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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.

What is the Wild’s long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Minnesota Wild.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Wild are kind of drifting toward that middle ground where they are not a true contender and they are not exactly awful, either. They have good players, but they also have some pretty significant flaws.

One of the biggest might be the fact they have a lot money tied up in players that are on the wrong side of 30. Mikko Koivu is a free agent after this season, and no one really knows what his future is at this point, but Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Devan Dubnyk are some of their biggest contracts beyond this season and Spurgeon is the only one younger than 32 years old. It is not a stretch to believe that every single one of those players has already played their best hockey. Parise was also the subject of trade rumors on deadline day with the New York Islanders, something that could be revisited later.

Beyond that, the Wild do have some intriguing younger players making up a second-wave of talent.

Kevin Fiala has been an outstanding pickup and is having an outstanding year, while Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek are other younger players the Wild are hoping can become bigger contributors.

The most intriguing young player in the organization, though, has yet to even play a game in North America. That player is Kirili Kaprizov, the 22-year-old winger that has dominated the KHL for the past few seasons. He was a fifth-round pick by the team a few years ago and his arrival in Minnesota has been anticipated for some time now.

Long-Term Needs

Really what the Wild need is a difference-maker. A game-changing forward that can be the focal point of the offense and carry it. A franchise cornerstone to build around both in the short-and long-term.

They do not really have that player right now, and the ones that most closely resemble that player on the roster right now are older and on the downside of their careers. They are also not really well positioned to get one without a lot of luck going their way in the draft lottery. It is a tough spot to be in.

Their biggest hope for that sort of presence might be with the aforementioned Kaprizov. For as intriguing and exciting as his potential is, it is still just exactly that — potential. Even if he does eventually become that top-line standout player, it may not happen as soon as he arrives next season. There could be some growing pains and an adjustment period along the way.

Long-Term Strengths

When they are all healthy their defense has some intriguing players and can be really good with Suter, Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, and Jonas Brodin are all signed through the end of next seaon, with the former three names all being signed to long-term deals. When it comes to scoring chances against and expected goals against the Wild have been one of the league’s top teams this season. The only thing that has held them back from being an elite defensive team has been inconsistency in net.

The addition of Cale Addison in the Jason Zucker trade also adds another intriguing blue-liner to the long-term outlook.

If Fiala can duplicate his 2019-20 performance he could also turn into a pretty big strength. He has been one of the league’s most productive 5-on-5 players on a per-minute basis this season and is still signed for another year at a very manageable salary cap hit.

The presence of him, Kaprizov, a still productive Zuccarello and hopefully improvements from players like Kunin, Greenway, and Eriksson Ek could give the Wild a formidable group of forwards.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild surprises and disappointments so far

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Kunitz puts Penguins in Cup Final

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NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour continues this week with matchups featuring unsung heroes.

Chris Kunitz opened the scoring in the second period of Game 7, his first goal in over three months. After regulation, tied at two goals apiece, Kunitz recorded his third point, and second goal of the game, in double overtime to send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire called the matchup from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, April 8
• Senators vs. Penguins (2017 Eastern Conf. Final, Game 7, Chris Kunitz) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL: Pause and Rewind – 6 p.m. ET

Thursday, April 9
• NHL: Pause and Rewind (Encore) – 5 p.m. ET
• Rangers vs. Kings (2014 Stanley Cup Final, Game 5, Alec Martinez) – 6 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: EPISODE 1 – NHL BROTHERS – TUESDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
Kathryn Tappen and Sportsnet host David Amber will co-host a 30-minute program about brothers in the NHL. The three sets of brothers interviewed and featured in the program are Eric, Jordan, and Marc Staal; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; and Quinn and Jack Hughes.

NHL: PAUSE AND REWIND – WEDNESDAY, 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
The premiere of a one-hour special, NHL: Pause and Rewind, will take a look back at this past NHL season as well as how players are spending their time off in the current league hiatus. Highlighted segments will include a look at the current top five teams in each conference, reflecting on the season’s milestones, including Alex Ovechkin’s historic 700 goal accomplishment, as well as revisiting the Blues’ improbable Stanley Cup victory last season.

NBC Sports commentators conducting player interviews and sharing #HockeyAtHome social content will also be featured throughout the program.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Wild long-term outlook

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.