanders led the Metropolitan Division for a big chuck of the middle of the season before finishing second at 48-27-7. They followed up their surprising season with a four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs when everything seemed to be going their way.

After waiting 10 days to start the next round, nothing went New York’s way as the Islanders couldn’t rediscover their scoring touch and were swept by Carolina.

”It didn’t end the way we wanted it, and that’s the part that’s going to sting for a while there,” captain Anders Lee said Monday as the team packed up for the summer at its practice facility in East Meadow, New York. ”Those are the kinds of things, the obstacles that individually and as a group power you through the summer and motivate you and bring you back in the fall to be better.”

Now, after a 13-win improvement over the previous year – keyed by the defensive-minded system in Trotz’s first year with the team – they head into the offseason with some tough personnel decisions looming as they try to build on their success.

”A lot of stuff we set out to do, we did,” Trotz said. ”There was some disappointment where we didn’t go farther than we did. … We started with becoming a competitive team from the get-go that had a good foundation in terms of work ethic, structure, accountability. This group was a special group because they dug in all year. There wasn’t a lot expected from this group and they proved a lot of people wrong.”

However, with several key players – including forwards Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson, and goalie Robin Lehner – headed for free agency, and the need to add a big scorer, the team could have a different look when the players return for training camp in September.

”They did a tremendous job this year,” Lamoriello said of the impending unrestricted free agents. ”We’re going to have to see exactly how we can fit them all in. We’d like them all back, without question. But they have to make decisions and we have to make decisions. … We’ll do the best we can.”

Lee seamlessly stepped into the captain’s role following the departure of John Tavares to his hometown Maple Leafs in free agency last summer. Now, it’s Lee’s turn to be free after wrapping up the final season of a four-year, $15 million deal, after finishing with 28 goals and 23 assists.

Following a 23-year stretch in which the Islanders didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs, they made it to the second round for the second time in four years.

”It’s not good enough just to win once in a while and make the playoffs once every couple of years,” second-year star center Mathew Barzal said. ”We want to be consistent in that, really put the Islanders back on the map as a contending team.”

Some other things to know as the Islanders head into the offseason:

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Goaltending proved to be the team’s biggest strength after Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner openly talked about his personal issues dealing with panic attacks, alcohol and drug addiction, and also bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD when he joined the team and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season, sharing the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Greiss is under contract for next season, and Lehner finished a one-year, $1.5 million deal he signed last summer. Lehner said his agent hasn’t had any talks with Lamoriello during the season.

SCORING HELP

Under Trotz, the Islanders went from giving up the most goals in the league a year ago (293) to allowing the fewest this season (191). However, the defensive-minded system also saw their scoring drop from seventh (261) to 22nd (223). In addition to Lee and Nelson, Barzal (18 goals, 44 assists) and Josh Bailey (16 goals, 40 assists) also had 50-point seasons.

Generating offense wasn’t a problem during the season or against Pittsburgh, but it was a big factor in the losses to Carolina as New York totaled just five goals in the four games.

FREE AGENTS

In addition to Lee, Nelson, Eberle and Lehner, the Islanders have several other players who will be free agents.

Valtteri Filppula (17 goals, 14 assists) and Tom Kuhnhackl (four goals, five assists in 39 games) will be unrestricted after making strong contributions in their first seasons in New York, and youngsters Anthony Beauvillier (18 goals, 10 assists), Michael Dal Colle and Tanner Fritz are restricted free agents.

Among the top free agents available the Islanders could target include Columbus’ Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, and Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner.

WAITING FOR BELMONT

The Islanders just finished the first season of an expected three-year arrangement to split home games between the Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center while a new arena is built next to the horse racing track at Belmont. Playoff games were also split between the venues, with the first round at the renovated old Coliseum, and the second round (and any subsequent round if they had advanced) at Barclays.

Construction at the new site is expected to begin soon, and despite some local opposition to the construction, Lamoriello was confident the arena will be built.

”I don’t have any question,” he said. ”I would not have come here if there wasn’t going to be a new arena.”

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