Training Camp Battles: Northeast Division

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With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Thumbnail image for tylerseguindraftday.jpgNortheast Division

Boston Bruins

Contributor: Cornelius Hardenbergh from Hockey Blog Adventure.

The position battle most-watched on the Bruins is Tyler Seguin vs. Himself. He’s basically assured a spot on the team this year unless he completely screws it up. There’s not much more there about him but he’s going to be good so I wanted to bring it up for sure. In rookie camp he’s been tearing up the ice on a line with Jared Knight and Jamie Arniel. I can’t wait to see him play in the rookie games.

The positions on the Bruins are for the most part filled out already. The main question is how are we going to get 3.3 million under the cap? Send Seguin back to the O? (ha!) Send Ryder to Providence? Trade? As the season (and Sturm’s return from LTIR) gets closer we get to wonder about just exactly what’s going to happen.

The team’s biggest strength is at center, because we’ve got a ton of them. Also goalie. And we do okay on defense. The team looks good. On paper. Before preseason. Nothing to do now but sit back and see how it goes.

drewstaffordtrain.jpgBuffalo Sabres

Contributor: Marty Vance.

The Sabres’ biggest battle was decided by management; you remember; during that God awful period of time when a 26 point player getting waived was headline news. When the decision came down to waive Tim Kennedy; that opened up a definite roster spot for reigning AHL Rookie of the Year, Tyler Ennis, and gave Nathan Gerbe an open shot to compete this year.

That leaves the Sabres with little in terms of roster competition heading into camp. But if anyone has a right to be worried, it’s Drew Stafford and a couple underachievers on the blue line. At this point, Stafford needs to be worried about his cushy spot alongside Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek; if 26 points can get you waived from this roster, then 34 sounds like free popcorn in the press box. But one has to think the 6’1″ Stafford still has an inside track for that 1st line, presumably because Lindy Ruff won’t want to stock a 1st line (a line annually shut down by more aggressive, more physical checking lines) with the likes of the equally diminutive Ennis or Gerbe. Maybe a kid like Corey Tropp (Michigan St.) or Luke Adam (QMJHL – Cape Breton) could make a run for a spot; but that would have to take one heck of a training camp performance.

But scoring goals isn’t the problem with the Sabres; it’s mitigating the number of 4-on-1’s that Ryan Miller must face each and every night. Chris Butler, entering his third professional season at age 23, will more than likely need to prove himself to Lindy Ruff after regressing in his sophomore campaign. Twenty four year old Slovakian Andrej Sekera seemed destined to move into the role vacated by Brian Campbell almost 3 years ago, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. Healthy scratches throughout last season, Butler and Sekera will have to fight off the grittier Mike Weber (153 PIMs in 80 GP) and the Portland Pirates transition cog Marc-Andre Gragnani (12 G, 31 A in 66 GP) to retain their roster spots on this year’s overhauled blue line.

That said, it will take a revelation (see Myers, Tyler) for any of the current roster players to be uprooted and overtaken by any of the guys in Portland. But hey, at least the Sabres will have spiffy new sweaters. Right? Right?

(Editor’s note: I do love those sweaters.)

After the jump: Four Habs Fans cover the Canadiens, Ryan Classic takes on the Senators and Eye B Leaf shares the Maple Leafs’ biggest battles.


pksubbantrain.jpgMontreal Canadiens

Contributor: “Panger” or HF33 from Four Habs Fans.

With 17 returning players, including 20 on one-way contracts and 2 hot shot rookies all but guaranteed spots (PK Subban and Lars Eller), you’d think that there was not much in the way of training camp battles in Montreal. Of course, that would ignore the fact that not only do the Habs have to worry about having the right players on the ice, but those players also need to speak the correct language.

Ryan O’Byrne should have a place wrapped up on the blueline given his experience, size and one-way contract, otherwise prospect Yannick Weber has some NHL & Olympic experience, a cannon shot and will make it because of improved defense. Alexandre Picard and Matt Carle are both pretty much one dimensional (and injury prone) offensive D and may take the token French Canadien / PP specialist spot Marc-Andre Bergeron occupied last year, to the horror of Habs goaltenders and anyone with an awareness of defensive zone coverage. But Alex, Matt and Marc-Andre are eligible to play for Quebec at the Jeux de la Francophonie. Too bad there’s no hockey competition.

Up front, Mathieu Darche in on a one-way contract and probably has a spot tied up. But he went to McGill University, so he  forfeited his French status. Tom Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Dustin Boyd ought to earn spots given their experience and NHL contracts. If not, Ben Maxwell, Ryan White and Max Pacioretty have NHL experience and lots o’ potential. But they don’t get Moliere. Gabriel Dumont, Olivier Fortier and Louis Leblanc, are all getting lots of hype in the French media,. But they all need more time in the minors – in Leblanc’s case, junior. Remember how rushing Gui! Latendresse to the NHL worked out? Yeah, us too. David Desharnais has the best shot of the bunch, but at 5’6 he’s a long shot (heh). But they all speak Québécois, which usefulness is obvious for backchecking or goal scoring purposes.

If only Carey’s last name was Prix instead, he might get some respect.

pascaleclaireblinks.jpgOttawa Senators

Contributor: Ryan Classic of Silver Seven Sens.

The Senators’ greatest need – as it has been for the entire existence of the franchise – is a consistent, bona fide number one goaltender. After a horrific season, Pascal Leclaire finally showed some flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but the jury’s still out on whether he can do it for an entire season. His body’s also more fragile than a Jenga tower, and he’s no use to the team if he’s injured. Brian Elliott put together an excellent 46-26-7 career record, but he’s too streaky to be a number one. The future lies with 19-year old Robin Lehner, but unless something drastic happens, he’ll be splitting time in Binghamton with Mike “Not Martin” Brodeur. 2010-11 looks to be the Leclaire and Elliott show again, for better or worse.

On defense, six one-way contracts and sophomore Erik Karlsson take up all the roster spots. Prospects Patrick Wiercioch and 2009 first-round pick Jared Cowen could make a push for a spot, but if either one makes the team it will likely come at the expense of much-maligned former first rounder Brian Lee. Lee’s on a one-way deal, but fans have grown impatient with him and it would surprise no one if he were put on waivers at the start of the season.

The story is much the same at forward. Twelve one-way deals mean twelve roster spots are taken, with rookie Zack Smith figuring to be the 13th man. If another prospect makes a case for himself – say, college star Bobby Butler or QMJHL MVP Mike Hoffman – the waiver casualty would likely be Ryan Shannon. Most of the competition in camp will be for spots with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. There may not be many openings on the NHL roster this season, but the groundwork for the future is being laid, and that’s nothing but positive.

tylerbozakhappy.jpgToronto Maple Leafs

Contributor: Navin Vaswani of Sports and the City.

The most important question heading into training camp in Toronto, and into the 2010/2011 season, is this: other than Phil Kessel, who the hell is going to score? The Maple Leafs’ offense, if I may boldly call it that, scares no one. (It probably frightens Vesa Toskala, but he’s turning down NHL contract offers, so you know where his head is at.) Up front is where jobs will be won or lost at camp.

The Leafs are weak up the middle. Sophomore Tyler Bozak and the erratic Mikhail Grabovski are the team’s only two centers with some job security. Prized prospect Nazem Kadri will get every chance to make the big club straight out of junior hockey. He could probably use some seasoning, preferably a full season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, playing 20 minutes a night in all situations. (Which means he’ll definitely crack Toronto’s opening night roster.)

On the bubble from last season are the likes of John Mitchell, Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi, and you’ll be wise to keep your eyes on Marcel Mueller and Jerry D’Amigo. General manager Brian Burke’s philosophy of top six and bottom six forwards likely means the top two lines are set, with any combination of Bozak, Grabovski, Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, and newcomers Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, and Clarke MacArthur being counted on to score goals. If a player brings his hard hat, a lunch box, and some truculence — full disclosure: I loathe that word — to camp, he’s got a chance to play on Ron Wilson’s third or fourth lines.

While the Leafs may be offensively challenged this coming season, their focus as a team must be on defense. And I’ll be watching training camp closely, and praying at the same time, to see if that indeed will be the case. On paper, Toronto’s back end is set. The Leafs have a dearth of NHL defenseman, seven by my count (Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda, Luke Schenn, and Carl Gunnarsson), and eight if you count those who are paid as NHL rearguards (Jeff Finger will make $3.5 million while playing in the AHL this season). While they don’t have a chance to make the team, I’ll have my eyes on youngsters Keith Aulie and Juraj Mikus in camp.

Toronto: where goaltenders go to die. Post-lockout, the Maple Leafs’ crease has been in constant disarray, and that will hopefully change this season. J.S. Giguere’s already been anointed the team’s starting keeper, with Jonas Gustavsson serving as his backup. If all goes to plan, this will be a transitional season for Toronto between the pipes. Giguere’s got an expiring contract and the Leafs are hoping Giggy will mentor Gustavsson the way he did Jonas Hiller in Anaheim. While training camp won’t see the two goalies necessarily compete against one another for the starting job, it will be interesting to watch Gustavsson push Giguere, and see what the veteran Giguere can do to motivate, and help, the young Swedish tender.

The Leafs need to know what they’ve got in Gustavsson, as they recently added another two goalies via free agency: Jussi Rynnas, from Finland, and Ben Scrivens, from the college ranks. If we’ve learned anything in Toronto after trading separate first-round draft picks, one being Tuukka Rask (this is where I go and fix a drink), for Andrew Raycroft and Toskala, it’s that you can never have too much depth in goal. But back to Giguere: in 15 starts with Toronto last season, after he was acquired from Anaheim for Toskala and Jason Blake (this is where I pour another – but this time celebratory – drink), Giggy won only six games. But, more importantly, he put up a .916 save percentage. Nine-one-six! Toskala and Raycroft don’t even dream of save percentages that high. And a number like that will go a long way in helping Toronto keep the puck out of the net, and in improving their absolutely horrific penalty killing, something they have to do if they’re serious about making the playoffs. While I know it’s “only” training camp, and that results may not transfer over into the regular season, I’ll have my eye on Toronto’s special teams during the fake games. The Leafs must be better when they’re down, and up, a man. Period.

Banged up Blue Jackets add Jussi Jokinen off waivers

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are dealing with a number of injuries up front with Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson and rookie Sonny Milano all currently sidelined for at least a few more weeks due to injury.

Atkinson is on long-term injured reserve due to a foot injury, while Dubinsky is out due to an orbital bone fracture.

The team also announced on Wednesday that Milano will now be sidelined for 4-to-6 weeks due to an oblique tear.

All of that has put a pretty significant dent in their depth and no doubt played a role in their recent slump that has seen them go 3-6-0 over their past nine games, a stretch that has seen them score just 18 goals (only two per game).

They attempted to address that in some way on Wednesday when they announced that they have claimed veteran forward Jussi Jokinen off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings.

“Jussi Jokinen is a player we know very well. He can line up at center or either wing, is good in the faceoff circle and can play on the power play and kill penalties,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement released by the team.

“He has been a very good player in the National Hockey League for many years and we believe he will add great experience and versatility to our lineup.”

It’s been a difficult season for Jokinen as he now joins his third team of the season. He started the season with the Edmonton Oilers after signing a one-year, $1.1 million contract in free agency. But after just 14 games and zero goals with the team he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Mike Cammalleri. He played 18 games with the Kings, scoring one goal and adding four assists, before being placed on waivers.

Jokinen has been an underrated player for much of his career and had always been good for around 15 goals and 50 points over 82 games. Now that he is in his age 34 season that production has obviously declined.

But with the injury situation up front with Atkinson, Dubinsky and now Milano all sidelined the Blue Jackets were in desperate need of adding some additional depth. Given the low cost it is worth a shot to see if Jokinen can still provide something.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Matt Murray to miss ‘indefinite period of time’ following passing of his father

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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has missed the past two games and was briefly away from the team due to what was described as a personal matter. The team would not go into any details and asked everyone to respect his privacy.

On Wednesday, the Penguins announced that Murray’s father, James Murray, passed away on Tuesday in Ontario.

Murray had briefly returned to the Penguins over the weekend and even accompanied the team on its current west coast road trip but his status remained listed as “day-to-day.”

The Penguins announced that Murray will be traveling back from the west coast to return to Ontario.

He will miss an indefinite period of time according to the team..

In his absence the Penguins will turn to rookies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in net. Jarry has played well in his opportunities this season posting a .923 save percentage and a 9-2-3 record. He has won each of his past four decisions.

The Penguins are in Anaheim on Wednesday before traveling to Los Angeles on Thursday to play the Kings and then going to San Jose on Saturday night.

 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Claude Julien only has ‘good things to say’ about his time in Boston

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Claude Julien spent a lot of time in Boston, but in this business all good things eventually come to an end.

Julien, who coached the Bruins from 2007 to 2017, was fired in February after a difficult stretch. He didn’t remain unemployed long, as he ended up being hired by the Canadiens just seven days after being let go by Boston.

Now, he’ll head to Boston for the first time since being fired by the Bruins. Don’t forget, you can watch tonight’s game on NBCSN or you can stream it live by clicking here.

Even though things didn’t end particularly well for him with the B’s, Julien has nothing negative to say about the organization and the city.

“When you spend that much time with an organization and a city, you have to cherish the opportunity to go back. I had great years there, I was treated well,” Julien said after practice on Tuesday.

“As much as there’s a rivalry on the ice (between Montreal and Boston), off the ice, I only have good things to say about Boston, the organization, the city and the fans, everything. I really enjoyed my time there, but in this business you need to move on so I’m going to move on tomorrow and go to Boston and work the best way I can to come away with two points.”

During his time with the Bruins, Julien led the team to a 419-246-94 record. In 2011, he helped lead their team to their first Stanley Cup title since 1972. They also made a second appearance in the Stanley Cup final under Julien in 2013, but they lost that series to the Chicago Blackhawks.

On top of the success they had as a team under his watch, the 57-year-old also helped certain guys develop into dominant players. It’s no secret that Julien is a defense-first kind of coach. That doesn’t always make for the most entertaining hockey, but it certainly worked out pretty well for Patrice Bergeron, who became of the great two-way players in the NHL while Julien was his head coach.

The Bruins will surely put up a video tribute on the scoreboard that will likely stir up some old emotions, just don’t expect those emotions to come from netminder Tuukka Rask.

“He was not playing a shift on the ice, so it doesn’t really matter. He was coaching, so it was nothing special,” said Rask, per NBC Sports Boston.

Julien admitted he hasn’t necessarily thought about the reaction he’ll get from Boston fans once he returns to TD Garden, but he hopes it’s a positive one. Even if he gets booed out of the building, he said that it won’t change the positive view he has of the city of its fans.

As much fun as it is to look back at his decade in Boston, Julien has to focus on his current job because he certainly seems to have his hands full with the Canadiens.

Things haven’t been easy for him since he took over behind the bench last year. Not only were the Habs bounced in the first round of the playoffs last year, it also looks like they won’t be anywhere near the postseason this spring. The Canadiens are currently nine points behind Pittsburgh for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Unless there’s a drastic change in their play, they could become sellers at the trade deadline.

No matter what happens in Montreal this season, it’s hard to envision them parting ways with their head coach, who has four years remaining on a contract that reportedly pays him around $5 million per season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Wednesday night. In the early game, the Boston Bruins will host the Montreal Canadiens at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Bruins and Canadiens didn’t play in October, November or December, but this will be the second time they’ll go head-to-head in four days. What makes the schedule even weirder, is that they’ll play each other again on Saturday night in Montreal. That’s three games in eight days. Very strange scheduling. Anyway, Brad Marchand scored the game-winning goal in the shootout during the first meeting between these two teams.

As entertaining as the first matchup was, it will be remember for the scary injury to Phillip Danault that occurred in the second period when he took a Zdeno Chara shot to the head.

Thankfully, Danault is back home after spending Saturday evening in the hospital, but he’s out of the lineup with concussion-like symptoms for now.

“I obviously spoke to Phillip a number of times. I talked to him right after the game and wanted to make sure he was okay, and he texted me back that he’s doing fine. He’s been released [from the hospital] and that’s very positive, good news,” said Chara, per NBC Sports Boston. “It’s obviously very unfortunate that it’s something that happens quite often, but it’s something you never want to see with somebody getting hit and hurt. I’m very happy he’s going to recover fully and hopefully he’s back on the ice and playing hockey [soon] like we all do.”

Putting that scary news aside, the B’s have been rolling for a while now. Even though they dropped an OT decision to the Stars on Monday afternoon, They haven’t dropped a game in regulation in their last 13 contests (9-0-4). They’re last defeat in regulation came against the Washington Capitals back on Dec. 14.

They’re currently second in the Atlantic Division. Boston is two points ahead of Toronto (Bruins have four games in hand) and nine points back of the Lightning (Bruins have two games in hand).

Meanwhile, in Montreal, things haven’t been going smoothly at all in 2017-18. A team that’s already thin down the middle is without Danault, and they’ve decided to move a struggling Jonathan Drouin back to the wing. All that means is that Jacob De La Rose, who’s known as more of a defense-first center, is on an offensive line with Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk.

Yea, the Canadiens are that desperate.

This will also mark the first time that Claude Julien returns to Boston since he was fired by the Bruins last February. You can read all about Julien’s return by clicking here.

They’re currently nine points behind Pittsburgh for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. It sure looks like they’ll be sellers at the trade deadline.

Speaking of the Pens, they’ll head to Anaheim to take on the Ducks in the late game. Puck-drop in that one is set for 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

Don’t look now, but the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions seem to have woken up from their slumber. After being inconsistent throughout the first half of the season, they’ve now rattled off four consecutive wins over the Islanders, Bruins, Red Wings and Rangers.

“I think we’ve been more of a threat off the rush and I think our offensive zone play has been very strong,” head coach Mike Sullivan said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “As I’ve said on a number of occasions since I’ve taken this team over, if we’re going to be the team that we want to become, we have to be able to generate offense different ways . . . whether it be on the power play, whether it be off the rush or whether it be off our own puck-pursuit game by playing behind teams’ defensemen. That’s what I see.”

Pittsburgh’s captain, Sidney Crosby, has been lighting it up during the winning streak. Crosby has registered at least two points in every game. He’s accumulated 11 points in his last four contests. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel both have eight points during that time frame.

The Ducks are coming off a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, but this next stretch will be key if they want to get back into the Western Conference playoff picture. Starting tonight, they’ll play their next five games at home. After their matchups with the Pens, they’ll take on the Kings, Sharks, Rangers and Jets at the Honda Center.

Anaheim had been playing better hockey of late, but they’ve now dropped three of their last four games coming into a tough clash against the Penguins.

These home games are huge because the Ducks are four points back of the Kings for the last Wild Card spot.

This will also be the second and final game of Andrew Cogliano‘s suspension that put an end to his 830-game iron man streak. He’ll be eligible to return to the lineup for Friday night’s game against Los Angeles.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.