James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Report: No extension, no problem for Jack Eichel

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It’s reasonable to assume that this has been a pretty good summer for Jack Eichel, at least in an indirect way.

Just look at the big, eight-year deals the Edmonton Oilers handed out. Whether it be Connor McDavid getting $12.5 million per year or Leon Draisaitl receiving $8.5M in AAV, each contract seems like it would be a small victory for Eichel’s camp.

FanRag’s Chris Nichols transcribed interviews Buffalo’s WGR 550 conducted with Darren Dreger and Alex Tanguay, providing some interesting perspectives on Eichel possibly entering the 2017-18 season without a contract extension locked down.

The most important takeaway likely comes from Dreger, who reports that Eichel would be OK with the idea of a contract year.

“My sense a week or even two weeks ago was that they were still very hopeful that they would get a settlement done here, they would reach an agreement prior to the start of the season,” Dreger said on WGR 550, via Nichols. “There’s still that possibility, but I’m now getting the sense that – certainly from the player’s perspective – he’s okay starting the season without this contract extension in place.”

Tanguay believes that the Sabres might be the greater beneficiary of Eichel playing out the year, but considering Eichel’s importance to Buffalo, it’s tough to imagine the second pick of the 2015 NHL Draft coming at a major discount.

The best is yet to come

Eichel enjoyed a strong rookie season, scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games in 2015-16. Despite missing 20 games this past season, Eichel once again scored 24 goals and finished with 57 points, firing 249 shots on goal during that time.

Scoring 57 points in 61 games would translate to 76 points in an 82-game season. While you could argue that maybe fatigue would slow Eichel a bit in that scenario, it’s interesting to note that Eichel would have generated virtually the same results as Draisaitl did in 2016-17 (the Oilers forward had 77 points).

Beyond even those injury woes, Eichel hasn’t enjoyed a ton of puck luck yet in his career. Draisaitl, for example, scored 29 goals with a 16.9 shooting percentage. Eichel only connected on 10.1 and 9.6 percent of his high volume of shots in his first two seasons.

It’s plausible that the Sabres could make a big push toward competence as a team next season, and Eichel could see a big jump. Draisaitl himself went from 51 to 77 points, enormously improving his perceived value in the process.

(Eichel, for one, believes that Buffalo could make the playoffs.)

At 20, Eichel is easily in the range where a talented player could make a huge leap, especially if there’s the extra motivation of a contract year involved (whether he went through the full thing or the Sabres eventually decided to pony up).

Risk-reward

If healthy, Eichel seems likely to eclipse 30 goals and 70 points. What if he enjoys a hot streak, though? He boasts the opportunities and skills to reach as high as 40 goals and 80 points, possibly costing the Sabres extra millions in their gamble.

MORE: What might his contract look like?

And that, really, is the question: how much would the Sabres really stand to save in waiting? Eichel has reason to sign if there’s a fair deal, too, as an extension provides peace of mind in a violent sport where injury luck can be fickle.

In many cases, teams send a clear signal that their core guys are a priority, locking them up to extensions just about as early as possible.

Eichel is an integral talent for the Sabres, so they might as well treat him as such. It might just save them a few bucks in the process.

Owen Tippett thinks he has ‘the upside of Phil Kessel’

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When it’s time for the NHL Draft, you’ll see people compare unproven prospects to very-much-proven stars. As usual as those comparisons can be as shorthand, they can often come across as comical.

It’s a lot more fun when the prospect makes the comparison for you.

In discussing his chances of making the immediate jump from being the 10th pick of this past draft by the Florida Panthers, Owen Tippett evoked the name Phil Kessel, as Sportsnet’s Luke Fox reported about a week ago.

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett said.

Ah, the 200-foot player talk. That might stand as the most interesting part of Fox’s piece, as it seems like a lot of effort was made to explain why a player would want to emulate Kessel, a prolific scorer and repeat Stanley Cup champion.

“Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. Guy’s scoring 30-plus goals a year. Pretty good guy to want to play like,” Trainer Mike Nichol said. “People are quick to look at the fitness issue. Well, I’ve had Phil Kessel here in this gym. He’s unbelievably strong. For a hockey player, he’s world-class strong. Super powerful guy.”

It’s a “laser beam” shot that first links Tippett and Kessel, as observers believe that the would-be Panthers rookie can really pick the corners.

If nothing else, this is a reminder of another remarkable thing about Kessel: how quickly he became an NHL contributor. Kessel went from being the fifth pick of the 2006 NHL Draft to playing in the 2006-07 season, scoring 11 goals and 29 points in 70 games. He almost scored 20 goals the next season and then generated 36 goals and 60 points in 2008-09.

(He also survived testicular cancer in 2006.)

Can Tippett really manage that jump, even a more modest version of it? Well, the Panthers seem like they’re opening the door wide open for Tippett to do so. As a reminder, Panthers GM Dale Tallon said back in July:

“He’s going to get every opportunity,” Tallon said. “I don’t have any problem and [coach Bob Boughner] and our coaching staff don’t have any issues playing young guys. We’re building a team that’s going to be around for a long time and we’ll give him every opportunity to play this year.”

So, it sounds like Tippett will get his chance to reach that Kessel potential next season.

Wheeler almost seems desperate for Jets’ success

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If you’re putting together a list of the most underrated scorers in the NHL, Blake Wheeler would probably rank close to the top.

For the last four seasons, he’s scored at least 26 goals, and he’s only missed three games during that entire span. The 31-year-old seems to be growing into his well-earned role as Winnipeg Jets captain about a year after he was given the “C.”

Of course, when you’re a team’s captain, you likely hear about it when … say, they’ve never won a single playoff game as a franchise.

As fantastic as Wheeler can be, that must eat at him. He expressed such a sentiment to reporters including the Winnipeg Free Press’ Jason Bell this past week.

“It’s gotta be this year, it just has to be,” Wheeler said. “We have enough talent. There’s no reason why we can’t push this to the next level this year. It’s going to be about getting this group together and figuring out how we have to play to win hockey games.”

Wheeler, like just about anyone, acknowledged that the Jets need better goaltending. On paper, the team addressed that issue by finally – mercifully – saying goodbye to Ondrej Pavelec while bringing in Steve Mason. The Mason – Connor Hellebuyck pairing stands as the best duo of Wheeler’s time with Winnipeg/Atlanta.

That could be faint praise, especially if Wheeler & Co. hang their goalies out to dry, as has been a problem for this Jets team at times.

Even if their defense struggles, the bar isn’t too high for an improvement in Winnipeg’s own end. The Jets’ team save percentage was the fourth-worst in the NHL in 2016-17. If the Jets can generate chances on par with their usual efforts – quite reasonable when you consider quality veterans such as Wheeler alongside rising young talent including Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers – then merely average goaltending might propel them to new heights.

Such a scenario would be ideal, as it’s likely that Wheeler isn’t the only one who’s losing patience with the glacial pace of the Jets’ improvement.

Tyler Johnson: Best shape of my life candidate?

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This may or may not become a running feature on PHT …

Ah, September.

For NHL fans, this month signals training camps, at least in non-lockout years. It also means that, for some weary readers, there will be a lot of stories about Player X being in the best shape of his life.

By no means is this a hockey-specific phenomenon. One imagines that somewhere, there are articles about dart throwers discovering yoga and totally changing the ways they aim at the board.

Assuming this trope surfaces again, let’s have fun with it. And part of having fun with it means taking a look at how certain stories might still transcend the trope enough to be interesting, or at least different.

Tyler Johnson provided the latest example, although credit him (or the author of the piece, the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith) for not uttering the best shape of his/my life phrase.

Johnson, 27, has been plagued by injuries lately, particularly when it comes to hurting his wrist. His summer routine includes a mixture of the usual, like switching to the Keto diet …

“I changed everything,” Johnson said. “I changed the way I ate, the way I trained, the way I moved. I think it feels a lot better.”

… But there were also fancier elements, such as Johnson going as far as to take  an ASPI (Applied Science & Performance Institute) body science test.

The ASPI site is pretty nifty; it even has a DNA strand to let you know that things are about to get science-y.

So, it seems like Johnson is taking this seriously, which is nice for the Tampa Bay Lightning what with that costly contract extension and all. As a teammate of Steven Stamkos, you wonder if Johnson at least considered Gary Roberts’ intense training regimen as well, but maybe next year?

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If you want a change of pace, Jonathan Toews actually took it easier this summer, positing that “might have overdone it” during previous off-seasons. More on that from CSN Chicago.

Blue Jackets face big cap decisions after Wennberg signing

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Aside from some concerns about his numbers being inflated by a robust Blue Jackets power play, the majority of the reviews were very positive for Alex Wennberg‘s new deal with Columbus.

(Read more about his six-year deal with a $4.9 million cap hit here.)

Locking up the intriguing 22-year-old talent settles a big question for the Blue Jackets, but after looking at their salary structure, some agonizing decisions remain. Let’s look at some of those situations and their cap future overall, with help from Cap Friendly’s always-helpful listings.

Commitments

Wennberg is signed through 2022-23, making his deal the longest-standing contract on the Blue Jackets’ roster right now. There are other significant deals, though.

The best one, for my money, is Seth Jones: his $5.4M cap hit runs through 2021-22. The 22-year-old is already starting to put together the numbers (career-high 12 goals and 42 points last season) that make him more than what he already was: a developing star. Even if he bounces somewhere between “very good” and “legit star,” just about any team would fork over $5.4M per year for Jones.

David Savard isn’t too shabby at $4.25M through 2019-20, standing as the only other blueliner with a lengthy deal for CBJ.

Wennberg’s deal stands along with two other forwards as far as lengthier contracts go. Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21) really improved his standing in the league last season, while Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M through 2020-21) poses some concerns considering his rougher style and the fact that he’s already 31.

(Then again, you can have worse things on your resume than “Premium Sidney Crosby Disturber.”)

Contract years

Several Blue Jackets face especially fascinating fork-in-the-road seasons.

Cam Atkinson exploded with an All-Star output last season, finishing with career-highs in goals (35), assists (27), and points (62). Ten of his goals and 21 of those points came on that power play, and being that he’s already 28, Columbus might be right to see if he slips a bit before making a big investment.

That said, Atkinson probably ranks as an underrated player, or at least he once did. This marks four straight seasons with at least 21 goals and 40 points.

The question isn’t about Atkinson getting a raise, but instead the keys are “How much of a raise?” and “For how long?” Atkinson carries a $2.9M AAV and would be an unrestricted free agent.

(More on Atkinson’s contract year here.)

After a surprising 30-goal season in 2015-16, Boone Jenner went to 18 goals and 34 points last season. At 24, he’s in an interesting spot as an RFA carrying a $2.2M cap hit.

Ryan Murray ($2.825M) and Jack Johnson ($4.357M) round out the headliners among the contract years, with all due respect to Matt Calvert and Oliver Bjorkstrand.*

Both defensemen are intriguing. Murray, 23, has experienced a frustratingly stilted development thanks to injuries. Johnson, 30, draws plenty of criticism for his defensive play, and one would guess that Columbus would prefer to get a discount on another deal if they bring him back.

(Here’s hoping Johnson sticks around the NHL one way or another, considering his financial/familial mess.)

Huge decisions

As significant as those expiring deals are, the two-year contracts stand as the biggest choices.

A year after injuries and inconsistency made Sergei Bobrovsky‘s $7.425M cap hit look questionable, a brilliant Vezina year (albeit somewhat tainted by playoff struggles) make that price look like a borderline bargain. Still, “Bob” is 28, so he’ll be 30 at the end of his current contract. If he wants a significant raise on a fairly significant clip, will Columbus be on board?

There’s some room for intrigue, as Joonas Korisalo’s $900K deal goes away after two years, as well.

“Cost certainty” was a theme of the Blackhawks’ explanations for their sometimes-shocking summer swaps, and that thought stands out in what Columbus got back in trading Brandon Saad, whose $6M cap hit expires in 2020-21. Artemi Panarin, meanwhile, is only covered through 2018-19 at the same $6M clip.

If Panarin proves that he can generate a ton of offense without Patrick Kane, his price tag could be significant; he’d only be 27 and is slated for UFA status. *Gulp*

The good news is that Zach Werenski (or Zachary?) stands as a tremendous rookie-deal-steal at $925K for two more seasons. The bad part is that Werenski would be in line for a big raise in 2019-20 and beyond.

With Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Werenski all having two years remaining on their contracts, it’s clear that Columbus has some decisions to make, whether they hand out extensions in the summer of 2018 or wait until deals expire.

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Considering how dour things seemed for Columbus just a summer ago, the outlook is a lot sunnier today.

Even so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen faces some crucial choices in the next year or two. Which ways would you lean?

* – Some Blue Jackets execs might root for a Bjorkstrand breakout in 2018-19.