James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Reilly Smith thinks he’s found a home with Panthers

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Reilly Smith is still just 25, yet he isn’t that far removed from fears of traveling down the dreaded “journeyman” path.

He was at a fork in the road in 2015-16: either stick with the Florida Panthers after being traded from the Boston Bruins or find himself bouncing around the NHL some more.

(Heck, as Corey Crawford mentioned, ‘tweeners sometimes must even ponder leaving North America entirely.)

Smith was already on his third team when he joined the Panthers, but he made a big impression with the Cats. He generated a career-high with 25 goals, and maybe most importantly, wowed with eight points in six playoff contests.

The financial reward was significant: a five-year, $25 million contract extension.

It’s about more than just money, however.

Sticking with a team with such potential and chemistry – not to mention getting that security with a nice term – made the move a “no-brainer” for Smith, as he told the Miami Herald.

“I feel like I’ve found a home here in Florida,” Smith said.

“That means a lot. … I’m still fresh in my career, and I hope there’s a lot more good times still to come.”

With a modified no-trade clause, Smith also has some say regarding where he goes if the good times hit an abrupt stop.

The young forward has to feel pretty nice about being part of the core of this team as it pivots to a new direction. The front office staff changed in dramatic ways while Brian Campbell and other familiar faces were replaced by the likes of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers.

Smith and Vincent Trocheck really earned their spots in 2015-16, and they now enjoy life as established players.

Some are more convinced than others that this will all work out, but if nothing else, Smith has to be awfully happy at the moment.

What a difference a year makes …

Speaking of finding a home with the Panthers … Jonathan Racine hopes to eventually do so. He signed a one-year, two-way deal with the team today.

Predators’ messy legal battle may go to arbitration with NHL

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A chancellor will rule within the week on whether a co-owner of the Nashville Predators can keep his lawsuit against the team’s ownership group in a Tennessee court or have to submit to arbitration.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle heard nearly three hours of arguments Wednesday on a motion that would force David Freeman out of her court and back into arbitration with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Freeman, a former team chairman, sued Predators Holdings LLC and current team chairman Tom Cigarran on June 23 and is seeking $250 million in damages for his original 48 percent stake in the team being diluted.

The lawsuit states that Freeman, through Commodore Trust, organized the Holdings investment group in 2007 to keep the Predators in Nashville. But it charges that some Holdings members “have conspired to repay his dedication to the team and community by claiming that Commodore owns less than one percent of Holdings.”

The lawsuit also states that members of the Predators ownership group have refused to treat Commodore Trust as an owner and have repudiated Holdings’ “commitment to compensate plaintiffs in return for tens of millions of dollars of loan guarantees that kept the Predators solvent and in Nashville.”

The complaint names Cigarran “the chief architect of this scheme.”

Freeman has been involved in other NHL arbitration cases over the past year, but the lawsuit argues that Bettman cannot be impartial because he has an obligation to protect the league.

At Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys for Freeman and Commodore Trust – which is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit – argued that league rules are so overly broad that they wrongly could allow the commissioner to arbitrate this case. They also argued Freeman is technically not a co-owner of the team but rather an investor in a trust whose business dispute should not be decided by the commissioner.

Lawyers for both Predators Holdings and the NHL defended the commissioner’s impartiality and the league’s constitution, which gives Bettman the right to handle disagreements among both clubs and owners through arbitration. They also said Freeman agreed to arbitration when he signed consent agreements as part of buying the Predators in December 2007.

Which teams inspire the most and least confidence from their fans?

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Earlier this week, The Hockey News’ Dominik Luszczyszyn published the results of a survey of 200 people to see where all 30 NHL front offices stand on a “confident index,” and it’s a highly entertaining read.

Sure, there aren’t a ton of surprises, as most people would likely agree with the positions of many franchises after a wave of big off-season moves.

Still, it’s interesting to see where your own views and the views of others link up.

Maybe the least surprising thing: the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning seem pretty miserable as of the summer of 2016.

Yikes.

Here are the bottom five:

30. Canucks – 2.91
29. Canadiens – 3.68
28. Bruins – 3.69
27. Oilers – 3.90
26. Rangers – 4.15

Seems a little harsh for the Rangers, even if it’s reasonable to criticize their direction. Is this regular playoff contender really doing worse than the teams that immediately follow them in Columbus (4.31) and Colorado (4.37)?

That’s the fun thing about lists like these, though.

The Tampa Bay Lightning clocked in at No. 1, although apparently GM Steve Yzerman still believes he has work to do.

While the Rangers are interestingly low, the Panthers’ polarizing off-season seems more like a smash-hit on this list; they’re ranked No. 2 behind the Lightning, besting the Penguins (who come in at fourth after winning the Stanley Cup).

There are some remarkable steps up and down in perception on this list, particularly when you consider things like the changing viewpoints on the league’s three California teams.

Note: Some take issue with the sample size of the survey, as you can see from the Vancouver Province’s own poll.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a fun read as long as you take everything with a grain of salt.

Perhaps perceptions will shift even more in three months?

Corey Crawford pondered leaving NHL early in his career

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Corey Crawford ranks as one of the most established goalies in the NHL, so it’s bewildering to consider how many times he could have gone down a different path.

CSNChicago.com points to an interesting “What if?” scenario early in his career, as Crawford admitted that he considered leaving the NHL during early developmental struggles.

“I stayed pretty motivated most of the time, but obviously it’s hard to (be in the minors) for your entire career,” Crawford said during Saturday’s “My Path to the NHL” panel at the ninth annual Blackhawks Convention. “There were definitely times when I thought I’d might like to move on, maybe go play in Europe or go try and play in Russia if I could.”

Such a thought is a reminder that Crawford traveled a bumpy road to becoming the Chicago Blackhawks go-to goaltender.

Let’s take a look back at some of his ups and downs even as he finally became a fixture at the highest level.

2010-11

As mentioned before, he played in 57 games. Here’s something to jog your memory: he battled for playing time with Marty Turco.

(Yes, that really happened.)

The Vancouver Canucks ultimately bounced Crawford and the defending champion Blackhawks from the first round.

The Blackhawks handed Crawford a three-year deal during the off-season, hoping to avoid a repeat of seeing Antti Niemi get poached.

2011-12

Crawford once again played 57 games, yet the story of that season seemed to be his sophomore slump.

Both Crawford and Ray Emery struggled while the Blackhawks flirted with signing Martin Brodeur.

(Another hard-to-believe memory.)

2012-13

Much like the previous season, Crawford and Emery produced similar regular season results. Of course, this time around, both goalies put up fantastic numbers as they shared the William Jennings Trophy.

Crawford carried the load in the postseason despite their comparable numbers, which was the obvious move in retrospect as he helped Chicago win its second Stanley Cup of the Patrick KaneJonathan Toews era while Emery’s faced his struggles ever since.

Granted, people were really worried about Crawford’s glove hand, so there were still moments when he could have gotten derailed.

Just look at headlines from that time that went along the lines of “his future is still cloudy.”

2013-14

This was an up-and-down year, with Nikolai Khabibulin’s name briefly resurfacing and Crawford prompting his coach to call him out from time to time.

There were still times when he looked shaky, particularly when the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings traded blows in a high-scoring series.

2014-15

Now we enter the two-year span where Crawford really silenced doubters.

Sure, there was that stretch where Scott Darling replaced him for a playoff start or two, but Crawford helped the Blackhawks win another Cup and put up strong numbers more often than not.

2015-16

As much as that Stanley Cup run cemented Crawford’s status, this past season was just as effective in making his argument.

Chicago wasn’t quite as dominant, yet Crawford set a career-high with 35 wins and matched the nice .924 save percentage he generated in 2014-15. He played well enough that Kane considered him an All-Star snub.

***

Wow, quite a ride, right?

There were a few forks in the road for Crawford and the Blackhawks, but both parties must be glad that he stuck around.

Islanders’ new owners insist Tavares won’t become a free agent

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As the ink was drying on Steven Stamkoscontract extension, many joked that Toronto Maple Leaf fans turned their free agent daydreams to John Tavares.

With Tavares’ current hyper-bargain deal not expiring until after the 2017-18 season, that’s a situation that is pretty far off, but the New York Islanders’ new owners seem confident that they’ll avoid that sort of Stamkos drama.

As Lighthouse Hockey and others note, Jon Ledecky said that Tavares “isn’t becoming a free agent” during last weeks town hall meetings.

Those are bold claims, especially since the Islanders can’t even attempt to sign Tavares to an extension until next summer, the year before his deal expires.

Some would look at losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen as a blow to the team’s Stanley Cup dreams, even if Andrew Ladd is a solid addition.

However you feel about this specific summer, the new ownership group insists that their checkbook is open, and New York Newsday notes that they’re hoping to roll with the heavyweights in free agency.

“We should be the world-class destination for free agents,” Ledecky said during the meeting. “If you think about a capped world, everybody can spend to the cap, and we certainly have no constraints on our GM and our staff to spend. We want to create and continue to progress toward John Tavares lifting that Stanley Cup, so we should be world-class in everything we do.”

At minimum, Ledecky and Scott Malkin are making an impression, even winning over skeptics like New York Post reporter Larry Brooks, who praises the duo’s attention to detail.

Brooks’ piece is a fascinating peek into the challenges the two face in addressing fans on Long Island and in Brooklyn, noting that Ledecky emphasized that “We’re the New York Islanders.”

Retaining Tavares would be an enormous step in the direction of indeed becoming a world-class destination, and the Isles have time to back up their big words and surround their star with quality support.

If nothing else, Ledecky and Malkin seemed to make a world-class first impression.