Success in Vegas? Poker star likes odds 

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
Las Vegasistockphoto.comDaniel Negreanu believes Sin City could bring in fans from all over the country.
Poker star and Las Vegas resident Daniel Negreanu was in Barcelona, Spain, when he first heard about the serious possibility of Las Vegas landing an NHL expansion team.

“I saw the rumor and was jumping up and down like a kid. ‘We’re getting hockey! We’re getting hockey!’” Negreanu said, when we chatted by phone late Wednesday night.

Now, we know how Gary Bettman would react. He’d warn Negreanu not to make too much out of the news last week that Bill Foley is undertaking a Las Vegas season-ticket drive, starting in February. He’d say, as he has said to all of us, that the news requires a deep breath and a high level of precision and understanding.

Negreanu can’t help it. He’s excited.

The Toronto native, who counts Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak among his friends, said he's not the only one who is excited. Not surprisingly, there’s a crossover of sports fans in the Las Vegas poker community who love the idea, too.

But I called Negreanu because, his fandom aside, he has an analytical brain. He calculates odds for a living. He knows hockey, and he knows Las Vegas as a market.

So, what are the odds the NHL will successfully expand to Las Vegas?

He actually has an answer. A quite exact answer.

“I have it at a 92 percent chance of success.

Is there enough talent for expansion? 

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Jack Johnson, Mikko KoivuJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images; Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe NHL's most recent expansion came in the 2000-01 season, with the Blue Jackets and Wild.
Shortly after Las Vegas was knighted by the NHL as a legitimate expansion option, the questions of its viability started to roll in. Could another team succeed in the desert? Are there enough hockey fans in Las Vegas to purchase enough season tickets? Should the league be expanding to Las Vegas when the Florida Panthers can barely reach a quorum in Sunrise?

A much smaller concern seemed to be the impact NHL expansion would have on the talent pool. In bringing Las Vegas and potentially Seattle aboard in the next several years, the league is adding another 40 or so NHL players into the fold.

The poor Edmonton Oilers can’t even find a No. 2 center with 30 teams. What chance do they have when the NHL adds two more to the mix?

With the NHL expansion express well on its way, this was a question posed to those trying to build winning rosters now. Is the talent pool deep enough for another two teams?

“I think there’s a lot of talent out there,” said New Jersey Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello’s opinion was one widely shared for a number of reasons.

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Mike BabcockAndy Marlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesMike Babcock is largely credited for illuminating the value of a balanced defense.
While describing the advantages of a righty-lefty balance on defense, apparently it’s nearly impossible to do so without demonstrating with an imaginary stick. Asked to describe the benefit of having a right-handed shot defenseman paired up with a lefty, almost to a man, players, coaches and a GM contorted their bodies to show what it’s like to try to receive a pass or battle for a puck along the wall on your off side.

Ultimately, they explained, it’s about a couple of extra seconds to make a decision. Or in some cases, having one more option with the puck than you might have otherwise.

More than ever, the righty-lefty balance on defense is a critical part of the game.

“It’s crucial,” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.

Babcock articulated the reasons why effectively, which we’ll get to in a moment, and he should be the guy to do it. People around hockey credit him and the Team Canada staff for bringing this roster construction advantage to the forefront. With all things equal, and granted the ability to pick from the deepest talent pool in the world, GM Steve Yzerman and his coaching staff opted for balance on defense. It worked out pretty well.

“At the Olympic level, when you’re playing the best in the world, even on the big ice, you wanted left-right,” Babcock said.

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Ranking the best coaches available 

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
Dan BylsmaGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesWith coach-firing season in full swing, will we see Dan Bylsma back behind an NHL bench soon?
After firing Dallas Eakins, Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish said he will transition the coaching job to Todd Nelson, promoted from the American Hockey League. Nelson is a widely respected coach who had success at that level, so he’s earned an opportunity to do what Eakins couldn’t -- make progress in the standings.

One coach who has competed against Nelson called him a strong hockey mind who gets the most out of his players.

“I think he’s really good,” he said of Nelson. “He plays a game where he’s able to create offensive space for his guys better than other people.”

MacTavish passed on hiring a veteran coach, and with that, the opportunity to get a fresh voice from outside the organization to help evaluate the stagnating core. But he didn’t close the door on making a veteran hire after this season.

“[Nelson] will be assessed like any other coach based on the performance and the way he can drive performance,” MacTavish said during Monday’s news conference. “We want to leave the door open and the flexibility of making a decision at the end of the year. That philosophy and strategy is fairly clear in my mind.”

The Winnipeg Jets benefited from bringing in an experienced coach last season when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faced a similar situation, hiring Paul Maurice. Not only did Maurice provide experience behind the bench, he gave the Jets an outside perspective on their young players to help with personnel changes moving forward.

That’s partly why Nelson’s promotion is frustrating for some Oilers fans. There are good veteran coaches available, and the Oilers won’t be the last team to change coaches this season if history is any indication.

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Reality check on mumps' impact 

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
Francois BeaucheminAP Photo/Tom MihalekFrancois Beauchemin is one of 14 NHL players to be diagnosed with the mumps this season.
It was a Friday morning in early November when Anaheim Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin woke up with the swollen face that’s become all too common right now around the NHL.

He suspected the problem might be mumps, since teammate Corey Perry had already dealt with it, as had players with the Minnesota Wild. There was also a mysterious illness in St. Louis earlier in the season where mumps was never confirmed, but was suspected.

Beauchemin played that night, because that’s what hockey players do. Or, at least they did until mumps spread around the league and caution superseded playing through pain. Then he hoped whatever was invading his body would do it quickly.

“I was hoping not to get it too much,” Beauchemin said when we chatted Monday morning.

Every player is different. Every body reacts to a virus in different ways. Sidney Crosby's recovery from mumps will be on a different timeline than New York Rangers center Derick Brassard, who was also diagnosed over the weekend. With 14 NHL players now officially diagnosed or recovered from the mumps virus, the range of time missed varies.

For instance, Wild defenseman Keith Ballard missed eight games with the mumps.

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Panthers' success starts with Luongo 

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
Roberto LuongoDave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesRoberto Luongo's impressive consistency in goal has been under the radar in south Florida.
One unmistakable sign of a good goaltender is making saves and thriving regardless of the team out front.

There are some goalies who put up big seasons, and it’s impossible not to suspect that part of the reason is the system or the team. Then, there’s Roberto Luongo.

If we were to cherry-pick his best season statistically for the Vancouver Canucks while they were a Western Conference power, it would be 2006-07. Luongo started 76 games. He won 47 of them and finished second in Vezina Trophy voting to Martin Brodeur. Luongo ended the year with a .921 save percentage.

He played on great teams in Vancouver. Great. In eight years there, he posted a save percentage of .919.

His save percentage in seven years on not-so-great Florida teams? .920.

He joined a struggling Florida team last season and posted a .924 save percentage in 14 games. The Florida Panthers are much improved this season, and his save percentage is an almost identical .923.

Because it’s happening in south Florida, that consistency hasn’t been appreciated as much as it was when he was playing in Vancouver, but it’s even more impressive.

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Sharks stuck in leadership transition 

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
Joe PavelskiGregg Forwerck/NHLI/Getty ImagesThere is growing belief that Joe Pavelski will be the Sharks' next captain. But when will it be official?
It was the 2003-04 season, and the San Jose Sharks didn’t have a permanent captain. During the season, they rotated the C among a group of players, including Patrick Marleau, Mike Ricci, Vincent Damphousse and Alyn McCauley.

There was even a competitive aspect to it. A player might get the C for 10 games or so, and if the Sharks crossed a predetermined threshold for wins or points, they got it for another group of games. The Sharks' captaincy was earned.

As the season progressed, the organization wanted something a little more permanent.

A decade of time in between has muddled some of the details, but former Sharks coach Ron Wilson remembers this for sure: If he was naming a captain, he wanted it to be McCauley.

“We had elected Alyn McCauley to be captain and Alyn said ‘No, it’s got to be Patty Marleau,” Wilson said when we chatted on Wednesday. “He said, ‘The players want Patty Marleau as captain and I said, ‘No, the players want you.’”

McCauley saw a player in Marleau who was the future of the franchise, moreso than he was. He saw the captaincy as a growth opportunity for Marleau. In passing on the captaincy, he was putting the franchise first.

“It’s not to say I took it lightly or didn’t want to be captain. There’s only 30 in the league,” McCauley said. “I felt it was in the best interests of the growth of Patty Marleau and the betterment of our team to have Patty as our captain.”

And so that’s what happened. Marleau was named captain that season, had a nice postseason (eight goals in 17 games) and it looked like that issue was solved. Right.

Somewhere along the line during Ron Wilson’s tenure, he saw the team transition to one where Joe Thornton was the leader.

“Toward the end I had tried a couple times to take the C away from Patty,” Wilson said. “I really wanted Joe Thornton to be captain.”

We all know how that turned out: Wilson was eventually fired. Todd McLellan was brought in. Marleau lost the captaincy, Thornton got it. This summer, Thornton lost it, and the Sharks are back to a committee of captains.

And this entire process all started because former Sharks captain Owen Nolan was traded before he could be stripped of the C, a request to consider from management that Ron Wilson said he got when he was first hired.

If you’re wondering why the Sharks have a bit of an identity crisis, this might help explain it.

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Tim MurrayBill Wippert/NHLI/Getty ImagesBuffalo GM Tim Murray is ready to trade and waiting for his fellow GMs to step up.
BOCA RATON, Florida -- Standing a few feet from million-dollar yachts on one side and a resort swimming pool on the other during a warm, gorgeous day in south Florida would be paradise for most people. For Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray, however, it didn’t seem that way. One could sense his uneasiness.

Murray was representing the Sabres at the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings, but it was clear he’d much rather be at a hockey rink somewhere, evaluating players while inching the Sabres rebuild closer to success.

There was a bright side for Murray in this Florida trip, though. It gave him an opportunity to light a fire under his fellow GMs to spark trade talk.

The Sabres have been open to deal since the season started, and a strange thing has happened in recent weeks. The trade conversations have actually declined, compared to a month or so ago.

“Maybe I’m asking too much,” Murray said, to which a few of his colleagues quickly nodded in agreement.

Why wouldn’t he aim high? He doesn’t have to do a thing right now.

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videoBOCA RATON, Fla. -- On the way into the Boca Raton Resort conference room for the first day of the NHL's board of governors meetings, a governor was asked about Las Vegas as a potential NHL city.

He smiled and joked he’d been scouting the market in person for years, so he’d be happy to see a team placed there to justify his hard work. On Monday, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed the plan to move forward with a season-ticket drive in Las Vegas for an interested expansion owner, the optimism for the market was overflowing.

Since we’re talking about a potential $500 million expansion fee, the owners on hand in Florida were more than willing to listen to this idea.

“There was no objection to giving them an opportunity to explore what the level of interest in having a professional sports team in Las Vegas might be,” Bettman said when addressing the media following the first day of the two-day meetings.

Despite the optimism that came with the big news of the day in Boca Raton, there are certainly questions about Las Vegas as a market. Big questions.

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Peter DeBoerAlex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith the losses piling up, New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer has come under fire.
Following Saturday’s loss to the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer didn’t mince words in his assessment of the game.

He pointedly explained that the Capitals' power play was better than the Devils' power play. And that the Capitals' penalty kill was better than the Devils' penalty kill. And the Capitals' goalie was better than the Devils' goalie.

“It was across the board,” DeBoer said.

Making matters worse, the banged-up Devils lost Mike Cammalleri, who didn’t join the team on their trip to Carolina, where they play the Hurricanes tonight.

Rich Chere of had the entire injury list in his Sunday story on the team, and it’s a long one. Martin Havlat is banged up. Patrik Elias isn't traveling to Carolina either. Travis Zajac, Adam Larsson, Bryce Salvador and Ryane Clowe are also out.

There may even be a mumps scare to deal with -- blood tests should be back within the week to confirm that one way or the other. Jaromir Jagr played Saturday after taking a hit to the head from Pittsburgh’s Robert Bortuzzo but didn’t look particularly effective.

DeBoer, to his credit, doesn’t even come close to using these injuries as an excuse.

“Nobody cares,” he said.

And he’s right. If the Devils continue to lose, the injuries will just be a footnote to a proud franchise with a history of winning that hasn’t been able to overcome one problem or another, whether it be historic bad luck in the shootout or a slew of injuries.

As it stands right now, the Devils sit seven points outside the final wild-card spot held by the Bruins. They’re 2-6-2 in their past 10 games and have an ugly goal differential of minus-15. The recent struggles, along with last season’s missed postseason, have some Devils fans looking behind the bench and wondering if DeBoer should be the first coach to lose his job this season

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Examining Stephen Weiss' revival 

December, 5, 2014
Dec 5
Stephen WeissTim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsIn just three games, Stephen Weiss has equaled his point total from each of the past two seasons.
During the 2011-12 season, the last time Stephen Weiss played 80 games, the Detroit Red Wings forward took 1,469 faceoffs -- a total that put him in the top 10 in the league. He won 53.2 percent of those faceoffs, a success rate topped only by Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux and Patrice Bergeron among those centers in the top 10.

In a league starved for top-six centers, that’s valuable and one of the reasons Weiss earned a five-year, $24.5 million contract with the Red Wings.

We all know how that deal has worked out for Detroit so far, but one of the most interesting early-season developments has been Weiss’ effort to redeem the faith shown in him by GM Ken Holland in July of 2013.

Against the Stars on Thursday, Weiss scored his fourth goal of the season. He now has nine points in seven games this season, production that is earning him consistent playing time under Mike Babcock -- a coach who has been slow to embrace the former Panther.

The success is coming exclusively on the wing.

Following the game, I asked Weiss if he knew how many faceoffs he’s taken so far this season.

“I don’t know,” he said.

The answer: One more than the guy asking the question.

On Thursday night, Weiss played on a line with Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan that appeared to click. It was Sheahan who did the heavy lifting on Weiss’ goal, with a gorgeous one-time pass to Weiss who banged it home in front of the net.

The goal exemplified the point Weiss made after we started chatting about his switch to the wing.

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Martin brodeurCourtesy St. Louis BluesMartin Brodeur may not play a ton of games for St. Louis, but his experience is a valuable resource.
Like any red-blooded human about to make his NHL debut, Jason Demers had nerves going into his first game. Five years and 305 NHL games later, he still recalls the impact of former San Jose Sharks teammate Rob Blake, who helped calm Demers down back in 2009.

Blake, by then a veteran of over 1,000 NHL games, walked over and reassured Demers that he was around to stay.

“'I played my first game once, you have more than one coming,'” Blake told Demers. “'Just enjoy it.'”

It settled Demers down, and Blake was right. Demers had plenty more in him. As a rookie that season, Demers posted 21 points and played another 15 games in the postseason, where the Sharks advanced to the Western Conference finals.

On the ice in the '09-10 season, Blake’s value wasn’t what it previously was when he was a regular near the top of the Norris Trophy vote.

Off the ice, he was invaluable.

“I was lucky to have a guy like that,” said Demers when we chatted Wednesday afternoon.

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Aaron Ekblad Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesNo. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad has made a nearly seamless transition to the NHL.
It was the first sign that he was still an 18-year-old kid. Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad is so steady on the ice and so polished off of it, one forgets that it’s only been a few months since he walked on stage in Philadelphia to accept the Florida Panthers jersey as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Teammate Shawn Thornton joked that his wife didn’t believe him when he first told her Ekblad was a teenager.

“My wife saw him and was like [no way] he’s 18. There’s no chance,” Thornton said after the Panthers' win in Detroit on Tuesday night. “He’s one of the most mature 18-year-old kids I’ve ever played with.”

On Tuesday night, he was allowed to be a kid for a moment. He was playing in Detroit for the first time after growing up in nearby Windsor. There were so many friends and family at the game, he wasn’t able to count. His parents were there, as were his aunts, uncles and lifelong friends.

At one moment during the game while on the bench, he looked up at the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard and saw one of his friends dancing.

“It was pretty hilarious,” Ekblad said. “I had a good chuckle.”

That’s what teenagers do. They dance when they’re on camera and entertain their buddies. They don’t seamlessly enter the NHL and play 20 minutes a game at one of the most demanding positions in hockey -- precisely what Ekblad is doing right now.

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Patrick KaneSergei Belski/USA TODAY SportsBased on where the 2015-16 salary cap winds up, the Blackhawks may have tough decisions to make.
This is what it has come to for NHL teams trying to project next season’s salary cap: At least one team has had conversations with currency speculators to come up with the most accurate picture of where the Canadian dollar is headed in order to make internal projections.

In the process, they’re getting an education.

“The dollar is not related as much to deficits and GNP,” one GM said. “[It’s] those who make money on the differential in currencies.”

And we all thought the hardest projection was how a 17-year-old kid playing junior would look in the NHL.

Next week at the board of governors meeting, the NHL is expected to provide a first projection on what next season’s salary cap will look like. It’s a preliminary number that helps with planning, but nothing is set in stone.

Last year in Pebble Beach, California, Gary Bettman and the league projected a salary cap for this season around $71 million. Instead, it’s at $69 million.

That's still an increase, just not as much of one as initially projected. With the Canadian dollar dropping, significant because of the large percentage of revenue provided by Canadian teams and the Canadian television deal, it’s possible the same thing happens this time around.

For some teams, a small increase is perfectly fine. Most of the attention in salary-cap evaluation is on the teams pushing the high end and what it will mean to their current roster. On the flip side, there are teams that have no problems at all with the Canadian dollar driving the cap down.

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The secret to Halak's new success 

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
Jaroslav HalakBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesJaroslav Halak is 12-4-0 this season, with a .926 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average.
It’s the first day of December, and the New York Islanders are in first place, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the top of the Metropolitan Division, with 34 points. The Penguins have a game in hand, but still. What a turnaround.

Those 34 points aren’t just good enough for a shared lead in the division; it equals six teams at the top of the NHL standings.

For a little perspective on the Islanders' growth, consider this: On Dec. 1 of last season, the Islanders were 8-15-4, which was last in the division. Another way to look at it: They had just as many wins at this point in the 2013-14 season as the Buffalo Sabres do this season.

By now, the big moves GM Garth Snow made since then have been widely credited for the turnaround. The aggressive trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, the free-agent additions of Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. The drafting and developing of tons of talent, without losing patience in the process as things went sideways. Those are all big reasons for the success.

In comments to colleague Pierre LeBrun recently, captain John Tavares explained how all the new components are contributing to the Isles' early success. "We made a lot of additions this offseason, guys that have made such a big impact for us. We knew the depth we had coming into this season, we just had to go out there and execute the way we wanted to play, the style of play we wanted to play.

"We had a real tough camp, it was intense, coaches challenged us and made a lot of battles for positions and ice time. That’s certainly got us ready for the reason, and you can see the contributions we’re getting from everybody, it’s not just a few guys. Everybody is stepping up in a different way and it’s made a big difference."

In chatting with Corey Hirsch, Halak’s goalie coach last season with the St. Louis Blues, he pointed out an under-the-radar decision by Snow that he believes helped boost Halak’s chances of success with the Islanders.

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