Getty Images

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

1 Comment

Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Under Pressure: Joel Quenneville

Getty
6 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

You don’t hear it mentioned often enough, but since becoming the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville’s been one of the best in the NHL. Maybe the best head coach.

He doesn’t always have the same recognition to show for it. Much like Phil Jackson in the NBA and other coaches of perennial contenders, Coach Q isn’t piling up coach of the year awards. His lone Jack Adams came (wait for it) with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.

Yes, that really happened. Indeed, it’s kind of hard to believe in 2018.

Thanks to Mike Babcock, Coach Q hasn’t been “the guy” for Team Canada, not on the same level, nor did he draw a bidding war for his services.

Walking the tight rope

Of course, there’s never been a bidding war because the Blackhawks and Quenneville managed to stick together through thick and thin. With three Stanley Cups and plenty of other impressive runs, you’d think that would be a no-brainer, yet there have been rumblings about possible changes during drier periods.

Elliotte Friedman referenced rumors in “31 Thoughts” back in January, there were reports about Coach Q being quite upset about moves such as trading Niklas Hjalmarsson in the 2017 off-season, and he admitted publicly that he wasn’t happy about assistants getting fired.

There was a fair share of drama when the Blackhawks were pumping out their best work, while sometimes falling short of the mark, but missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs really revved up those concerns. You could make an argument, even, for an amicable split; after all, the Blackhawks also haven’t won a playoff series since winning it all in 2014-15.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Where does Toews rank? | Building Off a Breakthrough]

It was no surprise, then, that the team needed to address such questions after deciding to bring both Bowman and Quenneville back for 2018-19. Team president John McDonough did just that in early April.

“I believe in continuity [and] they’ve had an incredible body of success,” McDonough said via the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not tethered to the past. This has been a very disappointing year and our expectations are incredibly high. We’re not going to deviate from those expectations. But I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”

To put things mildly, Quenneville faces an uphill battle when it comes to squeezing another run or two out of this declining crew.

Cooking with ingredients beyond their expiration date?

One of the biggest concerns comes in net, as Corey Crawford‘s health is a mystery for 2018-19. The Blackhawks claim they addressed that by adding Cam Ward. There’s no denying that Ward is “experienced,” yet you nearly need to observe the last decade of “experiences” for the Carolina Hurricanes to understand why people question if he can hold down the fort.

Coach Q will be asked to support whoever’s in net with his system, which won’t exactly be propped up by stellar defensive talent.

Brent Seabrook ranks as the latest Blackhawks contract that stands as a burden for the team, while as great as Duncan Keith is, you wonder if a big nosedive is looming considering his age (35) and the massive minutes he’s accrued between these NHL runs and international competition. The support beyond those guys is, erm, limited, and it probably doesn’t help that Chicago sent a decent depth defenseman in Jordan Oesterle to Arizona as a sweetener in the Marian Hossa trade.

(Sorry, but Brandon Manning probably isn’t the answer.)

You have to think that Q looks at that roster and hopes that Bowman has a trick up his sleeve, as Cap Friendly does show that Chicago boasts about $5.5 million in cap space.

Getting some sort of talent would certainly make Quenneville’s life a little easier. Could they swing a deal for a much-needed defenseman in Justin Faulk? Getting Artemi Panarin back is plausible considering his manageable cap hit ($6M), although it would be interesting to see how Chicago would entice Columbus. Heck, the Blackhawks could do worse than to gamble on a rental (who might stick around) such as Erik Karlsson or Max Pacioretty.

Even if there aren’t major improvements, there are some things that could go better.

Not all bad

As much of a concern as Crawford is, there’s always the chance that he can be fine and play in more games than he did last season. He’s been a huge reason why it took longer than some expected for the Blackhawks to hit the wall.

Chicago also boasts some nice offensive talent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine things going better for Toews and Brandon Saad (who, in “NBA Jam” parlance, couldn’t buy a bucket last season), and Patrick Kane might return to Art Ross contention if the Blackhawks landed a gem or maybe elevated Alex DeBrincat.

It’s up to Quenneville to make the most of whatever Bowman gets him. Generally speaking, Coach Q’s done that. Can the coach with a cop-friendly mustache get any more jelly out of that donut, though? It won’t be easy.

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.

Blackhawks can use cap space in quest to return to playoffs

Getty Images
12 Comments

CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks enjoy an uncustomary luxury with space under the NHL’s $79.5 million salary cap.

So general manager Stan Bowman hinted Saturday on the second day of the team’s annual convention he could be in the market for a veteran player who might help the Blackhawks return to the playoffs.

Chicago’s roster is built on big-name stars including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford who are locked into hefty long-term contracts. Those deals usually have forced Bowman to scramble to get his team under the cap.

But this year, the Blackhawks have between $5.5 million and $6.5 million of wiggle room according salary cap tracking websites CapFriendly.com and spotrac.com.

”This is the first year that I can remember where we’ve had this much cap room,” Bowman said. ”We have a bit more flexibility than we have had in the past.”

Most of that space opened when Bowman traded Marian Hossa and his $5,275,000 cap hit to Arizona earlier this month. The 39-year-old forward didn’t play last season because of severe side effects from medication to treat a progressive skin disorder. Hossa isn’t expected to play again, but he’s signed through the 2020-21 season.

Bowman didn’t mention players he might pursue, but he did specify a scenario.

Another team might have a young player who surprises with terrific training camp, earns a roster spot and makes an impact. As a result, that team might want to unload a veteran.

”If you want to get in the game there, you have to be under the cap and have some breathing room to add a player,” Bowman said. ”I’m not sure if that will materialize. It might, so that’s something that’s different for this upcoming season.”

The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last spring for the first time after qualifying for nine straight seasons and winning three Stanley Cup during that run. Team president John McDonough emphasized on Saturday that missing the postseason again is not acceptable.

Moreover, he expects the Blackhawks to bounce back and cement their place as an elite franchise over the long term.

”What we target every year is the Stanley Cup Final,” McDonough said. ”We were off the map for a pretty long period of time.

”The Blackhawks are not necessarily going to be measured in three-to-five year increments, or three Cups in eight or nine years, but we’re going to be measured in decades and decades.

”We want to keep moving forward as an organization.”

Beyond immediate help from three free agents signed earlier this month – goalie Cam Ward, defenseman Brandon Manning forward Chris Kunitz – Bowman expects young prospects to blossom and lift his team this season.

Bowman projects more output from speedy 22-year-old center Nick Schmaltz and 20-year-old winger Alex DeBrincat, both of whom the GM said just scratched surface in 2017-18. Schmaltz had 21 goals and 31 assists in his second NHL season. DeBrincat had 28 goals and 52 points as rookie.

Bowman told fans he expects three Swedes who spent parts of the 2017-18 season in Chicago to make bigger contributions. Defensemen Gustav Forsling, 22, and Carl Dahlstrom, 23, should compete for regular jobs. He called out Victor Ejdsell, a 6-foot-5 center, as ”someone to look out for” because of his great scoring touch.

Bowman also predicted 23-year old center Luke Johnson, who spent the last two seasons at Rockford of the AHL, would play in Chicago at some point.

What should Blackhawks do with cap space after Hossa trade?

Getty
10 Comments

The most fun part of the Marian Hossa trade is pondering the possible future trades it opens up thanks to improved cap space for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Cap space estimates tend to be tenuous at best in July, but that’s especially true with Chicago, as the Blackhawks still have some roster spots to sort out. Still, Cap Friendly’s estimate of the Blackhawks having about $8.55 million in room seems fair enough.

It’s also plausible that the Blackhawks might find even more breathing room. Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if the return of Marcus Kruger may spur the Blackhawks to move Artem Anisimov, whose $4.55M cap hit runs through 2020-21.

Even if they don’t trade Anisimov to cut costs, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman gave himself opportunities to make a splashy move this summer. Considering that Chicago missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and eyes an aging, top-heavy core, landing a substantial asset could be huge for a “win-now” team.

(Especially since, as promising as Adam Boqvist is as the eighth pick of this past draft, he could be a bit of a project at just 17 years old.)

Here are some of the most enticing possible trade targets for the Blackhawks, keeping in mind that there aren’t any obvious difference-makers remaining on the free agent market.

Artemi Panarin We might as well get the most obvious name out of the way, considering how much Bowman loves bringing back former Blackhawks. (It’s quite fitting that Panarin was traded out of Chicago in such a move to land Brandon Saad.)

There’s probably a fascinating subplot to ponder from Columbus’ perspective. If they know Panarin’s gone, would they bet against Chicago rebounding by asking for significant draft assets for “The Bread Man?”

That’s a debate – maybe a post – for another day. Let’s focus on the Blackhawks’ side of an equation, instead.

Panarin remains in the meat of his prime at just 26, and he’s quite a value at $6M, though that cap hit expires after this coming season. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility for Panarin to ink an extension at some point with Chicago, as “The Windy City” ranks as the sort of big market he’d prefer. (Though maybe he’d really want to go big and merely eye New York or Los Angeles?) With Kruger, Cam Ward, and others coming off the cap in summer 2019, the money would likely be there … although a pricey Panarin extension would make a top-heavy team even more imbalanced.

The longer term situation is already fascinating, but Panarin would be a great find even if Chicago only wanted to bet big on 2018-19.

The Russian winger generated a career-high 82 points last season, emphatically proving that he can score without Patrick Kane. It probably should have already been obvious that they enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, but Kane’s slight – but noteworthy – slippage in production cemented such notions.

Panarin’s game-breaking ability would make him a huge “get,” and his familiarity with Chicago and the Blackhawks organization couldn’t hurt.

He likely wouldn’t be too easy to pry from Columbus, though.

Max Pacioretty “Patches” doesn’t seem long for Montreal, considering the rumblings about a lack of contract extension negotiations and the team’s reported urgency in trading him.

Compared to Panarin, Pacioretty brings some advantages and disadvantages.

Pros

  • He’s cheaper, at least in 2018-19, as Pacioretty’s cap hit is $4.5M.
  • *cough* some might say that his GM might be, um, easier to swindle.
  • Pacioretty has a larger body of work in the NHL, generating 30+ goals five times, and playing 626 regular-season games.
  • “Patches” also literally has a larger body than Panarin. Perhaps the Blackhawks would perceive him as more attuned for the playoffs? (That’s a stretch, of course, if Bowman merely watched Panarin’s work against the Caps. Then again, NHL teams often march to the beat of their own drums …)

Cons

  • Pacioretty’s a little older at 29.
  • He’s coming off of a tough season. Pacioretty barely scored more points (37) in 2017-18 as he scored goals (35) the year before.
  • The American winger seems to be more focused on an extension than Panarin. If Chicago’s more interested in a rental, that could be a stumbling block.

Few players have scored more goals than Pacioretty since he broke through with 33 in 2011-12. One can dream of big things if he were paired with an elite center, or at least better linemates.

And that $4.5M cap hit would really keep other options open for the Blackhawks or other bidders.

Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk – The Blackhawks and Hurricanes have done business before, including the Teuvo Teravainen – Bryan Bickell trade, not to mention Carolina paying big money for former Blackhawks backup Scott Darling.

The Hurricanes could feasibly move one or both of Skinner and Faulk, and by pulling some strings, it’s not even that outrageous to imagine Chicago landing each player. (Again, it would require some maneuvering.)

Like Panarin and Pacioretty, Skinner is entering the final year of his current contract. In his case, he carries a $5.725M cap hit.

With three 30+ goal campaigns and three additional 20+ goal seasons to his name (not to mention 579 regular-season games played), it’s kind of startling that Skinner is only 26. He’s only missed three games total in the last three seasons – he appeared in all 82 last season – putting most of his health fears to rest.

Skinner is a fantastic skater who’s rarely shy about firing the puck. One might downplay his strong possession stats thanks to sometimes-heavy offensive deployment, but those numbers don’t hurt either.

He’s never appeared in a playoff game during his NHL career, so Skinner would probably be even hungrier to reach the postseason than his would-be Blackhawks teammates.

Faulk, 26, could end up being the best consideration of them all, because he’s the sort of dynamic defenseman the Blackhawks generally lack beyond Duncan Keith.

Since 2014-15, Faulk’s scored 56 goals, the seventh-best total among NHL defensemen. Only Brent Burns (85), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (70), and Erik Karlsson (63) lead Faulk by a significant margin.

While he’s not considered an elite shutdown-type guy, his possession stats show promise, and he comes in at an affordable $4.833M cap hit. One nice perk is that Chicago would land extra cost certainty with Faulk compared to other options in this post, as Faulk’s cap hit runs for an additional season (through 2019-20).

Erik Karlsson – Look, it’s tough to imagine Chicago pulling off such a heist, considering that repeated bids to contend leave them with limited futures.

Still, it would be foolish not to at least mention Karlsson, particularly if the Senators realize they can only shop the superstar as a rental. With a $6.5M cap hit, Chicago could easily afford Karlsson … for a season, at least.

***

The Blackhawks would pop some champagne if they could merely land one of Panarin, Pacioretty, Skinner, Faulk, or even Karlsson. It remains to be seen if they can entice any of those sellers to take a deal.

Moving Hossa’s contract encourages imaginations to run as deep as Gino’s Pizza, though. If nothing else, few teams have more incentive to go all-in than the Blackhawks.

Who would you go after, if anyone, if you were in Bowman’s shoes?

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.

Byfuglien continues to be key difference maker for Jets

Getty
3 Comments

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Dustin Byfuglien busted out his dance moves for a little celebration of his latest big goal, which may have caught many people by surprise.

Not his teammates.

“He’s so loose before games,” Winnipeg center Bryan Little said. “He’s a joker, definitely the prankster on the team. It’s strange for me to see him talking to you guys in front of the camera. It’s like, ‘That’s not who I know.”‘

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Byfuglien is making a big impression on the NHL playoffs on both ends of the ice as the Jets have muscled their way to within one win of Winnipeg’s first berth in the Western Conference Final. Timely goals, rugged defense, leadership – it’s all part of his game. He dropped jaws during the second-round series against the Predators by literally manhandling two Nashville players, one in each hand.

His journey back to the postseason has been a long one, but the 33-year-old Byfuglien has made Winnipeg his home and is a key reason the Jets are Canada’s last surviving team this postseason. The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993, and the 25-year drought is a painful one in the home of hockey.

Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler considers Byfuglien a “great equalizer” and unlike anybody else in the NHL.

“Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play,” Wheeler said. “That’s the type of player he is and from Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”

Byfuglien is making the most of his deepest postseason run since helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010,

Not only has he been a strong counter to Nashville by outplaying a group often considered the NHL’s best top four defensemen, Byfuglien is leading all defensemen this postseason with four goals. He’s also tied with Boston’s Torey Krug for most points with 12 while skating an average of 26 minutes, 25 seconds a game.

Byfuglien started the Jets’ rally in Game 3 against Nashville from a 3-0 deficit by scoring the first goal and his tying goal prompted his little dance. He wound up with the game-winning goal in Winnipeg’s 6-2 victory Saturday night that put the Jets on the verge of clinching only their second series – all this postseason.

“What makes him unique is he can, I don’t know if ‘take over’ is right, but he can make an impact in a game in just about every single way possible,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “He can defend, he can play real physical, nobody wants to drop the gloves with him, and then there’s an offensive side, it’s a perfectly placed shot, quick hands, all the other things that he can do offensively.”

And Chicago gave all that potential up in 2010. Byfuglien switched from defense to forward for the Blackhawks and scored three game-winning goals in a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1992. He had a hat trick against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.

But the Blackhawks were strapped for salary cap space after contract extensions for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on top of pricey deals for Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. Byfuglien was traded away to the then-Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

“There’s only one Dustin Byfuglien, and you want him on your team,” Little said. “You can’t imagine what it would be like playing against him. There’s only one of him. You can’t really compare him to anyone out there.”

Winnipeg has become home to Byfuglien. The town is just 115 miles as the crow flies from where he grew up in Roseau, Minnesota. Since the franchise moved to Winnipeg, Byfuglien married, and has three children. The Jets rewarded him in February 2016 with a five-year, $38 million contract to make him a key piece of the Jets’ future.

He just isn’t a big talker. Asked where his dance came from in Game 2, Byfuglien said he didn’t know.

He sure is talking to his teammates, trying to share his experience from that 2010 Cup run and offering advice on how to handle what they hope is a two-month run.

“We’ve obviously talked as a group,” Byfuglien said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride. It’s just take one game at a time, one shift at a time, and just believe in each other.”

Having Big Buff around certainly provides a confidence boost,

“Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous,” Little said.