Fun-killers: Four players who could have made today’s free agent frenzy more exciting

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It’s true that some of the big chips have already fallen in the last couple days, but there are still enough players out there to make the approaching free agent frenzy interesting. That being said, the free agent pool lacks much zesty, big-time players beyond soon-to-be-richer forward Brad Richards.

That didn’t need to be the case, though. If it weren’t for a few proactive players, franchises and agents, this market would have enjoyed some fantastic intrigue. The list below contains four players who could have been interesting free agent targets if they hadn’t signed contract extensions well before July 1, 2011.

Zdeno Chara

There’s a good chance that the over-sized Boston Bruins defenseman might have signed his final NHL contract – or at least his last big one – when he agreed to a seven-year deal in October 2010.

Considering the Downy-soft market for free agent defensemen, one can only imagine the kind of market Chara would generate. He has a Norris Trophy to his name and was a finalist for the 2010-11 award. Chara raised the Stanley Cup up to a height that some would need a ladder to reach after the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

Year-in and year-out, he’s a defenseman who plays big minutes, occasionally uses his big body and isn’t shy to unleash his big shot either. There aren’t many true cornerstone defensemen in the NHL, even if teams are paying guys like Christian Ehrhoff and James Wisniewski in hopes that they can resemble those kinds of players. There is no mistaking that Chara is one of those blueliners and one can only imagine the kind of ridiculous contract offers he could have generated.

Joe Thornton

Would there be a more intriguing barometer for how much general managers listen to the unwashed masses and flippant media than if Thornton became a free agent? On one hand, they might have believed the reverse-hype about his supposed “choking” in big games. On the other hand, GMs could have looked at his long track record of leading teams in scoring and the fact that he’s consistently among the league’s elite passers.

Thornton signed a three-year deal to stay with the San Jose Sharks, so we might not get to see how an unrestricted free agent market would react to Jumbo Joe’s presence until he’s past his prime. It would have been a lot of fun to debate Richards vs. Thornton this year, but loyalty and a need for familiarity beat that out.

Alexander Semin

Unlike the other players involved, Semin could be a free agent as early as 2012. The Washington Capitals have taken an odd path with their other right-handed sniping Russian left wing named Alex, signing him to two consecutive one-year deals while they try to figure out what to do with Semin.

Whatever flaws he has in his game – whether people think he’s one-dimensional, too injury prone, mercurial or all the above – there is no denying his wicked shot. He scored 40 goals once, 30+ goals two other times and averaged almost a point per game over his young career.

The free agent market is often friendly to flawed but super-talented players like Semin. Maybe we’ll get to watch that fascinating process next year?

Patrice Bergeron

Bergeron isn’t as sexy a choice as the other three could-have-been free agents, but he would probably get his fair share of attention after a great playoff run with the Bruins. Bergeron chose to stick with the Bruins for what seemed like a steep price at the time, but who knows what a versatile center such as himself could make on the market today.

He might not put up the points totals of Thornton or the goals of Semin, but Bergeron is a strong two-way player who can do a little bit of everything. It would have been interesting to see how savvy general managers would have been about his skill set.

***

Don’t get me wrong, today should be a lot of fun for the hockey world. It’s just startling to think what could have been if a few meddling teams weren’t so annoyingly proactive (and selfish, really) with their superstar players.

NHL Power Rankings: Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.

A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.

So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.

1. Penguins vs. Canadiens

Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.

But in your heart of hearts, can you truly dismiss how fun it could be to see “Carey Price vs. Sidney Crosby” in headlines? Especially when you can throw Evgeni Malkin in the mix? Then maybe Brendan Gallagher to add some humorous wrinkles on TikTok?

The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.

Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?

Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.

2. Oilers vs. Blackhawks

When in doubt, go with star power. You could do a lot worse than Connor McDavid vs. Patrick Kane. Heck, you could do worse than Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews, too.

In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.

Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.

If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.

3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.

On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.

On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.

The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.

Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.

4. Flames vs. Jets

If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.

Even with tempered expectations, the Jets and Flames bring a lot to the table. Matthew Tkachuk has all of that pent-up pest energy from the pandemic pause. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine can fill up highlight reels. Mark Giordano vs. Blake Wheeler would be fun.

From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.

5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers

You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.

Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.

All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.

(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)

6. Canucks vs. Wild

I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.

And, hey, some funny Bruce Boudreau facial expressions won’t hurt, either.

7. Predators vs. Coyotes

There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.

These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)

Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?

8. Islanders vs. Panthers

As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.

*cough* And yet I must …

 

There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.

Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.

However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.

Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series

As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Bruins
Lightning
Capitals
Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Blues
Avalanche
Golden Knights
Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Mark Messier’s guarantee

AP Photo / Ron Frehm
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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

Despite trailing the series 3-2, Rangers captain Mark Messier publicly guaranteed that New York would win Game 6 on the road. Trailing by a goal after two periods, Messier scored a natural hat trick in the third period to rally the Rangers to a 4-2 victory and force a decisive Game 7. New York would go on to win the series and claim the Stanley Cup title.

Throughout the broadcast, NBC Sports’ Eddie Olczyk will provide commentary with his 1994 Rangers teammates Messier and Mike Richter, as well as former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko.

Monday, May 25 on NBCSN
• Rangers vs. Devils (1994 Eastern Conference Final, Game 6) – 4 p.m. ET
NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban (Episode 7) – 5 p.m. ET
Men in Blazers On Ice – 5:30 p.m. ET

Tuesday, May 26 on NBCSN
NHL’s Who Wore It Best? (Episode 2) – 5 p.m. ET
• Kings vs. Coyotes (2012 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday, May 27 on NBCSN
#HockeyAtHome: Meet & Greet – 4 p.m. ET
Men in Blazers On Ice – 4:30 p.m. ET
• Flames vs. Avalanche (2019 Western Conference Round 1, Game 3) – 5 p.m. ET

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

NHL HAT TRICK TRIVIA HOSTED BY P.K. SUBBAN – MON. 5 P.M. ET
Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Parent will join the seventh episode of NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban. Hosted by the New Jersey Devils defenseman, the show features fans answering a trio of hockey trivia questions from their homes, along with appearances from NHL players and celebrities, for the chance to win NHL prizes. Additional guests on the episode include Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook, singer and songwriter Robin Thicke and NHL referee Wes McCauley.

MEN IN BLAZERS ON ICE – MON., 5:30 P.M. ET
Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” hosts an interview series featuring stars from around the NHL. St. Louis Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman and Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie headline this episode.

NHL’S WHO WORE IT BEST? – TUES., 5 P.M. ET
NHL’s Who Wore It Best? will feature hockey writers, broadcasters and insiders debating the best players to wear each jersey number in NHL history. The five-week series will air on NBCSN every Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET. The second episode features NBC Sports’ Keith Jones who takes part in debating the following jersey numbers: 55, 40, 34, 32 and 31.

#HOCKEYATHOME: MEET & GREET – WEDS., 4 P.M. ET
NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen co-hosts a 30-minute program that features Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators meeting fans and answering their questions virtually during the league’s hiatus.

MEN IN BLAZERS ON ICE – WEDS., 4:30 P.M. ET
Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” hosts an interview series featuring stars from around the NHL. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews headline this episode.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans

NHL return to play Phase 2
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The NHL announced a plan to enter Phase 2 of its return to play protocols, with hopes of taking the step by early June. If you enjoy staggeringly detailed documents, then this is your tonic.

To clarify, Phase 1 involved players and others entering self-quarantine. Phase 2 involves small groups of players (the league specifies six players, with a limited number of staff) returning to team facilities for noncontact skating sessions.

The league didn’t detail exactly when Phase 2 will begin (again, the goal is “early June”). Early June indicates that the NHL could theoretically begin Phase 2 as early as next week, though.

It’s not clear how long Phase 2 might last for the NHL, either. As detailed as the league’s plan is, there’s still an air of “to be determined.” The NHL didn’t publicly announce dates for Phase 3 (training camp) or Phase 4 (a return to play) in the memo.

Some more details on how the NHL plans to handle Phase 2

Depending upon how a player arrives at team facilities, it might be necessary to go into 14-day quarantine before entering team facilities. The NHL’s testing guidelines get a bit granular, so Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston shares some details that simplify and clarify certain aspects:

The memo also shares how players from other teams can access facilities if they live nearby.

The NHL emphasizes more than once in the Phase 2 memo that safety and fairness are top priorities. The league also includes this explanation around testing:

As an overriding principle, testing of asymptomatic Players and Club personnel must be done in the context of excess testing capacity, so as to not deprive health care workers, vulnerable populations and symptomatic
individuals from necessary diagnostic tests (“Publicly Necessary Testing”).

Again, there are still plenty of other details to iron out before taking the next steps. Consider some of the major issues still dangling:

  • To reiterate, the NHL still must determine the actual start time for Phase 2. We don’t yet know how long it will last.
  • Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (actual return to play) must also be determined.
  • When will the 2020 NHL Draft happen? How will the draft lottery be determined?
  • The NHL and NHLPA agreed upon a basic layout for a 24-team playoff format. There are still plenty of specifics to iron out, though.

So, we’ll see how a lot of this goes. Stay tuned at PHT as more develops.

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.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”