Five players in line for big paydays

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This summer we’ve seen players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Claude Giroux sign monster extensions to prevent them from ever coming close to the open market.

With so many great and intriguing players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the 2013-14 campaign, we won’t have to wait until next summer to see some more major signings.

With that in mind, we’re highlighting five examples of players eligible to become unrestricted free agents next summer that could end up signing major contracts:

1) New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist

As much talent as the Rangers have in front of him, their team relies heavily on the superb goaltending of Lundqvist. Losing the 31-year-old now would be a devastating blow to the Rangers, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that he’ll re-sign.

Lundqvist was initially noncommittal when asked about the possibility of staying with the Rangers beyond 2013-14 and there’s even been speculation that his lukewarm response played a role in the firing of head coach John Tortorella.

Of course, it’s worth adding that Lundqvist responded to that speculation by distancing himself from Tortorella’s exit.

“I would never put pressure on the management on decisions like that,” Lundqvist asserted, adding that the move would have no impact on his contract negotiations. At that time, he also expressed a desire to work something out with the Rangers, so we’ll see.

2) Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel

Regardless of your opinion on the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Toronto, it’s hard to argue his worth to the team today. With the exception of the lockout shortened season, the 25-year-old has scored at least 30 goals in every campaign with the Maple Leafs. In 2013, he was one of the best forwards in the league with 20 goals and 52 points in 48 games.

The desire to keep Kessel might have even influenced the Leafs to give Tyler Bozak a five-year, $21 million extension. The two displayed some good chemistry last season.

Either way, the Toronto Maple Leafs will almost certainly have to pay top dollar in order to keep Kessel.

3) Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford

Crawford struggled mightily in 2011-12, but he bounced back in a big way and played a big role in the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. Although he was never able to fully shake off the criticisms surrounding him, he’s was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL last season from a statistical perspective.

If he comes back in 2013-14 and enjoys a similar performance, he can basically dictate whatever terms he wants for his next contract. Unlike Kessel and Lundqvist, who have already had huge paydays, Crawford is still looking for his first big contract — at least by the standards of the NHL.

He has one year left on his three-year, $8 million deal and it’s not hard to envision a scenario where his average annual salary more than doubles after this deal.

Of course, if he falls back to Earth, then negotiating his contract would be even more complicated. At that point, would the Blackhawks be willing to give him a contract that reflects his potential or would they want to hedge their bets? And if they stick to their guns, would a more desperate franchise make a big splash on Crawford in the hopes that he’s got another comeback in him?

4) Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik and Daniel Sedin

Obviously that’s two players, but it’s assumed that the twins will sign as a package. The duo will turn 33 in September, so they will probably have to decide between a long contract at a discounted price or a roughly four-year deal around market value.

The Vancouver Canucks are expected to push hard to re-sign them, but it will be interesting to see how they react to new bench boss John Tortorella. One of the more controversial decisions he has made so far is to have the Sedin twins kill penalties and block shots.

If Tortorella’s approach results in a Stanley Cup then they will probably be thrilled. If the Canucks suffer another quick exit then the future is less clear.

5) Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown

Brown didn’t do much offensively during the Kings recent playoff run, but he helps this franchise is a lot of different ways. He’s their captain, he chips in offensively, and he throws his body around.

He’s got one season left on his six-year, $19.05 million deal, but he’ll probably get a big extension, perhaps in line with David Clarkson’s recent seven-year, $36.75 million contract.

The question is how difficult that kind of a raise will be for the Kings to accommodate, given that they don’t have a ton of cap room as it is. With that in mind, it will also be interesting to see if Brown opts to give the Kings a bit of a hometown discount.

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Since 2013-14, Ilya Kovalchuk has been plying his trade in the KHL instead of the NHL. Really, with the year before including the abysmal, lockout-shortened campaign, we haven’t really seen much of Kovalchuk at this level since helping the Devils reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

For fans of beautiful hockey, such thoughts are borderline offensive.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough]

That said, Kovalchuk gave fans a lot to enjoy over 816 NHL regular-season games, even if many of those contests happened on some crummy Atlanta Thrashers teams. While there’s a lot of “what could have been?” with Kovalchuk, it’s also fitting that he left the NHL with exactly as many points (816) as games played.

The Los Angeles Kings make a lot of sense as the team he’ll return to the NHL with, too.

Most obviously, and also the point of most pressure, is that the Kings need Kovalchuk. They really need a shot in the arm, so landing arguably the most lethal shooter of his generation might just do that.

Yes, the Kings surprised many by making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even with Jeff Carter – the closest player they had to a Kovalchukian sniper – mostly on the shelf in 2017-18.

That’s great, but it only does so much to mask recent struggles. After all, the Kings were swept from the first round, have only won one playoff game since winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, and have missed the postseason altogether in two of the last four seasons.

Kovalchuk and the Kings are bonded by a scary question: “How much do they have left?”

The good news is that Kovalchuk performed well during his KHL sojourn, and seemed to be his usual self in international competition. Still, the aging curve can be especially unkind to snipers, and Kovalchuk’s a 35-year-old who’s been playing a lot of hockey considering he jumped straight from being the top pick of the 2001 NHL Draft to full-time duty with Atlanta in 2001-02.

At least his confidence hasn’t wavered all that much, as PHT’s Sean Leahy noted after Kovalchuk came to terms with the Kings.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

The situation he’ll be in with the Kings could make a big impact on how seamless his transition back to the NHL might be.

During Kovalchuk’s days with the Devils, he’d log a jaw-dropping amount of ice time (we’re talking “deployment usually reserved for top defensemen”-type stuff), and that would often mean spending tons of time playing the point on the power play. Los Angeles seems to have a simple-and-wise plan for Kovalchuk, considering his age and world-class shot: put him in Alex Ovechkin‘s “office.”

“We just want him to do exactly what [Alex] Ovechkin does,” Luc Robitaille said to The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman during draft weekend (sub required).

While we’ll have to see if it works in practice, this is a really bright idea on paper.

Speaking of things that make sense, at least in our minds, Kovalchuk and Anze Kopitar could form a symbiotic relationship that could pay big dividends for the Kings.

Kopitar would rank as Kovalchuk’s best center in ages, if ever, at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk presents a dramatic skill boost for Kopitar, who put up an incredible effort lugging Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo last season.

(All due respect to Brown’s bounce-back efforts and Iafallo’s scrappy work, but Kovalchuk presents a tantalizing upgrade. Ideally.)

Kovalchuk’s contract is another interesting element to this situation.

He could very well be a huge bargain, considering his skills at a fairly modest $6.25 million cap hit. Kovalchuk surely could have held out for more dollars, particularly on a shorter contract, but he made it clear that he wanted to compete too. (Granted, the sunny climes of Los Angeles probably didn’t hurt, either.)

On the other hand, Kovalchuk counts as a 35+ contract, so this could get ugly if it’s clear that the NHL game passed him by in a stark way.

If onlookers give Kovalchuk a fair shake as a talented player whose age will probably limit his all-around abilities, and maybe open the door for the normally-sturdy winger to maybe deal with the occasional injury, then this could be a happy marriage.

Talented players like Kovalchuk often open the door for out-sized expectations, and harsh criticisms, however, so this one could go either way.

Whatever happens, Kovalchuk makes this Kings team a lot more intriguing in 2018-19.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Building off a breakthrough: Adrian Kempe

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

When people think of the Los Angeles Kings, they often think of an aging team.

That’s fair, but the Kings have been able to unearth some solid young talent, too. Adrian Kempe is one of those key players, and the hope is that the best is yet to come for the 21-year-old Swede.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

After going without a point in his first five games of 2017-18, Kempe exploded against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 18, generating his first NHL hat trick and adding an assist.

That began a run of nine points over five games, signaling to the NHL that Kempe was a player you’d need to game plan for, and not just because of his speed. As Curtis Zupke reported for the Los Angeles Times in November, Kings management was taking notice of his leap forward.

“He has the trust of the coaches, but we’re starting to see, to be honest with you, I can start to see some plays that we haven’t even seen,” Kings assistant general manager Mike Futa said. “It’s a testimony to how hard he’s working. … If we can start to mix in some North American muddy goals with that, that’s when your stats start to look different.”

Kempe brings things to the table that the Kings crave: youth, speed, and swagger.

Still, to tweak Futa’s phrase, the Kings would like to see certain stats look different.

Despite the considerable advantage of beginning 68.3 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone, Kempe’s possession stats were still pretty ugly. While analytics types will be disappointed in those numbers, old-school hockey people would be unhappy to see that he only won 38.5 percent of his draws.

So, yes, it’s promising that Kempe scored 16 goals and 37 points in 81 games last season, particularly since he only averaged 13:20 TOI. You can’t really blame a Kings fan for imagining the former first-rounder (29th overall in 2014) reaching even greater heights.

At minimum, Kempe could conceivably be given more reps on the power play. He averaged 1:07 PP TOI per game, far behind quite a few other Los Angeles forwards (injuries to Jeff Carter and Michael Cammalleri’s brief time in Los Angeles skew things a bit). Kempe rode some high percentages at times in 2017-18, yet getting more shifts on the man advantage could help him at least achieve similar stats, even if his luck levels out.

Of course, more ice time tends to come with better all-around play, so Kempe needs to clean up his two-way game if he hopes to see a significant increase in shifts. There also could be some challenges in getting those “offensive specialist” nods with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and possibly a healthier season for Carter.

Either way, Kempe’s a player to watch for the Kings, and possibly a crucial one when it comes to the team’s ability to remain viable as core players age.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ryan Ellis earns eight-year, $50 million extension from Predators

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The Nashville Predators locked up another defenseman long-term as they agreed to an eight-year, $50 million extension with Ryan Ellis.

“Ryan is a huge part of our team on and off the ice and we are happy to have his leadership remain in our locker room for the foreseeable future,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We have talked about wanting to keep the core of our team together, and this is another opportunity to help us do so while continuing to compete for a Stanley Cup. Ryan is entering his prime and is one of the reasons why we feel this team has a chance to win every time we step on the ice.”

As TSN’s Bob McKenzie notes, the extension lacks any no-movement or no-trade clause, which is kind of what happens — if you’re not Pekka Rinne — when you work a deal with Poile.

Ellis is entering the final year of his current contract, which means he’s now tied to the Predators through the end of the 2026-27 NHL season. He’s now one of three defensemen on the team signed beyond the 2020-21 season.

That’s a pretty picture right there if you’re Poile, Peter Laviolette or a Predators fan. Arguably the best top-four in the league are signed for the next two seasons, which will again see the team on the short-list of Stanley Cup contenders. When you’re able to retain core pieces on very team-friendly deals, that’s how you build a group that can keep its elite status on an annual basis.

After returning from off-season knee surgery, Ellis was terrific over the final 44 games of the season. He scored nine goals and recorded 32 points while averaging over 23 minutes a night. He was Nashville’s best defenseman possession-wise with a 55 percent Corsi and was only behind Mattias Eklholm in Relative Corsi (4.63), per Corsica. He is dependable and productive and showed no ill effects from the injury.

The Predators will likely be among the leagues stingiest defenses in 2018-19 and Ellis plays a big part in that.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.