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Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.

Hellebuyck turns career year into $37 million extension with Jets

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The Winnipeg Jets to-do list got a little shorter on Thursday.

The Jets locked up their goaltending future, signing Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck to a six-year, $37 million contract.

Hellebuyck had a breakout season in 2017-18, posting 44 wins to set a new franchise record for the Jets (and a new record for American-born goalies) in a single season. He also posted franchise marks in shutouts with six and save percentage with a .925, as he seamlessly turned into one of the league’s premier netminders.

And now he’s getting paid like one.

Hellebuyck becomes the sixth highest paid goaltender in the NHL, behind Carey Price ($10.5 million AAV), Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million AAV), Sergei Bobrovsky ($7.425 million AAV) Tuukka Rask  ($7 million AAV) and Pekka Rinne ($7 million AAV). Hellebuyck’s contract comparables include Braden Holtby, Frederik Anderson and Semyon Varlamov.

The deal means the Jets will avoid going to arbitration with Hellebuyck, who was a restricted free agent.

The move also means that that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has one less RFA to sign in an offseason rife with talented players needing raises. CapFriendly has the Jets sitting with $20.6 million in cap space, with a couple of bigger ticket items to sort out soon.

Cheveldayoff will now turn his attention to fellow RFAs in Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, the team’s top, and one of the NHL’s best shutdown pairings. Trouba is looking for a long-term deal while the Jets will likely be able to bridge Morrissey. The Jets also have Brandon Tanev, Adam Lowry and Marko Dano to sign after the trip filed for arbitration.

Winnipeg will also be looking to extend 44-goal man Patrik Laine, who is likely to come close to double digits in AAV, if not exceed them.

Among starting goalies this season, Hellebuyck showed very well, posting an xSv% of 92.92%, good for fifth in the NHL with a minimum of 1,500 minutes played.

Hellebuyck made huge strides in his game after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign. Hooking up with Adam Francilia at the NET360 camp in British Columbia, Hellebuyck appeared to re-invent himself and the results were immediate as he erased many of the doubts people had of him coming into the year.

The Michigan native was instrumental in leading the Jets to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history, and Hellebuyck was also named to the NHL All-Star game.

The Jets will enter the 2018-19 season with Laurent Brossoit handling backup duties after the team traded Steve Mason to the Montreal Canadiens as a part of a salary dump. The Jets signed Mason last offseason to a two-year, $8.2 million deal after Hellebuyck’s rough season previous, but he quickly became expendable because of Hellebuyck’s play and myriad injuries that plagued Mason throughout last season.

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

Latest Pacioretty rumors seem ominous for Habs

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Times like these make it tough to give Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens the benefit of the doubt.

On one hand, the Max Pacioretty situation isn’t necessarily an easy one. The Habs masterfully signed him to a deal that carries a scant $4.5 million cap hit, but that bargain expires after 2018-19, when “Patches” will already be 30. There are very legitimate arguments for why Montreal would be better off trading him rather than signing him to a contract extension, even if you plug your nose and ignore the Dumpster fire that is their current situation.

[It’s time for Montreal to rebuild.]

It’s tough not to look at recent reports as worrisome omens that they won’t be able to patch the Pacioretty situation up, especially when you consider the ominous-to-error scenarios that surrounded ill-fated trades involving P.K. Subban, Mikhail Sergachev, and Alex Galchenyuk.

The parallels between Pacioretty’s uncomfortable situation and those other mishaps comes to mind after a report surfaced from Marc Andre Godin of The Athletic (sub required). Godin cites “an NHL source” who said that the Canadiens told Pacioretty that (gulp):

A) “There will be no contract negotiation” regarding an extension.

B) Bergevin intends to trade Pacioretty “as soon as possible.”

Uh oh.

One of the fascinating elements of Godin’s report is that his source indicates that Pacioretty has been at least open-minded about signing an extension with Montreal. That would happen even though, as a captain and even before that, the American-born winger often served as a scapegoat for his team’s failings.

This despite Pacioretty’s contract ranking among the best steals outside of rookie deals.

You’d understand if such experiences might make Pacioretty the one pushing for a move, rather than Bergevin, but the implication (or spin?) is that the shoe’s on the other foot.

Considering how things shook out with Subban and Galchenyuk, it sure fits into a narrative about many skill players’ efforts seemingly being taken for granted.

Circling back to a previous point, it’s not necessarily wrong for the Canadiens to determine that they’d be better off moving on from a winger who will be 30 when his next contract kicks in.

Considering that Pacioretty was savagely underpaid and went so far as to change his agent during draft weekend, it’s clear that it means a lot to him to get fair value on his next deal. There were more than a few rumors that failed extension talks scuttled a possible trade to the Los Angeles Kings before that change in reps happened.

So this is challenging where moving Subban and Galchenyuk (both locked up for decent term, with Subban signed longer and Galchenyuk being quite affordable) felt like unforced errors. The unforced error here, though, would come down to word leaking that Montreal reportedly isn’t even seeking an extension.

Simply put, Bergevin and the Canadiens badly need to “win” a trade. If even cabin-dwelling, Bermuda-shirt wearing execs know full well that the Habs are about as eager to trade Pacioretty as the Ottawa Senators are desperate to move Erik Karlsson‘s expiring contract, then Bergevin faces an even steeper challenge to land acceptable value for Pacioretty.

[Habs gradually bleed away talent under Bergevin.]

And, again, recent history doesn’t smile on Bergevin’s aptitude in that area. Yet, if he doesn’t get something done, there’s even more risk that Pacioretty will leave the Canadiens for nothing but cap space and an empty roster spot, much like John Tavares did with the Islanders. (Of course, the Islanders did what they could to keep Tavares, while the perception could end up being that the Habs are basically shoving Pacioretty out the door.)

***

Yes, there are certain advantages that come with sticking by a GM, even one who’s struggling.

Sometimes that executive shows that patience pays off, such as Kevin Cheveldayoff with the Jets. Maybe just as crucially, you don’t have a new guy coming into town to “put his own stamp” on a team by merely throwing away useful players. If you look at the NHL’s least successful franchises, you’ll often see front offices frequently thrown into disarray thanks to changes at the top.

On the other hand, the Canadiens could end up being a cautionary tale for the Canucks, Oilers, and other teams who’ve stood by polarizing GMs.

Instead of bringing in fresh eyes after seeing Montreal suffer bad-to-awful asset management (consider Shea Weber‘s outlook, Carey Price‘s scary contract, and the Karl Alzner blunder if you need more examples), the Habs stuck with Bergevin heading into this off-season. They’ll need some luck for Galchenyuk – Max Domi not to look like another one for the “L” column, and this Pacioretty situation seems foreboding at best right now.

It’s getting to the point where, if Bergevin gets canned, the next GM might need years to dig Montreal out of this hole.

Bergevin’s surprised us many times before, although the gawking has mostly been akin to rubbernecking at an accident lately. Sometimes it feels like the noted prankster is actually playing an elaborate trick on the Habs franchise, but maybe he’ll finally win a trade, against all odds, by landing an excellent return for Pacioretty?

Perhaps, but at the moment, it feels like we’re heading toward yet another big mistake.

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.

Six NHL teams that made themselves worse this summer (so far)

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A good rule of thumb in sports is that if you are not doing anything to make your team better, you are actively making it worse.

Earlier this week we looked at six teams that have done the most to make themselves better this summer (so far) and it’s only natural to take a look the other side of that spectrum with a few teams that have managed, one way or another, to make themselves worse.

We still have a few months to go before the season begins so none of these rosters are complete or final and there is still time for all of them to find ways to improve.

Just consider this as an offseason progress report through the draft and the initial free agency signing period where the biggest moves tend to get made.

1. New York Islanders — The New York Islanders hired the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach and a Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup champion general manager and none of it is going to matter in the short-term.

John Tavares is gone. They lost Calvin de Haan. They acquired a bunch of fourth liners to go with the rest of their fourth-liners and are paying the entire group a ton of money. Robin Lehner should be a little bit of an upgrade in net, and they still have Mathew Barzal to build around, but you can not replace John Tavares with Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Valterri Filppula and come away looking better.

Losing Tavares stinks, and given the circumstances there probably was not much else they could have done to keep him from going to the Maple Leafs, but that doesn’t mean you have to compound the problem by making all of the other corresponding roster moves.

2. Ottawa Senators — What is really scary here for the Senators is the fact they have not even traded Erik Karlsson yet.

This might be the worst situation of any team in the NHL given everything that is happening with this organization, on and off the ice.

They absolutely had to trade Mike Hoffman but even that made them look bad because they ended up getting a worse return for him than the team they traded him to did. When Karlsson is sent out this might be an early contender for worst team in hockey.

3. Montreal Canadiens — You can’t really blame them for Shea Weber being injured and missing the next five-to-six months following surgery.

You can blame them for trading P.K. Subban for an older player with a worse contract whose career already has a ton of miles on it and was likely to start breaking down physically before that contract expired.

You can also blame them for fumbling Alex Galchenyuk‘s career and then trading him, one-for-one, for a player that doesn’t address their biggest issue (goal-scoring) and has scored just 18 goals over his past 163 games. By comparison, Galchenyuk scored 19 this past season and the only time over the past four years he scored less was when he scored 17 in 2016-17 … in only 60 games.

They also brought back Tomas Plekanec on a one-year contract after he wasn’t particularly good for them a year ago and is now one year older.

It is going to be a lonely year for Carey Price, especially if they finally complete a Max Pacioretty trade.

4. Vancouver Canucks — I just … I just do not get it. I just do not get what is happening here or what the plan is or how the Canucks plan to get better and rebuild this team back into something that is worth watching. There is nothing wrong with adding Jay Beagle or Antoine Roussel to your team in a bottom-six role if you are contending team because they could probably help out and be useful in such a role.

But why — WHY!? — if you are the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has not made the playoffs in three years and has won fewer games than every team in the NHL (Vegas excluded) during that stretch, do you need to not only sign them, but sign them to matching four-year contracts?!

Do they necessarily make the Canucks worse? Probably not, because it’s not like the Canucks’ bottom six last year wasn’t a disaster, but how do long-term contracts to bottom-six players make the long-term situation here any better?

Combine that with the fact that Henrik and Daniel Sedin (still productive players a year ago) are retired and the fact that Brandon Sutter is probably going to have to take on an increased role as a result and it just looks like another bleak season on the horizon in Vancouver.

5. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks’ biggest issue in 2017-18 was goaltending thanks to the combination of Corey Crawford missing most of the season while none of his replacements were up to the challenge of filling that spot. As the 2018-19 season draws near we still have no real concrete update on Crawford’s status as he recovers form his mystery “upper-body injury” and their approach to improving the depth behind him was to sign, quite literally, the least productive goalie in the NHL (at least among goalies that have received regular or semi-regular playing time) over the past six years.

Chris Kunitz might still have a little something left in the tank as a depth player and the price is certainly right on him, but the addition of Ward and the uncertainty around Crawford is scary.

They have been mentioned as possible landing spot for Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, and that would be a great way to improve a defense that has rapidly declined in recent years. Whether or not they can get it done remains to be seen, but the roster as constructed (as of this moment) looks similar to the one that disappointed a year ago.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — With all due respect to Jim Rutherford, Mike Sullivan, and Sergei Gonchar and everything they have accomplished over the past three years I am going to need to see something from Jack Johnson to prove he will not drag their defense down the way he has literally dragged down every defense he has played on throughout his career.

Matt Cullen was an incredible depth player on their past two Stanley Cup winning teams, is by all accounts a great locker room presence, and costs next to nothing against the salary cap. That is all great for the Penguins. But he is also going to turn 42 years old this season and father time eventually comes for everybody. You could argue that it started to get the best of Cullen in 2017-18 when the Minnesota Wild were absolutely caved in possession-wise when Cullen was on the ice. Are they really better than they were at the end of the season, even when taking into account the likelihood that Derick Brassard has more to offer than he showed in the playoffs? Not convinced.

Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh has been a healthy mix of brilliance and head-scratching decisions. You can not argue with two championships in four years. But that does not mean he is above criticism or second-guessing because just last summer he had an offseason that made the roster worse and resulted in him jettisoning every player he acquired within a year. This summer so far does not look much better.

At the same time, also not convinced that he does not have another blockbuster up his sleeve that will turn the look of the offseason around. That is just how it goes with Trader Jim.

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.

Time for Canadiens to embrace rebuild

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The Montreal Canadiens were a colossal disappointment in 2017-18. After winning the Atlantic Division two years ago, many expected them to at least make it back to the playoffs, but that didn’t happen. Now, it seems like the team has quietly embraced a different path.

Heading into last year, the Habs were trying to be good. There was no rebuild, reset, or whatever you want to call it. That’s what made the year such a disaster. But based on the offseason the Canadiens have had, it looks like this is going to be a rebuild after all.

GM Marc Bergevin wasn’t willing to use that word when addressing the media on Sunday, but there’s no denying that this is the situation the organization is in right now. The team clearly wasn’t good enough last year and it didn’t get a whole lot better this summer. Sure, they swapped Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi, they added Joel Armia and Xavier Ouellet, but those aren’t moves that’ll put them over the top.

If anything, the fact that they decided to eat Steve Mason‘s cap hit in the trade they made with Winnipeg last week shows that they’re willing to spend cap dollars to acquire draft picks and young players.

This is totally the right decision for the franchise. They have too many holes to fill to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They need a top four left-handed defenseman, they need a number one and number two center, and they could use some added scoring punch on the wings, too. But don’t give management too much credit for going in this direction because they simply had no choice.

They clearly wanted a chance to pitch John Tavares, but he wasn’t interested in hearing from them. They checked in with Paul Stastny, but that didn’t work out either, so here we are. They’ve got cap space, but there’s no one to give it to.

On a positive note, the Canadiens have addressed their long-term center needs by drafting Ryan Poehling in 2017 and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in 2018. Those players are likely a couple of years away, so there’s no rush for the Canadiens to be good right now.

Many have suggested that this isn’t a rebuild or re-tool until they get rid of Carey Price and Shea Weber, but you can still rebuild with veterans. Surround the young players on the roster with quality players that can lead through their experience and preparation.

Also, that doesn’t mean that those players can’t be traded a year or two from now.

The next few years should be interesting in Montreal. With most teams in the division seemingly getting better, it appears as though these next few seasons will be pretty lean for Habs nation, but that might not be such a bad thing in the long run.

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.