Mike Babcock announces lineup changes, predicts San Jose’s response

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Unless you’ve been sipping the Conspiracy Theory Kool-Aid a little too much, you would probably agree that the San Jose Sharks have the Detroit Red Wings’ number. It’s pretty tough to deny, as the Sharks dispatched them in five games in the 2010 playoffs, won three out of four games in the 2010-11 regular season and hold a 2-0 lead in their current series.

What isn’t commented on very often is the “master vs. pupil” matchup between Red Wings coach Mike Babcock and Sharks coach Todd McLellan. Before McLellan took the top spot in San Jose, he was an assistant coach for Babcock in Detroit.

While savvy general managing accounts for some of the similarities in the two teams’ rosters, the similar puck possession-happy systems should come as no surprise.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the two coaches can occasionally predict each others’ actions, either. Babcock announced one lineup change – Kris Draper will take Drew Miller’s spot – and confirmed the separation of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The most interesting part of his commentary came in the form of a slight jab at his cohort, as he also predicted how McLellan would react to split up of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. To be fair, McLellan didn’t totally deny the possibility, though.

“We’ll practice with 93, 13, 96 (Johan Franzen, Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom), 44, 40, 11 (Todd Bertuzzi, Zetterberg and Dan Cleary), 8, 51 and 26 (Justin Abdelkader, Valteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler) and 33, 43 and 17 (Draper, Darren Helm and Patrick Eaves), and he’ll counter with moving Logan Couture onto (Joe) Thornton’s line and putting (Patrick) Marleau in the middle.”

To which McLellan smiled when asked if he could confirm Babcock’s announcement and said, “Maybe.

“If I did that,” he said, “it’s just size and strength down the middle. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are obviously skilled, but they’re also very strong. Marleau is 6-3, 230, 225, in there, not that Logan Couture couldn’t do the job, because he has.”

In other words, “We might.”

As McLellan later pointed out, strategies only take you so far. A coach’s moves make an impact, for sure, but not on the same game-changing level as in the NFL. There are too many moving parts to control everything, so you just try to put the right players in the right situations to succeed.

We’ll see if McLellan can continue to do so against his former mentor.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.