Expect another year of heavy contract talks in New York

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Entering the 2013-14 season, the New York Rangers boasted some huge names who were entering the last seasons of their contracts. The franchise resolved many of those issues (or, in the case of Ryan Callahan, traded those deals away) on their way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final… yet still finds itself in a similar spot as next season approaches.

Granted, nothing will really top the drama of last season — re-signing Henrik Lundqvist, opting against the same for Callahan, buying out Brad Richards — but a lot of money will still be at stake this year.

Naturally, a contract extension or two could happen in the early stages, but let’s look at the most prominent players (sorry, Mike Kostka and Matt Hunwick) entering contract years with current cap hits in parenthesis:

Martin St. Louis ($5.625 million, UFA)
Marc Staal ($3.975 million, UFA)
Mats Zuccarello ($3.5 million, UFA)
Derek Stepan ($3.075 million, RFA)
Carl Hagelin ($2.25 million, RFA)
Cam Talbot ($562K, UFA)

That’s quite the list of prominent players. St. Louis has been (relatively) underpaid for years and may very well want to “cash-in” on what be his last NHL contract (or at least close to his last one).

The rest of the list features players in their primes who are probably all being paid below market value. Staal’s had his troubles, yet defensemen are so hard to come by that a nice season could mean a huge contract. Zuccarello topped all Rangers regular season scorers, Hagelin’s a speedy gem who could easily enjoy a big jump in production and Talbot was quietly brilliant backing Lundqvist up last season.

Stepan might be the most interesting, though. He’s been a steady performer (never missed one game since hitting the league in 2010-11) with two 50-point seasons and no less than 44 points in any campaign. He’s already pretty accomplished for a guy who’s only 24. With Brad Richards gone, Stepan’s status as the team’s No. 1 center seems as secure as ever, and the American-born forward is likely to play with St. Louis and/or Rick Nash next season. Could we see a 20+ goal season in which Stepan flirts with 70 points? It’s not outrageous to ponder, and such a leap would cost the Blueshirts some serious cash, even considering the fact that Stepan will be an RFA.

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This talk might leave Rangers fans a little nervous, but sometimes a little added motivation can be a good thing. Even with the likes of Lundqvist and Dan Girardi re-signed, New York benefited greatly from best-of-their-career moments from pending free agents during an impressive playoff run in 2013-14.

In other words, greed can be good … at least in the short term.

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.

Their 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.

Video: Friday night fights between Bolts and Red Wings

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Not much offense — actually, just one goal midway through the second period as of the writing of this post — between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday.

But there has definitely been some animosity between the two clubs.

Tempers flared late in the first period, with Adam Erne and Andreas Athanasiou getting involved in a spirited scrap — and Athanasiou unsuccessful in his attempt at the take-down.

The bad blood continued in the second period with Greg McKegg and Anthony Mantha getting involved in a fight, and Mantha — given the instigator — landing a couple of shots with McKegg on the ice.

 

NHL, MLB player unions support U.S. women hockey players’ boycott

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Unions representing NHL and Major League Baseball players are backing U.S. Women’s National Hockey team players’ decision to boycott next week’s world championships because of a wage dispute.

The NHL Players’ Association posted a note on its Twitter account on Friday saying it supports the U.S. players while panning USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements. The NHLPA says the decision to go with replacement players “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

Earlier in the day, the MLB Players Association encouraged all women hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Read more: USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage, as dispute with women’s national team continues

The Twitter messages were posted a day after USA Hockey announced it would begin gauging interest of replacement players to compete at the tournament, which opens next Friday in Plymouth, Michigan.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period.