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.

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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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.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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