Cap relief coming: Devils Brian Rolston goes on LTIR with sports hernia

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Much has been made of the New Jersey Devils inability to ice a complete roster of players thanks to their bind with the salary cap. While guys like Anton Volchenkov and Brian Rolston dealt with nagging injuries and recently demoted enforcer Pierre-Luc Letorneau-Leblond was serving a suspension the Devils had to ice just 15 skaters on Monday night and will send out just 16 skaters for tonight’s game against Buffalo.

Fear not Devils fans, relief is on the way in the form of a sports hernia. I know that sounds gross, but in this case it’s a bit too accurate as Devils forward Brian Rolston is headed to LTIR as he’ll be getting his sports hernia operated on tomorrow and will be out of action for 4-6 weeks. With Rolston on LTIR, the Devils will be allowed to go over the salary cap by $5.062 million (Rolston’s cap hit), thus temporarily solving their salary cap problems. Expect the express from the Devils AHL home in Albany to New Jersey to open up instantly as reinforcements and depth players can be plugged in now with the added salary space.

As for who we can expect to be on the way up to New Jersey, wingers Vladimir Zharkov and Mattias Tedenby are candidates as well as potentially the return of Pierre-Luc Letorneau-Leblond. There’s an outside possibility that prospect Jacob Josefson could get the call to New Jersey as well, but you’d have to think that getting him consistent minutes in Albany would be more of a priority this early in his career.

Those who aren’t Devils fans are going to declare shenanigans on Devils GM Lou Lamoriello for the financially fortunate turn of events with Rolston. Lamoriello’s history of getting things worked out to make the money work for the Devils is the thing of legend now. Of course, having him have a high-priced player end up with a sports hernia, an ailment that takes time to recover from, seems almost all too convenient to just about everyone. Unless Lou Lamoriello has mastered the art of voodoo, he’s in the clear here and this is just dumb luck for him. Then again, I wouldn’t doubt Lou’s ability to work the books either.

For Rolston, his second tour of duty in New Jersey has been nothing short of a complete disaster. After two sub-par seasons, he headed into this season looking to prove his worth and ensure his spot in the lineup in New Jersey and not end up being traded away for salary cap relief. Instead, he’s laid up with an injury and ends up giving the Devils what they needed to help them out without even meaning to. Let’s just go ahead and nominate him for team MVP already.

Most of all for Lamoriello now, this buys him time to get a plan together for when Rolston is able to return from LTIR to help the team get back under the cap. The Devils won’t get to claim an emergency when it’s time for Rolston to come back to get under the cap and if they’d like to keep the NHLPA off their back, they’d be wise to get their act together. Getting a plan worked out now will be a must-have for the Devils. While they can send the guys they’ll call up now back down again then, they won’t completely be in the clear.

For now, the Devils have no worries other than getting Anton Volchenkov back on the ice and getting the roster replacements into New Jersey as soon as possible. Lucky Lou strikes again.

Mike Green may miss start of Red Wings season with scary ailment

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Early word of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green dealing with fatigue issues in the preseason seemed unusual, but it turns out there’s a rather frightening reason why he might be dealing with energy issues.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill announced that Green is sidelined indefinitely, as he saw an infectious disease specialist regarding  “a virus that attacked his liver,” according to Dana Wakiji of the Red Wings website.

“(Green’s) not available right now,” Blashill said, via Wakiji. “He’s got a virus that attacked his liver, so he’s seen an infectious disease person today and we should know more here in the next little bit. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. I don’t know the totality of it.”

Scary stuff. (You can read more about viruses that affect the liver here.)

Green is no stranger to injury issues, including ailments that plagued him during his offensively dominant days with the Washington Capitals. Not long ago, Green spoke in positive terms about how he was feeling coming off of neck surgery.

This is unsettling news for a defenseman who’s already dealt with tough injury luck during his career. Here’s hoping that Green and the Red Wings take every precaution before he returns to the ice.

One silver lining is that, with Green sidelined, the Red Wings can open the door for some defensive prospects to get a longer look than they might have received under different circumstances. In particular, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek stand out as blueliners who could really benefit from some additional opportunities, while Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts should also be in the mix.

GM Ken Holland acknowledged as much while discussing Green’s health challenges, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press.

“Now we have five D, and we are probably going to start with seven,” Holland said. “Now, how long is Mike Green out? Certainly it appears he is going to be out for a little period of time. So probably we are going to start with two of these defense prospects – either Sulak or Hicketts or Cholowski or Hronek.”

One might argue that the Red Wings should already be taking measures to skew in a younger direction on defense, anyway. Getting more intel on Sulak, Hicketts, Cholowski, and Hronek would give them a better idea regarding how soon they might be able to contribute, or if they even figure into future plans.

Consider the ages of the Red Wings more settled defensemen. Green is 32, Jonathan Ericsson is pretty broken down at 34, Trevor Daley is 34, and Niklas Kronwall‘s nearing the end of his career at 37. It’s plausible that Nick Jensen and Danny DeKeyser (both 28) will be in a decline and/or out of the picture by the time the Red Wings wade out of the darkness, too.

The Red Wings have made some significant progress toward a rebuild – the Tomas Tatar trade was wonderful, and they followed it up with shrewd picks at the 2018 NHL Draft – yet there still seem to be moments where they’re too stubborn to fully embrace the growing pains. Bringing Green back felt a little bit like that, as there’s a strong chance that a healthy Green would provide better immediate returns than a Cholowski or Hronek. But, realistically speaking, would the upside be that strong?

Either way, here’s hoping there will be happier news for Green soon.

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.

Ekblad on Domi sucker punch: ‘Scores will get settled’

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The first game out of the December holiday break for the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens won’t be your typical midseason meeting. After the Max Domi / Aaron Ekblad incident from Wednesday night, there will be some bad blood on display that Friday night at BB&T Center.

Domi spoke to the media on Friday for the first time since his five-game suspension was handed down for sucker-punching Ekblad, breaking the Panthers’ defenseman’s nose in the process. He apologized for his actions and respected the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to give him the rest of the preseason off.

“It’s a real tough situation, obviously, for everyone involved,” said Domi, who was given a match penalty and a a minor for roughing. “I feel bad about it. It’s not the way I wanted to handle that. It’s an emotional game. Obviously, I’m an emotional player. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, grew up playing against each other. Always played hard, always battled, whether it was minor hockey, junior, national level, and now the NHL, too.

“By no means did I want to hurt him, I feel bad about it. I hope he’s OK. But, you know what? I’ve got to suffer the consequences of it and it’s unfortunate. But it is what it is and I respect the league’s decision.”

[NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions]

The suspension is obviously a joke. Five preseason games is almost a gift for any NHL player who has a job already sewn up. Plus, add in the fact that Domi won’t have to forfeit any salary and it’s a nice little vacation.

The Panthers had some choice words following the game, with goaltender Roberto Luongo saying they won’t forget what happened and calling what Domi did “a gutless play.” Ekblad, who was also sporting a pair of black eyes, said on Friday that it was a “dumb” decision by the Canadiens forward and hinted at some retribution coming when they meet on Dec. 28.

“I think he’s stupid for doing it. In the end, it’s hockey,” Ekblad said via the Panthers. “That’s the way it goes. Scores will get settled at a later date.”

That’s going to earn a phone call from the league to try and calm things down.

“It looked like Max was frustrated,” added Ekblad. “He obviously wasn’t doing much in the game and thought it was the right way to take care of something. I’m not sure what there was to take care of, considering I didn’t do much on the ice. I was just floating around trying to find my legs and play hockey. That’s what you do in the preseason.”

When told of Ekblad’s comments, Domi responded, “It’s part of the game. It is what it is. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. That’s hockey. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

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.

Reinhart eagerly rejoins Sabres with new contract signed

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — If Sam Reinhart‘s objective was to carry over his point-a-game pace from the second half of last season, the Buffalo Sabres forward understood that it wasn’t doing him much good sitting at home waiting for contract talks to be resolved.

”I don’t know if worried’s the right word,” he said after practicing for the first time Thursday, a day after flying in from Vancouver, British Columbia, and signing a two-year, $7.3 million contract. ”I think the best thing for the team and myself was to be here as soon as possible.”

Reinhart missed five days of training camp and two preseason games.

With two weeks to catch up before the Sabres open the regular season by hosting Boston, the No. 2 player selected in the 2014 draft is focused on proving he can consistently produce over the course of an entire season.

That was the knock on Reinhart last year, when he had just seven goals and 13 points in his first 44 games. He then went on a tear, scoring 18 goals and 37 points his final 38 games, and finished with a career-best 25 goals and 50 points.

The down-then-up season was one of the reasons the Sabres balked at offering the restricted free agent a longer-term deal.

”Whether it was a one-year or an eight-year, it’s not changing my mentality,” Reinhart said. ”I know the player I can be.”

General manager Jason Botterill said the key to Reinhart’s turnaround was how he established himself as a player unafraid of playing in front of an opposing net. He said it’s on both Reinhart and his coaching staff to continue his development.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Botterill was impressed with Reinhart’s approach during contract talks. He kept in touch with the team over the summer and traveled to Buffalo to take part in informal workouts with his teammates before camp opened, then returned to Vancouver last week.

”I think it’s just not words, it was his actions,” Botterill said. ”It’s been evident that Sam wants to be part of our solution here in Buffalo.”

The two-time 20-goal scorer has 65 goals and 140 points in 249 career games.

Reinhart rejoins a roster that was overhauled this summer after the Sabres finished last in the standings for a third time in five years. Despite the additions of forwards Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner, Reinhart is being counted upon to reclaim his role on one of the top two lines.

Coach Phil Housley said there’s a chance Reinhart could make his preseason debut as early as Saturday, when Buffalo hosts Toronto.

NOTES: Botterill expects Sheary to be ready for the start of the season despite the forward suffering an upper body injury on Sept. 14. … The Sabres are buying out the final year of Vaclav Karabacek’s contract after the forward cleared waivers. Karabacek was Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2014 draft and had eight goals and 16 assists in 51 games split between the Sabres’ two minor-league affiliates over the past two years.

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

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