Sochi notes: Women’s hockey tourney has an interesting format

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Hey, have you missed me? You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you. Sigh. Well, I’ve been in Sochi for a few days now. I’ll be here until the end of the Olympics, which will culminate with the men’s gold-medal game on Feb. 23. I’m hoping I can pop in here from time to time and share a few offhand thoughts on the hockey, and just being in Russia. Otherwise I’ll be writing stories that appear on both PHT and NBCOlympics.com, or in some cases just NBCOlympics.com.

OK, onto my first list of notes:

—- Full disclosure: I’d never covered international women’s hockey until I came to Sochi, and I hadn’t really followed it since the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Like most hockey fans, I knew the basics – Canada and the United States are really good, everyone else is trying to catch up – but it’s not easy to parachute in (figuratively speaking; they have an airport and everything here) and start asking questions. Not good ones, at least. Fortunately, the American and Canadian players/coaches/management have all been super friendly and open during the media availabilities I’ve attended. I guess they know it’s important to promote their sport during the Olympics, which is really the only time there’s a significant media contingent on hand to cover it.

—- They’ve got an interesting format to the women’s tourney this year. In the preliminary round, the top four ranked teams — Canada, U.S., Switzerland, and Finland – will play each other – and the bottom four teams – Sweden, Japan, Russia, and Germany – will play each other. After that, the top two teams from the first group (probably the U.S. and Canada) will advance to the semis while the bottom two teams from the first group will play off against the top two teams from the second group for the other two spots in the semis. Got it? Good. A couple of reasons I figure they’re doing this. 1. They want to guarantee at least one game between Canada and the U.S. 2. They don’t want the blowouts we saw in 2010, like Canada 18, Slovakia 0 or the U.S. 13, Russia 0. Blowouts aren’t fun to watch, and they only shine a spotlight on the disparity between the top and bottom teams. I believe there’s genuine concern that women’s hockey will be removed from the Olympics if the rest of the world doesn’t start catching up to the two powerhouses.

—- I watched the U.S. and German women scrimmage earlier this week, and the disparity was vast. You could see it right off the bat in the warm-ups. On one side, the Americans were ripping shots crossbar and in; on the other, the Germans were — and I’m not trying to be mean here — basically floating theirs. They didn’t keep score in the scrimmage, but I can tell you it wasn’t close and the Americans ended with a really high Corsi rating.

—- I don’t want to say U.S. star Amanda Kessel (sister of Phil) waffled when asked if she was back to game shape after skipping the pre-Olympic tour to manage an injured hip (which required surgery in 2012), but she definitely didn’t give a resounding yes. “Getting there” was how she put it. “Decent.” She did look pretty good in the scrimmage though, and coach Katey Stone said later she was “100 percent.”

—- I wrote on Wednesday about new Canadian coach Kevin Dineen’s decision to take the captaincy away from women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser and give it to Caroline Ouellette. The more I think about it, the more I wonder just what was going on with this team last year. Remember that Dineen only replaced coach Dan Church in December after the latter abruptly resigned. So that’s a coaching change and a captaincy change right before the biggest tournament in women’s hockey, which only occurs once every four years. Clearly Dineen felt the team needed a shakeup, and I guess you have to give him credit for making a tough move he believed in, because it would’ve been a lot easier to just go with the status quo. I’ll still be surprised if it’s anyone but Canada and the U.S. in the final game, but the U.S. sure does seem like it has a great chance to snap Canada’s streak of three straight gold medals. And of the two favorites, if one is going to get upset by another country, I’d have to bet it’s going to be Canada.

—- I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories of reporters and their unfinished hotel rooms. Well, mine is just fine, thanks. I did, however, have a panic the other morning that I’d lost my wallet. Fortunately, it was right there in my pocket the whole time, but I was sweating it big time for a bit. I just can’t imagine the hassle of trying to replace all the credit cards and other stuff in my wallet while in Russia. You may be wondering, how could I possibly think I’d lost my wallet when it was in my pocket? Good question. Best I can explain is my whole pockets routine has been thrown off over here. Usually I keep three things in my pockets – wallet, keys, phone. Same three things every day. Over here, it’s totally different. I have my own phone and a temporary local phone, and I don’t always take my wallet with me, plus I’ve got credentials hanging around my neck and sometimes I carry a little digital recorder and everyone’s speaking a bunch of different languages and I didn’t sleep for the first 36 hours I was here because I stayed up to watch the SEA-HAWKS! win the Super Bowl. You can see how a blogger’s pockets routine could get thrown off. I figure it’s a bit like North American hockey players having to adjust to the bigger international ice surface. I have no idea where my keys are, by the way.

I’ll leave you with one of the many pictures hanging in the hallways of the massive main press center here. Just the definition of old school Olympics.

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Report: Predators avoid arbitration … with Marek Mazanec

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The Nashville Predators avoided salary arbitration in at least one case on Thursday, but it wasn’t the biggest name they were worried about.

FanRag’s Craig Morgan reports that Marek Mazanec settled for a one-year deal worth $650K at the NHL level and $100K in the AHL.

That two-way split is quite relevant, as Mazanec probably comes in fourth on the Predators’ goalie depth chart behind Pekka Rinne, Jusse Saros, and Anders Lindback. Actually, with Matt O’Connor in mind, Mazanec may even come in at fifth.

One interesting wrinkle is that Lindback gets the same $650K at both levels while Saros and Mazenec see different salaries depending upon where they are, according to Cap Friendly’s listings. From a sheer financial standpoint, that might give Lindback some fuel to push as Rinne’s backup, though Saros is already pushing for starts after strong showings in 2016-17.

It’s not the easiest situation for Mazanec, but credit Predators GM David Poile for giving his team plenty of options in net. Both Mazanec and Lindback saw elevated action when Rinne was hurt in 2013-14, so these situations can change quickly at times.

Mazanec was the least crucial of the Predators’ three salary arbitration situations, as Viktor Arvidsson‘s hearing is scheduled for Saturday (July 22) while Austin Watson is set for Monday (July 24). Arvidsson emerged as a legitimate first-line winger last season, so that will be a significantly trickier situation for the Predators.

For more on Arvidsson’s situation, click here.

Penguins GM confident they can find third-line center with Bonino gone

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August is nearing, and the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t made a trade or signing to replace Nick Bonino, their outstanding (but former) third-line center.

On the bright side, the Penguins have remarkable breathing room considering their status as repeat Stanley Cup champions. Cap Friendly places their 2017-18 room at about $10.38 million.

That robust space likely explains why GM Jim Rutherford seemed fairly calm about the whole situation, as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

“I do feel confident that, by the start of the season, we’re going to have a third-line center that we’re comfortable with,” Rutherford said. “Whether it’s one of those guys on the list or one of the guys that I could go and get right today.”

Rutherford (jokingly?) said that he had a list of “hundreds of names” as options, although it’s difficult to top Mackey’s suggestion of Phil Kessel‘s buddy, Tyler Bozak. After all, Bozak is a competent player who carries a $4.2 million cap hit that Pittsburgh could comfortably absorb (and the Toronto Maple Leafs might need to shed). It doesn’t hurt that Bozak’s contract expires after 2017-18, so the Penguins wouldn’t be on the hook if things don’t work out.

Of course, Matt Duchene is another name worth considering. It almost feels a little strange to ponder that speedy Avalanche forward being a “third-line center,” especially if Pittsburgh would want to get the most out of him.

MORE: Duchene might begin next season with the Colorado Avalanche

After that, though … the pickings could be much slimmer than Rutherford indicated to Mackey.

Shallow pool

Take a look at this current list of forwards who are unrestricted free agents.

There are some potential bargains here (P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, anyone?), but the situation gets significantly shakier if you’re picky enough to look only at centers. The likes of Daniel Winnik and Ryan White are reasonable roster additions, but the drop-off from Bonino could be pretty drastic.

What about other trade possibilities?

That’s a shaky group, too, especially if you apply Bozak-like terms as far as guys who only have one year left on their current contracts.

Honestly, the Penguins’ best bet in looking at that list would probably come down to an in-season move with a team that realizes it’s not a contender or simply understands that a player won’t be back.

Maybe the Calgary Flames would want to cut bait on Matt Stajan or (less realistically) Mikael Backlund? Would the Ducks move speedy, versatile sometimes-center Andrew Cogliano? There are other remote possibilities, such as the Leafs instead trading Leo Komarov (or especially unlikely moves in Paul Stastny or Tomas Plekanec).

Even if the above list seems enticing, how many of those teams would really want to move those players now, especially the bigger difference-makers?

If you’re the Penguins, you’re probably hoping that a Bozak deal could take place. And maybe you’re sweating this situation more than you let on.

(Note: There’s also the slight possibility that the Penguins might identify a replacement from within, though a contending team like Pittsburgh might not be so comfortable with that approach.)

Blues have ‘wiggle room’ after locking up Parayko

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The St. Louis Blues didn’t break the bank to keep Colton Parayko for five more years, and that’s important since they don’t believe the NHL’s salary cap will rise significantly in the next little while.

Parayko’s cap hit came in at a manageable $5.5 million, as the two sides narrowly avoided an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for today.

“You like to have as much wiggle room as possible,” GM Doug Armstrong said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Now we view the cap will stay flat for the foreseeable future. We’re content with the space we have. We’ll move forward and get ready for training camp.”

The Blues now have a number of key players locked up long term, including Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, and Jake Allen.

For Armstrong, the next big decision could involve Paul Stastny, the 31-year-old center who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

But a decision on Stastny doesn’t need to be made now, or even before the season starts. It’s the trade deadline that could be the real pressure point, akin to the Kevin Shattenkirk situation this past year.

Per CapFriendly, the Blues have just over $3 million in cap space, with one roster spot left to fill.

‘Highly unlikely’ Suns will pursue shared arena with Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes appear to be on their own in pursuit of a new arena in the Phoenix area.

That’s because Robert Sarver, the owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, says it’s “highly unlikely” he’ll pursue a shared arena with the Coyotes.

Instead, Sarver is focused on upgrading the Suns’ current home (and Coyotes’ old home) in downtown Phoenix, Talking Stick Resort Arena.

From the Arizona Republic:

Sarver said building a new arena would have “maybe made more sense” four or five years ago when the cost estimate was $450 million to $500 million. The costs now, Sarver said, are “significantly higher.” Thus his focus on upgrading Talking Stick, which soon will be the second-oldest arena in the NBA.

“I think it’s the most economically viable alternative for the city and us,” he said. “I like downtown Phoenix. That’s my first preference. I think the NBA is more of an urban game. That’s our demographic.”

Talking Stick Resort Arena, formerly called America West Arena when the Coyotes played there, was designed for basketball and isn’t ideal for hockey. In that way, it’s a lot like Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which hasn’t been a great fit for the Islanders.

The Coyotes recently hired a new president and CEO, Steve Patterson, whose top priority is finding the team a new home in the Phoenix area.