Training Camp Battles: Northeast Division

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With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Thumbnail image for tylerseguindraftday.jpgNortheast Division

Boston Bruins

Contributor: Cornelius Hardenbergh from Hockey Blog Adventure.

The position battle most-watched on the Bruins is Tyler Seguin vs. Himself. He’s basically assured a spot on the team this year unless he completely screws it up. There’s not much more there about him but he’s going to be good so I wanted to bring it up for sure. In rookie camp he’s been tearing up the ice on a line with Jared Knight and Jamie Arniel. I can’t wait to see him play in the rookie games.

The positions on the Bruins are for the most part filled out already. The main question is how are we going to get 3.3 million under the cap? Send Seguin back to the O? (ha!) Send Ryder to Providence? Trade? As the season (and Sturm’s return from LTIR) gets closer we get to wonder about just exactly what’s going to happen.

The team’s biggest strength is at center, because we’ve got a ton of them. Also goalie. And we do okay on defense. The team looks good. On paper. Before preseason. Nothing to do now but sit back and see how it goes.

drewstaffordtrain.jpgBuffalo Sabres

Contributor: Marty Vance.

The Sabres’ biggest battle was decided by management; you remember; during that God awful period of time when a 26 point player getting waived was headline news. When the decision came down to waive Tim Kennedy; that opened up a definite roster spot for reigning AHL Rookie of the Year, Tyler Ennis, and gave Nathan Gerbe an open shot to compete this year.

That leaves the Sabres with little in terms of roster competition heading into camp. But if anyone has a right to be worried, it’s Drew Stafford and a couple underachievers on the blue line. At this point, Stafford needs to be worried about his cushy spot alongside Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek; if 26 points can get you waived from this roster, then 34 sounds like free popcorn in the press box. But one has to think the 6’1″ Stafford still has an inside track for that 1st line, presumably because Lindy Ruff won’t want to stock a 1st line (a line annually shut down by more aggressive, more physical checking lines) with the likes of the equally diminutive Ennis or Gerbe. Maybe a kid like Corey Tropp (Michigan St.) or Luke Adam (QMJHL – Cape Breton) could make a run for a spot; but that would have to take one heck of a training camp performance.

But scoring goals isn’t the problem with the Sabres; it’s mitigating the number of 4-on-1’s that Ryan Miller must face each and every night. Chris Butler, entering his third professional season at age 23, will more than likely need to prove himself to Lindy Ruff after regressing in his sophomore campaign. Twenty four year old Slovakian Andrej Sekera seemed destined to move into the role vacated by Brian Campbell almost 3 years ago, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. Healthy scratches throughout last season, Butler and Sekera will have to fight off the grittier Mike Weber (153 PIMs in 80 GP) and the Portland Pirates transition cog Marc-Andre Gragnani (12 G, 31 A in 66 GP) to retain their roster spots on this year’s overhauled blue line.

That said, it will take a revelation (see Myers, Tyler) for any of the current roster players to be uprooted and overtaken by any of the guys in Portland. But hey, at least the Sabres will have spiffy new sweaters. Right? Right?

(Editor’s note: I do love those sweaters.)

After the jump: Four Habs Fans cover the Canadiens, Ryan Classic takes on the Senators and Eye B Leaf shares the Maple Leafs’ biggest battles.


pksubbantrain.jpgMontreal Canadiens

Contributor: “Panger” or HF33 from Four Habs Fans.

With 17 returning players, including 20 on one-way contracts and 2 hot shot rookies all but guaranteed spots (PK Subban and Lars Eller), you’d think that there was not much in the way of training camp battles in Montreal. Of course, that would ignore the fact that not only do the Habs have to worry about having the right players on the ice, but those players also need to speak the correct language.

Ryan O’Byrne should have a place wrapped up on the blueline given his experience, size and one-way contract, otherwise prospect Yannick Weber has some NHL & Olympic experience, a cannon shot and will make it because of improved defense. Alexandre Picard and Matt Carle are both pretty much one dimensional (and injury prone) offensive D and may take the token French Canadien / PP specialist spot Marc-Andre Bergeron occupied last year, to the horror of Habs goaltenders and anyone with an awareness of defensive zone coverage. But Alex, Matt and Marc-Andre are eligible to play for Quebec at the Jeux de la Francophonie. Too bad there’s no hockey competition.

Up front, Mathieu Darche in on a one-way contract and probably has a spot tied up. But he went to McGill University, so he  forfeited his French status. Tom Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Dustin Boyd ought to earn spots given their experience and NHL contracts. If not, Ben Maxwell, Ryan White and Max Pacioretty have NHL experience and lots o’ potential. But they don’t get Moliere. Gabriel Dumont, Olivier Fortier and Louis Leblanc, are all getting lots of hype in the French media,. But they all need more time in the minors – in Leblanc’s case, junior. Remember how rushing Gui! Latendresse to the NHL worked out? Yeah, us too. David Desharnais has the best shot of the bunch, but at 5’6 he’s a long shot (heh). But they all speak Québécois, which usefulness is obvious for backchecking or goal scoring purposes.

If only Carey’s last name was Prix instead, he might get some respect.

pascaleclaireblinks.jpgOttawa Senators

Contributor: Ryan Classic of Silver Seven Sens.

The Senators’ greatest need – as it has been for the entire existence of the franchise – is a consistent, bona fide number one goaltender. After a horrific season, Pascal Leclaire finally showed some flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but the jury’s still out on whether he can do it for an entire season. His body’s also more fragile than a Jenga tower, and he’s no use to the team if he’s injured. Brian Elliott put together an excellent 46-26-7 career record, but he’s too streaky to be a number one. The future lies with 19-year old Robin Lehner, but unless something drastic happens, he’ll be splitting time in Binghamton with Mike “Not Martin” Brodeur. 2010-11 looks to be the Leclaire and Elliott show again, for better or worse.

On defense, six one-way contracts and sophomore Erik Karlsson take up all the roster spots. Prospects Patrick Wiercioch and 2009 first-round pick Jared Cowen could make a push for a spot, but if either one makes the team it will likely come at the expense of much-maligned former first rounder Brian Lee. Lee’s on a one-way deal, but fans have grown impatient with him and it would surprise no one if he were put on waivers at the start of the season.

The story is much the same at forward. Twelve one-way deals mean twelve roster spots are taken, with rookie Zack Smith figuring to be the 13th man. If another prospect makes a case for himself – say, college star Bobby Butler or QMJHL MVP Mike Hoffman – the waiver casualty would likely be Ryan Shannon. Most of the competition in camp will be for spots with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. There may not be many openings on the NHL roster this season, but the groundwork for the future is being laid, and that’s nothing but positive.

tylerbozakhappy.jpgToronto Maple Leafs

Contributor: Navin Vaswani of Sports and the City.

The most important question heading into training camp in Toronto, and into the 2010/2011 season, is this: other than Phil Kessel, who the hell is going to score? The Maple Leafs’ offense, if I may boldly call it that, scares no one. (It probably frightens Vesa Toskala, but he’s turning down NHL contract offers, so you know where his head is at.) Up front is where jobs will be won or lost at camp.

The Leafs are weak up the middle. Sophomore Tyler Bozak and the erratic Mikhail Grabovski are the team’s only two centers with some job security. Prized prospect Nazem Kadri will get every chance to make the big club straight out of junior hockey. He could probably use some seasoning, preferably a full season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, playing 20 minutes a night in all situations. (Which means he’ll definitely crack Toronto’s opening night roster.)

On the bubble from last season are the likes of John Mitchell, Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi, and you’ll be wise to keep your eyes on Marcel Mueller and Jerry D’Amigo. General manager Brian Burke’s philosophy of top six and bottom six forwards likely means the top two lines are set, with any combination of Bozak, Grabovski, Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, and newcomers Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, and Clarke MacArthur being counted on to score goals. If a player brings his hard hat, a lunch box, and some truculence — full disclosure: I loathe that word — to camp, he’s got a chance to play on Ron Wilson’s third or fourth lines.

While the Leafs may be offensively challenged this coming season, their focus as a team must be on defense. And I’ll be watching training camp closely, and praying at the same time, to see if that indeed will be the case. On paper, Toronto’s back end is set. The Leafs have a dearth of NHL defenseman, seven by my count (Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda, Luke Schenn, and Carl Gunnarsson), and eight if you count those who are paid as NHL rearguards (Jeff Finger will make $3.5 million while playing in the AHL this season). While they don’t have a chance to make the team, I’ll have my eyes on youngsters Keith Aulie and Juraj Mikus in camp.

Toronto: where goaltenders go to die. Post-lockout, the Maple Leafs’ crease has been in constant disarray, and that will hopefully change this season. J.S. Giguere’s already been anointed the team’s starting keeper, with Jonas Gustavsson serving as his backup. If all goes to plan, this will be a transitional season for Toronto between the pipes. Giguere’s got an expiring contract and the Leafs are hoping Giggy will mentor Gustavsson the way he did Jonas Hiller in Anaheim. While training camp won’t see the two goalies necessarily compete against one another for the starting job, it will be interesting to watch Gustavsson push Giguere, and see what the veteran Giguere can do to motivate, and help, the young Swedish tender.

The Leafs need to know what they’ve got in Gustavsson, as they recently added another two goalies via free agency: Jussi Rynnas, from Finland, and Ben Scrivens, from the college ranks. If we’ve learned anything in Toronto after trading separate first-round draft picks, one being Tuukka Rask (this is where I go and fix a drink), for Andrew Raycroft and Toskala, it’s that you can never have too much depth in goal. But back to Giguere: in 15 starts with Toronto last season, after he was acquired from Anaheim for Toskala and Jason Blake (this is where I pour another – but this time celebratory – drink), Giggy won only six games. But, more importantly, he put up a .916 save percentage. Nine-one-six! Toskala and Raycroft don’t even dream of save percentages that high. And a number like that will go a long way in helping Toronto keep the puck out of the net, and in improving their absolutely horrific penalty killing, something they have to do if they’re serious about making the playoffs. While I know it’s “only” training camp, and that results may not transfer over into the regular season, I’ll have my eye on Toronto’s special teams during the fake games. The Leafs must be better when they’re down, and up, a man. Period.

NHL injury roundup: Crawford getting closer; Johnson hurt in practice

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at some injury situations that are worth monitoring as training camps and the preseason roll on.

Yes, Corey Crawford is still getting closer … but he is not back yet

The biggest injury situation this preseason still remains in Chicago where starting goalie Corey Crawford has yet to return to practice with the team. He is still skating on his own, including 30 minutes before practice on Sunday. And while that is a step, it still does not seem that he is ready to return to game action. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Sunday that Crawford is getting closer and that he has not yet been ruled out for a return to practice with the team this week (via Scott Powers of The Athletic; subscription required).

Crawford missed the majority of the 2017-18 season due to an upper-body injury that he finally revealed earlier in training camp was a concussion. As recently as 10 days ago Crawford said he was still dealing with some symptoms and until they clear up he will not be able to return.

[Related: Crawford still dealing with concussion symptoms]

Given the Blackhawks’ goaltending situation behind him they desperately need him healthy this season if they are going to make a return to the playoffs.

Tyler Johnson “day-to-day” with upper body injury

Some potentially big news in Tampa Bay where forward Tyler Johnson missed practice on Sunday with what the team is calling an “upper-body injury.”

General manager Julian Brisebois said the injury happened during practice and is going to keep him out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis. While the team does not expect it to be a long-term injury, Brisebois said on Sunday there are no guarantees he will be ready for the season opener.

After missing at least 12 games in each of the past two seasons, Johnson managed to play in 81 games for the Lightning last season, finishing with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) to help the team reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning were decimated by injuries during the 2016-17 season, a development that played a large role in them falling just short of the playoffs, but were remarkably lucky a year ago on the injury front. When healthy this is one of the best teams in the league and Johnson is a huge part of that.

Ryan Murray to miss some time after being kicked in the groin

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray was injured in the team’s exhibition game on Tuesday night, and after initially believing that it was just a day-to-day injury, the team revealed over the weekend that it might be a little bit longer.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said on Sunday (via Aaron Portzline) that Murray is dealing with a “soft-tissue groin injury” after he was kicked between the legs against the Chicago Blackhawks.

That sounds … awful.

Injuries have been a constant problem for Murray throughout his career and have limited him to just 198 out of a possible 328 games over the past four seasons.

Another injury for Loui Eriksson in Vancouver

With Henrik and Daniel Sedin retiring this summer, Loui Eriksson is now the elder statesman in the Canucks’ locker room.

After struggling through back-to-back injury plagued seasons in his first two years with the Canucks, his third season is not off to a much better start as it was revealed this past week that he is going to be out on a week-to-week basis with a lower-body injury.

After signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks in free agency prior to the 2016-17 season, Eriksson has managed just 21 goals and 47 total points in 115 games. He still has four years remaining on that contract.

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.

Paul Byron gets four-year, $13.6 million contract from Canadiens

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It’s been a tough couple of years for Canadiens fans when it comes to the team’s roster movement, but they finally got some better news on Sunday morning when the team announced that it has signed speedy forward Paul Byron to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $13.6 million.

That comes out to a salary cap hit of $3.4 million per season.

The 29-year-old Byron would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season had the Canadiens not signed him to a new deal.

He has been one of the better additions made by general manager Marc Bergevin during his tenure in Montreal, as Byron has completely turned his career around carved out a nice role for himself with the Canadiens.

The Canadiens snagged Byron on waivers from the Calgary Flames prior to the 2015-16 season, and in the three years since he has become one of their most consistent — and productive — forwards. He is the only player on the roster to have topped the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, plays on the penalty kill, and has been a positive possession player on a team that tends to get outshot. He has also managed to top the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons while getting very little power play time.

He is not a player that is going to significantly alter the course of the Canadiens’ rebuild, or whatever it is they are calling this current phase, but he is a good, solid NHL forward whose contract isn’t going to break the team’s salary cap structure.

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.

Fast-skating Avs center MacKinnon speeds toward success

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DENVER (AP) — Mention a topic, just about any topic, and sharp-shooting Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon takes his elusiveness to a whole new level.

Not appearing on the cover of the NHL’s latest video game? ”Don’t care,” he responds. The pressure of becoming one of league’s top stars after a 97-point season? ”Feels normal,” the top pick in the 2013 draft quips. Taking another step in his evolution on the ice? ”Hopefully a few,” he offers.

It’s not like the speedy, 23-year-old shies away from the spotlight he has earned through his electrifying play. Rather, he’s just highly focused on helping Colorado return to the playoffs after a stirring run a year ago behind his hard-to-keep-up speed and hard-to-stop shot.

”He’s a legitimate, bona fide superstar in our league,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who joined the Avs after spending last season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. ”He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league.”

MacKinnon finished with 39 goals and 58 assists last season. He finished second to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who means the most to their team. That didn’t exactly sit well with MacKinnon’s line mate, captain Gabriel Landeskog.

In Landeskog’s view, seeing is believing in MacKinnon’s skills.

”The hockey world is big in the East and they don’t see Nate as much, or us as much,” Landeskog said. ”We all know how good he is. It’s a matter of time. But he doesn’t need the recognition from anybody else – we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing as far as being a really good offensive player.”

MacKinnon turned in a breakout season in which he posted stats that hadn’t been seen in Colorado in a while, including:

– Most points by an Avalanche player since Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07

– Most shots (284) since Sakic during the Stanley Cup championship season in 2000-01

– 12 game-winning goals, matching the Avalanche record set by Sakic in ’00-01

– 13 three-point games, which was the most since Peter Forsberg had 14 in 2002-03.

Quite a list – and one he hopes to top this season. That’s why his summer consisted of working out every day and skating three times a week. Maybe an occasional round of golf , but his world revolved around the rink.

”I’m always thinking about hockey,” MacKinnon said . ”Not stressing over it, but definitely always thinking about it. I worked hard because another 100 points isn’t going to be handed to me. It’s tough to get that many. I don’t know if I will get that many this year. But I’ll try to and see what happens.”

MacKinnon’s prepared to embrace the pressure of being one of the game’s elite players. Then again, expectations have never weighed down MacKinnon, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

”Growing up, I was always a top prospect, and I went first overall. So it just feels normal,” said MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1 million deal in July 2016. ”It’s somewhere I expect to be. It’s not like I won the lottery here. I feel like I’ve earned that.”

He wasn’t one of the cover players for EA Sports’ NHL ’19 , which features Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, and Toronto center William Nylander on respective editions.

”I really don’t care,” MacKinnon said. ”I just don’t.”

More on his mind is getting the Avalanche back to the postseason. The team earned the No. 8 seed with a win in their last contest of the season before being eliminated in six games by Nashville.

”We’re trying to prove ourselves,” said MacKinnon, who missed eight games in February with a shoulder injury. ”I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing – keep getting better by doing the little things. Be very consistent every night and making sure I’m healthy and feeling good.”

That sort of mentality is music to the ears of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.

”He’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever met. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met,” Bednar said. ”He’s hungry to prove that (last season) wasn’t a one-off – that’s who he is. He expects to be even better this year.”

Maybe even the best in the league.

”I’d like to. I’m working for that,” MacKinnon said. ”I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.