Mailbag: Cup Qualifier intensity level, Blue Jackets goalie choice

Mailbag: Cup Qualifier intensity level, Blue Jackets goalie choice

Here is the July 15 edition of Dan Rosen’s weekly mailbag. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

Do you think we’ll see teams come out of the gate banging bodies and playing with high intensity because everyone is rested and feeling good? — @SIickRick23

Without question, and not just because everyone is healthy and rested. 

I write that based on the comments I’ve heard from players in the past two days of training camp and from what I’ve seen watching the New York Rangers practice in person. There’s already an intensity that suggests the players and coaches understand they need to get up to speed quickly and test their limits. Rangers coach David Quinn said, “This isn’t training camp,” and he meant it; it’s not anything like what a traditional training camp is like, when there are 65 or so players broken up into groups on multiple ice sheets and veterans skating with players who have no realistic chance of being on the team that season. 

I specifically think the intensity level among teams playing in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers will be at playoff level. Though it’s technically not considered the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is a series between two teams with the winner moving on and the loser going home. You will see what we know of playoff hockey in those games. 

The round-robin games played by the top four teams in each conference might not have the same feel. Those might be more like the regular season because they do not present the potential of finality; those teams are moving on into the first round of the playoffs regardless of what happens.

Because of the contrast between the round-robin games and the games in the best-of-5 series, people think the teams that win each series will have the advantage in the first round, having already played with the intensity required to win in the playoffs. That can’t be manufactured even in round-robin play for seeding. And because they were just off for four months, nobody should be tired after playing a maximum of five games with zero travel. 

I believe in that argument and I think those teams will have an advantage, but through a seven-game series the best team usually comes out on top, and I don’t think that will be different. But without question we’ll see the intensity that we normally see in the playoffs. If you don’t bring it, you’ll be going home.

In your opinion, are the Columbus Blue Jackets at an advantage with their goaltender situation or is it a complication? Has there really been any playoff run recently where the goalies were switched back and forth? And neither Elvis Merzlikins nor Joonas Korpisalo has any NHL postseason experience. — @moonlighthaley

I don’t think it’s a detriment. Competition is good. But my preference would be to have one goalie I know I can rely on, the closest thing to a sure thing in my mind, with a backup I trust should my sure thing fail. 

Every coach is going to try to make the best of the situation he has available, and for Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella it looks like a win-win; each goalie is good and coming off a quality season. But neither, as you mentioned, has played in the NHL postseason, which makes it a pressure-filled choice. Choose wisely and I think the Blue Jackets will defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Qualifiers and advance. Choose poorly and my feeling is Columbus will be eliminated quickly by Toronto. But how do you choose when you don’t have history or recent games to base your decision on? Instead, you’re relying on practice, maybe an intrasquad scrimmage or two, and one exhibition game that won’t have near the intensity of the games the Blue Jackets will be playing against the Maple Leafs. It’s a tough call. That’s why I’d prefer one goalie I trust. That doesn’t mean you have to start him, but at least you know you can fall back to him, like the Washington Capitals did in 2018. Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 for Washington against Columbus in the Eastern Conference First Round; the Capitals lost twice and turned to Braden Holtby, who carried the Capitals the rest of the way to the Stanley Cup.

Video: DET@CBJ: Merzlikins denies Filppula with blocker

As for the second part of your question, in 2016, the Pittsburgh Penguins flipped to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his first start since he sustained a concussion before the regular season ended. The Penguins lost 4-3 in overtime and went back to Matt Murray for Game 6. He started the rest of the way and Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. 

Usually, though, you’ll see a coach make one change and stick with it. It’ll either work or he’ll run out of time to make the second change. For example, there was the Grubauer to Holtby switch in 2018. It also worked in 2017, when Fleury played the first two rounds for Pittsburgh because Murray was injured in warmups for Game 1 against Columbus in the first round. Fleury got the Penguins through two rounds and two games in the conference final against the Ottawa Senators before Murray replaced him with 7:08 remaining in the first period of Game 3, after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots. Murray helped Pittsburgh the rest of the way to its second straight Stanley Cup championship. Fleury never played again for the Penguins.

Is this the last hurrah for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and company? Does Penguins coach Mike Sullivan need to make the most of the opportunity now while the core is still intact? — @theashcity

Pittsburgh needs to make the most of this opportunity now because there’s no telling how much longer its talented core will remain intact, but you’re not going to hear me saying this is its last hurrah. 

Crosby scored 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games this season. The 32-year-old Penguins captain overcame core muscle surgery and remained one of the game’s elite players. I think he has a few more years left at the top of his game because he adjusts with the changing times and maintains his elite level of focus, conditioning, preparation and ability. Also, he’s not a player who relies on one elite skill, like speed or a shot. His overall game is still the best in the NHL and will remain so for a while. 

Malkin had a terrific rebound season, scoring 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 games after scoring 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games last season. Nothing there suggests to me the center, who turns 34 on July 31, is nearing the end. And Letang, for all of his injury and health scares, remains one of the League’s most dynamic defensemen. The 33-year-old scored 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 61 games. Few players rush the puck and skate the way Letang does. He’s nowhere near done. 

Last hurrah? No chance. No matter what happens this season, the Penguins will be a contender again next season because of Crosby, Malkin and Letang.

Video: ANA@PIT: Letang sets up Crosby’s power-play goal

Brock Boeser‘s name is constantly coming up in trade rumors. We’re used to this with our superstars. Is Jack Eichel for Boeser even worth debating? — @daveyboy604

It is not for multiple reasons; the most significant is the Vancouver Canucks aren’t even exploring the idea of trading Boeser, general manager Jim Benning said Monday. Benning squashed those rumors by saying, “I have no intention of trading Brock Boeser.” The 23-year-old forward said he was upset the rumors even began because he’s focused on returning to play with the Canucks and never thought about a potential trade since the NHL Trade Deadline came and went on Feb. 24.

But if Vancouver’s focus does change to exploring the market for Boeser, the impetus would likely be because of NHL salary cap constraints, and that all but eliminates the idea of a trade for Eichel, who has six years remaining on an eight-year contract that carries an annual $10 million salary cap charge. Boeser has two years left on his three-year contract that carries a $5.875 million salary cap charge. The math doesn’t add up, and the Canucks would have to throw a lot more to entice the Buffalo Sabres to trade their captain. 

The challenge for Vancouver is the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million next season and could only grow to $82.5 million the following season, when center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes will each need a new contract. The Canucks also want to re-sign goalie Jacob Markstrom, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season. The flat salary cap will create difficult decisions for many teams, with Vancouver likely one of them.

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