Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malki

Penguins bits: Crosby and Malkin make progress, team doesn’t give Kennedy qualifying offer

The 2010-11 season was a joyous one, by most accounts, for the NHL. That being said, one of its most marketable franchises suffered devastating injuries as the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for about half of the campaign. Their health will be one of the nail-biting storylines of this off-season, but fans of the game should feel heartened … today, at least.

Head coach Dan Bylsma went as far as to say that Malkin “probably is already ready to go” while he said that Crosby has been working out twice per day. It might be easier to map out Malkin’s good days and bad days than Crosby’s since there seems to be a bit more knowledge about knee injuries than concussions. Naturally, we’ll keep you updated as the summer goes on and training camp approaches.

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While  Crosby and Malkin usually shoulder the kind of scoring burden that was more familiar to the best players of the often top-heavy Dead Puck Era, the team’s scrappy third line can be a difference-maker, too. Most of the time, the common trio of Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy made their biggest impact by cycling the puck and keeping it away from opponents. That being said, that group occasionally scored some pretty big goals during the last few seasons.

Fair or not, there was the feeling that Kennedy often missed golden opportunities by flubbing shots or missing the net altogether. Yet when Crosby and Malkin went down, Kennedy and others were forced into bigger scoring roles and the diminutive center responded with the best season of his four-year NHL career. He generated career highs in goals (21), assists (24), points (45), shots (234) and time on ice per game (14:32 minutes on average).

Kennedy took advantage of an increase in opportunities (and the natural motivation from a contract year) to earn himself some cash. The free agent market tends to be pretty friendly to 20-goal scorers with a Stanley Cup ring, so perhaps that explains why the Penguins decided not to hand Kennedy a qualifying offer today.

On face value, it seems like an absurd decision; it would only take an offer a “small percentage” higher than Kennedy’s $725K salary from the 2010-11 season to make it happen. Yet when you add context to the decision, it makes a bit more sense: a qualifying offer does not equal a contract; it would just give the Penguins more options if they wanted to retain him.

Simply put, Kennedy probably wants more money than the Penguins are willing to give him, so maybe Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Honestly, I think that the price tag to get that negotiating advantage is so small that it was worth a shot, but maybe Shero & Co. simply don’t want him back. Either way, the day of Kennedy licking his stick in a Penguins uniform appear to be over. (Then again, they might just sign him to an altogether new deal, so we’ll just need to wait and see.)

Of course, the natural afterthought is to wonder if Pittsburgh’s willingness to part with a solid winger – an area of weakness over the last few seasons – indicates that they might have their eyes on the greatest winger in their franchise history. (That would be Jaromir Jagr, by the way.)

We could find out as soon as Friday if that is indeed the case.

Stamkos close to game shape, but return might be weeks or months away

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos (91) competes in the hardest shot competition at the NHL hockey All-Star game skills competition Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Steve Stamkos began to practice again on Tuesday and he was back out there on Wednesday and Thursday, which some might interpret as him being close to returning. It seems premature to say that definitively.

“It could be weeks. It could be months,” Stamkos said of his timetable, per ESPN. “That’s the tough part.”

The problem isn’t getting back into game shape after undergoing vascular surgery in early April. He feels he’s already close to reaching that objective. The issue is that Stamkos is on blood thinners, which prevents him from taking any contact. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be on blood thinners.

For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy underwent the same surgery and was out for two months and the original timetable provided on April 4 for Stamkos was one-to-three months. So based on that, it sounds like it would be surprising if he returned anytime soon.

Bergeron, Kesler, Kopitar named Selke finalists

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron celebrates after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Will Patrice Bergeron join Bob Gainey as the only players to have ever won the Selke Trophy four times?

That’s a distinct possibility after the Bruins center was named as a finalist along with Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar.

The Selke Trophy honors the league’s top defensive forward and for three of the last four years, that distinction has gone to Bergeron. However, Kesler and Kopitar have been popular with the voters of this award as well.

Kopitar has finished second in the voting in each of the previous two campaigns while Kesler won back in 2011, though he finished outside of the top-five in each of the last three years prior to the 2015-16 campaign.

Among the trio, Kesler excelled this season on the draw with a 58.5% success rate, which was good for second in the league among forwards who took at least 200 faceoffs. Bergeron was up there too, winning 57.1% of his draws while Kopitar posted a 53.5%. Meanwhile, Bergeron ranked seventh in the NHL with 67 takeaways compared to Kesler’s 39 and Kopitar’s 43. Where Kopitar stood out was in plus/minus as he finished second in the league at plus-34. Kesler was plus-five and Bergeron was plus-12.

Kopitar similarly led the trio with a 57.4% Corsi For versus Bergeron’s 55.9% and Kesler’s 52.9%.

Capitals get Orpik back for series opener

Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik missed half of Washington’s first round series, but he’s back in time for the opener against his former team.

Orpik last played on April 18 and was regarded as questionable going into tonight’s contest against Pittsburgh. He’s expected to be paired with John Carlson throughout the contest.

Washington’s other projected pairings are Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen as well as Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt.

Orpik was limited to 41 games during the 2015-16 regular season, but when he did play he averaged 19:48 minutes per contest. He also recorded 125 hits and 102 blocked shots despite missing half the season. The 35-year-old blueliner got his start with Pittsburgh and played in 703 regular season contests with them and an additional 92 postseason contests. This is his second season with Washington.

Wild GM Fletcher undecided on Vanek buyout, but notes ‘our cap situation is much better this year’

Minnesota Wild left wing Thomas Vanek controls the puck during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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Thomas Vanek hopes he’s not bought out, but his rough 2015-16 campaign has made that a possibility.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher certainly isn’t ruling it out, but at the same time he also presented an assessment for Vanek that was in a way more of a mixed than negative review.

“I thought Thomas in October and November was arguably our best forward – or certainly played as well as any body on our team,” Fletcher said, per the StarTribune. “He seemed to lose confidence. But I thought he really shot the puck well and did a lot of great things early. And there’s no question he pressed after that and then got banged up. He’s a goal scorer and we need to find a way to score more goals. Our cap situation is much better this year.”

That last point is particularly relevant given that a buyout essentially boils down to missing out on the chance of Vanek bouncing back in exchange for some short-term cap relief. To put figures on it, buying out Vanek would save Minnesota $5 million in cap space for the 2016-17 campaign, but then it will cost Minnesota $2.5 million in 2017-18, per General Fanager.

With Vanek in the books, the Wild are projected to consume $63.8 million in cap space next season and that figure doesn’t including pending restricted free agents Jason Zucker, Jordan Schroeder, Zac Dalpe, Matt Dumba, or Darcy Kuemper. If the 2016-17 ceiling is $74 million, as has been previously suggested, then it seems reasonable to believe that Minnesota can lock up its RFAs, keep Vanek, and still have some flexibility left over to engage in other changes over the summer. Although obviously gaining an extra $5 million would make it easier for them to make more sizable moves.

“I’m much more comfortable with our flexibility this year than last year. It’s going to give us more options,” Fletcher said.

The plan is for Fletcher to take a couple weeks before deciding on what to do with Vanek.

Related: No Chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM