Paul Gaustad, Andrew Ference

Trendy Sabres vs. defending champion Bruins: Who’s the favorite in the Northeast?

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When it comes to making playoff predictions or choosing players in fantasy hockey, it’s just so much more fun to side with a trendy pick. Sure, it was probably the right move to select Ray Rice in the first round in fantasy football, but it didn’t provide the visceral thrill of a riskier move.

Many hockey pundits are locked in debates regarding the Northeast Division favorite: is it wiser to side with the defending champion Boston Bruins or the Buffalo Sabres (the champions of splashy off-season moves)? From what I gathered, a startling amount are going chic with the Sabres. (A few might even lean toward the Montreal Canadiens, which is batty if you consider their defense but intriguing when you ponder their easier schedule.)

It’s tough to figure out why people are discounting the Bruins after they won the 2011 Stanley Cup. Maybe it’s because the focus of that championship round shifted toward Roberto Luongo’s meltdowns rather than Tim Thomas’ brilliance. Perhaps the problem is that the Bruins were good during the 2010-11 season, but they weren’t overwhelming favorites like the last three champions. The Bruins’ biggest stars are a huge defenseman and an unorthodox goalie, so maybe the hunger for marquee offensive talent has something to do with it.

Either way, it is a tough race to call.

The case for the champs

The Bruins feature the best defenseman in Zdeno Chara. You can generate hours of debate about which team has the better American star in net, but the Bruins’ combined duo gets the nod because Tuukka Rask is more proven than Jhonas Enroth. Boston’s group of centers is impressive even with Marc Savard hurtling toward retirement; one assumes that the hockey world will give Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci more respect sooner or later. Derek Roy should be outstanding if he is 100 percent, but the Sabres’ pivots don’t seem quite as sturdy – especially if Ville Leino ends up being their second line center, as many expect. (That’s not to say that Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe lack talent if they’re in center spots this season – it’s just that they’re likely to get pushed around defensively.)

Depth is the key in Buffalo

That’s not to say that Buffalo goes into this battle without any weapons, though. Their advantage can be summarized with one word: depth. Their defense is much more versatile now that they added Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Leino complements an offense that has a plethora of dangerous wingers, from Thomas Vanek to Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford.

The depth argument does make some sense in the regular season, but it’s still surprising to see so many people brush off the Bruins’ hardware – mainly because people usually follow champions like lemmings.

In a way, this is battle between change and stability. The Sabres seem radically different while the Bruins only made minor alterations to a team that won three seven-game series and their first Cup since the days of Bobby Orr. Picking Boston isn’t as fun as siding with Buffalo, but if you ask me, it’s the best bet.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

TAMPA, FL - MAY 18:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, Tyler Johnson was such a huge part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, more than a few people believed that he could ease the pain of possibly losing Steven Stamkos to free agency. He tied Stamkos for the team lead in scoring (72 points) and topped all Lightning players with 23 playoff points during their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2015-16 regular season was a bumpy one for Johnson … in some ways literally.

Painful year

Health was a major obstacle for Johnson, starting with the hangover from a wrist injury he suffered during Tampa Bay’s magic run.

Even afterward, there were moments of pain. Sometimes it came down to flat-out bad luck:

Other times, there were questionable hits:

It wasn’t until late in the regular season that Johnson seemed to feel himself, as he noted to the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“I feel I’ve got the speed back, got everything I can do,” Johnson said. “I’m actually mentally there, not worried about other things …”

Big commitments

He’ll have some things to worry about in 2016-17.

The Lightning handed out a ton of money this off-season, locking up Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lengthy deals. They still need to sort out a contract for Nikita Kucherov, a talented forward who rose while Johnson stumbled.

Fair or not, Johnson must prove that he’s a core member of the Lightning

He made a strong argument in his own favor once he was healthy, generating 17 points in 17 playoff games as the Lightning made it to within one game of another Stanley Cup Final appearance despite missing Stamkos.

Still, Johnson faces a fork in the road. Ben Bishop either needs a new deal or (most likely) a trade to a team that will make him “the guy.” Ondrej Palat likely won’t be the easiest player for Tampa Bay to re-sign, either.

Few players could gain or lose more money with one season of play than Tyler Johnson. He can prove that 2015-16 was derailed by bad luck or allow injury concerns to linger.

Millions are on the line, and those personal goals may very well help Johnson drive the Lightning to another deep run.

For all we know, he could also find himself driving out of town.

Bovada gives Canada best odds at 2016 World Cup of Hockey

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 23:  (l-R) Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and P.K. Subban #76 of Canada pose with the gold medals won during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match against Sweden on Day 16 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s no secret that Canada’s been on a strong run at the international level, and it’s no surprise that they’re considered the favorites heading into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Seriously, just look at the B Team put together by The Hockey News’ Mike Brophy; even with the strange hook of having to go around the under-23 North American team, that group would be one of the top contenders if it existed.

The real fun is judging how Bovada’s odds fall with the other leading nations. Is Russia given too great a chance considering some recent struggles when facing the best of the best? Did that odd little under-23 team not get enough love?

Here are the odds Bovada released on Monday:

World Cup of Hockey 2016 Champion

Canada                         10/11

Russia                          9/2

Sweden                        5/1

USA                             13/2

Finland                         14/1

North America U23        16/1

Czech Republic             22/1

Team Europe                33/1

Interesting stuff.

Vegas confirms trademarks for Desert Knights, Golden Knights, Silver Knights

LAS VEGAS - MARCH 24:  A general view of the Fabulous Las Vegas sign on Las Vegas Boulevard on March 24, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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On Monday, a spokesman for the Las Vegas expansion team confirmed to NHL.com the group has trademarked a trio of potential nicknames — the Desert Knights, the Golden Knights and the Silver Knights.

The news comes on the heels of owner Bill Foley telling Yahoo “we’re kind of getting to the point where we’re almost there,” adding that he was “close” to naming the team.

More, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Last week domain names were registered that might be an indicator that the NHL team scheduled to begin play in 2017 could be called the Las Vegas Desert Knights.

Last week the domains lasvegasdesertknights.com, vegasdesertknights.com and desertknightshockey.com were privately registered to Moniker Privacy Services, which is the same company that procured the domain name to NHL.com.

Earlier this summer, Foley — a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy — said Vegas can’t use a straight-up ‘Knights’ nickname in Canada, because London’s OHL franchise was also named the Knights.

There was some thought to use the Black Knights moniker, which is what the teams at West Point use. But Foley said the name wasn’t popular among the fans.

He also added that the “Nighthawks” moniker is still reserved, and could be used.

Poll: Is Kucherov’s contract situation anything to be worried about?

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival (32), of the Czech Republic, falls down on the puck in front of Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), of Russia, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
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This post is part of Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT…

“We continue to communicate with his representation, and we expect to have him under contract to start the season.”

That was what Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman told the Times back on July 27, in discussing the future of RFA forward Nikita Kucherov.

That was 33 days ago.

Since then, most — if not all — has gone silent on the Kucherov front. The 23-year-old, coming off career highs in goals (30) and points (66), remains unsigned with a bunch of key dates on the horizon.

The first few are mostly to do with the World Cup of Hockey. Kucherov will represent Russia in the tourney, with the Russians set to begin training camp on Sept. 5 — one week from now.

Their first exhibition game takes place on Sept. 8, against the Czechs, and they open tournament play on Sept. 18.

There are insurance policies in place to so unsigned RFAs can play in the World Cup, meaning Kucherov should be a go for the Russians. Other RFAs look as though they’re in a similar boat — Johnny Gaudreau and Jacob Trouba with Team North America, specifically — so it doesn’t feel like Tampa Bay needs to get Kucherov locked in ASAP.

But when?

That’s the big question.

Yzerman’s earned a reputation as a tough, unflinching negotiator. He stood firm during the Jonathan Drouin trade request saga, and remained steadfast with his contract offer to Steve Stamkos. In both instances, Yzerman “won” — Drouin rescinded his request and is now fully back in Tampa’s mix, while Stamkos eschewed going to free agency to ink a long-term deal with the Bolts.

Hence the intrigue around Kucherov.

Pundits have pointed to a pair of contracts — Filip Forsberg‘s six-year, $36 million extension and Nathan MacKinnon‘s seven-year, $44.1 million deal — as potential benchmarks for Kucherov. What we don’t know is where Yzerman is at.

We do know that Tampa Bay is in a cap crunch. Yzerman could alleviate some of the pressure by putting Ryan Callahan (hip) on LTIR to start the year, but that’s a temporary solution. Yzerman also has to be wary of the future, especially since the likes of Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will all need new deals next season.

So, we turn it over to you — is the Kucherov situation a concern? Or will it all get sorted out, as it so often does with Yzerman?