Signing Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty and other 2011 free agents will be a struggle with a new CBA looming

One thing I remember (and admire) about the way the Pittsburgh Penguins did their salary cap business is that they locked up their biggest stars immediately. Sure, spending $8.7 million each on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin means paying a hefty sum and showed that GM Ray Shero didn’t foresee the sneaky salary cap maneuverings of future “lifetime” deals. But the point was that the team locked up their two stars as soon as possible, even if they paid (close to) market value.

With that in mind, I was a little bit disappointed that the Los Angeles Kings didn’t lock up superstar defenseman Drew Doughty in July 2010, their first opportunity to sign the pending restricted free agent to his second NHL deal. After all, he’s clearly the future of that franchise; why wait a season to make that point clear?

Now, the Tampa Bay Lightning face a slightly different situation with Steve Stamkos, as many wondered if he could top his 51-goal season from 2009-10 season. Yet the point remains: next summer is going to be a season of uncertainty for NHL teams and free agents, whether they are restricted or unrestricted.

There are two big reasons why the 2011 free agent period will be tumultuous: the NHL is now on red alert about sneaky, salary cap circumventing deals after the Ilya Kovalchuk ordeal and the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire after the 2011-12 season.

The uncertainty makes negotiations a challenge and currently there are some high-profile players it could affect including Steven Stamkos, Alexander Semin and Drew Doughty.

“I lose sleep over it, honestly,” said agent Mark Gandler, who represents Semin. “This is, to me, much more serious than people realize. I see the way deals are being signed – we don’t even know what the landscape is going to be a year and a half from now. We have no clue, what’s going to happen, we’re both operating in the dark.”

Gandler believes that the uncertainty hurts the player more than the organization, but it’s something both sides are dealing with. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, in talks with Stamkos over a long-term deal, said the uncertainty is something everyone is dealing with.

“That’s an issue for all players and agents and organizations trying to build,” Yzerman told Sporting News. “None of us really– whether the player agent or manager – can say for any certainty what the new system is going to be. We can sit there and discuss it and throw out ideas, but we really don’t know.”

Ultimately, all this hand wringing will probably waste a lot of energy, except for the Gandlers of the world. The reason for that is simple: Doughty, Semin and Stamkos will get paid big gobs of money. It’s just a matter of how many sweaty piles of cash ultimately go their way and how.

Last summer was an odd sideshow with the Kovalchuk saga and big name goalies begging for contracts, but this next one could be a car wreck. You better believe we’ll have a lot of fun gawking and rubbernecking at the wreckage, though.

Survival of the lucky? Stanley Cup playoff hopes can rise and fall with significant injuries

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There’s plenty of knocking on wood this time of year around the NHL as teams hope to avoid injuries that could damage their playoff hopes.

For some, it’s already too late.

The Tampa Bay Lightning lost Steven Stamkos for four months — and counting — and now Tyler Johnson. The Florida Panthers went without Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov for much of the year. The Los Angeles Kings tried to stay afloat without goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February but will likely miss the playoffs.

While the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have withstood a barrage of injuries and the league-leading Washington Capitals have largely avoided them, they’re keenly aware of how quickly even one injury can make a difference.

“There’s other teams that are good teams that have just had some bad luck,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Tampa Bay just couldn’t overcome the injuries. If Tampa Bay has Stamkos all the way through the season, they’d certainly be in a different place.”

Read more: Injuries keep adding up for Lightning

Considered Cup contenders at the start of the season, the Lightning had to make a run just to get within three points of a playoff spot with nine games remaining.

The Panthers got Barkov and Huberdeau back and dug out of an early hole, but a lower-body injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo contributed to a 3-7-1 tailspin that might ultimately cost them the chance to make the postseason for a second consecutive year.

“Sometimes just your body breaks up because of the games and stuff like that,” said Barkov, who missed 15 games with a back injury. “Some teams just get more injuries, and some teams just get lucky not to get injuries.”

Injuries have again been the story of the year for the Penguins, who are currently without half their regular defense in Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, and also lost trade acquisition Ron Hainsey. But they haven’t missed a beat.

“The guys that have come in just understanding whatever role that they get, they have to be accepting of it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They have a lot of responsibility in most cases, too, because they’re filling in for some guys who play a lot of key minutes.”

Injuries were a severe blow to the Dallas Stars, with 292 man games lost, and 265 man games lost has put the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy. The Edmonton Oilers have around 300 man games lost, but unlike last year’s stumble when Connor McDavid broke his collarbone they are poised to end a 10-year playoff drought.

“This organization seems to have a way of getting beat up and having injuries and needing others to support the group, and this year I think we’ve done a better job,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We haven’t lost those key forwards, knock on wood, like we did last year.”

Tampa Bay did when Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 after putting up 20 points in his first 17 games. Friday night marked his 57th consecutive game out of the lineup.

Yet in Washington, the Capitals have a grand total of 42 man games lost all season and have only dealt with a hand injury that sidelined forward Andre Burakovsky 15 games and upper-body ailments that cost T.J. Oshie 13. Defenseman Brooks Orpik believes the Capitals’ fortunes are a combination of off-ice injury prevention techniques and luck, while the team’s brass thinks it’s also about taxing players less each game.

“The team philosophy of going four lines and spreading the ice time out and spreading the ice time out on defense and spreading the ice time out among your goalies, I think it puts less stress on your lineup,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Having a deep team, I think, results in less injuries.”

Depth up front helped the Chicago Blackhawks withstand captain Jonathan Toews‘ nine-game absence with back problems, and having backup Antti Raanta kept the New York Rangers on track when goaltender Henrik Lundqvist went out for two weeks this month with a lower-body injury. Lundqvist is expected back this weekend.

The Columbus Blue Jackets feel fortunate not to need to test their depth again this season after injuries ravaged them to the count of 510 man games lost two years ago. They’ve overcome defenseman Seth Jones‘ broken foot and Ryan Murray‘s broken hand to make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, so it doesn’t feel at all like 2014-15 in Columbus.

“It’s just too good of a league to be able to survive that type of season,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “This year we’ve been lucky and hopefully done some things right as well where we haven’t been injured as much and knock on wood hopefully stay healthy for the rest of the year.”

Crosby is ‘just the opposite’ of a whiner, says Sullivan

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Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk had plenty to say about Sidney Crosby, essentially calling the Penguins star a “whiner” the following morning after the Penguins star injured Marc Methot with a slash.

A few hours after Melnyk’s comments, ahead of Pittsburgh’s game against the New York Islanders, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan came to the defense of his player.

He said Crosby is, based on what he deals with every game from opposing players, “just the opposite” of a whiner.

Crosby didn’t receive a penalty for his slash on Methot, who suffered a gruesome finger injury and is expected to be “out for weeks” as a result. No. 87 also didn’t receive any further discipline.

“I don’t think it was intentional,” said Sullivan, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s trying to slash on the stick. It happens numerous times in the game. It was unfortunate that he caught his hand. That’s how I saw it.”

Meanwhile, speaking to hockey insider Darren Dreger, Crosby’s agent Pat Brisson also weighed in on Melnyk’s comments. No surprise here, but, um, he didn’t agree with the Senators owner.

The Penguins enter tonight’s game just two points back of Washington for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Goalie nods: Dell starts for Sharks, his sixth in the last 12 games

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There was a plan in San Jose to try and give first-year backup Aaron Dell some additional playing time down the stretch.

And the Sharks certainly are executing.

Dell, who has basically split starts with No. 1 Martin Jones this month, will get the call tonight when San Jose takes on the Stars in Dallas. He’s certainly earned the call — in five starts in March, he’s going 3-2-0 with a .941 save percentage, and has allowed a grand total of eight goals.

While there’s no goalie controversy at play — Jones is the unquestioned starter — this development has to have provided some relief for Peter DeBoer and company. Dell is a 27-year-old minor league journeyman that made his NHL debut this year, but played sparingly behind Jones for the most part.

Now, he looks like a guy the club can rely on should Jones struggle, or get hurt. Dell’s posted terrific numbers overall — 10-5-1 record, .936 save percentage, 1.85 GAA — and could see even more action over the final eight games of the regular season.

No word yet on who starts for Dallas. Kari Lehtonen played in last night’s shootout loss to Chicago, so logic would suggest it’s Antti Niemi.

Elsewhere…

— As we wrote about earlier, Jaroslav Halak makes his first NHL start in 85 days as the Isles visit Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury is in for the Pens.

Petr Mrazek gets the call as the Red Wings host the Lightning. No word yet on a Bolts starter, though Andrei Vasilevskiy would seem likely given Peter Budaj played against (and beat) Boston last night.

— The red-hot Jonathan Bernier gets another start as the Ducks play host to the Jets. No word yet on a Winnipeg starter, but Connor Hellebuyck did play last night against L.A.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.