Western playoff picture: Predators magic number 1, Stars gain ground on 8th place Blackhawks

Western Conference playoff race

z – 1. Vancouver – 113 pts
y – 2. San Jose – 103 pts
y – 3. Detroit – 102 pts
4. Nashville – 97 pts
5. Phoenix – 96 pts
6. Los Angeles – 96 pts
7. Anaheim – 93 pts
8. Chicago – 93 pts
9. Dallas – 91 pts
10. Calgary – 91 pts

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Dallas 3, Columbus 0

The Stars are at the point in their season where every game is a must-win. On Tuesday night, not only did they do their part by blanking the Blue Jackets 3-0, but they got a little help when the Canadiens beat the Blackhawks in overtime. Of course, the Stars and their fans would have preferred a Habs win in regulation, but Dallas still managed to gain a point in the standings with their win. It was a good team effort as Steve Ott scored the first goal (eventual game winner) and Kari Lehtonen only needed 23 saves for his third shutout of the season. Not only did the win pull them to within two points of the 8th place Blackhawks, but they’re also only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks. At this point, no one in Big D cares which team they catch.

On a more somber note, Jackets’ defenseman Kris Russell broke his ankle in one of the uglier injuries hockey fans will see. Tough to see a good player go down in a game when the season is, for all intents and purposes, over for his team.

St. Louis 3, Colorado 1

The good news for the Blues is that they were finally able to beat the Colorado Avalanche. After they’d lost seven straight games dating back to the 2008-09 season, the Blues finally picked up a win by beating the Avs 3-1 in St. Louis. David Backes scored his 30th goal of the year, Andy McDonald scored his 20th, and Kevin Shattenkirk picked up his 41st and 42nd points of the year. Not bad for a rookie defenseman who was traded halfway through his freshman campaign.
Of course, the bad news is that this game meant absolutely nothing to the Blues. On the other hand, the loss for Colorado just solidified that top 3 pick in next year’s draft. So yet again, the Avs actually won the night against the Blues.

Nashville 6, Atlanta 3

Going into the night, the Predators were able to clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Thrashers and a Stars loss to the Blue Jackets. Nashville took care of their business early by scoring three 1st period goals, but they didn’t get any help from Columbus. Mathematically, the Predators’ magic number is down to 1. Practically, the win helped solidify the Preds playoff spot and launched them all the way to the 4th seed. Interesting how with only three games left in the season, the 4th seed in the Western Conference still isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot.

Montreal 2, Chicago 1 (OT)

From a Blackhawks perspective, it would be nice if they could start scoring some goals. However, they were able to fire 42 shots on Carey Price and if it weren’t for stellar goaltending from the Montreal netminder, they probably would have scored enough to win. Captain Jonathan Toews was upset after the game for a tripping call that went against him in OT:

“I don’t really know what to say right now. We worked our butts off and you don’t want to blame it on one little thing and say it comes down to a call but that’s obviously what happened. You can argue the call, especially when you feel there are a lot of stick penalties that don’t get called against you out there. And then the game’s decided on something like that, it’s pretty damn frustrating.”

The fact remains that the single point pulls them into a 7th place tie with the Anaheim Ducks with three games remaining. They may be frustrated tonight, but the reality stays the same: if they win the rest of their games, they’re in.

Edmonton 2, Vancouver 0

If people thought the Blues/Avs game was meaningless, they had no idea the Canucks and Oilers were renewing pleasantries. The best team in the league that has already wrapped up the President’s Trophy (and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs) battling the last place team in the league that has almost locked up the top spot for the draft lottery isn’t the type of match-up to get hockey fans in a frenzy. The Oilers were able to best the high flying Canucks for the second time in as many games between the teams—which is great inside the Edmonton locker room. Unfortunately, that’s the only place in the world that it matters.

The game was given a little more juice when Raffi Torres decided to push the limits of the NHL’s headshot tolerance on Jordan Eberle. He received a 5-minute elbowing major and a game misconduct for his transgressions. But unless the league goes “Matt Cooke suspension” on Torres, the worst thing that could happen is that he gets a few unpaid days off before the playoffs.

Draisaitl on signing with Oilers: ‘We have something really special’

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As a restricted free agent, Leon Draisaitl only had so much say regarding his future with the Edmonton Oilers, especially since teams rarely send offer sheets around in the NHL.

Even so, Draisaitl could have opted for a “bridge” deal; instead, he signed for the maximum of eight years for a whopping $68 million on Wednesday.

Some would probably grumble but understand if Draisaitl explained his rational by pointing at one of those big checks or at a calculator. Instead, the promising young forward explained that he believes that the Oilers have a bright future, and he wants to be a part of it.

In case you’re wondering, additional details have surfaced regarding the year-to-year breakdown of Draisaitl’s deal. TVA’s Renaud Lavoie also reports that Draisaitl has a no-movement clause, thus making it that much more likely that he’ll get his wish to stick with the Oilers:

Of course, with Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combining for a $21M cap hit beginning in 2018-19, the bigger question is not whether they will stay, but who the Oilers will manage to keep in the fold.

Still, that’s for GM Peter Chiarelli & Co. to decide. For Draisaitl, this is a great moment, and he might even be able to back up that big contract with big results on the ice.

Cullen explains why he chose Wild over Penguins

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If you check out a bio on Matt Cullen, you’ll notice that he’s from Minnesota. It doesn’t take a leak, then, to explain why Cullen signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

As Cullen explained to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “this is a family decision.” As he goes deeper into his logic, even especially sore Pittsburgh Penguins fans should probably understand Cullen’s perspective.

“Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.

Now, to be fair, Cullen also told Russo that he believes the Wild are a “hungry” team that might have been the West’s best in 2016-17. It’s not like he’s roughing it, and surely the $1 million (and $700K in performance bonuses that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher hopes Cullen collects) didn’t hurt, either.

Still, such a decision makes extra sense for a 40-year-old who’s played for eight different NHL teams during his impressive career. Russo’s story about Cullen attending his kids games and seeing his brothers is worth a read just for those warm and fuzzy feelings we often forget about in crunching the numbers and pondering which teams might be big-time contenders in 2017-18.

This isn’t to say that getting a fourth Stanley Cup ring wouldn’t be appealing to Cullen, but perhaps he’ll get his family time and win big, too?

There’s also the familiarity that comes with playing three fairly recent seasons with the Wild, so Cullen’s choice seems like it checks a lot of the boxes.

In other positive Wild news, Russo reports that Eric Staal is feeling 100 percent after suffering a concussion during the playoffs.

Tuesday was Wild day at PHT, but perhaps this feels more like Wild week?

Bovada gives McDavid higher odds than Crosby to win Hart in 2017-18

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In handing Connor McDavid an eight-year, $100 million extension, the Edmonton Oilers essentially are paying the 20-year-old star based on the assumption that he’ll provide MVP-quality play.

At least one Vegas oddsmaker agrees, as Bovada tabbed McDavid as the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, edging Sidney Crosby.

That’s interesting, yet it might be even more interesting to note where other players fall in the rankings. Auston Matthews coming in third is particularly intriguing.

Who are some of the more interesting choices? The 20/1 range seems appealing, as Carey Price is one of the few goalies with the notoriety to push for such honors while John Tavares has the skill and financial motivation to produce the best work of his career next season.

Anyway, entertain yourself with those odds, via Bovada: (Quick note: Bovada originally had Artemi Panarin listed as still playing with Chicago. PHT went ahead and fixed that in the bit below.)

2017 – 2018 – Who will win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player?
Connor McDavid (EDM)                         3/2
Sidney Crosby (PIT)                              5/2
Auston Matthews (TOR)                         17/2
Alex Ovechkin (WAS)                            9/1
Patrick Kane (CHI)                                 14/1
Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)                       15/1
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)                                16/1
Carey Price (MON)                                 20/1
John Tavares (NYI)                                20/1
Jamie Benn (DAL)                                 25/1
Steven Stamkos (TB)                             25/1
Erik Karlsson (OTT)                               33/1
Nikita Kucherov (TB)                              33/1
Jack Eichel (BUF)                                  50/1
Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)                               50/1
Patrik Laine (WPG)                                50/1
Brad Marchand (BOS)                            50/1
Tyler Seguin (DAL)                                50/1
Nicklas Backstrom (WAS)                      60/1
Brent Burns (SJ)                                    60/1
Braden Holtby (WAS)                            60/1
Phil Kessel (PIT)                                    60/1
Artemi Panarin (CBJ)                              60/1
Joe Pavelski (SJ)                                  60/1

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.

***

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.