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How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Flames still face cap challenges after Lucic-Neal trade

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The Calgary Flames faced a cap crunch with James Neal on the books, and they still face potential issues with Milan Lucic being traded in at $500K cheaper.

[More on the contract situations here, and Lucic vs. Neal on ice in this post.]

That’s a lot of money under most circumstances, but $500K goes fast in the modern NHL. In fact, $500K wouldn’t cover the minimum salary of a single player. Every dollar could end up counting for the Flames, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, but things could be tight nonetheless. It may even force someone other than Neal out of the fold.

While the Flames currently boast an estimated $9.973 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, that money will dry up quickly. They still need to hammer out deals for RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, Sam Bennett, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Really, would it shock you if Tkachuk and Rittich came in at $10M combined? Such costs are real considerations for the Flames, assuming they can’t convince Tkachuk to take a Kevin Labanc-ian discount.

In Ryan Pike’s breakdown of the cap situation for Flames Nation, he found that Calgary may still have trouble fitting everyone under the cap by his estimations, even if the Flames bought out overpriced defenseman Michael Stone. Buying out Stone seems like a good starting point as we consider some of the calls Treliving might need to make before the Flames’ roster is solidified.

Buying out Stone in August: Stone, 29, has one year left on a deal that carries a $3.5M cap hit and matching salary. If the Flames bought him out, they’d save $2.33M in 2019-20, as Stone’s buyout would register a cap hit of about $1.167M in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As frustrating as it would be for the Flames to combine dead money in a Stone buyout with Troy Brouwer‘s buyout (remaining $1.5M for the next three seasons), it might just be necessary. Really, it might be the easiest decision of all.

Granted, maybe someone like the Senators would take on Stone’s contract if the Flames bribed them with picks and/or prospects, much like the Hurricanes did in taking Patrick Marleau off of the Maple Leafs’ hands?

Either way, there’s a chance Stone won’t be making $3.5M with the Flames next season.

Trade Sam Bennett’s rights? With things getting really snug, and the forward unlikely to justify being the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, maybe the Flames would be better off moving on by sending Bennett/his RFA rights to another team and filling that roster spot with a cheaper option?

If a team coughed up a decent pick and/or prospect for Bennett, assuming he needs a change of scenery, it could be a win for everyone. The Flames might not be comfortable about that yet with Bennett being 23, but it should at least be discussed.

Trade an expiring contract player? T.J. Brodie ($4.65M), Michael Frolik ($4.3M), and Travis Hamonic ($3.857M) all seem to be signed at reasonable prices, if not mild bargains. All three are only covered through 2019-20, however, making it reasonable to picture them as parts of various trade scenarios. In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Flames were working on a potential deal involving Brodie and then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, and Kadri admitted on “31 Thoughts” that he didn’t waive his clause to allow Calgary to trade for him.

***

Over the years, including this summer with LaBanc and Timo Meier signing sweet deals for the Sharks, sometimes RFAs take care off cap concerns for their teams. There are scenarios where such constraints actually help the given team land some discounts; it sure felt that way when the Bruins got a deal with Torey Krug back in 2016.

As of this writing, it seems like the Flames might face a tight squeeze in fitting under the cap.

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.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

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In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

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.

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.