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.

 

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.