Is it time for the NHL to consider expansion?

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Thumbnail image for garybettman2.jpgWith the glut of available players in free agency there’s a definitive issue at hand for the NHL and their players. While we’re sure that a lot of folks would like to hang the blame on Ilya Kovalchuk for seemingly bogging down the market for weeks with his free agency, that’s just not how it worked in reality. The truth of the matter is that a lot of teams that would traditionally spend on free agents were pushed to or are well over the cap this summer while many other teams are operating on an internal budget.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle has kept a running tally of who has signed and who is available this off-season both unrestricted and restricted and some of the names still left out there are noticeable and still useful players. Many of these players either have over-estimated their worth and won’t compromise on salary or they’ve found that the market has dried up completely thanks to teams spending on cheaper players or opting to promote from within. If that sounds familiar it’s because it sounds an awful lot like how life is in the real world for job seekers. In the NHL world, it stinks to lose veteran players, especially good ones but there’s one way out there to help make sure some players can still have the NHL to call home:

Expansion

I know what you’re saying, it’s crazy and the game already has too much going on with it as it is and adding more teams to what seems like a crowded NHL landscape would be madness. Yeah, that’s all true without a doubt. But is the talent level enough right now to be able to sustain two more NHL franchises? Taking a look around at the players sitting in the free agent pool and the small handful of talent that has departed to play in Europe just this off-season, it may be time for the NHL to take a hard look at the possibility of maximizing their opportunity to grow the sport just a little more and not be worse for the wear.

Look at the guys that have departed for Europe this off-season: Evgeni Nabokov, Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinogenov, Brian Pothier, and potentially Vesa Toskala. All five guys are guys that ideally would have jobs in the NHL and all four guys that found the job market dry up for them.

How about the unrestricted free agents? Just to list off a few of the notable guys: Antti Niemi, Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin. The list is loaded with guys still very capable of playing at an NHL level and many of these guys might not have NHL jobs this year. While many could be headed to Europe, others might end up either retiring early or signing AHL deals.

If there were two more NHL teams offering up 23 roster sports out there,  the competition for free agents might actually be out there and while it’s likely that the AHL talent pool would be a bit thinner than normal, there’s certainly a few guys languishing about in the ECHL that could be better served in the AHL.

When the NHL expanded in the 1990s it’s very possible it was a mistake to do so in that it was a cash grab for NHL owners who wanted the money. At the time, the NHL wasn’t pulling elite talent from Europe as much as it is now, Americans weren’t producing as much elite talent as they are now and the NHL relied heavily upon guys that may not have had a job in the NHL right now with their skill sets. Going back to the early 90s, however, those guys were just good enough to make it. Nowadays, that’s not the case at all.

Elite talent is continuing to come over from Europe (Mats Zuccarello-Aasen of Norway with the New York Rangers for example), Americans are producing elite talent at a dizzying pace, and while the KHL as well as the Swedish, German and Finnish elite leagues make for excellent options for Europeans and North Americans alike, the NHL is still the king of the mountain in professional hockey. The NHL is where the big money and the big notoriety comes in.

The owners would welcome expansion because it means all the current owners add two more governors and two more exorbitant expansion fees to collect money from. It also means adding two new (or renewed) television markets in which to spread the word about the game. The players love expansion because it means more jobs in the NHL and more members to have join the NHLPA. In a time when both sides find it very hard to agree on anything at all, expansion is the one thing both sides could agree on in a big way.

Whether it happens sooner than later or at all is up for debate (and believe me, this is already debated) remains to be seen if ever at all. If we’re ever to see movement on this possibility, it’s likely we could hear about it during the labor talks coming in 2012. There are people with interest in owning an NHL franchise, they’d just rather have a brand new one. Jerry Bruckheimer and the True North group in Winnipeg come to mind immediately. The possibilities are there to do it, whether the league and the players want to go that way is the ultimate question.

Video: Game 4 overtime between Sharks and Predators has been utter chaos

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Overtime between the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks in Game 4 has been, simply put, crazy.

Take, for instance, this goal-mouth scramble around the Predators crease in which Joel Ward couldn’t convert on the wrap-around and the sequence turned into a full-on scrum as players for both teams fought desperately to either score or somehow keep the puck out of the net. Somehow, the puck stays out.

The Predators need a win to even the series. The Sharks can put the Predators on the brink of elimination with a win.

Oh, and the controversial video review as the Sharks thought they had the winner, as Joe Pavelski swept the puck into the net after a collision with Pekka Rinne.

Here’s an explanation from the NHL Situation Room:

At 7:34 of overtime in the Sharks/Predators game, the Situation Room initiated a review under the terms of a Coach’s Challenge to review the “Interference on the Goalkeeper” decision that resulted in a “no goal” call.

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with NHL Hockey Operations staff, the Referee confirmed that San Jose’s Joe Pavelski made incidental contact with Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne before the puck crossed the goal line, preventing Rinne from doing his job in the crease.

Therefore the original call stands – no goal San Jose Sharks.

Cody Eakin plays unlikely hero as Stars even series with Blues thanks to OT win

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Needing a win to even the series with the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars didn’t get off to the greatest start Thursday.

On a rather embarrassing play in the first period of a crucial Game 4, the Stars were caught on the television feed clearly with six skaters on the ice, but still surrendered a breakaway goal on a stretch pass to a wide open Vladimir Tarasenko — 1-0 Blues. Again, not a great start for the Stars.

Sometimes in hockey, it’s apparently not always about how you start but how you finish. The Stars gained strength during the second period on goals from Radek Faksa and Patrick Sharp just 1:09 apart. Early in overtime, Cody Eakin scored his first goal of these playoffs to give the Stars a 3-2 win.

This series is now tied heading back to Dallas for Game 5. For the Blues, it’s a missed opportunity to put the high-flying Stars on the brink of elimination.

Eakin snapped a 17-game scoring drought that stretched into late-March of the regular season by going top shelf, short side of Blues goalie Brian Elliott just 2:58 into the extra period.

Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp each had two-point nights for Dallas, assisting on the game winning goal.

 

In a series billed as Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast is taking over for Penguins, Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The well-traveled defenseman filling in for his team’s most indispensable player scored the first goal. The seemingly ageless center closing in on his 40th birthday scored the second. And the winger who makes a living trying to create space for Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby delivered the overtime winner that brought the Penguins within one victory of a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the stars might be out in the NHL’s marquee playoff matchup. They’re just not the ones shining.

Pittsburgh’s 3-2 thriller over top-seeded Washington in Game 4 on Wednesday night did more than give the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also highlighted the depth the club has spent months cultivating around Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Trevor Daley skated more than 28 minutes and picked up his first postseason goal in more than two years while serving the ironman role typically filled by Letang, serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in Game 3. Matt Cullen, who at 39 has openly wondered if he wants to return in the fall, slipped behind the Washington defense to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Patric Hornqvist, who spends most of time suction-cupped to a spot in front of the opposing goaltender, pounced on a loose puck 2:34 into overtime and slammed it by Braden Holtby to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game playoff losing streak in games pushed beyond regulation.

Related: Trevor Daley  is ‘in a good place’ now 

Heady territory for guys considered mere supporting players when the second-ever playoff showdown between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin began last week.

“I think there’s a great chemistry amongst the team that we have right now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it’s a thrill.”

Washington coach Barry Trotz tried to downplay the hype between two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in the run-up to Game 1, stressing there were much more to the longtime rivals than their franchise cornerstones.

Trotz was more right than he knew, only it’s Pittsburgh’s role players who have pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. Cullen’s two points during the series equal Malkin’s output. Hornqvist has three points through four games, two more than Crosby, though the two-time MVP occupied Holtby’s attention just long enough that the goaltender couldn’t get in proper position to stop the Game 4 winner.

“(Hornqvist) does a lot of the thankless things that help this team be successful,” Sullivan said. “To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill.”

The Capitals powered their way to the NHL’s best record behind spectacular goaltending from Holtby, a league-leading 50 goals from Ovechkin and a potent power play. All three have taken a significant step back against Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie Matt Murray has been every bit Holtby’s equal, Ovechkin’s 21 shots have produced a single goal and Washington is just 1 for 12 with the man advantage.

Though John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson have tried to pick up the slack, the Capitals are now on the verge of succumbing to an all too familiar result in the spring.

Trotz pointed to Letang’s absence in Game 4 as an opportunity Washington needed to exploit. Instead, Daley patrolled the blue line and quarterbacked the power play in Letang’s stead while Justin Schultz – playing for the first time in more than two weeks – was solid in his return.

“The other guys were good, too,” Backstrom said. “I feel like they’re a good team. It’s not going to be easy.”

Especially playing a club getting contributions from all over, a far cry from the top-heavy roster that relied so heavily – usually too heavily – on Crosby and Malkin for production during recent postseason swoons.

It’s symbolic of the way Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt Pittsburgh since taking over in the summer of 2014 that neither Daley nor Schultz were around when the season began. Then again, they’re hardly alone. Only a handful of players remain from the group that skated off the ice following a Game 7 loss to New York in the second round two years ago, a series the Penguins had led 3-1.

That setback is still fresh in the mind of Crosby and the others who remain. At the same time, most of the guys who surround Crosby in the dressing room won’t carry that baggage into Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington. This is, in many ways, feels like a fresh start filled with fresh faces, even if some are less well-known than others.

“We’ve always found ways to get the job done,” Daley said. “That’s what this team’s been all about. We always found ways to get it done. We started it awhile ago and it’s continuing on.”

 

Report: Ducks interested in Travis Green for vacant head coaching job

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Travis Green seems to be gaining increased attention for available head coaching jobs in the NHL, and the Anaheim Ducks, who fired Bruce Boudreau after a first-round playoff loss, are reportedly interested.

That’s according to a report from Elliotte Friedman during Thursday’s broadcast of Game 4 between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars.

Green helped guide the Utica Comets, AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, to an appearance in the Calder Cup final a year ago. The Comets were, however, eliminated in the opening round of the post-season this year.

“I think I’m ready,” Green, who has spent the last three seasons in Utica, said recently. “Every job in the NHL is worth its weight in gold, and I would have 100 per cent interest at options with every team in the league. You hope all your qualities are enticing for one of them.”

Related: With four vacancies, the NHL  coaching carousel is ‘spinning out of control’