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Under Pressure: Jarmo Kekalainen

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t the only NHL GM facing difficult decisions.

The difference between the Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM and many of his under-pressure peers is that, frankly, the ceiling’s higher for Kekalainen. While Senators GM Pierre Dorion is essentially just trying to clean up a severe mess, Kekalainen could help the Blue Jackets finally break through — if he can succeed in walking a tightrope (with alligators licking their chomps below, really).

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough]

Given the cruel nature of sports, it doesn’t seem to matter much that a frequently promising Blue Jackets team lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions two years in a row. The heat’s already rising considerably, and the toughest times may just be ahead.

Breaking bread

Just consider the uneasy futures for two of the Blue Jackets’ most important players.

There’s been plenty of speculation regarding Artemi Panarin‘s situation, as the game-breaking forward’s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19. The general feeling, via the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, is that (no hard feelings but) Panarin simply doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career in Columbus, or seemingly most markets that aren’t large. Among other gloomy reports: Panarin wants “all business set aside” by Sept. 13, according to Portzline (sub required).

So, should Kekalainen trade Panarin sooner rather than later, instead of risking being in a similar place as the Islanders, who saw John Tavares leave for nothing but cap space and an open roster spot? The good news is that Panarin and his reps are illuminating the subject for Kekalainen. The bad news is that the hockey world knows, so he’ll look foolish if Columbus ends up with nothing, yet other GMs also know that he might be at a disadvantage.

Kekalainen would be forgiven for sweating the Panarin situation alone, yet that’s just one of some pressing issues for Columbus.

What to do about Bob?

Sergei Bobrovsky also will need a new contract after his $7.425M AAV expires after next season, and that situation is comparably tricky, only in different ways.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick apart the work “Bob” has done in Columbus, generating a beautiful .923 save percentage over 312 regular-season games, with especially impressive work done during the past two years.

The elephant in the room, for many, is Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles. More analytical types will roll their eyes at such criticisms – particularly when the tone really condemns – but it’s also fair to note that, for all Bob has accomplished in winning two Vezina trophies, Columbus hasn’t been able to put it together enough to win a mere playoff series yet.

If you’re Kekalainen, you’re fearful that Bobrovsky could become the next Carey Price.

Bob is already 29, and he’ll turn 30 on Sept. 20. When the Montreal Canadiens extended Price with a massive eight-year, $84M contract, it probably felt – to them – like the price of doing business with an all-world goalie. That deal already looks horrifying, and it’s only officially going to begin in 2018-19, with Price already 30.

The Bob situation could turn out poorly for Kekalainen in a variety of ways, sadly.

The Blue Jackets may decide to roll with Joonas Korpisalo and other, younger, cheaper options … only to see “Bob” flourish somewhere else. Conversely, they could see Bob turn into Carey Price 2.0, a goalie with memories of elite work but a contract that screams “albatross.”

The Panarin and Bobrovsky situations stand as brutal challenges, and the Blue Jackets also must pay some young players soon. Most pressingly, Zach Werenski is set to enter the final season of his rookie contract. The American defenseman is, bar none, an elite talent. It’s unlikely that his value will go anywhere but up after he accrues another season of work in 2018-19. Getting that contract done would provide some cost certainty, yet Werenski might be smart to wait this out for maximum value. That’s another big challenge, and a crucial situation regarding Columbus’ future.

Reaching for the Alka-Seltzer yet, Blue Jackets fans?

Some hope, but big risks

You could probably place Kekalainen somewhere in the Brad Treliving range of NHL GMs.

There’s a lot to like about what Kekalainen has done since taking over in 2013.

Sure, the Panarin situation is challenging, but it was a huge win for Columbus and could still reap rewards if they make the painful decision to trade him. As nice a talent as Ryan Johansen is, it seemed like his relationship was untenable with John Tortorella, so Kekalainen deserves even more kudos for (in my opinion) winning the trade by landing near-Norris-level defenseman Seth Jones. Kekalainen’s draft acumen has paid off nicely, too, with Pierre Luc-Dubois ranking as the latest breakthrough.

Even so, you have to wonder if the clock is ticking on his tenure, and there are some less-than-ideal contracts on the books, considering that Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, and Cam Atkinson combine for $17.225M for the next three seasons (with Atkinson’s $5.875M lingering through 2024-25).

There’s a nightmare scenario where the Blue Jackets end up on the wrong end of the Bobrovsky/Panarin situations while still never tasting the second round of a postseason, all while spending a pretty big chunk of cash.

Fair or not, it’s tough to imagine the franchise keeping Kekalainen around if most of these situations go sour.

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.

Devils eager for offseason splashes to help deliver wins

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VANCOUVER — The New Jersey Devils entered the off-season with one marketing plan. After April 9, the night they won the NHL draft lottery, those plans changed. Two and a half months later, the morning after they selected Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, they acquired P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators. Those plans changed once again.

“The news over the last 24 hours will challenge our marketing and content team and everyone else to ramp it up,” Devils president Hugh Weber told NBC Sports during draft weekend in Vancouver. “But we’ve been preparing behind the scenes, adding resources and getting things in place preparing for success, preparing for more demand. The team will be ready. What that actually looks like in terms of campaigns and all that other stuff, I’m not sure yet. Ray’s not done yet.”

Weber was the first person in the organization to know that the franchise had won the lottery and the right to make the first overall selection. The lottery process played out behind closed doors hours 90 minutes before the television broadcast announced the results. There, Weber and the other NHL team representatives were sequestered watching as the ping pong balls were pulled and the unique combinations were drawn. 

Through the excitement of knowing the Devils would be picking first, Weber couldn’t share in that joy as the reps were forbidden from leaving the room until the broadcast ended and he certainly was going to withhold his exuberance in front of the teams that lost out on the top spot.

Once the lottery knew became public, Devils fans were eager to look toward the 2019-20 NHL season. Post-lottery, the franchise moved into the top 10 in the league in new ticket sales. After drafting Hughes and later acquiring Subban, they had sales staff working to capitalize on the excitement.

“I haven’t gotten numbers but there’s been a lot of activity and I think you’re going to see in a week’s time we anticipate an acceleration of not only people who were on the fence that didn’t renew yet, were kind of waiting to see, but also those that have been with us over a long time who said, ‘OK, I get it now, you guys are using that cap space just as you said you would and let’s get after it,'” Weber said.

[MORE: Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey]

While they’ve had time to prepare a plan for introducing Hughes to the market, Subban is his own marketing team. With over one million Twitter followers and 900,000-plus more on Instagram, his personality and work in the community will help sell the Devils.

The additions of Hughes and Subban not only upped the excitement levels in the Devils’ fan base, but the New York Rangers’ acquiring Jacob Trouba and drafting Kaapo Kakko second overall revived a rivalry between the two franchises. The Devils have long been on the outside in a crowded New York metropolitan market and they’re hoping this past weekend, plus whatever happens during the free agency period, will allow them to gain ground on their regional rivals.

“When hockey is competitive and the rivalries are strong in New York, I think it’s good for the NHL,” said Weber. “The Islanders are no slouches, they have a good core coming. You’ve got Lou [Lamoriello] and you’ve got the Rangers and us, even the Flyers now with [GM] Chuck Fletcher, there’s some good narratives happening in and around the Metropolitan, and we’re glad. If you stack up the teams in the East, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a very competitive conference. I think that’s just going to push us all. But generally, those types of rivalries, those types of stories are good for business.”

The Devils missed the playoffs last season coming off a surprising 2017-18 campaign that saw them play postseason hockey for the first time since 2012. Last season wasn’t necessarily a step back in Weber’s eyes. He viewed the playoff year as playing with “house money” and, according to their plan, the franchise is ahead of schedule.

“We never saw this as a linear progression,” Weber said. “We looked at are we making progress, are our prospects and our pipeline making progress, are they developing a team, does [head coach] John Hynes have a foothold on the culture here, is there a plan that we can continue working at? The answer was yes, which is why we extended Ray [Shero], we extended John, we extended the coaching staff, we extended virtually everybody on the hockey staff because this part of a linear, longer plan. We believe that patience in sports is one of the great arbitrage because too often teams and/or partners and owners get too impatient and want to make a change just for change’s sake. 

“I wouldn’t say the lottery pick did anything more than to say it kind of accelerated a little bit because when you have the potential of the fifth or sixth pick, you might not see that player on your roster for a few more years, where now you have an impact player, an elite player that’s going to potentially contribute right off the bat. It helped us accelerate our plans and put things in place, not to rush anything. We’ve said over and over again there are no shortcuts to the top. There are shortcuts to the middle, but we don’t want to be in the middle.”

Keeping stability in the organization is key to the Devils in seeing progress. They believe that Hynes has helped create an identity for his team and that despite a playoff-less season, he kept them competitive through the end of the 82-game schedule. When Shero was hired in 2015 he made it a goal to ensure the franchise was respected again. A draft weekend splash certainly got people talking and excited about the on-ice product for next season. There’s still the Taylor Hall extension to take care of and then more work to be done when free agency opens, but the organization sees itself on the right track. But in the end the results will speak for themselves.

“In terms of fans and how fans have seen us, we have to earn that and it’s going to take some time to have the consistency,” Weber said. “Now moves like we did [this weekend], those are big splashes and they’re great stories, but unfortunately great stories don’t win games. It’s going to come down to team performance. We’ve been bullish, even without the additions that we’ve had, is that to see the progression of these prospects coming up and watching them being close to it. We think there’s going to be a few offshoots out of there that will surprise some people as well.”

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils take Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick
Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
Devils-Rangers rivalry gets boost thanks to Hughes, Kakko

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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.

Vegas faces offseason moves to get under salary cap

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights answered one offseason question when they signed William Karlsson to an eight-year contract.

Now they have to get under the salary cap before the start of next season.

Per Capfriendly.com, the Golden Knights’ projected cap hit is currently $89,024,999. The NHL recently announced next year’s limit will be $81.5 million, up $2 million from last season. That means the team needs to shave a little more than $7.5 million to clear the cap.

”It can get cumbersome for some teams in the middle of the summer, but typically it doesn’t matter once you get to the season,” Golden Knights president George McPhee said before the start of the team’s development camp on Tuesday. ”The plan was to build a team the best we could. Every once in a while, you get tight on the cap in this business. We’re there now, we’ll manage it and we will hopefully be in a much better place going forward with lots of cap space if we ever need it.”

McPhee said he tendered qualifying offers to each of the team’s restricted free agents, and now it’s a wait-and-see approach. He added he isn’t worried about the lingering David Clarkson contract, and ”really isn’t the issue that people think it is because you can just replace that salary at the right time.”

The Golden Knights agreed to take on Clarkson’s contract from Columbus, which parted with a first- and second-round pick in exchange, while negotiating for Vegas to pick Karlsson in the 2017 expansion draft. But Clarkson’s NHL career is likely over due to a chronically injured back, and the Golden Knights will create some cap space when he goes on injured reserve.

Brandon Pirri, Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Deryk Engelland are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Young forwards Pirri and Carpenter may no longer fit in Vegas’ scheme with Alex Tuch signed through the 2025-26 season, and Erik Haula expected back after missing much of last season with a knee injury. Bellemare and Engelland have expressed interest in staying in Las Vegas, but could be headed elsewhere.

Then there is forward Cody Eakin and defenseman Colin Miller, who have garnered plenty of attention from other teams.

Eakin, who is coming off a career season, is due to make $3.85 million next year, while Miller, who struggled toward the end of last season, is due $3,875,000.

”We are going to have to make a few moves,” McPhee said. ”We’ve planned for that; we are going through that exercise right now. When we’re done, we’ll talk about it and explain it.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Karlsson among those choosing to stay put, avoid free agency

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Erik Karlsson wanted some time and space.

When the San Jose Sharks acquired the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in a trade last September, he and his wife told them up front they wouldn’t sign a long-term contract until they played a season to see if it was a fit. They gave general manager Doug Wilson their word they would make a decision in enough time let the Sharks plan their offseason.

Karlsson signed two weeks before free agency opened.

”They were letting me play hockey and getting adjusted to everything, and that meant the world to me,” Karlsson said after signing for $92 million over eight years . ”I’m very happy with how everything happened and that they didn’t force me into making a decision earlier than this.”

Karlsson is one of several players who might have landed richer contracts via free agency and opted instead to re-sign with their teams. For Karlsson, Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes, Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Washington’s Carl Hagelin and Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn, staying put won out over the risk of the open market.

”You never know what’s going to be out there if you go to free agency,” Edler said. ”There’s a lot of factors coming up here in the next few years with the potential lockout (and) there’s an expansion draft (for Seattle).”

A lower than expected salary cap set at $81.5 million also means there will be less money available all around July 1.

Of course, it’s not like most of these deals were hometown discounts. Karlsson got the richest salary for a defenseman in NHL history, Hayes signed for $50 million and Skinner turned a career year into $72 million . No matter the cap, the possibility existed that free agent frenzy could land them bigger deals.

They just didn’t want to find out.

”Going to July 1 is nice, (but) it’s kind of nice to be able to get it over with and sign with a tremendous team,” Hayes said. ”July 1 and unrestricted free agency is definitely an intriguing idea. But when I sat down with my agent and we kind of thought about what type of team I’d want to go and where I’d fit into the organization and the team, the Flyers were at the top of the list.”

The Flyers acquired the rights to Hayes from Winnipeg in early June and had to sell him on the benefits of playing in Philly. Elsewhere, familiarity helped. Just as Karlsson and wife Melinda got to know the Bay Area and Sharks organization over nine months, Skinner’s 40-goal season in Buffalo convinced him to stay.

”Going through the process, you think about everything, you weigh the pros and cons,” Skinner said. ”We just didn’t feel the need to get to that point because I like it here and I didn’t feel like it needed to get to that point where I wanted to look elsewhere.”

Coburn, who took a pay cut to sign a $3.4 million, two-year contract , said Tampa feeling like home off the ice and ”unfinished business” on the ice made staying his family’s top choice. After finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.

”We have an unbelievable team here and I want to be a part of it,” Coburn said.

Hagelin feels the same way about the Capitals after playing only 27 regular-season and playoff games with them since late February. The 30-year-old feared Washington’s salary-cap squeeze might impede him from sticking around but was willing to take a lower salary than he could’ve gotten on the open market to get an $11 million, four-year deal with a team he believes can win a championship in that time like it did in 2018.

”I wouldn’t have signed with Washington if I didn’t believe there’s still a good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Hagelin said.

Edler last played a playoff game in 2014 and the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Combine that with him being 33 and it might have been easy to understand Edler wanting to test the market. Instead, he had no wanderlust and agreed to a $12 million, two-year deal after 13 seasons with the Canucks.

”I’ve said from the beginning that if a deal was available with Vancouver, that was my No. 1 priority,” Edler said.

Wilson, the Sharks GM, traded for Karlsson and now locked down an elite offensive defenseman for the rest of his prime. Wilson related to their situation because his wife is from Chicago, where he played his entire career, and took the chance that the Karlssons would enjoy San Jose enough to want to stay.

”We trusted in that process,” Wilson said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devils introduce Jack Hughes to New Jersey after big week

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Devils introduced No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes to New Jersey on Tuesday – even though he is already sharing the spotlight.

The Devils have given notice they might be re-emerging as a contender with an encouraging draft and the stunning acquisition of six-time All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. It has all gone a long way in turning pessimism into optimism for a team that finished with the league’s third-worst record and out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

”Adding a talent like Jack Hughes on Friday night and Saturday, P.K. Subban, obviously I think the Devils are back in business,” general manager Ray Shero said.

It started with winning the draft lottery in early April to the selection of Hughes, a center, with the top pick Friday to the trade for Subban, who immediately steps into the role as New Jersey’s top defenseman.

With 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall expected to return to form after an injury-marred campaign, 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier continuing his development and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri playing his best hockey, the Devils have a shot to do something in a league where the St. Louis Blues come out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

Devils majority owner Josh Harris can’t wait to the season to start, adding Devils’ fans are used to winning Stanley Cups – the last was in 2003 – and now is the time to start doing it again.

”Jack joining the franchise represents another turn in our goal to be elite,” Harris said at a news conference for Hughes at the Prudential Center. ”We said that we’re here not to do anything other than consistently compete and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.”

With parents Jim and Ellen sitting in the front row, the 18-year-old Hughes was soft spoken, confident and composed speaking on a stage that included Harris and Shero.

The Florida-born Hughes said he had no doubt he would be playing next season in the NHL for the Devils and he hopes to play a creative game.

It is just what the talent-starved Devils need. The past week was a major step in Shero’s rebuilding plan over the past four years. It started soon after he was hired with the trades for Hall and Palmieri, the draft of Hischier, another center, and now the selection of Hughes and the trade with Nashville for Subban and his $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons.

Hughes hasn’t stopped going since the draft. He returned to New Jersey with Shero, Harris and his parents on a private jet and spent the next few days making media appearances. He attended the New York Yankees game against Toronto on Monday night, sitting for 30 minutes with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and actor Adam Sandler.

He is eager now to return to suburban Toronto, where he grew up, and begin preparations for an 82-game season against men, and being a part of a team.

”I want to be Jack Hughes, not Patrick Kane or Matt Barzal,” Hughes said. ”I want to have my own flavor, my own excitement to my game.”

The 170-pound playmaking center mixed poise, drive, and sheer skating ability to score 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the Devils. Hischier had 20 goals and 32 assists as a rookie.

Hughes doesn’t see himself as competing with Hischier for the job as the top-line center.

”I think to win you have to have 1A and 1B,” said Hughes, who will wear No. 86 with the Devils. ”No team wins with just one really good center. Travis Zajac has been a really good center for a long time and I think the Devils are in a really good spot. In the NHL, I feel whoever I play with will be a really good player.”

Coach John Hynes is looking forward to using all his new talent.

”It’s exciting,” Hynes said. ”It’s what you want. You want guys to come in and give you a chance to win and coach some excellent players.”

And who is to say the Devils are done? They still have $25 million available in cap space.

”I feel with the pieces we have at this moment, we are a much better team than we were on Thursday,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. ”That’s encouraging.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports