Defense-desperate Oilers land rights to Nikita Nikitin as hunt for blueliners heats up

Nikita Nikitin (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers on Friday tried to get a head start on what promises to be a desperate, league-wide off-season search for capable blueliners by acquiring a negotiating rights window with Blue Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin.

There was no immediate word on what Oilers GM Craig MacTavish surrendered to land the rights to Nikitin, but given that the 28-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent in a couple of weeks, it won’t be much. Nikitin has size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), but the Russian isn’t a physical threat and was a third-pairing d-man for Columbus last year, averaging just 17:06 of ice time and posting two goals and 15 points in 66 games. In 2011-12, his first year with the Jackets after being dealt from St. Louis, he amassed more than twice that amount of offense (seven goals and 32 points in 54 games), but if he does sign with Edmonton, Oilers fans shouldn’t expect a return to those totals.

Nikitin earned $2.5 million in 2013-14 and in a weak free agent market, he’ll get some type of raise. MacTavish clearly wants to avoid the inevitable inflation of a player’s worth that occurs when free agency kicks off; that’s not to say he’ll have to give Nikitin $4 million a season, but he will have to offer him enough to forego free agency. Read more

Rumor Roundup: O’Reilly and Avalanche headed towards another contract clash?

o'reilly

For the second time in as many years, the Colorado Avalanche appear headed to another round of contentious contract negotiations with Ryan O’Reilly.

The Avalanche recently elected to take O’Reilly, 23, to salary arbitration rather than pony up $6.5 million to qualify his rights. The Denver Post’s Adrian Dater reports the two sides can continue to negotiate up until July 15, but if still unresolved a date will be set for an arbitration hearing.

Dater claims the Avalanche prefer to use his annual average salary of $5 million as a starting point for negotiations, while O’Reilly’s agent Pat Morris believes it should begin at his actual salary ($6.5 million) for this season. Should this go to arbitration, the new CBA stipulates O’Reilly cannot receive anything less than 85 percent of his actual salary, which would be $5.5 million for 2014-15. He can also chose a one- or two-year contract.

Morris indicated O’Reilly hopes to remain with the Avalanche, but as he’ll be eligible for unrestricted free agent status in two years, this could become a year-to-year situation until his UFA eligibility. This prompted Dater to speculate the Avalanche could shop O’Reilly, noting rival GMs can contact all free agents – restricted and unrestricted – starting June 25, plus there’s a five-day window (July 1 to 5) where O’Reilly can sign an offer sheet. He suggests O’Reilly’s trade value could fetch the stud defenseman the Avs need to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Read more

These Europeans could all be NHL coaches soon

Karri-Kivi

For a brief span in the early 2000s, the NHL had two European coaches. Ivan Hlinka ran the bench in Pittsburgh, while Alpo Suhonen was in charge of Chicago. It didn’t last long; 168 games combined, to be specific. But with New York Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson in the running for the position in Carolina, perhaps NHL teams are willing to look at hockey minds who weren’t born on this continent once again.

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Rumor Roundup: Do the Calgary Flames want Jason Spezza?

Jason Spezza (Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)

The NHL’s buyout period has begun and runs to 5 p.m. EST June 30. This year is also the final one where teams can use compliance buyouts to shed contracts without the calculation counting against their salary cap.

The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin recently summarized the details of the buyout calculation and provided a listing of teams that have one or both compliance buyouts remaining. Only players under contract prior to Sept. 15, 2012 are eligible for such buyouts.

It’s expected Buffalo Sabres winger Ville Leino will receive such a buyout. The Buffalo News’ John Vogl reports Leino’s agent, Markus Lehto, has had a “few very short discussions” with Sabres GM Tim Murray regarding his client. Vogl notes Murray has said it’s a “very good possibility” the two sides will part ways.

Over the course of the playoffs there was growing speculation the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings could respectively buy out Brad Richards and Mike Richards. Of the pair, Brad is the most likely candidate. The New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis believes the center will “almost assuredly” be bought out to free up cap space to re-sign several notable free agents, including Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Anton Stralman.

Other compliance buyout candidates could include Columbus’ R.J. Umberger, Dallas’ Erik Cole, New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov, San Jose’s Martin Havlat, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone and Vancouver’s David Booth.

SPEZZA-TO-FLAMES RUMOR BURNS OUT QUICKLY
The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch reports the Calgary Flames made a pitch for Spezza, offering up Jiri Hudler, Mikael Backlund, possibly defenseman Dennis Wideman and one of their second- or third-round picks. Garrioch considers that offer insufficient and cites sources claiming the Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets are on Spezza’s 10-team “no-trade” list. Read more

What would a 1-16 Stanley Cup playoff format look like?

Tyler Seguin

Since the Stanley Cup championship became a best-of-7 in 1939, there have been 20 sweeps. That’s 27 percent. And Scotty Bowman was a coach in nine of them – five series wins, four series losses.

But it hasn’t happened for a while. The last four-game sweep in the Stanley Cup final was completed by the Detroit Red Wings over the Washington Capitals in 1998. Bowman’s team did it to Philadelphia in 1997 too.

We’ve been lucky that 12 of the past 14 finals have extended beyond even five games, including six Game 7s. The post-2005 parity era has given us some pretty good championship rounds that have been tightly contested between West and East.

It appears this year will end that streak. Though the New York Rangers put up a valiant effort on the road in Games 1 and 2, they came away winless and were then shut out on home ice in Game 3. Sure, the script playing out in 2014 is very similar to the one in 2012, when Los Angeles won the first two games against New Jersey in OT, shut them out in Game 3 and the series went six games anyway. But, really, that result has no bearing on this series.

The Kings look prepped to wrap this sucker up in four games.

If the Stanley Cup is in fact awarded on Wednesday, it would be a shame to end these playoffs on such a low note. Most people will agree this has been the best post-season in years, so to end with a sweep would be to go into the off-season with a whimper.

This series speaks to the disparity between the competition in the East and West. Aside from maybe the Bruins, no Eastern team would have been a favorite in the Cup final. From the start, it was unlikely we’d get a final that would be better than the Los Angeles-San Jose series or the Chicago-St. Louis series. And while I’m a fan of the current divisional play down format – and recognize it’s the best, realistic option – there is another design that would set us up to get the best possible final more often than not.

The NHL has used a 1-16 playoff format for a few years before, though it won’t likely again because of travel costs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the league pooled all of the playoff qualifiers into one ranking and re-seeded them each round based on regular season point totals. Rivalries may not be as easily fostered as they are through the divisional lineup, but it would provide fresh and intriguing matchups – and result in more quality conclusions.

What would a 1-16 format have looked like in Round 1 this year? Division winners automatically get the top four seeds. Read more

Rumor Roundup: What’s next for the Blackhawks?; Maple Leafs want Aaron Ekblad?

Ben Smith (Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Most teams eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs enter the off-season facing questions over their roster needs and how to address them. But for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, recently eliminated from the Western Conference Final, there’s unlikely to be significant changes.

That’s not to suggest the Blackhawks don’t have any roster issues. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports they were essentially a three-line team for much of the season, unable to adequately replace departed veterans Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg. They still lack a dependable second-line center, while the defense struggled at times in the post-season.

The Blackhawks also have limited cap space for 2014-15, carrying a projected $4.6 million. They must also ensure sufficient cap space going forward to re-sign superstar forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who will be eligible for unrestricted free agent status next summer. Read more

Blue Jackets’ impressive season culminates in new contract for coach Todd Richards

Adam Proteau
Todd Richards (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) ***

The Columbus Blue Jackets impressed many during the 2013-14 season, including Jarmo Kekalainen, and if they wanted to stay in Ohio, they had to. Their GM was in his first full season with the organization and could easily have fired head coach Todd Richards, who was hired by predecessor Scott Howson. But patience paid off for both the team (which finished with a franchise-best 43-32-7 mark) and Richards, who received a two-year contract extension Tuesday that lasts through the 2016-17 campaign.

“Todd has done an outstanding job for the Columbus Blue Jackets and we’re pleased that he will continue to lead our team,” Kekalainen said in a statement. “We believe he is one of the top young coaches in the NHL because of his knowledge of the game, work ethic and ability to communicate well and bring out the best in our players.”

After working briefly as an interim coach of the team in the second half of the 2011-12 season, Richards was named head coach in May of 2012. The Blue Jackets finished ninth in the Western Conference in Richards’ first full year, but still needed to perform at least as well this season to avoid changes. Richards was able to get that improved performance and because of it, the Blue Jackets finished seventh after moving over to the Eastern Conference before the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated them in six first-round playoff games.

In 171 games as head coach, Richards has a record of 85-70-16. In a post-playoffs interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Kekalainen raved about Richards’ work ethic and meticulous planning. Read more

Tale of the tape: Martin St-Louis vs. Marian Gaborik

St-Louis

They were both dealt just hours before the NHL’s trade deadline. One was a disgruntled veteran who wanted out because of his sour Olympic experience and chose his landing spot. The other was an injury-prone and unproductive winger whose skill set did not fit in with his blue-collar team.

And with Martin St-Louis of the New York Rangers and Marian Gaborik of the Los Angeles Kings emerging as major components of teams that are one win away from playing in the Stanley Cup final, they’re also emerging as the two best deals of the 2014 trade deadline.

But which one was better? Here’s the tale of the tape: Read more