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Blackhawks should try to trade star defensemen

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The Athletic’s Scott Powers dropped an interesting report today (sub required): Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman realizes that he’ll have a glut of defensemen soon, so he might need to make a move.

To be more specific, the impending return of Connor Murphy could make for quite a crowd. Powers notes that Bowman acknowledged that much a couple weeks ago, albeit while also resisting some of the perceived pressure to make a move.

” … Murph’s a good player, so we want to get him back as soon as we can to help our team. What that means for the other guys, we’ll sort that out,” Bowman said on Nov. 24. “If there’s a surplus and everyone’s healthy, then there’s always needs around the league for defensemen. We can maybe make a move at that point.”

Now, Powers points to Bowman trying to move a depth defenseman such as Brandon Manning or Jan Rutta merely to open up a modicum of space … but that honestly might be thinking too small.

Right now, the Chicago Blackhawks are on a six-game losing streak. They’re not technically in last place in the West with 23 points, yet they’re sagging with 30 games played already, so they’re awfully close to that mark. Maybe playing five of their next six games at home will help them save a little face, but just about every projection should hammer a painful reality home: the 2018-19 season is as good as shot for Chicago.

With that in mind, the Blackhawks should begin preparing for the future, and that means acknowledging – not continuing to ignore – the elephant in the room: it’s time to strip away significant portions of this core group.

It’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks parting ways with the $21 million duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and in all honesty, those two could still conceivably help a team contend.

Instead, it’s time for Bowman to hit the “reset” button on an ailing defense, and he’d be foolish not to explore every avenue in doing so. Yes, that means doing whatever he can to a) convince Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to waive no-movement clauses and b) finding trade partners for one or both of those defensemen.

The risks that come with keeping Keith

At 35, Keith isn’t at that Norris Trophy level any longer.

Defensemen aren’t always sniping machines, yet it’s troubling that he’s failed to score a goal in 2018-19, and only has two over his last 112 games. He’s not quite the source of offense he once was, and while his possession stats are respectable, they won’t knock your socks off.

Keith is still a very useful defenseman, however, and one can bet that he still enjoys a high standing in the NHL … for now.

Let’s face it; as times go on and Keith’s team declines further from past successes, his stature is likely to tumble. It doesn’t help that his average ice time is down considerably this season (22:36), and last season’s 23:50 TOI average was already a significant step down from his workhorse, 25+ minute days.

The Blackhawks need to be weary of Keith’s $5.54M cap hit, which lasts through 2022-23. Yes, it carries the scent of obvious cap circumvention, as Cap Friendly lists his salary diving from $4.5M to $3.5M next, and so on until it sinks all the way to $1.5M in 2022-23. In my opinion, Chicago would get a much better return for Keith if they traded him before he became, essentially, Marian Hossa-like contract fodder.

(Sure, the Blackhawks moved Hossa’s deal, but they had to give up a helpful, affordable, and not-yet-optimized player in Vinnie Hinostroza.)

If the Blackhawks wait too long, they might be stuck bribing a team to take the last, empty cap years of Keith’s deal, rather than getting assets that can truly help them in the future. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for a franchise that sorely needs to restock its prospect cupboard beyond Adam Boqvist.

Finding a taker for Brent Seabrook

While Keith could conceivably fetch an interesting offer, it’s difficult to picture GMs lining up to land Seabrook, a 33-year-old with a horrendous $6.875M cap hit that doesn’t expire until after 2023-24.

On the other hand, we’ve seen some surprising trades over the years that force you to never say never.

The Habs didn’t just absorb a nightmare Scott Gomez contract, they also sent Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers. A contract Roberto Luongo despised didn’t keep him in Vancouver forever. Chris Pronger eventually drew checks from the Coyotes.

Seabrook will be easier to move in time, as his total salary goes from $9M in the first three seasons (ending in 2018-19) to $7.5M next year, and lower as the years pass. That’s a comforting thought, but are we totally certain that Bowman has been practicing due diligence to get rid of that deal as soon as possible? You never know if an old-school team might want to take Seabrook off of Chicago’s hands sooner.

All it takes is one GM/front office to think that they’re seeing something no one else understands. Unfortunately, it’s fair to wonder if Bowman is too close to the situation, and thus overrates his own players to his own detriment.

One to keep

If there’s one defenseman I wouldn’t take many trade calls about, it would be rookie Henri Jokiharju. The 19-year-old is already showing serious promise, and maybe just as importantly for the cap-challenged Blackhawks, he’s only in the first season of his three-year, entry-level, rookie deal.

Which brings us to some optimism:

If they can only stomach a short rebuild …

Normally, I’d refer to this idea as a “soft rebuild,” but let’s be frank: it won’t be easy for Bowman to swallow his pride and, ideally, trade Keith and/or Seabrook. Management probably wouldn’t even enjoy moving a more obvious cap-filler like forward Artem Anisimov.

Could there be some light at the end of the tunnel, though?

It certainly stings that Chicago lost some quality, affordable players in recent years because of the cap crunch and some general errors (Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Teuvo Teravainen, Nick Schmaltz, etc.).

They still might have some help thanks to certain cheaper options. As mentioned, Jokiharju could be part of a solution. Rising star Alex DeBrincat‘s rookie contract won’t expire until after next season. If Dylan Strome can at least bring more pros than cons, then he’s another guy who is cheap through at least 2019-20. Depending upon how he develops, Boqvist might be able to add to that group of cheap, competitive players.

According to Cap Friendly, the Blackhawks currently have 15 players carrying $62.21M in cap commitments heading into 2019-20. If Chicago moved Keith or Seabrook for futures and/or expiring contracts, they could push that number closer to $56M or so (considering overages and other cap quirks).

Suddenly, things could look more interesting with a salary cap estimated around $83M.

Perhaps the Blackhawks could right a wrong by bringing back Artemi Panarin, giving them more of a chance to outscore their problems? Maybe they could lure Erik Karlsson away from San Jose and other suitors? They could also target mid-level free agents in pursuit of depth, or extend their rebuild window by taking on some contracts from other teams (maybe they should “help out” the Maple Leafs?).

Things can start to change quickly once you gain some flexibility, with some ideas being wiser than others. Most of the bolder ideas sure beat sitting idly by, risking waiting too long to make much-needed changes.

For the sake of Blackhawks fans, here’s hoping Bowman agrees, even if it means painfully saying goodbye to some of the icons of a fading era.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Sabres’ Brandon Montour out rest of preseason with hand injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour will miss the remainder of training camp because of a hand injury and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be ready for the start of the season in two weeks.

The Sabres released no details of Montour’s injury on Thursday.

The team said it will provide an update on his status at the end camp. It’s unclear when Montour was hurt after he logged more than 17 minutes in a 4-1 preseason loss at Columbus on Tuesday.

Montour is a fourth-year NHL player and projected to play a top-four role on Buffalo’s blue line. He was acquired in a trade with Anaheim in February.

Buffalo will start the season minus defensemen Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut, who are recovering from offseason surgery.

The Sabres also announced forward Scott Wilson and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald are listed day to day with lower body injuries.