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Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Morning Skate: Anonymous player poll; McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Montreal Canadiens have stocked their roster with former first-round draft picks. There are currently 13 of them with them in training camp. (Montreal Gazette)

• Speaking of Canadiens first-rounders, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a goal during his first preseason game at the Bell Center. He’s starting to look more and more comfortable on North American ice. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators have a new assistant general manager, and his name is Peter MacTavish. (Canadian Press)

• Speaking of the Sens, GM Pierre Dorion insists that despite all the drama, they’re still headed on the right track. (CBC.ca)

• Sabres prospect Alexander Nylander‘s professional career has gotten off to a slow start, but he was outstanding during Monday’s preseason game against Columbus. (Buffalo News)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have changed up their power play structure so that it looks a little bit more the one Washington ran last season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• TSN hockey insider Bob Mckenzie came out with his pre-season draft rankings already. To no ones surprise, Jack Hughes is at the top of the list. (TSN.ca)

• The Sharks welcomed Erik Karlsson to San Jose with a huge billboard and an ad in the local newspaper. (NHL.com)

• Even though it’s unclear if NHL players will be going to the 2022 Olympic Games in China, commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to growing the game there. (Inside the games)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli conducted an anonymous player poll. It sounds like certain NHLers believe that the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres will get things turned around pretty quickly this season. (TSN.ca)

• Many players on the New Jersey Devils surpassed their expected goal totals from last season, but what will they have in store for us in 2018-19? (All about the jersey)

• Hurricanes forward Victor Rask injured himself in the kitchen, which is really unfortunate. He’s expected to miss “months,” according to Rod Brind’Amour, so it’ll be up to players like Lucas Wallmark to step up. (Canes Country)

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.

PHT Power Rankings: 10 players who could be traded this season

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It’s the summer and with no regular season games being played it’s awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. This week we look at more players that could be on the move in trades during the 2018-19 regular season.

The potential class of free agents for the summer 2019 was looking to be an impressive one, with Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Drew Doughty, Joe Pavelski, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a bunch of other top-line players all eligible to hit the open market. As is always the case when we look ahead to potential free agents, many of them will never get close to reaching unrestricted free agency.

Doughty has already been re-signed by the Los Angeles Kings. Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and almost immediately re-signed to a new deal. It is really difficult to see Pavelski getting away from the Sharks, and now that Erik Karlsson is there to help form what could be a super-defense, they will almost certainly work to get him signed to a new deal as well.

That obviously puts a big dent in the potential free agent market.

The other factor at play is what all of these potential UFAs mean for the trade market, and we’ve already seen that at play with the recent trades of Pacioretty and Karlsson.

There could be more throughout the regular season.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 pending unrestricted free agents that could be traded this season, starting with a pretty dynamic duo in Columbus.

1-2. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

What in the world are the Columbus Blue Jackets going to do here?

They should still be playoff contenders this season, but their two best players — and the two players that help make them a playoff contender — are entering the final years of their contracts and it remains to be seen if either one wants to actually re-sign with the team.

This is, pretty clearly, a no-win situation because, again, what in the heck are they supposed to do?

On one hand, you don’t want to put yourself in a position to lose two players of this caliber for nothing other than salary cap space. You also don’t really want a season-long storyline playing out like the New York Islanders went through with John Tavares.

On the other hand, the team with these two should still be good enough to make the playoffs, and you never want to punt on that chance as long as it exists. The key thing to watch here will probably be what sort of season the Blue Jackets are having. As long as they are in contention for a playoff spot and feel they have a chance to make some noise, they’re probably going to see what they can do with this core as it stands.

But if they show any sign of falling out of it or find themselves on the playoff bubble? They almost have to see what the market for these two would be in a trade.

Are they the most likely players to be traded this season? Not at all, because, again, the Blue Jackets should be good. But the possibility that one (or even both) could be on the move is certainly out there. And if they are, they would be the most impactful players available. That is what puts them at the top of these rankings.

As for two players that almost certainly will be traded…

3-4. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators: These two are pretty much guaranteed to be moved, aren’t they?

Derick Brassard, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson are already gone as part of the Senators’ rebuild, and owner Eugene Melynk’s grand plan seems to involve the team having “15 or maybe even 16” new faces on it by the start of next season.

[Related: Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators]

Given the contract statuses of Stone and Duchene, as well as the tear-it-all-down-to-the-ground rebuild that is underway, there is virtually no chance either player remains on the team at the end of this season.

If they somehow make it through the trade deadline without being moved, why would they ever want to re-sign with this franchise?

5-6. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers

At this point there is no secret about what Hayes is as a player. He has over 300 NHL games on his resume and his production has been fairly consistent across the board every season. The player you see is the player you are getting, and if the Rangers felt he was a long-term fit beyond this year they probably would have tried a little harder to buy out some of his UFA years in his latest contract. The fact they did not makes him a pretty big trade candidate.

Zuccarello is a little different.

He is 31 years old, he is set to become a UFA after this season, and all of that makes him a logical trade candidate for a rebuilding team. But the Rangers’ rebuild is still tough to get a hold on. This doesn’t seem to be a complete tear down like, say, the Senators, and it seems possible he could remain with the team. He seems to love playing in New York, has said he wants to remain with the team, and he could still be a fit in whatever their plans are.

[Related: Rangers could once again be active in trade market]

7. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders: The Islanders are going to be a fascinating team to watch over the next year because three of their top forwards are all eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season (Nelson, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle).

They will also have to give their new franchise cornerstone, Mathew Barzal, a new contract at some point over the next two years as he will be eligible for restricted free agency following the 2020-21 season.

It is certainly possible that any of Eberle, Lee, or Nelson could be dealt before the deadline, especially if the team struggles on the ice (and given the makeup of the roster, that seems inevitable). But they have to keep someone. If you were to look today at the most logical trade candidate it might be Nelson because he is probably the least impactful of that trio.

Facing restricted free agency and arbitration this past summer, the Islanders and Nelson agreed to a one-year deal, setting Nelson up for UFA status next summer. That puts him in a nearly identical situation as the one Hayes is in with the Rangers. There is very little secret as to what he is as a player, and if the Rangers were serious about making him a part of the core moving forward they would have tried harder to buy out some of his UFA years. They didn’t.

8. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings: As the Red Wings move into the post-Henrik Zetterberg era there are definitely going to be more changes.

The team has committed to its rebuild, and there does not seem to be much sense in them re-signing Nyquist at this point in his career given where the team is going in the short-term and its current salary cap situation. They probably shouldn’t be expected to get quite the same haul as they did for Tomas Tatar a year ago (mainly because Tatar still had four years of term left on his contract and Nyquist is a pending UFA) but he could still be a useful rental for a contender that needs some depth scoring.

[Related: What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era]

9. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks spent the summer acting like a team that can make the playoffs, but let’s be honest … they are probably not making the playoffs this year. Edler has been a staple on the Canucks’ defense for a decade and been one of the best and most productive defenders in the history of the franchise. He is the biggest pending UFA the team has and is still a strong top-four defender. His no-trade clause could complicate a potential move as he holds all of the cards in where he goes, but he could help a contender.

10. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres: I know, I know … the Sabres just traded for him. And it was a great move. Skinner is an outstanding player, a great goal-scorer, and will help bring some offensive punch to a Sabres team that needs a lot of help. And the price was certainly right for them not even having to give up their own first-round pick or either of the conditional first-round picks they have from St. Louis or San Jose in 2019 or 2020.

At this point there is no new contract in place for Skinner as he enters the final year of his deal, so that certainly creates an interesting scenario. He is still only 26 years old (and does not turn 27 until May) so he could absolutely still be a part of the Sabres’ core going forward if they can get him signed.

If they can’t, and if the team stinks again, is it really hard to imagine the Sabres trying to make another move? Give how little they gave up to get him in the first place they could probably easily get back equal value at the deadline.

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.

Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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With NHL training camps underway and the big trades we were all waiting for (Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty) completed the next big thing to watch around the league are the remaining unsigned restricted free agents.

There are seven of them around the league and they all find themselves in a similar situation: They are either 22 or 23 years old, they are coming off of their entry-level contracts, and none of them had any arbitration rights this offseason. As much as everyone around the league hates the arbitration process, there is no denying that it gets things done (either before arbitration or during it), something Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee recently pointed out as he deals with one of the ongoing RFA situations with defenseman Shea Theodore.

“People get pressured into getting a deal done or you go to arbitration,” McPhee said at the start of training camp this past week, via NHL.com. “There’s a group of 10-15 good young players in the League that don’t have arbitration rights and don’t have contracts right now. And it just seems to take a while to work them out.”

A lot of times the big issue at play is the team preferring to sign the player to a shorter-term bridge contract, while the player tends to want the security that comes with a long-term contract.

Let us go around the league and take a quick look at the seven teams and players that still need to reach a deal.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs — Nylander is the big one still out there because he’s a front-line player and, well, he plays for Toronto and that immediately makes him a big story. He’s already missed the first days of training camp and there are reports that the two sides are still far apart on a deal as Nylander doesn’t want to sign a bridge deal. And quite honestly, neither should Toronto. At this point we have a pretty good idea of the type of player that Nylander is (a really good one) and he is just now entering his peak years. Signing him to a two-year contract now and then signing him to a long-term contract after that after he’s continued to develop into his prime years is probably going to end up costing Toronto more money than if it just signed him to a long-term deal now that is comparable to, say, the one David Pastrnak signed in Boston before the 2017-18 season.

The concern that everyone will have here for Toronto is making this all work under the salary cap. The team spent big money on John Tavares in free agency this summer and after this season will have to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to new contracts. They will not be cheap.

Some might argue that Toronto will have to trade one of the young guys (either Nylander or Marner, with Nylander usually the one being suggested) but the Maple Leafs can make this work with all of them.

Keep your young, impact talent.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights — Theodore’s absence and lack of a contract is a pretty big deal for Vegas right now.

Not only was he one of the Golden Knights’ top defenseman a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes a night and finishing with 26 points from the blue line, but with Nate Schmidt set to miss the first 20 games of the season due to a suspension the team is already going to be shorthanded on the blue line.

As recently as Friday afternoon the word here (via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun) is that the two sides were far apart.

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers — Like the situation in Vegas with Theodore, the Oilers really need Nurse on the ice because an already undermanned unit became even thinner when the Oilers lost Andrej Sekera to injury. On Friday Nurse’s agent told the Edmonton Journal the two sides have a disagreement on what Nurse’s value is currently is, resulting in the 23-year-old defenseman returning to Toronto to continue to train.

Via the Journal:

“We have a disagreement on what Darnell’s value is and at this time there’s no meeting of the minds,” said Nurse’s agent Anton Thun, who feels there’s no reason for Nurse to stay in Edmonton now.

“He’s not under contract with the Oilers. He’s gone back to train where he did all summer, training in the same rink and gym. He can skate with a university or junior team. He won’t be skating by himself,” said Thun, who doesn’t feel Nurse, because of his age (24) is losing that much by not being in camp right now.

“If he didn’t know who his defence partners were or didn’t know the team, it would be important to be on the ice learning the ropes but this is his fourth year in the organization.”

Nurse appeared in all 82 games for the Oilers a year ago and set new career-highs across the board and played more minutes than anyone on the team. (UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal.)

Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres — Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, may never be a superstar but his production through the first three years of his career has been remarkably consistent, and he should still be viewed as one of the team’s core players along with Jack Eichel and top pick Rasmus Dahlin.

He set new career-highs a year ago with 25 goals (tied for the team lead) and 50 points for the Sabres.

Still, there is a bit of a mystery as to what he can still be. At 22 he is still fairly young and probably has not entered his prime years yet, but after three consecutive years of 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, how much more untapped potential is there with him?

We can try to figure that out a little bit.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been 31 forwards — including Reinhart — that have played at least 149 games through their age 22 season and averaged between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game (here is the list of players via Hockey-Reference).

Overall, it is a fairly strong list with some really good players.

The three best players that went on to become All-Star level players are Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Jakub Voracek, while there very few players that regressed or failed to go on to have productive careers (Steve Bernier, Peter Mueller, and Ryan Strome might fit that category). So there is a chance he could still really break out, but most likely this is probably close to what you should expect from him going forward. If you have a forward that can consistently get you 25 goals and 50 points you have yourself a pretty good top-six forward. Not a superstar by any means, but a player you can certainly win with.

Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils — Wood was one of the many young players the Devils relied on last season as they made their return to the playoffs. His 19 goals were fourth-most on the team (behind only Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier) and he did that while playing just 12 minutes per game over 76 games. On a per-minute basis he was one of the Devils’ most productive goal scorers and it wasn’t really the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. He was legitimately good.

General manager Ray Shero said at the start of camp that the two sides are pretty close, but that there are “some philosophical issues that need to be worked out about how the system works.”

Added Shero, via NJ.com, “That’s not just a situation with his agents or Miles himself.”

So chalk another one up under the system isn’t perfect category.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets — This isn’t the first time the Jets have had an RFA contract dispute with a young defenseman, going through this pretty regularly over the past few years with Jacob Trouba. That situation has reached a point where it remains unlikely that Trouba remains in Winnipeg long-term. They really do not want that storyline to repeat itself here. Morrissey isn’t quite as good as Trouba, but he is still a former first-round draft pick that has developed nicely and was one of the team’s top-four defenders a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes per night. (UPDATE: Morrissey is now signed.)

Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks — Of all the remaining unsigned RFA’s Ritchie is the one that probably has the least amount of leverage because his career to this point has been, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. The No. 10 overall pick in 2014, Ritchie has appeared in 186 games in his NHL career and recorded just 26 goals and 33 assists (59 total points), including only 10 goals in 76 games a year ago. He is not quite a bust, but he also has not really taken a significant step forward (he actually scored four fewer goals this past season than he did the year before. If there is any player out of this group that should be destined for a “prove it” bridge type of contract, Ritchie is almost certainly the one.

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.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins return from long summer

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CRANBERRY, Pa. (AP) — Sidney Crosby has been back in Pittsburgh for a few weeks, participating in several informal practices while his Penguins teammates returned from an unusually long offseason. Still, the first day of training camp felt different Friday.

”It’s always an exciting time. You’re excited to see all the guys,” Crosby said. ”You’re energized by the start of the year.”

That’s not the only way this camp, in particular, differs. After winning two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins don’t enter the season as champs.

That said, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

”It’s a good challenge,” Crosby said, ”and it’s fun to be back out there.”

After being eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins will look slightly different while attempting to win a third championship in four seasons.

Forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick were traded to Buffalo on June 27. In their place, 21-year-old forward Daniel Sprong has a chance to play first-line right wing next to Crosby and left wing Jake Guentzel and Jack Johnson could bolster a shallow defense after signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract July 1.

Matt Cullen, a 41-year-old forward who was on the two title teams, signed a one-year, $650,000 contract to return to Pittsburgh. He should return to the fourth line after Tom Kuhnhackl joined the New York Islanders on a one-year contract.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t plan to approach this camp any differently, though.

”I think training camp is a great opportunity to establish our identity right away, to instill the right habits,” Sullivan said. ”It’s no secret we’re a team that likes to skate. So, our fitness level as a group is really important. We’re trying to establish that foundation right away.”

Sprong, who had 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last season, helped push the tempo with Crosby during the first practice Friday. He remained there in a scrimmage, where set up a goal from Crosby in the right circle.

”You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes,” Sprong said. ”I think today was a good first day, but again, it’s only one day in camp. There’s many days left to go and you have to get better everyday.”

The Penguins have seemingly been in an endless search for a right wing that could play next to Crosby throughout his 13 NHL seasons.

Sheary seemed like the answer after scoring 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 61 games in 2016-17. That was before he regressed with 18 goals and 30 points in 79 games the following season.

With Sprong, they might have found the solution. His offensive upside could overcome what defensive pitfalls his game provides.

Even it Sprong doesn’t fit, Crosby wouldn’t be concerned.

”Whatever the combinations are, I think we’re just looking to make things happen out there,” Crosby said. ”Create offensively. Make sure we get our timing and we’re aware of each other out there on the ice.”

MORE PHT PENGUINS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Penguins
Under Pressure: Jack Johnson