Weekend preview: Caps go back-to-back, ‘Hawks-Blues on NBC

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A quick look ahead at some of the narratives at play this weekend…

Big 48 hours for Washington

The Capitals, who head into Friday’s action four points back of Columbus for the East’s final wild card playoff spot, have a huge two-game road set beginning tonight in New Jersey, wrapping tomorrow on Long Island.

Tonight’s game (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN; watch online here) is crucial for both teams. The Devils are also alive in the playoff chase — five points back of the Jackets — and given how tightly Washington and New Jersey have played each other this year, Friday’s affair is up for grabs. The Devils won the first two meetings, 2-1 at Prudential and 5-4 at Verizon, but the Caps won the most recent contest 3-0 on the strength of Braden Holtby’s 25-save shutout.

There’s also a good subplot at play here, as Caps head coach Adam Oates spent time as an assistant in New Jersey under Peter DeBoer. The pair took the Devils to the Stanley Cup final in 2012.

“They’re a tough team to play against, so I expect it to be a grinding, low-scoring game,” Oates said, per NHL.com. “They’re penalty kill is tops in the league and they’re a very stingy team. You need patience and awareness out there.”

The Caps should expect a grind on Saturday against the Isles as well. The last time the two met, New York scored a 1-0 win in a stifling game that saw the teams go a combined 0-for-11 on the power play.

Related: PHT Extra: On the one-dimensional Alex Ovechkin, and what Oates should do

Chicago and St. Louis renew rivalry… again

One of the league’s fiercest grudge matches will go for the fifth and final time this season when the ‘Hawks host the Blues at the United Center this Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; watch online here).

St. Louis holds a 3-1 edge through the first four games, though the edge isn’t as significant as numbers suggest. Two victories came via the shootout and, in a statement game the last time out, Chicago whipped St. Louis 4-0 at the Madhouse on Madison.

The big test for Chicago on Sunday will be how the team plays without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The dynamic duo has been shut down for the remainder of the regular season to rest their respective injuries, but the ‘Hawks did pass their first test without Toews and Kane in the lineup on Thursday, scoring a 3-2 shootout win over Minnesota.

That said, the Blues represent a bigger challenge than the Wild. St. Louis heads into this weekend tied atop the NHL with Boston on points (111) and, last night, beat Buffalo 2-1 — with that victory, the Blues set a single-season franchise record for wins, with 52.

Penguins’ Letang gains more than just funny videos from Terrell Owens

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Off-season training is probably tedious at times … maybe even more tedious than the hockey-free months of the summer. Perhaps that explains why athletes love to mix things up, even if it means bringing in stars from other sports (and even if that calls for an embarrassing moment or two).

Kris Letang provided some background information surrounding that “ankle breaking” moment with former NFL star receive Terrell Owens during an NHL Network interview, which was transcribed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Josh Mackey. Letang also noted that others were faked out to an even greater degree.

The most important stuff, really, comes from what he looks to gain from these workouts … and also how close Letang might be to full-strength.

“I’m trying to get better all the time,” Letang said. “I think I found that I can improve my footwork.

“We have that at the gym twice a week. We have a sprinting coach. ‘TO’ has been working out with us. He’s an unbelievable guy to be around. He’s teaching us a lot of little things.”

Later on, Letang stated that ‘we’re on the path to starting training camp and being fully healthy,” according to Mackey’s transcription.

That sounds great, though that doesn’t sound like an outright guarantee that he’ll be ready by September. If nothing else, the Penguins and their star defenseman are used to this kind of thing.

Now, in case you missed it in the Morning Skate, here’s that bit of schooling from Owens:

And here’s “the proof” that Letang wasn’t alone in getting beat:

Now to solve the mystery of the other fakee

Wild GM wants long-term deals for Granlund, Niederreiter

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Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher admits that contract negotiations are “plodding along” with RFAs Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Even so, Fletcher noted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo that salary arbitration hearings might serve as just the sort of deadlines the Wild need with the two rising offensive talents.

As a reminder, Niederreiter’s hearing is slated for Aug. 3 and Granlund is scheduled for one day later, on Aug. 4.

Fletcher told Russo that he expects something similar to what Viktor Arvidsson worked out with the Nashville Predators, at least when it comes down to figuring out a fairly long deal around the time of a hearing.

“We’re open to any angle,” Fletcher said, referring to a term of three, four or five years. “I guess anything’s possible, but somewhere in that three- to five-year range would probably work well for everybody. That’s not to preclude a longer deal, but that’s not where the focus has been on our end.”

Plenty of recent deals for comparison

It’s easy to imagine Fletcher crossing his fingers that the Granlund and Niederreiter deals echoed Arvidsson’s from a cap perspective; Arvidsson’s only getting $4.25 million (though for seven years), while Russo notes that Granlund and Niederreiter are at least asking for more than $6M per year.

Of course, when it comes to hearings and really other negotiations, the asks from players tend to be high while teams tend to go low.

A realistic number is likely to fall somewhere in between, and if nothing else, the sides have a decent array to work with. It remains to be seen if the Wild aim for something more like Arvidsson’s $4.25M, Mika Zibanejad‘s $5.3M over five seasons, or a different dollar amount + term.

Pondering their value

Naturally, both forwards bring different arguments to the table.

Niederreiter is riding three consecutive 20+ goal seasons, setting new career-highs with 25 goals and 57 points in 2016-17. Granlund, meanwhile, is a bit more like Arvidsson in that he greatly improved upon previous career bests; in Granlund’s case, he scored 26 goals and 69 points. While Niederreiter has a longer track record, some might view Granlund as a higher “ceiling” guy.

The bright side is that the Wild have some cap space to work with. Cap Friendly estimates their cap space at $15.79 million before signing Granlund, Niederreiter, and Marcus Foligno as RFAs. As a team aiming to contend, they’ll want some wiggle room to work with, but at least the situation isn’t too dire.

Let’s look at Rangers’ contracts after Zibanejad signing

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The New York Rangers are no strangers to big off-season (and trade deadline) changes, and this summer has been no different.

Phew, that’s quite the series of changes, and it’s not necessarily covering every single facet.

So, that leaves us with some questions: what are the Rangers left with, and what does the future look like beyond 2017-18?

Spending on players in their own zone

When checking out the Rangers’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, it’s clear that the Rangers’ long-term commitments lie in Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million cap hit through 2020-21) and the defense in front of him.

Shattenkirk, 28, is the highest-paid blueliner of the bunch … at least for now.

His $6.65M cap hit is more manageable than some anticipated, particularly since the term isn’t too risky at four years. Shattenkirk, Marc Staal (30 years old, $5.7M), and Brendan Smith (28, $4.35M) all see their contracts expire after the 2020-21 season.

Shattenkirk may not be the most expensive Rangers defensemen for too long, as Ryan McDonagh is due for a raise quite soon. The 28-year-old’s $4.7M cap hit is a bargain, but his deal runs out after 2018-19. McDonagh would hit unrestricted free agency if the Rangers can’t figure something out there.

As mentioned before, the Rangers are trying to shake Holden’s $1.65M cap hit (a deal that only runs through 2017-18), but either way, he likely won’t be part of the mix for long. Brady Skjei, on the other hand, stands as an especially intriguing consideration. His rookie deal expires after next season, and with it that $925K cap hit. It will be intriguing to see how much he gets, and when the Rangers aim to sign him (as they technically could do that now if they’d like).

Staal’s $5.7M is a problem, especially going forward. Otherwise, the Rangers seem to be spending their money reasonably wisely on the blueline.

The goalies behind that defense should be fascinating to watch, as Pavelec has plenty to prove after years of Raanta giving Lundqvist very valuable breaks.

Uncertainty beyond Zibanejad?

It’s one thing to have three defensemen locked down for at least three seasons; it’s another to see that the Rangers only have three forwards with at least three years of term remaining.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, yet it’s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser for a team that once made a lot of shaky bets on long-term deals for scorers.

Right now, these are the three Rangers forwards who are signed through 2019-20 or later:

Zibanejad: 24, $5.35M, expires after 2021-22 (would be UFA)
Chris Kreider: 26, $4.625M, expires after 2019-20 (UFA)
Jesper Fast: 25, $1.85M, expires after 2019-20 (UFA)

Those deals are good-to-great, and the best news is that those players are in the thick of their primes.

It’s fascinating to note some of the decisions that are looming, though.

After a long stretch of being a trade rumor magnet, Rick Nash, 33, will see his $7.8M cap hit evaporate after 2017-18. That could come in handy as the Rangers will see noteworthy forwards (and also Skjei) like J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Jimmy Vesey become RFAs. Desharnais is slated to be a UFA, and most importantly, Michael Grabner is too … and will almost certainly command a significant raise from his dirt-cheap $1.65M.

Some interesting deals only have two years remaining, including Mats Zuccarello‘s $4.5M and Pavel Buchnevich‘s ELC.

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All things considered, the Rangers are in pretty good shape. It’s up to GM Jeff Gorton to keep it that way.

Report: Hobey Baker winner Butcher won’t sign with Avs, will test free agency

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It looks like the NCAA’s Hobey Baker Award winner won’t sign with the NHL team that has his rights … again.

Last year, Jimmy Vesey rejected the Nashville Predators’ offers in a very public way, ultimately signing with the New York Rangers. Defenseman Will Butcher will test free agency on Aug. 15 instead of agreeing to an entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche, as his agent confirmed to BSN Denver’s Adrian Dater.

“We informed the Avalanche of that decision,” Butcher’s agent, Brian Bartlett, told BSN Denver. “We appreciate what Colorado has done, and we’re not ruling out the Avalanche as a potential destination. But we just feel there will be other opportunities that should be explored too, and therefore we’re going (to the 15th).”

Those who’ve followed Butcher’s situation probably aren’t too surprised by the news.

It became clear as early as 2016 that the Avalanche weren’t interested in signing Butcher, a high-scoring defenseman they selected in the fifth round of a disastrous 2014 draft class.

This disinterest came even as Butcher generated 32 points in 39 games for the University of Denver in 2015-16, and he topped that last season, generating 37 points in 43 contests to take home the Hobey Baker. Butcher also enjoyed team success in 2016-17, helping Denver win a national championship.

At 22, he’d sign a cheap entry-level deal, only getting more expensive bonuses if Butcher excels, which would be worth it for just about any suitor. He’s likely to draw plenty of interest, whether he takes the Avalanche’s offers seriously or not.

Pension Plan Puppets provides an argument for why the Toronto Maple Leafs should be interested, while Second City Hockey went in-depth on the pluses for the defense-challenged Chicago Blackhawks, just to name two possible destinations that could make sense for Butcher.