Ryan Suter

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Kings bicker over who covers Erik Karlsson; We all win

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With Halloween approaching, hockey fans are already getting rare glimpses into the lighter side of NHL players. Still, it’s a special sensation when something whimsical actually happens during a game.

Such was the case in 3-on-3 overtime during the Los Angeles Kings’ eventual 3-2 shootout win against the Ottawa Senators last night.

Even if you (understandably) give a lot of credit to Anze Kopitar, the resurgence of Dustin Brown has been one of the least expected, under-the-radar stories of this early season. Perhaps some of what makes Brown effective is knowing his limitations, however, as even Erik Karlsson had a laugh when Brown told Drew Doughty that he wanted no part of Karlsson with all of that open nice:

The #Kings debating who will cover #ErikKarlsson in overtime is everything 😂😂

A post shared by TSN (@tsn_official) on

Tremendous. Since we’re on the subject of lighter moments, this Minnesota Wild fan possibly becoming a Vancouver Canucks fan should brighten your day:

That face is the understated, hockey version of “kid going nuts after getting a Nintendo 64.”

(Hold on, let me search for my childlike wonder for a second.)

Circling back, the first clip seems like a decent excuse to take a really quick look at how Karlsson and Brown are doing so far.

Erik eases back in, as much as Karlsson can ease back in

So far, it seems like Karlsson is still a special player, even with a chunk of his ankle bone missing (again, hockey players).

Through four games, it seems like business as mostly usual for the freakishly talented defenseman. Karlsson has six assists in those contests, with a healthy 13 shots on goal. The Swede averages just under three SOG per contest for his career, a big part – but not the only element – of why he tends to be such a possession monster.

While Guy Boucher is likely easing Karlsson back in (at least relatively speaking, as the Senators still need him badly), the clever coach might want to consider saving number 65’s energy for the playoffs. At least if this team has the breathing room for such luxuries.

In 2015-16, Karlsson approached Ryan Suter-like useage by averaging an absurd 28:58 TOI per game. Last season, Karlsson was down to 26:50, while he’s currently averaging 25:50. That really might not be such a bad bar to set for all of 2017-18.

Brown does it for Kings

Looking at Dustin Brown’s career stats, it’s almost as if the last lockout broke him. He scored 29 points in 46 games in 2012-13, and then his numbers stayed in that range even during full seasons.

So, cut to 2017-18 and Brown has five goals and 11 points in nine games, of course.

With a 14.3 shooting percentage, some of this is luck. He hasn’t been in the double digits in shooting percentage since that 2012-13 campaign, when he connected on 12.7 percent.

It’s not just his scoring and shooting luck that’s going up. Brown has 35 SOG in nine games, close to four per night. He only averaged 2.19 per contest last season. He’s generally been a player who fires the puck quite a bit, so while that number should slip, it might not go down as much as you might expect.

… At least, if he sticks with Kopitar. The Selke-level center isn’t just boosting Brown’s scoring opportunities through the roof, he’s also transforming Brown’s overall opportunities. Since 2013-14, Brown has clocked in at about 16 minutes of ice time per night. In 2017-18, he’s at 20:03.

Again, much like Kings trying to pass the Karlsson matchup torch around, it’s plain to see that Kopitar deserves an enormous chunk of the credit here. Still, with Jeff Carter on IR and the Kings still fairly challenged from a depth standpoint, Los Angeles is likely to give that top line every chance to keep things going, so the Brown rebound could be a real(-ish) thing.

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.

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.”

 

Celebrate Labor Day by pondering the ‘hardest working’ NHL defensemen

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It’s Labor Day (or Labour Day), so hopefully you’re getting those last summer nights/hot dog grillings out of your system.

(Not just talking to you, Phil Kessel.)

With the holiday in mind, it seems sensible to get into the theme of things and ponder the “hardest working” players in hockey. For the record, these lists are based on stats, so feel free to project your own opinions about hustle/grit/other things that would show up on a John Cena t-shirt.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing to discuss some stats that don’t get as much attention.

Defensemen tend to be some of the biggest workhorses in the sport, so this first post will be devoted to them.

For forwards and goalies, check out this post.

Sheer volume

In maybe the least surprising development imaginable, Ryan Suter continues to stand out as a guy who just logs an inane amount of ice time.

Suter headlines a list of five players who’ve logged at least 8,000 minutes of regular-season ice time from 2013-14 through 2016-17.

1. Suter: 9,201:55
2. Drew Doughty: 8,906:33
3. Erik Karlsson: 8,897:18
4. Shea Weber: 8,116:20
5. Alex Pietrangelo: 8,055:50

(Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi are very close behind them.)

Killing penalties is one of the toughest jobs, and it can be a very specialized one. Using the 2013-14 to 2016-17 standard, only one defenseman logged 1,000 penalty minutes. Meanwhile, six players logged at least 900.

1. Andy Greene: 1,115:48
2. Alex Pietrangelo: 996:28
3. Zdeno Chara: 986:38
4. Karl Alzner: 935:08
5. Jay Bouwmeester: 945:03
6. Francois Beauchemin: 900:15

(Big-minute guys Doughty and Weber also ranked up high in penalty killing.)

For a significant defenseman, Pietrangelo carries a considerable workload. Consider how much tougher his role has become over the last few seasons.

2013-14: 52.3 percent offensive zonne starts vs. 47.7 defensive
2014-15: 48.4 offense, 51.6 defense
2015-16: 46.9, 53.1
2016-17: 43.1, 56.9

Pietrangelo still manages to produce offensively, so the 27-year-old is quite the all-around gem.

Gritty leaders

However you feel about certain “grit” stats and how helpful they actually are for a team, it’s easy to admire players who put their bodies on the line.

Using the framework of 2013-14 to 2016-17, Kris Russell easily leads the NHL in blocked shots with 907, even doing so in 277 games while Dan Girardi comes in second place with 719 in 300 contests. Russell blocks a hearty 3.3 shots per game.

It’s easier to understand Girardi slowing down when you consider the bumps and bruises he likely endures. Girardi blocked 719 shots during that span, and he also delivered 690 hits. (Shea Weber is a similar bruiser: 637 blocked shots, 644 hits in 313 games.)

Karl Alzner piles up those grit stats while spending a lot of time on the PK, which is predictable but also commendable.

***

These stats don’t guarantee that the listed defensemen work “harder” than others. Still, it’s easy to get lost in possession stats and other considerations, and lose sight of how much effort goes into the dirty work in hockey.

If you’re bored and hockey-starved on this holiday, consider clicking around the above links to notice certain names that show up consistently. It might give you a greater appreciation for players you otherwise might have dismissed.

Wild salary cap outlook with Granlund, Niederreiter signed

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The Minnesota Wild are a fascinating team to observe, especially after several players received a shot in the arm playing under Bruce Boudreau.

While the team still needs to settle matters with RFA Marcus Foligno, GM Chuck Fletcher navigated the choppy waters of a challenging off-season, dealing with the expansion draft and finding fair compromises with Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund.

Now that Fletcher avoided arbitration hearings with Niederreiter and Granlund, this seems like a good time to take a wider look at the Wild’s salary structure. In doing so, we’ll see quite the mix of good, bad, and uncertain.

Crossing their fingers

There’s no sense ignoring the twin elephants in the room: matching $7.54 million cap hits for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, which don’t run out until after the 2023-24 season. As of this writing, Suter is 32 and Parise is 33.

The debates regarding Suter’s ultimate value seem like they’ve died down in recent years, likely because he doesn’t get the same Norris hype that he once did. Right now, it seems like he’s in a reasonable spot, especially since his workload is at least trending toward something more reasonable. He averaged 26:55 TOI in 2016-17 after receiving between 28:36 in 2015-16 to a ridiculous 29:25 in 2013-14. In the grand scheme of things, Suter is fine, though Boudreau would be wise to continue to spead the wealth to Minnesota’s other defensemen.

After many years of outstanding work, Parise now stands as arguably an even bigger concern than Suter.

This is a situation where one must consider value, as Parise is still a fine player; injuries are the main reason he didn’t fall in his typical 25-goal range.

Other signs inspire a bit more concern. His per-game point average was just .61 last season compared to his career average of .8. Parise also didn’t shoot as often (2.8 vs. 3.39 for his career) and has been less of a possesion driver in the past two seasons.

Maybe some of those 2016-17 struggles were injury-related, but it’s tougher to ignore such worries when Parise makes so much money, for so long.

Not every costly veteran sets off alarms, though.

Mikko Koivu enjoyed such a resurgence last season that he was a Selke finalist, but that $6.75M still feels less foreboding when you realize it expires after 2017-18. Maybe he’d take a discount to help his long-time team compete?

Strong deals

Chalk up Granlund at $5.75M and Niederreiter at $5.25M to good-to-great deals.

The Wild’s most promising contract likely goes to Devan Dubnyk, however. At $4.33M, Dubnyk’s delivered at-or-near-elite goaltending for Minnesota. At 31, there’s some reason to expect an eventual decline … but that’s some strong value on paper.

Naturally, goalies are an unpredictable lot, but Minnesota’s outlook has come a long way since the end of the Niklas Backstrom era.

Eric Staal‘s brilliant rebound season makes his $3.5M look like a steal, and at 32, there’s a solid chance that it will remain that way for the two years that cover his current deal.

Mysteries

There are some fascinating situations in Minny.

They saved money in sending Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to Buffalo for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. Even so, Ennis has had serious injury issues, making his $4.6M look a bit risky. Then again, what if Boudreau once again revitalizes a flawed talent?

Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker both eyeball RFA statuses after this season, while Charlie Coyle seems like he could go either way on his $3.2M deal. It also remains to be seen if Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin can take that “next step.”

***

Not that long ago, the Wild seemed to be stuck in limbo.

To the credit of Fletcher, Boudreau, and some emerging talents, things look a lot more promising today. The Wild have about $4.8M in cap space according to Cap Friendly, and while Foligno is likely to eat up some of that, there’s at least breathing room there.

It’s not a perfect situation, yet the Wild stand as a reasonably viable contender … though they haven’t yet enjoyed the sort of deep playoff push you’d expect with all of that spending.

Top prospect Kunin has eyes on making Wild roster this season

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After losing Jason Pominville, Alex Tuch and Erik Haula this offseason the Minnesota Wild have some open spots that will need filled this season.

They are hoping that 2016 first-round pick Luke Kunin will be one of the young players that is capable of stepping up to fill one of them.

By all accounts he was one of the most impressive players at the Wild’s development camp and has his sights set on making the roster this season.

“My first camp was about putting a footprint down and trying to get the organization to see what I’m all about,” Kunin said this week, via the Pioneer Press. “I want to show growth and get better every day. That’s the way I like to look at things.”

The Wild selected Kunin with the No. 16 overall pick in 2016 and he followed that up with a pretty dominant performance this past season at the University of Wisconsin where he scored 22 goals and added 16 assists in 35 games. He was a point-per-game player in his two years with the Badgers before turning pro.

He ended up getting a brief look with Minnesota’s AHL team, the Iowa Wild, at the end of last season and made an immediate impact with five goals and three assists in his first 12 games.

With big money players like Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise at the top of the lineup the Wild had to shed some salary this offseason by trading veterans Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella to help create space to re-sign restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund (neither has happened yet).

They will almost certainly get significant raises and become part of that big money core. As long as teams are going to invest that much money in the top of the roster it is always going to be essential to have cheap, young talent filling spots on the roster to make an impact for a low cap hit.

Based on what he showed in his brief look in the AHL last season, as well as his pedigree as a top-16 pick in the draft, there is reason to believe that Kunin could be just that type of player for Minnesota.