Five players in line for big paydays

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This summer we’ve seen players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Claude Giroux sign monster extensions to prevent them from ever coming close to the open market.

With so many great and intriguing players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the 2013-14 campaign, we won’t have to wait until next summer to see some more major signings.

With that in mind, we’re highlighting five examples of players eligible to become unrestricted free agents next summer that could end up signing major contracts:

1) New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist

As much talent as the Rangers have in front of him, their team relies heavily on the superb goaltending of Lundqvist. Losing the 31-year-old now would be a devastating blow to the Rangers, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’ll re-sign.

Lundqvist was initially noncommittal when asked about the possibility of staying with the Rangers beyond 2013-14 and there’s even been speculation that his lukewarm response played a role in the firing of head coach John Tortorella.

Of course, it’s worth adding that Lundqvist responded to that speculation by distancing himself from Tortorella’s exit.

“I would never put pressure on the management on decisions like that,” Lundqvist asserted, adding that the move would have no impact on his contract negotiations. At that time, he also expressed a desire to work something out with the Rangers, so we’ll see.

2) Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel

Regardless of your opinion on the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Toronto, it’s hard to argue his worth to the team today. With the exception of the lockout shortened season, the 25-year-old has scored at least 30 goals in every campaign with the Maple Leafs. In 2013, he was one of the best forwards in the league with 20 goals and 52 points in 48 games.

The desire to keep Kessel might have even influenced the Leafs to give Tyler Bozak a five-year, $21 million extension. The two displayed some good chemistry last season.

Either way, the Toronto Maple Leafs will almost certainly have to pay top dollar in order to keep Kessel.

3) Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford

Crawford struggled mightily in 2011-12, but he bounced back in a big way and played a big role in the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. Although he was never able to fully shake off the criticisms surrounding him, he’s was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL last season from a statistical perspective.

If he comes back in 2013-14 and enjoys a similar performance, he can basically dictate whatever terms he wants for his next contract. Unlike Kessel and Lundqvist, who have already had huge paydays, Crawford is still looking for his first big contract — at least by the standards of the NHL.

He has one year left on his three-year, $8 million deal and it’s not hard to envision a scenario where his average annual salary more than doubles after this deal.

Of course, if he falls back to Earth, then negotiating his contract would be even more complicated. At that point, would the Blackhawks be willing to give him a contract that reflects his potential or would they want to hedge their bets? And if they stick to their guns, would a more desperate franchise make a big splash on Crawford in the hopes that he’s got another comeback in him?

4) Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik and Daniel Sedin

Obviously that’s two players, but it’s assumed that the twins will sign as a package. The duo will turn 33 in September, so they will probably have to decide between a long contract at a discounted price or a roughly four-year deal around market value.

The Vancouver Canucks are expected to push hard to re-sign them, but it will be interesting to see how they react to new bench boss John Tortorella. One of the more controversial decisions he has made so far is to have the Sedin twins kill penalties and block shots.

If Tortorella’s approach results in a Stanley Cup then they will probably be thrilled. If the Canucks suffer another quick exit then the future is less clear.

5) Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown

Brown didn’t do much offensively during the Kings recent playoff run, but he helps this franchise is a lot of different ways. He’s their captain, he chips in offensively, and he throws his body around.

He’s got one season left on his six-year, $19.05 million deal, but he’ll probably get a big extension, perhaps in line with David Clarkson’s recent seven-year, $36.75 million contract.

The question is how difficult that kind of a raise will be for the Kings to accommodate, given that they don’t have a ton of cap room as it is. With that in mind, it will also be interesting to see if Brown opts to give the Kings a bit of a hometown discount.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.