Cross Checks: Jason Spezza


New team, new city, new country, new school, new house, but luckily for Jason Spezza, at least one same linemate who ended the campaign with him in Ottawa last season.

Don't underestimate the importance of having Ales Hemsky on his right side as Spezza adjusts to playing for an NHL team other than the Ottawa Senators for the first time in his career.

"That's probably been the biggest thing so far," Spezza told ESPN.com on Tuesday from Dallas. "When you make such a big change, everything is new, except for the fact I'm playing with Hemmer still. It's really been a blessing to have a guy that I feel familiar with."

Spezza and Hemsky hit up an instant chemistry late last season after the Senators got the Czech winger in a trade from Edmonton. Ironically, it's because of that chemistry that Sens GM Bryan Murray was hoping to bring Hemsky back to play with Spezza. That was before learning that Spezza wanted out.
[+] EnlargeJason Spezza
Glenn James/NHLI/Getty ImagesJason Spezza is looking forward to suiting up for the high-flying Stars.


Hemsky instead followed Spezza to Dallas, giving the Stars a tantalizing one-two punch on their top two lines with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the top unit with sophomore Valeri Nichushkin. Erik Cole will likely begin the season complementing Spezza and Hemsky.

Questions remain as far as how this team will defend. But scoring goals? That should not be a problem.

"I think we can be a dynamic offensive team," Spezza said. "The fit is really good for me that way. [Head coach] Lindy [Ruff] wants us to play up-tempo, pressuring the puck, stuff that I'm comfortable doing. I think we're a team that can give other teams headaches nightly if we can take care of the puck in our end. Once we get on the attack, there aren't many teams that might be better than us that way."

For Spezza, it all lines up beautifully. After years of always drawing the toughest matchup from the other team as far as the top defense pair or the top checking line, he'll at least share that chore with Benn-Seguin, if not benefit most nights as other teams pick their poison and likely match up their best with Benn-Seguin.

Plus, the style of play Ruff wants to use suits Spezza just nicely.

"I really like the way Lindy wants us to play," Spezza said. "I think it really suits my game. The way he coaches is something that fits my game naturally. It's a nice starting point for sure."

According to a Western Conference scout, it could turn out to be a good fit, given the strengths of the teams out west.

"He is a big-body center, which helps in the Western Conference against the Getzlafs, Kopitars, Thorntons," the scout wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "He gives them a veteran presence for a young group, allows Ruff the ability to move Seguin's line around, [to] pack more offensive punch, which takes some pressure off Seguin ... . [He] will help balance their lineup and put guys into the right fits [and] is familiar with few players in that lineup, which helps. [He] has been a strong faceoff guy in Ottawa. [The] Stars' power play was just middle of the pack, so he can help that push upward in that category. He might just flourish with less pressure and [on a] non-Canadian team where the focus has been on him since day 1."

All in all, it should mean an increase in offensive productivity from Spezza, who tallied 66 points (23-43) in 75 games last season. Take the over this season on that point total.

And it just so happens he's in a contract year.

He would easily be the headliner next July 1 on what is otherwise a rather thin UFA crop when it comes to high-end talent, but whether or not he actually gets there, well, that remains to be seen.

The Stars intend on having Spezza hang around longer than one season.

"They've expressed that they want to talk [extension]," Spezza said. "And we have all intentions of talking. But it's just I want to get comfortable first, and get started. It's really not a big concern of mine right now. I'm not naive, I know as the season goes on it'll become more of a talking point. But at this point, I'm just worried about playing and getting comfortable. If we start winning games, it's going to be a good fit for both sides. It's just a matter of getting comfortable first. There's no point in rushing into anything."

Getting comfortable means off-ice, too. He's got kids ages 4, 2 and 4 months old. They moved into their house in Dallas in late August to begin their new life away from Canada's capital.

"I say it's been a pretty smooth transition, although it's my wife that's done most of the work," Spezza, 31, said with a chuckle. "We're settled. The kids are in school. Everyone is getting comfortable."

After years in the spotlight in hockey-crazed Ottawa, it's clear that Spezza appreciates the quiet life he's entering.

"It's been nice to come to the rink and work and nobody knows me here," he said. "It's been nice that way. We've enjoyed it."

Don't get him wrong -- he would never take back his years in Ottawa. But the time was right for a move.

"Ottawa is a great place to play, I really enjoyed playing in Canada and the scrutiny that came with it," Spezza said. "But you almost don't realize how much you go through day to day until you get away from it. You realize how much more laid-back it can be in another setting. I wouldn't change it, but I'm welcoming the change right now."

And so are the Stars.
Valeri Nichushkin Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsValeri Nichuskin appears ready to take a big step in his second year in the NHL, says Stars GM Jim Nill.
In a league where one of the most common refrains is that it’s next to impossible to acquire top-end centers, Jim Nill picked up Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza just over a year on the job as general manager in Dallas.

Mercy.

No wonder the Stars are a trendy pick ahead of this season to continue their onward climb in the tough Western Conference.

"I think Dallas is ready to take a leap in with the big boys,’’ one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com last week.

"It's no surprise to anyone in the Western Conference that watched Jim Nill and his staff quietly weave his magic in Detroit ... that the same culture of excellence is evolving quickly in Dallas through solid drafting and astute trades and FA signings,’’ another rival Western Conference team executive told ESPN.com via email.

"Another contender in the West."

The forward combinations may very well change, but for now, the thought of having Seguin reconnect his magic with stud winger Jamie Benn and having Spezza and fellow newcomer Ales Hemsky continue what they began late last season in Ottawa certainly provides Dallas with an awesome top-two line attack.

Then again, the Stars weren’t alone in stocking up in the West. The Blues got better, the Ducks got better, and the list goes on as the Western Conference arms race continues.

"That was the message to the players at the end of the year last season, 'We've got to get better,’’’ Nill told ESPN.com last week. "I went through every team in the conference, and they’re all getting better. So we have to get better, too. With that comes expectations, if you want to be a winner, if you have to learn how to deal with that.’’

But it’s all good, Nill said. It’s a good kind of pressure. And the market in Dallas has responded after the Stars made it into the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008 and followed up with the big Spezza trade.

"Our season-ticket base is up. I know our season-ticket and marketing people have had a great summer. There’s a nice buzz down here,’’ Nill said.

Stars spokesman Tom Holy said the team right now has gone from about 6,000 season tickets last season to more than 10,000, and the hope is that they can use this month with camp opening to push that up to 12,000.

[+] EnlargeTyler Seguin
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTyler Seguin is part of what should be a dynamic offense in Dallas this season.
Those fans should see an improved Valeri Nichushkin, the 19-year-old Russian who electrified at times in his rookie NHL season and now has an important year under his belt.

"I think Nichushkin is going to be even better,” said Nill, not one for hyperbole. "Last year was just a brand-new year for him, for a kid who’s 18 to come over here and go through the NHL not knowing the language, the rinks. He stayed here all summer, trained here, his English got better, so I think you’ll see a big step from him.’’

Where the critics wonder about the Stars’ viability as true contender is on the back end. On paper, the blue-line corps doesn’t stack up with Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim or St. Louis.

And yet, that’s exactly the area where Nill feels much improvement is coming.

"I’m excited about our young defensemen, we have a group of young defensemen who won the Calder Cup, I’m excited to see what they can do,’’ said Nill.

Nill is referring to the likes of Patrick Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka -- all AHL champions last season -- plus John Klingberg is coming over this season from Sweden.

"We think we’ve added some depth to our back end,” said Nill. "I’m looking forward to the steps all these guys make.’’

The Stars allowed 30.4 shots per game last season, a number that needs to go down; they were 17th in goals against per game at 2.72 -- OK, but not great -- and that’s despite super-solid goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, who sported a .919 save percentage while facing the second-most shots (1,888, behind only Semyon Varlamov) of any goalie in the NHL.

Like Varlamov in Colorado, a goalie can help mask issues on defense by standing on his head. It’s just that it’s not a recipe for long-term sustainability. The Stars need better play from their back end this season.

If the kids on defense don’t make the kind of step the Stars hope, one suspects that’s where Nill will focus ahead of the trade deadline. But that’s looking way down the road.

There’s lots of hockey to be played, and while there’s excitement for the Stars, leave it to Nill to also bring into perspective.

"People forget, we’re all two or three wins from being a top team and we’re all two or three losses from being out of the playoffs,” Nill said. "Nashville only had two fewer wins than us last year, Winnipeg just three or four. There’s not much difference from being in or out of the playoffs.’’

No question the parity in this league makes many of us overestimate at times the reasons why some teams get in and some don’t when the reality, as Nill suggests, is that a hair separates so many of the NHL clubs. Still, in trying to get that sliver of separation, acquiring two stud centers over 13 months is one heck of a way to go about it.

Not sure the Stars have what it takes on the blue line to truly contend for an NHL championship yet, but they will be must-watch TV all year long with that offense. You can bank on that.


The St. Louis Blues made quite the splash Tuesday, signing the most coveted center on the unrestricted free-agent market, Paul Stastny.

Just imagine had they also traded for Jason Spezza on top of that?

That’s exactly what the Blues would have attempted had the Ottawa Senators not dealt him so early in the day.

The priority in St. Louis was to make sure Stastny was going to sign there, but a source told ESPN.com the Blues would have also circled back to the Senators after that to inquire about what it would take to get Spezza as well.

Go big or go home, right?

At the end of the day, I’m not convinced the Blues would have offered as impressive a package as the Stars did, so the Senators probably made the right decision to trade with Dallas.

More on the Stars later. But let’s finish up with the Blues first. Major kudos to GM Doug Armstrong for sticking to his guns on not signing any contract past four years with Stastny. That was really important to Armstrong, but it’s hard to have that kind of self-control on July 1 when sometimes your emotions get the better of you with all the money flying around the NHL. He gave Stastny top dollar, averaging $7 million per year, but was able to get the term he wanted at four years, buying exactly the best four years of Stastny’s career from age 28 to 32. That’s mighty impressive.

At the end of the day, Stastny could have gone elsewhere for more term, but the Blues were the runaway front-runners if he was going to leave Colorado. He grew up in St. Louis and had long ago made that club a target if he couldn’t say with the Avs. He didn’t stay because Colorado just couldn’t move enough on term or salary to ever really come close.

Now the Blues will likely feature a top line of Stastny between Alex Steen and David Backes.

Stastny wasn’t the only free-agent center signed on this day by St. Louis. While it didn’t get nearly as much fanfare, the Blues were through-the-roof delighted to get Jori Lehtera to finally sign and leave overseas, where he has been a consistent top point producer in the KHL and before that the Finnish League. The Blues drafted him in 2008 but failed in a few attempts to get him to come over. Now he’s arriving as a matured, 26-year-old pivot who may turn some heads next season.

And those stars …
So in a league where team execs will always tell you it’s impossible to acquire top-end centers, Stars GM Jim Nill has picked up Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza within 12 months.

"Jim Nill is doing an incredible job there," a rival GM said Tuesday night.

The funniest thing about the Spezza trade is that, as late as Saturday, Nill was under the impression that Spezza didn’t want to go to Dallas. There was some miscommunication or confusion with Ottawa on that. Once that got cleared up over the weekend, Nill got back hard into the Spezza situation.

There had also been some dialogue with San Jose previously regarding Joe Thornton, but Jumbo still isn’t ready to leave the Sharks. So Spezza certainly made plenty of sense for the Stars, who tried to keep up with a Western Conference arms race at center.

With Ales Hemsky also signed Tuesday, you’ve got yourself a Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin pairing on the top line perhaps and Jason Spezza – Ales Hemsky on the second unit. Um yeah, there’s a few goals there.

Blackhawks get Richards
Word is Brad Richards had solid interest from the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, but in the end he was really sold on having a chance to win another Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Conversations with Hawks GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville over the past few days were all Richards needed to take a one-year flyer with the perennial Cup contenders.

To me, that’s a great fit for both sides and a smart play by Bowman to make it work at $2 million.

Brodeur still waiting
Martin Brodeur told us before free agency he knew he’d have to be patient once the market opened, and that patience is certainly being tested.

Tampa Bay was looking for a backup and spoke to Brodeur's camp, but then chose to go with Evgeni Nabokov.

The Pittsburgh Penguins talked to Brodeur’s camp but couldn’t make the money work, so they signed Thomas Greiss instead.

You have to believe there’s room somewhere for the NHL’s all-time winningest goalie, even at the age of 42, but it appears it’s not going to be easy.

Habs deal GorgesS
It wasn’t an easy few days for Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin after word leaked out of an attempted trade of Josh Gorges to Toronto, only to have the veteran defenseman block the deal to the Maple Leafs via his partial no-trade clause.

Word first leaked Saturday via TSN’s Bob McKenzie and, while it produced angry comments from Gorges, the Habs hung in there with Toronto for a few days, allowing the Maple Leafs to try to convince Gorges to change his mind. Bergevin waited until Tuesday morning, but when he was told the answer was still no from Gorges (the Habs it appears would have gotten Cody Franson in return), Montreal quickly turned its attention to Buffalo and got a deal done for a second-round pick in 2016. The Canadiens eventually got their right-handed defenseman elsewhere when they signed Tom Gilbert.

Many Habs fans and even some Montreal players are not happy to see the popular Gorges go. But with four more years on his deal at $3.9 million per season, Bergevin and the Habs front office made a calculated yet unpopular decision that Gorges’ play in the last two years of that deal would not warrant the cap hit, not to mention the necessity to open up more playing time on the left side of defense for youngster Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi.

Said one Western Conference GM: "I think Bergy did the right thing even if it was tough to do. Gorges is a warrior, but those miles will catch up to him."

Meanwhile, another popular player also left town Tuesday: Habs captain Brian Gionta joins Gorges in Buffalo via free agency, signing a three-year deal worth $4.25 million per season. A source told ESPN.com the Canadiens didn’t waiver from offering Gionta only a one-year extension, so that decision to leave was fairly simple for Gionta.

Between both veteran players, that’s a lot of leadership out the door and certainly two players that teammates valued. I’d say the risk here isn’t so much on the ice with these two departures, but rather off of it. There’s a leadership void to fill.

Rangers sign Boyle
Dan Boyle left "a lot" of money on the table from other teams, according to one source, in order to sign for $4.5 million per season over two years with the New York Rangers. Fact is, the allure of playing with old bud Martin St. Louis plus quarterbacking the Blueshirts power play made the Rangers the front-runners for Boyle.

Toronto, Tampa, Montreal and Detroit also had interest in Boyle.


Maybe you wondered if Jim Nill, who spent all of those years working behind the scenes with the Detroit Red Wings, would have the stuff to be a big-time NHL general manager on his own with the Dallas Stars.

Maybe you'll stop wondering now.

In one calendar year, Nill has stocked his team with two elite centers and has the Stars in a strong position to not just build on this season's surprise berth in the playoffs, but to make some noise next spring.

Nill followed his July 2013 acquisition of Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins in a blockbuster deal by acquiring disgruntled Ottawa center Jason Spezza on Tuesday, about an hour before the start of the free-agency period.

[+] EnlargeJason Spezza
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesJason Spezza gives the Stars a potent 1-2 punch at center alongside Tyler Seguin.
The Stars sent Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nicholas Paul and a second-round 2015 draft pick to Ottawa, which continues to reshape its roster. The Senators have lost their past two captains in successive years, with Daniel Alfredsson signing as a free agent last summer with Detroit.

The Stars also got prospect Ludwig Karlsson in the deal.

Chiasson, a 6-foot-4 winger, looks to have the most upside of the group, enjoying a strong start in his rookie season with the Stars but cooling off in the second half, finishing with 13 goals and 35 points (including six power-play goals and four game-winners).

He’ll presumably get a chance to play top-six minutes with a team that must redefine itself offensively. The Senators are coming off a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs despite remaining relatively healthy. They made surprise postseason appearances in each of the previous two seasons.

The Stars, of course, get the best player in the deal in Spezza, the second overall pick in 2001 who had spent his entire career in Ottawa and had grown tired of playing there.

Still, the move doesn’t come without question marks for Dallas. (Is there a deal of this magnitude that ever gets done without some questions about the players involved?)

Spezza has had injury issues, most notably back problems that limited him to just five regular-season games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He has played 80 or more games in a season just twice in his career.

Spezza remains a top talent, though, and has managed to collect 52 points in 56 postseason games. Those are numbers that will be important to the Stars, who pushed the Anaheim Ducks to six games in the first round of the playoffs this spring.

That series was instructive to Nill and Lindy Ruff, who was in his first year as the Stars’ coach.

Teams in the Western Conference must have the goods down the middle if they’re going to compete with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim struck pivot gold by acquiring Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks before the June 27 draft. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators have been scrambling to fill in down the middle as well.

The Stars began the draft period looking like it wouldn’t be in the running for players such as Spezza, who identified 10 teams to which he wouldn’t accept a trade.

And yet Nill and Ottawa GM Bryan Murray managed to get a deal done that gives the Stars a nice complement to Seguin, who blossomed with 37 goals (eight game-winners) last season after spending two tumultuous years in Boston, where the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 spent much of the time playing wing.

Now look around the Western Conference and contemplate these center combinations: Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in Los Angeles; Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler in Anaheim; Logan Couture and Joe Thornton (if he stays) in San Jose; and now Seguin and Spezza in Dallas.

In a matter of days, the balance of power has been dramatically altered in the West, home to a preponderance of the NHL’s top teams.

Spezza has one year left on a deal that pays him just $4 million in real money but comes with a $7 million cap hit. Nill will presumably be looking to extend Spezza, but that’s something to consider down the road. And if the Stars hit the skids, they could of course consider flipping Spezza at next season's trade deadline.

And let’s be honest: Frankly, the Stars aren’t quite there yet. But when you factor in Seguin, Spezza and Cody Eakin, who had 16 goals last season, the Stars’ complement of centers is impressive. Throw in Jamie Benn (34 goals), emerging Russian talent Valeri Nichushkin and new signing Ales Hemsky (who played some with Spezza after going to Ottawa at the trade deadline last season) on the wings and the Stars will be able to go toe-to-toe offensively with most of the competition in the West.

Defensively, the team is still maturing and we must admit a certain ongoing skepticism about goalie Kari Lehtonen staying healthy enough to carry the Stars beyond the first round of the playoffs.

Still, as the free-agent market opens, there is little question the Stars are better than they were a few hours ago and are forcing teams to scramble for other options.


PHILADELPHIA -- Perhaps emotionally driven and certainly frustrated, veteran general manager Bryan Murray revealed more than a little after the NHL draft Saturday regarding his failed attempts so far to trade star center Jason Spezza.

For starters, the Ottawa Senators GM said a potential deal with the Nashville Predators was scuttled because Spezza didn’t want to go there -- the Preds are on Spezza’s list of 10 teams he won’t go to.

"[Preds GM] David [Poile] talked to me, and we couldn’t go there," Murray said. "I told [Spezza’s agent] Rick Curran that today, I had a deal sitting there if I wanted to do it, but he was on the list of no-goes."

Poile also confirmed the potential deal.

“I've talked to Bryan about Jason, and I was told through [Spezza’s] agent that he didn’t want to play for us. And that was confirmed by Bryan," Poile said Saturday.

The hint was that Murray could have gotten Patric Hornqvist and Nic Spaling, the two players who went to Pittsburgh for James Neal.

“They’ve done their James Neal trade, so that has gone away,” Murray said. "Anaheim’s gone away with Kesler, so the field narrows a little bit. But yeah, they might need to have a little change in approach, as well as I do.”

The question now is whether Spezza would consider changing his mind on Nashville if his situation drags on. After all, he is the one who asked for a trade.

“Maybe David and I will have a conversation later on, I don’t know that,” Murray said. "We talked today but didn’t indicate anything about a trade because of the Neal trade. But he may come back to me.”

[+] EnlargeJason Spezza
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyNashville is one of the 10 teams that Jason Spezza will not accept a trade to.
But a source close to Spezza told ESPN.com that, at this point, he has no intention of changing his mind on Nashville.

It’s clear that the classy Poile had a hint of frustration in his voice as he talked about Spezza not wanting to go to Nashville.

“I’m not going to pitch somebody if they don’t want to play for us,” Poile said. "This game is hard enough as it is. You’ve got to be fully committed.”

Poile sees Nashville as an attractive place for a player with a team that’s improving.

“I want to be optimistic. I think we’re closer than a lot of people are giving us credit for," Poile said.

“I have no problem selling my team, and I think it’s an easy sell. What we have on the ice, what we have off the ice, the city, the atmosphere, no state taxes, there’s a lot of advantages to playing in Nashville.”

And what he’d dearly love is a center of Spezza’s talents, or perhaps Paul Stastny (UFA on Tuesday).

“If I had it on my wish list, I would like to get a No. 1 center, and we’re going to try to get that,” Poile said. "If that happens the next couple of days or it happens in free agency or it happens through a trade that would be great. If it doesn’t happen right now, I have patience. I don’t think we really have an age problem on our team, but I think we’re really getting the correct pieces in place to be a more competitive club than we’ve been in the last couple of years.”

For the Senators, it may very well be that once Stastny is taken off the market, some of the teams who were chasing him will come back on Spezza.

"We’ll continue to talk and, over the course of time, I’m sure people that miss out on July 1 may come knocking, but we’ll have to wait and see," Murray said.

"Jason’s a 80-90 point guy, and you don’t get that return in any kind of trade in this league today, but I’m hoping we get something fair for the organization, so that we can put a player on the ice and maybe get a prospect or two and go from there."

A source told ESPN.com that Murray had another conversation about Spezza with St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong on Saturday morning, the Senators trying to pry the Blues’ second-round pick in a possible package. But the Blues stood pat for now, although it’s believed their interest in Spezza remains strong. The same can be said for the Chicago Blackhawks, although they’ve got to figure out their salary-cap situation to have any chance to make a deal work with Ottawa.

The Blues also have interest in Stastny, so that’s another potential avenue, although half the teams in the league have approached Stastny’s camp.

HABS TRY TO MOVE GORGES
Talk about out of left field, news broke by my TSN teammate Bob McKenzie on Saturday that the Maple Leafs and rival Montreal Canadiens had talked about a potential Josh Gorges trade. Only one problem, Toronto isn’t among the 15 teams that Gorges has listed on his partial no-trade provision as clubs he’s willing to go to. But what it does tell you is that Gorges is in play, only thing is, Montreal needs to find a partner among those 15 teams listed.

Gorges, 29, has four more years on his deal at a $3.9 million cap hit.

The Leafs did trade for a blueliner, getting Roman Polak from St. Louis in exchange for Carl Gunnarsson and the 94th overall pick. Toronto retained $200,000 of cap space in the transaction.

NEW SALARY CAP
Perhaps the biggest buzz item of the weekend was the salary cap, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association announcing Friday that it would be $69 million for next season.

That’s about $1 million less than what most teams had budgeted for, which is no small deal.

For teams like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, every dime matters when you’re a cap team and having a lower-than-expected cap greatly affects potential moves and certainly the ability to spend.

"Yeah, it affects every team that’s close," Flyers GM Ron Hextall said Saturday. "It affects us for sure. We’ve got to find a way to get below it. It was a little lower than we thought and hoped."

The Blackhawks are trying to find a No. 2 center, the Bruins had hoped to re-sign Jarome Iginla, the Rangers have Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman headed to free agency, and the list goes on.

Having a cap that’s a $1 million less than expected is far from ideal for many of these cap teams.

What’s most interesting is that in the negotiations over setting the cap number, it was the NHL Players’ Association wanting it at $69 million while the league wanted it at $70 million. The NHLPA’s concern was that a $70-million cap would lead to more escrow payments for players next year.

That’s a valid point, it’s just rare for the players to be arguing for less spending and the league wanting more.

"Role reversal," chuckled one team executive.

STARS BUSY?
Stars GM Jim Nill said he’d like to add a piece or two to his forward group but did not divulge his specific targets.

Sources suggest he’s talked to San Jose about Joe Thornton and also to Ottawa about Jason Spezza.

What he found out is that Thornton at this point has no intention to waive his no-movement clause.

AVS TO TALK TO STASTNY
Agent Matt Keator was a popular man this week in Philadelphia, courted by half the teams in the league on the subject of his client and pending UFA center Paul Stastny.

It’s clear Colorado will need to boost its last offer to Stastny (believed to be a number that starts with 5) in order to retain his services.

"We’re going to continue talking, I’m going to talk to him probably tomorrow," Avs executive Joe Sakic said Saturday. "We’ll see where we’re at."

Stastny dearly wants to stay in Denver. But he’s going to get offered more money elsewhere, so he will have to balance those two thoughts.

"That’s what you get when you’re an UFA, the ultimate decision is Paul’s," Sakic said. "I’m sure there’s lots of teams that have interest, where they’re going to go financially, I don’t know, but I know what we can do. Hopefully it will work out, but we’ll see."

ALFIE'S FUTURE
Daniel Alfredsson, 41, continues to mull over his playing future.

"I think right now, Daniel -- not unlike a lot of veteran guys in his situation and his age -- just wants to take his time and make the right decision," his agent J.P. Barry of CAA said Saturday. "He wants to feel 100 percent before he makes any decision.

"I think he’s leaning towards playing, we all think that, but at the same time he needs that time in the summer to feel 100 percent."

If Alfredsson does return, it’s likely only for Detroit.

NISKANEN READY FOR MARKET
Matt Niskanen is almost surely gone from Pittsburgh, the cap-challenged Penguins unable to match what the UFA blueliner will fetch on the open market both in term and dollars.

Don’t be surprised to see Niskanen and his agent Neil Sheehy fetch north of $5 million a year and term around five or six years for the puck-mover.

FLORIDA'S NO. 1 PICK
Panthers GM Dale Tallon said he was close on one particular offer to trade away the No. 1 overall pick Friday night.

And while Philadelphia and Vancouver made strong pitches, the club that made Tallon think the most was Tampa Bay, a source said.

Imagine if the two Florida clubs had gotten together for that kind of blockbuster.



The Colorado Avalanche are at an interesting crossroads in their rebirth as a buzzworthy team.

They've won back some of their fan base after a surprising and exciting 2013-14 season that saw the team razzle-dazzle its way to a playoff berth. The sky seems to be the limit with youngsters Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene leading the way.

But now comes the business part of the equation: two of their top forwards need new contracts, center Paul Stastny a pending UFA while Ryan O'Reilly will soon be RFA and carries his own unique set of circumstances.

It's not like the Avs are up against the salary cap, far from it. But it's about keeping things within the organization's financial landscape when it comes to trying to sign both important forwards.

"They're both part of our core, and we'd like to have them both here," Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, the team's executive vice president of hockey operations, told ESPN.com Thursday evening. "That said, we have our internal structure; we don't want to change that. We signed Landeskog, Duchene and [Semyon] Varlamov all within our core structure, and we’d like to have both Ryan and Paul fit in there as well."

Ah, but what exactly is the magic number?

Stastny, 28, is coming off a five-year deal that paid him $6.6 million per season. One assumes the Avs would like to bring him back at less than that number. Tough call for Stastny, who would easily be the No. 1 targeted center on an otherwise lean UFA crop come July 1.

As soon as Wednesday, other teams are allowed as per the new CBA to reach out to Stastny's agent, Matt Keator.

"Paul has been open about the fact he wants to stay in Denver," Keator said Friday. "We will keep talking with Joe throughout the process and give them every chance to retain Paul. We will meet next week and see where things go."

The plan is for Keator and Sakic to speak in Las Vegas during the NHL awards.

"I'm going to touch base and see Matt next week," Sakic said. "But I also understand Paul has the right to listen to other teams. We hope we can keep Paul, but he's in that situation where it's his choice. I don't blame him if they choose to see what's out there."

Then there's O'Reilly, at 23 already a fierce team leader and coming off a career-high 28 goals, which led the team (he was third in points with 64). On the one hand, he's one of Patrick Roy's favorite players, which the head coach and vice president of hockey operations reiterated at a Thursday news conference in Denver. On the flip side, there's history here with O'Reilly resolving a contract dispute with the team after the lockout by signing an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames. The Avs matched it the same day.

And, Sakic warned, any team trying that again will see the same result.

"We're going to match that," Sakic said, when asked about a possible offer sheet for the restricted free agent.

The team announced last Sunday that O’Reilly was designated for club-elected salary arbitration.

It's certainly within the team's rights in the CBA, but not usually a popular move with the player.

The sensitive disagreement right now resides with O'Reilly having been paid $6.5 million in salary this past season but as the team points out, carrying a $5 million cap hit (because the two-year deal had a $3.5 million salary in Year 1).

While agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports no doubt would like the departure point in discussions to be $6.5 million, the Avs in turn no doubt would point to the $5 million cap hit as a good place to start.

In arbitration, a player can't be awarded anything less than 85 percent of his base salary from the year before, so O'Reilly is guaranteed at least $5.525 million as an award. Whether that's a decrease in salary or a raise depends on each viewpoint.

"He was a $5 million cap hit this year, so to me it's still a raise," Sakic said. "I mean, at the end of the day, you have to look at the whole contract. That's beside the point; my first option would be to sign him long term and avoid arbitration. The whole idea, though, with arbitration is that if we don't get to an agreement is have an arbitrator dictate what's a right deal, whether that's one or two years. From our standpoint, we want Ryan O'Reilly here."

What the Avs have going for them in terms of leverage is that they've once again become a destination team. They're on the rise. Players around the league are going to want to hitch a ride on this train over the next number of years.

Just like the old days.

"I think so," said Sakic, part of two Cup-winning sides in Denver as a player. "We've got great young players. With Patty coaching, we have a great system. The fans have come back, it's a great city to live in, but at the end of the day you have to win. Winning gets players interested. All players want to win. If you can put a winning product on the ice, and you look at the players we have, I think this is a destination [free agents] will at least look at."

Which is precisely part of the front office's sales pitch on both Stastny and O'Reilly. This team is going places. Why would you want to leave now?

"Well, it is," agreed Sakic about the team's direction. "We'll have Ryan for at least two years but we hope it's longer-term. Paul has spent his whole career here, he loves the city. From my point of view, I'll respect whatever decision he makes, and hopefully it'll be [to stay] here. I was a UFA too, I know the situation and I respect the process. At the end of the day, it’s going to be Paul's situation and I hope he stays here. If not, I wish him the best. But we’d like both players to remain part of our core."

Gallant in running for Panthers' gig
As we reported in Thursday's blog, the Florida Panthers hope to have a coach in place by Monday.

While Dan Bylsma had started off as the strong front-runner, we keep hearing that Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Gerard Gallant has made strong headway in the discussion. Stay tuned.

Spezza, Kesler, Thornton talk
The Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues are among the clubs to watch when it comes to the big-name free-agent centers.

Both clubs, we hear, have talked to the Vancouver Canucks about Ryan Kesler and to the Ottawa Senators about Jason Spezza, although they are hardly alone; several clubs have checked in on both available assets.

It's not surprising that Anaheim has inquired about both, as the Ducks' desire for a high-end No. 2 center is hardly a state secret, especially when the club tried too hard to get Kesler at the March 5 trade deadline.

What we're hearing out of both Ottawa and Vancouver is that the price is too high for each center, perhaps because we haven’t gotten to draft week yet in Philadelphia when things are expected to heat up.

Then again, the Canucks view Kesler as quite a bargain at a $5 million cap hit the next two seasons. Spezza has only a year left on his deal, but his offensive talent is a major drawing card the Senators are banking on cashing in on a trade.

It just so happens that the Senators and Ducks made a big trade a year ago -- the Bobby Ryan deal -- which among other assets netted Anaheim a first-round pick in next week’s draft. Because Ottawa surprisingly missed the playoffs, that pick became the 10th overall selection. I’m willing to bet the farm that Sens GM Bryan Murray would want that 10th overall pick back as part of the package in a Spezza deal with Anaheim. And I’m equally willing to bet that Ducks GM Bob Murray does not want to part with it.

On the Joe Thornton front, one thing to keep in mind amid all these trade rumors, as far as I can tell the San Jose Sharks captain has not indicated that he wants to leave San Jose. And since he has a no-movement clause, that means he won’t be moved until the day comes he changes his mind. Could he change his mind at some point? Sure. But we’ve yet to hear that.

In the meantime, teams have called to inquire about Thornton.

One club we’re told that is intrigued is the Detroit Red Wings, although at this point it's just that, pure intrigue and other than a very preliminary discussion, there hasn't been much work done on that front.

For starters, I don’t think Detroit can do something of that magnitude as long as Stephen Weiss and his $4.9 million cap hit remains on the books for the next four years. Good luck moving that contract.

Secondly, who's to say Thornton would include Detroit on his list of teams if the day should ever come that he decides to accept a deal?

It’s worth repeating, there’s no indication yet that Thornton wants to move on. At least not yet.

NEW YORK -- It has been speculated for a while now, but Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray confirmed for the first time Wednesday that his star center Jason Spezza has asked out.

And Murray’s phone has been ringing.

"There are a few teams that have asked me about him, what the cost is," Murray said after the GMs meeting Wednesday. "I suggested at least we'll have discussions. I don't want to trade the guy, really, and I know I won't get the value, in all likelihood that I should get for him. But I think that Jason feels maybe there's a change that he would like to have happen, and if that's the case we'll try to do what we can."

The asking price won’t only include futures in return.

"Obviously I'd like to win a hockey game next year, so getting a player back that can play in the league, that has played in the league, would be important," Murray said.

Murray said Wednesday’s GMs meeting is not really much of an opportunity to get a lot done in terms of trade discussions.

"It's such a short time together," he said. "You get a chance to talk to two guys, but not widespread by any means. We're all kicking tires right now. It'll probably be another few weeks, at least, before anything comes down that might be a worthwhile trade talking about."

PANTHERS COACHING LIST
[+] EnlargeDan Blysma
Chuck Myers/Getty ImagesDan Bylsma interviewed for the Florida Panthers' head coach position on Tuesday.
Florida GM Dale Tallon said his exhaustive coaching search is down to six candidates: Dan Bylsma, Ron Wilson, Gerard Gallant, Marc Crawford, Bill Peters and Tom Renney.

Tallon also told my TSN colleague Darren Dreger that Bylsma had a strong interview on Tuesday.

PITTSBURGH CHANGES COMING
Had a chance to chat with new Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford and he’s got his hands full with a team that has seven forwards, three defenseman and a goalie all headed to unrestricted free agency on July 1.

Are more changes afoot in Pittsburgh after GM Ray Shero and head coach Bylsma were let go? You bet.

"Well there’s going to be changes because we have so many UFAs. And we don’t have a lot of cap space," Rutherford told a small group of reporters.

"Are you asking me are there going to be major trades? I don’t know. Talked to some people, some people came after me today and there’s ideas out there. I haven’t been throwing any ideas out but I’ll listen. But obviously there’s going to be some new players there because just the position we’re in with the cap."

It’s believed the team will move on without veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and there’s a possibility the Pens could move scoring winger James Neal to get younger up front and to free up cap space.

One player Rutherford is intrigued by is defenseman Matt Niskanen, who had a breakout year for the Penguins and is slated for free agency but would like to stay in Pittsburgh.

“He had a good year," Rutherford said. "And trying to figure that out. It’s not going to easy but certainly with the year he had we’d like to take a look at him."

The longtime Carolina GM has not yet talked with captain Sidney Crosby.

“Maybe at some point. Right now we got the coach and the draft and free agency," Rutherford said. "Been calling trying to say hello to players and half of them are wrong numbers and they’re off on vacation somewhere. I’m trying to get as much done as I can in a short period of time."

He would like to have a coach in place before free agency starts July 1.

KANE/TOEWS UPDATE
Confirming what we quoted agent Pat Brisson as saying last week, the Chicago Blackhawks are in talks to extend the contracts of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and would like to get it done by July 1.

"I've had discussions with Pat, I'll continue that," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said after the GMs meeting. "I'm very optimistic about that. We've been very consistent with we're going to make it happen. I know [from] talking to Pat they certainly want to be in Chicago. It's a negotiation. I would say nothing has changed my thoughts all along, which is we'll get it done. It's still June 11 or 12th, and we've still got a few more weeks before we do anything."

As per the collective bargaining agreement, July 1 is the earliest players could be signed to extensions, one year out from the expiry of their current deals. But it’s clearly important to Bowman to get it done by July 1 because that allows him to plan out the rest of his offseason moves.

"Very eager," Bowman said of getting it done by July 1. "That's been our No. 1 objective all along and I'm expecting to meet that."

Trying to keep his team together and keeping an eye on the salary cap remains as always a challenge for the Hawks, who spend to the max.

"I always have concerns. I wouldn't be, that's part of my job looking forward," Bowman said. "You can't look year to year, you have to look two or three years out and obviously you know a year from now there should be a kind of bump with the new TV deal, but you still don't want to assume anything. You have to be planning your moves two and three years ahead, which we're doing. We have ideas what that entails. We're not going to share that. We've been doing this long enough that we know what has to happen. Then if the cap goes up more than you expect, that's great. We're not assuming anything. We realize it's a puzzle to put together and we'll make it work."

WEBER STAYING PUT
For whatever reason, every once in a while another Shea Weber trade rumor pops up.

It befuddles veteran Nashville Predators GM David Poile because he remains adamant he’s not moving his star blueliner.

"We’re keeping him, we’re building our franchise around him," Poile said after the GMs meeting. "I think we’ve got one of the best young defenses in the league. I think he’s got an excellent chance of winning the Norris Trophy in 11 or 12 days from now. Why wouldn’t we build our team around him? That’s exactly what we’re doing. We just need one or two forwards and when we get that, you’ll be saying, 'Imagine that someone ever thought they would trade Shea Weber?' No, we are not trading Shea Weber."

SABRES CHATTER
Sabres GM Tim Murray says he’d like to pick up another first-round draft pick to add to the second overall pick he already has.

"I can’t imagine I would trade the second overall pick," Murray said. "I’d like to get a couple of more first-round picks and I have those three third-rounders to us. I certainly know you can’t trade a second for a first, but you might take some money back in a deal to do that and I do have to get to the [cap] floor. There are different ways to get to the floor so I’m exploring all that."

ESPN.com's Scott Burnside contributed to this report


LOS ANGELES -- The latest scuttlebutt on who's going where and why as another big season of free agency approaches:

Kesler-Spezza-Thornton Update
It has the potential to be quite the offseason when it comes to high-profile centers changing teams.

We always say top centers don’t grow on trees and are hard to come by; well, there are at least two on the market in Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza and it remains to be seen how it plays out on the Joe Thornton front.

First, in Vancouver, where the Canucks went a fair ways down the road in trade talks involving Kesler before the March 5 trade deadline, in particular with the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins, before deciding the offers weren’t good enough and pulling him back.

The question is, what’s the deal with him now given the new management in place in Vancouver?

Sources said new Canucks GM Jim Benning has already taken calls from teams on Kesler, if for no other reason than they’re wondering if he’s still available or not.

He is, but the price remains high.

Kesler has two more years on his deal at a reasonable $5 million cap hit and will be a hot commodity again if Vancouver steps up trade efforts.
My sense is that the Canucks, in any package, would want both an asset who can help them right now (preferably a center) plus future assets. And, yes, I think Kesler still wants out of Vancouver. TSN colleague Darren Dreger reported Friday that it's believed Kesler has a list of six teams he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to go to.

Spezza, with a year left on his deal, indicated to Senators management that he would welcome a change if a deal that makes sense comes Ottawa’s way. I suspect talks will heat up on that front closer to the draft later this month.

And, in San Jose, the Sharks have indicated they are entering a rebuilding mode. What does that mean for Joe Thornton, who signed a three-year extension earlier this season? Does he want to be around for a rebuild? Either way, Thornton holds all the cards with a no-movement clause. Same goes for Patrick Marleau, for that matter.

Hawks Talks Update
Agent Pat Brisson has had preliminary discussions with Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman regarding new deals for stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, although the meaty stuff still has yet to happen.

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane, Jonathan Toews
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe agent for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews hopes to get extensions done for his players by July 1.
"I have spoken with Stan a few times already, we’ve obviously talked about extending both players," Brisson told ESPN.com Friday. "We’re working to get something done by July 1, if possible."

Both stars are a year away from unrestricted free agency. Under the terms of the CBA, players can sign extensions one year out as of July 1.

They’ve each got one more year at $6.3 million per season and obviously will be getting lucrative raises in their new deals.

Callanan-Vanek-Gionta Update
Veteran agent Steve Bartlett will be a busy man over the next few weeks with pending UFAs Ryan Callahan, Thomas Vanek and Brian Gionta, among others, to deal with.

On Callahan, Bartlett said Friday that talks remain ongoing with the Tampa Bay Lightning regarding the possibility of a new deal.

"Talks are well-intentioned by both parties, so we’ll see if we can get something done or not. But I can’t handicap at this point," Bartlett told ESPN.com.

Vanek, as has been the case since the beginning, remains slated to hit free agency July 1.

"I don’t think anything has changed there," said Bartlett.

As for the Habs captain, Gionta, there will be talks with Montreal.

"The team has reached out and said they’d definitely want Brian back," said Bartlett. "It’s a matter of whether the role for the player and the dollars are still a match. We’ll have those discussions with Montreal between now and July 1."

The Latest In Carolina
I think had Jim Rutherford stayed on as GM in Carolina, he would have entertained offers for captain Eric Staal. That doesn’t mean he would have moved him, but I think he would have listened rather intently.

I don’t get the sense that’s the case with new Hurricanes GM Ron Francis. What I’m hearing from talking to other teams is that Francis has not put Staal out there whatsoever.

On the coaching front, Francis has been busy, according to sources, already interviewing about half a dozen candidates, and that number might get all the way up to 10 before he’s done. The idea is to get someone in place before the draft.

Jacques Martin is among those who has interviewed with Carolina, and we’re hearing Francis will want to speak with New York Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson (a former teammate) after New York’s season is over.

How about that Torey Krug?

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:41
AM ET
Highlights and lowlights from Wednesday's action:

Bruins 5, Sabres 2
* Torey Krug (BOS): 2 goals; entered game with 1 goal in 10 career games
* Milan Lucic (BOS): 2 goals (1st multi-goal game since Nov. 2011)
* Bruins: 4-0-0 on road this season (only unbeaten team on road in Eastern Conference)

Senators 6, Red Wings 1
* Jason Spezza (OTT): 2 goals; 6 goals in last 4 games
* Jimmy Howard (DET): pulled after giving up 3 goals in 1st 14:14; 0 goals allowed in 65 minutes vs Sharks Monday
* Daniel Alfredsson (DET): 1st game vs Senators; played first 1,178 games with Senators before joining Red Wings this season
The NHL announced its first round of award winners Friday, and ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun break down the winners of the Frank J. Selke (best defensive forward) and Jack Adams (coach of the year) trophies, as well as the GM of the Year award.

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, thanks to the lockout the annual NHL awards extravaganza in Las Vegas has been revamped and spread over two days during the Stanley Cup finals, with the first batch of winners unveiled Friday afternoon. The balance of the major awards will be revealed Saturday before Game 2 of the finals. Let’s take a look at the three significant awards handed out Friday.

For me, the Selke was the most compelling because it was really a two-man race between Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and defending Selke winner Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. Toews and Bergeron are the heart-and-soul leaders of their teams, and Toews edged Bergeron for his first-ever Selke by a scant 10 voting points. I know you thought Toews should have been a finalist for the Hart Trophy (as league MVP), but he’s certainly deserving of the Selke, which some folks consider one of the most prestigious awards in the game given that it recognizes a player's complete game. Now, what will be interesting is which of these two great forwards ends up wearing a Stanley Cup ring in the next couple of weeks. What was your take on the Selke voting?

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesJonathan Toews' all-around game earned him his first-ever Selke Trophy this season.
LEBRUN: I had Bergeron first on my official ballot and Toews second, but I’m not upset that Toews won it. I think they’re both equally deserving, tremendous 200-foot players. Total toss-up for me. What upsets me more is that Toews didn't make it as a nominee for the Hart Trophy. I just can’t believe that at all. But I guess that’s a conversation for Saturday when the Hart is handed out (rumor is that Alex Ovechkin has won it). One thing I can tell you is that I was tremendously pleased to see Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators winning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year. Like many other media members, I've been touting him all year. Totally a slam dunk given what he did with the injury-ravaged Senators this season. It would have been an absolute travesty had the NHL Broadcasters' Association not voted him the winner.

BURNSIDE: I fear you and I might come to blows when the Hart Trophy winner --and the NHLPA companion, the Ted Lindsay Award -- are announced, but I can certainly understand the Hart Trophy discussion as it relates to Toews. That’s how important he is to the Blackhawks. And I agree entirely on MacLean. This is the second year in a row he was on the final ballot for coach of the year, and he easily outdistanced the second-place finisher, Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks. Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals was third.

The Jack Adams is a tough one because often it goes to a coach who gets his team to overachieve or does more with less, but there’s no question MacLean's job in keeping his team on track without Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Craig Anderson for long stretches of time reinforces that he is one of the keenest coaching minds in the league.

The other award of note announced Friday was the GM of the Year, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Ray Shero earned that honor. I’m sure he’d rather his Pens were still engaged in playoff hockey, but he is full value for the honor given the moves he has made dating back to last June’s blockbuster trade of Jordan Staal to Carolina, and continuing through his trade deadline acquisitions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen, even if those deals didn't quite pay off the way Shero had imagined.

LEBRUN: People no doubt will question Shero winning given how the Pens were dominated in being swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, but you have to understand that these are regular-season awards. To me, Shero is absolutely deserving and one of the very top GMs in the game. What I found curious, though, is that Scott Howson, fired as GM in Columbus early in the season, received two third-place votes, while Greg Sherman in Colorado also got a third-place vote. Um, are the GMs not taking their voting duties seriously? Honestly.

BURNSIDE: I will point out that Martin St. Louis won the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player for the third time in the past four years. I know you were anxious about how that award voting was going to go. Saturday will be interesting, though, as there are rumors that P.K. Subban is going to win the Norris Trophy, which boggles my mind more than a little given the season Ryan Suter had in Minnesota. And I know there’s going to be lots of debate if Ovechkin does walk away with the Hart, but we'll have plenty of time to kick that around on Saturday.

LEBRUN: In defense of voters, I will say it was a challenging ballot for many voters given that the Eastern Conference and Western Conference did not play each other during the lockout-shortened season. So voters were limited somewhat in what they were able to witness firsthand from night to night. That's why I reached out to a bunch of scouts, who travel the most, to help form my opinion on the awards I voted on.

And we shall indeed see what Saturday brings, my friend.

PITTSBURGH -- In the wake of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lopsided win in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference second-round series against the Ottawa Senators, there is the expectation that this team is not yet done winning this spring.

And if the Penguins are going to keep winning -- a victory in Game 5 on Friday night would send them to their first conference finals since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 -- there will be the inevitable comparisons to those teams that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the Cup on the second try.

While it might be fun for the media to ruminate, you don’t have to go far in the Penguins’ locker room to realize that the players do not view themselves through the prism of the past.

Sidney Crosby said that change is inevitable regardless of whether a team has been successful.

“I think obviously there’s a few guys still around, but we’ve definitely changed a lot. I don’t think any team year to year, whether you’ve won or whatever’s happened, I don’t think any team’s ever the same. I think there’s always differences,” said Crosby, who has been dynamic since coming back from a broken jaw, with 14 points in nine games. “There’s changing of players and identity and things like that. But, no, we’re a different team for a lot of different reasons.”

Still, it’s inevitable that people will want to connect the dots between the Penguins of 2008 and 2009 and this deep, talented team, as if to discern whether their paths were similar.

“I think that’s pretty common, but it’s not as easy as that,” Crosby said. “Because you’ve won in the past, because certain guys have been together, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.

“That experience, though, is something that can’t really be taught; you have to go through it. It is definitely an added bonus, but it’s kind of up to you what you do with it.”

Forward Matt Cooke was with the Penguins team that won the 2009 Cup, but he’s not expecting that experience to have any bearing on how the team performs in the coming days.

“I think each team is completely different. Makeup is different. Lines are different. Everything’s different. You can look back on those experiences to guide you moving forward, but I don’t think it has any comparison as to what this team did ... because it’s a different makeup,” said Cooke, who is coming off a strong performance in Wednesday's 7-3 win that saw him set up a short-handed goal and draw a penalty that led to the go-ahead goal.

If there is an obvious difference between the two versions of the Penguins, it’s the startling depth the current roster boasts.

Whereas Pittsburgh used a variety of players en route to the finals in 2008 and 2009, this team is rich in NHL talent from top to bottom.

Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson referred to that depth and the team’s dangerous power play, saying after Game 4 that it wasn’t likely the Senators could win three straight games and upset the Penguins.

All of the Penguins skated Friday morning, and if coach Dan Bylsma has a full roster at his disposal, he will be forced to sit a handful of bona fide NHL players. He made a couple of roster moves before Game 4, inserting youngster Beau Bennett and veteran forward Jussi Jokinen in place of Tanner Glass and Brenden Morrow, and Pittsburgh outscored the Senators 6-1 in the final two periods -- including four goals in the first half of the third.

“I think in the playoffs, though, you don’t usually expect that,” Crosby said. “I think when you look at your team or you look at offense or anything like that, I think you’re more looking at the depth of our team. To be able to do that is, obviously, it’s great, but it doesn’t happen too often in the playoffs. It was nice we were able to, but I don’t think we expect that every period. But we have guys in here that are capable of scoring, that’s for sure.”

As if to highlight the belief that one game does not necessarily relate to or suggest the outcome of the next game, Crosby talked about watching the other playoff games Thursday night.

There are lessons to be learned, he said -- mostly that you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“I think you’re always trying to learn, but I think you realize year after year the playoffs are tough and there’s no guarantees, there’s no gimmes,” Crosby said. “You have to make sure that you’re at your best, and even when you’re at your best, that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“I think the other series are a good example of that. You see last night the Rangers hang in, find a way to win in overtime, so they’re not rolling over and quitting. So I think you can always kind of take things away from other series, but I think the thing that seems to be common every year is that there’s no real kind of guideline to how it goes. Anything can happen.”

MacLean wants more O


The Senators are tinkering with their lineup a little as coach Paul MacLean tries to coax more offense out of his squad while also trying to instill some calm to the proceedings, especially in the early going Friday.

It appears that top center Jason Spezza will rejoin former linemates Alfredsson and Milan Michalek on the team’s top line in Game 5.

“Obviously Mac’s probably looking for us to give us a jump,” said Spezza, who is playing his third game of the playoffs after missing most of the regular season and the first round recovering from back surgery. “Haven’t played with Alfie very consistently over the last couple of years, so it’ll be nice to play with him. We’d like to have a good game. Hopefully we can find some old chemistry and have a good night.”

Spezza played 18:40 in his first game back, which the Senators won in double overtime, and 17:48 in Game 4. He has yet to register a point.

“I think guys are excited for the challenge ahead of us,” he said. “We know that they’re going to want to try and close us out tonight, and we know we’re going to try and give our best game of the series. It’s a good opportunity for us to play a big game.”

MacLean said the coaching staff has always viewed the three veteran forwards as fall-back options because of their experience, and the expectation is for them to see lots of ice time early in the game.

Alfredsson, at the center of a controversy with his comments after Game 4, said he’s excited to play with his old linemates, but that the team needs to start better than it did in Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins scored early in both.

Alfredsson also noted that Ottawa cannot give the Penguins, owners of the most explosive power play in the postseason, as many chances as they’ve been getting.

“We’ve got to be disciplined both with and without the puck,” he said.

Mark Stone, who played with Spezza and Michalek in Game 4 and had a number of good scoring chances, was injured in that game and did not travel to Pittsburgh. It’s expected Cory Conacher will be back in the lineup.

OTTAWA, Ontario -- The Ottawa Senators are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with the introduction of winger Mark Stone to their lineup, but whether the Pittsburgh Penguins try to counter with a little Jussi Jokinen magic has yet to be determined.

Ottawa coach Paul MacLean more or less confirmed that the 6-foot-2 Stone will enter the lineup for Game 4 on Wednesday night, replacing the diminutive Cory Conacher. The expectation is that Stone will go into Conacher’s spot on the top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.

MacLean said the coaching staff has long envisioned that Stone, who finished tied for the team lead with 38 points with the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, could be a good linemate for Spezza, but the circumstances didn’t allow it.

Until now, apparently.

“He really had a very good season [in Binghamton],” MacLean said.

Stone played in just one playoff game last year for the Senators, but it was a memorable one as he assisted on the winning goal in Game 5 of Ottawa’s series against the New York Rangers.

“It was probably the best experience of my life,” Stone said Wednesday.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native played in four regular-season games with the Senators this season but did not register a point.

“Obviously watching the games, you want to be a part of it, so I’m obviously excited, looking forward to the opportunity,” Stone said.

If there’s one thing that has marked the Senators this season, given all the injury issues that have afflicted them, it’s been the ability of young players to come to the big club and step almost seamlessly into prominent roles with the team.

Spezza praised former NHL player Luke Richardson, the head coach in Binghamton, and his staff for preparing the young players who have been key contributors to the Senators’ surprising run to the second round of the playoffs.

“Organizationally, we’re all playing the same way now. Luke, he demands the same things of the guys down there as Mac does here, and when they get the call, they don’t have to change anything,” said Spezza, who will be playing in just his second game of the postseason after suffering a back injury that caused him to miss all but five games in the regular season.

With the teams coming off a double-overtime effort in Game 3, the Senators emerging as 2-1 victors thanks to Colin Greening’s goal, it would seem that both coaches are looking to coax a little more offense out of their rosters.

Indications are that Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma may pencil Jokinen back into the lineup. He came out in Game 5 of the first round against the New York Islanders after registering two assists in the first four games.

“Jussi is a guy who’s been out of our lineup, and you’re sitting out a guy who can make plays, score big goals,” Bylsma said. “He’s a faceoff guy, been very good on the left faceoff circle. He’s also a guy who would see time on our second power-play unit as well.”

Jokinen was dynamic after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline, scoring 11 points in 10 games down the stretch.

But with Bylsma looking for a little more sand in a difficult series against the Islanders, he inserted Joe Vitale into the lineup. Jokinen hasn’t been able to get back on the ice since. But with Vitale out the last game and replaced by an ineffective Tanner Glass, it looks like the stars are aligning for Jokinen to return.

“Obviously, I haven’t sit down too many games in my career,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not an easy situation.

“It’s all about the team. The only thing you can do is keep yourself in good shape, keep working hard and stay positive.”

He conceded he doesn’t envy the roster decisions facing Bylsma each game.

“Right now we’ve got up here 16 forwards and nine D who are all really good NHL players, who could play every night on some other team,” Jokinen said. “It’s not easy to be a coach on this team, that’s for sure.”
PITTSBURGH -- It's a bit hard to get your head around it, but the start of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is relatively foreign territory for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators.

That may explain the great collective exhalation that coincided with the end of the first round for both teams.

In knocking off the New York Islanders in Game 6 on Saturday night, the Penguins -- considered by many as favorites, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, to advance to the Stanley Cup finals -- broke a two-year streak of being one-and-done in the playoffs.

The Senators, meanwhile, won their first playoff series since advancing to the 2007 Cup finals by knocking off the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in five games.

The gap between the rounds gave both teams a chance to relish what is not an insignificant accomplishment: surviving the frenzy and chaos that always marks the first round, then looking to close the door on all that transpired in the previous two weeks and open a new door, one that will allow them to continue along the Cup path.

"The biggest thing in going from the first round to the second round, in my experience, is the first round there's 16 teams, and it's so physical and there's such an overwhelming amount of games," said Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who has a long history as a player and assistant coach with such things. "You get to watch all of that, and there's so much physicality that I think everyone kind of gets hyped up.

"Once you get through the first round, I think everyone takes a deep breath and things quiet down a little bit more around the league, because now there's only eight teams that are playing. I think it gives the players actually a sense of relief that they got through the first round, and now it's easier to get their focus back on the task at hand."

Certainly there was a sense of relief among the Penguins, who were the second-best team in their series against the Islanders for long stretches.

"It's been a while since we got out of the first round here," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said Tuesday morning. "It was a relief, I'll tell you that.

"We know there's a lot of things we can do better, and now you sort of hit the reset button. [We're] playing a different team, a different kind of team that will challenge you in different ways, so it's exciting."

Brenden Morrow enjoyed his first series victory as a Penguin and the first for him since 2008, when he was captain of the Dallas Stars. He thinks that for each player the transition from one round to another means something different or is approached in a different manner.

"I think each individual takes out of it different things," Morrow said. "Some people probably take the positives from it, the overtime goals and how they played in the series previous, and some guys totally wipe it clean. So I think everyone does it a little different. But what happened in the past doesn't carry into the future, unless it's something like [team] confidence or personal confidence, or something like that."

The Senators were underdogs in the first round and will be in the second round as well. But the gap between "favorite" and "underdog" narrows appreciably as time passes in the postseason.

It is so with an Ottawa team that is considered by many a legitimate threat to unseat the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

"We were really happy with making the playoffs," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, one of three players left from the 2007 Senators team that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. "We were really happy with moving past the first round, but we're not satisfied.

"We know we're up against a tough opponent, but we've kind of overcome odds throughout the year, and that's been our belief, that we can beat anybody."

Zack Smith is part of a core of young Senators who have been asked to take on a bigger role this season, especially with injuries to key personnel like Jason Spezza (who did not make the trip to Pittsburgh to start the series), Milan Michalek and defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Smith, 25, conceded there might have been a moment or two in the first round when some players examined the seedings or looked at the regular-season standings and wondered whether the Canadiens really were the better team. Not now.

"Once you get past that, you know you can beat teams that are supposedly better than you are or are higher in the standings," said Smith, who has 18 career playoff games to his credit. "Once you get past the first round, I think all teams kind of pick up a little bit more steam and have a little more confidence.

"And after that, I mean, it's anybody's game at that point. I think L.A. showed that last year."

If the transition from one round to the next is really about writing a different script on a different piece of parchment, the challenge is to write the story your way. That challenge will be met in part Tuesday night, when the first round will truly become a thing of the past.

"The emotion of the first round, the emotion of playoff hockey ... we've all seen it in the last 24 hours, but it's in every series," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said, referencing the Toronto Maple Leafs' epic collapse in the third period and overtime of Game 7 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins.

"It's now a completely different situation. Momentum's not there, there's not a carryover from game to game with a new opponent. You're not really taking anything with you from how you played or how [the previous series] unfolded, and the same applies for Ottawa in this series. They're not taking anything from Montreal with them."

Time to see what Senators have

April, 11, 2013
4/11/13
11:56
AM ET
The Ottawa Senators woke up Thursday morning in a frightful three-way tie on points with the New York Rangers and Islanders, just two points clear of the danger spot held by Winnipeg.

For so much of the season, it was about fifth place for the Senators. Their comfy spot is now gone for good, the rival Toronto Maple Leafs five points ahead with just more than two weeks to go in the regular season. They've lost the opening four games of a seven-game road trip and five in a row overall, starting with a home loss to Toronto.

Now it’s about survival for the Senators, who head into crucial, crucial games Thursday night at Philadelphia and Friday night at New Jersey.

If they don’t stop the bleeding over the next two nights, they could be on the outside looking in come Saturday morning. That would be a travesty for a team that has defied all odds in surviving the losses of its top players early in the season.

"There’s no question we have to win some hockey games here if we’re going to get into the playoffs," veteran Ottawa GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We’ve let some points slip away. They are two big games against two very competitive hockey teams. The Flyers are playing hard. New Jersey is always difficult to score against. We’ll have to find a way to score some goals and give us a chance to win both of them."

Score goals, the most basic element of hockey. Because of injuries to Norris Trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson, star center Jason Spezza, not to mention first-line winger Milan Michalek, for most of the season, the Sens have struggled to score all season but even more so lately, and that’s been a big part of their downfall. They’re 26th in the NHL in goals per game, at 2.36.

The Senators managed to score just enough for most of the season by playing smart, inspired hockey, remaining loyal to their game plan while getting excellent goaltending and superb penalty killing (second in the NHL). But that recipe has failed of late, the Senators taking too many penalties during the five-game losing streak and not killing as many as usual.

"Right now we’re playing hard enough to lose and not hard enough to win," head coach Paul MacLean told ESPN.com. "We’re in charge in a lot of games, we get the lead, but we do things to ourselves like take penalties or turn pucks over.

"The structure of our game is good, but at times we do things to go outside of it, and that gets us in trouble."

It’s been a fine line all along for a Senators club that deserves so much credit, starting with MacLean and his coaching staff, for the way in which it has stayed afloat despite the kind of injuries that would have floored most franchises. Top-four defenseman Jared Cowen hasn’t played all season, either, and top goalie Craig Anderson missed a big chunk of time, too.

Nine of the Sens' 19 victories have been by one goal. As of late they’re just on the other side of that equation, playing well enough to win in most of those five losses but finding a way to lose instead.

"In Florida, we outshot them 41-17," Murray said. "And I thought Tuesday night in Tampa we had the better chances. But we made some mistakes. Some turnovers. We took too many penalties in Tampa."

Among those penalties was a phantom hand-on-the-puck call in the defensive zone to Peter Regin that put Ottawa down two men and cost a goal and changed the game's momentum. Tough break, yes, but that happens to all teams. You have to overcome that.

"I guess when things go south, lots of things happen that affect the outcome of the game," Murray said. "But we’re not scoring, and that’s pretty much the bottom line. It’s been a struggle most of the year with all the guys out."

It’s gut-check time.

"It’s a real test of the leadership of the whole team, starting with myself and going down through Alfie [Daniel Alfredsson] and the veteran players," MacLean said. "They’ve been so good for so long this year. It’s just a little bit here and there that we’re missing right now. We come out of our game for just a little bit, and it ends up hurting us a lot."

Really, it would be a shame to see the Senators miss the playoffs after what they’ve been able to accomplish through adversity. This is where leaders Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil need to convey the right message to their young teammates, several of whom began the season in the AHL.

"The leadership core has been real good," Murray said. "I think the team has worked hard.

"We’ve got a real strong group, and they know that we’ve got nine games left and we need to win more than we lose. If we don’t do that, it’s going to be a tough finish."

Need to know: Weekend edition

February, 4, 2013
2/04/13
10:59
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• The Pittsburgh Penguins are starting to round into the kind of groove many anticipated at the start of the season. After spanking New Jersey Saturday by a 5-1 count for their first home win of the season, they traveled to Washington and spanked the sliding Capitals 6-3 for their third straight win, with Chris Kunitz netting the hat trick. Both Tomas Vokoun and Marc-Andre Fleury are playing well in net.

• It's hard to describe whatever is going on in Buffalo other than to call it ugly. The Sabres are tied for 27th in goals against per game and after shocking Boston 7-4 on Friday night blew a 3-1 lead Sunday against Florida to lose 4-3. They have one win in their past seven games and have given up at least three goals in seven straight. The bright spot for the Sabres, who are last in the Northeast, is Thomas Vanek, who has vaulted to the top of the scoring chart with 19 points. The Panthers, on the other hand, have now won two in a row, both of which involved comebacks. Good sign for Kevin Dineen’s squad after a miserable 1-5-0 start.

• Pressure is going to continue to build on Ottawa GM Bryan Murray to find offensive help with top center Jason Spezza out long term with a back injury. The Sens lost their second straight on Sunday, 2-1 to Montreal after being shut out Friday by Carolina. The Senators did not like a goaltender interference call on rookie Jakob Silfverberg early in the third period that waved off a potentially tying goal by Andre Benoit. The Canadiens, meanwhile, seem to have accepted P.K. Subban back in their lineup without much adjustment. The Habs have won six of seven

• Nice rebound by the New Jersey Devils on Sunday as they shut down the New York Islanders on the road 3-0 with veteran backup Johan Hedberg between the pipes. The Devils had been winless in four. The Islanders, meanwhile, entered the game 3-1-1. The good news for the Isles is that defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky is expected to return from Slovakia this week. Coach Jack Capuano has said Visnovsky, who was suspended by the team when he did not return to Long Island after the lockout ended, will need to practice with the team before he plays.

• It's a nervous time around the Tampa Bay Lightning as they prepare to head off on their first extended road trip of the season, a four-game swing that will see them visit Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston and the New York Rangers. But what remains unknown is the availability of captain Vincent Lecavalier, who is off to his best start in years but suffered a bone contusion on his ankle when he was struck by a last-second shot by teammate Sami Salo Saturday night in Tampa. He is listed as day to day.

• The Columbus Blue Jackets are also anxiously awaiting word on the health of important defenseman James Wisniewski, who crashed awkwardly into the boards during Saturday’s surprising 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. Wisniewski had scored his first goal of the season for the Blue Jackets earlier in the game but coach Todd Richards did mention "concussion" when discussing Wisniewski after the game. More information is expected Monday.

• It’s going to be interesting to watch the goaltending situation in Anaheim. The Ducks have been impressive in rolling to a 5-1-1 record, but Jonas Hiller has allowed at least three goals in four of five starts. Rookie Viktor Fasth, 30, a two-time goaltender of the year in the Swedish Elite League, is 2-0 and has allowed three goals. The Ducks are getting plenty of offense, but at what point, if any, do we see coach Bruce Boudreau give Fasth more leash in the Anaheim net?

• Maybe it means something. Maybe nothing. But tongues were sent wagging when Vancouver GM Mike Gillis was spied in attendance at Sunday’s game in Washington. Gillis, of course, is looking to move netminder Roberto Luongo, even though Luongo has started three straight in place of Cory Schneider, the heir to the Canucks’ goaltending throne. The Caps are off to a woeful start and the goaltending of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth has not been stellar. Stay tuned.

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