“He was such a bright light, he had a smile on his face every day. The last time I saw him, he was up at TSN to talk about a career change into television. He seemed very, very happy with himself. Certainly, I was delighted to hear that. He was one of those special guys I enjoyed having.”
- Former Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn on Wade Belak.
Lightning in ‘constant contact’ with Kucherov’s representatives as training camp nears
By: Jared Clinton
Sep 23, 2016
Steve Yzerman doesn’t see Kucherov’s contract situation becoming a distraction as the season draws closer, and the Lightning GM is hoping the two sides come to terms by the time Kucherov is set to lace up after World Cup action.
Training camp for the Tampa Bay Lightning is about to get underway, but there’s uncertainty about whether or not the pre-season skates will include Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent who remains without a contract with less than three weeks remaining until the start of the season.
Asked Thursday about the status of Kucherov’s contract, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman sounded hopeful about the state of contract talks. According to NHL.com, Yzerman said the Lightning and Kucherov’s camp remain in “constant contact,” and the hope is that a contract will be in the offing.
"Obviously we want him here," Yzerman said, according to NHL.com. "He's a tremendous player, he's a popular player on the team. Being young he is still one of the leaders on our team so we want to get him in here as soon as possible. It takes time. Does it become a distraction? I don't anticipate that. Again our goal is to have him signed and in here as soon as possible.”
The goal, Yzerman said, is to have Kucherov inked by the time he’s done at the World Cup with Team Russia. Though it’s unlikely Kucherov signs on the dotted line before Saturday’s semi-final game — the 23-year-old almost certainly has his focus solely on the matchup against Canada — there will be time post-tournament when Kucherov could be inked by the Lightning and then join the team in camp ahead of the start of the pre-season.
The most difficult thing for the Lightning, and what has likely remained the sticking point throughout contract talks, is the money for Kucherov. He gets the minutes, the role and the opportunity to be a star in Tampa Bay, but he no doubt wants to be paid as such, and rightfully so.
Over the past two seasons, Kucherov has 59 goals and 131 points in 159 games, and only Steven Stamkos, with 79 goals and 136 points, has found the score sheet more often over the same span. Stamkos inked an eight-year, $68-million deal in June to remain with the Lightning, and Kucherov could be looking to earn similar money to the $8.5 million Stamkos earns annually.
However, the Lightning probably don’t see Kucherov’s salary climbing much higher than that of Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60-million deal — $7.5 million annually — in July 2015 to remain with the St. Louis Blues. Tarasenko has scored 77 goals and 147 points over the past two seasons, and before signing his deal has posted 58 goals and 116 points in 141 games, which is a near-identical points per game pace as Kucherov.
The issue for the Lightning right now is that, according to CapFriendly, they have only $6.27 million in available salary cap space, and their cap issues go beyond this coming season. Come next off-season, the Lightning will be staring down big money extensions for RFAs Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. That’s an issue because Tampa Bay currently has less than $18 million in salary cap space to work with come next off-season, and the cap space will be significantly lessened once Kucherov is locked up.
Signing Kucherov is crucial for Yzerman and the Lightning, though, and they appear willing to continue to work hard to get a deal done that gets the goal-scoring winger back in the lineup this coming campaign.
Brandon Prust is no stranger to having to play his way on to a team
By: Dhiren Mahiban
Sep 20, 2016
The Maple Leafs invited Brandon Prust to training camp on a professional tryout and NHL veteran is hoping to follow Brad Boyes’ footsteps in turning a PTO into a contract.
Brandon Prust is no stranger to tryouts. As a teenager, Prust used a camp invite to crack the London Knights roster ahead of the 2002-03 OHL season. He eventually helped the Knights capture the franchise’s first Memorial Cup in 2005.
Now, at 32, the veteran of 486 NHL games is relying on the experience of his successful OHL tryout to help him with his latest camp invitation.
The Toronto Maple Leafs invited Prust to training camp on a professional tryout, and the London native, who had a season to forget last year, is hoping to follow Brad Boyes’ footsteps in turning a PTO into a contract.
“That was kind of before I had any idea,” Prust said of his inexperience going to Knights camp. “I was just kind of going out – I had an invite to camp. Went out, did my thing and made the team. You take your experiences, especially being an older guy. You take all your experiences [from] throughout your career. It’s kind of what makes you a little wiser as you get older.”
Last summer, heading into the final year of his four-year, $10 million contract, Prust was dealt from the Montreal Canadiens to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Zack Kassian. In his first game against the Canadiens, on Oct. 27, Prust suffered a left ankle injury, which derailed his whole season. He initially missed 11 games due to the injury.
Seeing his teammates go 3-5-3 in his absence Prust says he was over aggressive in his rehab attempting to return.
“I had never had an ankle injury before so I definitely pushed myself,” Prust said. “I wanted to get back. The team was struggling a little bit. You want to get back and help. Pushed it a little bit. Obviously looking back, I might’ve waited a little longer.”
Prust appeared in 35 games for the Canucks last season prior to being placed on waivers in February. The 6-foot, 195-pound forward appeared in nine games with the AHL’s Utica Comets before mutually agreeing with the Canucks to part ways. The decision to move on was key for Prust, who knew he was heading into unrestricted free agency. Being healthy enough to have a proper summer of training was crucial in order for Prust to show interested clubs he could still play at the NHL level.
“Obviously that was important for me, just didn’t feel confident and comfortable with injury last year,” he said. “That was the main objective: getting [the ankle] straightened out and figured out so I can focus.”
Prust finished his ninth season with just seven points and 59 penalty minutes – his lowest totals since his rookie season. Asked to assess his year in the Canucks organization, Prust was blunt.
“Well obviously it wasn’t very good, right? It was one of my worst years as an NHLer,” he said. “Got to bounce back from it.”
Prust had a few camp offers to mull over this summer, but his decision became clear when the Maple Leafs came calling. Growing up two hours outside of Toronto, Prust was admittedly a Leafs fan as a child.
“I always watched the Leafs growing up and always dreamed of playing for the Leafs and putting on the blue and white jersey,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I kind of chose Toronto. I knew my heart would be in it and it would definitely bring that passion out in me.”
With Leafs camp set to open this week, and his ankle feeling “back to 100 per cent”, Prust has been busy working with skating coach Barb Underhill to regain, and refine, his stride.
“It’s tough because you’ve had habits for so long and had a certain way,” Prust said. “You definitely have to really focus. You’re not a sponge where you can naturally do it. You really have to practice, and really have to mentally think.
“Since I’ve been with her, I even told her, ‘I’m laying in bed at night thinking of my stride and changing my stride and what I got to do’. She’s like, ‘I didn’t want to do that to you’, but that’s just natural, that’s how you are. I think just being at my age, it’s kind of what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to drill it into your brain.”
Prust admitted his game could’ve benefitted from working with Underhill two or three years ago.
“It’s just little tweaks and little things that, if you can make it natural, if you can practice enough, you can change some things,” he said. “Obviously not going to turn myself into the fastest guy in the league, but little things to get me to the puck quicker, little things that can make me move better laterally – they’re going to help me in the long run.”
Though Prust would like to see his childhood dream come to fruition, the numbers are stacked against him heading into camp. Toronto signed rugged forward Matt Martin to a four-year, $10 million contract on July 1. Rich Clune, who split last season between the Leafs and Marlies, is still with the organization on an AHL contract. On top of that, the Leafs have just two contracts remaining before they reach the max of 50.
“I know if I go out and play my game, and show them that I can still move, I know that I’ll get a fair shot,” Prust said. “I know I can crack the lineup if I prove it. I know what I’ve got to do.”
The best players in the world play the most boring style of hockey. And when it's all over, they pick up their championship rings.
For the (insert number here) consecutive time, Canada won a best-on-best international game, easily defeating (insert country or made up team here) XX-1. Canada had an easy time of it, outshooting (insert country or made up team here) by a XX-XX margin and carrying the play for the vast majority of the game. Fourth-line forward (insert NHL star here), who made the team only because of an injury to (insert another NHL star here) and started as the 13th forward, had a breakout game for Canada with a goal and two assists.
Hey, it’s boring, but it works. The same way Team Canada does. Take any game Canada has played in a best-on-best tournament since Vancouver in 2010 and you could pretty much use the above template every time.
Don’t believe me? Just watch.
For the (13th) consecutive time, Canada won a best-on-best international game, easily defeating (Team Europe) 4-1. Canada had an easy time of it outshooting (Team Europe) by a 46-20 margin and carrying the play for the vast majority of the game. Fourth-line forward (Logan Couture), who made the team only because of an injury to (Jeff Carter) and started as the 13th forward, had a breakout game for Canada with a goal and an assist.
See? It’s actually really easy to cover this team. Unless, of course, your coverage includes trying to defend against it. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but Canada is making a mockery of international competition. It’s great for Canadian hockey, but really bad for fans looking for something compelling. Canada has outscored its opponents 14-3 in the World Cup of Hockey so far and has a 238-166 edge in shot attempts in just three games.
It’s not a lot of fun to watch. Since Vancouver, Canada has played nine games and given up six goals. With the exception of early in the game against Team USA, when the Americans scored early to take a 1-0 lead before Canada went on the attack, the games have never been in doubt. As Team Europe coach Ralph Kruger, a native of Steinbach, Man., observed after the game, “The Canadian team continues to be the big favorite here. It’s going to take something magical to take them out of the tournament.”
The domination over Team Europe was in stark contrast to the game earlier in the day when Team North America firmly entrenched itself as the story of the tournament with a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over Sweden. The 23-and-under kids scored two goals in the first 95 seconds of the game, missed a penalty shot, had four first-period breakaways and put on a display of elan and skill that was breathtaking.
Not encumbered by near as much structure as the senior varsity team, North America is putting on a show. Team Canada is putting on a clinic. “Which would you rather watch?” asked Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, posing a rhetorical question that he never did answer.
Here’s the thing. Canada is boring and predictable because its players are so good. The better the players, the fewer mistakes they make. The fewer mistakes they make, the fewer chances they give their opponents to score. You smother your opponent long enough and sooner or later it just gives up. Canada isn’t content just beating teams. It also wants to steal their will to live.
Most people would prefer to watch Team North America, with all its speed and mistakes and its ability to get itself in and out of trouble. But how can you argue with a system that has produced perhaps the most dominant juggernaut in international hockey history – the Soviet’s Big Red Machine included? “I like watching that (North American) team because there’s tons of skill,” Babcock said. “I like winning more, though. I just want to win. That’s what our players came for. They came to win.”
And unless something magical happens, that is exactly what they’ll do. Again. Fans will pray for Russia to somehow lose to an overmatched Finland entry Thursday afternoon, which would set up a semifinal between the lethally efficient Canadian entry and the deadly fast North American squad. The Canadian team, true to form, would not declare a favored opponent for fear of giving it additional motivational.
The Canada-Russia matchup is filled with intrigue and has a ton of history, even though the most recent history hasn’t been that compelling. You’d have to think that Canada would love a chance to put the kids in their place and show them how to play big boy hockey.
“We’ll be ready for whoever it is, but there’s no denying (Team North America) has been entertaining to watch for sure,” said Steven Stamkos. “It’s a different brand of hockey than what you guys are used to when you watch Team Canada and the two-way play that’s expected of us. But they have a lot of offensive young guys who have just got to go and their coaching staff has been pretty vocal about letting them play. It makes for entertaining hockey.”
It might just be a good thing for Canada, and for the game itself, for this team to be dragged into a track meet. We can all hope, can’t we?
Author: (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)
Is Alexander Steen's four-year, $23-million extension wise for the Blues?
By Matt Larkin
Sep 23, 2016
Alexander Steen is a key member of the Blues' core. But will they regret paying him almost $6 million through his 37th birthday given his recent injury history?
Alexander Steen wasn't healthy enough to compete for Sweden at the World Cup. He's evidently healthy enough to remain a major NHL contributor for five more seasons, though. That's the message his St. Louis Blues sent Friday when they announced his four-year, $23-million extension. It carries a $5.75-million cap hit and pays him through the end of the 2020-21 season. Per Blues beat writer and THN correspondent Jeremy Rutherford, the contract is front loaded, paying Steen $7 million in Years 1 and 2, $5.5 million in Year 3 and $3.5 million in Year 4.
The deal makes a decent amount of sense from a pure, immediate hockey standpoint. Steen has been a key contributor to the Blues ever since they fleeced the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008 and landed him with Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak. Steen is versatile, capable of playing left wing or center. He kills penalties. He plays 20 minutes a night. He's a good possession player. He's one of the more underrated players of the last few years, really. Over the past three seasons, he ranks 25th in the NHL in points per game at 0.852, ahead of Matt Duchene, Jakub Voracek, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Toews, to list just a handful of big names. Steen is 23rd in goals per game at 0.354.
Retaining him is a nice morale booster for St. Louis' fan base, too, since captain David Backes left for Boston as a free agent after he and the Blues couldn't agree on the length of his contract. Steen is one of the team's leaders and the second-oldest forward on the roster after Scottie Upshall. Even if this team now belongs to the young crop, including Vladimir Tarasenko, Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko and Jake Allen, it's nice to have a wily 200-foot player like Steen on board to rally the troops.
There's no denying what Steen brings when he's on the ice. But does that justify the financial commitment St. Louis just made? It's debatable. Steen scores at a top-25 rate over the past three years, yes, but he also averages just 69.7 games over that span. He has missed at least 14 games four different times over his 11 seasons. He's sustained multiple concussions in his career. He dislocated his shoulder this past February and returned after 15 games, but the shoulder required off-season surgery. The June procedure put Steen on a four-to-six-month timeline, knocking him out of the World Cup.
Steen is a tough son of a gun, having played through the injury during the 2016 playoffs, and he's hoping to return to the Blues lineup in October. But that doesn't change the fact Steen is (a) quite injury prone at this stage of his career; (b) 32 years old; and (c) proud owner of a shiny new contract that commences in 2017-18 and pays him until he's 37.
Steen is an easy player to like. The contract is tough to like. At the same time, GM Doug Armstrong's hands may have been tied. Waiting all season could've created distraction and friction if Steen was set to hit the open market in 2017. It's not like he's 35 now, so asking for a multi-year pact wasn't unrealistic. Steen is almost guaranteed to decline steadily over the course of his extension, but the Blues did what they had to do to keep him. It was lose an important player or give him a slightly longer contract than they probably wanted to.