Paul Holmgren

What teams to watch out for during free agency madness

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Free agency kicks off at noon ET and with the doors swinging open to the shopping mall that is the NHL free agent market, it’s not quite like hitting Saks Fifth Avenue but more like digging through the dollar store to find that perfect gem. While there you’ll see a lot of stuff in the impulse buy area that might seem like a really good idea at the time, but after you give that player a contract that crushes your salary cap for the next five years, the buyer’s remorse weighs heavily.

While there are a lot of potential gems to be found out there for teams to use for the coming seasons, there are duds too and some teams are going to be more interesting than others to watch during free agency season. With the madness set to begin this afternoon, here are the teams we think will be worth keeping a close eye on.

Philadelphia Flyers
While the said they’re not going after Steve Stamkos, they’re going to be factors in free agency somehow. They’ve got a little money to play with and they’re looking for a little help along the wings and perhaps one more center. After all, banking on Brayden Schenn to step in instantly and be a big producer is asking a lot of a rookie. Perhaps a guy like Michal Handzus, who has played in Philly once before, would be ideal to fill in depth.

Along the wings, you could see the return of Simon Gagne to Philadelphia after a year away in Tampa Bay. He’s not likely to be back for the Lightning and he still loves Philly. He’d be a solid contributor there again if the Flyers had room for him. Another name to watch here is Erik Cole. The Hurricanes power forward scored 26 goals last year and his former coach in Carolina, Peter Laviolette, would be overly familiar with his game.

One other reason to watch Philly during all this? GM Paul Holmgren has proved himself to be totally nuts and will do anything. The Flyers could make a run at Brad Richards and Jaromir Jagr if they wanted to because Holmgren has shown he’s just that wacky to do it.

Florida Panthers
Seems crazy to want to keep an eye on the Panthers, doesn’t it? They could be the team that throws the free agent market into madness since, according to CapGeek, they’ve got nearly $22 million to spend to reach the salary floor. With that kind of cash needed to be spent and a free agent market ripe for the overpayment, the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon could be the foils for many teams looking to land players this year and looking to lock up their own players in the future.

A lot of markets have already been blown up thanks to deals made by Steve Montador, Christian Ehrhoff, and Florida’s own Tomas Kopecky and with the Panthers being forced to dig into their wallets they’ll either be making some crazy signings or end up involved in the trade market to acquire other fat contracts.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs GM Brian Burke is almost always worth keeping an eye on as it is, but during free agency it’s a fascinating case study. In previous free agency years we’ve seen him open the vault for defensemen like Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda. All right you win some and lose some. While the Leafs will be all in on trying to land Brad Richards, they’re a team that could use help at forward. They’re rumored to be hot for Maxime Talbot as well as Richards and they could stand to land another good defenseman as well.

Of course, if Burke gets a little spend crazy, they could wind up overpaying for both Richards and Talbot and even go crazy for a defenseman out of the blue. One way or another, the Leafs need to improve a bit and this free agency class might not be the best way to do it. Will fans in Toronto freak out if they stay quiet? We’ll see.

New York Rangers
The Rangers are another big market team with money to burn this offseason. They too will be all in after Brad Richards but should they not land him, we’re curious what their Plan B might be. After all, two years ago they came out of nowhere to deal Scott Gomez to Montreal and used that free cap space to sign Marian Gaborik. No one expected that to happen at all and Glen Sather will be under the gun to do something to help spark things in Manhattan.

The Rangers do still have to get RFAs Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan squared away but they need a little more than that to give Gaborik and others some help. Sadly for them there’s not too much to be found up the middle. Guys like Tim Connolly and Jason Arnott might not provide the answers the Rangers are looking to for production.

Richards or bust? It’s sort of looking that way.

Tampa Bay Lightning
They’ll be on Stamkos watch all day long, but they’ll be looking to fill ranks elsewhere. Sean Bergenheim appears destined for a new location and Simon Gagne won’t be coming back to Tampa. GM Steve Yzerman was able to push the right buttons last year to give Guy Boucher a team that he took to within a win of the Stanley Cup finals.

Who will the Lightning be looking for? You have to think they’ll be going with a similar attack plan this summer looking for diamonds in the rough. Guys like Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Pavel Kubina turned out to be great pickups that no one really thought much of at the time. All of them put together made the Lightning a very difficult team to deal with. With a free agent market filled with those sorts of players, the Lightning might do just fine casually shopping around.

Colorado Avalanche
Considering they’re a team without a starting or backup goalie at the moment, they’re going to be factoring in heavily in the market for any and all goalies available. The big prize is Tomas Vokoun but other names like Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Pascal Leclaire, Ray Emery, and Mike Smith are out there as starters. As far as backups go… Take your pick as there are plenty to choose from.

The Avs also have to get a little bit of money spent to get to the salary floor as CapGeek has them about $15 million below the floor. The Avs aren’t big spenders these days, but they’ll have to give some big money out to a few guys to get caught up.

Video: AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves brawl on … and off the ice

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The AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves engaged in a brawl that eventually spilled out into a hallway at the Allstate Arena on Saturday — the same day the cult classic movie ‘Slap Shot’ apparently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release.

Talk about timing.

A line brawl broke out on the ice between the Wolves and Wild with less than three minutes remaining in the third period of Saturday’s game. But the fighting didn’t end there. Video highlights show several players, still in full gear, involved shortly after in an altercation off the ice.

Video shows Vince Dunn of the Wolves and Kurtis Gabriel trading punches off the ice before Gabriel is knocked to the ground and more players — and staff in the arena — intervene.

It looked like Dunn was on his way to the dressing room when Gabriel came over, leading to their off-ice bout.

The incident is sure to result in supplementary discipline from the AHL.

These teams, which combined for 70 penalty minutes Saturday, meet again Sunday. So, that could be interesting — to say the least.

Canucks GM Benning says mumps outbreak won’t impact trade deadline plans

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks attends round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Let’s set the scene for what the Vancouver Canucks were facing Saturday:

— On Friday, it was announced the team was dealing with an outbreak of the mumps. Rookie defenseman Troy Stecher was the first confirmed case and four others — Chris Tanev, Nikita Tryamkin, Markus Granlund and Mike Chaput — were all showing symptoms.

— Currently out of a playoff spot, the Canucks were facing the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.

— The Canucks were playing their first game out of the bye week and many other teams have struggled in the first game back from their mandated week off.

— The trade deadline is looming and the Canucks are expected to be sellers next week.

Pressure is growing in Vancouver ahead of the trade deadline, especially after last year’s debacle. The Canucks had a 1.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs before Saturday’s 4-1 loss to San Jose. The playoff dream is over. It has been for a long time. But the Canucks do have veteran players — the names Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Ryan Miller have been brought up — other teams in contention might be willing to trade for, which would help Vancouver add draft picks or perhaps even some quality prospects.

In an interview with TSN 1040 on Friday, GM Jim Benning admitted he’s asked players with no-trade clauses to submit a list of teams they would accept a trade to ahead of the deadline.

From the Vancouver Sun:

Winger Alex Burrows, a 12-year-Canuck who like Miller is due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, will draw trade interest but can veto a move with his NTC.

Not so Miller and Hansen, who can limit Benning’s trade field but cannot fully prevent a deal.

Miller, 36, submitted a list of five teams he can be traded to, while Hansen was required to identify eight potential trade destinations.

Now, how will this recent mumps outbreak impact Benning’s plans leading up to Wednesday?

“I don’t know if it will have any effect on that or not,” Benning said in his radio interview.

“This happened to other teams a few years ago and once the players go through the five-day incubation period, they’re fine. And so they can keep playing. I don’t think it will have any effect on that.”

Despite their playoff hopes hanging by a thread and a lineup with three AHL call-ups in Alex Grenier, Joseph LaBate and Evan McEneny, the Canucks somehow kept this close until midway through the third period.

LaBate planted Melker Karlsson with a hit and was eventually challenged to a fight in the third period. Karlsson left the game but did return for the third period.

At times, they actually outplayed the visitors through two periods but couldn’t find the lead and eventually the Sharks took over in the third period. Patrick Marleau gave them the lead late in the second period and Mikkel Boedker essentially put it out of reach.

For the Canucks, there was another case of illness Saturday.

Defenseman Luca Sbisa left the game and didn’t return with what the club said was a stomach flu, although given the situation in Vancouver, it will be worth monitoring to see if that diagnosis changes.

Crosby, Penguins deliver blow to Flyers’ playoff chances in Stadium Series

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PITTSBURGH — The first time the Pittsburgh Penguins played a game at Heinz Field, Sidney Crosby was on top of the NHL and having one of the most dominant offensive seasons in recent history. That was the game he was on the receiving end of the Dave Steckel hit that started the chain of events that basically cost him two of the prime years of his career.

The Heinz Field experience was significantly better for him and the Penguins this time around.

Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first period with his league-leading 34th goal of the season — finishing a slick feed from rookie forward Jake Guentzel — to help lead the Penguins to a 4-2 in the 2017 NHL Stadium Series game.

“We were thrilled for him,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about Crosby scoring a goal in his return to Heinz Field.

“I am sure the experience of coming back here probably brought back some memories that he probably would like to forget. So to have a night like tonight, and an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did, it did probably just helped him put that experience behind and move forward. I thought he played a solid game, his line was really good all night long and he scored a huge goal for us.”

Crosby’s goal is only part of the story in this one.

Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chad Ruhwedel also scored goals in the win, while Matt Murray stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced.

First, for Pittsburgh, it was a huge win given the status of an undermanned defense that was playing without three of its top players. With Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta already sidelined, they were also without Kris Letang on Saturday night due to an upper body injury that currently has him listed as day-to-day. That meant they had to rely significantly on their depth.

Ron Hainsey, playing in his debut with the team after being acquired in a trade earlier this week from the Carolina Hurricanes, played more than 20 minutes in the win, including more than three minutes on the penalty kill. They also received a huge goal from Ruhwedel in the third period to help put the game away.

It wasn’t a flawless effort by the group (37 shots against illustrates that) but considering who was out of the lineup and the situation they were facing it was a huge performance to remain ahead of the New York Rangers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division and improve their record to 7-1-3 in their past 11 games.

Things are not quite as optimistic for the Flyers at the moment.

The loss on Saturday is a pretty damaging blow to their already fading playoff chances as they remain five points out of a playoff spot — with three teams ahead of them — with only 21 games to go.

They are also just 9-16-4 in their past 29 games since their 10-game winning streak ended on Dec. 14.

“It’s a tough result, walking away,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after the game. “It’s a pretty close, tight hockey game where I thought our team played well, battled extremely well, and did a lot of good things but we walk away with the wrong result.”

That has happened a lot lately for the Flyers.

So why are they not getting the results? Well, the problem on Saturday was a familiar one for the Flyers — goaltending and defensive zone breakdowns.

Crosby’s goal to open the scoring was the result of a breakdown in defensive zone coverage that allowed the game’s best offensive player to be left wide open along the side of the net for an easy one-timer. Even though Michal Neuvirth didn’t have much of a chance on that play, he didn’t exactly play a strong game, allowing four goals on 29 shots.

The Matt Cullen goal to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the third period was a particularly tough one for Neuvirth to give up.

It is already the 10th time in 24 games this season he has given up at least three goals in a game, while his save percentage on the season remains well below the .890 mark. For a goalie that was one of the best values in the league last season in terms of performance and salary cap hit, it has been a massive regression this season.

Even though the results are not going their way at the moment Hakstol remains convinced the team is doing the right things and that the key to turning things around is just sticking with what they are doing.

“Couple little things within the game tonight,” said Hakstol. “We haven’t been able to score a whole lot. There has been a lot made of that, and fairly so. You look at the opportunities tonight, the type of opportunities we generate were pretty reasonable. You have to stick with it. We have gone through a tough stretch here, but for the vast majority we have played some pretty good hockey and we need to stick with it. We have to stay together as we have and we have to keep pushing the envelope.”

The Flyers are back in action on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

A bye week hangover? Not for the Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20:  Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 20, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Josh Anderson and Nick Foligno each scored twice, sending the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 7-0 romp over the New York Islanders on Saturday.

The high-energy Blue Jackets didn’t show any rust in their first game back following their five-day break, unlike many teams that have struggled coming out of the bye week this season. Columbus scored three times in the first period, chasing New York goalie Thomas Greiss.

David Savard had a goal and three assists, Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson also scored and backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 24 shots for the Blue Jackets, who ended New York’s three-game winning streak. Columbus has a comfortable hold on the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Islanders are in a tight race for the final playoff berth.

Related:

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Greiss stopped 14 of 17 shots in the first period. His replacement, Jean-Francois Berube, saved 24 of 28.

Johnson got Columbus started when his shot from the point bounced off the skate of New York’s Nick Leddy and through Greiss’ pads 5:19 into the game.

Later in the first period, Cam Atkinson‘s shot from the left circle was stopped by Greiss, but the rebound trickled back out from between his legs and a charging Jenner tapped it in.

Foligno capped the first-period barrage when he deked the goalie and scored on a backhand.

The Blue Jackets outshot the Islanders 17-9 in the period, leading to Greiss’ benching.

Anderson kept it going 4:31 into the second with a sharp one-timer from the high slot off Jenner’s pass. Late in the period, Anderson got another one when he picked the pocket of defender Thomas Hickey in the neutral zone and launched a rocket past Berube from the right circle.

The highlight-reel goals continued in the third period when an airborne pass from Savard found Foligno for a breakaway 6:06 in. Savard got the seventh goal with 6 1/2 minutes left.