Blackhawks should follow Rangers’ rebuild plan

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The Chicago Blackhawks sent shockwaves through the NHL on Tuesday by firing Joel Quenneville, their decorated head coach.

In a lot of ways, it paralleled the coaching change that happened in Los Angeles, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to a key player from their glory days of not-so-long-ago.

Much will be made of where Quenneville will end up next, but what about the path ahead for the Blackhawks?

The instinct might be to parallel the Kings in another way, by trying to squeeze every ounce out of what sure seems like a declining core group. Instead, allow me to recommend following a different path by another team not that far removed from contending: the soft rebuild of the New York Rangers.

As you likely remember, the Rangers essentially waved the white flag of rebuild heading into last year’s trade deadline, making painful choices such as sending Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay. In doing so, the Rangers stocked up on draft picks (including three in 2018’s first round), kicking a mini-rebuild into gear.

The Rangers still have plenty of work to do, yet you could at least see some light at the end of the tunnel.

If you ask me, that sure beats hoping that an aging roster will magically turn back the clock, even as evidence mounts that it’s no accident that Chicago’s fallen out of contention. The Blackhawks could glance at their old buddies in Detroit to see how dire things can get if you refuse to read the writing on the wall.

Let’s dig into what they should try to do, and why a soft rebuild makes sense.

Trade just about any veteran you can

Look, the Blackhawks are almost certain to stick with the $21 million pairing of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, for reasons that mix the voluntary and the involuntary.

What about some of their other pieces, though?

It’s fair to wonder if Stan Bowman simply views Brent Seabrook more highly than he’s seen throughout the rest of the NHL. Simply put, if there’s any way to get Seabrook’s $6.875M (through 2023-24!) off the books, Chicago should do it. Even if it means getting creative.

(Are we certain Bowman hasn’t called Peter Chiarelli, Dale Tallon, or Marc Bergevin about Seabrook? Maybe call them again, like during breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just saying.)

The market would likely be way stronger for Duncan Keith, and the Blackhawks might be wise to bite the bullet with the 35-year-old while he’s still playing at a high level. There’s a significant age gap, yet Keith could be Chicago’s McDonagh in that it would be a painful trade that may nonetheless be necessary for the future.

After all, a contending team might accentuate the positives (an affordable $5.54M cap hit, Keith’s abilities plus experience) over the drawbacks (age, a deal that runs through 2022-23).

Really, wouldn’t a budget team hoping to take that next step really jump at Keith’s contract, considering how the salary falls through the years?

Keith’s salary from 2018-19 on, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $4.5M
2019-20: $3.5M
2020-21: $2.65M
2021-22: $2.1M
2022-23: $1.5M

At minimum, the Blackhawks should not dismiss such questions if there’s any chance Keith would waive his no-movement clause.

There are other options if Bowman lacks the guts or desire to really swing for the fences.

Artem Anisimov stands as one of the easier calls. The Blackhawks are unlikely to get maximum value for Brandon Saad now, yet it might be worth it just to get his $6M off the books (while expediting the rebuild in the process).

There’s even some reason to at least kick around the name Corey Crawford. He’s 33, and his $6M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Maybe it would be best for both sides to move on, at least if other GMs are convinced he’s healthy?

Do note that Saad is the only player discussed above who lacks a no-trade clause, which highlights the notion that Chicago’s issues stem from Bowman’s missteps, as much as anything else.

On the bright side, the Blackhawks have developed a knack for finding diamonds in the rough in drafts, so why not give them more “darts to throw” through gutsy trades?

Unearthing gems

No doubt, there are right place, right time elements to Chicago’s great run. Being terrible at the perfect time allowed them to land Kane (first overall in 2007) and Toews (third in 2006). Being putrid for the remainder of 2018-19 could increase their odds at another blue chipper.

Yet, if the Oilers show us anything, it’s that you need to succeed beyond the no-brainers.

(Granted, Edmonton’s messed up those high-end picks, too.)

Looking at recent history, the Blackhawks could really reload with the additional ammo they’d potentially receive if they made especially courageous trades.

Consider some of the solid-to-great gems they’ve unearthed in recent years.

Henri Jokiharju is already becoming an important defenseman for the Blackhawks, and he was the 29th pick in 2017. Alex DeBrincat is a budding star, and he fell to the second round (39th overall) in 2016. Most years, you can find a nice diamond in the rough, including Brandon Saad (43rd pick in 2011) in his own right.

No doubt, potential gains would require pain. A proud franchise probably wouldn’t want to absorb the losses that increase the odds of landing a Jack Hughes-type franchise-changer in the lottery range. Trading players who played a big role in winning three contemporary Stanley Cups would entail taking a PR hit, and the awkwardness of asking players to waive no-trade clauses.

That said, Bowman’s shown the necessary courage to make cutthroat moves in the past, trading players like Dustin Byfuglien to stay under the cap. As painful as it was to, say, trade Teuvo Teravainen, Bowman’s also been proactive when it comes to addressing mistakes.

Moving legitimate core pieces would probably feel drastic even by those standards, but perhaps Bowman needs to channel his inner Bill Belichick and trade players a year early, rather than a year late?

By firing Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks highlighted their fork in the road, consciously or not.

One path is to hope that things will simply sort themselves out. Maybe a new voice could rekindle that old, championship magic?

From here, it honestly feels like Coach Q got as much as anyone could out of this group, and that the Blackhawks’ ceiling is now “first-round fodder.” With that in mind, maybe it’s best to take a step back now, in hopes of making a leap forward?

None of this is easy, but winning (and cap management) isn’t simple arithmetic either. Firing Quenneville couldn’t have been the most comfortable choice, and if the Blackhawks want to change things for the better, they need to make more difficult decisions.

Standing pat will only leave them sinking deeper.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.