David Backes, Jonathan Toews

NHL on NBCSN: Blackhawks and Blues are Cup favorite rivals

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Chicago and St. Louis have been at each other’s throats since the Blues arrived in the NHL in 1967. Now they’re both favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They’ll face each other on Rivalry Night at 8 p.m. on NBCSN. You also can watch it via NBC Sports Live Extra.

One thing you can count on when the Blackhawks and Blues face off is a game played with a lot of angst. With the Detroit Red Wings off in the Eastern Conference, these two teams are now the rivals who’ll battle to take the Central Division year in and year out.

This season, they’re both teams who are considered to be favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That should only help step up the hostilities.

St. Louis has seen their season get off to a roaring start going 2-0-0 and outscoring opponents 11-2 in those games. Their defense led by Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester is as good as advertised. Jaroslav Halak’s play in goal has also been outstanding. What’s most surprising is the offensive output.

Goal scoring was thought to again be an issue for the Blues, but early on they’re showing it’s the least of their problems. Five players have three points already and another five more have two. Only Alex Steen has more than one goal, he’s got two, and the rest of the offense comes in waves.

Editor’s Note: ProHockeyTalk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $4,000 Fantasy Hockey league tonight (Wednesday). It’s just $10 to join and first prize is $500. Starts at 8pm ET. Here’s the link.

That should all be a lot for Chicago to handle, but if there’s a team capable of it, it’s them. The Blackhawks’ offense hasn’t been nearly as prolific as the Blues to start, but Brandon Saad is off to a roaring start with two goals and two assists in their two games. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson has been a setup man with three assists and Patrick Kane has two goals.

The one guy who needs to improve is Corey Crawford. In his two starts he’s given up six goals in 48 shots. The save percentage and goals-against average aren’t much to write home about, but if there’s a team he can figure it out against it’s the Blues. In his career, Crawford has gone 9-1-2 against St. Louis. The only team he has a better record against is Detroit.

That should set the table nicely for tonight’s tilt from Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Sabres have a strong group of forwards — even without Jimmy Vesey

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 23:  Jimmy Vesey #19 of the Harvard Crimson skates against Steve Santini #6 of the Boston College Eagles during the second period of the 2015 Beanpot Tournament consolation game at TD Garden on February 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Buffalo Sabres day at PHT…

The prolonged Jimmy Vesey saga has been over for almost a week now.

After weeks of hearing about which teams were interested and where he may end up and all the star power used to help make the case of those interested teams, Vesey chose the New York Rangers — in case you missed it.

The Buffalo Sabres were unable to get Vesey under contract, despite acquiring his negotiating rights from the Nashville Predators, the team that originally drafted Vesey four years ago. The Sabres used their star, Jack Eichel, as a recruiting tool in this case. A number of teams used the same tactic with their big-name players.

For the Sabres, the move has been called a risk. It’s been called a gamble. It didn’t pay out, which happens. All that it cost general manager Tim Murray was a third-round pick in this year’s draft and the Sabres had four of those. Why not spare one to get, at least for several weeks before Vesey became a free agent, the exclusive negotiating rights to a young player they clearly coveted?

From the Buffalo Hockey Beat:

Still, it’s a gamble Murray’s clearly comfortable with. According to the Sabres’ metric, teams only draft players like Vesey in the third round 7 percent of the time. Nashville drafted Vesey in the third round, 66th overall, in 2012.

“To me, he’s got top-six potential,” Murray said during a pre-draft news conference inside the First Niagara Center. “If we do get him signed, we’re not going to tell you he’s in our top six, but that’s his potential, that’s his pro rating for us. He’s a complete forward. He’s big and strong. He can shoot the puck but he can also make plays. He’s got a great hockey IQ.”

Despite not getting Vesey — it seemed his intentions all along were to go to free agency after his college career ended — the Sabres still have a strong cast of forwards.

(It was reported that had Vesey signed in Buffalo, the Sabres would’ve been more willing to trade Evander Kane, who has been sued by a 21-year-old Buffalo woman after she said Kane seriously injured her in the hotel room.)

Having Eichel, the second overall pick in 2015, certainly builds that promise. Their aspirations of becoming a playoff team next season aren’t far-fetched, especially after locking up Kyle Okposo when the free agent market officially opened last month. In that case, the Sabres committed a total of $42 million over seven years to gain an established scoring forward.

They have Ryan O'Reilly.

Sam Reinhart had a good first season. Alexander Nylander was taken eighth overall and the Sabres have high hopes for him.

In 2015, Murray was eventually able to take solace in the fact that, despite not getting the No. 1 overall pick and Connor McDavid, he was able to select Eichel at No. 2.

The Sabres boast a promising group of forwards, even if that doesn’t include Jimmy Vesey. He’s played exactly zero NHL games. But he did score at nearly a goal-per-game in his senior year with Harvard, with 58 points in 37 games and definitely had potential to add to Buffalo’s talent level up front.

It certainly didn’t hurt the Sabres to pay the price they did in trying to sign him, in trying to see if Vesey could be a fit. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a chance.

A healthy Robin Lehner in net would boost Sabres playoff hopes

Buffalo Sabres goalie Robin Lehner deflects a Montreal Canadiens' shot off his glove during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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This post is part of Buffalo Sabres day at PHT…

It seemed Robin Lehner‘s 2015-16 season was defined by two things.

— A) A skirmish involving him and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson. And judging by the replays, Lehner, the Buffalo Sabres goalie, was more than willing to have a go.

— B) A high-ankle sprain — a far more pressing issue than getting into a scrum and grabbing an opposing player — suffered in the first game of last season with his new team.

The ankle issue, which included a setback before he was able to finally return to the lineup, reached a pinnacle when the Sabres announced Lehner had undergone surgery and was done for the season.

By that time, Lehner had appeared in 21 games for the Sabres. He posted a 5-9-5 record and a .924 save percentage, eight points above his career average. Beyond that, his first season in Buffalo can be difficult to evaluate because an injury cut into three months, before he was shut down for good.

The Sabres paid a hefty price to bring the now 25-year-old Lehner to their team, which makes his health and his subsequent performance so important to their success, especially as they look to get beyond the rebuilding stage.

Last summer, Sabres GM Tim Murray sent a first-round pick to the Ottawa Senators to get Lehner — as well as veteran David Legwand — and bring in a goalie that could be the No. 1.

The Sabres have done a nice job of building their defense and top-six group of forwards, especially with the addition of Kyle Okposo in free agency and the acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly a year ago.

It helps, too, when a No. 2 overall pick can turn into Jack Eichel, and Okposo could play on a line with either Eichel or O’Reilly. Sam Reinhart had a strong first full season in Buffalo, breaking the 20-goal mark. And Alexander Nylander, the eighth overall pick this year, could perhaps make the jump to the NHL with a strong showing in the pre-season.

They didn’t make the playoffs last season, but improved dramatically on their point total, from 54 in 2014-15 to 81 in 2015-16. Their coach, Dan Bylsma, is setting the bar high for next season.

In goal, however, is where there are question marks.

The Sabres, right now, have Lehner, Anders Nilsson and Jason Kasdorf on their roster. Chad Johnson has moved on, signing in Calgary earlier this summer.

Nilsson and Kasdorf have combined for 53 games of NHL experience. One of those games belongs to Kasdorf, who signed a two-year, two-way deal with Buffalo in July.

Given their situation in goal, the Sabres need Lehner to stay healthy. Ideally, given the price they paid, the Sabres would love elite goaltending to be what defines Lehner’s upcoming season.

Las Vegas NHL team hires former Habs scout Karpan as director of player personnel

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  George McPhee speaks after being introduced as the general manager of the Las Vegas NHL franchise during a news conference at T-Mobile Arena on July 13, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Another day, another hire for the Las Vegas NHL franchise.

On Tuesday, the team named Vaughn Karpan as its new director of player personnel. He most recently held the title of director of professional scouting with the Montreal Canadiens.

Karpan joined the Habs in 2005, after spending 13 years with the Coyotes franchise, including five years as director of amateur scouting.

This latest move comes after the Vegas franchise named Murray Craven as a senior vice president.

Craven had been an advisor to owner Bill Foley during the process of getting an NHL team in Las Vegas and hiring a general manager.

From the Associated Press:

Craven will be responsible for establishing the club’s top minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League, developing the practice facility in Summerlin, Nevada, building up facilities at T-Mobile Arena and overseeing projects at the request of general manager George McPhee.

Oh yeah, the Vegas franchise still doesn’t have a team name yet.

Related:

Vegas team hires Hockey Canada’s Donskov as director of hockey operations

Update: Vegas expansion team could still go with ‘hawks’

Senators, Ceci agree to two-year, $5.6M contract

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 6: Cody Ceci #5 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Canadian Tire Centre on February 6, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion predicted 11 days ago that a new contract with defenseman Cody Ceci would get done “within the next few weeks.”

His timeline proved to be quite accurate.

On Tuesday, the Senators announced they had re-signed the 22-year-old Ceci, a restricted free agent, to a two-year deal, worth a total value of $5.6 million.

The breakdown of the deal from the Senators states Ceci will receive $2.25 million in the first year of his new contract and $3.35 million in the second.

As per General Fanager, Ceci is slated to be a restricted free agent at the end of this deal, which means the Senators would have to match the salary Ceci made in the final season of the contract in their next qualifying offer to him two years from now.

It’s also a raise from the $1.369 million average annual value he was making with his entry-level contract. It was previously reported that the Senators offered Ceci both long and short-term deals.

The Senators put out a teaser of the news on Twitter, minutes before the announcement.

Ceci is from Ottawa, where he also played his junior hockey, and a first-round pick of the Senators in 2012.

In his second full season with the Senators, he posted a new single-season career high in goals with 10 and points with 26.