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Semin leaves Habs with room for upgrade; Stamkos fuels Leafs talk

The Canadiens have lots of salary cap space for a reload, thanks to Alex Semin; Would Steven Stamkos really like being a Maple Leaf?

Maybe it was his compete level. Maybe it was his inability to finish. Maybe he was just an ill-fitting part. Whatever the reason, the Alexander Semin experiment has officially concluded in Montreal. And with the enigmatic winger off the books, general manager Marc Bergevin is now free to explore avenues to improve his Eastern Conference leaders. 

Semin’s release means the Canadiens have just over $1.5 million in cap space available. That might not seem like much now, but they could have room to add up to $8 million in salary come the Feb. 29 trade deadline. And that potentially opens the door to making multiple additions ahead of a Stanley Cup push.

Draft, salary cap complications slow NHL expansion talks

The perception is that the team’s greatest weakness is the lack of a true No. 1 center. That’s probably accurate, but the Habs are pretty happy with the play of both Alex Galchenyuk and Tomas Plekanec. An incoming center would have to be a significant upgrade to move one of them, such as Galchenyuk, to the wing. Is Eric Staal that guy? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, there’s no certainty that he’ll be for grabs as there’s a realistic chance that the pending UFA will re-up with the Hurricanes at a reduced rate. 

A more pressing need might be a top-six right wing along with some depth on defense. No telling yet who might be available closer to the deadline, but expect Bergevin to be active with Montreal’s Cup window wide open.

Semin, by the way, signed on Thursday with Metalurg Magnitogorsk, a team that boasts three of the KHL’s top-six scorers but has struggled defensively. He should fit right in.

• With both the Lightning and the agent for pending UFA Steven Stamkos maintaining radio silence about the state of their contract talks—if any are even ongoing—it’s no surprise that his Toronto-based social media shenanigans are temporarily filling the void. After all, Stamkos is a Toronto boy and there’s a widely held belief that the Maple Leafs would be his first choice if he hits the market this summer. Any indication that he might be leaning that way—even if it is something as silly as liking and then unliking a Twitter post—only serves to reinforce that perception. 

But the truth is that Toronto might be a lousy fit for the superstar sniper. And he probably knows that.

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Sure, the leafs could pay him whatever he wants, but it won’t just be money that woos him away from Tampa. The Leafs are a young team that is still years away from competing for the Cup, and while Stamkos is still young himself at 25, that kind of long-term window might not be in his best interests. And if he thinks it’s tough dealing with the frustrations of a six-game goal-scoring drought in Tampa, he’ll be in for a rude awakening in Toronto, where the 24-hour hockey news cycle will grind up a player over far less.

Plenty of athletes have discovered that going home was nothing like what they’d hoped. Toronto might be an option for Stamkos, but it’s not the only one. And probably not the best, either.

• Even with eight points and eight teams separating the Blue Jackets from a wild card spot, a strong November had fans in Columbus believing their team might yet claw its way back into the playoff mix. Those hopes took a serious hit, though, with the lower-body injury suffered by Sergei Bobrovsky late in Tuesday’s 3–2 loss to the Kings.

Still afloat in the weak Pacific, the woeful Oilers must make a move

After a tough start to the year, Bobrovsky has rebounded back into Vezina Trophy form and re-established himself as one of the most effective stoppers in the NHL. In 15 games since November 1, he has gone 9-4-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .945 save percentage, a stat that ranks as second-best among all NHL starters during that period.

And in 13 of those 15 games, he held the opposition to two goals or fewer. He wasn’t just giving Columbus a chance to win almost every single night. He was stealing games outright.

Now the Jackets, the only team in the league that has yet to get a win from a backup goaltender, must turn to Curtis McElhinney and 2012 third-rounder Joonas Korpisalo for the next three weeks. Safe to say the story of their season could come down to those 10 games.

• The best save percentage since Nov. 1? Toronto's James Reimer with a sizzling .949 in 12 appearances. More impressively, he’s at .948 in adjusted save percentage, a stat that takes shot location into account. Maybe Grapes was right, eh?

Tyler Seguin's shooting to be a Star

• Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg are getting all the headlines, but the real MVP of the Dallas Stars this season might be Jeff Reese. The team’s new goalie coach has done a masterful job rebuilding the games of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi after both veterans unraveled last season. Lehtonen in particular looks like a different player, relying less on his natural athleticism and more on technique. He’s playing deeper in his net, which mitigates his tendency to be overly aggressive—a trait that led to far too many deflating goals last season—and allows him an extra fraction of a second to react to tight tips and redirects. He’s also doing a better job of staying upright when he goes into his crouch, which cuts down on the space he was leaving open up top.

And with his physical game improving, the mental game has come along as well. While those good habits slipped away from him a bit on Tuesday night when he allowed five goals to Carolina, that was a rare misstep. Lehtonen’s game is in order, and as long as he’s going like this, the Stars have to be taken seriously.

The numbers game

• The Bruins and Canadiens have met 732 times during the regular season, the most of any two teams in NHL history—Montreal holds a 357-265-110 edge—and the most of any two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (177) as well.

• Taylor Hall’s five career overtime goals are tied with Ryan Smyth for second place in Oilers history, just two behind franchise leader Jari Kurri (7).

• This season, after 420 games played there have been 159 comeback wins, including 66 in the third period.

• The Washington Capitals are looking to blood science to improve their on-ice success. This is pretty awesome stuff.

• Just a year removed from their gold medal win, 10 members of Canada’s 2015 World Juniors team are making an impact on the NHL.

Football a key part of Jets forward Andrew Copp’s road to the NHL

• Buffalo Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe chipped in with an informative Reddit AMA session.

• If Dougie Hamilton can’t play defense then maybe he can convince you to buy a Calgary Flames ugly Christmas sweater. Only $72.99!

• Another veteran NHL player has been forced to retire due to lingering concussion symptoms.

• The Carolina Hurricanes have failed to develop a goaltending prospect since Cam Ward debuted in 2005, but there is finally some hope in their system.

• The NWHL has forged its first major sponsorship agreement. Here’s why it’s a big deal.