Four keys to the Wild being contenders 

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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Darcy Kuemper Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI/Getty ImagesRecently re-signed Darcy Kuemper represents the Wild's best hope in the crease.
As far as training camp drama goes, the Minnesota Wild are giving the Columbus Blue Jackets a run for their money. It never escalated to Ryan Johansen levels, but Minnesota had its own contract stalemate, with goalie Darcy Kuemper arriving late while standing firm on a demand for a one-way contract. Josh Harding broke a foot, and according to the Star Tribune’s Mike Russo, it was the result of an altercation with a teammate and led to a suspension.

Ilya Bryzgalov was even brought in to settle things down. Let that sink in for a moment.

The goalie situation in Minnesota was already fascinating without the drama; the incidents last week just added a layer of intrigue. Starting Monday night against the Winnipeg Jets, the drama shifts to the ice.

In a typical season, Wild coach Mike Yeo would already have his entire goalie plan mapped out. He’d know who was starting every preseason game and how long each goalie would play. By the end of training camp, he’d work it out so his No. 1 goalie played enough games and got enough work to prepare for the start of the season.

That’s not happening this season.

Tonight, Niklas Backstrom and Bryzgalov will split playing time against the Jets, Yeo said. Kuemper will play against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday.

After that? Let’s just put it down as TBD.

“That’s our challenge; it’s tough,” Yeo said when we chatted on Sunday afternoon. “The plan is, the first couple games, everyone will see some action.”

By the final few games, Yeo will have a better idea of which netminder gets the No. 1 goalie treatment and will prepare for the start of the season.

“That could be anyone,” he said.

While many teams can use preseason games to get into game shape, tweak systems and get a good look at young players, this is an open competition for the goalie job in Minnesota, a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.

Hayes has opportunity in New York 

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Kevin HayesRichard T Gagnon/Getty ImagesKevin Hayes passed on the Chicago Blackhawks to sign with the New York Rangers this summer.
The prospect tournaments wrapping up this week can be a hard place for the untrained eye to do true talent evaluations. There’s a wide range of skill and a wide range of ages.

When a 6-foot-3, 22-year-old forward looks good out there -- like New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes looked at the Red Wings prospect tournament in Traverse City, Michigan -- those factors have to be weighed. It’s better to depend on veteran talent evaluators who are looking less at the production and more at the process.

One widely respected talent evaluator left the tournament impressed with what he saw in Hayes.

“He looks like a player,” he said. “Free guys are hard to get. That’s a guy 29 other teams would have been happy to get.”

They had their chance.

When the NHL and the NHLPA agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement to end the last lockout, one of the rules some general managers hoped to see amended survived.

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Johansen pact will have NHL-wide impact 

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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Sidney Crosby; Ryan JohansenJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesIn Ryan Johansen, the Blue Jackets have a true No. 1 center. Will they agree to pay him like one?
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- For two years, the Columbus Blue Jackets have worked hard to build an identity. They’re a four-line, everybody-works, blue-collar group where no one player is more important than the team.

In 2013-14, the season started without big free-agent signing Nathan Horton, and the Blue Jackets survived. They got only 22 games out of Marian Gaborik, and the Blue Jackets survived. They’d like to think that goes for anyone in the lineup.

It’s a theory that could soon be tested.

Last season, center Ryan Johansen was the constant. He played all 82 games, developed into the No. 1 center the franchise had previously never enjoyed and finished with 33 goals -- 19 more than he’d scored in his 107 previous NHL games.

Training camp opens this Thursday, and barring a complete course change from one of the two sides, the restricted free agent won’t be there.

Like many teams this summer, Columbus is discovering that the second contract is becoming a bear to negotiate. It’s the one time teams have the hammer and most of the leverage, and they're trying to use it. Across the league as the cap increases, players and their agents are pushing back

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Tough decision ahead for Mike Babcock 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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Head coach Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red WingsJeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty ImagesMike Babcock is entering the final year of his contract, having already won a Stanley Cup with Detroit.
TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN -- For now, Mike Babcock is still patiently answering questions about his future. He understands how the fact that he’s entering the final year of his contract -- and is in no hurry to extend that contract -- is a fascinating subplot to the coming Detroit Red Wings training camp.

He’s fine saying that as of Saturday evening there had been no additional contract conversations between him and Detroit GM Ken Holland. He’s not concerned about it.

“If it wasn’t Ken Holland and myself and the relationship wasn’t the way it is, it might be different,” Babcock said when we sat down for a chat over the weekend. “If I was concerned about this, it would be different.”

He’s not.

“Not one bit,” he said. “Not one bit.”

In Detroit, he might be in the minority.

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Player poll: Who is top franchise player? 

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
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Sidney CrosbyGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby was the overwhelming favorite among players in the top franchise player voting.
Back in July, we conducted a poll of executives, coaches and a couple players to see which players they would build a franchise around if they were starting a team from scratch. It was an attempt to rank the league's franchise players, and it led to some fascinating results and debate.

Jonathan Toews edged Sidney Crosby for the top spot, with the Stanley Cup playoff performance of Drew Doughty still fresh in the mind of voters, who put him third on the list.

This week in New York, many of the franchise players who were named by executives gathered for the player media tour, the unofficial kickoff to the NHL season. It was an opportunity to give the players a chance to answer the same question. The same rules applied: Players were asked to list three players they'd want if they were starting a franchise from the ground up.

A few players wanted to add their own ground rules. Tyler Seguin felt compelled to pick teammates, so he added a rule that you couldn't pick your own teammates. Some guys followed the rule, others didn't.

Claude Giroux introduced the idea of picking himself, to which we had no objection. Henrik Lundqvist, however, saw a conflict of interest there.

"Am I the GM?" Lundqvist asked. "Then I'm not picking myself."

He quickly identified Sidney Crosby, then paused for a moment. "This is tough."

And with that, here are the results, giving three points to a first-place vote, two for a second and one for a third:

Sidney Crosby (19 points): Crosby finished a close second to Jonathan Toews when executives voted, but he ran away with it among the players.

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Players weigh in on advanced analytics 

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
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videoNEW YORK - When you get a parade of NHL stars coming through the office, like was the case at the NHL’s annual media event in New York, it’s good business to prepare questions to ask everyone, to get a cross section of the league on trending issues.

Coming off the summer of analytics in the NHL, the advanced stats movement was a hot topic this week in New York. In response, the ESPN.com video crew asked every player to define Corsi. The results make for good video, but as a whole, the advanced stats movement hasn't trickled down from the front office to the players.

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was in the majority with his answer, “I know of it, I don't know the definition of it."

A few players were able to answer correctly, most notably Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane and Edmonton Oilers winger Taylor Hall, who gave textbook definitions.

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Evgeni Malkin, Sidney CrosbyGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesFranchise center? Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby both check that box for Pittsburgh.
The Pacific may be the home of the defending champs, and the Central may be the league’s deepest and strongest division. But no division comes with more intrigue than the Metropolitan, a division where nearly every team can make the playoffs. Or not.

But how many are built to win a championship? In the final installment of Chasing the Kings, we examine each Metro team and how their rosters stack up in five key characteristics that make the Los Angeles Kings great: franchise center, strong top four anchored by legit No. 1 defenseman, playoff tested-goalie, skilled fourth line and players contributing on their entry-level deals.




Pittsburgh Penguins

Franchise center: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both qualify here. Crosby received a lot of attention last spring for a subpar, by his standard, postseason.

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Chasing the Kings: Central Division 

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
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Jonathan Toews Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsThe Kings outlasted the Blackhawks in an epic playoff series, but Chicago is not far behind.
The champion may reside in the Pacific Division, but its biggest group of challengers is in the Central. While the Los Angeles Kings spent the summer just trying to retain their talent, on and off the ice, the clubs in the Central ramped up the aggression to try and bring the Kings down.

The Chicago Blackhawks brought in Brad Richards to strengthen the team down the middle. The St. Loius Blues added offense in the form of Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera. The Dallas Stars created another scoring line with the additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, while the Minnesota Wild landed Thomas Vanek. Not to be outdone, the Nashville Predators signed every other veteran center remaining on the market.

It was a busy and successful offseason for the general managers among some of the Kings' biggest threats in the West, a development that didn't go unnoticed by Kings GM Dean Lombardi.

“Who went backwards?” Lombardi said and then joked that his counterparts in the Eastern Conference needed to pick up the slack.

“Can't they take some of these players?” Lombardi joked.

The Central, already strong, is better than ever and is the league’s deepest division. Earlier this week, we identified the five characteristics of the Kings that make them the ideal champion in a cap era: a franchise center, a strong top four anchored by a legit No. 1 defenseman, a playoff-tested goalie, a skilled fourth line and entry-level contributors.

We looked at the Atlantic Division on Wednesday, and here’s how the Central stacks up through the lens of those five characteristics

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Chasing the Kings: Atlantic Division 

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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Patrice BergeronRichard Wolowicz/Getty ImagesPatrice Bergeron checks the "franchise center" box for the Boston Bruins.
The Los Angeles Kings have become the gold standard. They’ve won two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons, and Dean Lombardi has built a roster that is nearly flawless.

On Tuesday, we identified the five characteristics that make the Kings' roster championship caliber and then compared the rest of the Pacific division to see how they stacked up.

We also checked in with Lombardi to see if he felt the five characteristics were an accurate assessment of what is needed to win in today’s NHL. It is his team, after all.

The five characteristics: a franchise center, a strong top four on defense with a legitimate No. 1, a playoff-tested goalie, a skilled fourth line and players contributing on entry-level contracts.

His thoughts?

“What you have identified is your micro-core,” Lombardi said Tuesday afternoon. “The only debate is the order of the top three. There’s always been a hypothetical question in hockey: Who would you take -- Gretzky, Orr or Dryden? Most of the argument would be the goalie or the D. A goalie can make five guys better, a defenseman can make four guys better and a center two.”

The final two qualities are especially important in today’s NHL, where teams are so evenly matched.

“The fourth one [skilled fourth line] is dead-on. You saw this in the playoffs,” Lombardi said. “That’s what happened against Chicago. Toews and Kopitar -- nobody beat the other one; they just neutralize each other.”

It’s up to the players further down the lineup to make the difference. It becomes even more important as Western Conference teams stock second lines to try to get an edge, with the best teams potentially neutralizing each other’s entire top six.

The final characteristic -- players contributing on entry-level contracts -- is one he said hasn’t always been a necessity but is now.

“That’s very new to our sport,” he said. “We were fortunate in [2012] when [Jordan] Nolan and [Dwight] King broke through, and this year the other two guys [Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson] ... quite frankly, you might have to move that up to No. 1.”

As the season closes in, determining whether or not your team has a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup can be done in comparing just how closely they’re constructed to Lombardi’s Kings. We started with the Pacific and continue with the Atlantic, where one team especially stands out as a franchise that is close

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Chasing the Kings: Pacific Division 

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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Los Angeles KingsAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe Los Angeles Kings have set a precedent in the Pacific Division, and in the cap system.
In the parity-filled NHL, it’s hard enough building a team that stands out from the rest. It’s even harder in the Pacific Division, where the Los Angeles Kings overshadow their rivals. GM Dean Lombardi has constructed a team that is near perfect in the cap system, as evidenced by two Stanley Cups in three years.

The biggest challenge this season for Los Angeles is finding the resolve to do it again following grueling postseason runs the past few springs.

“It’s a pretty special group,” said Kings forward Trevor Lewis when we chatted recently. “We’ve been through a lot together. We’re focused, we’ve got some rest here in the summer and we’re ready to get at it again.”

The rest of the league?

It spent this summer trying to figure out how it measures up and how it can close the gap with the Kings. Especially teams in the Pacific that know they ultimately have to go through Los Angeles. To help figure out that gap, it helps to determine what makes the Kings great. It’s a long list -- some of it easily identified, like premier players at key positions. Some of it is not so easy to quantify, like team chemistry, experience and closeness that makes the Kings unique.

To see how the rest of the league stacks up and how close every other team is to a championship-caliber roster, we’ve broken down the Kings' roster into five key strengths, to compare against the other 29 clubs

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Jonathan DrouinFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesJonathan Drouin was sent back to juniors for 2013-14, but should be in the NHL this season.
In 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished the regular season with an even-strength save percentage of .913. Only six teams were worse, and it was the major reason the Lightning finished better than just two other NHL teams in the standings.

Then came a full season of Ben Bishop. With that upgrade, the Lightning finished last season with an even-strength save percentage of .928 (No. 7 in the NHL). They made the playoffs. They finished with 101 points, despite an injury to Steven Stamkos that was supposed to sink them.

It’s a turnaround that should give New York Islanders fans hope.

This past season, the Islanders' save percentage was .911 at even strength, even worse than the 2013 Lightning. So if you’re wondering why there’s so much optimism surrounding the Islanders heading into 2014-15, look only as far as the addition of Jaroslav Halak in goal and the potential for him to lead a Lightning-type turnaround.

There’s another common thread between these two franchises that provide reason for optimism in both Tampa and New York. They’re loaded with prospects. This week, ESPN.com Insider prospect guru Corey Pronman released his prospect organizational rankings. At the top were the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres, a franchise filling up with talent but not enough to make a playoff scare just yet.

It’s teams two and three that make things interesting in this season’s potential playoff race.

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Seth JonesFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesSeth Jones is one player who was cited as the future face of an NHL franchise.
Last week, we shared the results of a poll asking people around hockey the five players they’d pick if they were starting from scratch. It was a fascinating exercise, with Jonathan Toews edging Sidney Crosby for the top spot.

Naturally, not everyone was happy. Washington Capitals fans noticed that Alex Ovechkin didn’t get a mention. In my Wednesday chat, one Bruins fan was upset that Patrice Bergeron didn’t get a mention. Flyers fans were puzzled that Claude Giroux wasn’t on any ballots.

In the middle of polling executives, an assistant general manager suggested I circle back and ask the panel to vote again, only limiting the pool to players under 25. It’s a great idea, but I didn’t want to step on the toes of Corey Pronman, who is taking over Neil Greenberg’s annual "Top 25 Under 25" list.

But it definitely got us thinking. Which young guys who weren’t mentioned in 2014 will be in the top franchise players conversation in 2017?

I presented the question to a Western Conference director of amateur scouting since he knows these guys inside and out and tried to come up with a list. Since guys like Drew Doughty, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares and a few other great young players already received votes last week, they were disqualified from consideration.

Here’s the list we came up with

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P.K. SubbanJerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsP.K. Subban's confidence proved to be an invaluable asset to the Montreal Canadiens.
The new contract for P.K. Subban was announced on a Saturday afternoon. In August. On a holiday weekend in Canada.

Because of that, the reaction is just now starting to filter in to Don Meehan and the Newport offices, the agency that masterminded the eight-year deal worth a total of $72 million.

“We’ve had some of our people in the field in Lake Placid and Calgary for international tournaments, and the reaction I get back is," he pauses, "really, it’s mixed actually,” said Meehan during a Tuesday afternoon phone conversation. “The industry knows he’s a very good player. The industry recognizes as well, in that community he had a following. He performed well the last few years, and that community identified with him.”

For a lot of reasons, Subban’s situation was unique.

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Cory Schneider Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty Images)With Cory Schneider the unquestioned starting goalie, the Devils' save percentage should improve.
The New Jersey Devils are so inclined to keep information in house that they didn’t reveal how many years Andy Greene's contract extension was for during the announcement of his deal being signed on Wednesday.

Contrast that against the Ottawa Senators, who announced the news of Robin Lehner's contract extension on Twitter (three years, $2.25 AAV) Thursday morning, while giving the details of each individual year’s salary.

Devils team president and GM Lou Lamoriello remains old-school. Naturally, when he was asked about any other roster changes between now and training camp, he wasn’t exactly giving up the blueprint.

He’s already been active this summer. He landed Mike Cammalleri to provide goal-scoring that was missing last season. He took a low-risk shot on Martin Havlat, with a one-year deal worth just $1.5 million. They’re two players who should help boost an offense that was strong possession-wise (52.6 percent Corsi for) but not so strong when it came to actually scoring goals (2.4 goals per game, No. 27 in the NHL).

“We acquired in my mind one absolutely pure goal-scorer. He’s scored everywhere he’s been,” Lamoriello said during a media conference call Wednesday. “Then we took what we might call a very upside risk on a player who has tremendous talent.”

Factor in long-term deals for arguably their two most important players in Cory Schneider and Andy Greene, and it’s been a productive offseason. What’s left?

“Changes can always take place,” Lamoriello said, which is about the extent of any information you’re getting from him.

He did confirm the thought process going into this offseason. The Devils might have been one of the unluckiest teams in hockey last season.

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video
The beauty of those working in hockey is that their passion for the sport runs just as high as those who cheer on the teams. It’s the middle of the summer, and even while some were relaxing at a cottage or in the mountains, they took a moment to answer one question fans love to debate: If you were starting a franchise from scratch and could choose from any current player in the NHL, who would be your top choice?

Who is, in essence, the NHL's top "franchise player"?

I asked a dozen NHL executives, coaches and players to send in their top five franchise picks, in order, then assigned point values for each vote to come up with an overall ranking.

They didn't disappoint.

“We have this debate on our staff,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “For me, there’s no clear-cut answer. I kept changing my list. If you called me tomorrow, this list might change.”

Some wanted to factor in contracts. One assistant GM wanted to turn back time in coming up with his final list.

“Can I get a young Pavel Datsyuk?” he joked.

To keep things simple, there were no other factors brought to the table. It was simply a request to pick the five best players to build a franchise around. In all, the panel is made up of four current team executives (assistant GM or GM), one former GM, four current head coaches, one respected assistant coach and a player from each conference. The ballot of one of the coaches was excluded from the point total because he preferred not to rank them in any particular order. (The excluded ballot looked like this: Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Jamie Benn.)

Here are the overall results

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