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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him is job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Vegas Golden Knights, U.S. Army agree to end trademark dispute

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The Vegas Golden Knights and the U.S. Army have called an end to their trademark battle regarding the usage of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name.

Owner Bill Foley announced on Thursday that the two sides have entered into a trademark coexistence agreement where the U.S. Army will continue using the ‘Golden Knights’ marks and names with its parachute exhibition team. The Golden Knights will continue to use ‘Vegas Golden Knights’ and ‘Golden Knights’ in regards to the hockey team.

“We are pleased that we have agreed to coexist regarding the use of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name,” said Foley in a statement. “Our discussions with the Army were collaborative and productive throughout this entire process. We are appreciative of their efforts and commitment to reaching an amicable resolution.”

The U.S. Army filed a notice of opposition in January against against Black Knight Sports and Entertainment over the use of the name ‘Golden Knights.’ Foley is a graduate of West Point and originally wanted to name the team the Black Knights (after the Army sports teams) but decided against it.

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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.