Three major challenges facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who won’t be the champs in 2016

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The Chicago Blackhawks lost to an excellent team in the St. Louis Blues. If a few bounces had gone their way, they could’ve beaten that excellent team.

But they lost, and now, for the first time since 2012, they’re out after the first round of the playoffs.

While the future isn’t exactly bleak in Chicago, GM Stan Bowman does face some significant challenges going forward.

Salary-cap strapped

The good news is Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still young, each just 27 years old. The bad news is they’re really expensive now, each with a cap hit of $10.5 million.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about the challenges of having two superstars take up so much of the payroll. Naturally, it’s the depth that suffers. Currently, the Penguins have a bunch of kids on cheap contracts who are contributing, and that’s been absolutely vital to their success. 

In Chicago, it was the blue line where depth was the big concern this season. The ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Oduya. Instead, they relied on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk to log top-four minutes behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Van Riemsdyk played well, but it was a lot to ask of him, and sometimes he faltered. Two other rookies —  Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg — never earned the coach’s trust, forcing David Rundblad into the lineup. (The Blues, meanwhile, had this kid by the name of Colton Parayko….)

If van Riemsdyk, Svedberg, and Gustafsson can continue to get better, the ‘Hawks might actually be pretty solid on the back end next season. There’s also still Ville Pokka in the minors, and perhaps they’ll pursue a veteran in free agency.

Up front is where the depth concerns could be greatest in 2016-17. Will the ‘Hawks be able to keep Andrew Shaw? What about Andrew Ladd? The former is a restricted free agent who’s in line for a good-sized raise. The latter is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Chicago really can’t afford to overpay a player at that point in his career.

GM Stan Bowman has tried in the past to move Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit (through 2016-17), and he’ll no doubt try again this offseason. But no team is going to take that on for free. They’ll want something in return, like one of the Blackhawks’ prospects.

Which brings us to…

The prospect pool

It lacks elite talent — a consequence of not missing the playoffs and making trades for immediate help.

The ‘Hawks do have a handful of youngsters in the system who could one day make an impact at the NHL level, including forwards Mark McNeill, Vince Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz. On defense, there’s Pokka and Gustav Forsling.

But they didn’t have a first-round pick last year (they traded it to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), and they don’t have one this year (they traded it to Winnipeg for Ladd, along with Marko Dano).

The ‘Hawks know better than anyone that even great rosters need to be constantly refreshed with young talent. A number of key contributors to last year’s championship — guys like Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Saad — weren’t on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. They were all drafted and developed in the years after, helping replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Kris VersteegTroy Brouwer, and Dustin Byfuglien.

The infusion of young talent is going to be doubly important now, because…

An aging core

This is a sensitive topic, but here’s the reality — Marian Hossa is among the oldest forwards in the league. He’s still a very good player at 37, but his production did decline significantly in the regular season.

Yes, Hossa showed in the playoffs that he can still bring it. He scored three times against the Blues; had a couple of assists, too. The reason that guys like Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zdeno Chara can remain effective for so long is that they were so great in their primes. Even after they decline, they’re still really good.

But they do decline. All of them. It cannot be avoided. Nature says so. Their fans can kick and scream all they want. Won’t help.

In a related story, Duncan Keith is 32 and Brent Seabrook is 31. Keith has played 833 games in the NHL, plus 122 more in the playoffs. Seabrook has played 844 games, plus 119 more in the playoffs. There are a lot of miles on those bodies.

To clarify, nobody’s saying those two aren’t good anymore — heck, Keith is only one year removed from one of the greatest playoff performances ever by a defenseman — but they will start to decline. Even if it’s a gradual decline, the NHL is so closely contested, and those two have been so vital to the Blackhawks’ success, that it will be felt.

Robin Lehner to make Golden Knights debut; Mark Stone injured

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The Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s hottest teams over the past month and will be looking to extend their current winning streak to eight games on Friday night when they host the Buffalo Sabres.

Coach Pete DeBoer had some significant lineup news ahead of the game on Friday afternoon, including a potentially significant injury.

First, is the news that big trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner will be making his first start in goal for the team. The Golden Knights acquired Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Monday for a draft pick and a prospect. Lehner has been one of the league’s best goalies for the past two years and alongside Marc-Andre Fleury should give them one of the league’s best goaltending duos.

The far more serious news, though, was the announcement that forward Mark Stone will not play on Friday due to a lower-body injury.

DeBoer had no immediate information on how long Stone could be out, only to say that he is still being evaluated.

When asked if it could potentially be a long-term injury DeBoer said “There’s always fear. We don’t know, but we’ll see,” via NHL.com.

Stone is one of the league’s best all-around forwards and has not only been a point-per-game player for the past three seasons, he is also one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He finished the 2018-19 season as the top runner-up for the Selke Trophy, something that has become almost unheard of for a winger.

The Golden Knights enter Friday’s game in first place in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks.

Related: Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

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.

 

Oilers’ Mike Green to miss 3-4 weeks with sprained MCL

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Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland was busy at the NHL trade deadline adding Mike Green, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Ennis to his roster in an effort to improve its depth. But just two games later his team has already lost one of those new players to injury.

The Oilers announced on Friday that Green, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a draft pick, will be sidelined for the next 3-4 weeks due to an MCL sprain.

That is the way things seem to be going for the Oilers right now as injuries keep adding up throughout their roster.

Green joins an injury list that already includes the team’s top defenseman (Oscar Klefbom), as well as James Neal, Kailer Yamamoto, and Kris Russell.

Green played 19 minutes in the Oilers’ 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Athanasiou was also injured in that game, but is expected to play on Saturday when the Oilers host the Winnipeg Jets.

The Oilers enter the weekend in third place in the Pacific Division with 74 points, four points back of Vegas and only two points ahead of the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference.

Related: Red Wings send Mike Green to Oilers

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.

Report: Islanders will play all home games at Nassau Coliseum in 2020-21

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March 22 will be the final Islanders’ game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, according to Newsday.

Randi Marshall reports that New York governor Andrew Cuomo will announce on Saturday that the Islanders will play any home playoff games this season and all of their 2020-21 home schedule at Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders are currently building a new arena by Belmont Park race track which is expected to be ready in time for the 2021-22 NHL season. The franchise played all of its home games at the Coliseum from 1972-2015 before moving to Brooklyn full-time in 2015. That lasted until 2018 when they split home games at both arenas, with Nassau Coliseum playing host to their Round 1 matchup against the Penguins and Barclays for their second round series against the Hurricanes.

While Barclays Center helped keep the Islanders in New York, it has not been the easiest arena to travel to for fans. The ability to get there via mass transit was a positive that the Coliseum doesn’t have. Yet when the Islanders returned back to Long Island last season, there was plenty nostalgia over the building that was home for the franchise’s glory days.

In September the Islanders broke ground on the new 19,000-seat arena by Belmont Park which is less than 10 miles from Nassau Coliseum.

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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.

David Ayres gets own hockey card, stick on display at Hall of Fame

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It has been quite a week for David Ayres.

At this time seven days almost no one in the hockey world knew who he was. But after being forced into action as an emergency backup goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes, and then getting the win in the game over the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is still getting some pretty big honors.

First, there was the shirt that the Hurricanes started to produce with his name and number on the back (with Ayres getting royalties, and other proceeds going to a kidney foundation). He was also invited to the Hurricanes’ home game on Tuesday night to sound the siren before their game against the Dallas Stars.

Now he is getting his own hockey card from Upper Deck, while the stick he used in Saturday’s game is on display at the Metropolitan Division exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The card is part of Upper Deck’s Dated Moments e-packs.

From Upper Deck:

David Ayres, a 42-year-old maintenance operations manager and part-time Zamboni driver, was called into action as the emergency goaltender about halfway through the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against Toronto after both Carolina goaltenders were injured. In his surprise NHL debut, he helped Carolina to a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.

Meanwhile, the stick he used in Saturday’s game to stop eight out of 10 shots, is now on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The 42-year-old Ayres had previously served as an emergency backup goalie for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies but never entered the game. He was forced to play on Saturday after Hurricanes goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were both injured.

MORE: Hurricanes emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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.