All posts by Peter Merkle

Nashville Predators 2018-19 Season Preview

Nashville Predators

53-18-11, 117 points, Presidents’ Trophy winners

Lost in the Second Round to Winnipeg (4-3)

Additions: C Colin Blackwell, LW Connor Brickley, RW Rocco Grimaldi, D Dan Hamhuis, C Zachary Magwood, LW Zac Rinaldo, D Jarred Tinordi

Subtractions: C Cody Bass, LW Brandon Bollig, D Stefan Elliott, D Alexei Emelin, C Mike Fisher, D Petter Granberg, LW Scott Hartnell, G Anders Lindback, C Mark McNeil, G Matt O’Connor, D Rick Pinkston, D John Ramage, C Trevor Smith, D Scott Valentine, LW Harry Zolnierczyk

Re-signed: D Ryan Ellis, RW Ryan Hartman, W Miikka Salomaki, G Juuse Saros

Offseason Analysis: The Predators had all the ingredients of a Stanley Cup winner last year. The offense was solid, the defense was stifling, and the goaltending was world-class. They boasted largely the same group that had made it all the way to the Final in 16-17, so now they had the experience and know-how that allows teams to get to the promised land. They dominated the regular season and walked into the playoffs with a Vince McMahon-like strut. Mike Fisher was so confident in their abilities to win a Cup that he quite literally decided he’d rather get back into hockey shape and unretire to join them for the playoffs rather than stay home and be Carrie Underwood’s husband (she never did return my letters about being her fill-in husband while he was away).

After dispatching of the Avs in the First Round, though, the Preds encountered a problem. They encountered (arguably) the one team that was capable of beating them: the Winnipeg Jets. The knock-down, drag-out playoff matchup hockey fans and media were begging for was to be the downfall of the Preds. Winnipeg’s unrelenting physicality, superior offensive firepower and the shattering of Pekka Rinne‘s confidence were too much for the Preds to overcome, and they’d fall unceremoniously in a 5-1 home loss after managing to force a Game 7.

Luckily for the Nashville brass, the offseason they faced wasn’t supremely daunting. Apart from a few young RFA’s and some aging role players (plus the re-retirement of Fisher), they had no real NHL-level contract concerns. The core of the team was secure heading into the 18-19 campaign. But still the sting of defeat in back-to-back potential Cup-winning years hurt, and efforts to counter a potential third year of the same had to be made.

With no draft picks until the fourth round, GM David Poile instead focused on free agency to bring immediate help to his team. When things opened up on July 1, he first tasked himself with helping them from within, re-signing wingers Miikka Salomaki (two years, $750 thousand per) and Ryan Hartman (one year, $875 thousand) and young stud No. 2 goaltender Juuse Saros (three years, $1.5 million per) to very reasonable deals. He then snagged one of his former draft picks in Dan Hamhuis, inking the 35-year-old to a two-year, $2.5 million contract to replace the departed Alexei Emelin and solidify the defense. Poile then knocked a big task off of next year’s to-do list when he signed defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year, $50 million contract extension ($6.25 million cap hit) that takes hold next summer. Ellis has grown into one of the Preds’ most versatile and reliable defenders, and Poile saw no reason to wait on locking him up for the foreseeable future.

Few other signings were notable names, mostly organizational depth, although newcomers Rocco Grimaldi, Zac Rinaldo, Colin Blackwell, and AHL-contracted Brian Cooper have made noise to this point in training camp and are all still on the preseason roster heading into the final days/cuts.

Up front, the lineup will look largely unchanged from last year’s group, with really only depth positions likely up for grabs. Winger Scott Hartnell was the only full-timer from last year to depart, and 2017 first round pick Eeli Tolvanen looks poised to inherit his place in the lineup. While lacking Hartnell’s snarl, Tolvanen is a deadly shooter and spent last year lighting up the Finnish Elite League as a rookie fresh out of the USHL. With success in a men’s league and experience on North American ice, Tolvanen should be ready for an NHL roster spot. The only other notable absence, at least to start the season, will be the lack of power forward winger Austin Watson. The 26-year-old was suspended for the first 27 games of the season after pleading no contest to charges of domestic battery over the summer. It comes after Watson finally solidified his place in the Predators lineup last season, and they’ll have to make due without his size and physicality for at least the first few months of the year.

In Watson’s absense, I have the opening night forward group looking like:
Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson
Fiala – Turris – Smith
Tolvanen – Bonino – Sissons
Salomaki – Jarnkrok – Hartman
Extra forwards Grimaldi and Frederick Gaudreau

The defense also only lost one regular from last year, and Hamhuis should step right into that slot. Really only the No. 6 slot to his right remains a question, and while Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto are more than capable, they both have an uphill battle to unseat Yannick Weber based solely upon the fact that he’s the only right handed shot among them. The only problem facing the Preds here is that none of the three are on two-way contracts, so basically they get to decide who they’re most comfortable putting on waivers. In the end I think Irwin’s NHL experience could give him the edge in that decision.

Defensive lineup should look like:
Josi – Ellis
Ekholm – Subban
Hamhuis – Weber
Extra defender Irwin

In goal, it’s Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saros. Sorry I couldn’t make that any more entertaining.

Er, well, it is a contract year for Rinne. So… umm… that’ll be interesting, I guess.

Offseason Grade: B

Less really was more, here.

Poile played it smart, as he often does. He kept his spending to a minimum (the Preds should enter the season with a smidge north of $8 million to play with) and used the depth he’s accumulated to still ice one of the better lineups in the league.

The defense is arguably the best (or at least top three) in the league, and none of the top seven are in contract years. (In fact, only four forwards likely to make the NHL club are to see free agency next year, and every one of them is still RFA eligible)

Rinne is likely looking at his last shot at a Cup as a No. 1 guy (he’ll turn 36 this year), so he’ll be leaving nothing on the table.

The forward group is solid, if not spectacular. But with all that aforementioned cap space available, scoring punch can certainly be brought in sometime before the deadline if it proves to be a concern heading towards the playoffs.

We haven’t seen the last of Smashville playoff runs.

Philadelphia Flyers 2018-19 Season Preview

Philadelphia Flyers

42-26-14, 98 points, 3rd in the Metropolitan Division

Lost in the First Round to Pittsburgh (4-2)

Additions: D Christian Folin, LW James van Riemsdyk

Subtractions: C Valtteri Filppula, G Leland Irving, D Brandon Manning, RW Colin McDonald, G Petr Mrazek, G John Muse, D Johnny Oduya, RW Matt Read, G Dustin Tokarski

Re-signed: D Robert Hagg, G Alex Lyon, C Danick Martel, D Samuel Morin, G Anthony Stolarz

Offseason Analysis: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Flyers could be seriously dangerous if they get some solid goaltending.

After a rough 2016-17 campaign, the Flyers struck gold in the draft lottery, snagging the No. 2 overall pick and using it to draft top-ranked prospect Nolan Patrick. This added yet another weapon to one of the more potent offenses in the league, but questions remained about the defense and, particularly, in net.

It took a rotation of four different goaltenders (Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Petr Mrazek and Alex Lyon) to get it done, but Philly managed to punch their ticket back to the playoffs mostly on the strength of unbelievable seasons from captain Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, a breakout year from Sean Couturier, a rebound year from Shayne Gostisbehere and a ridiculous 10-1-2 month of February that took them from treading water in the Wild Card picture to solidly in third place in the Metro. A big push from Columbus nearly knocked the Flyers back into the Wild Card spot at the end of the year, but they managed to hang onto the Divisional spot by a single point.

Unfortunately, this only meant that they’d play in-state rival Pittsburgh, and while Philly would manage to take the Pens to six games, it was often a very one-sided series. Only a heroic nine-point-in-six-game effort from Sean Couturier even kept the series as competitive as it was.

With a few notable underperformers coming to the end of their contract and a fairly well-stocked prospect pool, GM Ron Hextall and crew decided to let a host of players walk into free agency, including longtime Flyer Matt Read, along with Valtteri Filppula, Brandon Manning, Johnny Oduya and Petr Mrazek, among others. Using the newly freed up cap space, they brought back former Flyer and perennial 30-goal man James van Riemsdyk, and brought in a solid defenseman in Christian Folin. JVR is certainly a known commodity, while Folin is a quiet, confident defender that has impressed under the radar over the past few years in Minnesota and LA.

Armed with yet another potent offensive weapon, and with improved depth on defense, the Flyers (yet again) look to the net in hopes of improvement. Though they boast on of the best pools of goaltending prospects in the league, they don’t want to rush the development of any of the youngsters, and will likely again turn to the tandem of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. While neither is a world-beating goaltender, they’re both more than capable of quality play.

Well…at least they would be outside of the goalie-hell of Philadelphia. Not sure what it is about that city, but it seems capable of ruining the reputation of basically any goaltender that dons the orange and black. So, maybe hope to win every game 5-4, Philly fans?

Speaking of 5-4 victories, let’s take a look at that dangerous forward corps.

While the top-six are pretty well all shoe-ins, the bottom-six does have a few positions that are definitely up in the air. Down the middle there’s likely to be strong competition for the No. 3 and 4 center spots, as Jordan Weal, Scott Laughton, Jori Lehtera and former Union College standout Mike Vecchione will battle it out with youngsters German Rubtsov and Morgan Frost (Flyers’ first round picks in 2016 and 2017, respectively). Rubtsov and Frost have yet to play North American pro hockey, so they’ll have the steepest hill to climb to try and nab a spot, and will likely head back to Juniors or to Lehigh Valley for the year. While Vecchione has only two NHL games to his credit, and isn’t nearly as well-known to Flyers fans as the remaining three, he’s a very interesting option. Boasting a strong two-way game, as well as the ability to play center or right wing, he put up terrific rookie numbers in the AHL last year and could be a strong camp away from grabbing himself an NHL roster spot.

On the wings you’ll have veterans Michael Raffl and Dale Weise competing with some young talent in guys like Oskar Lindblom, Taylor Leier, Danick Martel, and Isaac Ratcliffe. Lindblom scored some time with the Flyers last year after impressing in the AHL. Martel is undersized but not afraid to play with an edge, and does bring some decent offensive skill with him. Ratcliffe is possibly the most intriguing option. At just 19-years-old, he can still continue to hone his game in Juniors, where he’s found his offensive stride over the past two seasons. But a 6-foot-6, sub-200 pound winger with some scoring touch and a mean streak might be hard to overlook for the big club.

My projected depth chart shakes out like this:
Giroux – Couturier – Konecny
JVR – Patrick – Voracek
Lindblom – Lehtera – Simmonds
Raffl – Laughton – Vecchione
Extra forwards Weise and Weal

On defense, the biggest problem facing the Flyers to start the season is injuries to veteran Andrew MacDonald (should only miss a few weeks of the season) and promising youngster Samuel Morin (likely out until February). Until MacDonald returns they’ll lack a true top pair reliable defender to partner Gostisbehere, so that could be of concern at least in the opening weeks. While the defense corps looks to be fairly set (particularly after MacDonald returns), there are a handful of names who could challenge for a depth spot. Philippe Myers was an undrafted signing out of Juniors, who blossomed late to catch the eyes of Flyers brass. At 6-foot-5 and approximately 210 pounds, he’s got no shortage of size, but also put up respectable offensive numbers as a rookie in the AHL last season. He’s also a right handed shot, something the Flyers are a tad short on. Veteran T.J. Brennan is definitely a reliable option to fill some minutes in MacDonald’s absence, as well.

Once MacDonald makes his return, I have the Flyers defense corps shaping up as:
MacDonald – Gostisbehere
Provorov – Gudas
Sanheim – Folin
Extra defender Hagg

In net, as previously mentioned, it’s likely the Flyers will head into the season with the Elliott/Neuvirth tandem. With both vets in contract years, Philly will likely give the trio of Alex Lyon, Carter Hart and Anthony Stolarz another full year of development if possible before potentially calling upon two of them to take the reigns as a tandem in the near future. Felix Sandstrom is a sleeper pick to find his way into the picture next year as well, after what will be his fourth season of SHL action in Sweden.

Offseason Grade: B-

On paper, it looks like the Flyers lost much more than they gained this year. But although there were some household names that departed, most had underperformed greatly in recent years. Hextall cleared cap space, grabbed a big fish in van Riemsdyk, and used the depth of his organization to fill the remaining holes.

The offense is deadly. The defense is young, but quite promising (particularly once it gets back to full strength). The goaltending is…well, Philadelphia goaltending. But the future in net looks incredibly bright, and Philly would be wise to not rush that future unless absolutely necessary.

A likely fringe playoff team this year, but in the next two or three years, we could see the orange and black making serious noise once again. Because the depth doesn’t stop in net, and I only mentioned about half of the recent first round picks still waiting in the wings.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

Calgary Flames 2018-19 Season Preview

Calgary Flames

37-35-10, 84 points, 5th in the Pacific Division

Additions: F Austin Czarnik, D Noah Hanifin, F Elias Lindholm, RW James Neal, RW Anthony Peluso, C Alan Quine, C Derek Ryan, LW Kerby Rychel

Subtractions: RW Troy Brouwer, LW Micheal Ferland, LW Tanner Glass, D Cody Goloubef, D Dougie Hamilton, C Rod Pelley, C Matt Stajan, RW Chris Stewart, RW Kris Versteeg

Re-signed: G Jon Gillies, RW Garnet Hathaway, C Mark Jankowski, LW Morgan Klimchuk, D Brett Kulak, G David Rittich

Offseason Analysis: Armed with one of the most potent top line/top defense pairing combos in the league, and with newly-acquired Mike Smith in net, hopes were high for the Flames to make some noise coming into the ’17-’18 campaign. Unfortunately, the noises they made were somewhat akin to a fish flopping around on the deck of a boat.

In a season that the term ‘streaky’ could possibly be defined by, Calgary often swung from appearing unbeatable to looking as if they had no idea what they were doing (and anywhere in between) on a game-by-game, week-by-week, and month-by-month basis. Managing to hang around in the wild card conversation through February, they’d finish the year with a dismal 6-13-1 record in their last 20 games, missing the playoffs for the seventh time in nine years.

Head coach Glen Gulutzan (along with assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Gerrard) was promptly sacked at season’s end and replaced with the newly-resigned Hurricanes coach Bill Peters. It wouldn’t be the only Carolina-linked theme of the offseason, either.

Faced with a draft stock that featured no picks until the 4th round, GM Brad Treliving had to use the phone at his table rather than his scouting staff to try and make an immediate impact on his team on draft weekend in Dallas. In one of the bigger trades in recent memory, Calgary dealt blue-chip defender Dougie Hamilton, hard-nosed winger Michael Ferland, and prospect Adam Fox to Carolina in exchange for young d-man Noah Hanifin and versatile scoring forward Elias Lindholm.

Now, I was one of few to take a stand in defending this trade as equal (most found it to be heavily in Carolina’s favor on face value). While I admittedly know little about Fox (I’m told he projects as possibly a decent complimentary player at the NHL level), everyone else in this trade is a fairly proven commodity. Hamilton is admittedly probably the better all-around defenseman, but Hanifin might be a better fit for Calgary, as his game is traditionally a bit more reliable. With Ferland’s departure, they do lose some grit and complimentary goal scoring, but they still have no shortage of snarl, and it’s doubtful his 21-goal, 41-point campaign last year will ever be bettered. Lindholm, while not a natural goal scorer, is a skilled playmaker and has already twice surpassed Ferland’s career-best numbers, while being three years his junior. His ability to play the right side if needed also bolsters a thin depth chart at the position.

Treliving would make another splash soon after the draft, snagging sniper James Neal on the opening day of free agency, and signing him to a five-year, $5.75 million contract. The contract is probably a bit long for a 31-year-old already showing signs of losing foot speed, and Neal’s production has dipped a bit in recent years, but he’s still a near-lock for 25 goals and 45-50 points. Plus, playing alongside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau never hurt anybody.

The Flames would nab a few other pieces in free agency, in particular bolstering their center depth with adds like Tyler Graovac, Alan Quine, and Austin Czarnik. Perhaps their biggest under-the-radar move was acquiring another former Hurricane in Derek Ryan. The 31-year-old journeyman center finally found an NHL home in Carolina the past few years, blossoming into a solid 3C capable of consistent ~35 point production in addition to reliable PK work and a sublime faceoff record. With the departure of Matt Stajan, the Flames took advantage of Peters’ prior experience with Ryan to fill the hole. They also added some depth on the wings in Kerby Rychel (via trade) and Anthony Peluso, along with notable re-signings Garnet Hathaway, Morgan Klimchuk, and Mark Jankowski.

The prospect pool is a bit thin, but Morgan Klimchuk stands out as a threat to potentially grab himself a roster spot with a strong camp.

I have the forward corps looking something similar to this:
Gaudreau – Monahan – Neal
Tkachuk – Backlund – Lindholm
Bennett – Ryan – Frolik
Jankowski – Quine – Hathaway
Extra forwards Curtis Lazar and Austin Czarnik

On defense, things have shaken up a bit with the breakup of one of the league’s best pairings. Fleet-footed T.J. Brodie looks poised to grab the No. 2 defense slot next to captain Mark Giordano, though his sometimes-risky style of play could be of concern for top pair minutes.

Outside of the Hanifin/Hamilton deal, the Flames changed little about their defense corps in the offseason. Brett Kulak being awarded a one-year deal in arbitration was probably the biggest news. Longtime SHL stalwart Marcus Hogstrom was signed to a one-year, two-way deal to add some depth, and towering Viktor Svedberg, who saw some time with the Blackhawks last year, is heading to training camp on a PTO.

The defensive prospect pool is much deeper and more intriguing than the forwards. Juuso Valimaki is a highly touted prospect and Calgary’s ’17 1st round pick, but has yet to play North American pro hockey, so it’s likely he’ll spend the year in Stockton getting adjusted. Josh Healey brings a solid defensive game, but struggled to find the offensive touch he had at Ohio State in his first pro season last year. Oliver Kylington is a smart, if slightly undersized two-way defender that has shown well so far in the AHL. My personal pick to sneak his way onto the opening night roster, though, is Rasmus Andersson. He’s had no trouble adapting his offensive game to the pro level (nine goals and 39 points in Stockton last year) and his 215-pound frame bodes well for holding up to the rigors of the NHL. His right handed shot and offensive abilities bode well as a potential Hamilton replacement should the Flames find themselves in need of some extra defensive scoring.

The defense looks a little something like this:
Giordano – Brodie
Hanifin – Hamonic
Kulak – Stone
Extra defender either Dalton Prout or the aforementioned Andersson

In net the depth chart looks to remain the same as last year after the re-signing of backup David Rittich to a one-year deal. Calgary will likely just hope for steadier play from Mike Smith (really from the entire team in general) to improve their fortunes as they continue to groom all-world prospect Jon Gillies for the eventual No. 1 job. Smith will turn 37 this year and is in the last year of his contract, so expect another year in the AHL for Gillies before taking the reigns in ’19-’20.

Offseason Grade: C-

They made a coaching change. They fired the coach of their 21st-place team and hired the coach of the 20th place team. C-

They got Noah Hanifin. They probably gave up a bit too much to get him. C-

They signed James Neal. They signed him for too long. C-

They didn’t lose most of their expiring contracts. They were all pretty average players. C-

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

Jettisoned: Predators bow out in Game 7, Jets punch Conference Finals ticket

 

Well there you have it, folks. The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs has come to a close with an almost-fitting end to the series that played out exactly how we thought it would without ever really playing out how we thought it would.

Perhaps the most hyped matchup of the postseason, it was nearly-universally agreed upon that Winnipeg/Nashville would go seven games, but how we got there was anything but predictable. A seven-game series that saw only two games end in one-goal margins (those in fact being the only games that ended with a margin of less than three tallies) and was more a story of attack/counter-attack. Nearly every game swung wildly to one team’s favor, usually on the back of explosive starts that took the wind out of the sails of the opponent before they knew what had happened.

Game 4 was a tight 2-1 affair, though hardly memorable on the back of a 7-4 gongshow victory in Game 3 for Winnipeg on home ice. Game 1 and Games 5-7 were all complete visiting team dominations silencing notoriously loud buildings. Game 2 was really our only look at what many expected from this series, with Nashville grabbing a thrilling 5-4 victory in double-overtime on home ice.

But since we’re here, let’s take a look at how this strange series came to a close.

Winnipeg controlled things early, hemming Nashville on their own side of center ice for most of the opening minutes. The Predators looked to be skating in deep sand, oftentimes unable to advance the puck forward at all, thanks to a stifling forecheck from the Jets and some careless puck control of their own doing. Surely, though, Pekka Rinne would be able to help his team survive the early problems and gain their footing…

Then Tyler Myers sent up a prayer from below the goal line to Rinne’s left that deflected into the net off of the stunned Nashville netminder, and just like that we had a 1-0 game 8:41 into the first period. But, again, no problem. We’re less than halfway through the first period, it’s just a one-goal deficit, Rinne will obviously shake this one off and…

2:06 later Rinne inexplicably abandons the near post after stopping a Paul Stastny stuff attempt, the rebound landing right back on his blade for him to chip over the pad and into the net for a Charmin Ultra-Soft 2-0 goal. Has anyone seen the wheels for this bus lately? We seem to have misplaced them.

Peter Laviolette, either wishing to settle things down without wasting a precious timeout, or knowing enough about his goaltender’s complete inability to recover from shaky starts in playoff games to realize that this ship needed immediate abandoning (third pull in the series for Rinne, you be the judge), yanked the big Finn in favor of the little Finn, inserting Juuse Saros into the net for the remainder of the game.

To their credit, the Predators responded to the move by finally picking up their game. P.K. Subban first drew a penalty, then fired a one-time Howitzer off the post and in on the resulting power play, bringing his team back within one with just over four minutes to play in the first.

Unfortunately for Nashville, this only seemed to fire up the opposition, with the Winnipeg defense vacuum-sealing their end from that point on, and Connor Hellebuyck dispelling any further offensive chances that came his way. The two goaltenders spent the next 20+ minutes countering everything thrown their way (which admittedly was not a lot as the two teams were basically stuck in a neutral zone traffic jam).

Late in the second period the Jets grabbed the momentum back when Blake Wheeler jumped on a turnover (a theme in this one, with the Predators committing 24 vs Winnipeg’s paltry 10) and hung Subban out to dry in no man’s land, sending a pass over to Scheifele who quickly lifted one over the shoulder of Saros to regain the two-goal lead with 2:10 left to play in the second frame.

The second period was really the finest display of a brilliant tactic Winnipeg utilized all night long, essentially using their team speed to actually slow the game down. No matter what Nashville tried to do, every puck carrier was instantly met by at least one, often multiple Jets. Passing lanes were non-existent due to some incredible defensive stickwork, and even when there appeared to be open space, it would close up immediately, leaving the Predators dumbfounded, and holding them to just six shots in the second period.

The Preds did gain some offensive traction in the third, but Hellebuyck always had the answer and the defense in front of him made sure he had a clear line of sight to every shot and limited follow-up opportunities for anything that their goaltender didn’t manage to grab onto. Of note, Dustin Byfuglien played a lights-out game defensively, basically making it impossible for any Predators player to get to the front of the net to set up screens. Toby Enstrom was also stellar, making countless beautiful stick and positioning plays throughout the night to break up some of the few rushes Nashville was able to start.

Nashville fought and clawed for every chance all throughout the third period, but their efforts came to a screeching halt at the 11:59 mark when Paul Stastny tallied his second goal of the game on Winnipeg’s lone power play of the night, banging home the rebound from a Laine blast before Saros could close down the five hole. That was Stastny’s fifth goal of this series, continuing a terrific playoff run for the deadline acquisition (lol remember that time the Blues traded him to the Jets for a lottery-protected first round pick?).

Mark Scheifele would add the 5-1 empty netter to tally his league-leading 11th goal of the playoffs with 2:33 remaining, but even with the extra man on the ice the Predators were just lost trying to find the answer to Winnipeg’s flawless defensive scheme.

So Winnipeg takes the series largely on the strength of winning three-of-four games in Nashville, all by convincing scores (4-1, 6-2, 5-1), and move on to face probably the only team in the Western Conference that can match their speed, the ‘Remember when we didn’t exist last year?’ Vegas Golden Knights in the Conference Finals. Game 1 of that series comes to you this Saturday night (May 12th) at 7 p.m. ET with DTFR recap coverage brought to you by @nlanciani53.

Crashville: Preds crumble after strong start, Jets take 2-1 series lead

 

So, uh, which one of these teams is supposedly the one with the roster full of seasoned vets that have been there before and can’t be rattled, again?

In a series that was just about as hyped as Avengers: Infinity War, we expected to see plenty of crazy, unexpected stuff. But, much like with the film, I’m not sure many people expected to see (spoilers) half of the cast crumble to dust. Or, at least not the half that did in this game.

After answering an anomalous Game 1 drubbing by taking a thrilling double-overtime victory in Game 2, it looked like the Preds were back on track as the series shifted to Winnipeg’s raucous home ice. Clearly now with the early stumble in the past, the defending Western Conference champs would be able to rely upon their experience and battle-tested mental toughness to grab a hold of the series against a young, unproven Winnipeg roster.

In the first period, that narrative seemed pretty well spot-on.

Quickly and effectively quieting the thunderous atmosphere in the early going (shoutout to the crowd for a mid-anthem ‘TRUE NORTH’ that I’m pretty sure I felt here in Ohio), the Preds found paydirt just 4:53 into the game with a new-look fourth line featuring Ryan Hartman, Mike Fisher, and Miikka Salomaki (in for a banged up Calle Jarnkrok) when 37-year-old Fisher banged home a loose puck as it squeaked out from underneath of Connor Hellebuyck after he thought he had made the stop on a quick point shot set up by Hartman (who got buried by Dustin Byfuglien for his troubles).

The Jets tried to answer a few minutes later, as Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny combined on a beautiful criss-cross play entering the zone, eventually setting up Stastny all alone behind the defense, but Pekka Rinne had the answer for his backhand attempt.

Winnipeg’s momentum would be stifled shortly after, though, as the Predators would head to the power play. P.K. Subban (showered in the ever-present boos that I’m still not-at-all sure of the reason for) took a perfect one-time feed from Filip Forsberg at the top of the left circle and spanked it home through Hellebucyk. (It’s worth noting that the confusing boos became much less enthusiastic after this)

The energy of the play seemed to follow the energy of the building for the next few minutes, with very little of note outside of an unsuccessful Viktor Arvidsson breakaway attempt and a nearly-successful fake dump-in by Patrik Laine the only real highlights until Austin Watson picked up the puck on a bad Winnipeg change, walked in one-on-one against Josh Morrissey, and let go a seemingly-harmless wrister from a tough angle that eluded Hellebuyck, caught the far post and went in to give the Preds the 3-0 lead with 2:24 to play.

Rinne made a few solid stops in the waning minutes (including a stellar left pad stretch to deny Blake Wheeler as he picked up a deflected shot and tried to tuck it inside the left post) to preserve the lead and keep the crowd quiet heading into the first intermission. Predators leading 12-10 in shots after 20.

In the second period the tone changed immensely, and it began very early.

Jacob Trouba leveled Forsberg just inside the blueline in the first 30 seconds of the game to give the crowd some jump, and his team seemed to feed off of that. 3:38 into the period Winnipeg finally got on the board (although nobody besides Stastny noticed at the time) when a Byfuglien point shot caught Stastny’s skate and deflected past Rinne to bring the deficit to two goals.

Wheeler found himself staring at a yawning cage just under two minutes later when the puck came to him off of a Rinne misplay behind the net, but he fired the puck over the net trying to lift it over the top of a sprawling Rinne and Nick Bonino. As Wheeler tried to corral the puck along the boards, he was leveled by Watson, who got jumped by Mark Scheifele for his efforts. Both players went to the box, and just over 30 seconds into the resulting four-on-four it would be Big Buff blasting home the 3-2 goal after a beautiful zone entry and puck movement by Tyler Myers and Bryan Little. Then just 14 seconds later the roof came off of Bell MTS Place when Stastny, Wheeler, and Trouba connected for a gorgeous tic-tac-goal to tie the game at three with still over 14 minutes remaining in the second.

With his team rattled, Rinne seemed to take it upon himself to settle things back down, first gloving down a laser from Laine on a two-on-one, then later denying Wheeler on a point blank attempt on a beautiful passing play.

Despite the best efforts of the Nashville netminder, though, Winnipeg would take their first lead of the night with 44.7 seconds remaining in the period when Laine (locked and loaded taking a pass from Stastny who grabbed the puck on the rebound of a prior Laine shot) fooled everyone by firing the puck across the ice to Byfuglien who hammered home the one-timer from distance to put the Jets up 4-3. They’d carry that score (and a 16-6 shot advantage in the period) to the dressing room, looking to put away the Preds in the third.

The third period started with quite a few bangs. Trouba and Bonino got into a shoving match early on that eventually became a fairly lengthy fight between the two. Byfuglien just missed erasing Arvidsson from existence, then made up for it by stapling Hartman to the glass as the Nashville forward went to clear the puck out of his zone while killing a Winnipeg power play.

Unfortunately that hit would be about the only positive result for Winnipeg on their man advantage, and when Colton Sissons returned to the ice after serving his time, he immediately redeemed himself by drawing a penalty that would give the Predators the momentum swing they needed. Forsberg walked the line at the point before firing home a gorgeous wrist shot that beat a screened Hellebucyk and knotted the score at four with 12:20 remaining.

Nashville looked to have an opportunity to regain the lead shortly after the power play goal when Trouba mishandled the puck at his offensive blueline, giving Arvidsson a clear-cut breakaway. But Hellebuyck confidently and emphatically snagged the puck out of the air with his glove, bringing the arena back to life.

Byfuglien nearly had himself a hat trick a few minutes after the save (and resulting momentum switch), pouncing on a loose puck to create a two-on-one but having his bid denied by Rinne. He then once more narrowly missed demolishing a Predators player, this time being Subban who managed to avoid the hit at the last possible moment.

Ryan Ellis‘ tough series continued, this time taking a Byfuglien shot to the side of his face that didn’t get hacked open by a skate blade in Game 1. Luckily it was just a high-rising wrist shot without a ton of power behind it, and he’d shake it off fairly quickly.

Unfortunately for his team, though, it came when they were down a man and it took one of their best penalty killers off the ice. On the very next shift the Jets retook the lead for the final time when Wheeler buried the rebound of a Scheifele one-timer that he set up, giving Winnipeg the 5-4 lead with 4:59 to play.

Rinne was upset, as earlier in the sequence he had take a shot to the mask that seemed to break one of the straps of the helmet, but play was not called. Shortly after the goal, Adam Lowry attempted to steal the puck away from Rinne behind the net, and the Predators’ goaltender responded with a claymore-swing of his goal stick to the back of Lowry, putting Nashville down a man for the third time in quick succession in the final minutes of the game, this time when they were down a goal.

Bonino nearly played hero with a shorthanded goal, jumping on a loose puck in front of the Jets’ goal that no one but him seemed to be able to find, but Hellebucyk was able to blocker it away just in time.

Nashville was unable to mount much of an attack with the extra man after pulling Rinne, and Wheeler and Brandon Tanev (who extended his goal scoring streak to four games) added a pair of empty netters to seal a 7-4 Winnipeg victory in front of the hometown faithful.

In the end, it was Hellebucyk’s ability to settle down after a shaky start, and Nashville’s inability to counter momentum swings (and stay out of the box at crucial times) that played the biggest role in this one. It also didn’t hurt that Byfuglien may have played his best playoff game since his Cup run with the Blackhawks. What looks to be a very important Game 4 comes to you at 9:30 p.m. ET this Thursday (May 3) on NBCSN, and @nlanciani53 will have your DTFR recap coverage.

Whiteout Whitewashing: Jets take the series with Game 5 shutout victory

 

For the first time since the birth of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise 19 years ago, the team will see the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the city of Winnipeg, a 31-year wait has ended with thunderous applause.

For Minnesota, however, an arduous struggle has ended in back-to-back blankings at the hands of a Jets squad that far outclassed them. The Wild fought as best they could, but with the absence of Ryan Suter on defense, and the loss of Zach Parise after Game 3, the tools for them to compete with a stacked Winnipeg roster just weren’t there. Pile on some notably lackluster performances from key players like Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle (all held scoreless in the series) and there was really no hope to overcome the juggernaut Jets.

The Wild knew to have any shot at surviving Game 5 they’d need to play the perfect road game and try to keep the Jets from building momentum and getting the raucous crowd involved. This strategy lasted all of 31 seconds.

A strong opening shift was capped off when Jacob Trouba received a cross-ice pass from Mark Scheifele at the top of the right circle, took a few strides towards the net and ripped a wrist shot past Devan Dubnyk to ignite Bell MTS Place in the first minute.

A Winnipeg penalty shortly after the goal threatened to kill the energy, but strong work on the PK kept the tide in the Jets’ favor, and shortly after the conclusion of the penalty Trouba (who had himself a game) nearly scored on an odd-man rush, before nearly tipping home a follow-up shot right after. Dubnyk was trying desperately to keep his team alive and settle things down.

Unfortunately for the Minnesota netminder, his efforts were for nothing, as on the following faceoff Dustin Byfuglien let go a wrist shot from the right point that Bryan Little redirected beautifully past an unsuspecting Dubnyk for the 2-0 lead, still just 5:42 into the game.

Still the Jets kept coming, and the Wild had no answer. A Brandon Tanev shot nearly went in off the skate of Dubnyk after bouncing off of the end boards. Then Niederreiter tried to create a scoring opportunity by dancing around one Winnipeg defender only to get blown up by Big Buff as he attempted to let the shot go. Then Tanev, apparently upset at his previous failure, stripped a fumbling Jonas Brodin of the puck at his defensive blueline and fired a quick turnaround wrister through Dubnyk before he had time to react, Winnipeg taking a 3-0 lead with 8:50 to play. Tanev’s first career playoff goal.

Just 49 seconds later things went from calamity to catastrophe when an initial attempt from Andrew Copp rebounded out high to a locked and loaded Byfuglien, who proceeded to unload a bomb that redirected off of Joel Armia (his first playoff goal, just to stick with the theme) and into the net.

It was now 4-0 with 8:01 to play in the first period, and a mercy pulling was in order. Bruce Boudreau sent Alex Stalock in to relieve Dubnyk of his nightmare, and he returned to the bench to a standing reception from his teammates. Captain Mikko Koivu walked down to the end of the bench after Dubnyk sat down, seemingly to say “We’re sorry, this is on us.” to his visibly emotional goaltender.

Winnipeg fans, however, did not share in Koivu’s sympathies, as a chant of “We Want Dubnyk” rang out not long after the resumption of play. Apparently even after a long, cold winter, Winnipeg still has plenty of salt to go around.

The period ended with the Jets outshooting Minnesota 13-7, but the play was even more lopsided than that would indicate.

Early in the second Minnesota got their proverbial “This one just isn’t going to go your way” sign from the hockey gods, as a Mikael Granlund rush drew Connor Hellebuyck out of his net, giving Granlund an open cage to tuck a wraparound into, only to see the puck sail across the crease along the goal line and bounce off of multiple Winnipeg skates just inches from paydirt, only to be cleared away.

Minnesota did finally gain some offensive traction to their credit, though the second notable opportunity was a Niederreiter rush that was met with a shot block and subsequent leveling hit by Trouba. Ironically even though they controlled a lot of the play early in the second, the Wild would not record a shot for nearly eight minutes of play.

The game’s only real notable save came from the left pad of Stalock who denied a seemingly sure-thing one-timer right on the doorstep at the bottom of the left circle from Scheifele just past the game’s halfway mark.

A Wild power play around the 11:00 mark brought some more offensive traction to the visitors, who had a few quality chances on the power play followed up by a Niederreiter breakaway all turned aside. Jason Zucker found iron on a later power play, but Hellebucyk simply couldn’t be solved.

The Jets put a stamp on the game just 32 seconds into the third with a beautiful high-low-high passing sequence from Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, and Scheifele capped off by a beautiful one-time rip from #55 into the net from the low slot.

Sensing victory was now firmly in hand, the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd started to take over the third period. Multiple renditions of Bananarama’s ‘Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye’ were belted out in perfect harmony at numerous points in the frame, starting with the initial performance just after the puck had dropped following the 5-0 goal.

When Hellebucyk made a great stop on Matt Cullen off of a Marcus Foligno rebound, the crowd responded with the wave, then some more Bananarama.

Blake Wheeler nearly made it 6-0 on a beautiful backhand tip of a Scheifele centering pass, but the hockey gods had decided enough was enough, so it found the crossbar and vacated the goal crease without further incident.

‘We Want Nashville!’ is now the chant. Bold, Winnipeg. Bold.

Later in the period a fan took a deflected puck to the face, only to be tossed a towel by Matt Hendricks (making his series debut) and signal to everyone in attendance that they were still very much alive, drawing a rousing round of applause.

The standing ovation started with 2:30 to play, and was only interrupted by an obligatory singalong to ‘Sweet Caroline’ at 2:10. The final minute of play was basically just one long explosion of noise as the city erupted into a party that I assume will still be occurring when the sun rises. On Monday.

In the end, Connor Hellebucyk posted his second-consecutive shutout to seal the series, and the Parise-less Wild fail to score a single goal. It’s hard for Minnesota to argue that injuries were the only reason they couldn’t climb this mountain, as Winnipeg faced games without Tyler Myers, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey among others, and played the entire series without Toby Enstrom. It just speaks to their incredible depth that even when missing key contributors they could still trounce Minnesota with relative ease.

Now with a long rest ahead of them to get healthy before a likely (at least as of this writing) Second Round matchup for the ages with Nashville, the Jets have a little time to celebrate before looking towards what lay ahead.

Special shoutout to 20-year veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen, who may have just played the final game of a fantastic career.

Broad Street Broadsided: In pivotal Game 4, Flyers decimated with ease

 

That one hurt to watch.

A game that should have been Philadelphia’s chance to take a stand and show they weren’t going away ended up in a more lopsided loss than even the 5-0 final score would indicate.

Yes, the Flyers were without top center Sean Couturier, who was injured in practice this week in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas (because it’s always Gudas), and the hole he left in the Philly lineup was significant. But the lack of effort shown by the Flyers in the face of adversity was frankly just sad.

In an attempt to indicate to those who didn’t watch just how little the Flyers cared throughout the game, I will attempt to recap the game in accordance with how much effort they were showing in their play at coinciding points in the game.

First period:

Wells Fargo Center is rocking. Sidney Crosby can’t touch the puck without being showered in boos. Philadelphia rookie Nolan Patrick starts the opening shift off by laying a hit on the Pittsburgh captain, much to the delight of the home crowd. Brian Elliott starts the game off strong with a great save on a bang-bang play between Tom Kuhnhackl and Zach Aston-Reese, giving his team some confidence in their goaltender, much like they had in Game 2 when they beat up the Pens.

Then just 4:33 into the frame the wheels came right off when Crosby sent a backhand pass directly between the legs of Brandon Manning to the tape of Evgeni Malkin who buried the easy one-timer on the power play to put the Penguins up 1-0.

But it’s okay, right? Just a one-goal deficit early in the first period. Elliott makes a great glove save on a labeled wrister from Phil Kessel less than two minutes later and the tide starts to turn again. First it’s Michael Raffl nearly scoring on the doorstep after receiving a pass from behind the net, then comes a near-two minute complete domination shift by the Philadelphia top line that creates numerous high-quality chances, but all are answered by Matt Murray.

Then just after that shift ends it would be Malkin jumping on a turnover and leading a breakout with Kessel. Travis Sanheim is unable to match the speed of Kessel, and Malkin gets him the puck in stride allowing him to bury the 2-0 goal just under the arm of Elliott, effectively erasing any positives the Flyers had going for them and completely vacuuming the life out of the arena.

Philadelphia managed to kill off a penalty (a rarity for them in this series) and Claude Giroux finds Travis Konecny right out of the box for a clean breakaway, but Murray calmly blockers the attempt away, leaving Konecny infuriated as he returned to the bench. Olli Maatta accidentally clears the puck over the glass when cleaning up the Konecny rebound, giving the Flyers a power play of their own, that Wayne Simmonds promptly ends with a slash just seven seconds into the man advantage. This basically seemed to kill any idea of a comeback that the Flyers might have had.

Second period:

The first eight minutes are completely meaningless, then at 8:04 Kris Letang fires a wrister off of the stick of Andrew MacDonald and past Elliott, who looked none-too-happy about his own defenseman aiding in his demise. Dave Hakstol decided he had seen enough and pulled Elliott (for the second time in four games) in favor of just-returned Michal Neuvirth, hoping to spark his team. It would be another minute of play before the Flyers even managed their first shot on goal of the frame.

Less than three minutes after the goaltending switch Crosby became the Penguins’ all-time leading playoff scorer, breaking his 172-point tie with Mario Lemieux with a goal scored off of a forced turnover by Jake Guentzel behind the net, who quickly handed it over to Crosby who tucked it in the net before Neuvirth had even realized the puck had been turned over. 30 seconds later Conor Sheary got a breakaway, but Neuvirth decided he should stop it for some reason.

The Flyers closed the period by doing literally nothing of any consequence on a four-minute power play (high sticking on Malkin) and basically showing everyone they’d rather be golfing.

Third period:

Nolan Patrick gets a breakaway on the opening shift, but Murray turns it aside (obviously).

Some hockey things happen for a while.

Riley Sheahan decides he’s bored and would like to score a playoff goal, taking a misplayed puck from Konecny, walking in alone and beating Neuvirth high stick side.

The game ends. Matt Murray posts his sixth shutout in 36 playoff games.

(That third period summary was only slightly lazier than the third period play of the Flyers)

This one is over and done with before the puck drops in Game 5. The Flyers have completely mailed it in at this point, and are being firmly outclassed by the Pens in every measurable aspect. Possibly the craziest thing to me in this series is the almost complete lack of any hint of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia rivalry. Little physicality, almost no scrums or pushback to speak of. Just the Penguins running through a Flyers team that looks completely undeserving of their playoff spot. Sorry, Florida Panthers, you probably should have been given Philly’s place in the show.

Snowed Under: Wild fall 2-0 to Jets, face 3-1 series defecit

 

In the midst of a Minnesota snowstorm, the hometown crowd watched their hopes all but buried as the Wild were simply unable to overcome their laundry list of injuries and a suffocating Winnipeg defense.

Already without Ryan Suter, the Wild took another hammering blow late in Game 3 when Zach Parise got sandwiched by Mark Scheifele and Ben Chiarot and suffered a fractured sternum (side note: ouch) that rules him out of the rest of the playoffs. Parise’s spot in the lineup would be filled by Tyler Ennis, seeing his first NHL playoff action since 2011 when the diminutive forward was a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

Winnipeg was not without their own injury problems, losing Tyler Myers after an awkward collision with Marcus Foligno in Game 3. Though not as key an element to his team as Parise is to the Wild, Myers still eats a lot of quality minutes on the Winnipeg blueline. Young Tucker Poolman would taste his first ever playoff action as he filled in for the towering Myers.

The game started much the same as it ended…and middle-d…you know what I mean.

Tight checking, excellent stick position, and a near-complete lack of offensive chances were a theme in this one. Not to say that there wasn’t action, as from the opening puck drop the two teams continued the series’ main theme: That is, both teams spent every shift actively trying to kill each other. Arguably 2018’s roughest series so far, it isn’t even so much the quantity of hits we’ve seen in this one, but moreso that every hit we do see is thrown with seemingly as much force as it can possibly be delivered with. No great wonder why so many players are nursing injuries.

Other than a brief flurry by Winnipeg that Devan Dubnyk answered with three or four quality stops about 8:30 into the frame, the opening 10 minutes had little to speak of in terms of scoring opportunities.

Finally it was Minnesota who started to find some traction, first coming from an unlikely source in their fourth line of Foligno – Joel Eriksson EkDaniel Winnik, who deployed an effective dump and chase strategy, sending two forecheckers in hard and fast to get the Winnipeg defense in deep, then working the puck free to a second wave usually of the third forward and a pinching defenseman. All Minnesota lines adopted the strategy for a solid few minutes in the late first, and all had decent chances, including Nino Niederreiter feeding Eric Staal right in the goal mouth, only to have an excellent backhand chance waffled away by Connor Hellebuyck. Shortly after, Minnesota’s sustained pressure forced the Jets into a penalty, and on the resulting power play Josh Morrissey got away with an egregious cross-check to the face/neck of Staal, who lay on the ice for a few seconds before slowly making his was to the bench all while play continued around him. The Minnesota crowd was…less than pleased.

To continue their displeasure, shortly after the penalty concluded, it would be Morrissey starting a breakout to Scheifele, who played a give-and-go with Kyle Connor beautifully, taking Connor’s drop pass in the low slot and ripping a snapshot through traffic and over Dubnyk with just 28 seconds left to play, sending the Minnesota crowd into a symphony of boos so loud I think P.K. Subban actually might have heard them.

Minnesota ended the period leading 10-7 in shots, but down on the board. Shot blocking was a major theme of the first period, and the game, really. It also contributed to the growing list of banged up players, as both Mathew Dumba and Dustin Byfuglien left the ice at different points in the first because of shot blocks.

The second started with a bang, as on the opening shift the Wild jumped on a turnover by Jacob Trouba and flew up the ice on a three-on-one lead by Mikael Granlund. #64 in green showed Hellebucyk shot all the way, but with just inches to spare sent a pass across the crease to Dumba who looked to have a sure goal, before the glove of Hellebucyk robbed him blind. A few minutes later Jonas Brodin sprung Niederreiter on a breakaway with an unbelievable stretch pass (that frankly I have no idea how Nino even managed to corral on his stick) but just before he could get the shot off a desperate Morrissey poked the puck off of his stick and clear of danger.

Dubnyk would see little action of serious consequence in the middle frame, a few whacks at a centered puck in the blue paint by Adam Lowry the only real threat of the second 20 minutes. The Wild did, however, lose Granlund for a few minutes in the middle of the frame, but he would return to finish the game. Also of note was Dumba taking a run at Byfuglien, which worked out about as well as you’d expect.

Late in the period Brodin nearly played hero himself, absolutely dancing a Winnipeg defender at the blueline and walking in to label a wrist shot for the high blocker side of Hellebucyk, but the newly-elected Vezina candidate had the answer, as was the case all night.

By the end of the second the Wild lead 20-19 on the shot clock, but struggled to find room to construct any serious chances.

The Jets took the attack to Minnesota for stretches of the third, attempting to prevent them from even having the chance to tie the game. An early chance by Joe Morrow found a goal post, and later Scheifele found one of his own, which created some chaos around the Wild goal that Dubnyk had to tidy up. Laine then got a breakaway opportunity in the dying minutes of the third that was harassed just enough by Spurgeon to allow Dubnyk to poke the puck away before any harm could come.

It took Minnesota until just under two minutes remaining to gain enough solid puck possession to get Dubnyk off, but the extra attacker still couldn’t help them solve the labyrinth that was Winnipeg’s defensive scheme, and Scheifele buried the 2-0 dagger with 10 seconds remaining to seal Minnesota’s fate.

Outshot 30-28, the Jets took the first road victory of the series, giving them the chance to win the first playoff series in franchise history in front of what will surely be a raucous Winnipeg Whiteout crowd on Friday night (DTFR coverage brought to you again by yours truly).

How Minnesota finds a way to extend this series is beyond me. The injuries to key players just seem to be too much for them to overcome. They’ll need nothing short of a miracle to make it back to Xcel Energy Center for Game 6.