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Are Predators wise in demoting hyped prospect Tolvanen?

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After absorbing the highlights and the hype from his spellbinding start in the KHL, it was frustrating to see Eeli Tolvanen‘s first run with the Nashville Predators end with such a whimper.

You can only fault him so much, as he didn’t really get much of a chance to prove himself. Tolvanen barely averaged more than 12 minutes of ice time over the three regular-season games with the Predators, failing to score a goal or an assist. Despite what sometimes felt like a revolving door of forwards at depth positions, Tolvanen didn’t play a single shift during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s difficult to suss out how much of that is on Tolvanen – whose game likely needs some polish outside, aside from sniping – and how much of the blame goes to Peter Laviolette (who, as an NHL head coach, is required to cast a suspicious eye on all rookies*).

With those growing pains in mind, maybe it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that the Predators demoted Tolvanen to the AHL on Wednesday, although it is a little surprising that he didn’t receive an extra look or two to close out training camp.

After all, the thinking goes, wouldn’t the 19-year-old be better off enjoying a featured role with the Milwaukee Admirals, rather than scrapping for minutes and possibly finding himself as an occasional healthy scratch with the big club?

Well, it’s not necessarily that simple.

Let’s get into some of the deeper details.

A different form of 10-game cut-off: In most cases, an NHL team faces a conundrum: either demote a player or risk burning a year off of their entry-level contracts for a weak return. The Edmonton Oilers’ blunders with Jesse Puljujarvi remind us that a team can recklessly squander what could be the best “bang for your buck” years of a player’s time.

Taking advantage of that “entry-level slide” can be especially appealing when a team is able to assign a player to the AHL, rather than the junior level or overseas.

That would seem to be the case with Tolvanen, yet that turns out to not be true. As The Athletic’s Adam Vingan and TSN’s Bob McKenzie have reported, Tolvanen’s contract features a clause that would allow him to play in Europe if he reaches 10 games played at the AHL level.

With that in mind, the Predators would relinquish quite a bit of control over Tolvanen’s near future if they allow him to play in the KHL, or some other European league. He wouldn’t receive much more exposure to North American rinks if that happened, but most importantly, the Predators would forfeit a certain level of control over when Tolvanen could play for them again.

If I were running the Predators, I’d prefer to keep him around the big club.

It shouldn’t be that tough to find a fit: Look, it’s plausible that there would be times when a low-end, veteran grinder would be a better fit for the Predators’ lineup than Tolvanen. Overall, though, it’s tough to imagine that Tolvanen couldn’t benefit Nashville with his game-breaking talents, even if he’s a work in progress. Would you really rather have Zac Rinaldo or Miikka Salomaki on the ice instead of Tolvanen?

One area where you can make an especially strong argument for Tolvanen is on the power play.

The Predators have some fantastic talent offensively, yet their strength on defense can be a curse in disguise when it comes to the man advantage. Consider the shot distribution: Roman Josi (71 SOG on PP) and P.K. Subban (56 SOG on PP) topped all Predators in that regard, with only Filip Forsberg firing at a comparable rate (46 PP SOG, but while being limited to 67 games).

Maybe Tolvanen could be a lot like Sam Gagner was during a very successful year with Columbus: a highly specialized shooter on the power play. Racking up points that way could help the Predators go from results that are acceptable, but not very exciting, to a power play unit that could count as another strength for a real contender out West.

Loading up: You never know how wide your window to compete really is, so while preserving Tolvanen’s cheapest years has an undeniable lure, there are some significant reasons to just try to make it work with him in 2018-19.

For one thing, taking advantage of Tolvanen’s rookie contract now could allow the Predators to really load up. With ample space to work with – Cap Friendly puts them at more than $8.7M – Nashville could target a deluxe rental like Mark Stone (or, amusingly, maybe Matt Duchene?). In such a scenario, Tolvanen could step into a spot if Nashville needed to package, say, Craig Smith in a hypothetical trade.


Again, the threat of Tolvanen heading overseas looms large in these considerations. How arduous would the process be to get him back to North America? Would Tolvanen develop “bad habits” away from the club’s more watchful eyes? The situation seems tricky enough that it might just be preferable to hope that he figures things out, earns Laviolette’s trust, and pays immediate dividends instead.

Overall, these are good problems for an already talent-rich team like the Predators to have. It’s unusual for a late first-rounder of such a recent draft (30th in 2017) to force the issue so soon.

Regardless, Tolvanen’s situation remains a tricky one for Nashville. If they get this all right, the rewards could indeed be rich.

* – Though, I’d credit Laviolette for being more willing to trust players than former Predators coach Barry Trotz. Would Trotz have given Filip Forsberg and Kevin Fiala the same amount of leeway so early on in their respective careers? As smart a coach as Trotz is, I’d lean toward “No.”

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.

Amid uncertainty over Torts, Panarin, Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets extend GM

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Few GMs face the level of make-or-break decisions that Jarmo Kekalainen of the Blue Jackets is currently dealing with. In just about every big case, it’s about making pivotal calls about contract extensions.

At least Kekalainen will no longer need to worry about his own.

The Blue Jackets announced three extensions to key front office members on Thursday: Kekalainen, team president John Davidson, and assistant GM Bill Zito. In a very hockey/corporate note, Zito was “promoted” from assistant to associate GM, which feels like something Dwight Schrute would beam about.

The Blue Jackets didn’t specify how many years these multi-year extensions cover.

Overall, it might indeed be wise to give Kekalainen peace of mind heading into a series of enormously important decisions. I mean, unless executives can put together even better results under the pressure of a contract year, just like players. Naturally, the drawback would be that if Kekalainen messes this up, the Blue Jackets would either be stuck with him and his decisions or would need to fire him and spend money on an alternative.

Ultimately it’s a lot like the decisions Kekalainen faces: they can go quite well or really, really, really poorly.

Let’s take a look at the biggest calls he still needs to make, acknowledging that there are some scenarios where Kekalainen can only do so much to influence the results:

Artemi PanarinThe Panarin situation answers the question: “What if the Max Pacioretty situation played out with some wrinkles: 1) far less intense hockey market and 2) the player is perceived to be pushing for a trade/exit rather than the team?”

Much like with Pacioretty, there seems to be a deadline for extension talks before the season, at least if reports are true and Panarin hasn’t had a change of heart.

Panarin reportedly hopes to play in one of the NHL’s largest markets, with rumblings that he wants to soak in the atmosphere of New York City most of all. That’s understandable – this would be the slick star’s first chance to truly explore the free agent market without the contract limitations he faced when first signing with Chicago – but it’s brutal for Columbus. As well as the Blue Jackets have developed some very nice forwards, Panarin is that “gamebreaker” they’ve lacked since the end of Rick Nash’s run.

Kekalainen is seemingly tasked with either sticking with Panarin to see what happens (whether that be a deadline deal or crossing fingers that Panarin will decide to stay with Columbus, after all) or finding the right trade soon. The latter idea gets an added degree of difficulty because the Blue Jackets eagerly want to make a playoff push, so picks and prospects – the most likely Panarin trade package – might not get the job done.

Ouch, right?

Sergei BobrovskyLike Panarin, Bobrovsky is entering a contract year, and both players are stars who seek to be paid as such.

On the outside, it seems like the Blue Jackets face fewer hurdles in convincing Bobrovsky to stay in this situation. Instead, this is more about Bobrovsky seeking a big price – one would think he’d like to at least match Carey Price‘s $10.5 million cap hit – and the sort of term that gets scary for a goalie who will turn 30 on Sept. 20.

It’s unclear if the Blue Jackets have an internal budget that’s going to be lower than the cap ceiling, or will going forward. If true, gambling on a huge Bobrovsky extension becomes more frightening.

John Tortorella: The general feeling is that, while publicly waving away analytics talk,* Tortorella has become more progressive since joining the Blue Jackets.

One can see evidence of such a possibility in the way he uses Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as “rovers,” and also the fairly forward-thinking practice of deploying Sam Gagner as a power-play specialist a few years back. There’s innovation beyond the grit session mentality.

That’s great, and players seemed to enjoy his outburst following the Jack Johnson/Penguins weirdness, but is he someone stars necessarily want to play for? Beyond that, the Blue Jackets still haven’t won a playoff series, so is an extension really appropriate for Torts? Kekalainen must answer those questions.

* – It’s amusing and fitting that the Blue Jackets hired Jim Corsi as a goaltending consultant this summer.

Zach Werenski: The NHL’s CBA means that an RFA like Werenski only has so much leverage, so his extension situation isn’t as perilous as those of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Still, Werenski is a dynamite defensive scorer who will be due a considerable raise as his rookie deal expires. Kekalainen might want to get that done soon, rather than allowing Werenski to drive up his value with an enormous 2018-19 output.

One unlikely but interesting idea: This is a concept that’s been rattling around my head for a while now, yet could easily be refuted with “Yeah, like a lame duck front office would do that?” What if the Blue Jackets essentially “punted” on 2018-19? Now that Kekalainen & Co. have that job security, hear me out … despite this likely being too bold.

Panarin seems like he has one foot out the door. As great as Bobrovsky is, goalies are highly unpredictable, and a smart team might be better off taking short-term gambles on a netminder instead of getting stuck with a depreciating asset. What if Joonas Korpisalo justified the franchise’s confidence in him and ended up being a far cheaper, feasible replacement for “Bob?”

Also, the Metropolitan Division remains loaded, yet the Capitals and Penguins are also getting older.

The Blue Jackets boast some outstanding young players as their core. Seth Jones is rising as an all-around, Norris-level defenseman at just 23. Werenski’s firepower might make him even more likely to take that award, and he’s somehow merely 21. Pierre-Luc Dubois looks like a gem at 20.

If a team dangled an impressive bucket of futures for a cheap year of Panarin and the opportunity to extend him, maybe Columbus would be better off taking that deal rather than getting the John Tavares treatment? Perhaps something similar could happen with Bobrovsky if they don’t feel comfortable inking him to an extension?

This scenario is far-fetched, especially since the Blue Jackets are probably closer to contending than their playoff results have indicated. Let’s not forget that, while they lost in the first round two years in a row, they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions each time.

Still, it’s at least a path to consider, especially now that Kekalainen’s job is safer.

***

Overall, it sounds like Torts might stay in the fold, and the Blue Jackets might not experience drastic change.

That said, the Panarin situation is a volatile one. As bright as Kekalainen often appears to be, many will judge his reign by how that develops, and if the Blue Jackets can break through to become true contenders in the East.

These are tough tasks, but at least Kekalainen’s financial future is in less doubt. He’ll need a clear mind going into this series of daunting decisions.

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.

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Are the Vancouver Canucks rebuilding? If you’re going off recent results, you’d think that they were going through some kind of re-tooling. But if you look at what they’ve done in free agency the last few years, you’d think differently.

The Canucks finished 26th in the overall standings last season, 29th two years ago and 28th in 2015-16. You’d think that those kinds of results would lead to the team going in a different direction. Instead, general manager Jim Benning has spent money on free agents like Loui Eriksson, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Tim Schaller. There’s nothing wrong with those players. They can each serve as capable NHL players, but shouldn’t Benning have taken the time to give his younger players an opportunity to step in to bigger roles at the highest level?

There was more drama surrounding the team this off-season, as they decided to move on from president Trevor Linden. Some in Vancouver have speculated that Linden had a different vision for the team than Benning did, but the Canucks GM has denied having those kinds of disagreements with his former president.

[Canucks Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough: Boeser | 3 Questions]

No matter how you slice it, the pressure is on Benning to deliver a quality product sooner or later. Even if the Canucks want to head into a full-out rebuild, positive on-ice results will have to come eventually. As we mentioned above, Benning is the GM of a team that has finished near the basement of the NHL for the last three years. Not many general managers get to keep their jobs after those kinds of runs.

There’s no denying that the team has some solid building blocks in place. Bo Horvat has been a productive NHLer, Chris Tanev is an underrated defenseman, Brock Boeser looks like he’s going to be a superstar and Elias Pettersson is one of the best prospects in all of hockey. But the rest of the roster looks kinds of “meh” to put it bluntly.

Even with the players mentioned above, there’s still a lot of work for this organization to do before they can get back to being one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Can Benning get them to where they need to go? So far, the answer to that question appears to be “no”. And how much more time does he have on his side? Only Canucks ownership can answer that question, but you’d have to think that he’s under the gun at this point.

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.

It’s Vancouver Canucks day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

2017-18
31-40-11, 73 pts. (7th in the Pacific Division, 14th in the Western Conference)
Missed playoffs

IN
Antoine Roussel
Jay Beagle
Tim Schaller

OUT
Henrik Sedin
Daniel Sedin
Jayson Megna
Michael Chaput
Nic Dowd
Jussi Jokinen

RE-SIGNED
Sven Baertschi
Markus Granlund
Jake Virtanen
Derrick Pouliot
Darren Archibald

– – –

The Vancouver Canucks weren’t expected to move the needle much last season and they obliged many preseason predictions that had them finishing in the basement of the league.

Trying to turn around this ship with the additions of Thomas Vanek, Michael Del Zotto and Sam Gagner weren’t exactly the earth-shattering moves needed. Sure, the Canucks were a busy bunch last summer as they tried the fix-on-the-fly strategy, but that’s almost always a futile task.

The 2018-19 Canucks were a team that couldn’t score (26th fewest). They gave up too many goals (sixth most). Their team save percentage was among the worst in the league (.902, 26th) and neither goalie outworked the other to be called a bona fide No. 1.

[Under Pressure: Benning | Breakthrough: Boeser | 3 Questions]

These are the days of an NHL rebuild and a team waiting for promising young talent to emerge and take over.

Perhaps, then, it was as good a time as any for the Sedin twins to retire. Daniel and Henrik called it a career after 17 years of heroics in Vancouver. Even in their elder years as NHL players, the Sedins were still responsible for a good chunk of Vancouver’s offense, which is a hole that someone is going to have to fill.

The bad news is that likely won’t happen this season. It’s quite likely the Canucks wallow at the bottom of the tank for another year.

The good news is that among the rubble of the rebuild is several signs of life.

Brock Boeser may have given Mathew Barzal a run for the Calder if not for an apparent scary back injury that forced him to miss the final 20 games of the season. His 29 goals led all rookies until Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets pipped him for the title late in the year. He finished with 55 points in 62 games and 23 power-play points, which was second among rookies and helped the Canucks to a top-10 showing with the man-advantage.

Bo Horvat‘s season was also derailed by injury. A fractured foot forced him to miss over six weeks from early December to late January. How’d Vancouver fare without him in the lineup? They were 4-12-2.

Horvat still managed 22 goals, a career-high. He likely would have set a new mark in points, too, if not for those 18 missed games. He finished with 44 points and appears to be coming into his own as a top-line NHL center.

The Canucks went out and added once again this offseason.

It’s highly unlikely that Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle or Tim Schaller are going to be world-beaters, but that’s not what they’re being tasked with.

Their purpose is to help the Canucks’ young core along and provide Vancouver with the ability to develop some of those prospects in the minors instead of slotting them into the Show earlier than they need to be. Continued development is key, and there are several models the Canucks can look to around the league to help them resist those temptations.

A quick note on team defense: It certainly needs to improve, but it should be noted that a healthy Chris Tanev and Erik Gudbranson should go a long way to helping that. The duo missed a combined 70 games last season.

Prospect Pool

Elias Pettersson, C/RW, 19, Vaxjo (SHL) – 2017 first-round pick

One prospect that likely won’t need much seasoning in the minors is Pettersson. He’s already played among men in the Swedish Elite League, where he dominated as an 18-year-old, scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 44 games.

That kind of production helped his team to a league championship, the honor of being named the top forward in the SHL, its MVP, it’s top point-producer, it’s playoffs MVP and it’s rookie of the year. Those are just some of his accolades from last year, too. He also won a silver medal at the world juniors and followed that up with gold hardware at the world championships.

Did we mention he’s Swedish? Vancouver loves their Swedes.

Quinton Hughes, D, 18, University of Michigan (NCAA) – 2018 first-round pick

Hughes had a solid freshman season with the Wolverines with 29 points in 37 games, garnering him a spot on the NCAA (B1G) All-Rookie Team. He captured bronze at the world juniors and the world championships with Team USA, contributing five assists across 17 combined games in both tournaments.

He was also the best player at this summer’s world junior showcase.

“He’s going to be that type of player that young kids try to emulate — that they want to be, that they strive to be — but it’s going to be very difficult to duplicate what he does,” said Hughes’ U-18 coach John Wroblewski. “With this guy, he’s another generational-type talent, and he’ll be an influence on defensemen for years to come. I truly believe that.”

Thatcher Demko, G, 22, Utica (AHL) – 2014 second-round pick

We’ve highlighted one forward, one defenseman and now one goalie that could change the landscape for the better in Vancouver.

Demko is Vancouver’s future in goal, and he was solid with Utica last season in the American Hockey League with a .922 save percentage and 25 wins in 46 games played. For his efforts, he was named an AHL All-Star and got his first NHL start and subsequently his first NHL win on the last day of March.

Demko is likely to see more time this season in Vancouver, but there needs to be a fine balance of not letting him sit when he could be hogging the crease in the AHL. The Canucks aren’t shooting for the playoffs, so keeping him where he will play the most seems like the best option until the Canucks are willing to give him plenty of action as their backup.


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

Yakupov takes disappointing career to KHL

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When the Edmonton Oilers made Nail Yakupov the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they expected him to become an impact forward almost right away. Not only did that not happen, but he was barely able to last six seasons in the NHL.

On Tuesday morning, it was announced that Yakupov had signed a one-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.

The 24-year-old’s NHL career got off to a promising start, as he was able to put up a respectable 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13. Only Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle had more points for the Oilers that season. But things went downhill after that.

In his sophomore year, he had 11 goals, 24 points and a minus-33 rating in 63 games. Throughout that season, there was plenty of chatter about Yakupov already not being in Edmonton’s plans anymore. He was made a healthy scratch early in the year and things just fell apart after that.

He returned to the Oilers the following year, but he accumulated just 14 goals and 33 points in 81 games. Clearly, that’s not enough for a player who was selected first just two years before that.

In 2015-16, his final year with Edmonton, Yakupov had eight goals and 23 points in 60 contests.

In October of 2017, the Oilers were able to get prospect Zach Pochiro, who’s spent most of his pro career in the ECHL, and a conditional third-rounder from St. Louis in exchange from the Russian winger.

It didn’t take the Blues long to figure out that this gamble wasn’t going to work out. During his only year in St. Louis, Yakupov netted three goals and nine points in 40 games. Again, effort appeared to be an issue at times.

Finally, last season, he ended up signing with the Colorado Avalanche after the Blues decided not to tend him a qualifying offer. Yakupov was regularly scratched toward the end of the season. He ended up with nine goals and seven assists in 58 games. Those numbers aren’t pretty.

All in all, he heads to the KHL with 62 goals and 74 assists in 350 career NHL games.

If he can put together a solid campaign in the KHL, there might be some interest in North America because he’s still relatively young. An NHL return doesn’t seem realistic right now, but stranger things have happened.

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.