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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, two rivals in the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to a one-for-one deal, but there are some crucial details to hash out to fully evaluate this fascinating trade between two hostile local rivals.

Salary retention is key, because if it were a vanilla deal, it would be remarkably close to even, pure cap hit-wise.

Both players are 31, and both Lucic and Neal will see their contracts run through four more seasons (ending after 2022-23). Lucic’s cap hit is $6 million, which is barely more than Neal’s $5.75M.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

Stay tuned for the full details, as if the Oilers retain a substantial portion of Lucic’s contract, it might seem like a more equitable trade for Calgary. As it stands, though, well … some very bright Flames fans are very displeased.

At first blush, Neal seems more likely to provide some value. That’s especially true if he rekindles his considerable sniping touch, as he showed during prolific years earlier in his career, particularly riding shotgun with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. If you can’t score goals with Connor McDavid, you may be toast, and that’s one of the reasons Lucic flamed out on his way to the Flames.

This post will be updated with full trade details and analysis of both players, who have had great moments in the past but struggled mightily once joining the Flames and Oilers respectively.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


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

Ron Francis has big hopes as GM of Seattle’s new NHL club

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SEATTLE (AP) — Ron Francis has all kinds of eye-popping statistics attached to his Hall of Fame career. He averaged more than point a game, is second in NHL history in assists behind Wayne Gretzky and fifth in career points.

When CEO Tod Leiweke and the ownership group of the Seattle NHL expansion team looked at his playing resume, though, they were most impressed by another statistic: Francis was voted captain by three teams for 14 of his 23 years, first earning the role at age 21.

That leadership ability spurred them to hire Francis on Thursday as general manager of the yet-to-be-named team – well ahead of their schedule.

”Ownership made an incredible commitment . in supporting this idea of let’s do this a year early,” Leiweke said. ”If we’re really here working for our fans, let’s reward their belief. They said we’re willing to make this commitment a year early. We’re willing to bring on a general manager earlier than any other expansion team in the history of the NHL and that gift of an additional year will serve us well and give us a chance to scout and build and plan. But we had to find the right person.”

They believe the 56-year-old Francis is that person, announcing his hiring at a news conference that was attended by the mayor and a state senator. He’ll have complete control of building the organization under Leiweke. He said he’s already drawn up an organizational chart that will guide hiring as the team prepares to open play in 2021 as the NHL’s 32nd franchise.

And he’s already started daydreaming about how his team will look.

”I think if you look at my past experience, it’s a team that’s fast,” Francis said. ”I think it’s a team that needs to have skill and hockey sense. I like a team that’s extremely competitive. And for me I think you need a team that has character. It’s easy to be a good person when things are going well. When things get a little bit tough, that’s when character rises to the top and pulls you through those tough times.”

Character defined Francis’ playing career. Jaromir Jagr, his teammate on the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, called Francis perhaps the most underrated player in NHL history. After starting his career as the No. 4 overall pick in the 1981 draft for the Hartford Whalers, he played for the Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs before returning to the Whalers in 1998 after they moved to Carolina.

He guided that team to the NHL finals before retiring. He joined the Hurricanes’ front office and worked through a number of jobs under Hall of Fame GM Jim Rutherford, including assistant GM and associate head coach. He was promoted to GM in 2014 when Rutherford left for Pittsburgh and held that position until an ownership change in 2018, a year before Carolina played in the finals.

Francis said he was depressed after leaving the Hurricanes, but found his drive again while working at the Spengler Cup and with Hockey Canada during last year’s world championships.

”Getting around the NHL players again, the NHL coaches and stuff, the passion started burning again and I thought, ‘OK this is really where I want to be,”’ Francis said. ”And when Tod called, I looked at the opportunity and said, ‘What a great chance.’ We get to build it from the ground up. We get to establish our culture and how we want to do it. I think it’s a unique opportunity. It doesn’t happen every day.”