Is it time for the NHL to consider expansion?

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Thumbnail image for garybettman2.jpgWith the glut of available players in free agency there’s a definitive issue at hand for the NHL and their players. While we’re sure that a lot of folks would like to hang the blame on Ilya Kovalchuk for seemingly bogging down the market for weeks with his free agency, that’s just not how it worked in reality. The truth of the matter is that a lot of teams that would traditionally spend on free agents were pushed to or are well over the cap this summer while many other teams are operating on an internal budget.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle has kept a running tally of who has signed and who is available this off-season both unrestricted and restricted and some of the names still left out there are noticeable and still useful players. Many of these players either have over-estimated their worth and won’t compromise on salary or they’ve found that the market has dried up completely thanks to teams spending on cheaper players or opting to promote from within. If that sounds familiar it’s because it sounds an awful lot like how life is in the real world for job seekers. In the NHL world, it stinks to lose veteran players, especially good ones but there’s one way out there to help make sure some players can still have the NHL to call home:

Expansion

I know what you’re saying, it’s crazy and the game already has too much going on with it as it is and adding more teams to what seems like a crowded NHL landscape would be madness. Yeah, that’s all true without a doubt. But is the talent level enough right now to be able to sustain two more NHL franchises? Taking a look around at the players sitting in the free agent pool and the small handful of talent that has departed to play in Europe just this off-season, it may be time for the NHL to take a hard look at the possibility of maximizing their opportunity to grow the sport just a little more and not be worse for the wear.

Look at the guys that have departed for Europe this off-season: Evgeni Nabokov, Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinogenov, Brian Pothier, and potentially Vesa Toskala. All five guys are guys that ideally would have jobs in the NHL and all four guys that found the job market dry up for them.

How about the unrestricted free agents? Just to list off a few of the notable guys: Antti Niemi, Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin. The list is loaded with guys still very capable of playing at an NHL level and many of these guys might not have NHL jobs this year. While many could be headed to Europe, others might end up either retiring early or signing AHL deals.

If there were two more NHL teams offering up 23 roster sports out there,  the competition for free agents might actually be out there and while it’s likely that the AHL talent pool would be a bit thinner than normal, there’s certainly a few guys languishing about in the ECHL that could be better served in the AHL.

When the NHL expanded in the 1990s it’s very possible it was a mistake to do so in that it was a cash grab for NHL owners who wanted the money. At the time, the NHL wasn’t pulling elite talent from Europe as much as it is now, Americans weren’t producing as much elite talent as they are now and the NHL relied heavily upon guys that may not have had a job in the NHL right now with their skill sets. Going back to the early 90s, however, those guys were just good enough to make it. Nowadays, that’s not the case at all.

Elite talent is continuing to come over from Europe (Mats Zuccarello-Aasen of Norway with the New York Rangers for example), Americans are producing elite talent at a dizzying pace, and while the KHL as well as the Swedish, German and Finnish elite leagues make for excellent options for Europeans and North Americans alike, the NHL is still the king of the mountain in professional hockey. The NHL is where the big money and the big notoriety comes in.

The owners would welcome expansion because it means all the current owners add two more governors and two more exorbitant expansion fees to collect money from. It also means adding two new (or renewed) television markets in which to spread the word about the game. The players love expansion because it means more jobs in the NHL and more members to have join the NHLPA. In a time when both sides find it very hard to agree on anything at all, expansion is the one thing both sides could agree on in a big way.

Whether it happens sooner than later or at all is up for debate (and believe me, this is already debated) remains to be seen if ever at all. If we’re ever to see movement on this possibility, it’s likely we could hear about it during the labor talks coming in 2012. There are people with interest in owning an NHL franchise, they’d just rather have a brand new one. Jerry Bruckheimer and the True North group in Winnipeg come to mind immediately. The possibilities are there to do it, whether the league and the players want to go that way is the ultimate question.

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

***

The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

***

“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

Highlight of the Day:

Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

Factoid of the Day:

Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final

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Want to capture the unlikely story of the Vegas Golden Knights advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first season? Consider that Ryan Reaves was the person who scored the goal to punch their ticket.

(It’s OK if you need a second just to stare at your screen in disbelief.)

Remarkably, the Golden Knights only needed one chance to dispatch the Winnipeg Jets, who sported the NHL’s second-best record (and who eliminated the top team, Nashville, in the previous round). With a 2-1 win in Game 5, Vegas beat Winnipeg 4-1 in the series.

[PHT’s Three Stars.]

Quite a few storylines carried over from earlier games in the 2018 Western Conference Final.

As usual, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s work was just about spotless. Fleury won his fourth consecutive game, and he needed to make 30+ saves for the fourth time in a row as well, stopping 31 out of 32 shots.

It says a lot about how excellent Fleury has been that Connor Hellebuyck‘s absorbed all sorts of heat during this series, as Hellebuyck’s rarely allowed bad goals, even amid relative struggles during this third round. Hellebuyck made some key saves down the stretch of Game 5, but it wasn’t enough.

Game 5 felt a little different than Winnipeg’s last few losses because Fleury didn’t need the same Herculean effort during the third period. You can get away with making a bad joke about the Jets running out of gas/fuel, because at least compared to previous pushes, it seemed like Winnipeg sputtered a bit after that Reaves tally.

Winnipeg had generated a shots on goal advantage for six straight periods (the last two of Game 3, all three in Game 4, and the first in Game 5), yet the two teams were tied at 32 shots on goal by the end of this one, as Vegas took the final 40 minutes from that standpoint. You wonder if Fleury’s excellent play truly “broke” Winnipeg, at least once it became clear that they’d need to fight back from another deficit following that Reaves-winner.

The Jets were dominant at times during this series, yet it’s sobering for this mighty group to realize that they didn’t just drop four games in a row … they also failed to grab a single lead after Game 1.

Speaking of remarkable stats, consider this: the Golden Knights still haven’t faced elimination during this Cinderella run. They swept the Kings in the first round, beat the Sharks in six games, and then passed by the Jets in five. Now they’ll get to watch Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning advance or if the Washington Capitals force a Game 7 (thus giving Vegas a nice rest advantage, as well).

The Golden Knights may root a little extra for that East series to go the distance if Fleury’s a bit hampered by injury issues, as some speculated during Game 5. Fleury wasn’t bothered enough to allow Winnipeg to get back in the contest, and chances are, he’s not too worried about that right now.

Really, the biggest concern is trying to top Elliotte Friedman’s joke:

Ante up.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.