Jason Brough

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 21:  Erik Karlsson #65 of Sweden handles the puck against Finland during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinal Playoff on Day 14 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 21, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Karlsson thinks Sweden’s blue line is ‘better’ than two years ago at the Olympics

Erik Karlsson thinks Team Sweden’s World Cup blue line is even better than the one that propelled it to the gold-medal game at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

“I just think we have a little bit more experience,” Karlsson said, per the Associated Press. “Most of the guys that are here played in the Olympics and that was two years ago, and everybody since then has gotten more mature and more experience and become better players, so I think that’s why we have a better blue line now than we did two years ago.”

Indeed, Sweden may have the best defense of all the teams at the World Cup. Yes, that includes Team Canada, which is without injured workhorse Duncan Keith and finds itself increasingly under the microscope after leaving the likes of P.K. Subban and Kris Letang off its roster.

In addition to Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy-winner, the Swedes boast Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Mattias Ekholm, Anton Stralman, and Hampus Lindholm. Those who failed to make the cut include John Klingberg, Adam Larsson, and Alex Edler.

“When they selected the team, I was absolutely disappointed,” Edler, a member of the Sochi squad, told The Province newspaper. “I obviously wanted to make the team, but at the same time if you look at the defense corps Sweden has right now, there are a lot of very good players, and even though there have been some injuries, there are still a few players that are not on there that could be on there.”

Related: Lindholm replaces injured Kronwall

Zetterberg admits he ‘ran out of gas’ the last couple of seasons

Steven Stamkos, Henrik Zetterberg

Henrik Zetterberg turns 36 next month. The Red Wings’ captain has played over 1,000 games in the NHL, including the playoffs. Today in Detroit, he admitted it’s become a challenge to stay “fresh” for an entire season.

“That’s what’s gotten me the last two years, I ran out of gas,” he said, per the Free Press. “You can’t play hockey in this level when you run out of gas. So that’s one thing we’re going to play around with.”

One solution, according to Zetterberg, could be to play more wing, which takes less work than center. Another could be to play fewer minutes, or even take the odd night off and sit in the press box.

But that’s easier said than done, especially now without Pavel Datsyuk. Zetterberg led the Wings in scoring last year with 50 points in 82 games. Datysuk was second with 49 points, followed by Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar, each with 45.

Zetterberg, who’s sitting out the World Cup with a tweaked knee, expects to “be back 100 percent for the season starting.”

He also said he’s “thrilled” that Frans Nielsen decided to sign with the Wings, calling the 32-year-old center “one of the most underrated players in the league.”

Toews is looking to produce more offense, regardless of linemates

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) and teammates react to the Blackhawks' 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round Stanley Cup playoff series Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Chicago.  (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Jonathan Toews, one of the best two-way centers in the game, is so much more than a scorer. But after registering just 58 points in 80 games last season, make no mistake, he’s aiming for more production in 2016-17.

“I think I have to just look at myself and take responsibility for that,” he said Friday, per The Athletic. “I think this year, regardless of who I’m playing with, whether it’s [Marian Hossa] or anybody else, I think the two of us will definitely want to have a comeback year and just have fun and play with some excitement and play loose and let that offense come to us the way it didn’t quite last year. I think we were fighting it a little bit for a while there.”

It’s arguably the biggest question the Blackhawks are facing this season — who will play with Toews? One has to assume that head coach Joel Quenneville will keep Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin together. And 37-year-old Hossa may be best-suited for a third-line role now.

Richard Panik is a candidate for the left side; the ‘Hawks are very high on him. As for the right, if it’s not Hossa, a youngster like Nick Schmaltz or Vince Hinostroza could get a shot.

It will be worth watching, because if nothing clicks then GM Stan Bowman may be forced to act before the trade deadline.

In 2015-16, Toews spent most of his time at five-on-five with Hossa. His next three most common linemates were Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrew Ladd, all no longer with the ‘Hawks.

Related: Opportunity is knocking for Blackhawks prospects

Yzerman thinks he can get Kucherov signed without making a trade first

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), of Russia, celebrates with the bench after scoring against the St. Louis Blues during the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. The Blues won the game 2-1. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
1 Comment

Nikita Kucherov still doesn’t have a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it remains to be seen how GM Steve Yzerman will get one of his star forwards locked up.

According to the Tampa Bay Times’ analysis, it may take a trade:

The website capfriendly.com calculates that the Lightning has $6.2 million in cap space remaining for this season, if defenseman Slater Koekkoek makes the team, as some expect. And that’s with only 12 forwards and six defensemen on the 23-man roster. But the amount is likely closer to $5 million if defenseman Nikita Nesterov, also a restricted free agent and who had a $742,000 cap hit last season, is re-signed (or veteran defenseman James Wisniewski makes team on a tryout deal), and a 14th forward is included at a minimum of $575,000.

That doesn’t leave a ton of room for Kucherov, unless another move is made. And that could explain why his situation is still unresolved. Is the Lightning trying to clear cap room?

Tampa Bay can clear some space by making a trade, whether that’s goalie Ben Bishop ($5.95 million cap hit, partial no-move clause), forward Valtteri Filppula ($5 million cap hit, no-move clause) or defenseman Jason Garrison ($4.6 million, no-trade clause).

The newspaper did ask Yzerman if Kucherov and Nesterov could be signed without making a trade first, and Yzerman’s response was, “No question.”

Ryan Callahan can go on LTIR to start the season, but that’s only temporary relief.

So, unless Kucherov signs a bridge deal — and the trend has been moving away from that kind of contract, particularly for players of Kucherov’s caliber — it’s going to be interesting.

The Lightning open the regular season on Oct. 13, just over a month from today.

Related: After Stamkos and Hedman deals, Yzerman ‘confident’ he can sign Kucherov

Brandon Sutter on expectations for Canucks: ‘If people are picking us for the bottom, that’s perfect for us’

Brandon Sutter

Brandon Sutter‘s first season in Vancouver was a frustrating one. The 27-year-old center was limited to just 20 games due to injury, and the Canucks, lacking veteran depth down the middle, really missed him.

But Sutter is healthy now, and he’s not worried that many expect the Canucks to struggle once again in 2016-17.

“If people are picking us for the bottom, that’s perfect for us,” Sutter said, per The Province newspaper. “That’s great. Our expectations in the dressing room are very different.

“I think we’ve got a core group that looks at last season and thinks we’re very underrated coming into this year. You start with [Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin] and look down the list and there’s eight or 10 of us with experience who can play at a high level, and we’re all two-way players. Especially at forward, we’re all two-way guys.”

The Canucks added winger Loui Eriksson and defenseman Erik Gudbranson this offseason, though they did lose Dan Hamhuis. They also have a couple of wildcards in winger Anton Rodin and defenseman Philip Larsen, neither of whom were in the NHL last season.

Down the middle, it’s expected to be Henrik Sedin centering the top line, Sutter the second, Bo Horvat the third, and Markus Granlund the fourth.

“The tough thing for Brandon is he didn’t get to show what he could do,” head coach Willie Desjardins said in June.

“We’re looking forward to it this year. Everybody felt in our dressing room that if he’s there, then we’re in the playoffs this year. If he could’ve stayed healthy, then we had a real good chance of making the playoffs.”

It’s a debatable claim. Vancouver only went 7-6-6 when Sutter was in the lineup, and that doesn’t equal the playoffs over an 82-game schedule.

But every team needs a reason for optimism, and if the Canucks can stay relatively healthy next season, and if some of their wildcards pan out, they could at least be in the race down the stretch.