Five teams that should call about Jimmy Howard

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For the third year in a row the Detroit Red Wings are going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that means with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching they should be looking to sell off all of their pending unrestricted free agents to the highest bidder.

As well as any other veterans they can get a decent haul for, especially if it cleans up what is still a very messy salary cap situation.

They have no shortage of potential players to sell this season with Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, and starting goalie Jimmy Howard all playing on expiring contracts.

The intriguing name here is Howard because he could, in theory, be the biggest game-changer for a contender out of this entire group.

Despite playing behind what has been one of the league’s worst teams this season, he has consistently performed at a pretty high level among the league’s goalies. Out of the 22 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games this season his overall .916 save percentage is the sixth-best mark in the NHL, while his .930 mark at even-strength is the second best behind only Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen.

That is good. That is really good.

The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that because the Red Wings don’t have a young goalie ready anywhere in the system they might have an interest in attempting to re-sign Howard, or trading him and then attempting to re-sign him in the offseason as a free agent. The latter sounds like a decent strategy but rarely, if ever, works out that way. There’s also this unpleasant reality: Howard is turning 35 in a few weeks, is probably nearing the end of his career, and the Red Wings on their current trajectory as a rebuilding team probably will not be in a position to contend with him on his next contract.

A trade and turning the page over to a new chapter in net is probably the most sensible strategy, even if it means going outside the organization. It is not like the duo of Howard and Jonathan Bernier for another season is going to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs a year from now.

There are a handful of teams around the NHL that should be interested in trying to complete such a move.

Let’s look at them.

1. San Jose Sharks

This is the obvious no-brainer team.

The Sharks are as complete as any team in the NHL at forward and defense but still have a black hole that risks sabotaging their entire season in net. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has produced the second-worst save percentage in the NHL this season and going into the playoffs with that is a huge risk.

Joe Thornton doesn’t have much hockey left in the NHL. Erik Karlsson can be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The window is wide open right now for this team to try and win it all, something they could absolutely do as long as their goaltending doesn’t ruin them.

“Hoping” that Jones returns to his normal form shouldn’t be the strategy this season.

There is no long-term commitment with Howard beyond this season and gives them a chance to strike when everything is right there in front of them.

[Related: PHT Power Rankings: Sharks are one player away]

2. Calgary Flames

Like the Sharks the Flames are a team that has the look of a potential champion … as long as the goaltending holds up.

The Mike Smith experience has not gone well this season and has resulted in David Rittich, a 26-year-old with just a little more than 50 NHL games on his resume, starting to get the bulk of the playing time. To be fair, Rittich has played well and been a huge factor in the Flames’ rise to the top of the Western Conference standings. But given how small of a sample size we are dealing with here are the Flames 100 percent confident going into the postseason with him as “the guy?”

If nothing else Howard would be a good insurance plan in case Rittich falters, because I don’t know how much I would trust Smith to save the day if that happens given the way he has played this season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes

This is a real long shot and it would go against everything the Hurricanes have done in recent years where they have always kept the big picture in mind when constructing their roster.

Howard, as a pending free agent, probably doesn’t fit in the big picture outlook so it’s probably not going to happen.

But it never hurts to check it out. Or suggest it.

This is a team with a new owner that wants to win right now, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, and a team that has crawled back into contention and is right there in the Eastern Conference race. They are in it. They are very much in it and can get even closer with a win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. They have a lot of good pieces that could get them closer this season, especially after adding Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. The one thing they are lacking is still consistency in net. Curtis McElhinney has been really good this season when he has played, and that has definitely helped. Howard, especially with the way he has played this season, would only help even more. Given how good the Hurricanes are at keeping pucks away from their goalies (fewest shots allowed per game in the NHL this season, once again one of the league’s best teams in that area) a goalie like Howard could be a significant addition if they decided to go in that direction.

I still don’t think they will, but it is an intriguing thought.

[Related: Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge]

4. Columbus Blue Jackets

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets already have one free-agent-to-be goalie on their roster, and there remains the possibility that they move him before the trade deadline. The Athletic‘s Aaron Portzline pointed out earlier this week that if they do it would most likely require another move to fill that vacant spot in net and Howard was a name that he mentioned as a possibility to keep in mind.

It does not do anything to solve the goaltending problem after this season, but the Blue Jackets are still a potential playoff team this season and there is one very important thing to keep in mind — Howard has been significantly better than Sergei Bobrovsky this season.

It would require a lot of moving parts, it would not fix anything after this season, but it might actually help them this season.

5. Colorado Avalanche

There are a lot of reasons the Colorado Avalanche have faded from their fast start.

They have zero depth after their top-three at forward. Their defense is not great. They are also getting lousy goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer. The first two problems are going to take some time to fix, and there is not one trade that can remedy that this season.

There is one trade that can help fix it the latter problem, especially with additional draft picks to trade this season. Normally I wouldn’t want to see a team with Colorado’s record go all in as being a buyer, but because of the West playoff field being what it is they are still very much in it. With decent goaltending and the three forwards they have at the top of the lineup they could be a headache for somebody in the first round if everything clicks at the same time. A goalie like Howard might help them get there.

Related: What is eating the Colorado Avalanche?

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.

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.

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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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.