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Amid uncertainty over Torts, Panarin, Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets extend GM

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Few GMs face the level of make-or-break decisions that Jarmo Kekalainen of the Blue Jackets is currently dealing with. In just about every big case, it’s about making pivotal calls about contract extensions.

At least Kekalainen will no longer need to worry about his own.

The Blue Jackets announced three extensions to key front office members on Thursday: Kekalainen, team president John Davidson, and assistant GM Bill Zito. In a very hockey/corporate note, Zito was “promoted” from assistant to associate GM, which feels like something Dwight Schrute would beam about.

The Blue Jackets didn’t specify how many years these multi-year extensions cover.

Overall, it might indeed be wise to give Kekalainen peace of mind heading into a series of enormously important decisions. I mean, unless executives can put together even better results under the pressure of a contract year, just like players. Naturally, the drawback would be that if Kekalainen messes this up, the Blue Jackets would either be stuck with him and his decisions or would need to fire him and spend money on an alternative.

Ultimately it’s a lot like the decisions Kekalainen faces: they can go quite well or really, really, really poorly.

Let’s take a look at the biggest calls he still needs to make, acknowledging that there are some scenarios where Kekalainen can only do so much to influence the results:

Artemi PanarinThe Panarin situation answers the question: “What if the Max Pacioretty situation played out with some wrinkles: 1) far less intense hockey market and 2) the player is perceived to be pushing for a trade/exit rather than the team?”

Much like with Pacioretty, there seems to be a deadline for extension talks before the season, at least if reports are true and Panarin hasn’t had a change of heart.

Panarin reportedly hopes to play in one of the NHL’s largest markets, with rumblings that he wants to soak in the atmosphere of New York City most of all. That’s understandable – this would be the slick star’s first chance to truly explore the free agent market without the contract limitations he faced when first signing with Chicago – but it’s brutal for Columbus. As well as the Blue Jackets have developed some very nice forwards, Panarin is that “gamebreaker” they’ve lacked since the end of Rick Nash’s run.

Kekalainen is seemingly tasked with either sticking with Panarin to see what happens (whether that be a deadline deal or crossing fingers that Panarin will decide to stay with Columbus, after all) or finding the right trade soon. The latter idea gets an added degree of difficulty because the Blue Jackets eagerly want to make a playoff push, so picks and prospects – the most likely Panarin trade package – might not get the job done.

Ouch, right?

Sergei BobrovskyLike Panarin, Bobrovsky is entering a contract year, and both players are stars who seek to be paid as such.

On the outside, it seems like the Blue Jackets face fewer hurdles in convincing Bobrovsky to stay in this situation. Instead, this is more about Bobrovsky seeking a big price – one would think he’d like to at least match Carey Price‘s $10.5 million cap hit – and the sort of term that gets scary for a goalie who will turn 30 on Sept. 20.

It’s unclear if the Blue Jackets have an internal budget that’s going to be lower than the cap ceiling, or will going forward. If true, gambling on a huge Bobrovsky extension becomes more frightening.

John Tortorella: The general feeling is that, while publicly waving away analytics talk,* Tortorella has become more progressive since joining the Blue Jackets.

One can see evidence of such a possibility in the way he uses Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as “rovers,” and also the fairly forward-thinking practice of deploying Sam Gagner as a power-play specialist a few years back. There’s innovation beyond the grit session mentality.

That’s great, and players seemed to enjoy his outburst following the Jack Johnson/Penguins weirdness, but is he someone stars necessarily want to play for? Beyond that, the Blue Jackets still haven’t won a playoff series, so is an extension really appropriate for Torts? Kekalainen must answer those questions.

* – It’s amusing and fitting that the Blue Jackets hired Jim Corsi as a goaltending consultant this summer.

Zach Werenski: The NHL’s CBA means that an RFA like Werenski only has so much leverage, so his extension situation isn’t as perilous as those of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Still, Werenski is a dynamite defensive scorer who will be due a considerable raise as his rookie deal expires. Kekalainen might want to get that done soon, rather than allowing Werenski to drive up his value with an enormous 2018-19 output.

One unlikely but interesting idea: This is a concept that’s been rattling around my head for a while now, yet could easily be refuted with “Yeah, like a lame duck front office would do that?” What if the Blue Jackets essentially “punted” on 2018-19? Now that Kekalainen & Co. have that job security, hear me out … despite this likely being too bold.

Panarin seems like he has one foot out the door. As great as Bobrovsky is, goalies are highly unpredictable, and a smart team might be better off taking short-term gambles on a netminder instead of getting stuck with a depreciating asset. What if Joonas Korpisalo justified the franchise’s confidence in him and ended up being a far cheaper, feasible replacement for “Bob?”

Also, the Metropolitan Division remains loaded, yet the Capitals and Penguins are also getting older.

The Blue Jackets boast some outstanding young players as their core. Seth Jones is rising as an all-around, Norris-level defenseman at just 23. Werenski’s firepower might make him even more likely to take that award, and he’s somehow merely 21. Pierre-Luc Dubois looks like a gem at 20.

If a team dangled an impressive bucket of futures for a cheap year of Panarin and the opportunity to extend him, maybe Columbus would be better off taking that deal rather than getting the John Tavares treatment? Perhaps something similar could happen with Bobrovsky if they don’t feel comfortable inking him to an extension?

This scenario is far-fetched, especially since the Blue Jackets are probably closer to contending than their playoff results have indicated. Let’s not forget that, while they lost in the first round two years in a row, they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions each time.

Still, it’s at least a path to consider, especially now that Kekalainen’s job is safer.

***

Overall, it sounds like Torts might stay in the fold, and the Blue Jackets might not experience drastic change.

That said, the Panarin situation is a volatile one. As bright as Kekalainen often appears to be, many will judge his reign by how that develops, and if the Blue Jackets can break through to become true contenders in the East.

These are tough tasks, but at least Kekalainen’s financial future is in less doubt. He’ll need a clear mind going into this series of daunting decisions.

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.

O’Reilly’s luck turns and so do fortunes of the Blues

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — When the St. Louis Blues traded for Ryan O'Reilly in the offseason, they received an All-Star caliber player still seeking postseason success.

He fit right in with a franchise still seeking its first Stanley Cup after 52 years of existence.

While neither has found what they are looking for yet, they are both one step closer.

The Blues’ win over the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was welcomed by the team’s long-suffering fans, who watched their team climb into the postseason from the bottom of the standings in January.

It was also the first series win in three tries for O’Reilly, a 10-year veteran center now on his third team.

”It’s an incredible relief and excitement,” he said. ”To where we were at the beginning of the year, to crawl our way and how hard guys have worked for each other and to get in, it’s amazing. It just provides that excitement because that’s the most important thing when you’re training in the summer and you look at the beginning of the year you want to get in and compete for a Stanley Cup.”

Success in April has been fleeting for O’Reilly, a 28-year-old Canadian. His teams failed to make the playoffs in four of his six seasons in Colorado and he was a spectator in all three seasons at Buffalo.

Colorado lost in six games to San Jose in 2009-10 as a No. 8 seed during O’Reilly’s rookie season. After a three-year absence, O’Reilly and the Avalanche won the Central Division, only to be upset by Minnesota in seven games.

”Usually at this time, it’s a frustrating time,” O’Reilly said. ”You’re just trying to salvage a decent season personally. Now to have the meaning and this purpose, to prepare for the playoffs, going in there, trying to sort out our seed, playing meaningful hockey and getting ready for what we train for, it’s what you dream of doing, which is competing for the Stanley Cup. It’s what I’ve wanted, and unfortunately it’s taken me a long time to get back in there, but I’m excited. I’m happy with this group, and to be part of it is special.”

It didn’t start that way.

O’Reilly’s departure from Buffalo was rocky. Days after the team finished with the worst record in the NHL, he told reporters he had lost his love of the game.

The losing followed him to St. Louis as the team had a league-low 34 points on Jan. 2. Coach Mike Yeo was fired and was replaced by Craig Berube. It seemed like the O’Reilly curse was just another chapter to add to the heartbreak of Blues fans.

But the curse turned into luck as O’Reilly was the only player on the ice for all 82 regular-season games. He scored 28 goals and finished with 49 assists.

And the team came together after rookie goalie Jordan Binnington was called up. St. Louis won a franchise record 12 straight games and finished the season with 99 points.

O’Reilly continued his strong play into the playoffs, scoring a pivotal goal in the third period in Game 5 at Winnipeg to start a three-goal comeback that turned the series to the Blues’ favor.

Suddenly, Blues fans have started to allow themselves to believe that the team can make their first run to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970.

”Obviously on the ice, his performance every night, since day one he has been a real good player for us,” Berube said. ”He goes against top line on other team. He scores, he plays on the penalty kill, the power play, so his leadership and his play on the ice has been outstanding and I think he’s become a real good leader in the locker room.”

O’Reilly’s versatility sets him apart.

”He can play on the power play, he can play on the half wall, he can play the middle, he can play on the goal line,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said. ”There’s a lot of attributes that make him as good as he is. It’s funny. He’s not just a one dimensional player with a great shot, great speed and good vision. He has all of those things.”

And now O’Reilly has a chance to showcase those skills on hockey’s biggest stage. The Blues open the second round at home against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.

”I don’t think it just happened overnight,” Berube said. ”It took some time. I think they’ve always been a good group outside the rink, but we weren’t and we didn’t have the chemistry on the ice that we have right now. That had to come. And getting that chemistry and playing and working for each other has brought them tighter in the locker room.”

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

The Wraparound: Inexperienced Hurricanes look for Game 7 road win

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

If the Carolina Hurricanes are going to eliminate the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), they’re going to have to come up with their first road victory of the series. In Game 6, the ‘Canes found a way to come up with the first lead change of the series, so maybe we can expect the unexpected tonight.

The Caps have 19 players on their roster that have played in a Game 7. The Hurricanes only have seven.

It should be fascinating to see how the defending Stanley Cup Champions respond to the controversial ending in Game 6. With the Caps trailing 3-2 in the third period, Alex Ovechkin seemingly tied the game, 3-3, but the goal was called back because the officials felt like he jarred the puck out from under Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek. Ovechkin visibly upset and he was eventually ejected from the game for sarcastically applauding the officials after they called him for slashing.

Regardless of how angry the Caps captain is in Game 7, the Hurricanes have to find way to overcome their inexperience. Of course, even though the roster remains very young, those players can look to one of the best big-game performers of this generation, Justin Williams, for guidance.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We don’t have a ton of those, but we do have Mr. Game 7,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s nice for young guys to look across the room and see a guy who’s approaching the game the same way. We’ve had tons of emotions in the whole series, and you’ve got to go make plays. His game’s not going to change. That’s comforting for some guys.”

The 37-year-old has just three points in the first six games of the series, but his calming presence in big moments can’t be understated. Williams has faced elimination 23 times in his career, and in those games he’s found a way to score an incredible 15 goals and 27 points. Remarkable.

Now, the rest of his teammates have to follow his lead.

Sebastian Aho, who led the Hurricanes in scoring this season, has picked up four points in six games during this series, but only one of those points has come on the road. The 21-year-old helped create the turnover that led to the game-tying goal in Game 6. He needs to find a way to make a similar impact in Game 7.

Mrazek has made some huge stops to keep his team in games all series. But there’s no denying that his numbers need to improve away from home. In this series, he has a 3-0 record with a .959 save percentage at home. On the road, he’s 0-3 with an .833 save percentage.

But it doesn’t matter what the numbers are in the series because the Hurricanes can put all that behind them if they win Game 7.

Just hurry up, guys. The Islanders are waiting.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Kotkaniemi has surgery; Avs aren’t one-line team

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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.

• Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

• Hilary Knight wants to help iron out the logistics of a women’s hockey league. “I’ve been able to work with some great partners and I’m extremely grateful for that, but I want that opportunity for the next girl or the next young woman that’s graduating college or the next woman that’s going to play at the professional level.” (Forbes)

• ESPN looks back at Dominik Hasek’s 70-save performance in a shutout win over the New Jersey Devils. “You’d probably have to put him on top of the greatest goalies,” Martin Brodeur said. “For the great players, the more you see of them, the more you get them. Like with [Wayne] Gretzky, I got him, but I played more against Mario Lemieux. And I was able to see the effect that he had. Dominik is in the same vein.” (ESPN)

• The Hockey News argues that the NHL shouldn’t change the playoff format. (The Hockey News)

• Jack Todd argues that there’s reason to be optimistic heading into next season if you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. (Montreal Gazette)

• How did the New Jersey Devils defensemen perform based on quality of competition this season? (All About the Jersey)

• Find out how the Tampa Bay Lightning went from winning 62 games in the regular season to none in the playoffs. (SB Nation)

• Hockey fans keep suggesting that the Colorado Avalanche are a one-line team, but they’re deeper than you might realize. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Blues are now the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Travis Yost argues that the Buffalo Sabres should definitely extend Evan Rodrigues. (Buffalo News)

Jaccob Slavin is the most important Carolina Hurricane. (Cardiac Cane)

• Why has home-ice advantage meant so much to Carolina and Washington in their series? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The second-round series between the Stars and Blues will feature two great goalies. (NHL)

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.

Golden Knights compare Eakin major to infamous call against Saints

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In case you’re wondering: yes, the Vegas Golden Knights are very unhappy about Cody Eakin receiving a game misconduct and five-minute major for cross-checking Joe Pavelski, which opened the door for the San Jose Sharks scoring an staggering four goals on the ensuing power play.

The Sharks would eventually fight back from a 3-0 deficit with that power play, although they needed OT to beat the Golden Knights 5-4, which means the Sharks won the series 4-3.

Here’s the hit, which left Pavelski bleeding, and needing plenty of help to leave the ice surface. (Pavelski didn’t return, and the extent of his injuries remains unknown.)

Whether you believe that was the right call or not, it absolutely swung the game, at least for a time. The Golden Knights were up 3-0, and it seemed like they could weather most things … but a power play that wouldn’t end even if the Sharks scored multiple goals? That wasn’t most things.

Credit the Golden Knights for playing well after the shock of that, even scoring a goal to send Game 7 to overtime, but that doesn’t mean they put that call aside.

The most colorful quotes probably come from Jonathan Marchessault, the player who scored the goal to send the game to overtime, and who had a strong Game 7 overall.

“It’s the same thing as that football game, the Saints, it changes the whole outcome,” Marchessault said, via Sin Bin Vegas’ transcription. “The refs just got involved in the game and now our summer starts. Now five [expletive] months until game one.”

Marchessault is referencing the missed pass interference call from the Saints – Rams NFC title game back in January, which drew an admission of a mistake from the NFL.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski has more from Marchessault, though a warning: Marchessault’s comments apparently rank as NSFW and not very family-friendly.

It seems like Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant kept it together a bit more, or at least used more PG-friendly language.

“Last season we lost in the Stanley Cup Final, and that was hard,” Gallant said, according to Jesse Granger of the Athletic. “But tonight, this is worse.”

No doubt, officials will be scrutinized for that call. The NHL might even feel compelled to tweak the way calls are made because of it. That much, we’ll need to wait and see.

Yet, there are some questions from Vegas’ end. Yes, it’s difficult to kill five minutes of power play, especially against a Sharks team that a) is extremely dangerous, b) was furious after seeing Joe Pavelski hurt, c) had already failed on four power plays, and d) smelled blood with its season on the line. Still, should Gallant had called a timeout to try to ease some of the momentum, and calm things down? Could Marc-Andre Fleury have stopped at least one of those four goals? As the anger subsides, the Golden Knights should grapple with some of those questions, even if they leave a bitter taste.

Much like the Rams advancing to the Super Bowl, the Sharks eliminated the Golden Knights and will face the Avalanche in Round 2, whether that finish seems unfair or not. The Golden Knights will have to face bitter months in trying to avenge this loss.

And, true, they might also lose some money if the league decides to fine them for criticizing the officiating.

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.