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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.

Anaheim Ducks re-sign goalie Ryan Miller for another season

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Veteran goalie Ryan Miller has re-signed for another season with the Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim also gave one-year contract extensions to defenseman Korbinian Holzer and forward Derek Grant on Thursday.

Miller is the winningest U.S.-born goalie in NHL history with 378 career victories. The former Vancouver and Buffalo netminder has won 20 games over the past two seasons in Anaheim as John Gibson‘s backup.

Miller turns 39 years old next month, and he was cagey about his future after Anaheim missed the playoffs this year. The Ducks valued his steady veteran presence, and they apparently persuaded him to postpone retirement for another season under new coach Dallas Eakins.

Holzer is a veteran German defenseman who has played 99 games in Anaheim over the past four seasons.

Grant scored a career-best 24 points during the 2017-18 season for the Ducks, who then reacquired him in a trade last January after he signed a free-agent deal with Pittsburgh.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

WATCH LIVE: Ducks host Blues 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 St. Louis Blues 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.

The Blues remarkable turnaround since mid-January has them positioned to make the playoffs despite finding themselves in last place in the league on the morning of Jan. 3. St. Louis has struggled more recently, however, coming off back-to-back regulation losses to Carolina and Dallas.

Since the NHL’s Expansion Era (1967-68), only six teams have made the playoffs after ranking last in the entire League at any point after Jan. 1 (min. 20 GP). The only teams to accomplish the feat in that era: the 1976-77 North Stars, 1979-80 Oilers, 1982-83 Maple Leafs, 1987-88 Kings, 1987-88 Maple Leafs and 1996-97 Senators.

The Blues have one of the easiest upcoming schedules in the league in terms of lowest cumulative points percentage for remaining opponents and only have two remaining divisional games on the schedule (April 1 against COL and April 3 in Chicago).

It is highly unlikely that Anaheim will make the playoffs, thus ending their streak of six consecutive years in the postseason.

Cam Fowler (57G-206A—263 points in 605 GP) needs one point and three goals to tie Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer (60G-204A—264 points in 371 GP) for the most ever by a Ducks defenseman. Earlier this season Ryan Miller became the all-time leader in wins by a U.S.- born goaltender, passing John Vanbiesbrouck (374).

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

What: St. Louis Blues at Anaheim Ducks
Where: Honda Center
When: Wednesday, March 6, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Brayden SchennRyan O'ReillyVladimir Tarasenko
Patrick MaroonTyler BozakRobert Thomas
Jaden SchwartzOskar SundqvistAlex Steen
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan Barbashev – Samuel Blais

Joel EdmundsonAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnMichael Del Zotto

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

DUCKS
Kevin Roy – Ryan GetzlafCorey Perry
Rickard Rakell – Sam Steel – Jakob Silfverberg
Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Max JonesRyan KeslerCarter Rowney

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

Starting goalie: John Gibson

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

Kane plays hero as Blackhawks steal one late against Ducks

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Time and time again, the Chicago Blackhawks have needed a hero. And time and time again, that man has been Patrick Kane.

Kane kept true to that narrative on Wednesday night in a 4-3 win for the ‘Hawks over the Anaheim Ducks, scoring a goal with 17 seconds left on the clock in the third period to break a 3-3 tie on NBCSN.

Fittingly, the goal was Kane’s 40th of the season, marking the second time in his NHL career that he’s hit that plateau.

And what a stunner (and heartbreaker for Anaheim) it was.

Jonathan Toews picked up a loose puck in the Chicago zone with roughly 21 seconds left. His outlet pass found Brandon Saad streaking through the neutral zone. Saad, gunning it down the left side, undressed Hampus Lindholm on a nasty toe drag at the Anaheim blue line, slid the pick over to Kane on the ensuing two-on-one and Kane did the rest, sniping a shot past Ryan Miller to win it.

The two points were massive for the Blackhawks, who are now five points back of the final wildcard in the Western Conference. And Chicago looked like they were heading to their third straight loss down 3-2 with just under five minutes left.

Alex DeBrincat scored his second of the game to tie the game up, a goal that seemed to renew Chicago’s energy.

The two teams played to a scoreless first period. It was the second frame where the floodgates burst.

The Blackhawks were given a prime opportunity to blow the game open, too, early in the second when Rickard Rakell drilled Drake Caggiula from behind, resulting in a five-minute major and a game misconduct for the former.

The Blackhawks would score, with DeBrincat getting his first of the game. But the goal was washed out by Devin Shore‘s shorthanded marker not long after.

Artem Anisimov returned the favor, sniping a shorthanded goal of his own before Carter Rowney tied it for the Ducks.

The tie lasted until the third when Troy Terry gave the Ducks their first lead of the game off a bad turnover.

Corey Crawford returned after missing 28 games with a concussion and stopped 29 shots. He didn’t look great on Rowney’s goal, but outside of that, Crawford looked every bit the part of the goalie that was the talk of the league in recent times.

Crawford’s performance (and health) is going to be key down the stretch drive here if the Blackhawks are going to slide in the back door of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Getting his first action in over two months was the first step, and Crawford passed the test.


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

The Buzzer: Patrik Laine ends 15-game goal drought

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine entered Friday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights stuck in one of the worst slumps of his young career. He had not scored a goal in 15 consecutive games and recorded just four assists during that stretch. Consider the slump now over. He scored a pair of goals for the Jets in their 6-3 win over the Golden Knights to reclaim the top spot, for now, in the Central Division by jumping back ahead of the Nashville Predators. The Jets still have two games in hand as well. Even with Laine’s goal drought he still has 27 goals in 61 games, which is still a 36-goal pace over 82 games. Just shows how good he is when he is at his best that he can go 15 games in a row without scoring a goal and still have a good chance to score more than 35 goals in a season. He was not the only Jets player to snap goal drought on Friday. Adam Lowry also scored to snap what had been a 17-game goal slump, and they ended their droughts by scoring just 27 seconds apart.

2. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche picked up two huge points and won for the fourth time in their past five games by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. J.T. Compher was one of the stars of the night for Avalanche and was one of two players (Carl Soderberg being the other) to score a pair of goals. Compher’s second goal was the big one as it went in the books as the game-winner with just under six minutes to play in regulation, giving the Avalanche their third win in a row and fourth win in the past five games.

3. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames increased their lead in the Pacific Division to three points over the San Jose Sharks thanks to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Defender T.J. Brodie played a pretty big role in the win by contributing to both goals, scoring one and assisting on the game-winner.

Highlights of the Night

The save of the night belongs to Minnesota Wild forward (Yes! Forward!) Mikael Granlund for stepping up in net after this turnover by Devan Dubnyk. It helped lead to a huge win for the Wild in the Western Conference Wild Card race.

In more traditional saves, this stop by Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller was also pretty impressive.

Matt Duchene did not record a point in his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets but he did play extremely well in their 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He also received a video tribute and a standing ovation from Senators fans. His time with the team may not have gone as planned on a team level, but he was still very good in parts of two seasons with the team.

Factoids

  • Sergei Bobrovsky recorded the shutout for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, giving him 16 since the start of the 2016-17 season, tying him for the most in the NHL during that stretch with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. [NHL PR]
  • It came in a losing effort but Patrick Kane extended his point streak to 20 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, making him the seventh player in NHL history to have multiple 20-game point streaks. [NHL PR]
  • Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice won his 685th regular season game on Friday night and moved into sole possession of eighth place on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list. [NHL PR]
  • Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche became the ninth player in NHL history to record his first 20-goal season after their 33rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Speaking of which, this is the first time since the 2006-07 season that the Colorado Avalanche have had at least four 20-goal scorers in a single season. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the other three this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Ottawa Senators 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Minnesota Wild 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 2, Anaheim Ducks 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.