It might be early, but so far the Kings look OK without Ilya Kovalchuk

On paper, adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the Los Angeles Kings seemed like a no-brainer. I still remember the general consensus: sure, it might make it tougher to retain the team’s second-tier young players (Drew Doughty wasn’t – and isn’t – going anywhere) but sometimes you have to break a few prospect eggs to make a 50-goal scorer omelet, right?

While I count(ed) myself among the few who considered Kovalchuk a risky gamble, even I thought that the high-scoring winger made some sense for the Kings. Well, as you probably know, the Kings lost out to the New Jersey Devils in the protracted “Kovalchuk Sweepstakes” and changed direction by adding wounded but talented shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell as their Free Agent Plan B.

It might be a bit hasty to draw too many conclusions from the first couple weeks of the regular season, but Craig Custance of the Sporting News points out that the Kings are doing well (3-1 record, tied 1-1 with the Carolina Hurricanes as of this moment) while the Devils are dealing with a troubling start.

While the struggling Devils try to figure out where to fit all their high-end left wingers — not to mention maneuver around their impossibly tight salary cap situation — the Kings have quietly started the season 3-1.

They’re winning because Jonathan Quick arrived at camp in better shape, ready to fight off the talented Jonathan Bernier as the Kings’ starting goalie. So far, Quick is 3-0-0, with a 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

They’re also winning because Plan B in the post-Kovalchuk recruitment might be better than Plan A.

Custance points out the perks of having Mitchell: it gives the Kings the opportunity to pair one, ultra-responsible stay-at-home defenseman with one gifted young blueliner on their top two D pairs. (Mitchell often skates with Drew Doughty while 2009 free agent signing Rob Scuderi usually watches Jack Johnson’s back.)

Of course, it’s not all as sunny as the weather in Los Angeles. There’s a reason the Kings targeted Kovalchuk, after all: their offensive depth is lacking. Beyond the underrated ace Anze Kopitar, the team sports some works in progress such as Wayne Simmonds, solid but unspectacular pieces including Dustin Brown and frequent IR inhabitants like Justin Williams.

On the bright side, Custance points out that the Kings possess something that makes them rare among predicted Cup contenders: cap space (I’d say around $6 million as their situation is a little muddy on CapGeek.com right now).

They’ll surely be in on the Brad Richards trade talk if the Dallas Stars decide they can’t afford to pay their center, who suddenly is being called the premier 2011 potential unrestricted free agent.

And if Jarome Iginla ever becomes available in Calgary? He might be the perfect fit.

It would be an awfully bitter pill for the Stars to swallow if they traded Richards to a division rival, especially if they continue their (slightly improbable?) playoff pace. Then again, in this cold money-driven/ cap-driven world, the Kings might be able to offer the best package of prospects. My guess is that Kings GM Dean Lombardi would want to sign Richards to a medium-sized contract extension if he decided to go that route, though.

Iginla would be an easier but probably lower-end “get” for the Kings at this point in his career, although his leadership would be nice in the locker room and his personality would be a great fit for the market. The problem with Iginla is that if his downward trend continues, he still has two more seasons and $14 million left on his contract (or $7 million per season through 2012-13).

Regardless, weighing the pros and cons of adding an aging star during the trade deadline is certainly a happier situation than wondering how you’re possibly going to get under the salary cap. It’s still early, but so far, it seems like Lombardi’s mostly slow-and-steady approach is paying dividends … even if Lombardi clearly wanted to compromise that tortoise pace for a hare who left him the dust for New Jersey.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.