New York Islanders arena uncertainty still apparent

Suppose you lived in an apartment. It had its bumps and bruises, but it was yours, and you lived there your entire life. However, your landlord kicks you out because the landlord can’t agree on how to renovate the building. So, you move to another apartment.

This apartment, as new as it is, doesn’t exactly fit your family, plus your relatives live farther away. You can opt out of the building after a certain time, but where would you go?

Here’s the kicker: the landlord wants you to come back, but wants you to live in a complex that isn’t built yet. You could move back to your old apartment, but despite a renovation, it doesn’t accommodate you as well anymore.

This is a complicated situation, for sure. Welcome the New York Islanders arena conundrum. For a team that seeks a perfect fit, none of its options are without drawbacks, and the uncertainty is hurting the team’s look.

The Islanders Arena Predicament

The Islanders relationship with its home arena, Barclays Center, is not working out. According to ESPN, the Isles had the third-lowest average home attendance last season at 13,101 fans. Players and patrons have spoken out about the rough commute to Brooklyn. The ice is terrible; Cal Clutterbuck and former employees Kyle Okposo and Jack Capuano have all publicly criticized the playing surface.

With a perfect storm of issues, the two sides can opt out of the 25-year deal next January. Newsday’s Jim Baumbach and Robert Brodsky say the Islanders have a choice to leave after next season or in 2019. Barclays Center can evict the Isles if they initiate the opt-out.

The Islanders have other options for a new arena should they choose to leave Brooklyn. They could return to the Nassau Coliseum or build new arenas in Flushing or Belmont Park. The problem is, there are too many gray areas surrounding their options.

The new Nassau Coliseum is not in major contention yet to be the Islanders arena

NYCB Live, better known as the Nassau Coliseum. Photo courtesy of Goldstar Events.

Interestingly enough, Nassau and Suffolk County are urging the Islanders to return to the Nassau Coliseum. The county legislatures will hold a press conference on Friday to urge the team to return to its original home once they, according to Newsday, make “unspecified ‘modifications’”.

However, it’s unlikely the Islanders return back to a shrunken arena. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is adamant that the coliseum’s current 13,000-seat capacity isn’t sufficient for hockey games. The Islanders could’ve stayed years ago before the Nassau County government let them walk. This is already a long shot from the get-go.

They could build a new arena in the same area as Citi Field in Queens, but there is too much litigation surrounding the property to consider it a viable option.

At this stage, Belmont Park is the best option for a different Islanders arena. Even then, there are still many obstacles.

The Belmont Dilemma

On Monday, the town of Elmont held a Belmont Park redevelopment listening session for residents. Over 300 residents attended with a few dozen citizens expressing their interest.

While many were hoping for clarity after the meeting, it was a range of emotions. Some in the crowd, per Baumbach’s Twitter page, were in favor of the arena because it would bring the Islanders back, create jobs and possibly establish a year-round Long Island Rail Road station.

Others, however, believed that it would hamper the local economy long-term, contributing only minimum wage employment. One speaker said that it would also use too many law enforcement officials from the community.

When the dust settled on the meeting, there was only one consensus: there is a divide in support for a new Islanders arena at Belmont Park and is in no way a surefire deal.

The land around Belmont Park could be used for an Islanders arena

An aerial of Belmont Park. Photo by Newsday’s Kevin P. Coughlin.

The Islanders’ Next Home

The blue and orange are in a bind, with these three tangible options for a home arena presenting debilitating flaws. Barclays Center’s ice and location isn’t privy to the players and the fans. The Nassau Coliseum is too small and the NHL doesn’t support it. Belmont Park has critics, and a new stadium will take years to build anyway.

Surrounding all of this arena drama is the fate of the Isles’ franchise player, John Tavares. He has one year remaining on his deal before he hits free agency. The Islanders wish to extend him, but Tavares is reportedly willing to wait. One of the reasons, says Arthur Staple, is he wants to see where the Isles will play long-term.

While it’s impossible to say if that is a legitimate reason Tavares is waiting, it holds merit. Conventional wisdom is that a captain wants to know where he plays out the rest of his career. The uncertainty makes the franchise a tough sell. The Islanders are in a tight spot because of that, and if Tavares doesn’t sign, then expect a monumental revolt from the fandom.

The Islanders arena confusion is harming the team’s reputation. It is a shame that none of the realistic options for a home fit perfectly at the moment. If they stay in Brooklyn, Barclays Center improves the ice and the LIRR eases the commute. If Belmont Park gets approved, hopefully the public warms up to it and the arena gets built quickly with a better train station than it has now.

For a family, a home or apartment needs to benefit the tenants. The Islanders family needs the same from the arena it will play in three years from now.

 

Feature image courtesy of the NY Daily News/Photo by Bruce Bennett, Getty Images.

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NHL Free Agency: Top 5 Unsigned Players

Just as it came in with the uneasiness and excitement it always brings, the NHL free agency frenzy has come and gone.

During the past few weeks, Kevin Shattenkirk went to the Big Apple to sign with his hometown team. Alexander Radulov crossed the border to head to Big D. The aging Patrick Marleau joined the youth movement in Toronto.

Even with the key players out of the market, there are still steady free agents available that can help teams out. Here are the top 5 skaters to watch out for as free agency continues.

5. Jarome Iginla

Jarome Iginla is still available in NHL free agency

Jarome Iginla. Photo courtesy of NHL.com

Jarome Iginla has excelled in 19 NHL seasons. His 625 goals are 15th all-time in the NHL, per QuantHockey. He collected 1,300 points in that span as well. Undoubtedly, he is skating towards a Hall of Fame career. However, it depends when he gets in, considering he hasn’t officially retired yet.

After ending last year with the Kings, they have said they won’t resign him. At 40 years old, the age is enough to scare teams away. He isn’t the same prolific scorer he once was, as his totals have decreased in the past four years. Take that out of consideration and Iginla doesn’t do much of anything else.

Although he’s well past his prime, he can assist a young team thanks to that longevity. He’s a tremendous locker room presence and brings a winning attitude to a team, similar to what Marleau will do for the Maple Leafs. And though his scoring has declined, he still chipped in 14 goals and 27 points between Colorado and Los Angeles. If Iginla can scratch out one more contract before his retirement, he can aid a team with secondary scoring.

4. Drew Stafford

Drew Stafford picked a bad time to have a down year. After scoring more than 20 goals for the fourth time in his career in 2015-16, Stafford regressed to four goals in 40 games for Winnipeg last season. The Jets traded him to Boston for a sixth-round pick, and he scored four more goals. Eight tallies for over $4 million last season is not great value at all.

Still, the reason he is on this list is he is a buy-low candidate. It’s doubtful he gets more than a couple million on his next deal. For someone that has a nice shot as well as improved Corsi and Fenwick ratings (according to Hockey Reference, 51.6 percent and 52.7 percent, respectively), that is a bargain.

There is not a lot of traction for Stafford yet. The Bruins are talking to his camp, but there aren’t any substantial rumors at this point. When he does sign, his team is gambling that he’s more consistent than last year.

3. Thomas Vanek

Thomas Vanek is on the NHL free agency market

Thomas Vanek. Photo courtesy of The Hockey News/Photo by Mike Carlson, Getty Images

Vanek has enjoyed a nice career in the NHL, but he is no longer the explosive player he once was. He could’ve ascended to top-10 status in the league after notching 84 points when he was 23. However, he is still a top-six forward capable of 40 points in a season.

The Panthers are not interested after he ended last season in Sunrise. It’s likely he plays for his seventh team since 2013. Last week, Vanek was talking to several teams, but none were specified and he hasn’t signed yet. The Rangers, Bruins and Sabres supposedly have interest.

Vanek brings speed to the table. Even at 33, he is the fastest player in NHL free agency at the moment. He is a streaky player, but when he gets hot, he is a solid asset. So long as he keeps up his speed, he has value in today’s NHL.

In addition, Vanek’s time on the market should drive down his value. He got $2.6 million last year from Detroit, according to Spotrac. He can sign for a couple million that doesn’t break the bank.

2. Cody Franson

With Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner signed, Cody Franson is the best defenseman available. After missing 23 games two seasons ago, he rebounded in his second year with Buffalo. He increased his minutes, blocks, and hits according to Hockey Reference. He improved his possession metrics to positive ratios as well.

Franson is not the same player that he once was in Toronto. If anything, he is more of a second or third-pair blue liner at this stage. However, teams will love what he can bring to the table. On top of the possession skills, he has a right-handed stick and is 6-foot-5, which is great size for a defenseman.

Franson’s last contract with Buffalo had an annual value of $3.325 million. At this rate, it may be slightly lower if he doesn’t lower his expectations. Andrew Gross, the Devils’ beat reporter for The Record, brought up Franson’s name as a possibility. New Jersey whiffed on Shattenkirk and they have the cap room. The question, like he poses, is if the Devils would give for years on his deal. With the way he’s played recently, a few years seems fair.

1. Jaromir Jagr

Was there any doubt he wasn’t going to be the top one left in NHL free agency? He’s second all-time with 1,914 points and he still has no job. If there’s a positive, he can use social media to market himself.

If you ask any fan in the NHL, chances are they want Jagr on their team. With that history and success, combined with a great presence in the locker room, it’s a no-brainer. Plus, at 16 goals and 30 assists last year, he can still play the game.

Although he is a big hit within the NHL fandom, teams are acknowledging they aren’t getting Jagr’s prime. He’s 45 years old and has lost some speed, which is almost a necessity in this era. If a team brings him in, it’s under the impression that he is a second or third-line skater.

Contract-wise, Jagr isn’t looking for much. He has said himself he wants one-year deals moving forward. He made over $5 million last year, but he likely won’t make as much. At this point, he’d take anything he could get.

A team should sign him with his intangibles. He’s a legendary player that inspires others around him. It’ll shock the hockey world if he doesn’t get that next contract.

 

Feature image courtesy of NHL.com

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Justin Williams free agency: Drawing interest as productive veteran

Justin Williams is going to get a ton of money, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

At 35 years old, Williams is on the final years of his NHL career. With the way he played last year, one wouldn’t know he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Last season, the 16-year veteran tallied 24 goals and 48 points in his second season with the Washington Capitals. According to Hockey Reference, he had his highest career shooting percentage at 14.4 percent. His Corsi and Fenwick ratings were both above 50 percent, signaling that the Caps possessed the puck well with Williams on the ice.

Williams’ contract with Washington expired, and with T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov signing deals, it is unlikely the right winger reunites with them in the nation’s capital. And so, he hits the open market, presenting a quandary for front offices: how many years and how much money do we give an aging player who’s still producing?

Justin Williams’ Value

Justin Williams free agency

Williams won two of his three Stanley Cups with Los Angeles. Photo by Victor Decolongon, Getty Images.

He has the most value in his overall experience in the postseason. In 140 playoff games, he’s notched 94 points while winning three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

During that postseason, Williams scored nine goals and 16 assists. Even as the elder statesman with the Capitals this past year, he recorded nine points in 13 games. As perplexing as it is to outsiders, players and fans know that Justin Williams is reliable in the playoffs.

Justin Williams can help any team that needs a championship-caliber player with his playoff expertise. Combine his resumé with need and teams should fork over the dough to sign him.

Justin Williams’ Cap Hit and the RW Market

Looking at the rest of the free agent market, he can sign at about any time that he wants. Williams is the second-best right wing on the block. Alexander Radulov is the top name on the right side, but they’re both different players at different points in their careers.

Radulov enjoyed a breakout campaign with Montreal after a stint in the KHL. At 30 years old, he still has a handful of good years left. Teams are likely to ink him to a longer deal than Williams. Radulov will go to a team that wants him for the long haul. Williams should sign around a two to three-year deal.

The Capitals paid Williams a modest $3.25 million the past two seasons, per CapFriendly. He hasn’t made more than $4 million in his career. Based on his overall recent production, he should achieve that milestone. Justin Williams can use his play at an old age as leverage to raise the monetary value. Teams will balk at 35 years old. Anything more than three years is excessive. Two or three years, until his skating and his scoring declines, are the fairest lengths for both sides.

Justin Williams free agency prospects

Justin Williams has his own list of coveted places. His list is reportedly down to three, though it is unsure what those teams are. Yesterday, TSN’s Darren Dreger listed Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and the New York Islanders as teams interested in him (he said the quoted tweet is incorrect so it has nothing to do with his commentary).

The Islanders are looking to add another productive scorer as they look to return to the playoffs. CapFriendly says they have $9 million to play with in cap, so they won’t pursue another big free agent if Williams signs there. Plus, they’d have to shuffle their lineup to accommodate him. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Josh Ho-Sang and Cal Clutterbuck are all right wingers. Williams would have to slot elsewhere or the Isles have to swap someone on the roster.

Justin Williams free agency

Justin Williams may join the orange and white next year instead of roughing them up. Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images.

Would Justin Williams return to the city where he made his NHL debut? The Flyers have slightly more cap room than the Islanders, but still less than $10 million. However, Williams is a great fit for a team that needs to replace Brayden Schenn’s output. Williams can fit on the second or third line and help a team with postseason potential. Philadelphia is an up and coming team. With Williams’ veteran leadership, he can push them over the top in a daunting Metro Division.

Of these three teams, Tampa Bay makes the most sense. Williams would be their best winger not named Nikita Kucherov. With over $20 million in cap space, the Lightning can afford to overpay him while not restricting their budget. If that’s what it takes for Tampa to replenish their forwards, then they should’ve already been on the phone when midnight struck today.

Justin Williams, at 35 years old, is still a capable NHL player and is one of the better free agent options. Word is he wants to stay in the East, though it’s unknown what teams he is interested in playing for. Whichever team he signs with, they will pay big bucks to land him, but receive a valuable piece for it.

 

Feature image by Nick Wass, AP/Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Kevin Shattenkirk free agency: Best options

Ever since the end of the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL offseason hasn’t slept. The expansion draft built the Vegas Golden Knights while New Jersey and Philadelphia selected Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, respectively. One of the top free agents expected to hit the market, T.J. Oshie, heads back to the Capitals on an eight-year deal.

With Oshie settled in the Capitol, the best all-around player available is former Caps defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The seven-year veteran is the most talented offensive blue liner.

This season, he finished with 56 points, trailing Norris finalists Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman. He’s notched 27 goals the past two seasons with both St. Louis and Washington. Defensively, he’s a solid skate who can move the puck from zone to zone.

Where he has the most value is on special teams. His eight power play goals and 27 points were second-most for a defenseman this season. His shot percentage has improved each season since 2013-14. He can lead the attack on the man advantage.

While his plus-minus isn’t pretty to look at the past two seasons, it improved on a stable Capitals blue line. Teams will keep that and the price he will garner in mind when signing him. What teams are in the running for him?

The Favorites

Boston Bruins – Kevin Shattenkirk has been linked to Boston for a few years. He played college hockey at Boston University after growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Boston inquired about him at the trade deadline, but the Blues reportedly wanted two first-round picks and David Pastrnak, which was way too high.

The Bruins have a young core of defensemen with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Torey Krug does well on the power play, but he was the main quarterback on special teams. McAvoy had two assists on the power play in the playoffs, but he may need more time.

With Shattenkirk, Boston gets a proven asset that makes their blue line fast and deadly on offense. Its roughly $13.5 million in cap space means they can afford him if he stays around the $6-$7 million AAV range. He provides that leadership for a young core. General Manager Don Sweeney has to think about if Shattenkirk’s offense is enough of an upgrade without breaking the bank.

Kevin Shattenkirk free agency

Shattenkirk (left, playing with Blues) could join the Rangers in free agency. Photo courtesy of Newsday/Photo by Mary Altaffer, AP

New York Rangers – On paper, the Rangers and Shattenkirk is a perfect marriage. New York now has $20 million in cap space after buying out Dan Girardi and trading Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. Rumor has it Shattenkirk favors the Rangers for its location close to home.

On the ice, he fills a dire need for the Blueshirts. Girardi, while a gritty player, is not the same puck mover as Kevin Shattenkirk. On the power play, their special teams were 3-for-39 in the postseason after a top 10 finish in the regular season. Shattenkirk can replace Brady Skjei on the second unit, giving them a Ryan McDonagh-Shattenkirk combo on the man advantage.

Despite the recent trade for Anthony DeAngelo, New York still needs help on defense. Brendan Smith is still in play for New York, and they can still sign both. He checks every box on both sides. Even if the Rangers may look to get younger and cheaper after shedding Stepan’s contract, Shattenkirk can still make them competitive and fill multiple needs.

Dark Horses

Tampa Bay Lightning – Tampa’s interest in Kevin Shattenkirk is one of the worst-kept secrets in the NHL. In January, the Lightning tried to trade for the blue liner from St. Louis. It did not come to fruition. Now, the Tampa Bay Times reported GM Steve Yzerman is kicking the tires on Shattenkirk.

Even after snagging Montreal’s pristine defensive prospect, Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa is looking for top-four defensive help. Shattenkirk joining Hedman gives the Lightning one of the best combos in the league. His offense and his right-handed stick, according to Times’ writer Joe Smith, is a fit for Tampa Bay.

Ultimately, Shattenkirk’s willingness to come to Tampa Bay is the biggest obstacle. He rejected a seven-year, $42 million extension and a deal to head to the Sunshine State. Does he want to be there? Are the Lightning built to succeed in the next few years? With Shattenkirk, they can, but it’s hard to see unless they gain more pieces.

Kevin Shattenkirk free agency

Shattenkirk (left) could become teammates with Miles Wood next season. Photo courtesy of My NHL Trade Rumors/Photo by USATSI

New Jersey Devils – Any Rangers fan might have a tough time reading this, but it has some traction to it. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in March he wouldn’t be surprised if the Devils threw money at him.

New Jersey has $24 million free in cap space, so their offer could blow almost every other team out of the water. They have five total defensemen and a restricted free agent on their roster at the moment. Andy Greene and Damon Severson were their best defenders, and they were -16 and -31 for a weak team last season.

Basically, Kevin Shattenkirk becomes their best blue liner if he signs. New Jersey should make him their biggest priority. An offense with Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and now Nico Hischier is impressive, while Cory Schneider is strong in net. However, he needs help badly in front of him. Shattenkirk helps them out, and they have room to look at other names such as Cody Franson or Karl Alzner.

Other Possible Destinations

Buffalo SabresTSN’s Darren Dreger reported last week of the Sabres’ interest. Like the Devils, they have a vast amount of cap space. They have a nice defensive core already in Rasmus Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian. Buffalo is very young, so Shattenkirk would have to be patient with them.

Montreal Canadiens – No surpise here, but Montreal needs to shore up their defense. They have space with $21 million, but there hasn’t been a lot of mutual interest. Plus, if they deal Alex Galchenyuk and lose Alexander Radulov, they may need to prioritize finding some forward help.

 

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Five NHL Expansion Draft names to watch

The dust in the Nevada desert has settled, but not for long. A suspenseful weekend consisted of a few trades before the NHL’s roster freeze before the NHL unveiled the lists of 30 teams’ protected players for Wednesday’s expansion draft.

There are plenty of unsurprising names for the Vegas Golden Knights to collect, and a few that no one expected to show up. As the clock begins to tick for George McPhee and Vegas, the suspense around the NHL hasn’t wavered. The Golden Knights’ general manager can still negotiate deals on unprotected players in exchange for draft picks.

While we won’t know until draft day what those deals will be, there are plenty of names to keep an eye on as it gets closer. All players listed are available as of June 18. Here are five important names to watch in the expansion draft.

Red Wings G Petr Mrazek

The Red Wings netminder is without a doubt the most surprising name left off of a protect list. Many hypothesized a Marc-Andre Fleury-Jimmy Howard tandem in Sin City. However, Detroit opted for the veteran Howard over the younger Mrazek.

The 25-year-old carries a meager $4 million cap hit for next season. He performed admirably as the Red Wings’ starter in 2015-2016, compiling a 27-16-6 record.

General Manager Ken Holland may have a short-term memory, though. Mrazek struggled last season, allowing three goals a game and stopping just 90 percent of his shots. Howard, on the other hand, posted a respectable 2.10 GAA and a .927 save percentage.

Vegas already had a delectable pallet of goalies to choose from in Fleury, Antti Raanta, Philipp Grubauer and Calvin Pickard. Add Mrazek to that list as a younger option for Vegas.

Islanders GM Garth Snow

NHL expansion draft

Islanders GM Garth Snow. Photo courtesy of CBS New York/Photo by Andy Marlin, Getty Images

Snow isn’t a player, and he isn’t on the move, even if some Islanders fans want to see that. Despite that, he’s likely the general manager to observe the most in this process.

The Islanders were the only team to shield three forwards and five defensemen using the eight-skater option. In doing so, they left interesting forwards and an intriguing defenseman up for grabs.

Brock Nelson has had three consecutive 20-goal seasons while Josh Bailey had 56 points on the top line. On the blue line, Calvin de Haan chipped in 25 points, blocked 190 shots, fourth-most in the NHL, and has averaged 20 minutes of ice time in his career.

Snow couldn’t protect all of those players, but he unexpectedly chose to protect Adam Pelech over de Haan and Nelson. Pelech logged valuable minutes under now permanent head coach Doug Weight. It’s also possible that the Isles could send picks to Vegas to have a player protected.

Nonetheless, the Islanders have playoff expectations next season. Snow will have eyes on him to see who could, or could not, end up going to Vegas.

Panthers C Jonathan Marchessault

There were reports earlier last weekend that Marchessault was on the block. Still, it was shocking to see his name available for discussion.

The 26-year-old Quebec native has improved upon each year. He exploded for a team-high 30 goals last season. Eighteen of his 51 points came on the power play. For a team that was 23rd last year in scoring, exposing your best goal scorer is risky. Pair that with his stick handling and his knack for creating his own shot, and it’s incredible he was left off.

There’s always the possibility that Florida works out a trade with Vegas. The Golden Knights could use the leverage to acquire the 10th overall pick. If McPhee doesn’t, they can just scoop Marchessault in the expansion draft. Vegas has the upper hand in this scenario, and they benefit from wherever Marchessault winds up.

Senators RW Bobby Ryan

In the big picture, Bobby Ryan’s availability is not that shocking. Ottawa went 7-3-1 in their order, which was necessary when Dion Phaneuf didn’t waive his no-movement clause. The Senators had to expose a forward and a defenseman, and Ryan was an easy target.

The question is if his stellar postseason entices Vegas. The 30-year-old right winger had a career-low 25 points in the regular season. He responded with several clutch playoff goals, finishing with six tallies and 15 points. His shot looked much better and he meshed well with his teammates. Ottawa doesn’t escape the first round without him.

With that in mind, will Ryan have that much value to Vegas? Overall, he seems on the decline. But, he is a former second overall pick and showed there’s still something left in the tank. Ultimately it comes down to whom on Ottawa’s available list entices McPhee more.

Many linked defenseman Marc Methot to the expansion draft if Ottawa went 7-3-1. With the useful options up front, Methot has more value for Vegas than Ryan. However, what happens here shows where Ryan’s current value is right not.

Rangers G Antti Raanta

NHL expansion draft

Rangers goalie Antti Raanta. Photo courtesy of NHL.com

As mentioned before, this is a deep expansion draft for goaltenders. With Fleury likely headed to the Strip, Vegas can use the other two spots for a younger netminder and a dependable veteran. Of the goalies in the latter category, Raanta has the most value for Vegas.

The Rangers have had a knack for finding backup goaltenders in the past few years. Cam Talbot flourished and now starts between the pipes for Edmonton. Raanta has almost done the same, posting a 16-8-2 record backing up Henrik Lundqvist. His minutes spiked and he stopped over 700 shots in 30 games.

Raanta is a solid backup for the Blueshirts, and the Rangers would have to figure out an alternative plan if he departs. On the other hand, if Fleury is out of service, Raanta can fill in and contribute. A Fleury-Raanta tandem is solid for a team in its inaugural season.

Vegas could even turn around and trade Raanta for other assets. Arizona is still in the market for a goalie, and teams like Winnipeg and Vancouver don’t have reliable options in net. Like Ottawa, the Rangers have other attractive options like Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast. Raanta can give Vegas the most flexibility and value.

 

Feature image courtesy of NHL.com

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Las Vegas can sustain Golden Knights as area grows

Ice and Las Vegas aren’t synonymous with one another. In fact, everyone is primarily using ice for cooling the patrons’ drinks in casinos and figure skating shows.

With all due respect, those activities are popular, but they have to start sharing the ice soon.

Starting on Sept. 26th, professional hockey begins in the Sin City when the Vegas Golden Knights play their first home game at T-Mobile Arena.

Las Vegas Golden Knights

The ice rink at T-Mobile Arena. Photo courtesy of NHL.com

The hockey world has focused its attention on Las Vegas as it witnesses the first expansion team since 2000. Fans have already brought into the hype: full season tickets have already sold out. The Golden Knights’ official website says limited amounts of half, quarter and partial season packages are still available.

As the team begins to take shape this week with the expansion draft, expectations take shape on how the franchise can sustain its fanbase and grow out west. But with a growing economy and population as well as a myriad of draft options to field at least a competitive team, the Golden Knights are here to stay, even with the ice shows and casinos.

The Las Vegas Market

When the NHL officially awarded the bid to Las Vegas last offseason, critics initially shot it down for being a western market and a town without a hockey atmosphere. Vegas also has the connotation of being a tourist spot for its nightlife and was hit hard during the economic recession in the late 2000s. Becoming a sports town, however, can shake off those reputations, though the area is improving from a population and real estate standpoint.

The city has seen rapid growth in tourism, population and real estate. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the tourism sector in Clark County has recovered 98.7 percent of its losses from the recent recession. These numbers come from travelers from McCarran International Airport, hotel and motel occupancy rates and the gaming industry.

The Golden Knights can take advantage of these areas. Fans of visiting teams can enjoy other activities in the city while taking in a game. This is how the team can attract revenue while building its brand as a hockey town.

Of all the economic sectors, population has seen the biggest climb. Multi-Housing News reported that almost 148,000 people moved to Las Vegas since 2011. Employment jumped 3.4 percent in 2016. While those rates will likely slow down moving forward, the increase still is a good sign for the city’s stability.

An influx of residents in the area have skyrocketed housing demands as well. Apartments are building up along the 215 highway, and surrounding areas like Henderson continue to see spikes in development. Single and multi-family housing permits increased by 27.7 percent in 2016 and will slow, but the area is expanding. With more long-term residents living in Las Vegas, the Golden Knights have the potential to put people in seats each night.

The On-Ice Product

Las Vegas Golden Knights

George McPhee is the first general manager in Golden Knights history. Photo by Benjamin Hager of the Las Vegas Review-Journal

The expansion draft is just four days away, and the Golden Knights will scoop a player from each team to add to their roster. While it will change the NHL landscape, Vegas likely won’t become an immediate contender. The previous three expansion teams (Minnesota, Columbus and Atlanta/Winnipeg) haven’t reached the Stanley Cup yet after more than 17 seasons.

The Blue Jackets recently started to play well but haven’t escaped the first round, while the Wild can’t reach the next level. Vegas doesn’t want to repeat the Thrashers incident either.

At the same time, they shouldn’t be a team that plummets to the cellar of the Western Conference. Marc-Andre Fleury is a great available option, as he’s starting-caliber goalie with Stanley Cup experience. They can also take advantage of roster constraints from teams like Nashville and Ottawa, who are deep in forwards and defensemen. Vegas can get a nice piece from each.

Even so, their lines won’t have as much firepower as other teams. However, General Manager George McPhee has a nice selection in front of him. They’ll compete in games this season.

Not only can the Golden Knights build through veterans, but the actual NHL Draft will yield results too. They have the sixth pick and seven selections total, with the opportunity to accrue more. If a team doesn’t want Vegas to pick one of its players, they can offer pick compensation as a result. Building around young players along with first signee Reid Duke generates buzz with fans. McPhee has all the leverage in those negotiations too, should they come up.

The Future of the Golden Knights

Casinos and ice shows are still king in Sin City. However, hockey is about to become another attraction in Las Vegas. The expansion draft has the entire NHL in frenzy on who will become a part of the first roster. Concerns about sustaining a franchise in a new market are understandable, but the area is growing.

The Golden Knights can also learn from a fellow Western Conference franchise on how to build a hockey market. The fanbase is excited about the new team and have showed it in ticket sales already. The on-ice product is still a question mark at this point in time, but the buzz of the new team is palpable. Enjoy the moment now.

 

Feature image courtesy of T-Mobile Arena’s official website.

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Matt Murray sets lofty goals for rest of his career

Is Matt Murray setting expectations of himself too high after winning two Stanley Cups in his first two seasons in the NHL? Who knows; the small sample size only points to success.

The Pittsburgh Penguins win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday to claim Lord Stanley’s cup set off numerous storylines. Debates ignited about Sidney Crosby’s place amongst the greatest players in NHL history. Patric Hornqvist, the last pick for Nashville in the 2005 draft, scores the game-winning goal. Jake Guentzel’s performance in the playoffs has infused youth as the Penguins look to ignite a dynasty.

In the middle of it is a Thunder Bay native with just two years of experience in the legal drinking age. Despite that, he’s the first goalie to ever win the Stanley Cup-clinching game his first two seasons in the league.

Not bad for your first seasons on the world’s biggest stage.

Murray’s performances in the playoffs recently have shifted the organization’s faith in the 2012 third-round pick as their franchise netminder. This was apparent on Monday when Marc-Andre Fleury waived his no-movement clause, allowing the Penguins to protect Murray in the expansion draft. In doing this, Murray had to supplant the team’s best goaltender in history not once, but twice.

With that in mind, how can Murray continue to aid Pittsburgh as they seek their third straight championship next season?

2016

Fleury leads the franchise in wins and games played. He was a staple in net since he first entered the league in the 2003-04 season. However, an ill-timed concussion sidelined him late in the season. This meant the Penguins, finishing a 104-point campaign, had to use a 21 year-old Murray for the postseason.

Matt Murray

Matt Murray with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Photo courtesy of the Penguins official website.

Matt Murray in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was steady in net. A 20-9-1 record with a 2.10 GAA was respectable. Matt Murray in Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was stellar. He saved over 92 percent of his shots and secured over 15 wins during the run.

Even with an impressive start to the postseason, his spot was still tenuous. Fleury became healthy in the Eastern Conference Finals and was available off the bench in Game Four. Murray subsequently allowed four goals to Tampa Bay, and Fleury replaced him. Fleury, however, lost Game Five, and Head Coach Mike Sullivan went back to Murray, who helped Pittsburgh overcome a 3-2 series deficit to advance to the Final.

This leap of faith for a rookie goalie, especially in favor of one of the team’s best all-time netminders, is unheard of in hockey. Sullivan, at the helm for six months, saw Murray up close in the AHL as his head coach then. He took a calculated risk where only he could predict the upside. It worked for both parties. Murray and Sullivan won the Cup and earned full-time promotions at their jobs.

2017

Penguins goalies Matt Murray (left) and Marc-Andre Fleury look at the scoreboard during the first period of Game 4 against the Washington Capitals on May 4 at Consol Energy Center.

Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Photo by Gene J. Puskar.

While Matt Murray enjoyed a change in position in early 2016, the following year was a challenge for his health. He suffered a broken hand in the World Cup of Hockey before the season started, and then sustained a lower-body injury in late December. Fleury took over the starting job when Murray went down, and the latter played 47 games compared to 38 for the former. The injuries would continue to pile up in the postseason.

As Murray prepared to begin his title defense, he injured himself yet again. Thus, Fleury stepped up moments before Game One against Columbus. The Flower ended up saving a weakened Penguins defense and performed admirably in 15 games.

Ironically, a bad game in the Eastern Conference Finals led to another goalie change. Murray returned from his issue and subbed for Fleury after a rough first period against Ottawa. Sullivan named Murray the starter afterwards. Based on how last year played out, Murray’s leash had to be short. However, he walked away with the opportunity. He willed Pittsburgh to win Game Seven over the Senators and outlasted Nashville in six games.

Matt Murray in the Future

With Fleury’s recent contract developments, it is looking more likely Vegas will snag him in the upcoming expansion draft. This means Murray is the long-term solution for the Penguins. He’s proved his worth in the postseason. In extended time during the regular season, he posted a 2.41 GAA with 26 quality starts. His numbers are solid, but there’s a key factor: health.

Three injuries last season is a cause for concern with a franchise goalie. Including a concussion before the 2016 playoffs, Murray has had four injuries in that span. Pittsburgh has had the benefit of having a starting-caliber goalie to fill in for an injured starter, but if Fleury leaves, that’s no longer the case.

Sullivan has faith in Matt Murray. The two have the potential to be a staple in Pittsburgh for years to come. When he’s on the ice, Murray is a solid weapon. If he can stay on the ice, the Penguins are the typical juggernaut. Penguins fans will be disappointed to hear he probably won’t win a Stanley Cup every year. However, he’s off to a pretty good start in his NHL career.

Feature Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports

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Does the NBC and NHL agreement work for both sides?

The 2017 Stanley Cup Final is smashing last year’s viewing records on NBC. However, is the game growing enough on the network?

Last season, viewers did not tune in at a high rate to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins dispatch the San Jose Sharks. The six-game average had a meager four million viewers and 2.3 household rating, meaning 2.3 percent of American households tuned in to watch. It was the third-fewest totals since 2006 and dropped almost 1.5 million viewers from the previous final.

Fortunately, this series has captivated the national audience once again. The Nashville Predators have essentially brought it back. The team has unexpectedly run through the titans of the Western Conference and rallied an entire city together.

PPG Paints Arena was rocking in Game 5, and it was audible on NBC.

PPG Paints Arena, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Photo courtesy of Scout.com

After dropping the first two games of the series, the fans turned out to Bridgestone Arena and in their homes. Game Four’s 4-1 Predators win had 28 percent of Nashville watch on their television sets. Nationally, on NBC, an estimated 5.5 million viewers tuned in, though that number doesn’t account for time-zone adjustments. Nonetheless, it was more than the viewers from last season. Even in Game Five’s 6-0 Penguins blowout, 4.3 million watched the spectacle.

With the ratings success for the Stanley Cup, the NHL faces obstacles as it seeks to increase its television presence. The question is if they can do that under their current operation.

The NBC Sports and NHL Dynamic

The current media agreement between NBC and the NHL began in 2011. The two sides agreed on a 10-year deal worth $2 billion. This deal included “Game of the Week” time-slots and 100 regular-season telecasts. When Versus, which NBC owned at the time, switched to NBC Sports Network, the coverage stayed the same.

This deal kept hockey on a relevant network as it transitioned from ESPN. At present time, however, critics argue that the agreement with both networks harms hockey’s growth. Because NBC has the ability to air games on NBCSN, they receive criticism for not broadcasting games on their main channel.

NBC Sports Network is not on as many U.S. televisions as NBC. This is accurate, but NBCSN’s presence in homes is rapidly growing. In June of 2016, about 77 percent of American homes received NBC Sports Network. Fast forward to this past March, and the channel has 83,790,000 subscribers, which slightly trails Fox Sports 1. This is up from 70 percent back in early 2015. The channel is gaining ground in subscribers, and NBC wants to aid its station with Stanley Cup Final games.

Despite the growth in the channel, however, its ratings pale in comparison to NBC. Game Two and Game Three had 3.2 and three million viewers, compared to over four million in the other games. This has brought the average down to 4.2 million through the first five games of this current series. Historically, NBCSN averages fewer ratings since they began airing games under that identity in 2012. Surely, the ratings would improve if NBCSN was not in the equation, but NBC does not want to take the exposure away.

NHL on NBC

Last season, the NHL simulcasted playoff coverage on NBC and other networks. Photo courtesy of Awful Announcing

Improving the Relationship

While the NBC deal harms the overall outlook of the NHL’s ratings, the NHL needs to work out its relationship with NBC to improve the deal for its own side. Other sports such as the NBA exclusively have their Finals game on one network, ABC. Their ratings float around the 16 million mark, almost four times as much as the NHL. Basketball historically achieves more ratings than hockey because of its popularity, but that’s an argument for a different article.

For the NHL, they have to fight NBC itself to have those same rights, and it depends on the rise of NBCSN. The NHL helps NBCSN grow while the NHL has issues catching up to other sports. In a way, they have to fight NBC’s regular lineup as well. At 8 p.m. on May 31st, while Game Two aired on NBCSN, Little Big Shots grabbed 7.56 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic. Stanley Cup Final games have only surpassed that on the main channel five times, all of which were series clinchers. If NBC decides that a hockey game can’t attract more viewers, then it shifts to NBCSN.

Based on the past numbers and the way this current series is unfolding, hockey can grow on NBC. The sport has to increase its popularity in North America, which the NHL has to facilitate itself. Perhaps Nashville has laid out the blueprint for mid-market teams to galvanize their fanbase. Teams like that will help the game improve too. Hopefully, this will mean NBC is more willing to show off such teams and matchups like Pittsburgh and Nashville.

Conclusion

The 2017 Stanley Cup Final has been full of entertaining hockey. NBC has done well to promote it. However, both sides can benefit from increasing the NHL’s exposure to grow the game and jump on this year’s ratings spike. Both sides need to see how that is possible for it to fully happen.

Feature image courtesy of Awful Announcing

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New Jersey Devils face choice at 1st: Nolan or Nico?

In just over two weeks, the New Jersey Devils are officially on the clock. On June 23rd, both Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier will hear their names in the 2017 NHL Draft.

It is unknown, however, where they will start their NHL careers.

The Devils, who received a gift from the angels in the first overall pick, will certainly choose one of them. The team hasn’t tipped their hand, leading to intense speculation about who goes to the Garden State. It depends on what the Devils value more: the better player or the better fit.

What the Devils Need

Devils GM Ray Shero

Devils GM Ray Shero hasn’t talked about a preference between Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier. Photo courtesy of NHL.com

All in all, the New Jersey Devils were terrible on both sides of the puck. They were 28th in the league in goals per game and in the bottom ten in goals allowed per game. Only the Vancouver Canucks had fewer shots per game. Their offense and defense were disappointing, and Cory Schneider struggled in net as a result.

Individually on the offensive side, their top line produced very well. Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri showed good chemistry in their first year playing together. The only problem was that they were the only consistent line. Head Coach John Hynes had to shuffle the lineups to provide depth to the team, and it did not always lead to better results.

In their overall production, the Devils got the least offensive production from left wingers, accounting for just 38 of the team’s 180 goals. However, neither Patrick nor Hischier are left wingers, and there isn’t a left winger worthy of the top pick. The Devils want to play younger guys like Miles Wood and Blake Pietila, so team needs are probably not the priority, especially with the first pick. The best player available is what the Devils should look for. So who is that?

The Case for Nolan Patrick

Even before the season, many considered Nolan Patrick the top pick. In 72 games for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings in 2015-16, Patrick tallied 41 goals and 102 points. He eventually won MVP in the WHL postseason and captured the Ed Chenowyth Cup. TSN’s Bob McKenzie once called this the “Nolan Patrick Draft”, putting him on a similar level to how many viewed Auston Matthews last season.

Nolan Patrick has been a consensus pick for some at #1 for the Devils

Nolan Patrick during his time for the Brandon Wheat Kings. Photo courtesy of Philly.com

His play from two seasons ago was impressive, and when he played this past year, he showed flashes with 46 points in 33 games. However, he missed most of the season with a sports hernia in his right groin and an upper-body injury. At the NHL combine last week, he revealed that he had another hernia in his left side. He had surgery for both. Sports hernia injuries aren’t historically kind to NHL players. Washington’s Karl Alzner struggled this season after repairing his torn groin last offseason. Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere of the Flyers have dealt with recurring issues from sports hernia surgery. Patrick has the talent, but his injury history has to have the Devils concerned.

With all that said, Patrick at his best is a good fit for New Jersey in more ways than one. He’s a big body center at 6-foot-3. His speed complements a Devils team that doesn’t have much of it. Ultimately, what stands out is his two-way ability. He is exceptional in protecting the puck with his hands and has excellent strength to find it too. The Devils need help in multiple units and they don’t have many two-way forwards. He fills multiple areas for New Jersey.

The Case for Nico Hischier

Nolan Patrick was on everyone’s radar for a while. Nico Hischier hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of the top pick. The Halifax Moosehead was tenth in the QMJHL with 86 points and seventh with 38 goals. He has U-18 World Juniors experience with Switzerland and played well in the tournament with four points in five games. He’s smaller than Patrick at 6-feet, but he plays both at center and on the right wing. Scouts and hockey personalities rave about his dynamic speed and puck-handling ability and claim he is the more explosive pick.

There are few concerns about Hischier, with most of them about his size. He is younger than Patrick and only recently graduated to North American hockey at Halifax. He’s had small run-ins with injuries, but not as much as Patrick. Jeff Marek of Sprotsnet said back in March that he played a bit differently after returning from an injury and there are worries about his energy. The question is if he can continue jumping to a higher level. With his talent, he should immediately contribute to an NHL team. He needs to make the adjustments necessary to play against bigger competition and more skilled players.

Nico Hischier has recently gained traction for the Devils' top pick.

Nico Hischier on the Halifax Mooseheads. Photo courtesy of The Metro News/Photo by Jeff Harper.

With that said, there is little doubt he can do just that. He’s shifty and a tremendous playmaker who gets his teammates involved just as much as he does. His passing and his instincts will strengthen his linemates. He’s young, but he can help Wood and Nick Lappin or other linemates. If he plays on the wing, then Pavel Zacha and John Quenneville could benefit too. In the same way Patrick aids multiple units, Hischier betters the team.

Who Fits Better?

At this point in time, it’s a smart choice no matter which player the New Jersey Devils pick. General Manager Ray Shero has to decide who will turn out to be the franchise leader. At the combine last week, Hischier tested higher in four of the five batteries, but those numbers shouldn’t be the entire indicator. Patrick is the better goal scorer and excels in more areas than Hischier, but Nico has more quickness and skill on his resumé. Don’t be surprised, however, if injuries are the biggest factor. If Shero wants to take the risk, then he should select Nolan Patrick.

Feature image courtesy of TSN. Nico Hischier on the left and Nolan Patrick on the right.

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How the Predators can get back in Stanley Cup Final

The Nashville Predators are learning the hard way about how to win a Stanley Cup Final.

Following Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Preds went down 2-0 in the series. Although they have played well at times, it doesn’t show in the score sheet. Head coach Peter Laviolette said there’s been a lot to be proud of in the first two games, but they need more production and better luck.

Of the 50 teams that have taken a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven Final, 45 went on to win the series. The history isn’t on Nashville’s side, but there are ways for the Preds to get back in the series.

Emphasize the Positives

There’s been a lot to like from Nashville in the first two contests. They’ve out-shot the Penguins 64-39, even preventing the Pens from shooting the puck for 37 straight minutes in Game 1.

Coming back from a three-goal deficit in the first matchup showed that this team has fight, and we’ve seen that all postseason. Aside from that, they’ve out-hit Pittsburgh and decimated them in faceoffs in Game 2. They’ve overall moved the puck well and they get their opportunities.

Individually, a few players have stepped up when they’ve needed. Mike Fisher has rebounded from an injury to notch three assists in the first two games. He’s found timely passes and made good decisions with the puck. Colton Sissons continues to play well, and Laviolette has him on the power play to reward his faith.

While there are positives, there are still other areas that Nashville must improve.

Pekka Rinne

Apr 25, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35) celebrates after a win against the Anaheim Ducks in game six of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. The Predators won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Will Pekka Rinne start Game Three for the Predators? Photo courtesy of Fox Sports/Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel, USA Today Sports

Rinne has been the Predators’ MVP in these playoffs. His .942 save percentage in the first three rounds was extraordinary.

Going up against Pittsburgh’s offense, however, has been a different story. He’s allowed eight goals compared to just 28 saves and was chased in Game 2 after giving up three goals in four minutes to start the third period.

The statistics aren’t there, and the eye test isn’t pretty either. He hasn’t reacted well to rebounds and is getting exposed on his glove side. Pittsburgh has a solid offense, but they haven’t been as creative as they could be so far. They haven’t needed to. Jake Guentzel’s game-winners were closer to the point than they were to Rinne.

Whether they’re nerves stemming from his first Stanley Cup appearance or his 1-7-2 career record against the Penguins, he hasn’t been the same Rinne. It’s not too much to ask of Rinne to continue his stellar play after his appearance. He’s the rock of the Predators when their vaunted defense slips up. If he struggles, the Predators have no chance to upend Pittsburgh.

Speculation about his starting spot was up in the air after Friday’s practice. Afterwards, Rinne said he knew who was playing, while backup Juuse Saros was unsure.

Rinne gives Nashville the best chance to win each night. However, if Laviolette is desperate enough, he could make the change.

Offensive Production

Fisher and Sissons are contributing on offense and they had success on the power play in the first game, but it hasn’t been enough. Filip Forsberg, who leads the team in postseason goals, hasn’t found the back of the net in seven shots. James Neal hasn’t had the same luck. Calle Jarnkrok missed a wide-open net early in Game 2 that would’ve put Nashville up two goals. Even P.K. Subban, their offensive-minded star defenseman, had one goal taken away and just one shot on goal.

The Predators were going to slightly drop off with Ryan Johansen no longer playing due to thigh surgery. Their offense wasn’t an issue in the first few games without Johansen, but now they’re no longer getting timely goals. The officiating didn’t do them any favors on Subban’s non-goal, but that isn’t an excuse now.

Home Ice

The Predators have been excellent this postseason no matter the venue, but they’ve excelled at Bridgestone Arena. The Predators are 7-1 in Nashville, allowing more than two goals just once in the process. Their penalty kill is 14-17 at home, which is important considering it was 7-7 in Nashville’s last game.

Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators

Bridgestone Arena has sold out every Predators game this season for the first time ever. Photo courtesy of Bridgestone Arena’s Official Site

The players that have struggled in the Final have performed well at home in the playoffs too. Rinne’s GAA is 1.54, if he starts today’s game. Forsberg has five goals and four assists. Roman Josi has six points and a team-high 26 shots on goal.

Home ice is never the most reliable factor in determining success. Despite that, this is the height of excitement in hockey. Bridgestone Arena has sold out every regular season and postseason game this year.

It’ll rock in its first-ever Stanley Cup Final home game. The players feed off of it in one way or another. Nashville can use any kind of motivation.

The Penguins have found ways to win two straight games over the Predators despite some positives on Nashville’s side. However, there’s room for improvement. Rather, it’s a requirement for them at this point.

More contributions and improved luck combined with continued pressure on faceoffs and the boards can push Nashville in the win column and fight back in the series.

 

Feature image courtesy of The Denver Post/Photo by Mark Humphrey, AP

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