James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Blue Jackets GM spins Columbus’ lack of a ‘first-line center’

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One of the themes of this off-season has been the desperate rush for young, high-end defensemen. Many teams are practically tripping over their own feet to add one.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are different.

In acquiring Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen, a big part of their future is set.

On the other hand, the Blue Jackets lost a key component in Johansen: a true No. 1 center.

The Blue Jackets look like they’re heading into the 2016-17 season with the following pivots: Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson. GM Jarmo Kekalainen did his best to put a positive spin on the situation to the Columbus Dispatch.

“People might say that we don’t have a first-line center,” Kekalainen said. “But I think we have real solid, 200-foot centers.”

The spiciest bit came in Kekalainen asking Karlsson “Do you want to be a fourth-line center your whole life?”

(You should totally steal that line to annoy a friend or loved one when things really drag during the dog days of the hockey summer.)

One has to wonder how much heat Kekalainen is feeling right now.

Jones has a promising future, so much so that we may look at the Blue Jackets as the winner of that trade. Even so, the Blue Jackets are an awfully expensive team to lack a No. 1 center, a virtual prerequisite for Cup contention.

How far can you go with a “Grind it out” mentality? The Blue Jackets are about to find out, as that seems to be their identity, thanks in part to the makeup of some of their most prominent centers.

Report: Bruins are ‘kicking the tires’ on a Kris Russell deal

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With Loui Eriksson gone, David Backes in the mix and the potential for even more changes via trades, the Boston Bruins are already primed to look very different in 2016-17.

Will they go the extra mile to improve their blueline, though?

There’s no denying their hunger for a “transitional defenseman” on top of those tweaks down the middle, and CSNNE.com’s Joe Haggerty reports that the Bruins are “kicking the tires” on a possible deal with Kris Russell.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney addressed being unable to find the “right fit for those players at this point in time” during a press conference on Friday, so maybe the “right fit” isn’t so far away?

In discussing bringing back John-Michael Liles, Sweeney ticked some of the boxes that would also be in favor of Russell: the “sort of guys that are able to defend and be hard but also having guys that can transition, get up and down the ice, get back on pucks and move pucks.”

There’s no denying that Russell has his strengths and weaknesses, but you could probably sell Sweeney on his credentials in those areas.

(See more about the pros and cons of Russell in this UFA of the Day post.)

Speaking of selling, the bidding war might end up being a lot for the Bruins and other teams to stomach.

This post breaks down the variety of reports and rumors, with a $5 million cap hit being a possible price tag.

Yikes.

If Russell draws a contract that meets or exceeds those rumors, it would be difficult to call the team who lands him a “winner.”

The Bruins appear to be involved in that auction, at least to some extent.

Doan isn’t budging and Coyotes aren’t budging, but he wants to stay

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How close are Shane Doan and the Arizona Coyotes to a deal, really?

The messages are mixed, even when you’re basing your judgments on Doan alone.

Craig Morgan provides an interesting update on the negotiations for 98.7 FM Arizona Sports, starting off with the positives: Doan believes the two sides are close enough that he’s “not worrying about other teams.”

His agent seems to contradict the notion that the two sides are close, however, and it sounds like the haggling isn’t over.

“I feel the market that is set for me is different from what they think the market is and that’s really the extent of it,” Doan said. “They’re not budging and I’m not budging, but nobody’s mad at each other. We just have a different view. They’re saying ‘you’re a 40-year old player. There’s not really a market for you.’ I’m saying, ‘I led the team in goal scoring. There is a market for that.'”

Hmm.

On one hand, it’s easy to understand why the long-tenured Jets-Coyotes fixture would want to stick with the only team he’s known for decades.

On the other, wouldn’t those other teams provide a gauge for the market value that the two sides can’t seem to agree upon? It sounds like he might have had some offers to sort through during the Friday Frenzy:

To be more specific, Doan said he received 12 offers with three being “substantial.”

You would think that the two sides could meet somewhere in the middle and find a compromise. Still, you never know when “We’re not mad at each other” will turn into “Yeah, we’re mad at each other.”

Reimer is ‘excited to learn from’ Luongo in Florida

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Aaron Ekblad will not be a free agent for a long time. That alone made this free-agency day for the Florida Panthers an overwhelming success.

The Panthers have locked up their star 20-year-old defenseman for eight additional years, the sides formally completing the work Friday on what will be a $60 million extension that keeps him in Florida through the 2024-25 season. The deal was announced on the first day of the NHL’s free-agent signing period, though Ekblad was still under contract to Florida for the coming season.

“I don’t think it’s any secret,” Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. “He’s a guy we want in the fold for a long time to come.”

Ekblad was an All-Star in each of his first two years with Florida, and now clearly becomes a face of a franchise that believes it is getting closer to finally hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“Couldn’t be happier,” Ekblad wrote on Instagram as he posed in a Florida jersey.

He was the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft and already is Florida’s franchise leader with eight career game-winning goals.

“An exceptionally skilled, intelligent and mature young player that is a difference maker for our team both on and off the ice,” Rowe said.

The Panthers won the Atlantic Division last year, reaching the playoffs for just the second time in 15 seasons. The ownership group led by Vincent Viola has made no secret that it is driven by winning a championship, and Florida is starting to look like a real potential contender.

“He bought the team to win a Stanley Cup and the players that we’ve got here all want to win a Stanley Cup,” Rowe said. “We felt what we did today gives us a better chance of doing that.”

There were other moves, including the signing of goaltender James Reimer to a five-year, $17 million deal to share the workload with starter Roberto Luongo.

Reimer has spent six seasons in the NHL, mostly with Toronto. He also appeared in nine games – eight regular-season, one playoff – with Stanley Cup finalist San Jose this past season.

Reimer came to South Florida to see the Panthers’ facilities Friday and was quickly convinced he was making the right decision.

“We’ve got a great team and great management and ownership, they’re passionate about winning,” Reimer said. “As a player, that’s the organization you want to be a part of.”

Luongo is still one of the best in the NHL, but the Panthers have been mindful of not overusing their 37-year-old goalie. He’s sat out roughly one of every four Florida regular-season games in each of the last two years and had offseason hip surgery. The Panthers made a trade for former Colorado backup Reto Berra late last month. If Luongo isn’t ready for opening night, Berra would begin as Reimer’s backup.

“We really targeted Reimer as a guy we see long term,” Rowe said.

So Reimer’s role will hardly be a limited one, and he’s looking forward to being with Luongo.

“He’s a heck of a goalie, he’s an elite goalie and I think his personality is known across the league,” Reimer said. “He’s just a great guy. For me, I’m excited to learn from him.”

Reimer’s arrival means Al Montoya‘s time as Luongo’s backup is over, and longtime Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell is gone as well, as was expected, particularly after the team landed Keith Yandle late last month. Campbell is going back to the Chicago Blackhawks for next season.

Florida also added a pair of forwards Friday, signing Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault to two-year contracts.

Sceviour had 11 goals and 12 assists with Dallas last season, then added five more points for the Stars in 11 playoff games. Marchessault had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games for Tampa Bay last season.

Rowe coached against Sceviour in the AHL and sees him as a third-line option right away for Florida.

“It’s a young league and the game’s getting faster every year and we felt the guys we picked up today, it gave us more skill and definitely gave us some quicker guys at that third-line position,” Rowe said. “It gives (coach Gerard Gallant) some options, more options than we had last year.”

Maple Leafs glad not to splurge with ‘too much money’ going around

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Sometimes the biggest “winners” of free agency are the teams that decided not to get on the dance floor.

The cash thrown around on July 1 has been dizzying; The Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno places the spending at about $650 million.

With Steven Stamkos off the market, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t contribute much to that spending, as Matt Martin‘s four-year, $10 million contract was their “headliner.”

Going big after the flavor of the month isn’t usually the style of Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, as he related to Sportsnet.

“I think that everything that happens these days, it’s too much money,” Lamoriello said. “I don’t see many contracts that were signed that were not too much money. I’ve said this year in and year out.”

Granted, some might believe that Martin’s contract is a little too much money and a little too much term, yet Martin-type deals aren’t the ones that submarine teams.

(Speaking of which, Lamoriello didn’t sound too optimistic about Joffrey Lupul, who owns one of those regrettable deals.)

Now, sure, the Maple Leafs probably would have bent their own rules if Stamkos was available. We’ll never know what kind of offer they really would have trotted out.

Some executives might have acted emotionally by trying to land the next biggest thing, sometimes over-extending themselves instead of soberly gauging the market.

That used to be a painful way of life in Toronto, but it looks like times are changing, even if that means accepting that a patient approach means less funny on big days like these.

Then again, fans could always start dreaming about guys like John Tavares in future summers …