Portland rises as home for Coyotes; Penguins defensemen on market
With the troubled team’s fate headed back to court, there’s no telling when or even if the franchise will be on the move. But after having its arena lease canceled in a special vote by the City of Glendale at a heated meeting on Wednesday night, speculation is swirling that the Coyotes are not long for the desert. And Stumptown is being touted as a viable option.
The league has been clear about it’s interest in the region. “I think we have a belief in the Pacific Northwest," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Seattle Times in 2014. “[It's] good hockey territory. I think the Canucks have done a fantastic job—in Vancouver, but also throughout British Columbia and the Pacific region—at driving interest in the sport. So, we think the possibility is there.”
Typically, Seattle is seen as the league’s first preference if only because it is the largest city in the region (14th among U.S. TV markets) and boasts a wealth of corporations that could be brought on board as partners. Portland is smaller (22nd ranked market), lacks the diversity of business options and, frankly, has a reputation for having an anti-sports culture.
But it does have one clear advantage: Unlike Seattle, it has an NHL-ready arena in the Moda Center. The building and its primary tenant, the NBA’s Trail Blazers, are owned by Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder whose bank account could easily take on another pro team.
But Allen has never shown any real desire to bring the NHL to Portland, let alone a passion for the game. At the start of this season, he was directly asked about the likelihood of bringing a team to the city in the next five years. His lack of enthusiasm was glaring.
“It’s something we look at from time to time,” he told The Oregonian. “Obviously we’d probably need to have a strong partner in terms of the ownership of the team and those things and the financial picture would have to all be penciled out. There are a number of hurdles to get over and the price of NHL teams keeps accelerating. It’s something we look at but there’s certainly nothing imminent at this point.”
Maybe that was his way of dismissing talk of an expansion team coming to the city—and with a reported $500 million price tag on it, who could blame him for that? But the Coyotes’ situation is something different. If there was chemistry with current owners Andrew Barroway and Anthony Leblanc, Allen might be willing to take on a piece and fill another 40-plus nights per year in his building. But Allen has backed away from similar opportunities in the past. Most recently, he explored buying the Pittsburgh Penguins when that team was in bankruptcy and couldn’t make the numbers work. The perception was that he feared that there wasn’t enough fan interest to support the hockey team without damaging the financial stability of his NBA operation.
Has that perception changed? Is Portland ready to add another big league team? With the Coyotes situation in legal limbo, we may find those answers soon.
• The Pittsburgh Penguins will have a different look on their blueline next season. And if all goes well, they could dress a couple of fresh forwards as well.
According to Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse, the Pens have decided against re-signing pending UFAs Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin. Although the news has not yet been confirmed by the team, it would be a prudent move for an organization that’s cap-poor and defense-rich.
Ehrhoff, who signed just last summer as a free agent, had a disastrous year with the Penguins. He got off to a slow start, with just six assists in his first 20 games, and then faced a series of injuries before suffering a season-ending concussion on March 24. He ended up playing only 49 games, missing Pittsburgh’s brief playoff run entirely. Martin is finishing a successful five-year stretch as a top-four staple with the Penguins. At 34, though, he’s a diminishing asset and with several promising blueliners waiting in the minors for a chance at The Show, it makes sense to move on. Look for Brian Dumoulin and Scott Harrington to seize the two positions.
The decision to move on from Ehrhoff and Martin frees up $9 million in cap space that will be earmarked to address the team’s deficiencies on the wing. The right player is more likely to arrive via trade than free agency, so GM Jim Rutherford might have to part with another young defender to get the man he wants. That’s okay given the team’s depth at the position ... at least it will be if he gets more bang for his buck than he did when he shipped Simon Despres to the Ducks for Ben Lovejoy at the deadline last March.
And don’t feel too bad for the cast-offs. Despite coming off his sub-par season, Ehrhoff has the size and the offensive leanings to attract a lot of attention. Martin is a savvy veteran who might be a good fit as a mentor with a young defense corps. Dallas, which would really benefit from some experience on the back end, might be an option. Anaheim could be another.
• The Stars desperately need to shake up their goaltending after finishing with a team GAA of 3.13, the fourth-highest in the league. But with struggling starter Kari Lehtonen deemed all but unmovable (due to a contract that owes him $17 million over the next three years), the team’s options are limited.
It sounds like they may have found a solution. Rumors are flying that goalie coach Jeff Reese, who “mutually parted way” with the Flyers at mid-season, could land with the Stars. If that’s the way it plays out, he’ll be a solid add to coach Lindy Ruff’s staff. Reese is an excellent technical instructor but his greatest asset might be the ability to improve the mental toughness of his keepers. Steve Mason, whose stagnant career was revived under Reese’s tutelage in Philly, pointed to an improvement in his mental game as the key to his turnaround. Given Lehtonen’s long history of meltdowns under pressure, Reese could have a significant influence on the team’s success next season.
There has been speculation that the Stars would owe the Flyers a draft pick if they end up signing Reese, but that’s not the case. The league’s controversial compensation program applies only to head coaches, general managers and presidents of hockey operations.
• The St. Louis Blues, looking to make changes after another playoff flop, informed veteran Barret Jackman that he will not be re-signed this summer. While it’s tough to cut ties with a player who joined the organization way back in 1999, there was no way they could justify retaining the 34-year-old blueliner
The Blues, a team operating on a tight budget, will allocate his $3 million-and-change cap hit toward re-signing RFA winger Vladimir Tarasenko. Next season Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm will compete for Jackman's job on the blueline.
Jackman, meanwhile, probably has a couple of good years left in him. It’s possible that he could be a low-cost add for a contending team looking for depth, but his lack of foot speed and declining passing skills would be easily exposed in the later rounds. He’d provide more value to a developing club as a mentor to young defenders. The Sabres seem like a strong possibility.
• You think Gary Bettman noticed this tweet from Lance Hornby? “Just as Lord Stanley envisioned, Florida is the epicenter of hockey in June. One and maybe two Cup games on tap, NHL draft two weeks today." There have been some bumps along the way, and there remain a few hurdles to clear, but on a day like this it’s impossible to see the NHL’s Sunshine State experiment as unsuccessful.
The numbers game
• Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks leads all defensemen in postseason scoring this year, with 18 assists and 20 points in 21 games. Only four defensemen in NHL history have had more assists in one postseason: Hall of Famers Paul Coffey of the Oilers (25 in 1985), Al MacInnis of the Flames (24 in ’89), Brian Leetch of the Rangers (23 in ’94) and Bobby Orr of the Bruins (19 in ’72).
• Lightning forward Tyler Johnson has set a single-year franchise record of 13 goals. The old mark of 12 was shared by 2004 Stanley Cup heroes Ruslan Fedotenko and Brad Richards.
• This year’s Stanley Cup Final has averaged 4.965 million viewers on NBC and NBCSN, making it the second most-watched Cup final through the first four games in 18 years, behind only the 2013 series between the Blackhawks and Bruins (5.341 million).
• Think anyone in the Coyotes organization could scare up $10,000 for the chance to do this? It's a shocking story.
• A former superstar is considering taking a second shot at the NHL, this time as a coach.
• Keith Brown is a rarity in this sport, but at the rate things are going he won’t be for long.