Looking forward to the top UFAs of 2013

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By most accounts, next summer’s unrestricted free-agent class is stronger and deeper than the current one. With that in mind, let’s look at pending UFAs who, if still available and healthy, should draw considerable interest. (Of note, we’re not including current RFAs that could become UFAs, e.g. Shea Weber.)

Corey Perry (Anaheim) – Based on the contracts Ryan Suter and Zach Parise just signed, the 2011 Hart Trophy winner is set to cash in big time. Granted, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to get one of those long-term, front-loaded deals, as those are sure to be addressed in the new CBA. Perry will also want to improve on last season’s offensive totals (37G, 23A) and get them more in line with the ones he racked up in 2010-11 (50G, 48A).

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim) – Perry’s running mate, the big playmaking center already has Leafs fans thinking he could be the No. 1 center they’ve been looking for in Toronto. The Ducks will obviously want to bring both Perry and Getzlaf back; whether they can afford to is the question. (“I think it’s imperative for the hockey team [to get them signed],” GM Bob Murray said recently. ”We’ve reached out to the agents and that will be an ongoing process. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. But we’ve reached out to both sides.”)

Scott Hartnell (Philadelphia) – The 30-year-old power forward is coming off a career best 37-goal season, and as of now the Flyers have cap space to get something done. However, that could change quickly. Bobby Ryan has expressed a desire to be traded to Philly, Wayne Simmonds will need a raise, Kimmo Timonen is a pending UFA, and if Weber becomes available, GM Paul Holmgren is sure to be an aggressive suitor.

Jarome Iginla (Calgary) – He’s not getting any younger, but the Flames’ captain scored 30-plus goals for the 11th straight season in 2011-12. If the 35-year-old wants to leave Calgary for a contender – and as we all know, that’s a big if – teams will be lined up to bid on his services.

Alex Edler (Vancouver) – Sometimes he plays like a Norris Trophy candidate, other times he really, really doesn’t. Regardless, his 49 points were tied for sixth among NHL defensemen. The Canucks already have four d-men under contract until at least 2014-15 for a combined cap hit of $17.9 million, and they’re another team that’s expected to push hard for Weber. Plus, Alex Burrows is a pending UFA and deserves a steep raise. If GM Mike Gillis could trade Keith Ballard, it would make it a lot easier to reach a deal with Edler. What won’t be easy? Trading Ballard.

Mike Fisher (Nashville) – If there’s one guy the Predators should be able to lock up, it’s Fisher, aka Carrie Underwood’s husband. But if Fisher doesn’t feel like he can win a Stanley Cup in Nashville, you never know what he’ll decide. Every hockey player wants to win a championship, and Fisher hasn’t done that yet.

Patrik Elias (New Jersey) – It’s hard to picture the 36-year-old in anything but a Devils uniform considering he’s never worn another one. Elias is also a two-time Cup winner, so he can retire in peace when the day comes. Still, nobody wants to play for a loser, and after watching Zach Parise walk away, the Devils’ future is anything but clear. New Jersey’s other pending 2013 UFAs include Travis Zajac, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus.

Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota) – In case you didn’t hear, the Wild just increased its payroll rather significantly. It also recently re-signed Backstrom’s backup, Josh Harding, to a three-year deal. Add it up and the 34-year-old goalie may not fit in the team’s future plans. Backstrom’s save percentage was a respectable .919 in 2011-12. A repeat performance in 2012-13 and teams in need of a starter will have to look his way. (Assuming Jimmy Howard re-signs in Detroit, other pending UFA goalies include Mike Smith, Kari Lehtonen, Evgeni Nabokov, Jose Theodore and technically Tim Thomas.)

Michael Ryder (Dallas) – Only 10 players scored more than his 35 goals last season. Ryder was also one of the Bruins’ top offensive contributors during their 2011 Cup run, with 17 points in 25 playoff games despite seeing limited minutes. Of course, the Stars will likely do their best to re-sign the 32-year-old for a few more years given their aging group of forwards that includes two 40-year-olds in Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr.

Joffrey Lupul (Toronto) – The seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft got his career back on track last season, scoring 25 times and adding 42 assists playing on a line with Phil Kessel. The Leafs will want him back, but with Randy Carlyle behind the bench, will Lupul feel the same way? The two didn’t exactly see eye to eye during their time together in Anaheim.

Honorable mentions: Andy McDonald, Stephen Weiss, Ryane Clowe, Derek Roy, Nathan Horton, Ian White, Tobias Enstrom and Clarke MacArthur.

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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