5 things to look forward to at Blackhawks Prospect Camp

The Blackhawks are in the middle of prospect camp right now which is the most excitement that the Blackhawks have had since probably October of last year. Here are a few things to look forward to for the rest of the week

 

1.) Henri Jokiharju gets the chance to display his growth

 

Jokiharju had a fantastic year in the WHL for Portland posting 12 goals and 59 assists. The 2017 first round pick was able to take his game to another level last season and now faces increased expectations because of the lack of an NHL defense corps that was in Chicago last year.

With the lack of a true, premier right handed defenseman on the NHL roster due to the decline of Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy, Jokiharju has a prime opportunity to make the NHL to start the season. There is a spot available if Jokiharju can prove that he is ready to make the leap. He’s an offensive minded defenseman who can get the puck up the ice quickly and this week will be about showing that he can do the little things.

 2.) Defense, Defense, Defense

 

 

The Blackhawks have a very deep pool of prospects on defense in their pool. In addition, to the aforementioned Jokiharju, this year’s top pick, Adam Boqvist, 8th overall, will be at camp and give the Blackhawks their first look at him. Rounding out the top right handed defensemen at camp are Ian Michell, 2017 second round pick, who had a fantastic freshman season at the University of Denver where he teamed up with Blake Hillman, who made his NHL debut at the end of the season.

Nicolas Beaudin, the other 1st round pick from this year, will also be at camp. Beaudin posted 12 goals and 57 assists in the QMJHL. Beaudin leads the left handed defensemen in the system which will also include Chad Krys, who attends Boston University, and Hillman.

3.) Blake Hillman continuing to try to show his worth

 

 

Hillman made his debut in the last few weeks of the season. Hillman is a left handed defenseman who can bring a little bit of speed to the game but is more focused on the defensive zone. Hillman did score one goal in four games last season.

With the focus on the five defensemen who have been drafted in the top two rounds in the past three years, Hillman could find himself lost in the shuffle. He can continue to prove he is one of the top defensemen in the system and someone who proves a long look in camp to possibly make the team as a bottom pairing defenseman.  

 

4.) The forwards

 

There isn’t a whole lot of top forward prospects in the pipeline for the Blackhawks. However, there are a few intriguing forwards that will take the ice. Jake Wise, a third round pick, was thought to be a first round pick this year before getting injured early on in the year. In addition, Josiah Slavin, the brother of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman, Jacob, will be participating at camp also.

Some of the other forwards that will be at the camp are Alexander Fortin, who was the breakout star last summer before struggling with injuries and production at Rockford this year. Mathais From and Tim Soderlund are two prospects from overseas that bear some watching as well.

 

5.) The one scrimmage at camp

 

In past years, there would be multiple scrimmages at camp but with the focus on individual drills and development, there will be only one scrimmage which will take place on Friday to conclude camp.

That means only one opportunity for prospects like Jokiharju, Boqvist and others to show what they have in game action and what they have learned before the Travers’ tournament and training camp in September. That scrimmage might be able to provide a showcase for some fo the bigger prospects and what they learned this week.

 

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Blackhawks have options with trade of Hossa’s contract

Thursday felt like mission accomplished for the Chicago Blackhawks. After a little over a year, they were finally able to unload Marian Hossa’s contract.

The Blackhawks completed a trade with the Arizona Coyotes with the centerpiece being Marian Hossa’s contract which will help the Coyotes be above the salary cap floor.

Blackhawks receive Coyotes receive
Marcus Kruger Marian Hossa
MacKenzie Entwistle Vinnie Hinostroza
Jordan Maletta Jordan Oesterle
Andrew Campbell 2019 3rd round pick from Chicago
2019 5th round pick from Arizona

In terms of a trade to get rid of Hossa’s contract, this is the best trade that the Blackhawks could have made without sacrificing top prospects or draft picks. They move down two rounds in the draft and it only costs them Hinostroza and Oesterle whose salaries are about $650,000 below Kruger’s.

While it hurts to lose Hinostroza, a hometown boy who had 7 goals and 18 assists in 50 games, it’s not a huge blow when the Blackhawks have similar players such as Alex Debrincat and Dylan Sikura who will play huge roles for them this season. Skiura in particular will be given a larger opportunity to potentially fill a top six role with the departure of Hinostroza.

Also don’t discount the impact that the return of Kruger will have on the roster. He instantly will slot in as a third or fourth line center depending on the rest of the moves that are made and won 55 percent of his faceoffs as well as contributes on the penalty kill.

Meanwhile, Entwistle is a power forward winger who can develop and adds another asset to the Blackhawks prospect pool.

Now with the savings that the Blackhawks have after moving Hossa’s contract, they have roughly $8.5 million to work with under the cap.

Part of the motivation for moving Hossa’s contract is it will help the Blackhawks with planning for the future and allow them to fit in extensions for Nick Schmaltz and Debrincat which won’t take effect until 2019 and 2020 respectively. Schmaltz will take up a bunch of the money freed up but it allows the Blackhawks to not have to worry about how to fit him in after this year.

However, this move does allow the Blackhawks to think about the immediate future. There are several options at play here for the Blackhawks and they could go several ways choosing to use some of the cap space to fill a hole on either of their two lines for a winger or a top four defenseman.

The timing of this move came too late for the Blackhawks to have an impact on the UFA market. Perhaps the best player left on the market is defenseman, Dan Hamhuis, but he does not fill the top four defense hole that looms large on the Blackhawks for the long term.

Another route could be to get involved in the RFA market and try to trade for one of the RFA’s out there that may have a hard time signing with their team. A few examples that the Blackhawks could get involved with are Jason Zucker, Mark Stone or Oliver Bjorkstrand to supplement their forward group. Zucker scored 31 goals this year for Minnesota and proved he can be a dynamic sniper and Stone recorded 20 goals and 62 points. Bjorkstrand is cheaper but would add to the depth of a young forward group.

Among the RFA defensemen that the Blackhawks could be interested in trading for are Matt Dumba, Josh Morrisey and Jacob Trouba. Dumba is the cream of the crop as he scored 14 goals and added 35 assists while averaging over 23 minutes a game and is a right handed defenseman. Morrisey and Trouba are left handed shots and both played for Winnipeg and put up 20+ points while skating 20+ minutes a night. The issue with all three defensemen is that they reside in the Central division along with Zucker and would cost a pretty penny to acquire from division rivals.

The other option that the Blackhawks can do is trade for players that have term on their contract. Immediately after the trade, there were several rumors that the Blackhawks were interested in both Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes as well as Justin Faulk of the Hurricanes. Pacioretty and Skinner are left handed shot left wingers but would fit seamlessly on the second line with Patrick Kane and Schmaltz meanwhile Faulk would be the right handed defenseman that the Blackhawks covet.

Skinner has scored 20 or more goals in 6 of the last four seasons along with 2 30+ goal seasons. Meanwhile, Pacioretty has 5 30+ goal seasons and has one more year left on his contract which is what Skinner has remaining. The Blackhawks could try to go for a super deal with Faulk and Skinner but it would cost them a lot.

And that’s the ultimate question to be answered. While any of these three would solve a major deficiency for the Blackhawks, what is it going to cost? The addition of Kruger, does allow the Blackhawks to shop Artem Anisimov as he is a third line forward which Kruger can fill. There’s no doubt the Blackhawks would love to get rid of Connor Murphy. But a trade for any of the three big players is going to cost the Blackhawks big which means it’s going to take a big prospect such as Gustav Forsling among others. The Blackhawks can pull it off but it might take some creativity among which prospects they want to get rid of.

The Blackhawks have a golden opportunity now that they didn’t have before today to improve their roster and plenty of options to field a more competitive roster in 2018-2019. Don’t be surprised to see a move soon from Stan Bowman to try to insert the Blackhawks back into the discussion of possible playoff teams in the Western Conference.

NHL Free Agency Preview

The time has come with free agency less than 48 hours away for the annual preview of NHL free agency here on Standing Room Only. The following is a look at the top fifteen free agents and predictions where they will land

1.) John Tavares, C, New York Islanders, 81 GP, 36 Goals, 47 Assists, 83 Points

Tavares is the crown jewel of the market and a point per game player is one of the best players to be on the market in recent years. Tavares is a number one center on any team in the NHL and has had meetings with Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston, Dallas, San Jose and the New York Islanders. Tavares has been an Islander all of his professional life and there is no doubt there is some loyalty there. But with a new general manager and coach, he might be tempted to go to another team. Tavares is someone who prefers a quiet environment and why not go to a place that emphasizes winning but still flies under the radar in San Jose? He would be the top line center and have talented wings on either side of him and a complete team.

Tavares signs a 7 year deal with San Jose Sharks

2.) James Van Riemsdyk, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs, 80 GP, 36 Goals, 18 Assists, 54 Points

Van Rimesdyk scored a career high 36 goals this season and has averaged over 27 goals the past five seasons which includes 2 30+ goal seasons and a season with 29 goals. Van Riemsdyk is someone who can contribute on the power play scoring 11 times this year and will put up double digit points on the power play. Van Riemsdyk is someone who would be able to provide secondary scoring behind a star and would be a good fit in the New Jersey giving them another legitimate winger behind the new MVP, Taylor Hall.

Van Riemsdyk signs a 5 year deal with New Jersey Devils

3.) Paul Statsny, C, Winnipeg Jets, 81 GP, 16 Goals, 37 Assists, 53 Points

Statsny had a huge impact on the young Winnipeg Jets after coming over at the trade deadline. Statsny had 4 goals and 9 assists in 19 games after being traded to Winnipeg and another 6 goals and 9 assists in 17 playoff games. Statsny, the clear number two center in this class, proved that he could be a good number two center on a young and talented offensive team. There is definitely interest in Winnipeg to re-sign him but they will need to get creative with their RFA’s in order to fit him in. But with Winnipeg in win now mode with a young core that took a huge step forward, they find a way to re-sign him.

Statsny re-signs for 3 years with Winnipeg Jets

4.) James Neal, LW/RW, Vegas Golden Knights, 70 GP, 25 Goals, 19 Assists, 44 Points

Neal had a huge impact as a leader on the expansion franchise and was instrumental in their playoff run. Neal has 10 consecutive seasons of 20+ goals and is the model of consistency. He will turn 31 before the season but has proven he is a big time player that is versatile. Neal provides a physical presence and should have no shortage of suitors including Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville, New Jersey among others. Neal would look good as the right wing on the line of Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad or on a line with Patrick Kane providing Chicago some scoring and physical play on the top six.

Neal signs for 3 years with Chicago Blackhawks

5.) Thomas Vanek, LW/RW, Columbus Blue Jackets, 79 GP, 24 Goals, 32 Assists, 56 Points

Vanek continues to be a player that puts up results and is desired after in free agency. Vanek has scored 20+ goals in 11 seasons and the guy continues to get it done year after year as he ages, he’s 34 at the start of this season. Vanek is someone who will provide scoring on the second line and can help out a team that needs some veteran scoring and some speed as well. Vanek has fans in Detroit, Minnesota among others. Those teams as well as Columbus, Chicago, Nashville and others will be on his list. But with his wife from Minnesota and the fact he played there in college and the pros, Vanek returns home to a team that he had 33 goals for in 2 seasons.

Vanek signs for 2 years with Minnesota Wild

6.) David Perron, LW/RW, Vegas Golden Knights, 70 GP, 16 Goals, 50 Assists, 66 Points 

Perron had career highs in points and assists this past season as he thrived in Vegas after struggling to fulfill his potential that he flashed earlier in his career. Perron hasn’t cracked the 20 goal mark since 2014 and did struggle to be in the Vegas lineup at times throughout the playoffs. But Perron thrived in Vegas and demonstrated that he could be a part of an effective top six in the right situation. Perron will have suitors in Arizona, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Toronto and others. But Vegas was a great situation for him and he should go back if the money is right.

Perron re-signs for 4 years with Vegas Golden Knights

7.) Mike Green, D, Detroit Red Wings, 66 GP, 8 Goals, 25 Assists, 33 Points

Green is the best defenseman, and a right handed shot to boot, out there after John Carlson, who re-signed with the Washington Capitals. Green has put up results and has proven over his career that he can be a reliable defenseman who will score 8-15 goals per season. Interesting fact that Green has scored double digit goals every other year going all the way back to 2011-2012 when he only played in 32 games. Green gets results and will play 70+ games. There are a lot of teams that will be interested in an offensive blue liner including Buffalo, Montreal, Colorado and others. But in the end, Green was very good in Detroit and it seems like a good fit where he can continue to thrive mentoring young players that are coming up.

Green re-signs for 3 years with Detroit Red Wings

8.) Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto Maple Leafs, 80 GP, 11 Goals, 31 Assists, 42 Points

Bozak is a bottom six forward who can provide decent offense from the third line and help out in the faceoff circle. Bozak has eight consecutive seasons of 10+ goals and will have no shortage of suitors for his services as he can play on the penalty kill as well. Bozak will garner interest from Toronto, Columbus, St. Louis among others but I think Bozak goes to a team that can use a veteran third line center in Columbus to provide leadership as well.

Bozak signs for 3 years with Columbus Blue Jackets

9.) Thomas Hickey, D, New York Islanders, 68 GP, 5 Goals, 19 Assists, 24 Points

Hickey is another young left handed defenseman who should get paid wherever he goes. He’s not going to put up big time offensive numbers but he should be good to contribute 20+ points which he has done in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Hickey is good for 4-5 goals a year and while he won’t blow you away he can be a consistent player on the blue line. He will garner interest from the Islanders, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Vancouver and others. But in the end, I think that Hickey goes back to the Islanders where he is comfortable for a decent term.

Hickey re-signs for 4 years with New York Islanders

10.) Calvin De Haan, D, New York Islanders, 33 GP, 1 Goal, 11 Assists, 12 Points

De Haan really struggled to follow his breakout year in 2016-2017 missing 49 games this year after scoring 5 goals with 20 assists the year before. De Haan has missed at least 10 games in 4 of the past 5 seasons so durability is a concern. When healthy he brings speed and the ability to move the puck quickly out of the zone as a left handed defenseman to a team. Several suitors will be clamoring to get him including Chicago, Columbus, the Islanders, Montreal and others. De Haan feels like he could be an off the board signing for someone who needs a mobility defenseman and is willing to gamble. Edmonton seems like a fit given those parameters as they try to rebound after a disastrous 2017-2018 season.

De Haan signs for 4 years with Edmonton Oilers

11.) Patrick Maroon, LW, New Jersey Devils, 70 GP, 17 Goals, 26 Assists, 43 Points

Maroon is a physical forward who has excelled playing alongside stars such as Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf and Hall. He is the perfect forward to put alongside them as he doesn’t command the puck and is a complimentary piece to stars that creates space for them by being his physical self. Maroon has scored 44 goals in the past two seasons and is a perfect piece for a team that has a star player that needs some protection. Some suitors include Edmonton, New Jersey and Colorado. In the end, Maroon is very valued but goes back to New Jersey who can give him the most money with their $24 million in cap space that they have.

Marooon re-signs for 3 years with New Jersey Devils 

12.) Riley Nash, C/RW, Boston Bruins, 76 GP, 15 Goals, 26 Assists, 41 Points

Nash had a breakout year for Boston setting career highs in goals, assists and points. He is someone who should make a nice chunk of change on the free agent market this year. Nash is a bottom six forward who will provide that scoring punch that teams need and eat up minutes as well. Nash has scored 10+ goals three times in his career and will put up close to 10 goals if not more for the team that he signs with. Potential suitors include Boston, Florida, Columbus, Edmonton, Calgary and others. In Calgary, Nash would reunite with his old coach, Bill Peters and be able to carve out a role in the lineup which screams a good fit.

Nash signs for 3 years with Calgary Flames

13.) Ian Cole, D, Columbus Blue Jackets, 66 GP, 5 Goals, 15 Assists, 20 Points

Cole is a prototypical defensive defenseman who can play on the penalty kill and will be a second line defenseman who can skate close to 20 minutes a game. Cole is a left handed shot as are all of the defensemen in this list and will be good for close to 20 minutes a game. Cole will provide leadership to a team having won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. He will have plenty of suitors including Columbus, Chicago, Edmonton, Dallas and others. But he was able to carve out a nice role in Columbus and can return there and be a part of a great, young team that has the possibility to make a huge jump next year.

Cole re-signs for 3 years with Columbus 

14.) John Moore, D, New Jersey Devils, 80 GP, 7 Goals, 11 Assists, 18 Points

Moore is a mobile, left handed shot defenseman who can eat up minutes as he skated close to 20 minutes a night this year. Moore has scored 23 goals in the past 3 seasons including a 12 goal season in the 2016-2017 season. Moore will be able to contribute on the penalty kill and is a good two way defenseman that would be a perfect fit in the top four of a team. Suitors will include New Jersey, Columbus, Toronto and Chicago. Moore grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in Winnetka and a return to his hometown team is intriguing where he could be a mentor to younger defensemen coming up and play in the top four behind Duncan Keith.

Moore signs for 3 years with Chicago

15.) Joe Thornton, C, San Jose Sharks, 47 GP, 13 Goals, 23 Assists, 36 Points

Thornton continues to shine at the age of 38. He is coming off a torn ACL but Thornton has proven he can come back from tough injuries. When you think San Jose Sharks, you associate Thornton with them. He’s a free agent for the second consecutive year but don’t expect to see him go anywhere. If they add Tavares, Thornton will take a pay cut and stay with San Jose. If he wants to go he’ll have plenty of suitors in Toronto, Florida, Nashville and Dallas. But Thornton is a Shark and he’ll stay that way until he decides he is done.

Thornton re-signs for 1 year with San Jose

 

Potential targets for the Blackhawks in free agency

With free agency a couple of days away, the Blackhawks will finally have an opportunity to improve their roster on Sunday.

Below is a brief list of players at certain positions that the Blackhawks could be targeting.

Forwards

The Blackhawks have a clear need to try to improve their top six forward group by targeting a second line left wing that can play opposite of Patrick Kane. It was a constant source of disappointment for the Blackhawks after they traded Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets to get Brandon Saad. In addition, the Blackhawks could use a fourth line center that can win faceoffs and help on the penalty kill.

Top six wingers

James Van Riemsdyk, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs 80 GP, 36 Goals, 18 Assists, 54 Points-Van Riemsdyk has put up big numbers in Toronto and is a great fit opposite Kane as he is a goal scorer. Van Riemsdyk has played 80+ games in 4 of the past 5 seasons in which he scored 136 goals. In addition, he is an ace on the power play where 11 of his goals came from as well as 9 assists last year. Van Riemsdyk has recorded at least 5 goals on the power play in six consecutive seasons and put up double digit points on the power play in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Van Riemsdyk is someone that will put up results and would benefit from having a linemate such as Kane. If the Blackhawks can get him on a three or four year deal for the price of around $6 million per year it would be worth it.

James Neal, LW/RW, Vegas Golden Knights, 71 GP, 25 Goals, 19 Assists, 44 Points- Neal is a big bodied forward who could bring some nastiness and physical play to a Blackhawks team that sorely needs it. Neal has scored 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons including a 31 goal and 40 goal season in there. Neal is the model of consistency which is another thing that the Blackhawks could benefit from. He can skate as well in addition to bringing protection to Kane and Nick Schmaltz. Neal turns 31 before the season but would be a fantastic addition at a 3 year contract for about $6 million per year.

Centers

Tyler Bozak, C, Toronto Maple Leafs, 80 GP, 11 Goals, 31 Assists, 42 Points- Bozak is a bottom six center who wins faceoffs at a 53.6 percent rate and would finally give the Blackhawks an option besides Jonathan Toews to win a crucial faceoff. Bozak will also provide offense on the from the bottom six as he has scored 10+ goals in eight consecutive seasons averaging 16 goals a season. Bozak would be provide veteran leadership as well for a young bottom six next year.

Jay Beagle, C, Washington Capitals, 79 GP, 7 Goals, 15 Assists, 22 Points- Beagle is a lower cost option who would be a fourth line center for the Blackhawks. However, he is a faceoff ace winning 58.5 percent of his faceoffs this season. The Blackhawks could benefit from a defensive minded forward who can win faceoffs and contribute on the penalty kill and Beagle fits that bill.

Defense

It’s no secret that the Blackhawks were an absolute dumpster fire on defense at times. The countless odd man rushes were tiring to watch as was the poor play in their own zone. It’s assured that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will be on the team and after that not much else is. The Blackhawks could do well for trading for an offensive right handed defenseman to compliment Keith such as Justin Faulk from Carolina but it remains to see if they could pull off such a deal. On defense they could use defensemen from either side that can fill a top four role while they wait for their youngsters to mature and be ready for NHL duty.

Ian Cole, D, Columbus Blue Jackets, 66 GP, 5 Goals, 15 Assists, 20 Points- Cole is a left handed top four defenseman that would provide a nice contrast to all of the young offensive defensemen that the Blackhawks have acquired for the future. Cole brings speed and physical play while averaging over 18 minutes a night. Cole is a defensive defenseman who will provide 10-20 points a year but does have durability concerns as he has only played 80+ games once in his career and has never played in more than 74 games in any other season.

Calvin De Haan, D, New York Islanders, 33 GP, 1 Goal, 11 Assists, 12 Points- De Haan is a young, left handed defenseman that provides a little bit of an offensive punch along with mobility and the ability to get the puck out of the zone quickly. De Haan will provide 15+ points a season but not much more. The biggest issue for De Haan is staying healthy as he has only played 82 games once in his career and seems to be more injured than healthy.

John Moore, D, New Jersey Devils, 81 GP, 7 Goals, 11 Assists, 18 Points- Moore is the local kid that grew up in Winnetka and played for the Chicago Mission and Chicago Steel growing up. Moore is a left handed defenseman who brings great speed as well as offense from the blue line as he has scored 19 goals in the past two years. Moore is just 27 and has averaged over double digit points in the past five seasons while missing 29 games in the past three years.

Goalies

The Blackhawks are in the market for a backup goaltender and a reliable veteran one given the health issues that surround Corey Crawford. It is rumored that the have agreed to a one year, $2.5 million deal with Cam Ward.

Examining the potential players the Blackhawks could draft tonight

The NHL Draft takes place tonight and the Blackhawks hold two picks in the first round (#8 and #27). Assuming that they keep both of these picks here are a few guys that they could be targeting with each pick.

# 8 Pick

Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, 6’1”, 208 lbs, USA U-18, NTDP-There has been plenty of buzz that the Blackhawks could be targeting Wahlstrom with the 8th overall pick. Wahlstrom has been in the national spotlight since he was 9 and made a sick goal in a between periods game at a game. Wahlstrom is the latest of studs to play for the US team in the National Training Development Program. Wahlstrom is a power forward who is a flat out sniper and scored 46 goals in 62 games this year and had 94 points. A big bodied sniper that has shined this year and also had 7 goals in 7 games at the IIHF U-18 tournament. Wahlstrom is committed to attend Harvard next year but could be ready for a spot in the lineup at the start of the 2019-2020 season.

Brady Tkachuk, LW, 6’3”, 192 lbs, Boston University-Tkachuk is the son of former NHL player, Keith and brother of Matthew who plays for the Calgary Flames. Tkachuk has put up results over the past couple of years posting 8 goals and 23 assists in 40 games this year helping Boston University win the Hockey East Championship. Tkachuk is a highly rated prospect who is the number 2 North American skater and has international experience leading the U-18 team to the gold medal in 2017 and winning a bronze medal at the world junior championship in 2018 while recording 3 goals and 6 assists in 7 games. Tkachuk is someone who will bring a nasty and skilled game with an edge just like his father and brother. Tkachuk is someone that could be ready to go to start the season; otherwise, he would play his sophomore year for Boston University.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C, 6’2”, 181 lbs, Assat, Finland-The consensus best center in the class that has risen up draft boards and might not be there at 8 with plenty of center needy teams ahead of the Blackhawks. Kotkaniemi is a big bodied center who has exceptional hands and a very good shot and has been playing in the Finnish Elite League against grown men this past season. He scored 10 goals and 19 assists in 57 games. Kotkaniemi showed that he can compete against the best in his age group when he helped lead Finland to a gold medal at the IIHF U-18 tournament in 2018 with 3 goals and 6 assists. Kotkaniemi is someone that could help add to the center depth for the Blackhawks if he should somehow be available. It;s possible that Kotkaniemi could come over and start this year but he’s more likely someone who will come to start in 2019-2020.

Barrett Hayton, C, 6’1”, 190 lbs, Sault St. Marie, OHL-Hayton is a two way center who could be a sneaky darkhorse candidate if the Blackhawks want to go center and Kotkaniemi is gone which is most likely. After recording 9 goals and 18 assists in his first season in 2016-2017, Hayton exploded with 21 goals and 39 assists in 63 games played this year. Hayton does a lot of little things right and focuses on a 200 foot game and won’t wow with elite offensive numbers. Hayton would need at least another year of seasoning at the OHL and could contend for a roster spot in 2019-2020.

Quinn Hughes, D, 5’10” 173 lbs, Michigan-Hughes would be the left handed defenseman that the Blackhawks covet. However, he is unlikely to be at #8 unless something crazy happens as he is projected to be the second defenseman off of the board. Hughes is mobile and very skilled with the puck. In his freshman year this year at Michigan, he put up 5 goals and 24 assists in 37 games en route to being named to the Big Ten All-Rookie team and Second All-Star team. Hughes has played for team USA previously winning a bronze medal at the world juniors this year and a gold at the IIHF U-18 in 2017. In the two tournaments, Hughes recorded 1 goal and 7 assists in 14 games. Hughes is the oldest of three boys and his younger brother Jack is tabbed as a possible number one pick in 2019. Hughes could contend for a roster spot this year, if not, he would go back to Michigan for his sophomore season and be on the roster in 2019-2020.

Evan Bouchard, D, 6’2”, 196 lbs, London, OHL-Bouchard is up there in the class for second best defenseman in this draft class along with Hughes. Bouchard is a right handed defenseman who has improved his game and was dominant in the OHL this year as he led all defenseman with 87 points in 67 games. Bouchard scored 25 goals this year and his 87 points were good for eighth in the league. This was the second year in which Bouchard tallied double digit goals and his point total has doubled each year. Bouchard is a mobile defenseman who is very quick and a skilled puck mover who also quarterbacks the power play. Bouchard has proven he is a two way defenseman and if he is there warrants a look even with Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell in the Blackhawks pipeline as right handed defensemen. Bouchard could be ready to play this year; otherwise, he would go back to the OHL.

#27 Pick

Bode Wilde, D, 6’2”, 198 lbs, USA, U-18, NTDP-Wilde is a produce ot the Chicago Mission which has been a source of previous picks, most notably, Nick Schmaltz. Wilde is a right handed defenseman but would take a few years before he’s ready to make an impact and could leave the Blackhawks set on the right handed side of defense. Wilde is committed to play at Michigan next season.

Akil Thomas, C, 5’11, 177 lbs, Niagra, OHL-Thomas has recorded back to back 20+ goal seasons and has produced on an international level for Canada in the past two IIHF U-18 tournaments registering 2 points in 9 games. Thomas is someone that will also be in the OHL for at least the next season.

K’Andre Miller, D, 6’3, 198 lbs, USA U-18, NDTP-Miller is a left handed defenseman with a lot of speed to his game. In 58 games, Miller had 9 goals and 20 assists in an impressive campaign in the 2017-2018 year. Miller would allow the Blackhawks to put a premier left handed defenseman into the pipeline to possibly succeed Duncan Keith.

Alexander Alexeyev, D, 6’4”, 196 lbs, Red Deer, WHL-Alexeyev is a left handed defenseman from Russia who has been playing in the WHL for the past two seasons. Aleveyev had a good year in the WHL for Red Deer posting 7 goals and 30 assists in 45 games. Alexeyev is another possibility for a left handed defenseman to add to give some depth behind Keith.

Prediction: There seems to be a real possibility that the Blackhawks might try to trade one of these two picks most likely #27. The Blackhawks will absolutely take the best available at #8 and it’s likely that Kotkaniemi, Hughes and Bouchard will be gone by the time that the Blackhawks get on the clock. It could come down to if Tkachuk or Wahlstrom are available and I think that Wahlstrom will be available. If that’s the case, the Blackhawks will be glad to take Wahlstrom at number 8 as he will be a skilled power forward that would be in their lineup no later than 2019. At pick 27, if the Blackhawks go forward at 8, it seems they would be motivated to go defense. With that being the case and a local boy possibly available, I think the Blackhawks would target Bode Wilde as he grew up and played for the Chicago Mission which makes for a great local story even if he would add to their glut of right handed defensemen in their system.

 

5 things the Chicago Blackhawks must do in the offseason

For the first time in a decade, the Blackhawks missed the playoffs. That means there is plenty of work to be done in the upcoming weeks starting with the draft at the end of this weekend and free agency the following weekend. Here are 5 things the Blackhawks must do in order to get back in the playoffs next year.

1. Trade Marian Hossa’s contract

It may seem strange for the Blackhawks to move the contract of Hossa, who is retired but not retired because of the NHL rules that would severely punish the Blackhawks if he retires before his contract has expired in three years. But it could be the most important thing for the Blackhawks to do in the offseason to clean up their books and not have to worry about earmarking money that Hossa ties up for in-season improvements after putting his contract on long term injured reserve. There are plenty of teams that are looking to get to the floor (ex: Arizona Coyotes). The ultimate question is what is it going to cost the Blackhawks to get rid of Hossa’s contract and allow them to have that $5 million to use in free agency. If it takes their second first round pick, (#27 overall) it may be worth it to not have to deal with the financial gymnastics of juggling Hossa’s contract for the next three seasons; therefore, having the ability to use the money in July rather than wait for October.

2. Get a top four defenseman

One area that the Blackhawks struggled last season was the depth of their defense. They had Duncan Keith but not much else in terms of defense. A start would be getting somebody who can play opposite Duncan Keith either in free agency or via trade. One player the Blackhawks could try to target is Justin Faulk who they have been linked to. It’s not uncommon for Stan Bowman to do some retooling as he did on draft day before the first round when he acquired Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy in separate trades for Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson respectively. For the Blackhawks, they could do with someone who is ready to play in the top four and can get the puck out of the zone quickly. Faulk is just one of the candidates as possibly reacquiring Hjalmarsson or others such as Carolina’s stable of defensemen.

3. Sign for a top six left wing

There is no doubt that the loss of Artemi Panarin hurt the Blackhawks from an offensive standpoint. The sterling performance of Panarin combined with the surprising regression of Saad only made the trade worse. However, there is still time for Saad to regain his form. However, this left wing should be specifically for Patrick Kane to help him and bring another legitimate scorer onto his line. With Nick Schmaltz firmly entrenched at his center, the Blackhawks should bring a scorer with some size onto the line. Possible free agent targets are James Van Riemsdyk or James Neal. Both players will go to the dirty areas and should put up 25+ goals annually on the wing of Kane and Schmaltz. Additionally with the cap space that the Blackhawks have they should be able to fit in Van Riemsdyk or Neal for $5-6 million for 3-4 years.

4. Get size and tenacity up front

One thing that is apparent about the Blackhawks is the lack of size of a majority of players. Several players throughout the forward group are under six feet. All four of those (Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza and Dylan Sikura) are expected to contribute and there are only five players who are over 200 pounds and only two of those are locks for the roster in Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. This isn’t necessarily advocating for a bunch of brutes sized like John Scott or Bob Probert who will pound guys into submission. But a couple of bigger guys who can provide some pushback and find their way to the dirty area would be an immense help as well as providing protection for guys like DeBrincat and Sikura. There were too many times last year where the Blackhawks lacked a bite and push back that some physical players could provide.

5. Use the #8 overall pick to take the best available player

There is no question that the Blackhawks will have an opportunity to take a really good player at number 8 and that will be their philosophy when they announce their pick. The Blackhawks have so many holes from defense to top six forwards that they have to take the best available. There will be plenty of candidates to choose from. If the Blackhawks want a center, they can take Jesperi Kotkaniemi from Finland or Barrett Hayton. There could be a couple of wingers in Oliver Whalstrom, who has been a name since he was nine or Brady Tkachuk who has NHL bloodlines. If the Blackhawks want to focus on the blueline, there are several options of guys who could be available such as Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson or very unlikely, Quinn Hughes. The point is the Blackhawks can take the best available and it will also fill a need as well of adding more talent into the pipeline and towards the future.

 

Ovechkin finally climbs the Stanley Cup mountain

The journey was long and arduous but Alex Ovechkin finally climbed the mountain and reached the summit after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career. No longer does Ovechkin have to hear if he can win the big one. He answered that question with a resounding yes over the past two months. Was it the decreased expectations for a younger team that still managed to win the division? Perhaps that was the reason that Ovechkin and the Capitals thrived in the postseason this year unlike in years past. However, make no doubt, it was the much maligned leader of the Capitals who proved he is indeed in the conversation of greatest players of all time.

This whole playoff run was about Ovechkin and him getting the monkey off of his back; it was about him having his Steve Young moment with the various cuts to him on the bench living and dying with each moment. There is no doubt that Ovechkin put together the finest performance of his career in this postseason. Ovechkin was the straw who stirred the drink for the Capitals in the playoffs. There were many big moments which were not there in the past and all of them had Ovechkin in the middle.

In game 6 against Columbus in the Metropolitan Division semifinal, Ovechkin scored 2 goals in the series clincher both scored in the second period which put Washington ahead for good. Against Columbus, Ovechkin destroyed them with 5 goals and 3 assists in the series. It continued against Pittsburgh where Ovechkin had 3 goals and 4 assists. It was Ovechkin who drew in 3 defenders before passing to an open Jakub Vrana right in front of the net in game 5. If that wasn’t enough who could forget his famous push pass forward up the ice to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the next game which secured the series against their nemesis Pittsburgh in Game 6?

In the conference final, Ovechkin had 4 goals and 3 assists, none bigger than his goal to open the scoring in Game 7 in Tampa Bay, a minute into the game that would be the game winner. Ovechkin factored in heavily into three of the four wins in that series scoring 3 goals and 2 assists in those wins and finishing with 4 goals and 3 assists. In the Stanley Cup Final, Ovechkin scored huge goals in Games 2 and 3 including the scrum around the net where he scored a greasy backhander while falling to the ice. His stellar performance continued in the Cup clincher in Game 5 with a power play goal in the second period. In the Stanley Cup Final, Ovechkin recorded 3 goals and 2 assists.

Ovechkin finished the playoffs with 15 goals and 12 assists finishing second in the playoffs with 27 points in 24 games only trailing Kuznetsov who had 32 points in the same amount of games. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe for his efforts in leading the league in goals in the postseason and in leading the Capitals. Ovechkin was a huge reason for winning the Stanley Cup as he was involved in some way in all of the big moments throughout the playoffs.

Now Ovechkin will be remembered as one of the greats as he should be and was before this run. Ovechkin has 607 goals in the regular season in 1003 games. He is known as the greatest goal scorer of this generation and someone who has a chance to eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s goals record of 894. However, if he went his entire career without winning the Cup, he would have been remembered as Dan Marino, Karl Malone, John Stockton and others. When you mention those names, the argument is, “he was a great player…but he didn’t win a ring”. No longer is there a but associated with Ovechkin when his name is brought up. He can now take his place among the greats with no underlying theme.

Ovechkin recorded at least a point in 19 of 24 games this playoffs. In the games that Ovechkin did not record a point, Washington went 2-3 compared to 14-5 when he recorded a point. Ovechkin had 8 multi point games which Washington went 6-2. Ovechkin was dynamic and consistent at the same time which is what helps win Stanley Cups. Ovechkin had a 6 game point streak to end the playoffs and recorded a point in 8 of his last 9 games. Ovechkin didn’t necessarily perform any better than he has in the past in the postseason but he showed up in every big moment. Against Pittsburgh he delivered the staggering blow in game 5 and then helped with the knockout blow in Game 6. It was his goal in Game 7 of the conference final that started things for Washington. And his goal in Game 3 helped turn the tide in Washington’s favor and got things rocking in Washington.

Ovechkin was brilliant this year and it continued in the playoffs where he elevated his game and was the best player. He didn’t need to have the most points but he stepped up every time that there was a moment that Washington needed Ovechkin was in the middle of it. And in it all, it’s the journey that is worth it if you make it to the top. Nobody cares about the past 43 years for Washington who won their first Stanley Cup in their 44 year history. All of the pain against Pittsburgh and others, it just made the journey sweeter for Ovechkin and Washington. At long last, Ovechkin has hoisted the Stanley Cup and after his stellar performance in the playoffs was a huge reason why. Ovechkin has finally reached the top of the mountain and can finally call himself, a champion.

Stanley Cup Final Preview

The Stanley Cup Final starts tonight with Game 1 in Las Vegas. Here is a breakdown of the series.

The Skinny: Vegas advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season after winning the Pacific Division in the regular season. Vegas swept Los Angeles in the divisional semifinal round, defeated San Jose 4-2 in the divisional final and defeated Winnipeg 4-1 in the conference final. Washington won the Metropolitan Division in the regular season and advanced to the their first Stanley Cup Final since 1998 which they lost to the Detroit Red Wings. Washington defeated Columbus 4-2 in the divisional semifinal round, Pittsburgh 4-2 in the divisional final round and Tampa Bay 4-3 in the conference final.

Vegas: Vegas has been led by two things their top line and their goaltending throughout the entire season and their playoff run. The line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson has produced 16 goals and 31 assists in the playoffs. The trio are the only Vegas players that are in double digits in points in the playoffs. Vegas has gotten some depth scoring from Alex Tuch who has 6 goals tied for second on the team and leads the team with 3 power play goals. James Neal is fourth on the team in goals with 4 and David Perron has not scored a goal but has 7 assists in the playoffs. Vegas doesn’t have a number one defenseman but they do have a bevy of top four type defensemen that have excelled without a true number one. Nate Schmidt, the former Washington Capital, leads the team in ice time averaging just shy of 25 minutes a game with 6 points. Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, Brayden McNabb and Schmidt each have 2 goals from the blue line. Theodore, Miller and Derek Engelland all average over 20 minutes a game. Vegas has an average power play which is 10th in the playoffs converting at 17.6 percent (9 of 51 chances) and a penalty kill that has been really good killing 82.5 percent of penalties (47 of 57 chances) which is 4th in the NHL but they will have their hands full with a dynamic Washington power play. Tuch, Karlsson and Miller have combined for 7 of the 9 Vegas goals on the man advantage this year. The best player in the playoffs for Vegas has been Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes. Fleury has made highlight reel saves every game and is playing the best hockey of his career. Fleury is 12-3 with a 1.68 GAA, .947 save percentage and 4 shutouts which he leads the NHL in the playoffs in.

Washington: Washington has faced their toughest playoff road this year and they have passed the test with flying colors. The difference between this year and past years is that Washington has been led by a group that is resilient and led by Alex Ovechkin. The captain has played his best hockey so far of his career. Ovechkin has been sensational in the playoffs and he has been the one to make the engine go. Ovechkin is second in the league in points (22) and goals (12) in the playoffs. In the big moments, Ovechkin has been involved whether it’s his assist on the series clincher in game 6 against Pittsburgh or the game winning goal in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. His linemate, Evgeny Kuznetsov, has been great also leading the league in points (24) and third in the league in goals (11). The two of them have been dynamite in the playoffs. T.J. Oshie has provided important depth scoring with 7 goals, 5 of those on the power play and Nicklas Backstrom has 16 points including 12 assists in 15 games. John Carlson is the leader of the defense and has been very good with 3 goals, all on the power play, and 13 assists while averaging shy of 26 minutes a game. Dimtry Orlov and Matt Niskanen are other defensemen that log heavy duty minutes, both over 24 minutes a game, and provide occasional offense. Washington has been great on the power play converting on 28.8 percent of the time (17 of 59 chances) which is 2nd in the NHL. On the other side it hasn’t been a good time for Washington the penalty kill which has killed 75.4 percent of their penalties (46 of 61 opportunities) which is 10th in the NHL. There are four players on the power play that have 3 or more goals, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Carlson and Oshie which Washington can use to their advantage to not allow Vegas to key in on one player. It has been a story of redemption for Braden Holtby who regained his starting job in Game 2 of the Columbus series. Since then Holtby has been great going 12-6 with a 2.04 GAA, .924 save percentage and 2 shutouts. Holtby became just the fifth goaltender in NHL history to record shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a series which he did against Tampa Bay to win the Eastern Conference.

Player to watch

Vegas: James Neal-It would be easy to say Fleury and he is a huge player to watch but the point is to find someone who needs to step up. Neal has been good but quiet at times in the playoffs. Vegas needs second line players to step up and provide depth scoring. Neal has 4 goals and 5 assists so far. Neal is a physical presence who should provide some additional help on the forecheck and can create havoc down low in front of Holtby.

Washington: Dimtry Orlov-The one area that Washington needs to focus on in the series is on defense. Vegas has a ton of speed to burn which creates an aggressive forecheck. For Washington there is Carlson and then a drop on defense. Orlov needs to help fill that gap and his 2 goals after 10 in the regular season are a good sign. He is shooting below his regular season percentage by 3 points. But if he can put in a goal or two along with playing good defense in front of Holtby it will help Washington’s chances.

Prediction: This is a going to be a fantastic series. There are plenty of storylines with George McPhee taking the team he built against the one he worked for previously. Barry Trotz and Gerard Gallant are two great coaches that are finally getting their due. As well as the players on the ice. Ovechkin and company finally getting to a Cup final only to play an expansion team. Fleury is going against Ovechkin after many classic battles and the return of Schmidt to Washington. Ovechkin has been spectacular during the playoffs and has been seemingly involved in every big play for Washington. Meanwhile Fleury has stolen the show for Vegas and recorded multiple shutouts in the first two rounds. Vegas has a great top line and can skate around the opposition. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are going to get theirs in this series but Washington is going to need much more from others not named Oshie. Meanwhile, Vegas has the speed to give the Washington defense trouble in their own end. The Vegas forecheck is relentless and creates turnovers. Karlsson, Smith and Marchessault will create headaches for the Washington defense to go along with the physical play of Neal and Tuch. The speed of all four lines of Vegas to go along with the stellar goaltending of Fleury will be enough for Vegas to win their first series at home and improbably the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.

Vegas in 7

Conn Smythe: Marc-Andre Fleury

 

Stanley Cup Final Storylines to watch

The Stanley Cup Final has been set and while it doesn’t start for a few days, there are plenty of juicy storylines besides George McPhee versus his old team. So here’s some storylines to watch when the series finally starts between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals in order from least compelling to most compelling. And yes McPhee versus Washington is one of the ones on the list.
1.) The health of players after a grueling run in the playoffs

 

 

Every year there’s always guys that are just gutting it out and we find out that someone had a broken ankle and a separated shoulder along with punctured lung but they still played all of the games in the Stanley Cup Final. Yeah hockey is weird as players just gut it out as long as they can barely move. Guys are banged up but they just continue to play for the love of the game and the chance to get their hands on the Stanley Cup.

 

2.) George McPhee versus Washington

 

In one of the best stories in this final, it’s that the former general manager of Washington, George McPhee has built Vegas into a conference champion. In the expansion draft, he got Nate Schmidt who has been a very good defenseman for them. For all of the grief that he got in the past in Washington for having his moves not pan out for Washington and getting them to a cup final at the very least, McPhee has made shrewd moves this year. Now McPhee could have the possibility of building a team slightly better to beat his old team in order to win that elusive Stanley Cup.

3.) The Vegas pregame show

 

 

If you haven’t seen the Vegas pregame show right before they take the ice, it is something to watch. It’s a well choreographed show that has a theme and the team that creates the show has elevated their game throughout the playoffs. In the first round they had an amazing show with the knight taking on a king. Yes that’s right there was a show with the knight taking on a king in a medieval showdown that is better than any medieval times show ever made. In the divisional final, the knight took on a shark which was even better and then in the conference final, the knight destroyed a freaking jet. And not just a small jet, a 200 foot long jet and let’s just suspended the fact that it was a computer animated jet, that’s some impressive creativity there! With the Golden Knights taking on the Capitals, there are so many possibilities. They could take on, “I’m just a bill” or we could have treason put into the show. There’s so many directions that they can take it and it’ll be fun to watch and see which way they take.

4.) The race for the Conn Smythe

 

 

The Conn Smythe race has four favorites entering this round. Three players are from Washington and one from Vegas. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin have been the two best players for Washington. Kuznetsov and Ovechkin are respectively the top two scorers in the playoffs and have each had huge moments so far. Kuznetsov scored the series winner against Pittsburgh and Ovechkin has had big moments throughout the playoffs including the game winner in game 7 in the Eastern Conference final. Meanwhile Braden Holtby has been very good in net including back to back shutouts in game 6 and 7 in the Eastern Conference final, the 5th goalie in NHL history to do so. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic throughout the playoffs recording 4 shutouts and making great save after great save continuously. It’s hard to see somebody besides the four candidates winning the Conn Smythe but there’s always the possibility for a dark horse coming out of nowhere.

 

5.) An expansion team might actually win the Stanley Cup

 

This isn’t the first time that an expansion team has played for the Stanley Cup. In 1968, the St. Louis Blues made the Stanley Cup Final in their first year. The caveat with that is the league had doubled in size from 6 to 12 teams that season and all of the expansion teams were placed in one division guaranteeing one of them a berth in the final which St. Louis was subsequently swept out of. However, Vegas making the Stanley Cup Final is incredible as this team had to go against established teams and has been running through the league all season long. It’s incredible but not totally unexpected with the way that Vegas has played since the first game.

 

6.) Washington and Alex Ovechkin going for their first Stanley Cup

 

Washington has only been in the cup final once in their franchise history which they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. This is the first final berth in 20 years for the Capitals and the first in the Ovechkin era. It has been a long struggle for the Capitals in the Ovechkin era and they never seem to do anything easy, more on that below. But in his 13th season, Ovechkin has finally led the Capitals to a Stanley Cup Final. Ironically, his first final berth comes against an expansion franchise that has ruined the future of reasonability for any expansion franchise in the future.

 

7.) The lack of adversity for Vegas vs. the load of adversity for Washington

 

It’s been two completely different roads for these two teams. Vegas has had a relatively smooth run to the Cup Final going 12-3 including a first round sweep of Los Angeles, winning the final two in the series against San Jose. After dropping their first game one in a playoff series against Winnipeg, Vegas won four straight in the Western Conference final. Vegas has won all three series on the road but hasn’t faced a whole lot of trouble in their run. Meanwhile, Washington has had an adventurous run so far. After dropping the first two games at home against Columbus, Washington won the next four games. In the second round, Washington went against their bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins and won games 5 and 6 in a dramatic series to win in 6. In the Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay, Washington won the first two on the road before dropping the next three before winning the final two games to come back and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final. Will the twists and turns for Washington serve a purpose to help them in their first Stanley Cup in two decades against a team that has been sailing pretty the whole year? That is a question that will be answered soon.

8.) Can Alex Ovechkin actually win?

 

 

Let me explain this one first as the headline lends itself to the classic can Alex Ovechkin win? And while that’s of course a main point, here’s the other point to this headline. If Washington wins, then all that is going to be said in regards to Ovechkin that he won a Stanley Cup but it was against an expansion franchise and he’s not going to get the credit that he deserves for leading Washington to the Cup because of the perception that it was an easy win and the clock struck midnight for Cinderella which Vegas is not. However, if Washington loses, then Ovechkin will forever be chastised for losing to an expansion franchise. Whenever anyone mentions Ovechkin and the Capitals, they’ll be remembered as the team that lost the championship to an expansion franchise and not to a great team that was among the best in the NHL all year long. It’s weird to say but Ovechkin might find himself stuck in a no-win situation no matter the result of the Cup final.

9.) Braden Holtby versus Marc-Andre Fleury

 

 

The two oft maligned goaltenders have struggled in the past. Holtby has had plenty of playoff failures in the past and was replaced by Philipp Grubauer earlier this season and to start the playoffs because of the poor play of Holtby. There have been struggles for Holtby in the past in the playoffs as he had failed in past postseasons; however, Holtby has been better this year and was tremendous in the last series recording shutouts in games 6 and 7 to lead a comeback from a 3-2 series deficit and has gone 12-6 with a .924 save percentage, 2.01 GAA and 2 shutouts. From 2009-2013, Fleury had an abysmal save percentage in the playoffs never registering a save percentage of .910 or above. In the past two postseasons, Fleury has won 21 playoff games with 6 shutouts and has greatly improved. Fleury has been incredible so far this year going 12-3 with a .947 save percentage, 1.68 GAA and 4 shutouts. Fleury allowed 6 goals in the 4 wins after game 1 against the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. This is the fifth Stanley Cup Final that Fleury has been a part of.

 

10.) Alex Ovechkin versus Marc-Andre Fleury

 

It’s ironic that in order to win his first Stanley Cup that Ovechkin has to go through a former Pittsburgh Penguin in Fleury. Pittsburgh is going to forever be the nemesis of the Ovechkin and the Capitals. Ovechkin has scored 32 goals in 52 career games against Fleury including 10 on 62 shots in 14 postseason games. (stats courtesy of Jonathan Bombulie of triblive). He has actually had better success scoring against Fleury in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Ovechkin scores at a .71 goal per game pace versus .58 goal per game pace. Meanwhile, the same can be said of Fleury who didn’t have to face Pittsburgh but will have to take on Ovechkin and Washington, who he has defeated in the past when he was Pittsburgh. Fleury is playing the best hockey of his career for Vegas and has had a monster run in the playoffs. There’s something fitting about the goalie who is on a new team trying to cement his legacy against the greatest sniper in the game also trying to cement his legacy. Ovechkin versus Fleury could be the duel that decides this series and it’s going to be one heck of a show to watch.

 

Conference Final Preview

The final four teams are playing for a spot in the Stanley Cup final. Here is a preview of the Conference Final round.

Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals

The Skinny: Tampa Bay advanced to the conference final after defeating the New Jersey Devils in 5 games in the Atlantic Division Semifinal and Boston Bruins in 5 games in the Atlantic Division Final. Washington advanced to the conference final after defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in 6 games and Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 games.

Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay has been dominant so far in the first two rounds of the playoffs and are getting contributions from multiple players up and down the lineup. Nikita Kucherov has been the best player for the Lightning the entire playoffs as he has scored 6 goals and 6 assists. No longer do the Lightning have to rely on Steven Stamkos who has started to heat up with 2 goals and 2 assists in his past 3 games. The Lightning rely on their youth led by Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and others. Point and Palat have scored 4 goals each as well. Tampa Bay has gotten 5 goals in the playoffs from the blue line but none from superstar defenseman Victor Hedman who has 6 assists in over 26 minutes of ice time per game. They will need more offensive output from Hedman to help drive the offense. Tampa Bay has a very good power play that is led by Stamkos and Alex Killorn who have combined for 5 goals on the man advantage. Tampa Bay has the 4th ranked power play going 10 for 38 (26.3 percent) and the penalty kill has gone 23 for 31 (74.2 percent) tied for 10th in the NHL. Andrei Vasilevskiy has had a very good playoff run so far going 8-2 with a 2.20 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Washington: Washington finally expelled their playoff demons against their nemesis, the Penguins after being eliminated by them the past two seasons. It was the captain, Alex Ovechkin, who led the way for Pittsburgh recording 3 goals and 4 assists in the series victory. It has been a tremendous playoffs so far for Ovechkin who has 8 goals and 7 assists and has been the difference maker for Washington. It’s not all Ovechkin though, as Evgeny Kuznetsov has 7 goals and 7 assists including the series clincher in game 6 against the Penguins. Washington has gotten contributions from Nicklas Backstrom who has 10 assists and T.J. Oshie who has 5 goals in the playoffs. Backstrom is a little banged up and Washington will need to get him back to bring some much needed depth to the lineup. Tom Wilson will come back to start the series after serving a 3 game suspension and brings a physical element to Washington and protection for the stars. John Carlson has been spectacular for Washington on the back end with 3 goals and 8 assists in over 26 minutes of ice time per game. Washington has excelled on the power play as well with 12 of the 13 goals coming from Ovechkin, Oshie, Carlson and Kuznetsov. Washington has the 2nd ranked power play in the playoffs going 13 for 42 (31.0 percent) and 8th ranked penalty kill going 34 for 43 (79.1 percent). Braden Holtby has rediscovered his form in the playoffs going 8-3 with a 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage.

Player to watch

Tampa Bay: Tyler Johnson- It’s been a quiet postseason for Johnson who has 3 goals and 2 assists in 10 games. Johnson has not recorded a point in the past two games. In the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, Johnson had 20 goals and 20 assists in 43 games. Tampa Bay needs Johnson to break out and get back to the close to the point per game player he was in the past for important depth scoring.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin- It’s not a cop out to pick Ovechkin again who had a tremendous series against Pittsburgh and has been amazing in the playoffs so far. Quite simply Ovechkin has been the engine that drives the Capitals. This is new territory for Ovechkin as he has never been to a championship round. Washington needs Ovechkin to continue to be their best player if they are to make their first Stanley Cup final in two decades.

Prediction: This is a tough series to predict as Tampa Bay has been dominant so far in the playoffs. But this series is going to come down to three things. The top lines have been so good and you expect they would continue to do so which means depth scoring will be important. Both goalies have been very good and whichever one is better is going to lead their team to the Stanley Cup Final. Finally, special teams is going to be huge and Washington has been very good on the power play. Tampa Bay has been the best team in the East; however, Ovechkin and company have been great on the power play and will take advantage of a weak Tampa Bay penalty kill. This feels like Ovechkin’s time and with Holtby great in net, Washington will find a way to scratch out a series win and go to the first Stanley Cup Final in the Ovechkin era.

Washington in 7

 

Western Conference Final

Winnipeg Jets vs. Vegas Golden Knights

The Skinny: Winnipeg advanced to their first conference final in team history by defeating the Minnesota Wild in 5 games in the Central Division Semifinal and the Nashville Predators in 7 games in the Central Division Final. Vegas advanced to the conference final in their inaugural season by sweeping the Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division Semifinal and defeating the the San Jose Sharks in 6 games in the Pacific Division Final.

Winnipeg: Winnipeg has shown the depth that they have in their lineup by getting contributions up and down their lineup. They’ve been led by Mark Scheifele who leads the league with 11 goals in the playoffs. Scheifele also leads the team in points with 16. Blake Wheeler has 12 assists and Patrik Laine has 3 goals and 7 assists so far. Deadline addition, Paul Statsny has paid massive dividends by scoring 6 goals and 8 assists including 2 goals in the Game 7 victory on the road against Nashville last night. Winnipeg has gotten smaller contributions from Kyle Connor who has 2 goals and 6 assists but could use some more from Nikolaj Ehlers who has 0 goals so far after scoring 29 in the regular season. Winnipeg is led by Dustin Byfuglien on the blue line who has 4 goals and 9 assists in over 26 minutes of ice time per game. But it’s not just Byfuglien as Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba have combined for 5 goals from defense in the playoffs. Winnipeg has been good on the power play so far scoring 8 out of 32 times (25.0 percent) which ranks 5th in the playoffs. Their penalty kill has left much to be desired though as they are tied for 10th killing 23 out of 31 penalties (74.2 percent). Connor Hellebuyck has been very good in the playoffs going 8-4 with a 2.25 GAA, .927 save percentage and 2 shutouts.

Vegas: Vegas has a very dangerous top line that kicked it into high gear against San Jose. William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault combined for 8 goals and 17 assists in their last series after being held to 1 goal and 6 assists in their first round series. The top line has plenty of speed to burn but isn’t the only weapons that Vegas has. James Neal has been a huge veteran presence with 4 goals and 3 assists. Other young players who have made major contributions are Alex Tuch who is tied for the team lead with 4 goals and Erik Haula who has 3 goals and 3 assists. It’s not just the forwards who have gotten involved offensively for Vegas but Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Colin Miller have each scored 2 goals from the blue line as well as Brayden McNabb who has scored one. Vegas has five defensemen who average over 20 minutes a game which provides great depth that can match up with deeper forward groups. Vegas is pedestrian on the power play scoring 7 out of 40 opportunities (17.5 percent) which is ranked 10th in the NHL. However, their penalty kill is superb as they have killed 34 of 40 penalties (85.0 percent) which is 2nd in the NHL. The true superstar of Vegas in this playoff run has been Marc-Andre Fleury who is 8-2 with a 1.53 GAA, .951 save percentage and 4 shutouts.

Player to watch

Winnipeg: Patrik Laine- Laine has had an up and down playoffs so far. He has 3 goals and 7 assists in 12 games. But more is expected of the young superstar who scored 44 goals in the regular season. After shooting 18.3 percent in the regular season, his shooting percentage is down to 7.1 in the postseason. Winnipeg needs the young sniper to start putting in some more goals to take the pressure off of the top line.

Vegas: David Perron- Perron has averaged almost a point per game in the playoffs. However all 7 of his points are assists. Vegas is going to need depth scoring to get past Winnipeg. One thing that Perron hasn’t done in the past is score goals in the playoffs as he has 3 career goals in 50 playoff games. Perron is going to need to put a few goals in the net to help take pressure off of the top line of Vegas and provide the all important depth scoring.

Prediction: This is an interesting series and if you asked at the start of the season, nobody would have predicted Winnipeg versus Vegas. The story of Vegas has matured into a team that has been better than pretty much everybody in the league for the whole year. Vegas has a great top line and has exceptional speed on all four lines. The speed is going to cause a problem for Winnipeg. And Fleury has been the best goaltender in the playoffs helping carry Vegas at times. On the other side, Winnipeg has shown that they are very deep offensively and have two powerhouse lines. They’ve seen other guys heat up but Scheifele has enjoyed a monster postseason so far. The depth of the scoring options and the fact that they have great speed, physicality and an impressive cycle game allows Winnipeg to possess the puck in the offensive zone and play a variety of styles. Hellebuyck has been a small blip below Fleury but he can hold his own against Vegas. The home ice of Winnipeg and their deeper offensive group will be the edge and have them competing for their first Stanley Cup.

Winnipeg in 6