<span class="vcard">Jason Brough</span>

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes

Under Pressure: Mike Smith

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Signed through 2018-19 with a cap hit approaching $6 million, the Arizona Coyotes are indeed “married” to goalie Mike Smith.

As Coyotes fans will tell you, it wasn’t exactly wedded bliss last season, as Smith struggled to a 14-42-5 record with a .904 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 40 starts, only two — Kari Lehtonen and Ben Scrivens — had a lower save percentage than that.

Goaltending was a major reason the Coyotes finished 29th overall, just two points better than the dreadful Buffalo Sabres, and it left GM Don Maloney to deflect some of the blame away from the 33-year-old Smith.

“I think [next season] we’ll play better defense in front of (Smith), which is important,” Maloney said, per NHL.com. “I think we’ll have a better structure in front of Mike so he doesn’t feel like he has to be all-world every night and he can just do his thing.”

To be fair to Smith, he did post considerably better numbers in the latter stages of the season. He then gained even more confidence at the 2015 World Championships, as his solid play helped Canada win gold.

“It reiterates that I’m a pretty good goalie,” he said. “It’s been a tough year mentally on me. Physically, I got a good handle on that, but I think mentally, going into the summer knowing that I’ve played some pretty good hockey now for three months or so, I think it’s important.”

Smith will be backed up next season by Anders Lindback. Considering the Coyotes will be Lindback’s fifth NHL team since 2010, it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll perform. In 2014-15, he struggled badly with the Stars before playing considerably better for the Sabres.

Rangers GM considers Stoll ‘a real character guy that made a mistake’

Pittsburgh Penguins v Los Angeles Kings
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Despite his arrest this offseason for drug possession, the New York Rangers aren’t worried about the character of free-agent signing Jarret Stoll.

“It’s not really a worry,” GM Jeff Gorton said, per the New York Post. “We spent a lot of time talking to him, and going through his incident and moving forward. We were all very impressed with how he handled it and conducted himself and wanted to address it and move on.

“We talked to a lot of people that have played with him in the league and before he got to the league; we’ve talked to trainers and people that have dealt with him — it all came out the same, as a real character guy that made a mistake. We all want to move forward.”

Stoll is expected to compete for the job of third-line center, the role he played with the Kings.

Related: Stoll drug charge reduced to pair of misdemeanors

Blues announce that Lehtera had ankle surgery last week

Jori Lehtera
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The St. Louis Blues announced today that forward Jori Lehtera underwent successful surgery on his right ankle on Aug. 4.

According to the Blues, Lehtera “suffered the injury at the end of last season and is expected to be available to skate in six to eight weeks.”

More from Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch, with a quote from GM Doug Armstrong:

The Blues open the regular season on Oct. 8, slightly less than two months from today.

Related: Blues re-sign Lehtera: three years, $14.1 million

Oilers’ biggest question: What about the blue line?

Darnell Nurse poses for a portrait after being selected number seven overall in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers during the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center on June 30, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.
(June 29, 2013 - Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)
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For all the young talent they’ve amassed up front, and even if the goaltending proves better next season, you can’t help but look at the Edmonton Oilers’ blue line and think, Oy, that’s not a very good blue line.

And in a league where it’s rare to win a championship without at least one elite defenseman, that’s a problem.

Case in point, when the Oilers made the finals in 2006, they had a guy by the name of Chris Pronger on the back end. He was traded that summer and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since.

From 2006 to 2012, Edmonton drafted 17 defensemen. The best was Jeff Petry, who’s in Montreal now. Today, the Oilers’ best veteran is probably the newly acquired Andrej Sekera. A solid player, sure. But certainly no threat to win the Norris Trophy. 

Which is why Oilers fans are so hopeful that 20-year-old Darnell Nurse, drafted seventh overall in 2013, can become a cornerstone defender, a la Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, etc.

It’s also why GM Peter Chiarelli doesn’t want to screw up Nurse’s development by throwing him into an NHL role too soon.

“For a defenseman, it is harder to break into the league properly,” Chiarelli said, per OilersNation.com. “With Dougie Hamilton (in Boston), he had a good strong core around him, and they are completely different players. Darnell is a defender and a puck transporter. He has a few more nuances to learn as far as defending, but I saw him play at the end of his playoffs and he played well. He has world class speed and strength.

“That is a hard one (whether Nurse is NHL ready). I want to be patient with these guys knowing that they are good young players and you’d like to have them help you as soon as you can.”

The Oilers have a few other promising defensive prospects, including Oscar Klefbom and Griffin Reinhart. They’re also still hoping Justin Schultz will realize the potential they see in him.

Bottom line: Without a much improved defense, even Connor McDavid will find it tough to bring the glory back to Edmonton.

Related: Todd McLellan is under pressure

NHLPA files grievance on behalf of Mike Richards

Mike Richards
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The NHLPA has “filed a grievance on behalf of Mike Richards contesting the termination of his contract” by the Los Angeles Kings, the union announced today.

This move is not unexpected, after the Kings claimed in June that there’d been a “material breach” of his contract that allowed them to terminate it. It soon emerged that Richards was under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for an incident involving the alleged possession of OxyContin pills at the U.S.-Canada border.

But Richards has not been charged with any crime, so it’s no surprise that the union has filed a grievance on his behalf. The 30-year-old forward had five years and $22 million remaining on his deal. As of today, he’s an unrestricted free agent.

No word yet when an arbitrator may hear the case.