Can Ales Kotalik force his way into Buffalo’s starting lineup?

The Buffalo Sabres started off training camp in a peculiar and rather odd situation for them. The Sabres were usually good for a few different battles for starting jobs in camp with the exception always being in goal where Ryan Miller is the man. At forward and on defense things would always be a bit more intense. Things at forward this time around are virtually already taken care of.

With camp kicking off in earnest yesterday, the Sabres started things off with 11 of the 12 starting forward spots already spoken for, newly acquired one-time Sabres forward Ales Kotalik is part of a group of four fighting it out for the final spot. While Kotalik was once a useful Sabres forward excelling at adding offense on the power play and being good for 20-25 goals a year, he’s got a lot of competition this time around.

John Vogl of The Buffalo News breaks down the Sabres battle for the 12th man spot in the lineup with Kotalik.

Kotalik, acquired in a trade with Calgary following a season spent mostly injured or in the minors, figures to spend training camp in a four-way competition for a roster spot. With 11 forward spots all but locked up — centers Derek Roy, Ville Leino, Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht; right wings Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta and Brad Boyes; and left wings Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Vanek — the last remaining starting job could come down to Kotalik, Cody McCormick, Matt Ellis or Luke Adam, with the second-place finisher sticking in a reserve role.

“I’ve got to believe in myself. I hope that I will be on this team and I feel I will do good things for this team,” said Kotalik, who will continue to carry his loss but will also carry on. “You just want to enjoy spending time, having fun, because you never know what can happen.”

One starting spot and one reserve spot should mean that Kotalik has a great shot to at least wind up on the opening night roster. In an ideal non-salary cap world that’s likely that would happen. Unfortunately for Kotalik, his $3 million cap hit this season and the Sabres being over the cap, according to CapGeek.com, by over $3.5 million could be forcing Kotalik to have to be other-worldly in camp to win a spot.

Kotalik is used to this struggle after going through it last season in Calgary. The Flames were hard up against the cap and Kotalik became a cap casualty being sent down to the AHL to get his salary off the books. Injuries helped Kotalik get back to the NHL, but it’s a situation he’d rather not deal with. Unfortunately with this being a cap world, the number crunch could end up working against him again. If it comes down to it, moving Kotalik and his cap hit to the AHL would make the Sabres’ financial decisions easier to make.

Of course, Kotalik can have a say in all this by tapping into how he used to play in Buffalo early on in his career and getting coach Lindy Ruff to believe in him all over again. Buffalo doesn’t have a shortage of offensive weapons in their starting lineup, but if Kotalik and his big shot on the power play can help make them stronger contenders, they’ll find a way to make it work. That amount of work might be too much for Kotalik to do at this point in his career.

The Predators built the NHL’s best defense, and it is going to be around for a while

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The Nashville Predators are preparing to play in their first Stanley Cup Final after marching through the Western Conference playoffs.

Their appearance in this year’s Final is being looked at as a little bit of a surprise because of their place in the standings among the NHL’s playoff teams (16th out of 16 during the regular season) but this was still a team that was looked at before the season as a legitimate contender. They had a disappointing first half that kind poured some cold water on the preseason hype, but since starting 17-16-7 the Predators have put together a rather dominating 36-17-5 stretch (playoffs included) since the first week of January.

They have a defensive unit that rivals any other in the NHL to thank for a lot of that success.

The addition of P.K. Subban over the summer to a group that already included Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm has given the Predators one of the most dominant top-four groupings in the league, and they all perfectly fit the modern NHL game.

They can call skate at a high level, they can all move the puck, they can all contribute offensively. And they can all play major minutes.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on that quartet, giving each of them an average of 23 minutes of ice-time per game, meaning that just about every time you look at the TV one of those four players is going to be patrolling the ice. Last week I looked at the ice-time distribution of Nashville’s Stanley Cup final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how injuries (specifically the one to Kris Letang) has forced coach Mike Sullivan to take a defense by committee approach where all six defenders on a given night are getting almost the exact same ice-time. Each one plays roughly 30-35 percent of the game in what is a rather unconventional approach for a Stanley Cup Finalist.

In Nashville, it is a little different with each of the top-four playing more than 40 percent of the game, while the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin (two solid defensemen in their own right) are only playing about 20 percent of the game … or an average of about 11 minutes per game.

Following their Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz referred to Nashville’s defense as having “four Erik Karlssons,” and while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenseman and there probably are not four other defensemen in the league even close to him) it is at least telling as to how much respect this unit has around the league and how good they are.

But what should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference is that this unit is going to be around for quite a while and still in the prime of their careers

When looking at the top-four, Subban is the “old man” of the group currently at age 28. They are also all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one at a combined cap hit of just a little over $19 million per season.

That is a group that contains two of the top-six offensive defensemen in the league (Subban and Josi) over the past three seasons and two of the best shot suppression defensemen (Ekholm and Ellis) over the same stretch (out of more than 250 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since 2014-15, Ekholm is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes; Ellis is 45th).

When you combine their ability with the fact that quartet has an average age of just 26.7 years old it is an incredible bargain against the salary cap.

They are backbone of this team, and a big reason why no matter what happens over the next weeks on the ice the Predators should be a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.

Here are your officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final

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The NHL has announced its officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

They are as follows…

Referees: Wes McCauley, Brad Meier, Dan O’Halloran, Kevin Pollock

Linesmen: Scott Cherrey, Shane Heyer, Brad Kovalchik, Brian Murphy

Overall it’s a pretty experienced group of officials as O’Halloran, Pollock and Meier are among the eight most experienced officials the NHL has in terms of games called in their careers.

McCauley is near the top of the NHL in terms of penalties called per game, while Pollock is near the bottom of the league and seems to fit more into the “let them play” style of officiating. O’Halloran and Meier are not much higher, so you probably should not expect this to turn into a special teams series.

Of course, no matter who the referees are, by the end of Game 2 most of the coaches, players and fans from each side will probably not be happy with any of them.

All referee data via Scouting The Refs

 

Blackhawks sign Michal Kempny to one-year contract

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The Chicago Blackhawks announced on Saturday morning that they have signed defenseman Michael Kempny to a one-year contract that will cover the 2017-18 season.

The 26-year-old Kempny was a restricted free agent this summer. Financial terms of the deal are not yet known.

During the 2016-17 season, Kempny’s first in the NHL, he appeared in 62 games for the Blackhawks and scored two goals to go with eight assists.

With Kempny added back into the mix for next season the Blackhawks now have seven defensemen under contract as Kempny joins Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Gustav Forsling, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival.

Veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

 

Canucks GM wants Miller back, bringing rebuild into question again

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For one fine trade deadline, it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning saw the light.

They actually moved veterans for assets, and interesting ones in that. They were, gasp, considered one of the winners of the trade deadline. There was the indication that a rebuild might finally be in action. Better late than never, right?

Well … maybe that was just a brief reprieve.

The Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma reports that Benning threw the word “competitive” around when describing why he wants to re-sign 37-year-old Ryan Miller and why he isn’t looking to trade valued defenseman Chris Tanev and declining blueliner Alex Edler.

Sensible if debatable

His reluctance regarding moving the two defensemen is easier to understand. Tanev, 27, is in his prime at a nice cap hit ($4.45 million through 2019-20). A competitive team would want him, and if Benning is convinced the Canucks are close to being just that, then it makes sense.

Edler staying is a little simpler. He has a no-trade clause and doesn’t want to go.

Now, one can argue that Tanev would be best served being moved for high-quality pieces. And perhaps Benning should at least try to convince Edler to accept a trade.

A strange direction in net

But Miller?

“As we’re transitioning these young players into our lineup, I feel that if we have solid goaltending on a night-to-night basis, we can be competitive,” Benning said Thursday, according to Kuzma.

Now, that story discusses why Miller may or may not accept a return, but one would guess that he won’t have a ton of offers. At least not offers that would involve a chance for more “platoon” or even starter-type work rather than explicitly labeling him a backup.

Really, that’s beside the point, because it’s confounding that Vancouver wouldn’t want to go in a younger direction.

You can read that sort of discussion as the Canucks once again wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They seemingly want to “reload” instead of “rebuild.”

Perhaps there’s some smoke-screening going on here. Maybe Benning’s more interested in moving parts than he lets on; it could be that he wants to drive up Tanev’s price by playing coy about moving him.

Still, on their face, the comments don’t exactly inspire confidence for a fan base that must be getting a little irritated by management that, to many, seems delusional about this team’s potential.