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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Lightning want an outdoor game; Tyler Ennis’ golden opportunity with Leafs

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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.

• After dealing with a blood-clot scare, Chris Krieder wants to show the Rangers that he’s able to take on a more significant role. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have been without William Nylander in training camp because of a hold out. In Nylander’s absence, head coach Mike Babcock has placed Tyler Ennis on Auston Matthews‘ wing. (TSN)

• Japers’ Rink looks at the top 10 goalies in the Metropolitan Division. Who’s the better option between Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky? (Japers’ Rink)

• The Inquirer got to spend some time with Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, while he was on his boat with his family. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

• Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told fans at the Lightning fan fest that the team would like to get an outdoor game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist felt a lot more comfortable in his second preseason game than he did in the first one. “There are a couple things I need to be strong on, and it’s playing deep and making good reads. … It was too much movement, and sometimes you want to do too much, especially early on, when you’re looking for that good feeling. Really, it’s just back to basics.” (New York Post)

• Speaking of the Rangers, there’s no denying that they need a true number one defenseman in the near future. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Canucks prospect Zack MacEwen’s dad, Craig, made the trip to Vancouver to watch his son play preseason hockey. Canucks Army was able to catch up with Craig to discuss what the road to pro hockey is like for the parent of a player. (Canucks Army)

• Anaheim Calling is starting a new series called 25 Greatest Ducks of All Time”. They started with players 25 through 21. Three current NHLers are on the list. (Anaheim Calling)

• Oilers star Connor McDavid sat down for a Q&A with GQ Magazine. He talked about not being cocky, having a sense of style and more. (GQ)

• The Red Wings have a few young players that are making a case to stick around in the NHL this season. (MLive.com)

• Brian Gionta, who retired on Monday, helped change the perception that small players couldn’t play in the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

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.

Theodore, Golden Knights agree to 7-year, $36.4M extension

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Defenseman Shea Theodore ended his holdout Monday night, agreeing to a seven-year contract with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Theodore’s deal runs through the 2024-25 season and has an average annual value of $5.2 million.

”We’re happy to have everybody done now, sometimes it takes a little bit longer than anticipated,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said. ”He’s a good young player and we got some unrestricted years and now he can just play.”

McPhee said the main issue between the team and Theodore’s camp was the Golden Knights were asking him to sign long-term, while the fourth-year pro was looking for a two-year deal. McPhee also said the long-term deal was about managing the salary cap properly, and leaving enough space over the next few years, giving the Golden Knights a better chance to continue as a Western Conference contender.

”I think when it was laid out and explained to the player why we were doing that … he bought in,” McPhee said. ”You just have to get the numbers right on those deals. We thought if we paid a little more now … and we have cost certainty in the future, it allows us to manage the cap better, and plan better.

”We got to a place today where they had a couple of options – a six-year deal, a seven-year deal – we thought we were pretty close, and got it done just after the first period.”

Theodore had 29 points (6 goals, 23 assists) in 61 games during the 2017-18 regular season. The 23-year-old appeared in all 20 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Final, recording 10 points (3 goals and 7 assists).

”We were pretty confident, based on the way he played last year and what he did at his age last year, to really play that well, and play that well in the playoffs for four rounds, we’re pretty confident about what we’re gonna have now, and in the future,” McPhee said. ”So, we were prepared to go longer.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said Theodore will join the team Tuesday, during a two-day retreat in Montana. He added that he is not concerned about the time he’s missed during training camp.

”He’s been working out, he’ll be fine,” Gallant said.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Seattle one step closer to NHL after arena plan approved

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SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena on Monday, clearing one of the last major hurdles in the city’s bid to land an expansion NHL franchise.

The 8-0 vote was the last step needed to strengthen Seattle’s expansion application and it means a team could be playing in the new building during the 2020-21 season.

The next phase in the arena/franchise process comes next week when Seattle Hockey Partners, the ownership group attempting to land the expansion team, presents before the NHL Board of Governors’ Executive Committee.

”It’s a good moment. I think it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s not the end of the journey. We have a lot of work to do, but at least now we get to go do the work,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, which is undertaking the renovation of the building that opened in 1962.

The vote ended a debate that began in the mid-2000s when Howard Schultz, then the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, said the city-owned KeyArena needed renovations. The lack of luxury amenities and a challenging lease agreement ultimately led to the Sonics leaving following the 2008 season and moving to Oklahoma City, where the franchise was rebranded as the Thunder.

Numerous arena plans have been presented since but none had gotten to this point. And while the vote didn’t provide healing for fans hurt by the Sonics move, it did create the likelihood that the city will land an NHL team soon and could one day see the NBA return.

”This is just a great deal for the city. … This is world class. This is a legacy project,” City Council President Bruce Harrell said.

For now, the NHL is the priority. The pitch to the Executive Committee next week should be mostly straightforward. Seattle is the largest market in the United States that doesn’t have a winter professional sports team. The local economy is booming and season ticket deposits for the prospective team were cut off at 33,000 earlier this year after a swell of interest.

”I don’t think we have to say much,” said Tod Leiweke, President and CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners. ”I think it speaks for itself. An 8-0 vote, a process that concluded when many people said it just simply couldn’t be done. We said we were going to put our best forward and today the city helps us do that.”

The goal is to have the building ready by the fall of 2020 so a team could start that season. Hitting that target will depend partly on when construction can actually begin. Part of the agreement with the city requires that an NHL franchise be acquired before arena construction can begin. Whether conditional approval from the NHL or a recommendation from the Executive Committee is enough to begin that process may depend on the city.

Either way, Tim Leiweke said every minute is precious in getting the project done in essentially two years.

”But there is no reason that we can’t hopefully get a little bit of momentum next week and convince people that a November, push-dirt, get in there and start working, works,” Leiweke said.

The final scheduled event for the arena in its current state is an Oct. 5 NBA exhibition game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. At some point after that, the keys will be turned over to Oak View Group.

”Now we really get to dream about the National Hockey League, we get to dream about a presentation next week, we get to dream about the return of the NBA. Let’s go,” Tod Leiweke said.

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Latest round of roster decisions should make Islanders fans angry

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We have spent some time here this offseason chronicling the adventures of the New York Islanders as they attempt to rebuild their roster in the post-John Tavares era. It has mostly revolved around them plugging the roster full of assorted fourth-liners and depth players on long-term contracts, having them join the other fourth-liners and depth players that are returning … also on long-term contracts.

There are a couple of problems with this approach.

First, it creates a roster that is just not particularly good or deep by NHL standards. Fine people that play hard, go about their business as professionals, and can each probably carve out a niche for themselves in the NHL. But also not a collection of players that should be making up a significant portion of your roster.

Second, all of those long-term contracts and additions mean those veteran players are all but guaranteed roster spots, making it even more difficult for younger, potentially more impactful players to make the roster. Younger, potentially more impactful players that might be able to make your team better.

We saw the latter point play out on Monday with the latest round of roster cuts from the Islanders as they continue to trim their roster toward the 23-player opening night group. Among the cuts on Monday were 2016 first-round draft pick Kieffer Bellows, 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson, and the talented Josh Ho-Sang, who seems to have been unable to gain the trust or win the approval of a new coaching staff and front office.

Along with them, there were also other young players Sebastien Aho and Michael Dal Colle assigned to the American Hockey League.

In speaking with the media regarding the decisions, general manager Lou Lamoriello had nothing but praise for his young players:

“Well I thought they played extremely well,” said Lamoriello. “They have a bright future, all they have to do is continue to grow. Bellows certainly showed up well — better than I thought he would. But right now we have to make some decisions with the people we have here, and we have to give the ice time to them. It’s best for him to go to the minors, play a lot, play in key situations and just grow as a player.”

And on Ho-Sang:

“I thought he was excellent,” Lamoriello said. “I thought he worked hard, I thought he gave us everything he had. He’s worked on his game without the puck. He’s just got to go to the minors, he has ability, just go there and get over all these issues, that I haven’t seen, that transpired in the past, he’s been excellent in camp. Just go grow there and get better. He’s young.”

At that point Lamoriello was asked if he wanted to have a more veteran roster to open the season, something the team will now no doubt have. He downplayed that, before coming out and saying that none of the players being sent down deserved to be in the NHL over the veterans that are on the roster right now.

“I don’t think it’s a case of wanting to see a veteran team, we have a lot of players under contract,” said Lamoriello. “We have to find out who they are and if they can play before any major decisions are made. So you have to give an opportunity. I think to ourself and our coaching staff we are still learning about them. They have contracts, that’s why sometimes the business gets into it. But these players who are going down, they don’t deserve to be here right now. They haven’t played that well that they should be taking a job away from the veterans at this point.”

That response leads to an important question — Why?

As in, why do you need to find out what you have with a bunch of these veterans? At this point in their careers everyone in the NHL should know exactly what every single one of those players is, and what they are capable of. This should be true whether the coach or GM has had them on their team or not.

Leo Komarov is 31 years old with 327 games in the NHL.

Matt Martin is 29 years old with 590 games.

Tom Kuhnhackl is 26 years old with 168 games.

Valtteri Filppula is 34 years old with 876 games.

Luca Sbisa, just signed on Monday the same day that Dobson and Aho were sent to the AHL/Juniors, is 28 years old with 495 games.

These are just the players the Islanders brought in this offseason from outside the organization, almost all of whom seem to be overkill in their roles when you consider the team already had Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Ross Johnston (who got a four-year contract over the summer) on the roster.

There are no secrets with any of these players. At this point in their career you are getting exactly what you have seen from them over the past several years.

All of this leads to another why question — why don’t the young players deserve to be there over some of the veterans that have a stranglehold on a roster spot to open the season?

Maybe Ho-Sang didn’t have a great camp (though, that’s not what Lou himself said) and struggled in the one preseason game he did play in. But over the past two years on the rare occasion when the Islanders have allowed him to play at the NHL level, he has done the one thing too many of the players on the roster haven’t been able — and won’t be — able to do.

He has produced.

He had 12 points in only 22 games a season ago, which is more than Kuhnhackl had in 69 games for the Penguins. It is the same number of points that Martin had in 50 games for the Maple Leafs, and more than he had in 82 games the previous year (Martin, for his career, has averaged 15 points over 82 games). It is only seven fewer points than what Komarov had in 74 games for the Maple Leafs. It is more than Johnston had in 38 AHL games a year ago, and double what Johnston produced in the NHL in the same number of games. It is only five behind what Cizikas had in 64 games.

No, it is not all about points. And maybe Ho-Sang does still have areas he needs to work on away from the puck.

But are those shortcomings going to hurt the Islanders more over the course of the season than the offensive shortcomings that half of the roster has? When you already know what almost every player on that roster is capable of?

But okay, fine. He didn’t earn a spot on the roster this year. What is the excuse for sending down Bellows, who was quite literally the most productive — and arguably best — player the team had in camp and the preseason? In three exhibition games he had two goals, an assist, 12(!) shots on goal, and a 52 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play.

Look at it another way: Mathew Barzal had one goal, four assists, only six shots on goal, and a 53 percent shot attempt share in his preseason performance a year ago. Barzal was the same age that Bellows is now, and had a similar pedigree in terms of where he went in the draft and his production in the Western Hockey League. He also did not play a single game in the American Hockey League. Barzal not only made the Islanders roster a year ago, he went on to put together one of the best rookie seasons in league history, win the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year, and almost instantly make himself the new franchise cornerstone.

That is not to say that Bellows was destined to duplicate Barzal’s rookie year. But it is also preposterous given the comparison, as well as the players that are still on the roster, to say he does not “deserve” to at least get a look at the opening night lineup.

But to put it all even more simply: If you’re an Islanders fan players like Ho-Sang or Bellows might have just been something to look forward to and get excited about at the start of the year. In time they will be there (well, Bellows will — at this point it might just be best for the Islanders to give Ho-Sang a fresh start somewhere else because nobody there seems to want to play him), but look at where this organization is right now, at this moment, with the season just a week away. You just lost your best player from a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points. It is a team that is probably going to be bad and miss the playoffs again. Now instead of maybe having a couple of young, talented forwards to give you some optimism — including at least one that should have played his way onto the roster — you get to instead watch a bunch of grinders try to scratch and claw their way a 1-0 win every night.

It remains to be seen where the Islanders go in the Lamoriello era, and with all due respect to everything he has accomplished in the NHL as an executive, things are not off to a promising start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.