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Penguins GM confident they can find third-line center with Bonino gone

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August is nearing, and the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t made a trade or signing to replace Nick Bonino, their outstanding (but former) third-line center.

On the bright side, the Penguins have remarkable breathing room considering their status as repeat Stanley Cup champions. Cap Friendly places their 2017-18 room at about $10.38 million.

That robust space likely explains why GM Jim Rutherford seemed fairly calm about the whole situation, as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

“I do feel confident that, by the start of the season, we’re going to have a third-line center that we’re comfortable with,” Rutherford said. “Whether it’s one of those guys on the list or one of the guys that I could go and get right today.”

Rutherford (jokingly?) said that he had a list of “hundreds of names” as options, although it’s difficult to top Mackey’s suggestion of Phil Kessel‘s buddy, Tyler Bozak. After all, Bozak is a competent player who carries a $4.2 million cap hit that Pittsburgh could comfortably absorb (and the Toronto Maple Leafs might need to shed). It doesn’t hurt that Bozak’s contract expires after 2017-18, so the Penguins wouldn’t be on the hook if things don’t work out.

Of course, Matt Duchene is another name worth considering. It almost feels a little strange to ponder that speedy Avalanche forward being a “third-line center,” especially if Pittsburgh would want to get the most out of him.

MORE: Duchene might begin next season with the Colorado Avalanche

After that, though … the pickings could be much slimmer than Rutherford indicated to Mackey.

Shallow pool

Take a look at this current list of forwards who are unrestricted free agents.

There are some potential bargains here (P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, anyone?), but the situation gets significantly shakier if you’re picky enough to look only at centers. The likes of Daniel Winnik and Ryan White are reasonable roster additions, but the drop-off from Bonino could be pretty drastic.

What about other trade possibilities?

That’s a shaky group, too, especially if you apply Bozak-like terms as far as guys who only have one year left on their current contracts.

Honestly, the Penguins’ best bet in looking at that list would probably come down to an in-season move with a team that realizes it’s not a contender or simply understands that a player won’t be back.

Maybe the Calgary Flames would want to cut bait on Matt Stajan or (less realistically) Mikael Backlund? Would the Ducks move speedy, versatile sometimes-center Andrew Cogliano? There are other remote possibilities, such as the Leafs instead trading Leo Komarov (or especially unlikely moves in Paul Stastny or Tomas Plekanec).

Even if the above list seems enticing, how many of those teams would really want to move those players now, especially the bigger difference-makers?

If you’re the Penguins, you’re probably hoping that a Bozak deal could take place. And maybe you’re sweating this situation more than you let on.

(Note: There’s also the slight possibility that the Penguins might identify a replacement from within, though a contending team like Pittsburgh might not be so comfortable with that approach.)

Nichushkin to stay in KHL, Dallas expects him back for ’18-19

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Valeri Nichushkin will spend another year with CSKA Moscow.

On Wednesday, Dallas announced that Nichushkin — who left the team last season to play in the KHL — will stay in Russia for the 2017-18 campaign, with the expectation he’ll return to the Stars the following season.

The news doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Both the KHL and Russian hockey federation have been vocal with their stated goal of keeping KHL players from leaving for North America and bringing NHL free agents back this summer, to prepare for and participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Nichushkin, a big-bodied center that scored 14 goals and 34 points for Dallas in his rookie year, figures to be part of that plan.

CSKA is a KHL powerhouse, and has made several significant moves this offseason. Most recently, the club signed former Habs d-man Nikita Nesterov and ex-Avs forward Mikhail Grigorenko. The club also re-upped with Ilya Kovalchuk — who was flirting with a return to North America — and said that prized Minnesota prospect Kirill Kaprizov would remain with the team for the next three years.

CSKA also reportedly has an agreement in place with Colorado d-man Nikita Zadorov, should he fail to re-sign with the Avs.

All that said, it’s somewhat intriguing that Dallas’ coaching change from Lindy Ruff to Ken Hitchcock didn’t sway Nichushkin. The 22-year-old, taken 10th overall in 2013, clashed with Ruff on a few occasions. In March of last year, Nichushkin had to address an interview with a Russian news outlet in which he said Ruff didn’t trust him, or play him enough.

Not long after Hitchcock was introduced as Dallas’ new head coach, the club’s director of scouting told NHL.com it was “50-50” that Nichushkin would be back this season.

Related: Stars GM hopes a ‘more mature’ Nichushkin will return to Dallas after KHL stint

Wings, Tatar over $1 million apart as arbitration looms

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Detroit and forward Tomas Tatar are scheduled to go to arbitration on Thursday, and now it’s known what offers the two sides are bringing to the table.

Per Sportsnet and MLive, Tatar is asking for $5.3 million next season, while the Red Wings are offering $4.1 million. Should the case go to arbitration, Tatar will receive a one-year pact.

Tatar’s reported ask shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Earlier this month, reports suggested he was looking for at least $5 million annually on a longer-term deal, this after wrapping a three-year pact that paid $2.75M per.

It’s easy to see why Tatar is looking to cash in. The 26-year-old netted 29, 21 and 25 goals in each of his last three campaigns, for a grand total of 75 — more than Phil Kessel, Patrick Marleau and Matt Duchene have scored over the same timeframe.

If he and the Red Wings can’t reach a long-term deal prior to Thursday, it could be acrimonious. Tatar has suggested going to arbitration and settling on a one-year deal could mean the end of his time in Detroit.

“Detroit offered me a contract, and even with a few options — for a year, or four or five. We’re still talking about the length, and of course, the financial amount of the contract,” Tatar told CSA.sk earlier this month, per the Detroit News. “However, we aren’t going anywhere, and there’s been time enough.”

“Arbitration is the last option, I have to sign off, it’s just a mandatory contract. Unless I agree with Detroit, I’ll go to the court (salary arbitration), where they’ll give me a year’s contract. That would probably be my last season in Detroit. We’ll see in a few days or weeks before it all comes together.”

 

Islanders prospect Barzal admits to being a ‘little star-struck’ last season

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Mathew Barzal had a brief glimpse of life in the NHL last season, before he was ultimately sent back to junior for the remainder of the campaign.

The 16th overall pick in 2015 played in two games for the Islanders and was then returned to Seattle, eventually becoming the most valuable player in the Western Hockey League playoffs — another promising development for the talented prospect forward.

The Islanders, who have 13 forwards under contract for next season, have stockpiled high-end talent up front, including Barzal. He made his debut last season, as did Josh Ho-Sang, and there may be opportunities for the younger players to crack the roster for 2017-18.

“Last year, I was maybe a little star-struck sometimes playing against [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Alex] Ovechkin and those guys,” Barzal recently told NHL.com. “This year, I just want to hopefully come in and not kind of feel that, just feel like I belong and that I can really play with those guys.”

Just over two years into his time with the Islanders, Barzal was recently mentioned in trade rumors involving Colorado’s Matt Duchene.

From Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet:

There’s been criticism of the way Colorado’s handled this. I do think everyone — including Duchene — would benefit from a fresh start, but the Avalanche need this deal. The Ryan O’Reilly trade didn’t work, and you can’t move two of those talents without getting some kind of win. They are looking for young players with term, and I think the guys they’ve targeted include Mathew Barzal and Ilya Sorokin from the Islanders; Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy from the Bruins; Mattias Ekholm from the Predators. (Before someone from Barstool comes at me, I don’t think the McAvoy conversation was a long one.)

Such a deal — if it were to ever happen in the future — would give New York two of the top three players selected from the 2009 NHL Draft, and highly talented No. 1 and 2 centers in John Tavares and Duchene.

Tavares has one year left on his deal, with an annual average value of $5.5 million, and the Islanders need to get him secured into a contract extension. Duchene has two years left on his deal, which has an AAV of $6 million, before he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Meanwhile, Barzal still has all three years left on his entry-level contract, according to CapFriendly, and shows plenty of promise based on his production in junior.

Report: Duchene could start next season with Avs

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If you’ve been wondering why Matt Duchene is still a member of the Colorado Avalanche, here’s an update from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

Everyone decided to take a deep breath and go back to their corners when Matt Duchene wasn’t traded July 1. It sounds like everyone is realizing the possibility he could start next season in Colorado. But remember this: Avalanche assistant GM Chris MacFarland was with Scott Howson in Columbus when Howson waited until July 20, 2012, to trade Rick Nash. Sometimes the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and MacFarland could be following that blueprint. I wouldn’t be surprised if interested parties (Boston, Columbus, Nashville, Pittsburgh, maybe Calgary) try again to see if anything shakes loose.

Friedman goes on to say that Duchene’s contract, which has two years left on it, could be a stumbling block.

We’ve written about that in the past. If Duchene only had one year left, an acquiring team could immediately sign him to an extension, like when the Avs traded Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo.

But with two years left, it’s more complicated because an extension can’t be signed until next summer. That means an acquiring team would have to trust that Duchene wanted to stay long-term. And even if he said he did, there’d still be a risk he could change his mind.

Another factor in all this is that the Avs absolutely have to nail this deal. Certainly, they need to do better than what they got for O’Reilly.

To illustrate, it’s been reported that the Columbus Blue Jackets offered defenseman Ryan Murray to Colorado as part of a package for Duchene.

With all due respect to Murray, the second overall draft pick in 2012, he is not the franchise defenseman the Jackets had hoped he’d be. If the Avs are going to trade Duchene, they’ll need to get a guy with a higher ceiling than Murray’s.

And that’s the toughest part for GM Joe Sakic. As we’ve said before, fixing a defense with trades is not easy to do. Sure, the Jackets were able to get a good, young defenseman in Seth Jones, but they had to give up Ryan Johansen to get him.

The key there? Johansen was under club control for more than two years.

Related: Cale Makar goes fourth overall to Avs