Month: June 2017

NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – New York Rangers (4-2)

While the heavyweights Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were contesting what many revered as the early Eastern Conference Final, Senators and Rangers were left to scrap for the other spot in the third round under much less media attention. Unfortunate ended up being the ones that missed out on the second ever postseason meeting between Ottawa and New York, who did their part to spark the respective fan bases by holding serve at home for the first five matches of the series.

In Game 6, the streak was broken by the visiting Senators and that was all she wrote, as the Canadian side moved on to their first Final Four appearance since 2007, while the Rangers missed out on a third presence in four years and the opportunity to be the first Metropolitan Division team to hoist a banner reading “Atlantic Division Champions”.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: New York Rangers 5 @ 6 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 4 @ 5 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 2 New York Rangers

 

New York craters on the road under Ottawa’s late flurries of activity

With the Senators holding home ice advantage to start the series, the Rangers knew the responsibility of stealing a road victory on the other side of the border fell on them, so they went to work on it from the get-go. After surviving a 21-shots first period blitz in Game 1, New York shepherded a 1-1 score into the final minutes of regulation only to fall to Erik Karlsson, who sentenced the match on an extraordinary moment of perception as he sniped the puck off the top of Henrik Lundqvist’s back while stationed behind the goal line and just off the side boards. You can’t prevent moments like that, so the Rangers just shrugged it off and focused on another opportunity coming in two days.

The loss in Game 2 would sting immensely more as the Rangers had the Sens by the horns in multiple occasions and couldn’t close out. Riding two shorthanded tallies, they reached a 3-1 advantage in the second period, and later led 4-2 and 5-3 until center Jean-Gabriel Pageau deflected two pucks past Henrik Lundqvist at the tail end of regulation. Despite the setback, the Rangers regrouped and had their chances to take victory in overtime, yet the game was destined to go down as a memorable affair for the Sens and Pageau, who concluded the proceedings with his fourth goal of the night.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) has just tipped a puck past Henrik Lundqvist (#30) to tie Game 2 in the last minutes of regulation (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York took care of business at the Madison Square Garden to level the series at two games apiece, and consequently booked a return trip to Ottawa for a pivotal Game 5, which would again elicit sleepless nights. The Rangers found their way into two early goals only to be upended, but reacted to secure a 4-3 lead heading into the final seconds. With the other net vacated, they would again crumble to the pressure of Ottawa and Derick Brassard pushed the contest to OT. This time, though, New York couldn’t settle down during the intermission and they were absolutely throttled by Ottawa (13-1 in shot attempts) until Kyle Turris scored the deciding marker just six minutes into extra time.

That goal pushed the “Blueshirts” to the brink of elimination, and they eventually ran out the time to get the job done in Canada since the fourth and last chance would never come.

Senators hit all the bases in Game 6 to reverse the trend

Unlike the Rangers, Ottawa couldn’t even sniff a road triumph in Games 3 and 4 as the Sens were clocked in matching 4-1 bouts that were over way before the final buzzer. The Rangers had raced to 4-0 leads in both matches while facing feeble opposition, therefore all the ingredients seemed to be on hand to force a winner-takes-all Game 7.

Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson makes a save on New York’s Mats Zuccarello during Game 6 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Except the Rangers actually believed they would breeze in Game 6, and came out so flat for a team with the season on the line that Ottawa took notice and found a way to put together the mettle required to finish the job that night. For instance, for the first time in the whole series, the Sens broke the ice when Mike Hoffman redirected the puck just 4 minutes in, and then obtained their first two-goal lead, courtesy of a Mark Stone laser. In between, Ottawa killed a 4-minute, double minor penalty, and they would deny the Rangers’ powerplay twice more later on as goaltender Craig Anderson delivered a great performance to make up for the four consecutive games where he allowed 4+ goals.

Ottawa’s starting goaltender and two of their top forwards had already made huge contributions to the cause, and their captain and best player was about to join the fun. Just two minutes after Mika Zibanejad cut the Sens advantage to one, Erik Karlsson transitioned the puck up the ice, dished it to 7M-man Bobby Ryan and then grazed a soft spot in coverage to receive it back and fire past Henrik Lundqvist.

Erik Karlsson reacts after scoring Ottawa’s third goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 3-1 stunned the MSG, and not even Chris Kreider’s marker just 53 seconds into the third period changed the narrative, as a bit of luck and a lot of Anderson helped the Sens withstand the impetus of the now desperate Rangers and hold onto the precious lead to snatch victory, the fourth they needed to progress.

Henrik Lundqvist’s age finally catches up to his postseason play

In the first round, New York’s franchise goaltender had outlasted Carey Price in a battle of superstar netminders to showcase he’s still got it, but the Swede isn’t 28 anymore and can’t be asked to carry his team in the same way as he approaches the twilight of his career.

The wild fluctuations in Lundqvist’s level have been the norm over the last few regular seasons, and it was probable they would eventually spill into the playoffs regardless of the rest afforded to him throughout the season. It happened in the series against Ottawa, as the “King” posted a not-so-royal 0.905 Sv% and 2.80 GAA while mixing in great performances (Game 1), efficient outputs (Games 3 and 4) and pedestrian efforts in Games 2 and 5, where he allowed six and five goals, respectively.

A dejected Henrik Lundqvist sits down after allowing Derick Brassard’s game-tying goal late in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

While true that the 35-year-old is not to be faulted for the many deflections his teammates granted by declining to box out opponents or take away sticks in front, the Swede could and should have stopped a few important markers, such as Pageau’s first tally in Game 2 or Kyle Turris’ OT winner in Game 5.

Furthermore, Lundqvist had won 10 of the previous 11 home fixtures when the Rangers faced elimination, however he couldn’t sum up his best in Game 6, surprised by Hoffman’s high tip on the first goal and sharp – but in no way indefensible – releases by Stone and Karlsson later on.

In the end, “Hank” gets flack because his even strength Sv% reads 0.896, and that won’t cut it from a goalie that pulls in 8.5M per year and only had to be average to outperform his counterpart (0.907 sv%, 3.09 GAA) and bail out the team.

Best players in the series

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators)

The 24-year-old put forth the performance of a lifetime in Game 2 by becoming the first player in almost 7 years to score four times in a playoff game, yet Pageau’s overall display throughout the series also merits a host of accolades.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau rushes to celebrate his overtime winner in Game 2, his fourth goal of the night (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

He collected 11 hits and 8 blocks, posted a team-high 58.5 FW% and amassed a 53.84 adj. CF% to back up his all-around chops, while his final tally of six goals in six games – half the sum obtained in 82 regular season appearances – propped up his +/- rating to a series-high +4. Moreover, Pageau wired 20 SOG in 19:03 min TOI/GP, including 3:02 min recorded per game with a man down, a situation where he proved key in limiting the Rangers to a 8.3% (2/24) conversion rate.

Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers)

Last summer Ottawa exchanged Zibanejad for fellow center Derick Brassard, and the Stockholm native don his best suit to the six-game rendezvous to demonstrate the Rangers won the bet even if they didn’t ultimately conquer the series.

Despite scoring just once, on a partial breakaway to pull the Rangers within one in Game 6, the 24-year-old led New York’s forwards with 5 points, all at even strength, and 21 shots on goal in 19:20min TOI/GP. Flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, Zibanejad’s line was the Rangers’ most dynamic offensive unit, and that is expressed on the Swede’s impressive 50.61 adj. CF%, 55.88 SCF% and 68.75 HD CF%.

Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammate Mats Zuccarello after a NY Rangers’ goal in Game 3 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the New York Rangers return to the playoffs next year? 

Perhaps. The Metropolitan Division seems to improve with each passing week hence even a small dip can bump the Rangers out of the playoff picture in favour of a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, NY Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, so far, the Rangers have done some judicious work this offseason as GM Jeff Gorton cleared cap space looking out for the future. He started by buying out defenseman Dan Girardi, whose contract had grown into a tremendous headache, and then shipped out center Derek Stepan to Arizona to expose an extra 6.5M, giving the Rangers 15.6M to work with and 17-18 spots filled out after extending defenseman Brendan Smith at 4.35M per year.

A crestfallen Rangers team skates off the ice at MSG following Game 6’s defeat against the Ottawa Senators. Changes are in order before they come back for the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That margin leaves the door open for a splash on July 1st, which could be the long-rumoured engagement with prized offensive blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk, or an impact addiction up front, preferably a center to replace Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, who was picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. If it’s the latter, the names of San Jose’s veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau quickly spring to mind.

Still, the Rangers need to be careful since a few of their players are bound to climb a few rungs up the salary ladder soon, including forwards and 2018 RFAs JT Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey plus defenseman Brady Skjei. Additionally, they also have to re-sign RFAs Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast in the coming weeks, possibly chipping away as much as half of the available funds, add a couple more forwards, and secure a decent backup that can stand in for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist with the same composure of previous understudies Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

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NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Edmonton Oilers (4-3)

Eleven years after dispatching two Californian teams in route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Edmonton Oilers aspired to rehash history by sending home the Anaheim Ducks following a first round scalping of the San Jose Sharks. They came close, stretching the tie to the limit after a slew of high-scoring games, but capitulated in Game 7 to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that pulled through by exorcizing the demons of recent meltdowns. Here’s how they did it. 

Series Results:

Game 1: Edmonton Oilers 5 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Edmonton Oilers 2 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 6 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 4 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 5: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 4 Anaheim Ducks (2 OT)

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 7 Edmonton Oilers

Game 7: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks

 

Kesler unit oppresses Connor McDavid

Playoff action is all about matchups and it doesn’t get much bigger than seeing the most exciting young player in the World chased unrelentingly by a pesky two-way maven and his two apprentices. In order to advance, the Oilers knew Connor McDavid would have to find a way to duck out Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano and impact the game at even strength, but it simply didn’t happen consistently.

The 20-year-old wunderkind picked up just two 5 on 5 points over the 7-game slate, and spent myriad shifts separated from the puck, unable to break out in transition with speed as the opposition grinded in the boards and Kesler attached himself by the hip as soon as the puck changed hands, limiting McDavid’s touches to a minimum and the strokes of genius to a single dazzling goal in Game 3.

Connor McDavid (#97) and Ryan Kesler (#17) tangled up during Game 4 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The outcome of such suffocating pressure was a flummoxed, frustrated superstar restricted to uncharacteristic sub-45% totals in adj. CF%, scoring chances for% and high-danger CF% despite a 7-6 edge in goals-for at 5 on 5 while on the ice. More than enough to allow the Ducks’ depth to take over and tilt the series, as Anaheim lumped a 55.69 CF% (2nd best in the second round), 55.1 SCF% and 54.3 HD CF% that sustained a 19-16 superiority in even-strength goals.

Oilers fail to nurse precious multi-goal advantages

For the second consecutive series, Edmonton squared off against a team boasting significantly more playoff experience, and the ebbs and flows of the series would end up ascertaining that can still be a germane factor in determining the victorious side. The youth, callowness and a certain lack of poise were readily evident in the way the Oilers cracked under pressure and conceded three goals in the final minutes of Game 5 to squander a crucial win, but there were a few more moments where things unravelled quickly while not necessarily leading to defeat.

Goal scorer Corey Perry (#10) and teammates Josh Manson (#42) and Rickard Rakell (#67) celebrate victory in the 2OT of Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers left Anaheim with a 2-0 advantage however not without a major dose of fortune, blowing a two-goal lead in a three-minute stretch during the third period of the first encounter only to get bailed out by a lucky banked shot, and barely surviving another third period push in Game 2 where Patrick Eaves and Cam Fowler found the post. And since these things usually even out, it went south for the Oilers on the return home.

In Game 3, the Oilers rallied back spectacularly from three goals down only to surrender all the momentum from McDavid’s amazing goal when fourth-liner Chris Wagner responded just a few seconds later. The Ducks would escape with a 6-3 win, and then overcame a two-goal deficit in Game 4 by striking three consecutive times in the second period before securing victory in overtime.

Edmonton deserves full credit for answering the bell emphatically in Game 6, with their season on the line and the sucker-punch of Game 5 still resonating, but it would again fail to seize control in Game 7 despite being gifted an early lead on a ludicrous bounce, and facing a team that bear the heavy burden of having lost five consecutive Games 7 at home after falling behind.

Ducks’ forward Nick Ritchie reacts after scoring the series-deciding goal in Game 7 (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Todd McLellan never found an answer for superlative Ryan Getzlaf

In nine seasons as a coach on the Pacific Division, the first seven at the helm of the San Jose Sharks and the last two with the Edmonton Oilers, Todd McLellan has faced Ryan Getzlaf and his Anaheim team in more than forty occasions. With that much insight, you would think the Oilers manager had already mastered a way to slow down the Ducks’ captain and major offensive hub, yet the 32-year-old ran rampant for the first four games, hoarding the puck, dishing physical punishment and posting 4 goals, 4 assists and a +4 rating as his group gobbled, chewed and spit out the Ryan Nugent Hopkins line and the Klefbom/Larsson pairing to the tune of +55 adj CF% and +62 SCF%.

Nevertheless, it would take an imperious four-point performance in Game 4 and a series tied at two games apiece for McLellan to act and scramble his lines, shifting the big Leon Draisatl permanently off Connor McDavid’s wing and onto a head-to-head matchup with Getzlaf. Territorially, the difference was slim, as Getzlaf’s scoring chances (+66 SCF%) and possession metrics (+62 adj CF%) actually improved, but, at least, he cooled off on the scoresheet, recording a single even-strength point – a primary assist on Corey Perry’s overtime winner in Game 5 – in the last three games as the series went the distance. Not that it mattered much when the imposing #15 watched from the ice as Nick Ritchie wired the puck past Cam Talbot to pot the series-deciding goal and set his final stat line at five goals, five assists and a +7. Simply superb.

Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf makes a play as Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lags behind during Game 2 (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

This pick requires no further argument as we just dedicated an entire section to the utter brilliance of Anaheim’s top-line center, yet Jakob Silfverberg also played a huge part in getting the Ducks over the hump and merited a few lines of his own.

The Swedish winger matched his Captain’s five goals, tallying once in each of the first four games to cap the streak with the overtime winner in Game 4, but he was thoroughly a force to be reckoned with, finishing with 8 points, 28 shots fired on goal in 19:59 mins of TOI/GP, and a sparkling 59.10 adj. CF% and 58.62 SCF%. All of this while devotedly assisting Ryan Kesler on the Connor McDavid assignment.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers)

The German had already enjoyed tremendous success against Anaheim during the regular season, amassing 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 confronts, and he continued his excellence in the playoffs to justify the sobriquet “Duck Hunter”.

Draisatl notched a four-point performance in Game 1 to kick off the series in style, and he proceeded to make good use of the pockets of ice left available by the Ducks’ option of keying in on teammate Connor McDavid to post monster offensive numbers. In 21:02 mins of action per night, the 21-year-old tallied a +4 rating, totalled an incredible 13 points (5+8), opened the score twice, and banged in a hat-trick in Game 6’s 7-1 demolishing which kept the Oilers alive for a few more days. Not bad for a maiden playoff campaign.

Leon Draisatl shone under the spotlight during the Oilers’ second round series (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Edmonton Oilers return to the playoffs next year? 

Barring a major Connor McDavid injury, the young Oilers will be a playoff team for years to come and perhaps the Pacific Division’s perennial favourite as soon as 2017-18. A luxury afforded by Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre level at age 20 and the presence of a perfect sidekick, Leon Draisatl, the team’s main order of business this offseason.

Loaded with 19M in cap space for 2017-18, the Oilers should lock down Draisatl to a maximum-term extension in the 7-7.5M range, and consequently leave sufficient room to accommodate what should be a preposterous extension for the captain in 2018. McDavid may only settle for upwards to 12M per year, but maybe they can work out a four or five-year pact at around 10M that would mimic the structure of the 2nd contracts signed by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Either way, GM Peter Chiarelli will have quite some time to mull over his options, since he’s already checked off most of what he needed to do this summer.

Edmonton’s players embrace after a goal as hats rain in Game 6. The Oilers will feature prominently at this stage of the playoffs over the next few seasons (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers finally traded winger Jordan Eberle and netted Ryan Strome in return, a 23-year-old center that could slot in the third hole and thrive on a new environment, hopefully making expendable UFA David Desharnais. Depending on production, Strome can earn a fair raise next year as a RFA, and the Oilers may also prepare to compensate Patrick Maroon (1.5M) and Mark Letestu (1.8M) should they build on successful 2016-17 campaigns.

Moreover, it was expected the Eberle trade would land a top-four defenseman but instead Edmonton secured Kris Russell for four additional seasons at a 4M rate, an excessive compensation they may be able to live with for now since Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera are tied up at reasonable figures. Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse, both RFAs in 2018, round out the defensive group after Griffin Reinhart got plucked by Vegas in the expansion draft, therefore leaving forward Benoit Pouliot and his 4M in the books until 2019 and young backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit to cover for starter Cam Talbot.

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part II)

(Part I is available here)

Montreal Canadiens: C Tomas Plekanec

The 34-year-old Plekanec is way past his prime, and his 6M paycheck would be a tough pill to swallow for a budget team, yet, as a veteran center used to match up against the other teams’ best pivots, he can definitely help Vegas in the short term. Moreover, in light of the shortage of alternatives from the Habs, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be losing a lot by going for immediate gratification here.

Still, there’s a good chance they won’t take Plekanec, and the next options are defenseman Brandon Davidson and 22-year-old left winger Charles Hudon, whose three productive seasons in the AHL placed him on the verge of the NHL roster.

Nashville Predators: RW James Neal

You’re not supposed to expose a 29-year-old winger with a 40-goal season on the curriculum, yet Nashville’s surplus of defenseman forced David Poile’s hand and Las Vegas should take advantage. For all the promise behind Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg, a Stanley Cup Final run tends to build up complementary players and it would be a shame if they passed on Neal only to get left holding a perennial bottom-six performer or a tweener, which is still a possible outcome for the two forwards.

Moreover, if Neal fails to adapt to Las Vegas and doesn’t re-sign, he still fetches a first round pick from a team willing to bet on his ability to fill the net in spurts.

If selected by Vegas, winger James Neal will be counted on to score a lot of goals

New Jersey Devils: D Jon Merrill

At 5M per year for the next two seasons, oft-injured forward Mike Cammalleri wouldn’t be a wise investment for the Golden Knights, but it’s certainly a challenge trying to pinpoint a valid alternative. Maybe defenseman Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout or Jon Merrill can be of use if half the roster gets intoxicated on a night out in Vegas? Is any Golden Knights’ staff member a former coach/GM of Devante Smith-Pelley, Beau Bennett or Stefan Noesen?

I’ll just email Pierre McGuire to find out, but until I get an answer back let’s pencil in Jon Merrill, the youngest, lower-priced defenseman amongst the lot referenced above.

New York Islanders: C Brock Nelson

Garth Snow got super protective of his defensemen, and decided to shield five blueliners and just three forwards before reportedly working out a deal to steer Vegas off a few more players. The various reports diverge on the identity of those – seriously, ponying up to maintain Casey Cizikas?? With that contract??? – so I just picked up the best player remaining, 25-year-old Brock Nelson, who qualifies to ghost a solid “top-six center” rendition by pitching in 20+ goals and 40+ points per season.

Forward Brock Nelson would be a great addiction to Vegas but the NY Islanders may have other ideas

Former 5th overall pick Ryan Strome would also be an intriguing selection for Vegas if they believe there’s a way to unlock his potential, while Calvin de Haan is a RFA in need of a significant raise the Golden Knights shouldn’t be eager to negotiate.

New York Rangers: C Oscar Lindberg

Goalie Antti Raanta is dying to get out from under Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow, but his chances of starring in Las Vegas don’t look promising according to the news emanating over the last few days, consequently drafting him just to trade his rights isn’t the appropriate course of action.

The Rangers have a couple of undervalued forwards lingering around the edges, and I believe Vegas could use a smart, efficient two-way forward like Oscar Lindberg, who not only shores up the lineup but could also grow into a larger role. Jesper Fast fits the same mould but is a winger, while Michael Grabner is flashy but more expensive and a UFA to be in 2018.

Ottawa Senators: D Marc Methot

Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to waive his NTC compelled the Sens to expose Methot, and since experienced, top-four blueliners don’t grow in threes and are always in demand, Vegas should take him and then proceed to explore opportunities to offload his rights. At age 31 and with two seasons to go on his hefty contract, he’s just a strange fit on the Golden Knights roster but his value surpasses any of the other options.

Ottawa’s Marc Methot may be chosen by the Golden Knights but his career could still resume elsewhere

In the improbably case they don’t see a market, nabbing fellow defenseman Fredrik Claesson would make them look clever in a hurry, since the 24-year-old Swede demonstrated during the playoffs that he’s more than ready for regular NHL duty.

Philadelphia Flyers: G Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth’s two-year, 5M pact with the Flyers reeked of expansion draft bait at the time of its signing, but that doesn’t mean the Czech goaltender is not the appropriate selection here. It would obviously depend on the other goalies Vegas will be tempted to elect (Raanta and Pickard, for example), nonetheless Neuvirth is an excellent guy to dangle around teams in need or to assume a backup role if they decide to jettison Petr Mrazek for a sweet package.

If the option is a forward, Michael Raffl should be preferred to 31-year-old Matt Read, yet Vegas may well wager on Jordan Weal, a deft 25-year-old winger with a few productive AHL seasons under his arm who has yet to stick in the NHL.

Pittsburgh Penguins: G Marc-Andre Fleury

Based on every report coming out of Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is poised to become the first starting goalie of the Vegas Golden Knights, and the choice shouldn’t be censured despite an abundance of younger, cheaper – and maybe even better – alternatives. The 32-year-old is not only a recognizable face the Golden Knights can market, and a veteran that oozes a lively, engaging personality inside a locker room that will need time to mesh, but he’s also a goalie used to carry the load throughout a full season, thus stabilizing the net as the team gets off the ground during its first two seasons.

If, for some reason, Vegas opts for another player, expect it to be 25-year-old Bryan Rust, who hustles past Carl Hagelin in a sprint because he’s not hauling a 4M dollars trailer.

San Jose Sharks: D David Schlemko

My first leaning here was veteran Joel Ward, a proven playoff warrior title contenders would skirmish to land in exchange for an interesting haul, yet David Schlemko is the sensible option as the 30-year-old carries a 2.1M cap hit fitting of a no-frills, consistent third pairing defenseman that can move up seamlessly. Danish winger Mikkel Boedker excelled at the desert before while playing for the Arizona Coyotes, but the 12M left on his deal (2020) would hurt in case he doesn’t turn his game around.

San Jose’s unassuming blueliner David Schlemko may play for the Vegas Golden Knights next season

St. Louis Blues: LW David Perron

St. Louis’ incomprehensible decision to shelter fourth line agitator Ryan Reaves will cost them a forward with real value, and Vegas should take the time to profess the correct call. As an UFA in 2018, David Perron’s price has been plummeting for some time, but he’s still a highly skilled attacker many teams would dig in need of an offensive jolt, therefore he may be the man to watch.

Still, not further back on his trail is 24-year-old Dmitrij Jaskin, a player that craves more ice time to showcase his quality, and a plethora of wingers that were once prized prospects but never justified the hype, including Ty Rattie, Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjarvi.

Tampa Bay Lightning: D Slater Koekkoek

Taking into account Tampa Bay’s head-scratching resolution to shield Braydon Coburn, it’s probable an handshake agreement is already in place to ensure Vegas as the next destination for 32-year-old Jason Garrison, however there are better options on the table they should explore.

Slater Koekkoek, a former 10th overall pick, boasts decent size and an offensive pedigree that’s primed for a top-four role, therefore the Golden Knights should take the leap on the 23-year-old’s potential or simply go after RFA Andrej Sustr, a more valuable commodity than Garrison. Furthermore, fellow young rearguard Jack Dotchin impressed late in the season for his physical presence and may also be on Vegas’ radar.

Slatter Koekkoek is a young rearguard Vegas should target

Toronto Maple Leafs:  LW Brendan Leipsic

With more than two thirds of the Leafs roster either exempt or protected, Toronto’s list lacks clout but still contains a couple of diamonds-in-a-rough Vegas can explore, namely wingers Kerby Rychel and Brendan Leipsic. While Rychel is bigger, a few months younger, and a former first round pick, he’s still in need of more seasoning at the AHL, a league where 23-year-old Leipsic has nothing left to prove.

As a speedy, high-energy, skilled forward, the former Nashville prospect may be able to crack the Vegas lineup out of training camp and carve an important role on a lower line, injecting life into a forward group that will be short in youth.

Vancouver Canucks: C Brendan Gaunce

The Vancouver Canucks pool is a wasteland where even a below-par defenseman like Luca Sbisa stands out – and not only because of his salary – consequently it’s entirely possible Vegas just throws a dart at the board and moves on. I can envision a scenario where they take on Sbisa’s contract just to flip his rights immediately to a team that still regards him and can fit the ticket under the cap, nevertheless Vegas should just nab center Brendan Gaunce, Vancouver’s first round pick in 2012, and hope he graduates into a reliable checking pivot than can chip in offensively.

Washington Capitals: D Nate Schmidt

German goaltender Philipp Grubauer has posted excellent numbers at every professional level and would make for a great selection, but I can’t shake the feeling Vegas would hit one out of the ballpark by acquiring Nate Schmidt, whose potential is bound to be finally realized in 2017-18. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is a smooth-skating, possession-driving defenseman with good offensive instincts that would thrive in a second pairing role, and the expansion side should be the one to offer him the consistent minutes he’s clamouring for. They won’t regret it.

Nate Schmidt’s burgeoning offensive potential could impact Vegas’ blueline for years to come

Winnipeg Jets: C Marko Dano

Unless the Golden Knights have a deal in the offing for veteran defenseman Toby Enstrom, versatile forward Marko Dano is going to be the player plucked off Winnipeg, and Vegas could do much worse than the talented 22-year-old. A prolific scorer for Slovakia’s youth teams at the international stage, Dano has bounced around a bit since crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 2014, but his hardworking, speedy game should eventually translate into consistent offensive contributions at the NHL level.

 

Final roster and considerations

The greatest strength of Vegas’ inaugural roster is bound to be its depth in goal and on defence, and coach Gerard Gallant would be wise to magnify those qualities by instilling a smothering defensive system that relies on the mobility of its rearguards and the two-way acumen of some veterans up front.

On attack, as they struggle to manufacture goals due to the lack of game-breaking offensive talent for the first couple of seasons, Vegas should strive to roll four consistent lines that can check and aim to preserve the puck on the right side of the ice. The forward group colligated should be able to achieve that, while a few younger faces like Karlsson, Gaunce, Dano or Leipsic soak in important minutes that will aid in deciphering what their long-term future in the league will be.

Meanwhile, Vegas blueline looks to feature a one-through-six homogeneity that few NHL teams could match, with adequate amounts of mobility and skill scattered around despite the lack of a legitimate, minute-munching No.1 defenseman. They’ll compile a defensive corps that blends a few names who have experienced the hardships of playing against top players on a daily basis (Methot, McNabb, Vatanen, Schlemko), undervalued athletes looking for room to expand their limits (Schmidt, Dumba) and raw youngsters willing to grow (Oleksiak, Koekkoek), moulding a unit that should be the bedrock of the triumphs they may achieve.

Finally, at the net, despite all the uncertainty, it’s already been established that the expansion draft will allow Vegas to draw up its future while banking on an above-average tandem that may steal a few wins along the way and won’t sink their effort, which is something many bottom feeders can’t escape.

In short, don’t expect the Golden Knights to be the lowest ranked team in the closing 2017-18 NHL standings, and prepare for a possible playoff appearance by Year Three provided their brass doesn’t accumulate miscues and manages to hit on the multiple high draft picks to come.

Mock Expansion draft: Devising the Vegas Golden Knights roster (Part I)

NHL hockey in Las Vegas, Nevada, is getting closer and the last major step before the Golden Knights hit the ice is the selection of their roster by virtue of the upcoming expansion draft, the first in the league since 1997.

After months of anticipation, protection lists were disclosed last Sunday giving the Knights 72 hours to make their picks from each one of the other 30 NHL teams, and allowing for a few days of fun in predicting who they’re going to pry away.

Mock drafts are already trickling down the internet, and I decided to take my swing at the piñata, using the exceptional expansion draft tool provided by www.capfriendly.com to help sort through the requirements regarding positions, contract commitments for next season and salary cap considerations.

The overall philosophy that will be followed by George McPhee and his staff to build their squad is a mystery, but we know they’re looking to ice a competitive team from Year 1. Consequently, in this exercise, I’ll be looking for a mixture of useful veterans and promising youngsters that can jell together, prioritizing contracts Vegas can flip for futures right away or at the 2018 trade deadline, and avoiding long term anchors that can submarine their efforts as soon as the glut of draft picks they’re bound to acquire are ready to enjoy prime time in the NHL.

In this article, I’ll name the player I’m expecting Las Vegas to pluck away from each of their opponents, explain my reasoning, and appoint the other alternatives they may have in mind considering other perspectives of roster building. Furthermore, it has been reported that a few teams – namely Anaheim, Columbus, Chicago and the NY Islanders – have already hammered out deals with the Golden Knights to convince them to lay off from some of their prized assets, so I’ll take that into account too.

Well, enough with the introduction, here’s the future Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft roster:

Anaheim Ducks: D Sami Vatanen

The Ducks weren’t able to trade Vatanen before the roster freeze on Saturday, and are therefore on the unenviable position of having to surrender the Finn or 25-year-old Josh Manson since I’m having a tough time buying the rumours that GM Bob Murray somehow found a way to safeguard both in side deals with LV. However, if he really did, the price should be exorbitant since the remaining options are depressing.

The Golden Knights would probably be looking at a forward so… 23-year-old LW Nicolas Kerdiles, a former U. Wisconsin standout that rode a point-per-game pace in the AHL playoffs? Maybe Ducks’ fourth line forwards Logan Shaw or Chris Wagner? I don’t know, but I’m sure neither will amount to anything relevant.

Anaheim Ducks’ puck-moving defenseman Sami Vatanen is one of the best options at Vegas disposal

Arizona Coyotes: RW Alexander Burmistrov

If there weren’t so many decent defensemen available, my best “bang for the buck” pick would be 27-year-old Kevin Connauton (1M), but we should just burn a forward spot here, so I’m looking at former 8th overall pick Alex Burmistrov, a tough, skilled, versatile forward that showed signs of life in Arizona (14 pts in 26 Games) after never breaking out in Atlanta and Winnipeg. Alternatively, if they’re looking for warm bodies at center, Peter Holland and his 243 NHL games could be of interest, while Jamie McGinn is a respectable bottom-six forward but there are much better uses for his 3.3M until 2019. As for Teemu Pulkkinen, his stock has fallen so much despite decent AHL totals that I don’t see him as a credible option.

Boston Bruins: G Malcolm Subban

The Golden Knights aren’t touching Matt Beleskey or Jimmy Hayes, and, at age 30, defenseman Adam McQuaid isn’t the shrewdest allocation of 2.75M. Thus, Colin Miller, a RFA in 2018, is the obvious option and he could slot right into the top four, but I would roll the dice on young goalie Malcolm Subban. The former 1st rounder has seen his development hindered by injuries, however he would be a good asset, an option to tend the AHL net right away and an intriguing option for the main role down the road.

Young goaltender Malcolm, Subban would be an interesting pick from the Boston Bruins roster

Buffalo Sabres: G Linus Ullmark

Another promising goaltender pilfered from a team that isn’t stocked with appealing options. Vegas should stay away from Zach Bogosian and Matt Moulson – unless they have a John Tavares trade up the sleeve – and I don’t see how 22-year-old William Carrier moves the needle.

Unsaddled by the likes of Tyler Ellis and Johan Larsson, Carrier is young but lacks upside as more than a bruising forward since his scoring record isn’t stellar dating back to junior and the minors. Conversely, Ullmark is another raw, lanky (6’4) Swedish goalie that, with a bit of work, can be polished into something…or not. But I would take the chance.

Calgary Flames: C Matt Stajan

Veteran Matt Stajan could service the Golden Knights in multiple ways

The 33-year-old Stajan will be an UFA in 2018, and therefore a prime candidate for trade deadline fodder yet, in the meantime, he could alleviate the burden down the middle during Vegas’ maiden campaign. Steady pivots that can run a top-three forward line don’t abound in the expansion draft, and Stajan can ultimately provide more value than 2012 first round pick Hunter Shinkaruk, who has struggled to translate his impressive WHL offensive totals into the professional game, much less the NHL. Moreover, Troy Brouwer’s deal is already shaped like an albatross and it won’t get better over the next three years.

Carolina Hurricanes: RW Lee Stempniak

Not much of a discussion in this case, as Stempniak seems bound to don the jersey of an 11th NHL team. The 34-year-old is still capable of collecting 15+ goals on a top-six role and also fits a dual proposition, representing additional trade bait for the 2018 trade deadline. In alternative, I can also understand if the Golden Knights take a look at 25-year-old Joakim Nordstrom or, even, goalie Eddie Lack, especially if they receive some extra incentive.

Chicago Blackhawks: D Trevor Van Riemsdyk

All signs point to a side agreement between Chicago and Las Vegas that would see the Knights take on both Van Riemsdyk and center Marcus Kruger to relieve the Hawks’ cap situation, hence one of the two should hear his name called Wednesday night. However, if that’s all smoke, I believe the right option would be the 25-year-old defenseman, who still possesses a sizable upside. In the unlikely scenario a different names surfaces, we would probably be looking at Finnish blueliner Ville Pokka.

An opportunity in Vegas could do wonders for the career of defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk

Colorado Avalanche: C Mikhail Grigorenko

The first selection announced will hail from the league-worst Colorado Avalanche and we’re in for a hell of a start. In the lamest sense of the word, as the Avs, naturally, are short in any semblance of unprotected impact players.

They covered the likes of Matt Nieto, Blake Comeau and Sven Andrighetto just because they had no one else, and that’s not a great omen for my choice, 23-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, the  12th overall pick in 2012 the Sabres gave up on and the Avs are ready to bail out on too. However, he’s a skilled young forward, and to balance out the choices he’s a better fit than goalie Calvin Pickard, who is too valuable to be a third or fourth string option (like Subban and Ullmark) and not good enough to beat the two starting goalies to come.

Columbus Blue Jackets: C William Karlsson

Reports indicate the Jackets are ready to toss a package including a first round pick and a prospect to retain defenseman Jack Johnson, forward Josh Anderson and goalie Joonas Korpisalo, therefore the Knights should have their work cut out for them. William Karlsson is 24 years old, fast improving, as he displayed in the playoffs, and a good third-line center that I think could bump his way up the ladder if necessary. There’s a world where Vegas chooses Matt Calvert instead, but it’s not this one.

Swedish Center William Karlsson could thrive in Vegas in a larger role

Dallas Stars: D Jamie Oleksiak

Provided there’s no extra motivation to grab a goalie like Kari Lehtonen, the best odds regarding the selection from Dallas’ roster may belong to Cody Eakin, but I’m not sure Vegas wants to get stuck with a third line center making 3.85M per year until 2020, and whose upside is the 40-point range. Instead, I would rather clutch my hands on their collection of young defenseman and snatch either 25-year-old Patrik Nemeth or, preferably, hulking yet mobile blueliner Jamie Oleksiak, ready at age 24 to fill a larger role and capable of firing up a crowd with crushing body blows from time to time.

Detroit Red Wings: G Petr Mrazek

The availability of Petr Mrazek was one of the major surprises of Saturday’s unveiling, yet Vegas can’t overthink the issue and should move swiftly to tag the talented Czech goaltender regardless of the supposed character flaws that may have been the basis of Detroit’s decision. The 25-year-old has shown the ability to carry a team on his back for stretches, and could ultimately get peddled or challenged to usurp the starting job.

Petr Mrazek’s destiny is up in the air after the Red Wing’ surprising decision

In the eventuality McPhee gets cold feet, he has other options: young defensemen Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet are there for the taking and both are capable of cracking their defensive rotation next season.

Edmonton Oilers: LW Benoit Pouliot

Vegas would be doing the Oilers a favour by taking 30-year-old Benoit Pouliot, yet there are a few reasons why they should think about it. At 4M per year, Pouliot is expensive for what he brings to the table but not unreasonably so, he can score, his ability to play up and down the lineup could come in handy, he’s an experienced player but not necessarily in decline and, just as relevant, the other options are nothing to write about. Sure, they can yank another goalie in Laurent Brossoit or take a flyer in a dwindling Griffin Reinhart, but they’ll eventually need solid hockey players and Pouliot could assist in securing a few wins.

Florida Panthers: RW Reilly Smith

The Panthers’ protection list elicited a lot of discussion as a result of some interesting choices and, in turn, provided a lot of fodder for Las Vegas staff, as they’ll have, at least, three excellent players to argue about.

At first, I jumped at the opportunity to select defenseman Jason Demers, but a logjam on defence may be brewing so perhaps it makes more sense to split hairs between forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Coming off a 30-goal breakout season and boasting a trifling 750k cap hit, the tiny Marchessault looks tantalizing but only until you notice he’s a UFA in 2018 and won’t shoot 15.5% forever. Conversely, Smith has a better track record – both from scoring and possession viewpoints – and is signed to a solid 5M cap hit through his prime seasons. He’s the logical choice here.

Florida Panthers’ forward Reilly Smith is one of the best players available in the expansion draft

Los Angeles Kings: D Brayden McNabb

How far down have slid the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champions? Despite protecting just four forwards, the Kings’ offense leaks nothing of note since the remaining players are old, broken down and signed for too long (Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik), or simply not good enough (Lewis, Nolan, Clifford). I suppose the Golden Knights scouted Nic Dowd (27 years old) and Nick Shore (24), but it’s difficult to anticipate they’ll be able to venture away from the probable path: selecting 26-year-old blueliner Brayden McNabb, a UFA in 2018 who, at times, partnered Drew Doughty, and then see if they feel like searching for a match to work out a trade.

Minnesota Wild: D Matt Dumba

Chuck Fletcher was another GM that spent the last few weeks trying to solve his expansion draft riddle and, as far as we know, he was unsuccessful, since the Wild ended up exposing many players they would definitely like to keep. The good news, though, is that Vegas can only tap one and it won’t be Eric Staal or Erik Haula.

Marco Scandella would be a strong addiction as a 27-year-old, top-four blueliner signed at 4M until 2020, but I just don’t see how you spurn 22-year-old Matt Dumba, a physical, offensive-minded blue liner just scratching the surface of his potential, and someone who can be part of the foundation of this team for the next decade.

(Please click here for Part II)

The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

NHL playoff series digested: St. Louis Blues – Nashville Predators (2-4)

Coming off upsets in the first round, long-time Division rivals St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators crossed paths for the first time in their playoff history with a spot in the Western Conference Final on the line.

For the Blues, a success would have represented a second consecutive appearance in the third round, something they haven’t accomplished since 1970, however Nashville proved stronger, labouring past them to rewrite the franchise’s history books, winning two consecutive playoff series for the first time ever.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 4 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 2: Nashville Predators 2 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 3: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

Game 4: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 1 @ 2 St. Louis Blues

Game 6: St. Louis Blues 1 @ 3 Nashville Predators

 

Nashville’s blueline drives the offense

Any sensible NHL observer already knew about the embarrassment of riches on the Preds blueline and the way the backend impacts every aspect of Nashville’s game, including the generation of scoring chances, nonetheless an offensive outburst in the biggest of stages always helps drilling the point home.

In this series, the top three point getters – tied with five points – were all Predators defenseman as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and PK Subban ruled the show while their forwards took a backseat after contributing decisively to the stunning sweep of Chicago.

For instance, Ellis scored in three consecutive matches (Games 2 to 4), including the opening goals in Game 3 and 4, to fire up the home crowd, while his partner, Josi, contributed with the insurance tally in Game 4 before tying the score in the series-clinching Game 6 off a gorgeous cross ice feed by fellow blueliner Matthias Ekholm.

Roman Josi reacts after scoring Nashville’s third goal in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The physical Swedish defenseman put up just one other assist during the six-game slate, yet his work smothering Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues top line was top-rate, allowing accomplice PK Subban to spread his wings offensively, namely in Game 1, when he notched a goal and two assists.

Furthermore, third pairing defensemen Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, while pointless in just under 12 min of TOI/GP, dominated in the possession front (59 adj. CF%) and also in scoring chances (26-18 SCF) differential to round out a group that really carried the mail in the series.

Special Teams forge separation between the sides

Against the Minnesota Wild in round one, the St. Louis Blues were able to survive a rotten powerplay effort (6.7% PP conversion) due to Jake Allen’s heroics, yet very few teams are able to plow through the grind of the NHL postseason without some timely contributions from the man advantage.

The eighth best group in the regular season desperately needed to regain its mojo in time, but the second round brought an equally discombobulated unit that mimicked the numbers (1/15, the same 6.7%) recorded in the previous series, and it would prove the difference as the Predators middling special teams (15th-ranked PK and 16th-ranked PP during the regular season) stepped up.

Predators’ defenseman Ryan Ellis shovels the puck past Jake Allen in Game 4 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

At even strength, Nashville and St. Louis scored 10 times apiece, but the Blues third-ranked penalty kill (84.3%) was bested in 4 of 17 opportunities, including twice in Game 1, facilitating the road triumph Nashville would need to advance, and once in Game 4, when Ryan Ellis broke the ice in the third period to push the Blues to the brink of elimination.

Moreover, the same Ellis blasted the opener in Game 3 just three seconds after Ryan Reaves elbowing penalty expired, another critical moment on a series where Vladimir Tarasenko’s lone Blues PP tally allowed his team to level Game 2 before snatching victory.  Since both teams enjoyed virtually the same time with the man advantage – 28:12 min for St. Louis versus 28:10 min for Nashville – buying an extra couple of goals, especially on the road, would have been a perfect springboard to rally the Blues back in the series.

Pekka Rinne outlasts Jake Allen in battle of hot goalies

Going into this series, there was no way to dance around the juiciest storyline: goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen, otherworldly during the first round, were about to stare down each other and who would blink first?

It turned out both men did, performing below their high standards in Games 1 and 2 to come back to Earth, splitting wins while clocking below-0.900 Sv%, but eventually settling down over the next four matches, tight affairs that ended up as a pair of 2-1 encounters, a 3-1 showdown with an empty netter aggregated and a 3-1 Predators victory in Game 4.

Goaltenders Pekka Rinne (#35) and Jake Allen (#34) greet each other in the handshake line after Game 6 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Under such thin margins of error, Rinne would prevail over Allen by conceding just five goals in 112 shots for an outstanding 0.955 Sv%, while Allen filed in a good-but-not-great 0.918 Sv% (eight in 98) on a stretch that included three games in Nashville, where the Predators and their Finnish goaltender stringed nine consecutive playoff victories.

Overall, another test passed with flying colours by Pekka Rinne, who finished the second round with a 1.37 GAA and a 0.951 Sv% in 10 postseason games.

Best players in the series

Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues)

With sniper Vladimir Tarasenko getting roughed up at every opportunity, linemate Jaden Schwartz tried to pick up the slack similarly to what he did in round 1 though he fell short this time. In six games, the 24-year-old posted two goals in 18 shots and four even strength points in just over 21 mins of ice-time per game, but still managed to maintain his head above water both in terms of possession (50.95 adj CF%) and scoring chances (50.9 SCF%).

St. Louis forward Jaden Schwartz flicks the puck past Rinne in Game 5 (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

Honourable mention for defenseman Joel Edmundson, whose +6 rating and 4 points collected alongside Colton Parayko on the Blues most effective pairing capped off a breakout spring campaign that gets slightly bogged down by a 7:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio in round two.

Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators)

Amongst the cadre of Nashville’s high-flying rearguards, Ellis earns the cake because of his three-goal bundle, including two opening markers which forced the Blues to chase Games 3 and 4.

Additionally, the fully-bearded 26-year-old assisted twice, hurled 13 shots on goal and blocked a series-high 19 shots launched at his own net in 22:35 mins of TOI/GP. His partnership with Roman Josi suffered through some ups and downs, as illustrated by a 43.59 5 on 5 adj CF% and 44.9 SCF%, but there’s no denying the direct impact on the Predators’ accomplishment.

Will the St. Louis Blues return to the playoffs next year? 

Maybe. The Central Division promises to be even more competitive next year with Dallas and Winnipeg expected to mount better challenges, but don’t count the Blues out just yet even if their margin for improvement isn’t encouraging.

In fact, St. Louis is bumping against the cap ceiling and the few millions in store (5M) are earmarked for 24-year-old stud Colton Parayko, a RFA with arbitration rights that may be a prime target for an offer sheet this summer. However, don’t hold your breath as GM Doug Armstrong has indicated he’ll match any proposal since he can open critical space without shaking the foundations by swinging David Perron (3.75M), a 2018 UFA.

Re-signing towering defenseman Colton Parayko should be St. Louis’ main priority this offseason (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

If more is required, top-line pivot Paul Stastny, whose four-year, 28 M pact agreed in 2014 expires next summer, could be an option despite Jori Lehtera’s status as a preferable remittance at 4.7 M (2019). Meanwhile, trading Patrick Berglund (3.85M until 2022) and veteran Alex Steen (NTC, 5.75M until 2021) is tougher as both possess some kind of No-trade protection for some reason.

Fortunately, Vladimir Tarasenko (2023) and Jaden Schwartz (2021) are locked down at decent rates, as is Captain Alex Pietrangelo (2020) and starting goalie Jake Allen (2021), consequently, outside of Parayko, the Blues’ main concerns this offseason relate to the outer edges of the roster. Will fourth-liner Scottie Upshall return? Will they retain the rights for RFAs Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paarjavi, two former lottery picks who haven’t pan out? Who will be the seventh defenseman?

Not exactly roster-breaking resolutions nor expected to impact what must be taken care off in 2018: potentially tricky negotiations with the fast-improving Joel Edmundson (23-years-old) and Robby Fabbri (21).

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.