Five things we’ll never forget about Alex Kovalev

Alex Kovalev

Drafted 15th overall in 1991 – right after Pat Peake – Alex Kovalev became a prolific, if somewhat mercurial, NHL scorer. He had the size and the skill to take over NHL games, but at times he also left you expecting more. Kovalev retired from professional hockey this week after spending the 2013-14 season playing in Switzerland.

His last NHL season was with the Florida Panthers in 2012-13 and he finishes his career with 430 goals and 1,029 points in 1,316 games. He reached the 30-goal mark three times and set a career-high of 44 goals in 2000-01 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2002-03, Kovalev was one of the best players available on the trade market and he fetched the beleaguered Penguins Rico Fata, Mikael Samuelsson, Joel Bouchard and a few million dollars. Kind of underwhelming, wouldn’t you say?

He may not be beloved like Jaromir Jagr and Kovalev is certainly not a Hall of Famer, but he still brought us moments we’ll never forget. Here are five of them: Read more

Winners and losers of free agent day include Stars, Capitals, Lightning and Panthers

Jason Spezza (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

You’d hope by now it wouldn’t need to be said that the real winners of the NHL’s annual first day of free agency are at least as often as not the teams that don’t throw lavish contracts at every flavor of the summer. Today’s impulse buy can become tomorrow’s cold-blooded buyout quicker than ever – ask former Rangers captain and new Blackhawks center Brad Richards – and nobody can predict with absolute certainty how any player will fit into his new environment.

Nevertheless, when all teams come away from this first day spinning it as working in their favor, somebody has to try and make sense of it all. That’s what this free agency winners/losers column is all about: one opinion on which teams can realistically claim to have improved, and which ones you can argue have hurt themselves with their activity – or, as the case may be, their lack of action:

Winners:

Dallas Stars

The Stars signed winger Ales Hemsky to a very reasonable (three-year, $12-million) deal and added worker bee forward Patrick Eaves and backup goalie Anders Lindback via free agency, but their best acquisition Tuesday was the trade with Ottawa for center Jason Spezza. Nill made his team significantly better up front at very little cost to the roster – and, just as importantly, he’s given up virtually no contract flexibility (he’ll have some $35.4 million in cap space to spend next summer) to do it. In this day and age, that’s as much as you can ask for on free agent day.
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Pens GM Jim Rutherford had the book on Kasperi Kapanen

Kapanen

PHILADELPHIA – Bits and bytes from the 2014 NHL draft that didn’t quite make it into cyberspace, but have full blog potential when compiled as a compendium:

KAP TALK To say that Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has been scouting Kasperi Kapanen for a long time would be an understatement. Rutherford made history Friday night when he became the first GM in NHL history to draft both a father and a son. Back in 1995, he drafted Sami Kapanen 87th overall for the Hartford Whalers, then 19 years later, took Kasperi 22nd overall for the Pittsburgh Penguins in this draft.

“Do you know anybody else who’s done that?” Rutherford said of drafting the father-son combo. “We drafted Sami in 1995 and he had a son in 1996. I used to watch (Kasperi) on the ice when he just started skating and I end up drafting him.” Read more

Day 2 draft winners and losers: Calgary stocks up, Toronto sputters

Mason-McDonald

The 2014 draft had little consensus going into Philadelphia and it showed in the results on Day 2 as teams went all over the board with their picks. One thing that became very clear is that teams were valuing upside and potential, swinging for the fences instead of settling for safe selections.

But with the full draft in the books, some teams helped themselves more than others. Here are my winners and losers from Day 2.

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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

Rumor Roundup: Where will Ryan Kesler be traded?

Ryan-Kesler-VAN

With the Vancouver Canucks having hired a new GM (Jim Benning) and coach (Willie Desjardins), the focus returns to center Ryan Kesler, who remains the target of recent trade speculation.

Earlier this month it was reported Kesler informed Benning he still prefers a trade. There’s been some recent confusion, however, over where the 29-year-old prefers to be dealt. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch claims the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are Kesler’s only preferences, prompting The Globe & Mail’s Eric Duhatschek to note the difficulty that would create for the Canucks to move him.

The Blackhawks have limited cap space ($4.6 million) for 2014-15 and restricted free agents (Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin and Antti Raanta) to re-sign. They’ll have to either do a dollar-for-dollar swap with the Canucks or convince them to pick up part of Kesler’s salary to squeeze him under their cap. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp has been mentioned as a trade candidate, but Sharp has a modified no-trade clause, meaning he’ll have to agree to the deal. Read more

New Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Johnston will play fast

Ryan Kennedy
Mike-Johnston

For a second there, it looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins would lose a game of coaching musical chairs. But with Mike Johnston reportedly signed to a three-year pact now, the franchise can get back to the job of winning the Stanley Cup.

That has been rather difficult since the team last pulled off the feat in 2009, despite having two of the best centers on the planet in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Under previous coach Dan Byslma, the Pens had a great deal of success in the regular season but haven’t been able to get back to that Cup final, flaming out in various rounds for various reasons.

Structurally, Pittsburgh was not a great possession team in 2013-14, despite the two previously named assets. Kris Letang’s absence due to a stroke didn’t help matters, but ending the campaign with a middling Fenwick close of 50.2 percent has to be seen as a disappointment.

One of Byslma’s mantras for the team in the past was “Hunt,” meaning that the Pens should be hunting the puck down when they didn’t have it, but clearly the team had gotten to a place where they were the hunters way too often.

Johnston, who comes from the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks, hasn’t had that problem in junior. No team even came close to the 338 goals his squad put up this season en route to a fourth straight appearance in the WHL final and in an interview conducted two months ago, the coach told me his strategy.

“Our template is puck possession,” Johnston said. “Skating, up-tempo play. We want to play with pace from our defense to our forwards.”

Johnston will certainly have the tools to continue that philosophy in Pittsburgh. Along with Letang, the team also boasts Paul Martin and Olli Maatta on the blueline and I wouldn’t be surprised if Derrick Pouliot, who has played in Portland the past four years, joins his old coach as a rookie. All four of those D-men can move the puck with ease.

GM Jim Rutherford’s job now will be to bring in some reinforcements up front. The Penguins have been notoriously top-heavy in recent years, but even those Crosby and Malkin lines have been criticized for not having enough talent on the wings.

Johnston’s success in Portland did come with controversy and the back story will surely be mined in the early days of his Pittsburgh tenure. A WHL investigation unearthed alleged recruiting infractions such as extra flights for parents and giving the captain of the team a cell phone. Johnston was suspended for the second half of the 2012-13 campaign and the team lost a bunch of future draft selections. There was also a $200,000 fine levied. Some believe the investigation was a witch hunt orchestrated by the league’s old guard owners, who were sick of Portland and new owner Bill Gallacher winning so often.

Either way, Johnston served his sentence and watched right-hand man Travis Green step up and lead the team to a WHL championship and berth in the Memorial Cup final, where they lost to Nathan MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads. Green went on to coach the American League’s Utica Comets this season and now Johnston is following him to the pro ranks – albeit with a loftier title.

And if Johnston can continue his up-tempo, winning ways in Pittsburgh, the Penguins may just find themselves hoisting another Cup in Steeltown.

Seven centers who could move this summer – and where they’ll end up

Joe Thornton

It’s an unusual year for centers. When you build a team these days, this is a position you really need to be strong in. The Kings are deep down the middle, just as the Hawks were when they won and the Bruins in 2011. It’s a key spot on the depth chart, so when you get a good center, you tend to want to hang on to him.

This summer, though, there are more than a few pivots who are potentially available. Whether it’s by trade or free agent signing, if you’re looking to fill a center spot on your roster, there are actually options this off-season. They’re not all equal, but they’re all available.

Here is a look at seven centers your team may be able to acquire this summer and the most likely destination for each.

Jason Spezza: He’s already requested a trade and since he’s one year away from unrestricted free agency, he’ll be gone somewhere this summer. Where is the most likely landing spot for the Senator? Even though I think Ryan Kesler is the better fit in Anaheim, I think the Ducks are the most likely destination for Spezza. They’re in the West, well away from Ottawa, and they have piles of young assets with which to barter. Exactly what the Sens need. The Ducks have a pile of cap space and it’s no secret they are going to chase after a second line center this off-season. A 1-2 punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Spezza would make up one of the better playmaking center combos in the league.

Joe Thornton: A lot could happen in San Jose this summer and Thornton has been at the forefront of those rumors. A superior playmaker and solid possession player, Thornton may be 35 at the start of next season, but he’s coming off a 76-point year. He’s also got a fresh new three-year contract kicking in that, inconveniently for the Sharks, has a no-movement clause. So even if you did want to trade Thornton, you’d have to do it on his terms – and he’s not likely going to want to go to a team that won’t win the Cup in the next three years. The Sharks committed to Thornton and Patrick Marleau when they re-signed them this season. If a big shake up is what needs to happen in San Jose, GM Doug Wilson should explore trade options for Brent Burns and even Joe Pavelski first. But Big Joe needs to stay for a ton of reasons, not least of which is that the market would be narrow. Most likely destination for Thornton? Right back in San Jose. Read more