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Where they stand: Central Division

As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands.

Previously: Atlantic Division, Metropolitan Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Summer summary: A last place finish in the Central Division meant a very early start to the off-season for general manager Stan Bowman. There was a desire for some change, but their salary cap situation prevented any big free agent pursuits. Earlier this month, Marian Hossa’s contract was off-loaded to the Arizona Coyotes along with Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle. As part of the package coming to Chicago, Marcus Kruger, who had been dealt from Carolina to Arizona in May, returns to the Windy City after a season to forget with the Hurricanes in 2017-18.

The draft would bring Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist at No. 8 overall and free agency would see Bowman acquire some depth in all three areas of the ice. Veteran forward Chris Kunitz joined on a one-year deal; defenseman Brandon Manning signed on for two seasons; and Corey Crawford will have a new backup in net with the addition of Cam Ward.

More to do? Bowman didn’t move Hossa’s $5.25 million cap hit to stand pat. Bolstering the blue line and adding a winger could certainly be in the plans, if the price is right, of course. Some rumored names that may be of interest include Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes and Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens. Given how many deals the Hurricanes and Blackhawks have completed over the years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see something else happen this summer between the two teams.

Where they stand? The Blackhawks’ summer feels like it deserves an “Incomplete” grade knowing that Bowman probably isn’t finished reshaping his roster. A lot of their success in 2018-19 depends on the health of Corey Crawford, who was a Vezina Trophy candidate before an upper-body injury suffered just before Christmas ended his season. The team has said they’re expecting him to be ready for training camp, but there’s so much of a mystery around his injury that it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

Colorado Avalanche

Summer summary: The biggest splash by the Avs this summer was acquiring Semyon Varlamov’s likely successor in Philipp Grubauer during a draft weekend trade. Also picked up in the deal was Brooks Orpik, whose legendary time with the team didn’t last long as days later he was waived and bought out.

Free agency didn’t see any earth-shaking moves as GM Joe Sakic brought in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole on three-year deals. Both players are familiar with head coach Jared Bednar after having played for him in the AHL.

More to do? Sakic still has $14 million in cap space to play with, per Cap Friendly, but they appear to be done unless something interesting comes on the horizon. The Avs had a great bounce-back year, lead by a MVP performance out of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, one of the league’s most underrated young players.

Where they stand? Ready for their youth to provide support. Outside of Mackinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, Alex Kerfloot had a solid rookie season, and the expectations are that Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher can build off good years to aid their stars. The health of Varlamov, who’s entering the final year of his deal, is a hanging question, but Grubauer showed last season that he’s capable of taking on the reins of the No. 1 job.

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Dallas Stars

Summer summary: Two playoff-less seasons meant change in Big D. Ken Hitchcock retired and Jim Montgomery was brought in. Fan favorite Antoine Roussel left for greener pastures in Vancouver, Val Nichushkin returned after two seasons in the KHL, and veterans Blake Comeau, Roman Polak and Anton Khudobin were signed.

More to do? Nill has to be weary about his cap space going forward seeing as how Tyler Seguin is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and an extension for the 26-year-old won’t come cheap.

Jason Spezza enters the final year of his deal carrying a $7.5 million cap hit and declining production. There was talk of him potentially being a buy out candidate, but it looks like he’s staying with the hope his shooting percentage can go back to normal. 

There are some young players expected to take the next step and those like Mattias Janmark and future Selke Trophy winner Radek Faksa expected to continue trending upward to help the likes of Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov up front.

Where they stand? It’s a big season for the Stars. They’ve facedexpectations the last few years and fallen short. Another disappointing season and it could be a change in the GMs chair that happens next spring. A lack of big additions to the roster after losing out in the John Tavares sweepstakes means Nill is betting on improvements from many of his players.

Minnesota Wild

Summer summary: It’s been an off-season mostly about retention for new GM Paul Fenton. While the Wild added depth in J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks, they avoided arbitration and re-signed Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to long-term deals.

More to do? Fenton was reportedly exploring some trades but it’s going to be a very similar roster in October. The new GM is and will be hamstrung by the pricey, long-term contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both 33, and the roster as constructed doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, especially when you consider the competitiveness of the division.

If Fenton can sell high on Staal, who’s coming off a 42-goal year, that will go a long way to alleviating a bit of a cap crunch the Wild are in. They currently have nearly $2 million in cap space left, per Cap Friendly, so any big move(s) would have to see money moving out.

Where they stand? Three straight first round exits and a new boss means head coach Bruce Boudreau is probably feeling some heat for 2018-19. The Wild were middle of the pack offensively and defensively last season, and the health of Parise and Suter are of big concerns on both ends of the ice.

Nashville Predators

Summer summary: You won’t see much change on the Predators’ roster come October. GM David Poile spent the summer re-stocking their AHL side, retaining Juuse Saros and Ryan Hartman and bringing back old friend Dan Hamhuis.

Other than Mike Fisher retiring again, there are no notable losses on the roster. Given the strength of the Predators, there wasn’t a need for Poile to made a bold move this summer. Heck, he usually saves that kind of thing for middle of the season. He still has plenty of cap room (about $8 million) and could find himself working with defenseman Ryan Ellis on an extension at some point this season.

More to do? Yeah, there’s money to spend, if needed, but after adding Hamhuis this week, the blue line is set and after re-signing Hartman they appear good up front as well. Plus, a full season of Eeli Tolvanen, who played only three games after coming over from Finland in the spring, will be like a new addition.

Where they stand? As Stanley Cup contenders, as they were a year ago. Poile’s never been one to shy away from making a big move where he sees the chance to strengthen an area. There doesn’t seem to be big any holes at the moment, and we’re probably going to be in for another battle between the Predators and Jets for the division crown and Western Conference supremacy.

St. Louis Blues

Summer summary: Doug Armstrong wasn’t satisfied with how last season ended and spent his summer improving his team. Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson were shipped out in order to bring in Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres. David Perron was brought back after four seasons away. Tyler Bozak was signed to help down the middle. Hometown boy Patrick Maroon returned home to St. Louis to help on the wing and Joel Edmundson is back to help the blue line.

Carter Hutton, who posted a .936 even strength save percentage in 32 appearances behind Jake Allen last season, left for a three-year deal in Buffalo. Replacing him, Armstrong went out and signed veteran Chad Johnson to a one-year deal.

More to do? With very little cap space, there’s not much to be done unless the right offer comes Armstrong’s way. The Blues were one of the NHL’s lowest scoring teams last season (226 goals for), which is where Bozak, Perron and O’Reilly come in.

Where they stand? The Blues missed out on the playoffs by a point last season. But as he did the previous season with Kevin Shattenkirk, Armstrong saw the signs and traded a star player with an expiring contract (Paul Stastny) and acquired assets for the future. Improvements were made, but it will all boil down to what kind of season Allen has in net. A .918 and .919 even strength save percentage in each of his last two seasons will put the pressure on him to help, not hinder, the team this coming season.

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Winnipeg Jets

Summer summary: It was a summer about retaining talent, not adding for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. His list of restricted free agents was long and he managed to keep his big names in Winnipeg, while one — Josh Morrissey — is still waiting for a new deal.

Connor Hellebuyck, Adam Lowry, Marko Dano, Brandon Tanev, Tucker Poolman were among the names re-signed this summer. Jacob Trouba is also returning after an arbitrator awarded him a one-year, $5.5 million contract, but the question becomes how long will he stay?

Helping Cheveldayoff in re-signing some of his stars was the trade of Joel Armia and Steve Mason to the Montreal Canadiens. There’s still $10 million of cap space remaining with Morrissey the last big name to be re-signed. The next year will be an interesting one with Blake Wheeler set to become a UFA next summer, Patrik Laine eligible for an extension as an RFA and whatever the future holds for Trouba.

More to do? As mentioned, Morrissey’s the final big name left unsigned, but like their division rivals in Nashville, it’ll be a familiar roster on the ice in October — one that didn’t require much change given how strong it is. Cheveldayoff would certainly like to gain some clarity on Trouba’s future at some point this season to determine a path to either keep him in the fold or flip him for something that could either help them for a Cup run this coming spring or for the 2019-20 season.

Where they stand? There’s no reason to believe they won’t again be challenging to represent the West in the Cup Final. The roster is stacked and Hellebuyck took huge strides last season in showing he’s a true No. 1 in the NHL. As long as they remain healthy, it should be another successful season in the ‘Peg.

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Oilers have a new GM (Ken Holland) and a new head coach (Dave Tippett), but as far as personnel changes go, this was a very quiet offseason.

Considering some of the blunders of the Peter Chiarelli era, there might be a feeling of “no news is good news,” although try telling that to Connor McDavid, who didn’t get much of a bright side to look on beyond hoping that Mike Smith channels his solid playoff production, rather than Smith’s more troubling body of work.

The Oilers are almost the same team as last year, although James Neal could be a nice upgrade over Milan Lucic.

Strengths: McDavid! OK, thanks for coming!

Alright, the Oilers also have Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and maybe some help coming – eventually – with prospects such as Evan Bouchard.

And, hey, having the best player in the world is a pretty big strength.

Weaknesses: … And squandering McDavid’s talents almost takes talent in itself.

You know you’re weak on the wings when people are hoping that James Neal is a solution, and crossing their fingers that Alex Chiasson can approach last season’s numbers.

This team is weak on the wings, and that’s far from their only issue. Their defense doesn’t play the sort of modern game that you’d want to propel McDavid in transition, and lacks elite skill overall. Maybe Tippett can scheme this group to competence, but it’s unclear how much potential has been untapped after Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan tried their hands at the same.

Oh yeah, their goaltending duo of Smith and Mikko Koskinen is a bowl of “meh,” too.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Consider this: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL, and Tippett will be his ninth head coach.

The Oilers have been the definition of dysfunctional for a distressingly long period of time, and while there’s the feeling that McDavid and others are far beyond the point of being tired of losing, it’s time for some stability. That’s what Tippett represents: a steadying presence, something that must appeal to the deliberate approach Holland also seems to prefer.

That said, Edmonton’s also subject to about-faces, as that seems to be their M.O. Let’s put Tippett at a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: McDavid, Koskinen, Darnell Nurse

Number 97 would be a pick every year based on his captivating speed and skill alone. Maybe eyes are fixed on him a bit more now, though, as he’s shown signs of frustration, occasionally actually letting that be known in vague media comments. If the Oilers unravel again, will McDavid vent in an even bigger way?

Re-signing Koskinen tied a baffling bow around the Chiarelli era. Along with Smith, it’s tough to know what exactly we should expect from Koskinen. If Tippett’s system dumbs games down and makes it all a slog, that might actually set the stage for some redemption. (James Neal is another fascinating redemption story.)

The Oilers have precious few defensemen of merit, so it’s crucial for them to see Nurse take additional steps forward. Then again, he’s entering a contract year, so they also probably don’t want to break the bank for the RFA. That should make Nurse intriguing to watch.

Playoffs or Lottery: It’s tough to pick against McDavid, especially since Draisaitl and RNH give him some support. One can imagine a decent formula of McDavid + stingy defense and goaltending = grinding out wins.

Hockey teaches us time and time again that one superstar rarely is enough to mask a ton of blemishes, though. While a weak Pacific gives some hope for Edmonton sneaking in, I’d lean closer to the lottery than the playoffs with Edmonton.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Agent surprised Point, Lightning are so far apart ‘this late’

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The thought was that Mitch Marner finally signing with the Maple Leafs would set off a flurry of other big RFA signings, but that appears to only be partially true.

Much like the Winnipeg Jets with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, the Tampa Bay Lightning appear to be at an impasse with star forward Brayden Point. Point’s agent Gerry Johannson admitted as much to Sportsnet 650 on Thursday.

The interview is a mix of good and bad for anxious Lightning fans. The bad is that Johannson said more than once that the two sides aren’t very close to a new deal. On the other hand, Johannson didn’t seem to give the threat of an offer sheet much merit. He comments on both subjects around the three-minute mark, while Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston transcribed this key bit:

“We’ve been sort of ready to go since last July,” Johannson said. “It’s just I’m a little surprised we’re this far apart this late, but on the other hand every negotiation is a bit different and there’s different pressures and different circumstances and all sorts of different things.”

Johannson didn’t give much of an indication regarding whether Point preferred a longer-term contract like something Marner received, or a “bridge” deal like what Brock Boeser signed for with Vancouver.

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning have about $8.477M in space as of this writing. That honestly feels a little bit low for a 23-year-old forward who generated 41 goals and 92 points in 79 regular-season games last season, even if you account for Point losing less money playing in a tax-friendly state like Florida.

Marner is younger, and Toronto doesn’t have that state tax edge, but you could make some very reasonable comparisons between the two players, especially since Point is a center while Marner is a winger. They’re both impact scorers, and Point may be a little bit more well-rounded, as you may believe when considering metrics such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM even-strength comparison charts:

Of course, where the Maple Leafs have been paying premiums for Auston Matthews and John Tavares, multiple Lightning players are receiving AAVs below their perceived value, including Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman.

Combine that notion with the feeling that Point very much wants to stay with Tampa Bay – Johannson doesn’t deny that at all – and you can see why the Lightning might be almost brazen about nickel-and-diming Point.

Johannson is right in saying it’s fairly late, with less than two weeks remaining until the 2019-20 regular season starts. Yet Point’s agent himself said that a deal can get done if the will is there, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if Point and the Lightning hash something out soon. Maybe media appearances like these might even speed things up ever so slightly?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Jaromir Jagr is still scoring goals at age 47

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Jaromir Jagr can’t quit playing hockey, and we’re all better off for it.

After saying years ago he’d like to play beyond 50, Jagr can’t stay away from the ice. After returning to Rytiri Kladno, his hometown club that he owns, in 2018 after injuries ended his time with the Calgary Flames, the future Hall of Famer tried to get healthy but managed only 27 total games in a year as he helped the team get promoted from the Czech second division, which included a four-goal game.

An injury kept him out of the lineup early this season, Kladno’s first in the Czech Extraliga since 2014, but on Friday the 47-year-old (!) Jagr was back in action. Playing over 22 minutes, the fifth overall pick in the 1990 (!!) NHL Draft scored a goal during a 7-4 loss to HC Energie Karlovy Vary.

Kladno is winless through three games early in the season.

As for Jagr, the stories of his dedication to training are legendary, which makes the fact he’s playing so late in his 40s not entirely a surprise. Hockey is his life, as he told Sportnet’s Kristina Rutherford in 2015.

“The time between when I quit hockey and I die, I want it to be the shortest,” Jagr said. “It’s not going to be as exciting, that time. So as long as I can play, that’s what I’m doing. If I can play ’til I die, that’s what I will do. What else are you gonna do? Even if you retire, you will still have to go work out, and maybe harder than you do when you play hockey because you don’t want to look ugly and fat. At least I don’t want to.”

Stick-tap Derek O’Brien

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Calgary Flames

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: This was an offseason of mostly lateral moves for the Flames, exemplified by Calgary bringing in an uncertain but slightly younger goalie (Cam Talbot) for an aging and all-over-the-place netminder (Mike Smith).

The Milan LucicJames Neal trade seems like a loss for the Flames, but then again, Neal just didn’t fit for Calgary, to the point that things bordered on awkward.

Let’s consider the Flames marginally worse. In all honesty, the biggest hits came in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they were embarrassed by the Avalanche.

Strengths: When you look at the best of the best in Calgary, the Flames boast talent that can hang with just about anyone. Mark Giordano‘s been considered an uncrowned Norris Trophy defenseman for some time, and he finally sat on that throne after 2018-19. Johnny Gaudreau is one of the most sublimely gifted playmakers in the NHL, and thus helps his top line usually rank among the best in the league most seasons. Matthew Tkachuk isn’t just an antagonist; like Brad Marchand, he’s also a player who annoys opponents because he’s also really good.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Flames are still a bit lacking when it comes to depth at both the forwards and defense positions. If Gaudreau’s line falters and Tkachuk’s trio cannot score, the Flames are in trouble — and there’s quite a bit of a drop from Giordano to other blueliners.

Goaltending remains a big question, too. Can Talbot form a strong tandem with David Rittich?

[MORE: Under Pressure: Treliving | 3 QuestionsTalbot the X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): For the most part, Bill Peters’ first season in Calgary was a success, although the postseason was rough, and you wonder if some blame Peters for lacking answers as Colorado mopped the floor with his Flames.

Peters’ seat warms up in part because his “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving has made a lot of big bets, and many some are wondering if Calgary should cash out. Coaches often get sent out with fired GMs, so that’s something to consider.

Overall, I’d put Peters at about a four.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Cam Talbot, Matthew Tkachuk, Milan Lucic.

Talbot went from being a fantastic backup with the Rangers to a workhorse early on for the Oilers — to the point that Edmonton wore him out like an NFL RB who saw far too many carries. Talbot’s stature in the league plummeted, yet at 32, he’s not so old that a rebound is totally out of the question.

Tkachuk stands with a handful of high-profile RFA stars who still need new contracts. He’ll be fascinating to watch as those negotiations play out, whether we’re debating the merits of a deal soon, or watching as things drag out into the season. Either way, he’ll draw attention, especially when he has that mouthpiece dangling obnoxiously out of his maw.

Every now and then, a “change of scenery” really does work out, at least if you keep expectations in check. The Flames may end up playing to Lucic’s strengths more effectively than the Oilers, or Lucic may simply have needed a reboot. Or he’s just washed. It could be that last one.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. It seemed like a few Flames played over their heads, and Giordano’s getting up there in age at 35, so there’s a risk that Calgary lags behind the Sharks and/or Golden Knights during the regular season. Still, with the Pacific being as weak as it is, it would be a surprise if the Flames missed the postseason altogether.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.