West update: Stars capture Pacific lead – again

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Hockey writers should be awfully careful during the next week and a half – at least when it comes to the Pacific Division.

Normally, it’s easy to question the “heart” and “fortitude” of a given team, but let’s face it – things are changing far too frequently to safely make ridiculous assumptions based merely off of results. Case in point: as quickly as the San Jose Sharks took the division lead, another loss to those bedeviling Anaheim Ducks switched things back up again.

As is becoming customary, let’s go in order of where the teams finished at the end of Wednesday night.

Stars shine atop Pacific again

The Dallas Stars’ previous era contained plenty of skirmishes with an Edmonton Oilers team that often included Ryan Smyth, so it only makes sense that the current model went through the latest group that includes the beloved mulleted winger. They did just that, too, as Michael Ryder (two goals) and Mike Ribeiro (one tally) scored some beauties on their way to a huge 3-1 win.

Well, huge for now …

4. Detroit gives up ground to 5. Nashville, who clinched yet another playoff berth (seven in its last eight seasons) while 6. Chicago sat idle.

7. Kings win the Sutter Bowl against the 11. Calgary Flames 3-0, with Jonathan Quick breaking the franchise record with nine shutouts in one season.

8. Sharks open themselves to more snark

The beauty of this San Jose season is that lazy writers can just swoop in and out depending on their whims. When the Sharks take the Pacific lead, they can conveniently take a trip to the golf course or grocery store (depending on that writer’s place in the tax bracket). On moments like Wednesday night, those same guys can fill in the blanks for the latest discussion about who lacks heart and whatever intangible doesn’t require any research whatsoever.

Jaded media critiques aside, one can see a very obvious trend: the Anaheim Ducks have been a nightmare for the Sharks over the years. They upset a Presidents’ Trophy-winning Sharks game in the first round of the 2009 playoffs and if San Jose misses the postseason this year, its performance against Anaheim might be the most direct example.

Not convinced? The Ducks’ 3-1 victory marks Anaheim’s fifth victory against San Jose – all in regulation. If you don’t think that those 5-10 points aren’t a matter of regret for the Sharks, you’re kidding yourself.

Idle 9. Phoenix Coyotes slip while 10. Colorado Avalanche lose a 1-0 shutout to the Vancouver Canucks.

With these updates in mind, here’s what the West bubble race looks like:

3. Dallas: 89 points, 35 regulation/OT wins with five games left

7. Los Angeles: 88 points, 32 regulation/OT wins with five games left
8. San Jose: 88 points, 31 regulation/OT wins with five games left

9. Phoenix: 87 points. 31 regulation/OT wins with five games left
10. Colorado: 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins with three games left
11. Calgary: 85 points, 32 regulation/OT wins with four games left

All things considered, it looks like a four-Pacific team race for the final three Western playoff spots, with the best of those four gaining the division title (and the third seed overall) while the worst won’t be in the playoffs at all. Now, the Avalanche and Flames could change that situation, but it’s hard not to think that way when you weigh the odds.

Either way, let me make a reasonably safe prediction: things will change a lot over the next week and a half until the game of high-stakes musical chairs ends.

Jayce Hawryluk could be intriguing prospect for Panthers this season

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Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has talked extensively this offseason about giving young players an opportunity to play and trying to create a faster, more up-tempo, aggressive roster.

One of the young players that might get an opportunity to make that sort of an impact is 2014 second-round draft pick Jayce Hawryluk.

Throughout his junior days in the Western Hockey League, Hawryluk developed a reputation for being the type of player you to have on your team and absolutely hate to play against — in other words, a classic pest. But one that can also play. Really, really well.

“We have high hopes for him,” Tallon said, via the Panthers’ official website this past week. “He’s a kid who plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy. He’s got not only speed and skills, but he’s got a lot of grit.”

The speed and skill part is what really makes it all work for him as a prospect.

He was consistently a point-per-game player for the Brandon Wheat Kings and in his last year with the team exploded offensively with 47 goals and 59 assists in only 58 games. He made his pro hockey debut this past season with Springfield of the American Hockey League where he scored nine goals and added 19 assists in 47 games.

Had it not been for an injury early in the season he probably would have already made his NHL debut for the team. Given the makeup of the roster at this point, especially after the exits of veteran players Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen this summer, there should be plenty of opportunities for him to make the roster this season.

Obviously until he plays in the NHL we won’t know for sure what he is capable of but if he can turn out to be a Brendan Gallagher type of player (or a poor man’s Brad Marchand) that would be an extremely valuable asset for the Panthers both in the short-and long-term.

Red Wings would like Jimmy Howard to play 50-55 games

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Due to injury and losing his starting job, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has appeared in just 63 games the past two seasons, starting only 57 of them. For a goalie that was once one of the better starters in the league it has been a difficult couple of years.

Based on some recent comments from goalie coach Jeff Salajko, the Red Wings not only seem prepared to give Howard his starting job back at the start of this season, but also would like to see him nearly match his games played total from the past two seasons.

Here is Salajko talking about the team’s goaltending situation — including the expected roles for Petr Mrazek and Jared Coureau — to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press.

 “We’re very comfortable with Jared as a third. I have no problem with him being the backup goalie, either. If we can keep Jimmy Howard healthy to play 50-55 games, I was comfortable with Jared in a role like that. But we obviously have Petr back – Vegas didn’t have interest in him, so I’m hoping he comes in with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.”

Mrazek entered this past season as the Red Wings’ starter but really struggled in that role. The Red Wings were reportedly frustrated with his attitude and ended up leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft, but the Vegas Golden Knights opted not to select him.

When Howard was healthy this past season he played some of the best hockey of his career, finishing with a career-best .927 save percentage. It represented quite a bounce back for him after three consecutive years with a below league average save percentage.

Howard returning to that level of play would certainly be a boost for the Red Wings. Not only because their roster is probably the weakest it has been in decades and is going to need great goaltending to compete, but because between him and Mrazek they have more than $9 million invested in the position. For a team that is already pressed to the limits of the salary cap getting anything less than above average play out of that duo would be pretty devastating to their chances this season.

Zibanejad looking for $5.35 million from Rangers in arbitration

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The New York Rangers and restricted free agent forward Mika Zibanejad are scheduled for an arbitration hearing on Tuesday if they can not come to an agreement on a new contract before them.

On Sunday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the numbers both sides are looking at heading into that hearing and they don’t seem to be too far apart. According to Friedman, Zibanejad is seeking a $5.35 million salary while the Rangers have countered with an offer of $4.1 million. If the two sides were able to meet in the middle that would be in the neighborhood of around $4.7 million per season, which probably seems about right given Zibanejad’s performance and some of the contracts that have recently been signed by the likes of Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat (both will make a little more than $5 million per season, while both have been more productive).

Zibanejad, 24, is coming off of his first season with the Rangers after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Derrick Brassard trade.

He was limited to just 56 games due to injury, scoring 14 goals to go with 23 assists. He scored at least 20 goals in each of the previous two seasons.

With Derek Stepan gone to Arizona Zibanejad figures to take on a bigger role this season for the Rangers.

The Rangers still have $8.4 million in salary cap space to work with, via CapFriendly.

New addition Thompson thinks Senators are ‘ready to win’

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Even after reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17 there is still probably some skepticism as to how good the Ottawa Senators will be this upcoming season and whether or not they can repeat that success.

They didn’t do much to add to that roster over the summer outside of the addition of gritty forward Nate Thompson on a two-year contract from the Anaheim Ducks.

Thompson is excited about the opportunity to join the Senators and believes the success of the team last season was not a fluke.

“This team now is ready to win,” he told Ken Warren of the Ottawa Sun this past week. “I don’t think this was a Cinderella team, it was the real deal. They have a pretty good window to win games and hopefully do something even more special.”

It’s going to probably be a little more difficult this season given some of the improvements that have been made by teams around them (Tampa Bay and Toronto should be better than they were a year ago; Montreal and Boston will still be fierce contenders as well) and the fact the Senators themselves might see a bit of a regression in the standings if their overall play doesn’t change much. Keep in mind, for all of the success they had in the playoffs this was still a team that gave up more goals than it scored during the regular season. That is not typically a recipe for long-term success.

Thompson, who will turn 33 at the start of the season, will be relied on primarily to fill a bottom-six role and perhaps help in the faceoff circle. He is coming off of a 2016-17 season in Anaheim that saw him be limited to just 30 games, scoring one goal and adding one assist before recording six points (two goals, four assists) in the playoffs for the Ducks on their run to the Western Conference Finals. He spent the past three seasons playing for the Ducks and also has experience playing for Senators coach Guy Boucher during their time together in Tampa Bay.