Brooks Orpik

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Contenders should jump on Sabres’ offer to trade Evander Kane

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During Tuesday’s edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, Pierre LeBrun mentioned that the Buffalo Sabres would be willing to get creative in moving Evander Kane. Specifically, LeBrun reports that the Sabres are OK with retaining a portion of Kane’s $5.25 million salary to make something happen and maximize their takeaway.

In that same segment, LeBrun notes that there might be a gestation period here, suggesting that it might take six or seven weeks for something to happen. Even so, while expanding upon that issue for The Athletic, LeBrun described a Kane trade as “inevitable.”

So, here’s an opinion: both the Sabres and a potential contender should make this happen. Like, now.

Speeding up the process

If the Sabres are willing to absorb part of Kane’s salary to make something work, perhaps they’d also be willing to take on a pricey expiring deal to expedite the process?

Just looking around the league, it’s conceivable that a team might give up a pretty penny to land Kane. Imagine how much of a difference the power forward could make for, say, the injury-addled Ducks; imagine the kind of return Buffalo might net if they absorbed Kevin Bieksa‘s $4M cap hit in such a move? (Assuming Anaheim can part ways with the other master of the “Superman Punch.”)

Honestly, Sabres management might even be wise to take on a slighter longer problem contract. What if Buffalo absorbed all of Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5M (expiring after 2018-19) if it meant a futures-heavy package deal?

The possibilities are fascinating for Buffalo, at least if they don’t think that Kane is a part of their longer-term plans.

The thing is, I’d argue that contenders should jump on this opportunity, rather than waiting too long. Allow me to share my rationale in handy bullet-point form:

  • Kane might need a little time to adjust.

If I were to grade Kane’s time in Buffalo, I’d probably lean toward an “Incomplete.”

From personal issues to injuries and other concerns, it’s often felt like Kane, 26, never was going to take off with the Sabres. Honestly, this is the first season where he’s made the sort of top-line impact (at worst, top-six impact) many envisioned when the one-time 30-goal scorer was fast-track-pantsed out of Winnipeg.

The sooner you land Kane, the sooner you get him into your lineup, and if there were work visa concerns, you’d already be losing a game or two once the transaction is made.

  • Get ahead of the trade market

Look, this trade being leaked probably ups some pressure on GMs of struggling contenders to get something done.

Still, maybe the early bird will get the worm here? Perhaps being proactive would lower the price, while waiting more than a month might encourage a greater bidding war?

  • More value, more time to determine rental vs. keeper

Kane doesn’t turn 27 until August. Even if he’s seeking a riskier, long-term deal, his next contract would include a few peak years and then some near-peak time.

The question, then, is “How good is Kane, really?”

You can break down tape all you want, but with injuries limiting some of the sample size over the years and zero career playoff games to judge Kane by, there’s at least a bit of mystery as to how much he’s truly worth.

With that in mind, and the potential for the Sabres to get a greater conditional return in a hypothetical trade if Kane re-signs, why not buy a few extra weeks or even months to gauge Kane’s value? The winger with the boxer-inspired name might be worth keeping around, but a team could really benefit from seeing where he fits in, both on the ice and in the locker room.

***

Now, there are a lot of factors that go into a situation like this.

We don’t know how many teams are calling up the Sabres about Kane. If a deal would be anywhere near as complicated as the three-team Matt Duchene/Kyle Turris swap was, then it might take some haggling.

That said, a contender should look at the boost the Predators got from Turris, feel jealous, and then try to land a difference-maker like Kane sooner rather than later. LeBrun’s reports certainly indicate that the Sabres are willing to get creative to make a big move happen.

So why wait?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL’s Thanksgiving playoffs rule unlikely to fit this season

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Erik Gudbranson looks at the standings almost every day.

Sure, it’s only November, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the playoffs and see which teams are atop the division standings.

”Every single point matters,” the Vancouver Canucks defenseman said. ”You want to stay with that group.”

For more than a decade, the status of that group at Thanksgiving has been a significant indicator of who gets to keep playing beyond mid-April. Since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06, 78.4 percent of teams in playoff position by the fourth Thursday in November have made it. It’s so notable that it is considered the NHL’s unofficial Thanksgiving rule.

In most years, the picture solidifies in mid-November and an average of 12-13 playoff teams are all but set by Thanksgiving.

Not so much this season, where there are 12 teams separated by eight points in the Eastern Conference and 12 teams separated by five points in the West, making the races too close to call at Thanksgiving.

”With the parity that’s in the league nowadays, I don’t know if that rule really applies anymore,” Calgary Flames winger Troy Brouwer said. ”Usually at some point a few teams break away from the pack and the rest of them, because of the three-point games and everybody’s playing so many divisional games, you never really gain a ton of ground on a team or lose a ton of ground on a team unless you’re continuously losing divisional games.”

Led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the Tampa Bay Lightning are far away the best in the East, while the duo of Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schennhas the St. Louis Blues atop the West. The Toronto Maple Leafs are talented and the Los Angeles Kings are off to a great start, but there aren’t too many teams at the quarter mark that can feel too confident about making the playoffs.

”It’s pretty well a .500 league right now,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”The teams that have a little more depth like Tampa, who is in a good window, and St. Louis and probably L.A. … they’re the only ones that have really pulled away from anybody. The rest of us are right all there.”

A relatively flat salary cap over the past few seasons and the expansion draft that filled the Vegas Golden Knights with the best roster for a first-year franchise in history have served to level the talent discrepancy around hockey.

”There’s not much separation between teams,” Pittsburgh Penguins center Riley Sheahan said. ”The salary cap makes it a tough league to play in.”

But this isn’t just about the cap, which has been around 13 seasons. A lot of inter-conference play early is one theory for so many teams being packed together.

”We haven’t even started playing in conference, in division games,” winger Wayne Simmonds said after he and the Philadelphia Flyers played 17 of their first 22 games against the West. ”I think that’s where things will start to separate. When everyone’s playing the Western Conference or maybe different divisions, the separation you don’t see as much.”

It’s going to be tough going for last-place Buffalo and Arizona to make the playoffs and an uphill climb for should’ve-been contenders Montreal and Edmonton. The Thanksgiving rule may be moot for this year, but a brutal start is tough to dig out from.

”You can’t make the playoffs in November, but you can knock yourself out,” veteran Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It seems like even when you’re down four points at the end of the year, the games get so much tighter and there’s more three-point games, it seems like, toward the end of the year. Teams are playing a lot more defensive and safe. It seems like it’s easier to pile up points now than it is to try to catch up at the end.”

It’s not impossible, though, as the 2007-08 Capitals are one of 38 teams to get it done after looking like they’re cooked. They fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day, replaced him with Bruce Boudreau and went from 8-7-6 to a Southeast Division title.

Boudreau, whose Minnesota Wild are 13th in the West but just two points out of a playoff spot, doesn’t think much about the Thanksgiving rule.

”If you look at it as this is a truism and you’re not in at that time, you have a tendency to (think), ‘Aw man, we’re not going make it,’ and I don’t want anybody on our team thinking along those lines,” Boudreau said. ”But it’s going to be close.”

It’s so close that while Sheahan said you can ”start to drive yourself a little crazy” by focusing too much on stats and the schedule, there are no guarantees. Half the playoff teams turned over from 2015-16 to 2016-17, and of the 16 teams in position now, seven didn’t make it last spring and one didn’t even exist.

The standings are packed, so much that one victory or one loss can shuffle them like a deck of cards.

”It gives you that extra incentive to be ready every single night,” Gudbranson said. ”You have to be when you can gain one extra point and jump from 10th in the West to a solid wild-card spot – and vice-versa, it can go the other way.”

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Capitals are still seeking an identity

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The first month of the NHL season taught the Washington Capitals that they can’t simply repeat their success of the past two seasons.

Depleted of their depth by offseason departures and injuries, the Capitals stayed afloat by going 5-6-1 while playing eight of their first 12 games on the road. But as they return home to begin a stretch of 13 of 18 games in Washington, the Capitals are still looking to find out what kind of team they are.

Last year they were a talented team that could win games in various ways.

No longer a juggernaut with four lines and three defensive pairs that can play against any opponent, the Capitals also can’t rely on Alex Ovechkin scoring 10 goals a month or Braden Holtby making almost 30 saves a game. Their expected lineup Thursday night against the New York Islanders includes eight players who weren’t with them in the playoffs last year, so the growing pains are an ongoing process.

“The group has to sort of create its own identity to see what works for them,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You have to create an identity and you’ve got to have success. I think it’s inching its way over there to where our team will be a little bit more consistent.”

Without the depth and the skill of previous squads, once health this group may find its identity on defense.

Consistency hasn’t been a hallmark of Washington’s game so far. It’s taking the second-fewest shots on goal in the league, allowing the seventh-most and struggling on the penalty kill. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin are in the top 10 in points and Holtby has been solid in net, keeping the team out of a deep hole to start the year.

Even staring at a 1-3 home record, now’s the chance to make up some ground in a still-uncertain Eastern Conference.

“It’ll be a good opportunity,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We haven’t had more than one game in a row here at home, so it’s kind of a weird schedule to start off. It’s tough to generate any kind of momentum or rhythm at home. Hopefully we can take advantage of that.”

Injuries to defenseman Matt Niskanen and forward Andre Burakovsky continue to test the Capitals’ youth and unproven players. But even the veterans who were part of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning seasons haven’t been sharp.

The result has been the Capitals chasing games. They’ve played from behind for almost 178 minutes in their past five – more than half the game.

“Just mentally it’s draining because you have no comfort,” Trotz said. “It works on you mentally, and then you’re trying to force things and the other team can just sort of wait and be patient and we’re not a really patient team. At times we will try to force things that aren’t there.”

Another result is committing the fourth-most penalties in the league and having the sixth-fewest power-play opportunities. Because the Capitals have been on the wrong side of five-on-five possession, they’re struggling to keep up with opponents and are ending up in the penalty box.

“We’ve taken too many penalties because you get beat one-on-one or something and then you have to reach out and grab the guy,” right winger Tom Wilson said. “We need to get the puck in the offensive zone and use our bodies to kind of draw penalties.”

Over the past two-plus seasons, Washington has scored on 22.4 percent of its power plays, best in the NHL. Right now it’s ranked ninth but has the firepower to produce.

“I think it’s just mentally-wise,” Ovechkin said. “We know what we have to do out there. It’s just a situation when it’s just the work ethic, I think.”

Work ethic shouldn’t be a problem for the Capitals as they sit 11th in the East. In previous years perhaps the regular season could be brushed off because of their playoff failures, but now they need to care because the margin for error isn’t there to just qualify for the postseason.

As Ovechkin acknowledged, “Every point is needed.” That’s a message that the coaching staff has tried to get across.

“We’ve got to go on a little bit of a run,” Trotz said.” And when I say run, it’s not winning six in a row or anything like that. We’ve just got to be consistent in collecting points every night. And that’s what we’ve done very well the last three years and we’ve got to get that mentality of collecting a point.”

 

McKenzie on Penguins’ cap space, Capitals’ free agent decisions (Video)

About 1:20* into the video above this post’s headline, hockey insider Bob McKenzie shared some interesting tidbits with NBCSN’s Kathryn Tappen regarding potential future moves for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the case of the Penguins, McKenzie reports that the team is happy with what they’ve seen from the wonderfully named Greg McKegg so far, but they’re still looking to add a more proven third-line center.

When it comes the the Capitals, McKenzie notes that there’s still plenty of work to do regarding pending free agents John Carlson and Lars Eller.

Let’s break down the facets of both situations.

Deadline dealers or something sooner?

So, at the moment, Cap Friendly pegs the Penguins’ cap space at about $2 million. That number could go up a bit in demoting a cheaper, younger player to the AHL, which they’d need to do if they added a player via a trade.

McKenzie is right in stating that the Penguins have a rare amount of breathing room in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin era. They can chalk that up to making tough decisions like parting ways with Marc-Andre Fleury and having crucial bargains in Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel‘s rookie contract.

Theoretically, the Penguins could work something out for Matt Duchene, thus sparing him from absorbing more abuse from childhood heroes (has Adam Deadmarsh badmouthed Duchene yet?). That would likely require the Avalanche to retain some of Duchene’s $6M cap hit.

At least, it would now. What if the Penguins instead opted to be trade deadline buyers?

Well, Cap Friendly estimates their deadline cap space at about $9.3M.

Some rentals work out like Bill Guerin did for the Penguins, while others fall closer to, say, Alexei Ponikarovsky. If McKegg is the guy at 3C for longer, here’s how he looked coming into Thursday:

Three games played: one assist, 24-20 on faceoffs, six shots on goal, 15:38 time on ice average, solid possession stats.

Not too shabby, but when you’re shooting as high as the Penguins are, you might want to invest in some third-line center insurance.

A quick look at Eller, Carlson

Even if you don’t think John Carlson, 27, is too great in his own end, you’d probably have to admit that he’s well worth the near-$4M cap hit he’s carrying right now because of his outstanding offensive output.

The scoring side of Carlson’s HERO chart makes your eyes pop so much that you almost miss the not-so-great “shot suppression” category.

via Dom Galamini

So, the question is, how much will Carlson cost and would it be worth it to the Capitals?

Washington is carrying cap hits in Matt Niskanen‘s $5.75M, Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5M, and Dmitry Orlov‘s $5.1M on defense. Overall, they have $58.9M in cap tied up in 13 players, according to Cap Friendly.

As a UFA with some big scoring numbers, Carlson could command a nice raise. The Capitals showed courage in letting Karl Alzner walk, so it will be fascinating to see what they do with Carlson.

Personally, Lars Eller is a very nice player, but possibly a luxury at his current rate of $3.5M. In a way, allowing him to walk might sting just as much because he’s been a handy answer to what was once a long-standing Capitals question at third-line center.

Still, the Capitals need only look to the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks to realize that successful NHL teams sometimes allow valuable players to walk.

***

All of these cases are pretty interesting to watch. These two teams remain prominent because of their stars, but also their willingness to adapt.

* – Before that, McKenzie shares some interesting numbers and analysis about the league’s crackdown on slashing. Stay tuned for post on that, possibly on Thursday.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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