James O'Brien

Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers’ biggest question: Can Lundqvist avoid a decline?

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Every now and then, we need to remind ourselves that Henrik Lundqvist is, you know, human.

Sure, he looks ageless, and his stats always seem to shine (even amid an up-and-down 2014-15 season).The New York Rangers have gone as far as the stellar Swede could take them for about a decade now, so some probably think his greatness is as inevitable as death and taxes.

The truth is that he’s not infallible, and at 33, you have to wonder if a decline is coming.

Granted, people have been pondering a possible drop-off basically from the moment that he signed that massive seven-year, $59.5 million extension in 2013. Blogger-turned-Carolina-Hurricanes-employee Eric Tulsky provided a great breakdown back then, yet even he seemed to struggle in forecasting Lundqvist’s future.

Blueshirt Banter said it well while giving Lundqvist a B+ grade for last season:

Father Time is undefeated World Champion. But based upon the above, I think we all need to quit our belly-aching about the imminent demise, or decline of Henrik Lundqvist. He’s got some more elite years hiding in that glorious head of hair.

Goalies are a tough nut to crack as far as predictions are concerned, yet that’s what has made Lundqvist’s dominance so daunting: he seems like the one guy you can count on to be great (if not elite). Year in and year out, he gets it done.

The problem is that the Ranger still lean on him too much. With all of their spending and the 2015 Presidents’ Trophy win, it might seem like he’s asked to do less, yet Lundqvist and Cam Talbot camouflaged a defense that was shaky at times last season.

With Talbot gone and Antti Raanta in his place, it’s possible that the Rangers are that much more reliant on Lundqvist. What happens if he suffers another slow start and/or injuries? What happens if his reflexes begin to dull?

Much like the question of decline, the hypothetical scenario of Lundqvist falling off is probably familiar to Rangers fans (who are seasoned at learning that the answer has always been “Nope, he’s still great”).

What happens if the answer is “yes” in 2015-16?

Under pressure: Derek Stepan

Derek Stepan
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It’s conceivable that Derek Stepan wanted even more than he received from the New York Rangers, but a six-year extension with a $6.5 million cap hit still stands as an enormous deal.

The 25-year-old’s contract is worth a total of $39 million, and he’ll see his highest salary in 2015-16 and 2016-17, as the Rangers will pay him $8 million (and a $1 million signing bonus) each year.

When the deal went down, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton explained that the team wanted to lock up a big-time player.

“[You] want players who can play big in the big moments on the biggest stage — and there is no bigger stage than New York City,” Gorton said, via Blueshirts United. “Derek has proven he can do that.”

Well, now Stepan will face a different kind of pressure: proving that he’s worth the money.

Rangers history is littered with the shattered expectations of Rangers who ended up being cap catastrophes, something that once defined the tenure of long-time GM Glen Sather. On the bright side, the team’s had better luck when they shell out big cash to homegrown talent, most obviously with Henrik Lundqvist.

Stepan’s scoring continues to come along each season. Despite being limited to 68 games in 2014-15, Stepan generated 55 points, nearly matching his 2013-14 output (57 points in 82 games).

Stepan’s been a strong playoff performer, as well, and that will need to continue after some key personnel losses this summer.

One of those changes came in the retirement of Martin St. Louis, a situation that could be quite interesting for Stepan, his frequent linemate.

Stepan’s possession numbers were downright ghastly in 2014-15, but it’s plausible that some of those struggles may be attributed to his veteran partner’s decline.

The American forward is in the prime of his career, so he’s in a solid position to live up to expectations. That’s good, because they’ll rise in a big way with that big contract.

Gio won’t go: Flames extend Giordano for six years, $40.5M

Anaheim Ducks v Calgary Flames
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It seemed like the Calgary Flames were going to have a big elephant in the room regarding Mark Giordano’s expiring contract next season. They removed that problem in a huge way on Tuesday.

The Flames announced a six-year contract extension for the Norris-caliber defenseman. Multiple outlets including TSN’s Bob McKenzie report that the cap hit will be $6.75 million, which would make the deal worth $40.5 million overall.

That contract will kick in beginning in 2016-17, making Giordano the highest-paid member of the Flames. He’ll make the same $6.75 million for each year of that deal, according to The Canadian Press’ Stephen Whyno.

While that’s an expensive deal out of context, that cap hit is quite the steal if Giordano remains one of the best defensemen in the NHL, which was absolutely a fair label for the veteran in 2014-15 before his season was cut short by injury.

(Really, you couldn’t hear Norris talk around awards season without “it would have been Giordano if he didn’t get hurt” …)

Here’s one additional detail about the contract, via General Fanager:

The Flames now boast a tremendous group of blueliners signed to long-term deals:

Giordano: $4.02 million in 2015-16, $6.75 million through 2021-22
Dougie Hamilton: $5.75M through 2020-21
TJ Brodie: $4.65M through 2019-20

Slight concerns amid a mostly joyous situation

Now, this does leave a few questions. Is someone like Dennis Wideman going to be the odd man out? Will this make it more difficult to re-sign the fantastic trio of Jiri Hudler (UFA), Johnny Gaudreau (RFA) and Sean Monahan (RFA) after 2015-16?

You really have to strain to see the downside for the Flames, however, as this is a bargain by expensive, high-end defensemen terms.

The genuine worry is age. Giordano is 31, he’ll turn 32 in October and will be 33 around the time his next contact kicks in.

With that “price of doing business” concern out of the way, it’s ultimately a pretty fantastic deal for the Flames.

‘Hurt, upset, embarrassed’ Sydor checks into treatment center

sydor
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Minnesota Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor voluntarily entered the league’s substance abuse program three days after being arrested on suspected drunk driving and child endangerment charges, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports.

Specifically, the 43-year-old entered an inpatient treatment center in Malibu, Calif., on Monday; he’ll spend at least 30 days there.

His attorney Ryan Pacyga explained Sydor’s state of mind to the Star-Tribune yesterday.

“He’s hurt, he’s upset, he’s embarrassed by his actions, and his family is, too,” Pacyga said. “Right now, it’s about Darryl taking care of himself and really getting his arms around this.”

Sydor’s attorney spoke with the Wild and the league on Monday.

There’s no update regarding Sydor’s situation with the Wild, other than the fact that nothing’s officially changed just yet. He’ll still be at the treatment center when Minnesota’s training camp kicks off on Sept. 17.

The Star-Tribune notes that Sydor is scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 17.

Pens’ plan for now: Crosby starts as Kessel’s center

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins
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A lot can change between today and training camp, let alone the regular season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins plan on starting Phil Kessel out on Sidney Crosby’s line.

(Head coach Mike Johnston made note that the course could easily be altered.)

Under this setup, Evgeni Malkin would likely center a line including Patric Hornqvist. One would assume that Chris Kunitz would fill out the Crosby – Kessel combo, but again, this is pure speculation in August.

The biggest “loser” of this scenario may just be David Perron, at least if he was bumped down to the third line. Roster Resource’s depth chart really shows how much the Penguins’ roster has changed this off-season.

Back in July, PHT took an early look at the debate regarding pairing Kessel with Crosby or Malkin, pointing to some takes that “Geno” might work better with the sniper than No. 87.

You can find a succinct discussion of that argument from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen:

With Kessel and Malkin on the ice together, there would be constant movement and interplay between two threats able to score on virtually any possession in the attacking zone.

Crosby plays more of a north-south game of direct lines and quick puck movement. Crosby’s linemates have to think the game quickly, react quickly, and be ready in a hurry. He wants his wings to be predictable.

Scoring lines are generally fluid in the modern NHL, yet in late August, it’s fun to get an update like this. Which way would you lean if you were in Johnston’s shoes?

Barring bad injury luck, Kessel should be a happy man in either scenario.