Looking to make the leap: Stephen Johns

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To some Dallas Stars fans, the Patrick Sharp trade was as much about grabbing Stephen Johns as anything else.

(Granted, that might be a small sampling, but there was such chatter.)

Following the move, Stars GM Jim Nill probably summarized the most exciting takes: he’s the sort of defenseman the franchise might just be lacking.

“Stephen was a big part of that trade,” Nill said. “We’re trying to change a little bit of the dimension of our back end … he’s 6-foot-4, 220 lbs. and can skate.”

That’s what makes the 23-year-old especially interesting: while he packs some punch and snarl – relevant factors on a blueline that leans more toward finesse – it sounds like he’s swift enough that he won’t bring the Stars’ high-octane attack to a crawl.

Of course, it’s a big assumption that Johns can make the roster.

The Stars currently have eight defensemen under contract, and while some seem like they could be trade fodder if needed (Jason Demers?), Johns would need to impress to force the Stars’ hand.

Johns thinks he has what it takes, at least.

“Personally, I think I’m ready but it’s not up to me,” Johns said in July, according to the Dallas Morning News. “I’m going to do the best that I can, play the best hockey I can, and try to impress them.”

If you’re looking at young players who have the highest odds of making the team, Johns isn’t that guy.

One would think that Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka would have a significant head start after playing quite a few NHL games in 2014-15. To some extent, they made their leaps – or steps up – already, however.

Johns is a more interesting story to follow during training camp. There’s a good chance that he’s not even the prospect with the highest ceiling hoping to make an impression – Julius Honka fits that bill – but Johns is at the age where he must be getting awfully antsy for a longer look.

For all we know, he may prove that he’s just too useful to send to the AHL.

Is Jacob Trouba’s time in Winnipeg coming to an end?

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The Jacob Trouba saga may have taken another turn this weekend, and not one in the Winnipeg Jets’ direction.

For the short-term, Trouba will remain with the Jets, with player-elected arbitration ending in a one-year, $5.5 million contract awarded to the skilled defenseman. Should the Jets choose to accept these terms during their 48-hour window to do so — and they will — their top pairing with Trouba and Josh Morrissey (assuming the latter is also re-signed) remains intact for the coming season.

That’s the good news for the Jets.

The bad, however, is that after this coming season Trouba turns into a question mark.

It would seem that the 24-year-old is angling toward his exit from Winnipeg. He’s now two years away from unrestricted free agency and likely has this season left in Winnipeg before the Jets need to consider trading him to get the best return. Trading him now is an option, but not the best one if they’re serious about another Stanley Cup run in 2018-19.

Understandably, this perceived outcome has angered the local mob — many of whom have been uneasy about Trouba’s future ever since he publicly requested a trade two years ago.

Many believe his contract demands are elephantine. Trouba’s arbitration ruling is the half-way point between what the Jets offered ($4 million) and what Trouba wanted ($7 million). He’s publicly stated that he wants to stay in Winnipeg long-term, fronting that notion after the Jets were bounced from the playoffs and after his exit meeting with the team.

Since then, no long-term commitment from either side has been struck, leaving the player, his agent and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff at a standstill.

Whatever the reason for the lack of a long-term deal up to this point is up for debate. What isn’t being disputed is the unsettlement it has created among Winnipeg’s disgruntled fanbase. These things happen when you begrudgingly watch your beloved team leave for 15 years. Hockey is woven into the fabric of the city, a symbiotic relationship that, when threatened, lashes back in a subconscious reflex.

Some fans have already resigned themselves to losing Trouba. Some have already been in that boat for a couple years now. There’s an underlying fear among fans that spawns their anger. Trouba departing threatens what the team has grown into — a Stanley Cup contender. And he could derail their present, realistic goal — becoming a Stanley Cup champion.

These are ramifications that every Jets fan is acutely aware of.

Fear is powerful.

For his part, Cheveldayoff has done well to stick to his guns — both now, and back in 2016 when Trouba publicly protested for his exit through a written release from his agent, Kurt Overhardt.

Trouba didn’t get his wish then, and it appears Cheveldayoff isn’t caving to his contract demands now either. Winnipeg can’t be viewed as an organization that gets overrun by players and so far that hasn’t been the case. Keeping up those appearances might just mean Trouba gets traded after all, but only at the last possible, opportune moment for the team, not the player.

While fans might not agree, it’s tough to blame Trouba here. Players have every right to invoke their rights, whether it be arbitration, unrestricted free agency, or asking for an enormous sum of money when it comes to a contract. Careers are short in hockey and there’s money to be made and a future to secure.

At this point though, what Trouba wants and what he’s worth simply doesn’t line up.

Matt Dumba and the Minnesota Wild sorted out a five-year, $30 million deal over the weekend. Dumba had a career year, scoring 14 goals and putting up 50 points. Trouba’s best season was eight goals and 33 points in 2016-17. He plays fewer minutes a night and doesn’t anchor the power play like Dumba. Trouba might be a better defender, but the NHL is a scoring league and production equals dollars.

So short of a career-year — one that would require Trouba to stay healthy (a struggle thus far in his five years in the NHL), in all likelihood — and barring a long-term deal after he’s eligible for one on Jan. 1 — Cheveldayoff is going to have a different decision to make next summer, providing he doesn’t intend on letting Trouba walk for free.

* * *

Replacing Trouba isn’t an easy task.

With Trouba, Winnipeg’s right defenseman depth includes himself, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Without him, and with Myers set to become a UFA at the end of next season, that depth is exposed pretty quickly. A good thread on how Winnipeg’s diversity on the right side has been one of their strengths:

Another year for Tucker Poolman and an uptick in playing time should reveal what the Jets have in him. Poolman has potential and showed it at times last year, but he’s still raw after coming straight out of college a year ago and was coming off bilateral shoulder surgery during the last offseason. Poolman is a restricted free agent at the moment and the Jets have yet to re-sign him.

Winnipeg has Sami Niku, who began his pro career in the AHL last year and won the league’s best defenseman award as a rookie. But Niku is to defense what Toby Enstrom was to offense. Niku is your prototypical offensive defenseman. That’s certainly a good thing, no question. But Niku isn’t a proven commodity in the NHL yet, and losing Trouba leaves a gaping hole when it comes to shutting down the best players on opposing teams.

The Jets targeted two defenseman in the middle rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft, and they’re still a few years away from making any real impact, if they make one at all.

A hefty return for Winnipeg should be involved in any trade for Trouba. In all likelihood, a willing participant in any deal would have to give up a comparable rostered defenseman or a very highly-touted prospect rearguard. A replacement is a must. They don’t need another top-six forward. They need a man that will fill Trouba’s shoes.

There will be several potential suitors for Trouba’s services, but pinning down who and what is involved is anyone’s guess.

The New York Islanders have Ryan Pulock, who played 68 games in his first full NHL season last year and put up 10 goals and 32 points. He’s 23 and from Dauphin, Manitoba — four hours or so west of Winnipeg.

The Detroit Red Wings could be another possible landing spot. Trouba is a Michigan native and the Red Wings top prospect defenseman Filip Hronek that could interest Winnipeg, although a deal like this might not give the Jets an immediate nor proven replacement.

This is all purely speculation. The above two examples offer two sides of what Cheveldayoff could target (similar roster player or well-regarded prospect in a package deal). There are several teams rebuilding at the moment, such as the New York Rangers, and others looking to take their team to the next level, such as the Boston Bruins. If the Tampa Bay Lightning can’t nail down Erik Karlsson, do they look at Trouba? You’d have to think they’d want Mikhail Sergachev in return.

It’s a tricky deal to navigate because the Jets need to fill the outgoing void. Few teams are giving up their best young defenseman for another team’s best young defenseman. These trades rarely happen.

And all of this can change with the wind. A year from now, the landscape in the NHL could be dramatically different, offering new possibilities, in the trade environment, and within the Jets organization.

Cheveldayoff will be in it pretty thick next summer. Blake Wheeler is scheduled to become a UFA and deserves a raise. Patrik Laine is likely to hit double-digits in annual average value. Kyle Connor led all rookies in goal scoring this season. There could be close to $30 million tied up in those three players alone if Connor gets signed long-term, although a bridge deal seems likely given the cap situation.

And to top it all off, Cheveldayoff might be fielding offers for one of his best defensemen.

Let the games begin.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Predicting McDavid’s season; Should Toronto go after Panarin?

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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.

• A forecast of what’s to come from Connor McDavid this coming season. Hint: Points. Many of them. (Copper and Blue)

• Because the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t become enough of a juggernaut this summer, perhaps they should trade for Artemi Panarin, just to rub it in. (Maple Leafs Nation)

• With the possibility that Ryan Kesler missing the whole season, Ducks general manager Bob Murray says he’s confident Patrick Eaves will play a full season this year. (OC Register)

• In Detroit, a commitment to the kids playing over their veteran counterparts is on the horizon. (Detroit Free Press)

Casey Mittelstadt is ready to take the next step with the Buffalo Sabres. (NHL.com)

• The New York Islanders have a contingency plan should their new home in Belmont Park not be ready on time. (IslandersPointBlank)

• Making sense of Lou Lamoriello’s bottom-six makeover on Long Island. (Elite Sports NY)

• Summer is slow, so here’s a look at whether teams have more success counterattacking at home or not. (TSN.ca)

• On the long, difficult and ultimately unknown path to the NHL for goalies. (Chicago Tribune)

• Jayna Hefford, Canada’s five-time Olympian and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, is now the interim commissioner of the CWHL. (The Ice Garden)

• Staying with women’s hockey, more teams are coming to the Olympics. (IIHF)

• Willie O’Ree’s hockey tree grows another branch with Ayodele Adeniye’s rise. (The Color of Hockey)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins have a glut of forwards after signing Derek Grant. (Pensburgh)

• A case for Freddie Gaudreau’s permanent spot on the Nashville Predators roster. (On the Forecheck)

• A look at which of the Calder Cup-winning Toronto Marlies will get their shot with the Maple Leafs next season. (The Sin Bin)

• Shootouts were ousted from NCAA hockey not long ago. Now, not long after that happened, they’re back. (College Hockey News)

• Flush with goaltenders in the system, Anthony Stolarz could be the man with the short straw this coming year. (Sons of Penn)

Torey Krug. Should the Boston Bruins trade their defenseman or keep him? (The Puck Authority)

• Notorious former Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington is launching a pot company. (CBC.ca)

• Here’s what’s behind the uncertain future of Canes play-by-play radio announcer Chuck Kaiton. (The News & Observer)

• And for those who’ve had enough of reading and want to see how hitting is changing in NHL 19, a gift:


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

Jets’ Jacob Trouba awarded $5.5 million in arbitration

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Defenseman Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets were the first ones to head to arbitration this summer with what was reportedly a five-hour hearing on Friday.

On Sunday, it was finally announced that the arbitrator has awarded Trouba a one-year, $5.5 million contract.

That ruling pretty much split the two sides right down the middle as the Jets had offered Trouba a $4 million salary while Trouba had asked for $7 million.

The Jets now have 48 hours to decide if they will accept the ruling or walk away from it, which would then make Trouba an unrestricted free agent. There is virtually no chance the latter happens. The $5.5 million number would be a $2.5 million raise from his 2017-18 salary.

Trouba appeared in 55 games for the Jets this past season, scoring three goals to go with 21 assists.

The extended arbitration hearing — as well as the fact they even needed arbitration — is just another chapter in what has been a difficult story between the Jets and one of their top defenseman. Prior to the 2016-17 season Trouba requested a trade out of Winnipeg and sat out the first 15 games of the regular season before signing a two-year, $6 million contract.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What will Penguins do with all their centers?

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This past week the Pittsburgh Penguins added free agent Derek Grant on a one-year contract. Not a major signing, but one that still seems to be a little curious given the current construction of the roster.

The 28-year-old Grant, you see, is a center. After bouncing around the NHL and recording just seven points (all assists) in 86 career games, mostly as a fourth-line/depth player, he finally received an increased role with the Anaheim Ducks this past season due to to their rash of center injuries and made the most of it. He scored 12 goals (and added 12 more assists) in 66 games and earned himself a one-way contract with the Penguins.

What makes the signing so curious from a Penguins perspective is it comes just a few weeks after they brought back soon-to-be 42-year-old center Matt Cullen.

That came after they re-signed restricted free agent center Riley Sheahan to a one-year, $2.1 million contract.

Which came just a couple of months after they give up a bounty of assets to acquire Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators prior to the NHL trade deadline to give them another big-time third-line center to play behind their two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That is … a lot of centers. Six, to be exact, all with NHL contracts, all expected to be on the NHL roster.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he wanted to make his team deeper after its second-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the additions of Cullen and Grant definitely help accomplish that. It also comes after the Penguins entered last season without much depth at the position following the free agent departures of Nick Bonino and Cullen. They opened the 2017-18 season with the likes of Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg playing NHL roles, a situation that was less than ideal.

It is the exact opposite now.

So what can they possibly do with all of these guys?

Option 1: Somebody moves to the wing. Aside from the fact that Cullen or Grant will probably be healthy scratches from time to time, this is probably the most logical outcome as one of those two could also probably flip to the wing on the fourth line.

The other candidate to move is Brassard who could move to the left side to play in a top-six role.

This, of course, runs counter to the reason the Penguins acquired Brassard in the first place which was to help give them a trio of centers that no other team could match up with. Brassard not only has his best value at center, it also forces one of Sheahan or Cullen up into a third-line spot, both of whom would be a downgrade from what Brassard would likely do.

Brassard’s initial debut with the Penguins following the trade had its ups and downs and probably didn’t work exactly as planned, but it was also only a 26-game sampling. Sometimes it takes time for a player to adjust to a new team, system, etc.

The other issue with moving one of their centers to the wing? They already have a lot of wingers. Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist are the top ones. Then there is Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, free agent addition Jimmy Hayes (potential AHL player), and a crop of youngsters that includes Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, and Zach Aston-Reese. Moving one — or two — of the centers to the wings is going to take one of the latter group out of the equation, either relegating them to the press box or back to the American Hockey League.

Sprong, the team’s top prospect, is expected to be on the roster but he hasn’t fully seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff to this point in his career and, quite honestly, his situation has reached the “believe it when you see it” point when it comes to his playing time and spot on the roster.

Option 2: Somebody gets traded. Crosby and Malkin are obviously on the untouchable list, while Cullen and Grant were just signed so they are not going anywhere, either — at least not yet.

That leaves Brassard or Sheahan, with Brassard probably being the most likely player to be used as trade bait because of the value he might still bring back and the fact he has the largest contract and the Penguins are firmly pressed against the league’s salary cap.

The optics of that would certainly be bad because it would look like they are admitting that acquiring him in the first place was a bad idea (it wasn’t), and they probably wouldn’t get back the value they gave up to get him. His value to them as a third-line center is more than it is as a second-line winger or as trade bait.

Option 3: Don’t worry about it, somebody is going to get hurt and depth is good. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Evgeni Malkin has played more than 70 games in a season just two times in the past nine years. Cullen is going to be 42 years old. Grant is a bit of a mystery because he really hasn’t produced at an NHL level outside of this past season when his shooting percentage was 18 percent. The glut of centers will probably take care of itself.

One thing you have to say about Jim Rutherford is that he recognizes his mistakes and is not afraid to correct them, with Mike Johnston and the way he undid all of his offseason moves a year ago being the two most notable examples. After opening last season with only two NHL quality centers on the roster (something that definitely hurt the team) he made sure this summer that is not going to happen again.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.