Neal Pionk

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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

Binnington, Trouba rank as most interesting salary arbitration cases

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NHL players usually don’t make it all the way through the salary arbitration process, but the deadlines involved often push teams, players, and agents to hash something out — sometimes within hours of a potentially contentious hearing.

Few of the 40 players who elected to go to salary arbitration will actually make it all the way there; Malcolm Subban‘s already off the list as of Tuesday, July 9. Still, with names like Jordan Binnington, Jacob Trouba, David Rittich, and Will Butcher among those who filed, the list is relevant, whether the deadlines speed up the process or the teams face the unenviable task of talking down their respective values without burning bridges.

You can see the list, with dates, at the bottom of this post. It’s notable not just that Binnington is on it, but that he’s set to go on July 20, the first day of a process that runs through Aug. 4.

Before you get to the full list, consider some of the most intriguing players who filed.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Jordan Binnington: As we’ve discussed at PHT, it’s difficult to find easy parallels for the Stanley Cup success story, who will turn 26 on July 11.

Binnington was sensational as a driving force of the Blues’ historic turnaround to their first-ever Stanley Cup, going 24-5-1 (!) with a sparkling .927 save percentage during the regular season. While his postseason save percentage dipped to .914, he was a rock for the Blues, getting stronger as each series went along. That point was made clearest in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, as he made the difference as St. Louis beat the Bruins in Boston.

Binnington’s side could easily lead with the argument: “Well, how much is a Stanley Cup worth to you?”

The Blues’ side isn’t outrageous, either.

Binnington now only has 33 regular-season games (plus 26 playoff games) on his NHL resume, which isn’t much for a soon-to-be 26-year-old. Part of Binnington’s Cinderella story is that he struggled to gain opportunities, even at lower levels. While fairly impressive stats in the AHL and at other levels argue that Binnington probably deserved more looks, St. Louis could still argue his side down based on a small sample size.

It’s tough to imagine the Blues wanting to go too deep into pessimism here, though, and it would probably behoove them to strike a deal before an arbitrator gets to see GIFs of Binnington making breathtaking, Cup-winning saves.

(GIFs should totally be involved in these processes, in my opinion.)

Quite a few Blues runs have been derailed by bad goaltending, leaving fans to wonder what might happen if they finally got that guy who could make stops. Cap management is important, but at some point, you just have to stop messing with a good thing … even if it remains to be seen if Binnington can come close to duplicating this success.

Jacob Trouba: The Rangers gained Trouba’s rights, but being that he’s one of the rare players to go deep into the process, as Trouba did with Jets in 2018, New York probably realizes that it might not be easy to nickel-and-dime the defenseman.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that a contract could be mammoth: something in the seven year range term-wise, with a cap hit that could be well above $7M.

Trouba’s time with Winnipeg has occasionally dulled his stats, as he’s battled Dustin Byfuglien and even Tyler Myers for certain opportunities. Perhaps the Rangers could sand away a hearing with a focus on previous efforts, but with Trouba managing 50 points this past season, that might not go far. Really, the Rangers probably want to lock him up long-term, so it would be surprising if they’d want to risk souring anything with Trouba, especially since the Jets situation spoiled long ago.

The Rangers also have to realize that Trouba is comfortable exploring whatever limited options his RFA rights provide.

David Rittich: Is Rittich the Flames’ goalie of the future, or will he lose out even to Cam Talbot next season? “Big Save Dave” showed some flashes of brilliance, yet he ceded key late starts to Mike Smith in 2018-19, and his .911 save percentage won’t set hearings on fire.

Hearing or not, his next contract should be intriguing. Would Calgary want to try to find a bargain by handing out a little more term, or would both sides be comfortable with a one or two-year “prove it” type deal?

Will Butcher: The Devils would likely hope that arbitrators use less sophisticated stats (Butcher was a -17 in 2018-19) than the fancy variety, as he was impressive from an analytics standpoint, especially compared to Devils teammates.

With 30 points and a healthy 19:16 TOI average, Butcher is clearly an emerging talent. It might be worth the risk to lock him up for more term than what is normally handed out in hearings where a compromise is the goal, rather than a long-term pact.

There are some other interesting names on this list. How much of the Bruins’ precious cap space will be eaten up by Danton Heinen? What goes to current Ranger Pavel Buchnevich, not to mention former Ranger and Trouba trade element Neal Pionk?

Here’s the full list, with dates:

July 20
Joel Armia
Jordan Binnington
Jason Dickinson
Alex Iafallo
Brock McGinn
Malcolm Subban (signed)

July 21
Andrew Copp

July 22
Zach Aston-Reese
Christian Djoos
Ville Husso
MacKenzie Weegar

July 23
Evan Rodrigues

July 24
Neal Pionk
Oskar Sundqvist

July 25
Connor Carrick
Jacob Trouba

July 26
Colton Sissons

July 27
Sam Bennett
Chase DeLeo

July 28
Mirco Mueller

July 29
Pavel Buchnevich
David Rittich

July 30
Scott Laughton

July 31
J.T. Compher

August 1
Remi Elie
Ryan Lomberg
Chandler Stephenson

August 2
Will Butcher
Charles Hudon
Linus Ullmark

August 3
Danton Heinen
Artturi Lehkonen

August 4
Sheldon Dries
Joel Edmundson
Anton Forsberg
Rocco Grimaldi
Jake McCabe
Rinat Valiev

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.

Binnington, Trouba, Heinen among 40 players to file for salary arbitration

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Friday was the deadline for arbitration eligible restricted free agents to file for salary arbitration.

There were 40 players that elected to go that route.

The most notable players to file were St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup winning goalie Jordan Binnington, recently acquired New York Rangers defender Jacob Trouba, and Boston Bruins forward Danton Heinen.

Binnington’s arbitration case would be by far the most interesting one if it reaches that point.

On one hand, he is still a bit of an unknown having played just 59 games (regular season and playoffs combined) in the NHL at the age of 25, so anything the Blues give him on a long-term contract would be a bit of a gamble. But he did help turn the Blues’ season around and backstopped the team to its ever first ever Stanley Cup so he has a pretty strong argument in his corner.

Hearing dates have yet to be set, but teams can continue to work on new contracts with each player in an effort to avoid arbitration.

Most of these players will end up being signed before they have to reach arbitration as neither side ever wants to go through the unpleasantness that those hearings can create.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Anaheim Ducks
Chase De Leo

Boston Bruins
Danton Heinen

Buffalo Sabres
Remi Elie
Jake McCabe
Evan Rodrigues
Linus Ullmark

Calgary Flames
Sam Bennett
Ryan Lomberg
David Rittich
Rinat Valiev

Carolina Hurricanes
Anton Forsberg
Brock McGinn

Colorado Avalanche
J.T. Compher
Sheldon Dries
Ryan Graves

Dallas Stars
Jason Dickinson

Florida Panthers
MacKenzie Weegar

Los Angeles Kings
Alex Iafallo

Montreal Canadiens
Joel Armia
Charles Hudon
Artturi Lehkonen

Nashville Predators
Rocco Grimaldi
Colton Sissons

New Jersey Devils
Will Butcher
Connor Carrick
Mirco Mueller

New York Rangers
Pavel Buchnevich
Jacob Trouba

Philadelphia Flyers
Scott Laughton

Pittsburgh Penguins
Zach Aston-Reese

St. Louis Blues
Jordan Binnington
Joel Edmundson
Zach Sanford
Oskar Sundqvist

Tampa Bay Lightning
Cedric Paquette (signed after filing)

Vegas Golden Knights
Malcolm Subban

Washington Capitals
Christian Djoos
Chandler Stephenson

Winnipeg Jets
Andrew Copp
Neal Pionk

UPDATE: The NHLPA has released the schedule for these hearings which run from July 20 to Aug. 4.

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

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.

Which players might be on the move this week?

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Since the Stanley Cup Final came to an end last week, we’ve seen NHL general managers make a plethora of moves to bolster their teams. Jacob Trouba, Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen have already been moved and Kevin Hayes has inked a mega deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. But who else might be shipped to a different team in the coming days?

With the feeling of disappointment still fresh in most teams’ mind (except you, St. Louis), this is where general managers want to wheel-and-deal in order to make themselves as competitive as possible heading into next season. There’s always plenty of trade chatter at this time of year, but it appears as though there’s a real opportunity for us to see some blockbuster moves this summer.

There also appears to be a number of offer sheet possibilities, which is hard to believe because that’s a route general managers don’t typically jump on. But with so many superstar restricted free agents about to hit the market, it appears as though some teams may be willing to part with these players via trade instead of losing them to an offer sheet.

Alright, so let’s take a look at which players could be traded before the NHL Draft (Friday, 7:30 pm ET on NBCSN) or before NHL free agency begins.

Nikolaj Ehlers – W- Winnipeg Jets: The Jets probably don’t want to unload Ehlers, but their current cap situation might force them to. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has roughly $25 million in cap space at his disposal right now, but he has to re-sign Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Tyler Myers and Neal Pionk, who was recently acquired from the New York Rangers. Ehlers is about to enter the second year of his seven-year, $42 million extension ($6 million AAV). He posted 21 goals and a disappointing 37 points in 62 games last season. Again, those numbers were low for a player of his caliber but it’s clear that he possesses the talent to be a top-line player in the NHL. Teams should be lining up for his services.

P.K. Subban – D – Nashville Predators: Subban is just three years into his tenure with the Predators, but a group of high-priced defensemen could lead to him being on his way out the door. It would be surprising to see GM David Poile unload Subban so soon, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Subban has missed 16 and 19 games in two of his three seasons in Nashville and he’s entering his age 30 season. Could that play a factor in Poile’s decision? The Preds also have to sign captain Roman Josi to a long-term extension and he’s going to make way more than the $4 million they’re currently paying him.

Jason Zucker – W – Minnesota Wild: Zucker was reportedly part of the trade that would’ve seen Phil Kessel head to Minnesota from Pittsburgh. That puts the 27-year-old in a bit of an awkward position with his current team, so they may be forced to part ways with him soon. Zucker scored 21 goals and 21 assists in 81 games last season, but he’s just one year removed from a 33-goal and 64-point season. He has four years remaining on a contract that pays him $5.5 million per year.

Phil Kessel – W – Pittsburgh Penguins: Is a move still possible? You’d have to think that if Kessel is going to be traded, it will happen sometime before or during the NHL Entry Draft. The Pens seem motivated to move on from the veteran winger, and teams are desperate for goals so it seems like there’s still a chance he could end up somewhere else before the start of next season. Where is he willing to be moved to though?

Nazem Kadri – C – Toronto Maple Leafs: This potential move has nothing to do with Kadri’s ability to play. The 28-year-old is coming off a down year, but he’s still a quality center, which is hard to find in the NHL. The problem is that he allows his emotions to get the best of him in critical times. This year, a suspension forced him to watch from the press box as his team was eliminated in the first round by the Boston Bruins. Has he run out of chances in Toronto?

T.J. Brodie – D – Calgary Flames: Brodie has one year remaining on his contract. It comes with a cap hit of $4.65 million, which means he’ll probably be looking for a raise heading into next summer. The Flames have to re-sign some key parts like Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk and they have to find themselves a starting netminder before the start of the year. Brodie is a left-handed shot capable of playing over 20 minutes per game. The 29-year-old had nine goals and 34 points in 79 games this season.

William Karlsson – C – Vegas Golden Knights: Karlsson took off after he was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft. The pending restricted free agent put up 43 goals and 78 points in his first year with the Golden Knights and he followed that up with 24 goals and 56 points last season. He’s a quality two-way center that will need to get a significant raise this offseason. The Golden Knights don’t have the salary cap space to bring him back without making another move or two, so he could be the target of an offer sheet after July 1st.

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.