The NHL’s best bargain contracts: Central Division

The hockey world tends to focus on the most regrettable contracts rather than the best ones because let’s face it: it’s more enjoyable to make fun of Brian Campbell‘s deal than to linger on Dustin Brown‘s bargain contract. That being said, clever GMs deserve credit for either finding the right timing to sign a player, judging their value better than most or simply fostering a climate in which a player will take a pay cut. This series of posts will take a look at every team to see which (if any) players deserve to be called bargains.

Notes: entry-level deals don’t count because they have built-in maximum levels. “Loophole” contracts will be considered, but they won’t receive as much consideration because of their inherent salary cap dishonesty. Bought out players will be considered for their current cap hits. I also think $6 million is a reasonable – if arbitrary – cutoff point for a true bargain player.

Chicago Blackhawks – Sure, they lost a lot of talent because of cap moves, but how are they looking after getting rid of Soupy and stashing Cristobal Huet in Europe?

Marian Hossa ($5.25M) – This deal would be even better if it wasn’t a cheater contract, but how many teams are jealous that Chicago signed him to this deal? 28 or 29?

Patrick Sharp ($3.9M) – His cap hit will jump to what might still be a a bargain level of $5.9 million after next season, but he remains at his highway source: Getty Imagesrobbery rate for one more season.

Andrew Brunette ($2M) – I get the feeling he’s going to be a nice fit in the Windy City.

Bryan Bickell ($541K) – Could be useful, but it’s all about his sheer cheapness.

Duncan Keith ($5.54M) – Something tells me that Don Meehan won’t mention Keith’s name during Shea Weber’s next contract discussions. This is another cheater deal, but can you blame the Blackhawks?

Sean O’Donnell ($800K) – The Blackhawks made a handful of low-risk, medium-reward signings during this off-season and O’Donnell is one of them.

Honorable mentions: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane – two great players, but it just feels weird to call them full-on bargains at $6.3 million per year … so they’re honorable mentions.

Columbus Blue Jackets – They wildly overpaid in some areas this summer, but where do they stand on pure cap hits?

Jeff Carter ($5.27M) – I agree that he’s one-dimensional, but the guy can score goals. Lots of them. So paying him this much isn’t outrageous.

Honorable mentions: Sammy Pahlsson (because Earl Sleek has brainwashed me into thinking he’s a force) and Derick Brassard (he seems talented enough to take advantage of the team’s offensive improvements if he can stay healthy).

source: APDetroit Red Wings – This team is like a steady stream of steals, right?

Johan Franzen ($3.95M) – Franzen is extremely injury-prone, but a terrifying offensive force when healthy.

Daniel Cleary ($2.8M) – Is Cleary the most underrated forward in Detroit?

Tomas Holmstrom ($1.88M) – If the league kept better track of how many goals are scored because of his obstructive butt, his impact would receive its proper due. I was surprised that some other team didn’t at least try to drive up his price during his last free agent window.

Darren Helm ($912K) – He has some flaws, but his speed and versatility are an asset at this bargain basement price.

Niklas Kronwall ($3M) – Injuries have been a worry here and there, but his scary hits and strong offense make him a steal at this price.

Jimmy Howard ($2.25M) – Another enviable steal by the Red Wings; his stats might be hit-or-miss sometimes, but he’s proven himself to be at least the team’s short-term future in net.

source: APHonorable mentions: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom – Again, I’m just trying to keep things reasonable by excluding guys above $6 million. Every team in the NHL would trip over their own feet to pay any one of these three their current salaries, so they absolutely deserve to be mentioned.

Nashville Predators – A salary cap storm is coming to Tennessee, but next season still includes some bargains.

Ryan Suter ($3.5M) – He doesn’t get half the publicity that Shea Weber receives, but he’s either equally important or just a few strides behind his hard-shooting partner in crime.

Pekka Rinne ($3.4M) – In his short time behind the wheel in Nashville, he’s been legitimately elite. Maybe he benefits from the defense in front of him, but he deserves credit for putting together a great run so far.

Honorable mentions: Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist – they aren’t perfect players, but the Predators need them to score on a level that far exceeds their paychecks.

source: APSt. Louis Blues – How many steals can this “sleeper team” produce?

Chris Stewart ($2.88M) – Stewart is a big, reliable goal scorer at a dirt cheap price. He could score even more regularly this season since it will be a contract year.

T.J. Oshie ($2.35M) – His current rate almost seems like a slap on the wrist for his lower moments last season. I expect a very nice year from Oshie in 2011-12.

Patrik Berglund ($2.25M) – Berglund is quietly becoming a consistent 20-goal scorer in the NHL.

Honorable mention: If David Perron is healthy, he could be another nice steal on a team that doesn’t have many bad contracts. It would be sad (but not surprising) if his concussion issues continue, though.

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Feel free to point out any glaring omissions or faulty inclusions. Again, remember: players on their entry-level deals don’t count, so that’s why you won’t see the Alex Pietrangelos of the world.

Click here for the Atlantic Division version.

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”

U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

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NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.

Oilers need healthy Talbot to give them a spark during upcoming crucial stretch

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At the start of the season, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the favorites to win or at least make it to the Stanley Cup Final. But through 32 games, their season has looked more like a train-wreck than a victory parade in-waiting.

Only the Arizona Coyotes are below the Oilers in the Western Conference standings right now, which is still kind of surprising.

One of the biggest reasons they’ve struggled in the first third of the season is because of goalie Cam Talbot. First, he wasn’t very good at the start of the season. Talbot wasn’t providing his team with the solid goaltending he had given them last year.

Second, just as he was rounding into form, he suffered a upper-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since the end of November.

Prior to getting hurt, the 30-year-old had won three games in a row while allowing two goals in each of those outings. During his absence, Laurent Brossoit went 3-4-0. The Oilers backup netminder gave up three goals or more in four of those seven games.

On Friday, the Oilers (finally) got some positive news, as they activated their starting netminder from the injured list. According to head coach Todd McLellan, he’ll be between the pipes for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. Now, they just have to hope that he can pick up where he left off before landing on IR.

Earlier this season, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was in a similar situation to Talbot’s. Price was awful out of the gate and the Canadiens were struggling. Nothing was going right for them. But after missing roughly three weeks with an injury, Price returned in tip-top shape. Even though Montreal is still outside of a playoff spot right now, they play of their goaltender has allowed them to get back into the race.

McLellan has to hope that Talbot’s “break” allowed him to get better and re-focus on the task at hand. Connor McDavid is still the face of the franchise, but he clearly can’t get the job done by himself.

Edmonton is about to jump into a crucial stretch of their season. After tomorrow’s game in Minnesota, they’ll play seven of their next eight games on home ice, where they have an ugly 5-10-0 record. If they want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll need to start racking up the wins at Rogers Place.

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.