Mathieu Perreault

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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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It’s hard to look at the haul the Winnipeg Jets got for Jacob Trouba and not think, ‘Man, that’s underwhelming.’

That is, of course, because the return was exactly that. And unless general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could pull off the impossible, he was never going to replace Jacob Trouba with Jacob Trouba.

[Related: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder]

It was Mission: Impossible and Cheveldayoff was no Tom Cruise. The Jets were always going to lose that deal. Rarely can you replace a top-pairing defenseman that was drafted and developed from within and had helped build a flourishing partnership with Josh Morrissey into one of the better shutdown tandems in the NHL.

One half of that is missing in Winnipeg now and Neal Pionk doesn’t fill that void. This is the CliffsNotes version.

Losing Trouba — Winnipeg’s worst kept secret — is a massive blow to the Jets. They lose a 50-point defenseman and ability to play in all phases of the game while munching on big minutes every night.

“We’re certainly getting a really good player,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said.

Those weren’t words Cheveldayoff uttered during his conference call with the media on Monday night.

“We’re really excited to get Neal in the acquisition as well,” Cheveldayoff said after talking about getting back into the first round of this year’s draft via the trade with the 20th overall pick. “He’s a young player that we believe has upside that is going to continue to grow.”

Pionk may indeed grow, and the Jets may indeed like Pionk over whatever else was offered to them. But there’s no question it’s a step backward for Winnipeg in terms of talent.

The Rangers got a piece that will instantly make their team better (assuming they sign Trouba long-term). Winnipeg does not.

The Jets don’t need a defenseman that can play well on the power play. They have that in Dustin Byfuglien. Morrissey can do that job, too. And Sami Niku showed good signs in limited opportunities with the man-advantage.

No, what the Jets need is a good 5-on-5 defenseman and they aren’t getting that in Pionk.

And it’s not just my words that suggest that

But all of this is really moot.

Trouba had been playing on borrowed time ever since his agent requested that his client be traded on a warm July’s night in Winnipeg in 2016.

His agent’s ransom note published on Twitter that night said Trouba wanted to realize his potential as a top-pairing, right-side defenseman. The Jets did just that, but it all seemed like a smokescreen for the desired eventual outcome.

Trouba wanted out.

Cheveldayoff stood his ground for three years until the clock ran out, likely to be expected by both agent and player. He didn’t get pushed around by Trouba until the tables turned and he had the choice of getting something for him or getting nothing at all.

He had to get something for him. No GM wants a John Tavares ending.

Could he have gotten more? Perhaps by allowing other teams to try and negotiate a contract with Trouba prior to a deal? Maybe, but according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, there were only one or two teams Trouba would commit his long-term future with. Without having it in his contract, Trouba and his agent essentially made their own no-movement clause.

And maybe Trouba just wanted what’s best for him. In a time where players are increasingly looked at as commodities and not humans, Trouba gave to the Jets what he owed them for drafting him back in 2012 and then seized control of his own future.

“It’s a great opportunity for myself and my fiancée,” said Trouba, who spoke with the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe. “Her career is as important as my career. We both are passionate about different things and our goal from a couple of years back was we wanted to make this work. And we decided we wanted to make this work. This is part of it, to be realistic with you.

“From a life standpoint, that’s what I decided in the end. I’m going to marry the girl and I want her to be happy and for her dreams to be fulfilled. She’s worked extremely hard to get where she is with schooling and the time she’s put in. I want her to see her be successful just as much as I want to be successful.”

If you’re searching for positives here, one is that the situation is finally over. Both sides can finally move on.

Another is that Trouba’s exit means more wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap and they found a way into the first round this year. The Jets have done well to find quality players in the opening round in the past. Perhaps they’ve got a Mark Scheifele-esque guy (only a defenseman this time) they got good intel on.

“It’s a really interesting draft, once you get past the ones everybody’s talking about on the top end, I think it really spreads out,” Cheveldayoff said. “I think there are players we’re going to see at 20- we’re going to have higher on our list.”

Even then, that player is a few years away from making a meaningful impact. Last year at this time, the Jets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after a solid showing from a team oozing with young talent and the right mix of contracts.

Some believed this year was where their window was widest to make that run. Instead, they struggled down the stretch and got bounced in six games in Round 1 by the current Stanley Cup champs. In hindsight, it would have been better to trade Trouba a year ago. But a year ago, it would have been stupid to trade Trouba without hindsight’s benefit.

And now reality sets in.

Cheveldayoff said as much in his conference call about the “hard cap world,” and few GMs this summer face one as paramount in terms of the team’s future success as he does.

He has to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and those two, depending on how the deals come together, could command well over $15 million combined if both sign long-term. Trimming the fat may continue, too. Decisions on trading Mathieu Perreault and buying out Dmitry Kulikov to find more cap relief have to be made.

And then they need to sort out if they bring Tyler Myers back. And Ben Chiarot. And Brandon Tanev.

And then decisions on what pieces from the team’s farm system down the hall with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose are going to make the jump to the bigger dressing room in the show.

“There’s no question we have a challenging summer still ahead of us,” Cheveldayoff said. “We still got lots of moving parts or balls in the air, so to speak.”

So more changes are likely coming, and a team will emerge next season very different than the one from a year ago.

And given how last season ended, perhaps a shakeup in that dressing room is what was needed anyway.

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.

Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books

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Ah, the buyout.

A team’s “out” to a bad contract, often one that said team signed and one they regretted at some point after the ink hit the signature spot on the contract sheet.

It’s an out with a catch. You can shed cap space, but only some. While mistakes can be forgiven, they’re not forgotten for some time. The length varies from case to case. It’s like getting a divorce but still living with your ex-spouse. You’re free, but not really. It’s not ideal.

The fact is, some relationships end up in that spot, and in hockey, when a usually-high-paid player becomes unwanted — a surplus to requirements — or he’s a square peg that can’t be fit into the round holes of a team’s salary cap, it’s one way to trim off some fat.

The buyout window opens today and will remain open until June 30.

First, a short primer courtesy of the fine folks at CapFriendly, who are doing God’s work:

Teams are permitted to buyout a players contract to obtain a reduced salary cap hit over a period of twice the remaining length of the contract. The buyout amount is a function of the players age at the time of the buyout, and are as follows:

  1. One-third of the remaining contract value, if the player is younger than 26 at the time of the buyout
  2. Two-thirds of the remaining contract value, if the player is 26 or older at the time of the buyout

The team still takes a cap hit, and the cap hit by year is calculated as follows:

  1. Multiply the remaining salary (excluding signing bonuses) by the buyout amount (as determined by age) to obtain the total buyout cost
  2. Spread the total buyout cost evenly over twice the remaining contract years
  3. Determine the savings by subtracting the annual buyout cost from Step 2. by the players salary (excluding signing bonuses)
  4. Determine the remaining cap hit by subtracting the savings from Step 3. by the players Annual Average Salary (AAV) (including signing bonuses)

With that out of the way, let’s look at five candidates (in no particular order) who may be bought out over the next two weeks.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dion Phaneuf, Los Angeles Kings

The once powerful Kings have been reduced to kingdom more befitting of Jurassic Park. They have their share of stars from yesteryear on that team, and a couple making premium coin for regular, unleaded performance.

Phaneuf is a shade of the player he used to be. It’s understandable, given he’s 34 and on the back nine of his career. He’s got two years remaining on a deal that the Kings will be on the hook for $12 million.

Trading Phaneuf isn’t likely. He had six points in 67 games last year and the Kings, who were dreadful, healthy-scratched Phaneuf down the stretch.

Using CapFriendly’s handy-dandy buyout calculator, we see Phaneuf’s buyout would save the Kings just over $2.8 million, including a ~$4 million savings next year and a more modest $1.583 the following year.

Phaneuf’s cap hit over four years would be a total of $8.375 million, with the Ottawa Senators retaining 25 percent or $2.791 million per the transaction the two teams made in 2018.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes 

A lesson in a team throwing way to much money at a backup goaltender with decent numbers.

Darling has fallen out of favor in Carolina after signing a four-year, $16.6 million deal during the 2017 offseason.

Darling’s play was a disaster in the first year of the deal and Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney took over around December of this past season.

Darling was placed on waivers and was unsurprisingly not claimed and seems a shoe-in for an immediate buyout. The Hurricanes will save $2.366 million, taking a total cap hit of just under $6 million over the next four years.

Those savings can go to toward trying to re-up both Mrazek and McEhlinney, a duo that helped the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final.

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Dmitry Kulikov, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets bet on Kulikov’s lingering back injuries being behind the Russian defenseman when they signed him two years ago in the offseason. The bet was wrong.

Kulikov’s back has a durability rating that would be frowned upon by Consumer Reports.

But his back isn’t the biggest issue Winnipeg has. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has a money issue. You see, he needs to spend a lot this offseason on guys named Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, and he has more than one contract he’d like to dispose of. But while a guy like Mathieu Perreault would find suitors in the trade market, Kulikov won’t.

So while Kulikov has one year left on a deal that hits the cap for $4.333 million, a buyout would save Cheveldayoff close to $3 million in desperately needed cap space for the coming season.

Drafting well in the first round has caught up with the Jets.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks

Like Phaneuf not far down the I-5, Perry has seen his production nose-dive at 34 years old. There’s a lot of mileage on Perry’s skates, and regular oil changes aren’t cutting it anymore.

Perry has two years left on a deal that hits their bottom line for $8.625 million over the next two seasons.

The Ducks would have $6 million this year alone by buying out Perry, who is essentially trade proof with a full no-movement clause.

Perry’s cap hit would jump up to 6.625 mill the following year with a signing bonus of $3 million still owed, but then would only hurt for $2 million over the two added buyout years. In the end, the Ducks would save $4 million and open up a roster spot for a younger player.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Alex Steen, St. Louis Blues

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, this guy just hoisted the Stanley Cup and played a hell of a role on the fourth line to help the Blues to their first title in franchise history.”

Indeed, Steen did all of those things. But interim coach Craig Berube put Steen on the fourth line, a role he relished in but one that can be replaced for much, much cheaper.

Steen, 35, has seen his production plummet over the past several seasons — far away from the realm of money he’s making with a $5.75 million cap hit. That’s too much for a fourth line player.

The Blues have some signings to make themselves, including a big-money extension for rookie sensation Jordan Binnington and other pieces to the puzzle such as Patrick Maroon.

Buying out Steen would come with a cap savings of $3 million, including a $6 million savings over the next two seasons. The Blues have $18 million and change to play with and a host of RFAs that need to get paid.

Other candidates

The above five came in no particular order. This list could extend for a while.

Some other notable names that could see their contracts bought out are:


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

Blues advance, Jets dumped from playoffs with a thud

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Yes, there were red flags for the Winnipeg Jets late in the regular season, yet even pessimists weren’t expecting a flat finish like this.

With the Jets’ season on the line, they offered up a largely flat effort against the Blues (PHT’s Scott Billeck nailed it when he compared Winnipeg’s urgency to that of a grazing cow), falling 3-2 in Game 6. With that, St. Louis wins the series 4-2, and will move on to Round 2 to take on the winner of the Nashville Predators – Dallas Stars series.

[The Stars looked stout in taking a 3-2 lead in that series.]

Chalk it up to the Blues’ suffocating defense, the exhaustion that comes with playoff hockey, the devastation of losing Game 5 in the waning seconds, or a number of other factors, but whatever’s at the root of this problem, the Blues removed them from the postseason like an unsightly weed.

Speaking of Game 5, the closing-moments hero Jaden Schwartz carried over his hot hand, scoring a goal per period to grab a hat trick, and give the Blues a 3-0 lead. While Schwartz’s work is absolutely worth heralding, you can expect the headlines in Winnipeg to revolve around a shockingly listless second period. The Jets sure didn’t look like a team with its season on the line – a team that wanted its season to end, perhaps – as the Blues controlled the shots on goal at 16-1 in the second period, and 27-6 through the first 40 minutes.

(You’d probably not be shocked to learn that one SOG in a period sets a new franchise-low for the Jets.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Jets a bit of life in making it 3-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, and Mathieu Perreault added a dash of very-late intrigue to make it 3-2 in the waning seconds. Patrik Laine even got a dangerous shot with just a few seconds remaining, but ultimately that final Jets was a case of too little, too late.

Winnipeg will now stagger into an off-season that isn’t likely to be easy, what with Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, and Kyle Connor requiring new contracts, and management needing to find some answers. On Saturday, the main question was ” … What happened?”

The spotlight will shine on the Jets’ blemishes after this effort, no doubt, but when a team struggles, there’s usually a reason for it beyond [insert some sort of cliche about “lacking fortitude”]. The Blues steamrolled into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where they almost wrestled away home-ice advantage in Round 1, and also came close to snaring the Central Division title.

One of the major stories of this postseason is teams carrying strong finishes from the regular season over into the games that matter the most, and you could argue that the Blues ended 2018-19 as hot as any team in the NHL. From a strong system, some great players like Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, to nice depth particularly with Schwartz, and a Cinderella story that might just be legit in Jordan Binnington, this Blues team has a lot going for it.

Did anyone really see this coming when the Blues fired Mike Yeo and seemed to be headed toward a troubling summer, while the Jets’ biggest question was whether they could win the division and go on a deep run? No, not really, but it would be foolish to doubt this Blues squad any longer.

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: Jets visit Ducks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With 10 games left to play in their season, Winnipeg leads Nashville in the Central and is in line for just the second division title in franchise history. The only time the franchise won their division was when they were the Atlanta Thrashers and won the Southeast Division in 2006-07.

Despite leading the division, Winnipeg has been a mediocre 12-11-2 over the last 25 games, with a minus-3 goal differential during that span.

More recently, however, the Jets have won three straight games, all by one goal, and look more like the team that reached the Western Conference Final last season. After defeating playoff contenders Boston and Calgary, Winnipeg snuck by Los Angeles on Monday 3-2. Kevin Hayes and Kyle Connor both scored, but the Jets blew their two-goal lead before Tyler Myers scored the eventual game-winner late in the second period.

Anaheim is in 14th place in the West and is all but assured to miss the playoffs, which will snap a streak of six straight seasons. That was tied for the second longest active streak in the league with Minnesota, who is still very much alive in the playoff hunt.

Despite their place in the standings, the Ducks have won back-to-back games and six of their last nine games overall. Five of those six wins have come against teams in the playoff hunt.

The Ducks are 9-9-0 since firing Randy Carlyle and replacing him with GM Bob Murray.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Winnipeg Jets at Anaheim Ducks
WHERE: Honda Center
WHEN: Wednesday, March 20, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAMING: You can watch the Jets-Ducks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Patrik LaineMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Kyle Connor – Kevin Hayes – Nikolaj Ehlers
Brandon TanevAdam LowryBryan Little
Mathieu PerreaultAndrew CoppJack Roslovic

Joe MorrowJacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov – Tyler Myers
Ben ChiarotSami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

DUCKS
Nick RitchieRyan GetzlafDaniel Sprong
Corey PerryAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Rickard RakellDevin ShoreJakob Silfverberg
Max JonesDerek GrantCarter Rowney

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Jacob Larsson – Cam Fowler
Jaycob Megna – Korbinian Holzer

Starting goalie: John Gibson

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.