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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.

***

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.

Panthers sign Brian Boyle to one-year deal

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The Florida Panthers added to their center depth on Sunday afternoon by announcing a one-year deal with 34-year-old Brian Boyle.

Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports it will pay Boyle $940,000 this season.

“With over 700 games played in the NHL and over 100 more in the playoffs, Brian brings a wealth of experience to our club,” general manager Dale Tallon said in a statement released by the team. “He adds versatility and character to our lineup.”

Boyle spent the 2018-19 season split between the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators, scoring 18 goals in 78 games. That performance came just one year after he won the Masterton Trophy after coming back from chronic myelogenous leukemia, a type of blood and bone cancer. In October of 2018 he announced that his leukemia was in full remission.

Boyle’s addition to the lineup comes one day after Aleksander Barkov, the team’s No. 1 center and best all-around player, had to exit Saturday’s shootout win over the Nashville Predators with an apparent injury.

The Panthers were one of the busiest teams of the offseason adding Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and now Boyle to their lineup, along with the addition of Joel Quenneville as the team’s new coach. They are trying to snap a three-year playoff drought. Through eight games they have a 3-2-3 record this 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.

What will Mathew Barzal’s next contract look like for Islanders?

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After the way the RFA situation unfolded this past summer, with almost every top player remaining unsigned until well into training camp, teams seem to be a little more proactive for this year’s upcoming group with several already signing new deals.

Alex DeBrincat (Chicago), Clayton Keller (Arizona), and Nico Hischier (New Jersey) have all recently signed new deals to avoid restricted free agency this summer, and according to Chris Johnston on Saturday’s headlines segment on Sportsnet. the New York Islanders would like to get Mathew Barzal, their top player, signed before the summer as well.

Barzal was asked about his contract situation before Saturday’s game in Columbus by Newsday‘s Andrew Gross and insisted it is not something on his mind at the moment.

From Newsday:

“At this point, it’s really just between my agent and Lou [Lamoriello] right now,” Barzal told Newsday on Saturday before the Islanders concluded a two-game road trip against the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “I don’t talk to Lou about contract stuff. If it happens in the next two months or if it happens in June, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just focused on the season right now.

“It’s something that eventually is going to happen,” Barzal added. “I’m pretty good at just kind of pushing that stuff aside and just worrying about what’s going on right now.”

Barzal and Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois are two of the bigger name players still unsigned beyond this season that are set to hit restricted free agency this summer.

If the Islanders are able to accomplish that goal they could be looking at a significant contract for Barzal.

First, let’s take a quick a look at the three recent contracts signed by potential RFAs Keller, DeBrincat, and Hischier simply because they are at the same experience levels and signed their new deals with still one year remaining on their entry-level contracts.

  • Keller’s deal in Arizona was an eight-year, $57.2 million deal with a $7.1 million cap hit.
  • DeBrincat signed a shorter, bridge deal that is worth $19.2 million over three years with a salary cap hit of $6.4 million.
  • The Devils signed Hischier to a seven-year, $50.7 million contract with a salary cap hit of $7.2 million per season.

You can bet that Barzal’s salary cap hit will be higher than all three.

He has already proven to be more impactful — especially offensively — than everyone in that group, and if you compare what he has done through his first two full years in the league he is probably going to be closer to the Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner pay scale than the Hischier, Keller, DeBrincat group.

Through two years he has outproduced what Marner, Rantanen, and even Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point did through their first two years in the league — and significantly so at even-strength, and with less talent around him — and has arguably been more impactful as a two-way player. Remember, it wasn’t until year three that Marner, Rantanen, and Point really had their breakout seasons offensively to become superstars.

Barzal pretty much had his breakout moment in year one, and while his offense regressed just a bit in year two he was still very good and seemed to take even more strides forward defensively.

This doesn’t seem like a potential bridge contract situation (like Point in Tampa Bay, or DeBrincat in Chicago, or even Patrik Laine in Winnipeg) and seems far more likely to end in a long-term deal. Barzal is clearly the team’s best player, and while they are not swimming in extra salary cap space, it is not exactly facing a salary cap crunch, either. Given what he has already proven, his importance to the Islanders, and his long-term potential there is no reason to think that a seven-or eight-year deal at around $8 or $9 million is out of the question. And he would probably be worth every penny of it.

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury shuts out Penguins; hats off to Jost

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. The Pittsburgh Penguins did everything they could on Saturday night, and probably even had the better of the play against the Golden Knights, but Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced — including a couple of highlight reel saves — to get the shutout against his former team. Fleury is off to a great start this season and now has a .934 save percentage in his first six starts.

2. Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche improved to 7-0-1 by rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night thanks in large part to a hat trick from Jost. Expectations were sky high for the Avalanche at the start of the season and they have done nothing but justify them so far. They have the best top line in hockey, an exciting young defense, and strengthened their secondary scoring during the offseason. It is now really difficult to find a clear weakness on this team.

3. Corey Perry, Dallas Stars. Style points don’t matter for the Stars right now. They were not particularly strong on Saturday night in Philadelphia, but they still managed to snap a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win to get two points that they desperately needed. The star of the game was offseason Perry, scoring his first goal as a member of the Stars and recording two assists. How bad as the Stars offense been this season? Entering play on Saturday the Stars only had five players on the team record more than three points for the entire season (over nine games!).

Other notable performances on Saturday

Highlights of the Night

This is some vintage Anze Kopitar hockey here, turning defense into offense and scoring a slick shorthanded goal to help the Kings roll.

Look at the patience from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to wait for Pekka Rinne to make the first move and then beat him with a slick backhander.

Here it is again, the first NHL goal for the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes. The only goal in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Blooper of the Night

Jost ended up getting a splash of water to the face in celebration of his first NHL hat trick.

Factoids

  • The Vegas Golden Knights won the 100th game in franchise history on Saturday, needing just 173 games to reach it. That is the second fewest games needed to reach 100, trailing only the 165 games the original Ottawa Senators franchise needed back in 1917. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Hughes became the ninth player in league history to score their first NHL goal in a game against their brother. [NHL PR]
  • Morgan Rielly‘s overtime goal on Saturday night was the fourth of his career. Only Tomas Kaberle has more among Maple Leafs defenders in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 1, Vancouver Canucks 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Ottawa Senators 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Dallas Stars 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 0
New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 3, Nashville Predators 2 (SO)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Calgary Flames 1
Buffalo Sabres 4, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Drew Doughty, Matthew Tkachuk have another chaotic encounter (Video)

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The Los Angeles Kings put together their best game of the season on Saturday night, defeating the Calgary Flames 4-1 to pick up their third win.

A lot of good things happened for the Kings in this game, starting with the fact that they actually scored a few goals after being shutout for more than 130 consecutive minutes of hockey (including back-to-back shutout losses) entering the night. Then there was starting goalie Jonathan Quick, stuck in a miserable slump to open the season that has seen him allow 19 goals in his first three games, stopping 23 of 24 shots for his first win of the season. The only goal he surrendered was a late penalty shot goal to Mikael Backlund.

If we are being honest, though, the biggest reason anyone outside of the Kings and Flames fanbases would be keeping an eye on this game would be to see if Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty would continue their ongoing feud.

To the surprise of no one, they did.

Midway through the third period Doughty managed to take out Tkachuk with a low hit that set off a chain reaction pile-up that also included Flames defenseman Mark Giordano flying in from the top rope and taking out Kyle Clifford.

Tkachuk ended up getting two minutes for tripping, two minutes for roughing, and a 10-minute misconduct, while Clifford picked up two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. No other penalties came out of that sequence.

This feud has been ongoing for three years now starting with Tkachuk — during his rookie season — earning a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the face. Since then they have gone back and forth through the media and constantly been involved in on-ice incidents.

In their first meeting this season Tkachuk scored a late game-tying goal against the Kings to send it to overtime where Doughty would win it and then taunt the Flames’ crowd.

So far this season Doughty and the Kings have managed to get the best of Tkachuk and the Flames.

They will have to wait until Dec. 7 to face each other again.

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.