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Best bargains on day one of NHL free agency

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With all the money thrown around – often recklessly – in free agency, it’s probably tough to believe that you can find bargains. You know, aside from no-brainer deals like Toronto signing John Tavares.

Such a notion seems especially unthinkable during the first day of the open market, and that’s not just because the Vancouver Canucks continue to confound the hockey world with confusing contracts. It’s probably tempting for some fans to pool money for a billboard just to ask their GMs to wait until after July 1 to strike deals.

As tough as it might be to believe, there actually were a few contracts that look great, at least as of today.

(Injuries, clashes with coaching staffs, and plenty of other variables can make such praise seem silly in hindsight, however.)

These signings rank as the best of the bargain bin as free agency began.

[For a full list of free agent moves, including in the days leading up to today, click here]

Buffalo Sabres make a smart buy in net: Carter Hutton as a team’s top goalie is a risky proposition if he’s paid like a top goalie normally would be.

In the case of Buffalo, though, Hutton ranks as an expensive backup, pay-wise. Read this post for more on that.

Not a lot of cash for Riley Nash: The Columbus Blue Jackets landed a “Ri- Nash,” but not Rick Nash, on Sunday. There’s a strong chance that we’ll look back at that as a good thing.

TSN’s Darren Dreger and others report that Nash’s cap hit will be a meager $2.75 million through 2020-21. That could end up being a steal for a 29-year-old center who scored 15 goals and 46 points last season; he looked especially impressive for the Boston Bruins when he was pressed into top-line duty thanks to injuries to Patrice Bergeron.

At the moment, the Blue Jackets must feel limited in how they can spend, as both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky enter contract years in 2018-19. This signing improved Columbus’ scoring depth while leaving plenty of space for bigger names.

An affordable reunion for St. Louis: Yes, David Perron‘s bounced around the NHL quite a bit, and he didn’t end things all that well with the Vegas Golden Knights, as his offense dried up late in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s easy to forget just how integral the 30-year-old winger was to Vegas’ success during the regular season, though. Perron managed close to a point-per-game, as he generating 66 in 70 contests. He was “clutch,” too, as three of his four game-winning goals came in overtime.

Perron’s enjoyed plenty of success before, including during his previous tours with St. Louis. Read more about the Perron signing (and the more debatable Tyler Bozak deal) in this post.

Cheap gambles on goalies: Consider aforementioned bargain goalie Carter Hutton as the ace of a class of goalies who could deliver great puck-stops for the buck.

To put things mildly, Petr Mrazek‘s experienced a bumpy road the last few years, including erratic play in Detroit and then Philly last season. There’s been some distance between his best moments and today, which explains why he only commanded a one-year deal at a cheap $1.5M.

That said, his best days showed a lot of promise, including a 2015-16 season with the Red Wings when he managed a 27-16-6 record with a strong .921 save percentage. Carolina’s been the place where goalie stats go to die. What if, instead, Mrazek could revive his career with the Hurricanes? It’s worth a shot, especially if Scott Darling‘s own struggles aren’t a one-year headache.

The Blues lost Carter Hutton this summer, but they turned around and signed Chad Johnson, another goalie who’s seen some nice moments, to a one-year, $1.75M deal.

While Johnson suffered a lousy season with Buffalo, he’s shown multiple flourishes of being the type of backup who can hold down the fort with good-to-great numbers if a starter flounders. Jake Allen‘s faced his ups and downs since becoming the Blues’ top goalie, so Johnson’s presence may be crucial to St. Louis’ hopes of returning to the postseason.

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You can make some other arguments for bargains. If you stretch the rules and count extensions, Oliver Ekman-Larsson signing for almost $3M less per season than Drew Doughty could be a big deal for Arizona, particularly since the budget team is hoping to be competitive. As strange as this sounds, Tavares at $11M per year probably stands as a relative bargain, too.

What are some contracts that stand as steals to you? Do any of the listed bargains actually count as albatross deals? Do tell.

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.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Red Wings bring back Blashill; Hart for Giroux?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Hockey fans on Twitter have been leaving sticks outside their homes in honor of the Humboldt Broncos. (CTV News)

• The Syracuse Crunch players will wear the name “Humboldt” on their back during an upcoming game. They’ll sell the jerseys and donate the money to the ambulance company that was on the scene after the bus crash took place. (Syracuse.com)

• Some news and notes out of St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko will undergo shoulder surgery, GM Doug Armstrong took the blame for the team’s failures this season, and Jake Allen will be back in 2018-19. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

• Despite missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the Detroit Red Wings will bring Jeff Blashill back next season. (Detroit News)

• Many hockey fans agree that Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon are the leading contenders for the Hart Trophy, but what about Claude Giroux? He was outstanding this year. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Despite what you may think, Ducks goalie John Gibson is not injury prone. (Anaheim Calling)

• According to reports out of Russia, Ilya Kovalchuk is headed to the New York Rangers. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• We’ve never seen anything like the Vegas Golden Knights. They’ve been an incredible story all year, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t facing pressure this postseason. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Even though Ryan Suter‘s injury will prevent him from playing in the playoffs, he’ll still be cheering for his teammates from afar. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

• Generals Managers take a good amount of the blame when things go poorly, but the owners who leave them employed are also a big problem. Vice’s Dave Lozo had some fun writing up a fake Q&A with some of these general managers. (Vice)

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.

Vladimir Tarasenko will have surgery on dislocated left shoulder

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Three days after missing the playoffs, the St. Louis Blues learned their star forward Vladimir Tarasenko will need surgery on Wednesday for a dislocated left shoulder.

Tarasenko was hurt in the first period of the regular-season finale on Saturday in Colorado. The Blues needed a point in the game to reach the playoffs, but lost 5-2.

Tarasenko revealed he had a dislocated shoulder while standing with his left arm in a sling Tuesday as teammates cleared out their lockers. The recovery after surgery can take up to six months.

”We’ll see how it goes,” Tarasenko said. ”It was a hard year all the way around.”

The 26-year-old led the team with 33 goals and 66 points. It was his lowest point total in four seasons. The Blues won 44 games this season and finished with 94 points.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Mike Yeo wrapped up his first full season as the Blues coach. St. Louis is 66-40-8 since Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach on Feb. 1, 2017. That’s the 10th-best regular-season record in the NHL in that period.

But it’s little consolation for a team missing the playoffs for the first time after six straight seasons. Two years ago, the Blues were playing for the conference championship.

”We understand we’ve taken a step back this year,” General Manager Doug Armstrong said. ”That lies firmly on my shoulders. My job is to deal in reality. The formula we had this year did not breed success and we need to find that formula.”

Armstrong said the play of special teams needs to improve.

The Blues were 30th on power-play success at 15.4 percent. They finished 18th in penalty killing at 79.7 percent. During the previous six seasons making the playoffs, the Blues ranked No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing with a rate of 84.3 percent.

However, the Blues scored only 38 power-play goals.

”As a coaching staff, I promise you we won’t just sit around and just assume things will get better next year,” Yeo said. ”We have to look at everything from the way we manage it, operate it and holding guys accountable and the personnel we’re using and the tactics.”

When Yeo coached the Minnesota Wild, the power play also was stagnant.

”I’ll take responsibility for it,” Yeo said. ”I don’t dodge that. That’s on me.”

Armstrong backs his coach.

”Mike and I are tethered together and we’re going to figure this thing out,” Armstrong said.

St. Louis was just 24-17 on home ice this season.

”You can’t have the home record we had and be satisfied,” Armstrong said. ”The people that come here work for a living and we need to send them home happy. If we’re in the top 10 in home records, we’re in the playoffs.”

The salary cap should increase about $4 million for next season. Armstrong said the Blues ownership will continue to spend to the cap.

”We spend to the cap,” Armstrong said. ”We’ve had a good run here. We’ve got to get back to that.”

Goalie Jake Allen was signed to a four-year, $17.4 million contract on July 1, 2016. He finished with a 27-25-3 record, a 2.75 goals-against average, a .906 save percentage and one shutout.

”I definitely need to be more consistent,” Allen said. ”I know I’m capable of it. I don’t think I need to change much. I’m a pretty good goalie.”

Backup goaltender Carter Hutton is an unrestricted free agent. Hutton was 17-7-3 with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. He had three shutouts.

Armstrong said he wants to bring Hutton back.

Duncan Keith’s late winner helps strike blow to Blues’ playoff hopes

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Duncan Keith‘s goal with 8.5 seconds to go broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Chicago Blackhawks a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night.

The Blues are still in pursuit of a wild card spot in the Western Conference, but with the loss remain a point behind the Colorado Avalanche with two games to go, including a Saturday night tilt vs. the Avs.

Chicago wanted to play spoiler for their Central Division rivals, with Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat saying before the game, “They’re a good team and they’re fighting for a playoff spot right now. We’re not going out there and just letting them take it. We want to crush their hopes.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It was looking good for the Blues early in the second period when Vladimir Tarasenko gave the home side a 3-1 lead. But St. Louis and Jake Allen began to falter minutes later. Blackhawks rookie Blake Hillman jumped into the rush and scored his first NHL goal with Chicago on a power play to cut the deficit to 3-2 midway through the period.

With DeBrincat wanting to “crush their hopes,” he backed up his words and tied the game with 11:30 to go, thanks to some more questionable goaltending by Allen.

The self-destruction of the Blues continued as Chris Butler took a holding penalty with two minutes to go. The Blackhawks waited until the very end of that power play to capitalize, with Keith finally notching his second goal of the season and also sending the Los Angeles Kings to playoffs in the process.

Your thoughts, Doug Armstrong?

And as if the Blues haven’t been demonized enough by the Blackhawks, the two teams meet again Friday night at United Center. How soon will St. Louis be able to erase this one from memory and focus on the two biggest games of their season this weekend?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.