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Grit meant gold in NHL free agency

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After a 2018 NHL Draft that emphasized speed and skill, sometimes while ignoring size concerns, GMs clearly asked “Where’s the beef?” in free agency.

Gritty, hard-nosed, “old-school” players really raked it in. While it’s tough not to feel happy for guys setting themselves up for life (especially since they might feel aches and pains decades after their playing days), it’s also difficult to avoid criticizing franchises for placing premiums on traits that aren’t necessarily proven to bring a whole lot of on-ice value.

With all the beef getting grilled up on the Fourth of July, it seems like a most sensible time to look over some of the moments when teams paid too much for “elbow grease.”

Check out all the free agent moves here.

One of the winners of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs

After scoring as many goals in the postseason (seven) as he generated ruing the regular season, you’d expect Devante Smith-Pelly to get one of those “shrug, you’re clutch, we’ll overpay you”-type deals. Instead, he re-signed with the Capitals for a very reasonable one-year, $1 million deal.

The fluky contract ended up going to Ryan Reaves, who landed a whopping two-year, $5.5M deal. If you want my gut reaction, Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman posted the GIF that captured it, but consider that Reaves: a) seemed to have one foot out of the NHL, b) ultimately only ended up with two goals and six shots on goal in his 10 playoff appearances, and c) also cost the Penguins a first-rounder heading into last season.

Even as someone who’s happy for Reaves’ revitalization on a human level, it’s jarring to see all the assets locked up in the limited enforcer. Especially since the Golden Knights otherwise avoided risky deals in letting James Neal and David Perron walk.

Pouring scrappy salt in wounds

Heading into John Tavares‘ decision time, the Islanders showed promise by tweaking their front office and executing a seemingly pitch-perfect draft. Then they poured ice water on that optimism by following the loss of Tavares with some head-scratching moves.

The Islanders really alleviated some of the Maple Leafs’ smaller cap concerns by not requiring salary retention in the Matt Martin trade, but at least Martin was/is beloved by Islanders fans. Maybe acquiring Martin soothed wounds for a mere moment.

Still, it wasn’t a shrewd move, and savvy Islanders fans likely viewed it as another rough moment.

The worry was that the Islanders would experience some of the bad moments of Lou Lamoriello as GM, and that was cemented by a lousy Leo Komarov contract. A $3M cap hit was already questionable for a depth forward, but giving the 31-year-old a four-year term is outright painful.

Considering all the dead money already tied up in marginal players, including redundant ones such as $3.5M for multiple years of Cal Clutterbuckget ready to dominate the hits category, Islanders – a grim outlook only got bleaker thanks to the league’s tendency to overrate “sandpaper.”

[More on the Islanders’ penchant for piling up depth players here.]

More strange decisions

  • The Vancouver Canucks earn a special demerit here because, at least with the Golden Knights in particular and the Islanders if Mathew Barzal works some miracles, some of these other teams at least have some playoff aspirations. Maybe that “good in the room” guy can do [insert subjective intangible things] to help them make the playoffs?

(Honestly, I’m not high on the Islanders’ chances this season, and they might be better off hitting the draft lottery, anyway.)

You’d have to be hitting the Kool-Aid pretty hard to believe that Vancouver is going to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so their big spending on small-time, gritty players is especially baffling.

Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel both bring some things to the table, yet neither scrappy forward should be expected to turn a cellar dweller into a contender. Giving them matching four-year, $12M contracts might be in step with handing a bad deal to Komarov, but it feels just as much like burning money.

By the time the Canucks are climbing the ranks more rapidly, Beagle and Roussel are likely to be considered burden contracts. Father Time can be especially cruel to bottom-of-the-order guys, so Roussel (28) and Beagle (already 32) are vulnerable to aging poorly. Even if they remained as they are, these deals are questionable. Not good.

  • Mike Babcock apparently isn’t the only person in the NHL who’s way-too-in-love with Roman Polak. The Stars seem infatuated with two conflicting types of moves: 1) landing stars via lopsided trades in their favor and 2) wasting money on immobile defensemen. Giving Polak $1.3M was a case of number two.
  • At least the Stars and other teams limited their risks with one-year deals. Personally, I wonder about the viability of Zac Rinaldo (to Nashville), Luke Schenn (Ducks), and injury-prone Eric Fehr (Wild), but the minimum term makes those decisions far easier to digest.

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Again, kudos to these “lunchpail guys” for maximizing their value in the open market. This sport undoubtedly takes a huge toll on their bodies and minds, and as Reaves showed with some pretty goals, they all have some hockey talent. You don’t really see someone enjoy a reasonably lengthy NHL career without bringing anything to the table.

That said, such modes of thought could really open up advantages for GMs who take a different approach than their traditional counterparts.

In other words, the winners here aren’t just the rugged players, their agents, and their accountants.

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.