James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Marner wants more clutch, defensive role with Maple Leafs


The Toronto Maple Leafs were propelled by the excellent play of rookies in 2016-17, and Auston Matthews wasn’t the only first-year-difference-maker.

There were times when people wondered if Mitch Marner was enjoying an even better freshman foray into the NHL, and while the ultimate argument – and Calder trophy – went to Matthews, that’s still quite the start.

Marner, 20, isn’t stopping there.

As The Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby reports, Marner wants more.

Marner hopes to be on the ice in more “clutch” situations. He expects more teams to target the Leafs as a legitimate threat, much like Mike Babcock does. Marner also seeks more defensive responsibilities in 2017-18.

“You want to be out there to get a game tied so you can win it in overtime,” Marner said. “You want a bigger role, go out on every shift like it’s your last.

“Defense has always been important to me, it was always taught first. You’re always trying to see the guy coming in so they can’t back-door us.”

In his rookie season, Marner began 55.9 of his shifts in the offensive zone vs. 44.1 of them in his own zone. His possession numbers were solid but unspectacular, at least from the standpoint of limiting other players’ chances.

Also, much like Matthews and other young players, Marner barely registered any ice time on the penalty kill.

That honestly might be the smart way to play those guys, regardless of their ages. There’s a school of thought that you’re better off saving your best players for even-strength and man-advantage situations, so Marner could conceivably be better off with similar deployment even if his all-around game improves.

There’s also some argument about whether his diminutive size will keep him from heavier defensive assignments.

If nothing else, the clutch argument might be one area where Marner indeed gains some ground.

When the Leafs need a goal, they may very well be better off loading up with both Marner and Matthews on the same line. It would be even more interesting to see if Marner would be used often when Toronto is the one protecting a slim lead, instead.

Babcock is one-part progressive thinker, one-part old-school type, so perhaps it will take time for Marner to earn trust in those crucial situations. Excelling in those areas could force Babcock’s hand, though.

Oh, and in other news, Marner got a really clutch tattoo of Neptune this summer. Maybe this will slow down some of the heckling about him looking like a child?

Eh, baby steps, kid.

Panthers add Harry Zolnierczyk to PTO mix


The Florida Panthers already handed a PTO offer to Brandon Pirri, and now they’re doing the same with Harry Zolnierczyk.

With Radim Vrbata, Evgeni Dadonov, and Micheal Haley already added to the roster with full contracts this summer, the Panthers will have some work to do in integrating new players (and adjusting to the departure of guys like Jonathan Marchessault, Jussi Jokinen, and Reilly Smith).

Zolniercyzk – called Harry Z by anyone interested in brevity or typo avoidance – last suited up for the Nashville Predators. Harry Z played in 24 regular-season games and 11 playoff contests, averaging less than nine minutes of ice time per contest.

(As you can see, he had enough time for Matt Cullen to put him in a headlock during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, so there’s that.)

Report: Pastrnak’s agent to ask Bruins about eight-year deal on Friday


The Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy caught up with Bruins exec Cam Neely and David Pastrnak‘s agent J.P. Barry, and there are some awfully interesting updates regarding the rising forward’s negotiations.

Most pressingly, Barry told Conroy that the two sides are set to speak again on Friday, and there will be an argument made from Pastrnak’s side for an eight-year deal.

Barry backed up reports that a six-year, $36 million contract (which included a $6M cap hit) wouldn’t be enough.

Somewhat refreshingly, Neely addressed one of the burning questions head on: how would Leon Draisaitl‘s eight-year deal with an $8.5M cap hit figure in?

“If it looks like an abundance of players and the market has shifted, then you should look at it, but if it’s one player that you’re hanging your hat on then I don’t know if that’s a market shift,” Neely said. “I don’t know if the market has really shifted as much as people think.”

Interestingly, Neely also noted that while there was some early talk about a shorter “bridge” contract for Pastrnak, there hasn’t been much dialog in that regard recently.

All things considered, it might not be easy to talk Pastrnak’s price down that far from the Draisaitl price point. The two players generated similar numbers in 2016-17, although perhaps there could be some argument that a center might be worth more than a winger.

Neely mentioned that the Bruins’ own spending wouldn’t factor in much, yet that could conceivably be a useful talking point.

After all, Draisaitl could point to Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M and say, “I might not be worth that, but I’m worth about two-thirds, right?”

The Bruins’ highest cap hit is David Krejci at $7.25M, with Tuukka Rask at $7M. Theoretically, Neely and/or GM Don Sweeney could ask Pastrnak how much more he’s really worth than, say, Patrice Bergeron or Brad Marchand.

The fact that Pastrnak is an RFA (with quite a few RFA years to burn) also gives the Bruins leverage, whether the Oilers took advantage of their own leverage with Draisaitl well enough or not.

At least Bergeron provides some optimism, as CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty notes.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, although one can understand Bruins fans getting a little uneasy as this all drags out.

Whoa, Ryan Malone gets tryout with Wild


NHL teams hand out PTO invites for training camp to some unlikely candidates, but the Minnesota Wild might just take the cake.

The Wild raised some eyebrows by handing Ryan Malone a tryout offer.

Malone, 37, hasn’t seen NHL action since 2014-15.  That run was even limited, as he only played six regular-season games with the New York Rangers before spending most of his time in the AHL.

Even then, Malone was something of a reclamation project after experiencing personal issues toward the end of his run with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It sounds like he’s a significant long shot to make the big club, even by PTO standards.

If nothing else, there’s an answer to the question “Whatever happened to Ryan Malone?”

Report: Tavares, Islanders haven’t discussed money yet


Look, John Tavares is going to get paid. And he deserves it, especially since the New York Islanders have been enjoying one of the best non-rookie-deal bargains in his $5.5 million cap hit.

There are details to work out, depending upon how much money he wants to leave to build around him and how long a commitment Tavares prefers to make.

Unrestricted free agency isn’t just about squeezing out every dime, after all. It’s as much about finally getting the chance to choose where you work and who you work with.

That’s especially relevant with the Islanders, a team that missed the playoffs in 2016-17 and has been dealing with arena issues. With those factors in mind, it’s not surprising that TSN’s Darren Dreger, Newsday’s Arthur Staple and others report that money hasn’t been the focus of conversations.

Dreger confirmed as much via Tavares’ reps.

In a way, these updates are almost scarier for the Islanders.

GM Garth Snow at least took some measures to try to improve the team around Tavares by trading for Jordan Eberle, although it cost the Isles Ryan Strome and they then traded Travis Hamonic.

Bolstering the team the Islanders put around Tavares and securing the arena they play figures to be challenging and possibly complicated. It could be months before the Islanders get some clarification about their arena situation, for instance.

The good news is that Tavares stated that he’s in “no rush” to settle this, although that does little to calm the nerves of Islanders fans right now.

Tavares is justified in wanting a stable situation for the Islanders before he signs with them, particularly considering the team has only won a single playoff series since 1992-93 (with Tavares starring, of course). You only get so many chances to sign a big deal with a team of your choice, so Tavares should do whatever he can to make the right choice.

It sounds like the Islanders will get a real chance to prove that the best option is for Tavares to stay put, at least once they move into a cozier spot.

For what it’s worth, 60 percent of voters in a PHT poll believe that Tavares will re-sign with the Islanders.