James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Johansson’s price might push Capitals to make a trade

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Contending teams must often make a difficult distinction between a good player and a “core player.”

The Washington Capitals could very well feel that sting if they decide that pending RFA Marcus Johansson‘s asking price is simply too steep.

GM Brian MacLellan dropped some hints that the Swedish forward might not fit into the Capitals’ budget when addressing the media on Tuesday.

Johansson’s a nice piece, no doubt, but he’s been bumped down the pecking order thanks to a combination of added veterans (Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie) along with rising young forwards (Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky).

Even if a trade isn’t happening, it sounds like Johansson’s deal might be the first domino to fall.

If teams are looking to make a move, perhaps quality depth players would be involved in the exchange:

Hip surgery sidelines Callahan; Kessel for Team USA after all?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning announced that Ryan Callahan will need five months to recovery from hip surgery.

In case you’re wondering, they’ve already said that Callahan won’t be able to play for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey.

At least one report indicates that Callahan was struggling with that “lower-body injury” late in the season and into the playoffs:

If five months is accurate – hockey players are known for returning early, as you likely know – then Callahan would miss the first month or two of the 2016-17 season.

There’s not much positive spin from Callahan’s side, yet a few are wondering if this wrong might help correct a perceived wrong: leaving Phil Kessel off Team USA.

Well, if they want Kessel to play, they better send a decent-sized plane.

No, the Flyers won’t try to copy the Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup by leveraging their considerable speed and skill.

While the Philadelphia Flyers possess certain qualities that might allow them to go more pedal-to-the-metal, they’re clearly going to do things their own way.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall explained the pitfalls of trying to follow someone else’s blueprint to CSNPhilly.com.

“The one thing I’ve learned over the years is you have to be very careful being a copycat,” Hextall said on Thursday. “When you start chasing everybody, you go away from your foundation and the very next year a team that plays a totally different style wins a Cup.”

Hextall insists that there’s “no real blueprint where you can say this is the only way to win.” The once-fiery netminder believes in building “through the middle” and focusing on “goaltending, defense, centers.”

Pretty simple stuff, yet signs of progress definitely seem to surface, starting with this past surprise playoff run.

When asked if the Flyers are in better shape now, he evokes Walter White.

“Are we better than we were last year? As a team, as an organization, our depth chart, damn right we’re a lot better,” Hextall said.

Don’t be surprised if Hextall soaks in some summer sun and makes the Flyers’ outlook even brighter during the off-season. The team seems like it’s in very capable hands.

Teuvo two? Blackhawks reportedly sign Nick Schmaltz (Update)

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The Chicago Blackhawks signed North Dakota standout Nick Schmaltz, according to reporters including AZ Sports’ Craig Morgan and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine reports that it is a three-year, entry-level contract.

Schmaltz, 20, finished up an impressive sophomore season at the University of North Dakota, helping them win their eighth national championship. The Blackhawks selected him 20th overall in 2014.

Some might view it as asking for too much, but there’s some thought that Schmaltz could serve as a replacement for Teuvo Teravainen.

Update: 

The Hawks made the signing official on Sunday afternoon.

GM Stan Bowman said as much after Teuvo was traded, describing him as a “dynamic player,” as CSNChicago.com notes.

Now, that doesn’t mean Schmaltz can jump right in and play at a comparable level to No. 86, although the Blackhawks keep reeling off nice support players (often more rapidly than expected).

Schmaltz isn’t the only North Dakota prospect for Chicago, who recently signed Luke Johnson. You may feel like the name is familiar for good reason; his brother Jordan Schmaltz was the 25th pick in 2012 by the St. Louis Blues.

Again, people are pretty excited about Nick Schmaltz.

UFA of the Day: Kris Russell

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Every day until June 30, we’ll write about a pending unrestricted free agent. Today’s UFA of the Day is …

Kris Russell

Kris Russell often feels like the inkblot test of NHL defensemen; opinions vary on him to a remarkable degree.

Around trade deadline time, TSN’s Bob McKenzie believed Russell could command a cap hit exceeding $5 million. Not longer after, when the Dallas Stars made the divisive trade to acquire Russell, some wondered if he was even superior to Jyrki Jokipakka (who was just a piece in the swap):

Some call him “incredibly overrated” and point to sometimes-horrific possession numbers, yet the talking points in his favor can generate a beefy contract: he scores some points, blocks shots and moves the puck.

“He just always seems to make the right play,” Alex Goligoski said shortly after the trade, according to Sportsnet. “There’s not a team in this league that guy wouldn’t help. So it’s a great pickup for us.”

Indeed, there are marketable qualities, yet even traditionalists will find him puzzling. He blocks shots like a stay-at-home defenseman, but he’s short of stature and was exposed badly in his own end during the playoffs.

Defending Big D captured that experience in a post that is relatively kind to Russell:

Russell and his partner that series, Jason Demers, were brutally victimized at the hands of the Blues. St. Louis had an obvious gameplan from the get-go, to use their big size and heavy forecheck to inflict punishment on the small Stars defenders, and it worked to perfection against the Russell-Demers duo. Dallas’ blueline had effectively countered heavy forechecks all season long by using speed, smart puck movement and proper defensive-zone positioning to get themselves out of trouble, but Russell had serious trouble executing all of these key points once the chips were down.

If there is one consensus, it’s that he’s headed for a raise above his $2.6 million cap hit. Some may wonder if he’ll be worth the raise, but it’s coming.

The first place to look is Dallas. The Stars paid a price for Russell and have a serious need on defense.

That said, Dallas is eyeing a youth movement on defense, especially with Alex Goligoski’s rights shipped off to Arizona. GM Jim Nill could very well allow Russell, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn to leave town, too.

Demand is strikingly high for defensemen who can keep things moving, so Russell would likely draw secondary interest for any team in that market.

The Boston Bruins seem like a reasonable mention in any of these discussions. Maybe the New York Rangers view Russell as a cheaper version of Keith Yandle. Russell makes sense as a Plan B for defense-starved teams that aren’t quite as swayed by possession stats.

Russell serves as a fascinating litmus test.

Click here for all our 2016 UFA profiles.