Race for the playoffs: Three make-or-break games on tap tonight

With the season winding down and the playoff picture sorting itself out, we’ll be taking a look at the night’s games and how they’ll potentially affect the playoff races. This is ProHockeyTalk’s “Race for the Playoffs.”

Eastern Conference

5. Tampa Bay – 93 pts
6. Montreal – 89 pts
7. NY Rangers – 87 pts
8. Buffalo – 85 pts
9. Carolina – 82 pts
10. Toronto – 80 pts
11. Atlanta – 76 pts

NY Rangers @ Buffalo – 7 p.m. ET
The Rangers hold just a two point lead on Buffalo. Just think of how much more interesting this would’ve been had Buffalo knocked off Toronto last night. The race at the lower half of the East is filled with intrigue and Montreal’s recent slide has gotten both the Rangers and Sabres back in the mix to potentially have a shot at getting into sixth place and a likely date with Boston in the first round of the playoffs.

The potential goalie battle in this game has us all tingly with Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and Ryan Miller for Buffalo. Miller had a rough go against Toronto last night giving up four goals in the loss. The Rangers can either keep pace with or equal the Habs, depending on what happens in their game against Carolina tonight, but if you’re thinking there’ll be a host of goals in this game, think again.

Montreal @ Carolina – 7 p.m. ET
These two teams have a slight bit of history and it’s none too friendly and there’s nothing more the Canadiens would like than to put a hurting on the Hurricanes playoff hopes. Carolina is three points back of Buffalo and if everything breaks right for them tonight, they could be just one point out after it’s all said and done this evening. Montreal may be poised to roll though after snapping their 199 minute goalless drought last night, a streak that was part of a three-game losing skid. While both teams have had their doses of inconsistency this season, Carolina’s have been a bit more hot and cold. Getting a win over the Caps in the shootout last night could be a sign of righting the ship at the right time as they’ve now won five of their last seven games.

NY Islanders @ New Jersey – 7 p.m. ET
While Zach Parise may get a shot to play for the first time since November, it’s pretty much pride on the line between these two. They’ve been the two hottest teams the second half of the year and while the Devils teased for a bit like they might get close to the playoffs, it’s not going to happen now. The Islanders would love to be the team that casts the fatal blow to the Devils final hopes at the postseason.

Western Conference

5. Los Angeles – 94 pts
6. Nashville – 92 pts
7. Anaheim – 91 pts
8. Chicago – 90 pts
9. Dallas – 87 pts
10. Calgary – 87 pts

Anaheim @ Calgary – 9:30 p.m. ET
This is it for Calgary, a loss to Anaheim and they’re dead in the water for the playoffs. Calgary will have just four games remaining after this one and getting to 95 points won’t guarantee a shot at the postseason. The Flames will essentially have to win their final five games starting with tonight’s game against the Ducks to have any slightly stress-free hopes of the playoffs. With everyone else ahead of them having games in hand to play, things don’t look good for Calgary.

Making things worse for the Flames is they’ll have to play an Anaheim team that’s playing much better of late thanks to Corey Perry’s great play. Anaheim has the chance to move up to sixth in the West with a win and moving ahead of Nashville in the West means that the rumbling talk of Corey Perry for league MVP will rumble on. For us, we’ll just be excited to see yet another game with the ever-awesome Teemu Selanne.

St. Louis @ Detroit – 7:30 p.m. ET
All right there’s not much to this game playoff-wise at all since Vancouver clinched the top spot in the Western Conference, but Detroit still needs to wrap up the Central Division and with Nashville still lurking behind them, only wins can help put them away.

Oilers cap situation is scary, and not just because of Draisaitl, McDavid

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The Edmonton Oilers pulled the trigger – and likely made teams with big RFA headaches like the Boston Bruins grimace – in signing Leon Draisaitl to a massive eight-year, $68 million contract on Wednesday.

You have to do a little stretching to call it a good deal, although credit Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshysnki with some reasonably stated optimism.

Either way, the per-year cap bill for Connor McDavid and Draisaitl is $21 million once McDavid’s extension kicks in starting in 2018-19; that’s the same combined cost that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane receive … and those two got those paydays after they won three Stanley Cups for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now, if the Oilers struggle in the near future, plenty of people will heap blame on McDavid and/or Draisaitl. Really, though, the true scapegoats should be a management team with more strikeouts than homers.

(As usual, Cap Friendly was a key resource in studying Edmonton’s salary structure.)

Bloated supporting cast

There are some frightening contracts on the books in Edmonton, especially if a few situations work out unfavorably.

At 29, there’s severe risk of regression with Milan Lucic, even if he enjoys a more stable second season with Edmonton. He carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23, so he’ll be on the books for all but two years of Draisaitl’s new deal.

Kris Russell costs $4.167M during a four-year stretch, and even now, he has plenty of critics. Those complaints may only get louder if, at 30, he also starts to slip from his already debatable spot.

Andrej Sekera‘s been a useful blueliner, yet there’s some concern that time won’t treat him kindly. He’s dealing with injuries heading into 2017-18, and at 31, there’s always the risk that his best days are behind him. Not great for a guy carrying a $5.5M cap hit through 2020-21.

One can’t help but wonder if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be an odd man out once the shackles of the salary cap really tighten. Just consider how much Edmonton is spending on a limited number of players, and you wonder if the 24-year-old will be deemed too pricey at his $6M clip.

Yeah, not ideal.

It’s not all bad

Now, let’s be fair.

RNH could easily grow into being well worth that $6M. Draisaitl may also justify his hefty price tag. McDavid honestly cut the Oilers a relative deal by taking $12.5M instead of the maximum.

The Oilers also have two quality, 24-year-old defensemen locked up to team-friendly deals: Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M through 2022-23) and Adam Larsson ($4.167M through 2020-21). They need every bargain they can get, and those two figure to fit the bill.

Crucial future negotiations

GM Peter Chiarelli’s had a questionable history of getting good deals. He’ll need to get together soon, or the Oilers will really struggle to surround their core with helpful support.

Cam Talbot is a brilliant bargain at the strangely familiar cap hit of $4.167M, but that value only lasts through 2018-19. After that, he’s eligible to become a UFA, and could be massively expensive if he produces two more strong seasons.

The bright side is that the Oilers aren’t locked into an expensive goalie, so they can look for deals. That isn’t as sunny a situation if you don’t trust management to have much success in the bargain bin.

Talbot isn’t the only upcoming expiring contract. The Oilers have serious questions to answer with Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Also, will they need to let Lucic-like winger Patrick Maroon go? Even with mild relief in Mark Fayne‘s money coming off the books, the Oilers might regret this buffet when the bills start piling up next summer.

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Look, the truth is that management is likely to be propped up by the top-end in Edmonton, particularly in the case of McDavid’s otherworldly skills. As much as that Draisaitl deal looks like an overpay – possibly a massive one – there’s a chance that he lives up to that $8.5M, too.

It’s not just about those stars, though.

The Pittsburgh Penguins gained new life by complimenting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the likes of Phil Kessel. The Blackhawks have struggled once they couldn’t afford as much help for Kane and Toews.

You have to mix your premium items with bargains, and one wonders if the Oilers will be able to spot sufficient value beyond the no-brainer top guys. Their recent history in that area certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

Cullen signs with Wild, opting against retirement (and Penguins)

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Matt Cullen is going home, but that doesn’t mean that he’s retiring from hockey.

Instead, the Minnesota native decided to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. It’s unclear why, precisely, Cullen didn’t ink a deal to try to “threepeat” with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Wild note that his deal also includes $700K in potential performance bonuses.

This will be the 40-year-old’s second run with the Wild. His first run came from 2010-11 through 2012-13, where he appeared in 193 regular-season games and five postseason contests for Minnesota.

Cullen managed back-to-back 30+ point seasons with the Penguins while providing useful all-around play as a veteran center. If he can maintain a reasonably high level of play, this gives the Wild quite the solid group down the middle, even with Martin Hanzal gone.

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.