Nick and Connor discuss John Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Crosby/Malkin vs. Tavares/Matthews argument, best and worst free agency signings and more. At this point, we’re also strangely optimistic about the St. Louis Blues.
Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Toronto Maple Leafs and their outlook for the summer.
There was no competition for the remaining playoff spots in the Atlantic Division this season as only three teams were truly in contention for the top spot through divisional seedings.
While the Tampa Bay Lightning sat atop the Atlantic Division standings for about 95-percent of the season, the Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins swapped 2nd and 3rd all season long until Boston started peaking in March.
Toronto finished the regular season 3rd in the Atlantic with a 49-26-7 record and 105 points on the season, lining up on the road for Games 1 and 2 of their First Round matchup with the Bruins.
It was the first postseason meeting between the two clubs since their 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup and epic collapse in Game 7 by Toronto. Like 2013, however, the Maple Leafs won Games 5 and 6 in the series, forcing a decisive Game 7 back at TD Garden.
This time, though, the Bruins cruised in the third period to a 7-4 victory and won the series, 4-3.
Head coach, Mike Babcock, faced criticism from Toronto media and fans alike for back-to-back years of First Round exits, while Lou Lamoriello fulfilled his three years as General Manager.
Lamoriello’s seven-year contract with the club intended on keeping him in the role of GM for three years, then as a senior advisor for the final four years. Instead, Lamoriello resigned from Toronto and joined his son with the New York Islanders (and was subsequently promoted as General Manager).
Since Brendan Shanahan took a front office job with the Maple Leafs, there’s been another name prime for the GM job. Kyle Dubas.
Hired as an assistant GM as a 28-year-old, the prolific analytics-driven evaluator became General Manager of the Leafs at 32 as his Toronto Marlies (AHL) won this year’s Calder Cup championship.
The old regime is almost completely new-school in the 6ix.
2018 NHL Entry Draft
Dubas and his Maple Leafs scouting crew hold onto the 25th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 Draft and it’s not entirely clear cut on who they’ll likely target. There’s no immediate need to fill with a teenager, the 2018 Draft is deeper than usual and Toronto could always trade the pick.
There’s no ties to a player like Erik Karlsson, but the Leafs seem prime to make some type of acquisition this summer via a trade in addition to sticking with the plan.
Pending free agents
Toronto has about $22.340 million in cap space heading into July with some big names to consider re-signing.
Tomas Plekanec, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore and James van Riemsdyk are all pending-UFAs as of July 1st– with van Riemsdyk as one of the hottest players not named “John Tavares” potentially hitting the open market.
Acquired around the deadline from the Montreal Canadiens, 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec is two games away from the 1,000th in his NHL career. He recorded two assists in 17 games down the stretch with the Leafs and had six goals and 20 assists (26 points) in 77 games with Toronto and Montreal this season.
Since he amassed 54 points in 2015-16, Plekanec has averaged 27 points over the last two seasons. That kind of production drop-off is to be expected at some point in the waning days of his NHL career, but still important to the depth scoring of any organization.
He brings intangibles to the locker room, like leadership and good chemistry with Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau that boosted Toronto’s playoff performance and helped extend the series with Boston to seven games.
The question is, can Dubas keep two 35-plus members on the roster, let along on the same line for another year or two (though nightly lineups are at Babcock’s discretion) and will Plekanec be allowed to regrow his goatee if he re-signs now that Lamoriello is gone?
Regardless, it’s been noted that Plekanec and his turtleneck have a desire to go back to Montreal, but if he truly wants to win a Cup before the end of his playing days…
Bozak, 32, is six games shy of his 600th career NHL game and had 11-32–43 totals in 81 games this season. One of Toronto’s more consistent point-producers, Bozak has only surpassed 20 goals once in his career (he scored 23 goals in 2014-15).
The veteran center has long been a playmaker, reaching 30-plus assists three times in his career– including the last two seasons.
He should get another look, but at what cost given some of the other big names potentially heading for the open waters of free agency from Toronto.
Komarov, 31, had 19 points this season. He’s never reached the 20 goal plateau in his career and– despite being a fan favorite
and Brad Marchand‘s man-crush— he shouldn’t expect a big contract from Dubas if he wishes to extend his stay in Ontario’s capital city.
Moore, 37, resurrected his career last season with Boston, notching 11-14–25 totals in all 82 games, but the fourth line center scored just six goals in 50 games with the Maple Leafs this season.
Three games shy of 900 in his career, his 12 points on the year this season doesn’t scream “extension” in a Leafs sweater, but might find work elsewhere as a bottom-6 forward in what could be his last chance at a Cup.
van Riemsdyk, 29, reached the 30-goal plateau for the second time in his career since being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers 2nd overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He first scored 30 goals and 31 assists (61 points) with Toronto in 2013-14.
He had 33 assists last season and 36-18–54 totals this season.
Under Dubas, the Leafs are on their way to becoming the next Washington Capitals in prospect development. The Marlies just won the Calder Cup with a mixture of grizzled former NHLers in Colin Greening and young, developing, players that are intentionally overcooked at the AHL level for an easier transition to the NHL game.
Moving on from older pending-UFAs is bound to happen and it just might be this offseason’s plan.
In his second full season at the NHL level, pending-RFA William Nylander, 22, matched his rookie season point total (61) on the heels of 20 goals and 41 assists in 82 games this season. Sophomore year went swimmingly for the top-6 forward.
Now he’s a pending-RFA and will need a pay raise with Auston Matthews entering the final year of his entry-level deal.
It might seem easy for Toronto to crunch some numbers, keep van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Nylander and the rest of the gang together, but without a little proper planning for the future, the club could easily get themselves in some deep trouble.
32-year-old pending-UFA defender Roman Polak over came a leg injury, signed a PTO and landed a one-year renewal for his fourth season as a Maple Leaf in October. He had 4-7–11 totals in 75 games last season and improved to 2-10–12 totals in 54 games this season with Toronto. He even recorded his third career point in the playoffs (an assist).
But for the St. Louis Blues’s 160th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, it doesn’t seem like another year in a Leafs uniform is in the cards. Not when Travis Dermott was making waves as a potential top-6 defender next season in the playoffs and Polak was being blown past by Bruins forwards.
Connor Carrick— a 24-year-old, pending-RFA defenseman– had a career-year in goals (4), assists (8) and points (12) in 47 games this season. Why he’s not utilized more is perplexing. He was a healthy scratch for 32 games, injured for two more and did not play in the postseason.
Both Dermott and Carrick should see precedence over Polak next season– especially in today’s game and with Ron Hainsey already as an anchor veteran on the blueline at 37-years-old– but that all depends on whether Dubas makes an effort to bring Carrick back and mend whatever’s between Babcock’s viewpoint and Carrick’s play on the ice.
If the Leafs get older and more reliant on guys like Hainsey, Polak and Marleau, like they did this postseason, Babcock risks being viewed similar to Ken Hitchcock in his loss of being adaptable in an increasingly younger, faster and more skilled than ever league.
That’s not to discredit Babcock as one of the greatest NHL coaches of all-time, but rather to point out he’s got a challenge ahead of him and his staff– and Babcock likes challenges, because he usually excels at them.
There’s no need to disrupt something that’s working in net in the dynamic duo that is Andersen and McElhinney, but you can expect to see 24-year-old Garret Sparks get a few extra looks having led his team to the Calder Cup championship.
Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:
Of note, Toronto has $1.200 million in retained salary on the books (Phil Kessel) through the 2021-22 season.
Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the St. Louis Blues and their outlook for the summer.
One game. One game made all the difference for the St. Louis Blues in making or missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and you’ll never guess what happened.
Yes, after compiling a 44-31-6 record, the Blues were ahead of the Colorado Avalanche by one point in the wild card race to secure the last spot in the postseason.
Despite a season-long lackluster performance in goal from Jake Allen (a career worst 2.75 goals against average and second worst .906 save percentage in 59 games played), St. Louis needed a win in any fashion in the final game of the regular season against the Avs to go up against the Nashville Predators in the First Round.
Instead, the club finished 44-32-6 on the season with 94 points– one point out of the wild card spot– and 5th in the Central Division.
Mike Yeo missed the playoffs in his first year as head coach of the Blues without any assistance from Ken Hitchcock and General Manager Doug Armstrong was left scratching his head.
2018 NHL Entry Draft
Fans were left scratching their heads after Armstrong traded hometown hero Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets in a surprise move at the trade deadline in exchange for a 2018 first round pick (29th overall) and prospect Erik Foley.
Stastny’s dad, Peter– the famous Québec Nordique– was left stunned.
Armstrong replaced the first round pick that he swapped with the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2017 Draft as part of the Jori Lehtera, a 2017 first round pick and a conditional 2018 first round pick for Brayden Schenn transaction, but at the cost of one of the better faceoff-winning centers in the league.
With the 29th overall selection in this year’s draft, Armstrong will be left picking the best available or surprising everyone– yet again– and going off the board.
Hopefully for the better, considering the organization is teetering on the edge of a retooling/rebuild.
Pending free agents
What else is there to expect from a front office that’s had to move Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie, while letting David Backes walk in free agency in years past, thanks to a tight salary cap situation?
Armstrong can make some sweeping changes by figuring out the future of St. Louis’s crease protection plan (more on that later), but he can also restructure the team’s offensive outlook by ridding themselves of some underperforming second through fourth liners.
Thankfully, the Blues have about $12.900 million to spend with the cap expected to rise this summer.
That’s not a lot to work with, but it can bring in a difference maker, while still providing enough room to work a deal that might send Vladimir Sobotka and his $3.500 million cap hit through the 2019-20 season (or an equivalent) packing via a trade.
Upshall has loved St. Louis and its fans have responded in kind, but the time is now for the Blues to make a clean break in this relationship. He’s averaged 17 points over the last three seasons. That’s not great with an aging roster.
Brodziak, on the other hand, has bounced back from shortened seasons due to injury and doubled his point total from 15 points (69 games played) in 2016-17 to 33 points (81 GP) this season.
At first look, keeping a 34-year-old that was trending in the wrong direction when he came to St. Louis in 2015-16 isn’t great, but Brodziak is proving people wrong as part of a comeback tour with the Blues (albeit lasting three seasons). If you don’t re-sign Upshall, you can at least afford to bring back Brodziak.
But we’ll see what kind of logic Armstrong is working with this offseason.
Fabbri, 22, had 11-18–29 totals in 51 GP, down from his 18-19–37 totals in 72 games in 2016-17. That’s still respectable as a bottom-six forward, however.
Jaskin, 25, had six more points this season in 25 more games played than in 2016-17. That means he had 17 points in 76 GP this season and 11 points in 51 GP last season. The Blues can move on if they’d like.
Sundqvist, 24, was acquired last June along with a first round pick as part of the Ryan Reaves trade and had one goal and four assists (five points) in 42 games for St. Louis this season. That’s not great, but he finally played the most games he’s ever seen in one season, since breaking into the NHL in 2015-16 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Soshnikov, 24, had one goal and one assist (two points) in 12 games with the Blues after being acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also had no points in three games with Toronto this season and has 8-8–16 totals in 82 career NHL games since 2015-16.
Unless Yeo can perform a miracle as a head coach, there’s no point in seeing if anything’s left in the potential tank.
Schmaltz had one assist in 13 games this season. He clearly isn’t part of St. Louis’s current plan, leaving one of two options– stick around as a depth blueliner or not return.
Edmundson set a career-high in goals (7) and points (17) in 69 games played this season. Nice. He’s a top-six defender and should see another year or two in a sweater with a giant blue music note on it.
If anyone’s willing to take on all or some of Jay Bouwmeester‘s $5.400 million cap hit with one year remaining– provided the 34-year-old defenseman waives his no-trade-clause– then St. Louis should pursue that avenue.
Okay, now for the future of St. Louis’s goaltending.
Jordan Binnington, 24, is a pending-RFA and should get a chance at the NHL level.
Then again, Carter Hutton, 32, is a pending-UFA and outplayed the 27-year-old starter, Jake Allen at times this season.
If St. Louis is fine staying the course as a middle of the road team that’ll come up short for a year or two, then there’s no need to worry and Hutton should be re-signed and see more time in net to offset Allen’s workload.
But if any of that clashes with what Armstrong and the rest of his front office envisions for the club, well… that’s the million dollar question.
A rebuild is not out of the question, but certainly frowned upon, given how star-forward, Vladimir Tarasenko is in his prime now.
Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:
Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Dallas Stars and their outlook for the summer.
Ken Hitchcock reunited with the Dallas Stars for one last ride in 2017-18, amassing 92 points on the season, finishing 6th in the Central Divsion with a 42-32-8 record. Despite missing out on a wild card spot by three points, Hitchcock announced his retirement from the NHL as a head coach.
General Manager Jim Nill brought in Jim Montgomery from the University of Denver Pioneers as the next head coach and the Stars are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 next season.
With names like Ben Bishop, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg and Marc Methot on the roster, Dallas is looking for more than just another exit in the Second Round like in 2016, but they’ve got some work to do this offseason to make the jump from playoff bubble team to Cup contender.
2018 NHL Entry Draft
Nill and the Stars have the 13th overall pick at this year’s draft and won’t have far to travel, thanks to American Airlines Center playing host to the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in a week.
Dallas will have plenty of talent to choose from in any of the best available players with a mid-first round pick in Isac Lundestrom, Joel Farabee, Ty Smith, Bode Wilde, Barrett Hayton, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joseph Veleno or Serron Noel.
Similar to 2017 3rd overall pick Miro Heiskanen, the Stars won’t expect their 2018 first round pick to make the roster coming out of training camp this fall.
Pending free agents
The Stars have about $17.700 million to spend this summer, keeping in mind the salary cap ceiling is expected to rise.
By how much? That’s to be determined, so at least account for a little extra money to work with in all of these offseason previews, if you haven’t already figured that out on your own by now.
Nill has one pending-unrestricted free agent forward to consider re-signing in 28-year-old Antoine Roussel. His production was down 10 points from 2016-17 to 2017-18, notching 5-12–17 totals in 73 games with Dallas this season.
The Stars should likely pass on another year of Roussel, unless they view him as a fourth line winger with the potential to snag a third line spot from time-to-time.
Smith, 24, had six goals and five assists (11 points) in 46 games. That’s good enough over the course of a season as a fourth liner, but also might not be enough to stick around at the NHL level, depending on the team and how serious of a playoff contending run they intend on pursuing.
One good thing for Smith’s future with the organization is that he’s still young enough to sign on a small, bridge deal and give one more chance at NHL success (or scratch every night/send down the Texas Stars (AHL) if necessary).
Shore, 23, had 11-21–32 totals in 82 games played this season, falling short of last season’s offensive outcome by one point. If Dallas’s front office comes down to deciding between Shore and Roussel the choice is clear this offseason. Keep Shore for his consistency alone, let alone his five additional years of youth.
Janmark, 25, scored five points more this season than his 29-point rookie season. He had a career-high 19 goals and 15 assists for 34 points in 81 games played. It should be a no-brainer to keep Janmark around.
Hamhuis had his best season since 2014-15 with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring three goals and 21 assists (24 points) in 80 games with the Stars this season. At 35, he isn’t getting any younger, but he’s worth having as a veteran presence on the blueline.
Pateryn, in his first legitimate full-season, had one goal and 12 assists for 13 points in 73 games. If Nill is content with Pateryn as a top-six defender, then he should be back. Otherwise, there might be other options within the organization or outside of Dallas for the bottom-pair defense.
Pending-RFA Stephen Johns is the only pending free agent of the restricted variety on Dallas’s blueline. Johns set career highs in goals, assists and points with 8-7–15 totals in 75 games.
The problem with the Stars is they have a lot of lower pair defenders, meaning while Johns deserves a new contract, how new head coach Jim Montgomery envisions utilizing his defensive corps may play a hand in who gets renewed and who doesn’t.
In net, the Stars are looking at Ben Bishop as their presumptive starter through the end of his contract after the 2022-23 season with a cap hit of $4.917 million.
Bishop, 31, posted a 2.49 goals against average and .916 save percentage in 53 games played in his first season in the Big D, compiling a 26-17-5 record.
Backup netminder, Kari Lehtonen, 34, is a pending-UFA this July and secured a 2.56 GAA and .912 SV% in 37 games this season– his first as a full-time backup in Dallas. Lehtonen had a 15-14-3 record and improved in GAA and SV% as a result of the decrease in workload.
In fact, over his last few seasons as a starting goaltender, Lehtonen’s goals against average and save percentage were all over the place (2.94 and .903 in 2014-15, 2.76 and .906 in 2015-16 and 2.85 and .902 in 2016-17).
The main purpose of a backup goaltender is to stop pucks and give your starter a rest, while hopefully stealing more wins than losses in the meantime.
If Dallas can tighten up their defense, then Lehtonen can easily surpass the .500 mark as a winning backup goaltender next season– if he gets an extension, that is.
Considering how the Stars don’t have someone readily available in the system and the potentially weak market for goaltenders this summer (ignoring the hot commodity that is Stanley Cup champion Philipp Grubauer), Lehtonen should be back.
Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:
Curtis McKenzie (UFA), Andrew Bodnarchuk (UFA), Andrew O’Brien (UFA), Mike McKenna (UFA), Brian Flynn (UFA), Dillon Heatherington (RFA), Cole Ully (RFA), Jason Dickinson (RFA), Remi Elie (RFA), Philippe Desrosiers (RFA), Reece Scarlett (UFA), Brent Regner (UFA)
Buyouts on the books: Antti Niemi— $1.500 million through the end of 2018-19
Nick and Connor roadmap the offseason for Pittsburgh and Boston, figure out why Washington has been so good (and Tampa), pick a winner in tonight’s Game 7 (WPG @ NSH) and explain how Vegas is going to win the Cup in their inaugural season. Also discussed, Jim Montgomery, Rod Brind’Amour, Don Waddell, the Charlotte Checkers (so Carolina as a whole) and Mark Hamill.
In anticipation of all but three teams’ final game of the season being played tomorrow, the NHL’s schedule is rather light this evening with only four matchups to offer.
Two puck drops (Ottawa at Pittsburgh [RDS] and Buffalo at Tampa Bay) get the evening underway at 7:30 p.m., while St. Louis at Chicago waits an hour before following suit. Finally, Dallas at Anaheim (NBCSN) closes out the night’s festivities with a 10 p.m. fixture. All times Eastern.
With Sunday being the last day of the regular season, the playoffs are king with tonight. Let’s choose today’s featured matchup based on its playoff impact:
- Ottawa at Pittsburgh: The Pens need at least one point to clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division.
- Buffalo at Tampa Bay: The Bolts are tied with Boston in points and games played; currently winning the regulation+overtime tiebreaker by one victory.
- St. Louis at Chicago: The Blues trail Colorado by one point with a game in hand. No matter if they win or lose this rivaly game, Saturday’s showdown with the Avs determines their playoff fate.
- Dallas at Anaheim: The Ducks currently trail Los Angeles for third place in the Pacific Division by one point, but they have one game in hand (tonight’s game). Saturday’s results will ultimately solidify the Ducks’ and Kings’ spots in the standings.
Since I’m almost certain we’re going to be focused on tomorrow’s game in Denver, let’s head to The Pond to see if the Ducks can capitalize on their game in hand.
Even though the 41-31-8 Stars have been eliminated from playoff contention since Sunday (thanks to an Anaheim overtime win, as luck would have it), they’ve shown some impressive character to post a 3-1-0 record over their last four showings, with wins coming over the Flyers and Wild at home and in San Jose on Tuesday.
In particular, Dallas’ defense has been putting up a solid fight lately by allowing an average of only 30 shots against per game during this run, the (t)11th-best mark in the NHL since March 27. Led by C Radek Faksa (averaging a takeaway per game since March 27), D Marc Methot (2.8 hits per game in that time) and D Greg Pateryn (2.5 blocks per game over this run), the Stars have been doing their best to make 14-14-3 G Kari Lehtonen look good to close the season.
Speaking of Lehtonen, he’s tried his hardest to take full advantage of everything is defense is doing in front of him. Having started all of the last four games, he’s posted a .912 save percentage and 2.79 GAA – both numbers right in line with his season marks of a .911 save percentage and 2.58 GAA.
However, it will not be Lehtonen in net this evening, as Head Coach Ken Hitchcock indicated this morning that 1-0-0 G Mike McKenna will get the nod instead. Tonight will be McKenna’s first NHL start since February 16, 2015, when he led the Coyotes into Denver only to lose 5-2.
But wait, Stars fans: don’t mark this game down as a loss just yet. After Lehtonen exited Tuesday’s game in San Jose late in the first period with an upper-body injury, McKenna kept the Sharks off the scoreboard with 17 saves to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 Dallas victory, earning his first NHL win since December 23, 2013 when he was a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In 23 NHL appearances going back to the 2008-09 season, McKenna has an .892 career save percentage and 3.35 GAA.
I’ve already said it once this week, but there’s no team hotter in the Pacific Division than 42-25-13 Anaheim. Since March 14, the Ducks have posted a dominating 8-1-1 record to keep third place in the Pacific Division still within reach.
One needs look no further than the Ducks’ defense to figure out where they’re finding all their wins. Led by C Ryan Getzlaf (13 takeaways in his last nine games) and D Josh Manson (3.6 hits and 1.8 blocks per game since March 14), Anaheim has allowed only 29.9 shots against per game during this 10-game run to rank seventh-best in the NHL since March 14.
There was undoubtedly concern in the Ducks’ dressing room and front office when 31-18-7 G John Gibson went down with a lower-body injury Sunday against the Avalanche. After all, Gibson had been playing even better than his .926 season save percentage and 2.43 GAA lately, posting a .936 save percentage and 1.9 GAA in his nine starts before going down.
But then everybody in Anaheim remembered they had the 2010 Vezina winner as their backup, and they all settled back into their seats.
With a .927 season save percentage and 2.43 GAA, 10-6-6 G Ryan Miller has been a stellar backup goaltender this season that’s only gotten better now that he’s been temporarily thrust into the staring role. In his last two appearances, Miller has allowed only three goals for a .938 save percentage and 1.77 GAA – numbers that bring back memories of that 2009-10 campaign with the Sabres.
With the Ducks making the trip to Arizona after the conclusion of tonight’s game for a tilt tomorrow night against the Coyotes, it remains to be seen whether Miller or 1-1-0 G Reto Berra will take the start tonight. Should Berra get the nod, he brings a .926 season save percentage and 2.31 GAA in five NHL appearances into consideration.
Altogether, Gibson, Miller and Anaheim’s defense have united to allow an average of only two goals against per game in their past 10 games – the (t)best mark in the NHL since March 14.
As mentioned before, this game simply plays setup for tomorrow’s action. A win of any variety this evening gives Anaheim a one-point advantage on the Kings for third place in the Pacific – at least for the night.
An interesting – and likely dreadful – situation arises should the Ducks fall in extra time and only earn one point this evening. Currently trailing Los Angeles by five victories in the regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker, there’s no chance the Ducks succeed their bitter rivals if they end the regular season tied. Therefore, a loss of any variety this evening has effectively the same result for Anaheim: putting all its eggs in beating the Coyotes in Arizona tomorrow and hoping the Kings lose to Dallas at Staples Center.
If the season series is any indicator, the Ducks don’t have to worry about overtime tonight as neither of their previous two meetings with Dallas have gotten that far. February 21’s match on The Pond ended in a 2-0 Anaheim victory (Miller took First Star honors with a 41-save shutout), while the Ducks’ trip to Dallas on March 9 saw the Stars earn a 2-1 win (LW Jamie Benn scored the game-winner).
The Stars have already proven they’re willing to play spoiler now that they’ve been eliminated, and that spells major trouble for an Anaheim club that wants to win in the most desperate of ways.
This game should boil down to which Ducks netminder is between the pipes and whether he can best McKenna. With that in mind, I think Anaheim will continue its winning ways tonight.
Though they still have yet to clinch home ice for the first round of the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins completed their season sweep of the Columbus Blue Jackets by beating them 5-4 in overtime at Nationwide Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
Everything fans look for in a good game was present in this tilt. Back-and-forth scoring; 44 combined hits; three power play goals… Should we get a second-consecutive playoff series between these clubs, it will surely be entertaining and extremely competitive.
The first period was a high-scoring affair, yet the four goals were evenly distributed between the two sides to leave a 2-2 score going into the first intermission. D Zach Werenski (Third Star of the Game F Pierre-Luc Dubois and LW Artemi Panarin) broke the scoreless draw 5:11 into the game, but First Star RW Phil Kessel (D Justin Schultz and C Sidney Crosby) took advantage of D Seth Jones tripping W Tom Kuhnhackl 4:39 later to level the game with a power play wrist shot at the 10:26 mark. Columbus once again took a one-goal lead when LW Matt Calvert (D Jack Johnson) scored a backhanded shot with 7:21 remaining in the frame, but Pittsburgh once again had an answer – this time a snap shot by Second Star RW Patric Hornqvist (Schultz) 2:56 after the cannon fired for Calvert – to tie the game once again.
After such a busy opening 20 minutes, perhaps its no surprise that only one goal was scored in the second period. With D Jamie Oleksiak in the penalty box for hi-sticking Calvert at the 4:59 mark, F Boone Jenner (W Thomas Vanek and F Sonny Milano) gave the Jackets their third lead of the game 6:35 into the period.
Obviously, that meant it was the Penguins’ turn to score next. That’s just what they did 2:58 into the third period, courtesy of D Kris Letang‘s (F Evgeni Malkin and Hornqvist) power play wrister. To the surprise of no one, the Jackets claimed their fourth lead of the night at the 8:25 mark when RW Cam Atkinson (Dubois and Panarin) scored a tip-in, but it lasted only 3:51 before W Conor Sheary (Kessel) scored the final goal of regulation to level the game at 4-4.
Only one shot apiece was fired in overtime, but Kessel’s unassisted wrister 1:06 into that five minute frame proved to be all Pittsburgh needed. Following G Matt Murray‘s lone save in overtime, Kessel collected the loose puck and began streaking towards the other end of the ice. Once he reached the left face-off circle, he ripped his blistering wrister to the far post, beating G Sergei Bobrovsky bar down.
Murray earned the victory after saving 26-of-30 shots faced (.867 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Bobrovsky, who saved 38-of-43 (.884).
Even though the Penguins won on the road, the 101-54-22 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day are still riding a four-game point streak. Due to that, they still have an impressive 49-point advantage on the series’ roadies.
Get ready for a wild Tuesday of hockey! 11 games are on tonight’s schedule!
The action finds its start at 7 p.m. tonight with four tilts (Pittsburgh at the New York Islanders [SN/TVAS], Columbus at the New York Rangers, Dallas at Washington and Edmonton at Carolina), followed half an hour later by three more (Florida at Ottawa [RDS], Philadelphia at Detroit [NBCSN] and Toronto at Tampa Bay). Los Angeles at Winnipeg is next up at 8 p.m., while Colorado at Chicago waits 30 minutes before dropping the puck. 10 p.m. marks the beginning of Vancouver at Vegas, leaving New Jersey at San Jose (NHLN/SN1) as tonight’s nightcap since it drops the puck at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.
A couple of the games I’d tagged on my calendar include…
- Pittsburgh at New York: It’s rivalry night in Brooklyn! Though the Isles’ playoff chances have been all but officially pronounced dead, there’s still fun to be had in playing spoiler.
- Philadelphia at Detroit: Tonight marks G Petr Mrazek‘s first return to the Motor City since being traded. With a 72-58-20 record over six seasons with the Wings, it remains to be seen how warm a welcome he’ll receive.
However, the game I’m most intrigued by is taking place in the nation’s capital between two teams in desperate need of points for totally different reasons. To the District of Columbia we go!
The 38-27-8 Stars are completing a six-game road trip tonight, and they’re still looking for their first victory since departing Big D March 9 after beating Anaheim.
This 0-3-2 skid has resulted in Dallas giving up the first wild card position it possessed almost all season – as well as the second wild card position it got forced into – leaving it on the outside looking into the playoff picture as things currently stand.
Defense is certainly not the reason for the Stars’ recent struggles. Led by D Stephen Johns and RW Brett Ritchie (both averaging four hits per game since March 11), C Radek Faksa (four takeaways in his last five showings) and D Greg Pateryn (2.2 blocks over this losing skid), Dallas has allowed only 27.6 shots against per game during this road trip – the fourth-lowest average in the NHL since March 11.
Instead, I’ve been most disappointed with the play of 12-10-3 G Kari Lehtonen, who has started three and earned the result in four of Dallas’ last five games and will be seeing even more time in net considering the lower body injury to 26-17-5 G Ben Bishop against the Jets on Sunday. Though Lehtonen has been decent all season with a .913 save percentage (slightly behind Bishop’s .916) and 2.46 GAA (slightly better than the starter’s 2.49), his .87 save percentage and 3.67 GAA in these last four showings has been anything but inspiring.
After pairing the efforts of Lehtonen and his defense, the Stars have allowed a whopping 3.8 goals per game since March 11, the seventh-highest average in the league in that time.
Of course, he hasn’t gotten much help from his offense either. With the exception of BFFs LW Jamie Benn (3-3-6 totals since March 11) and F Tyler Seguin (2-3-5 over this run) on the top line, Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has struggled to find any consistent attack out of his team, as it has averaged only 2.4 goals per game during this road trip – (t)eighth-worst in the NHL since March 11.
In other words, Lehtonen is setting games up so that the offense has to summit Mount Everest on a nightly basis, and they’re only making it 18 thousand feet up – well short of the 29 thousand foot summit.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the 41-24-7 Capitals’ offense has been gelling lately, which is a major reason that they have posted a 4-1-0 record over their last five showings.
With a team that’s averaging 4.2 goals per game over its last five showings (the [t]third-best mark in the league since March 10), it’s no surprise there’s more than a few Capitals averaging at least a point per game over this run.
In total, six players – five of which are healthy (F Evgeny Kuznetsov missed the last game with an injury to his left arm and is not likely to dress this evening) – are averaging a point per game since March 10, but none have been as impressive as C Nicklas Backstrom.
The Swedish center has been dominant lately, made evident by his 3-5-8 totals in his last five showings to average 1.6 points per game. Having spent almost the entire season on the second line, the 30-year-old continues to be one of the most underrated play-makers in the game, as four of his five most recent assists have been secondary even-strength apples.
Surprisingly, his promotion to the top line against Philadelphia on Sunday to rejoin W Alex Ovechkin did not see the instantaneous success many expected. Predictions were that Backstrom would resume setting Ovechkin up for multiple scoring chances just like in seasons past, but the only play they converted together was helpers on a D John Carlson third period marker.
Of course, that’s not to say Backstrom and Ovechkin have no chemistry at all, it’s just that their time playing together this season has been limited to the power play. Of Backstrom’s last eight points, three have occurred with the man-advantage, including providing the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s second goal of the game against Winnipeg.
Perhaps tonight, after a bit more practice to rediscover each other’s grooves during five-on-five play, they can light up the scoreboard like they want to.
With only a two-point advantage on Pittsburgh for the Metropolitan Division crown, every point the Capitals can earn over their last 10 games is priceless. Fortunately for the Caps, Pittsburgh has played just as many games as them and Washington has what seems to be a weaker schedule to close out the season with only three tilts against current playoff teams to the Pens’ five.
Playing in the same division as Presidents’ Trophy-leading Nashville, division titles are the furthest things from the Stars’ minds. Instead, they need to buckle down and win some games to stay within reach of Anaheim, which leads Dallas by two points, for the second wild card.
If the past is any indicator, the Capitals have a slight upper hand in this game given their performance at American Airlines Center on December 19. After both teams scored a goal apiece in all three periods to force overtime, W Andre Burakovsky took First Star honors by scoring the final goal in a 4-3 Washington win, his second tally and third point of the night.
The Caps’ attack is not going to think twice about taking advantage of Lehtonen’s recent struggles. Expect Washington to come away with at least a three-goal victory.
There was a little bit of everything in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Minnesota Wild 4-3 in overtime at Xcel Energy Center.
The first period almost ended with the same score it started with, but LW Tanner Pearson (W Dustin Brown and First Star of the Game D Drew Doughty) apparently wasn’t interested in that. He buried a snap shot with 1:13 remaining in the frame to give Los Angeles a 1-0 lead.
That advantage doubled to 2-0 at the 6:21 mark of the second period courtesy of a power play tip-in from Second Star F Jeff Carter (D Jake Muzzin and Doughty). The Wild finally found their response 5:47 after Carter’s tally courtesy of a LW Zach Parise (RW Nino Niederreiter and D Ryan Murphy) wrist shot, and Third Star C Eric Staal (D Ryan Suter and D Mathew Dumba) sneaked a snapper past G Jonathan Quick with 56 seconds remaining in the frame to level the game at 2-2
After trailing in this game for 20:17, Minnesota finally earned its first lead with 2:31 remaining in regulation when C Joel Eriksson Ek (W Jason Zucker and F Charlie Coyle) scored a wrister to set the score at 3-2. With the Kings backs against the wall and in desperate need of points, Head Coach John Stevens was forced to pull Quick with 1:37 remaining on the clock. Los Angeles did not waste its extra attacker, as Brown (Doughty and C Anze Kopitar) buried a tip-in with 47 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game at 3-3.
Just like the theme had been for most of the night, the game-winning delayed until the waning minutes of overtime before showing itself. With only 34 separating this tilt from the dreaded shootout, F Adrian Kempe collected a clear by Quick from behind his net and drove the length of the ice until he was right on G Devan Dubnyk‘s doorstep. However, instead of attempting a shot from such close range, he slid a pass backwards through the slot to a trailing Carter, who ripped a wrister top shelf over Dubnyk’s right shoulder to win the game for the Kings.
Quick earned the victory after saving 24-of-27 shots faced (.889 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Dubnyk, who saved 26-of-30 (.867).
Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have saved their best for the end of the season, as tonight’s victory gave them points in nine of the last 10 games. As such, the 88-52-20 hosts in the series now have only a 33-point advantage over the visitors.
Nick and Connor recap the 2018 trade deadline, 2018 Winter Games and 2018 overall even though it’s only March. Marco Sturm is worthy of an NHL coaching job, but will anyone take the risk? Hint: They should. Also, more thoughts on the Erik Karlsson saga.
Just over six years ago, on January 28, 2012, approximately 300 Blue Jackets fans braved bitter cold to hold a protest as a Blue Jackets season that held great promise spiraled into chaos. Earlier in the month, the team had fired Head Coach Scott Arniel ending a tenure that was probably most notable for Arniel’s infamous quip after a question from Lori Schmidt in a press conference (“so just keep piling on”). Days later it would come out that the team’s superstar and captain, Rick Nash, had demanded a trade.
The preceding offseason looked good on paper. A team that had only made the playoffs once seemed to have finally acquired the center it had needed for so long when an offseason trade landed them Jeff Carter. They had also attempted to address their problems on defense by adding free agent James Wisniewski. The Nikita Filatov era ended as the former first round pick was shipped to Ottawa for the Sens’ third round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
However, there was also a conspicuous failure to address concerns about the goaltending situation. Mark Dekanich was signed to backup Steve Mason with Curtis Sanford, out of the NHL for two years at that point, signed as the primary goaltender for the AHL affiliate in Springfield. Sadly, Dekanich would never see a game with the Jackets due to injury.
Things quickly went off the rails and never recovered. Wisniewski would be suspended as a “repeat offender” for a preseason incident with Cal Clutterbuck in a preseason game that meant he didn’t start his first game for the Jackets until Game 9 of the season, which was, coincidentally, the team’s first win of the season. Carter would get injured and be out for 10 games. Steve Mason struggled. Management, desperate to turn things around, made trades for Mark Letestu and Nikita Nikitin. Rumors started to surface that, grasping at straws, the Jackets might bring back Ken Hitchcock as head coach. Fortunately for Hitchcock, he instead took a job with St. Louis. Ownership seemed to be questioning management when they brought in former Pens GM, Craig Patrick as a “special advisor.”
Just six months after they enacted one plan to right the ship, they were about to enact a new plan—blow it all up. And, to that point, it looked like they would let the architects of the prior failed plan—GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest—carry out the new plan.
With the All-Star Break approaching, on January 23, 2012, the Jackets played a seemingly meaningless game against the Predators in Nashville and got shellacked, 4-1. In many ways, it was a typical Blue Jackets loss for that era. The Preds always seemed to have the Jackets’ number. Mike Fisher had two goals in the game, bringing his total goals that season against the Jackets to six. Over half of his goals to that point in the season were against Columbus, to which he responded after the game: “It’s kind of a funny stat. I know I’ve got to make sure I keep going and see if I can score against some other teams.” The Jackets were 13-29-6 after that game. One loss shouldn’t have been any different than the 28 that preceded it.
But the fact that the loss was so typical, so ordinary, was probably what set me off. It was a Monday night. With the All-Star Break coming up, the team wouldn’t be in town on Saturday, but, as luck would have it, I would. I had moved to the West Coast, but I was back visiting family. That night I was in Northeast Ohio when I went on HFBoards and posted that we needed to have a fan protest to make it known that casual losses and being dead last in the league weren’t acceptable for a team that had been in the league as long as the Jackets had. I didn’t really expect much to come out of it, but it struck a nerve and soon it was like a snowball rolling downhill.
I was driving south to Columbus the next afternoon when a fellow HFBoards member called me on my cellphone. One of the local radio stations wanted to talk to the “organizers.” To this point, no one was really organizing anything. Suddenly there was a level of expectation. Suddenly we had to think about things like permits, PA equipment, some sort of riser for speakers, a podium, speeches, etc., on a Tuesday afternoon, for something that was now, apparently, really going to take place on Saturday morning. In the next 48 hours, somehow a core group of six of us came together to coordinate these things.
I had never met any of these guys in person before. One of them was a guy I had sparred with over the years on HFBoards. One was a musician and Day 1 season ticket holder. One was a fan who traveled up to games from Kentucky. One was an Iraq war vet and another was a father who brought his kids to games. Other people volunteered to help in various ways including lending us PA equipment, picking things up where we couldn’t, etc. It was the first experience I really had of how quickly you could organize something with social media and with crowd-sourcing. The protest would have never happened without the contributions of a number of people, and I cannot thank them enough.
Meanwhile, people debated the protest online, particularly at HFBoards. Some thought it was a joke or an embarrassment. When national hockey media started to cover it, I think some started to fear that this would make the Jackets and, by extension, Columbus, a punchline.
The Jackets, for their part, were concerned about how this would play and, allegedly, hired a PR firm out of Chicago to address the situation. On the eve of the protest, owner John P. McConnell wrote a letter to the fans and via the press let protesters know that they would be welcomed with a cup of hot coffee on what was expected to be a blustery day as a way of the organization showing its appreciation to the fans. A nice gesture by McConnell which pretty much wrote my speech for me since I had a 2/3 replica Stanley Cup at my disposal. (“You offered us a cup of coffee, but that’s not the Cup we want!”)
The night before the core group of six of us and my always patient wife met up at a bar in the Arena District to make our final arrangements as to order of speakers and what we wanted to cover. Who happened to walk into the same bar? John P. McConnell’s son! You really can’t make this stuff up. We finalized our plans in hushed tones about 10 feet away from him.
The next morning, the rumors about the Jackets being awarded an All-Star Game were everywhere. I showed up at Nationwide at least an hour before the start time for our protest. The Arena District was dead quiet. It was bitterly cold. I wasn’t sure if, after all of this, anyone would actually show up. It didn’t look good 15 minutes before start time. Then, suddenly, people started spilling out of the various bars and restaurants in the Arena District. Probably 10-20 people at first. With minutes to go before the start time the courtyard was nearly filled. With only a few days’ notice, approximately 250-300 people had showed up on a cold day. They showed up with signs supporting the team, but questioning management.
As we kicked things off with Bush’s “Machinehead,” the Jumbotron across the street carried the news that the Blue Jackets had been awarded an All-Star Game. It was a bittersweet moment given the state of the team, but it was the first sign that maybe things would get better. Over the next year, Rick Nash would be traded to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal, Mike Priest would be “promoted” and replaced by John Davidson, Scott Howson would be fired, and current GM Jarmo Kekalainen would be hired to replace him. I don’t know if we influenced any of those decisions, but I’m glad the decisions were made.
In the aftermath, a lot of people who had been skeptical about the protest felt that it was well done and that it wasn’t the embarrassment they feared it would be. At All-Star Weekend, Gary Bettman was forced to address the protest, doing so in the way you’d expect Gary Bettman to respond to such a question:
“I saw that somebody was trying to organize a pep rally. But that’s a good sign. It’s kind of like when you get booed when you go out on the ice, it’s better than when it’s quiet. I know about that firsthand.”
It was interesting to see the Browns Perfect Season Parade last month. I heard a lot of the same things I remember hearing when we were planning the protest about whether it should be done, whether it would be an embarrassment. You had another element that we didn’t have—players taking to social media to voice their anger over the parade. In the end, Chris McNeil and the organizers deserve a lot of credit. They raised over $15,000 for a good cause–wish we would have had the time and forethought to do this. McNeil and his fellow organizers should be very proud in what they did, bringing out over 3,000 fans on another cold Ohio day. Hopefully the Browns ownership and management takes the frustration of their fans to heart. Bettman was right: having 3,000 fans show up to voice their anger beats having 30,000 empty seats in your stadium.
That is the challenge for fans of dysfunctional sports franchises. Some would propose boycotts as a way motivate teams, but boycotts can backfire. Sometimes a boycott isn’t an option. Witness the situation with the Columbus Crew where, once again, a dedicated fan base is speaking up. In the case of the Crew, the issue isn’t as much the team’s performance as it is ownership’s desire to move the team and mischaracterize the fan base in the process. Columbus was the first team to have a soccer-specific stadium, but the old house is starting to show its age. Instead of sitting down in good faith with officials of the City of Columbus, team owner, Anthony Precourt, is more focused on moving the team to Austin and is doing everything he can to paint a picture of a franchise that no longer has local support from fans or businesses. While John P. McConnell did all he could to show that he heard the fans concerns, Anthony Precourt is content to thumb his nose at Crew supporters, area businesses and local government officials.
Morgan Hughes and others behind the #SaveTheCrew effort have done a brilliant job of attempting to disprove Precourt’s anti-Columbus narrative by getting support not just from fans, but from businesses in Columbus. They’ve put up billboards and have developed a “community kit” complete with a corporate sponsor. We still don’t know how the story will end with the Crew, but I applaud the creative efforts of all of those behind #SaveTheCrew and I hope it shows other fans of troubled franchises in other cities that they don’t have to be hopeless, that they can attempt to do something about it instead of just accepting the loss of their franchise. Show them some support in their efforts even if it is a little thing like sending them a few bucks.
I don’t know what the future will hold for fan advocacy, but I think fans are better off speaking up than being silent. For years, fans of teams were the one group without a voice. Fans have been used as pawns in disputes between players and owners over labor matters and in disputes between owners and government officials over financing matters. At the end of the day, the fans are a team’s consumer base and they shouldn’t be silent about an investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars any more than they would be silent if they went to a restaurant and were given the wrong food, much less if they got the wrong food every time they went to that same restaurant. Remember the words of Gary Bettman—it is better for owners to hear your “boos” than silence. Sometimes that means you need to hold a “pep rally.”