All-Star panel makes Hart Trophy pick 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Pekka RinneSergei Belski/USA TODAY SportsThough currently injured, Pekka Rinne is a big reason that the Predators are a top contender.
The lockout-shortened 2013 season in which Sidney Crosby's season was further shortened because of an injury was one of the hardest Hart Trophy votes in recent memory. The proof is that the winner is debated even today; just ask colleague and friend Pierre LeBrun, who spent a good portion of his Sunday night dinner -- again -- making the case for why Jonathan Toews should have won.

Crosby made it easy on voters last season, but this season’s Hart Trophy vote is shaping up to be another wide-open race.

“This year, there’s a lot of guys up there that are playing well,” said Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who is most certainly in the top three. “That’s good to see when you have that much parity in the league and guys are able to play at the top of their game. It’s a good challenge for everybody.”

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote on this award each season, but this weekend in Columbus, I handed the ballot over to a panel of 14 All-Stars, asking each one to pick his Hart Trophy winner right now.

Here’s how they voted

Blue Jackets face second-half hangover 

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue JacketsJonathan Kozub/NHLI/Getty Images)The Blue Jackets will be without franchise netminder Sergei Bobrovsky as the All-Star break ends.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Blue Jackets president John Davidson was standing outside the Hilton in downtown Columbus when a couple of young fans wearing hockey jerseys walked toward him.

He pointed at them, smiling with their dad, and said that’s what the All-Star weekend was about. Not the half-effort on-ice product that concluded All-Star weekend on Sunday evening.

“It’s more just [about] the little ones, all smiling,” Davidson said when we chatted earlier in the weekend.

As far as vibes go, Columbus had a great one all weekend long. The sport was celebrated and in turn it reflected extremely well on a city that’s not necessarily known as a prominent professional sports town.

It supported a theory that players who have gone through Columbus have suggested for years: If the Blue Jackets ever got consistently good, this would become a destination city for NHL players.

Davidson has seen it happen already.

"[Ryan] Johansen wants to stay. [Sergei] Bobrovsky, [Nick] Foligno, [Brandon] Dubinsky -- some of them could have hit the market,” Davidson said. “They all want to stay. Every one of them, whether they’re single or married with families or not. It’s a really good spot.”

Now that the All-Star party is over in Columbus, the players and their fans may have to deal with the hangover. The Blue Jackets were crushed by injuries during the first half of the season, and coming out of the All-Star break they have to play without starting goalie Bobrovsky, who is out with a groin injury. According to one source, the Blue Jackets aren’t expecting him back anytime soon.

As much as we admire the Blue Jackets' work ethic and pluck, it could be a disastrous second half for the team in the standings.

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Sidney CrosbyBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesCrosby will miss the 2015 All-Star Game because of a lower-body injury.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The decision to miss an All-Star Game because of injury or otherwise is rarely made by one person. Hall of Famer Mike Modano was a seven-time All-Star but remembers one year in which he was banged up and debating whether to take part in the game.

“I talked through it with Bob Gainey and [Ken Hitchcock],” Modano said when we chatted Thursday evening. “Those were things I wanted to go and be a part of. They felt long term, it was probably good to take advantage of the break. At that point, we had three or four years in a row of playing a lot of hockey. It catches up to you.”

Winning games for the Dallas Stars was the utmost priority for everyone involved in that conversation, as it is when these conversations take place with every team in the league right now.

Sidney Crosby has an additional burden as the NHL’s biggest star. On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that their captain wouldn’t play because of a lower-body injury -- a late subtraction to a game the city of Columbus has waited a long time to host.

Some years you attend an All-Star Game and once you're a few blocks from the arena, you have no idea the game is even being held in that city. That’s not the case in Columbus. This is a city that has been anticipating the game for some time. Evidence of the All-Star Game is everywhere; from lights to All-Star signs to the friendly conversations with locals who immediately ask if you’re in town for the game once they find out you’re visiting.

If there was letdown that Crosby won’t be playing, it was hard to detect Thursday night around Columbus -- the city is understanding. It’s difficult not to feel bad for the city's hockey fans, who have seen lower-body injuries cause Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, along with a Hart Trophy candidate in Evgeni Malkin and the league’s biggest star to pull out of the game.

“I know it’s tough for Sid; he’s such a draw,” Modano said. “The All-Star Game is going to hurt without him. It’s the Gretzky factor for him. He’s the one guy that families and people go just to see.”

Crosby’s absence is going to raise questions.

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USA's place among hockey powers 

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
Jack EichelMinas Panagiotakis/Getty ImagesJack Eichel is a bright spot for the U.S., but the team has had problems at recent events.
If the last year of disappointment at the international level that hit USA Hockey happened in Canada, there would have been a countrywide panic. Maybe even a month-long summit on how to fix it.

Team USA’s fifth-place finish at this year’s World Junior Championships follows a World Championships in which the Americans finished sixth. That followed the disappointing fourth-place finish in the Olympics, which followed a fifth-place finish in the 2014 WJC.

Hey, weren’t we supposed to be hockey’s sleeping giant?

The country, if it’s noticed at all, has mostly responded with a disinterested shrug. But this weekend, the NHL and NHLPA are expected to announce an international calendar that includes a revamped World Cup. International hockey is expanding, and considering the struggles of the past year, it’s fair to wonder where America sits among the favorites in those tournaments. And if it’s not near the top, why not?

In this examination, we start with Nashville Predators GM David Poile, the architect of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.

“Let’s call it like it is,” Poile said. “Canada is No. 1 clearly across the board.”

Wait, what? That hurts.

Thankfully, he continued.

“Having said that, if I were to take more of a global look at the last 10 years of tournaments from the world junior to Olympic results, I think the USA has performed very well,” Poile said.

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Elite production needed from Vanek 

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
Thomas Vanek, Minnesota WildGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesVanek notched six shots on goal against Detroit, one of his highest shot totals of the season.
On Tuesday night, Thomas Vanek scored a goal few others in the league could make look so easy. He took a pass from Ryan Suter near the top of the left circle, skated in on Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek, stick handled his way through traffic and flipped a backhand to cut Detroit’s third-period lead to just one goal.

It was gorgeous. He paid a physical price to score it too, flattened by teammate Suter seconds after he scored.

“I crushed him,” said Suter, laughing about it after the game. “Sorry buddy.”

Vanek made the goal look absolutely effortless -- an observation I made on Twitter that brought a number of responses from those who believe effortless is a perfectly apt description of Vanek’s game all too often.

“He does that on all plays though,” former player Jeff O’Neill tweeted back, capturing the sentiments of many others.

His style is so different from a guy like Zach Parise, whose maximum effort up and down the ice, battling in front of the net exudes a desire to win. Watching Parise compete with his team down against the Detroit Red Wings and desperate for a point was the vision of a leader trying to will his group to a win.

You don’t get that with Vanek. You just don’t.

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Jaroslav HalakBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesJaroslav Halak's 25 wins are tied for second most in the NHL, and the Islanders are atop the East.
Before the season, we asked a panel of executives, coaches and players to rate every single starting goalie on a scale of one to five, with one being the best. Then, the goalies were divided into tiers. The result of the project can be seen right here.

Naturally, it sparked debate, especially among New York Islanders fans who thought their new goalie, Jaroslav Halak, deserved better treatment than his spot at No. 28 on the list.

But the feelings of one voter about summed up the view on Halak at the time.

“I’m not a big fan,” he said.

Halak, as you know, is now an All-Star.

His Islanders are on top of the Eastern Conference with 63 points, and he’s tied for second in the league with 25 wins.

So, we offered up a mulligan. With the season halfway through, a few of the panelists were given the opportunity to revise their list, to reconsider some of their rankings. Were there goalies who have proven them wrong?

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How Predators will cope without Rinne 

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
Pekka RinneJohn Russell/NHLI/Getty Images)The Predators face a tough challenge with franchise goalie Pekka Rinne on the shelf.
Members of the media never quite know what to expect when entering an NHL dressing room after a loss. Sometimes, the players have had enough time to scatter, with just a few remaining stragglers to deal with the questions. Other times, it’s a mix: Some players will be pulling off gear while others stretch in the middle of the room or find a bike to work off some frustration.

Following their loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, almost every Nashville Predators player reacted the same way. As media entered the room, it was almost dead quiet and the room was filled with players, nearly every one of them still sitting despondent in front of their stall, reflecting on the loss.

It wasn’t even a close, last-second loss, either. This game was all but decided in the first period, when goalie Carter Hutton was chased following goals on three of Detroit’s first four shots.

“Tonight, I don’t think we played great team defense, we gave them more than we should have,” Predators defenseman Seth Jones said. “We can’t blame those goals on the goalies. Everyone on the ice is responsible for the goals against.”

They were disappointed because this isn’t a Predators team that loses all that much this season. This was just regulation loss No. 10 on the season for Nashville. It stung.

It also has the potential to be what the next few weeks look like for the Predators without No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne.

The Predators entered the weekend with a .942 even-strength save percentage, a rate that was No. 1 in the league. They also have the league’s highest PDO (a summation of save percentage and shooting percentage) in part because of that and an 8.92 shooting percentage that is tied for No. 4 in the NHL.

Life without Rinne could be when some of that luck changes.

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Carey Price could break a Hart streak 

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
Carey PriceSteve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesCarey Price should inspire Hart Trophy voters to drop their usual prejudice against goalies.
Traditionally, there have been a few things that consistently hurt the chances of Hart Trophy candidates. One is being a good player on a non-playoff team. For instance, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Steven Stamkos was second in the league with 29 goals in 48 games. His 57 points trailed only teammate Martin St. Louis among league leaders. He finished eighth in the Hart vote in large part because the Lightning were one of the worst teams in the league.

Miss the playoffs and chances are, you’re left off the ballot. That impacts guys like Jakub Voracek, Tyler Seguin and Claude Giroux -- all having big seasons on teams that are more likely to miss the postseason than make it.

Another factor is when teammates split votes. Jonathan Toews is consistently one of the best players in the league on one of the best teams. The highest he’s ever finished in Hart voting is fourth. That could be because Patrick Kane is siphoning votes. The year Toews finished fourth (2012-13), Kane finished sixth.

This season, that could hurt Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But there's no bigger sin than being a goalie. Perhaps it’s because of the existence of the Vezina Trophy (perhaps like the Cy Young in MLB) but it’s been since Jose Theodore won it in 2002 that a goalie has taken home the Hart.

This year is shaping up to be different. Let’s say

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Scouts dissect Pronman's top 50 

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
William NylanderLucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star/Getty ImagesMaple Leafs prospect William Nylander is No. 1 on Corey Pronman's list. Do NHL scouts agree?
First, let’s acknowledge that what our Insider prospect writer Corey Pronman tries to do every year in ranking his top 50 prospects after getting a good look at them during the World Junior Championships isn’t an easy task.

It’s hard enough to evaluate players in that tournament, some of them 17 years old playing against kids a couple of years older. Then to take that information and project the NHL future of those prospects against others who are currently developing in the AHL -- that’s challenging.

That's especially true when standout performances, like those turned in by Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair and Max Domi, are so fresh on the mind.

“It’s like when the president makes a speech, he says a few things you like and his ratings take a bounce up,” said one Western Conference lead amateur scout on how a tournament like the WJC can influence opinion.

His first impression of Pronman’s Top 50 was that it was heavily influenced by the recently concluded WJC.

“It’s colored by the world junior,” said the scout. “The problem is you had that one group that was playing in Toronto is much maligned and as disappointed as Team USA was, that was still the same team that slapped around Sweden in an exhibition game.”

The hard part is putting the list together. The easy part, which I gladly accepted, is trying to find the flaws.

Let’s start right at the top.

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Sergei BobrovskyJamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesSergei Bobrovsky lifted the Blue Jackets in the midst of their injury-ridden season.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There were times this season when it was a little nerve-racking for Columbus Blue Jackets players to show up for work. Not because of whom they were playing that night or anything to do with hockey. It was because guys were getting hurt seemingly in every game.

Teammates couldn’t help wondering who might be next.

“It was tough mentally, going into every game, sensing that someone else was going to go down, and ultimately, more often than not, that was the case,” said Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell. “It was just tough to figure out which guy was going to be next, which person had a voodoo doll.”

The injuries have slowed down in Columbus, although Ryan Murray, Artem Anisimov and Boone Jenner are still among those working to get back in the lineup. Nathan Horton’s career remains in jeopardy.

In all, according to calculations from Rob Vollman's look at injury impact, the Blue Jackets have suffered 259 man-games lost -- the most in the league. It’s a remarkable number, especially compared to their opponent tonight, the Montreal Canadiens, who have 36 man-games lost this season.

Columbus Dispatch beat writer Aaron Portzline added it up, and at one point the Blue Jackets had $31 million of their payroll on the shelf.

How did the Blue Jackets survive? For a while, it didn’t go so hot.

“When everyone was going down, I’m not sure we got through it so well,” said coach Todd Richards. “That was when we were struggling.”

The Blue Jackets won just two games in November, and their biggest sin wasn’t the losses; it was not getting to overtime in enough of those losses to salvage the occasional point. But they recovered, had a big December and remain just close enough in the playoff race that it’s still very much in the discussion when you chat with players in the Columbus dressing room.

Injuries will eventually hit every team, so what’s the secret to survival?

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Safeco Field and CenturyLink FieldAP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Mariners and Seahawks may have a new neighbor playing hockey in downtown Seattle.
Victor Coleman is watching the Seattle Seahawks run through the NFL playoffs a little differently than the rest of us. While we might appreciate the incredible atmosphere Seahawks fans create, he sees potential.

Coleman is the head of a Los Angeles commercial real estate company, and he is also the face of one of the groups still in the running to bring an NHL expansion team to Seattle.

So when he watches Seahawks games, he does it through the lens of a potential NHL owner, with dreams of transferring that passion from CenturyLink Field to an arena downtown.

“That’s what’s exciting,” Coleman said during a Monday phone conversation that also included hedge fund manager Jonathan Glaser, who is joining Coleman in his efforts to bring the NHL to Seattle.

“Have you ever been to a Seahawks game?” Glaser asks. “The crowd is as good as it gets.”

During the December board of governors meeting, the NHL made news by announcing that a potential Las Vegas expansion owner was given the green light to conduct a season-ticket drive in Vegas to get a sense of how large a potential local hockey fan base might be. It’s as close as commissioner Gary Bettman has come to saying expansion is coming to the NHL, but even with this announcement, he urged caution and restraint.

According to a BOG source in that meeting, the league also provided an update to NHL owners on the latest in Seattle expansion.

“They have two or three interested parties,”

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Red Wings won't panic with Howard out 

January, 12, 2015
Jan 12
Index: Petr MrazekDerek Leung/Getty ImagesThe Red Wings' goal will be tended primarily by Petr Mrazek for the next few weeks.
It was the weekend’s most frightening moment. Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard went facedown against the Washington Capitals on Saturday to make a save and stayed that way. Clearly in pain from overextending, he left the ice on a stretcher.

Watch the video, and the immediate thought is that Detroit’s All-Star goalie will be gone a long time. It’s hard to watch.

That’s why when an MRI on Sunday revealed it was only a slight groin tear, the Red Wings circled back and ordered an ultrasound for Monday. They want to be sure they know what they’re dealing with here.

“Based upon what happened on the ice, based upon Jimmy’s importance to our team, based upon Jimmy’s position that he plays, [Red Wings doctors] decided to do an ultrasound,” Detroit GM Ken Holland said when we chatted Sunday evening.

If the ultrasound confirms what the MRI revealed, Howard’s recovery time may be two to four weeks.

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Antoine VermetteChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesIf Vermette re-signs in Arizona, there may not be many true rentals worth a first-round pick.
Early in the first period against the Winnipeg Jets, with the Arizona Coyotes on a power play, a rebound kicked loose in front of Ondrej Pavelec, right toward the stick of Antoine Vermette. Instead of banging the puck into the pads of the Jets goalie, in that split second Vermette had the presence of mind to slide the puck over to Mikkel Boedker, gliding in between the circles.

Boedker buried it on the way to a win -- the Coyotes’ sixth in their past 10 games. Things aren’t great in the desert right now, but they’d be a lot worse without Vermette, whose name has surfaced in trade talks. He’s entering the final year of his contract and would be the best center on the free-agent market, and the Coyotes are near the bottom of the standings. That combination typically leads to a trade-deadline deal.

But one GM said things are still in a bit of a holding pattern on the Vermette front.

“Vermette’s name has been out there,” said the GM. “It’s out there, but he’s not available today.

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Top 10 rising GM candidates 

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
Rob BlakeDave Sandford/Getty ImagesA Hall of Fame player, Rob Blake may soon have his own team to run as general manager.
Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has given no indication that general manager Dave Nonis’ job is in trouble.

But Shanahan’s systematic turnover from the previous regime to the current one has touched on every department in the organization. Nonis’ track record in Toronto is spotty at best, so he’s certainly on notice if the Maple Leafs don’t see improvement as the season progresses under new coaching.

While there are certainly qualified former GMs like Ray Shero and George McPhee on the market if Shanahan makes a change down the road, the trend league-wide has been to promote an experienced assistant GM from a successful organization. It’s especially been the preference of teams with a strong voice in the role of team president.

Five of the 10 assistant GMs mentioned in this list compiled less than two years ago now have general manager jobs, and it’s hard to argue against the success guys like Jim Nill, Brad Treliving and Tim Murray have enjoyed since getting promoted.

With that in mind, here’s an updated list of the top 10 future GMs among today’s assistants:

1. Rob Blake, Los Angeles Kings

He’s definitely on the fast track to running a team and currently is learning from one of the best in the game in GM Dean Lombardi. If Nonis ultimately loses his job in Toronto, it’d be very easy to see one of Shanahan’s first calls going out to Los Angeles, especially considering Blake and Shanahan’s time together in the NHL offices.

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Craig BerubeAP Photo/Matt SlocumCraig Berube agreed with his team -- Tuesday night's win may have been the best of the season.
This is when we’ll find out if the Philadelphia Flyers have another second-half charge in them. On Tuesday night, the Flyers beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in a win that was significant for a number of reasons. For one, it came in the shootout. Until then, the Flyers had been 0-5 in the shootout.

Steve Mason was great. He stopped 41-of-42 shots against Ottawa -- the kind of performance the Flyers need from him if they’re going to climb back into it, considering the Flyers routinely allow 30-plus shots per game.

It also snapped a five-game losing streak that threatened to end this season early in July.

Some of the Flyers players suggested it might have been their biggest win of the season. Coach Craig Berube didn’t object.

“For sure. The situation we’re in, they’re all big,” Berube said afterward. “This is a real big win. Now we’ve got a homestand.”

The Flyers play nine of their next 12 games at home in a stretch that should define their season. They currently sit eight points behind Toronto for the last wild-card spot and would have to leapfrog four teams to get there. It’s not an easy task, but the Flyers are 9-5-3 at home compared with 6-13-4 on the road. If it’s happening, it’s happening now.

“It’s going to give us some momentum,” Berube said. “We have to continue to get better.”

However, the analytics don’t suggest that they will.

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