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
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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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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Summer trending: Pacific Division 

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
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Ryan KeslerAP Photo/Chris SzagolaCould the Vancouver Canucks trend upward, despite the loss of Ryan Kesler?
The past two seasons the Anaheim Ducks have won consecutive Pacific Division titles, including a 116-point regular season last season that was topped only by the Boston Bruins.

The postseason success hasn’t been there but the team has won enough that some general managers might have been tempted not to mess with the roster too much. Not Bob Murray.

There might not be a more honest evaluator of his own players than Murray. He didn’t look at the near-miss against the Los Angeles Kings in Round 2 and say it was close enough.

He was concerned.

“We didn’t stack up against the big guys well enough to go any farther,” Murray said during a Wednesday phone conversation. “We had to change a few things.”

The addition of Ryan Kesler has been well documented. It was as good a move as anybody made this offseason, with the Ducks capitalizing on Kesler’s short list of destinations -- a credit to where they are as a franchise that Kesler limited the Canucks to Anaheim and Chicago.

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Summer trending: Metro Division 

July, 24, 2014
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Mikhail GrabovskiG Fiume/Getty ImagesThe deal to land Mikhail Grabovski was a risky financial move for the Islanders.
Mikhail Grabovski has long had fans in the advanced stats community. He’s a guy who drives possession on bad possession teams, which earns him points in the world of analytics.

New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano was won over by Grabovski and close friend Nikolai Kulemin the more traditional route. On video. Lots of it.

“We watched a lot of tape,” Capuano said during a phone conversation this week. “I probably know those guys better than they know themselves.”

His conclusion?

“Grabovski is a guy we targeted a couple years ago. We really liked him. He’s got very good speed, intelligence, he’s a game-breaker,” Capuano said. “The one thing I like about him, he’s not afraid to go to those tough areas to score goals. That’s a big thing. There’s a lot of skill guys but you’ve got to pay the price. It’s the second and third pop that score.”

After the first wave of free agency washed over the NHL world, it was the Islanders who created the next biggest one in signing the duo of Grabovski and Kulemin to deals worth a total of $36.75 million.

It gave the Islanders another line of attack for Capuano to work with, and strengthens the team down the middle now with Grabovski teaming up with franchise center John Tavares and the under-appreciated Frans Nielsen.

While the move may end up being GM Garth Snow’s riskiest

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Alexey MarchenkoGlenn James/Getty ImagesAlexey Marchenko could take advantage of holes in the Red Wings' defense to get time in Detroit.
The Detroit Red Wings had just finished up their prospect camp in Traverse City, Michigan, and the frustration of striking out in free agency was nowhere to be found.

Instead, the optimism of youth was everywhere. There was Anthony Mantha, the big, talented winger making another strong impression on coaches and management following a season in juniors in which he scored 81 goals in 81 regular-season and playoff games.

The message to him from the Red Wings is that he has an opportunity in training camp to make the team, unusual for a club that rarely skips a step in the developmental cycle.

“Every player wants to rush the process,” Mantha said when we chatted after the camp. “It would be a lie telling you I want to play in [AHL] Grand Rapids next year. For sure, I want to start in Detroit.”

And then there was 22-year-old Russian defenseman Alexey Marchenko, absent from the ice but continuing to progress from the ankle injury that ended his AHL season. Detroit was unable to add a right-handed-shot defenseman in free agency, with Dan Boyle and Matt Niskanen picking the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, respectively, over Detroit.

Unless general manager Ken Holland pulls off a trade, which doesn't happen often during his summers, Marchenko has a chance to take advantage of the lack of right-handed shots in the Detroit defensive corps.

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Summer Trending: Central Division 

July, 22, 2014
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Paul StastnyKarl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny's move from Colorado to St. Louis greatly altered two Central Division contenders.
The Nashville Predators' trade for James Neal had only been official for a few minutes when the questions started as to who would be the center feeding him the puck in Nashville. In Pittsburgh, he had his biggest success with Evgeni Malkin. In Dallas, he played well with Brad Richards.

GM David Poile stood behind a podium at the draft in Philadelphia and explained that the Predators' focus would be shifted to the middle of the ice now that they had acquired the scoring winger they needed.

The problem was, that was also the focus for half of the Western Conference. Ryan Kesler went to Anaheim. Brad Richards went to Chicago. Paul Stastny went to St. Louis. Jason Spezza went to Dallas.

Making things worse for the Predators, Mike Fisher was lost for four to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

So when Poile got a call from Mike Ribeiro's agent suggesting he’d be a good fit with the Predators, he listened with an open mind.

“Mike has been a top center, he’s a veteran in his experience. Equally and more important, he was looking for a place to re-establish with his family,” Poile said when we chatted last week.

The last thing Poile wanted for his young group trying to establish itself with a new coach was distractions. He was well aware of the off-ice issues that led to Ribeiro’s departure in Arizona. So this wasn’t a normal hockey transaction.

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David Booth #7 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates Derek Leung/Getty ImagesDavid Booth will finally take advantage of an offseason without injury.
Last summer, Mason Raymond didn’t sign his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs until Sept. 23. He went on to score 19 goals and got a three-year deal with the Calgary Flames on July 1. Ron Hainsey completed his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 12, and the Canes were so pleased with his play he earned a three-year contract extension in June.

The late offseason was dotted with nice value deals signed by teams that took advantage of a tight cap space. Guys like Dustin Penner or Tim Thomas who weren’t snapped up in the initial frenzy ended up making contributions to their teams both during the season and at the trade deadline.

It’s gone quiet right now in hockey, but teams are now starting to look at the best of what’s left on the free-agent market. Nashville grabbed two centers this week, Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero. The New York Rangers gave a two-year deal to Matthew Lombardi.

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Jonathan ToewsBill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesNew contracts for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews can pave the way for other NHL stars.
The new deals for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews make them the highest paid players in the NHL on an annual-average basis.

How long will that last? That’s up for debate.

The Kane and Toews contracts came in right about where you’d expect. What it means moving forward is it gives future franchise players closing in on unrestricted free agency a new baseline in which to negotiate. To one agent, who has a prominent player who could be in extension talks next summer, it’s confirmation that teams believe the cap will be going up every bit as aggressively as the players believe.

“People are in agreement the cap is going up,” he said. “You’re probably looking at $80 million in a couple years. That’s a clear indication that there are teams that believe it as well.”

The other thing that stood out to this agent?

“It was pretty interesting in the way they structured it. If you did present value, it’s closer to eight times $11 million. Getting the money up front,” he said.

His conclusion on the value of the deals?

“I think it’s dead on,” he said. “It’s healthy for the league. I know a lot of free agents coming up saw that and were like ‘Perfect.’”

Kane and Toews are unique in that they were slated to hit unrestricted free agency in their primes, which doesn’t happen for franchise players anymore with so many locked up long-term. There aren’t many who will be in that position the next couple years, but here’s a look at players who will ultimately be impacted by the Kane and Toews contracts in the next couple years:

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -

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Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Slava Voynov, Robyn RegehrCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsA lack of team chemistry was detrimental to the Sharks during this year's Stanley Cup run.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson had been so open about his offseason plans that he seemed a little surprised when he was asked for further details at the draft.

“I can’t be any more honest than I have been,” he said. “What did I leave out?”

Really, nothing.

It just seems hard to grasp from the outside. The Sharks put up 111 regular-season points, more than both Chicago and Los Angeles. They jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Los Angeles before the Kings came charging back to win the series. It was a devastating moment but one that doesn’t look quite as damning after the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup in impressive fashion.

If Marc-Edouard Vlasic (knee) is healthy and the Sharks get a little bit better goaltending in Round 1, they probably finish the job. And then who knows?

It seemed like a pretty easy fix. Bring in another top-four defenseman in place of Dan Boyle, who was traded, upgrade your goaltender, and take another stab at it next season.

Up close, it was a different story.

“When you watch that series, when [the Kings] dug down deeper, we had players trying to do it themselves,” Wilson said. “We missed Vlasic, he was our most irreplaceable player. I can’t avoid the truth of that. Then you watched the odd-man rushes given up. Game 5 in our building -- they re-established their game. We looked like we never played together.”

It got only worse after that.

“We kind of unraveled. That’s when it showed its head,” Wilson said.

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Mike Green, James Reimer & Evander KaneGetty ImagesTeams that missed out in free agency could look to Mike Green, James Reimer or Evander Kane.
While holding court with reporters in Philadelphia after the draft, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz explained how he saw the next week or so playing out. He anticipated very little serious trade talk until teams figured out how they did in free agency.

Then would come the next step.

“I don’t think you’ll see many trades until after July 6,” he predicted.

At the time, he wasn’t armed with the information we know now: namely, that the first day of free agency would be completed at a breakneck pace, where clubs would spend half a billion dollars to improve their teams.

As the dust settles and teams examine what’s left on the open market, they might want to speed up Trotz’s timeline. Not much is left, and the trade route is the best way to add an impact player at this point. One agent who has a remaining player drawing interest on the free-agent market said he suspects general managers have now shifted more focus on to trades.

“The sense I get are teams, after going at warp speed yesterday, took a deep breath last night and are settling into ‘Where are we at?’ mode,” he said. "I suspect there’s a lot of trade talk going on today, where yesterday there was not a lot because they were focused on getting to the UFAs [unrestricted free agents].”

Considering the huge haul on defense that Trotz and Washington landed in free agency, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan may be the target of his colleagues looking to pick at some of the surplus on defense in Washington.

“I think it’s harder now to trade than ever before,” Trotz said. “The dollars have to line up, and the fits have to line up.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at players who could be on the move as the NHL offseason shifts into its next phase:

Mike Green, D, Washington Capitals

There was heavy demand on the market for defensemen who are a right-handed shot, and guys like Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle, Anton Stralman and Tom Gilbert got snapped up quickly. Now, with the massive spending on defense in Washington, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals would consider an offer on their righty Mike Green.

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Early free agency grades 

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
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Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny & Jonas Hiller Getty ImagesThe new deals for Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny and Jonas Hiller met with very different reactions.
The opening hours of NHL free agency were truly frenetic, with signings being announced in a flurry shortly after noon ET.

Some teams made their mark ahead of time -- the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars made major upgrades down the middle by trading for Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, respectively -- but for the rest of the teams that made impact signings, it's time to grade just how well they did for themselves on Day 1.

Note that these grades reflect the talent and fit of the players signed, as well as the reported length and dollars in their deals.

Buffalo Sabres: C-plus

The Sabres are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project under GM Tim Murray, but it was important for him to surround the young talent with veteran leaders who can help break them in to the NHL. In former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta (three years, $12.75 million) and Matt Moulson (five years, $25 million) the Sabres have done exactly that.

Neither player is the kind of impact player who is going to put the Sabres in any danger of spoiling the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, but both are quality players and individuals who will help Ted Nolan instill a professional culture in Buffalo. The Sabres also inked Andrej Meszaros to a one-year deal that’s a pricey $4.125 million. On the bright side, he gives them more trade ammunition at the deadline.

Calgary Flames: C

The Deryk Engelland contract (three years, $8.7 million) was immediately criticized, considering he’s a borderline No. 6 defenseman on a good team. That’s a lot of dough for that kind of player, but at the same time, the reality is that teams in Calgary’s position have to pay a premium to land anyone on the first day of free agency, and there was competition for his services.

“There are lots of teams after him,” said one source close to Engelland on the eve of free agency. And, he certainly fits the truculent identity Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving are trying to build in Calgary, along with bringing strong character. The Flames may not make the playoffs, but they’ll be miserable to play against. Landing a starting goalie in Jonas Hiller on such a short term (two years at a total of $9 million) helps make up for the questionable Engelland deal.

Chicago Blackhawks: A

Considering the high price his counterparts paid to address their needs at center, Chicago GM Stan Bowman deserves credit for bringing in Brad Richards on a one-year deal worth just $2 million.

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