James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Ekblad isn’t flustered by Panthers’ great expectations


SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Aaron Ekblad is fully aware that the Florida Panthers will be dealing with a new issue this season, that being the burden of preseason expectations.

He’s not bothered.

The Panthers reached the playoffs and won the Atlantic Division last season, two major steps for a franchise that has known almost nothing but struggle since reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first and only time in 1996. And with a young core of talent now basically locked up for years – the 20-year-old Ekblad is under contract through 2025 – anything less than a playoff run next spring would be a disappointment for Florida.

“In the end, your guys’ expectations and everyone else’s expectations mean absolutely nothing,” Ekblad said. “It’s our expectations. As players, on a personal level and on a team level, we have expectations that exceed all of yours times 10. In the end, we’re the ones who have gotten here. We’re the ones who have pushed ourselves beyond measure to get into this situation.”

And what is this situation?

“We believe we can do it,” Ekblad said.

Ekblad has been an All-Star defenseman in each of his first two NHL seasons, and he’s already one of the faces of the franchise. Hockey hasn’t caught basketball – even after Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat this week for the Chicago Bulls – or football in terms of popularity among the South Florida sports landscape, but the fact that these Panthers are getting attention in the summertime shows how far the franchise has come.

The Panthers announced his $60 million, eight-year extension (which kicks in next summer) last week, then held a news conference at their arena on Thursday to announce the deal again. There’s some offseason rebuilding projects going on in the arena, and there was some remodeling of the roster this summer as well.

There’s more than two months before the start of training camp, but it’s hard to find a time when optimism has been this high for Florida.

“We put ourselves in a good position,” Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said. “Are we a definite Stanley Cup, going-away winner right now? I don’t think you can rule us out but it’s not a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination. But I think we’ve got the horses now to have a deep run in the playoffs.”

Ekblad will be a big key, if or when that deep run ever comes.

He’s seemed unfazed by whatever came his way in his first two seasons with the Panthers. His confession came Thursday: He’s not always as cool as he appears.

“I try to keep it all in my head,” Ekblad said. “I really try to put a face on that no one really knows what’s going on inside my head and I think a lot of players from a lot of different sports have that. Obviously, every night, I go to bed and I think about all those things and all those pressures. But more or less just have to use it as motivation and that’s what I’ve done over the last couple years.”

It’s working for him, and it’s working for the Panthers as well.

Sobotka’s agent says he’s returning to the Blues


Vladimir Sobotka’s agent told GM Doug Armstrong that the forward is leaving the KHL to return to the St. Louis Blues, according to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This backs up other signs that Sobotka might come back to the Blues, as discussed back on June 20.

Naturally, there’s the disclaimer that nothing is official, which Rutherford notes.

There’s no word yet on how much Sobotka would cost if he does indeed return to St. Louis. His last one-year deal was for $2.725 million back in 2014-15. He enjoyed solid production during the past two seasons with Omsk in the KHL, but didn’t put up the sort of numbers that would inspire the kind of deal that would break the bank.

Cap Friendly pegs the Blues’ cap space at $8.7 million, but RFA Jaden Schwartz is likely to eat up a significant portion of that free room. It wouldn’t be shocking, then, if Sobotka carries a similar salary to that $2.275 million cap hit at age 29.

Sobotka figures into the Blues’ plans to try to put a deep offensive attack on the ice:

Again, it could always fall through, but this sounds like a sensible move.

He’s really gone: Pavel Datsyuk signs two-year KHL deal


It’s not surprising news, but for fans of the magical forward, it’s a sobering reality: Pavel Datsyuk really is gone from the NHL.

Friday presented the latest round of closure, as Datsyuk officially signed a two-year deal with KHL team SKA, according to reporters including the Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James.

Aaron Ward reports that the deal is worth the equivalent to $7.6 million overall.

While Datsyuk carries a $7.5 million cap hit that is currently being absorbed by the Arizona Coyotes, he was slated to receive $5.5 million in salary next season. This move obviously isn’t motivated by money, as Datsyuk decided to return home to Russia after years of contemplation.

It was a great run, but days like these really clarify the sad reality that Datsyuk’s NHL days appear to be over.

Trade: Ducks nab Jonathan Bernier from Leafs for conditional pick


Jonathan Bernier went from a sitting duck in Toronto to a member of the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

The Ducks sent a conditional draft pick to the Maple Leafs to bring in Bernier.

It’s unclear at the moment what kind of conditional draft pick we’re talking about, although it sounds like the selection will come from Anaheim’s pool of 2017 NHL Draft picks.

It sounds like this deal is essentially housekeeping from the swap that sent Frederik Andersen to the Maple Leafs earlier this summer. For a cost-conscious team like the Ducks, waiting until a signing bonus rolled around made a lot of sense:

The Ducks should have plenty of intel on Bernier. The Los Angeles Kings drafted him 11th overall in 2006, yet Jonathan Quick‘s ascension pushed Bernier out.

Randy Carlyle also got plenty of looks at Bernier in Toronto (where the goalie occasionally managed to bail the Buds out, at least on his better nights).

Bernier clearly wasn’t in the Maple Leafs’ longer-term plans, so it makes sense for them to cut their losses with the goalie rather than keep him around for the 2016-17 season.

While this is a low point in Bernier’s career, this is a great opportunity for him to prove himself. As we’ve seen in other situations,* goalies can turn perception around in little time. The Ducks aren’t shy about going with the hot hand in net, either, so you never know when Bernier could enjoy a big rebound.

* – Steve Mason in Philadelphia, Jacob Markstrom in Vancouver and Devan Dubnyk in Minnesota, just to name three quick examples.

Bruce Boudreau’s attitude should be a boon for Eric Staal, Wild


By handing Eric Staal a three-year contract, the Minnesota Wild made it pretty clear that they believe that the former Carolina Hurricanes captain can bounce back.

Even with that in mind, new Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau seems like he can make a difference as a positive force, and that might be seen with Staal in particular.

Staal seems to think that Boudreau is a proponent of what he brings to the table, as he told the Pioneer Press.

“Bruce is someone that I believe, through the phone conversations I’ve had with him, believes in my game and believes in me,” Staal said. “He will give me every opportunity to try to rekindle some of that offensive flair I’ve had over the years and haven’t had in the last couple.”

Chris Stewart called Boudreau being in Minnesota “a bonus” after spending one season with the bench boss. Boudreau described himself as a “positive communicator.”

Hockey is a brutally physical sport, and many of the game’s best coaches are known to “bark” at players.

(OK, so Mike Babcock leans more toward a scowl, but you get the point.)

Still, with how highly trained professional athletes can be, a kinder and gentler approach might succeed in its own way. If you ask profoundly successful NFL head coach Pete Carroll, teamwork inspires people to “work harder.”

If you can get past the playoff disappointments for a moment, one factor that distinguishes Boudreau from others is his willingness to be flexible. He found a way to adapt when the Ducks weren’t scoring, molding them into a more defensive-minded group.

Now, let’s not pretend Boudreau is totally averse to screaming fits. HBO’s 24/7 series caught plenty of profanity-laced tirades during the tail end of his Capitals days.

The moments that cameras don’t capture are simply more likely to make a difference, both for Staal and for the Wild overall.