Evgeny Kuznetsov sits first three games of NHL season with suspension

Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals will get an unwanted extended summer break as the 27-year-old Russian star has officially been suspended for the first three games of the 2019/20 NHL season. This follows the four-year ban he recently received from the International Ice Hockey Federation for testing positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship earlier this year in Slovakia.

Kuznetsov was more or less caught red handed by a third party when a video surfaced on social media which appeared to show him using cocaine in a hotel room during the tournament. The NHL took notice of the video and met with the player when training camp started and shared the news of the suspension with him. However, he was given permission to attend training camp and play in preseason games.

When the video first surfaced Kuznetsov said through a media release that he didn’t take drugs and the footage was filmed in Las Vegas in 2018 after the Capitals had hoisted the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. He also volunteered to undergo another drug test at the time to back up his words. Well, Kuznetsov failed the first test which was administered to him back on May 26th at the World Championships. He was given an indefinite suspension after the test results came back and it was later announced in August as a four-year ban.

Since then he has voluntarily entered the NHL’s  drug and alcohol program and met with NHL brass when he was given three games without pay. Kuznetsov, who’s contract is $7.8 million against the salary cap, will miss the Capitals’ first three contests and will be eligible to return to the lineup on October 8 when Washington takes on the Dallas Stars. He was inconsistent last season but still managed to score 21 goals and 72 points in 76 games. However, it was an off season considering he notched 12 goals and 32 points in 24 playoff games the year before.

Kuznetsov can’t play in any IIHF events until the summer of 2023 which means he’ll have to sit out the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. It may not really matter as far as the Olympics are concerned though since the NHL hasn’t decided yet if its players will be participating. The reason he was handed a four-year ban by the IIHF is because cocaine is deemed to be a performance-enhancing drug by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). However, the NHL doesn’t consider it to be performance-enhancing.

The current drug policy in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the player’s association enables the league to drug test every team member during training camp as well as once during the regular season. Also, a player can be tested randomly at any time in the regular season and the playoffs while up to 60 players may be given a drug test in the off-season. These tests are typically for  performance-enhancing substances but recreational drugs can also be tested. Any player who has a high level of any recreational drug in their body is asked to explain the reason to a doctor.

The player may then be sent to the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program. In general, the NHL focuses on player treatment when failing a recreational-drug test, but Kuznetsov’s suspension is for what the league called inappropriate behaviour. The NHL has suspended players in the past when they admitted to using drugs and introduced the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program in 1996. Kuznetsov is the first player suspended for drug use since then.

Mitch Marner’s new contract puts Maple Leafs over Salary Cap

This summer’s longest running NHL soap opera, at least in the Greater Toronto Area, is finally over as 22-year-old Mitch Marner came to terms on a new deal with the Maple Leafs. After posting 61 points in his rookie season and following it up with campaigns of 69 points and a team-high 94 last year, he inked a six-year, $65.358 million deal on September 13th which will see him paid an average of $10.893 million a season. He’s also notched 17 points in 20 career playoff outings but the Leafs have yet to get past the first round in the past three seasons.

The new contract means there are currently 13 NHL players making at least $10 million per year. But interestingly, nine of those players failed to make the playoffs last season. The Maple Leafs now boast three $10 million-plus players in Marner, and fellow forwards Auston Matthews and John Tavares. On the troubling, something will eventually have to give as the Leafs are currently over the salary cap. That situation will likely escalate in the next couple of years too since five of Toronto’s blue liners will need a new contract next year and goaltender Frederik Andersen will need one two years from now.

When William Nylander is added to the list of Marner, Matthews and Tavares, Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas is paying approximately half of this year’s salary cap or $40 million on those four players. If the league’s salary cap doesn’t increase by much over the next few years then Dubas will have to get very creative or shed some salary by making player moves. NHL teams can sign a maximum of 50 players and they are typically used to fill out their NHL and American Hockey League (AHL) farm team rosters.

The Leafs also have three players on professional tryouts at training camp in Matt Read, Brandon Halverson and goaltender Michal Neuvirth. If one of them happens to make the lineup they will have to be signed to a contract to put further strain on the salary cap. At the moment the 2019/20 cap is $81.5 million with the Leafs being over it by $13,327,699. However, they are eligible to place the large contracts of Nathan Horton and David Clarkson on long-term injury relief (LTIR). In addition, forward Zach Hyman and defender Travis Dermott could start the campaign on LTIR to clear up more salary cap space.

This would give Toronto room for 23 players under the salary cap. But as soon as Hyman and/or Dermott return they will once again be over the cap by approximately $2 million. This means the team will have to go with 21 or 22 players unless Dubas makes a trade or loses somebody on waivers. With just 21 or 22 players the team could face injury problems during the season. This could force them to call up players on an emergency basis if their injured players aren’t out of the lineup long enough to be placed on LTIR, which is typically when they are expected to be sidelined for 10 games or 24 days.

It will be interesting to see how the Leafs handle their conundrum once training camp and preseason games end and the NHL celebrates opening night. It will also be interesting to see how Marner’s sky-high contract affects the rest of the league’s top unsigned restricted free agents such as Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk, Brock Boeser and Kyle Connor. With Marner signing for just under $11 million a season it looks like several of these players are likely to receive at least $8 million a year on new deals, if and when they eventually sign.

Can the Columbus Blue Jackets recover from brutal offseason?

The Columbus Blue Jackets suffered through the worst offseason in club history and possibly in the annals of the NHL this summer as they lost all the top free agents they possibly could. Perhaps they have nobody to blame but themselves though since they could have easily shipped some of the players out at last season’s trade deadline. They hung onto them however even though they knew at least two of their biggest stars were likely to leave. When all was said and done, netminder Sergei Bobrovsky left the nest along with high-scoring forwards Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Artemi Panarin.

And to rub salt into the wounds, John Davidson left his post as the Blue Jackets’ president and took the same job in the Big Apple with the New York Rangers. The Montreal Canadiens also lured away free agent backup goalie Keith Kincaid. This could certainly come back to haunt Columbus since all those who took flight other than Duchene have hooked up with fellow Eastern Conference teams. Panarin also joined the Rangers while Dzingel signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky decided to try his luck with the Florida Panthers.

As for Duchene, he inked a deal with the Western Conference’s Nashville Predators. There was plenty of interest in Bobrovsky, Duchene, Panarin and Dzingel at last year’s trade deadline as teams were anxious to add some stars to their squads for the upcoming playoff run. Bobrovsky and Panarin had more or less let Columbus know they weren’t interested in signing new deals with them but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen decided to keep everybody on board as he felt Columbus had a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.

Kekalainen could have traded the upcoming unrestricted free agents for draft picks, prospects and established NHL players, but he arguably gambled away the franchise’s immediate future and came out with the short end of the stick. The risk didn’t appear too bad at first as Columbus ousted Stanley Cup favourites and President Trophy winners the Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games in the opening playoff round. It was the first postseason series win in team history but Columbus went out in six to the Boston Bruins in the second round.

In reality, Columbus lost all of their free agent stars with nothing to show for them and also missed their chance to stock up for the future at the trade deadline. If there is a bright side, Kekalainen was able to sign Gustav Nyquist of the San Jose Sharks and gave the 30-year-old free agent a $22 million, four year deal. There’s no doubt Columbus is a lot weaker than last season while divisional rivals the New Jersey Devils and Rangers have improved.

The Rangers signed Panarin, acquired defenceman Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets in a trade and landed highly-rated prospect Kaapo Kakko in the NHL Draft with the second overall pick. New Jersey took Jack Hughes first overall and landed PK Subban, a former Norris Trophy-winner, from Nashville in a trade. Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds were acquired in trades and former Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall is back to full health.

It’s going to be hard for head coach John Tortorella to lead the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs but there are still some fine players on the roster such as Nyquist, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They also have solid prospects in Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen. However, talented rearguard Werenski is an unrestricted free agent and could miss training camp if he isn’t signed soon. With or without Werenski in the lineup, the Blue Jackets have a lot to prove to their critics this season though.

NHL gearing up for busy preseason

With the kids heading back to school just after Labour Day the NHL season isn’t too far behind as the regular season begins on October 2nd. Training camps get underway in September and the league’s pre-season schedule faces off shortly after. The league will begin its pre-season games on Sunday, September 15th and run until Monday, September 30th. There will be a total of 107 games played over the 16-day span in 43 different locations across North America and in Europe.

There is a three month gap between the last game of the 2018/19 Stanley Cup playoffs and the first pre-season contest of the upcoming 2019/20 campaign. Of course, last season came to an exciting conclusion with the St. Louis Blues winning their first-ever Stanley Cup with a game-seven victory in Boston against the Bruins.

The league will once again travel over the Atlantic Ocean and hold a couple of pre-season contests in Europe. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks will play a game against a European team before facing off for the regular season against each other on October 4th in Prague, Czech Republic. Chicago will be taking on Eisbaren Berlin in their German hometown on September 29th and Philadelphia travels to Laussane, Switzerland for a game against HC Laussane on September 30th. Both games will be televised in North America on the NHL Network.

The NHL’s annual Kraft Hockeyville game will be held in the town of Renous, New Brunswick as the location won the Canadian competition. The winning community earns a pre-season game and this year’s tilt on September 18th will see the Florida Panthers square off against the Montreal Canadiens. The game takes place in Bathurst, New Brunswick and will be broadcast nationally in Canada by TVAS and Sportsnet.

There will also be a Kraft Hockeyville in the USA on September 26th in Calumet, Michigan. This encounter will see Stanley Cup winners the St. Louis Blues doing battle with the Detroit Red Wings. This game will also be aired across America on NBCSN.

While most NHL cities will be hosting pre-season games for their teams there are also numerous games held in neutral sites. These include Abbotsford, British Columbia; Bridgeport, Connecticut; St. John’s, Newfoundland; Salt Lake City; Tulsa, Oklahoma; University Park, Pennsylvania and Victoria, British Columbia.

There won’t be any games held in China this year even though Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals just returned from a five-day trip there as an NHL ambassador. The Capitals’ captain helped run hockey training sessions for children and said he enjoyed the experience immensely. Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner said logistics couldn’t be worked out in time for games in China this year but he hopes the league will return next season after holding two games in China in each of the last two years.

Daly added that the league likely won’t hold regular-season contests in China next year but hopes to in the near future. He also said he’s not sure if NHL players will participate in the 2022  Olympics in Beijing, China and it could depend on whether or not the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and NHL Players’ Association is terminated early in September of 2020 or runs its full course until September, 2022.