Back to Class: Where March Madness is already underway

3 Comments

We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night as Maine host No. 4 New Hampshire at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Hockey East and the WCHA will wrap up their final weekend of conference action this weekend while Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, and ECAC all start their conference playoffs. It’s a veritable full weekend of playoffs for everyone if you want to look at it that way as even those who aren’t yet in their postseason are still jockeying for position.

In Hockey East, the battle for the top spot is on between UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire, and Boston College. Any of those four teams could wind up in first, while Boston University and Merrimack are just outside the top four. Landing in the top four means getting home ice in the first round of the conference playoffs.

In the race for the No. 1 seed, the series to watch is between Lowell and Providence as they’ll have two games to see if they can figure things out. Lowell, thanks to freshman standout and Winnipeg Jets prospect goalie Connor Hellebuyck, lead Hockey East but Providence sits two points back. BC and New Hampshire are each one point out and they’ve got teams from the bottom end of the conference to deal with.

Boston College faces 7th place Vermont while UNH faces a Maine team trying to solidify their spot in the conference playoffs. Only the top eight move on and Maine is trying to keep UMass out. The Minutemen have a pair of games with Merrimack to contend with. Only Northeastern won’t be making the playoffs.

In the WCHA, there’s no threat of missing the playoffs as all 12 teams make it. Figuring out who wins the MacNaughton Cup (first place in the regular season) isn’t quite so easy. St. Cloud State could’ve wrapped it up last Saturday, but were humbled by Michigan Tech. Now, any one of five teams could win the regular season title.

SCSU has a two-point lead on Minnesota and North Dakota and are four up on Minnesota State and Wisconsin. The two weekend match-ups to watch here feature St. Cloud against Wisconsin and Minnesota St. facing North Dakota. Earning the top spot at the end of the season means getting to face a bad Alaska-Anchorage team in the opening round of the conference tourney.

If that’s not enough to get you juiced up, three conferences have their playoffs getting started on Friday night. Here’s how things shape up for them:

CCHA: The top-five teams here all get byes into the quarterfinals. Only difference being that No. 4 Ohio State gets No. 5 Ferris State there. Miami, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan are the top three teams here. Your first-round best of three matchups see the winners re-seeded. Alaska hosts Michigan State, Michigan hosts Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State gets Bowling Green.

ECAC: All 12 teams make the playoffs and the top four get byes in the first round. Quinnipiac, Rensselaer, Yale, and Union can rest easy this weekend and wait to see what carnage is unleashed with the other eight teams in their best of three series. Dartmouth hosts Harvard, St. Lawrence faces Colgate, Brown hosts Clarkson, and Princeton takes on Cornell in New Jersey. Winning teams are reseeded for the second round. RPI blog Without A Peer shows off how the second round could play out.

Atlantic Hockey: Top four teams have byes (Niagara, Air Force, Holy Cross, UConn). Winners of the first round are re-seeded. The first-round best of three pairings are: Robert Morris-Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst-Army, Canisius-Bentley, and RIT-American International. Anyone on the NCAA tournament bubble (16th in Pairwise) is rooting for Niagara to steamroll through here without issue.

If, somehow, that’s not all enough for you the Division III NCAA tournament gets underway tonight and winds up on March 16 with the national championship game. St. Norbert will be looking for their third title in a row but this writer would like to see Oswego State take it all. That’s called an “alumni plug.”

(Photo: Lowell Sun)

Blackhawks adjust to returns of Saad, Sharp (and no Hossa, Panarin)

Getty
Leave a comment

The Chicago Blackhawks’ summer conventions are a time for fans to get a look at players, and sometimes, for people to get adjusted to new arrivals and departures.

Even with that in mind, that theme seemed to play a big role in Friday’s proceedings, as the Blackhawks wondered how Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp would fit back into the lineup … thanks to holes caused by Artemi Panarin being traded and Marian Hossa being unavailable.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville rattled off a long stream of possibilities, as CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers reports.

“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”

Yes, that’s a versatile set of options. It’s also plausible that Jonathan Toews could enjoy a nice boost with Brandon Saad back on his wing, yet let’s not assume that it’s a slam-dunk victory in everyone’s eyes.

Who knows how things will ultimately shake out, but at the moment, you wonder if Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov suffer a bit with Panarin out of the mix.

Still, as explosive as Kane + Panarin was at times for Chicago, they ultimately couldn’t get the job done. Kane acknowledged as much on Friday.

Can they do better next time around? Well, with Sharp and Saad back in the mix, at least they have more players who’ve cleared those playoff hurdles before.

Myers has more at CSN Chicago.

Red Wings’ cap future after Tatar signing: should they buy out Ericsson?

Getty
7 Comments

In a vacuum, the Detroit Red Wings handing Tomas Tatar a four-season deal that carries a per-year cap hit of $5.3 million makes a lot of sense. Tatar ranks as one of their deadliest scorers, and at age 26, the contract likely takes up the final years of his prime.*

Still, it must be mentioned that Tatar’s contract reminds us that the Red Wings may no longer stand as an obvious contender, yet they sure spend like one.

Yes, Johan Franzen‘s near-$4 million will go to LTIR, but this Cap Friendly reading still stands as a reminder that there isn’t much breathing room, especially with Andreas Athanasiou needing a contract. Detroit figures to have a little less than $1 million minus Franzen:

OK, so there are a few options. Winging it in Motown brings up an intriguing idea: what if the Red Wings buy out defenseman Jonathan Ericsson‘s contract?

They used Cap Friendly’s tool to show that a cap hit of $4.25 million would be spread out over six seasons in this setup. Each year, the actual cost would be a bit less than $1.39 million.

The bright side is that, for the next two seasons, the Red Wings would see real savings:

2017-18: save $2.61 million
2018-19: save $2.86 million
2019-20: save $2.86 million
2020-21 and 2021-22: would cost them about $1.39 million

Naturally, that would be quite the price to pay to get a player to not play for the Red Wings, yet it would also help Detroit squeeze under the cap. More on that conundrum here.

Let’s leaf through most of the Red Wings’ structure to see which deals are good, bad, and ugly.

(Note: As usual, Cap Friendly was highly helpful in putting this together.)

Dicey defense

  • Obviously, Ericsson’s health issues and struggles make him a tough guy to keep around at 33 and with a $4.25M. He’s merely the most obvious defensemen who’s an issue for this team.
  • Mike Green presents an interesting situation. He still has his use, yet at 31 and with his $6 million cap hit to expire after next season, the Red Wings must ponder his future. If they don’t want him back, could they send him somewhere else, whether that be now or in-season? Salary retention would likely need to be a consideration, especially if they wanted to move him earlier. That said, their already dicey defense would experience a painful loss if they traded Green.
  • Danny DeKeyser‘s $5 million cap hit through 2021-22 would be very difficult to move. At least he has … some proponents in the organization?
  • Niklas Kronwall‘s been a great solider for DRW, and the positive news is that his $4.75 million cap hit will evaporate after two seasons. Much like Ericsson, health is really hampering what he can do in the present, though.
  • Trevor Daley was just signed this summer. While he brings some strengths to the table, you have to wonder if the 33-year-old will slip enough that the $3.16 million could be an annoyance rather soon.

Forwards

  • Tatar ($5.3 million) becomes the second-highest-paid Red Wings forward behind Henrik Zetterberg, who makes just over $6 million. Zetterberg quietly enjoyed a strong 2016-17, and you can bet that he delivered at far higher a value than $6 million through the earlier years of his contract. Still, he’s 36 and that cap hit runs through 2020-21, the same year Tatar’s ends. Not ideal.
  • That Franzen headache expires after 2019-20.
  • Frans Nielsen is a nice player, and he had a strong debut season for Detroit. Still, he’s somehow already 33 and his $5.25 million cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22. One would think that, if the Red Wings wanted to move him, now would be one of the better times since his value is probably still reasonably high. Of course, savvy teams will balk at that term. Maybe, like DeKeyser and some other players, the Red Wings would need to move a “problem” (Nielsen’s term) for some other team’s issue.
  • Moving on, there are bit players getting too much. Justin Abdelkader‘s term (2022-23) and $4.25M cap hit give off an albatross vibe. Darren Helm, already 30, at $3.85M per year seems shaky. Even Luke Glendening‘s reasonable but maybe unnecessary $1.8M cap hit argues that Red Wings management might be overvaluing supporting cast members.
  • Then you have young players who may cost more soon. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha could see big jumps with breakthrough contract years as their ELC’s expire. Will Athanasiou be on a shrot deal, too?

Goalies

The netminder situation is pretty cloudy as well.

Jimmy Howard‘s contract is worrisome, although at least that $5.3M only runs through two more seasons. Petr Mrazek‘s a baffling situation, though maybe a team would take him from Detroit if the Red Wings retained some of that $4M? Would that even be a smart move considering Mrazek’s still-considerable potential?

***

Yikes, that entire outlook is almost entirely dismal. It’s not easy to say what the Red Wings should do next, especially if you’re not in the “blow it all up” camp.

(Note: Ken Holland doesn’t seem to be in the “blow it all up” camp.)

* – Of course, he could defy the general odds by having a longer run of prime years.

Marcus Foligno aims for 20 goals in first season with Wild

Getty
1 Comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Marcus Foligno has left the leap behind in Buffalo.

That doesn’t mean his offensive production can’t or won’t continue to rise in Minnesota.

Coming off a career-high 13 goals for the Sabres last season, the 25-year-old was acquired by the Wild to bring some needed grit and strength to the left wing position on the third or fourth line. He’s capable of putting the puck in the net, too, though he has so far been more of a sporadic scorer in the NHL.

“Definitely, 20 goals is something I envision myself to reach, and I hope to do that in a Wild jersey,” Foligno said. “Playing with some big centermen, playing on a well-rounded team, I think I can do that. I felt last year that my offensive side was getting there, and I’m looking to improve on that this season.”

Foligno was acquired with right wing Tyler Ennis and a third-round draft pick next year from the Sabres for right wing Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella, the only significant move made by the Wild this summer. General manager Chuck Fletcher said the day the deal was done he’d been pursuing the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Foligno for two years.

Foligno had his inconsistencies during five-plus seasons in Buffalo, but his 2016-17 performance was promising. He played in a career-most 80 games, with a minus-1 rating and 73 penalty minutes.

“It’s great for the confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Foligno said on Friday, his first appearance in Minnesota since the swap. “You’ve got to realize that Buffalo traded you, but you’re going to a team that really, really wants you and wants you to succeed. I’m put in a great position now.”

Foligno’s family is a small hockey factory . His older brother, Nick, is a 10-year veteran of the league and captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. His father, Mike, tallied 247 goals over 15 seasons in the NHL, including a full decade with the Sabres. His goal celebration was a two-legged leap straight up in the air from the ice, a signature move that Foligno adopted once he arrived in the league in the same city where his dad’s career took off.

The next time Foligno scores a goal, however, he’ll settle for a simpler move.

“I’ve just got to put the puck in the net and put my hands up. That’s how I’ve got to make sure I do it,” Foligno said. “If I do that 20 times, it’s a good thing.”

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Flames ink first-rounder Juuso Valimaki to rookie contract

Getty
Leave a comment

The Calgary Flames signed Finnish defenseman Jusso Valimaki to a three-year, entry-level contract on Friday.

Valimaki, 18, was the 16th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. He was selected in that spot after a nice year with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, scoring 61 points in 60 regular-season games and then added an assist in four playoff contests. He also played for the Tri-City Americans in 2015-16, putting up 32 points in 56 games.

Apparently he’s capable of at least one nifty shootout move, too:

People are pondering how Valimaki may fit into the Flames at the end of a three-year window Johnny Gaudreau recently cited. That seems a little far-reaching, although this nugget makes you wonder if Calgary might want to drag a little extra value out of his rookie deal:

Interesting. Either way, the Flames locked up a future piece, whether he can make an NHL impact sooner or later.