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PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

How long interview period changed course of NHL free agency

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Artemi Panarin did not have to imagine what he might look like in a New York Rangers uniform.

His likeness in Rangers blue adorned the giant video screens at Madison Square Garden with the message ”Welcome Artemi” a full four days before he signed with the team.

”There was a moment where I just sat down for 10 minutes and really thought about it,” Panarin said, ”and my heart told me that New York would be the better place for me.”

Free agency in the NHL this season had surprises, as it always does, and there was a major factor that went somewhat under the radar: The post-draft ”interview window” for teams to talk with free agent targets was the longest in its short history. It opened June 23 and went right up until the signing period opened July 1, giving it the biggest impact since the window was added to the league calendar in 2014.

Some executives hated it, but the extended chance to wine and dine played a big role in a number of deals – from the Dallas Stars landing veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to the New York Islanders moving on from standout goalie Robin Lehner.

”It was a long week,” Perry said. ”There was a lot of phone calls and just feeling out teams and seeing where they are, seeing what they might have as a plan of attack for next season. I got to ask questions, they told me what they think. It was an eye-opener, not ever going through it, but it was a fun process.”

Florida general manager Dale Tallon said it was not much fun to go from the draft right into a week of free agent conversations – ”I hate this week, to tell you the truth,” he said – but it didn’t turn out so bad: The Panthers signed top goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, winger Brett Connolly and defenseman Anton Stralman .

Free agency for years was a land rush at noon July 1 and perhaps the frenzied pace of negotiations contributed to some ill-fated contracts and bad fits. With more time, many contracts were agreed to before free agency began, similar to how things work in the NFL and NBA. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said each year the league sends a memo to its clubs reminding them that deals cannot be signed until July 1 but he was not concerned about how the process went this time.

”I think it’s more an evolution of how clubs, agents and players have handled (the interview period) than anything else,” Daly said.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, assistant Tom Fitzgerald and coach John Hynes held a 90-minute conference call with winger Wayne Simmonds and agent Eustace King before signing Simmonds for $5 million. And Pavelski got to tour Dallas with Stars captain Jamie Benn and team executive Tom Holy, a familiar face from San Jose.

”To go spend a little time just kind of casually, you know how things kind of come up organically, it was just nice to kind of hang out and spend a little bit of time,” Pavelski said. ”As a player, teammates definitely come into a big part of recruiting, I think. But it’s one of those things does the fit, do you feel comfortable around different personalities.”

Panarin knew all about Rangers President John Davidson from their time together in Columbus. But the former head of the Blue Jackets’ hockey operations department believes he only had to remind the Russian winger during his visit about all the things that drew him back to New York.

”He’s made it very vocal that he’s always wanted to be in a big city, and there’s no bigger city than New York,” Davidson said. ”In talking to us, (he) talked about how he wants to win. He actually talked about Mark Messier and what Mark Messier did with the Rangers to get into the winning part of the business.”

Seeing Messier’s No. 11 and the 1994 Stanley Cup champions banner at Madison Square Garden didn’t hurt. But it was away from the rink that Panarin’s connection to the Rangers became abundantly clear and led to him taking less money than the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Panthers offered .

”You could sense his enthusiasm for the Rangers, for the big city, for the big stage,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”His knowledge of the game, his knowledge of our team, it all shined right through. Right away for everybody in the room it was pretty exciting to hear some of the things he had to say.”

The interview period is a two-way street, and the Washington Capitals signed winger Richard Panik in large part because they reached out to him first. Panik waited for other teams to come close to the $11 million, four-year offer as the clock ticked.

”For me, it was really stressful,” Panik said. ”It was the best offer I had pretty much from the beginning. They offered me four years. Nobody else did. That was the main reason. That’s why I chose (Washington). I wanted a longer deal, and they were willing to do it right away.”

Plenty of teams had interest in Perry, who signed an incentives-heavy one-year deal with Dallas to prove himself after being bought out by the Anaheim Ducks. The Stars showing him their map to Cup contention and bringing in Pavelski sealed the deal.

”They have everything that I want in a hockey team,” Perry said. ”They’re on the verge of putting something really great together. I want to be a part of that.”

Lehner was part of a surprisingly great season with the Islanders, who re-signed forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to bring back almost the same team.

Had it not been for the extra time, Lehner might have reached a deal to stay. Instead, the Islanders moved on to Semyon Varlamov, Lehner learned about the potential downside of the interview period and Chicago benefited from it by signing him to a $5 million, one-year contract.

”It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me and I took a couple days to think about it,” Lehner said. ”When I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie. That is the truth.”

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

Where do Hughes, Kakko fit in respective lineups?

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The top two picks from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft have both signed their entry-level contracts. Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko signed his deal with the New York Rangers on Thursday, while American center Jack Hughes inked his contract with the New Jersey earlier this morning.

Barring an injury, both Hughes and Kakko will be in their teams’ respective lineups once the regular season kicks off in October. But how will they fit into those lineups? Will they both get to play an offensive role for their team this year?

Let’s start with Jack Hughes. 

The Devils have to sign restricted free agents Pavel Zacha, Mirco Mueller, Will Butcher and Connor Carrick, so they still have almost $20 million in cap space to do so. Even if they bring every one of those players back, they still have to money to add a quality player or two via free agency (there’s not much left) or via trade.

Currently on their roster, the Devils have Nico Hischier, Zacha and Travis Zajac down the middle. When Taylor Hall was healthy last season, he spent a good chunk of time playing with Hischier, so there’s no reason to believe that those two won’t be reunited again once the training camp starts. That duo could either play with free-agent signing Wayne Simmonds or veteran Kyle Palmieri.

Of all the forwards on the Devils roster, Hischier spent the most time on the ice with Palmieri, so a top line of Hall, Hischier and Palmieri could terrorize opposing teams all season. If head coach John Hynes decides to play those three together, what’s left for Hughes?

Again, assuming they don’t add a major piece to the roster between now and the start of the season, Hughes could end up centering the second line with Wayne Simmonds on one wing. Simmonds isn’t the same player he was a couple of seasons ago but playing a big-bodied veteran who isn’t shy about throwing his weight around next to Hughes could be a good idea.

Playing the 18-year-old on a second line would also allow him to get “easier” matchups, as teams will likely focus their energy on stopping the top three offensive weapons.

Hughes will also certainly contribute on the power play, as he has the speed and offensive instincts to be a difference maker in that area right away.

The Devils have been conservative with Hischier’s ice time in his first three seasons (he’s averaged 16:19, 18:23, and 18:06). Will they automatically give Hughes 20-plus minutes per game? That’s unlikely. But Hughes might be more NHL-ready than Hischier was at the same age. So don’t be surprised if he’s somewhere in the 17 to 19-minute range when his first year is over.

How about Kappo Kakko?

Well Kakko’s adjustment to the NHL might be a little smoother because he’s probably going to break into the league as a winger. Playing at this level at 18 years old is never easy, but the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about the defensive responsibilities of playing center should help facilitate offense.

The Rangers have made some improvements to their roster this summer. Their biggest splash came in free agency, as they were able to sign Russian forward Artemi Panarin to a long-term contract. Panarin, who immediately becomes the best winger on the roster, could line up next to Mikka Zibanejad, who is the best center on the team. Head coach David Quinn could add Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich to that line, or he could also place Kakko there depending on how aggressive they want to be with their prized rookie.

After Zibanejad, the Rangers are extremely young down the middle. Brett Howden and Lias Anderson are 21 and 20 respectively, and they’ll be leaned on heavily to contribute offensively this season. But do the Rangers really want to line up a rookie with another young player trying to learn how to play center? Probably not.

So there’s a very real chance that Kakko could get quality even-strength minutes next to Zibanejad and Panarin. If that doesn’t end up happening, he’ll likely play with a young center and a veteran like Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich.

Like Hughes, Kakko will see a good amount of time on the power play. The 18-year-old has put up points at every level which says a lot about his offensive upside. Giving him added time and space on the man-advantage could make his first year a season to remember.

We should witness a great battle for the Calder Trophy this season.

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.

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.

Five non-playoff teams that could make postseason in 2020

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The New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars all had something in common in 2019. They all went from being non-playoff teams in 2018 to making it to the postseason last year. So if that scenario were to repeat itself next season, who would the new five playoff teams be?

There’s no denying that the current salary cap system has created way too much parity in the NHL over the last few years. It’s not difficult to envision five non-playoff teams sneak into the postseason at all, because a lot of these teams are so evenly matched.

So which non-playoff teams do we expect to make it to the postseason in 2020?

Florida Panthers: The Panthers made a couple of significant acquisitions in free agency this summer, as they added franchise netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Brett Connolly. Signing Bobrovksy was huge because it addressed the team’s biggest need. Roberto Luongo couldn’t stay healthy anymore and James Reimer simply wasn’t getting the job done. The Panthers also have several offensive weapons at their disposal, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Vincent Trocheck. They could make a lot of noise in 2019-20.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens put up 96 points last year and still missed out on the playoffs, but there were plenty of positives for them to build on. First, Max Domi‘s adjustment to Montreal was seamless. He fit like a glove. Secondly, Carey Price and Shea Weber were able to stay healthy down the stretch. That will be the biggest key for the Habs in 2019-20. Getting sophomore forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi to contribute more offensively could also propel them into a playoff spot.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers got off to a bad start last year for a few reasons, but none more obvious than their mediocre goaltending. Once Carter Hart came into the picture, he managed to settle things down between the pipes. Avoiding a sophomore slump will be key for him if the Flyers are going to get back into the postseason, but they clearly have a talented enough roster to get themselves in.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

New York Rangers: The Rangers have been incredibly aggressive with their roster since sending a letter out to their fans outlining their plan to rebuild. Not only did they luck into getting Kappo Kakko in the NHL Entry Draft, they also found a way to sign the most dynamic free agent on the market, Artemi Panarin. The biggest question mark on this team is on defense, as they have big money committed to Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist isn’t the same player he used to be but Alexandar Georgiev has the ability to fill in whenever King Henrik needs a break.

Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has made tweaks to his roster this summer. He’s added Calvin de Haan, Olli Maatta and Andrew Shaw via trade and he also signed Robin Lehner in free agency. The core group of players is still around and they can still contribute at a high enough level to help the ‘Hawks get into the postseason. But the West is going to be competitive this year, so the Blackhawks will have to stay pretty consistent throughout the year.

Honorable mention: The New Jersey Devils have added P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes to their roster, so seeing them improve by a wide margin wouldn’t be surprising. There’s still big questions surrounding the team’s defense and goaltending, but they were a playoff team two years ago. They could definitely be one of the biggest surprises in 2019-20. For now, they’re the sixth-likeliest team to go from not being in the playoffs to making it again.

MORE: 5 playoff teams that could miss postseason in 2020

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.