Next summer shaping up to be a nightmare for Predators

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This has certainly been an interesting offseason for the Nashville Predators. They acquired the much-maligned Brett Lebda, they’ve wondered about Francis Bouillon’s concussion and availability for next season, and even unveiled new jerseys. But head and shoulders above all other stories have been the Shea Weber contract negotiations and subsequent salary arbitration hearings.

The negotiations came to a head when the independent arbitrator gave Weber the highest award in the history of NHL arbitration with a one-year deal worth $7.5 million. The deal is especially constricting for a team that already operates on a budget, but the money isn’t even the worst part of the deal for the Predators. Since Weber is set to become a restricted free agent again next season, each of the Predators “Big 3” are set to be free agents on July 1, 2012. This offseason is nothing compared to the impending fiasco for GM David Poile and the Predators next season.

Stu Hackel from Sports Illustrated knows these three impending contracts could change the way the Predators do business:

“It has not been Poile’s modus operandi with the Predators to make splashy big-name acquisitions, and the team’s fiscal restraints have played a deciding role in that. Now that they know what their salary structure looks like and can project what it might look like after re-upping Suter and Rinne, we’ll see whether it triggers a new era in Nashville or leaves them as a lower-spending team that may be forced to part with high-priced talent.”

Next season, Pekka Rinne is set to make $3.4 million in the last year of his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Likewise, defenseman Ryan Suter will make $3.5 in the last year of his deal before unrestricted free agency. Mix in Weber’s $7.5 million and the Predators have $14.4 million dedicated to three players next season. The Predators have never officially announced their payroll budget, but last season the Predators spent $50.9 against the salary cap. Barring any unforeseen changes to management or their organization strategy, it’s safe to assume they’ll be in the same ballpark for the immediate future.

The problem is that the $14.4 million for all three players is the good news. The bad news is that Weber is likely to get a similar type salary if he performs at the same level he’s established over the last two years. Pekka Rinne has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL over the last three seasons and was finally rewarded with a Vezina nomination this year. His .930 save percentage and 2.12 goals against average put him among the league’s elite—and people are finally taking notice. With guys like Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward, Ryan Miller, and Niklas Backstrom all making over $6 million per season and Ilya Bryzgalov signing a 9-year deal worth $5.6 million per season, Rinne is in line for a sizeable raise.

In the same way, Ryan Suter has been outplaying his current 4-year, $14 million contract. Looking at his numbers, play on the ice, leadership, and importance to the Predators, Suter is also in for a big raise. At the 2010 Olympics, he showed the world that he was an elite player with or without his better-known defense partner. In fact, many at the games said that Suter was the best defenseman on the ice for Team USA. When he hits the unrestricted market, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a contract in the Andrei Markov/James Wisniewski/Duncan Keith neighborhood. For those of you keeping track at home, that means he’ll be looking at an estimated cap hit around $5.5 million.

GM David Poile spoke about Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne:

“They’re both unrestricted this year. All of our focus has been on Shea’s situation to this point. I would much prefer to get into training camp to get everybody there, to see how good our team is, to sit down with Shea again, Sutes and Pekka at the appropriate time and see how everybody thinks.”

Poile and the Predators will have their work cut out for them over the next 11 months. Not only do they have to worry about the three big name free agents in Weber, Rinne, and Suter, but they have other pieces that are also up for new contracts at season’s end. If the team decides to move away from Pekka Rinne, they’ll have to address pending restricted free agent Andres Lindback. The next blueliner set to take the next step in the NHL from Nashville’s defenseman factory is Jonathan Blum—who is a restricted free agent next season. Up front, they’ll have to deal with restricted free agents Sergei Kostitsyn, Blake Geoffrion, Cal O’Reilly, and Colin Wilson.

And we thought this offseason was interesting.

Ryan Getzlaf notches 600th career assist

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Milestones are often most useful toward the end of a player’s career, cementing legacies and maybe providing Hall of Fame voters with helpful signposts. That said, they can also stand as reminders that a player is special, even when there are still more chapters to be written.

At 32, Ryan Getzlaf has plenty of time to continue piling up assists after collecting his 600th helper in the Anaheim Ducks’ 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

Now, for a guy who sets the table as beautifully as Getzlaf does, the assist in question wasn’t necessarily typical.

Either way, hitting this milestone gives us a chance to ponder where Getzlaf ranks among the NHL’s best, whether it comes to pure playmaking or point producing overall. With 240 goals to go with those 600 points (and considering his often-scary shot), goalies and defenses have to respect that aspect of his game, too.

Let’s ponder where he ranks among the best in a few ways.

Since Getzlaf debuted in 2005-06, he’s generated those 240 goals and 600 assists for 840 points in just 883 regular-season games. That’s the ninth-highest total in the NHL during that span, trailing Henrik Zetterberg by eight points (his 848 came in 904 games). Getzlaf’s been almost exactly a point-per-game player since he really blossomed in 2007-08, generating 743 points in 744 games, the eighth-best mark. That’s 20 more points that Anze Kopitar in fewer games, and way ahead of his buddy/occasional sparring partner Corey Perry.

Getzlaf is among four players who’ve generated at least 600 assists since 2005-06: Joe Thornton (767), Henrik Sedin (711), and Sidney Crosby (677).

According to Hockey Reference, he’s been in the top 10 in assists on seven occasions and the top 10 in points three times during his career.

The Ducks get knocked for Game 7 failings and other disappointments, yet it’s difficult to pin much of that on Getzlaf.

He has 118 points in 121 career playoff games, the fourth-highest point total since he came into the NHL (once again, right in range of Zetterberg, who’s at 115 in 121 games). You could argue that he’s actually a bit more consistent than Patrick Kane, who’s ahead of him with 123 points but in 127 contests.

Of course, it’s not just about goals and assists, and maybe that’s part of why Getzlaf doesn’t get as much recognition. He can be nasty on the ice, even if Perry tends to draw a greater share of opponents’ ire. Getzlaf didn’t necessarily impress his critics at every turn with how he handled a recent controversy, either.

Also, if you’re the type to mock the follicularly challenged, this flash from the past might be amusing and/or useful:

So, Getzlaf has his critics for both on and off the ice behavior. He’s also had his setbacks, especially if you don’t give him much credit for the Stanley Cup he won as a young player (collecting 17 points in 21 games while averaging 21:43 TOI, by the way).

Love him or hate him, it’s probably fair to call him underrated, at least when you consider how rarely his name comes up in discussions about the league’s most dominant scorers. This latest milestone is a reminder that he’s among the best, particularly when it comes to making plays.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How going back to junior helped Mathew Barzal become a dominant player

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Every hockey player wants to get to the NHL as fast as possible, but sometimes spending an extra year in junior or in the minors can make a huge difference.

Mathew Barzal played two games with the New York Islanders at the beginning of last season before being sent back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. There’s no doubt that Barzal would’ve wanted to spend the year in the NHL like fellow rookie Anthony Beauvillier did, but it didn’t end up happening.

Barzal went back to Seattle with the right attitude. He ended up working on his game and having a huge year for the Thunderbirds, his country and himself. He finished his junior campaign with 10 goals and 79 points in only 41 games. Barzal was an influential part of his team’s first ever WHL Championship, as he accumulated seven goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. He also added two assists in three games at the 2017 Memorial Cup (Seattle went 0-3 in the tournament).

The Isles forward also served as an assistant captain for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It was his second straight season on Canada’s roster. In his first year, he had three points in five games. Last year, he had an impressive eight points in seven tournament games. Unfortunately for Canada, they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA.

“I think (going back to junior) helped,” Barzal told PHT earlier this week. “I think it just let me play my game. I got to play lots of minutes, make a deep playoff run and win a championship. I had a good coach there in Seattle (Steve Konowalchuk) that kept me honest as a 19-year-old. I went to the World Juniors, I got a lot of good experience playing in big games. I think it was just a good development year.”

Through 46 games this season, the rookie has already amassed 16 goals and an impressive 47 points. We’ll never know if he would’ve been able to accomplish that had he not gone back to the WHL last season, but it certainly didn’t hinder his development.

“(Barzal’s) game has skyrocketed since late in October last year when he went back to junior,” head coach Doug Weight said. “He worked on the things he needed to work on. It’s refreshing to see when you have that tough meeting and you challenge him in those things and the things you’re supposed to say as a coach and a friend. He went back and he worked on it and it showed in his game in Seattle.

“He’s had a lot thrown at him and he’s just been terrific.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Isles have Beauvillier, who was developed in a different way. Barzal (15th overall) and Beauvillier (28th overall) were both selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of going back to junior, Beauvillier stuck around in the NHL. He finished last season with a modest nine goals and 24 points in 66 games. This year, he seems to have hit a wall while Barzal has been flat-out dominant.

During the Islanders’ bye week earlier this month, they assigned Beauvillier to the minors where he played three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (he scored two goals). The 20-year-old has eight goals and four assists in 35 games this season.

Unlike Barzal, Beauvillier just seems to be holding on for dear life in the NHL right now. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a solid player, but going back to junior and dominating for a year might have been better for his development (yes, hindsight is 20/20).

Most of the talk around the Islanders organization has been about John Tavares potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. Losing their captain would be devastating, but the fact that they’ve helped develop Barzal into a dominant player would lessen the blow if Tavares decides to leave.

Of course if he sticks around, the Islanders would have a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a double header on Thursday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

These two teams will be going head-to-head for the first time since they met in the 2018 Winter Classic which the Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.

The Sabres are back in action after a six-day break. They went into their bye week with a 3-1 win over Columbus, but they had dropped their previous five games.

The first half of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Buffalo. Only the Arizona Coyotes have accumulated less points (28) than the Sabres’ 31.

Even though their playoff dreams are all but crushed, they’ll still have to find motivation to play out the rest of the season. The wins and losses might not matter at this point, but showing professional pride always does.

“I don’t think you ever lose your motivation,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, per The Buffalo News. “I do what I love. I can’t speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it’s always exciting to play hockey. I’m always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you’re just that much more hungry and excited about it.”

As for the Rangers, they were able to put their three-game losing streak to bed with a big 5-1 win over the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. New York gave up the first goal in that game, but they managed to score five unanswered goals. Forward Rick Nash busted out of his 12-game goalless slump with a two-goal performance.

“It was obviously a huge difference to play in goal,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist told The New York Post after the win. “It’s funny how it works. We play our best defensive game in a very long time and we score five goals. I don’t remember the last time we scored five goals.”

As strange as this season has been for the Rangers, they still find themselves in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s still a lot of games that need to be played, but they’re right in the thick of things in the East.

You’d have to think that a win over Buffalo is a must for a team currently in New York’s position.

In the late game, the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Pens saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in last night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring in the first period, but Pittsburgh watched as Anaheim scored four consecutive goals in the middle frame.

“We did some good things, we just made some big mistakes in the second period,” Sidney Crosby said, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Give up that many goals and that many breakaways in a short period of time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Even though the Penguins have four wins in their last five games, they can’t afford to get complacent. They only have a one point lead on the New York Islanders (the Isles have a game in hand) for the last Wild Card spot.

Things won’t get any easier for them, as the team announced that they’ll be without Matt Murray for an indefinite period of time after the passing of his father. They’ll be relying on Tristan Jarry until Murray is able to return.

For the Kings, getting out of their recent funk is a priority. They dropped the two games prior to their bye week and they’ve lost two more decisions since coming back. To make matters worse, three of those four losses have come against Pacific Division rivals (Flames, Ducks, Sharks).

They’re still sitting a playoff spot, but it’s probably not the one they want to be in. The Kings are in the final Wild Card spot in the West. They have the same number of points as Minnesota (53) who is behind them, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. On a positive note, they’re only one point behind the Sharks and Flames for second and third in the division.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Weather forces AHL’s Charlotte Checkers to play game in empty arena (Video)

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The Director of Finance/Controller filled in as the public address announcer. The Chief Operating Officer acted as the arena DJ. Ticket sales staff? They worked as the ice crew. A corporate salesperson ran the video board. The camerawoman regularly handles merchandise. Even the mascot, Chubby, was played by a corporate servicing specialist.

Wednesday night wasn’t your typical American Hockey League game at Bojangles’ Coliseum for the Charlotte Checkers. Inclement weather in the area forced the team to close the game to the public. But since the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and referees were already in town, and it would have been difficult to get Bridgeport back to Charlotte for a makeup, it was game on.

So in front of a crowd of, well, Checkers employees doubling as game operations staff, the teams played and the home side came out on top 4-3, thanks to a three-goal third period.

Here’s what a goal by the home team sounded like:

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The lack of a crowd didn’t stop the Checkers from acting like it was a normal game day. The mascot kept working and even “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was played to rev up the…players, I guess? It also wouldn’t have been a game night without the “Kiss Cam.”

Tonight was fun. Thanks for following along and staying safe. #BehindClosedDoors2

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This wasn’t the first time the team has played a game that was closed to the public. Back in 2016 Winter Storm Jonas caused a number of sporting events to be postponed, but not for the Checkers, who had their staff run the game.

The Checkers are off the next two days as they prepare to face the Rochester Americans in a two-game set this weekend. The weather in Charlotte will be much better over the next couple of days, which means the Checkers’ staff will be able to get back to their regular jobs.

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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.