Five Thoughts: Alain Vigneault’s crazy gamble; A pair of bad hits make us weary

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With so many things cropping up yesterday there’s plenty of thoughts to get to. Before those thoughts, let’s give it up to the Nashville Predators for advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in team history. There are a lot of great stories on that team to be told and it’s great that they’ll get more looks on television to tell them. Hockey in the honkytonk is for real. As for everything else on our minds, let’s have a look.

1. If for nothing else, you have to give Canucks coach Alain Vigneault credit for having gigantic brass ones. Opting to start Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in Game 6 is as unexpected of a move as he could make. Even though Luongo’s struggled in his previous two games, making a move that bold takes guts or a touch of insanity. Schneider played well when he wasn’t handling the puck, but that was one of the risks with going with your backup goalie to start so deep into a series. The communication between Schneider and his defensemen obviously wasn’t there and the first two goals he allowed were due to that unfamiliarity. The Canucks didn’t come away with the win so that leads us to our next thought.

2. Now the big debate will center around who gets the start in Game 7 for Vancouver. The Blackhawks have all the momentum now and for whatever reason Vigneault started Schneider you have to wonder if that applies to Game 7 now. Schneider left Game 6 after giving up a penalty shot goal to Michal Frolik. While it looked like it could’ve been a bad injury, it turns out he cramped up badly and will be available for Game 7.

We’ve seen the goaltending debate go on in Philadelphia and now sparking up in San Jose during these playoffs, but is this actually happening in Vancouver? Seems like it is and that’s what makes all of this all the more stunning. What an incredible meltdown from the team that seemed ready to roll through the playoffs.

3. How fun must it be to be Chicago’s Ben Smith? Smith is a former Boston College standout who rode shotgun to two national championships with the Eagles in 2008 and 2010. In 2008 he played alongside Nathan Gerbe and in 2010 he was playing wingman to Chris Kreider and Cam Atkinson. This year he was a late season call-up for Chicago who played in six regular season games and scored one goal. Now six games into the playoffs he has three goals and scored the game-winner in Game 6 and has helped Chicago to the verge of pulling a titanic upset in the first round. Not too bad for a kid who was a sixth round pick in 2008.

4. Many people who are a lot smarter about hockey than I ever will be believe that Flyers captain Mike Richards will not be suspended for his nasty shove from behind on Tim Connolly that knocked Connolly out of the game with a head injury. Richards was given a minor penalty for boarding on the play and for Connolly it’s a brutal hit because of his past concussion problems.

I respect their takes on that play, but it’s hard for me to believe that there wasn’t some ill intent on that play. Perhaps it’s more emotion than rational thinking speaking here as careless plays like that make me sick to my stomach, but if I were in Colin Campbell’s position chances are I’d be a hated man in Philadelphia for the way I’d rule on that play. There was no need for Richards to check or push Connolly on that play. You want to make a play there, go for the puck not smearing the player.

5. Expect a lot more talk about the mysterious “hitting zone” behind the net today. Chicago’s Bryan Bickell caught Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa with a very obvious head shot that was virtually the same kind of hit Raffi Torres delivered to Brent Seabrook. There was no penalty on the play and Bieksa was slow in getting to his feet. Obviously the standard has been set now, but it certainly didn’t take long for there to be a hit that was virtually identical in it’s violence. That’s one very dangerous precedent the league has set concerning hits in that location of that manner. If you’re behind the net there should be a sign saying “Welcome to Thunderdome” from now on.

Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.