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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.