NHL

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.

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NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Nashville Predators (4-2)

And then there were two. The sixth appearance on the decisive round for the Pittsburgh Penguins, wrapping up their 50th year of existence; the maiden Stanley Cup Final for the Nashville Predators, culminating the franchise’s 18th season on a bustling explosion of sound and energy as an NHL Championship game was contested in the state of Tennessee for the first time.

Almost two months of blood, sweat and tears winding up into five consecutive affairs dominated by the home side and then, at the sixth assault, the Penguins making the best of their first match point to daze the boisterous Bridgestone Arena and lift the emblematic silver chalice on the road, as they always seem to do.

Nineteen years later, the NHL had a back-to-back Champion again: the Pittsburgh Penguins, who collected their fifth title (91’, 92’, 09’, 16’, 17’) to tie the Edmonton Oilers as the non-Original Six organization with the most Championship banners.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Nashville Predators 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 0 @ 6 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Nashville Predators

 

Pittsburgh’s arena turns into Pekka Rinne’s house of horrors

The Penguins and the confines of their arena had never been kind to Pekka Rinne, who was winless in 7 career starts versus the defending Champions – including three in Pittsburgh – and accumulated pedestrian numbers (0.880 Sv%, 3.57 GAA) in the process, however few man glimpsing at those stats before the Final began would have anticipated the debacle to come. After all, the regular season and the playoffs are different animals, and the 34-year-old was in the midst of an MVP-calibre postseason punctuated by stellar statistics (0.945 Sv%, 1.70 GAA, 2 SO), which drove Nashville just four wins away from the Cup.

The bottom line, though, was that to achieve their ultimate goal, Nashville needed to steal one win in Pittsburgh and that proved impracticable with the kind of performance Rinne delivered in front of an unfamiliar, unwelcoming mass of yellow.

Jake Guentzel skates past Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne after scoring the game-winning-goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In three road starts, the Finnish goaltender allowed a perplexing 11 goals in just 45 shots to amass a 0.755 Sv% and a baloney 5.40 GAA, getting the hook in Games 1 and 6 and looking devoid of answers to halt the Penguins’ momentum as they pumped 3 goals in a 4:11 min span at the end of the first in Game 1, and, again, when they blitzed 3 more in a 3:28 min stretch to start the final period of Game 2.

Whilst Rinne can be absolved for plays that involved quick passing sequences or off the rush, top-shelf finishes, that still leaves us with a handful of situations he should have dealt with much better. The pucks that deflected off Mattias Ekholm’s knee (Game 1) and Vernon Fiddler’s stick (Game 2) shouldn’t have gone in, and the same applies to the opening markers for the Penguins in each Game: Evgeni Malkin’s long-distance slapshot in Game 1, Jake Guentzel’s sneaky shot in tight in Game 2, and Justin Schultz’s unscreened blueline screamer in Game 6.

Scott Wilson’s (#23) shot gets deflected by Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler (#83) before finding the back of Rinne’s net in Game 2 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Nashville’s netminder performed much better at home and watched as his direct foil, Matt Murray, struggled similarly in adverse surroundings in Games 3 and 4 yet, contrastingly, the Penguins’ goaltender rebounded to steal the show on the return to Nashville in Game 6, closing the series with 51 saves in 51 shots faced over the last two games.

Pittsburgh’s superior offensive potency adds up

Nashville was able to muster enough offense to duck out Anaheim in the Western Conference Final despite losing Ryan Johansen mid-series however, without their top-line centre and skilled winger Kevin Fiala, they looked severely overmatched by a Penguins’ team brimming with elite scoring weapons up front.

In a series where Pittsburgh’s top six forwards (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Guentzel, Kunitz and Sheary) combined for 11 goals and 29 pts, Nashville’s remaining stars couldn’t step up, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal limited to one goal each, and taking a backseat to the Predators’ only multi goal scorer in the series, rookie Frederick Gaudreau (3 goals).

Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel (#81, right) and Evgeni Malkin (#71, left) react after the Penguins’ fourth goal in Game 2 (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Additionally, Nashville’s deficit of top-end finishers was further amplified on the road, where they scored just four goals in three matches, and it eventually spilled late in the series, with the Predators unable to solve Matt Murray in Games 5 and 6 to close the Final with a 13-19 goals-for deficit (8-14 at 5-on-5). In these circumstances, it wouldn’t matter that Nashville’s powerplay, their Achilles heel during the playoffs, bounced back to tally 4 times in 18 chances (22.2%) during the Final, outperforming Pittsburgh’s vaunted man-advantage (2 in 22; 9.1%).

A disheartening tale of bad breaks

No team clutches the Stanley Cup without benefitting from a dose of fortune along the way and, in this case, a litany of factors cooperated to side-track Nashville’s challenge and facilitate Pittsburgh’s job in the Final.

Take the case of the controversial disallowed goals that would have given Nashville the lead in two of their losses. PK Subban’s ice breaker in Game 1 was taken back for offside because Filip Forsberg’s skate was floating millimetres off the ice at the blue line several seconds before the puck ultimately kissed the net, while Colton Sissons’ tap-in in the second period of the crucial Game 6 was called back after the referee blew the whistle too early. Those were potential series-defining moments, and really tough breaks for a team that also saw two pucks carom into his net after ricocheting on unsuspecting defenseman.

A falling Colton Sissons (#10) pokes the puck in during the second period of Game 6, but the referee is already blowing the whistle. No Goal for Nashville. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Moreover, Nashville edged Pittsburgh by a healthy margin in most possession (174-144 SOG, 269-218 CF, 54.54 adj. CF%) and scoring chances metrics (SCF 117-103; 53.18%) but couldn’t make it count on the scoreline, especially on the road. In Game 1, the Predators controlled the play extensively (SOG 26-12 SCF 19-13, HD CF 6-2) and held the opponent to a extraordinary 37-min shot-less streak, only to see it end on a Jake Guentzel snipe that shattered their 3-goal rally, while, in Game 2, they pressed to regain the lead in the second period (16-7 CF, 7-0 SOG, 8-2 SCF) to no avail, and the Pens exploded after the intermission to snatch victory.

A blend of bad luck and ineptitude that climaxed on the perfect storm that hit Nashville in Game 6, with the aforementioned refereeing decision, a fantastic exhibition by Matt Murray, a 32-second 5-on-3 man-advantage wasted late in the third period and, then, the fortuitous bounce off the boards and the back of the net which resulted on Patric Hornqvist’s Cup clinching-goal with just 1:35 minutes to go in regulation.

Patric Hornqvist (#72, white) banks the puck off goaltender Pekka Rinne to score the Stanley Cup winning goal in the dying seconds of Game 6 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)

A close call between Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel (4G, 1A, +4, 5 EVP, 2 GWG) – who bounced back impressively from a terrible Eastern Final – but we’ll give the honour to the Penguins’ captain and eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

After amassing an ordinary 13 pts in 19 previous Stanley Cup Final appearances (2008, 2009, 2016), the native of Cole Harbour, NS, finally cleared the point per game threshold in the definitive playoff series, collecting 1 goal (in Game 4), 6 assists and a series-best +5 rating (6-1 GF) in 19:43 min of action, third highest total on the team and three minutes more than any other Penguins forward.

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (#87) tries to fend off three Nashville players in Game 5 (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)

Facing off the Roman Josi/Ryan Ellis defensive pair, Crosby displayed his tremendous all-around skills to stand out as one of Pittsburgh’s best players with a 47.38 adj. CF% and 50.0 SCF%, excelling close to the goal (18-8 HD CF) and raising his level of play in the last few games, topping in a Game 5 where he picked up 3 assists.

Frederick Gaudreau (Nashville Predators)

The 24-year-old rookie entered the history books as just the 2nd player to score his first 3 NHL goals in a Cup Final, and, in addiction, two of those went down as the game-winning-goals, earning Nashville their first ever victories at this prominent stage.

Mostly deployed as the fourth-line center, Gaudreau performed solidly (52.57 adj. CF%, 57.45 SCF%, 11-9 HD CF) but only enjoyed 11:16 min of TOI per game in a highly sheltered role, therefore we’ll also use the opportunity to sing praises to PK Subban and not because of his off-ice antics (*bad breath*).

Nashville center Frederick Gaudreau (#32) slides the puck into the net in Game 4 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Relishing the big lights, the magnanimous defenseman was sensational driving play (64.05 adj. CF%, 63.10 SCF%) throughout the Final, and subjugated Evgeni Malkin (37.33 adj.CF%, 28.30 SCF%) even if he failed to ignite the scoresheet (0 goals, 2 assists).

Will the Nashville Predators return to the playoffs next year?

Definitely, even if the Central congregates a bunch of teams (Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota) aspiring to win the Division and someone may be squeezed out. Not Nashville, though, and I wouldn’t wager against them reaching a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final with a roster that GM David Poile meticulously assembled through impact trades over the last couple of years.

At the off season’s onset, days after succumbing in the Final, Nashville lost a key forward in winger James Neal, whose goal scoring ability and 5M cap hit proved too enticing for the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, yet the Predators are still in excellent shape going forward with the core group guaranteed to be together for the next two seasons following the new contracts handed out to Ryan Johansen (8 years x 8 M) and Viktor Arvidsson (7 year at a 4.25M cap hit).

Viktor Arvidsson, here celebrating with Predators’ fans in Game 4, will remain in Nashville for the next seven years (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The two forwards have their prime seasons ahead, and Poile did a good job locking them down at manageable rates, especially Arvidsson, who joins the likes of Roman Josi (UFA 2020), Mattias Ekholm (2022) and Ryan Ellis (2019) as players whose value is bound to far exceed their earnings.

As far as addictions, the Predators biggest splash in free agency was the acquisition of center Nick Bonino, who will carry a 4.1M cap hit for the next four seasons and fill, right away, the void of retired captain Mike Fisher. Moreover, 35-year-old Scott Hartnell inked a low risk, 1M deal to enjoy a second term in Nashville after being bought out by Columbus, while former 7th overall pick Colin Wilson was traded to Colorado for botching successive stints on the top-six.

The last transaction can also be seen as a serious wake-up call to 27-year-old Craig Smith – signed at 4.25M for three more seasons – who may find himself on the way out as soon as guys like Kevin Fiala (RFA 2019), Pontus Aberg (RFA 2018) and Colton Sissons (RFA 2019) need raises, or a promising prospect – probably 21-year-old Vladislav Kamenev – steps to the plate.

Colton Sissons (#10) beats Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray in Game 1 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

For now, though, Nashville is in solid ground cap-wise, with 6M to spare and boasting a stellar blueline that was further strengthened after they relieved 31-year-old Alexei Emelin off Vegas’ defensive logjam, pining a third round pick to ensure the Golden Knights also retained a 1.1M portion of his salary. In goal, Pekka Rinne has two years left at 7M, and that should be enough time to confirm young Juuse Saros (RFA 2018) is the right man to take over for a team that might just be entering its Championship window.

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins return to the playoffs next year?

A whole lot would have to go wrong for them to miss out, nonetheless the Penguins margin of error has shrank significantly since the dreaded post-Cup exodus finally landed in Pittsburgh.

After chasing a second consecutive title with a virtually intact roster, Pittsburgh waved goodbye to a host of veterans this summer, including forwards Chris Kunitz (signed with Tampa Bay), Nick Bonino (Nashville) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota), defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit) and Ron Hainsey (Toronto), and beloved goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who left after 14 years to become the starter and face of Vegas’ new NHL franchise.

Jake Guentzel (#59), Bryan Rust (#17) and Sidney Crosby (#87), pictured celebrating Pittsburgh’s goal in Game 3, will be back in a Penguins’ sweater next season (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Few doubts exist that the Penguins will continue to be a contender with all major franchise pillars (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang) secured for the next half decade, 22-year-old Matt Murray beginning a favourable three-year extension, and some of their youth up front (Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson) still contributing at affordable rates, yet GM Jim Rutherford’s body of work this offseason has been rather uninspiring.

To plug the gaps left by the numerous exits, he picked up veteran Finnish goalie Antti Niemi (Dallas) and rearguard Matt Hunwick (Toronto) just days after, foolishly, dropping out of the first round at the draft to acquire enforcer Ryan Reaves from St. Louis, however Rutherford is still to pull the trigger on a trade for a competent third line center that can slot behind Crosby and Malkin, a vital move to keep the team hovering the competition as the last two seasons demonstrated. At this point in time, Carter Rowney, Guentzel and Wilson are the internal options thrown around the table, and those certainly won’t cut it, much less in the playoffs.

Can these Pittsburgh Penguins make it three in a row next year? (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the 68-year-old executive dished out extensions to Justin Schultz (27 years old, 3 years, 5.5M per season), Brian Dumoulin (25, 6 years, 4.1M) and Conor Sheary (24, 3 years, 3M), which left the Penguins in a familiar situation: bumping the cap ceiling (2.5M away) and with no other option but to keep the conveyor belt of young talent flowing.

Hence, expect the next graduates to be 20-year-old Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second round pick, and 23-year-old Zach Ashton-Reese, signed as a UFA coming out of Northeastern University, while former 8th overall pick Derrick Pouliot enters a make or break year considering his NHL appearances decreased in each professional season. He’s on a one-year deal, and Pittsburgh will welcome every bit of contribution on the quest for a three-peat unseen in the NHL since the 1980’s.

*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.

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Ottawa Senators (4-3)

Exactly a decade after their first and only Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Ottawa Senators were once again bestowed the title of “Canada’s Team” as the last remaining hope for a hockey-mad nation longing for the end of a 24-year drought. On their way to round three, the Sens had upset the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers however the next hurdle was the toughest of them all: the defending Champions Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh had coolly advanced on the last three postseason meetings (2008, 2010, 2013) between the two sides, and despite being pushed to the utmost limit this time, they would prevail again, moving one step closer to the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.

Series Results:

Game 1: Ottawa Senators 2 @ 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 2: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 1 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Ottawa Senators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 5: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 7 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 7: Ottawa Senators 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins (2 OT)

 

Special teams’ misery sinks Ottawa

After slipping past the NY Rangers in spite of a 5.5% conversion rate with the man-advantage, the Senators had to know much of their chances of advancing rested on the ability to take Pittsburgh’s top-three ranked powerplay out of the equation. Such an enterprise entailed keeping its opportunities to a minimum and finding ways to kill the ones they couldn’t avoid.

For much of the first three games, Ottawa was rather successful on its efforts, shutting down the Pens star-laden top unit in eight consecutive opportunities, including a 5 on 3 in Game 1, yet, as soon as Sidney Crosby tipped one below Craig Anderson for a consolation goal late in Game 3, the floodgates opened, with Pittsburgh’s man-advantage striking in 5 of 10 chances for the rest of the series.

Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby prepares to score a powerplay goal on Craig Anderson in Game 4 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

In Game 4, the Penguins’ captain swiped in the 2-0 marker, critical to leave Ottawa with a 3-2 victory, and the same Crosby deflected the puck to double Pittsburgh’s lead in the first period of Game 5, which quickly got out of hand for the Sens. Moreover, Justin Schultz’s laser shot, just seconds into their only man advantage in Game 7, may have been quickly erased by Ottawa’s swift response, but it still left them reeling, knowing another penalty might signal the end of their season.

Conversely, the Sens came out empty on 29 straight power plays (a streak initiated in the previous series) until Bobby Ryan sneaked one past Murray on a 5 on 3 in Game 6. It was their only tally in 35 minutes of play with the man advantage, a total which includes two terrific opportunities to take the lead in Game 7.

Justin Schultz (#4), Evgeni Malkin (center) and Sidney Crosby (#87, back) react to the Penguins’ powerplay goal in Game 7 (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Since five of the seven games in the series were decided by one goal, and Ottawa marginally outscored (12-11) Pittsburgh at even strength, the Sens had to be left imagining what could have happened with a more evened up special teams’ record (6-1).

Pittsburgh takes control of the series after tottering start

Guy Boucher’s neutral-zone stuffing 1-3-1 system had already been integral to the Senators success in the previous rounds, and for the first three games of the Eastern Final, it did a great job neutralizing Pittsburgh’s speed through the centre of the ice. As a consequence, the Sens dictated play in many instances, frustrated the Penguins’ stars and looked dangerous preying on turnovers, taking the edge in the major underlying metrics (51.01 adj CF%, 51.43 SCF%, 56.67 HD CF).

Derick Brassard taps the puck into Pittsburgh’s net for the Senators’ third goal in Game 3 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

However, Pittsburgh’s success under Mike Sullivan has been based on their ability to adjust on the fly and jig the puzzle to respond positively to adversity, and slowly but steadily the tide turned. With a fresh goaltender in net (Matt Murray), brand-new forward lines and a tweaked offensive approach, Pittsburgh, who had scored just three goals in the first three games, raced to a 3-goal lead in Game 4 and then hang on to reclaim home ice advantage. The boat had finally settled, and then it was time to push the engine, as the Penguins’ speed overwhelmed the Senators in route to a 7-0 shellacking in Game 5.

With a gust of wind behind their sails, Pittsburgh thoroughly dominated (CF 54-31, SOG 46-30, SCF 30-13) Game 6, but they were denied an handshake line by a superlative exhibition of goalie Craig Anderson, a cracking Mike Hoffman slapper off the post, and two penalties picked up in succession, which allowed the opponent to tie the game when the Pens looked on the verge of running away with the series.

Pittsburgh’s forward Scott Wilson celebrates his goal in the first period of Game 5 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hosting a nervy Game 7 for the second consecutive Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins took the lead twice, but allowed the Sens to battle back and set up the winner-takes-all overtime. It would fall their way after a handful of close calls in the vicinity of Craig Anderson’s net and justifiably so, since the stats over the last four games (58.03 adj CF%, 58.15 SCF% (107-77), 56.52 HD CF% (39-30)) back up the notion that the defending Champions rose up to the challenge and earned the reward.

Senators run out of heroic performances

When a team falls in the second overtime of Game 7, it’s moot pointing out the smallest of actions could have determined an opposite outcome. After all, the Sens were a single shot (or a weird bounce) away from advancing to the Stanley Cup, and if they did, the tone of this article would be entirely different.

Ottawa’s goaltender Craig Anderson looks skywards after allowing Phil Kessel’s game-winning-goal in Game 2 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, looking back at their postseason run, we can get a sense that, in the end, they simply run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat. For instance, Erik Karlsson played the entire playoffs with two hairline fractures in his left heel, yet he was still the postseason’s uncontested MVP for three rounds, compiling the most sensational series performance in a long time against Boston, and logging huge minutes afterwards in an effort that can be deemed inhumane. Moreover, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who scored 12 goals in 82 regular season games, unexpectedly bagged six markers in round two versus the Rangers, another performance that will linger in Sens’ playoff lore for years to come.

Against the Penguins, though, no Ottawa player could define the series in the same way, which is a far cry from saying they didn’t step up. Bobby Ryan’s overtime winner in Game 1 was sensational. Mike Hoffman’s game-winning goal in Game 6 was of enormous significance to extend the series. Craig Anderson stole Game 6 and was on his way to another epic exhibition in Game 7; Mark Stone scored in Game 7 and was outstanding on both sides of the puck over the last two matches; the mesmerizing Erik Karlsson, visibly exhausted from many weeks of suffering, picked up two primary assists in Game 7. Still, no one managed to grab the superhero cape and find the back of the net in overtime.

Ian Cole (#28), Sidney Crosby (#87, left) and goalscorer Chris Kunitz (#14) exult after the overtime winner in Game 7 (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Instead, that part was snagged by a Penguins player: 35-year-old Chris Kunitz, who decided Game 7 was a worthy occasion to tally his first two goals since February 16th – a span of 34 games – and emulated teammate Bryan Rust, who also netted a brace versus the Tampa Bay Lightning on a similar situation one year early. Championships are won or lost like this every year, and it didn’t go Ottawa’s way this time.

Best players in the series

Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The young goaltender patiently waited for an opportunity to reclaim the starting role following injury, and it would arrive after Fleury allowed 4 goals in the first period of Game 3. Mike Sullivan called Murray to action to jolt his team, the goalie used the rest of the match to shake off the cobwebs, and then backstopped the Pens to the series victory with a sparkling 0.946 Sv%, a 1.35 GAA and an exceptional 0.962 Sv% on the penalty kill, limiting the Sens man-advantage to a single goal in 26 shots.

Murray also pitched a shutout in Game 5, delivered a 0.941 even-strength Sv%, and looked calm and in control throughout a nerve-wracking Game 7, displaying maturity well beyond his 22 years of age to drive the series home.

Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray gets back into position in Game 4 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators)

We could just as easily underline the gutsy effort of goaltender Craig Anderson (0.936 Sv%, 2.07 GAA, 0.947 EV Sv%) or another outstanding performance from Erik Karlsson (5 assists, +5, 23 SOG), but let’s instead grant the scene to the oft-criticized  Bobby Ryan.

The 30-year-old revitalized his reputation in the postseason following a lousy 25-pt regular season output, and he was, once more, one the best Senators in round three. The powerful winger picked up two points and the overtime winner on a great individual run in Game 1, netted a crucial powerplay goal to tie the score in an elimination Game 6, and finished the series with a team-high 6 points and 5 even-strength points collected in 18:44 min of TOI per game.

Bobby Ryan beats goaltender Marc-André Fleury in overtime to give Ottawa the win in Game 1 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

While Ryan’s possession stats were far from impressive (41.27 adj CF%, 40.70 SCF%), he was still able to came out with a +3 rating, which would probably look even better if Guy Boucher hadn’t decided to break up the B. Ryan – J.G. Pageau – M. Stone line that gave the Penguins fits in the first two games and, again, in Game 7.

Will the Ottawa Senators return to the playoffs next year?

It’s unusual for a team that reaches the Conference Final to miss the playoffs altogether the next season, but we wouldn’t rule that out in this case since Ottawa definitely overachieved this postseason.

Nonetheless, Guy Boucher’s team will return in 2017-18 with the same core, the lone exception being Marc Methot, who the Sens could have maintained if they hadn’t refused to pay Vegas to back off in the expansion draft. The 32-year-old eventually landed in Dallas for a 2nd round pick, and Erik Karlsson will have to get used to a new partner, who may well be 35-year-old Johnny Oduya, inked to a one-year deal.

The Ottawa Senators’ roster will have a familiar feel when they return to action in the fall (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

If they hold trials for a longer term solution, 24-year-old Fredrik Claesson, who performed well in the playoffs on a bottom-pairing role, could be an option to consider, even if everyone in Ottawa is already salivating at the prospect of uniting the Swedish star with highly-touted 20-year-old Thomas Chabot, the MVP of the 2017 World Junior Championships, who would obviously benefit from a more sensible introduction to the NHL.

In net, 36-year-old Craig Anderson is entering the last year of his contract and the Sens need to think carefully about his successor. Backup Mike Condon, acquired from the Penguins mid-season, re-upped for the next 3 seasons at a pricy 2.4M per year, but he’s probably not the answer they’re looking for. With 4.8M in cap space, the Sens should keep their ears perked up for any potential starter that hits the trade market, save the money for a future upgrade in attack or prepare for the extensions of Kyle Turris (UFA) and Mark Stone (RFA) in 2018.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) and Mark Stone (#61), here celebrating a goal in Game 7, will be back in a Senators’ jersey in 2017-18 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

This offseason, GM Pierre Dorion added former Anaheim forward Nate Thompson (33 years old, 1 year, 1.65 M) and re-signed Jean-Gabriel Pageau (25, 3 years, 9.3 M total), Ryan Dzingel (25, 2 years, 3.6M) and Tom Pyatt (30, 2 years, 2.2M), but the Sens’ offensive unit is still missing the kind of difference maker that can push them to full-fledged contending status. They have skilled youngsters waiting in the wings, namely Colin White, the 21th overall pick in 2015, yet the clock keeps ticking. Erik Karlsson will be 29 years old when he reaches UFA status in 2019, and if he senses the Senators aren’t going in the right direction….

*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.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Nashville Predators (2-4)

One year after battling it out in seven gruelling games in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the paths of Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators crisscrossed again with a bigger reward on the line: a spot on the Stanley Cup Final.

For the eight straight season a team from the state of California contested the Western Conference Final, but not even Anaheim, who reached this stage for the second time in three years, could stop the fledging Nashville Predators. Overcoming crushing injuries along the way, the Predators closed out the series in six games to become just the third Conference lowest seed to advance to the Final round in the salary cap era.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks (OT)

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 2 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

Due to their inability to close out the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6, just 48 hours passed between the end of round two for the Anaheim Ducks and the beginning of the series against the Nashville Predators. Such short turnaround would stretch thin Anaheim’s roster and many key players exhibited signs of fatigue, including the in-form Ryan Getzlaf (0 goals, 4 assists, -2), however few struggled quite like the members of their rambunctious shutdown unit, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano.

Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler (#17) blocks a shot in front of goaltender John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Exhausted from having to chase Connor McDavid around the ice for seven games, the trio combined for just 4 pts in the series (3 from Silfverberg) and Kesler, in particular, was a diffuse shadow of his best. The two-way maven picked up just one assist (on the powerplay) in six matches, amassed an ugly -6 rating and got clobbered in the possession front (43.71 adj. CF%) as coach Randy Carlyle didn’t have the depth in personnel to scale back his usage (22:26 min TOI per game, 3:11 min SH TOI) or quality of competition.

Kesler and his linemates bandied mostly with the Predators top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen for the first four games, and barely absorbed the blow (GF 2-4) as the Ducks miraculously eked out a split, yet they also couldn’t make the difference later in the series (GF 1-2) when their defensive responsibilities loosened up with Johansen’s injury and the spotlight shifted from Nashville’s stars to their less heralded characters….

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

The Ducks had just broken Nashville’s 10-game home playoff win streak to level the series at two and headed home for a pivotal Game 5 when the news storm was unleashed. Nashville’s top line center, Ryan Johansen, would miss the rest of playoffs with a thigh injury and captain Mike Fisher, another pivot, would sit alongside him in the stands to carve two massive holes in the middle of the Predators’ lineup.  Meanwhile, Anaheim would be without the services of Rickard Rakell, probably their best forward in the series until then, and goaltender John Gibson would soon join him in the infirmary after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 5.

Consequently, both teams were left scrambling at a crucial juncture of their postseason run – the team that wins Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-7 series was 198-54 in NHL history – and yearning for the emergence of the proverbial playoff heroes. For Anaheim’s undoing, those who seized the moment were Nashville’s grinders.

Nashville’s Pontus Aberg scores as he falls to the ice in Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With nine minutes left on the clock and the score tied at one in Game 5, Ducks’ backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped Filip Forsberg’s shot only to watch as rookie Pontus Aberg spectacularly dove in and swiped the rebound into the net for the game-winning goal. The Swedish winger had just been elevated to top-six status, and his newly-formed partnership with Forsberg and regular fourth-line center Colton Sissons had more shenanigans up its sleeve.

Bottom-six forward Austin Watson broke the ice just 81 seconds into Game 6, and then it was the Sissons’ show. The 23-year-old doubled the lead in the first period, whacked home the puck to reclaim the two-goal advantage in the second, and later completed his first career hat-trick with six minutes to go to bomb the Preds in front for good.

Colton Sissons (L), Pontus Aberg (R) and Filip Forsberg (C) celebrate Sissons’ second goal in Game 6 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Watson would still add an empty netter and Pontus Aberg ended the night with two primary assists as Nashville’s depth sunk a Ducks squad that also received goals from overlooked parts like Ondrej Kase and Chris Wagner. However, they couldn’t make it count, going 0-7 on the powerplay in Games 5 and 6 and bobbling the puck on a late man-advantage that expired moments before Sissons scored the series-deciding marker.

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

The Ducks’ propensity to easily surrender momentum and cough away early leads had already emerged at various points during their previous series, and it would eventually prove fatal against the Nashville Predators.

For instance, on their first three defeats to the Predators, Anaheim scored first but couldn’t find a way to secure victory. They allowed the Predators to answer back with two goals in Game 1 before falling in overtime, played with fire in Game 3, when Nashville tied in the beginning of the third period and had two goals overruled before Roman Josi found the winner on a late powerplay, and slowly wilted in Game 5 up to the moment Pontus Aberg snatched another third period game-winning-goal.

Nashville’s Roman Josi (#59) pots his game-winning-goal in Game 3 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, Anaheim choked away a precious two-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 only to be saved by Corey Perry’s deflected shot in overtime, and conceded the final three goals in Game Six’s  loss right after rallying to tie the game at 3-3. All of this added up to a 10-4 goal deficit in third period play, and 10-2 (7-2 without empty net goals) in the last four games of the series, when Nashville simply found another gear and left Anaheim in the dust.

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks’ goaltender may have left the ice early in Game 5 to never be seen again, but he was still the team’s finest player in the series, keeping the scores close for the first four matches even as Nashville dominated the run of play to the tune of a 57.5 share of all shots on goal and a 58.8% of 5-on-5 scoring chances for.

Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson makes a save in Game 3 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

John Gibson responded to the assault by amassing an excellent 0.939 Sv% and 2.16 GAA, besting his counterpart Pekka Rinne (0.911 Sv%) to force the 2-2 tie after four games. However, unfortunately for Anaheim, when the 23-year-old went down injured, backup Jonathan Bernier couldn’t pick up the slack, allowing 6 goals in 34 shots (0.824 Sv%), including 4 in 16 on an abysmal Game 6 performance that doomed the Ducks’ chances.

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

With five goals and two assists, the Swedish winger was the main catalyst of Nashville’s offense throughout a series where he never failed to notch, at least, a point per game.

After tallying in Games 1 and 2, Forsberg tied the score in the third periods of Games 3 and 4, forced the rebound that Pontus Aberg nodded home for the game-winning-goal in Game 5, and banked the empty-net goal in Game 6, yet his contributions extended well beyond the scoresheet. A two-way force, Forsberg fired 25 shots on goal, picked up a series high +6 on the strength of his 7 even-strength points, and was a tremendous driver of possession (58.55 adj. CF%), scoring chances (65.88 SCF%) and high-danger scoring chances (21-13) in 20:44 min TOI per game.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg scores on an outstretched John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer is, probably, yes, but another deep run may be too much to ask with the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers on the verge of breaking out.

Unless, of course, they can find a way to use their 4M salary cap cushion to upgrade the attack, especially with a skilled third line center to relieve some scoring burden from the top-six. The names of Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens) have been floated around and the Ducks might have the assets and desire to complete a deal over the next few weeks, yet, for now, Anaheim is bound to enter 2017-18 with a roster very similar to the one they carried last year.

The Anaheim Ducks will bring the band back together next season (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

For Ducks’ fans, that isn’t exactly bad news, since they were able to dodge the expansion draft bullet Vegas had pointed at them. The price for retaining blueliners Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen was steep – the rights for 22-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore – but GM Bob Murray was also able to package Clayton Stoner and his 3.25M cap hit to Nevada, which facilitated the huge extension thrown Cam Fowler’s way (52M over 8 years, 6.5 M per). The Ducks will thus return the same defensive core to screen goaltenders John Gibson and Ryan Miller, the 37-year-old UFA who agreed to a reasonable 2-year, 4M contract to substitute Jonathan Bernier.

Up front, Anaheim is rooted to veterans Ryan Getzlaf (32-years-old), Corey Perry (32) and Ryan Kesler (33), who will drawing the big bucks for the foreseeable future, and therefore their Stanley Cup window inches ever closer to shutting down completely as their new waves of offensive talent fail to pan out outside of Rickard Rakell, who delivers great value at 3.78M until 2022, and Jakob Silfverberg, who may well break their bank if he keeps the same upward trajectory ahead of unrestricted free agency in 2019.

Anaheim Ducks’ winger Ondrej Kase scored in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Patrick Eaves, a 33-year-old coming off a career year, agreed to return on a 3-year deal worth 3.15M per season, and Anaheim hopes he can hold a top-six role, which would ideally belong to former 10th overall pick Nick Ritchie or fellow 21-year-old winger Ondrej Kase. Moreover, Dennis Rasmussen was picked up from Chicago to replace Nate Thompson in the bottom six, a position a guy like Sam Steel, Anaheim’s promising 1st round pick in 2016, might not be ready to crack just yet. But he, and the like, better be soon enough, or Anaheim’s plunge into the deep waters of the Western Conference may not be more than a couple of years away.

*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.

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4)

Under the fratricidal breadth of playoff action, it doesn’t get much better than when the Presidents’ Trophy winners face off against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Much less when both can throw a constellation of stars into the fray.

For the second consecutive postseason, Pittsburgh and Washington squared off in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs and through peaks and valleys ended up on familiar locations: the Penguins preparing for the next stage of their trip and the Capitals headed to the greens after the ninth downfall in ten postseason confronts between the two franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

A rundown of all major predictors of success in the NHL encapsulates how commanding were the Washington Capitals throughout the 7 game slate, yet hockey can be a pre-eminently chaotic game and you might as well just hang onto that notion to explain how a series like these could go the distance, much less tip Pittsburgh’s way.

In the balance of the tie, Washington outshot Pittsburgh by a 229-161 margin, a 58% share, and the discrepancy was even bigger at five on five (176-121, 59%). Moreover, encompassing all shot attempts, the Capitals controlled even more of the play, racking up a 61.41% CF%, which adjusted for venue and score still comes down to a preposterous 60.30%. This is almost uncharted territory in the most unbalanced of playoff series – for instance, no other team topped a 56% share of possession in round two – and if you inspect other metrics, such as scoring chances (65.74% at 5 on 5) or high-dangerous shot attempts (55.88%), things don’t look much brighter for Pittsburgh.

Washington administered the puck for most of the time but struggled to wreck Pittsburgh’s defensive wall (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

And still, Pittsburgh outscored Washington 20-18 overall and 16-13 at even strength to make the best of their limited opportunities and escape with unlikely victories in Game 1, when the Capitals wasted a 41-15 edge in scoring chances, or Game 4, when a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad survived a 13-39 shot attempts deficit in periods two and three.

Regression eventually seemed to be dawning in face of the victories secured by the Capitals in Games 5 and 6, yet they wouldn’t take much solace of that in a winner-takes-all Game 7, furiously responding to the Penguins’ ice breaker in the second period only to be abandoned to their own back luck once again. Washington would find their disheartening end after cracking in the third period, incidentally one of just five (in 22) periods over the series where Pittsburgh claimed a larger slice of the shot pie.

Bryan Rust watches as his shot sails into the net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in Game 7 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

Up two games to one in their 2016 series against Washington, Pittsburgh clawed its way to a vital home victory in Game 4 without the suspended Kris Letang to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. Fast forward twelve months and Pittsburgh guts out a 3-2 triumph to tighten the grip on the series in an even more perilous situation, this time missing their ailing superstar captain Sidney Crosby in addition to Letang,

Finding ways to win against all odds are one of the hallmarks of Championship-calibre squads and the Penguins, no matter how ugly it got at times, proved they were masters at it. At least against a Capitals team that devises innovative ways to recoil when facing their biggest rivals…or when staring the prospect of advancing to round three of the playoffs.

In times of adversity, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome Washington (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And so, after 2009 and 2016, history inclemently strutted down the same trail, with Pittsburgh edging Washington as much for their mental toughness and fortitude as for their on-ice prowess. In between fluky bounces of the puck and incredible saves by Fleury, It happened in Game 1, when the Capitals momentum from recovering from two goals down was shattered by a backbreaking Nick Bonino tally with just seven minutes to go in the third.

It almost happened in Game 3, when Pittsburgh snapped out of the trance dictated by Sidney Crosby’s early injury to tie the score with two 6 on 5 goals in the closing minutes before falling in overtime while wielding a 3-0 sledgehammer. It would, obviously, happen in Game 4, as they withstood the Capitals’ barrage to manufacture Justin Schultz’s powerplay goal that would stand as the game winner.

A (flightless) Penguin helps a Capitals’ player hover the ice in Game 6 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

And despite looking devoid of answers to counteract Washington’s physical pounding and clean up the bundle of turnovers that crippled their breakout in Games 5 and 6, it happened for Pittsburgh in Game 7, assembling a sturdy, unassuming road performance to shut down a desperate Washington team.

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

During the 2016 encounter between these teams, Washington’s Braden Holtby was outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, but he still came out with the reputation unscathed since his final numbers looked respectable (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage). Not this time though, as the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner shoulders much of the blame for his team’s demise in view of a pedestrian 0.887 Sv% (and matching 0.887 EV Sv%).

While it’s never easy to perform on such a light workload – the Pens wired an average of 23 shots on goal per game -, Holtby is rather accustomed to backstopping an elite team that suppresses opportunities and he still whiffed way too much in the series. For instance, the Canadian goaltender got beat below the blocker in Nick Bonino’s partial breakaway that decided Game 1, was pulled in the second intermission of Game 2 after allowing three goals in just 14 shots, and couldn’t muster an additional save in Game 4 to bail out his team in a crucial match.

The puck shot by Matt Cullen sneaks by Braden Holtby’s body in Game 2 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals’ netminder improved alongside his teammates later, shining in the third period of Game 5 to preserve the Capitals lead, but it all came crashing down in Game 7. Down 1-0, that weak, fluttering backhand from Patric Hornqvist which handcuffed the 27-year-old simply couldn’t fly past him. Not in the third period of a match where so much was at stake for the franchise. In that moment, an already deflated Capitals team capitulated for good.

Conversely, Marc-Andre Fleury, who filled in for the injured Matt Murray, had a series to remember, as much for his overall output (2.57 GAA, 0.921 Sv%, 0.930 EV Sv%, 1 SO) as for seizing the opportunity to recapture his playoff pedigree. Stepping up to the task brilliantly during the first four games, he then rebounded from getting light up in Games 5 and 6 to shut the door in Game 7. In the process, ghosts of years past were eradicated from his head. Maybe Holtby and the Capitals took notice.

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

The Russian center found some redemption for the disappointing performance of last year’s postseason, when a single assist picked up in six games ascertained his status as one of the patsies of another Capitals’ letdown.

Evgeni Kuznetsov celebrates Washington’s go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 5 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kuznetsov’s 7 points tied Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead and his four goals, all obtained at even strength, seemed to pop out in important junctures: the 25-year-old momentarily levelled the score in the third period of Game 1, scored in back to back games in Pittsburgh, and later found a gap short side to substantiate the Caps rally in Game 5.

A dangerous presence who generated regular offense (24 SOG, 61.0 adj. CF%, 65.31 SCF%) regardless of the matchup against Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bonino, the 25-year-old’s contributions could have been even more significant had his linemates, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, been able to find the mesh in the many chances the play of Kuznetsov generated.

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The 32-year-old goaltender was Pittsburgh’s stabilizing force on so many occasions over the 7 games that it is impossible to name them all, but in Pittsburgh’s collective memory one instant will certainly linger. The moment when the shaft of Fleury’s stick deflected an Alex Ovechkin bullet billed for the top corner in the second period of Game 7, preserving the precious one-goal advantage.

Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denies Evgeni Kuznetsov with a spectacular save in Game 3 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fleury certainly savoured all the big saves on what was his greatest playoff series performance since 2009 – and final one in a Penguins sweater – yet some of his teammates also chipped in decisively.

Rookie Jake Guentzel amassed a series high +5 and 8 pts (4+4), while Evgeni Malkin (3 + 4) drove the Penguins’ group that drew closest to positive territory in the possession front (47.97 adj. CF%) and remarkably compiled a 17-10 advantage in high dangerous shot attempts. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, despite being knocked out by Matt Niskanen in the first minutes of Game 3 and appearing…vulnerable after coming back, surfaced in selective instances to post 7 pts and a +4 rating in direct confront with the Capitals’ top defensive pair and most potent forward line.

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, even if their reign at the top of the NHL regular season standings is probably a thing of the past. Such is life in the league when all the chips are pushed to the table in two consecutive seasons, the team falls short and a bevy of important players hit the market at the same time.

Due to salary cap constraints, tough choices needed to be made this summer in Washington and the result was a major facelift to the roster. Against most projections, the Capitals retained top-line winger TJ Oshie, but they had to fork over 46M to close an 8-year deal that they may soon regret, while Evgeni Kuznetsov used KHL leverage to pry his own max-term extension at the premium rate of 7.8M per year. Furthermore his compatriot Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year pact that will pay him 5.1M per season, essentially ending Kevin Shattenkirk’s brief cameo in red and blue and Karl Alzner’s long tenure in Washington.

Justin Williams was one of the players that left Washington this offseason (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 28-year-old Alzner signed with Montreal, while fellow UFA Justin Williams returned to Carolina, squeezed out by Kuznetsov’s big ticket, which also forced GM Brian MacLellan to trade Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. In between, RFA Andre Burakovsky re-signed and UFA forward Devante Smith Pelley was added to the fold, however defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was line for a promotion to a top-four role, was scooped up by Vegas in the expansion draft to compound an offseason of suffering for Capitals’ fans.

With 4M in cap space and just 17 players on the active roster, Washington still needs one or two top-nine forwards to replenish the attack in addition to couple of depth defenseman, therefore opportunities are inevitably on the way for their youngsters. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, and 23-year-old Travis Boyd, who collected 63 pts at the AHL level in 2016-17, are names to watch up front, while Christian Djoos, a 2012 7th round pick who posted 58 pts in the minors, and former second rounder Madison Bowie are eyeing regular blueline duty.

Developing the in-house reinforcements to pick up the slack of the departed lot will take time, but you can never discount a team built around the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (signed until 2022), Nicklas Backstrom (2020), Matt Niskanen (2021) and Braden Holtby (2020). At least in the regular season, that is.

Another season, another playoff collapse for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in front of their fans (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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.

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)

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.