Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the fifth edition of this column, and if you look back (2013, 20142015, 2016), we’ve rarely been wrong. Cry all you want in the comments section, but there’s no way your team is winning it all.

Ottawa Senators: The worst team to make the playoffs. Which makes it even funnier that their owner chose this year to “bet” on the Sens to win the Cup. Good ol’ Eugene Melnyk, the master of unreasonable expectations. Fact: the Sens were the only team to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential. They play a gimmicky system that severely limits their offense, and they play it because they’re not good enough to take on legitimately good teams straight up.

St. Louis Blues: According to the odds makers, the longest shots of the bunch. Bovada has the Blues at 33/1, and frankly, that might be generous. Even GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t think his players can win. Why else would he have traded Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the deadline? That’s not a move contenders make. Sure, the Blues won a few games down the stretch, but only because Jake Allen went on an unsustainable run. The Blues had their chance last year. Their window has closed.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A.k.a. last year’s Dallas Stars. The Leafs may have a dynamic offense, but they’re still terrible defensively. Only two teams, Buffalo and Arizona, surrendered more shots this season, and that’s no formula for success in the postseason. Don’t worry, Leafs fans, you’ll still have fun just being there in the playoffs. But until management finds a way to add another top-4 defenseman – preferably one that can help protect a freakin’ lead — there’s no hope of winning it all.

Nashville Predators: The definition of mediocre. The Preds are 11th in goals for, 15th in goals against, 16th on the power play, and 15th on the PK. Despite all the preseason hype, this team just never got rolling. It would play well for a week, then awful for a week, then well, then awful, and you get the point. Oh, and by the way, is it fair to question whether Ryan Johansen is truly a No.1 center, the kind the Preds thought they were getting when they traded Seth Jones to Columbus? After just 14 goals in 82 games, we think it’s more than fair. Bottom line: Johansen better start showing a little heart. Otherwise, those “soft” and “lazy” labels won’t be going anywhere.

New York Rangers: Granted, they had a better-than-expected regular season. But the Blueshirts still have the same Achilles’ heel: there’s just no way they can make a deep run with that defense. Other than Ryan McDonagh and maybe Brady Skjei, who is trustworthy back there? Who can make a positive contribution on a consistent basis? Who doesn’t need to be sheltered? Who still has gas left in the tank? You’re struggling to answer, and for good reason. The Rangers finished the season in an 8-9-4 tailspin. Even if Henrik Lundqvist is good, they’re gonna find it tough to make a run. And Lundqvist has not been good.

San Jose Sharks: Pete DeBoer would have you believe that this year’s Sharks are even better than last year’s group that went to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, he said that at the All-Star break, before the Sharks’ season-ending slide that cost them first place in the Pacific Division. Add injuries to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to the equation and the Sharks look like a team that peaked too early this season, one with an aging roster that’s going to have trouble matching the pace and intensity of the playoffs. In other words, what they looked like against the Penguins.

Edmonton Oilers: All it took was four first overall picks and the Oilers are back, baby! Way to go, guys. We thought you’d never make it. It’s funny to hear all the great things Peter Chiarelli’s done as GM in Edmonton, when in reality winning the draft lottery and getting Connor McDavid is the sole reason the playoff drought is over. (OK fine, maybe a bit of Cam Talbot too.) The problem is, a team needs strength everywhere to win the Cup, and the Oilers still have a blue line with no hint of a true No. 1 defenseman. Imagine a team winning it all with a top four of Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Kris Russell. You can’t imagine it, because it’s too ridiculous to even try.

Calgary Flames: The other team from Alberta that won’t be winning the Cup. To be fair, the Flames do have a good collection of skaters, both up front and on the back end. They’re probably a better overall team than the Oilers. Except they’ve got one, big problem: Brian Elliott cannot be trusted, and everyone knows it. One day he’s unbeatable, full of swagger and confidence, the next he’s in the depths of a horrendous slump, questioning everything. It’s way beyond the typical highs and lows that come with being a goalie. When Elliott loses his rhythm, he really loses his rhythm. And that’s not the kind of goalie who’s going to win you 16 stressful games.

Boston Bruins: The big problem with the B’s is their depth. Their third and fourth lines don’t produce enough – or anything, really — and whoever ends up on the bottom pairing, you know they’re going to be a liability. On top of all that, Zdeno Chara is 40 damn years old, and he’s still being tasked with No. 1 d-man responsibilities. That’s too much to ask of the NHL’s oldest defenseman, especially in a league that’s never been faster. The Atlantic Division is terrible, so the Bruins can probably win a round or two. But they won’t get any further than that.

Montreal Canadiens: You don’t win the Stanley Cup without a great center. Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Patrice Bergeron. That’s the bar you have to reach. And the Habs aren’t even close. Their centers are Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec, Andrew Shaw, and Steve Ott. They also have Alex Galchenyuk, though he’s not trustworthy enough to play the middle, apparently. Even with Carey Price in goal, it won’t be enough to overcome Montreal’s lack of talent at center. The playoffs are all about matchups, and the Habs can’t match up.

Minnesota Wild: One of the best teams to start the season, but one of the worst to end it. And there’s a simple explanation for that – the Wild’s luck was bound to run out, and that’s exactly what happened. Devan Dubnyk was never going to maintain the .936 save percentage he took into the All-Star break, and his teammates were never going to maintain whatever ridiculous shooting percentage they had. At the end of the day, the Wild are a good but not great team. The same thing they’ve been since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed on. Haven’t been past the second round yet.

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler is out at least two weeks, and it could be six. For a Ducks team that was starting to roll at just the right time, make no mistake, this is a devastating injury. Fowler led the Ducks in ice time (24:51), and with 39 points, he was their highest-scoring d-man. Now it’s up to the young guys to step up. Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour are only 23, and Shea Theodore is just 21. Also, watch for opponents to pick on the Sami VatanenKevin Bieksa pairing. If Randy Carlyle decides to put those two together, that’s a defensive disaster waiting to happen.

Columbus Blue Jackets: A nice story early on, when the power play was unstoppable and Torts looked like a motivational genius. But after a 27-5-4 start, the Jackets went 23-19-4 in their final 46 games, and their power play absolutely stunk (11.4%). If not for Sergei Bobrovsky, their record would’ve been even worse in the second half. Columbus still has a bright future, but a team doesn’t go from terrible to Stanley Cup champion in one year. These playoffs will be a good experience, but nothing more.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens had a legitimate shot to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. We say “had,” because Kris Letang’s injury is too much to overcome, even by a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To say otherwise would be to discount how well Letang played in last year’s playoffs. It was bar none the best hockey of his career. He was as important to the Pens as Duncan Keith to the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty to the Kings when those teams won it all. The defending champs will still be a tough out, but they’ll be an out all the same.

Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks may have gotten the band back together on defense, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Brian Campbell is 37 years old. Johnny Oduya is 35. These guys are not in their primes anymore. As the playoffs wear on, assuming the ‘Hawks can win a series or two, this roster is going to show its age.  And that includes 38-year-old forward Marian Hossa, who’s always been such an underrated part of Chicago’s dynasty. Hossa is still pretty good, but he’s not the player he once was. In the end, age catches up to everyone, and all those Blackhawks rookies that have been forced into the lineup aren’t good enough to make up for it.

Washington Capitals: All the stars have aligned for the first championship in franchise history. A cinch of a first-round opponent in the Leafs. The Penguins without their best defenseman. Whoever comes out of the Atlantic bracket should be no threat whatsoever, and let’s face it, the Western Conference isn’t so daunting anymore. It must be equal parts exciting and terrifying for the Caps and their fans, because it all looks so darn easy. The team has stayed remarkably healthy all season. It added Shattenkirk at the deadline. So… you know why the Caps won’t win? Because it’s never, ever easy. There’s always a Black Swan lurking, and doesn’t this tortured franchise know it. Blow it this year, Caps, and there will be no coming back from the devastation.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck