Checking out the Blackhawks top candidates to be traded for cap space

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Yesterday, James got into the salary cap woes facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Yes, their issues are many and their answers to solving those problems all point towards further disbanding the team that just won the franchise’s first Cup since 1961.

If something is going to be done and players are going to be moved out of town, who will it end up being? Let’s take a look at the players that could, potentially, be on the block.

Huet3.jpgCristobal Huet – (contract: 2 years with $5.625 million cap hit)

I’d be doing you all a disservice if I didn’t just get Huet out of the way first and foremost. Huet’s contract is the main reason to want to get him out of town by any means necessary. Huet’s cap hit is $5.625 million for the next two seasons and he managed to get relegated to the bench by current restricted free agent Antti Niemi. Niemi is still trying to get his contract squared away and it’s safe to say he’s not going to be making the same $800,000 he did last year. Being the starting goalie on a Stanley Cup winner will almost guarantee that.

Huet’s contract makes it nearly impossible to deal him, but moving him to the AHL sits as a distinct possibility. Putting him on waivers virtually guarantees he won’t get picked up by someone else, and only a catastrophic number of injuries to goalies in Chicago would put the Blackhawks at risk for bringing Huet back up through re-entry waivers. If the Hawks can make that $5.625 million go away, they can save themselves the trouble of having to move more offensive quality depth players than they’d want to. Others are virtually assuming that Huet is as good as gone to AHL Rockford, but until that happens he’s the elephant in the room so to speak. His salary is almost necessary to move in any way possible to give the Hawks the maneuverability they’ll need to ice a complete team worth a damn.

Chances of being demoted/traded: Very likely

Patrick Sharp – (contract: 2 years, $3.9 million cap hit)

He’s almost always the subject of trade rumors and why not? He’s productive and does it all seemingly while in the shadow of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. It’s not a bad gig to have because the pressure is really off. The last four years, Sharp has been a consistent scorer netting in the range of 65 points per year and scoring 20+ goals in each season, including 36 goals back in 2007-2008. He’s an ideal complimentary piece for a team with bigger names but could it be possible he’d break out in a big way if he went somewhere lacking a big scoring wing? Ahh, there’s the rub. He’d make a great second line scorer for teams eager to add one, but bringing him aboard to be a first liner could make life difficult. His salary by itself would allow Chicago to get a little breathing room provided that the Hawks are OK with fielding a team with guys making the league minimum. That might get sketchy.

Chances of being traded: Possible

Brian Campbell – (contract: 6 years, $7,142,875 cap hit)

Campbell only needs to be mentioned here because if the Blackhawks were able to pawn him off on someone else it would be general manager Stan Bowman’s version of a great jewel heist and someone else’s version of Seward’s Folly. His contract is toxic and overbearing. This has nothing to do with the player. He’s a solid defenseman and runs a good power play and he’d be an asset to any team he played for. The problem is his contract is a payroll punishing iceberg, a fact the Blackhawks know all too well. Even for teams looking to reach the salary floor, taking on that much money for that long of a time just does not make any business sense… Unless they’re getting a huge gift basket from the Blackhawks to go with Campbell.

Chances of being traded: Nearly impossible

hossawiththecup.jpgMarian Hossa – (contract: 11 years, $5.275 million cap hit)

Sounds crazy, right? This one is more of a theoretical suggestion so bear with me. He went to Chicago to make another run at a Stanley Cup. He accomplished that goal in his first season. He doesn’t have a long history with the Blackhawks even though he’ll go down in Hawks lore as being on a slump-busting Cup winner. He wasn’t drafted by Chicago and essentially committed to the Hawks to latch on to a team with a bright immediate future. In essence, the Hawks have gotten what they wanted from Hossa so why not dangle him out there to free up a huge chunk of cap space on a deal that, while long, isn’t exactly a cap destroyer. The catch with Hossa is that he’s 31 years-old and having him around until he’s 42 might feel pretty daunting. Losing Hossa’s money in conjunction with making Huet’s money disappear would be a God-send for Chicago’s cap if it came down to that.

Chances of being traded: Not likely, but intriguing

Dave Bolland – (contract: 4 years, $3.375 million cap hit)

He was the unknown hero that always jumps out during the NHL playoffs. He was as dangerous shorthanded as he was during even strength situations and he showed that the seemingly crazy contract extension the Blackhawks gave him may have been worth it. He’s the Blackhawks number two center and there are some teams that could use one of those (Los Angeles, Washington). He’s also 24 years-old and starting to come into his own as an NHL starter. His salary isn’t exactly bad, but Chicago might be reticent to be rid of his usefulness in all situations. That said, if Chicago gets desperate and no one is biting elsewhere, a savvy proposal could get Chicago to move him.

Chances of being traded: Pretty slim

We’re not meant to feel bad for the Blackhawks here, this is their mess and they’ve got to deal with things as well as they possibly can. They’ve already drastically changed the outlook of their team as it is and there will be more changes to come. What they do, however, will have a profound effect on what the Blackhawks do the next few years as to whether they’ll continue to be contenders or if they’ll tread water being known as the NHLs version of the Florida Marlins.

Pekka Rinne finding consistency at the right time for Predators

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PITTSBURGH — As the longest-tenured member of the Nashville Predators roster, the team’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final has to be extra special for starting goaltender Pekka Rinne.

He has been one of the core players in the organization for more than a decade and been through all of the recent postseason disappointments as the team was unable to climb the hurdle that was the second-round of the playoffs until this season.

“Before each season, you know, when you’re a professional hockey player, you dream about this situation,” said Rinne on Sunday afternoon during the Stanley Cup Final media day.

“Every season my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, in all honesty. You come to training camp, you prepare yourself all summer, and now finally we are in this situation. I always felt that one day we would be in this situation.”

One of the biggest reasons the Predators are in this situation has been because of Rinne and his play in net.

Nashville’s defense has obviously gotten a significant portion of the headlines this postseason, and for very good reason. It is the NHL’s best group, has played exceptionally well, and as Rinne himself said on Sunday is “the backbone of the team.”

But goaltending is still the one position that can make-or-break a postseason run and flip everything upside down. A hot goalie can lift an underdog and sink a favorite in any given series. As the last line of defense, Rinne has been a rock for the Predators and been able to take his play to an entirely different level this postseason.

The biggest change: Just finding some consistency to his game.

Even though Rinne’s overall numbers for the season were strong (his .918 save percentage was above the league average) they fluctuated wildly on a month-by-month basis.

It looked a little something like this: .906, .949, .875, .933, .888, .923, .960 (three games).

After finishing the last two months on a high note, Rinne has continued that strong play into the postseason and posted a save percentage of .930 or better in 12 of his first 16 playoff games. Combine that with a defense that has a top-four like Nashville’s and it has made them the toughest team to score against this postseason.

Entering the Final the Predators are allowing just 1.81 goals per game. The only team that allowed fewer goals during in one playoff run during the salary cap era was the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (1.50).

“It’s hard to explain,” said Rinne on Sunday when asked about what changed in his play.

“I think we started off really well against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well. Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

The Predators were the 16th out of 16 teams to clinch a playoff spot this year and had to begin their Stanley Cup Final run with a first-round matchup against their long-time arch nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only a team that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and was viewed as the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but also a team that had eliminated Rinne and the Predators twice in the past seven years.

Nashville was not only able to conquer that hurdle, it ended the series in a clean four-game sweep. It set the stage for the Predators to break through and advance beyond the second-round for the first time in franchise history.

“I feel like any year the hardest thing is to get past the first two rounds,” said Rinne.

“You still have so many teams at that point. Once you get past those rounds, you really start feeling confident and things are going your way. It is a very powerful feeling when 23 guys come together. It was something against Chicago, that was my third time playing against that team and first time winning against them, it was almost like a hurdle we had to get over and we did that. It was a big win for the organization as well.”

Now the organization has chance to do something even bigger over the next two weeks.

In recent years as Rinne has gotten older his play has started to decline a bit from where it was earlier in his career, almost to the point where he was viewed as a question mark or perhaps even the weak link on the roster. That has not been the case this postseason, and it is one of the biggest reasons the team has this opportunity in front of it.

Minus Johansen, the Preds have ‘some big shoes’ to fill

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PITTSBURGH — It was Jan. 6, 2016, when the Nashville Predators took on the look of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

That was the day the Preds acquired Ryan Johansen from Columbus, giving them that true No. 1 center that every Cup champ seems to have.

It was the one, big piece the Preds had been lacking. To get him, it cost them an excellent, young defenseman in Seth Jones.

Alas, Johansen has now been lost for the playoffs. To their credit, the Preds managed to eliminate Anaheim without him, taking Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Final after he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome.

But in the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final, the Preds will have to take on the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with two of the best centers in the game.

Suffice to say, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are tough to handle at full strength, let alone without such an important player as Johansen.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

Preds winger Filip Forsberg didn’t try to sugarcoat the loss of Johansen.

“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Forsberg. “It’s tough to play without him. But at the same time, other guys stepped up. I think that’s been the case all year. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. I don’t know how many players we’ve used, but every player that’s come up has made a huge impact on the team.”

Colton Sissons stepped up big time against the Ducks, notching a hat trick in Game 6. The 23-year-old is expected to center Nashville’s top line, flanked by Forsberg and possibly Pontus Aberg, when the final starts Monday in Pittsburgh.

“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking,” Sissons said. “We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen. There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”

Sissons, 23, has spent most of his professional career in the AHL. With the Preds, he’s mostly been in the bottom six. But his new linemate is a big fan.

“He can do it all,” said Forsberg. “He’s been playing mostly on the third and fourth lines this year, and been playing really well. Solid, two-way player. But we played together in Milwaukee and I saw the offensive upside that he had.”

It’s quite the matchup this series offers. One team without its No. 1 center, but a great group of defensemen. The other team without its No. 1 defenseman, but a pair of elite centers.

“Certainly we’ll miss Ryan,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think anybody can argue that. He was a big horse for us down the middle that was able to match up against anybody. We had to go a couple of games without Ryan. Our guys responded OK.”

Fleury trying not to think about if this is his last run with Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — With Matt Murray reclaiming his starting spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net, the topic of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s future with the team was again a talking point during Sunday’s Stanley Cup Final media day.

Specifically, whether or not this series against the Nashville Predators will be his final games with the only NHL team he has ever known.

Given the expansion draft situation this summer, as well as the fact Murray has clearly passed him in the eyes of the coaching staff, it seems even more inevitable than ever that his time with the team is limited.

On Sunday, he was asked if he ever lets his mind go there and think about it.

“I try not to,” said Fleury. “I try to live, day-by-day, go like that. We will see what happens at the end of the season.”

For Fleury, the circumstances for his status as Murray’s backup are vastly different from a year ago when he started the playoffs on the bench due to injury and, outside of one Game in the Eastern Conference Finals, never really had an opportunity to contribute to the team’s playoff run.

That has not been the case this year.

Fleury has not only been a major contributor, he is probably the single biggest reason they escaped the first two rounds against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

He was also asked if it would be easier to potentially leave Pittsburgh after this season having been able to contribute to a deep playoff run after not really getting a chance to play a year ago.

“Yeah, those are memories I will always keep,” said Fleury. “The support from the fans, the atmosphere in the building, the fun I had winning those games. But still another championship would be even better.”

His play through the first two rounds is what made Mike Sullivan’s decision to go back to Murray such a bold — and even controversial — move.

Fleury was not only playing extremely well, he was playing what was perhaps the best hockey of his career. Given that performance, along with the fact Murray had not played in more than a month due to injury, it was a move that most coaches probably would not have made.

“The decision that was made in goal was a very difficult decision,” said Sullivan on Sunday.  “Our coaches discussed it at length. That was a very difficult decision because we have so much respect for both players. Both of these goaltenders that we have are Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders. I’ve said all year long that we believe that we have two No. 1 goalies. That’s a unique challenge to our team, because most teams don’t have that.”

He continued: “Part of my responsibility is to try to decide which guy on a particular game is going to give this team the best chance to win. There are a lot of factors that go into it. Quite honestly, I like to keep those decisions within the confines of our hockey team. But there are a lot of factors that go into it.”

Fleury was asked on Sunday what the change was like but declined to go into much detail, instead focussing on how much he has enjoyed this postseason.

“I don’t think I want to get into it really,” said Fleury. “I was having a lot of fun winning some games. It’s a coaches decision and I have to respect it.”

“Not being in net I just try to encourage the guys, cheer the guys on and if I ever get another opportunity I will be ready.”

Penguins can become first repeat champs of NHL’s salary-cap era

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins will make history if they can beat the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

No team has been able to win back-to-back Cups since the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005. The Detroit Red Wings nearly did it in 2009, only to be beaten by the upstart Pens.

Since 2009, no defending champ had even made it back to the final, until the Penguins knocked off the Senators Thursday.

According to captain Sidney Crosby, the chance to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era is just one of the things that’s driving his team.

“I think when you get here you have a ton of motivation, regardless if it’s trying to go back-to-back,” said Crosby. “The motivation comes from a lot of different things for a lot of different guys. Maybe (repeating) is one of them, but it’s not something that we talk about a whole lot. This is a new year. It’s a new opponent.”

And the Predators will be a tough opponent, even without their No. 1 center, Ryan Johansen. Nashville’s strength is on the back end, with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm comprising arguably the strongest top four in the league.

“You have to be aware of where they are,” said Crosby. “They’re so good at joining the rush, they’re so good at leading the rush.”

But the Pens have the clear advantage down the middle. Crosby on the first line, Evgeni Malkin on the second. That combination has helped Pittsburgh win seven straight series, with a chance to make it eight.

“I can’t tell you how rewarding it’s been to have the opportunity to coach this team,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity. We believe we’ve got such a competitive group of players. They’re high-character people. They have an insatiable appetite to win. They’re a privilege to coach.”

Winger Bryan Rust was on last year’s team. For him, the opportunity to win two straight Cups, in a league that loves to brag about its parity, is energizing.

“I think it does motivate us to be able to do something that is so hard, and be able to accomplish a goal that hasn’t been done in a very long time,” said Rust. “It gives us an extra spark. Winning it once is hard enough, but trying to do it twice in a row is even harder.”

Game 1 of the series goes Monday in Pittsburgh.

The Red Wings were the last team to repeat as champions. They won the Cup in 1997 and 1998, back when teams had no limits on their spending.

Related: For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Kris Letang