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Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

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.

With window approaching, here are some NHL buyout candidates

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Now that the Stanley Cup Final has wrapped up we are less than two days away from the start of the NHL’s buyout window where teams can attempt to get away from some of their less desirable and otherwise unmovable contracts. For a price.

Which teams might be willing to exercise that option?

Let’s take a look at some candidates.

The Buyout Proof contract

Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers: Okay, this is one that probably will not happen but it is still worth looking at because it is the exact type of situation that usually ends in a buyout — a big-time free agent signing that just does not work out because the team made a poor evaluation and signed an aging player to a contract that was destined to fail. So why won’t this situation end with a buyout? Because along with making a costly investment, the Oilers also gave Lucic what is, for all intents and purposes, a buyout proof contract in how much of the money is tied up in signing bonuses.

According to CapFriendly, if the Oilers were to buyout the remainder of Lucic’s deal they would have to pay out the remainder of his salary over the next 10 years with minimal salary cap savings over the next five years. I suppose they could do that if they really wanted to, but it doesn’t seem likely. Instead, they might sweeten the pot in a trade and give up a potentially useful asset to rid themselves of the contract an option that … does not really seem much better, now does it? Let’s just chalk this move up to another swing and a miss by the Oilers as they continue to waste Connor McDavid.

Costly, but might be worth it

Matt Hunwick, Pittsburgh Penguins. This is another contract that just did not work out. Hunwick signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract before last season and it became pretty obvious in the very beginning that it was going to come with some regret. The Penguins could save more than $1 million against the cap over the next two years if they buyout Hunwick this summer, and for a team that is consistently pressed against the salary cap and is in a clear win-now mode that could be significant.

Troy Brouwer, Calgary Flames. Brouwer is two years into a four-year, $18 million contract with the Calgary Flames and to this point has produced 19 goals in 150 games and still has a modified no-trade clause over the next two years. The odds of him improving at this point are slim. The odds of finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract seem slimmer. A buyout saves the Flames $3 million against the cap over the next two seasons and then they would have to carry $1.5 million in dead cap money in the two years after that. Not cheap, but certainly an option that should be explored because this is a team that should have the talent on its roster to compete right now. An extra $3 million in cap space this upcoming season and the one after that would be a huge asset.

Matt Moulson, Buffalo Sabres. Moulson is entering the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract and it is clear that his days as a top-six scorer in the NHL are finished. He played only 14 games for the Sabres this past season and recorded zero points while averaging less than one shot on goal per game. The rest of the year he was in the American Hockey League. Buying out the final year of his contract would save the Sabres just a little more than $1.5 million this season and cost them around $667,000 in empty cap space next season. Considering how low his trade value has to be at this point it might be worth it.

Definitely worth it

Jori Lehtera, Philadelphia Flyers. The key to the Brayden Schenn-for-Lehtera swap was always going to be the draft picks involved. Good thing, too, because Lehtera did not really offer the Flyers much this past season. He is entering his age 31 season and has scored only 10 goals in his past 126 games. A buyout would save the Flyers more than $3.3 million against the salary cap this season. They would be stuck with a $1.6 million hit the following year, and that might be tough to swallow, but this is a playoff team that could make a significant addition with some extra cap space.

Tyler Ennis, Minnesota Wild. After back-to-back 20-goal campaigns in Buffalo a few years back Ennis’ career has pretty much cratered. He is coming off of a miserable year with the Wild that saw him manage just eight goals and 14 assists in 73 games while once again being a blackhole in terms of possession metrics. The Wild would save $2.4 million against the salary cap this upcoming season by buying out the final year of his contract. The Wild are once again pressed against the salary cap and have to re-sign restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba this summer.

Maybe give him one more year?

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars. Spezza is an interesting one because he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career offensively and a buyout would save the Stars $5 million(!) against the salary cap this upcoming season. You can do a lot with an extra $5 million.

The problem is they would get hit with $2.5 million in empty space the year after.

What makes it a tough call is that even though Spezza had a terrible year and is going to be 35 years old when the season starts he is just one year removed from being a 50-point player (in only 68 games) and had really strong underlying possession numbers, indicating that he might still have something to offer, especially under a new coach and in a different system.

(Salary and buyout information via CapFriendly)

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.

Finland top US, Swiss make quarters at IIHF worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Finland handed the United States its first defeat at the ice hockey world championship in a 6-2 thumping on Tuesday.

The Finns supplanted the U.S. to top Group B in Herning, and will face Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Swiss clinched a quarterfinal berth by beating France 5-1 to finish fourth in Group A in Copenhagen.

Canada shut out Germany 3-0 to secure third place in Group B and set up a quarterfinal matchup against Sweden or Russia, who will clash over the top spot in Group A.

”We didn’t leave ourselves in a great spot after the group stage but we’re going to have to play them at some stage,” captain Connor McDavid said about the potential opponents.

The Americans’ first defeat in seven games dropped them to second in the group and a quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, the third team in Group A.

”It’s not a good feeling losing,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”It could be good for us to make sure we won’t deal with this again and stay positive. We’re a good team, we’ve had a good tournament to this point.”

”(The Czechs) have some talents, it will be a tough game against them.”

Host Denmark will fight with Latvia over the last quarterfinal berth in the same group to play the winner of Group A.

Sebastian Aho scored a couple of opening-period goals for Finland and added one more into an empty net to finish the scoring to become the championship leader with nine goals and eight assists. Kane also has 17 points with six goals and 11 assists.

”We’ve played really well,” Aho said. ”We just try not to think who we play against, focus on our own system and play our game.”

Kane got a power play goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1 in the final period. Derek Ryan added another one for the U.S.

Brayden Schenn gave Canada an early goal just 20 seconds into the game. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it 2-0 in the second and Tyson Jost sealed it in the third.

McDavid had two assists and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 12 saves for his shutout.

”Everyone played hard and everyone played really responsible, so a good momentum for us,” Kuemper said.

Gregory Hofmann, Enzo Corvi, Ramon Untersander, Kevin Fiala Simon Moser had a goal apiece for the Swiss. France replied with one from Guillaume Leclerc.

Also, Slovakia beat already relegated Belarus 7-4 in their last game.

Penguins – Capitals nastiness boils over in Letang – Oshie fight

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Following two controversial Tom Wilson hits and a controversial three-game suspension, it was fair to wonder if tensions might boil over between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4.

Both teams were wise to generally keep their emotions in check, too, as special teams factored into three of the four goals in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 win (the Penguins went 2-for-4 while the Capitals went 1-for-3). Now, you can discount Jake Guentzel‘s second goal of Game 4 since it was an empty-netter on the power play, but either way … these teams showed that they can make opponents pay for going to the penalty box. At least, without taking an opposing player with them.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The latter situation emerged with a bit less than a minute remaining in Game 4. After some tense exchanges, Kris Letang and T.J. Oshie engaged in an angry-looking fight. It didn’t last very long, but it was quite the spectacle, as you won’t see many fights during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Looking at the Hockey Fights listings for Letang and Oshie provides some interesting additional context for this bout, which you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

To little surprise, neither high-skill player is all that likely to drop the gloves. Still, they both have shown a willingness to fight on occasion, including during postseason play. Oshie fought Brayden Schenn during the 2016 postseason, while Letang is credited with three postseason bouts before this tiff, although the last one came the postseason of 2011-12.

With the series now tied 2-2, it’s likely that we’ll see some testy moments now that things boil down to a best-of-three. You can bet that Oshie and Letang will work – and fight? – hard to try to get the last laugh once it’s over.

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.

On Tom Wilson, Player Safety and avoiding suspension

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For the second time this postseason Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been fortunate enough to avoid discipline from the NHL Department of Player Safety for a hit to the head that injured an opponent.

In the first-round it was Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg, who went on to miss three games after he was hit in the head early in their series. Wilson was given a two-minute penalty for charging on the play, but the hit did not warrant a disciplinary hearing, let alone a fine from the DoPS.

On Sunday, it was Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin who was knocked out of the Capitals’ 4-1 Game 2 win. Dumoulin was back on the ice at practice for the Penguins on Monday and seems like he will be available for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Wilson once again avoided a disciplinary hearing and a suspension for what could probably be best described as a borderline and controversial hit.

He avoided a suspension on this one because, in the NHL’s view (via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski), head contact was unavoidable because Dumoulin, in bracing for contact from an oncoming Alex Ovechkin, changed the position of his head just prior to contact. There did not seem to be any word on the changing position of Wilson’s shoulder, which seemed to play just as big of a role in the contact as Dumoulin changing the position of his head.

He avoided a suspension in the first-round on the Wennberg hit because the DoPS could not determine if the head was the main point of contact given the available camera angles.

[Related: Tom Wilson avoids suspension for hit on Brian Dumoulin]

Viewed in a vacuum and as isolated incidents those explanations might hold up. They might make sense. They might even be justified.

Here is the problem with that: This same thing keeps happening with Tom Wilson.

He always seems to find himself in these positions. He always seems to find himself at the center of the controversial play where “there is nothing else he could have done,” or “the contact could not be avoided,” or “there was not a clear view of what happened.” No matter the situation, no matter the hit, no matter the result, there is an always an excuse for why it was okay or why it shouldn’t have been elevated to the level of supplemental discipline. The story of his career to this point can probably be summed up as: Hey, that was probably a bad hit with an unfortunate result for the guy on the receiving end of it but there just wasn’t enough evidence to suspend him … this time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2013-14 season no player in the NHL has been penalized more than Wilson. His 806 penalty minutes in the regular season are 85 more than the next closest player, and he is one of just three players in the league to be assessed more than even 600 penalty minutes during that stretch (Antoine Roussel at 721 and Cody McLeod at 707) are the only others.

He is third when it comes to penalty minutes in the playoffs (only seven behind the leader, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin) even though he has only played in 46 playoff games during that stretch. The two players ahead of him — Malkin and P.K. Subban — have played in 71 and 59, respectively, during that same stretch.

His career to this point is littered with borderline plays that leave plenty of room for debate as to whether or not they are clean, dirty, or something in between.

A brief sampling:

  • In 2015, he was given a match penalty for a hit on Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar (play here) that was later rescinded, allowing him to avoid the mandatory suspension that comes with a match penalty.
  • During the 2015-16 he was ejected for boarding Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell (play here), a play that he was not suspended for.
  • Later that season he obliterated Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov on a hit that left Zadorov concussed (play here). There was no suspension.
  • During the 2013-14 season Wilson had a phone hearing for a violent hit on Philadelphia Flyers Brayden Schenn. He was not only not suspended — something that is extremely rare when a player has a hearing with the DoPS — the DoPS released a nearly four-minute video (seen here) explaining why he was not suspended (the DoPS rarely goes on the record for why a player was not suspended, let alone singling out a specific play for this sort of in-depth description).

Those are just some of the borderline plays that didn’t result in punishment. Amazingly, for all of the penalty minutes he has received, the times he has been ejected, and all of the plays that create arguments he has only been fined or suspended three times in his career.

During the 2015-16 playoffs (also against the Penguins) he was given a $2,900 fine for kneeing Conor Sheary on a play where he deliberately went out of his way en route to the bench during a line change to deliver a hit away from the play.

He was suspended twice for incidents this preseason. The first was a slap on the wrist that kept him out of two preseason games for this hit on St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas.

Then, just one week later in another preseason game against the very same Blues team, he was given a four-game suspension for boarding Samuel Blais.

When the NHL DoPS reviews a play for suspension the first thing they do is eliminate the players involved and simply look at the hit itself as an isolated incident. Past transgressions do not matter. Reputations do not matter. Repeat offender status does not matter. It is simply the play itself they are looking at. The discussion at that point is centered entirely around “does this play warrant discipline on our part?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then — and only then — does a player’s past come into play when determining the length and severity of the punishment.

This, of course, is done in an effort to be fair and to not let any bias play into the ruling. That is entirely understandable. In most cases it probably works in handing out punishments.

It can lead to some issues.

When it comes to Wilson and the plays he has been involved in throughout his career there is always some amount of gray area in them. The Lazar play could be written off as accidental. Same as the Dumoulin play. Maybe the head wasn’t the main point of contact or targeted on Wennberg or Zadorov. On any one of them you can look at them and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the intended result, or that isn’t what he was going for, or that there was some other extenuating circumstance that made the play what it was.

At what point, though, does this no longer become an accident?

If a player — in this case, Wilson — keeps finding himself in these situations when does it stop becoming an unfortunate series of events and start becoming a trend? At what point does it simply become about the player that is the common denominator in all of these situations?

At any given time there are more than 700 players on NHL rosters and there are only a small handful of them that we keep having these discussions about when it comes to their style of play and the incidents they are involved in. Matt Cooke used to be one of those players. Raffi Torres used to be one of those players. Brad Marchand, quite famously, is still one of them. And like Wilson, Marchand always seems to leave enough gray area for debate on a lot of his incidents (the old, accidentally on purpose type of play). Even though he has been suspended and fined more than any other player in the league during the DoPS era, there are countless other plays that seem to toe that line.

Even though the NHL’s DoPS won’t handle it this way, all of those players should lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this stuff. Wilson should be right there with them.

Wilson and the Capitals will argue that all of this is because of his reputation and the fact he has a target on his back.

“Yes, a little bit, yeah,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz on Monday, via the Washington Post, when asked if Wilson has a reputation to overcome.

“It’s something that you try to grow out of. He’s grown as a player. He’s gone from being a fourth-line energy guy to first-line power forward, and sometimes those reputations stay with you a little bit and you have to outgrow that, if you will, or it takes a little time. I think he’s doing a really good job. He studies it, he looks at it, he’s trying to get better all the time. It’s something he has to battle a little bit.”

Maybe he does have a reputation to overcome. Maybe he does have a target. But it is a target he has more than earned given his chosen style of play throughout his career. A style of play that carefully toes the line, always leaving just enough room for debate as to whether or not he intended to do the thing that he did that resulted in the unfortunate result for the opponent to avoid a suspension. After all, there was probably just nothing else he can do that situation.

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.