Maple Leafs among NHL teams facing cap crunches next year

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By John Wawrow (AP Hockey Writer)

There are questions Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock won’t touch with a 10-foot hockey stick.

The challenge a team brimming with young talent faces in managing its payroll structure was one topic Babcock particularly enjoyed sidestepping shortly after Toronto and forward William Nylander ended a lengthy contract dispute this month.

”Well, I think you’ve got to talk to a manager about that,” said Babcock, referring to general manager Kyle Dubas.” I just coach the players.”

Babcock was so pleased with his response, he winked and added: ”I bailed on that one, eh?”

Funny, sure, but it doesn’t make the issue go away.

Nylander signing a six-year, $41.4 million contract was merely a prelude to what will be a busy 2019 for Dubas, who will have to be creative in keeping the young core of his team intact within the constraints of the NHL’s projected $83 million salary cap. With $55 million in salary already on the books for next season, the Leafs have little wiggle room with 2016 first-round draft pick Auston Matthews and forward Mitchell Marner, the team’s current leading scorer, both completing the final years of their contracts.

Matthews, who followed up his 40-goal rookie season with 34 last year, is expected to command a contract similar to the eight-year, $100 million deal Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid signed in the summer of 2017. And Marner, the fourth pick in the 2015 draft, likely won’t be far behind because he is on pace to top the career highs of 22 goals and 69 points he had last season.

”I don’t think any of our group and our whole organization should forgo the enjoyment of the season because we have good players that need contracts,” he said. ”I think it’s a fortunate position that we’re in.”

Dubas is not the only one in this fix.

In Winnipeg, forwards Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and defenseman Jacob Trouba are eligible to become restricted free agents. With an eye on the future, the Jets were unable to retain Paul Stastny, who elected to sign a better offer with Vegas last summer.

In Buffalo, newly acquired forward Jeff Skinner‘s asking price goes up with each goal he scores. Skinner has 25 already to match last season’s total and ranks second in the NHL behind only Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. Skinner will be an unrestricted free agent this summer if the Sabres can’t re-sign him.

Buffalo will have money to spend, but has to be cautious with center Jack Eichel in the first year of his eight-year, $80 million contract. And the team will also have to keep open a large portion of cap space once No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin‘s entry-level contract expires in three years.

The question becomes how teams retain their young stars while keeping enough money aside to fill the remainder of their roster.

”The philosophy is simple, and you’re seeing it around the league. The only way you can keep a lot of your top-end players is if you have other players coming up through the system,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill said, placing an emphasis on scouting and player development.

Botterill saw that firsthand working in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins complemented their core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang by filtering in younger players on cheaper entry-level contracts.

Still, it can get complicated once a team’s high-priced core starts aging.

The troubles are apparent in Chicago, which won three Stanley Cups from 2010-15 with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews but is now a team in transition with some big contracts in place. It’s no different in Los Angeles, where the Kings have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and missed the postseason three times since 2014, when they won their second Cup in three years.

”It’s not a perfect business,” Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. ”You make decisions and you may wake up two years later with different information, but it’s too late and you have to manage around that decision.”

What’s changed over the past decade? Teams are spending more money on retaining players over adding them in free agency.

It’s a philosophy that places an emphasis on evaluating potential at a younger age and determining whether they can perform to the value of their contract. Otherwise, a team could be stuck with a player with a high-priced guaranteed contract that handcuffs future decisions.

”I don’t think there’s any easier answer to it. I mean, you just have to make the right decisions on the player,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. ”One bad contract and it knocks everything out of line.”

Poile has done an adept job in maintaining a competitor on a roster that features six players taking up a combined $40.25 million in salary cap space this year.

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said keeping a team’s payroll structure in line also requires making unpopular decisions.

”You’ve got to be willing to say, ‘You know what, the guy that doesn’t quite fit in that core, we may need to make a decision that you have to move him,”’ Nill said. ”I know sometimes fans are going to say, ‘Whoa, why are they doing that?’ You’ve got no choice.”

The Maple Leafs are among the exceptions in trying to build through the draft and free agency, after signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract last summer.

Dubas insists retaining the team’s young talent is ”of vital importance.” Re-signing Nylander was the first step.

BUFFA-LOVE

After missing the playoffs during each of his eight seasons in Carolina, Skinner is enjoying the buzz the Sabres have created in Buffalo, a year after finishing last for the third time in five years.

”I haven’t really been here before and realized how much they love the Sabres. It’s been fun,” said Skinner, who waived his no-trade clause to approve the Hurricanes dealing him to Buffalo for prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks in August. ”Hopefully, we can keep giving them something to be proud of.”

Skinner was reminded of how those same fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” Skinner said. I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Points: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 56; Game-winning goals: Skinner and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado), 6; Rookie goals: Elias Petterson (Vancouver), 17; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 2.07; Shutouts: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 5.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to face Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Wednesday night.

AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage and Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this story.

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

Canucks-Blues stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Canucks-Blues stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Canucks and Blues. Coverage begins at 630 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Blues stream at 6:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Canucks beat the defending Stanley Cup champs 5-2 in Game 1 on Wednesday. The game was tied 2-2 going into the third period before Vancouver scored three goals in the final 20 minutes to seal the win.

Vancouver lost its first game of the qualifying round vs Minnesota, being shut out in a 3-0 loss. Since then, they have won four
straight games, scoring three-plus goals in every game.

After leading the Blues to a Stanley Cup as a rookie last season, Jordan Binnington has struggled to regain that form in this year’s playoffs. He has lost all three of his starts and allowed five goals on 22 shots in Game 1 against Vancouver, his second straight
game allowing five-plus goals. He allowed a soft goal in the third period from Troy Stecher, which head coach Craig Berube said “He probably wants that one back for sure. But it is what it is.”

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver 5, St. Louis 2
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Avalanche take 2-0 series lead, but Coyotes tested Avs in Game 2

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The Coyotes almost looked like a different team from the passive group the Avalanche handled in Game 1, but the Avs still won Game 2. Thanks to a late game-winning goal by Andre Burakovsky, the Avalanche beat the Coyotes 3-2 in Game 2, taking a 2-0 series lead.

Top Avs make a difference (but so do Avalanche supporting cast members) vs. Coyotes in Game 2

Sometimes, in close games, it boils down to top players like Nathan MacKinnon simply making plays. In a flash, MacKinnon seized an opportunity for … well, a very MacKinnon-like goal. Even a red-hot goalie like Darcy Kuemper can only do so much on chances like these:

The Desert Dogs wouldn’t just roll over in this one, though.

While Taylor Hall wasn’t credited with an assist, he made a nice pass to help set up a Clayton Keller 1-1 goal. Throughout Game 2, the Avalanche and Coyotes traded hard hits and chances aplenty. In particular, Nikita Zadorov threw some questionable checks, including one that prompted an elbowing penalty when he hit Conor Garland, a hidden gem for the Coyotes.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Again, this was a much better effort from the Coyotes. Arizona generated more shots on goal during the second period (15) of Game 2 than the Coyotes did in all of Game 1 (14). Philipp Grubauer wouldn’t ease into a shutout in this one, but he helped the Avs hold on and hang in there.

Nazem Kadri and other supporting cast members seem poised to continue giving the Avalanche a boost when there were times before when it felt like it was MacKinnon’s line or bust. Kadri set up a very nice Andre Burakovsky game-winner, and that was enough for the Avalanche.

The Avalanche hold quite an edge with this 2-0 series lead, but if the Coyotes can stay focused as the two teams turn around for Game 3 on Saturday, this could end up being a lot more interesting than Game 1 indicated.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Colorado 3, Arizona 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Colorado 3, Arizona 2
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien receives stent, heads home

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TORONTO — Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is returning home to Montreal a day after a stent was placed in a coronary artery. The team said doctors expect a full recovery.

Julien was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto overnight Wednesday with chest pain. He had surgery Thursday.

“Coach Julien would like to convey his most sincere thanks to everyone at St. Michael’s Hospital for the wonderful care he received during his stay,” the Canadiens said in a statement Friday. “He also wishes to personally and sincerely thank everyone who has sent their well wishes during this time.”

Since Julien left the NHL bubble in Toronto, he will have to follow quarantine protocol if he wishes to re-enter it.

Team members wanting to return to the bubble must provide four consecutive negative COVID-19 tests carried out over four days. They will be quarantined for at least that time period, and possibly up to 14 days depending on risk of exposure while outside the bubble.

Kirk Muller will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers led the series 1-0 entering Game 2 on Friday.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Canadiens-Flyers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Canadiens and Flyers. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canadiens-Flyers stream at 3 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Montreal Canadiens look to even their series against the Philadelphia Flyers, following Philadelphia’s 2-1 win in Game 1. Carter Hart recorded 27 saves in goal for the Flyers in the win, topping his idol Carey Price. That said, Price had his moments, including making a highlight-reel save.

Even with that low score, Canadiens – Flyers Game 1 featured a lot of speedy action. Could we see players like Claude Giroux break out with bigger offensive displays in Game 2? Kirk Muller serves as Canadiens coach while Claude Julien recovers from being hospitalized with chest pains.

(The Canadiens announced that Julien is returning to Montreal “to rest following stenting of the coronary artery.”)

An hour-long edition of NHL Live will immediately follow game coverage at 5:30 p.m. ET.

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens vs. Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Friday, August 14, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canadiens-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (PHI leads 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Philadelphia 2, Montreal 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule