Looking to make the leap: Aaron Ekblad

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For the first time since the 1994 NHL Draft, the Florida Panthers had the first overall pick in June, and just like they did in ’94, the Panthers used their No. 1 selection to take a defenseman.

Twenty years ago, it was a kid by the name of Ed Jovanovski out of the Windsor Spitfires organization, who was tabbed to be the franchise’s next star.

In 2014, those pressures are squarely on the shoulders of blue liner Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad may be just 18-years-old, but comparisons to fellow fresh-faced rookies begin, and end, there.

 

At 6-foot-3 and 216-pounds, Ekblad is a behemoth among his peers and its that size, coupled with his hands, which the Panthers are hoping will help the Belle River, Ont. native make the leap to the NHL just three months after selecting him.

“I’m really impressed with his hands,” Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon told the Florida Sun Sentinel last month. “I knew he was a well-rounded player, but I’m really happy with his skills … how he handles the biscuit, how he moves it and how he shoots it.

“He’s really got tremendous skills for a kid that size and that young.”

Billed as a two-way defenseman with a cannon for a shot, Ekblad would be a welcome edition to a Panthers blue line, which is taking shape nicely.

In addition to Ekblad, Florida has budding stars Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson to go along with savvy veterans such as Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell.

Bryan McCabe, who is on the Panthers’ player development staff, knows a thing or two about making the leap to the NHL. During the 1994-95 season, as a 20-year-old, McCabe played his rookie season with the New York Islanders.

“He can move; he has a heavy shot from what I saw; he’s composed and mature for his age,” McCabe told the Sun Sentinel. “He’s very confident, not cocky, but he believes in himself, which is a great attribute for a young kid.

“We certainly don’t want to rush any kids, but if he comes into camp and proves he can play we’re certainly not going to sent him back.”

Ekblad is learning from the NHL veteran.

“Just how much it takes,” Ekblad told NHL.com last month. “We had a good talk with Mr. McCabe. It’s just amazing how much mental toughness and how physically and mentally prepared you have to be to make it to the next level. It’s a big jump and I’m really excited and aware of what I have to do.”

Eklbad still has two issues as he moves forward to Panthers’ mini camp in September.

First, he’s coming off of a concussion suffered during an exhibition game at Canada’s player development camp earlier this month.

Ekblad, who is symptom free, has not skated since suffering the injury Aug. 5, but according to TSN is expected to get back on the ice this week.

He is also without a contract.

Tallon didn’t appear concerned when talking about Ekblad’s contract situation last month.

“We’ll wait until rookie camp,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald. “He handled himself very well as prospect camp, did a good job. I’m not worried about that. We’ll get him signed when the time comes.”

According to Bob Duff of the Windsor Star, Ekblad should expect the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement for rookies.

Ekblad will likely receive a three-year entry-level contract with a base salary of $925,000. As Duff points out, the maximum signing bonus allowed is 10 percent of the base salary, which amounts to $92, 500 in each of the three years.

Under the CBA, Ekblad is allowed to earn bonuses, which cannot exceed $2.85 million per season.

So Panthers’ fans should expect Ekblad to sign a three-year deal in the neighbourhood of $11.325 million in the coming weeks leading up to the start of the 2014-15 season in October.

Related: Panthers’ power play can only improve next season

Sabres goalie prospect Petersen won’t sign, Botterill ‘disappointed’

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Cal Petersen, the Notre Dame standout drafted by Buffalo four years ago, won’t be signing with the Sabres, new GM Jason Botterill said on Friday.

“I’ve spoken to Cal. At this time I think he’s going to probably move to free agency and we’ll go from there,” Botterill said, per the Buffalo News. “Disappointed, but we’ll move on.”

Petersen, 22, is coming off a great junior year for the Fighting Irish. He went 23-12-5 with a .926 save percentage and 2.22 GAA, helping the club advance to the Frozen Four. Petersen was also named a finalist for this year’s Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey’s top goalie.

In April, he was named to the U.S. team at the World Hockey Championships in France and Germany. He was one of three goalies on the squad — along with Connor Hellebuyck and Jimmy Howard — but didn’t appear in any games.

In late May, Petersen announced he was forgoing his senior year at Notre Dame to turn pro, but declined to say which club he would be signing with. Buffalo’s rights to Petersen expire on Aug. 15.

This is a blow to the organization. The Sabres have some major question marks in goal, given presumptive No. 1 Robin Lehner is a restricted free agent and it’s unclear what the ceiling is on recently re-signed Linus Ullmark. What’s more, Buffalo has only drafted two goalies in the last four years — Petersen, and Sweden’s Jonas Johansson (third round, ’14).

 

Oilers to sign Russell to reported four-year, $16 million extension

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When the Edmonton Oilers traded Jordan Eberle over the weekend part of the reasoning was so they could clear salary cap space, presumably to help re-sign veteran defenseman Kris Russell.

On Friday, they completed that series of transactions.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the Oilers will announce a four-year contract for Russell later on Friday that will pay him a total of $16 million.

That comes out to a salary cap hit of $4 million per season. TSN’s Ryan Rishaug adds that the deal could also include a modified no-trade clause.

Russell has become an extremely polarizing player in the NHL over the past few years so this deal is sure to receive equal amounts of praise and criticism depending on what exactly you’re looking for from a defenseman.

He has never been a strong possession player and doesn’t have a lot of offensive ability — two things teams seem to be looking for on their blue lines right now — which leads to criticism from the analytics side of the sport. But because he is one of the NHL’s most fearless shot-blockers and consistently among the league leaders in that category he is loved as an old-school, defensive-defenseman. That ability was a big talking point for much of the 2016-17 season as the Oilers had their best season in more than a decade (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Cam Talbot played a pretty significant role, too).

Another part of the justification for the Eberle trade was the fact the Oilers needed some additional salary cap space because of the need to re-sign both McDavid and Draisaitl to long-term contract extensions.

Eberle on his own was going to account for $6 million in salary cap space this season.

Ryan Strome (the player acquired for Eberle) and Russell will account for $6.5 million.

Are the Oilers better off with Strome and Russell than they would have been had they simply let Russell walk and kept Eberle? That remains to be seen, but obviously the Oilers think they are.

Flyers want to add veteran goalie this weekend

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It’s pretty obvious what sits atop Philly’s shopping list this weekend at the NHL Draft in Chicago:

Goaltending.

“We’re going to look for the best option, and we’ll act on it,” Flyers GM Ron Hextall said, per CSN Philly. “The option is figuring out the timing and who is available.”

Currently, the Flyers only have two goalies under contract — Michal Neuvirth and Anthony Stolarz. The former will be in Philly’s mix next year, but the latter’s situation is more complex. Stolarz is coming off major knee surgery and, at 23, lacks experience at the NHL level. He looked good in a seven-game cameo last season (4-2-1, 2.07 GAA, .928 save percentage), but that’s still a pretty small sample size.

So not surprising to hear the following, from CSN Philly:

Hextall would prefer to get a jump on free agency this weekend by making a deal to obtain a veteran goaltender that has two years or less on his contract and is not looking to break the bank.

Or obtain a UFA’s rights if a deal can be struck.

It looks as though the Flyers have all but moved on from Steve Mason, so it’ll be interesting to see what direction Hextall takes.

He does have some options.

Dallas needs to move on from either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi following the Ben Bishop trade and sign. Former Flames netminder Brian Elliott is available as a UFA, as is Vancouver’s Ryan Miller.

Report: Habs offering pending UFA Radulov a three-year deal

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The Montreal Canadiens and pending unrestricted free agent Alexander Radulov are still working toward a new deal, but it sounds like they’re pretty far apart.

Radulov has reportedly asked the Canadiens for a six-year deal worth $7 million per season, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun.

On Friday morning, Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that the Canadiens aren’t exactly on the same page as Radulov’s camp.

Per Engels, Marc Bergevin’s longest offer to Radulov has been three years, which doesn’t sound like it’s going to get the job done at this point.

The 30-year-old Russian winger (he’ll turn 31 next week) was one of Montreal’s most consistent forwards in 2016-17. He scored 18 goals an 54 points in 76 games in his first season with the Canadiens.

Even though the Habs were able to land Jonathan Drouin in a trade with the Bolts, they could still use Radulov’s offense going into next season.

During a press conference on Thursday, Bergevin mentioned the possibility of trading Radulov’s rights away before he hits the open market on July 1st.

It sounds like this negotiation will come down to the wire.