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NHL turns to Vegas expansion draft, unpredictable offseason

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The first expansion draft in the salary-cap era has even the most seasoned NHL general managers unsure of what is going to happen over the next few weeks.

“You expect the unexpected,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said.

The most unpredictable and fascinating offseason in more than a decade has arrived. Uncertainty runs from the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft next week through the New Jersey Devils’ decision with the top pick in the entry draft to a free agent market that hinges significantly on how much the salary cap goes up – if at all.

Trades could be coming fast and furious as Vegas GM George McPhee stockpiles assets in exchange for agreeing to select or not select players in the June 21 expansion draft. Teams have to decide who to protect – seven forwards, three defenseman and a goaltender or eight skaters at any position and a goaltender – and there should be some roster juggling around the league before protected lists must be submitted Saturday afternoon.

“I expect something to transpire and the expansions that I’ve been through in the past, it certainly does,” Lamoriello said. “When there are decisions that have to be made, you’d rather make them proactive rather than reactive. People are going to be trying to do things, whether they have one too many defensemen or whether they have one too many forwards or whether they have needs that they could possibly correct by taking a surplus off somebody else.”

The back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have to make a quick decision with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury ahead of the expansion draft because they can’t afford to lose 23-year-old Matt Murray , who’s 22-9 in consecutive title runs with a 1.95 goals-against average and .928 save percentage and is under contract for three more years. Fleury has a no-movement clause in his contract so he must agree to waive it to be traded or exposed in the expansion draft.

After talking to his colleagues around the league, McPhee said he believes the expansion draft will be more productive for the franchise’s future than he first thought.

“There are teams that really want to protect some people and protect their rosters and they are willing to pay a pretty fair price to get us to lay off certain people and go in a different direction,” McPhee said. “So in those instances we’ll be able to get young players or some draft picks that will help us down the road.”

The expansion draft is drawing so much interest that a group of University of Toronto researchers put together a tool they say shows the optimal protections and picks. Vegas, for its part, hired as a hockey operations analyst General Fanager founder Tom Poraszka, who made the first online expansion draft simulator.

Once all 30 protected lists are revealed on Sunday, Vegas has a 72-hour window to negotiate with any unprotected restricted or unrestricted free agents and make its selections, which will be announced June 21. McPhee wields a lot of power because of that, and it’s fair to wonder how he’ll put together an expansion roster from scratch.

“I’m not sure George is going to be willing to tell me what player he wants,” said Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, who was McPhee’s assistant for seven years. “It’s frustrating you’re going to lose a good player with the expansion draft and you’re going to have to react to it.”

The entire NHL is going to have to react to what Vegas does and to the salary cap, which could remain flat at this past season’s $73 million or go up, perhaps to roughly $77 million, depending on whether players elect to use their escalator clause to increase it by up to 5 percent. That’s a complicated issue and there is no guarantee players raise the cap as much as possible this time around, especially with a new team coming in.

That could alter free agency, which begins July 1. MacLellan acknowledged he would have a more legitimate chance to re-sign 30-goal scorer T.J. Oshie if the cap is at $77 million. And if not, Oshie could be among the most sought after free agents.

Some things to watch this offseason:

NICO OR NOLAN

With the top pick, the Devils are expected to decide between centers Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier or trade down. There’s no franchise-changing star in this draft like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, and Patrick’s injury-plagued season made this a debate to watch at the draft that begins June 23 in Chicago.

ONE MORE COACH

With the Florida Panthers hiring Bob Boughner, just one coaching vacancy remains: the Buffalo Sabres. Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet and Nashville Predators assistant Phil Housley are believed to be among the candidates, while Washington associate coach Todd Reirden is also in the mix.

FURIOUS MOVES

Because a lot of teams will wait to re-sign players until after the expansion draft, there could be a flurry of activity beginning June 22. Jaromir Jagr‘s status in Florida and Joe Thornton‘s in San Jose could be decided before either becomes an unrestricted free agent.

CONTRACT WATCH

Beyond this year’s thin crop of unrestricted free agents, led by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and wingers Patrick Eaves and Thomas Vanek, teams can begin re-upping potential 2018 free agents on July 1. That means the focus is on the New York Islanders with captain John Tavares, the Montreal Canadiens with Carey Price and the Oilers with McDavid.

CAPPED-OUT BLACKHAWKS

Even if Chicago gets the much-rumored deal done to let Vegas take defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to shed the contract of center Marcus Kruger, the Blackhawks have to do some more maneuvering to get under the cap. That could mean the loss of a player perhaps even as good as Niklas Hjalmarsson.

THREE-PEAT

GM Jim Rutherford may have to get creative to help Pittsburgh try to become the first team to win the Cup in three consecutive years since the Islanders’ dynasty years from 1980-83. Among the Penguins’ free agents are Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley.

 

Did Brandon Saad want out of Columbus?

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On an insanely busy and blockbuster-filled Friday morning, it was hard to sit back and fully analyze all the trades going down. Such is the world of instant reaction.

But in the aftermath, a few pressing questions were asked. One in particular following the Brandon Saad-for-Artemi Panarin deal orchestrated by Chicago GM Stan Bowman and Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen.

It was asked of Kekalainen — did Saad like being a Blue Jacket?

A transcript from video posted by the Dispatch’s Tom Reed:

Q: Saad put up terrific numbers, really strong numbers, for two seasons here. But there always seemed to be a feeling he wasn’t quite totally comfortable here. Did you sense that?

Kekalainen: I can’t speak for his behalf. You’ll have to ask him. He was a good soldier for us, a good professional, and he handled himself well in that regard.

Kekalainen went on to add the Jackets weren’t looking to trade Saad, and agreed the 24-year-old put up solid numbers — especially at 5-on-5.

But there was friction during his stint in Columbus.

In February of 2016, head coach John Tortorella acknowledged he “screwed up” with Saad when he first took over behind the bench.

“I came here, I screwed up with him and I think I held him back in where he wasn’t killing penalties,” he lamented. “You know what he is as a player – two-time Stanley Cup-winner – but I still think he has a lot to learn about the game, and I lost him.

“When he spends two minutes on the bench and he doesn’t kill a penalty, and I don’t come back with him another shift after that because I’m trying to get my lines back together, there he is sitting on the bench for probably three minutes. It may not seem like a lot, but for a player that’s an eternity.”

Tortorella owned up to his mistake, which might’ve seemingly put the issue to bed.

But one year later, he and Saad were clashing again.

During Game 1 of this year’s playoff series against Pittsburgh, Tortorella benched Saad in the third period after giving the puck away.

More, from the Dispatch:

The local Pittsburgh telecast showed coach John Tortorella screaming at Saad after a turnover. The team’s third-leading scorer sat for the final 14:17 with his team trailing by three goals.

“I’m not quite sure — heat of the moment,” Saad said when asked whether the turnover or other factors contributed to his benching and Tortorella’s eruption. “You will have to ask him about that. For me, it’s when I do get out there, do my best and try to help the team win.”

The overriding issue at play seemed to be Saad’s ceiling. The price to acquire him — and sign him — suggested Columbus saw him as an elite, top-line player (for example, Torts said he expected Saad to lead the way against Pittsburgh in the playoffs.)

But while the numbers and production were there, Saad might’ve been more comfortable in the role he had in Chicago, a guy that could thrive in a more secondary role while most of the focus was on Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

And now, he’ll get that chance.

Again.

Wild trades center Jordan Schroeder to Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired center Jordan Schroeder in a trade with the Minnesota Wild.

In exchange for the 26-year-old Schroeder, the Wild on Friday got minor-league center Dante Salituro.

Schroeder played in 37 games for the Wild last season, recording six goals and seven assists. He has 17 goals and 23 assists in 144 career NHL games with the Wild and Vancouver Canucks since making his NHL debut in 2012-13.

It was the second trade of the day announced by the Blue Jackets. They also got forward Artemi Panarin, minor-league forward Tyler Motte, a draft pick for forward Brandon Saad, minor-league goaltender Anton Forsberg and a 2018 draft pick.

Contract stability and cost certainty key to Blackhawks’ overhaul

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Stan Bowman promised change this offseason and he delivered a lot of it on Friday when he completed two blockbuster trades to significantly alter the makeup of his core.

After sending Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for defensemen Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin, the Blackhawks quickly followed that up by re-acquiring Brandon Saad from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a deal centered around Artemi Panarin.

In the short-term the trades don’t do much to help the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation. Saad and Panarin have matching $6 million cap hits for this season, while Murphy offers them just a couple hundred thousand in cap savings in the Hjalmarsson deal.

But what the trades do in the long-term is give the Blackhawks a little bit of cost certainty when it comes to their salary cap structure.

Scott Powers at The Athletic quotes a Blackhawks source as saying “We believe this helps us because of contract stability. Saad has four years remaining on his deal and Murphy has five years.”

That is the key here.

Hjalmarsson, still a tremendous defensive defenseman, is set to be an unrestricted free agent after next season. Panarin, one of the NHL’s most prolific point producers since entering the league, will join him.

It is almost a given that if Panarin continues on the same trajectory he has been on during his first two years in the league (pretty much a top-10 scorer) he is going to cost significantly more than the $6 million cap hit he and Saad both account for this season. Finding a way to keep him with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford still on the books would have been incredibly difficult, if not completely impossible. Something like this was almost certain to happen at some point anyway.

Along with the cost certainty and “contract stability” that comes with the changes, they are also getting a little younger, something the Blackhawks could also use.

Murphy is seven years younger than Hjalmarsson and gives them another right-handed shot on their blue line. Saad, along with being locked in to a long-term contract, is a year younger than Panarin.

All of this makes sense for the Blackhawks from a long-term contract outlook, and in a capped league teams can never lose sight of the long-term finances.

But the most important question at the end of the day, of course, is are they better? Hjalmarsson is still an excellent player but he is also going to be 30 years old this season and is going to eventually reach a point where his game declines. That time will be sooner rather than later. Murphy, in theory, should still have his best days ahead of him and was — by a pretty wide margin — Arizona’s best defenseman when it came to suppressing shots and shutting down opposing players this past season.

Saad is an excellent two-way player and obviously has a lengthy history of production with the Blackhawks. But again, Panarin has been one of the 10 most productive players in the NHL the past two seasons. Is Saad’s all-around play so much better that it makes up for the difference in offense?

The one thing that could help make up for that is if prized prospect Alex Debrincat makes the jump to the NHL and is as good as advertised.

Even after all of these moves on Friday the Blackhawks still probably have more work to do given their salary cap situation. But these two moves at least gave them some long-term certainty when it comes to their core.

Related:

Chicago Fire: Blackhawks re-acquire Saad

Blackhawks send Hjalmarsson to Arizona

Coyotes expect Stepan to be ‘true number-one center’

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Derek Stepan is 27 years old and has played over 500 games in the NHL.

Though he has never registered more than 57 points in a single season, the Arizona Coyotes believe he’s the big piece they’ve been looking for.

“We are thrilled to acquire Derek,” said GM John Chayka after Friday’s trade with the Rangers. “Our organization has been searching for a true number-one center for over a decade and we are confident that he can be that for us.”

Chayka is absolutely right that the Coyotes haven’t had great centers for a while now. Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal were fine players for them, but Jeremy Roenick was their last elite center, and he’s been gone since 2001.

But is it fair to expect Stepan to be a true number one?

Well, the Rangers were reportedly concerned his game was on the decline. And at 27, his prime years are probably behind him.

Also consider the bar for number-one centers in the NHL. It’s Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Nicklas Backstrom, and a few others who rate higher than Stepan.

One could even make the argument that the Rangers never won the Stanley Cup with Stepan because they never had an elite number-one center while he was there. (No disrespect to Brad Richards, but his game was on the decline when he signed in New York.)

So, no, it’s not fair to expect Stepan to be a true number-one center, even if he’s deployed like one next season.

The real hope for a number-one center in Arizona is with Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome, and Clayton Keller.

In the meantime, Stepan will have to do.