Brent Seabrook

Kubalik eyes dream debut as Blackhawks play Flyers in Prague

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PRAGUE — Czech winger Dominik Kubalik has waited six years for a chance to play in the NHL. He never expected his debut would take place at home.

The 24-year-old Kubalik is set to play his first game for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague on Friday in the teams’ season-opener, as part of the NHL’s 2019 Global Series.

Having been drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, Kubalik has had to wait until now for a chance to actually play in the North American league and spent last season playing in Switzerland. The Kings shipped him to Chicago for a fifth-round pick in January, setting up a surreal homecoming this week.

”It’s going to be a great experience, especially for my family,” Kubalik said. ”A dream come true. It’s something very special.”

For Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton, though, there were no sentimental reasons for including Kubalik in the opening-night roster.

”The thing I’ve been impressed with is his work ethic,” Colliton said. ”He’s not a passenger out there. We think he can produce offensively but he can also play on a defensive line and give the line some punch, so that’s a good sign for him and he shown he can be valuable in different ways.”

It’s the third straight year – and eighth overall – that the NHL returns to Europe as part of its efforts to grow the local fan base in hockey-mad countries like the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and others.

The interest remains huge. Even the training sessions for the teams on Thursday were sold out – as is Friday’s game at Prague’s O2 Arena. Kubalik won’t be the only Czech player on the ice, with Philadelphia winger Jakub Voracek also excited about playing in front of a home crowd.

Voracek played two season-opening games in Stockholm with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010 against the San Jose Sharks, but said this trip was more special.

”When I started to play (in the NHL) I never expected I’m going to get a chance to play here,” Voracek said. ”It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Chicago also has Czech center David Kampf.

For the Flyers, it’s their first trip to Europe for a game. Chicago came in 2009 to open the season with a couple of games against the Florida Panthers in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, before going on to lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the season.

Defenseman Brent Seabrook was on the team back then, and is hoping for a similar experience.

”Ten years ago when we were over here it was a wild atmosphere and I think we’re looking for the same kind of atmosphere on Friday,” Seabrook said.

Chicago also lifted the Cup in 2013 and 2015 but missed the playoffs last season. For Colliton, the trip also represents a good team-building exercise as the Blackhawks try to get the season off to a good start.

”I think that’s one of the reasons why you go for this trip is for the guys to have some time together,” Colliton said. ”We’re going to learn way more in the first game than probably we learned the whole three weeks of preseason. I’m excited about that and we’ll react accordingly. So that’s exciting.”

The Flyers haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975 and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in seven seasons.

Alain Vigneault was hired as coach to fix that. He might be known for quick fixes but he knows there’s work to be done after the Flyers lost to Swiss team HC Lausanne 4-3 in an exhibition game on Monday.

”Obviously, right now we’re in the process of making the evaluation that we need for this team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

What DeBrincat’s new deal means for Blackhawks’ cap outlook

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The Chicago Blackhawks took care of some pretty important business on Thursday when they announced a three-year contract extension for one of their top young players, Alex DeBrincat.

Since he still has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract there wasn’t a huge rush for the Blackhawks to get this deal done now, but doing so helped them get ahead of the game when it comes to constructing next year’s roster.

Let’s take a quick look at what it means for both DeBrincat and the Blackhawks.

It eliminates a headache for the Blackhawks next summer

The storyline that dominated the NHL offseason this past summer was the way the RFA signing process dragged on for months with pretty much every significant player remaining unsigned until well after training camps began. It didn’t result in any meaningful player movement, but it did see a shift in the way RFA contracts are constructed with nearly every player opting for shorter term bridge deals.

Three year deals that increased in salary each year (the biggest salary is in year three, which impacts the qualifying offer on the next contract) became the new normal. Even though everything eventually ended up getting done, it still seemed to be a headache for every team that had to deal with it. Given the new bridge contract trend the Blackhawks probably figured they might as well just get right to it and take care of it now.

[Related: DeBrincat signs three year bridge deal with Blackhawks]

The won’t have to worry about it with their best young player next summer, and that is probably a relief because they still have five restricted free agents to deal with next summer, including Dylan Strome who is entering a massive year in his development.

He may have done the Blackhawks a favor

There was no rush or incentive for DeBrincat to re-sign right now when he still has this season ahead of him. By doing so he may have really helped the Blackhawks’ short-term salary cap outlook because he may have undersold himself a bit financially.

The $6.4 million cap hit is on the lower end of some of the recent RFA deals, and that makes some sense. He has just two years in NHL and while he has been outstanding, especially when it comes to putting the puck in the net, I don’t know that he is as impactful all over the ice defensively and as a possession driver as, say, a Brayden Point or a Mathew Tkachuk.

So to get a deal in their price range is probably a fair one for him.

But again, DeBrincat still has another year on his entry-level contract and if he repeats what he did a year ago (scoring 40 goals) or even improves his overall game (and there is no reason to believe he will not) he could have been looking at a much bigger deal for himself next summer, which could have complicated things for the Blackhawks and their salary cap outlook.

His contract expires the same time as the Blackhawks’ veteran core

DeBrincat’s deal will expire in the summer of 2023 when he will still be a restricted free agent. Because his base salary in the final year of the contract is $9 million, he will be looking at a huge qualifying offer from the Blackhawks and, as long as he continues to be a productive goal-scorer, a huge contract. That same summer the Blackhawks will have a ton of salary coming off the books as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith will all have their contracts expiring at the same time. Brent Seabrook‘s deal comes off the books one year later. It is pretty much a given that Keith and Seabrook won’t be re-signed beyond these current contracts given their ages, so the Blackhawks should have plenty of salary cap room to get a new deal for DeBrincat. In the short-term, the Blackhawks’ at least know what they have to work with regarding DeBrincat’s deal within their core as they try to squeeze another championship window out of the Kane, Toews, and Keith era.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL Power Rankings: First look at 2019-20 season

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We kick off our 2019-20 PHT Power Rankings with a look at where every team in the league standings as the season begins this week.

What are expecting?

Do not give up on the Lightning, believe in the Avalanche, and be very, very, very worried about the defense in Winnipeg.

Where does your team stand as the season begins?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They embarrassed themselves in the playoffs and this core has a record of falling short when the chips are on the table. But the same things were said about the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues for years. They got over the hump. This team can, too. Still the best roster in the league on paper.

2. St. Louis Blues. Adding Justin Faulk to a Stanley Cup winning team is a nice way to end the offseason. Big question is if Jordan Binnington can come close to matching his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

3. Boston Bruins. This team is still loaded. David Pastrnak should be considered a real sleeper to win the goal-scoring crown.

4. Washington Capitals. Feels like the Capitals are kind of sneaking under the radar as a championship contender this season. The core is still in place and they are still great.

5. Colorado Avalanche. Buying all in on the hype. They needed to address their forward depth and they did that and more with Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky joining the roster. Their young defense is almost as exciting as their forwards.

6. San Jose Sharks. Even after losing Joe Pavelski and Donskoi they still have a great group of forwards and the best defense in the league. There is also no way that Martin Jones can be as bad as he was a year ago. Right? Right?!

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. It is a broken record at this point, but with all of that talent they can no longer tolerate third place finishes and Round 1 exits. At some point, Mike Babcock and Co. have to do something.

8. Vegas Golden Knights. A full year of Mark Stone, one of the league’s best all-around players, is going to be a game-changer.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Their playoff run was no fluke. All of the focus is on the defense, but their forwards are excellent as well. Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on the verge of a breakout season.

10. Calgary Flames. This feels low for the team that finished with the top record in the West a year ago, but a lot of things went right for them and I just don’t know how much I trust a full season of Cam Talbot and David Rittich in net.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

11. Nashville Predators. Can Matt Duchene help fix what was a truly depressing power play unit? That unit was the biggest thing holding this team back.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. A true wild card team that seems like it could be a Stanley Cup contender or miss the playoffs entirely. A lot will depend on Evgeni Malkin bouncing back, Matt Murray staying healthy, and figuring out a capable defense after their top pairing.

13. Dallas Stars. They have elite talent at all three levels (forward, defense, goalie) and Pavelski gives them a much-needed secondary scoring threat for their second line. Still some depth concerns, but this team was a double overtime goal away in Game 7 from reaching the Western Conference Final.

14. Florida Panthers. They addressed their biggest need with the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, and while his contract will probably be a disaster before it ends, he is good enough in the short-term to help get them back in the playoffs, something they desperately need to do for their fans.

15. New York Islanders. Can Semyon Varlamov do what Robin Lehner did a year ago? If he can’t that is going to leave a big hole that will be difficult to overcome.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. As long as one of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins can be passable in net I am not sure the regression is going to be as significant as some think this season. They still have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.

17. Chicago Blackhawks. They should be able to score, but forward depth is a concern and the defense, even after offseason changes, has big questions. An Olli MaattaBrent Seabrook defense pairing might be the league’s slowest.

18. Minnesota Wild. If everything goes right there is a path back to the playoffs this season. The return of a healthy Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu would be a good start.

19. New York Rangers. Definitely a better team and what should be an entertaining one with the additions of Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, but lack of depth down the middle and on defense will be their undoing.

20. New Jersey Devils. If Cory Schneider does not rebound in a big way it could undo what was a wildly successful summer.

21. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel gives them the type of game-breaking offensive talent they have been lacking for more than a decade. Is that enough to get them back in the playoffs?

22. Philadelphia Flyers. Enough good players to be an interesting team and just enough question marks to not fully buy into them.

23. Montreal Canadiens. They were just a couple points shy of a playoff spot, but a lot of teams around them managed to get better while the Canadiens mostly stood pat.

24. Winnipeg Jets. The forwards are great, especially now that Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are signed, but the state of that defense, especially without Dustin Byfuglien at the moment, is some real nightmare fuel for Winnipeg.

25. Buffalo Sabres. They have two franchise players and made some nice offseason upgrades, but there is a huge gap between them and the top-three teams (and probably top-four, if you include Florida) in their division.

26. Anaheim Ducks. Probably one of the best goalie duos in the league and some intriguing young forwards will get a chance to excel, but still too many holes.

27. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Quinn Hughes offer long-term hope. The rest of the roster does not.

28. Edmonton Oilers. It looks like they are on the verge of wasting another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which is still difficult to comprehend.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman is going to need some time to get this thing back on track.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Even if Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick bounce back there just isn’t enough talent around them to matter.

31. Ottawa Senators. Anything other than the worst record in the league would be an accomplishment.

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.

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: After failing to make the playoffs again, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had to shake up his roster. He didn’t really add a core player, but that’s fine considering he already has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat on his roster. Instead, he decided to surround those players with some more quality depth. He was able to bring Andrew Shaw back into the fold in a trade with Montreal and he also improved his defense by acquiring Calvin de Haan from Carolina and Olli Maatta from Pittsburgh. With all the uncertainty surrounding the health of goaltender Corey Crawford, he also signed Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. It’s hard to argue that Chicago isn’t better on paper heading into this season.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Blackhawks have a lot of high-end talent up front. Kane posted a 110-point season last year, while Toews added 81 points in 82 contests during a bounce-back season. They also have DeBrincat, who found the back of the net 41 times last year and Brandon Saad, who can do more than he did a year ago (23 goals and 47 points). It’ll also be interesting to see if Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini continue to improve at a rapid rate. The Blackhawks shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense this year.

Weaknesses: Even though they’ve added Maatta and de Haan this summer, their defense still has to be considered a question mark. How much will they be able to get from veterans like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith? Both players are in their mid-30s and you have to wonder how many minutes they’ll be able to log on a Chicago blue line that has to be better this year than it was in 2018-19. The goaltending situation, which was weak once Crawford went down last year, has been shored up by the addition of Lehner.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 2. It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks getting rid of Jeremy Colliton during or after his first full year behind an NHL bench. Of course, if things get really ugly for them this season, anything is possible, but it’s tough to envision them dropping deeper into the standings than they have been over the last couple of seasons. Colliton had success with Chicago’s AHL affiliate and although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll do well in the NHL, it should buy him some time when it comes to putting his team together.

[MORE: On Blackhawks’ goalie duo | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: Strome, Lehner and Shaw are the players to keep an eye on this year. Strome is a former third overall pick that couldn’t seem to put it all together with Arizona. After he got traded to Chicago, all he did was score 51 points in 58 games after being reunited with DeBrincat, his teammate in junior. Can he continue producing at that rate? Can the 22-year-old actually improve his scoring clip? He could develop into a real difference-maker for this Blackhawks team.

As for Lehner, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on the strong season he had with the Islanders in 2018-19. Can he produce similar results to last year now that he’s away from Barry Trotz’s smothering defense-first system? Will he play well enough to earn himself a long-term extension with a team that was only willing to give him a one-year deal? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered in this situation.

Shaw is back where it all began. He had a solid season with Montreal last year, as he scored 19 goals and 47 points in just 63 games. Those are significant numbers for a player that plays with an edge. The only question surrounding Shaw is whether or not he can stay healthy. He’s a small player that plays a physical style. The 28-year-old also has a long history with concussions.

Playoffs or Lottery: As much as the Blackhawks have added to their roster, it won’t be easy for them to sneak into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ll likely be battling with St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado for the final Wild Card spots and that’s a battle they might not win. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish in ninth spot in the West. They’ll be in the race until the end though.

MORE:
Blackhawks encouraged by strong second half under Colliton

ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.