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Oilers missing playoffs would be spectacular failure

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The Edmonton Oilers have had a lot of bad seasons over the past 12 years, but this one has to be the most frustrating, most disappointing, and quite frankly, the biggest failure out of them all.

Entering 2017-18 as one of the top favorites to win the Stanley Cup, it’s probably not too soon to close the book on their season.

After getting blown out for the second game in a row this weekend, dropping a 4-1 decision in Chicago, the Oilers remain in 13th place in the Western Conference and are eight points out of a playoff spot with 39 games remaining ahead of them. It is almost impossible to imagine them making up that much ground — and jumping over five teams — in that amount of time.

With the final wild card team in the West currently on a 94-point pace, the Oilers would need to collect 56 points the rest of the way to pass that. That would be a 118-point pace over 82 games, meaning the Oilers would need to pretty much be the best team in hockey the rest of the way just to get the second wild card spot.

After losing seven out of their past eight games, a stretch that has seen them be outscored 28-10 (including 20-4 in the past five games), it is almost impossible to see it happening.

It is a stunning fall in such a short amount of time for a team that was one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals and has the league MVP and scoring champion (and arguably the league’s best player!) in Connor McDavid on its roster.

It is that second point that makes this season such a failure for the Oilers.

Keep in mind that in the post-Original Six era there have only been three teams that have had the reigning league MVP on their roster have missed the playoffs. The 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens (Carey Price), the 2011-12 Anaheim Ducks (Corey Perry) and the 2002-03 Canadiens (Jose Theodore).

In the case of the two Canadiens teams it’s at least somewhat understandable given who the MVPs were and how those teams won. Both teams were largely dependent on the success of the two goalies, while Price missed all but 11 games following his MVP season due to injury. Theodore simply experienced a massive regression and was not able to put the team on his back the way he did in his MVP season.

But this Oilers team? With Connor McDavid?

There is no excuse for this.

McDavid is a generational talent, and even worse for the Oilers, is still on his entry level contract this season. That means they are still getting one of the biggest steals in the league against the salary cap and they have surrounded him with … this.

Their special teams are a mess. The goaltending has failed them as Cam Talbot has been run into the ground the past two years with no solid backup behind him. They still have no scoring depth beyond McDavid’s line. At some point if the season continues on this path you have to imagine that a coaching change will be considered. That is always the first move that gets made when a seemingly talented team with sky high expectations underachieves.

The issue here is still with construction of the roster and what seems to be a desire to build a heavy, physical hockey team in a league that is now all about speed, skating and skill.

It is about the way the team has squandered talented players like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in trades by selling them off in one-for-one deals that did not bring back anything close to equal value. Heaven help Oilers fans when the same thing inevitably happens with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Given Peter Chiarelli’s track record with trades you can almost guarantee that it will.

With McDavid just starting to enter his prime years and still dirt cheap, this should have been a season where the Oilers were set to take another big step forward. That’s what you do with a superstar that still takes up almost none of your salary cap space.

In year three with Sidney Crosby the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Final, one year away from winning it. In year three with Patrick Kane the Chicago Blackhawks actually won the Stanley Cup. In year three with Alex Ovechkin the Washington Capitals were division champions and barreling toward being one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. In year three with Steven Stamkos the Tampa Bay Lightning were in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now the Oilers are not only on their way to missing the playoffs for the second time in three years with McDavid, they are set to head into next season with already more than $60 million in salary cap space committed to just 13 players. And it’s not the big contracts to McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that are causing that cap crunch. You have to keep them and you have to pay them.

It is the $6 million to a Milan Lucic here and the $4 million to a Kris Russell there that eats it up fast.

That is what is going to make it awfully difficult to build any sort of depth around McDavid.

The biggest question out of all of this: Do you trust the current management team to figure out a way to make it work?

They were not able to do it when the best player in the league was costing them peanuts against the salary cap.

It is hard to see how they can do it when he is making his market value.

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.

Sharks are buying out final year of Paul Martin’s contract

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The San Jose Sharks are clearing more salary cap space for what could be a big summer.

On Friday the team announced that it is placing veteran defenseman Paul Martin on unconditional waivers for the purposes of buying out his contract.

The 36-year-old Martin was limited to just 14 games this past season. He was set to enter the final year of a four-year, $19.4 million contract that he signed in free agency prior to the start of the 2015-16 season. During his time with the Sharks he played a key role on their blue line — playing more than 20 minutes per night in his first two years with the team — and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final in his first year with the team.

“Paul Martin has been the upmost professional on and off the ice during his three years in San Jose,” said general manager Doug Wilson in a statement released by the team. “His leadership, character and on-ice contributions have been essential to our success and in reaching the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. The impact he has had on our organization, his teammates and many of our younger players will be felt for many years to come.”

The big thing here for the Sharks is the salary cap savings for this season that a buyout brings.

According to CapFriendly the Sharks will save more than $2.8 million against the salary cap this season before taking a $1.4 million salary cap hit next season.

That savings, combined with the recent trade of veteran forward Mikkel Boedker, has already trimmed more than $6.5 million in salary off of the team’s salary cap number for the 2018-19 season. That will leave them with more than $18 million in salary cap space under the new $79.5 million ceiling, making them players for just about any unrestricted free agent (or potential trade target) that they could want.

They already considered one of the top contenders to land Ilya Kovalchuk in his return from the KHL.

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.

Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

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Brian Savage calls it a “hockey candy store.” The Red Bull Academy in Salzburg, Austria features state-of-the-art facilities and the ability for young players to improve their games to a level that could pay off with a future professional career.

A young Noah Dobson and his family saw just that and made a decision to begin a unique path to the National Hockey League.

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It was during the 2015 Canada Winter Games tournament in Prince George, B.C. that Dobson came on the radar of Paul Henry, a Red Bull scout who helped put together Canada’s 1994 Olympic team. In a tournament that featured future NHL draft picks like Owen Tippett, Gabe Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan and fellow 2018 prospects like Jett Woo, Joe Veleno and Calen Addison, the 15-year-old Dobson had an impressive showing with four goals and eight points in six games.

Henry would set up a meeting that spring with the Dobson family in Summerside, Prince Edward Island and give them the sales pitch. Intrigued, they flew to Austria to meet Pierre Page, then Red Bull’s Global Sporting Director, and Savage, who served as a North American scout.

“They were very impressed and excited to agree to come to Red Bull Academy where they could do the supervised online schooling program approved by Canadian and American Universities like Harvard and others,” Page told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

Page, who coached 636 NHL games with four teams, had a vision to make Red Bull a destination for young hockey players. As soon as players arrived, they were blown away.

“When I got over there, to stay at their facilities, it was just a whole great experience playing on a different side of the world and seeing other countries at the same time playing the game you love,” says Dobson. “It’s the kind of experience that I’m going to look back at and have lots of memories from.”

Savage’s presence helped in the recruitment. The former NHLer, who played 12 seasons in the league, moved his family, including his three boys, to Salzburg to help Page get the academy going. His son Ryan also played for Red Bull.

Dobson spent the 2015-16 season in Salzburg, playing 24 games with the U-18s and 11 games with the U-20s. Like some of his teammates, he was alone in a new country, a long ways away from his family.  But the players’ schedule kept them busy, with trainings between four and six hours a day, plus schooling and access to ice any time for extra work. Savage and head coach Matt Deschamps would have the players over for some home-cooked meals and take them out for various activities, like skiing, to help deal with homesickness. 

“I think it really benefited me as a player and a person, experiencing different cultures,” says Dobson.

“[Dobson] was sold on the program and totally committed to paying the price to make this year really worth it,” Page says.

Once comfort set in, and the routine of a hockey life picked up, Dobson’s game improved. Already a good skater as a tall, right-handed shot, he impressed the Red Bull scouts during the Canada Winter Games tournament holding his own against older competition. The year in Salzburg saw improvements on both ends of the ice, thanks to the additional work he was doing after practices.

“Really what he needed was some strength and guidance on and off the ice,” says Savage, who now works with hockey tournament company 200×85. “He had a really good shot. He really had a nice total package to him and we were just there to enhance it and get him to the next step. Obviously his coaches in junior have done a great job getting him to where he is now.

“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be.”

The Acadie-Bathurst Titan would make Dobson the sixth overall pick in the 2016 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft. He would spend the next two seasons compiling 24 goals and 95 points over 130 games and helping deliver a Memorial Cup this past May. As the NHL Draft approaches, he’s the fifth-ranked North American skater, and isn’t expected to have a long before hearing his name called by a team.

“I think he’s going to have a great career, whether it’s a year from now, two years from now, when he gets a little bit stronger and can compete against the men. But I see him being in those top three defensemen eventually,” says Savage. “I’m sure with his work ethic and determination he’s going to continue going strong. Whatever team gets him is gonna get lucky because he’s a great kid.”

Page, who parted with Red Bull in Feb. 2016, continued to track Dobson after he left for the QMJHL and described his development as “incredible.” He has faith in the 18-year-old’s talents and knows there’s a great NHL career ahead for him.

Says Page, “I would not want to be the team who passes on him at the draft.”

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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.

Together Again: Red Wings add Bylsma to Blashill’s staff

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The Detroit Red Wings have added a Stanley Cup-winning head coach to their staff, as they announced the hiring of Dan Bylsma as an assistant coach.

The obvious connection here is that Bylsma was part of Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill’s staff with Team USA at the 2018 World Hockey Championship. They helped lead the U.S. to a bronze medal in the tournament.

“I know that Dan will make a great impact on our team, and we’re excited to add him to the bench,” Blashill said in a team release. “His resume speaks for itself, including the Stanley Cup championship and Jack Adams Award. I also had the unique opportunity to work with Dan at this year’s World Championship, and that experience leaves no doubt that Dan will bring innovative ideas and tremendous attention to detail to our coaching staff.”

Bylsma was out of the NHL last season after being let go by the Buffalo Sabres after the 2016-17 campaign. The 47-year-old failed to make the postseason in both seasons in Buffalo. He has a career record of 320-190-55 over eight seasons as a head coach.

This is a homecoming of sorts for Bylsma, who was born in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Time for Sabres to upgrade in goal

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Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill confirmed that the team will not give starting netminder Robin Lehner a qualifying offer, which means he’ll be a free agent on July 1st. That means there’s an opening for a new number one goalie in Buffalo.

Lehner hasn’t had much to work with since he joined the Sabres, but he’s had plenty of issues with consistency and staying healthy. Again, the inconsistency isn’t all on him because the players in front of him haven’t been good enough. Still, his tenure in Buffalo didn’t go as planned.

The Sabres have a franchise center in Jack Eichel and they’re about to land a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, so it’s time they land a goalie that can help push them in the right direction. What are their options?

Last season, the team gave 24-year-old Linus Ullmark a look between the pipes, and he did relatively well over five games. Ullmark will likely be one of the two goaltenders in Buffalo in 2018-19.

For those hoping Botterill will dip his toe in the free-agent pool, you may be disappointed. There’s no number one goalie available this year. Top options include: Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton.

Could one of those veterans be paired with Ullmark? Sure, but how much confidence would that give this Buffalo team. Hutton has been one of the better backup goalies in the league over the last couple of years. That would likely be the best free-agent fit for the Sabres. Management might be able to land him if they can sell the idea of him playing quite a bit more than he’s used to.

Hutton could be an option.

The only other way to land a goalie right now is by trading for one.

There’s Philipp Grubauer, who’s currently a Washington Capital. Acquiring Grubauer would cost the Sabres an asset, but he could still be worth looking into if they believe he’s capable of playing at the same level he did in the second half of the season. The 26-year-old has never played more than 35 games in a season, so making him a starter won’t come without risk. At this point though, there are no slam-dunk number one goalies available, so GM Jason Botterill will have to roll the dice on somebody.

If they want someone a little more proven, they have to think outside the box. Would they be willing to take a risk on Cam Talbot in Edmonton? There have been rumblings that he’s available. Sure, he’s coming off a down year, but he was outstanding two seasons ago. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2019 and the Oilers might not be willing to pay a 30-year-old netminder the type of money he may command.

Now this is a really “outside the box” kind of idea, but would the Predators be willing to move one of their goalies? Pekka Rinne, who just won the Vezina Trophy, has one year left on his contract and he struggled pretty badly in the playoffs. Juuse Saros, who’s the goalie of the future, is an RFA and he’ll be getting a raise this summer. Nashville doesn’t have to do anything with their goaltenders this year, so this is very unlikely, but it’s just something to think about.

Another veteran option could Sens netminder Craig Anderson, who is available, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

No matter how they do it, the Sabres have to find a way to upgrade the roster as a whole, but specifically in goal. They don’t have to find a franchise netminder like a Braden Holtby or a Carey Price, but they need to get better at that position if they’re going to come close to making the playoffs one of these days.

It’s up to Botterill to figure out how he wants to do that.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.