The NHL’s best bargain contracts: Central Division

The hockey world tends to focus on the most regrettable contracts rather than the best ones because let’s face it: it’s more enjoyable to make fun of Brian Campbell‘s deal than to linger on Dustin Brown‘s bargain contract. That being said, clever GMs deserve credit for either finding the right timing to sign a player, judging their value better than most or simply fostering a climate in which a player will take a pay cut. This series of posts will take a look at every team to see which (if any) players deserve to be called bargains.

Notes: entry-level deals don’t count because they have built-in maximum levels. “Loophole” contracts will be considered, but they won’t receive as much consideration because of their inherent salary cap dishonesty. Bought out players will be considered for their current cap hits. I also think $6 million is a reasonable – if arbitrary – cutoff point for a true bargain player.

Chicago Blackhawks – Sure, they lost a lot of talent because of cap moves, but how are they looking after getting rid of Soupy and stashing Cristobal Huet in Europe?

Marian Hossa ($5.25M) – This deal would be even better if it wasn’t a cheater contract, but how many teams are jealous that Chicago signed him to this deal? 28 or 29?

Patrick Sharp ($3.9M) – His cap hit will jump to what might still be a a bargain level of $5.9 million after next season, but he remains at his highway source: Getty Imagesrobbery rate for one more season.

Andrew Brunette ($2M) – I get the feeling he’s going to be a nice fit in the Windy City.

Bryan Bickell ($541K) – Could be useful, but it’s all about his sheer cheapness.

Duncan Keith ($5.54M) – Something tells me that Don Meehan won’t mention Keith’s name during Shea Weber’s next contract discussions. This is another cheater deal, but can you blame the Blackhawks?

Sean O’Donnell ($800K) – The Blackhawks made a handful of low-risk, medium-reward signings during this off-season and O’Donnell is one of them.

Honorable mentions: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane – two great players, but it just feels weird to call them full-on bargains at $6.3 million per year … so they’re honorable mentions.

Columbus Blue Jackets – They wildly overpaid in some areas this summer, but where do they stand on pure cap hits?

Jeff Carter ($5.27M) – I agree that he’s one-dimensional, but the guy can score goals. Lots of them. So paying him this much isn’t outrageous.

Honorable mentions: Sammy Pahlsson (because Earl Sleek has brainwashed me into thinking he’s a force) and Derick Brassard (he seems talented enough to take advantage of the team’s offensive improvements if he can stay healthy).

source: APDetroit Red Wings – This team is like a steady stream of steals, right?

Johan Franzen ($3.95M) – Franzen is extremely injury-prone, but a terrifying offensive force when healthy.

Daniel Cleary ($2.8M) – Is Cleary the most underrated forward in Detroit?

Tomas Holmstrom ($1.88M) – If the league kept better track of how many goals are scored because of his obstructive butt, his impact would receive its proper due. I was surprised that some other team didn’t at least try to drive up his price during his last free agent window.

Darren Helm ($912K) – He has some flaws, but his speed and versatility are an asset at this bargain basement price.

Niklas Kronwall ($3M) – Injuries have been a worry here and there, but his scary hits and strong offense make him a steal at this price.

Jimmy Howard ($2.25M) – Another enviable steal by the Red Wings; his stats might be hit-or-miss sometimes, but he’s proven himself to be at least the team’s short-term future in net.

source: APHonorable mentions: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom – Again, I’m just trying to keep things reasonable by excluding guys above $6 million. Every team in the NHL would trip over their own feet to pay any one of these three their current salaries, so they absolutely deserve to be mentioned.

Nashville Predators – A salary cap storm is coming to Tennessee, but next season still includes some bargains.

Ryan Suter ($3.5M) – He doesn’t get half the publicity that Shea Weber receives, but he’s either equally important or just a few strides behind his hard-shooting partner in crime.

Pekka Rinne ($3.4M) – In his short time behind the wheel in Nashville, he’s been legitimately elite. Maybe he benefits from the defense in front of him, but he deserves credit for putting together a great run so far.

Honorable mentions: Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist – they aren’t perfect players, but the Predators need them to score on a level that far exceeds their paychecks.

source: APSt. Louis Blues – How many steals can this “sleeper team” produce?

Chris Stewart ($2.88M) – Stewart is a big, reliable goal scorer at a dirt cheap price. He could score even more regularly this season since it will be a contract year.

T.J. Oshie ($2.35M) – His current rate almost seems like a slap on the wrist for his lower moments last season. I expect a very nice year from Oshie in 2011-12.

Patrik Berglund ($2.25M) – Berglund is quietly becoming a consistent 20-goal scorer in the NHL.

Honorable mention: If David Perron is healthy, he could be another nice steal on a team that doesn’t have many bad contracts. It would be sad (but not surprising) if his concussion issues continue, though.

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Feel free to point out any glaring omissions or faulty inclusions. Again, remember: players on their entry-level deals don’t count, so that’s why you won’t see the Alex Pietrangelos of the world.

Click here for the Atlantic Division version.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.

Capitals vs. Rangers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington defeated the Rangers 5-2 on home ice earlier this season. Caps forward T.J. Oshie tallied two power play goals, while defenseman John Carlson notched three assists to help Washington continue their dominance over the Blueshirts.

The Capitals currently own the best record in the NHL (16-3-4 – 36 points) and have just one regulation loss in their last 16 games. Washington is averaging an NHL-best 3.74 goals per game and have scored the most goals in the league by far (86). They’ve been especially dominant on the road. Their only regulation road loss came on Oct. 10 in a 6-5 loss at Nashville, and they are currently on a nine-game road point streak. They own the best road record in the league (10-1-1).

The Rangers had an impressive 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins last week but followed that up with two disappointing losses in Florida. New York got obliterated by the Lightning on Thursday night, losing 9-3 in Tampa, and then blew a 3-2 second period lead against the Panthers on Saturday, falling 4-3 in regulation.

Mika Zibanejad will not suit up for Wednesday’s game as he is still recovering from an upper-body injury. Zibanejad has not played since suffering the injury on Oct. 27 against the Bruins. Wednesday will be his 10th consecutive game missed.

The Rangers will be getting their second-overall draft pick back after he missed the last two games with the flu. Kaapo Kakko was scratched prior to Thursday’s game against the Lighting and did not play in Saturday’s loss against the Panthers as he was still feeling ill. After a slow start to the season, Kakko has been one of New York’s top scorers as of late. The 18-year-old is coming off his first two-goal outing of his career in last week’s 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins, and he also tallied the first OT winner of his NHL career.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars Eller – T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik – Mike Sgarbossa – Travis Boyd
Beck Malenstyn – Chandler StephensonBrendan Leipsic

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris KreiderFilip ChytilPavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Tim Gettinger – Greg McKeggBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

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As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

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.