Ales Kotalik hopes to learn from struggles as he reunites with Sabres

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The Buffalo Sabres turned a lot of heads with their 2011 summer spending spree, but GM Darcy Regier still has some work to do. The team is about $3.6 million over the salary cap ceiling as of this moment, which means that something has to give.

Regier and owner Terry Pegula are saying all the right things about moving that money through trades, but the team would be left with some unpleasant options in most of those cases because rival GMs know that the Sabres are in a cap crunch. That could mean that the Sabres might need to sweeten deals by sending a high-end draft pick with one of those contracts to get a deal done or some other headache-inducing situations.

Ultimately, if I were Regier, I’d beg for permission to bury at least one mediocre contract and then complete a more comfortable move to get under the cap. Don’t forget that merely getting under the cap might not be the only goal; what happens if the Sabres suffer enough small injuries that they cannot put anyone on injured reserve but they don’t have the space to call up someone from the minors?

My solution would be: “Bury Ales Kotalik’s cap hit + trade an expendable bigger contract,” whether that be Jochen Hecht, Brad Boyes or Shaone Morrisonn.

Of course, that formula cannot factor one thing: Regier’s soft spot for Kotalik. Out of context, it seemed obvious that the Sabres accepted Kotalik merely to make sure that they could land Robyn Regehr in a trade, but if any team is open minded about the winger, it’s Buffalo. Kotalik crossed the 20+ goal barrier four times during his first stint with the Sabres before he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 2008-09. It’s been a rocky three seasons since then, with Kotalik being traded two more times before being demoted to the AHL. Kotalik should have gotten a taste of the harsh reality in front of him after every other NHL team passed on claiming him via waivers on two occasions.

The odds seem stacked against Kotalik, who is in the last year of a contract that registers a $3 million cap hit. That being said, the Czech-born winger seemed upbeat in an interview with the Buffalo News’ John Vogl earlier this week.

Last season’s stay in the AHL was a rejuvenating event, but Kotalik made it clear he has little desire to do it again. The 32-year-old believes he belongs in the NHL. He’s intent on proving that to the Buffalo Sabres when training camp starts in three weeks.

“Absolutely, I want to stay in Buffalo,” Kotalik said by phone from the Czech Republic. “I’m coming to training camp with an open mind. I know that I can measure with anybody on that team. I can measure myself up with any guy on that squad, on that team, and I hope I will get the opportunity that I need. Everything else is up to me.”

(snip)

“I’m excited coming over to see all the people I missed for two years,” said Kotalik, who was shipped by Buffalo to Edmonton at the 2009 trade deadline. “When I heard that I was part of the trade with Robyn Regehr, at first I didn’t know what to think. Then I got a call from [General Manager] Darcy [Regier] and Terry, and they told me that they took me for a reason. They still think that I can play.

“I’m excited. It feels like I’m at home, and hopefully I can prove to everybody who had doubts about me that I can still play and be a good player for that team.”

Again, if there’s any team that will give Kotalik the benefit of the doubt, it’s the Sabres. He’ll have to be very impressive to overcome his hefty cap hit and damaged reputation, though. We’ll keep an eye on the team’s interesting salary cap challenges as the season approaches – it might indeed come down to training camp for the team’s fringe players. Kotalik certainly ranks as one of those, even in Buffalo.

Math may help build Vegas Knights, but biggest aim is not being boring

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Unlike Pierre Dorion, it sounds like Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee would rather listen to analytics-minded people rather than … you know, hit them.

As McPhee readies for the expansion draft, he told The Star’s Kevin McGran in Q&A that they’ll at least be factored into decisions.

I’ve been really fascinated by how revealing that data can be. You have these kids speaking a different language. But I’m convinced it has a really important place in this game. You have to pay attention to it, and you have to use it.

Naturally, the real question with McPhee and other executives comes down to how much they will lean on analytics. Some teams seem to pick and choose when to listen to such voices, ending up with an odd mix of moves that please and unnerve the “fancy stats” community.

Owner Bill Foley gave a good idea of how much they’ll lean on stats vs. more traditional approaches in an interview with the Vegas Hockey Hotline back in February, which was transcribed by The Hockey Writers’ Keith Scheessele.

“Analytics is not going to drive how we draft,” Foley said. “Analytics are going to supplement what the scouts are seeing. We’re going to rely on the scouts and what they recommend.”

(Foley also spoke of rating players in 10 different categories, which started to make one think about how old sports video games could only quantify skills in so many ways. Anyway …)

So, it sounds like McPhee & Co. will take a modern approach – a mixture of the old and the new – rather than going full-on bold and revolutionary like, say, the Cleveland Browns or Golden State Warriors.

Considering the mystery of roster quality one faces with the Vegas Knights, it honestly might be most important that McPhee is repeatedly stating that he doesn’t aim to put together a boring hockey team.

Hey, if it takes a while to be good, at least the Vegas Knights might fit with their environment and put on a show.

Tarasenko’s two goals help Blues tie series with Predators

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One of the (many) remarkable things about the St. Louis Blues dispatching the Minnesota Wild was that they didn’t need a ton of production from Vladimir Tarasenko. He didn’t score a goal until the clinching game of that series.

The Blues needed more from him tonight, and he responded with two huge goals to help St. Louis win 3-2 in Game 2, tying the second-round series at 1-1.

Tarasenko scored the opening goal on that major power-play opportunity from the Vernon Fiddler knee on Colton Parayko, while Joel Edmundson wisely got out of the way to let Tarasenko nab the game-winner.

That ended up being the decisive factor as the Nashville Predators finally lost their first game of the postseason.

St. Louis must be breathing a sigh of relief for a number of reasons. The series shifts to Nashville for Games 3 and 4, so going down 2-0 might have been lethal.

Even beyond that, the Blues had some breaks go their way that likely won’t repeat to the same degree in future contests. The Predators didn’t receive a single power-play opportunity while St. Louis spent significant chunks of the contest on the man advantage, going 1-for-5 (but again, that includes a major).

The Blues also won despite what must have been a frustrating start. They only managed a 1-1 tie after the first 20 minutes despite holding Nashville to a mere three shots on goal.

The Predators also managed leads of 1-0 and 2-1, yet the Blues kept fighting to get back in this series. Game 3 will air on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App (Click here for the livestream link).

* – That said, he made a lot of commotion to set up Edmundson’s overtime game-winner from Game 1. That connection continued on Friday, as you likely noticed.

WATCH LIVE: Game 2 for Predators – Blues, Oilers – Ducks

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P.K. Subban certainly made his presence felt to begin the Predators’ series vs. the Blues. Leon Draisaitl stole the spotlight in helping the Oilers beat the Ducks in their Game 1. Who will step up in Game 2 of each series? We’ll find out soon.

Here’s what you need to know:

Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues (Preds lead 1-0)

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream online here)

Check out the highlights from Nashville’s 4-3 win in Game 1.

Edmonton Oilers vs. Anaheim Ducks (Oilers lead 1-0)

Time: 10:30 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream online here)

Check out the highlights from Edmonton’s 5-3 win in Game 1.

Hagelin might be available for Penguins in Game 2

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WASHINGTON (AP) Carl Hagelin could be bringing his trademark speed back to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup.

Coach Mike Sullivan said Hagelin will be a game-time decision to return for Game 2 against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night after being out since March 10 with a lower-body injury. The lightning-quick wing took part in a full-contact practice Friday and has progressed far enough in his recovery to be an option to play.

“He brings that element of speed, his ability to stretch the ice, his pursuit game, forces turnovers all the time and we can create a lot of offense off of it,” Sullivan said. “He’s a good penalty killer, he’s a solid two-way player, so we can use him in a number of different capacities, but I think his speed certainly helps us play the type of game that we want to play and we’re a more competitive team when he’s in the lineup.”

Hagelin called it a “step in the right direction” but said it’s difficult to determine if he’ll feel good enough to play.

“You always want to play,” the 28-year-old Swede said. “It’s always hard to say, but out there today it felt good. It felt like I was moving, and I’m excited, that’s for sure.”

Pittsburgh leads the best-of-seven second-round series 1-0. The Penguins are a much stronger team with the return of veteran wing Chris Kunitz and Hagelin, whose speed could make it even more difficult on the Capitals.

“He can put teams back on their heels,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “He doesn’t need a lot of room to make a play. … He can help in a lot of different areas.”

If Hagelin is cleared to return, Sullivan says it will be a difficult decision who comes out. Depth is one of the Penguins’ strengths, so it’s incredible that former first-line wing Conor Sheary could be the odd-man out after being demoted to the third line and struggling in some areas.

“We know Conor has a much better game, and that’s what we’re trying to help him get to,” Sullivan said. “The last couple I don’t think have been his best, but certainly he’s a guy that’s played a lot of really good hockey for this team.”

So has Hagelin, who was part of the famed “HBK” line along with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel during Pittsburgh’s 2016 Stanley Cup run. He had 16 points in 24 games last season.

“Haggy’s a great two-way player,” Kessel said. “He’s a fast player out there. He brings speed, and he’s a smart player out there. Whenever you get a guy like that back it’s big for your team.”

It’s especially big if Hagelin can get his wheels back right away. Being out of the lineup for six weeks makes that a challenge but one he’s eager to undertake.

“Speed should be there,” Hagelin said. “You don’t know that till you’re in the game. “That’s what’s fun about hockey. You go out there and usually you feel like you pick it up right where you left off.”

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey