Fun-killers: Four players who could have made today’s free agent frenzy more exciting

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It’s true that some of the big chips have already fallen in the last couple days, but there are still enough players out there to make the approaching free agent frenzy interesting. That being said, the free agent pool lacks much zesty, big-time players beyond soon-to-be-richer forward Brad Richards.

That didn’t need to be the case, though. If it weren’t for a few proactive players, franchises and agents, this market would have enjoyed some fantastic intrigue. The list below contains four players who could have been interesting free agent targets if they hadn’t signed contract extensions well before July 1, 2011.

Zdeno Chara

There’s a good chance that the over-sized Boston Bruins defenseman might have signed his final NHL contract – or at least his last big one – when he agreed to a seven-year deal in October 2010.

Considering the Downy-soft market for free agent defensemen, one can only imagine the kind of market Chara would generate. He has a Norris Trophy to his name and was a finalist for the 2010-11 award. Chara raised the Stanley Cup up to a height that some would need a ladder to reach after the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

Year-in and year-out, he’s a defenseman who plays big minutes, occasionally uses his big body and isn’t shy to unleash his big shot either. There aren’t many true cornerstone defensemen in the NHL, even if teams are paying guys like Christian Ehrhoff and James Wisniewski in hopes that they can resemble those kinds of players. There is no mistaking that Chara is one of those blueliners and one can only imagine the kind of ridiculous contract offers he could have generated.

Joe Thornton

Would there be a more intriguing barometer for how much general managers listen to the unwashed masses and flippant media than if Thornton became a free agent? On one hand, they might have believed the reverse-hype about his supposed “choking” in big games. On the other hand, GMs could have looked at his long track record of leading teams in scoring and the fact that he’s consistently among the league’s elite passers.

Thornton signed a three-year deal to stay with the San Jose Sharks, so we might not get to see how an unrestricted free agent market would react to Jumbo Joe’s presence until he’s past his prime. It would have been a lot of fun to debate Richards vs. Thornton this year, but loyalty and a need for familiarity beat that out.

Alexander Semin

Unlike the other players involved, Semin could be a free agent as early as 2012. The Washington Capitals have taken an odd path with their other right-handed sniping Russian left wing named Alex, signing him to two consecutive one-year deals while they try to figure out what to do with Semin.

Whatever flaws he has in his game – whether people think he’s one-dimensional, too injury prone, mercurial or all the above – there is no denying his wicked shot. He scored 40 goals once, 30+ goals two other times and averaged almost a point per game over his young career.

The free agent market is often friendly to flawed but super-talented players like Semin. Maybe we’ll get to watch that fascinating process next year?

Patrice Bergeron

Bergeron isn’t as sexy a choice as the other three could-have-been free agents, but he would probably get his fair share of attention after a great playoff run with the Bruins. Bergeron chose to stick with the Bruins for what seemed like a steep price at the time, but who knows what a versatile center such as himself could make on the market today.

He might not put up the points totals of Thornton or the goals of Semin, but Bergeron is a strong two-way player who can do a little bit of everything. It would have been interesting to see how savvy general managers would have been about his skill set.

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Don’t get me wrong, today should be a lot of fun for the hockey world. It’s just startling to think what could have been if a few meddling teams weren’t so annoyingly proactive (and selfish, really) with their superstar players.

The Buzzer: Night of the goalies

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Players of the Night:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning needed Vasilevskiy to play like the NHL All-Star that he is and that’s exactly what he gave them, stopping 40 shots to help the Lightning to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. The win was important for Tampa, who regained the top spot in the NHL standings and ended a three-game slide in the process. Vasilevskiy’s league-leading seventh shutout of the season ties a franchise record.

Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings: Mrazek fielded 37 shots from the New Jersey Devils on Monday night and handled each and every one of them for his second shutout in as many starts.

Nick Cousins, Arizona Coyotes: Cousins got the ball rolling for the Desert Dogs in the first period, giving them a 1-0 lead. After the Islanders tied the game in the third, Cousins put the final stamp on the game with a goal 2:21 into overtime to give Arizona their second straight win.

Comeback of the Night:

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker got drilled in the head with a slap shot in the first period and had to be helped off the ice. Miraculously, Zucker returned a short time later and went on to score the game-winning goal at the 4:59 mark of the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie in the Wild’s 3-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.

Highlights of the Night:

Granlund and Dumba:

Mrazek made plenty of saves on Monday and perhaps none better than this one (Brian Boyle‘s reaction is priceless):

Ottawa Senators fans will like this, even if the end result wasn’t great:

Auston Matthews had the celebration of the night:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Avalanche 4, Maple Leafs 2

Red Wings 3, Devils 0

Wild 3, Senators 1

Lightning 2, Blackhawks 0

Sabres 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Coyotes 3, Islanders 2 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning end three-game skid with 2-0 win over Blackhawks

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Jon Cooper called declared that his team was “out of sync” prior to Monday night’s game in Chicago.

It’s three words that haven’t been used at all this season to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning who, up until Sunday, was known as the best team in the NHL.

The Lightning came into Monday night nursing a three-game losing streak, another foreign concept for a team saw four of its players elected to the NHL’s All-Star Game this coming weekend.

But just as quickly as they dropped out of the top spot in the NHL — the Vegas Golden Knights assumed that throne for 24 hours after a win on Sunday night — the Lightning snatched it back in a 2-0 triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Windy City on Monday.

For a team that perhaps forgot how to play with one another, they looked comfortable in each other’s company against the Blackhawks.

The game was tight for the most part, and it took the Blackhawks being caught napping shorthanded to break a 0-0 deadlock late in the second period as Chris Kunitz took advantage of a defensive mishap. 

Jake Dotchin’s wrister sailed wide, but Kunitz was allowed to waltz behind the net, pick up the loose puck and put it behind Jeff Glass, nearly untouched through the whole process.

The NHL’s top goalie once again lived up to the distinction as Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside all 40 shots that came his way.

The Blackhawks put up 10 or more shots in each of the game’s three periods, including 17 in the second frame. But the All-Star netminder played and exceptional game, including stopping 10 out of 10 on the power play to keep Chicago 0-for-6 on the power play.

Yanni Gourde sealed the game late in the third with a blast to make it 2-0.

It’s a win Tampa needed, especially after finding out they’ll miss forward Ondrej Palat indefinitely.

The struggles continued for the Blackhawks, meanwhile.

Chicago has now been shutout twice in their past three games and is on a three-game skid with a 4-5-1 record in their past 10.

The Lightning could afford their losing streak. They’ve earned an opportunity to slide a little bit.

For the Blackhawks, another loss means another chance missed trying to survive in a deeply competitive Central Division.

The Blackhawks are hanging by a thread and time is running out quickly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Colorado Avalanche’s win streak hits double digits

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The streak is now in double digits.

The Colorado Avalanche won their 10th straight game on Monday night, taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

Yes, that’s 10 wins by the team that ended last season with an NHL-worst 48 points.

Hockey is wonderful, isn’t it?

The Avalanche have been pretty darn good during that streak, outscoring opponents 41-16 during that span. Scoring four goals per game on average will win you more than it won’t.

And the Avs have had success on the back end. Jonathan Bernier has been completely lights out during the streak. He is on a streak of his own with nine straight wins, becoming the third netminder in franchise history to win nine in a row after Stephane Fiset (9) and Patrick Roy (11).

Colorado’s streak is also an NHL-best this season and it’s the second longest streak in Avs history (they won 12 straight during the 1998-99 season).

The Avs are sitting on 57 points, good for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.