Jason Brough

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

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The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

“This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

“The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

How tight?

“Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

Penguins to visit White House next week

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: The Pittsburgh Penguins pose for their photo with the Stanley Cup after their teams 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the San Jose Sharks 3-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will visit President Obama at the White House on Thursday (Oct. 6).

These White House visits don’t always occur during the preseason (the 2015 champs from Chicago went in February, for example), but as you might have heard, there’s an election in November.

This will be the Penguins’ second visit with President Obama. They first met him after winning in 2009, during his first term. That visit actually occurred in early September, before the Pens even reported to training camp.

“With the Steelers and Penguins, I guess it’s a good time to be a sports fan in Pittsburgh,” Obama said during the visit.

“I was complaining about this,” he then joked. “It’s been a while since Chicago won anything.”

The next year, the Blackhawks won their first Cup since 1961.

Hossa going ‘year-by-year,’ as his contract begins to dive

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 09:  Marian Hossa #81 of the Chicago Blackhawks talks to a teammate against the San Jose Sharks at the United Center on February 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Sharks defeated the Blackhawks 2-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Marian Hossa has one of those long-term, back-diving contracts they don’t let players sign anymore.

When he signed the 12-year deal, all the way back in 2009, it was generally assumed he’d retired before it expired. (Remember, the NHL didn’t have the “cap recapture” penalty then; that was brought in a few years later.)

This season, his salary dips to $4 million, from the $7.9 million he was paid in the first seven years of his deal. After that, it’s just $1 million in each of the final four years, per General Fanager.

So, does the assumption that he’ll retire before his contract expires still hold?

“I go year-by-year right now and I try to not focus on five years,” Hossa said, per the Chicago Tribune. “At this point, you never know what can happen. You know, too many injuries or these things can slow you down. Or anything can change. But right now I feel pretty good so I try to go for it.”

Hossa can still play, make no mistake. His point production fell dramatically last season, and it remains to be seen if he’ll skate with Jonathan Toews in Chicago’s top six, or if he’ll be knocked down to the third line. But anyone who watched him during the World Cup knows he can still play.

That being said, at 37, he’s one of the oldest players in the NHL. In fact, last season, there were only 10 forwards who were older, and that list will only grow shorter this season.

So, will Hossa play five more years, until he’s 42? It will be incredible if he does. And if he doesn’t, will the Blackhawks incur a recapture penalty? Or will some sort of injury allow them to escape it?

That all remains to be seen.

“My goal is to play to where I can play my level,” he said, “and if not, go from there.”

Related: Quenneville thinks Hossa ‘could be’ the next Jagr or Selanne

Kucherov won’t report to Bolts until he’s signed

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 16: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is checked by Danny DeKeyser #65 of the Detroit Red Wings in front of Petr Mrazek #34 in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 16, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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Nikita Kucherov will not report to Tampa Bay Lightning training camp until he’s signed. The 23-year-old winger is not currently under contract, though as a restricted free agent he is partially under club control.

From the Tampa Bay Times, which confirmed through GM Steve Yzerman that Kucherov would not be reporting:

Kucherov, the team’s leading scorer last season, could warrant $6 million or more annually. And that makes it difficult for the Lightning, which has between $5-5.5 million of cap space remaining, per CapFriendly.com. It begs the question whether Tampa Bay may need to make another move to create room. With the season opening two weeks from today, no deal appears imminent.

Yzerman said earlier in the month that he can get Kucherov signed without making a trade, but as mentioned, no deal has been reached yet.

Kucherov is one of a handful of high-profile RFAs who remain unsigned as the regular season approaches. The others are Johnny Gaudreau, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, and Tobias Rieder, the latter of whom requested a trade yesterday.

Trouba has also requested a trade.

Related: Ristolainen, still without a contract, makes ‘good will’ gesture towards Sabres