Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

James Neal hopes to improve next season with Penguins


At the trade deadline last March, the Penguins thought they finally found a winger who could make beautiful music with Sidney Crosby. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. Crosby was sidelined with a concussion at the beginning of January and the newly acquired Neal never had an opportunity to show what he could do with the superstar center by his side.

The Whitby, Ontario native only managed a single goal in 20 games with the Penguins down the stretch of the regular season. More importantly for Pittsburgh, he only netted a single goal (and two points) in the Penguins 7-game defeat to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year.

It wasn’t only the absence of a true #1 center that held Neal back last season. Like many players before him, he learned first-hand that a mid-season trade can turn their world upside down. Neal spoke of the chaos that surrounds a player when they’re traded to another team in the middle of the season:

“You get a call one day and then you’re on a plane and you’re in Pittsburgh and your whole life changes in a matter of minutes. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s exciting. It’s a great chance to play on an amazing team with amazing players. It’s definitely for the better and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.”

The Penguins were clearly excited when they had the opportunity to acquire him (and Matt Niskanen) from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Even though the stats weren’t where the wanted them to be last season, the organization is still looking at Neal to be one of their main producers on wing next season.

For his part, Neal is doing everything possible this offseason to make sure he thrives once the season starts next season. He’s been training with well-known fitness nut and former NHLer Gary Roberts as he works to get into peak physical shape for next season. Neal talked about his offseason conditioning with Roberts:

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice. Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

The term you may be looking for right now is “contract year.” Obviously, Neal wants to improve upon his numbers and help the Penguins get back to the elite level they have seen over the last few years. But from a personal standpoint, this wouldn’t be a bad time to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season and he could use a good season if he hopes to cash in on the opportunity.

In just three full season, Neal has already shown that he consistently score goals at the NHL level. He’s averaged 24 goals and 46 points over the course of his short career—numbers the Penguins hope increase by playing next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin for a full season next year.  No wonder Dan Bylsma thinks the Penguins will be better next season.

Last time around, the Dallas Stars gave him a 2-year deal worth $5.75 million as they expected him to continue to improve his game. Whether it was due to the mid-season trade, mounting expectations, or the weight of a new contract, Neal saw his game plateau last season. But if Neal can rediscover the game that has already made him a three-time 20-goal scorer, he has the potential to breakout for the Penguins next season.

And get a sizeable raise at the same time.

After reportedly trying to trade him, Rangers put McIlrath on waivers

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 25:  Dylan McIlrath #6 of the New York Rangers takes the puck as Matt Moulson #26 of the Buffalo Sabres defends at Madison Square Garden on January 25, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Rangers are rolling the dice that Dylan McIlrath won’t get claimed. They’ve put the 24-year-old defenseman on waivers, not long after reportedly trying to trade him.

McIlrath was the 10th overall draft pick in 2010, a selection that many felt was a reach by the Rangers. Six years later, he’s yet to establish himself as a regular in head coach Alain Vigneault’s lineup.

The big blue-liner has appeared in just one game this season, and he only logged 9:14 in it. Vigneault seems to have chosen offseason trade acquisition Nick Holden over McIlrath.

Despite the Rangers’ inability to trade him, it would not be a huge surprise if McIlrath gets claimed. His possession stats were solid last season, and defensemen with size and toughness are still coveted in today’s faster NHL.

McIlrath’s cap hit is $800,000. He can become a restricted free agent this summer.

Blues put Paajarvi on waivers

Magnus Paajarvi
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The return of Jori Lehtera was a welcome development in St. Louis — well, welcome for everybody but Magnus Paajarvi.

With the Blues needing to clear a roster spot for Lehtera, Paajarvi was placed on waivers on Thursday, per Sportsnet.

The decision comes after Paajarvi appeared in three games for St. Louis this season, scoring once while averaging just over nine minutes per game.

He has not dressed since an OT loss in Vancouver back on Oct. 18, though, as the team has recently opted to play Dmitrij Jaskin up front.

(Ty Rattie, who’s also been out of the lineup since the Vancouver game, is apparently sticking around St. Louis for the time being.)

Paajarvi has been down the waiver road before, getting exposed by the Blues on a few occasions. Even though he’s still relatively young (25 years old), on a cap-friendly contract ($700,000) and has nearly 300 games of NHL experience, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he gets claimed — especially since teams have had the opportunity to snag him before, and passed.

Not long after news of the Paajarvi waiving broke, the Blues announced Lehtera was officially activated from IR. He’ll be available for selection tonight when St. Louis hosts the streaking Red Wings, who’ve won five straight.

A group wants to build an arena in Scottsdale, but the Coyotes don’t seem interested

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 09:  Fans line up outside of Gila River Arena before the NHL game between the Arizona Coyotes and the Winnipeg Jets on October 9, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Jets defeated the Coyotes 6-2.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes still don’t have a place to play next season, and based on a report, they don’t seem very interested in working with a group that wants to build a new arena in Scottsdale.

From Arizona Sports:

Multiple sources said the developer group working with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community had a meeting scheduled with the Coyotes the day after the team’s Faceoff Luncheon and the day before the season opener on Oct. 15 to discuss the possibility of the Coyotes playing there, but the Coyotes cancelled the meeting at the last minute for unspecified reasons. No make-up date has been scheduled.

When reached Wednesday evening, Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc had this to say: “Throughout this process we have had a number of groups solicit our involvement. This particular group and site are not one with which the Coyotes are working.”

Why the Coyotes don’t have interest in this particular project isn’t clear. It may be they’re 100 percent focused on another site, or it may be the deal just isn’t right for them.

But they’ll need to figure something out soon. Their lease at Gila River Arena expires after this season, and while they could probably extend that for a few years while a new arena gets built, they’ve been adamant that they’ll be leaving Glendale as soon as possible.

Certainly, this week’s news out of Seattle won’t quell the speculation that the Coyotes could be on the move, even if ownership has insisted over and over that the team has a bright future in the desert.

Sens: Lazar will ‘benefit’ from AHL stint, no timetable for return to Ottawa

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 11: Curtis Lazar #27 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Colorado Avalanche during an NHL game at Canadian Tire Centre on February 11, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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This probably isn’t the way Curtis Lazar saw things going.

Lazar, who Ottawa took 17th overall in 2013, is currently plying his trade for the Sens’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, after missing extensive time during training camp and the preseason with mono.

He was sent down on Oct. 11, and he might as well get comfortable.

Despite the fact he’s played nearly 150 career games at the NHL level, there’s no plan to bring Lazar back anytime soon.

“We’re not going to make any immediate decisions on Curtis,” Sens GM Pierre Dorion said, per the Citizen. “the best thing for Curtis is to go down there and play, and play as well as he can play.

“He can play in all situations, and I think it’s the right thing to do. Let him get confidence and when the time comes we’ll call him back up, but there’s no timetable to call up Curtis.”

Dorion acknowledged the club had previously toyed with the idea of sending Lazar down to the minors.  The 21-year-old was drafted to be an “impact” player for the Sens but, through his rookie and sophomore campaigns, played in more of a complimentary role, scoring just six goals per season while averaging 12:54 and 13:52 TOI per game.

So far, the plan of growing Lazar’s presence and role in Bingo seems to be working. He has two goals through four games, and scored the game-winner against Utica earlier this week.