James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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NHL stars admit skipping Olympics will be ‘weird’

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The NHL became entwined with the Olympics before young stars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews even pulled on a pair of skates.

Nagano in 1998 started a string of five consecutive Olympics featuring NHL players, a tradition that became so routine that young players around the world added dreams of winning a gold medal to their hopes of someday lifting the Stanley Cup.

“I’ve always been alive in the days where the NHL teams allow their players to go to the Olympics,” Eichel said. “I’ve had a lot of good memories watching the Olympics and seeing a lot of great players play, so it’s something you’ve always looked up to.”

There’s nothing to look forward to this time: Instead of going to South Korea this winter to play for their home countries, NHL players face an 82-game season that will keep right on going on during the Olympics. The Games will instead include a mix of players from the minors, colleges and Europe.

“It’s going to be weird for everybody,” said Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, who was hoping to make Canada’s Olympic team. “It won’t feel right watching other guys wear that maple leaf and they’re good players, but they’re not the best players in the world at that tournament. Whoever wins it, hopefully Canada wins it. That’d be awesome. But it just won’t feel the same. They’re not world champions, technically, because they’re not the best players.”

Almost six months since the league announced it would skip the Pyeongchang Olympics, most of the NHL’s best players are resigned to their missed opportunity. That Canada won’t have Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews to go for the three-peat, that McDavid, Matthews and Eichel won’t make their Olympic debuts quite yet.

Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, who was vocal about saying he’d go no matter what, said last month that he and other players have never had to choose between their NHL teams and the Olympics, and “should not have to be in position to make this choice.” Washington Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov said after not making the team for Sochi that he thought about signing in the Kontinental Hockey League so he could play in Korea, while countryman Vladimir Tarasenko simply expressed frustration that a lifelong dream and a chance at Russia’s first Olympic gold with NHL players was snatched away.

“It’s very disappointing you’re not going to have the chance to be there when we have as short of careers as we do,” Swedish defenseman and Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson said. “It’s going to be some guys’ only opportunity to go and they’re not going to be able to since it’s not our decision to not attend.”

That decision belonged to NHL owners, who saw no tangible benefit from stopping the season for over two weeks to let players take part in the Olympics.

“The fact of the matter is, we find the Olympics incredibly disruptive with no positive benefit, no opportunity to promote our presence or anything else of the Olympic experience,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We have enough experience to understand what the Olympics represents. The people who suggest that somehow this is an opportunity to grow the game, it didn’t grow the game in Japan, it didn’t grow the game in Italy.”

The league believes playing exhibition games in China and regular-season games in Sweden does more to grow the game than the Olympics. But NBC Sports, which has the league’s national television rights, will instead be showing the Olympics this February with no NHL games scheduled on its networks between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25, the day of the gold-medal game, and the trade deadline set for Feb. 26.

During that time, New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh expects teammates to root for their countries. Considering the 13-hour difference from the Eastern time zone (noon ET is 1 a.m. the following day in Pyeongchang), it may be difficult for players to watch, but many will try.

“Like any fan of sport I like to watch the Olympics, so I’ll definitely be paying attention to it,” McDavid said.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Patrick Kane said he will be interested to see which players are chosen.

A lot of players have friends or former teammates in the running to make a national team, which adds a silver lining to the bitter disappointment.

“There’s going to be a couple guys that I know who are going who maybe would not have had an opportunity to play in the Olympics ever,” Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “I’ll be pulling for them, but it’s almost going to be like a world juniors situation where you’re rooting for your team and you’re rooting for your country, but you wish you were there to participate. It’s going to be cool to see them in that light, but I wish I was there with them.”

The possibility certainly exists that the NHL returns to Olympic competition in 2022 in Beijing and goes again in 2026, especially if the Games are in North America. That’s a concern for another year, and McDonagh expects the importance of this season and playoff races will be ample distraction come February.

“It might be a little bit of a unique situation,” McDonagh said. “As soon as you get into that game-day routine and stuff, your focus will kind of take over and take care of itself and you’ll understand the importance of what’s in front of you here and not wishful thinking of what could be.”

Is Jack Eichel really worth $80M to the Sabres?

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Is Jack Eichel really worth $10 million per season, especially over eight years?

That question will be batted around Hockey Twitter on Tuesday and through much of 2017-18, even though that mammoth, historic extension won’t kick in for the Buffalo Sabres until 2018-19.

There are a number of names that come to mind when we consider Eichel’s extension. In the simplest of terms, you could look at this deal as the midway point between Leon Draisaitl‘s eight-year deal ($8.5M per year) and Connor McDavid‘s contract ($12M).

It’s the Draisaitl example that might scare the Sabres the most.

After a middling rookie season, Draisaitl scored 19 goals and 51 points in 2015-16. Playing alongside Connor McDavid, getting some nice bounces (16.9 shooting percentage), and blossoming as a player proved to be the perfect storm for Draisaitl to make a bunch of money. Imagine how much money the Oilers might have saved if they signed Draisaitl last summer, instead?

Those are the sort of conundrums that keep GMs up at night, and there’s some reason to believe that Eichel might have exploded for a much bigger 2017-18.

Eichel’s sophomore season was derailed by injuries, while he was quite impressive as an 18-year-old rookie. Consider that, either way, the dangerous shooter’s “puck luck” has been quite ordinary.

What if Eichel were to stay healthy this coming season and enjoy some luck along Draisaitl’s lines in 2016-17, or better? What if the Sabres enjoy similar growth to the Edmonton Oilers, making the playoffs and thus giving the curly-haired dynamo even more leverage?

Now, there are certainly some counterpoints. The Sabres getting this done now instead of a year later gives them less time to determine his value. This could be a consideration if injuries beguile Eichel throughout his career.

Still, it’s honestly tough to imagine Eichel’s value sinking far below $10M per season after a contract year. He’s already an impressive talent, and greed can be good for stars of his caliber.

Also, consider the situation from a PR standpoint.

Unlike Draisaitl, Eichel is the face of the Sabres’ franchise right now. It’s plausible that Eichel will enjoy a season as productive or better than Auston Matthews, a guy in a somewhat similar spot who could lock down a contract after his sophomore season.

If Eichel and Matthews both had monster years, and the Maple Leafs locked up their star first … well, that wouldn’t be great.

Now, the Sabres don’t need to worry about that. They also send a message that teams often do: Eichel is a star, and a piece of their core. You don’t wait-and-see with your most important players. The Oilers didn’t do that with McDavid and paid a premium in waiting with Draisaitl. The Pittsburgh Penguins have benefited from good CBA timing, yet they’ve also been consistently proactive with locking up Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Yes, Eichel is at least a stride behind the best of the best … at least right now. Maybe he’ll be on a lower tier for good.

Still, from here, this investment seems like the best move considering the circumstances. If you want to compete in sports, you often have to spend money to make money.

Let’s have fun with this, though. Share your thoughts in the comments. In a few years, we might laugh or wince at these immediate Eichel reactions.

Sabres, Jack Eichel agree to eight-year, $80M extension

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The Buffalo Sabres made it official: they signed Jack Eichel to an eight-year, $80 million extension right before the opening of the 2017-18 season.

Note that Eichel still needs to burn the final year of his entry-level contract, so that $10M cap hit kicks in starting in 2018-19.

Rejoice, Sabres fans. You won’t need to spend more time in suspense regarding the future of this franchise’s most important player.

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Hockey Twitter was abuzz after NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen stated that the Buffalo Sabres are about to announce a long-term deal with Jack Eichel, with a wide variety of reporters quickly backing Tappen up. As updates have shown, that tweet turned out to be correct.

Here’s the Tappen tweet of note:

 

Eichel, 20, is about to enter the final year of his entry-level contract, so that extension wouldn’t begin until 2018-19. Cap Friendly projects Buffalo’s 2018-19 cap spending to about $46.56M as of this moment, so Eichel would bump them to somewhere in the area of $56-58 million.

It’s easy to see this price tag for Eichel and wince, yet there’s a strong chance he’s worth it, from both and on-ice and PR standpoints. The Sabres might also note cases like those of Leon Draisaitl, imagining that waiting could cost them even more money.

Tom Wilson gets four-game suspension

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This time around, Tom Wilson‘s preseason suspension won’t stay in the preseason.

The Washington Capitals’ polarizing, hard-hitting winger received a four-game suspension for boarding Sammy Blais of the St. Louis Blues. This comes shortly after Wilson received a two-game preseason suspension for a different hit.

The key, though, is that this time he’ll miss time that “matters” and also lose salary. The NHL explained that there wasn’t really an opportunity for a clean, shoulder-to-shoulder hit in this specific case. His status as a repeat offender also came into play:

Wilson, 23, will miss Thursday’s season-opener at the Ottawa Senators, Saturday’s home-opener against the Montreal Canadiens, an Oct. 9 road game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and an Oct. 11 home contest vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. His first game of eligibility is a road game against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 13.

The suspension costs Wilson $97,560.96.

Golden Knights, NHL team up to donate $300K for ‘Vegas United’

via Vegas Golden Knights
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The Vegas Golden Knights, NHL, and the Foley Family Charitable Trust announced that they combined to make a $300K donation to help first responders and those affected by the Las Vegas shooting from Sunday.

Under the “Vegas United” banner, the Golden Knights and other NHL teams will honor victims and push to generate more donations during season-opening games.

The Golden Knights also shared “prayers and heartfelt condolences” following news of the mass shooting. You can read their statement here.

For more information on that tragic situation, check out NBC News’ coverage here.