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No-NHL 2018 Olympics makes for unique preparation strategies

When Brian Gionta last played in the Olympics in 2006, his final NHL game before the break allowed him just three days to fly to Italy and get acclimated before suiting up for Team USA.

This time around, the semi-retired U.S. captain and his Olympic teammates will get four whole practice days before opening the tournament against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

”With the NHL setup, you fly over there, you have a small window to practice in and then you’re right into the games,” Gionta said. ”We’ve had the added benefit of being able to go over to the Deutschland Cup and be together for that week. A lot of the guys that were there are on the team and have a good understanding of each other. But I think that’s a nice change, I guess, from previous Olympics.”

Still, the U.S. lost all three games at that tournament in November and didn’t score more than two goals in any of them. Preparation under a new coach, learning the nuances and habits of new teammates are certainly key, but every men’s hockey team going to South Korea is in a much different situation from any previous Olympics.

Before NHL players began participating in 1998, national teams were centralized and spent months together – much like women’s teams do now. In contrast, the past five Olympics featured quick turnarounds when it came to training because so many players were also in the NHL, which decided this time around not to pause its 82-game regular season.

However, no NHL didn’t automatically translate into more practice time as the teams were put together.

Almost everyone on an Olympic roster is playing professionally or in college, so there isn’t much of an opportunity for training camps – though Canada, Russia and other countries are making the most of any time they have to get together. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League has its final games before the Olympic break Jan. 28, and other European leagues will release players shortly after that so they can prepare.

Chock full of stars from the KHL, including former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, Russia should be the first to have its full team together and will play exhibition games in Moscow on Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. Canada is gathering as many players as possible in Latvia on Jan. 28 and will play two exhibition games there and one more in South Korea before the Olympics begin as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal.

”We have access to our players very early, and we’re going to take advantage of that,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations and national teams. ”We’re actually going to simulate the first two games of the Olympics with the ice times and the game times and try to get used to that kind of quick turnaround from a 9 p.m. game and a day off and a noon game.”

Sweden, which has a handful of former NHL players and projected 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin , will gather in Seoul for four days of practice before facing Canada on Feb. 12. The Czech Republic will hold training camp in Prague from Jan. 29-Feb. 6 before practicing in Seoul and playing an exhibition game against Finland on Feb. 11, while the Swiss are scheduled to play Germany in Kloten, Switzerland, on Feb. 6 and Norway in Goyang, South Korea, five days later.

USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said his team won’t play any exhibition games with most U.S. players arriving in South Korea on Feb. 8. Johannson said the U.S. will practice Feb. 10-13 and get in a game-day skate Feb. 14, which coach Tony Granato feels will be enough preparation.

”We’ve all been parts of multiple tournaments like this, so we’re not unfamiliar with them,” said Granato, who played 49 games with the U.S. national team prior to the 1988 Olympics and currently coaches at the University of Wisconsin. ”A lot of the excitement and build-up leading up to it makes it that much better – you’re going to get there, we’re going to jump on the ice, we’re going to practice and then a few days later we’ll be center stage and ready to play.”

Seventeen of the 25 U.S. players were at the Deutschland Cup in November and won’t be back on the ice together until nearly three months later. The U.S. women’s team? They gathered in Florida in September, played a series of games against top Olympic rival Canada and have been together since.

”It’s a huge bonus and a huge advantage to be together all year,” forward Meghan Duggan said. ”(It’s ) a difference from a world championship year, a non-Olympic year where we play with our pro teams and our club teams or college teams and get together for certain periods of time whether it be for world championships or Four Nations Cup or training camp.”

Canada’s men’s team took part in several Olympic tune-up tournaments for evaluation purposes. GM Sean Burke, who played in goal for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, is trying to make the most of this hybrid schedule to put coach Willie Desjardins and his team in the best position to succeed.

”We’ve had a lot of time to not only evaluate our players but have them together to do some team-building and we’re going to get a good two-week training camp. I like the process,” Burke said. ”Our coaching staff can really get down to working on our systems and having everything in place that they’re comfortable with. That’s a real nice luxury to have.”

AP Sports Reporters Teresa M. Walker and James Ellingworth contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Is Dumba’s five-year, $30M a good deal for Wild?

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Matt Dumba‘s been enjoying a meteoric rise up the rankings of the Minnesota Wild’s most important players. Now he’s getting paid as such.

The Wild confirmed that the 23-year-old defenseman signed what should be a fascinating contract to ponder over the years: five years, $30 million (so a $6M cap hit). With that, Dumba becomes the Wild’s third-highest paid player, trailing only the twin monster contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

It’s really remarkable to look at how much Dumba’s numbers leapt during the last three seasons. In 2015-16, he generated 10 goals and 26 points in 81 games despite modest ice time (16:50 per game). Dumba then saw a better role in 2016-17, collecting 11 goals and 34 points while averaging 20:20 minutes per night. Last season is when his numbers went from good to great; he generated an impressive 14 goals and 50 points while logging 23:49 per contest.

While the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs were generally frustrating for the Wild, Dumba’s work provided a tantalizing argument that the best may still be to come. Ryan Suter was on the shelf, so Dumba took charge, averaging a whopping 26:58 per playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets, and not really looking out of place in the process.

That said, Dumba’s possession numbers have generally been pretty run-of-the-mill, so this contract is far from unanimously approved. Wild GM Paul Fenton made some interesting comparisons between Dumba and P.K. Subban, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required).

“The risk has certainly allowed him to score in double-digit goals, for one,” Fenton said. “It’s hard to find right defensemen who have the ability to game-break, if you will. He’s got a bomb. You look at how guys have molded themselves over the years, there’s a risk-reward factor. P.K. Subban basically does the same thing in a lot of lights. You’re looking at him and saying, ‘Oh my god. He tried that in that particular point in the game or that position in the game.’ As he matures and goes forward, I think it will smooth itself out.”

The dream scenario is for the hockey world to look at the value of Dumba’s contract as an extension of Fenton’s days with the Predators, as Nashville’s knack for signing blooming defensive stars to team-friendly deals can be seen in the bargains for Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. (Subban, as Norris-worthy as he tends to be, isn’t cheap at $9M per year.)

Paying Dumba $6M per season might seem steep today, yet considering the gold rush on defensemen now that Drew Doughty/Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed and Erik Karlsson‘s eventually awaiting a Brinks truck, this could very well be the sort of pact that ages very well.

Then again, it’s no doubt that people are making jokes about other long-term Wild commitments that haven’t exactly aged like fine wine.

During the past three seasons, Dumba’s tied with Ellis for 15th place among NHL defensemen in goals scored with 35. His 110 points during that frame tie him with Jake Muzzin for 29th. When in doubt, you pay young defensemen who can generate offense, and Dumba certainly fits that bill.

(This also allows the Wild and Dumba to avoid salary arbitration.)

Minnesota stands in an odd spot as far as the future goes, as you can notice from all the mockery related to the Parise and Suter deals. As a team that’s been consistently good but rarely able to find the next gear to great, some will be queasy about another player receiving another meaty contract.

That’s not Dumba’s fault, nor is it on Fenton, who is still just beginning his run as Wild GM. If Minnesota’s taking the next step anytime soon, it will be on the back of strong play from young pieces, and Dumba ranks among their most important talents.

For the most part, this is a very fair example of “the cost of doing business,” as Dumba brings a lot to the table. Still, if he remains mixed at best defensively and the Wild struggle overall, the heat could turn up on the player and his team for this contract. So, again, this one will be fascinating to look back on once we gain hindsight.

(Personally, it seems more than reasonable, but time will tell if that inkling is correct.)

This summer stands to get even costlier for the Wild, as Jason Zucker needs a new contract after a breakthrough of his own. His salary arbitration hearing is currently set for July 28, so expect movement on that front in the next week.

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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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.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


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