Without Stamkos, there’s still ‘some high-end guys’ on the free agent market

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The big fish is gone, so now teams will circle around the other targets when NHL free agency opens Friday.

Even with Steven Stamkos staying with the Tampa Bay Lightning on a $68 million, eight-year deal, the free agent market presents plenty of big-time players from forwards Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson and Kyle Okposo to defensemen Brian Campbell and Dan Hamhuis.

“There’s some high-end guys this year and it’ll be interesting to see what they get paid,” Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think the market will fall into place after those guys find destinations and establish the top salary level.”

If Stamkos’ $8.5 million cap hit established Wednesday sets the bar, it’s good news for not only Lucic, Eriksson and Okposo but the next level of free agents. More than a handful of players should be able to cash in even though the salary cap only went up slightly to $73 million.

Lucic has been linked to Edmonton after the Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. Eriksson, a former Boston Bruins teammate of Lucic’s, will also be a top target.

Beyond those players, there’s St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and right wing Troy Brouwer, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Andrew Ladd, New York Rangers forward Eric Staal and plenty of useful players who might have to wait their turn.

“I’m hoping a lot of those guys go quickly because the trickle-down effect is always how everybody else figures out where things are going to go,” Brouwer said over the phone Wednesday. “You’re going to see the top guys, and they’re always going to get their money. The big dogs always get to eat first.”

Brouwer went from being unsure about landing a long-term deal going into the final year of his contract to being in line for one after scoring eight playoff goals. Okposo impressed with 64 points in the regular season, and Capitals left wing Jason Chimera set himself up for a nice deal with 20 goals.

The defense market is weaker after the Florida Panthers traded for and signed Keith Yandle and the Arizona Coyotes did the same with Alex Goligoski. But Campbell is willing to take a short-term deal to try to win another Stanley Cup. That was one of the motivations for Stamkos in taking below market value to re-sign with Tampa Bay.

“We’re trying to put as competitive a team on the ice (as possible) and we asked Stammer, will you work with us on this?” Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said. “Stammer’s contract, he’s the captain of our team, he’s our leading goal-scorer, he plays in all situations. The contract, it works for us.”

Predators GM David Poile, who acquired defenseman P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens for Shea Weber, said a lot of players have been re-signed by their teams before unrestricted free agency, much like years before.

The only problem is that while the crop is deep, the cap space isn’t.

“How many teams are going to be capable of adding free agents? There are going to be a few,” Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray said. “There is going to be a flurry in the beginning, but if you recall last year at this time, there was a flurry, and then it went dead. I’m thinking that could become more of the norm going forward. There are too many players for jobs.”

For some teams, like the Lightning and the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, maintaining is more important than adding. The Blackhawks, who won in 2010, 2013 and 2015, don’t have the space to add much, but GM Stan Bowman knows how to take his chances at bargain buys.

There should be no shortage of those, either, starting with Staal, who at 31 isn’t a superstar but still has something left in the tank. Stamkos himself might be a bargain based on his point-a-game production.

“At the age of 26 I believe a player is really entering the prime of their career,” Yzerman said. “He’s going into his peak years now. Regardless of what happens statistically, that to me is an indicator of playing your best hockey. I think Stammer’s best years are ahead of him.”

NHL renames GM of the Year Award after Jim Gregory

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The NHL’s GM of the Year award will now be known as the Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award.

Gregory passed away on Oct. 30 at the age of 83. Gregory was a longtime NHL executive, including serving as Toronto Maple Leafs GM from 1969 to 1979. Gregory was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

The name change was unanimously approved during the annual November GM meetings.

“This is a terrific tribute to a wonderful man by a group uniquely qualified to appreciate his many contributions to our game,” Gary Bettman said. “During his tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jim Gregory transformed the art of team-building. Through the many years he spent at the League, our general managers regularly sought his counsel. They universally revere his lifetime of service to the NHL.”

NHL.com notes that Gregory stood out for many reasons, including having an eye for international talent.

Gregory was a hockey ambassador around the globe and among the first NHL general managers to sign and import players from Europe — most notably, the legendary defenseman Borje Salming. Steeped in the game’s traditions, he was integral to the implementation of some of the League’s most transformational innovations — including the use of video to review goals and the expansion of the role of the Central Scouting Bureau.

The NHL’s GM of the Year award was first handed out in 2009-10. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the most recent recipient in 2018-19.

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.

Appreciating Stamkos’ underrated career at 400 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calling Steven Stamkos “underrated” never really feels right, but you might argue that his greatness is “too easily forgotten.”

Maybe you can chalk it up to Alex Ovechkin‘s even-more-impressive goal-scoring pyrotechnics, or perhaps to some mid-career injuries that diluted some of his career peaks, but either way, Stamkos’ career achievements can sneak up on you.

Take scoring 400 goals, for example.

Stamkos hit that mark in his last game, and with Tuesday’s Lightning – Blues contest soon to air on NBCSN (livestream link), this seems like a great time to consider what we’ve seen from Stamkos, and what else we might see going forward.

Rare company

Stamkos didn’t just hit 400 goals in Tampa’s Nov. 16 loss to the Winnipeg Jets; he also did it before age 30 (he’ll turn 3-0 on Feb. 7). Less than 20 players have reached 400 goals before age 30.

He’s one of only nine active players to hit 400, and did so the second-quickest among those nine, managing the feat in just 763 games. (Alex Ovechkin is first, getting there, somehow, in just 634 GP). Stamkos is also only the 98th player to reach 400+ goals, period.

Stamkos’ .52 goals-per-game average places him at 16th all-time among players with at least 300 games played, by Hockey Reference’s measures. That average is higher than the likes of Guy Lafleur (.50) and Eric Lindros (.49).

With 786 points in those 763 games, Stamkos ranks ninth among active players, and his 1.03 ppg average fittingly ties him with teammate Nikita Kucherov for sixth-best among active players.

Stamkos is a two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner, and became a rare 60-goal scorer in 2011-12. Pretty lofty stuff.

And, naturally, it’s not all in the past.

Stamkos comes into Thursday’s game on a tear, having generated a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists). He already has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 17 games this season. The 2018-19 season ranks among his best, too, with 45 goals and a career-high 98 points.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Passing fancy

It’s a bit absurd to ding Childhood Stamkos for not having much of a shot, but it’s kind of an adorable way to illustrate the point that the Lightning forward has grown his game over the years — which might come in handy if his shot becomes slightly less terrifying.

“When he was a kid, he couldn’t shoot,” his father, Chris Stamkos, told The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) in a great story about Stamkos’ shot. “He could skate and pass, but he couldn’t shoot.”

Stamkos’ former partner-in-crime Martin St. Louis praised Stamkos to Smith, stating that Stamkos isn’t just a “one-trick pony.”

There was some concern that Stamkos’ shot might have been diminishing, but his 45 goals quieted a lot of worries. Normally a 19.2 shooting percentage would make you think fluke, but with a career average of 16.9, maybe he still has time as a an elite sniper?

Some of this comes down to the inevitable drive to create plays for Nikita Kucherov. Of course Stamkos will start to get his playmaking to sniping ratio closer to 1:1 when he’s paired with a winger who’s arguably already even more dangerous than him, right?

After all, his shot volume is still there.

Overall, his partnership with Kucherov should be heartening for the Lightning when it comes to Stamkos’ future. If Stamkos does indeed become less dangerous at sniping as he passes 30 — a common thing for mortal snipers, aka those not named Ovechkin — then he can conceivably tweak the dials to set up Kucherov more. He’s found quite the player to grow old with, as Kucherov and Stamkos even fit each other as left and right-handed shots respectively. It’s the ideal mix for one-timers, basically making them the hockey equivalent of a couple where one spouse prefers drumstick chicken wings while the other digs the flats.

Evolving game

Again, Stamkos has found ways to improve his overall game, which is promising if his scoring does drop off.

Amusingly, Stamkos noted how low his faceoff rating was when EA Sports named him the cover star for NHL ’12, and we’ve seen his acumen in that area rise — probably coincidentally. Stamkos’ early career faceoff percentage was just 46.4. Stamkos improved gradually over the years, and has really took off in that area since 2015-16, winning 53.7 percent of his draws. This season, Stamkos has won a whopping 60 percent.

While the impact of faceoff dominance can be overblown, the point is really that Stamkos continues to refine his game. He won’t be mistaken for a Selke frontrunner anytime soon, but by becoming more well-rounded, Stamkos faces a strong chance of mitigating the aging process by bringing more to the table than just scoring.

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So, yeah, it can be easy to forget how special Stamkos is in. Maybe winning that elusive Stanley Cup might shine that spotlight on him a bit more?

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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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.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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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.