PHT Morning Skate: Top NHL-affiliated prospects; rookie dinner stories

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.

• TSN hockey analyst Craig Button released his list of top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects. A couple of Russians are at the top of this list. (TSN.ca)

• Find out how Devils defenseman Damon Serverson became a fan of rodeo and bull-riding. (NJ.com)

• The Islanders have received some solid contributions from their fourth line, which is made up of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck. (Newsday)

• Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt did a little digging to find out what some players’ rookie dinner looked like. (Sports Illustrated)

• Coming into this season, Rasmus Dahlin was expected to be the top rookie defenseman in the NHL. Let’s just say that Miro Heiskanen is giving him a run for his money. (The Score)

• Where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? (The Hockey News)

• NHL.com had a sit down with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators should look into trading for Panthers forward Mike Hoffman. (Predlines)

Patrick Maroon going home to St. Louis was a nice story, but it hasn’t worked out for either side. (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Over the course of the 1,000 games Brooks Orpik has played in his career, he’s had to adjust his game. (NBC Washington)

Jake Gardiner and Larry Murphy have a few things in common. First of all, they’ve both been booed by their home crowd in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

Matt Duchene plays “What’s in the Box” with Paul Bissonnette:

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.

Free vodka for life billboard gets Panarin’s attention

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Time will tell if the Columbus Blue Jackets will be able to convince pending free agent Artemi Panarin to stick with the team, but if nothing else, locals are getting creative to entice him.

High Bank Distillery caused a stir with a billboard offering free vodka for life if Panarin re-signed with the Blue Jackets, even getting agent Dan Millstein to offer a winking response on Tuesday.

The viral marketing campaign made such an impression that Panarin acknowledged it himself on Wednesday, including taking a photo with the billboard, which the Blue Jackets tweeted out:

Wonderful.

Panarin expressed his gratitude for the sentiments on his Instagram page with this message:

Columbus, you keep amazing me. Thank you for your brilliance. Now I have a new spot to dine at. @highbankdistillery 💪💪💪💪💪

Amusingly, High Bank Distillery is a partner with the Blue Jackets, so they’d really be backing things up if they claim to be the team’s official vodka. You have to wonder if the hashtag #StayThirstyPanarin might draw a grumble from Dos Equis and The Most Interesting Man in the World, though.

This isn’t the first time that a) Columbus sports fans did something creative to try to avoid a devastating exit or b) a local company used a free agent situation for some brilliant, mostly-free publicity.

As this SBNation deep dive recounts, a #SavetheCrew campaign helped keep MLS team the Columbus Crew from relocating.

A starchier, more hockey-related connection happened when “The Bagel Boss” offered John Tavares bagels for life (every morning, apparently) to stick with the New York Islanders, then brilliantly offered bagels for Tavares jerseys once he passed. There were even T-shirts.

To Columbus’ credit, the campaign to keep Panarin around hasn’t been bread-related, nor has Panera Bread been involved. Although there’s time.

This could end up merely being a cute memory before Panarin leaves, yet either way, it’s a boon for High Bank, and they’re reveling in the attention.

That got us to thinking, actually: what are some other silly genius marketing strategies for some of the biggest could-be unrestricted free agents? Let’s dish out some free advice, then. Absolutely share your ideas in the comments, too.

(No RFAs, which is why you won’t see #MargarineforMarner.)

Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators: Let’s begin with a bummer. Marble Slab seems to dominate the elaborate ice cream preparation genre in Ottawa, so we can’t go with “Cold Stone for Mark Stone.” This brings me great sadness.

Maybe macarons for Stone? That will have to do, because I’m still sad about the Cold Stone thing.

Matt Duchene, also Ottawa Senators: With that loss accounted for, how about free Beavertails, the increasingly popular pastry? You could probably incorporate “Don’t leave” plus “Beave(r),” but be careful with that.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks: Back in 2015, Puck Daddy (including PHT’s own Sean Leahy!) covered favorite junk foods, with Karlsson mentioning pizza as a favorite in a nondescript way.

A different Shark’s name works better for that foodstuff, however, so why not celebrate Karlsson’s incredible 14-game assist/point streak by going with free apple fritters or apple pie for life? Maybe anything apple-related on a business’s menu, including hard cider?

Joe Pavelski, also San Jose Sharks: Going to venture a guess that Sharks fans no longer call the American forward “Joe Pa,” for obvious, uncomfortable reasons. But what about “Unlimited Za for Pa?”

Honestly, considering how long he’s been in San Jose, Pavelski likely has better ideas than we do.

Sergei Bobrovsky, also Columbus Blue Jackets: Things could really start to get out of control here, gang, as shishkabob is just sitting there on a plank, waiting for us to snare that low-hanging fruit.

Apparently Dublin, Ohio is only about 30 minutes from Columbus, and that’s where Wendy’s was founded. Perhaps the Blue Jackets should find out if Bob really loves their iconic spicy chicken sandwich?

Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres: Now here is where the cheese flies wonderfully.

Dinner for Skinner? Wings for a winger? Some take on “winner, chicken dinner?” OK, some of these ideas are so bad that they might actually scare Jeff Skinner off, but Buffalo really has little choice but to play into its history of chicken wing innovation.

Granted, there are other options. Via Paste, non-wing-options include sponge candy and maybe even Cheerios?

Nah, let’s go with wings.

Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs: Apologies for leaning on rhyming, but “Let Jake Eat Cake” is as irresistible as, well, cake. Bobbette & Belle seems too fancy for a hockey player, but the name is pretty amusing, so let’s get them on the case.

The Maple Leafs face a tight squeeze in trying to fit their bounty of young talent under the salary cap in 2019-20 and beyond, so free cake for Jake might be their greatest hope.

It’s unclear if any of these ideas beat free booze, but admit it: you want some wings and/or pizza now, don’t you?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Get ready for full-strength Maple Leafs, as Nylander’s set to debut

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Even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest haters should turn their frowns upside down for at least a little while, as hockey fans are rapidly approaching quite the gift.

Multiple reporters (including Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie) pass along word that William Nylander announced that he’ll play in the Maple Leafs’ next game, which takes place against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. To make the situation even more joyous, consider that the game is happening in Toronto.

To make things more delightful – and maybe excite a dork or two in advanceAuston Matthews hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury. Thursday will only represent Matthews’ fourth game back in the lineup, yet he’s been making up for lost time, as the American star has five goals and two assists for seven points in three contests. (Yes, seriously.)

The Red Wings should expect to hold on for dear life, as Thursday represents the first time that we’ll get a full vision of what this Maple Leafs team can be in 2018-19: Matthews and Nylander joining John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and other talented offensive players to form what could be one of the most explosive offenses in recent history.

[Can they keep the band together beyond this season? That’s another story.]

Zooming out a bit, it will be fascinating to see how head coach Mike Babcock pieces things together.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s numbers, Matthews and Zach Hyman were far and away Nylander’s most common even-strength linemates last season. Hyman’s instead been lining up with Tavares and Marner lately, while Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen have been Matthews’ wingers.

It’s been noted that Kapanen was dreaming about Nylander returning, but will his buddy’s reemergence bump him down the Maple Leafs’ lineup? Someone has to get moved down the order, after all … unless Babcock boldly put Nylander on the third line with another overqualified forward in Nazem Kadri.

That’s anyone’s guess, and as hockey fans know, coaches tend to throw line combinations in a blender, anyway. Injuries, cold/hot streaks, and the scoreboard can all affect how things shake out.

Even so, it’s intriguing to see how some are drawing up combos.

Jeff Veillette, for example, argues for a line of Andreas Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander (with Tavares joined by Hyman and Marner) in this post for The Faceoff Circle. It’s interesting to see Veillette discuss salary cap implications in his explanation:

This line exists to win hockey games, not chess matches. If it was a chess match, it would probably be closer to what the coaching staff is doing to win hockey games – Patrick Marleau near the top to try to pad his point totals (in case he’s willing to waive his No-Movement Clause on the final year of his contract this summer), and Johnsson near the bottom to keep his production down (so he doesn’t cash in on his “prove it” year).

Stylistically, Nylander would certainly make a lot of sense back with Matthews, at least with Marner clicking so well as Tavares’ wingman. Nylander’s a right-handed shot who can create great opportunities for Matthews, while also punishing opponents severely if they overcommit to stopping that connection. It’s pretty terrifying to imagine having to deal with a pair of one-two punches on the scale of Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, especially considering how successful Toronto’s been, even at less-than-full-strength.

The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel also postulates (sub required) that Nylander could be a big boost to the Maple Leafs’ second power-play unit.

Putting Nylander in that group makes some sense. For one thing, that top group is dominating opponents. For another, Siegel notes that Babcock still gives plenty of PP ice time to Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and the second unit. Some might lean toward the “load up on one group” mantra, but it becomes increasingly sensible when you realize that top players often are the ones drawing penalties, so giving them a breather (rather than throwing them right back on the ice, or extending shifts) makes a lot of sense.

So, whether you go big picture or really get into the nuts and bolts, Nylander’s addition is a significant boon for the Maple Leafs.

Delightfully, it should bump an already-exciting team to an absolutely must-watch level.

And, hey, you could always go back to hating the Maple Leafs again when the games start to matter a bit more. You know, if hating the Leafs is your thing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

***

Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

***

The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

***

Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

***

Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.