Around the rink – Saturday, December 18th

A busy day and night lies ahead in the NHL with one matinee game kicking things off in style in Philadelphia as the Flyers play their first game without Chris Pronger. Getting the gutsy Rangers first should make for an interesting test. As for the rest of the night, our eyes are peeled in Boston as the Capitals come calling again and in Nashville where the red hot Predators deal with the Kings. Oh yeah, and Ilya Kovalchuk makes his less-than-triumphant return to Atlanta. Does he get booed or laughed at? All times are Eastern.

1:00 pm

NY Rangers @ Philadelphia

No Pronger for Philly and Oskars Bartulis gets to replace him. No pressure there we’re sure. Meanwhile, the Flyers are on a four game win streak while the Rangers come in winners of three straight. It’s got all the makings of a rivalry classic in Philly. The Rangers are winning the tough close games while the Flyers have found the offense to put teams away more effectively.

7:00 pm

Washington @ Boston

Something’s got to give here. Two teams that are trending in bad ways. The Caps are losers of seven in a row while the Bruins have dropped their last three. Boston’s played tough in their last two but have come out on the short end of things while the Caps have been temperamental alternating between poor efforts with worse results to playing great and getting no breaks. This is the fourth and final time these two teams meet up this season and the Bruins own a 2-1-0 edge on the Caps. Washington will be without Alexander Semin who didn’t travel with the team to Boston because of a lower body injury. The flu bug that’s gone through the entire Caps locker room is bothering defensemen Scott Hannan and Tyler Sloan. There’s one great eight the Caps don’t want to see by the end of the night and that’s an eighth straight loss. Captain Ovechkin will have shoulder the load against the tough Bruins.

New Jersey @ Atlanta

How’s this for a turn of events? Ilya Kovalchuk gets dealt to New Jersey after years of playing for losing teams in Atlanta. Now he returns to Atlanta for the first time this season and the Thrashers are in the thick of the playoff hunt while the Devils are mired in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference. We know that Kovalchuk will hear boos but we can’t help but wonder if a chorus of “Ha-Ha’s” a la Nelson Muntz from “The Simpsons” might be more fitting. The Devils are coming off another bad loss last night, this time to Nashville, meanwhile Atlanta has dropped two in a row in the shootout.

Phoenix @ NY Islanders

Well hey look, the Islanders are on fire. All right, so one win doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on fire but it’s close enough for the woeful Isles. Getting to match up with a Coyotes team that isn’t fairing too well on the east coast trip could help keep themselves motivated. Phoenix has dropped two in a row and are coming off a shootout loss to the Rangers that stung worse because they blew a 3-1 lead in that one.

Anaheim @ Carolina

A grumpy Ducks team rolls into Raleigh after suffering the ignominy of losing to the Islanders. Carolina, on the other hand, have won three straight including two in the shootout. The Hurricanes are getting some great play from Brandon Sutter of late and having him pick things up helps keep the pressure off of rookie Jeff Skinner. The Ducks, meanwhile, need to get some production from lines aside from the first one. Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry can’t do the heavy lifting every night.

Dallas @ Columbus

Columbus sure seemed to miss Kristian Huselius. Without Huselius’ hat trick against Edmonton on Thursday night the Blue Jackets 6-3 loss would’ve looked even uglier than it actually was. As it is, the Jackets would kill to get some efficiency out of goalie Steve Mason. Mason over the last four weeks has been nothing short of miserable and now that backup goalie Mathieu Garon has returned to earth after a hot start of his own, the defensive deficiencies of Columbus are really starting to show through. Going up against a Dallas team that’s got Brad Richards and James Neal playing great won’t help matters there very much. After going on a five game win streak, the Blue Jackets have won just two of their next 11 games. The Stars would like to just regain some consistency as they’ve alternated between wins and losses over their last four games.

Toronto @ Vancouver

An odd early start out on the west coast for this one, but for Leafs fans across Canada, they get to see their team in prime time on Hockey Night in Canada. The Leafs will be without Jean-Sebastien Giguere as he’s out indefinitely with another groin injury.  If the Leafs continue to play defense the way they did in a 5-2 loss to Calgary it won’t matter who’s in goal for them because they will lose. Vancouver has won three of their last four games and appear to be snapping out of their mental funk that’s kept them playing inconsistent this year winning seven of their last nine games.

7:30 pm

Buffalo @ Tampa Bay

After laying an egg last night against Florida, the Sabres hope to find their stride again. After they got a big win over Boston earlier this week, that could’ve been the turnaround they were looking for. A 6-2 loss to Florida says they’re back to square one. Tampa Bay meanwhile has Vincent Lecavalier back in the lineup and they’re winners of two in a row. If they can get their goaltending right, they’ll be able to start scaring some teams.

8:00 pm

San Jose @ St. Louis

The Blues will be hoping to continue their assault against California teams. They’re coming off a big win over Los Angeles and now dealing with a Sharks team that’s playing like they’re on a roller coaster, catching them on the right night means getting a win. With the Sharks you just never know what you’re going to get. One night it’s the offensive juggernaut, on others it’s a fight with bad goaltending, and on others it’s the team decked out in v-neck sweaters singing fractured Christmas carols.

Los Angeles @ Nashville

Life is good for Nashville of late. They’re missing a bunch of guys up front and their starting goalie and it just doesn’t matter. They keep winning. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and have trimmed the distance between themselves and the Red Wings in the Central. Now they face off with a Kings team eager to put their failure in St. Louis behind them. For the Kings it’s the first of two brutal back-to-back games as they’ll head to Chicago for a game on Sunday following this tough one with the Predators. If the Kings are going to show what they’re made of, getting a win in Nashville would be huge.

10:00 pm

Minnesota @ Calgary

Hockey Night in Canada’s nightcap game doesn’t really give us the warm fuzzies, but when these two get together you’re either guaranteed a huge game from Jarome Iginla or the Wild opening up the floodgates on the Flames. This time around, we’re praying for both things to happen to keep us going into the late night hours. The Wild come in losers of two in a row while the Flames have won two straight.

Oilers ink Draisaitl to monster eight-year, $68 million deal

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The Edmonton Oilers have locked up their cornerstone players for the foreseeable future.

They didn’t come cheap.

Just weeks after signing Connor McDavid to a eight-year, $100 million deal, the Oilers signed fellow forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. The contract carries a $8.5M average annual cap hit and, combined with McDavid’s $12.5M, will now cost the Oilers $21M annually through 2025.

McDavid certainly warranted his payday. The same can be said of Draisaitl.

The 21-year-old just wrapped his three-year, entry-level deal, and couldn’t have done so in finer fashion. Draisaitl enjoyed a terrific season, platooning between the second-line center position and the wing alongside McDavid, and finished with 29 goals and 77 points.

Then, the playoffs happened.

Draisaitl had a terrific postseason, racking up six goals and 16 points in 13 games. At the time of elimination he was sitting second among all scorers — trailing only Evgeni Malkin — and was downright brilliant in Edmonton’s seven-game loss to Anaheim, finishing with 13 points.

More to follow…

 

Report: Vegas among teams in on Pens draftee Byron

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Will Butcher isn’t the only college free agent garnering interest in free agency.

University of Maine senior Blaine Byron, Pittsburgh’s sixth-round pick in ’13, has passed on signing with the club and can now ink with a team of his choosing. Per The Hockey News, the four “lead suitors” for Byron are Vegas, New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo.

Byron, 22, is coming off a great year. He racked up 18 goals and 41 points in 36 games, finishing tied for 18th in the country in scoring. It’s unclear where he would’ve fit in the Pittsburgh organization, though, and one has to think the signing of Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese might’ve played a factor in his departure.

In a recent Tribune-Review piece, Byron did make a list of the club’s top-20 prospects, coming in at No. 17.

Yesterday, Butcher — the reigning Hobey Baker winner — announced that he wouldn’t sign with Colorado, the team that drafted him four years ago. Instead, Butcher will parlay a successful senior campaign at Denver University into interest on the open market.

Under Pressure: Barry Trotz

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

When the Capitals hired Barry Trotz three years ago, they said he was “the only coach we coveted,” calling him “an ideal fit to help lead our club.”

And in many ways, Trotz has been an ideal fit. He’s led to the club to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, racking up 156 wins over the course of three seasons. He won the 2016 Jack Adams as coach of the year. Players have performed exceptionally well on his watch: Braden Holtby won his first-ever Vezina, Alex Ovechkin racked up a pair of Rocket Richard trophies and both Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were named All-Stars.

Despite all this, Trotz is now coaching for his job. Essentially.

A string of disheartening playoff failures — each more painful than the last — have put him in an uncomfortable and pressure-packed situation. He’s heading into the the last of his four-year deal with no contract certainty beyond.

Yes, it’s true Caps GM Brian MacLellan didn’t make any changes with Trotz or to his coaching staff following the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh.

But MacLellan didn’t offer an extension, either.

Brian Burke once likened this scenario to being a lame duck. Trotz refused to see it that way, insisting that he wasn’t worried about the spot he was in.

“No,” he told CSN Mid Atlantic in June, when asked if not having a contract changes his approach at all. “It has 0.0 effect on me, actually. Not at all. I think it might have [had] an effect 10, 12 years ago for me. Not now. It has zero effect.

“I’m not worrying about that at all.”

This is pretty much on par with Trotz’s messaging from the moment Washington crashed out of the playoffs. While his players were visibly dejected and downright hurt during locker clean-out day, the 55-year-old was upbeat.

Defiant, almost.

Trotz talked about how the team’s window wasn’t closed, and how it would eventually “break through that barrier.” He suggested “laughing at the past” could “ease us into the future.”

The assembled media took note of this, which contrasted the vibe of his visibly distraught players. So it was asked — why did he seem more upbeat than his players?

From the Washington Post:

“Put it this way — I haven’t slept in two friggin’ days. To say that I don’t feel very distraught, that really sort of angers me, because talk to my family to see if I’m distraught.

“I have to be positive in terms of, ‘do I think we’re going in the right direction?’ Yes, and I’m positive of that. But we haven’t broken through. That’s why I’m probably the way I am. I also said we didn’t get to where we wanted to get to.

“That angers me. When something doesn’t go your way, you can roll up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself. I don’t.”

That Trotz took this approach isn’t surprising. Coaching is a leadership role, and there didn’t seem to be any point to piling onto what was already a fairly miserable day in D.C.

So hey, why not keep that vibe going when it comes to contract uncertainty?

Trotz will likely continue to do so, even in the face of growing pressure. And pressure will continue to grow. Remember, there’s one final and very important dynamic at play — right next to Trotz behind the Washington bench is assistant coach Todd Reirden. The same Todd Reirden who’s thought to be a head-coach-in-waiting, and has been tied to previous openings in Colorado and Florida.

Fun times in Washington. As they always are.

Looking to make the leap: Nathan Walker

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

Should Nathan Walker jump to the NHL this season, it’ll be a significant one.

Washington’s third-round pick at the 2014 draft, Walker would be in line for his big league debut if he makes the team out of training camp — but that’s not the only milestone at hand.

Should the speedy forward get the call, he’ll also become the first-ever Australian to play in the NHL. Heady stuff for a 23-year-old who, just six years ago, was playing for the Sydney Ice Dogs.

Walker’s rise has been a grind. He logged time in the Czech League, the USHL and the ECHL before emerging as a valuable contributor for Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey. Last year, he racked up 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games for the Bears — and another six in 12 playoff games — while emerging as a high-energy guy that liked to finish his checks.

More to the point, Walker’s a pest.

Despite standing just 5-foot-8 and weight 186 pounds, the Aussie a real edge to his game. It was certainly on display last preseason when, in a game against Montreal, Walker fought Andrew Shaw after Shaw tattooed Connor Hobbs into the boards. Walker would go on to scrap three more times for Hershey last year, one of the club’s more active pugilists.

That style of play will work to Walker’s advantage, as Washington’s thinned-out forward group has spots up for grabs — especially in the bottom six. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik are all gone, which means potential promotions for the likes of Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly and others. Wilson and Winnik were wingers on last year’s fourth line — centered by Jay Beagle — and Walker looks to have the inside track on a replacement spot.

That said, there will be competition. Devante Smith-Pelly was signed in free agency. Riley Barber, who played alongside Walker in Hershey and made his NHL debut last year, is in the mix. Farmhands Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien will battle as well.

But the Caps like Walker, enough to have signed him to a two-year extension this summer. In announcing the deal, GM Brian MacLellan suggested Walker could very well make history this season.

“Walker has a good chance of playing,” MacLellan said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “These guys can all come up, and there’s just going to be more opportunity for them to play this year.”