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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.

Pittsburgh prospect’s incredible Ovechkin-like goal (Video)

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Earlier this week James O’Brien continued our “My Favorite Goal” series with a look back at Alex Ovechkin’s signature goal from his rookie season when he scored that seemingly impossible, sliding goal in Arizona.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Samuel Poulin did his best to try and recreate the finishing portion of that goal in a QMJHL game when he scored on an absolutely bonkers play late in his team’s 6-1 win.

Have a look.

As if the finish wasn’t enough, how about the move in the slot to get around the defender?

Poulin, a forward for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, scored the goal late in the third period of their win over the Cape Breton Eagles. It was Poulin’s 16th goal of the season.

The Penguins selected him in the first round (No. 21 overall) of the 2019 NHL draft as part of a promising draft class that also included Nathan Legare. Those two have been a much-needed boost to a farm system that has been depleted a bit due to trades in recent years to keep the current Stanley Cup window open.

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.

Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

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Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Flames’ update on Brodie: Tests negative, no timetable for return

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The Calgary Flames received a huge scare on Thursday when veteran defenseman T.J. Brodie had to be taken to a hospital after collapsing on the ice and convulsing during practice.

On Friday, the team issued an update on his status.

General manager Brad Treliving said that the initial neurological tests on Brodie have all come back negative so far, while also adding that more tests still need to be done and that no stone will be left unturned in trying to figure out what happened.

Team Doctor Ian Auld also added that so far it looks the incident was more likely related to a fainting episode than anything inside the brain.

“An event like this can be caused by something inside the brain, something scary, and it can also be caused by syncope or fainting episodes. The reasons for why people faint are many,” said Auld, via the Flames’ website. “I don’t think we have all the answers yet and we still have a few more tests to go but all the early indications are that it’s very likely more related to a fainting episode than something significant and inside the brain.”

There is obviously no timeline for Brodie’s return to the lineup at this point.

“We’re going to go through the process of checking every box and make sure we administer every test,” said Treliving. “But he’s come through everything thus far and doing well, feeling good. He’s on the mend. He will obviously not travel with us today as we head to Arizona and Las Vegas. He will stay under the supervision of our medical team led by Ian (Auld).”

The 29-year-old Brodie has spent all 10 years of his career with the Flames after the team drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft.

With him sidelined indefinitely the team has recalled Oliver Kylington from the American Hockey League.

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.

NWHL buoyed over future after adding financial backers

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The National Women’s Hockey League announced Thursday it had added enough financial backing after a two-month capital campaign to ensure its viability beyond its fifth season this year.

The league declined to reveal specifics in noting its number of private investors has grown beyond 20 with the addition of insurance and technology entrepreneur Andy Scurto. In 2017, Scurto sold his firm for $160 million.

“This infusion of capital from Andy Scurto and our partners who believe in the power and value of professional women’s hockey is another important milestone for the NWHL, our players, supporters and fans,” NWHL Commissioner and founder Dani Rylan said. “This provides us with long-term viability.”

The league is a little over a month into its season with teams in Boston, Buffalo, New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey.

The NWHL was able to add investors despite losing the backing of a majority of the world’s top players in the offseason. In May, more than 200 players – including members of the U.S. and Canadian national teams – pledged not to compete in North America this season following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The players formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association to push for establishing a league with what they said needed to have a viable, sustainable economic model.

The Buffalo Sabres relinquished ownership of the NWHL Buffalo Beauts, while the New Jersey Devils ended their agreement with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters.

In September, Rylan vowed her league wasn’t going anywhere, and added the NWHL was proving it could be viable without the NHL.

The league said the new funding will be directed toward building the league’s infrastructure, enhancing player development and attracting more investors, including team owners. Two months ago, Miles Arnone led a group of investors to purchase the Boston Pride.

Arnone said the focus on infrastructure and adding owners will eventually lead to an increase in player salaries. The NWHL no longer reveals its salary scale, though players can now earn a bump in pay through a newly introduced 50-50 split of sponsorship and media right revenue.

In September, the NWHL announced players had already earned a 26% pay increase based on new agreements reached over the summer.