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.

Report: Panthers will hire Jack Capuano as associate coach

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Former Islanders head coach Jack Capuano has been waiting to get behind the bench of another NHL team and it sounds like he’s about to get his wish.

According to TSN hockey analyst Darren Dreger, Capuano is on the verge of becoming an associate coach with the Florida Panthers. The official announcement is supposed to be made sometime today.

He becomes new head coach Bob Boughner’s first big hire on the Panthers coaching staff.

Capuano had spoken to the Golden Knights about their head coaching vacancy before they hired Gerard Gallant and earlier this week there was talk of him joining the Sabres as an assistant to Phil Housley.

The 50-year-old was fired by the Islanders in January after he led them to a 17-17-8 record. During his seven seasons behind the bench with the Isles, he had a 227-192-64 record. They made the playoffs three times during his tenure.

Golden Knights might just be best expansion team in NHL history

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley has repeatedly said he wants to win the Stanley Cup within the first six years of his new team’s existence.

After Vegas came away with a jackpot from the expansion draft, Foley’s franchise goalie is even bolder.

“Let’s do it earlier,” Marc-Andre Fleury said Thursday. “Why wait six years? I don’t know where I’ll be in six years. Right away our goal has to be to get good, to improve and to go out there.”

Vegas shouldn’t start blocking off the Strip for the parade just yet, but Sin City’s new team is holding a remarkable hand after general manager George McPhee’s 37-player haul from the expansion draft and several subsequent trades.

Nashville general manager David Poile is among many hockey observers who think the Golden Knights have the ingredients for the most competitive expansion team in league history. From Fleury on out, Vegas already has a solid NHL roster with a sturdy blue line and four lines of capable forwards.

What they don’t have is the game-changing playmakers and goal-scorers that separate decent teams from great ones, but they’ve got a plan for that, too: Vegas will add even more top-shelf talent Friday in the draft in Chicago, where McPhee holds three first-round picks, including the sixth overall.

The players who have already arrived in Vegas realize that although they’re starting over, they aren’t starting from scratch.

“They put a great group together,” said forward Reid Duke, who became the Golden Knights’ first player when he signed as a free agent in March. “You never really know what to expect, but they made some big splashes. Got a lot of good players, a lot of good picks. It’s nice to see that they are not only building for right now, but the future, too. They’ve got some smart guys up there, and they know exactly what they are doing.”

McPhee continued his moves Thursday, swinging two trades to add draft picks in place of claimed players who might not have made the Golden Knights’ roster. Vegas shipped defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and a seventh-round pick next year to Carolina for Pittsburgh’s second-round pick this year, and then traded David Schlemko to Montreal for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

After Foley paid $500 million to the league as an expansion fee, the Golden Knights were given favorable franchise-building terms explicitly designed to give them a better chance to be competitive more quickly than the new teams of the previous 25 years.

Instead of forcing Vegas fans to watch several years of plodding franchise-building, the NHL wants the Golden Knights to be decent from the start.

Can they be the best expansion team ever? It’s quite possible.

The NHL added nine franchises between 1991 and 2001, and no team did better than the Florida Panthers, who went 33-34-17 and racked up an expansion team-record 83 points in the 1993-94 season. The NHL still had ties in 1994, so teams didn’t pick up extra points through shootout wins.

All but four teams in the Western Conference recorded more than 83 points last season. An 84-point season would have put the Golden Knights in sixth place in an eight-team Pacific Division last season, ahead of Arizona and Vancouver.

The Golden Knights aren’t ready to make any predictions yet, but once they get together in Vegas for the first time under coach Gerard Gallant, they’ll start to figure out just how good they can be.

That transition to the desert will be easier for some Golden Knights: Deryk Engelland has lived in Las Vegas in the offseason for a decade.

“We’ll get our numbers out there for guys to reach out if they need anything, if it’s a place to crash, to see outside the Strip and come look for places (to live) or whatnot,” Engelland said. “Definitely ready for that part of it.”

The milestones will keep coming for the Golden Knights throughout the summer while they build toward the first game in franchise history in Dallas on Oct. 6, followed by their home debut Oct. 10 against the Coyotes.

Vegas’ first player development camp starts Tuesday.

“It’s a different situation for everybody in here to come into a team where there is no team,” said defenseman Jason Garrison, claimed from Tampa Bay. “It’s the first team. You just want to establish a friendship and a culture right away, and it starts right now and leads into training camp and continues forward to the first game.”

 

PHT Morning Skate: Who should be drafted first overall?

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–Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick, who should be drafted first overall in tonight’s NHL Entry Draft? Different general managers talk about the top two prospects up for grabs. (Top)

–Speaking of the draft, Rotoworld’s Michael Finewax put together his second and final mock draft of the off-season. In this version, Hischier is New Jersey’s pick at first overall, while the Flyers ended up with Patrick. (Rotoworld)

–Klim Kostin is an intriguing draft-eligible prospects in the draft, but there’s a lot of question marks surrounding his stock. The big Russian suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a good chunk of time. “His physical talent is elite; protects the puck as well as anybody. His scoring got better as the (Ivan Hlinka) tournament went on. Reminds me of Nichushkin.” (The Hockey News)

–The NHL released their regular season schedule on Thursday and The Score looks at seven matchups that need to keep an eye on in 2017-18. Sidney Crosby faces Connor McDavid on Oct. 24, the Habs and Sens play an outdoor game on Dec. 16 and the Golden Knights play their home opener on Oct. 10. (The Score)

–The Golden Knights will continue to tweak their roster before the start of the regular season, but Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire looks at how Vegas stacks up against the rest of the NHL. By the looks of this article, it looks like they’re gonna struggle for a while. (Sportsnet)

–Even though they’ll probably struggle in their first season, the Golden Knights benefited from pretty favorable expansion draft rules and regulations compared to other teams that went through this same process. “This time (the NHL) got it right. They did it fair. Las Vegas is clearly going to have a very competitive club. All of that is to say maybe the league and the owners should have been a little fairer to past expansion teams.” (TSN.ca)

2017 NHL Draft especially big for Devils, Golden Knights

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CHICAGO (AP) The NHL stage belongs to Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils. Then it goes right back to George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights.

In the wake of Vegas’ expansion draft, New Jersey is on the clock with the No. 1 pick of the amateur draft beginning Friday night at the United Center. The only other time the franchise had the first pick was in 1979, when the then-Colorado Rockies selected Rob Ramage.

“I think it’s been exciting for our franchise, exciting time for our scouts,” said Shero, who was hired as New Jersey’s general manager in May 2015. “In addition obviously to the first overall pick we’ve got the nine other picks, which are going to be very important on Day 2.

“But this is, I think, once the dust has settled now with expansion in terms of Vegas making all the selections or trades, whatever they’ve done, it really puts into focus again OK, the draft itself, which is important for every team.”

After New Jersey makes its pick – Shero said the Devils know who they are going to take, but he was keeping that to himself for now – Philadelphia, Dallas, Colorado and Vancouver round out the top five. Then Vegas makes the first pick in franchise history.

The Golden Knights announced two more trades Thursday, running their total to 13 selections for this year’s draft. Vegas sent defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and a 2018 seventh-round draft pick to Carolina for a second-round selection on Saturday. It also shipped defenseman David Schlemko to Montreal for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

Vegas, which selected 30 players in its expansion draft Wednesday night, has three picks in each of the first two rounds. It also has two selections in the fifth and sixth.

“It’s a hard draft,” said McPhee, the franchise’s GM. “Going through it today, it’s been a harder draft that most so it’s taking some time … three picks, it’s a lot to manage and you really have to focus. When you have one pick in the first round, you’re looking for one guy. When you’ve got three, it’s harder. But it’s a good problem to have.”

Forwards Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Casey Mittelstadt and Cody Glass and defensemen Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen are among the most coveted prospects. Patrick, whose father, Steve, and uncle James both played in the NHL, held the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Department’s final rankings in April.

Despite missing much of last season with a groin injury, Patrick had 20 goals and 46 points in 33 games with Brandon of the Western Hockey League.

“At the end of the day I don’t care if I go one, two, three, four, like it doesn’t matter to me,” said Patrick, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before Wednesday’s Cubs game at Wrigley Field. “I’m just excited to get drafted and have a chance to try out for an NHL team. So it doesn’t matter to me.”

Unlike the past two years, when Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews went No. 1 overall and immediately had a huge impact on their new teams, there doesn’t appear to be a transcendent talent at the top of the draft. Led by Patrick and Hischier, the forwards are generally considered the top position group.

“I think this still will be proven to be a good draft,” Shero said. “Especially as they always look back, there’s always one or two Hall of Famers in every draft. Doesn’t matter where, they’re going to be in this draft 20 years from now. And who is it? That’s what the challenge is for any team.”

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap