James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Eichel on Sabres: ‘We think we can be a playoff team’

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This deep into the salary cap era, it feels like it’s generally easier to identify which teams are contenders and which teams need to rebuild. Things seem fairly “stratified” in the NHL.

That said, there’s still that murky middle class of teams that could either slip into the cellar or fight their way into the bubble. With a cleaner bill of health, a management shakeup, and some off-season tweaks, the Buffalo Sabres stand as one of those tough teams to peg.

So, some might snicker at Jack Eichel thinking big while discussing the Sabres’ outlook with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, but the rest of us might not be so sure that he’s totally off the mark.

“We think we can be really good,” Eichel said. “We think we can be a playoff team. That’s what’s important. We have to go into training camp with the right mindset, get the season off and running, put our best foot forward.”

(Hey, for what it’s worth, almost 70 percent of voters in a PHT poll leaned toward Buffalo making the playoffs.)

If the Sabres make a big push, just about everyone expects the 20-year-old to be a central figure in such a turnaround. With Connor McDavid‘s meteoric rise and the Sabres’ struggles in mind, it’s easy for casual fans to forget that Eichel is trending toward stardom in his own right. But he clearly is.

It can’t hurt that Eichel and some other key Sabres are approaching contract years, even if Eichel could very well sign an extension in the near future.

Even if Eichel does, both goalies (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson) need new contracts, while Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, and others also enter seasons that could make a huge impact on their futures in Buffalo or elsewhere.

One would expect at least some improvement in Buffalo, but will the Sabres make the sort of leap that, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed in 2016-17?

It’s difficult to say, but Eichel sure seems happy about getting a clean slate.

Under Pressure: Chuck Fletcher

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This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

The Minnesota Wild have employed two GMs in their history: Doug Risebrough, the franchise’s architect, and Chuck Fletcher, who’s been in charge – somewhat startlingly – since 2009.

In that time, the Wild have spent a lot of money, particularly in landing local stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Even if you dismiss John Torchetti since he was interim head coach, Fletcher’s had plenty of opportunities as far as hiring coaches goes, as the franchise has gone through Todd Richards, Mike Yeo, and now employs Bruce Boudreau.

Fletcher deserves some credit for the fact that the Wild ‘s active playoff streak of five seasons, particularly since they missed the postseason from 2008-09 through 2011-12. Still, this team has peaked with two second-round trips and hasn’t ever won a division title under his watch.

It’s almost become a tradition in Minnesota: whatever happens during the regular season – and it seems, whoever’s behind the bench – the end result is always disappointment … and even so, Fletcher preaches patience.

Still, you wonder how much patience remains above Fletcher, particularly when you consider how Wild owner Craig Leipold regretted the bold move to land Martin Hanzal at the trade deadline.

“In hindsight, geez, I wish we wouldn’t have done that,” said Leipold, per the Minneapolis Tribune. “I supported that decision at the time, and I’m willing to live with it.”

Yeesh, how long is Leipold “willing to live with” Fletcher’s teams falling short of the mark, though? It had to cut deep for Leipold to see his former team, the Nashville Predators, come two wins short of a Stanley Cup before his own team even made a conference final.

(Leipold said he was happy for the Predators … but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t jealous.)

For years, the Wild have produced some mild results on the ice, though Boudreau’s 2016-17 edition finally pushed for something bigger. That underdog status doesn’t parallel the team’s spending, however, and you have to place some of the blame on Fletcher.

After all, the two constants since 2009 have been seasons ending in disappointment and Fletcher being the GM.

There’s a lot of pressure to change that in 2017-18, and that ultimately falls on him.

Fabbri’s on track to be ready by Blues training camp

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Barring setbacks in his continued rehab from an ACL injury that ended his 2016-17 season, Robby Fabbri expects to be ready by St. Louis Blues training camp, according to Chris Pinkert of the Blues website.

The skilled, diminutive 21-year-old saw that scary injury cut his season short in February; you can see the moment in the video above this headline.

Blues trainer Ray Barile understandably feared for the worst when he saw Fabbri go down.

“Initially my thought was he had fractured his ankle,” Barile said. “The way he went into the boards, I thought it was a broken bone. When I got out onto the ice and he told me it was his knee, I got a knot in my stomach.”

Now, Fabbri is on the ice skating vigorously twice per week. There are plenty of positive signs in that regard, although it’s worth noting that he still hasn’t been cleared for full contact. Then again, it is just mid-August.

As yesterday’s salary cap breakdown notes, Fabbri’s at a fork in the road beyond rehabbing that injury, as he’s entering a contract year in 2017-18. Here’s hoping that the lure to earn a new deal doesn’t push him so much that he continues to have problems with his knee going forward, as the high-scorer has already shown potential to convert big numbers at lower levels to production in the NHL.

Pinkert’s feature on Fabbri is well worth your time, so read the full story here.

It’s Minnesota Wild day at PHT

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Depending upon how you look at 2016-17, Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild either exceeded expectations or did exactly as one might predict.

After three years of narrowly making it into the postseason, the Wild easily did so last season. For quite some time, it even looked like they might win the Central Division before the Chicago Blackhawks overtook them. On another bright side, players enjoyed career years (Mikael Granlund, Devan Dubnyk) and others seemed revitalized (Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu) under Boudreau.

On the other hand, the Wild still fell in the first round and a Boudreau team failed in the postseason once again. Naysayers who lowered their volume during the regular season roared when the St. Louis Blues dispatched the Wild in just five games.

Such a disappointment brought changes, though salary cap constraints/the expansion draft likely factored in just as heavily.

Despite a heavy price to land him at the trade deadline, Martin Hanzal is no longer with the Wild. Marco Scandella is also out of town as part of a swap that sent Jason Pominville back to Buffalo, with Minnesota taking on Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.

Factors like the expansion draft make some of this seem unfair, yet all due respect to the likes of Kyle Quincey, but this roster looks a little weaker on paper heading into 2017-18.

That said, Granlund and Nino Niederreiter were locked up long-term for reasonable prices, so this off-season may still be a win overall.

It’s not all perfect for the Wild, but Boudreau’s shown a knack for optimizing the talent provided. Maybe this time around, he’ll even prove that such magic doesn’t need to run out after game 82.

PHT discusses the factors working for and against the Wild on this fine Tuesday.

Blues are locked into many salaries, but mostly in a good way

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

When considering the future of the St. Louis Blues, especially looking at their Cap Friendly page, the immediate thought is that they’re really “locked in” to their current core group.

So … let’s start this Blues cap analysis by looking at that very core group.

Mostly ripe core

As of this moment, nine key players are signed through at least the next three seasons at a total cap cost of $47.425 million:

Vladimir Tarasenko: $7.5M through 2022-23
Alexander Steen: $5.75M though 2020-21
Jaden Schwartz: $5.35M through 2020-21
Patrik Berglund: $3.85M through 2021-22
Vladimir Sobotka: $3.5M through 2019-20
Alex Pietrangelo: $6.5M through 2019-20
Colton Parayko: $5.5M through 2021-22
Jake Allen: $4.35M through 2020-21

Now, there are some quibbles with that group.

Steen, at 33, might see some steep regression. Some might be a bit underwhelmed at Sobotka and/or Berglund, at least when it comes to such term.

Even those issues are debatable, though, and the overall look is quite intriguing. You might grimace at the idea that $7.5M is “cheap,” but that really might be fair in assessing Tarasenko. Since 2013-14 (his first full season), Tarasenko scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL with 137. Only Alex Ovechkin scored more during the past three seasons.

Allen seemed like he was getting a respectable deal early on, but considering how his numbers skyrocketed once Mike Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock, that $4.35M could be a Cam Talbot-ish bargain.

It stings to lose Kevin Shattenkirk, but for all we know, Parayko may eclipse Pietrangelo as the Blues’ best defenseman before their contracts expire. Considering how nice a bargain Pietrangelo is, St. Louis has some very good things going for them in the high-end.

Speaking of that defense …

Things get more interesting when you consider contracts that will be up sooner.

In particular, there could be decisions to make after 2018-19, at least if GM Doug Armstrong isn’t as proactive as he tends to be. Here are some notable defensemen who only have two years left: Jay Bouwmeester ($5.4M), Carl Gunnarsson ($2.9M), Robert Bortuzzo ($1.15M), and Nate Prosser ($650K). Joel Edmundson, meanwhile, is slated to be an RFA after this season.

Edmundson seems like a keeper, but beyond that, the Blues must ask some tough questions about players like Bouwmeester. J-Bo already reached the 1,000 games plateau, and he’s just 33.

Such choices might end up being tough, yet at least the Blues have options. That’s especially true if Vince Dunn eventually makes the leap and Jordan Schmaltz can reach some of that first-round potential.

Who else will join the core?

Considering his $7M price tag, Paul Stastny hasn’t always lived up to his billing in St. Louis, placing him under pressure to earn a new deal with his current contract expiring after 2017-18. Even so, there’s also pressure on the Blues to decide what to do with Stastny; what would be a reasonable price to re-sign him or would they move him for assets much like they did with Kevin Shattenkirk?

Robby Fabbri is another key contract year to watch.

The Blues would honestly be smart to sign the 21-year-old for cheap, as there have been more than a few flashes of brilliance already with Fabbri. If they don’t, though, the 21st pick of the 2014 NHL Draft could easily parallel Viktor Arvidsson – in production, if not style – this coming season.

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A greedier Blues fan might be a little frustrated to see the team take the careful approach over the last few years, including letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk.

To an extent, St. Louis seems to lack that “surplus” scorer that really drives pre-season hype through the roof. It’s also up to Mike Yeo to build on the work Ken Hitchcock left behind.

Still, when you consider the lack of albatross contracts and the handful of good-to-brilliant deals on the books, the Blues seem like they’re in a pretty good place. The question is: can this group do better than that?