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NHL All-Star Media Day notebook: McDavid on doubters; Karlsson, Matthews talk contracts

SAN JOSE — You were out of luck if you were hoping to get a comment out of Connor McDavid regarding the Edmonton Oilers’ firing of general manager Peter Chiarelli this week.

“We’re here for the All-Star Game. I want to enjoy that as much as I can,” he said.

As the Oilers sit three points out of a Western Conference wild card spot, McDavid said he’s ready to push the negativity surrounding the franchise to the side and help the team make a playoff push.

“What I look forward to coming back from the break is trying our best to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “We have an opportunity here where things seem pretty down on us. There’s a sense of negativity with the media, with everyone around the team, and we get to prove people wrong. We get to decide how we’re going to finish the second half.”

Despite some talk (and hope in some cities) that McDavid was sick of the constant failures of the Oilers and would look to find a way out of Edmonton, he shot that idea down quickly.

“That’s just not the case at all,” he said. “I’m here to be a part of the solution, and that’s all I’ll say.”

The Oilers are a team that needed the All-Star break as a chance to get away and clear their heads. They’ve banked enough points, despite their issues, that the hole they’re currently in isn’t too deep. The captain is keeping the faith that the final 32 games of the season will be looked at in a positive light.

“You’ve got to believe,” McDavid said. “You have to believe that we’re going to turn it around and, like I said the other day, if you don’t, you don’t have to be here.

“Obviously, losing isn’t fun. It’s not fun for anybody. I’m no different. You want to win and you want to build something special and something that you’re proud to be a part of, and we’ve got to still build it.”

Matthews, Karlsson talk contracts

One’s set to become a restricted free agent, while the other can hit unrestricted status. Both will see rather large increases in their salary next season, it’s just matter of what the term and dollars look like.

“The sides are talking and making progress and that’s great,” said Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, who can become an RFA on July 1.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say [it’d be a] relief. I would say it’s just a step,” he said. “For me, it’s not something I think about much. When it gets done it gets done. Until then, I’m not worrying about it. I’ll let my agent handle it with [Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and his management team. They’ll talk. When my agent calls and says I’m ready to sign, then I’ll sign. Until then I’m focusing on the Toronto Maple Leafs and just live every day.”

[NHL players express mixed feelings about player and puck tracking]

“We have no timetable on anything,” said San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, who cannot sign an eight-year extension until after the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline. He has been eligible to ink a seven-year deal since Jan. 1. “Whatever goes on is going to be handled privately. [Sharks GM] Doug Wilson has been great with us ever since we got here. He’s been very respectful. I appreciate that a lot, both me and my wife do. When the time comes for a decision to be made, whenever that is, I think they’ve done everything they possibly can to give us the most information we need to make the right decision.  

“We came in here with an open mind, and I think we’re going to do everything we can to make the best possible decision for everyone, and especially ourselves with the information that we have at the time. They provided more than enough.”

Giroux on Flyers’ changes, Gritty

He’s the goalie of the future but may also end up as the goalie of the now depending on how the Flyers play out the rest of the season. Goaltender Carter Hart was reassigned back down to AHL Lehigh Valley this week but showed glimpses in 12 starts this season why the franchise thinks so highly of him.

“You don’t see a lot of goalies that are 20 years old and they come in this fast,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “For him to get called up and do the things that he’s doing right now, it’s obviously not a circumstance that we wanted to happen. We had a few injuries for our goaltenders, but for him to come in, play the way he is right now, it’s pretty amazing.”

Hart’s NHL arrival was one of a number of changes for the team this season. Gone are GM Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol. Replacing them are Chuck Fletcher and, on an interim basis, Scott Gordon. Those changes acted as a wakeup call that Giroux believe the team needed.

“Yeah, when you see a coach or GM get fired, as a player you take it personally,” he said. “You’re responsible for it. You could have done something else to not let that happen. New GM, new coach, a lot of things are happening right now, but we’re going in the right direction.”

On the positive side, this has been the year of Gritty, the jovial mascot who is also trying to get Giroux to become its best friend.

“He is a big deal. I remember the first preseason game, he got booed and I think it was a big motivation for him to do better,” Giroux said. “He’s been shining still.”

Landeskog enjoying All-Star Weekend

The Colorado Avalanche’s top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are all in San Jose this weekend after a first half that put them in the conversation of who employs the best line in the NHL. The 26-year-old Landeskog is tied for third in goals scored (29) this season and despite his success didn’t expect to see himself taking part in the festivities.

“To be honest, I never really see myself as an All-Star. I think this popped out of nowhere. It’s the result of a good line and a team that’s been doing pretty good in the first half of the season,” he said. “An All-Star Game is always something that you keep an eye on and you always know who’s an All-Star in the league. But to say that I was expecting this, I’d be lying if I said that.”

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ONE-TIMERS

“It’s hard to not choose Connor McDavid. Just the way he skates, he’s faster than everybody else. His hands kind of follow his feet. He makes plays that not a lot of players can make.” – Giroux on who he thinks is the NHL’s best player.

“When you just come here, you’re just taking everything in, you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary, you’re just going with the flow. I think that’s what I did my first year. This year, I’m more comfortable knowing what to expect coming in and that’s important.” – Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones on taking part in his third straight All-Star Weekend.

“I like this layout…  The 3-on-3 format is nice because you can’t really hide. When you play 5-on-5 sometimes you get a little lazy. When it’s 3-on-3, you’ve gotta skate. If you don’t, you’ll get embarrassed, especially the talent that’s here. It forces you to play intense and I think that’s what the fans want to see.” – Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues on the 3-on-3 format.

“I wouldn’t say there’s anything that really jumps off the page. As you get closer, the little details start to come out a little bit more. In terms of that, there hasn’t even been any bargaining, any real discussions over what either side wants. It’s a little bit premature to have those talks.” – Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler on important facets of the next CBA from the players’ side.

“Every single day he’s the hardest worker on the ice, in the gym. First person at the rink, last person at the rink. He’s the ultimate captain. The success he’s having this year doesn’t surprise me one bit. He’s just a great leader and a great hockey player. I could talk about Gio for 10 straight minutes everything he does for our team, what he does for the community. It’s just awesome to be able to play for him and play with him and learn from him as a captain.” – Johnny Gaudreau on Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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 kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck