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Mario Lemieux’s letter to Gary Bettman calls for teams to be held accountable for suspended players

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Following the fight-filled, controversial February 11th game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins released a furious statement critiquing the way the league handles suspensions. For many, the statement was an example of the “pot calling the kettle black” considering the fact that the Penguins employ repeat offender and widely reviled pest Matt Cooke.

The Cooke-related calls of hypocrisy clouded what was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis: that the NHL isn’t doing enough to deter general managers from simply calling up a borderline player who do little beyond fighting and potentially injuring legitimate skaters.

After all, do you think the New York Islanders really cared that they lost Trevor Gillies for nine games? Even if it seems like a harsh penalty for Gillies himself, he could probably live with it because he ultimately did more or less what was asked of him. That’s all a goon can really hope for, right?

Interestingly enough, Gary Bettman’s five-point plan included one interesting idea that might eventually make Lemieux happy. Here’s that point:

The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of ‘repeat offenders’ with regard to Supplementary Discipline.

While that ruling would be nice, it doesn’t really provide much in the way of specific details. For instance, how will the league “elevate the standard” in which teams and coaches will be held accountable?

One week ago, Lemieux sent a letter to Bettman that underscored the fact that he feels the league needs to do a better job holding its teams accountable for the actions of individual players. In fact, he even gave tangible suggestions for what kind of fines a team should pay. (Source: Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com.)

Lemieux, in his letter last week, suggested fine amounts based on the length of suspension to the player:

• 1-2 games–$50,000 fine to team

• 3-4 games–$100,000 fine to team

• 5-8 games–$250,000 fine to team

• 9-10 games–$500,000 fine to team

• 11-15 games–$750,000 fine to team

• More than 15 games–$1 million fine to team

“If a player is a repeat offender during that season, the fine to the team would double,” wrote Lemieux.

It’s one thing to shame a team with a suspension, but adding a wallet-related insult to that pride-related injury could do a better job of deterring the shameful hooligan action. Sure, when a player like Todd Bertuzzi (in his prime, in Vancouver) gets suspended for the remainder of the season and playoffs, it hurts his team badly. But the only way to make a suspension to a marginal player such as Gillies actually make a difference to anyone except Gillies is to make sure his team regrets it on a deeper level.

And before you jump on Lemieux again for Cooke being a member of the Penguins, he made this last point.

“Please note that if this proposed system were in operation today, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have been fined $600,000 this season because of recent suspensions to two players. We all have to take responsibility if we are going to improve the game.”

It’s great that the league is engaging in wider discussion of these issues, especially when figures such as Lemieux suggest black-and-white solutions.

What do you think about his suggested fines? Do you think they would make a difference in reducing ugly on-ice incidents? Would those fines be too light, too harsh or just right? Let us know in the comments.

Stamkos close to game shape, but return might be weeks or months away

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos (91) competes in the hardest shot competition at the NHL hockey All-Star game skills competition Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Steve Stamkos began to practice again on Tuesday and he was back out there on Wednesday and Thursday, which some might interpret as him being close to returning. It seems premature to say that definitively.

“It could be weeks. It could be months,” Stamkos said of his timetable, per ESPN. “That’s the tough part.”

The problem isn’t getting back into game shape after undergoing vascular surgery in early April. He feels he’s already close to reaching that objective. The issue is that Stamkos is on blood thinners, which prevents him from taking any contact. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be on blood thinners.

For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy underwent the same surgery and was out for two months and the original timetable provided on April 4 for Stamkos was one-to-three months. So based on that, it sounds like it would be surprising if he returned anytime soon.

Bergeron, Kesler, Kopitar named Selke finalists

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron celebrates after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Will Patrice Bergeron join Bob Gainey as the only players to have ever won the Selke Trophy four times?

That’s a distinct possibility after the Bruins center was named as a finalist along with Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar.

The Selke Trophy honors the league’s top defensive forward and for three of the last four years, that distinction has gone to Bergeron. However, Kesler and Kopitar have been popular with the voters of this award as well.

Kopitar has finished second in the voting in each of the previous two campaigns while Kesler won back in 2011, though he finished outside of the top-five in each of the last three years prior to the 2015-16 campaign.

Among the trio, Kesler excelled this season on the draw with a 58.5% success rate, which was good for second in the league among forwards who took at least 200 faceoffs. Bergeron was up there too, winning 57.1% of his draws while Kopitar posted a 53.5%. Meanwhile, Bergeron ranked seventh in the NHL with 67 takeaways compared to Kesler’s 39 and Kopitar’s 43. Where Kopitar stood out was in plus/minus as he finished second in the league at plus-34. Kesler was plus-five and Bergeron was plus-12.

Kopitar similarly led the trio with a 57.4% Corsi For versus Bergeron’s 55.9% and Kesler’s 52.9%.

Capitals get Orpik back for series opener

Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik missed half of Washington’s first round series, but he’s back in time for the opener against his former team.

Orpik last played on April 18 and was regarded as questionable going into tonight’s contest against Pittsburgh. He’s expected to be paired with John Carlson throughout the contest.

Washington’s other projected pairings are Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen as well as Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt.

Orpik was limited to 41 games during the 2015-16 regular season, but when he did play he averaged 19:48 minutes per contest. He also recorded 125 hits and 102 blocked shots despite missing half the season. The 35-year-old blueliner got his start with Pittsburgh and played in 703 regular season contests with them and an additional 92 postseason contests. This is his second season with Washington.

Wild GM Fletcher undecided on Vanek buyout, but notes ‘our cap situation is much better this year’

Minnesota Wild left wing Thomas Vanek controls the puck during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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Thomas Vanek hopes he’s not bought out, but his rough 2015-16 campaign has made that a possibility.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher certainly isn’t ruling it out, but at the same time he also presented an assessment for Vanek that was in a way more of a mixed than negative review.

“I thought Thomas in October and November was arguably our best forward – or certainly played as well as any body on our team,” Fletcher said, per the StarTribune. “He seemed to lose confidence. But I thought he really shot the puck well and did a lot of great things early. And there’s no question he pressed after that and then got banged up. He’s a goal scorer and we need to find a way to score more goals. Our cap situation is much better this year.”

That last point is particularly relevant given that a buyout essentially boils down to missing out on the chance of Vanek bouncing back in exchange for some short-term cap relief. To put figures on it, buying out Vanek would save Minnesota $5 million in cap space for the 2016-17 campaign, but then it will cost Minnesota $2.5 million in 2017-18, per General Fanager.

With Vanek in the books, the Wild are projected to consume $63.8 million in cap space next season and that figure doesn’t including pending restricted free agents Jason Zucker, Jordan Schroeder, Zac Dalpe, Matt Dumba, or Darcy Kuemper. If the 2016-17 ceiling is $74 million, as has been previously suggested, then it seems reasonable to believe that Minnesota can lock up its RFAs, keep Vanek, and still have some flexibility left over to engage in other changes over the summer. Although obviously gaining an extra $5 million would make it easier for them to make more sizable moves.

“I’m much more comfortable with our flexibility this year than last year. It’s going to give us more options,” Fletcher said.

The plan is for Fletcher to take a couple weeks before deciding on what to do with Vanek.

Related: No Chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM