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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.

Toronto Maple Leafs 2018-2019 Season Preview

Toronto Maple Leafs

49-26-7, 105 points, third in the Atlantic Division

Lost in First Round to Boston, 4-3

Additions: RW Adam Cracknell, F Tyler Ennis, C Josh Jooris, C Par Lindholm, G Eamon McAdam, D Igor Ozhiganov, D Jordan Subban, C John Tavares

Subtractions: F Miro Aaltonen (signed with Vityaz Podolsk, KHL), RW Kyle Baun (signed with Belfast Giants, EIHL), C Tyler Bozak (signed with STL), W Martins Dzierkals (signed with Dinamo Riga, KHL), F Colin Greening (signed with Toronto Marlies, AHL), F Leo Komarov (signed with NYI), W Matt Martin (traded to NYI), C Tomas Plekanec (signed with MTL), D Roman Polak (signed with DAL), F Ben Smith (signed with Adler Mannheim, DEL), LW James van Riemsdyk (signed with PHI), LW Nolan Vesey (traded to EDM)

Offseason Analysis: Let’s just get this out of the way early: Johnny T is coming home!

I’m not even a Maple Leafs fan and that gets me mildly excited.

After all, Tavares is departing a team that qualified for the playoffs only thrice during his nine-year tenure and joining one that scored a (t)third-best 270 goals last season without his offensive acumen. With Tavares’ 272-349-621 career totals effectively replacing Bozak’s 136-229-365 marks in just as many seasons (the only difference being Tavares will play no lower than on the second line, while Bozak was the Leafs’ third-line center), it’s safe to say Toronto’s offense – which was already stacked by simply mentioning C Auston Matthews‘ name – is now rivaled only by Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Winnipeg.

So, that means the Leafs are locks for the Stanley Cup, right? I mean, that’s what all the Toronto fans have been telling me…

Regrettably, I must poke a hole in that balloon, at least until the squad proves me wrong in the first month or so of the regular season.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubts about the Leafs’ offense. Few are going to keep up with Toronto’s attack, which may very well be capable of flirting with the 300-goal mark this year (that’s 3.66 goals per game, Leafs fans).

Instead, my concerns reside along Toronto’s blue line, and I’m sure G Frederik Andersen agrees with me. With Andersen in net last season, the Maple Leafs allowed at least 30 shots on goal 44 times.

He started 66 games last campaign.

For those struggling to do the math, Andersen – who started 80 percent of the Maple Leafs’ games last season and accrued 3889 minutes – faced at least 10 shots per period in two-thirds of his appearances.

Talk about a heavy workload.

To Andersen’s credit, he posted five shutouts and a solid .918 save percentage last season, so he performed marvelously given the immense pressure on him. However, there’s no doubt he would have preferred to see fewer than the 33.9 shots against per game coming his way, a regression from the 32.6 shots the Leafs allowed in 2016-2017.

In my last season preview, I mentioned how Pittsburgh might be a team looking to trade a defenseman should Juuso Riikola continue to impress. If that proves to be the case, General Manager Kyle Dubas would be wise to get in contact with counterpart Jim Rutherford to at least inquire about an asking price, as the Pens have exactly what the Leafs are in the market for: an established, NHL-ready defenseman with significant playoff experience.

The asking price would likely be high considering both are expected to be major players in the Eastern Conference. However, with visions of Stanley Cups dancing in their dreams, the initial cost of addressing the Maple Leafs’ defensive deficiencies likely pale in comparison to the time wasted in a contention window with a porous blue line.

Offseason Grade: B+

Yes, the Maple Leafs landed Tavares. As a result, they automatically earn better than a passing grade. However, doing little to improve a blue line that allowed the fourth-most shots has me very concerned that this club won’t see much of an improvement on that end of the ice. Dubas had better have a plan to address that issue soon, as Matthews’ contract next summer is not going to be cheap, which will make it difficult to retool the defense. In the meantime, hopefully the offense will meet or exceed expectations, as Scotiabank Arena could see more than a few high-scoring games this year.

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-

Carolina Hurricanes 2018-2019 Season Preview

Carolina Hurricanes

36-35-11, 83 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division

Additions: HC Rod Brind’Amour, D Calvin de Haan, W Micheal Ferland, D Michael Fora, D Adam Fox, D Dougie Hamilton, F Jordan Martinook, G Petr Mrazek, F Cliff Pu, D Dan Renouf, RW Andrei Svechnikov

Subtractions: D Jake Chelios (signed by Detroit), D Klas Dahlbeck (signed by CSKA Moscow), D Noah Hanifin (traded to Calgary), C Marcus Kruger (traded to Arizona), F Elias Lindholm (traded to Calgary), F Andrew Miller (signed by HC Fribourg-Gotteron), F Joakim Nordstrom (signed by Boston), HC Bill Peters (resigned, hired by Calgary), C Derek Ryan (signed by Calgary), F Jeff Skinner (traded to Buffalo), G Jeremy Smith (signed by Bridgeport), G Cam Ward (signed by Chicago)

Offseason Analysis: I had the pleasure of composing Carolina’s season preview last summer, and let me tell you: I was super excited. I was convinced this team was finally going to cause some real trouble in the Metropolitan Division on the back of its excellent defense and formidable offense.

Instead we got the same Hurricanes we’ve grown accustomed to over these past few years: a team that, while it was among the better sides to miss out on the postseason, extended its playoff drought to nine-straight seasons.

After a busy offseason for the Canes, it’s safe to say that expectations for the club this season are nowhere near as high. Five forwards that played at least 41 games last season are not returning to Raleigh, not to mention defensive stalwart Hanifin and Ward – a goaltender that, while aging, is still capable of stealing a few games – taking their respective talents to Calgary and Chicago.

If any part of Carolina’s game won’t suffer from these roster moves, it’ll likely be the defense, as the Canes lost a great defenseman and replaced him with one just as good. de Haan played only 33 games last season for the Isles, but his 2016-17 campaign was excellent. He posted 5-20-25 totals in 82 games played with a +15 rating on a team that allowed 238 goals against – the eighth-most in the league that season – due in large part to his 190 shot blocks and 139 hits. Having turned only 27-years-old in May, I have no reason to believe de Haan can’t rediscover that physical form and continue to be an imposing force on the blue line.

Instead, it will be the Hurricanes’ offense that will take a more noticeable step backwards, specifically in the top-six. Assuming that Brind’Amour plays Svechnikov in that position (I think it’s a very safe guess), as well as probable fellow rookies Martin Necas and Valentin Zykov, it will be up to Ferland, Teravainen and Aho (who himself is only entering his third NHL season) to spearhead the scoring lines (You’ll notice I left F Jordan Staal out of that group. That’s because he’s never had any business playing first line center).

It’s not to say this group doesn’t have the potential to be lethal in a few seasons (I’d argue Aho and Svechnikov have a chance to become one on the best lines in the NHL someday), but I just don’t see everything coming together to make this campaign anything more than a learning experience.

To make matters worse, even if the offense can manage to be just average (scoring around 95 goals for the entire season, or over a goal per game), it won’t get very much support from the goaltending department. G Scott Darling posted a horrendous .888 save percentage in 43 appearances last season for a 3.18 GAA, and Mrazek wasn’t all that much better with his .902 save percentage and 3.03 GAA in 39 regular season appearances between Detroit and Philadelphia.

Both netminders will certainly be looking for bounce back years (especially Mrazek, who is in another contract season), but my faith in them has dwindled to the point that I won’t believe they’ve improved until I see it. If my doubts are proven, there’s real potential that rookie G Alex Nedeljkovic, the Canes’ second-round pick in 2014, could see some considerable playing time in the NHL instead of with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte.

Offseason Grade: D

Especially after winning the draft lottery to pick second, I was surprised the rumors coming out of Raleigh were that the Canes were intending to gut their roster. Now that we’re only a couple weeks away from training camp, I find myself surprised that Carolina didn’t move more NHL pieces to fully invest in the future (perhaps those moves are being held for the trade deadline?). For not fully committing to either plan (keep the team together or blow it apart), General Manager Don Waddell does not get a passing grade from me.

Pre-Draft Grab Bag

We’re just a few hours away from the NHL Draft, so I thought I would put together a few quick hits to tide you over before Gary Bettman gets up to say “we have a trade to announce” for the first time and every NHL GM talks about how wonderful Dallas is as a city.

At the beginning of the junior hockey season, I highlighted four draft-eligible players from the WHL–Ty Smith, Jett Woo, Riley Sutter and Alexander Alexeyev.  So, how did there season go and where might you see them go tonight?  Smith, the left-handed defenseman from Spokane, finished the year with 73 points in 69 games and another 7 points in 7 playoff games.  Central Scouting had him ranked 14th among North American Skaters and that is also where he finished the season.  ISS had him ranked at 19th at the end of the season.  Some rankings have him as high as #8 and others in the mid-late 20’s.  That is the nature of this year’s draft though–there is some depth in the draft and a wide variance in rankings outside of the top 2-3 picks.

Jett Woo really fell off the radar as the year went on.  Missing 28 games with an upper-body injury in your draft year will do that.  Some early rankings had him as a mid-late first round pick, but Central Scouting had him as the 28th best North American skater and ISS didn’t have him ranked in the first round.  His 25 points in 44 games wasn’t particularly remarkable and his playoff performance–3 points in 14 games–certainly didn’t help things.  Based on how the season went, I’d say Woo projects more as a dependable, second pairing defenseman who is good all around, but not stellar in the offensive zone.  There are enough positives that he will probably go in the first half of the second round.

Riley Sutter finished the season with a solid, but not spectacular, 53 points in 68 games.  He had a very good stint in the playoffs with 19 points in 21 games.  Sutter will probably still be on the board after the second round.  A solid two-way player, who plays the center position, has size, pedigree and plays his best hockey in the playoffs…some GM could get bold and take him in the second round.  In all likelihood, he projects as a very good third line center that can occasionally slot in on the second line.

Alexander Alexeyev put up 37 points in 45 games this season and followed it up with 5 points in 3 playoff games.  Like Woo, he’s had injury issues, but, when healthy, he’s been looked to contribute more than Woo, routinely logging 20 plus minutes a night.  Like Woo, he’s a solid, two-way defenseman, but, to this point, he’s had more offensive upside.  So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Alexeyev has been ranked higher than Woo, showing up at 24th on the final ISS rankings and 22nd on Central Scouting’s North American skater list.  There is a lot of risk in picking Alexeyev in the first round, but given the importance of defense, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a team take him with one of the last ten picks in the first round.

If somehow Ty Smith was still on the board at 18, I’d be stoked to see the Jackets get him, though they are more likely to prioritize a forward and the odds of Smith slipping that far seem low given the number of teams in need of a defenseman picking ahead of Columbus.

Quick Hits

  • It wouldn’t be the offseason without some sort of contract drama for the Jackets.  Last year we saw Josh Anderson‘s contract negotiations draft out until the fall.  This year, drama regarding the extension of Artemi Panarin has come a year early after the 2019 UFA-to-be stated he was not yet ready to sign an extension come July 1.  Jarmo Kekalainen was, predictably, calm about the situation, but he’s also going to spend the weekend seeing what the market is for the dynamic wing, which is the smart thing to do.  Despite the gloom and doom from certain local beat writers, Panarin isn’t going anywhere unless someone wants to overpay the Jackets.
  • Interestingly, Kekaleinen made a comment that what went for Panarin, also went for Sergei Bobrovsky, which was largely ignored as people focused on the Panarin rumors.  The Jackets didn’t have an easy go the last time they had to negotiate an extension with Bobrovsky, but their internal options to replace Bobrovsky next year are uncertain at best given the season Joonas Korpisalo had and the fact that Elvis Merzlikins has yet to play in North America.  The fact that Bobrovsky will likely be looking for a raise and a long-term deal when he is already making over $7 million/season is a concern for the Jackets going forward.  Something to watch.
  • As always, there are a lot of rumors out there about potential trade bait.  Ryan O’Reilly is a player Buffalo would like to move before his bonus payment on July 1, but doing so may require them accepting a lesser haul than they would get after July 1.  After the second pick in the draft, it wouldn’t be a shock to see any team move down.  Carolina is looking to move Jeff Skinner and, potentially, Elias LindholmCraig Anderson and, perhaps, Erik Karlsson could be on the move for Ottawa, which begs the question whether Matt Duchene might also be on the move again with only 1 year left on his deal on yet another team that doesn’t seem to be a contender.  The Habs are looking to move Max Pacioretty, and also to finally get a second line center.  So, could be a lot of busy real estate agents this weekend.
  • Get ready for the annual Ilya Kovalchuk tease.  Los Angeles and Vegas seem to be the leaders, but you should probably expect him to sign with a Russian team when it is all said and done because that’s how he rolls.

2018 Offseason Preview: New Jersey Devils

Now that the current Colorado franchise is out of the way, next up in DtFR’s offseason previews are the former Colorado Rockies: the New Jersey Devils!

Ending a five-year playoff drought is hard, but maintaining and growing upon that success can often be harder.

Such is the situation facing this young Devils squad headlined by Hart-finalist F Taylor Hall. New Jersey finished the season with a 44-29-9 record that was good enough for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, staving off the Florida Panthers by only a lone point for the second wild card.

One of Jersey’s best strengths was its special teams, both of which were ranked among the top-nine in the NHL. However, the next step for this club is to improve its average play at even-strength, the status at which most action takes place.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

To help the Devils in that effort,  they have the opportunity to take advantage of this deep draft class with the 17th-overall selection. Especially given their cap flexibility (New Jersey has almost $20 million in space available for this season, and that only grows even higher until no current players are under contract for the 2023-24 season), there’s certainly potential the Devils could flip this pick for a major return in NHL-ready talent.

However, lets assume that General Manager Ray Shero wants to keep this pick, shall we?

Should he do just that, I think Shero will select D Adam Ginning (Linköping HC), D Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), C Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP).

Smith and Wilde represent yet another two-way defenseman option for a team that already employs the services of D Will Butcher and D Sami Vatanen, while Ginning is definitely of the traditional, stay-at-home variety.

Should Thomas end up being the most attractive option to Shero, he certainly won’t be disappointed. In his first two seasons in the OHL, Thomas has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer, and he’s also vastly improved at his puck distribution in this most recent season with 59 assists to his credit (32 more than his rookie campaign).

Chances are slim Thomas would be ready for the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ripens a bit quicker than his peers. After all, his 81 points this season exceed that of presumed No. 2 overall pick RW Andrei Svechnikov (72 points) and barely trail Czech LW Filip Zadina (82 points).

Pending free agents

Like Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: “With great cap flexibility comes many new contracts.”

Something along those lines.

Looking just at the Devils forwards, eight players are pending free agents that need to be addressed before July 1. F Brian Gibbons, W Michael Grabner, RW Jimmy Hayes, W Patrick Maroon and W Drew Stafford are all currently slated to test unrestricted free agency, while F Blake Coleman, RW Stefan Noesen and LW Miles Wood are of the restricted variety.

Without a doubt, signing Maroon needs to be among Shero’s biggest priorities, as the former Oiler (how many of those currently play for the Devils?) provided .58 points per game last season – a mark that is made even better when only considering his production with New Jersey (.76 points per game in 17 contests). While Maroon’s 27-goal total from the 2016-17 season did drop off by 10 tallies last year, his usual production in even-strength play is just the help the Devils could use to improve.

10 players provided .58 points per game last season, amassing an average salary of over $3.25 million (three players earned $6 million). With 30-year-old Maroon coming off a three-year, $2 million deal, any contract under $4 million should be a win in Shero’s book.

27 goals in each of the last two seasons have seen Grabner revitalize his career just in time to test free agency and improve on the two-year, $1.65 million contract he signed with the Rangers a couple summers ago.

A pure goalscorer is a weapon Jersey could certainly use for a full season (unless you consider fellow pending free agent Gibbons’ 12 goals on 72 shots [.167 shooting percentage] to qualify him for sniper status), but there has to be fear that the Devils could end up with the same Grabner Toronto did three years ago: one making $3 million, but providing only nine markers and 18 points.

An interesting note in Grabner’s contract negotiation – whether it’s with New Jersey or any of the other 30 teams – will be the status of Stanley Cup champions W Andre Burakovsky and RW Tom Wilson. Both also finished their seasons with .45 points per game and will undoubtedly be receiving raises on their respective $3 million and $2 million contracts given their new hardware. If either are signed before Grabner, he’ll surely try to use their contracts as a benchmark in his own negotiations.

On the surface, a final 30-year-old worth a look is Gibbons, the player who brilliantly returned to the NHL last season after a 2.6-year stint in the AHL. Gibbons posted a breakout campaign with 12-14-26 totals in 59 games played. However, after suffering a broken right thumb in late January that required over a month to heal, he returned to provide only three assists in his last 16 showings (that includes the two playoff games against Tampa he participated in).

If it seems like he’s fully healed from that injury and ready to be a potent scoring threat from a bottom-six position, then perhaps Gibbons is worth another contract similar to the one-year, $650 thousand deal he played on last season. If not, Shero would be wise to let another team make the mistake of signing him based on his overall season statistics.

Simply put, neither Hayes and Stafford are worth big money. Shero can certainly afford to sign them to low-cost contracts, but he could also find players of a same or higher quality on the free agent market.

Wood represents the Devils’ best RFA, and at 23-years-old (as of September 13), he’ll likely get another contract. He’s coming off a three-year, $925 thousand contract and will likely receive a $1-1.5 million bridge contract.

John Moore and Steven Santini represent Jersey’s two defensive free agents, with the former being a pending UFA and the latter being a pending RFA. Both played top-four minutes per game last season, as well as averaging at least .22 points per game. They’re both worth new contracts.

Vegas escapes whiteout with 3-1 victory

 

With a 3-1 Game 2 victory at Bell MTS Place, the Vegas Golden Knights have leveled their Western Conference Finals series with the Winnipeg Jets at one game apiece.

As would be expected from the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd, all the energy was with the Jets at the opening puck drop. In fact, the fan-power almost resulted in a Jets goal only 33 seconds into the game when C Mark Scheifele‘s backhanded shot leaked through Second Star of the Game G Marc-Andre Fleury and laid exposed in the blue paint, but D Nate Schmidt was there to clean up the situation to keep the game from turning into a potential barn-burner early.

Even though Winnipeg almost got that first laugh, it was the Golden Knights who eventually took command of the first frame. With 6:37 remaining in the period, F Tomas Tatar (D Shea Theodore and F Ryan Carpenter) drew Game 2’s first blood, scoring his first goal of the playoffs to give his side a lead a lead it would not yield.

Tatar’s tally was an excellent example of commitment to a play, as his first shot bounced off G Connor Hellebuyck‘s left post and careened into the end boards. However, Tatar maintained control of the situation by reclaiming possession and returning to the original scene of the crime, this time beating Hellebuyck to the near post.

3:59 later, some incredible defense by the Golden Knights in the neutral zone yielded First Star F Jon Marchessault‘s (W Reilly Smith) first goal of the game. Marchessault was the fortuitous recipient of Smith’s work against Third Star LW Kyle Connor at the red line, eventually earning a breakaway opportunity against Hellebuyck that he buried five-hole.

A scoreless second period was due in large part to some solid defense played by both sides. Both Vegas and Winnipeg fired only eight shots apiece in the middle frame.

In terms of overall stats for the entire game, Winnipeg certainly made its presence known along the boards by throwing 19 hits to Vegas’ seven. Leading that effort was none other than F Adam Lowry, who threw a game-high four checks.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights made an excellent habit of getting in the way of the Jets’ shots, as they blocked a whopping 21 shots in Game 2. Though D Josh Morrissey led the game with five shot blocks, Smith paced Vegas in the statistic with his three rejections (not to mention his game-high three takeaways).

We all know the expression “third time’s the charm,” and that was true yet again in regards to Winnipeg’s power play. After failing to convert a too many men on the ice penalty in the first period and D Brayden McNabb‘s tripping infraction against RW Blake Wheeler late in the second, the Jets finally got on the scoreboard at the 7:17 mark of the third period.

Taking advantage of D Luca Sbisa tripping W Brandon Tanev 1:38 before, Connor (W Nikolaj Ehlers and D Tyler Myers) flung a prayer of a wrist shot at Fleury’s chest that managed to roll off his chest protector and into the goal, pulling Winnipeg back within a one-goal deficit.

As would be expected, the Whiteout was fully rejuvenated after its club finally showed some offensive life, but the Winnipeg faithful reclaimed their seats only 1:28 later when Marchessault (Smith and C William Karlsson) buried a backhander to set the 3-1 score that held to the end of regulation.

With only one day off to make the approximately three-hour flight from Southern Manitoba to Southeastern Nevada, Game 3 to snap the 1-1 tie is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern this Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena. Television viewers can catch the contest on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Preds force Game 7 with 4-0 victory

 

With First Star of the Game F Filip Forsberg and Third Star W Viktor Arvidsson splitting the goals and Second Star G Pekka Rinne posting a 34-save shutout, the Nashville Predators took Game 6 4-0 at Bell MTS Place against the Winnipeg Jets to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in three days.

Arvidsson wasted no time in finding his first tally, but the path he took to scoring the game-winner could probably be cleaned up a little. Arvidsson advanced into the offensive zone with the puck along the left boards, but his drive towards G Connor Hellebuyck‘s net was cut short by D Dustin Byfuglien, who sent the Swede sliding into the boards from the goal line.

F Ryan Johansen wound up with the puck, skating into the corner before slinging the puck back to D Roman Josi at the point. Josi slung a high snap shot towards the net, but before it could reach Hellebuyck, Arvidsson found a way to get involved in the play once again by falling to avoid the puck in the high slot. While it seemed like he was trying to avoid the shot and protect his face with the middle of his stick, he instead deflected the shot past Hellebuyck’s glove.

Equipment near the face is usually evidence enough for officials to declare a shot was played with a high stick, and that’s the way this play was originally called. However, replay proved that Arvidsson had fallen in time to get his stick under the crossbar, giving Nashville the advantage only 1:02 into the tilt.

After that, the first period was all about Rinne. Even though both sides fired 10 shots on goal in the opening 20 minutes, Predators skaters committed three penalties (including two within 2:28 of each other) to provide the Jets multiple shots at some stellar scoring opportunities. Rinne stood tall though, maintaining his club’s one-goal advantage into the first intermission.

Assigned the role of scoring the insurance goals, Forsberg did his best to make his braces exciting to dissuade the Winnipeg Whiteout from reigniting the Jets. At the 8:06 mark of the second period, Forsberg (F Craig Smith and Johansen) blocked a D Tyler Myers slap shot into the left corner at the cost of his stick. Instead of staying in the defensive zone, he immediately reported to his bench to grab a fresh twig while making sure to stay behind the blue line.

That attention to detail yielded incredible dividends, as he ended up on the receiving end of a breakaway pass from Smith, setting him up for a one-on-one against Hellebuyck that he capitalized on with a wrist shot from the slot.

Instead of the goaltenders, defense proved to be the other major story of the second frame. Winnipeg yielded only six other shots on goal in that period other than Forsberg’s wrister, trailed only slightly by the Preds allowing nine Jets offerings.

Nashville’s defense wasn’t very pretty, but it was certainly effective. Even though the Predators gave the puck away 16 times in this game (D Mattias Ekholm and Josi “leading” the way with four turnovers apiece), they blocked a whopping 23 shots, including Josi’s four.

If Nashville hadn’t yet taken full control of the game, Forsberg’s (Arvidsson and Josi) second goal of the night – struck at the 5:55 mark of the final period -certainly did the trick.

Remember back with me, if you will, to April Fool’s Day. That night, the San Jose Sharks visited the Vegas Golden Knights where C William Karlsson proceeded to score what will likely go down as the goal of the regular season by pulling the puck between his legs to flip a shot behind G Martin Jones.

Forsberg did almost the exact same thing with this marker, but from a stationary position instead of sliding across the crease. That made the direction of where the can-opener shot would go even more unpredictable for Hellebuyck, who could only watch as the puck trickled past him.

Arvidsson (Forsberg) completed the Preds’ scoring with 4:02 remaining, scoring a backhanded shot on an empty net to set the 4-0 final score.

Of note in this game, former-captain C Mike Fisher played only five shifts in the first period before being forced to the dressing room with 5:43 remaining on the clock. Head Coach Peter Laviolette did not have an update on his condition during his post-game press conference, so his status for Game 7 is undetermined.

The seventh and final game of this Western Semifinal will take place Thursday, May 10 at 8 p.m. Eastern inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Fans have no excuse to miss this game, as it will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Western Finals are Golden

 

 

 

 

 

With a shimmering defense that yielded only 28 shots against, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in Game 6 to advance to their first-ever Western Conference Finals.

What was so impressive about that defense is not only how it seemed to improve as the game wore on (San Jose’s best period was the first when it fired 11 shots on goal), but also how well it dominated the blue line. Almost every Sharks possession in the third period was forced to start with a dump-and-chase that, when paired with a slow forecheck, resulted in few possessions of any real worth.

However, the Golden Knights’ defense seemed to extend beyond simply D Brayden McNabb‘s five blocks and RW Ryan Reaves‘ eight hits (both the most of either team). On at least two occasions per period, San Jose would sling shots past First Star of the Game G Marc-Andre Fleury only to hear the deafening ping of the goalposts or crossbar.

One of those instances occurred in the first period, while the game was still a scoreless tie. With approximately 30 seconds remaining before intermission, LW Evander Kane deflected D Brent Burns‘ high shot from the point only to find the crossbar – and then the right goalpost – before the puck landed in the slot to be collected by the Knights.

Snapping that scoreless draw and scoring the game-winning goal was Second Star F Jon Marchessault (W Reilly Smith and C William Karlsson), who beat G Martin Jones at the 6:33 mark of the second period. Karlsson should get a lot of credit for the marker, as it was him that stole the puck off D Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s stick to prevent the puck from leaving Vegas’ offensive zone.

After that, the play was similar to an odd-man rush in that the Sharks were already making their way towards the neutral zone, leaving Marchessault with only one defender between him and Jones’ net. With little opposition, it’s all the former Panther could do but beat the netminder five-hole.

Turning our attention back to the iron, it wasn’t only Fleury’s defensive friend, but also Vegas’ offensive weapon. With 4:22 remaining in the second period, it appeared that Third Star D Nate Schmidt‘s (Erik Haula and David Perron) wrist shot had bounced off the crossbar behind Jones and back into play.

No light went on, no celebration and no signal. No harm, no foul right?

As San Jose was driving towards Fleury’s net, the horn blasted to signify that Toronto wanted the officials to take another look at the play. As it turned out, Schmidt’s shot didn’t hit the crossbar, but it instead slid underneath and ricocheted off the camera tucked into the top of the net.

After the crowd got done booing the referees for missing the goal call (or Toronto for requesting a second look), the Shark Tank fell deathly quiet. Surely not a confidence boost for the Sharks, the writing was on the wall for the remainder of that second period, requiring San Jose to find two goals in the final frame.

Cue the previously mentioned Vegas defense, which allowed only 10 shots on goal in the last 20 minutes. Considering San Jose’s playoff life was on the line, allowing only one shot against every two minutes is an impressive feat that, when paired with Fleury’s perfect 28-save effort, shows just how dominant the Knights’ defense was.

Without even a goal to show for his team’s effort, Head Coach Peter DeBoer was forced to pull Jones (who himself had an okay night with a 30-for-32 performance [.938 save percentage]) for the extra attacker with 2:14 remaining on the clock. 23 seconds later, C Cody Eakin (F Ryan Carpenter and Schmidt) scored a tap-in on an empty net to set the 3-0 final score.

Vegas’ next opponent still has yet to be determined, but the second half of that Western Finals matchup could be cemented as soon as tomorrow night. Winnipeg leads its series against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Predators 3-2 and has the opportunity to close them out at Bell MTS Place in Game 6. Puck drop for that game is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Eastern and may be viewed on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.

Regardless of opponent, the Golden Knights will not return to T-Mobile Arena until Game 3 of the Conference Finals due to both Nashville and Winnipeg having a better regular-season record.

Both power plays roll, Vegas wins 4-3

 

 

 

 

 

Having suffered their first-ever playoff loss Saturday, the Vegas Golden Knights rebounded in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Second Round to beat the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in overtime at SAP Center to reclaim a one-game advantage in their series.

Play was back-and-forth across all 200 feet of the rink in the opening 10 minutes, but San Jose certainly had the upper hand in terms of shots on goal. The Sharks’ nine scoring attempts easily eclipsed Vegas’ four, but First Star of the Game G Marc-Andre Fleury was more than up to the task of keeping that attack at bay.

Soon after, action turned decidedly in the Sharks’ favor as the Golden Knights struggled to get the puck into their attacking third. Starting at the 9:24 mark, the Knights went 5:54 without firing a shot on G Martin Jones in the second half of the first frame, due in large part to some stellar play by San Jose in the neutral zone. The only reason that skid came to an end is due to W Mikkel Boedker sending the puck over the glass, taking a delay of game penalty and giving Vegas a power play.

Further proving San Jose’s defensive abilities, it yielded only one shot against on that man-advantage.

However, no matter how well San Jose controlled play in the first period (the Sharks’ final shot differential for the frame read 16-10), the game remained scoreless at the first intermission. As such, the frame belonged to Fleury, who saved all 16 of those shots as a part of his 39-for-42 save performance (.929 save percentage).

That tie finally came undone at the 6:59 mark of the second period when W Timo Meier (C Chris Tierney and Boedker) scored a power play wrist shot. Taking advantage of W William Carrier committing a tripping penalty against Boedker 1:31 earlier, the Sharks completed some excellent one-time passes to set Meier up for a tic-tac-goal from the right face-off circle.

Meier’s was the first of three-consecutive power play goals scored in the third period, but unfortunately for the teal-clad fans, the next two belonged to the visiting Knights.

D Colin Miller (W James Neal and W David Perron) tied the game only 2:41 after Meier’s goal with a power play wrister, taking advantaged of D Brenden Dillon‘s holding penalty against Perron at the 7:56 mark.

Known for his scoring ability, Neal drew a lot of attention once he ended up with possession along the goal line to Jones’ left. With Sharks swarming towards him, he crossed a centering pass to Miller across the crease, who then returned a wrister towards the far post to give Vegas its first lead of the night.

With the Knights’ second power play unit striking gold for the club’s first goal, it was first unit that got its time to shine when Third Star F Tomas Hertl was caught roughing Neal with 7:13 remaining in the second period. F Jon Marchessault (RW Alex Tuch and W Reilly Smith) buried a wrister only 22 seconds after Hertl took his seat in isolation to give Vegas a 2-1 advantage.

The Golden Knights had one more trick up their sleeves in the third period, but this one they managed to pull off under even-strength conditions. Smith (Second Star C William Karlsson and Marchessault) set the score at 3-1 only 1:17 after Marchessault’s marker with a slick backhanded shot on Karlsson’s centering pass, his first marker of this postseason.

However, these Sharks were far from ready to turn their attention to Game 4 just yet. Though they officially failed to capitalize on D Jonathon Merrill‘s crosscheck against D Dylan DeMelo at the 5:45 mark of the third period, LW Evander Kane‘s (D Brent Burns and DeMelo) wrister 2:04 later was completed before the defenseman could rejoin play. Kane fired his shot from the right face-off dot, beating Fleury over his glove.

Vegas Head Coach Gerard Gallant challenged for goaltender interference against F Logan Couture, but it was ruled that the screening forward was outside the crease and enough time had passed since any previous contact that Fleury was able to recollect himself to prepare for the save on Kane’s wrister.

It also didn’t help that much of the previous contact was due to Fleury crosschecking Couture in the back when he had been in the crease, but those facts are neither here nor there since Fleury came out on the winning side of things.

As for forcing overtime, San Jose did that with 1:57 remaining in regulation when Hertl (D Justin Braun and RW Kevin Labanc) somehow sneaked a wrister past basically every skater on the ice and used them as screens against Fleury. After D Deryk Engelland blocked Braun’s shot from just above the crease, Fleury had no idea where the puck went until it ended up behind him.

In terms of shots on goal, overtime was an even affair considering both squads managed three shots on goal apiece. However, it was Vegas’ third and final offering that earned it the victory.

Karlsson (Neal and Marchessault) provided that breakaway snap shot at the 8:17 mark of the overtime period.

A quick stretch pass is all the Golden Knights needed to set up the league’s third-best goalscorer from the regular season. Marchessault’s pass from the right corner found Neal at Vegas’ defensive blue line, and the runner-up in last year’s Stanley Cup Final dumped a pass to the game-winner at the red line before sitting back and watching him do the rest of the work. Karlsson turned on the NOS to set up a one-on-one against Jones, firing his snapper from the top of the right face-off circle to beat the netminder to the far post.

Game 3 was an important match for the Golden Knights, as they’ve now reclaimed home-ice advantage in this playoff series. Jones and the Sharks now face the difficult task once again of needing to win a game at T-Mobile Arena – the very place they lost 7-0 in Game 1.

Puck drop for Game 4 from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. is scheduled for May 2 at 10 p.m. Eastern. The match will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.