Weekend Takeaways: Penguins heating up at right time

Elliotte Friedman and Damien Cox discuss the latest news around the hockey world, including the date for the NHL draft, World Championships’ rumours and the search for the model goalie.

It only took seven months for the Pittsburgh Penguins to start looking like what most expected they would.

Could be just a blip, of course. But impressive performances on the weekend in a road victory at Philly and a smashing (and at times nasty) home win against Washington were extremely positive indicators that Sidney Crosby and Co. finally have their act together.

General manager Jim Rutherford, as we know, has been tinkering with his hockey machine all season. Mike Johnston was replaced by Mike Sullivan, Rob Scuderi was sent to Chicago for Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin came to town in a deal for David Perron, young goalie Matt Murray was recalled to put a little competition into the goaltending picture. Players like agitator Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Oskar Sundqvist have worked their way into the lineup at different times, while top draft pick Daniel Sprong was shuttled back to junior.

Now, with all-star centre Evgeni Malkin out long-term, and Phil Kessel (21 goals) in one of his slumps (one goal in nine games), the Pens are nonetheless playing their best hockey, strange as it would seem. They’re 5-0 without Malkin, and Crosby is now looking like himself again after overcoming a horrific start to his season — working himself into the MVP conversation.

“It’s the right time to be playing well,” Crosby told reporters after Sunday’s gritty win over the Caps.

Six-straight wins are very good news for Rutherford and his hockey office, as missing the playoffs at a time when the organization is for sale could have all kinds of repercussions throughout the Penguins organization. It’s also good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who get Pittsburgh’s first round pick this year, but not if the Pens miss the playoffs.

With 10 games left, Pittsburgh has an eight-point bulge over the Flyers and a hold on second place in the Metropolitan. It’s not quite home-and-cooled-out, but close.

Surging Sprong
Sprong is an interesting story for the Pens, a second round pick who played 18 games for the club before being sent back to junior.

He’s got 16 goals and 30 assists in 33 games with the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders, close to the pace he set last year. The Isles are one of the hottest QMJHL teams, heading into their first round playoff matchup against Rimouski on a seven-game winning streak.

As a Dutch citizen, Sprong didn’t have the ability to play at the world juniors. But others first-round picks from this year’s draft could be in a similar situation next season and be world junior eligible. While Sprong’s treatment by the Pens drew criticism and made life harder in Charlottetown, keeping him in the NHL for a half-season and then getting him back to junior has worked out fine.

You have to wonder if a team like the Maple Leafs, with Mitch Marner, might use a similar timetable: Keeping Marner around in the first part of the year to see if he can handle the competition, then sending him to the world juniors, and then making a final decision on his year in early January.

Like Sprong this season, Marner can’t go to the minors next year. It’s something the NHL would like to change, but it’s part of the league’s agreement with the CHL, and an important element of that deal to major junior operators.

Goalies to watch
It was an interesting weekend for the NHL off-season goalie market.

James Reimer, who ruffled some feathers when sportsnet.ca reported he asked for a long-term contract scaling up to $6 million a season from the Leafs before being traded, has shown as a San Jose Sharks his off-season marketability might be much higher than some think.

Reimer has two shutouts in four games with the Sharks, demonstrating that after years with the struggling Leafs, moving to a stronger team might showcase his skills heading into unrestricted free agency.

Niklas Backstrom, meanwhile, won a game for Calgary Sunday night, his first since joining the team from Minnesota at the trade deadline. It was also his first win since Dec. 13, 2014 and first action since Jan. 13 last year.

“I can’t even remember my last game,” he said.

At 38, Backstrom’s a UFA on July 1st and his NHL career may be over, but getting a few games in might get somebody interested.

Finally, as reported on Saturday by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the battle for the right to sign Swedish free agent goalie Mantas Armalis, who plays for Djurdgardens, appears to be coming down to the Leafs, the favourites, and Carolina Hurricanes. Calgary was in on the bidding, but were informed the 23-year-old Armalis was going somewhere else.

Who is Mantas Armalis?

The Cap
The league won’t be able to further nail down a salary cap figure for next year until at least June, when the NHL Players’ Association declares whether it will activate the five per cent “escalator” and bump the cap up to around $74 million next season from the current cap of $71.4 million.

Only once since 2005 has the PA not kicked in the escalator, but there’s more and more pressure from players not to use it in order to reduce escrow payments. That, however, would take money out of the system for free agents this summer. So it’s a delicate balancing act within the union. Some wish it would just be an automatic add-on to the cap every year, and spare the union the internal debate.

The Goat
If Frederik Gauthier was a third round pick, he’d be viewed as a player who has arrived in the NHL slightly ahead of schedule. Many third rounders don’t make it at all.

Instead, he was a first round pick of the Leafs, and has been written off by some (many of whom have never seen him play) for some time.

So is a player blessed to be a first rounder, or burdened? It may come with added opportunities, but the scrutiny to be something a player may not be can ruin a career. Ask Jared Cowen.

The Leafs seem determined to evaluate the six-foot-four Gauthier based on his usefulness and ability, and forget that he was selected two picks ahead of Andre Burakovsky. The fact he was another Leaf adminstration’s first rounder makes that easier. He’s big, he can take faceoffs and he can check. Last time I looked, every NHL club can use players like that.

Flint Future
The Flint Firebirds have concluded their tumultuous season, and now we’ll see what happens next.

The OHL no longer seems to be able to work with suspended owner Rolf Nilsen, who also owns the arena the team plays out of, but also wants the team to stay put.

“As a league, we’re really pleased with the market,” said OHL boss David Branch. “There’s no reason to see the team move.”

After bringing in OHL executive Joe Birch to manage the club after Nilsen tried for the second time this season to fire head coach John Gruden and his staff, Branch tabbed former Toronto Maple Leaf player development coach Paul Dennis to conduct exit interviews with all Flint players and their parents. The father of star forward Will Bitten has already been quoted publicly as saying his son won’t return to the team next season if Nilsen is still the owner.

Meanwhile, the OHL priority selection draft is April 9, and major agents are already telling the Firebirds not to draft their players, with the situation unlikely to be resolved by then. Given Flint’s controversial water problems – the players actually don’t live in an area impacted by that – many parents would be reticent to send their boys there.

“We’re not oblivious to all the feelings out there,” said Branch.

Flint owns the third and fifth picks in the draft.

World Championships
Former Washington GM George McPhee was already set to be one of the hotter candidates for any job openings this summer, and being named co-GM of Team Canada at the world championships in Russia along with Calgary GM Brad Treliving can only help his situation.

McPhee and Treliving will start consolidating their individual list of candidates for the team in the next week or so. They’ll give preference to the eight forwards and seven defenceman identified by World Cup GM Doug Armstrong as on the watch list for the final seven Team Canada roster spots at that event next fall.

Carolina coach Bill Peters, who will be on Mike Babcock’s World Cup coaching staff, is likely to guide Team Canada at the worlds.

The world championships have been pushed back five days this year, and won’t start until May 6. That means the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs will be over before Canada plays its first game, which will help McPhee and Treliving build the best roster without having to airlift players in at the last moment.

Cam Ward
With all the attention paid to the departure of Eric Staal from Carolina at the trade deadline, hardly any was given to goaltender Cam Ward, who stayed.

Ward, 32, and his expiring $6.3 million cap hit didn’t appeal to any other clubs. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, didn’t make a new contract offer during the season, and Ward was disappointed when he didn’t get any overtures from GM Ron Francis before the deadline passed.

So now, he waits for unrestricted free agency on July 1st, although it’s possible the Canes might make a pitch to him in June at a lower salary with a short-term deal. Otherwise, he’ll be looking for work, and because of his contractual situation, almost certainly won’t accept any offers to play for Canada at the world championships.

Top prospects
While Hockey Canada prepares for the world championships, it’s also gearing up for the world under-18 tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., next month. Canada is usually not a favourite at this event because most of its top players are tied up in CHL playoffs, but it’s nonetheless an important competition because many of the world’s top draft eligible players compete.

Unlike the NHL draft, which this year is open to players born between Sept. 16, 1997 and Sept. 15, 1998, the world under 18s is only open to players born in 1998 and after. Top NHL draft eligible players like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Jake Bean, Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro could participate for Canada if their junior teams are eliminated in time.

Hockey Canada has yet to announce a coach.

The United States has won the event six of the past seven years, with Canada last winning gold in 2013. Defending world junior champions Finland are hoping to have either Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi available for the Grand Forks event.

NCAA

Along with speculation the NHL may be moving to a 19-year-old draft, there’s growing pressure on the NCAA to start opening its arms to major junior players from the Canadian Hockey League.

As it stands, players who skate a single shift in the CHL are ineligible to play in the NCAA because it regards juniors as professional because they receive a weekly stipend from their teams. The issue came up at the committee organized by former NHLer Pat Lafontaine that has representatives from all the major North American hockey organizations, including the NHL, CHL, USHL and NCAA.

Last month, Branch, who is also CHL commissioner, sent an updated version of a document submitted several years ago by the CHL and Hockey Canada asking the NCAA to consider relaxing its rules and allowing CHL players to play at U.S. colleges in the same way many join CIS schools.

The NCAA hasn’t responded to the CHL brief, and the topic will likely re-surface when LaFontaine’s group meets again in May.