There was a very distinct Russian clique at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase in Toronto this weekend, with Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, Boston’s Alexander Khoklachev and the Tampa Bay duo of Vlad Namestnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. They hung out during media availability and on the ice, teasing Vasilevskiy as he forged through a rare English interview and cracking up when Khoklachev bailed behind the net.
For Kuznetsov, this was clearly his element. The Capitals’ first pick in 2010 had been a highly anticipated prospect for years, choosing to develop his game with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL instead of North America and for a while there, it seemed like he might never come over. But the powerful and gifted center did indeed make his debut last year, getting into 17 games with Washington once his KHL campaign was done and posting a decent nine points.
You would think a player who had already helped his hometown Chelyabinsk squad get to a Gagarin Cup final in Russia would be a little less awed by the NHL, but that wasn’t the case with Kuznetsov and his debut.
If you can’t wait for the NHL season to start, maybe turn your attention to Europe, where the Champions League is off and running. The super-sized tournament for club teams features squads from all over the continent and it’s more than just a place to find fun NHL names from the recent past (Chuck Kobasew! Mikael Samuelsson!). A lot of great young talent is on display, including some top NHL prospects and draft eligibles. Below you’ll find 10 players to watch for as the tournament goes on. Not included were skaters on rosters but yet to play in a game, including 2016 prospect Patrik Laine of Finland, 2015′s Michael Spacek of the Czech Republic and Pittsburgh first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen.
These truly are the dog days of summer. Players, GMs and coaches get their brief time off between the free agency boom and training camps. Media have time to do fun stuff like rank every logo in the NHL. With no hockey, we spend our nights watching
Bachelor in Paradise baseball.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening in the NHL. If you squint, you’ll notice several important questions still unanswered, such as…
1. Will Columbus mend fences with Ryan Johansen and sign him long-term?
The most recent reports out of Columbus had restricted free agent Johansen and the Jackets still $3 million apart. Per season. That’s a Grand Canyonesque gap. So far, the P.K. Subban story isn’t working as a cautionary tale about short-term bridge contracts. After his bridge, Subban won the Norris Trophy and his new long-term cap hit is probably about $2 million more than it would’ve been had Montreal ponied up two years ago and paid him, say, Drew Doughty money.
The Jackets want Johansen to prove his 33-goal breakout was for real, just as they wanted Sergei Bobrovsky to back up his Vezina Trophy campaign when they inked him to a bridge deal last summer. The difference? Nothing about Johansen’s development says fluke. He has pedigree as the No. 4 overall pick in 2010. He was always supposed to be this good. There’s every reason to trust him. Columbus could live to regret a bridge contract. The East is wide open, and this team can contend with its top pivot signed and happy.
Earlier this summer there was speculation the Washington Capitals would trade defenseman Mike Green. They enter this season with only a little more than $1 million in salary cap space and have been linked to abrasive checking-line forwards Paul Bissonnette and Dan Carcillo. They have little room to add either player and address other needs if required during the season. Shedding Green’s $6.1-million cap hit would address that issue.
This summer’s additions of blueliners Matt Niskanen ($5.75-million cap hit) and Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million) raise questions about Green’s role in the Capitals defense corps. Assuming Niskanen and Orpik form one pairing while John Carlson and Karl Alzner make up another, Green could become an expensive third-pairing rearguard.
ESPN.com columnist Katie Strang, responding to a reader’s question regarding Green’s trade status, expressed surprise he hadn’t been dealt yet. She speculates his value might not be particularly high at the moment. Colleague Craig Custance also addressed Green’s status during a recent live chat, suggesting there’s no rush for the Capitals to move the 28-year-old defenseman.
Custance believes the Detroit Red Wings are a natural fit for Green and notes they have the depth in young talent to interest the Capitals. The Wings seek a top-four defenseman with a right-handed shot. They were linked to Green earlier this summer in the rumor mill, though that chatter has since died down.
The NHL has always been a pressure-packed league, but from year-to-year, some teams face more pressure than others. Which franchises are going to be dealing with an especially hot seat once the 2014-15 season begins? These five:
5. Washington Capitals. When the Caps missed the playoffs last year and owner Ted Leonsis cleaned house on the management side, some observers expected them to go the same route with their underachieving roster. They did no such thing, and instead doubled down with two high-priced free agent acquisitions (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen). Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee they’ll even make the playoffs in the mediocre Metropolitan division. And if they fall on their faces again and miss the post-season for the second straight year – the first time that will have happened since 2005-07 – what will ownership’s response be then?
4. San Jose Sharks. Sports has a long tradition of identifying underdogs – i.e., teams not expected to do well because they’re lacking in depth or talent – but the Sharks are now officially overdogs: a team not expected to do well despite having all kinds of depth and talent. San Jose GM Doug Wilson’s criticism of his group of players after last spring’s playoff collapse against the Kings should have everyone walking on eggshells as soon as training camp begins, but any kind of serious stumble during the season could lead to major changes. Read more
Machismo and bravado being what they are, there’s no way you’d see this headline in today’s NHL, no matter how poorly the Buffalo Sabres or Edmonton Oilers started a season.
Washington Begs For Player Help
That was the main headline in The Hockey News 40 years ago, early in the 1974-75 season. The expansion Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts were both struggling. With just one win in Washington’s first 18 games, Capitals GM Milt Schmidt went to the league and media with hat in hand.
As the NHL off-season drags on, former New York Rangers and Nashville Predators defenseman Michael Del Zotto remains unsigned.
Only 24, Del Zotto is just two years removed from a 41-point performance with the Rangers in 2011-12. Unfortunately, his stock tumbled significantly last season, largely because of his poor play in his own zone.
Recent speculation linking Del Zotto to the Vancouver Canucks was denied by his agent, who claims there’s “no chance” his client ends up with the Canucks. It’s been rumored the Detroit Red Wings could have interest, but he’s a left-handed shot and the Wings seek a right-shooting blueliner.
The New York Post’s Larry Brooks cited an NHL club claiming Del Zotto’s reputation was “in tatters.” He believes now is the right time to “buy low” on the young rearguard and wonders why the New York Islanders haven’t pursued him. Read more
The Toronto Maple Leafs recently avoided salary arbitration with defenseman Jake Gardiner and goaltender James Reimer. Gardiner re-signed a five-year, $20.25-million contract, while Reimer inked a two-year, $4.6-million deal.
Both players were frequently mentioned in trade rumors last season. While their new deals suggest the Leafs won’t be peddling either player soon, it’s done little to fully dampen trade speculation.
Gardiner’s new deal indicates the Maple Leafs see him as part of their defense corps for the long term, but his new contract lacks a no-trade clause. Should he continue to struggle under coach Randy Carlyle, trade rumors will continue to dog the 24-year-old blueliner.