Is Colorado’s rise a fair example of what might happen in Buffalo?

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The Buffalo Sabres are frankly expected to be one of the worst teams in the league in 2014-15. It’s easy to see why: They’re a rebuilding club coming off of a season where they posted a 21-51-10 record. They could have added six wins last season and still finished in last place. For that matter, they could have scored 37 more goals and still ranked 30th offensively.

The short-term situation is so bleak that there are Sabres fans rooting against their team as they’ve already abandoned hope of them being competitive next season and just want them to be able to draft a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Chris Stewart, who came to Buffalo from St. Louis in February as part of the Ryan Miller trade, doesn’t want the fanbase to write the Sabres off.

“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago,” Stewart recently said. “They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly.”

Of course you’d be hard pressed to find a player that wants to lose or, for that matter, one that is going to paint anything other than an optimistic picture going into the season, but does Stewart have a point? Does Buffalo have a chance to follow in Colorado’s footsteps?

Let’s move past the obvious answer, which is: Of course. Anything can happen, so obviously there’s a chance that Buffalo will make the playoffs. But is it a big enough one to give Stewart’s argument validity?

Well, first off, he is correct that the team will look very different than the one that opened the 2013-14 season, which right off the bat actually makes this story a lot different than the one in Colorado. The Avalanche team that surprised the hockey world in 2013-14 wasn’t substantially altered from the one finished with a 16-25-7 record in the lockout shortened 2013 campaign.

Additionally, different isn’t automatically better. The Sabres have lost Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek for example and you can make an argument that no one on their current roster is better than those two players — at least not yet as some of their youngsters have high ceilings.

A few things did change in Colorado though. Patrick Roy took over as the team’s head coach and, in addition to giving them new hope, he joined goalie coach Francois Allaire in helping Semyon Varlamov take a huge step forward. Varlamov was at the center of the Avalanche’s success as they were bombarded with shots all season and relied on him to stand tall.

Meanwhile, Buffalo struggled largely in spite of Miller’s goaltending last season so while the new combination of Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth might prove to be solid, the single biggest change that bolstered the Avalanche wouldn’t have quite the same effect on the Sabres.

What Buffalo needs is for its defense to improve, but more than that, they need someone to find the back of the net. Colorado saw its offense improve in part thanks to a strong rookie season from Nathan MacKinnon and while the Sabres have some promising young forwards that might step up, they have a far bigger gap to overcome.

The Avalanche’s offense wasn’t great in the lockout shortened campaign, but Buffalo’s offense last season was statistically the worst of the 21st century.

It’s that gap that will be difficult for the Sabres to overcome in a single campaign. They do have some noteworthy scoring threats such as Matt Moulson, Cody Hodgson, and Tyler Ennis, but their top two lines don’t look overly promising on paper.

So maybe Colorado isn’t an ideal example for Buffalo, but the thing about a young team is that you never know quite what will happen. It seems realistic to assume that this will be a season of growing pains for the Sabres, but if they find their groove early in the season, then they might surprise people.

Photo: Fan goes extra mile with Connor McDavid tattoo

via Connor McDavid's Instagram
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Fan comes from the word “fanatic.” Sometimes it’s easy to forget that amid milder displays of sports interest … and then there are those times when that term almost seems insufficient.

Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid has already encountered awkward fan love in the form of that wonderful photo that went viral. That hasn’t scared him off, yet, as he praised a fan’s very detailed tattoo of McDavid via his Instagram account.

Again, the level of detail is really … something:

How about those Oiler fans… Shoutout to @kyleghostkeeper and the great work by @q_tattoos #crazy

A post shared by Connor Mcdavid (@mcdavid97) on

It’s been a busy time for McDavid, who recently posed for a photo with star Canadian athletes Eugenie Bouchard and Aaron Sanchez:

Good time yesterday with the @rogers crew! ⚾️🎾🏒 #RogersCup

A post shared by Connor Mcdavid (@mcdavid97) on

TSN has a fun cross-sports video of McDavid teaching them to shoot pucks, if you’re interested.

Predators spend big on Ryan Johansen: eight years, $64M

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Much was made about Ryan Johansen really establishing himself as a No. 1 center who could compete with the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews during the Nashville Predators’ 2017 Stanley Cup Final run.

The Predators will pay him as such, as they announced a whopping eight-year, $64 million contract on Friday. That’s $8M per season for Johansen, who turns 25 on July 31.

It’s the largest deal signed in franchise history, although that can feel a touch misleading in how it really functions. After all, P.K. Subban‘s cap hit is higher at $9M and they once matched that massive Shea Weber offer sheet. The bottom line is that Johansen joins Subban and Pekka Rinne ($7M) as Nashville’s most expensive players.

The trio of Johansen, Filip Forsberg ($6M), and Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25M) carries a combined cap hit of $18.25 million.

News of Johansen signing a new deal first came from The Tennessean’s Adam Vignan.

Check out this post about how impressive the Predators’ salary structure looked before Johansen’s deal came down. Cap Friendly estimates that Nashville’s cap space goes down to $5.44 million after the signing, which adds some risk to this group but still looks wisely constructed overall.

The good and bad of Canadiens’ cap situation

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Whether you view Mark Streit as Andrei Markov’s replacement or not, the bottom line is that the Montreal Canadiens didn’t bring Markov back.

That decision closes the book on one of the Habs’ biggest mandatory decisions, though with a Cap Friendly estimate of almost $8.5 million in cap space, GM Marc Bergevin’s work may continue.

Even so, saving money on Markov seems like a decent excuse to examine the team’s salary cap situation as a whole, so let’s do just that.

A cheap, impressive group of forwards

Alex Radulov will be missed; there’s little doubting that.

Even so, handing that much term to an aging forward doesn’t seem to be Bergevin’s M.O. If nothing else, the best thing about his work is how affordable Montreal’s high-quality forwards are.

That’s especially true if Bergevin resists the urge to trade Alex Galchenyuk, who still has room to grow at 23, and who’s likely to be a bargain at $4.9 million for three seasons. Along with providing serious talent, Galchenyuk could take some of the heat off of Jonathan Drouin, who carries a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old making $5.5M through 2022-23.

Personally, those two seem like prime candidates to parallel Max Pacioretty‘s sublime steal of $4.5M, though maybe not to the same splendid degree.

Pacioretty’s contract began in 2013-14, and the fun continues until it expires after 2018-19. He’ll be 30 and a UFA by then, so that could be quite the headache for Montreal … but at least they’re enjoying huge savings before that problem comes.

And, hey, maybe it will be time for “Patches” to step into a calmer atmosphere by then, anyway …

The Habs feature two other significant forward contracts: Andrew Shaw (26 years old, $3.9M through 2021-22) and Brendan Gallagher (25, $3.75M through 2020-21). While Shaw has the rings, Gallagher is the most enticing of the two, at least as far as how high one’s ceiling can go.

A void down the middle?

Looking at shorter-term deals, Tomas Plekanec‘s $6M expiring after 2017-18 is especially fascinating.

Center is a weak spot for the Canadiens, and that could linger if Claude Julien can’t make things work with Galchenyuk and/or Drouin. Plekanec is already 34, so what would the future hold, especially if he wants something close to his current salary again?

Again, while there are certainly questions to answer, the Habs have done a commendable job putting together an affordable fleet of quality forwards.

Now to the scarier stuff.

On Aug. 16, Carey Price turns 30. The 2017-18 season represents his last at a relative bargain clip of $6.5M. After that, the Canadiens are betting big that he can remain an all-world goalie; he carries a $10.5M cap hit from 2018-19 to 2025-26. Yikes.

Oddly enough, Shea Weber‘s birthday is Aug. 14, when he’ll turn 32. Weber’s 14-year pact still has long legs, as he’ll carry a $7.857 million cap hit through 2025-26. Yikes again.

Slow burn

When it comes to the defensive side, the Canadiens might not be the most … mobile bunch, especially after parting ways with solid depth guy Nathan Beaulieu and prospect Mikhail Sergachev.

At 39, Mark Streit doesn’t exactly add fresh legs to a group that could get old in a few years. Your mileage will vary regarding how positive an impact you expect from Weber and new signing Karl Alzner. If things go awry, one would expect some serious griping about the exits of Markov, Alexei Emelin, Beaulieu, and even Sergachev.

(At least there’s Jeff Petry, who seems to gain approval from just about everyone. Just about.)

For the next three seasons, the Canadiens are on the hook for Weber, Petry, Alzner, and David Schlemko for about $20 million combined. Beginning in 2018-19, that defense and Price would cost about $30.5 million.

That combination could turn into a real problem, really fast.

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Then again, it’s not as bad if you look at the situation in a more “instant gratification” way.

Weber still has value now, and Alzner adds experience at a reasonable age. Few coaches can optimize such a defense like Julien can, and things could really cook if Price is Price and those forwards get at least some room to breathe.

And, hey, that $8M and change could be put to interesting use. Did you hear that Jaromir Jagr wanted to be a member of the Habs not so long ago?

It’s easy to see gloom and doom in the forecast, yet for next season, the outlook is fairly sunny. Bergevin’s made his mistakes, but this should be a fascinating team to watch in 2017-18.

Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher would consider offer from Penguins

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Instead of signing with the Colorado Avalanche – the team that drafted him – Will Butcher will reportedly test free agency starting on Aug. 15.

The Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman would make sense for an array of NHL teams, really, with the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs mentioned among early considerations.

So, what about the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that’s lost some talent on the blueline and has enjoyed some success with NCAA products? Well, it remains to be seen if the defending repeat champions would be interested in Butcher’s services, but the defenseman’s agent told Josh Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that they would certainly listen.

“If they happen to call,” Brian Bartlett said. “I’m sure we’d answer the phone.”

Mackey notes some of the successful college players the Penguins have deployed.

There’s familiarity here, too: Bartlett also represents former college players and current Penguins Bryan Rust (Notre Dame), Scott Wilson (UMass-Lowell) and Josh Archibald (Nebraska-Omaha).

Bartlett also claims that Butcher, 22, wouldn’t demand an immediate spot on an NHL roster. That’s nice to hear … although you wonder if a team offering as much would get a better chance to land him, especially since entry-level contract limits mean that a “bidding war” would come down to what team, situation, and location he’d prefer.

Considering the possibility for a nice reward and the fairly limited risk involved, plenty of teams should be interested in Butcher. It sounds like the interest would be mutual if the Penguins were one of those suitors.

One way or another, we’ll likely learn more in a bit more than two weeks.

Update: The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that the Detroit Red Wings are interested in Butcher, too.