NHL: Friday Five for 15 February

THE RETURN: The long-awaited return of Ryan Kesler to the Canucks’ lineup is expected to happen Friday against Dallas

BY JEFF ANGUS

In today’s instalment of the Friday Five, I take a look at the Ryan O’Reilly holdout in Colorado, Alexander Semin’s impact in Carolina, the return of Ryan Kesler, and more.

5. COLORADO MISSES RYAN O’REILLY
Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers (-162, 5)

It appears as if O’Reilly’s days as a member of the Colorado organization are over. The club and O’Reilly have been unable to close the gap in terms of expected salary – O’Reilly wants a contract with an annual cap hit in the $5-6 million range, while Colorado won’t go much higher than $3-3.5 million.

O’Reilly was their best forward last season, playing the toughest minutes of any center and still leading the team in offensive production. Surprisingly (or maybe not) no team has stepped forward with an offer sheet for the impressive young player. NHL GM’s seem loathe to use the offer sheet for fear of retribution… which leads me to the question – what is the point of the offer sheet if it so rarely gets used?

Is O’Reilly a $5 million player? At this point probably not – especially with such a small sample size as a top line forward (one season). However, a vast number of contracts have been signed in recent years with young players receiving more money than they were worth at the time. The hope with those contracts is that the player will grow/develop and eventually outplay his contract by the end of the deal.

Some potential landing spots for O’Reilly – Calgary (a team desperate for centers), Toronto (they could stand to upgrade Tyler Bozak in the top six), or Buffalo (the Sabres need a defensive presence up the middle after losing Paul Gaustad and Derek Roy over the last year).

4. IMPRESSIVE GOALTENDING DOMINATES
There have been a number of impressive goaltending performances in 2013 – Roberto Luongo in Vancouver (Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks (-200, 5)), Viktor Fasth in Anaheim (Anaheim Ducks at Detroit Red Wings (-138, 5.5)), Pekka Rinne in Nashville (the Predators could probably change their name to the Pekka Rinnes), and Craig Anderson in Ottawa (Ottawa Senators at Toronto Maple Leafs (-162, 5.5)). However, from what I have seen the best goaltender in the NHL this season has been Kari Lehtonen.

It hasn’t been an easy road to success for Lehtonen, who struggled with consistency and injury issues during the first part of his career in Atlanta. He has found a home in Dallas, and is carrying a young Stars team at the moment. Dallas isn’t expected to make the playoffs this year, but if they do, it will be because of the big Finn between the pipes.

I spoke to NHL.com goaltending expert Justin Goldman last summer regarding Lehtonen. Here is some of what he had to say:

Just make sure people give plenty of credit to Stars goalie coach Mike Valley. It’s 2012, and the casual fan or reporter still has no clue just how important a goalie coach is to a team’s success. They are vital, just like a quarterback coach is to a quarterback’s success. Valley is known by many in the goalie community to be one of the brightest young goaltending minds in the world. He gets it. He is progressive, and not just with the way he teaches technique, but how he motivates and inspires goalies to be their best. He knows what it takes to turn a Top-30 goalie into a Top-10 goalie without over-coaching them or changing their game. The best thing that possibly could’ve happened to Lehtonen was to cross paths with Valley, and you’re just now starting to see the result of the great chemistry that has been created. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lehtonen requested the Stars to extend Valley’s contract before signing his own contract extension — he’s that valuable.

3. THE PENGUINS HAVE CAP SPACE. A LOT OF CAP SPACE
Pittsburgh Penguins at Winnipeg Jets (+125, 5.5)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have close to $13 million in cap space at the moment (pro-rated, which means they can take on up to $13 million in salary). The team could stand to add a top six forward to play with Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin, as well as another defenseman to add to the mix. Some potential names – Dustin Penner from Pittsburgh, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi from Minnesota, or Jarome Iginla from Calgary (yes, I’ll get that rumour going now). There will likely be more teams selling assets come deadline time, and expect the Penguins to be very aggressive in pursuing another forward.

2. SEMIN HAS FOUND A HOME
For all of the criticism he has received in recent years, Alex Semin has fit in like a glove with the Hurricanes. I have started to watch more and more Carolina games because I really enjoy how the team plays (defense is sometimes optional), and Semin has really clicked nicely on the top line with Jiri Tlusty and Eric Staal. He originally signed  a one-year deal last summer, but I could see the Hurricanes giving him a long-term pact at the end of this season.

Semin, a shy and introverted person off of the ice, has looked much more comfortable playing in Raleigh, North Carolina relative to the spotlight and media attention from the big market in Washington, DC.

1. THE RETURN OF THE KESLER
Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks (-200, 5)

Ryan Kesler officially makes his return to the Canucks lineup tonight. It has been almost 10 months since Kesler played a competitive hockey game – expect some rust. However, don’t expect his offseason surgeries to impact his play at all. Kesler learned from his mistake of rushing back in 2011-12, and he has been very methodical and patient with his rehabilitation this time around.

If it were the postseason or if Kesler hadn’t rushed back last time, he would likely have suited up a few weeks ago. He has been skating really hard for about a month now, and his shoulder has caused zero issues with shooting and stickhandling. The Canucks need Kesler to revert back to his 2010-11 form (they don’t need 40 goals again, but that would be a nice bonus) if they have any hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.