NHL Rink Wrap: Salary cap talk at GM meetings; costly win for Maple Leafs

NHL Rink Wrap: Salary cap talk at GM meetings; costly win for Maple Leafs
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tuesday’s top NHL players

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Seen Stamkos making a difference? Then you were watching the Hurricanes and Lightning during the NHL action on Tuesday.

Stamkos scored the overtime game-winner, assisted on the goal that sent the contest to OT, and collected one other assist. So, that’s a three-point game (1G, 2A). This gives us a chance to appreciate the season Steven Stamkos is enjoying.

With the Lightning, it’s tempting to take brilliance for granted. They just keep doing this. They keep winning, their stars keep producing, Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the few goalies we can trust, and Victor Hedman isn’t broken by those big minutes. And, yeah, they’ve shaken off the sort of free agent losses that lesser teams would find devastating.

[They also keep finding ways to add depth at trade deadlines]

So, you might tune out and miss that Steven Stamkos sure looks a lot like the Steven Stamkos before injuries once again disrupted his career.

With that overtime game-winner, Stamkos now has 30 goals this season, his first 30+ campaign since scoring 45 in 2018-19. Granted, Stamkos scored 29 goals in just 57 games in 2019-20, so that 30-goal plateau feels a touch misleading.

Nonetheless, this is still impressive. The 32-year-old rests at 73 points in 65 games this season. That puts Stamkos comfortably in the top-20 in scoring, ahead of the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby. Stunning stuff, Stamkos.

Tuesday NHL highlights

The Predators and Senators held a moment of silence for Eugene Melnyk, who died at the age of 62 on Monday.

Here’s that Stamkos OT-GWG:

 

Kevin Fiala: talented human.

“You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them” feels more and more appropriate for the Florida Panthers.

Tuesday NHL Takeaways

NHL salary cap projected to be about $82.5M next season

Apparently NHL GMs received a projected salary cap ceiling for next season (2022-23): $82.5 million. That’s $1M up from $81.5M, the salary cap the NHL’s been stuck around for quite some time.

If you want teams to be able to load up, well, you’re going to need to wait.

Honestly, this should be a bigger concern than supposed LTIR hijinks. You know, maybe the cap would have a chance of going up a bit if the Coyotes were in a better situation than echoing indie rock bands touring small clubs?

Normally, this would be where I complain about the NHL’s allergic reaction to the idea of a luxury tax. Like many other possible areas of improvements, that’s proven to be such a resounding dead end that it’s clear arguing about that is a waste of breath.

Coolest Game on Earth!

Other takeaways from NHL GM Meetings Day 2

PHT’s Adam Gretz provided the lowdown on day two of the NHL GM Meetings, including the salary cap discussion. If you want some quick quips regarding the other top topics:

  • It’s a good idea to improve the system so the voided Evgenii Dadonov trade doesn’t happen again. Now, there’s the potential drawback that no-trade teams would get leaked, thus hurting feelings (especially in, what, Winnipeg?). Personally, it’s a win-win, though. Dadonov playing for the Golden Knights and possibly saving their season? Great drama. Leaked teams giving us better ideas about how cold a market is in players’ eyes? Sloppy and spicy.
  • Ah, what a relief. I don’t blame the NHL’s GMs wanting to monitor LTIR use and salary cap shenanigans during the playoffs. But there’s the risk of overreach. Do you want teams to be as close as to their best as possible after a grinding 82-game season? Then don’t go too far just because there’s a rare Nikita Kucherov LTIR bit here and there. (And even then, Kucherov wasn’t exactly 100%, impressive offense and all.)
  • Classic hockey/NHL mindset to see the buzz of Team North America from the last World Cup and say, “not again.” Boooooo.

Maybe cool it on the fighting, Nathan MacKinnon?

Should … the Colorado Avalanche maybe have a little chat with Nathan MacKinnon?

Earlier this season, word surfaced that MacKinnon is a bit of a dietary tyrant. Beware those who want to play for the Avalanche and eat heaping portions of the least nutritionally beneficial starches available.

Overall, it’s understandable that a player as driven as MacKinnon wants to make sure they’re using the best fuel. Yet, you can’t say he’s careful in every way.

At times, MacKinnon revs up the engine, and gets steered by a volatile temper. Whether he slashed that official or not, it wasn’t great that it was a discussion. There were already concerns about MacKinnon’s anger getting the best of him before he possibly got injured fighting Matt Dumba after Dumba hit Mikko Rantanen on Sunday.

Sure, there’s a “lead by example” element of sticking up for your teammate. But MacKinnon’s far too valuable to the Avalanche to fight, and it’s happened more than usual lately. Now it might keep him out long enough for it to be a concern.

While you want MacKinnon to play with passion, there has to be a happy medium between skating passively and scared vs. trying to be a superstar enforcer rolling the dice with nightly broken knuckles.

Frankly, the Avalanche deal with enough sneaky-troubling injury issues beyond unforced errors like a superstar player fighting when a plugger could have dropped the gloves. (If you fight at all; the peak Red Wings preferred hurting opponents on the scoreboard to get revenge.)

It would have been better if MacKinnon and the Avalanche didn’t need to learn this lesson the hard way. Hopefully they’re clued into what they need to do now, at least.

Tuesday was a feast of high-level NHL battles, including a costly win for the Maple Leafs

Here are some quick summaries.

  • The Maple Leafs likely took some joy in beating their rivals, the Boston Bruins. Especially with both teams so close in the standings. That joy is subdued by the Maple Leafs dealing with possible injuries to Petr Mrazek, Justin Holl, and Ilya Lyubushkin, however.
  • In some Lightning – Hurricanes games, you’d expect Carolina to hog the volume, but Tampa Bay to hope they can survive on quality over quantity. During an often-exciting Lightning – Hurricanes game during the NHL action on Tuesday, Tampa Bay earned a 32-19 shots on goal advantage. Carolina almost won anyway, but Steven Stamkos assisted on the game-tying goal, then scored the game-winner in OT.
  • There’s a decent chance that the Rangers will face the Penguins in a first-round series. With wins in back-to-back weeks, the Rangers greatly improved their odds of holding home-ice advantage in a hypothetical series vs. the Penguins. For the Penguins’ sake, they at least didn’t get blown out by the Rangers this time. They still lost, though, and in regulation. Perhaps New York found another gear after a promising trade deadline?
  • Impressively, the Flames controlled much of the play against the Nathan MacKinnon-less Avalanche, including a 45-30 SOG advantage. The two teams only combined for three goals, all on the power play. Ultimately, it would be Valeri Nichushkin who was the difference-maker (beyond Darcy Kuemper), scoring both of Colorado’s goals.

Wednesday’s big story

Another possible playoff preview in Kings vs. Oilers?

While the Eastern Conference features room for the top eight to move up and down, the West’s battles are more urgent. Although the Kings and Oilers are unlikely to fall all the way out of the postseason, such a collapse is still at least plausible.

That said, heading into the NHL games on Wednesday, Kings vs. Oilers would be the Pacific Division’s 2/3 matchup. And it would sure be an interesting clash of styles.

Generally, the Kings look either solid or great at even-strength, showing signs of the puck-hogging team they were when they won two Stanley Cups. Being that this is a rebuild that’s ahead of schedule, maybe it’s not too shocking that they’re less exciting in high-skill areas, like the power play.

[Check out where Kings, Oilers, others place in the PHT Power Rankings]

In some ways, the Oilers are the opposite: shaky at even-strength, deadly on special teams. There’s hope that Jay Woodcroft can nudge Edmonton in a more competent direction at 5-on-5, yet the makeup of the team seems to still boil down to “survive when Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl aren’t on the ice.)

(Interestingly, the Kings’ goaltending’s slipped lately, making it less of an advantage over the Oilers’ at-times-disastrous netminding.)

Theoretically, Kings vs. Oilers could be a series featuring two teams with very different approaches. The actual on-ice differences may actually end up being more subtle, but if styles really clash, hockey fans could have something to chew on.

Tuesday NHL scores

Maple Leafs 6, Bruins 4
Lightning 4, Hurricanes 3 (OT)
Panthers 7, Canadiens 4
Rangers 3, Penguins 2
Islanders 4, Blue Jackets 3
Predators 4, Senators 1
Wild 4, Flyers 1
Avalanche 2, Flames 1
Stars 3, Ducks 2

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.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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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

    Kris Letang Penguins
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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

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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.