Let it begin: 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tonight with five games

It’s time.

The playoffs begin tonight and to make sure that your excitement levels are at their absolute highest, five series drop the puck tonight with Game 1 of the first round.

Versus will have up to three games to bring you on the air tonight starting off with Detroit-Phoenix from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit before joining the Capitals and Rangers in progress upon its completion. Then late tonight it’s Chicago and Vancouver from Rogers Arena in Vancouver to cap off the night at 10 p.m. ET. Here’s the rundown of tonight’s action. All times are Eastern.

Tampa Bay @ Pittsburgh – 7 p.m.

No Sidney Crosby in the lineup as expected as he continues his rehab, but Pittsburgh kicks off the playoffs with their own most important player in goal in Marc-Andre Fleury. Can the Penguins and coach Dan Bylsma win the chess match against Tampa Bay and coach Guy Boucher in what they hope turns into a low scoring affair? The Pens will need wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev to step up their games and help Jordan Staal from having to carry the full load.

Tampa Bay will look to their stars to step up in a big way, in particular Steve Stamkos whose torrid goal pace early in the season slowed down dramatically as the year rolled along. Now would be a great time to snap out of it. The real question for Tampa Bay is which version of Dwayne Roloson do they get? Do they get the guy who inspired the Lightning’s surge and stabilized them in goal or the guy who’s prone to fits of poor play. The Penguins surely won’t make it easy on him.

Phoenix @ Detroit – 7 p.m. (Versus)

One of the playoffs more intriguing match-ups is a rematch of last year’s first round. Detroit goes into Game 1 without Henrik Zetterberg out with a knee injury and without Mike Modano who is a healthy scratch. They’ll likely get Niklas Kronwall back in on defense and they’ll need that physicality against the Coyotes. Goals should be at a premium for Detroit with Ilya Bryzgalov in goal for Phoenix but they’ll be down a defenseman as Derek Morris is out with an upper body injury. Either David Schlemko or Oliver Ekman-Larsson will take his spot.

If there’s a game Phoenix would want to seize control of it’s this one. The Wings are more susceptible without Zetterberg and depending on how much longer he’s out, the Coyotes would be wise to win the games he’s not playing in because Detroit is that much better with him.

NY Rangers @ Washington – 7:30 p.m.  (Versus – Joined in progress)

The Capitals will be hoping to put the memories of last year’s first round failure fully behind them now and doing that against a Rangers team that has no quit in them and an all-world goalie to back them up will make that task difficult. The Caps dedication to defense should at least look nice against the Rangers as New York has a hard enough time scoring goals as it is. Alexander Ovechkin will get to bring his high scoring playoff tendencies to the forefront tonight all while Michal Neuvirth gets the call in goal for Game 1. The Rangers will be bringing some magic of their own starting Mats Zuccarello over Sean Avery as well as Matt Gilroy over Steve Eminger. Opting for offensive ability over defensive toughness and annoyance? We’ll see how long that lasts in this series.

Chicago @ Vancouver – 10 p.m. (Versus)

A series that starts off and makes it well worth the time to stay up late and check it out as there’s enough intrigue here to put a novelist to shame. Vancouver is the top team in the playoffs while Chicago took the back door into the postseason. Add that to Chicago having owned Vancouver the last two years in the playoffs and the pressure being immense on Roberto Luongo and the rest of the Canucks to win it all and it’s almost too much to handle.

Almost.

How the Canucks handle things tonight and whether or not they allow Chicago to dictate the pace and their presence on the ice will be watched closely. There’s no reason for Vancouver to be timid in this game and while they’ll have to handle those first ten minutes while Chicago looks to start twisting the psychological knife early the Canucks will have to hold strong if they want to prove us right and win the Stanley Cup this year.

Nashville @ Anaheim – 10:30 p.m.

We like this series to be the nastiest one of the first round and with the kind of snarl both teams play with it’s not a surprise. While the Ducks have the advantage in the offensive department with Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne doing their thing, the Predators have a distinct advantage in goal with Pekka Rinne going up against (most likely) Dan Ellis. The underrated feature of this series is the comparison of top defensemen. Anaheim rolls with offensive studs like Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky while Nashville has crushers like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. For a series that’s not getting a lot of attention, there’s more than enough star power here to keep your eyes locked on to it. Look for both teams to come out explosive tonight in Anaheim.

PHT Morning Skate: 9 rookies that could win the Calder Trophy in 2017-18

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–This year’s offseason is a lot more quiet than last year’s offseason (P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson were two major stories last summer). So Sean McIndoe dug up seven storylines that still need sorting out. Somehow, the Avs have failed to trade Matt Duchene, John Tavares hasn’t signed an extension with the Islanders, and the Golden Knights still have a lot of defensemen. (Sportsnet)

–Sam McCaig of The Hockey News put together his free agent All-Star team, and there were some pretty big names to chose from. Mike Fisher, Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek were all on McCaig’s first line, while Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin were on the top pairing. (The Hockey News)

–The San Jose Sharks lost Patrick Marleau to the Maple Leafs this offseason which means that they’ll need to replace his production. Don’t be surprised if players like Mikkel Boedker, Jannik Hansen and Tomas Hertl are asked to do more in 2017-18. (NHL.com)

–Devils rookie Nico Hischier has to be considered one of the front runners to win the Calder Trophy in 2017-18, so NJ.com came up with a list of eight other players that will push him for that crown. Fellow 2017 draft pick Nolan Patrick could be a legitimate contender for top rookie too, but so can Coyote prospects Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome. (NJ.com)

–The person running the Golden Knights’ Twitter account has been incredibly funny throughout the summer, and that didn’t stop yesterday. The account took a nice little jab at some Canadian friends:

–Here are some interesting numbers from last season regarding scoring by defensemen. Obviously, Brent Burns played a big part in San Jose being at the top of list:

Penguins’ Letang gains more than just funny videos from Terrell Owens

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Off-season training is probably tedious at times … maybe even more tedious than the hockey-free months of the summer. Perhaps that explains why athletes love to mix things up, even if it means bringing in stars from other sports (and even if that calls for an embarrassing moment or two).

Kris Letang provided some background information surrounding that “ankle breaking” moment with former NFL star receive Terrell Owens during an NHL Network interview, which was transcribed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Josh Mackey. Letang also noted that others were faked out to an even greater degree.

The most important stuff, really, comes from what he looks to gain from these workouts … and also how close Letang might be to full-strength.

“I’m trying to get better all the time,” Letang said. “I think I found that I can improve my footwork.

“We have that at the gym twice a week. We have a sprinting coach. ‘TO’ has been working out with us. He’s an unbelievable guy to be around. He’s teaching us a lot of little things.”

Later on, Letang stated that ‘we’re on the path to starting training camp and being fully healthy,” according to Mackey’s transcription.

That sounds great, though that doesn’t sound like an outright guarantee that he’ll be ready by September. If nothing else, the Penguins and their star defenseman are used to this kind of thing.

Now, in case you missed it in the Morning Skate, here’s that bit of schooling from Owens:

And here’s “the proof” that Letang wasn’t alone in getting beat:

Now to solve the mystery of the other fakee

Wild GM wants long-term deals for Granlund, Niederreiter

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Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher admits that contract negotiations are “plodding along” with RFAs Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Even so, Fletcher noted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo that salary arbitration hearings might serve as just the sort of deadlines the Wild need with the two rising offensive talents.

As a reminder, Niederreiter’s hearing is slated for Aug. 3 and Granlund is scheduled for one day later, on Aug. 4.

Fletcher told Russo that he expects something similar to what Viktor Arvidsson worked out with the Nashville Predators, at least when it comes down to figuring out a fairly long deal around the time of a hearing.

“We’re open to any angle,” Fletcher said, referring to a term of three, four or five years. “I guess anything’s possible, but somewhere in that three- to five-year range would probably work well for everybody. That’s not to preclude a longer deal, but that’s not where the focus has been on our end.”

Plenty of recent deals for comparison

It’s easy to imagine Fletcher crossing his fingers that the Granlund and Niederreiter deals echoed Arvidsson’s from a cap perspective; Arvidsson’s only getting $4.25 million (though for seven years), while Russo notes that Granlund and Niederreiter are at least asking for more than $6M per year.

Of course, when it comes to hearings and really other negotiations, the asks from players tend to be high while teams tend to go low.

A realistic number is likely to fall somewhere in between, and if nothing else, the sides have a decent array to work with. It remains to be seen if the Wild aim for something more like Arvidsson’s $4.25M, Mika Zibanejad‘s $5.3M over five seasons, or a different dollar amount + term.

Pondering their value

Naturally, both forwards bring different arguments to the table.

Niederreiter is riding three consecutive 20+ goal seasons, setting new career-highs with 25 goals and 57 points in 2016-17. Granlund, meanwhile, is a bit more like Arvidsson in that he greatly improved upon previous career bests; in Granlund’s case, he scored 26 goals and 69 points. While Niederreiter has a longer track record, some might view Granlund as a higher “ceiling” guy.

The bright side is that the Wild have some cap space to work with. Cap Friendly estimates their cap space at $15.79 million before signing Granlund, Niederreiter, and Marcus Foligno as RFAs. As a team aiming to contend, they’ll want some wiggle room to work with, but at least the situation isn’t too dire.

Let’s look at Rangers’ contracts after Zibanejad signing

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The New York Rangers are no strangers to big off-season (and trade deadline) changes, and this summer has been no different.

Phew, that’s quite the series of changes, and it’s not necessarily covering every single facet.

So, that leaves us with some questions: what are the Rangers left with, and what does the future look like beyond 2017-18?

Spending on players in their own zone

When checking out the Rangers’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, it’s clear that the Rangers’ long-term commitments lie in Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million cap hit through 2020-21) and the defense in front of him.

Shattenkirk, 28, is the highest-paid blueliner of the bunch … at least for now.

His $6.65M cap hit is more manageable than some anticipated, particularly since the term isn’t too risky at four years. Shattenkirk, Marc Staal (30 years old, $5.7M), and Brendan Smith (28, $4.35M) all see their contracts expire after the 2020-21 season.

Shattenkirk may not be the most expensive Rangers defensemen for too long, as Ryan McDonagh is due for a raise quite soon. The 28-year-old’s $4.7M cap hit is a bargain, but his deal runs out after 2018-19. McDonagh would hit unrestricted free agency if the Rangers can’t figure something out there.

As mentioned before, the Rangers are trying to shake Holden’s $1.65M cap hit (a deal that only runs through 2017-18), but either way, he likely won’t be part of the mix for long. Brady Skjei, on the other hand, stands as an especially intriguing consideration. His rookie deal expires after next season, and with it that $925K cap hit. It will be intriguing to see how much he gets, and when the Rangers aim to sign him (as they technically could do that now if they’d like).

Staal’s $5.7M is a problem, especially going forward. Otherwise, the Rangers seem to be spending their money reasonably wisely on the blueline.

The goalies behind that defense should be fascinating to watch, as Pavelec has plenty to prove after years of Raanta giving Lundqvist very valuable breaks.

Uncertainty beyond Zibanejad?

It’s one thing to have three defensemen locked down for at least three seasons; it’s another to see that the Rangers only have three forwards with at least three years of term remaining.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, yet it’s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser for a team that once made a lot of shaky bets on long-term deals for scorers.

Right now, these are the three Rangers forwards who are signed through 2019-20 or later:

Zibanejad: 24, $5.35M, expires after 2021-22 (would be UFA)
Chris Kreider: 26, $4.625M, expires after 2019-20 (UFA)
Jesper Fast: 25, $1.85M, expires after 2019-20 (UFA)

Those deals are good-to-great, and the best news is that those players are in the thick of their primes.

It’s fascinating to note some of the decisions that are looming, though.

After a long stretch of being a trade rumor magnet, Rick Nash, 33, will see his $7.8M cap hit evaporate after 2017-18. That could come in handy as the Rangers will see noteworthy forwards (and also Skjei) like J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Jimmy Vesey become RFAs. Desharnais is slated to be a UFA, and most importantly, Michael Grabner is too … and will almost certainly command a significant raise from his dirt-cheap $1.65M.

Some interesting deals only have two years remaining, including Mats Zuccarello‘s $4.5M and Pavel Buchnevich‘s ELC.

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All things considered, the Rangers are in pretty good shape. It’s up to GM Jeff Gorton to keep it that way.