Alex Ovechkin

Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic rematch looks a bit different this time around

When we last saw the Penguins and Capitals it was on the ice on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day for the Winter Classic. At the time, both teams were playing well and the Capitals eventually came away the victors that evening with a 3-1 win. Times have changed in the time just over a month since then and when they meet up at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, you might have trouble recognizing each team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out with injuries as is rookie Mark Letestu and the Pens have adopted a more hard-nosed brand of hockey, a style that’s won them five in a row heading into today’s game. The Penguins offense hasn’t been prolific but is instead proving to be timely while their team defense has stiffened up as the Penguins have had shutouts in two of their last five wins. Even though the Penguins are still rolling out there with Jordan Staal, these aren’t the same Penguins we’re accustomed to seeing with the high-flying talents of Crosby and Malkin.

Instead, the goals are coming from the likes of Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, and rookie Dustin Jeffrey. If you had any of these guys penciled in at the start of the year to be offensive leaders for Pittsburgh, perhaps your time would be better spent picking out lottery numbers. The fact that the Penguins have rallied together without their star centers speaks loudly to the ability of coach Dan Bylsma to keep the team focused on the matter at hand and to the rest of the players for knowing when they need to step up the most. It may not be the pretty and highlight-filled hockey we’re accustomed to seeing from the Penguins, but it’s getting the job done as the Penguins are just behind Philadelphia for the top spot not just in the division but also in the Eastern Conference.

The boat the Capitals find themselves in is a different one. They haven’t been felled by significant injuries (Alex Semin’s absence has been tricky for them though) but instead are still searching for their way through doing things differently on defense as well as trying to find ways to get Alex Ovechkin out of his goal-scoring slump this year.

While the goals aren’t as numerous as they have been in the past, the points are still coming and the Caps dominating win over Tampa Bay the other night was one of their best games of the year. In that game, both Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom each tallied four points (Ovechkin with 1 goal, 3 assists; Backstrom with 2 goals and 2 assists). Ovechkin’s game has changed a bit as he’s not quite playing like the slap-shooting, sniping master from the outside and is turning into a bit of a bull on the ice.

Rather than lurking in the perimeter, Ovechkin is rushing the net more and making defenses and goalies alike uncomfortable with his large, fast presence. By making his own space on the ice, his ability to be held off the score sheet will become more difficult to do once again. By proxy, Backstrom’s numbers are improving as long as Ovechkin continues to do things his way rather than taking what opposing defenses give him. That subtle alteration to Ovechkin’s game will take a toll physically, but he’s also a guy that’s never shied away from anyone ever. Letting him loose like that could unleash the inner power forward in him.

That said, it’s not as if both Ovechkin and Backstrom aren’t producing. Ovechkin has 55 points this year (20 g, 35 a) while Backstrom has 50 (14 g, 36 a) but if they’re going to help out their team that is otherwise producing erratically, they need to be the guys that keep putting the puck in the net.

Living off the secondary production takes its toll after a while and in the case of the Capitals they don’t have any excuses for not getting premiere production from their stars. The Penguins, meanwhile, wish they could just have their guys back. The fact that these two teams are each in second place in their division and on the crash course to face each other in the playoffs makes almost too much sense.

Ready for No. 1 duties, Elliott wants to be ‘backbone’ for Flames

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 15:  Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends goal during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 15, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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At 31, Brian Elliott will be one of most experienced guys on the Calgary roster next season.

But he’s also ready to embark on something unique.

Elliott will have the chance to be a clear-cut, unquestioned, No. 1 starting netminder for the first time in his career when the Flames open play in October — an opportunity he’s ready to embrace.

“As a goalie you want to be wanted. You want to have that opportunity,” Elliott said on Wednesday during his introduction to the Calgary media. “I’m going to do my best to be the backbone of the team and try to be a leader and just do whatever I can to be the rock for the guys on the back end and let the guys do the rest of the work.”

There’s little doubt about Elliott’s role in Calgary for next season. He was stellar in ’15-16, posting a .930 save percentage and 2.07 GAA, helping the Blues advance to the Western Conference Final. And the Flames further anointed Elliott as the No. 1 by signing career backup Chad Johnson to fill the No. 2 role.

So, next year is sorted.

But what about after that?

Elliott is a UFA after this season, and so is Johnson. Flames GM Brad Treliving did say at the draft that Elliott’s contractual status and cap hit played a role in the acquisition, adding that discussions about a new deal could be in the works.

“As part of this deal, Doug [Armstrong, Blues GM] allowed me to talk to [Elliot’s] representative, so there may be the opportunity to look at an extension,” Treliving said at the time. “We’ll look at that. There’s no need to rush, but maybe there is a need to look at something.”

It’s been long rumored that Calgary wasn’t looking for a long-term solution in goal, but rather a “transitional guy.” That’s why Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, currently under contract for two more years, had been tied to the Flames.

Looking down the road, it’s clear Calgary is anticipating one of their draftees pans out in goal. The club took Providence standout Jon Gillies 75th overall in 2012, Mason McDonald 34th overall in ’14, and Tyler Parsons 54th overall this  year — but none of them are close to being NHL ready.

Which brings us back to Elliott.

Given how erratic things were in Calgary’s net last year both performance- and contractual-wise, one would assume Treliving would like to keep “Moose” around for more than just this season.

With ‘no expectations’ for Franzen or Vitale to play, Wings aren’t worried about cap situation

Detroit Red Wings v Edmonton Oilers
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At first glance, Detroit’s current financial situation isn’t good. Petr Mrazek’s recent two-year, $8 million extension pushed the payroll to nearly $78 million, well over the $73M ceiling for next season.

But there is a catch.

“Certainly we have no expectations that [Johan] Franzen and [Joe] Vitale are playing hockey this year,” GM Ken Holland said Wednesday, per MLive. “I talked to Vitale after we traded (for) him. He’s having on-going issues with concussion.

“He certainly not expecting to be in camp. I’m not expecting to see Johan Franzen on the ice.”

Vitale, acquired from Arizona as part of the Pavel Datsyuk deal at the draft, carries at $1.16 million cap hit. Franzen, who played in just two games last year while dealing with concussion issues of his own, carries a $3.95M hit.

Putting those two on long-term injured reserve would almost get Detroit right back into cap compliance. Holland can also exercise a similar option with Teemu Pulkkinen, who underwent shoulder surgery this offseason (and makes $812,500).

Thing is, cap compliance isn’t all Holland wants to accomplish.

Though he re-signed Danny DeKeyser to a big six-year, $30 million contract earlier this week, Holland still wants to add to his blue line. The Wings have a surplus of forwards, and Holland has said he’d “love to get a top-three defenseman” prior to the start of next season.

A top-three defenseman will undoubtedly cost a fair bit of money. Which means a fair bit of money would need to go the other way in return.

Detroit has reportedly spoken to Anaheim about acquiring Cam Fowler. Fowler, 24, would be a good fit — he’s got a very reasonable contract ($4 million annually through 2018), the type of money the Wings could bring aboard if they were to part with the likes of, say, Gustav Nyquist ($4.75 million through 2019).

The catch, of course, is that the asking price for defensemen is sky high. It cost the Oilers Taylor Hall to get Adam Larsson out of New Jersey, and there are teams like Boston — still desperately searching for a “transitional” defenseman — that have publicly stated the acquisition cost is steep.

So while Detroit might not be worried about its cap situation for next season, it has to be concerned about having what it takes to upgrade the defense.

Related: Blues GM says he might just keep Kevin Shattenkirk

 

With Peters re-signed, ‘Canes ready to snap playoff drought

Bill Peters
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It’s been an exciting offseason in Carolina.

Now the team is equally excited about the season at hand, and the prospect of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

“We think we’re right there,” GM Ron Francis said on Tuesday, in announcing head coach Bill Peters’ contract extension through 2019. “We want to get in the playoffs, and we want to have success around here.”

Hired with little fanfare two years ago, there’s a sense Peters has finished the unglamorous dirty work in shaping the team, and teaching players how he wants the game to be played.

Now is the time to see the fruits of his labor.

In his first season behind the bench, the former Mike Babcock assistant was working with an expensive, older, mediocre group that included the likes of Alex Semin, Eric Staal, Tim Gleason and John-Michael Liles. The group wasn’t especially inspiring, and all the guys mentioned are now gone.

Next season, the ‘Canes project to be a different lot.

They’ll boast a young, dynamic group of players aged 24 or younger: Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Teuvo Teravainen, Noah Hanifin and Sebastian Aho, to name a few.

These are all a positive changes for Peters, who is clearly a coach on the rise. He was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the world championships, and led the country to gold. This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why optimism in Carolina is so high. Though the roster will be young next year, it’s absolutely loaded with talent and there’s good reason to believe they’ve got the right coach to lead the group.

If there is one thing that could dampen enthusiasm, though, it’s the club’s goalie situation.

Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

Peters was extremely patient and protective of his netminders during that spell, but with expectations raised, that tone might change.

Yzerman knows Bolts have ‘to be under the cap at some point,’ so Callahan (hip) could open on LTIR

Steve Yzerman
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It might feel complex, but the financial situation in Tampa Bay is actually straightforward — GM Steve Yzerman has roughly $5-$6 million in cap space, with forward Nikita Kucherov and d-man Nikita Nesterov still to sign.

And Yzerman thinks he has a way to get ’em done.

“We’ve got to be under the cap at some point,” Yzerman said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Depending on the health of players, Ryan Callahan had surgery and if he’s not ready to to start the season, that buys us some time.

“We can do that (long-term injured reserve) if we need to. At some point, we’re going to have to be cap compliant to start the season, there’s no way around it.”

Callahan underwent major hip surgery in late June, and was expected to miss the next five months of action. He’s already been ruled out of competing for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, and now it sure sounds like his absence will extend into the regular season.

Which could suit the Bolts just fine.

While they’ll miss Callahan’s presence, the temporary relief of his $5.8 million cap hit could allow Yzerman to take care of Kucherov and Nesterov now, and figure out the finances later.

Trades at the end of the preseason/start of the regular season are commonplace, especially with teams looking to get cap compliant. Last year, in a mid-September deal, Chicago was forced to flip Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to Carolina in order to sign Marcus Kruger.

Of course, Kucherov is going to demand significantly more money than Kruger did from the ‘Hawks.

The Times floated the idea of Filip Forsberg‘s new contract in Nashville — six year, $36 million — as a potential comparable, which could mean Yzerman will be forced to trade a fairly noteworthy contributor, not just a couple of spare parts.

Names that have been floated include veteran centers Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle. Yesterday’s signing of promising pivot Vladislav Namestnikov suggests the team thinks Namestnikov is ready to assume a larger role down the middle, making Filppula and/or Boyle expendable.