Cam Atkinson

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Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

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.

Marchand ramps up Bruins – Blue Jackets trash talk

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The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs feature a downright dizzying array of upsets, so in this time of uncertainty, it’s comforting to see some constants. And is there really anything more constant than Brad Marchand stirring up some drama?

The superstar-agitator was in playoff (and by no means “rare”) form after the Bruins managed a 3-2 OT win against the Blue Jackets in Game 1, trading barbs with former teammate Riley Nash, and possibly riling up Cam Atkinson.

Hits keep coming

David Krejci is considered day-to-day after being shaken up by a couple of hits, most notably one by former teammate Nash:

Marchand had a fun line regarding Nash, via The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa.

“I don’t think he had a hit in two years with us,” Marchand said.

People seemed to agree with Marchand’s sentiment, but to be fair to Nash, that comment carries some (gasp) hyperbole. Nash averages a bit more than a hit per game during his career, including 86 during 76 games with the Bruins in 2017-18.

Perhaps Marchand should start chirping scorekeepers for counting up Nash’s hits? Marchand averages ever-so-slightly fewer hits per game, although some of his hits have drawn the ire of the Department of Player Safety.

Tip: Marchand might be better off mocking Nash for his lighter scoring, particularly after Marchand wrapped up his first 100-point season. Just saying.

Another tip: Don’t ask Marcus Johansson about Marchand’s hitting abilities.

Shenanigans

In an odd exchange during overtime, Marchand stepped on Atkinson’s stick, or as Marchand explains it …

Atkinson gave Marchand a bump after that moment, and following Game 1, Atkinson said he would “go toe to toe” with Marchand, according to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline. Given some time to rest on it, Portzline indicates that Atkinson’s tone became more bemused than truly annoyed, but who knows?

This rivalry figures to build as Round 2 goes along, even if it doesn’t devolve into fisticuffs and ill-advised penalties. So far, Atkinson’s most common even-strength forward adversary has been Marchand. While Columbus managed to keep the Bruins’ most potent scorers from producing in Game 1, the possession numbers and eye test both argue that Marchand was getting his chances, and Boston obviously won. It remains to be seen if Atkinson & Co. can improve as the series goes along, or if John Tortorella might want to get away from that matchup when the Blue Jackets get the last change when the series shifts to Columbus.

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It’s tempting to wonder if Atkinson might be able to distract/”get Marchand off his game,” but honestly, it seems like Marchand thrives on this kind of gamesmanship. And hey, trash talk doesn’t exactly make things dull like Marchand’s skate blade, either.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

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.

The Buzzer: Gibson – Rinne trumps Kesler – Johansen

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho

Monday was a big night for Sebastian Aho, Forward Version.

He was one of only two players to generate two points – so, yeah, Monday was pretty big for goalies – and his overtime goal was so smooth (and so funny at Brent Seabrook‘s expense) that it got its own post.

Aho generated the lone assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s power-play goal, which helped Carolina get back into the game after falling behind 2-0 to Cam Ward and the Chicago Blackhawks.

By the way, Ward doesn’t make it to the three stars, but he managed 37 saves in his return to Carolina. Worth a mention, especially for a goalie who feels very far removed from his glory days with the Hurricanes franchise.

2. John Gibson

Heading into Monday’s contest in Anaheim, the buzz surrounded Ryan Kesler and Ryan Johansen. Would the two brawl in the parking lot, like an “Attitude Era” episode of Monday Night Raw? Perhaps they would settle their dispute by gorging on goals?

Nope.

Instead, Gibson and Pekka Rinne lived up to their 2018-19 reputations as two of the best goalies (if not the two best, full-stop) in the NHL. The contest went into the shootout 1-1, but Gibson was the netminder who finished with the W, with Gibson making 34 saves (including 10 in overtime) while Rinne stopped 29 shots.

As talented as both are and as productive as they’ve been really since last season, it’s tough to imagine them avoiding the natural pull of regression, at least to some extent. With that in mind, it was nice to see those two goalies carry their outstanding work into that game, and then deliver with a true goalie duel.

The Predators lost their first road game via the shootout, yet they kept their away point streak alive. The Ducks needed this much more, even if this sticks to the script of Gibson being an all-world, MVP-caliber goalie.

3. Cam Atkinson

You can thank Aho, Rinne, and Gibson for the headline not being something Atkinson Diet-related.

(Stashes that already-extremely-dusty joke for later.)

Atkinson joined Aho as one of two players to generate two points on a low-scoring Monday. While Atkinson didn’t generate the GWG like Aho did, he bares the distinction of being involved in all of Columbus’ goals in a tight win against the Stars. This was a nasty affair at times, as you can see from this fight between Jamie Benn and Josh Anderson.

As strong a night as Atkinson enjoyed, the Blue Jackets might most heartened by the possibility that Sergei Bobrovsky could be back in the zone.

Highlights

Rinne didn’t get the win, but he probably made the most ludicrous save, although there were enough great ones in this that I could be wrong.

Anton Khudobin couldn’t grab a win or even a point for Dallas in that tense, tight game against Columbus, but he did make this save.

Speaking of nice saves in losing efforts, here’s the best from Cam Ward:

Again, Aho’s OTGWG was quite something, so check it out here.

Factoids

Maybe the Hurricanes’ barrage of shots wasn’t a product of Bill Peters? Or maybe they haven’t forgotten his lessons?

Henrik Lundqvist continues to make history, and the Rangers are quietly heating up. If you want to tank, Lundqvist isn’t exactly your guy.

Scores

NYR 2 – VAN 1
CAR 3 – CHI 2 (OT)
CBJ 2 – DAL 1
ANA 2 – NSH 1 (SO)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Cam Atkinson’s season to forget gets even worse

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The season that’s quickly become one to forget for Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets got even worse as The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that the forward suffered a broken foot and will miss 4-6 weeks.

Atkinson will have surgery Tuesday or Wednesday after blocking a Seth Jones shot during Saturday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers. And if you’re keeping track, he now joins Alex Wenneberg, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray and Brandon Dubinsky out of a Blue Jackets’ lineup that is currently tied with the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division with 46 points, one point behind the division-leading New Jersey Devils.

Let’s take a look at just how much of a nightmare it’s been of late for the 28-year-old Atkinson, who has only six goals and 13 points in 32 games this season:

Nov. 17: Signs seven-year, $40.25 million extention (that’s good!)

Nov. 24: Scores twice in win over Ottawa (that’s good!)

Dec. 9: Watches win over Arizona Coyotes as a healthy scratch (that’s bad!)

Dec. 23: Goalless in 13 games, suffers broken foot blocking shot, out 4-6 weeks. (that’s real bad!)

This all comes one season after Atkinson scored 35 goals and recorded 62 points while helping lead the franchise back to the postseason. Fortunately for the Blue Jackets, they’ve still managed to find success while he and others struggle offensively. Having a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky helps mightily in that area.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson hits ‘reset button’ after healthy scratch

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The reset button has been hit and Cam Atkinson will return to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

Atkinson, who has six goals and nine points in 25 games this season, was made a healthy scratch on Saturday, three weeks after signing a seven-year, $40.25 million extension. John Tortorella’s decision to sit the forward who scored 35 goals last season wasn’t a hard one for the head coach, mainly because the player forced the issue.

“This isn’t to kick a player,” Tortorella said on Monday. “Cam Atkinson is a very important player, and especially for this coach. He’s in every situation, and that’s what I think of him as a player.”

It wasn’t an easy past couple of days for Atkinson. An embarrassing scratch not long after inking a big extension wasn’t an ideal way to show off his worth to the franchise. But on Sunday he received a text from Martin St. Louis, an off-season Connecticut golf buddy and someone who knows pretty well how Tortorella operates. For more than a half hour the former Tampa Bay Lightning star reminded the 28-year-old that he’s a good player and that the franchise has an incredible amount of confidence in him, as displayed by the contract they just handed him.

[Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson]

Since Saturday’s scratch, Atkinson had stayed on the ice after skates working on his shot and getting extra touches with the puck to try and restore his confidence. There was time spent watching video, too. And just as important, there was plenty of communication with Tortorella.

“It’s one of those things where once you go down that dark alley, one thing leads to another and it’s hard to get out of it,” Atkinson said. “It’s not so much pointing the fingers, but sometimes you tend to blame your teammates or linemates and that’s something you can’t do. It’s something I’ve tried not to do… Being a healthy scratch was probably the best thing for me.”

There’s more than one Blue Jackets player struggling at the moment, which Tortorella admits is a failure on his part to find a way to get them going again. To the head coach, scratching a player isn’t a form of punishment, it’s a way to help.

Atkinson has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the last four seasons, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause or being crushed under the weight of his extension. Now, after a night in the press box, he knows he needs to respond.

“Obviously, you never want to be a healthy scratch, but it gives you a chance to reassess and hit the reset button, realize where you are at that point in time in the season and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said.

“It’s a wake-up call. I take full responsibility. I know I need to be way better, and I will be.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.