Around the Rink – Sunday, December 26th

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Now that you’ve opened your presents and/or completed your feats of strength, it’s time for the NHL to get back to business. Look no further than Sunday’s slate of games, with 11 contests on tap. As always, start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Nashville @ St. Louis

The Blues began their five-game homestand by beating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3, so now they host another Central Division foe in the form of the Predators. Nashville is on a three game losing streak and only hold a one-point lead over St. Louis, so Jaroslav Halak & Co. could leapfrog them with a win in this game.

Washington @ Carolina

The Capitals played well against the Penguins on Thursday, but ultimately left the contest with only one point. Chances are solid that they’ll go into tonight’s skirmish with the Hurricanes with a chip on their collective shoulders, so Cam Ward better prepare for a barrage.

Columbus @ Chicago

With a three-game winning streak and a fairly hot goalie in Corey Crawford, Chicago is getting its act together despite injuries to Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. They’ll greet a collapsing Columbus club that coach Scott Arniel referred to “pee wees” late last week. While that should be a sign that the Blackhawks should win, they better not take the Blue Jackets (and their bruised egos) lightly in this one.

Montreal @ NY Islanders

The Canadiens are slipping a bit and with the Bruins are rapidly approaching in their rear-view mirrors, they need to win games like this one. The Islanders are showing a little spunk as of late, though, with two wins in a row. If nothing else, Garth Snow’s embattled gang clearly stands above the sad-sack Devils right now.

Detroit @ Minnesota

The Wild might not enjoy the trap talk, but all that matters right now is that Niklas Backstrom is playing absolutely lights-out hockey. Not coincidentally, the Wild are on a three game winning streak and seem intent to make the Western Conference playoff picture even more muddled. Visiting them is the (relatively) stumbling Red Wings, who are 4-5-1 in their last 10 and must face the sobering reality of Pavel Datsyuk’s month-long (or so) absence.

Toronto @ New Jersey

Misery loves company, right? If that’s true, then these teams need to get together more often.

Tampa Bay @ Atlanta

This game features a matchup between two teams that are graduating from the Southeast Division Kiddie Table to the Eastern Conference’s elite. The Thrashers briefly stole the Lightning’s thunder with a big winning streak, but Tampa Bay now holds a games-in-hand based divisional lead over Washington. Beating Dustin Byfuglien & Co. would allow them to retain that margin even if the Capitals crush Carolina.

7:30 pm

Pittsburgh @ Ottawa

He might not get much camera time on 24/7 (despite having the kind of hair that would draw in a few fans from the  Twilight demographic), but Kris Letang has been an underrated motor in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ great recent run. Yet he might not be in such a position of power if the team hadn’t made the difficult choice to let former power play QB (and big minutes eater) Sergei Gonchar flee to the Senators. It’s hard to argue with that decision now, especially considering Gonchar’s ugly -19 rating.

8:00 pm

Phoenix @ Dallas

What a difference a year makes, eh? Not too long ago, the story was former Stars coach Dave Tippett working miracles with a seemingly hopeless Coyotes team while Marc Crawford coached another lost season in Dallas. While Tippett really isn’t doing an awful job now, my guess is that Stars fans (at least the scant amounts paying attention right now) aren’t missing him as much right now. The Stars currently hold the lead in the Pacific Division – however slim – while the ‘Yotes are stalling out in fifth.

Could it be that Joe Nieuwendyk dismissed the 2009-10 coach of the year to hire the 2010-11 Jack Adams winner?

9:00 pm

Edmonton @ Vancouver

Last time these two teams played, the Oilers only managed 12 shots on goal. Hey, at least it cannot get much worse. Right?

Right?

Anaheim @ Los Angeles

If you only looked at standings point, it would seem like the Kings are barely better than the Ducks so far. Yet they’ve earned one more point in five less games played. so don’t sleep on Los Angeles as the new year approaches.

Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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Talk about making a great first impression.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Here’s some footage of his performance:

If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.