Jason Pominville

Sabres to name captain following training camp


On Tuesday, Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan informed reporters he’d name his new captain at the commencement of training camp.

The Sabres have been without a captain since March, when Steve Ott was dealt to St. Louis as part of the Ryan Miller deal. Ott had previously served as a co-captain with Thomas Vanek, who wore the “C” for less than a month before getting shipped off to the Islanders.

It’ll be interesting to see what direction Nolan takes with his new leadership group. Historically speaking, the Sabres have often utilized a rotating staff — under Lindy Ruff, the club used Michael Peca, Stu Barnes, Miroslav Satan, Chris Drury, James Patrick, J.P. Dumont, Daniel Briere, Jochen Hecht, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, Jason Pominville and Craig Rivet. But it’s possible they could go with a more traditional format under Nolan.

In what might be a glimpse into the head coach’s thinking, three veterans will serve as alternates for Tuesday’s preseason home opener against the Hurricanes: Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson.

Wild’s Yeo is already getting excited about Vanek


It’s easy to focus on Thomas Vanek’s late-playoff struggles and forget that the Minnesota Wild added one of the league’s most dangerous snipers this offseason. Wild head coach Mike Yeo sounded borderline giddy talking to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about Vanek’s potential impact and his early chemistry with Mikko Koivu.

“We’ve really started to see some chemistry between Mikko and Vanek that’s been fun to watch,” Yeo said. “It’s been exciting. I’ve been really pleased with Thomas so far. I have a whole new appreciation for his skill level and how smart he is. I mean, he’s thinking usually two or three plays ahead. So that’s been fun, and he’s been working.”

Yeo also joked that Vanek “reminds him of himself.” One assumes a joking Yeo is a happier Yeo, as opposed to the frustrated fellow grumbling about goaltending or his team being described as boring.

As excited as the Wild might be about Koivu – Vanek, there’s always the chance that the team will see different amalgamations. That’s the kind of rare luxury Yeo faces with Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and a growing number of promising young forwards to choose from.

(One other interesting note in that regard: Charlie Coyle’s apparently getting a chance to prove that he can stick at center.)

With Vanek added to a group of increasing star power, many joke that the Wild have little excuse to “be boring” any longer, whether that label was fair or not in recent years. Perhaps the 30-year-old winger’s creativity might inspire his teammates much like he managed to do in just a short time in Montreal, as Elliotte Friedman discussed in late April for the CBC?

15. Pretty interesting hearing David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty talk about how much they had to adjust their games to play with Thomas Vanek. Desharnais said that when he played with Brendan Gallagher, you had to go support him when the winger got the puck in the corner. Vanek wants the opposite. “The farther we can spread teams out,” he said, “The more success we will have.” Desharnais also had to get used to carrying the puck less and driving to the net more, because Vanek likes to carry it, too.

16. “I’ve never seen anyone make the decisions [Vanek] makes,” Pacioretty added. “He’s basically thinking, ‘What do guys think I’m going to do with the puck right now?’ and he does the opposite of it.” Pacioretty said Vanek is making him re-think how he plays the game. “One thing that really sticks out is he said to never have your stick on the ice in front of the net, because the d-man can tie it up. He’s always hanging around with his stick in the air, and instead of putting it on the ice and waiting for a tip, he kind of slaps at it when the puck comes…You get more speed on it.”

Snipers in Vanek’s age range tend to dip a bit in their early 30’s, yet he could even make a positive impact on the team merely in impacting the on-ice philosophy of youngsters such as Mikael Granlund.

Heightened pressures tend to come with climbing expectations, yet it’s difficult to blame the Wild for their excitement right now.

The KHL’s really trying to mow Minnesota’s lawn


Yesterday, the agent for unsigned Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper said rumblings of a move to the KHL “could happen.”

Today, there’s another report of a Minnesota youngster receiving overtures from Russia. From the Pioneer Press:

Niederreiter, 22, is coming off a breakout campaign in which he scored 14 goals and 36 points in 81 games, then scored one of the biggest goals in Wild franchise history:

He’s a blossoming talent and, per the Pioneer Press, progress has been made recently with regards to a new deal. But the Wild know signing Niederreiter will have implications further down the road — most notably next summer, when a slew of key RFAs are up for new deals: Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella.

(Which is why Fletcher keeps stressing the importance of finding “the right deal.”)

The Kuemper and Niederreiter deals have been a thorn in Minnesota’s side all season, so it’s not surprising to learn that the KHL has thrown its hat in the ring. Fletcher has a lot of money tied up in recently-signed veterans — Jason Pominville turns 32 in November and is on the books ’til 2019; Thomas Vanek’s now on the wrong side of 30 and will make $6.5M annually for the next three years — and it makes sense that someone’s trying to put the financial squeeze on by offering the youngsters (Niederreiter specifically) a big chunk of change.

With Ott gone, who will be Buffalo’s next captain?


Since the start of 2013, three different players have worn the ‘C’ in Buffalo — Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and Steve Ott — and they have all been traded. That’s created something of a leadership vacuum for the Sabres going into the 2014-15 campaign.

Fortunately, there have some candidates to fill that void.

Perhaps the most obvious player is Brian Gionta, who inked a three-year, $12.75 million contract with Buffalo over the summer. The 35-year-old doesn’t have experience within the Sabres’ organization, but he has a strong resume after serving as the Montreal Canadiens’ captain and winning the Stanley Cup.

He could prove to be a mentor for the young Sabres and aide them in their rebuilding efforts. After his tenure with Buffalo ends, the team could then hand the captaincy to one of the young forwards that’s established himself and symbolically complete the transitional period at that time.

The Sabres might also opt to go with a younger option to put the focus more squarely on their future. Tyler Ennis, for example, is an interesting choice. He’s just 24 years old (25 in October), but already has 267 NHL games under his belt. On top of that, he’s starting a five-year, $23 million contract this season, so he’s someone that will be around for the rest of Buffalo’s rebuild and then still be young enough to lead them once the Sabres are on the other side of it.

Ennis plans to learn from Gionta and the other veterans on the team, but he also recognizes that at this point he should take on more responsibilities in the locker room.

“It’s time for us (Ennis and Tyler Myers) to take over now,” Ennis said, per team’s website. “It’s a good balance of older guys, middle guys ready to take over and lot of great young kids coming up.”

Another option is for the team to pass on naming a captain this season. As a rookie, Sam Reinhart isn’t expected to take on that role, but the 18-year-old is, as Flames president Brian Burke put it, an “Einstein on the ice” and might be a serious candidate in a year or two if everything goes right. On top of that, if Buffalo has a bad season, it could end up drafting a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Would it make sense for the Sabres to leave the position vacant for now in the hopes that one of their promising young players will claim it? That’s up to head coach Ted Nolan, but he certainly has a few interesting paths he could take.

On the Wild’s financial future


Over the last three years, few teams have been as financially aggressive as Minnesota. The team dropped a combined $196 million on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, acquired big salaries at each of the last two trade deadlines (Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville; the latter inked a $28M extension in October) and gave Thomas Vanek a three-year, $19.5 million deal in July.

One reason GM Chuck Fletcher’s been able to spend like this is because he’s had a number of good, young contributors playing on entry-level deals: Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Darcy Kuemper and Erik Haula, to name a few.

But things are about to get tight.

The Wild have roughly $8M this year to get deals done for RFAs Neiderreiter and Kuemper, and both figure to be signed in due time. Next year, though, is when things will get tricky — Brodin, Coyle, Granlund and Haula will all need new deals (as will fellow RFA Marco Scandella).

More, from the Minnesota Star-Tribune:

When Fletcher says spending too much money on players impacts other things, remember, the Wild next summer has Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Erik Haula – among others – to re-sign. Overpaying, say, Niederreiter even by a few hundred grand would have ramifications and likely cost the Wild on the others. That’s why Fletcher says he has to be mindful with his RFAs in a cap world. That’s also why Fletcher, later this summer and into the season, will look to try to extend the contracts of guys like Granlund, Coyle, Brodin and maybe others.

Fletcher will be looking to sign all his young players to contracts of two to four years. Short-term deals are easiest because it’s less likely neither side will make a mistake.

Fletcher’s biggest task might be figuring out a financial hierarchy for his prized youngsters. Brodin’s a gifted 21-year-old d-man that plays 23 minutes a night and has immense value. Granlund, 22, had 41 points in 63 games during a breakout ’13-14 campaign and showed legit star potential. Coyle is huge (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) and endeared himself to fans and the organization by playing through two separated shoulders during last year’s postseason. Haula is remarkably fast and was a vital contributor in the playoffs, scoring seven points in 13 games.

(Don’t underestimate Scandella’s worth, either — at 23, he’s an 18-minutes-a-night guy that had 17 points and a plus-10 rating last year.)

Looking ahead, the Wild only have 11 players under contract for 2015-16… for $50 million. Even with the cap projecting to rise, that’s still a lot of money dedicated to a core of players that aren’t the future of the club. Pominville turns 32 in November and is on the books ’til 2019; Vanek’s now on the wrong side of 30 and will make $6.5M annually for the next three years.

Add it all up, and next season promises to be an intriguing one in Minnesota — both on and off the ice.