The free agent bidding war for Willie Mitchell

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Thumbnail image for williemitchell1.jpgAs this summer’s free agency trudges along, one name getting a lot of heat lately is defenseman Willie Mitchell. Mitchell spent the last four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and before that he played with the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, and the New Jersey Devils. He’s developed the reputation (and has had the game to back it up) for being one of the toughest defenders in the NHL.

If you’re the GM of a team looking for that two-way defenseman that can chip in offensively and get back to block a shot or throw the body, Mitchell isn’t your guy as he’s only going to do the latter. Luckily for him, there are more than a few teams in the NHL looking for a hard-hitting, defensive defenseman and Dan Murphy of Sportsnet tweets that a few have checked in on him already.

WMitchell has worked out for the Canucks, Sharks and Kings. Testing went very well. No conf on LA offer, WM now expected to visit Wash

How do those candidates shape up in the race to get Willie Mitchell? We’ll tell you.

San Jose: The Sharks tried to get their hands on Niklas Hjalmarsson in early July only to have the Blackhawks match their offer sheet for the defenseman. The Sharks are in need of a bopper on the blue line as they’ve lost Rob Blake to retirement and Douglas Murray can’t play 60 minutes a night. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle and Jason Demers are nice defensemen but they’re not the big-time defensive presence you look for in a situation where you need to make a stop. Mitchell could plug in instantly to be a top-four defenseman with the Sharks and make them quite formidable.

Los Angeles: The Kings are in a strange spot. They need defensive help both in the form of a true defender but also could stand to use a guy who can make plays. Drew Doughty is the top guy here and Jack Johnson is solid. Rob Scuderi makes for a good situational defender and the team is without Matt Greene for a little while thanks to off-season surgery. Right now they’ve got three guys they can bank on, one man out hurt and two spots that are totally up for grabs.

While Greene will be closer to being ready by the start of the season, getting a guy with a nasty streak like Willie Mitchell has will help balance out the Kings lineup and help them get even tougher defensively. He’ll also be able to help the younger defenders looking to make the Kings roster out better by having them learn from him. Mitchell would also help make up for the departure by Sean O’Donnell. Don’t laugh, O’Donnell has had a positive plus/minus rating each year with the Kings.

Vancouver: Mitchell knows Vancouver well and plays their system about as well as anyone can. What hurts the Canucks here is their current salary status. While they’ll catch some relief to start the year with Sami Salo likely to end up on the LTIR, bringing back the potentially pricey Mitchell could make things even harder for the team once Salo returns to the lineup. The Canucks are overloaded on the blue line and unless they make a move to send one of those guys out (Kevin Bieksa has been rumored many times) making Mitchell fit into the budget might not be able to happen. What does work for them is that Mitchell is familiar with the team and seems to love playing in Vancouver. If the guy wants to go elsewhere to get paid, however, he can’t be faulted for that.

Washington: Of the teams in the running for Mitchell, the Caps are the one team that could see an instant benefit to adding him. While the Caps have plenty of talent on the roster, they don’t have a go-to shutdown defenseman. Mitchell would fill that role immediately with Washington. While you’ve got Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, John Carlson and perhaps Karl Alzner as well, none of those players stand out as a physical force. One guy they do have that does fit that bill isn’t very good (John Erskine). They’ve lost Shaone Morrisonn to the Buffalo Sabres and while that’s not a terrible blow, he’s at least a guy that cared about playing defense. Adding Mitchell, you could conceivably put him with Mike Green and feel OK about letting Mike Green roam a bit free offensively knowing full well you’ll have Mitchell there to back him up.

Who gets the inside track Mitchell is probably the team able and willing to give up the sweetest contract for his services. This puts Los Angeles, San Jose, and Washington in a bidding war of sorts as they’re the three teams with the most flexibility, Los Angeles much more so than Washington or San Jose. Los Angeles also has desperation to contend with as they’ve already missed out on Paul Martin and Dan Hamhuis this off-season. Washington has been extremely quiet this summer and landing Mitchell might just be the one move good enough to help them out the most this year. Vancouver could be in the running if Mitchell really wants to stay there and opts to cut a sweetheart deal for the team but whether that happens or not, Vancouver will still have a move to make later on.

The Buzzer: Taylor Hall does it all for Devils, Maple Leafs rout Kings

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Three Stars

1. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. The reigning league MVP played like it on Tuesday night as he contributed to all four goals in the Devils’ 4-2 win over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins. Hall scored the game-winning goal 8:07 into the third period and then put the game away with an empty-net goal later in the period. Along with his two goals he also had the primary assist on the Devils’ first two goals, setting up Travis Zajac and Damon Severson. Hall is now up to 18 points in 16 games this season.

2. Tom Kuhnhackl, New York Islanders. We have to give some attention to Kuhnhackl here because this is the type of game he just does not have. He not only scored one of the weirdest goals of the season (watch it here) when he somehow slipped the puck behind Jakob Markstrom while falling to the ice and looking in the wrong direction, but then he went and added another goal later in the game to help the Islanders pick up a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks. With his two goals on Tuesday night he now has three goals on the season in only seven games. Keep in mind he only scored two goals in 69 games a year ago, and only four in 57 games the year before that, and only five in 42 games the year before that.

3. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. This was not even a contest. The Maple Leafs completely rolled over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday by a 5-1 margin in a game that was not anywhere near as close as the final score. John Tavares was the star of the night for the Maple Leafs with three points and seven total shot attempts (including four on goal). He is now up to 22 points in 18 games this season. The Maple Leafs, even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, are very good. The Los Angeles Kings are struggling.

Other notable performances from Tuesday night

— Thanks to a three-point night from Mike Green the Detroit Red Wings were 6-1 winners over the Arizona Coyotes and have now won seven of their past eight games. Who saw that happening?

Tom Wilson returned to the lineup sooner than expected and had a crazy night. He scored a goal and got called for a penalty on the same play, got into a fight, and was a plus-two on the night. He was an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hat trick. The Capitals rolled to a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Max Domi‘s 10th goal of the season (more than he scored in each of the past two seasons) was not enough for the Montreal Canadiens as they dropped a 6-2 decision to the Edmonton Oilers. The duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was the difference for the Oilers as they each had three points on the night.

Jeff Skinner has been exactly what the Buffalo Sabres needed. He scored another goal in their big 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

Highlights of the Night

Just because it is worth one more look.

Joe Thornton hits the 400-goal mark with the game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

It was not just a big night for Joe Thornton in San Jose. Erik Karlsson is still searching for his first goal of the season but he did reach a personal milestone of his own on Tuesday night.

The Florida Panthers are on a roll thanks in large part to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov.

Mathew Barzal is one of the league’s best players and an exceptional playmaker.

 

Scores

New Jersey Devils 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2

New York Islanders 5, Vancouver Canucks 2

Florida Panthers 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Buffalo Sabres 2, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Detroit Red Wings 6, Arizona Coyotes 1

Washington Capitals 5, Minnesota Wild 2

Edmonton Oilers 6, Montreal Canadiens 2

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Los Angeles Kings 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Thornton’s 400th goal helps Sharks win wild one over Predators

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The game of the night (and maybe the year so far!) was in San Jose on Tuesday where the Sharks were able to come away with a 5-4 win over the Nashville Predators.

Along with the win, it was also a huge night for Joe Thornton as he reached a personal milestone by scoring his 400th career goal.

Have a look!

That goal could not have come at a better time as it also happened to be the game-winner and put him in some pretty exclusive company.

By joining the 400-goal club, Thornton becomes just the 11th player in NHL history to score at least 400 goals and 1,000 assists. The other players on that list are Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Gordie Howe, Ron Francis, Marcel Dionne, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, and Ray Bourque.

Every player on that list is already in the Hockey Hall of Fame, with the lone exception being Jaromir Jagr … only because he was still playing in the league as recently as a year ago and is not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. Once he is, he will be a first ballot entry.

Just as Thornton should be.

But let’s get back to the game itself for a second because this one was crazy.

In the first period it looked like the Sharks were going to run the Predators out of the building by scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes to race out to an early three-goal lead. But the Predators were able to respond in the second period with three consecutive goals of their own (including two from Filip Forsberg), and then managed to take the lead early in the third period thanks to a Rocco Grimaldi goal.

Just as the Sharks looked to be on the verge of squandering two points, Joe Pavelski scored his second goal of the game to tie it with just under seven minutes to play in regulation.

It only took 13 seconds for Thornton to follow it up with his winning goal.

Sharks goalie Martin Jones did not have a great game overall, but he did make some huge saves down the stretch after Thornton’s goal to help preserve the win

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins are a mess after another ugly loss to Devils

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The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the cure for whatever is ailing the New Jersey Devils these days.

After starting the season with a four-game winning streak, the Devils have won just three of the 12 games that followed while being outscored by 20 goals (52-32). They have been, for lack of a better word, bad.

Unless they happen to be playing the Penguins as two of those three wins have not only come against their divisional rival — including Tuesday’s 4-2 decision in New Jersey — but they have also outscored them by a 9-3 margin.

That is not a good look for the Penguins. Also not a good look for the Penguins: The fact they are now just 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are showing a lot of the same potentially fatal flaws that held them back at times a year ago, specifically when it comes to the abysmal play of their third-and fourth-lines.

Some numbers to ponder: After Tuesday’s game it has now been nine games since the Penguins received an even-strength goal from their third-or fourth-line. Meaning, a line that has not been centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The last such goal came in a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25 when Matt Cullen scored his first, and only, goal of the season.

During the stretch that has followed, the team has scored only 18 total goals, with only 14 of them coming at even-strength. One of Crosby or Malkin has been on the ice for all 14 of those even-strength goals, and at least one of them has contributed (scoring or assisting) to 11 of them.

It is not just the lack of goals, either. Their third-and fourth-lines are getting crushed in every aspect of the game, whether it’s actual goals (outscored 8-0), shot attempts (less than 44 percent) or scoring chances (also less than 44 percent).

On Tuesday, Crosby had a hand in both goals recording the primary assist on both of them, including an incredible cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel on the power play, and a controversial goal that saw Crosby plow through the crease and skate into Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, leaving a rebound right on the doorstep for Jake Guentzel to pounce on.

The Devils challenged the goal for goalie interference but the on-ice call was upheld.

General manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth issues a week ago when he ripped into his team’s slow start and commented on how they are not getting contributions from their depth players.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

For a refresher:

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

That was probably the most on-point and accurate thing he said.

Over the past couple of weeks coach Mike Sullivan has tried a lot of different things to jumpstart individual players in an effort to get them going.

Bryan Rust, fresh off signing a long-term contract extension over the summer, has been off to a terribly slow start and been bumped up to the top line alongside Crosby and Dominik Simon.

Carl Hagelin, who has just three points in 16 games, has remained in the top-six alongside Malkin despite his lack of offense.

With Rust and Hagelin getting those big-minute roles, it means somebody else gets bumped down the line, and on Tuesday it was Guentzel and Phil Kessel (the two most productive wingers on the team) opening the night on the third line being centered by Riley Sheahan … who has two points in 16 games, none in his past seven, and has not scored a goal since the second game of the season.

None of it has worked.

What the Penguins really need right now is for Derick Brassard to get healthy again, and once he does, they need to stick him on the third-line (which is the role they acquired him for; not to play alongside Crosby on the top line as he had been doing prior to his injury) and hope that he starts to produce as they expected him to.

They also need to hope that somebody out of the Rust, Hagelin, Sheahan trio (which accounts for nearly $10 million in salary cap space) starts to contribute something.

Or, as the GM hinted at, maybe even a trade to bring in somebody that might help add some offense.

Whatever the solution might be, they better find it fast because they are only two points out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference.

Yeah, it is early (and yeah, they were in a nearly identical spot at this exact same time a year ago). But it is not so early that there should not be some concern.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed

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The Buffalo Sabres seem to be finally — finally! — taking some sort of a significant step toward regaining relevance in the NHL.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, they were able to pick up their 10th win and improve to 10-6-2 on the young season.

This, of course, is major progress in Buffalo.

For one, this is tied for the Sabres’ best start (22 points) through their first 18 games since the 2009-10 season when they were 12-5-1 at this point.

(They also had 22 through 18 games during the 2011-12 season.)

Second, the Sabres did not win their 10th game of the season a year ago until Dec. 29. They didn’t get it until Dec. 6 in 2016-17. Even more, this is only the third time since 2009-10 that they have won their 10th game of the season before the calendar rolled over to December. All of that is insane, and just shows how much this organization has struggled over the past seven seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for their newfound early success.

[Related: Top Pick Dahlin has been strong for Sabres]

At the top of that list is the fact that Jack Eichel is healthy and, once again, playing like a superstar.

The other is that some of their offseason acquisitions are really paying off in the early going. Conor Sheary, thought to be a salary dump by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has six goals and 10 points in 18 games and been a nice complement to their forwards. Carter Hutton has been solid in net. They have another emerging star in top pick Rasmus Dahlin whose progress seems to be ahead of schedule for an 18-year-old defender.

But perhaps the biggest improvement from outside the organization has been the addition of Jeff Skinner.

The Sabres desperately needed a top-line winger that could complement Eichel, something he had not had over the first three years of his career. Skinner has given them exactly what they needed, and perhaps even more. It should not be a surprise.

Skinner, still only 26 years old even though it seems like he’s been around forever, has been one of the most productive goal-scorers in the league in recent years. Entering this season he was 15th in the league in goals over the previous five years and still in the middle of what should be his peak years of production in the league is on pace for what could be a career year.

He opened the scoring for the Sabres on Tuesday night with what is already his 13th goal of the season. Only Boston’s David Pastrnak has scored more as of this posting.

He and Eichel have been especially dominant together. When the Sabres have had the two of them on the ice this season they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin at even-strength and completely dictating the pace of the play from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective.

They are not only steamrolling opposing defenses, they have given each exactly what the other needed and had been lacking for most of their careers.

Skinner has been an exceptional goal-scorer throughout his career despite the fact he has never had a center like Eichel setting him up.

Eichel has been great since the Sabres drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick four years ago even though he has never really had a finisher like Skinner on his wing.

Put them together and it has been close to perfection for the Sabres.

The two big questions for the Sabres now: Can the duo keep this rolling and do the Sabres have enough in the lineup beyond them to maintain this early pace, and will they be able to keep Skinner beyond this season. Skinner remains unsigned after this season and is no doubt playing his way into a huge contract given the combination of his age (again, still only 26) and continued production.

For right now this should be something that Sabres fans are enjoying, because they have not seen much of it over the better part of the past decade.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.