Rangers, Hayes agree for two years, $5.2 million

Kevin Hayes

Purple Hayes: Kevin Hayes finishes off a beauty on Semyon Varlamov. AP Photo by David Zalubowski/Getty Images

It’s been a busy day for Jeff Gorton. After re-signing Chris Kreider to a new four-year deal worth an average cap hit of $4.625 million, the Rangers general manager hammered out a new two-year deal with restricted free agent Kevin Hayes. They agreed on a bridge deal worth $5.2 million ($2.6 AAV).

After a good rookie season in which he tallied 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points in 79 games, the 24-year old Dorchester, Massachusetts native had a bit of a disappointing sophomore year. He still finished with 14 goals and 22 helpers with 36 points in 79 contests. Nine points down from his first year with the club.

It didn’t end well for Hayes, who was benched by coach Alain Vigneault for the last two games of a first round loss against Pittsburgh. He entered playing better but wasn’t able to get anything going. Rental Eric Staal didn’t pay off. He wound up leaving for Minnesota.

As for Hayes, he certainly has the ability to be a more capable offensive player than what we got in Year 2. There were too many shifts where he disappeared. His play away from the puck suffered. He was one of the guilty forwards who didn’t always back check. Such play got Derick Brassard traded to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 second round pick.

The 6-5, 227 pound Hayes is a strong puck possession player with good vision. An unselfish player who continues to learn a new position at center, he needs to improve his consistency. If he ever reaches his full potential, 20 goals and 30-35 assists is possible. That would mean elevating his game to a level the Rangers are counting on. As he enters his third year, he could be asked to center the second line. That largely depends on who impresses more between him and Zibanejad, who is a two-time 20-goalscorer that’s improving.

Both are young talented players with upside. There’s only a one year age difference. Hayes is 24 while Zibanejad is 23. Each was selected in the first round. Hayes by the Blackhawks 24th overall in 2010. Zibanejad sixth overall in 2011.

While the most responsibility will be with number one pivot Derek Stepan, the Rangers’ offense depends largely on the development and maturity of Hayes and Zibanejad. They’re banking on each for the future.

Gorton did a great job getting all our players re-signed. He somehow was able to save money by moving Brassard. Remarkably, the Rangers still have around $3.5 million in cap space. Unfamiliar territory.

With virtually everything done, it looks like we’ll have to wait through the dog days of summer for two months until the World Cup of Hockey and then training camp. I’m happy to see everyone signed.

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Rangers, Kreider agree to new contract

Chris Kreider PPG

Chris Kreider scores a power play goal in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

It came down to the wire for the Rangers and Chris Kreider. With the restricted free agent set for a 9 AM arbitration hearing, the announcement didn’t come until 9:35 this morning. The two sides agreed on a new four-year contract worth an average of $4.625 million per season.

TSN insider Aaron Ward broke the story first. The deal also includes a limited no trade clause. Kreider selected 11 teams he would accept a trade to. So, it’s not etched in stone that he’ll stay a Ranger for all four seasons. That largely depends on how he performs.

The 25-year old former ’09 first round pick (19th overall) has a unique skill set. The 6-3, 226 pound Boxford, Massachusetts native combines great speed with physical tools making him a power forward. So far, he’s been capable of scoring 21 goals doing so in each of the previous two seasons. A player who also has a mean streak, he still hasn’t found consistency.

The next step for Kreider is to become a more consistent player. In investing over the next four years at a solid price, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton is banking on Kreider to take that next step. That means going from an up and down 21 goals and 40-plus points to somewhere between 25-30 goals and 50-60 points. The talent is there. It’s all about the player here.

By buying up his first two free agent years, the Rangers are counting on Kreider to be part of a young nucleus of forwards featuring Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan along with newcomers Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad. Stepan is the oldest at 26. Mats Zuccarello is 28 and Rick Nash is the elder statesman at 32.

In already signing Miller to a bridge contract and re-signing Dylan McIlrath while getting Kreider done, Gorton has had a good summer. He also addressed the fourth line and penalty kill with underrated signings of speedsters Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner and Josh Jooris.

Gorton also added Nick Holden from Colorado and Adam Clendening improving depth on the blue line. Considering what he had to work with, he’s done well in his second off-season. With approximately six million left in cap space, all that’s left is Hayes. Figure a bridge deal in the neighborhood of $2.25 AAV should get it done.

With the exception of Derick Brassard, most of the core remains intact. Don’t forget captain Ryan McDonagh is 27. The Rangers’ captain needs to remain healthy for the team to have any success. He has dealt with injuries the past couple of seasons including two concussions in ’15-16. Hopefully, he’ll have better luck in the future. It would be nice if McIlrath, 24, rode shotgun. He must be part of the solution.

Brady Skjei definitely will be. The 22-year old smooth skating defenseman should definitely be a big help on a back end that’s gotten stale. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal must have their roles redefined. They aren’t the same due to wear and tear. The Rangers are hoping a longer off-season will help their recovery. Of the remaining D, righty Kevin Klein could be moved. With two years left at $2.9 million AAV, he only goes if things change.

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Brassard was first class

Zucc's Back: A happy Mats Zuccarello gets congrats from Derick Brassard for one of his two goals in the Rangers' 5-4 win over the Leafs.  The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

In better times,  Mats Zuccarello celebrates a goal with Derick Brassard as cohesive teammates who made the Rangers fun to watch.
The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

Whenever a good player gets traded, it’s emotional for both teammates and fans. Take the captain for captain trade at the 2014 deadline that sent Ryan Callahan to Tampa for Martin St. Louis. Callahan was one of the most popular Rangers. A fan favorite who bled our colors by sacrificing body parts during games, Captain Cally was a Black & Blueshirt.

When he was dealt, I was sad. I also was mad at the organization for intentionally leaking the details of the negotiation between Callahan and the team which didn’t get done. It was an example of PR turning the fans against a player who went above and beyond the call of duty. They didn’t need to do that to justify a trade for a future Hall of Famer. St. Louis became the emotional leader during the club’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. His teammates rallied around him following the death of Mom France.

I’ve always said since that special run which included the first ever comeback from a 3-1 deficit in franchise history, the 2013-14 Rangers don’t get that far without St. Louis. Even if the deal was a risk, Glen Sather had to take it to try to win the Cup. They fell short of that goal losing to the Kings and then to the Lightning in a gut wrenching seventh game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. St. Louis retired.

Unfortunately, his loss was felt this past season. Both in the locker room and on the ice, the ’15-16 Rangers missed his presence. Even when they started out well, they never were quite right. Henrik Lundqvist covered up so many mistakes. Eventually, he caved in and Alain Vigneault’s system broke down.

The struggles of proud vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented. Coming off injuries that required off-season surgery, neither were the same. They were mistake prone and slow to react causing turnovers and leading to goals against. While they received most of the criticism, a few of the club’s more popular forwards were ignored.

That included Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. A dynamic duo that was formed during the 2014 season. Along with Benoit Pouliot, they became the team’s best puck possession line. After Pouliot departed for the Oilers, Brassard and Zuccarello remained intact teaming with Rick Nash to form the team’s top scoring line. The chemistry between Brassard and Zuccarello was undeniable. They were a perfect match. Brassard with his combination of skating, passing and finishing. Zuccarello with his play-making, skill and bravery.

The Brassard/Zuccarello tandem were fun to watch. They scored and set up pretty goals that got fans out of their seats at MSG. Unfortunately, that chemistry ran out during the second half of ’15-16. They never were in sync. Even worse, their play away from the puck suffered. Ranger forwards didn’t always come back defensively. Brassard and Zuccarello were the biggest culprits. It was sad to see because it hurt the team.

Eventually, Vigneault broke them up. He replaced Zuccarello with J.T. Miller. A stronger two-way presence who Brassard credited for his sudden increase in goal scoring. In an interview with TSN that aired yesterday following the trade to the Senators for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick, Brassard credited Miller for helping set him up for a career high 27 goals. He was finishing more plays than setting up but wound up with 58 points (27-31-58). Two shy of his career best set in ’14-15.

Zuccarello led the Blueshirts in scoring with a career best 61 including a career high 26 goals to go with 35 helpers. Amazing production from a player who was a question mark due to brain contusion and a fractured skull sustained during the 2015 first round on a Ryan McDonagh shot that struck him in the helmet. By the end of the season, Vigneault tried him successfully with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. A combo we could see more of in the future.

No matter how down I was on Brassard for his inconsistency and defensive deficiency in a first round elimination to the Penguins, he was a very good Ranger. He excelled under Vigneault’s higher tempo and puck possession system. His scoring increased. From a third line role in which he tallied 18 goals and 27 assists plus 6-6-12 in a memorable 2014 postseason, he established career bests in goals (19), assists (41) and points (60) in ’14-15. That included 9-7-16 which paced the team in the 2015 postseason.

Known as Big Game Brass due to his penchant for raising his level in the playoffs, Brassard totaled 44 points (18-26-44) in 59 postseason contests all with the Rangers from 2012-16. That also included a goal and three assists in a disappointing five-game loss to Pittsburgh. Truth be told, they were over matched by a superior and deeper team that won the Stanley Cup. It still was inexcusable for Brassard to give up on a couple of key plays in a blowout Game 5 loss. Perhaps that sealed his fate.

Make no mistake. Brassard had a good run here. But the lack of attention to detail couldn’t have sat well with the coaching staff or management. Having signed a affordable five-year deal worth $25 million ($5 million AAV), the 28-year old from Hull, Canada has three years remaining when he comes home to play for Ottawa. Maybe it’s for the best. He will join a talented team featuring Erik KarlssonMark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan. Hoffman must still be re-signed to a long-term deal. But the Sens have plenty of room. So, the notion that Brassard could be left unprotected for next year’s expansion with Las Vegas seems unlikely.

One thing about Brassard. He was always accountable. When he wasn’t performing up to par, he took responsibility. He was a quality player and teammate whose leadership could be missed. For the Rangers, it became about cutting salary and getting younger. The Zibanejad acquisition does both. As noted yesterday, he has similar production to Brassard at the same stage of his career. It’s ironic that both were chosen sixth overall five years apart. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for both the Rangers and Sens.

As for Brassard, the classy center made sure to thank the Rangers on Instagram.

The only thing we as fans can do is wish Brassard luck with his new team. As far as the future of the Blueshirts, the page has been turned. With this move, it signals a move in a different direction. Undoubtedly, Kevin Hayes will play a bigger role once he re-signs.

So too will Chris Kreider, who I now expect to get a long-term contract in the neighborhood of five years for $25 million. It’s now about a young nucleus that also includes Stepan, Miller and captain McDonagh. Zibanejad and newly signed top prospect Pavel Buchnevich will be part of it along with Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath.

For once, it’s not about the vets. But rather about youth. Even as Lundqvist ages, there is still enough young talent for the Blueshirts to remain competitive. They also recently signed 19-year old 2015 third round pick Robin Kovacs to an entry level contract. With Ryan Graves and Adam Tambellini also in tow, the future looks bright.

GM Jeff Gorton is preparing for it the right way.

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Brassard is Gone

Derick Brassard is gone. The Rangers traded him to the Senators in exchange for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick.

Funny enough, I suggested trading Brassard this summer. He’s a quality offensive play-making center who was a good Ranger. He came over from the Blue Jackets in the deal for Marian Gaborik on Apr. 3, 2013.The trade also netted Derek Dorsett and John Moore.

Brassard always raised his level in the playoffs. After putting up 12 points in 2013, he went 6-6-12 during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Centering a cohesive third line flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, Brassard scored and set up big goals. The trio were terrific on the forecheck the entire 2014 postseason.

With the departure of Pouliot to Edmonton, Brassard was asked to play a bigger role. Signed to a five-year deal with an average cap hit of $5 million, he continued to improve putting up a career high 60 points (19-41-60) in ’14-15. He paced the Rangers with nine goals and 16 points in a postseason that saw the team get within a period of a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. That included a hat trick in Game 6 versus the Lightning.

His final season with the Blueshirts was very good offensively. He set a new career high with a team-leading 27 goals to go with 31 assists and 58 points. However, Brassard’s defensive game leveled off. Never the best defensive center, he fell into lazy habits refusing to backcheck at crucial moments. He and Zuccarello had to be separated by coach Alain Vigneault due to their lack of attention to detail. They didn’t have the same chemistry offensively as the previous year.

In a five-game first round series loss to the Penguins, Brassard tied with Rick Nash for the team lead in scoring with four points. However, his play in Game 5 was awful. He gave up on one goal after a costly turnover. Brassard didn’t compete in what turned out to be the final game of his Rangers career. A blowout loss to the Pens.

By trading him to Ottawa for the younger Zibanejad, who is signed through 2017 at an AAV of $2.625 million, the Rangers freed up salary. They’re saving approximately $2.375 million.

Zibanejad is 23. Like Brassard, he’s a former first round pick. Taken sixth overall by the Senators in the 2011 NHL Draft, the Swedish center is at a similar point in his career as Brassard was when he came here. Ironically, both players went sixth overall in their drafts and were given up at the same point.

Zibanejad has put up back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He followed up 20-26-46 with a career high 21 goals, 30 assists and 51 points this past season. The highest amount of points Brassard ever put up before he joined the Rangers was 47. It’s worth pointing out that his career high 27 markers were the first time he eclipsed the 20-goal mark. So, the team traded him at his high point.

Maybe it’s another smart deal that works out. By moving Brassard, it puts more trust in Kevin Hayes to take over the second line center. A role he should be up to. Given his size and skill set, getting increased minutes should benefit the pass-oriented Hayes. If he’s not up to it, Zibanejad can center the second line.

While some of the reaction has been predictably negative asking what they traded Brassard for, Zibanejad has plenty of skill. He also has some sweet moves in the shootout. Not that I love shootouts. He still has room to grow as a player.

Credit GM Jeff Gorton for making a move that was outside the box. He realized they needed to cut salary. He’s taking a chance on a younger player with similar talent to Brassard. If it works out, nobody will complain. It sets up the Rangers better for the future.

Derek Stepan is the team’s number one center. He’ll obviously need to be more consistent in terms of production. But that also means Chris Kreider better get his act together. Assuming they commit long-term to him, he will directly impact Stepan. The future is likely built around both along with recently re-signed J.T. Miller.

Nash doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. If he isn’t, he’ll have to find chemistry with someone else. Whether it’s with Stepan or likely Hayes given the puck possession and skating he possesses, Nash should be fine. Zuccarello seemed to mesh well with Stepan when tried together.

As for Brassard, thank you for four good years. You helped the team reach higher. Good luck in Ottawa.

 

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Rangers re-sign McIlrath, Hughes and sign Josh Jooris

Dylan McIlrath, Matt Beleskey

New York Rangers’ Dylan McIlrath (6) and Boston Bruins’ Matt Beleskey (39) fight during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Two days after re-signing J.T. Miller, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton stayed busy by re-signing two more players and adding another depth forward. He re-signed restricted free agents Dylan McIlrath and Tommy Hughes to one-year contracts while adding unrestricted forward Josh Jooris also for one year.

The terms for McIlrath are $800,000 for ’16-17. The former 2010 first round pick got into 34 games during his rookie season scoring two goals and adding two assists while racking up 64 penalty minutes as a seventh defenseman. Despite having solid chemistry with ex-Ranger Keith Yandle, he didn’t play consistently due to untrustworthy coach Alain Vigneault.

The big physical defenseman became a fan favorite. The toughest D the Blueshirts have had since Mike Sauer, McIlrath delivered crunching hits while playing with snarl clearing the front of the net. He also took on all comers. That included Wayne Simmonds in response to the Flyers’ power forward concussing Ryan McDonagh.

McIlrath showed improved skating and was solid in his end. New assistant Jeff Beukeboom gets credit for helping McIlrath and Brady Skjei develop in Hartford. It should be interesting to see what strides they make in the upcoming season.

Hughes, 24, is a three-year pro with the Wolf Pack. He’s totaled five goals and 20 assists in 173 games with Hartford.

Jooris is a 26-year old gritty forward who spent his first two seasons in the NHL with the Flames. Originally signed by Calgary in the summer of 2013, the former four-year player out of Union College spent a full year in the AHL before earning a spot with the Flames the past two seasons.

Playing a supporting role, he tallied 12 goals and 12 assists in 60 contests as a rookie in ’14-15. That included four power play goals and four game-winners, helping the Flames reach the postseason. Year 2 wasn’t as successful. In 59 games, he totaled four goals and nine helpers. As a team, Calgary struggled missing the playoffs.

A solid energy guy who can play penalty kill due to his speed and defensive instincts, Jooris is a good addition. Similar to Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner, he should help bolster the fourth line. All three forwards Gorton added have speed and play hard.

With off-season surgery keeping Oscar Lindberg out to start the season, the Rangers have at least addressed their fourth line. Even with not much space due to still needing to re-sign key RFA’s Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider, they’ve improved their depth both at forward and on the back end. Gorton traded for Nick Holden and signed Adam Clendening to provide more defensive depth.

With approximately nine million left, Gorton will turn his attention to Hayes and Kreider. Hayes should be easier due to completing a rookie deal. Figure a bridge deal in the neighborhood of $5 million ($2.5 AAV).

Kreider is the harder decision. Do they commit long-term to the 25-year old power forward who’s two seasons away from unrestricted free agency? That largely depends on the organization and if they believe Kreider is worth locking up. Stay tuned.

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Rangers, Miller agree to bridge deal

J.T. Miller

J.T. Miller signed a bridge deal with the Rangers worth an average of $2.625 million per season. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Earlier on Wednesday, the Rangers took care of business with one of four restricted free agents. They reached agreement with J.T. Miller on a bridge deal worth a reported $2.625 million per year.

The versatile center/wing posted career bests in goals (22), assists (21) and points (43) over a full 82 games in ’15-16 while adding three assists in a first round loss to the Penguins. The 43 points tied him with restricted free agent Chris Kreider for fifth in team scoring. A first round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Miller also tied for first with teammates Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan with five game-winners. His 174 hits ranked third behind Kreider (177) and team leader Tanner Glass (224).

A gritty player who is effective on the forecheck, Miller became one of the team’s most consistent players. As the season went on, he gained coach Alain Vigneault’s trust. Miller was used on multiple lines to help provide a lift. Whether it was with American ‘mates Stepan and Kreider or with Brassard and Rick Nash, Miller fit in well. His willingness to get the dirty jersey and go to the hard areas made him a fan favorite. Passed over for the Steven McDonald Award which went to popular Norwegian and leading scorer Mats Zuccarello, the East Palestine, Ohio native showed rapid improvement.

Still only 23, Miller should only get better and play more of a role. He averaged slightly over 15 minutes a night. Figure that to increase along with added responsibility. Though at times he did make puzzling puck decisions, for the most part he was a solid overall player who should get a look on the penalty kill. He earned a spot on the second power play unit. There’s always room for strong skaters who aren’t afraid to go to the net.

The one question I have is why couldn’t Rangers’ brass try to skip the traditional bridge contract for more of a long-term. Of course, the answer is all to predictable. Handcuffed by the contracts of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, the organization simply doesn’t have enough room to go higher on a player who shows the most potential. What a shame. Assuming Miller continues to excel, in two years he’ll only cost more than he would’ve for say a five-year contract.

It’s the same approach they always take. It cost them with Stepan, who wound up earning even more than what he’s probably worth. That $6.5 million cap hit is more than Nathan MacKinnon, who just re-upped with the Avalanche for the next seven seasons. The waiting to the last minute approach isn’t working. It’s only costing the Rangers more over the long haul. What if Kreider only signs for a year and then breaks out? They’ll wind up paying exponentially more than the market value which was set by Kyle Palmieri.

Of course, that’s the price of doing business the way this team operates. No wonder they never have any cap room. Granted. Kreider is a little more tricky. He’s yet to develop consistently. He put up an identical amount of goals (21) and three fewer points (43) than his second year. A couple of years away from unrestricted status, it’ll be interesting to see what GM Jeff Gorton does with Kreider. Does he ante up for say five years at $5 million per year? Or does he make the 25-year old power forward earn it?

The same can be echoed of Kevin Hayes, who had a disappointing sophomore year. He will undoubtedly take whatever raise he gets. Dylan McIlrath also remains unsigned. So does Marek Hrivik, who probably will be back competing for a spot in training camp.

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Why the NHL made a mistake with this round of Expansion

In a long anticipated move, the NHL awarded their 31st franchise to Las Vegas almost exactly a year to the day after formally opening the expansion process in June of 2015, to begin play in the 2017-18 season. After 16 groups reportedly received applications last summer from the NHL, only Bill Foley’s Las Vegas group and Quebecor’s Quebec City group returned the applications (with a $1 million fee) to be considered for this round of expansion. Although it initially seemed both groups would be awarded expansion teams, with both cities either having built or building state-of-the-art facilities to house potential teams, the league’s owners decided to proceed only with Las Vegas’ bid, choosing to defer Quebecor’s application. While not officially closing the door on expansion in the somewhat-near future for Quebec City, the NHL made mistakes in both omitting Quebec City and with proceeding with expanding to Las Vegas.

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Bill Foley and Gary Bettman at the announcement of Las Vegas as the 31st NHL franshise

 

There are a few obvious factors that contributed to the NHL’s eventual expansion to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is the biggest market in both the United States and Canada that currently does not host a major professional sports franchise, it had the support of the deep-pocketed ownership group of Bill Foley which promised to build a suitable arena for their team to play in, and a Las Vegas team would play in the Western Conference, furthering the NHL’s goal of geographic balance. It was clear from last June that any serious attempt by the Bill Foley group would land Las Vegas a team, and a few weeks ago, their vision became reality with the anticipated announcement coming just before the NHL’s annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

 

While Las Vegas currently does not have any major professional sports options, its metropolitan population of less than two million residents does not exactly jump off the page. And despite having seen tremendous growth from 2000-2010, and despite continuing assertions from Las Vegas supporters that it is a growing region, that trend has stopped. In fact, Las Vegas has seen a decline in their population since 2013. It is roughly the size of Columbus, Ohio (21st largest metro in the NHL), a city that has been struggling for the better part of two decades to fill Nationwide Arena when the Blue Jackets are in town; and Columbus has a few clear advantages over Las Vegas in terms of supporting hockey at the NHL level.

 

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Ohio, while maybe not considered a hockey hot-bed, is certainly not a non-traditional hockey market. The first Ohioan to appear in the NHL, Cecil Dillon, was born in 1908. If some of you Rangers fans float that name to the old-timers in your family, they just might recognize it. He broke into the NHL with the Rangers in 1930 for whom he famously didn’t miss a single game over nine seasons, broke an NHL record with 8 post-season goals during the Rangers 1933 Stanley Cup run, and finished his NHL career after one season with the Red Wings in 1940. 23 other players native to Ohio have appeared in the NHL. Yes, Las Vegas’ own Jason Zucker is a prime example of hockey’s reach, and plenty of big time players have begun to emerge from non-traditional areas, but the fact remains hockey is a fringe sport even in some areas to which it is native. Success is few and far between off of the ice for most NHL teams in non-traditional markets, and it seems unlikely Las Vegas will reverse that trend.

 

Columbus, a consistent bottom 5 team in terms of attendance, also does not have to deal with the element of a transient-majority population that Las Vegas will have to contend with. Nevada has by far the lowest percentage of native-born residents in the country at 24%. Many residents of the relatively lightly populated Las Vegas are loyal to the sports teams of their native regions. Like many others have observed, Las Vegas’ NHL team will be relying on gate revenue from away-fans at far higher rates than any other NHL market, including Florida. While Vegas may be putting people in the seats, at least during the first couple of seasons, I find it difficult to trust that they will build a healthy and thriving fan base of their own. Even a piece from an article from the Las Vegas Sun summarizes how the transient nature of Las Vegas affects the city’s civic development: “The state’s high transience means newcomers may not see a need to build community and sometimes make “decisions that reflect the lack of attachments,” she said. People might not care about nurturing institutions, like public schools or nonprofit groups, or support diversifying the economy, a process that can take years to pay off.” (http://lasvegassun.com/news/2011/nov/29/native-nevadans-remain-small-minority-among-reside/). This Las Vegas NHL franchise is certainly an institution that will require nurturing from a population that may be unwilling to do so.

 

As much as I hope hockey can one day appeal to a diverse audience, the fact remains the vast majority of those who consume the NHL product are white people. Las Vegas has a huge Hispanic population, and while I’d love to see the NHL, USA Hockey, and Hockey Canada make the effort to engage Hispanic and black populations, dropping a team into an area with a large Hispanic presence isn’t the answer to that issue, as Phoenix and Dallas have illustrated. So, unless the NHL can reverse generations of cultural trends in 15 months, Las Vegas is looking at struggling to engage over 30% of its population.

 

 

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A rendering of Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena

 

You may look at all of these factors individually and find other markets that deal with similar issues that have off-ice success and think these are issues that Las Vegas will be able to overcome. And maybe you would be right. However, no other market has succeeded under so many negative conditions. Yes, Buffalo is also a small market, in fact even smaller than Las Vegas, but Buffalo is a hockey-mad city, and the Sabres, even sharing the tiny market with the wildly popular Bills, are inseparably woven into the civic fabric of Buffalo and Western New York. Yes, Washington, D.C is a major transient region, but their population is triple that of Las Vegas. Yes, Los Angeles is a warm weather place, but Los Angeles is the second largest market in the United States. Warm weather teams disproportionately make up the bottom third of league attendance most seasons and the bottom third of team value and operating profit. The one advantage Las Vegas seems to have is that there are no other major professional sports franchises, but let’s backtrack to Columbus; another city that doesn’t share its market with another major professional sports franchise. The Blue Jackets are by themselves and again, struggle to get people into the building. And unlike Columbus, Las Vegas residents have plenty of other outlets to spend their entertainment dollars.

 

On the other side of this conversation is Quebec City, the applicant city that has been deferred by the NHL with no timeline for its potential reexamination. Quebec City has successfully hosted NHL in the past, only losing its team along with Winnipeg due to an unfortunate economic climate during the 1990’s in Canada. Winnipeg has since seen NHL hockey return with the relocation of the struggling Atlanta Thrashers in 2011, and they have succeeded tremendously. Quebec City’s metro is larger than Winnipeg’s, its stadium is newer and significantly larger than Winnipeg’s, its local economy is healthier than Winnipeg’s, and hockey is equally popular in Quebec City as it is in Winnipeg. Winnipeg isn’t an indication that Quebec would succeed, it is a bar Quebec City would easily vault. It would make more on gate revenue and would likely make more on their media deal, as they would play in a larger media market. The numbers are simply on Quebec’s side.

 

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The last Nordiques team

 

The reasoning behind the NHL’s exclusion of Quebec are borderline silly in some regards. The primary reason given for proceeding without Quebec seems to be the geographic balance of the NHL, and I find the exclusion of a market from a multi-billion dollar industry based on geography to be nothing short of absurd. The league should not be awarding franchises based on its geographic structure, it should be structuring around the 30, 31, 32 markets best suited for the NHL. Simple as that. Sure, it would be nice if there was an easy solution to geographic balance, but we shouldn’t be sacrificing great hockey markets because the logistics are inconvenient.

 

One argument that superficially seems like a good reason to have left Quebec out is the struggling Canadian dollar. Today, $1CA is trading to $.77US. The primary effect this has on teams operating in Canada is essentially a 23% premium on paying their players. All players, regardless of which side of the border they play on, are paid in $US (preventing the negative side effects of such fluctuations common with the Canadian dollar, i.e a contract being worth say 30% less today than what it was worth when it was signed in 2011), but most revenue received by the seven Canadian teams is of course in $CA. This also affects the league’s collective overall revenue.

 

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The Centre Videotron in Quebec City

 

The inherent instability of the Canadian dollar is something the NHL will always have to deal with. It is the price of doing business in Canada. The NHL can’t go into its shell in terms of its business dealings in Canada every time their currency dips. Canada is a rentier economy, and that is unfortunately the nature of a currency tied to that kind economy. Seven other NHL teams deal with this currency fluctuation and current relative low value and manage it just fine, and Quebec wouldn’t have any other hurdle other Canadian teams have been dealing with for their entire existence. The only real-money effect the devalued currency would have on an expansion process would be the expansion fee the NHL was to charge to any group that was to come into the league through expansion. The $500 million figure would come somewhere into the ballpark of CA$615,000,000; a major difference, sure, but I would bet that Quebec’s ownership group, multibillion dollar multimedia giant Quebecor, would not mind spending the extra money.

 

The bottom line is, regardless of what currency a Quebec City franchise would use, it would turn a profit.

 

There are other economic and factors that suggest Quebec would be a more successful franchise than Las Vegas. First, take a look at the overall economic climate in Canada. Yes, the declining price of oil has hurt the country, especially out west, but Canada is a country with a low poverty rate that provides its citizens with social safety nets and a nationalized health care system. The average Canadian has far more disposable income than the average American, and Quebec City’s economy is especially strong. Quebec boasts a diverse economy and an unemployment rate of only 4.5%, the lowest of any major Canadian city (compared to Las Vegas’ 7.3%).

 

Quebec City is a true hockey town that has been begging for a return of their beloved Nordiques since they left in 1996. And that’s no surprise to anyone familiar with the NHL, as the grassroots organization Nordiques Nation has spent the last half decade making sure every hockey fan knows where the NHL unquestionably should have expanded next. You don’t need to build a fan base in Quebec, you have one in waiting. You don’t need to hope hockey will work there, you know it has, does, and will. Putting numbers aside (I know a phrase not used by the NHL Board of Governors when making decisions like this), hockey belongs in Quebec City. I want to see a league of the best hockey cities on the continent. I want the NHL to be a true reflection of the game of hockey. And it’s not that I don’t want the sport to grow to non-traditional markets, but I think before we try to build interest in Miami and Phoenix and Las Vegas, we should be serving the hockey hot beds and allowing those who have loved the game their entire lives to consume it at the top level. The numbers work for Quebec City, and the passion is palpable. They’ve shown up all over the US and Canada to NHL stadiums from coast to coast in an attempt to get their Nordiques back, and the NHL chose Las Vegas, a town in which they hope to cultivate a group of fans circumstantially.

 

LV6

A show of support for the Nordiques in Quebec City

 

I think there are two major factors that went into choosing Las Vegas and omitting Quebec City. First, I think the NHL chose Las Vegas as a prestige project. The NHL wanted to make a splash, and they wanted to be the first major professional league to pull the trigger on the Las Vegas experiment. The same way Bruce Ratner dragged the Nets to Brooklyn, and the same way North Korea builds massive infrastructure projects they never intend to use, the NHL is trying to score some exposure and pound their own chests over trailblazing this desert town.

 

On the other side, I think Quebec City’s predominant Franco culture might have played a bigger role than one might expect in deciding not to head to Quebec just yet. The NHL is a different, more connected league than it was the last time the Nordiques took the ice. I think there would be some disagreements over the handling of the language issue, and I think the logistics would be far more complicated than dealing with bilingual cities like Montreal and Ottawa, and far more complicated than they were 20 years ago. I think fans of the Nordiques would be rightfully upset if the NHL applied bilingual policies to their franchise (because Quebec City is absolutely not a bilingual city and shouldn’t be treated as such), but I doubt the NHL wants to have a franchise that operates primarily in a language a vast majority of NHL fans don’t speak. It would be much more difficult for casual fans and fans of other teams to stay connected to what was going on with the Quebec City franchise, and I’m sure their popularity with the casual fan would suffer, and as a result, so would their ratings for national broadcasts both in the US and in Canada. I doubt many non-Francophone players would be thrilled to have to relocate to Quebec City, and landing top free agents that hail from non-French speaking regions (so, most of them) would be far more difficult for the Nordiques than most franchises. I’m not trying to stoke any conspiracy fire, but it certainly could have been a factor that few if any people (at least outside of Quebec) have considered.

 

Las Vegas probably won’t be an immediate failure. Novelty will propel them for the first handful of years and probably keep a pro-Vegas crowd in the stadium. However, before too long, I imagine local interest will wain to levels you’d expect in a small desert city. The crowds most nights will have huge proportions of away-fans, and the Vegas crowd will probably be outnumbered on many occasions. I’m sure casino goers will be receiving tickets as comped prizes, and you’ll have high rollers coming in with 5 minutes left in the first period and leaving before the second intermission. I think that within 5 years, Las Vegas will have the worst atmosphere in the NHL. I think it will be another black eye on the NHL, and one they will refuse let mercifully die as they do with other failed non-traditional market experiments.

 

I do not have any bias against Las Vegas. Nevada is a beautiful and unique state, and it would be nice to see a major professional sports team thrive there; unfortunately, I feel I can say with some confidence, I don’t think it’s going to be this team. Thankfully for Vegas, the NFL is also knocking on its door, I’m sure the NBA will be there within a few years as well, and I think both of those projects will be somewhat successful. But as for the NHL franchise, if it goes as poorly as I think it will, Quebec might not have to have its expansion application revisited.

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Devils re-sign Palmieri for five years, $23.5 million

Kyle Palmieri

Kyle Palmieri celebrates his second period goal in a Devils win over the Hawks. AP Photo by Nam Y. Huh/Getty Images

Earlier today, the Devils and restricted free agent Kyle Palmieri reached agreement on a new five-year contract worth a reported $23.5 million. His average cap hit comes out to $4.65 million per year. The payout is as follows:

’16-17 $4.5 million

’17-18 $4.5 million

’18-19 $5 million

’19-20 $5 million

’20-21 $4.25 million

Acquired from the Ducks at last year’s NHL Draft for a 2015 second round pick and a 2016 third round pick, the 25-year old from Smithtown, New York broke out in his first year with New Jersey establishing career bests in goals (30), assists (27), points (57) while playing all 82 games.

The 30 goals tied with Adam Henrique for the team lead while the 57 points led the Devils in scoring. Palmieri was one of four Devils to play every game. Only captain Andy Greene remains while Adam Larsson was traded for Taylor Hall and Stephen Gionta won’t return.

With GM Ray Shero referring to Palmieri as “a foundation building block who will only help the Devils get better,” they are on the right track this summer.

The blockbuster acquisition of Hall from the Oilers for Larsson has Jersey fans excited about the team’s prospects. Adding a proven scorer should bolster an anemic offense that ranked dead last in ’15-16 averaging a paltry 2.22 goals/game. Had they been in the middle of the pack with Cory Schneider’s goaltending, they would’ve made the playoffs. The Devils finished with 84 points. Twelve behind the wildcard Flyers and nine back of the wildcard Red Wings.

Shero has also added former Pen defenseman Ben Lovejoy to replace the departure of David Schlemko to San Jose. Free agent center Vernon Fiddler was brought in as a fourth line upgrade for Gionta. Former Pen Beau Bennett was acquired in the 2016 Draft for a third round pick (Connor Hall). Devante Smith-Pelly was re-signed to a two-year deal worth $2.6 million.

With still plenty of cap space to re-sign restricted free agent Reid Boucher along with first-year pros Steven Santini, Miles Wood, John Quenneville signed and top prospect Pavel Zacha likely a year away, things look bright in Newark.

The Devils are also waiting on Patrik Elias to recover and see if he wants to return for one final year. His decision might not come until training camp. The all-time franchise leader in goals (408), assists (617) and points (1025) turned 40 in April. It would be nice to see him go out on his own terms. Last year, injuries limited him to eight points (2-6-8) in 16 games.

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Islanders look to experience and prospects in future

Frans Nielsen,  P.A. Parenteau, Zenon Konopka, Rick DiPietro

P.A. Parenteau has returned to the Islanders. They’re counting on him, Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera to offset the losses of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin.

There was little question that the Islanders were going to have a different look. Once July 1 rolled around, Matt Martin, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo became former players moving on to different teams. Martin landing in Toronto for four years, $10 million to protect Auston Matthews. Nielsen opting for Detroit’s $31.5 million over six years, and Okposo headed upstate to Buffalo for seven years, $42 million.

Islanders Team President and GM Garth Snow went for more experience and leadership bringing in Andrew Ladd on a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million. While the long-term risk could come back to haunt them, Ladd is the kind of character player who should help captain John Tavares lead both on and off the ice. A veteran who’s won two Stanley Cups, Ladd knows what it takes to win.

Aside from going at least two years too long on Ladd, Snow was able to find a couple of dependable players in the bargain basement. First, he added former Cap Jason Chimera for only two years, $4.5 million. While it’s true he’s 37, Chimera has continued to perform well. A solid two-way player who can be used on the third or fourth line while being an effective penalty killer, the speedy forward never takes a shift off. His work ethic and hustle should impress Islander fans.

Still needing another scorer, Snow dug into the past and brought back the proven P.A. Parenteau on a low risk one year, $1.25 million deal. The 33-year old scored 20 goals and added 21 assists for 41 points in 77 games for the Maple Leafs a year after a disappointing injury riddled campaign in Montreal.

Before leaving for Colorado, Parenteau was part of a couple of Islander teams where he played some of his best hockey in ’10-11 and ’11-12. He totaled 38 goals and 82 helpers for 130 points over 161 games while playing mostly with Tavares. He’s always been a solid power play option. Of his 268 total points, 107 have come on the man-advantage including 33 power play goals and 74 power play assists. The Islanders ranked 17th on the power play going 18.3 percent this past season.

The big question with these additions is how much can they offset the losses of Martin, Nielsen and Okposo? Let’s face it. All three were key parts of the Islanders who helped them finally reach the second round. Of course, it doesn’t happen without a heroic effort from Tavares, whose tying and winning goals in Game 6 against the Panthers had the Barclays Center celebrating in downtown Brooklyn.

Okposo had superb chemistry with Tavares taking his game to a different level. Now, he’ll look to do the same thing in Buffalo with either Jack Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly. Nielsen was always that perfect second-line pivot who could be trusted in any situation including power play and penalty kill. With the Isles’ offense struggling, coach Jack Capuano didn’t hesitate to move him up to Tavares’ line with Okposo.

Martin was the meat and potatoes for the club. Along with Cal Clutterbuck, he played a physical style that made him a fan favorite. Delivering crunching hits and becoming an effective forechecker on the Isles’ grind line centered by Casey Cizikas, the popular Martin was always willing to do the dirty work for the good of the team. That’ll be left to Clutterbuck, who has been a great fit since coming over from the Wild for former first round pick Nino Niederreiter. He has one year left before hitting the market next summer.

What the Isles are doing is trying to transform a team that played physical to more of a skating club. By adding the more skilled Chimera, they’re going away from what Martin brought. They also bumped up Cizikas’ salary to $3.35 million. That probably means they want him to take on a different role.

While it’s true they did lose more scoring, maybe it’s time for some of their young core to step to the forefront. We’re speaking of Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, who is still recovering from a broken left fibula that kept him out of the playoffs. Nelson was a disappointment with just a goal and four assists in the two rounds. They need more consistency from him. He put up 26 markers in ’15-16. Nelson is fully capable of supplanting Nielsen as the team’s second line center. Lee came on down the stretch before a costly injury. Both will be keys to their success.

One thing about the Isles’ roster is they have plenty of versatility. Both Nelson and Lee can play the pivot as can Josh Bailey, who is one of the club’s top penalty killers along with Clutterbuck. Ryan Strome is another young player they’re counting on to be better than last season. He took a giant step back finishing with eight goals and 20 assists. His skill level certainly should produce much better. Strome still needs work defensively.

If there are two players the club haven’t gotten enough from, that would be oft-injured center Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. For the money they make (combined $9.18 million AAV) neither has been consistent. Unfortunately, Grabovski has dealt with concussions which have really limited him. He’s played 109 games the first two years with the Isles totaling 18 goals and 26 assists. He missed the postseason. In fact, he’s only gotten into three playoff games the past two years. Kulemin is more complementary and can be used in a secondary role. Certainly, either could be a buyout candidate or left unprotected for next year’s expansion. Not that I could realistically see Las Vegas actually picking either up.

With Snow re-signing Shane Prince for two years at an average of $850,000, he has just over six million left on the cap. Only restricted free agents Strome and Jean-Francois Berube are left to re-sign. Neither of who should cost too much.

The Islanders will be taking long looks at recent top picks Michael Dal Colle, Matthew Barzal and Joshua Ho-Sang, who turns pro this year. Dal Colle has the highest upside. If he impresses enough, he could get into some games before being sent back to junior. Ho-Sang has the most to prove following last year’s awful camp which prompted Snow to send him home.

Even with the roster changing, the Isles should still be heard from in the future.

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Sabres acquire Anders Nilsson

Anders Nilsson

In a move to address backup goalie, the Sabres acquired Anders Nilsson from the Blues for a 2017 fifth round pick. They immediately signed the 26-year old Swede to a one-year deal worth a reported $1 million.

Originally an Islanders’ third round pick in ’09, he’s since bounced around the league. Nilsson went from the Blackhawks to the Oilers following a good season with Kazan AK-Bars where he won 20 games and posted a .936 save percentage in the KHL. He started out well in ’15-16 even putting Cam Talbot on the bench during the first half.

But Nilsson couldn’t maintain his level- falling to 10-12-2 with a 3.14 goals-against-average and a .901 save percentage. Eventually, Talbot regained the starting role with Edmonton. Eventually, the Oilers moved Nilsson to St. Louis on Feb. 27. He only appeared in three games allowing four goals on 44 shots.

Now, he is with his fifth NHL organization and third in a year. Nilsson will be the favorite to be the Sabres’ backup behind starter Robin Lehner. He should get stiff competition from Linus Ullmark, who won 10 games with a 2.60 GAA and .913 save percentage in his rookie year.

Somewhat astonishingly, all three Buffalo netminders are Swedish. Each are two years apart in age with Nilsson the elder statesman at 26. That’s followed by Lehner (24) and Ullmark (22).

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