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Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and to former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.

What will Mathew Barzal’s next contract look like for Islanders?

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After the way the RFA situation unfolded this past summer, with almost every top player remaining unsigned until well into training camp, teams seem to be a little more proactive for this year’s upcoming group with several already signing new deals.

Alex DeBrincat (Chicago), Clayton Keller (Arizona), and Nico Hischier (New Jersey) have all recently signed new deals to avoid restricted free agency this summer, and according to Chris Johnston on Saturday’s headlines segment on Sportsnet. the New York Islanders would like to get Mathew Barzal, their top player, signed before the summer as well.

Barzal was asked about his contract situation before Saturday’s game in Columbus by Newsday‘s Andrew Gross and insisted it is not something on his mind at the moment.

From Newsday:

“At this point, it’s really just between my agent and Lou [Lamoriello] right now,” Barzal told Newsday on Saturday before the Islanders concluded a two-game road trip against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “I don’t talk to Lou about contract stuff. If it happens in the next two months or if it happens in June, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just focused on the season right now.

“It’s something that eventually is going to happen,” Barzal added. “I’m pretty good at just kind of pushing that stuff aside and just worrying about what’s going on right now.”

Barzal and Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois are two of the bigger name players still unsigned beyond this season that are set to hit restricted free agency this summer.

If the Islanders are able to accomplish that goal they could be looking at a significant contract for Barzal.

First, let’s take a quick a look at the three recent contracts signed by potential RFAs Keller, DeBrincat, and Hischier simply because they are at the same experience levels and signed their new deals with still one year remaining on their entry-level contracts.

  • Keller’s deal in Arizona was an eight-year, $57.2 million deal with a $7.1 million cap hit.
  • DeBrincat signed a shorter, bridge deal that is worth $19.2 million over three years with a salary cap hit of $6.4 million.
  • The Devils signed Hischier to a seven-year, $50.7 million contract with a salary cap hit of $7.2 million per season.

You can bet that Barzal’s salary cap hit will be higher than all three.

He has already proven to be more impactful — especially offensively — than everyone in that group, and if you compare what he has done through his first two full years in the league he is probably going to be closer to the Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner pay scale than the Hischier, Keller, DeBrincat group.

Through two years he has outproduced what Marner, Rantanen, and even Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point did through their first two years in the league — and significantly so at even-strength, and with less talent around him — and has arguably been more impactful as a two-way player. Remember, it wasn’t until year three that Marner, Rantanen, and Point really had their breakout seasons offensively to become superstars.

Barzal pretty much had his breakout moment in year one, and while his offense regressed just a bit in year two he was still very good and seemed to take even more strides forward defensively.

This doesn’t seem like a potential bridge contract situation (like Point in Tampa Bay, or DeBrincat in Chicago, or even Patrik Laine in Winnipeg) and seems far more likely to end in a long-term deal. Barzal is clearly the team’s best player, and while they are not swimming in extra salary cap space, it is not exactly facing a salary cap crunch, either. Given what he has already proven, his importance to the Islanders, and his long-term potential there is no reason to think that a seven-or eight-year deal at around $8 or $9 million is out of the question. And he would probably be worth every penny of it.

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury shuts out Penguins; hats off to Jost

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. The Pittsburgh Penguins did everything they could on Saturday night, and probably even had the better of the play against the Golden Knights, but Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced — including a couple of highlight reel saves — to get the shutout against his former team. Fleury is off to a great start this season and now has a .934 save percentage in his first six starts.

2. Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche improved to 7-0-1 by rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night thanks in large part to a hat trick from Jost. Expectations were sky high for the Avalanche at the start of the season and they have done nothing but justify them so far. They have the best top line in hockey, an exciting young defense, and strengthened their secondary scoring during the offseason. It is now really difficult to find a clear weakness on this team.

3. Corey Perry, Dallas Stars. Style points don’t matter for the Stars right now. They were not particularly strong on Saturday night in Philadelphia, but they still managed to snap a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win to get two points that they desperately needed. The star of the game was offseason Perry, scoring his first goal as a member of the Stars and recording two assists. How bad as the Stars offense been this season? Entering play on Saturday the Stars only had five players on the team record more than three points for the entire season (over nine games!).

Other notable performances on Saturday

Highlights of the Night

This is some vintage Anze Kopitar hockey here, turning defense into offense and scoring a slick shorthanded goal to help the Kings roll.

Look at the patience from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to wait for Pekka Rinne to make the first move and then beat him with a slick backhander.

Here it is again, the first NHL goal for the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes. The only goal in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Blooper of the Night

Jost ended up getting a splash of water to the face in celebration of his first NHL hat trick.

Factoids

  • The Vegas Golden Knights won the 100th game in franchise history on Saturday, needing just 173 games to reach it. That is the second fewest games needed to reach 100, trailing only the 165 games the original Ottawa Senators franchise needed back in 1917. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Hughes became the ninth player in league history to score their first NHL goal in a game against their brother. [NHL PR]
  • Morgan Rielly‘s overtime goal on Saturday night was the fourth of his career. Only Tomas Kaberle has more among Maple Leafs defenders in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 1, Vancouver Canucks 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Ottawa Senators 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Dallas Stars 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 0
New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 3, Nashville Predators 2 (SO)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Calgary Flames 1
Buffalo Sabres 4, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk had another chaotic encounter (Video)

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The Los Angeles Kings put together their best game of the season on Saturday night, defeating the Calgary Flames 4-1 to pick up their third win.

A lot of good things happened for the Kings in this game, starting with the fact that they actually scored a few goals after being shutout for more than 130 consecutive minutes of hockey (including back-to-back shutout losses) entering the night. Then there was starting goalie Jonathan Quick, stuck in a miserable slump to open the season that has seen him allow 19 goals in his first three games, stopping 23 of 24 shots for his first win of the season. The only goal he surrendered was a late penalty shot goal to Mikael Backlund.

If we are being honest, though, the biggest reason anyone outside of the Kings and Flames fanbases would be keeping an eye on this game would be to see if Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty would continue their ongoing feud.

To the surprise of no one, they did.

Midway through the third period Doughty managed to take out Tkachuk with a low hit that set off a chain reaction pile-up that also included Flames defenseman Mark Giordano flying in from the top rope and taking out Kyle Clifford.

Tkachuk ended up getting two minutes for tripping, two minutes for roughing, and a 10-minute misconduct, while Clifford picked up two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. No other penalties came out of that sequence.

This feud has been ongoing for three years now starting with Tkachuk — during his rookie season — earning a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the face. Since then they have gone back and forth through the media and constantly been involved in on-ice incidents.

In their first meeting this season Tkachuk scored a late game-tying goal against the Kings to send it to overtime where Doughty would win it and then taunt the Flames’ crowd.

So far this season Doughty and the Kings have managed to get the best of Tkachuk and the Flames.

They will have to wait until Dec. 7 to face each other again.

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.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

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.