Alexander Radulov

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Connor McDavid’s deal ushers in age of NHL’s millennial millionaires

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Connor McDavid is doing his best to not make a big deal out of his big deal.

Edmonton’s 20-year-old captain and reigning NHL MVP insists nothing about him has changed in the months since signing an eight-year, $100 million contract.

“My buddies are all the same,” McDavid told The Associated Press. “Nothing’s all that different, to be honest.”

Individually, maybe not, for someone who will become the league’s top-paid player on a per-year basis once the contract kicks in next season.

From a league-wide standpoint, McDavid’s mega-deal is the latest and most eye-popping example of what’s becoming a sea change in how teams are prioritizing their payroll structure at a time the NHL’s salary cap has barely budged. The cap has gone from $69 million in 2014-15 to $75 million this season.

Hockey is becoming a young man’s game: Teams are now spending more on retaining their younger stars with an eye on the long-term future, rather than on adding older players in free agency.

“I would think this is going to be a trend,” Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford told The AP. “There’s 31 teams and it’s hard to find premier players, so when teams get them, they’re going to lock them up.”

As for whether the trend’s favorable, Rutherford chuckled and said: “It depends on how you look at it. If you’re the team that’s got the good players, you’re going to keep them.”

The Oilers did so this summer by also signing 21-year-old forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. Next up is Buffalo’s Jack Eichel , selected second in the 2015 draft, one spot behind McDavid. An NHL-maximum eight-year contract is on the table for Eichel, though the two sides have yet to agree on price.

And the focus will eventually shift to members of the 2016 draft class such as Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine. By comparison, the Florida Panthers might have gotten a break in signing 2014 No. 1 pick, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, to an eight-year, $60 million contract a year ago.

“There’s obviously a new market out there in terms of money for young kids,” Eichel said. “I don’t think age should be too much of a reason for somebody not to get a good deal. If they earned it, they earned it.”

What’s different is it’s happening to the under-23 crowd.

Previously, players coming out of their three-year rookie contracts would be signed to what were called “bridge deals” ranging from four to five years. That was the case with Sidney Crosby who, at 21, signed a five-year $43.5 million deal before cashing in once again at 26, when he signed his current 12-year, $104 million contract.

Now teams are blowing past age barriers by offering long-term security beyond when players are eligible to become free agents in exchange for cost certainty.

“A lot has changed since 2005,” Devils GM Ray Shero said, referring to the age of free agents dropping from 31 to between 25 and 27, depending on the situation. “The game right now is, pay the star player and retain them if possible. Those are the guys getting the eight-year deals.”

There have been exceptions, most notably the Montreal Canadiens signing 31-year-old goalie Carey Price to an eight-year, $84 million contract this summer. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning avoided losing captain Steven Stamkos to free agency by locking him up with an eight-year $68 million contract.

Fewer notable players, however, are making it to their first year of free-agent eligibility. And those who do aren’t landing the lucrative, long-term deals as before.

This summer, 31-year-old Alexander Radulov signed the most expensive contract, a five-year, $31.25 million deal with Dallas, followed by 28-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk‘s four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers.

Those are modest deals in comparison to 2012, when the Minnesota Wild signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts, before the NHL restricted contracts to a maximum eight-year term.

“Every time you set a new bar, as revenues rise, as players move up, it creates additional opportunities for other players,” NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr said, referring to McDavid. “The more you pay an individual player in a cap system, however, it does have repercussions on it.”

The commitment to youth is evident in how NHL teams have re-arranged their scouting staffs and dedicating more resources into establishing player development positions. That’s a considerable switch from the past, when most teams relied on small staff of scouts, and spent little on their minor-league affiliates, Sabres GM Jason Botterill said.

Ten years ago, the Sabres employed one pro scout, seven amateur scouts and a staff of five scouting assistants. This season, Botterill’s first in Buffalo, the Sabres have two assistant GMs, 13 amateur scouts, three pro scouts and even a college scout. And that doesn’t include Buffalo’s four player-development coaches.

“Teams realize the importance of what the development of these young players in your system can lead to for your organization,” Botterill said. “And it’s important to put resources toward that.”

 

Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

 

Stars will keep top pick Heiskanen in Finland, not bring him over for camp

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Dallas Stars fans will have to wait another year to get an up close look at their team’s top pick from the 2017 draft, defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

General manager Jim Nill announced on Monday that Heiskanen will remain in Finland with his team (HIFK Helsinki) and not attend training camp this season.

Part of the decision might be related to the fact that Heiskanen is currently injured. It was recently reported in Finland that Heiskanen suffered a concussion, and when the Stars opened training camp this week his name was included on the list of injured players.

His absence from camp this year isn’t a huge deal from a big picture outlook because it was always unlikely that he was going to make the team this season. The Stars’ plan all along was to be patient with him, and while they would have given him an opportunity to make the team it always seemed inevitable that he was going to end up playing back in Finland for the entire season anyway.

He spent the 2016-17 season playing for HIFK Helsinki where he scored five goals and five assists in 37 games.

The Stars selected him with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft and added him to their collection of promising young defensemen.

Dallas is already dealing with a crowded blue line situation this season with eight players under contract for this season, including offseason addition Marc Methot. The Stars loaded up again this summer with big moves, including Methot, starting goalie Ben Bishop and free agent acquisitions Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal.

After aggressive offseason, Nill needs moves to pay off

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This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

It has been a very busy offseason for general manager Jim Nill.

Now he needs it all to pay off.

After a disastrous 2016-17 that saw his Dallas Stars go from division champs to missing the playoffs by 15 points, Nill got aggressive.

First he fired head coach Lindy Ruff and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock. Then he went to work on the roster, adding via trade or free agency the likes of Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, and Marc Methot.

In signing Bishop, Nill hoped to solve his team’s biggest problem: goaltending. Which, of course, was a problem that Nill had already tried, and failed miserably, to solve two years ago with the signing of Antti Niemi.

In other words, Bishop better be the right guy, otherwise the GM could find his seat getting rather hot.

Ditto for Hitchcock being the right head coach. Because while Hitch has had a great deal of success in the NHL, it remains to be seen if his style will mesh with a team that’s been more run-and-gun than heavy-and-hard-to-play-against.

Heck, some might say Radulov was a risky signing, even after salvaging his reputation last season in Montreal. After all, he just turned 31 and won’t be playing for a contract anymore. Nill gave him a five-year term with a cap hit of $6.25 million.

Related: Ben Bishop is under pressure

In an interview with Edmonton’s 630 CHED radio, Nill was asked if he was feeling the pressure in the wake of all his moves.

“I wouldn’t say there was pressure,” he said, per FanRag Sports. “We knew we were going to make some changes. Last year was a tough year. The injuries devastated our team and we’d end up chasing it. The league is too tight nowadays. If you get behind in this league, it’s tough to catch up. It’s too close. We’re all within three-to-five wins of each other. So it was a tough year that way.

“But I get back to we knew we were going to have cap room. We knew we were going to make some changes. Probably the silver lining was because of all of the injuries last year, we had a lot of young kids we brought up to have to fill in those roles. They got extra experience because of that. I think between the additions and the experience the younger players got, I’m looking forward to a pretty strong bounce-back year.”

Nill may not want to admit there’s pressure, but considering all the money he’s committed to this roster, it’s fair to conclude that owner Tom Gaglardi will want to see some results.

The Stars will head into the season with Stanley Cup aspirations. At the very least, they need to get back into the playoffs and make some noise.

Poll: Are Preds favorites in West?

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This post is part of Predators Day on PHT…

The Nashville Predators qualified for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the second Wild Card team in the Western Conference. But it’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish, and the Preds made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Led by a phenomenal group of defensemen like Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, the Predators were able to knock off the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks before losing to the Penguins in six games.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to translate the Stanley Cup run into regular-season dominance and more postseason success.

As of right now, they still have the same top four defensemen on their roster. They also added former Canadiens blue liner Alexei Emelin to fold.

Also, don’t forget that on top getting acclimated to his new surroundings last year, Subban also missed 16 games with an upper-body injury. If his postseason success carries over into the regular season, you can expect him to be a whole lot better in 2017-18.

Up front, GM David Poile was able to add a few interesting pieces via free agency. Nick Bonino, who is coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships with Pittsburgh, will add some quality depth down the middle. His two-way style should make him an ideal candidate to center the second or third line.

Poile also signed veteran Scott Hartnell, who was bought out by the Blue Jackets. He’s back in Nashville after spending the first six years of his NHL career there. The veteran winger had 13 goals and 37 points in 78 games with Columbus last season.

Are those moves enough to propel them to another Stanley Cup Final berth in 2018? Well, lets look at the competition.

On paper, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed to have taken a step back this offseason, as they traded away Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Scott Darling and Marcus Kruger. Marian Hossa has a mysterious allergy that will keep him out for the year, and Brian Campbell hung up his skates to join the team’s front office.

The San Jose Sharks were able to re-sign Joe Thornton, but they lost Patrick Marleau to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Other than losing Marleau, their roster hasn’t changed too much this summer.

Like the Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks didn’t make a huge acquisition this offseason. They managed to retain potential free agent Patrick Eaves, who they acquired from Dallas at the deadline. Still, they should be plenty competitive in the West this season.

The Edmonton Oilers ended their long playoff drought last spring thanks to Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot. Edmonton swapped Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome and they signed Jussi Jokinen in free agency. All things considered, the Oilers should be ready to make a run, but how far can this young group go?

The Calgary Flames are another intriguing team. They got off to a slow start last season, but their roster eventually came to life and it’s easy to see why. They’re loaded with quality defensemen like Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic, who they got from the Islanders during the draft. They also have Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk  leading the way up front.

The Stars went into last season with plenty of expectation, but they ultimately missed the mark completely by not even making the playoffs. This summer, they added goalie Ben Bishop and winger Alexander Radulov. Those two moves should help them get back on track.

The Minnesota Wild got off to a great start last year, but they weren’t able to sustain that once the playoffs came around. On paper, they still have a very talented roster that could compete with any team in the conference.

The St. Louis Blues went through a bit of a transition phase last season, but they still managed to finish in the top three of their division. It might be a bit of a stretch to consider them as legit candidates to win the West, but they aren’t far off.

How do the Predators stack up against these teams? Are they the favorites to make it to the Stanley Cup Final?

Alright, I’m turning things over to you. Cast your vote in our poll and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section below.