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Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Central Division arms race only intensifying

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a proper standoff.

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

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

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

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

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

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

Still strong

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

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

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

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

The Unknowns

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

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

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

Did they improve?

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

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

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

The struggle

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

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Matt Cullen retires after 21 NHL seasons, three Stanley Cups

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A career that began in 1997 has come to an end after 21 seasons, 1,516 NHL games and three Stanley Cup titles. On Wednesday, Matt Cullen announced his retirement at the age of 42.

In a story he wrote for the Pittsburgh Penguins website, Cullen said that he knew entering the 2018-19 season it would be his final one in hockey. Over the past few summers, the topic of retirement would come up and the longtime NHL forward had his doubts if he could continue playing.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night many times these last few years thinking, ‘What am I doing? I’m 40 years old,” he wrote. “I don’t think I can play another year in the NHL.’ After each time I signed the past few years I woke up in a cold sweat, not sure if I could still play.

“Honestly, if I could play forever, I would. All I know is hockey. I’ve never done anything. I never wanted to do anything else. I don’t know anything else.”

Cullen, a 1996 second-round pick, spent his first five and a half NHL seasons with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim before being dealt to the Florida Panthers. He would later sign with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004 and help the franchise win their first ever Stanley Cup championship in 2006. He finished tied for third on the team that postseason in scoring with 18 points.

A year after signing with the New York Rangers, Cullen was dealt back to Carolina. He’d later move on to Ottawa, Minnesota, and Nashville before landing with the Penguins where he was part of their 2016 and 2017 back-to-back Cup winning teams.

Cullen spent three of his final four NHL seasons in Pittsburgh, with a one-season stop back home in Minnesota in 2017-18. He gained clarity about his future over the last few seasons and was comfortable with hanging up his skates now rather than coming back for another season.

“It was an emotional time, but I knew it was coming. It just felt right and I was really at peace with everything when it was over,” Cullen wrote.

“I felt like it was only right to retire in Pittsburgh with everything that the organization had given me and done for me. I’m so happy I came back and finished my last year in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t trade that last year for anything.”

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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.

NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

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.

Central Recasting: Division rivals ready to challenge Blues

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The NHL isn’t a copycat league. It’s a response league.

After the big and gritty St. Louis Blues muscled their way to the Stanley Cup, division rivals have responded in different ways.

The Nashville Predators inked top free agent center Matt Duchene ; the Dallas Stars beefed up with tough, playoff-tested scorers Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry; the Minnesota Wild got faster by signing Mats Zuccarello; the Colorado Avalanche replenished their scoring depth up front by trading for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signing Joonas Donskoi; and the Chicago Blackhawks went bargain hunting and ended up with Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Robin Lehner.

There is no precise blueprint on challenging a champion. Teams in the East tried to ratchet up the speed and skill to keep up with the 2016 and 2017 Cup-winning Penguins, and Pittsburgh spent the past year adding size and toughness to go toe to toe with the Washington Capitals after they won.

Now the Central Division is stacked with the reigning Blues, Stars, Avalanche, Wild, Predators, Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets ready to battle it out just to make the playoffs next season. Pacific powerhouses San Jose and Vegas lost some talent in free agency , and hockey’s balance of power has tilted further toward the Central.

”Everyone is a contender before the season starts,” said Zuccarello, who left the Stars for the Wild. ”A playoff spot is where to start and then everyone knows once we get to the playoff it’s about momentum and confidence. You never know what’s going to happen. Take St. Louis. Nobody thought they were going to get to the playoffs on Jan. 1 and then they got a boost and got some confidence, and boom, they’re the Stanley Cup champions.”

A year ago, the Blues dominated July 1 by signing Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak and David Perron and trading for eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly. Those moves paid off with the first championship in franchise history.

St. Louis was quieter this year, leaving the door open for plenty of activity around them. Dallas reached double overtime of Game 7 against the Blues in the second round and could sell that opportunity to win to pending free agents.

The Stars being one goal away from the Western Conference final lured Perry, who said ”they have a legit chance to win.” They sure think so with the additions of Perry and Pavelski to a core of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Ben Bishop.

”Our team’s trending up and it’s a good sign,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said. ”You can never be competitive enough. We saw that in the playoffs. I think St. Louis showed everybody that’s how you’ve got to play and we were right there with St. Louis.”

Nashville finished ahead of St. Louis the past two seasons before signing Duchene, and Winnipeg was right there in a six-game slobberknocker of a first-round series.

Playoff wild card Colorado is also trending up after being one win away from beating San Jose and facing St. Louis in the West final. The Avalanche had arguably the NHL’s best line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen and went into the summer stuffed with salary-cap space and the intention of supplementing those stars with more offensive forwards.

”We’re adding a supporting case to that group,” GM Joe Sakic said. ”The coaches have a lot of options to mix and match with line combinations.”

That supporting cast includes a major upgrade at second-line center with Kadri, more speed with Burakovsky and a little bit of everything with Donskoi. Colorado still has plenty of room to sign Rantanen to a new contract and has enough young pieces that Kadri was convinced to waive his no-trade clause with Toronto to go there.

”The Colorado Avalanche are going to be contenders for many, many years to come with such a young team with great players,” Kadri said Tuesday. ”I definitely think that this team has a chance to not only do it once but multiple times hopefully in the future with the pieces that they have.”

That won’t be easy, especially in this division. Zuccarello believes Minnesota can rebound from missing the playoffs and ride talent and goaltender Devan Dubnyk to be the Blues of 2020.

”I think we are a competitor,” GM Paul Fenton said after signing Zuccarello and forward Ryan Hartman . ”You look at our team right now and the stability we have with our goaltending. There’s not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen like we do in the league. And our center ice is just solid right down the middle. You put the excitement of our wingers on the outside, and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”

The regular season and first couple rounds are enough of a gauntlet that players aren’t counting on anything done in June and July to guarantee success.

”We’re enjoying the position we’re in, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Landeskog said. ”It’s about taking that next step for us, and it’s about making sure that we’re all growing and we’re all doing our part to get better.”

AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell and Schuyler Dixon contributed.

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

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