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Brad Richards to make decision on Saturday, Calgary Flames in the mix?

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From the “where the heck did this come from” file, there are reports that the Calgary Flames have made a late push to lure Brad Richards to Alberta. Even though they weren’t one of the teams to make an in-person pitch to Richards, reports tell us that the Flames extended a 9-year deal worth $64 million. For the first time, we have an idea of the money and terms that teams are throwing at the prize of this year’s free agent class.

We knew it could get out of control, but $7.1 million per season will undoubtedly put some of them out of the running. The Tampa Bay Lightning said they were out of the running and the Buffalo Sabres decided not to make their scheduled pitch to Richards after they landed Ville Leino from the Flyers. Richards said he’s narrowed it down to 4 or 5 teams—which is better than the 30 teams that were in the mix at the beginning of today. Straight from the source, Tony Ambrogio (freelance reporter for SportsNet) learned that this won’t turn into an Ilya Kovalchuk situation like last year:

“Brad Richards says he “really didn’t expect it to turn into this” as far as all the interest.”No need to drag it” past tomorrow.”

New York Rangers: Going into the day, the New York Rangers were the favorite to procure Richards’ services at the end of the fiasco. Between the Rangers need for a top-flight center, a major media market, cap space, and Richards past relationship with John Tortorella, it seemed like everything was in place. TSN reported throughout the morning that Richards planned on talking to the Rangers at the end of the process to give them a chance to match any other offers out there. By the end of the day, there’s no reason to think they aren’t still in the mix.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs were the first team to meet with Richards at the Newport Sports Management building in Mississauga, ON. Maple Leafs executive Dave Nonis made the pitch with GM Brian Burke visiting troops overseas on Canada Day. The meeting reportedly lasted about 45 minutes. The Leafs would love to bring in Richards to be their #1 center feeding pucks to sniper Phil Kessel for 82 games next season. With deep pockets and plenty of cap space, the Leafs were expected to extend one of the most lucrative deals.

Los Angeles Kings: After a rough start at Newport Sports Management, the Kings brought out all the stops to lure Richards to the West Coast. They brought an entourage of representatives including CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group (Kings parent company) Tim Leiweke, GM Dean Lombardi, three coaches, a director of scouting, and even their VP of communications. The center piece of their pitch was a video presentation that featured southern Californian stars such as Kobe Bryant and Jerry Bruckheimer. Afterwards, Leiweke said he was proud of the pitch:

“This is the best effort I’ve ever seen, in chasing a player for the Kings. That’s for sure. They were very impressed with the video, and I’m hoping one day we will share the video. We had a lot of people help us and a lot of people speak on our behalf. Some of the people who spoke on our behalf shocked Brad and his agents, and they will shock our fans a little bit, the help that we got here. So this was a good L.A. effort. L.A. showed well here, and I’m proud of the job we did. We’ll see what happens, but certainly, regardless of what happens, it’s nice to be held in this regard now. We’re one of the big boys, and that’s certainly how they looked at it today.”

Philadelphia Flyers: Say what you want about the Flyers recent moves—at least they’ve been interesting. After signing Jaromir Jagr, it was widely assumed that the Flyers were out of the Richards sweepstakes because they were out of cap space. One call to Dale Tallon, one Kris Versteeg trade, and one conference call to Brad Richards and that logic was turned on its head. Nick Kypreos reported that the Flyers made a “solid pitch to Brad Richards that may make them frontrunners.” Scott Burnside doesn’t think the Flyers are in the Final Four, but stranger things have happened.

Calgary Flames: The last team that we heard enter the fray was the Calgary Flames. Even though they didn’t make their presentation in person, they reportedly threw around serious money that deserved serious attention. New Flames GM Jay Feaster has a relationship with Richards from their days in Tampa Bay and captain Jarome Iginla reportedly called Richards in hopes of wooing the free agent.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

***

It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

TAMPA, FL - MAY 18:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, Tyler Johnson was such a huge part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, more than a few people believed that he could ease the pain of possibly losing Steven Stamkos to free agency. He tied Stamkos for the team lead in scoring (72 points) and topped all Lightning players with 23 playoff points during their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2015-16 regular season was a bumpy one for Johnson … in some ways literally.

Painful year

Health was a major obstacle for Johnson, starting with the hangover from a wrist injury he suffered during Tampa Bay’s magic run.

Even afterward, there were moments of pain. Sometimes it came down to flat-out bad luck:

Other times, there were questionable hits:

It wasn’t until late in the regular season that Johnson seemed to feel himself, as he noted to the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“I feel I’ve got the speed back, got everything I can do,” Johnson said. “I’m actually mentally there, not worried about other things …”

Big commitments

He’ll have some things to worry about in 2016-17.

The Lightning handed out a ton of money this off-season, locking up Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lengthy deals. They still need to sort out a contract for Nikita Kucherov, a talented forward who rose while Johnson stumbled.

Fair or not, Johnson must prove that he’s a core member of the Lightning

He made a strong argument in his own favor once he was healthy, generating 17 points in 17 playoff games as the Lightning made it to within one game of another Stanley Cup Final appearance despite missing Stamkos.

Still, Johnson faces a fork in the road. Ben Bishop either needs a new deal or (most likely) a trade to a team that will make him “the guy.” Ondrej Palat likely won’t be the easiest player for Tampa Bay to re-sign, either.

Few players could gain or lose more money with one season of play than Tyler Johnson. He can prove that 2015-16 was derailed by bad luck or allow injury concerns to linger.

Millions are on the line, and those personal goals may very well help Johnson drive the Lightning to another deep run.

For all we know, he could also find himself driving out of town.

Bovada gives Canada best odds at 2016 World Cup of Hockey

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 23:  (l-R) Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and P.K. Subban #76 of Canada pose with the gold medals won during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match against Sweden on Day 16 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s no secret that Canada’s been on a strong run at the international level, and it’s no surprise that they’re considered the favorites heading into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Seriously, just look at the B Team put together by The Hockey News’ Mike Brophy; even with the strange hook of having to go around the under-23 North American team, that group would be one of the top contenders if it existed.

The real fun is judging how Bovada’s odds fall with the other leading nations. Is Russia given too great a chance considering some recent struggles when facing the best of the best? Did that odd little under-23 team not get enough love?

Here are the odds Bovada released on Monday:

World Cup of Hockey 2016 Champion

Canada                         10/11

Russia                          9/2

Sweden                        5/1

USA                             13/2

Finland                         14/1

North America U23        16/1

Czech Republic             22/1

Team Europe                33/1

Interesting stuff.