Mike Halford

You've heard the expression "let's get busy?" Well, Mike Halford is a blogger who gets "biz-zay!" Consistently and thoroughly.
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Goalie nods: McElhinney ready for biggest start of his career

Toronto has a massive game tonight as the Eastern Conference playoff battle tightens, but won’t have workhorse No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen available.

Instead, it’ll be backup Curtis McElhinney who faces the visiting Panthers, while Andersen deals with an upper-body injury.

Calling it the biggest start of his career, McElhinney can keep the Leafs locked into the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division with a win, on a night when Boston — just one point back of the Leafs — is also in action, hosting Nashville.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in this situation, in terms of being in a playoff race,” McElhinney said. “For me it’ll be business as usual.”

There’s a significant amount of pressure on McElhinney, who hasn’t been good in March. He’s allowed 13 goals on 113 shots — a .885 save percentage — which included three on 22 in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Buffalo, the game in which he replaced the injured Andersen.

Though Andersen’s injury isn’t believed to be serious — the Danish ‘tender hasn’t ruled out a return on Thursday in Nashville — the Leafs still must be concerned with the present. They need to get points over their next four games, lest they leave it to the end of the season.

Yes, the Leafs will play their four contests at the ACC. But those come against extremely difficult opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus.

For Florida, James Reimer gets the start in goal. How perfect.

Elsewhere…

— As mentioned above, the other big game tonight is Nashville taking on Boston at TD Garden. Tuukka Rask starts for the B’s (more on that here), while Pekka Rinne is likely after Juuse Saros beat the Isles last night.

Connor Hellebuyck returns to the starter’s crease for Winnipeg, after Michael Hutchinson played the last two. Cory Schneider also returns to the starter’s crease, for New Jersey, after Keith Kinkaid played on Sunday.

— No word from Columbus on who’ll start for the Sabres or Jackets. Robin Lehner won last night in Florida (so it could be Anders Nilsson), and Sergei Bobrovsky played on Saturday in Philly.

Cam Ward gets the start for Carolina after Eddie Lack‘s scary injury in last night’s OT loss to Detroit. Speaking of Detroit, no word on a starter yet, but Jimmy Howard seems likely after Petr Mrazek played last night.

— It’s Craig Anderson versus Steve Mason when the Sens take on the Flyers in Philly.

Al Montoya was expected to start tonight, but suffered a lower-body injury during the morning skate. As such, Carey Price will go as the Habs host the Stars. Dallas has yet to announce its starter.

— Marquee matchup in Minnesota tonight, as Devan Dubnyk and the Wild host Braden Holtby and the Caps.

— The Oilers can clinch their first playoff berth since 2006 tonight and, unsurprisingly, they’ll go with Cam Talbot in goal. The host Kings will counter with Jonathan Quick.

John Gibson is inching closer to a return, but the Ducks feel no need to rush him back. That’s because Jonathan Bernier is playing extremely well, and will get the call tonight in Vancouver. The Canucks are going with Ryan Miller.

— The Sharks will go with Martin Jones when they host the Rangers. No word yet on a New York starter.

Oilers sign Walter Brown Award winner Gambardella

Joe Gambardella, the UMass-Lowell senior that scored 52 points in 41 games this year, has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with Edmonton, the club announced on Monday.

Gambardella, 23, captured this year’s Walter Brown award as the top American-born collegiate player in New England. He beat out the likes of Clayton Keller, Colin White, Charlie McAvoy and Tage Thompson for the honor, and joined a distinguished list of past winners.

Rangers forward Jimmy Vesey won the Walter Brown in ’16 and ’15, while Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau won it in ’14.

Gambardella is the first UMass-Lowell player to ever win the award, which has been given out annually since 1953. It capped off a nice year in which he also paced the River Hawks to the NCAA tournament.

An undrafted free agent, Gambarella’s ELC will kick in next season. It’s also worth noting that one of his UMass-Lowell teammates, defenseman Michael Kapla, signed with the Devils earlier today.

 

 

Slumping Wild bring Eriksson Ek over from Sweden

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Well, this sure is interesting.

Joel Eriksson Ek, one of Minnesota’s most prized prospects, has been brought back to North America after spending the majority of this season playing for Farjestads in the Swedish Hockey League.

And according to the Star-Tribune’s Mike Russo, he might soon join the Wild.

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[Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau] said he didn’t know if the plan was to yet start him with Iowa or Minnesota, but I can’t imagine the Wild would recall him if the plan wasn’t to eventually have him in its lineup here.

In fact, he could be on the ice for Wednesday’s practice.

Sources close to Eriksson Ek say he’s flying from Karlstad to Germany to Chicago to here. Can’t imagine he lands and is put in a car to Des Moines, but we’ll see if they do want to give him a few games there.

Eriksson Ek, 20, appeared in nine games for the Wild earlier this season, and acquitted himself well offensively — two goals and five points. But by the end of his stint, he was reduced to fourth-line minutes and sat as a healthy scratch before the club decided to return him to Sweden.

Interestingly, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher suggested Eriksson Ek’s strongest attributes translated well to the NHL level.

“His small ice game is already so good,” Fletcher said, per the Star-Tribune. “Usually with Europeans, a lot of them have to acclimate to the smaller ice and have to learn how to be effective playing on the smaller ice. Joel’s already a very good small ice player. If anything, going back and playing on the bigger ice and handling the puck and making plays would enhance his long-term development.”

It’ll be curious to see if Eriksson Ek — the 20th overall pick in ’15 — developed the way the Wild hoped. He had 16 points in 26 games for Farjestads, and could certainly provide an injection of energy, something the club needs desperately.

Minnesota is 3-10-1 in March, and has fallen way back of Chicago for first place in the Central Division. What’s more, the Nashville Predators have surged to within six points of the Wild for second place, which is a stunning turn of events (on Feb. 28, the Wild were 15 points clear of the Preds.)

The Wild have two home games this week: Tonight against the Caps, then Thursday against the Sens.

With Lehtonen’s strong finish, is Niemi done in Dallas?

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The Stars have spent the last two years working with their oft-criticized two goalie setup.

Could the experiment soon be over?

Over the last month, the club has played Kari Lehtonen almost exclusively — he’s been the goalie of record in 10 of 12 games, including six straight — and has performed well. On Monday, he was named the NHL’s second star of the week, and has a .926 save percentage in March.

According to the Morning-News’ Mike Heika, this might be foreshadowing Antti Niemi‘s departure.

I think they have lost all faith in Antti Niemi and they want to see if Lehtonen is worth keeping next year.

I’m still not sure if this is proving they should keep him, but it makes the decision to get two new goalies more difficult.

A lot will depend on whether or not they acquire a goalie in trade before the NHL buyout window (which opens June 15) closes June 30. If they make a trade or two, that will possibly push them to buy out Lehtonen and Niemi.

I think it would be tough to buy out both and have no goalies in house on July 1.

The guess here is Niemi will be bought out for sure.

Niemi is in the second of a three-year, $13.5 million deal, one that carries a $4.5 million cap hit. Per CapFriendly, a buyout would cost Dallas $1.5 million against the cap through 2019.

This season has been a struggle for the 33-year-old. He’s posted an 11-11-4 record with a 3.35 GAA and .892 save percentage, and that came after a fairly mediocre first year in Dallas. Though he won 25 games and appeared in five playoff contests, Niemi never posted a save percentage above .905.

If the plan is to keep Lehtonen and move on from Niemi, it’s fairly safe to assume GM Jim Nill will acquire a goalie to work in tandem with the former.

And this is where things could get interesting.

This summer’s UFA goalie market will be flush. Ryan Miller, Ben Bishop, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason, Brian Elliott, Mike Condon, Scott Darling and Chad Johnson are all currently without contracts for next season, and the prospect of joining the Stars has to be enticing. There is playing time to be had, and Lehtonen — who turns 34 next season — only has a year left on his deal.

Selanne: Ducks want Kariya back in fold, but he’s ‘very bitter about hockey’

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Paul Kariya hasn’t played hockey in over seven years, since a series of concussions forced him into retirement.

He’s been out of the limelight, too.

After sharply criticizing the league during his retirement announcement — he said every hit that ever knocked him out was an illegal one — Kariya has virtually disconnected from the hockey world, save the occasional report alluding to his bitterness towards the NHL.

But there have been efforts to connect with him.

Including those from the team he rose to prominence with.

In a recent interview on Ray Ferraro’s Pulp Hockey podcast, Teemu Selanne — Kariya’s longtime running mate in Anaheim — shed some light on how the Ducks would welcome Kariya back… and how Kariya’s consistently rebuffed the idea.

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“It was kind of a shame how his career ended. He’s very bitter about that. He always thought that the NHL was not looking after the players the way they should. So that’s why he doesn’t want to be involved with hockey at all, and he almost kind of like disappeared from the hockey world, which is very sad.

“What he has done for hockey, and especially here in Anaheim and California, it’s unbelievable. He was an unbelievable hockey player, and I had a great time with him. It hurts me that he doesn’t want to be part of hockey, because I think he has a lot to offer and give. Hopefully one day he will come back, for some reason. I know the Ducks have really tried hard to get him back and into the program.

“But he’s very bitter about hockey, which is very sad.”

Drafted fourth overall by the Ducks in ’93, Kariya was the franchise’s first true superstar. He scored 50 goals and 108 points in his sophomore campaign and, the year following, finished second in Hart Trophy voting for league MVP.

In 2003, he led Anaheim to its first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. That series, of course, is perhaps best remembered for the lethal hit Kariya took from Devils d-man Scott Stevens.

The Stevens hit was just one in a series that derailed Kariya’s career. There was the infamous Gary Suter crosscheck to the head in ’98 — Suter received a two-game suspension — and the last one, an elbow to the head from Patrick Kaleta.

Kaleta avoided suspension entirely.

Many have wondered where Kariya would’ve ranked among the greats had he stayed healthy. He finished with 989 points in 989 career games, and was still a really productive player at the end — despite the concussion problems, Kariya, then 35 years old, scored 18 goals and 43 points in 75 games during his final season in St. Louis.

With the annual Hall of Fame debates and the recent NHL 100 list, Kariya’s name has come up quite a bit. Which again circles back to Anaheim.

Selanne’s number is already in the rafters (Kariya wasn’t in attendance for the ceremony), and the organization has close ties with alumni, as both Scott Niedermayer and Todd Marchant both have front-office gigs. So one would think Kariya, who served as team captain for five years, would be embraced with open arms.

PHT reached out to the Ducks for comment on Selanne’s remarks. They replied that Kariya is always welcome in Anaheim, and he’s aware of that.