Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen

Are Hurricanes set to make a move in Eastern Conference playoff race?

Tonight’s trip to Chicago marks the second game in an important back-to-back as the Carolina Hurricanes battle for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Only one night after a thrilling overtime victory against the Sabres, a proverbial 4-point game, the Canes will face the surging Chicago Blackhawks in a game that both teams need to keep pace in their respective playoff races. Carolina will look to avoid a letdown as they try to chase down the Canadiens for the 6th spot.

Only a few weeks ago, the rumors around the league were that Carolina was going to be a seller at the deadline. Fast-forward to today and see that not only did the Hurricanes add a couple of players to the mix, but both Erik Cole and Joni Pitkanen are still members of their club. Just as we saw all over the league, parity will make teams switch roles quicker than we’ve ever seen.

Let’s take a look at what GM Jim Rutherford was able to do over the last few weeks. He jettisoned both Ian White and Sergei Samsonov who were treading water for the Canes and replaced them with players who are expected to contribute in Bryan Allen and Cory Stillman. Everyone knows the games down the stretch are harder fought with battles for every inch of ice. Allen and Stillman are exactly the type of players who thrive when the game gets more physical.

Clearly, the Canes aren’t the type of team that is going to strike fear into the hearts of fans around the league. But as Rutherford says, they’re a better team than they get credit for:

“I know there are better teams out there on paper than we are, but there might’ve been better teams on paper than we were in ’06, too,” Rutherford said in reference to Carolina’s championship season. “If you get the right breaks and play the right teams and all the things that you need to do come through in the playoffs, we have a structure here that would give us a chance to have a much more successful season than I think people would have thought we would have.”

The Hurricanes recent success in the playoffs speaks to the way Rutherford builds teams. Since the lockout, they’ve made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice and won the Cup in 2006. Then again, the other three seasons Carolina didn’t even make the playoffs. The moral of the story? Opponents better hope they don’t make the playoffs because they’ll probably make noise if they do.

The secret that Rutherford seems to have figured out is the way he builds his teams. Down the middle, they have three centers who are extremely tough to play against. Brandon Sutter’s game looks like it was created specifically to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their top line with Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Cory Stillman has proven it can survive the rigors of the playoffs, wear down the other team, and emerge victorious in a 7-game series. Stay-at-home defensemen Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason are great compliments to Joni Pitkanen, rookie Jaime McBain, and Joe Corvo. The team is built to spread the responsibility around and not rely too heavily on a player or two.

There’s not doubt that Carolina has been a picture of mediocrity with their 6-6-3 record since the All-Star break. So why are we talking about the Canes as a team that could make a move down the stretch? Jim Rutherford. That’s why. With two mid-level deals he completely changed the face of his squad. The return of Stillman gives the Canes a formidable top-line and should help their struggling power play. He has 3 points in his 4 games since arriving in Raleigh and has helped create a few more goals for the team. Bryan Allen can play the tough minutes on the PK and instantly gives Carolina the depth on their blueline that they’ll need. The guys over at the Hurricanes blog Canes Country agree:

“It can’t be overstated how important it is to keep your defense fresh down the stretch. With a night of travel and a game Friday on tap for the Canes, having their defenders evenly sharing the workload should do a world of good compared to running Pitkanen and Corvo into the ground with ice times creeping toward 30 minutes. Throw in the fact they were able to do it in the biggest game of the year [vs. Buffalo], and GM Jim Rutherford has to be thrilled with how his changes on D have morphed the way Carolina approaches its game management.”

It’s hard not to like their top two lines and their defensive corps depth. Calder Trophy candidate Jeff Skinner is leading the NHL in rookie scoring with 22 goals and 26 assists. Tuomo Ruutu has 45 points while being a complete pain to play against and Chad LaRose has always had the knack of scoring big goals in his career.

On the occasion that the 18 guys on the ice aren’t getting it done, an all-star and Conn Smythe winning goaltender is always there to pick up the team. Even though he’s facing over 32 shots per game, Cam Ward still owns a .920 save percentage.

Exactly the kind of guy a team would want if they were looking to make a run towards the playoffs. Correction: exactly the kind of team to make a run towards the playoffs.

Vegas confirms trademarks for Desert Knights, Golden Knights, Silver Knights

LAS VEGAS - MARCH 24:  A general view of the Fabulous Las Vegas sign on Las Vegas Boulevard on March 24, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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On Monday, a spokesman for the Las Vegas expansion team confirmed to NHL.com the group has trademarked a trio of potential nicknames — the Desert Knights, the Golden Knights and the Silver Knights.

The news comes on the heels of owner Bill Foley telling Yahoo “we’re kind of getting to the point where we’re almost there,” adding that he was “close” to naming the team.

More, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Last week domain names were registered that might be an indicator that the NHL team scheduled to begin play in 2017 could be called the Las Vegas Desert Knights.

Last week the domains lasvegasdesertknights.com, vegasdesertknights.com and desertknightshockey.com were privately registered to Moniker Privacy Services, which is the same company that procured the domain name to NHL.com.

Earlier this summer, Foley — a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy — said Vegas can’t use a straight-up ‘Knights’ nickname in Canada, because London’s OHL franchise was also named the Knights.

There was some thought to use the Black Knights moniker, which is what the teams at West Point use. But Foley said the name wasn’t popular among the fans.

He also added that the “Nighthawks” moniker is still reserved, and could be used.

Poll: Is Kucherov’s contract situation anything to be worried about?

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival (32), of the Czech Republic, falls down on the puck in front of Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), of Russia, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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This post is part of Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT…

“We continue to communicate with his representation, and we expect to have him under contract to start the season.”

That was what Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman told the Times back on July 27, in discussing the future of RFA forward Nikita Kucherov.

That was 33 days ago.

Since then, most — if not all — has gone silent on the Kucherov front. The 23-year-old, coming off career highs in goals (30) and points (66), remains unsigned with a bunch of key dates on the horizon.

The first few are mostly to do with the World Cup of Hockey. Kucherov will represent Russia in the tourney, with the Russians set to begin training camp on Sept. 5 — one week from now.

Their first exhibition game takes place on Sept. 8, against the Czechs, and they open tournament play on Sept. 18.

There are insurance policies in place to so unsigned RFAs can play in the World Cup, meaning Kucherov should be a go for the Russians. Other RFAs look as though they’re in a similar boat — Johnny Gaudreau and Jacob Trouba with Team North America, specifically — so it doesn’t feel like Tampa Bay needs to get Kucherov locked in ASAP.

But when?

That’s the big question.

Yzerman’s earned a reputation as a tough, unflinching negotiator. He stood firm during the Jonathan Drouin trade request saga, and remained steadfast with his contract offer to Steve Stamkos. In both instances, Yzerman “won” — Drouin rescinded his request and is now fully back in Tampa’s mix, while Stamkos eschewed going to free agency to ink a long-term deal with the Bolts.

Hence the intrigue around Kucherov.

Pundits have pointed to a pair of contracts — Filip Forsberg‘s six-year, $36 million extension and Nathan MacKinnon‘s seven-year, $44.1 million deal — as potential benchmarks for Kucherov. What we don’t know is where Yzerman is at.

We do know that Tampa Bay is in a cap crunch. Yzerman could alleviate some of the pressure by putting Ryan Callahan (hip) on LTIR to start the year, but that’s a temporary solution. Yzerman also has to be wary of the future, especially since the likes of Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will all need new deals next season.

So, we turn it over to you — is the Kucherov situation a concern? Or will it all get sorted out, as it so often does with Yzerman?

Jackets hire ‘smart, energetic’ Madden to coach AHL club

SUNRISE, FL - JANUARY 16: Assistant coach John Madden talks to Brad Boyes #24 of the Florida Panthers during third period action against the San Jose Sharks at the BB&T Center on January 16, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. The Sharks defeated the Panthers 3-0. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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Didn’t take John Madden long to find work.

Madden, fired from his post as Florida’s assistant coach earlier this summer, scored one of the premier AHL gigs on Monday, as Columbus announced Madden would be the new head coach of their minor league affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters.

“John Madden has a winning pedigree, having been a part of three Stanley Cup championships and a collegiate national championship as a player and being a part of the coaching staff that helped the Florida Panthers become one of the NHL’s most improved clubs over the past three seasons,” Columbus assistant GM Bill Zito said in a release. “He is a smart, energetic young coach who we believe to be the best person to lead our prospects in Cleveland.”

Madden, 43, quickly transitioned to coaching after a successful playing career which included three Stanley Cups and a Selke Trophy. He hung up his skates as a member of the Panthers in 2012 and, one year later, was behind the bench for the club, serving as an assistant under Kevin Dineen, Peter Horachek and, eventually, current head coach Gerard Gallant.

Madden landing the Monsters job was the result of a domino effect.

It began in early August, when Patrick Roy stunningly resigned as Colorado’s head coach. That sent the Avs into a hiring push, which ended last week as Jared Bednar — who led the Monsters to the Calder Cup last season — was announced as the new bench boss.

That left a void in Cleveland, which the Jackets quickly filled with Madden.

On Ben Bishop, and his uncertain future in Tampa Bay

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning attends the 2016 NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT…

On the surface, the whole thing just doesn’t seem fair.

In this corner we have Ben Bishop — at 6-foot-7, the tallest netminder in NHL history — coming off a banner campaign in which he cemented himself as one of the game’s elite.

Those covering Bolts almost unanimously agreed Bishop was the team’s MVP during the regular season, especially over a lethargic first three months in which Tampa Bay hovered around the playoff line.

Bishop’s campaign concluded with the appropriate accolades: A second-place finish in Vezina voting, second team All-NHL, and a spot on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey.

At 29, Bishop is smack in the prime of his career as a clear-cut, No. 1, workhorse netminder.

Yet his time in Tampa Bay is ticking away.

Bishop’s heading into the last year of his contract — one that pays $5.9 million annually — and the writing on the wall suggests it’ll be his last pact with the Lightning.

The club’s goalie of the future, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is ready to be the goalie of the present, something GM Steve Yzerman confirmed this summer by inking Vasilevskiy to a three-year, $10.5 million extension.

The deal doesn’t start until 2017-18, meaning Vasilevskiy 1) will only cost $925,000 this season, 2) will start making $3.5M annually the year after Bishop’s off the books, and 2) will be Tampa Bay property through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy went 11-10-0 with a .910 save percentage last season. Not the greatest numbers, but he’s been touted as the Lightning’s goalie of the future since they drafted him 19th overall in 2012. And for the record, he was solid in this year’s playoffs (.925 SV% in eight appearances) when Bishop got hurt.

Which brings us back to Bishop.

Navigating his future is difficult. There were major rumblings this past summer about him being dealt, with Calgary (see here) and Dallas (see here) mentioned as interested suitors.

But nothing materialized, possibly because all parties involved realize letting Bishop’s contract play out could be the preferred move.

Consider:

— Tampa Bay’s a legit Stanley Cup contender, and Yzerman has shown he’s unafraid to hold onto pending UFAs past the trade deadline in order to make a playoff run (see: Stamkos, Steve). If Yzerman thinks Bishop gives the Bolts a better chance of winning, he’ll keep him.

— The idea of signing Bishop in free agency, rather than trading an asset to acquire him, would have to be tantalizing for interested teams. Do remember that while Calgary solved its goaltending issue by acquiring Brian Elliott, it’s only a stopgap solution. Elliott is also heading into the last year of his contract, and there hasn’t been much from GM Brad Treliving about an extension.

— Dallas, meanwhile, could play the waiting game and give the maligned Kari LehtonenAntti Niemi duo another kick at the can. If Lehtonen and Niemi disappoint again, it would make sense for GM Jim Nill to re-address the position, and he could afford Bishop with a buyout and some freed up money (remember, Patrick Sharp‘s $5.9 million hit comes off the books at the end of this year).

In the end, only one thing is clear. Bishop’s been terrific for the Lightning, and simply got caught up in a numbers game.

Where he ends up is decidedly less clear.