Predators continue to work through RFA offer sheet mess, sign four players

General Manager David Poile and the Nashville Predators took a huge step towards solving their restricted free agent problems this offseason by coming to terms with Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, Chris Mueller, and Cal O’Reilly on Thursday afternoon. The four players are all in the middle of the qualifying offers dispute that has been scheduled to be heard by an arbitrator on Friday, July 8th and Wednesday July 13th. Now all that’s left of the potentially disastrous situation for Poile is one player: Sergei Kostitsyn.

Really, was there any doubt that Kostitsyn would continue to be in the middle of this mess?

For fans in Nashville, some of the best news is they didn’t have to extremely overpay any of the players in question. From the Nashville Predators official release:

Nashville Predators President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile announced today that the club has signed forwards Matt Halischuk and Nick Spaling to two-year contracts, and forwards Chris Mueller and Cal O’Reilly to one-year deals. Halischuk’s contract is worth $1.425 million, paying him $600,000 in 2011-12 and $825,000 in 2012-13 while Spaling’s contract is worth $2.1 million, paying him $1 million in 2011-12 and $1.1 million in 2012-13. O’Reilly’s contract will see him earn $1.05 million in 2011-12 and Mueller’s two-way contract will see him paid $550,000 at the NHL level and $65,000 at the AHL level.

 

Yes, each player received a little more than they would have if they were in a normal restricted free agency situation. The worst fears were that they’d have to grossly overpay like Dale Tallon and the Blackhawks were forced to do with their restricted free agents in 2009 when they had problems faxing the offers in a timely manner. They ended up overpaying their six restricted free agents to the extent that none of the players are still with the organization. For that matter, the GM lost his job as well.

David Poile has done his best to rectify a tough situation, but the heavy lifting is still ahead of him. It’s no secret that the Predators are a playoff contender that gets the job done with great defense and stellar netminding. Unfortunately, their weakness is both skill and depth amongst the forward unit. By signing Halischuk, Spaling, and O’Reilly the Predators have locked up three forwards NHL forwards for next season to address the depth. But in the skill of Kostitsyn, the Predators still need to lock up their best offensive player from a season ago.

…he’s taken some of the anxiety out of the air, but Sergei Kostitsyn is perhaps the most critical of the bunch, a winger fit in reasonably well in a prominent role. Even if his goal-scoring in 2010-11 was fluky (which it was), he could be a 40-50 point guy if he plays on a major line all season, and the Predators are painfully short of such talent.

 

Obviously it’s important for a team to re-sign their best offensive producer. But for a team like the Predators that is already struggling to find high level scorers, it’s critical to their success. Kostitsyn led the Predators with 23 goals and 50 points a season ago (tied with Martin Erat). The numbers may not jump off the score sheet to the average fan—but those are the best they have in Nashville. Take him out of the line-up and a weak offensive team becomes that much weaker. The team would be able to take the money from his contract pursue another free agent, but who would they sign at this point in the offseason? It’s no secret that there aren’t many decent free agents left on the open market.

It would be easiest for the Predators to reach an agreement before the arbitrator hears the NHLPA’s grievance over the next few days. If they can’t reach an agreement and Kostitsyn wins his case, he’d become an unrestricted free agent available to all 30 teams.

We’ll keep you posted as the story continues to develop.

NHL awards: Handing out hardware at the season’s quarter mark

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Almost every NHL team has hit the 20-game mark, which means it’s time to look back at the first month and a half of the season and see who’s ahead of the pack for some of the league’s top hardware.

A lot will change between now and June, but certainly some of the players named below will still be in the mix come awards season while others will tail off after hot starts.

HART TROPHY

Who is the most valuable to their team? That’s a tough choice as you look at some of the performances so far this season. Nikita Kucherov (17-16—33) can’t stop scoring and Steven Stamkos (10-25—35) is averaging 1.75 points per night for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jaden Schwartz (10-16—26) is powering the St. Louis Blues. Johnny Gaudreau (10-21—31) is leading the Calgary Flames. Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky it tops among all goaltenders with a .941 even strength save percentage.

There are a number of strong candidates for the Hart at the quarter mark. If voting took place now, how many votes would Kucherov and Stamkos split? And would that allow Bobrovsky to sneak in and steal it? Or does Bob have enough love right now to surpass the Lightning duo?

Our vote:
1. Bobrovsky

2. Kucherov
3. Schwartz

NORRIS TROPHY

Alex Pietrangelo and John Klingberg are all tied for the scoring lead among blue liners with 19 points, but lookie here, it’s Erik Karlsson, he of five games missed this season, lurking behind them at 17. He also has the best Corsi (56 percent, via Corsica) out of the top scoring defensemen and is averaging 1.21 points per game. Victor Hedman is also just behind with 15 points and 25:18 of ice time a night.

Our vote:
1. Karlsson

2. Pietrangelo
3. Hedman

VEZINA TROPHY

Outside of Bob, you have Andrei Vasilievskiy’s play helping the Lightning to a ridiculous start. He has a .931 ESSV and has played the seventh-most minutes (1,024:24). There’s also Connor Hellebuyck (.938) and Corey Crawford (.932) to consider; both have been key reasons for why their teams currently reside in playoff positions.

But in the end it’s hard to top what Bobrovsky is doing in Columbus. And it goes to show, as we’ve seen the last few years, just how good he is when healthy.

Our vote:
1. Bobrovsky

2. Hellebuyck
3. Crawford

CALDER TROPHY

In October, Clayton Keller (11-9—20) of the Arizona Coyotes appeared to have one hand on the rookie of the year award. But then a few other names entered the picture, like Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders, who sits second in rookie scoring with 4 goals and 19 points. Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks (7-10—17) is a bright ray of hope for the franchise. New Jersey Devils blue liner Will Butcher has been an assist machine with 14 of his 16 points recorded as helpers.

Speaking of rookie defensemen, Charlie McAvoy has 10 points for the Boston Bruins, but just as impressive is the fact that he’s averaging 23:16 a night next to Zdeno Chara. No other freshman skater is over 20 minutes a night.

One goaltender of note is Charlie Lindgren (.929), who has played well filling in for Carey Price. But that’s not going to last once the Montreal Canadiens get their franchise goaltender back from injury very soon.

Our vote:
1. Keller

2. Barzal
3. McAvoy

JACK ADAMS AWARD

Who had the Vegas Golden Knights sitting in a playoff spot and not a lottery spot this season? Well, through the quarter mark, Gerard Gallant’s men have used a strong home record (8-1-0) to get off to an historic start.

There’s also plenty of praise for the jobs that Jon Cooper and Mike Yeo are doing in Tampa and St. Louis, respectively, but typically this award ends up going to a team that exceeded expectations or made a huge turnaround from either the current season or previous year. That’s why if they keep up the pace, John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils and Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets will find themselves getting some coach of the year love in June.

Our vote:
1. Gallant

2. Cooper
3. Hynes

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BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – TEAM

The Edmonton Oilers were a trendy Stanley Cup pick before the season after a nice playoff run last spring. But it’s all come crashing back down to earth as they sit out of the Western Conference playoff picture and three points ahead of the league-worst Arizona Coyotes. The Montreal Canadiens have been an interesting mess and we’re waiting on the Philadelphia Flyers to take that next step with some exciting young players. The Dallas Stars seem to have issues living up expectations, while Bruce Boudreau’s penchant for winning division titles could take a hit for a second straight season with the Minnesota Wild.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – PLAYER

It took until game No. 18 for Ryan Johansen, owner of a new $8 million cap hit, to score his first goal of the season for the Nashville Predators. Steve Mason (.879 ESSV) was handed a nice $8.2 million deal over the summer but has watched as Hellebuyck has taken the No. 1 job for the Jets. Martin Hanzal was given a three-year, $14.25 million deal by the Stars and has one goal through 17 games. Ben Bishop also hasn’t quite lit it up for the Stars with a .904 ESSV. Carey Price is injured, but sure wasn’t playing like his old self before he left the Canadiens lineup. His .877 ESSV is downright ugly.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Dallas Stars head coach fed up with injury rigmarole

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Now here’s a trend we could all get behind.

Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock told members of the media on Tuesday that he wants to “stop the dance” when it comes to revealing information about his injured players.

Via Marc Antoine Godin of The Athletic:

“I think we collectively hate playing the game. What I mean by that is we say ‘upper body,’ then you go on the phone, and then you look up things or you go to the doctors, find out what part of the upper body. We try to make your work easier, quite frankly, and so we just don’t like going through the dance.

“It’s just easy to tell you what it is and let’s move forward. It’s just the whole game. It’s an injury, and within two hours after we tell you it’s ‘upper body,’ you know exactly what it is, so why not just tell you? And the players don’t go out and say, ‘He has a broken left pinky and we’re going to go after the pinky.’ Nobody thinks like that. Our feeling is just tell them what the injury is and move it forward and just stop the dance.”

Perhaps Hitchcock, who has been coaching in the NHL since 1995, is just tired of the same old rigmarole he’s dealt with for the past 20-plus years. Reporters everywhere are too.

It’s also likely that most fans would also appreciate a higher level of transparency from the team they spend hundreds on for tickets each night.

Right, Montreal?

Given the mayhem that has ensued for the Canadiens over the status of Carey Price’s lower body, perhaps more teams will alleviate future headaches before they set in by adopting this route.

What is certain is that hockey scribes everywhere just became the biggest Hitchcock fans.

For now, if you’re looking for some of the Stars’ state secrets, they can be had on their official Twitter account:


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

Russian ice hockey player has 2-year doping ban cut

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ZURICH (AP) The International Ice Hockey Federation has slashed a doping ban given to Russian forward Danis Zaripov from two years to six months.

He’s eligible to play again from Thursday.

Zaripov, a Russian Olympian in 2010, was suspended in July for taking the banned substance pseudoephedrine.

However, the IIHF says it has reached a settlement with Zaripov, who filed an appeal. The IIHF agreed to cut the suspension. Since it’s dated from May 23, that means Zaripov will be eligible again on Thursday.

The IIHF says its decision is “based on extensive documentary and expert evidence that was unavailable” this year.

Zaripov has previously told Russian media he was in contact with the St. Louis Blues about a move to the NHL, where his ban isn’t valid.

Scary thought: The Blues are starting to get healthy

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As one bad headache begins to relieve itself for St. Louis Blues head coach Mike Yeo, a new, good one is starting to begin.

By most estimations, Yeo’s St. Louis Blues simply weren’t supposed to be doing this well this early. Or even at all.

Decimated by injuries before one puck had been dropped in the NHL’s 2017-18 regular season, the Blues were forced to rely on depth players to carry some of the load.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed it up like this in late September:

In Patrik Berglund (shoulder), Jay Bouwmeester (ankle), Robby Fabbri (knee), Petteri Lindbohm (shoulder), Zach Sanford (shoulder) and Alexander Steen (hand) the Blues currently have 310 games, 53 goals and 81 assists from the 2016-17 regular season on the sidelines.

That’s a lot to replace and expect to still rattle off the wins.

Berglund’s offseason injury to his shoulder required surgery and a four-to-six-month timeline to heal – a tough pill to swallow on a team hoping for swift recoveries from Fabbri and Lindbohm, who also went under the knife.

And then training camp came and things got much, much worse.

Fabbri’s season was over as it was just beginning after he tore his ACL in his left knee on Sept. 24, the same ACL that was surgically repaired just months before in February. Seven days earlier, 15-year veteran defenseman Bouwmeester fractured his ankle and two days before Bouwmeester’s injury, winger Sanford dislocated his left shoulder, rendering him out for five-to-six months.

Yet, instead of crumbling, the Blues somehow managed to excel.

The Blues went 10-3-1 in October and two-thirds of the way through November, St. Louis is the top dog in the Central Division, the Western Conference, and the second place team in the whole of the NHL.

Not too shabby from the Band-Aid brigade. The depth general manager Doug Armstrong has managed to put together is impressive.

His offseason acquisition in Brayden Schenn has thrived in his new threads, with eight goals and 26 points and a current seven-game point streak. Schenn, the fourth-best point producer in the NHL thus far this season, is tied for the team lead in points with Jaden Schwartz, whose early season trends have him on pace for a career year, already having amassed 10 goals and 16 helpers.

The type of headache that doesn’t require an Advil begins for Yeo on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers, a game that will be live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

Bouwmeester will play his first game of the season on Tuesday as he’s been deemed fit to return to the lineup.

The 34-year-old is expected to resume commanding big minutes, as he has done throughout his 15-year career. Blues fans will be hoping he can help out their 23rd-ranked penalty kill. He’s been pretty good in that area.

His return leaves the Blues with eight healthy defensemen, leaving Yeo with what he called a “good problem to have” on Monday.

Yeo has played rookie Vince Dunn in all 21 games this season and the 2015 second-round pick has done more than just earn his keep in the Blues rearguard, averaging 16:38 per night. Yeo said Monday that Dunn needs to be playing. It’s expected that Carl Gunnarsson makes way for Bouwmeester.

Meanwhile, Lou Korac of NHL.com reported that Berglund could be ready come early December, if not earlier.

Berglund practiced in Monday’s full-contact skate and has been working with the team on-ice for a while now.

It appears more good problems are in Yeo’s future.


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