Alex Ovechkin

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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

Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

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.

Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

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.

Trade: Avalanche buy low on Burakovsky from Capitals

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The Colorado Avalanche are aggressively attempting to improve as a team on the rise. The Washington Capitals are trying to stay at a high level while navigating salary cap challenges. If that strikes you as a perfect combination for a trade, then you’re right.

The two teams made an interesting splash on Friday, as the Capitals sent the rights of intriguing forward Andre Burakovsky to the Avalanche for what amounts to a couple picks.

Here’s the exchange, confirmed by the Capitals:

Avalanche receive: Burakovsky, 24, who is an RFA. The Capitals extended a $3.25 million qualifying offer to Burakovsky earlier this week, so we’ll see where a final deal might land once Colorado gets cracking.

Capitals receive: 2020 second-round pick (Colorado’s pick), 2020 third-round pick (Arizona’s pick, which was part of the Carl Soderberg trade), and unsigned free agent forward Scott Kosmachuk.

Frustrations, and limitations, for Capitals

A bit more than a week ago, Capitals GM Brian McClellan discussed Burakovsky’s struggles in 2018-19, while also saying he’s a good player, as NBC Sports’ Brian McNally reported.

“Andre had a frustrating year this year, but I think he finished it up well,” MacLellan said. “I think from the trade deadline on, I thought he had a good playoffs. We like the player. There’s been some inconsistencies there, but when he’s on his game, he’s a good player.”

One could see where Washington was getting a little frustrated with Burakovsky.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

After generating 22 points in just 53 games as a teenage rookie in 2014-15, Burakovsky enjoyed his peak years in 2015-16 and 2016-17, scoring 38 and 35 points respectively.

Injuries have been an issue at times, making 2017-18’s 25 points easier to stomach, as Burakovsky was limited to 56 games played.

It must have been irritating to see his stats stagnate at 25 points in 76 games this past season, though. Most obviously, you could see the lost patience in Burakovsky in his ice time, as it slipped all the way down to just 11:08 per game in 2018-19 after he was a pretty steady 13+ minute per night guy before.

With the Capitals in a tight cap situation (Cap Friendly estimates $9.235M of room with 17 roster spots covered), and some big expenditures looming with Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom about to enter contract years, this ultimately might have been necessary surgery for Washington. Especially if, frankly, Burakovsky was never really going to get out of the doghouse.

Still, Caps fans have room to wonder: could they have gotten more for Burakovsky if they acknowledged the inevitable and moved him during the trade deadline? This is … not exactly the strongest return for a player with such potential and pedigree (23rd overall in 2013). Especially if you compare that to, um, other not-so-great trades.

Is it too simplistic to say that Burakovsky ultimately “lost out” to Jakub Vrana, another fine first-round find the Capitals managed despite being a regular contender? To some extent, it will feel that way, as there were only so many prominent spots to earn on a Capitals club with entrenched forwards like Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie already (justifiably) claiming big minutes.

Avalanche are rising, but will have a busy summer

In case it wasn’t clear, I love this trade for the Avalanche.

It reminds me of the New Jersey Devils exploiting the Capitals’ previous cap troubles to land Marcus Johansson, so here’s hoping that Burakovsky — someone who’s dealt with injury challenges — will enjoy better health luck than Johansson had in New Jersey.

One can picture Burakovsky really taking off if given the minutes and opportunities he struggled to gain with Washington.

Again, aside from 2018-19, Burakovsky generated strong possession numbers, and his scoring totals are quite good when you realize that his ice time was usually pretty modest. Could he take off if the Avalanche use him as a much-needed supporting scorer behind the mega-line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog? Perhaps Burakovsky could even ascend to the top line so the Avalanche can enjoy better lineup balance? The possibilities are pretty dazzling.

One way or another, the Avalanche aren’t done yet.

For one thing, they figure to have the cap space to land a much bigger fish. In a lot of ways, they’re the snazziest landing spot for superstar Artemi Panarin, although we’ll have to see if the stars align (particularly, if Panarin prefers skiing to suntanning in, say, Florida?).

Beyond that, the Avalanche have some contracts to hash out. Burakovsky is an RFA with arbitration rights, while Rantanen could cost Colorado eight figures, depending upon how his negotiations play out.

Getting those contracts right won’t be simple, yet it’s still easy to see the Avalanche making big strides this offseason. Considering how they dominated the West’s top seed in the Flames in Round 1, and pushed the Sharks to the limit in Round 2 even before making upgrades — and considering how they were one of the biggest winners of the 2019 NHL Draft — the sky seems to be the limit for this Avs team.

Consider smart deals like this one for Burakovsky as jet fuel for such a rise, then.

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.

Examining different contract routes for Jets, Patrik Laine

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Outside of Winnipeg, it’s Mitch Marner’s contract stalemate with the Toronto Maple Leafs that is all the rage.

But inside Winnipeg’s city limits, where thoughts of the Maple Leafs account for more squeamish faces than anything else, it’s Patrik Laine’s name that reigns supreme.

In a perfect Winnipeg world, the Leafs would either lose Marner or sign him to something so ridiculous that Toronto suffers until global warming makes it impossible to play hockey.

Really, though, Winnipeg is good.

At least Laine once said so, maybe, as it appeared in The Players’ Tribune story Laine couldn’t fully remember telling.

Nevertheless, it spawned an affectionate relationship between the fanbase and the 21-year-old who’s scored more goals than anyone not named Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov since entering the NHL in 2016.

One might be the greatest goal scorer the league has ever seen and the other just won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. Fair to say Laine is keeping some damn good company atop the goal-scoring pantheon.

Laine is good, too. And the man who once grew a goat beard because Finnish players can do what they want these days in the NHL, just so happens to be up for a mammoth raise.

Ah yes, another superstar about to cash in. It happens every offseason in the NHL, and sometimes during the season, too.

Big names need big pay. Laine’s about to make it rain. How long cash will pour from the Jets’ coffers, however, is still to be determined.

The number of years and how many zeroes will come after that first comma is the most fascinating thing in Winnipeg these days.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Winnipeg will be good when Laine’s future is decided, but what does said future hold? Let’s take a look at three scenarios that could come to pass for Winnipeg’s future richest 21-year-old.

A bridge too far

This is highly unfavorable for the Jets. Let’s clear that bit up.

Sure, the Jets would save money for a minute. And some may even think that this would be best because the risk wouldn’t be so high. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Laine scores goals in droves. And while he had a down year in this third season in the NHL, one can’t discredit the 100-plus he’s banked in three short years.

Laine’s agent isn’t at the negotiating table with last seasons statistics as his only ammunition. Laine’s an elite goal scorer whose shooting percentage was down six percent than the year before, his 44-goal season, and five percent lower than his 36-goal rookie campaign.

If anything, Laine’s set to rebound (perhaps off some rebounds? I’ll see myself out).

Look, If cap relief came in pill form,Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would be in a self-induced coma at this moment. But as cash-strapped as Winnipeg might be this summer, if Laine returns to his 40-plus goal self from two seasons ago, he’s bound to score a good 80 or 90, maybe even 100 during those bridge deal years.

Guess where that AAV goes? And it goes there faster than a Laine one-timer.

Laine dealt with a bad back, a bad groin and a lack of confidence last season and still scored 30. He scored 18 in one month, which no one else does. And he took real, tangible steps late in the season and into the playoffs where he looked like an imposing power forward who could play at both ends of the ice.

It’s not Russian roulette, but giving Laine a bridge and thinking, ‘This is fine’ (you know, that meme the dog and the fire all around him) is pretty close. Laine didn’t lose his skill. He didn’t misplace his deadly accuracy or wicked shot.

And if the Jets ever find him a center, the goal-scoring ceiling becomes unknown.

Simply put, the risk is too high. The only thing bridging him will do is make him cost more in two year’s time when they have to buy more unrestricted free agent years on top of whatever the market dictates what a 50-goal scorer should make. Hint: it’s more than seven figures.

The five-year plan

Auston Matthews really created something interesting when he decided against an eight-year deal to take three fewer seasons and leaving some money on the table.

Superstars taking less term and lightly less money while having the world at their feet vying for their services in five years could turn into somewhat of the norm. If Laine doesn’t hit his prime until his mid-20s, a deal of this length would allow him to really maximize his earning potential while shooting him into unrestricted free agency at the end of it.

And that has to have Laine thinking, ‘Why not try that?’ He’s 21, about to get stinkin’ rich now, then again at 26 and perhaps one more time in his early 30s? The stinkin’ rich hat trick, as it were.

For the Jets, it might be a happy medium. It’s not ideal for Cheveldayoff. The full eight years is like where he wants to be. But if Laine’s back problems are a legitimate concern within the organization (nothing has suggested this), or if they legitimately feel Laine played beyond his abilities a year ago and regressed to his normal self this year, then perhaps it makes sense.

The Jets save money on AAV as they don’t have to purchase those UFA years and they retain the services of a guy who could lead them to a Stanley Cup. The downside is they could lose him three years earlier.

The deal doesn’t have to be five years, necessarily. The Matthews deal could be a one-off, a shrewd move by that player’s agent. Or it could become the new standard for stud franchise players looking to extract everything they can from the pockets of their owners.

Whatever it is, this middle option seems to keep both sides of the balance scale somewhat even.

The Jets get some degree of extended term and the player receives a nice cache of greenbacks direct-deposited into their bank about every couple of weeks.

The maximum

The full monty.

Eight years. The maximum term Laine can be offered and only Winnipeg can offer it. The AVV will be higher but the player will be in their possession for longer, well into his prime years. The Jets, of course, would have to pay for those UFA years and they assume some risk as stated above, more on the side of Laine most recent season being the norm and not the exception.

Still, this is the best deal for Winnipeg in the long run. Assuming he’s healthy and he develops measures to manage his confidence from dipping too far, the deal could look like a steal halfway through its life.

And at the end of the day, it’s a risk worth taking for a player that all the right stars had to align just to be able to draft him. Laine’s addition sped up Winnipeg’s re-tooling efforts. They found a power play maestro and a player that could use his large frame one day to become a dominant power forward.

Yes, this deal likely hits the cap for the most. While Evolving Wild’s model has him in the seven-year, $49 million range, I believe this is too low. If the Jets can lock up Laine at anything under $10 million on an eight-year pact, they’re dancing. And they’re still in good shape if not.

And while one can argue that Laine isn’t the best player on the team, nor the second or third best, he’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL. In my mind, it can’t be stressed enough. And I don’t think it’s something slipping the mind of Laine’s agent at the moment either.

Cheveldayoff has his most important and challenging offseason to date. Laine’s contract aside, he still has to sign Kyle Connor to a deal that’s going to be up there in terms of AAV, as well. And then he has to find the right pieces to still keep the team highly competitive after the loss of Jacob Trouba and likely some other pieces, including Tyler Myers and Brandon Tanev (the latter two, I believe, are easily replaceable).

But the first order of business should be not betting against Laine. The odds (and the statistical information that backs them) are just too compelling to not throw down big money on the table.

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.