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Testing Letestu: What each PTO is up against heading into training camps

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In most cases, an NHL team hands out a PTO to a player for a reason: their services aren’t in very high demand.

Usually, that’s because said player doesn’t really bring a ton to the table. Sometimes the deficit is more on the evaluators, though, as some good players have had to deal with reluctant buyers. Maybe a veteran isn’t done yet. Perhaps a younger player simply didn’t receive fair opportunities. After all, the Golden Knights showed that one team’s player who didn’t need to be protected could turn into another team’s key, difference-making performers.

Heading into training camps this time around, there could be some diamonds in the rough … or at least players who are good enough to help a team in a depth role. Let’s take a look at PTO situations to gauge who has a chance, who should get a look even if they fall short, and so on.

Mark Letestu (pictured), Florida Panthers

Just about every year, there is a player who’s surprisingly needing to accept a PTO. Letestu is that candidate this time around.

Letestu’s a versatile player who can score a bit, keep his head above water in tough assignments, and win faceoffs at a nice clip. He might not be perfect, but it’s hard to imagine him not making sense as, at worst, a 13th forward somewhere.

One cannot help but wonder if Florida might struggle to find a spot for him, though. Cap Friendly lists 15 forwards, and while I’d personally take Letestu instead of Micheal Haley and Troy Brouwer without flinching, those guys have contracts. Owen Tippett could also barge into the argument and take a spot as well.

Again, Letestu should be in the NHL in 2018-19, it just might not be with Florida.

Emerson Etem, Los Angeles Kings

If nothing else, Los Angeles could use Etem’s speed. Etem also ranks as a feel-good story, as landing a tryout with the Kings brings back memories of the California native drawing cheers in L.A. during the 2010 NHL Draft.

Good times:

Despite the Kings’ limited depth talent, there are quite a few obstacles in the way of Etem landing a legitimate spot. If it comes down to Etem or, say, Gabriel Vilardi, the smart money is on Vilardi. Maybe he’d beat out a lower-end forward if all things are equal, but those players have guaranteed contracts. Los Angeles’ cap crunch – The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman notes that the Kings may only carry 13 instead of 14 forwards – doesn’t necessarily help Etem, even if he’d likely come at a low cost.

Perhaps a two-way contract would work for Etem and the Kings if he impresses during his PTO? Etem spent last season between the AHL and Swiss league, anyway, so it might not be such a bad deal. From the Kings’ perspective, they’d have an experienced player who they can call up

Jeff Glass (unofficial), Calgary Flames

Let’s group the feel-good stories together.

At age 32, Jeff Glass finally got a chance to play in the NHL, and ran with that opportunity early on. Now he gets to try out for the team he grew up rooting for, as Sportsnet’s Eric Francis notes, although the Flames haven’t announced the PTO officially yet.

“When I was a kid my dad would get tickets from work once or twice a year so I have fond memories of watching them play at the Saddledome,” Glass said, via Francis. “I grew up idolizing Trevor Kidd. Him and Rick Tabaracci were the Flames goalies when I was young and I got to go to his goalie schools here in town. Kidd was the man. He had the cool gear – I loved everything about him.

“It’s kind of cool wearing the Flames jersey. What a small world.”

The Flames might be bringing Glass in mainly because they’ll want extra goalies available considering their preseason trip to China. He’ll need to defy the odds to hurdle the Flames collection of young backup hopefuls: Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons. At least he’s used to being a long shot.

Jason Garrison and Scottie Upshall, Edmonton Oilers

With Andrej Sekera out for the season, it makes some sense for the Oilers to give Garrison a look, although I’d be much more interested in KHL-bound Cody Franson.

Garrison’s already battling with depth defensemen Jakub Jerabek and Kevin Gravel, and don’t count out Evan Bouchard. Garrison’s big shot could be useful on the power play – that might be his primary theoretical use at this point in his career, as he’s a far cry from the nice player he once was – so Bouchard’s offensive skills could make Garrison that much more redundant.

The Oilers … march to the beat of their own drum (yeah, let’s put it that way) when it comes to assessing talent, but even Edmonton will expect better from Garrison than what he did in an admittedly small sample of eight games with Vegas:

Aside from quibbling about who they’re taking a look at, you can’t really fault Edmonton for checking.

You also couldn’t fault Garrison for picking fellow PTO Scottie Upshall’s brain about acing a tryout. After all, as Connor McDavid noted, the dude knows how to earn a spot even if he can’t seem to get a traditional contract offer.

Personally, Upshall seems like a more appealing addition than Garrison. Upshall seems reasonably useful in a fourth-line capacity, even when taking on far from glamorous assignments (St. Louis had him start 30.8-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and a ludicrously low 22.3-percent in 2016-17). He’s generally regarded as a pretty solid skater.

It wouldn’t be shocking if it came down to Upshall or Kailer Yamamoto, a player who almost feels like the exact opposite of Upshall: he’s an exceedingly young, offense-leaning, small-ish forward who didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal yet. Upshall vs. Yamamoto/other depth forwards should be interesting to watch, and perhaps an opposing team might scoop up the veteran if Upshall doesn’t make the cut?

Simon Despres, Montreal Canadiens

Somewhat like Etem, Despres is a still-young, former late-first-rounder now trying to claw back into the league.

The 26-year-old defenseman currently stands as a sad “What if?” question, as the concussion he suffered from a Tyson Barrie hit set Despres’ career back:

Can he earn a spot on a sputtering Montreal team? Well, the roster is loaded with defensemen – even if it’s quantity over quality – so that is a pretty tall task. The Habs love hoarding former first-rounders, though, so a two-way contract might not be the worst option for both sides. Training camp/preseason games might not provide sufficient opportunities for Despres to show that he can still be viable at the NHL level.

Mark Fayne and Marcel Noebels, Boston Bruins

Fayne has 389 regular-season games of NHL experience, showing promise at times during his Devils days. Still, he bombed with Edmonton, to the point that his last NHL reps came in 2016-17, when he only suited up for four games. His AHL numbers aren’t going to generate much demand.

Noebels is a 26-year-old forward who hasn’t appeared in an NHL game yet, spending the last few years in Germany playing for the Berlin Polar Bears. He did go in the fourth round (118th overall by Philly) in 2011, for what that’s worth.

Much like the Flames, the Bruins are playing exhibition games in China, so my guess is that is the main reason why Fayne and Noebels received PTOs.

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Of all the players above, I’d wager that Letestu is most capable of making a Lee Stempniak/P.A. Parenteau-type impact as a PTO who accomplishes something beyond the “replacement level.”

He doesn’t distinguish himself from the field as far as opportunities go, however, as it’s a packed field of forwards in Florida.

Who do you think will make the cut, if anyone?

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.

Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Blue Jackets aim for playoffs with future of stars in doubt

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — So what’s going on with ”Bob” and ”Bread”?

That question dominated the off-season discussion around the Columbus Blue Jackets, overshadowing everything else surrounding a team coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

A legitimate inquiry for sure, considering Bob and Bread – otherwise known as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin – are major pieces of a team that should be a solid playoff contender again this season.

The two Russians are playing out the final year of their contracts, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s primary goal this summer was to lock up both superstars with multiyear deals. Neither of the deals got done.

Panarin has said he isn’t sure he wants to commit to Columbus for the long haul. Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to get together on numbers.

”They’re our best players, no question about it,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. ”We’re going to treat it as business as usual. I’m not going to look at them any differently, because at the end of the day it’s their decision. There’s only so many times in your career where you’re in the driver’s seat.”

WINDOW IS OPEN

If Panarin and Bobrovsky play to their capabilities, and some other Blue Jackets who battled injuries or otherwise struggled last year can bounce back, the team should be playoff contenders again. Columbus was eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the past two years.

”I think we’ve crossed the bridge as a team hoping to win,” said coach John Tortorella, who signed a two-year contract extension before camp opened.

”I think we crossed that bridge, I think we know we can win,” he said. ”The players’ mindset, I think they know they can win. I think we showed that the past couple years. We’ve stumbled in the playoffs, and that’s what we have to take note of here.”

Panarin set a franchise record with 27 goals and 55 assists (82 points) in 81 games. The second-highest scorer among forwards was rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had 20 goals and 28 assists (48 points).

The Blue Jackets grabbed the first wildcard in the rugged Metropolitan Division despite subpar years from usually reliable forwards Atkinson (46 points), Alexander Wennberg (37 points), Boone Jenner (32 points) and Nick Foligno (33 points). Injuries definitely played a part.

THS STATE OF ZACH

Defenseman Zach Werenski is getting healthy again after playing much of last season with a bum shoulder. He started hitting last week and is hoping to be ready to go by the Oct. 4 opener in Detroit.

Werenski suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the 12th game last season. The rest of the way he wore a cumbersome brace that wrapped around his chest and arm to keep his shoulder from separating. His movement was restricted, which affected his defensive skills, but he still managed to finish with 16 goals.

”It’s awful hard for a defenseman to play all those games that he played and put up the numbers he put up and do some of the things he did with that shoulder the way it was,” Tortorella said. ”He’s one that we’re certainly going to watch very closely.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Blue Jackets added some help at center by signing center Riley Nash, the 29-year-old former Boston Bruin who put up career numbers last year. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 76 games, besting his previous high by 16 points.

The team also signed 22-year-old forward Anthony Duclair, who had 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games with the Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season,

The Blue Jackets bid farewell to longtime players Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Matt Calvert (Colorado), as well as to Ian Cole (Colorado), a defenseman who played valuable minutes down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline last season.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Question for Bruins (again): How long can Chara keep going?

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BOSTON (AP) — How much longer can Zdeno Chara keep this up?

The Boston Bruins defenseman – and leader in ice time – will turn 42 this season, and sooner or later the window will close on his opportunity to skate around the ice again with the Stanley Cup. For his teammates, that means focusing on this season as their best and possibly last chance to win with him.

”The older you get, it’s just about winning,” said David Krejci, one of five holdovers from the franchise’s last title, in 2011. ”We know that we’re not going to be playing in the league for 10 more years, but we have maybe three, four, five years left, who knows, but this is it. We worked really, really hard this summer to get the job done this year.”

Chara was already an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star when he signed with Boston a dozen years ago, and the Bruins built a contender around him that went to the Stanley Cup finals twice in three years. (They lost to Chicago in 2013.)

Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand and David Krejci are the only other players remaining from the 2011 champs. Bergeron is 33, Rask and Krejci will turn 32 during the playoffs, and Marchand will turn 31. (Steven Kampfer was traded away in 2012 and rejoined the Bruins this summer; he just turned 30.)

Charlie McAvoy, the 20-year-old defenseman paired with Chara for most of his career, has seen players come and go and values the stability brought by the core.

”As long as we have those veteran guys the culture will always be the same, I really believe that,” he said. ”I really think it could be another special year. You bring back all these guys, the veterans, it could be an awesome year and I’m really excited to get it going.”

Here are some other things to look for from the Bruins this season:

SOPHOMORES

Helping to take some of the pressure off the aging core is a group with about one year of experience, led by McAvoy. Also among the sophomores are Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk, and Sean Kuraly.

”None of us are forecasting a setback, I call tell you that,” McAvoy said. ”Something about the experience of having a full season, playing a few playoff series now, seeing that element. I can use all those things to allow me to come in and play great hockey from the start. That’s my goal.”

Those five combined to score 151 points (48 goals, 103 assists) last season.

MORE NEW BLOOD

Joining the youth movement are players in their first full season like Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork. Brandon Carlo has two years behind him but is still just 21.

”You need those young guys,” Krejci said. ”And our young guys are fast, they’re good, they’re smart, they make plays. They deserved to make the team last year and I’m looking forward to what they’ll bring again this year, one year under their belts.”

IN NET

Rask returns for his 12th season but he has a new backup.

Jaroslav Halak signed a two-year contract to come to Boston from the Islanders, where he started 49 games last season and had a 3.19 goals-against average. He replaces Anton Khudobin, who had been the backup for two years and started last season 7-0-2 filling in while Rask had a concussion.

The fast start led fans to call for him to replace Rask, when he won just three of his first 13 games. But the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner did not lose a game in regulation from Nov. 26 until Feb. 10, finishing with a 34-14-15 record and a GAA of 2.36.

LONG TRIPS

The Bruins played two exhibition games in China against the Calgary Flames, with Cassidy and half the squad heading over to Shenzhen and Beijing for a week while the rest of the team stayed back in Boston. The split squad wasn’t ideal, but the Bruins started the 2010-11 regular season with two games in Prague and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Cassidy said that would be a nice precedent to follow.

”Well if it’s a repeat of ’11, yes,” he said. ”I’d love that to happen, trust me.”

AP freelancer Matt Kalman contributed to this report.

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.