The NHL’s weakest division? Um, “congratulations”, Metro

Marc-Andre Fleury

When the NHL made its most recent realignment, last season, it reemphasized the importance of divisional play by also restructuring its playoff format. The wild card element throws a bit of a wrench into it from year-to-year, but for the most part, teams have to play their first two playoff rounds against division rivals – and that means a weaker division has the potential to make the road to the Stanley Cup easier for the team that can emerge from it.

I’d argue that’s one of the reasons the New York Rangers qualified for the Cup Final this past spring. They faced a flawed Flyers team in the first round and a Penguins squad in the second that had serious issues of its own before they beat the injury-depleted Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final. You have to give the Blueshirts credit for their resilience, but they had a much easier go of it than, say, Los Angeles or Chicago.

So which division is shaping up to be the NHL’s weakest in 2014-15? It’s not in the Western Conference, that’s for sure. Six of the Central Division’s seven teams (every one but Winnipeg) have a bona fide shot at making the playoffs, and the California Trinity Of Doom, combined with the desperation to make the playoffs in Vancouver and Edmonton, makes the Pacific Division daunting as well.

So, the “honor” of the league’s worst division has to go to either the Metropolitan or the Atlantic. And although the Atlantic has seen more separation between the haves and have-nots of its teams this off-season, I’d still make the case the Metro is the weaker of the two. Read more

These 23 players can go to arbitration, if they’re not signed to extensions first

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The NHL’s arbitration process is scheduled to begin later this month. Twenty NHL players have filed for arbitration, while three players were taken to arbitration by their teams. Usually, these contracts are settled before the team and player have to face off in front of an arbiter, so expect most, or all, of these to be settled before the process begins.

Arbitration cases will be heard between July 20 and August 5. Here are the eligible players:

Arizona Coyotes
Brandon McMillan - A third round pick by Anaheim in 2008, McMillan played 22 games with the Coyotes in 2013-14, scoring two goals and six points. He also played 46 games with the american League’s Portland Pirates, scoring 11 goals and 26 points. The 5-foot-11 winger was acquired by the Coyotes last year in a trade that sent Matt Lombardi to the Ducks.

Boston Bruins
Matt Bartkowski - A seventh round pick by Florida in 2008, Bartkowski averaged the fourth-most minutes among Bruins defensemen in 2013-14 and scored 18 assists. He was acquired by Boston in what turned out to be an awful trade for Florida, which sent Bartkowski and Dennis Seidenberg to the Bruins for not much at all. Bartkowski has emerged as a physical defensive blueliner who fits in nicely with Boston’s brawny way. Read more

Rumor Roundup: Lecavalier, Kane & Gonchar buzz

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The Philadelphia Flyers recent signings (defenseman Nick Schultz, backup goalie Ray Emery and winger Jason Akeson) pushes them above the $69-million salary cap by just more than $3 million. That’s the most of any NHL team this summer, putting pressure on GM Ron Hextall to find a way to become cap compliant before the 2014-15 season starts in October.

Hextall reportedly almost had a deal in place that would have sent center Vincent Lecavalier to the Nashville Predators.  The deal, however, fell through because the Predators wanted the Flyers to pick up half of Lecavalier’s remaining contract. The 34-year-old has four seasons remaining worth $4.5-million annually. He has a full no-movement clause, but his agent was given permission by Hextall to explore trade possibilities with other clubs.

The Philadelphia Daily News reports Hextall and Predators management revisited the possibility of a Lecavalier trade. Another suitor could be the Ottawa Senators. CSNPhilly’s Tim Panaccio reports the Senators want the Flyers to not only pick up part of the Lecavalier’s salary but also want something else included. Read more

Additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin make Isles better, but their defense corps still needs major work

Adam Proteau
Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski (Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos/Getty Images)

First thing’s first: the New York Islanders overpaid Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin Wednesday, but they’re hardly alone in that regard. The Panthers handed out eye-bulgingly generous contracts as if they were those annoying handbillers who plague the Vegas Strip; the Capitals gambled in a big way on a pair of former Penguins defensemen; and the Calgary Flames gave Deryk Engelland a deal that’s triggered a bidding war among Hollywood movie studios interested in making it into a blockbuster comedy. With supply almost always dwarfed by demand, there’s virtually no way to avoid forking over more money than you’d prefer.

The additions of Kulemin, Grabovski and goaltender Jaroslav Halak make the Isles a better team than they were last season – and given their good fortune of residing in the NHL’s weakest division, they’ve improved their odds of making the playoffs. But until GM Garth Snow addresses his franchise’s sub-par blueline, there’s every chance they could be on the outside of the post-season picture once again next spring.

With Grabovski and Kulemin in tow, the Islanders’ top two lines (which will include captain and superstar John Tavares and winger Kyle Okposo) have speed and skill. They’ve also got a terrific two-way force in center Frans Nielsen and enough youngsters in the system (Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Calvin de Haan) to make fans feel great about the future. Yet even the most optimistic Isles fans would have to admit the quality of their defense corps isn’t comparable to any playoff team. Read more

Compliance buyouts have been very, very good to these guys

Lecavalier

When Mikhail Grabovski signed a four-year deal with the New York Islanders that will pay him $5 million a season, he pretty much hit the jackpot. Not the Vincent Lecavalier jackpot, mind you, but the windfall was still mind-boggling.

That’s because Grabovski is one of 28 players who are being paid not to play hockey for the teams that originally signed them under the leagues’ compliance buyout system. You know the one. It’s the buyouts that essentially have given teams a mulligan on bad contracts that were signed before the last collective bargaining agreement. It’s also the one the NHL Players’ Association seemed dead-set against having part of the new system, although when you see the money that teams threw around, you’d have to wonder why. Read more

Winners and losers from the draft: Wild cards get revenge

Ryan Kennedy
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Josh Ho-Sang and Anthony DeAngelo were two of the most controversial players available in the 2014 draft class and it had nothing to do with their hockey skills. In fact, both are gifted producers. But character issues dogged both Ontario Leaguers in the run-up to the first round, casting doubt as to whether they would be picked on Friday at all.

As it turned out, DeAngelo went 19th overall to Tampa Bay, while the New York Islanders traded up to take Josh Ho-Sang with their second pick of the evening 28th overall. The draft is always nerve-wracking, but for DeAngelo, who hails from the Philadelphia area and has seen more games than he can count at the Wells Fargo Center, being up for the draft at home was a double-edged sword.

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Live from the draft: Not much surprise in the top five

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The evening began with uncertainty and Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon even had some fun by revealing that his team would be selecting a player from the Ontario League – but pausing before actually saying the name Aaron Ekblad.

“I was freaking out a bit,” Ekblad admitted.

But with five picks in the books, the most likely top five players were all claimed: Maybe the 2014 draft class was more straight forward than we thought.

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Rumor Roundup: UFA interviews begin…who’ll stay and who’ll go?

Stastny (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The window for NHL clubs to interview free agents on rival teams opened on Wednesday. Though actual contract negotiations are prohibited, the interview period is a great opportunity for teams to woo prospective free agents before the unrestricted free agent market opens on July 1.

Sportsnet’s Mark Spector observes the Calgary Flames hope to re-sign left winger Michael Cammalleri while the Boston Bruins want to retain Jarome Iginla. However, this interview period provides players an opportunity to gauge interest from other clubs.

That’s why Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny is going to test the market, even though his agent claims he’s had good contract conversations with Avalanche management. The Denver Post’s Adrian Dater notes the Stastny camp intends to circle back to the Avalanche to give them an opportunity to retain him. Read more