There’s always next year: Top unrestricted free agents for 2012

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In many pockets of the hockey world, the summer of 2012 is looked upon with great fear. There’s an obvious reason for that: the Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire after the 2011-12 season and with Donald Fehr (aka the man associated with baseball’s damaging 1994 strike) in place as the head of the NHLPA, the word “lockout” has been thrown around. One would hope that the NHL and its players learned the right lessons from that lost season, but greed rarely knows its limits.

All of that aside, the hope is that greed will exhibit itself in a more cuddly and entertaining way next summer by entertaining us with a free agent frenzy. With the current free agent ranks whittled down to marginal veterans and restricted free agents locked in tough contract struggles, we thought it might be fun to look at the most appealing could-be free agents for 2012.

It’s important to note that a lot of these players could spoil the fun by a) retiring or b) re-signing during the season. (Joe Thornton and Zdeno Chara could have been unrestricted free agents this summer, but they killed the good times by signing contract extensions and “showing loyalty.” Lame, we know.)

In this first post, we’ll look at the most desirable/interesting unrestricted free agents by position. The next post will detail the potential restricted free agents. Previous salary cap hits will be listed in parentheses.

source: APTop potential UFA forwards for 2012 (complete list)

Patrick Sharp ($3.9 million)
Alexander Semin ($6.7M)
Ales Hemsky ($4.1M)
Shane Doan ($4.5M)
Ryan Smyth ($6.25M)
Dustin Penner ($4.25M)
Tuomo Ruutu ($3.8M)
Andrei Kostitsyn ($3.25M)
Chris Kunitz ($3.75M)
Jarret Stoll ($3.6M)
Jaromir Jagr ($3.3M)
Ray Whitney ($3M)
Milan Hejduk ($3M)
Mikhail Grabovski ($2.9M)

Other notables: Brian Rolston, Daymond Langkow, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Sean Avery.

source: APTop potential UFA defensemen for 2012 (complete list)

Nicklas Lidstrom ($6.2M)
Brent Burns ($3.55M)
Ryan Suter ($3.5M)
Niklas Kronwall ($3M)
Braydon Coburn ($3.2M)
Matt Carle ($3.4M)
Willie Mitchell ($3.5M)
John-Michael Liles ($4.2M)
Dennis Wideman ($3.94M)
Pavel Kubina ($3.85M)
Jaroslav Spacek ($3.83M)
Barret Jackman ($3.63M)

Other notables: Sheldon Souray, Johnny Oduya and Colin White.

Top potential UFA goalies for 2012 (complete list)

Martin Brodeur ($5.2M)
Pekka Rinne ($3.4M)
Tomas Vokoun ($1.5M)
Dwayne Roloson ($3.5M)
Chris Mason ($1.85M)
Dan Ellis ($1.5M)

Other notables: Evgeni Nabokov, Cristobal Huet and Antero Niittymaki.

source: APComments:

If all of these players actually reach unrestricted free agency, it seems like the pool would be strongest at the defensive position. Even discarding Lidstrom, there are a lot of promising blueliners who could make big money next July.

The most fascinating player might be goalie Martin Brodeur, though. If the Devils miss the playoffs again in 2011-12, could GM Lou Lamoriello determine that their Hall of Fame goalie’s best days are behind him and let him go? That’s hard to fathom – especially since Lamoriello seems to lean toward familiarity more and more lately – but it would make for one of the most intriguing free agent situations in quite some time.

With the Chicago Blackhawks likely to re-sign Sharp at some point, the two high-end forwards might end up being Semin and Hemsky. Both are injury prone players with their fair share of minuses, but each player is talented enough to draw some interest in the market. (Again, if they make it that far.)

Which players would you like your team to add almost one year from now? Who do you think will hit the market and who might retire altogether? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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.

Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, though.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews on Tavares, learning to win (PHT Q&A)

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It’s been an historic start to the 2018-19 NHL season for Auston Matthews. As the Toronto Maple Leafs have lit up the scoresheet with 33 goals — 10 from Matthews alone — in seven games, the star forward has been setting records almost on a nightly basis.

Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Kings on Tuesday saw Matthews record a multi-point game for the seventh time this season. He’s also on a 17-game regular season points streak dating back to last Feb. 22. With his two points against Los Angeles, the 21-year-old joined the likes of Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Stevens to record multiple points in his team’s first seven games of the season.

That’s a heckuva start for Matthews in a season where it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended it with 40-plus goals, 100-plus points and maybe a few trophies to take home from Las Vegas in late June. There is one specific trophy, of course, that he’d like to be lifting in six months. The addition of John Tavares has put the Maple Leafs in Stanley Cup contender talk, but there’s still lots to work out — hello, defense! — before they can reach that point.

“I think talking to [Maple Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and the vision he has and when they were talking to John in the summer just what would happen, you know if you won a Stanley Cup in Toronto,” Matthews told NBC during NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. “The hockey mecca of the world, it would be absolutely crazy. Obviously, we’re trying to build something to get to the top of that mountain and obviously accomplish that goal, but we got a long way to go and a lot of young players who are very hungry. It’s definitely something you think about every once in a while.”

We spoke with Matthews about the Tavares addition, learning from playoff failures and his wicked shot.

Enjoy.

Q. Go back to the day you heard that you had Tavares as a member of your team.

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, I was home and Kyle  actually called me, woke me up. I pretended like I was up for hours, but it was on a weekend, though, so it was OK. He was like ‘Hey, we signed John. We’re gonna announce it in the next hour so, just wanted to let you know’ and you know, I couldn’t really believe it. I was so excited by it. I didn’t really know what he was thinking. I heard the meetings went well with the management with Kyle and all of them, talking to him over the phone and he had a lot of questions and I tried to answer them as best as possible for him. So, he was kind of talking to a lot of different people, a lot of different teams, so you can kind of get a feel for it, but you just don’t know and obviously [I was] extremely excited when I found out he chose to sign with Toronto.”

Q. When you look at the Leafs, what have you learned, as a team, over the course of the last couple of seasons of how hard it is to win especially come playoff time? 

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about right there. Come playoff time it’s not easy, I mean, you look at Washington last year they almost didn’t make it out of the first round and then they went on the win the Cup. So I think that has been a good learning lesson for us young guys, just how hard it is even in the first round to get by, and you know when you have a player like John [Tavares], who has had that experience; obviously, he is still trying to reach that ultimate goal. Him coming here is definitely going to help us, but it doesn’t just make it a cake walk.”

Q. You being one of the young stars in the NHL, how can a guy like John Tavares help a guy like Auston Matthews?

MATTHEWS: “I think he can help me in a lot of different ways. Obviously he’s been in the league for a while, his resume speaks for itself; you know he is a top ten player in the league, a superstar center. He knows what he is doing as far as the way he treats his body on and off the ice nutrition, you know just taking care of those things that make such a big difference during the season. I think not only myself, but a lot of young guys can really look at that and not only ask questions but pick things that he does and kind of use it for ourselves as well.”

[What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?]

Q. Your release is something that is very unique and it’s something that’s so quick. How did you develop that, did you realize that is what separated you from a lot of other players you know with the skills that you had?

MATTHEWS: “You know, I think I’ve always been a shoot first mentality. I’ve always had a pretty decent shot, I think the summer before my draft year, maybe after my draft year, my first NHL season I basically just worked on my shot all summer. I was working with Darryl Belfry, who I still work with today. And it wasn’t just shooting; it was all different kinds of angles, different kinds of pucks in your feet, different areas being able to get the goalie moving one way or another, being able to find different spots. So, I know for myself I’m a shoot first kind of guy, and as you get up in levels, boys are just that much better, you don’t have that much time and space and being able to get your shot off quick and pick you corner makes a big difference.”

Q. The specifics of that trait, of working on your shot. Was it specifically on the ice stuff, or was it off the ice stuff like body position and hands, where the puck might be positioned on your stick?

MATTHEWS: “I think mostly on ice, to be honest. You know, I think training is a big part and especially in our summers being able to get stronger and more explosive. And that obviously helps with your shot, but you know I feel for myself, when I want to work on something I really improve on that, and the best way to do that is on the ice because that’s what we do for a living.”

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.

NWHL Commish: 1 women’s hockey league ‘inevitable’

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Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman does, too. And now National Women’s Hockey League founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

”One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to The Associated Press, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”We will get this done,” Rylan wrote. ”It’s on us, and we embrace the challenge,”

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last – or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian national team star called the formation of one league ”a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: ”There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

”It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. ”I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

The NHL supports the idea of one women’s pro league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an NWHL team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with CWHL teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and U.S. National team women players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championships on home ice. Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement. The people spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL ”to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business. He is also hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.”

”We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

”If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. ”If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

”What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a ”gracious adviser.”

”Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. ”If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, former Canadian national team member and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, ”I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

”They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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