Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens

Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski meet the media in Columbus

At long last, the kingpins of the new look Blue Jackets have announced their presence in Columbus. On Wednesday, James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter smiled for the cameras, accepted new threads from GM Scott Howson, and played their own personal version of Meet the Press. Their arrival in Ohio is to symbolize a new era in Blue Jackets hockey—an era where the hockey team will do what it takes to be competitive in the Central Division.  More importantly, the two newcomers are expected to help Columbus annually contend for a playoff spot. At the end of the day, that’s what these deals are all about.

If nothing else, these moves were Howson’s Hail Mary: they better work or he’ll be looking for a new job.

Howson addressed the media and immediately explained why the organization was so excited to bring in Jeff Carter and what it will mean to the franchise:

“When we looked at our roster at the end of the year and analyzed where we were and what we needed to do, we had two main priorities: Try and acquire a top center and improve our defense. Now, top centers are not easily available. I think before we acquired Jeff, in the last decade or so, only two had been ever traded – and that’s Joe Thornton and Brad Richards. We had been working on trying to acquire Jeff for a long time. The talks went in fits and starts, and they got very serious on June 1. And finally when Paul was ready to pull the trigger we were only too happy to be there and meet the price and acquire Jeff.

If you look at all the top teams in the NHL, all the true contenders, they’re strong down the middle, whether it’s Vancouver, Philadelphia, Chicago – they’re all really good down the middle and we feel now with Jeff, with Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard, and Sammy Pahlsson, Derek MacKenzie, and with Ryan Johansen coming, we have a chance to be very strong down the middle.”

It’s no secret that Carter was upset about being traded by the Flyers a day before the NHL Draft. He remained silent for days after the trade refusing to give as much as a quote to the media. The reality was that he was less upset about the destination than he was about the trade in general. He was told by the Flyers management that he wouldn’t be traded; when he was moved it was a shock to the young sniper. When he finally spoke to the media, it was explained that he was devastated by the way Philadelphia handled the situation—not that he was traded to Columbus.

Carter spoke about his feelings about being traded after signing a long-term deal in Philly:

“When it all went down, I was in shock. There were a lot of emotions going. I took some time to kind of sit back and think of everything before I came out and talked. I didn’t want to come right out and say something that I might regret down the road. But, you know, with Scott (Howson) and Scott Arniel and Rick coming in and talking to me, you know, when they left my house that day I was really, really excited. We talked about the future of the team, the direction, and the city, and all that. And from the moment they left I was real excited.”

There’s no doubt that Carter is the kind of player that the Blue Jackets have been looking to land for a long time. He’s a top-line center with elite offensive skills and has shown the ability to play a strong two-way game. Actually, he’s exactly the type of player all 30 teams in the league would love to have (make that 29). Ever since the trade was announced, Blue Jackets fans have been dreaming about how the Carter/Nash duo could fill the nets next year. Come to think of it, fans outside of Columbus have been wondering the same thing—when was the last time fans outside Columbus wondered about the Blue Jackets for any reason?

The press conference wasn’t Carter’s alone. The team also took the opportunity to introduce their prized free agent signing in defenseman James Wisniewski. The 27-year-old former 5th round draft pick was fifth in the league in scoring (for defensemen) with 51 points. He has 21 points while playing the first half of the season with the Islanders; then stepped up his game with 7 goals and 30 points in 43 games for the Montreal Canadiens. The offensive production last season were careers highs across the board and catapulted him into the discussion among star defensemen. Aside from the offensive numbers, GM Howson was excited about the “sandpaper” that he’d bring to Columbus’ defensive corps. Again, the Jackets acquired a player who will play both sides of the puck.

Part of the reason that he may have not received the full recognition is because he’s bounced around over the last few seasons. Starting with a midseason trade in 2009, Wisniewski has played with the Blackhawks, Ducks, Islanders, Canadiens, and now the Blue Jackets. Coming into the offseason, he’d played on three consecutive one-year deals that helped keep him motivated. He addressed the fear that he’d get comfortable after scoring his big payday after a series of one-year deals:

“I’m the kind of guy, I want to earn the contract. I feel even more pressure this year than I did going into my free agent year – and that’s one of the biggest years of your life. For those critics who say I’m a No. 4 at best, I’m going to prove them wrong.”

But Wisniewski wasn’t done there. He doesn’t play on just collecting a paycheck for the next six years either:

“I don’t want to lose every day. That makes life miserable. With Rick Nash being who he is and Jeff Carter being a top center — those guys don’t come along too often. I look forward to getting this started.”

One thing is for sure—he certainly talks a good game. Elliotte Friedman has his take on Wisniewski and his ability to handle the added pressure that comes with a $33 million contract:

“Like many of us, his greatest strength is his greatest weakness. He is supremely confident. Wisniewski will not feel the pressure of being paid like a No. 1 defenceman, because he thinks of himself as one. That’s important, but gets him into trouble sometimes.”

The next step for Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski will be to translate all of this enthusiasm into some wins. The new faces will undoubtedly help the team on the ice—but this is a team that has desperately needed some help. As has been mentioned ad nauseum, the Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs once and they’re still looking for their very first playoff victory in franchise history. Both of the newcomers are used to making the playoffs and they’ll hope to keep the trend going in their new home.

Scott Howson will hope they can keep the trend continuing as well.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.

‘Canes extend GM Francis, who’s ‘rebuilt our organization the right way’

Ron Francis
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The Carolina Hurricanes locked in a key part — arguably the most key part — of their rebuild on Tuesday, signing GM Rom Francis to a contract extension through the 2018-19 campaign.

“Ron has rebuilt our organization the right way, stocking our team and system with young players who will help this franchise compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out,” club owner Peter Karmanos said in a release. “I’m thrilled that he will continue to see the job through.

“The future is very bright for the Hurricanes in Carolina.”

Francis, 53, has been on the job in Carolina for the past two years, and has done a terrific job of stockpiling young talent through the draft and via trade: Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, to name a few.

Francis was also instrumental in hiring head coach Bill Peters. At the time of the hire, Peters was something of an unknown — an under-the-radar assistant with no NHL head coaching experience — but has since developed into one of the game’s more respected bench bosses.

Peters was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the most recent world championship, and led the country to gold.

This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Mike Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained in July, when he extended Peters’ contract through 2019. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

For all the praise Francis has received during his short time on the job in Carolina, there is one area of concern — goaltending. This summer, Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

It’ll be interesting to see how that move plays out.

It’s Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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In a lot of ways, the 2015-16 season represented more of the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The results were nearly identical to 2014-15, right down to finishing in the basement of the East (69 points last season, 68 the one the year before).

Indeed, Brendan Shanahan is probably correct in saying that the Maple Leafs earned the No. 1 pick “the hard way,” or at least “earned” the higher draft lottery odds that helped them land Auston Matthews.

The big question, really, is how long will fans be patient with the Maple Leafs taking baby steps in the right direction?

Off-season

Naturally, the team tried to make more a leap forward in seeking Steven Stamkos and, to a less dramatic extent, Jimmy Vesey.

They fell short in those regards, but that doesn’t mean that management merely idled while hoping for improvements from in-house development.

The Maple Leafs made bold changes in net, ending the Jonathan Bernier era while betting big on Frederik Andersen and also bringing in a promising backup in Jhonas Enroth.

Beyond those big moves in net, the Maple Leafs made some minor adjustments. They handed surprising money and term to Matt Martin while taking short-term fliers on veterans Milan Michalek and Roman Polak.

On paper, this team still looks quite a few steps away from being a playoff contender, but perhaps we’ll start to see things come together?

A lot of that rides on the work of Matthews, Morgan Rielly and other young players (William Nylander, Mitch Marner) who may or may not make a lasting impact on the regular season roster.

Will the rebuilding plan start to pay dividends? PHT explores the iconic franchise on Tuesday.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.