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Leafs’ smartest bet is to sign Matthews, Marner, Nylander now

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Late July ranks as “the dog days of the hockey summer,” so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the Toronto Maple Leafs’ in-house big three (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander) provide virtually identical quotes about taking it easy regarding their contract situations. You can basically copy and paste the “shrug, gonna leave it to my agent”-type comments.

If you ask me,* Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas shouldn’t take such a nonchalant approach. Instead, he should get all three done. Like, now.

The natural leaning is to say that Nylander is the most urgent, and that’s a reasonable assumption. After all, he’s currently an RFA without a contract for 2018-19, while Matthews and Marner are set to enter the final year of their rookie deals. The deadlines are more urgent when it comes to Nylander.

But, in seeing the Maple Leafs allow James van Riemsdyk to walk in free agency, you can probably see that Dubas & Co. are fully aware that some big contract decisions loom. Just about every indication is that the Maple Leafs would be much better off signing all three – not just Nylander – as soon as possible.

[From earlier this summer: more on Leafs’ toughest work just beginning]

Now, it’s worth noting that such talks would require mutual interest, which is far from guaranteed.

If Marner and Matthews have zero interest in signing extensions before the season begins, then it’s a bit of a moot discussion. Early rumblings are that discussions have at least started, and players would only be reasonable to strongly consider accepting a decent extension, as the threat of a career-altering injury must loom over the head of any NHL player.

Let’s keep it simple and assume that Marner and Matthews would be glad to sign a fair extension sometime this summer. With that caveat out of the way, here are some of the factors for why it makes a ton of sense to push hard for an immediate solution, even if Dubas is – publicly – playing it close to the vest.

We haven’t seen their best, maybe not even close

You can make a strong argument that all three forwards saw their value either subtly or starkly diluted in 2017-18.

  • In the case of Auston Matthews, there were a few factors worth considering.

One was out of everyone’s hands, as Matthews was limited to 62 regular-season games thanks to injury issues. It’s quite plausible that his postseason struggles had at least something to do with lingering health challenges, too.

Power play context is also interesting for Matthews. While he received decent power play TOI (essentially clustered with the heaviest-use players at 2:09 per game), you can see from Left Wing Lock’s listings that Matthews wasn’t a part of Toronto’s robust top unit. That’s fairly unusual for a high-end young talent.

“Puck luck” might have been the lone factor that pushed Matthews’ numbers in a positive direction, as his high 18.2 shooting percentage helped him generate 34 goals in just 62 games. Then again, Matthews could very well boast elite shooting talent to go with his hearty shooting volume, so the Maple Leafs must be cognizant of a potentially outrageous contract year for the American star.

That’s especially true if a top power play unit features Matthews with John Tavares, and if Tavares forces defenses to send lesser opponents against Matthews.

  • Nylander might be the player whose stats were least subverted by context and Mike Babcock’s quirks in 2017-18.

Granted, it probably didn’t help that Matthews missed some time … but even then, Nylander rarely spent even-strength shifts away from number 34.

This post won’t focus a ton upon Nylander anyway, as the Maple Leafs don’t really have much of a choice but to sign him this summer. (If they don’t it would be a huge headache holdout stretching into a promising season.)

  • Here’s a take for you: Mitch Marner’s situation is actually the most pivotal.

Matthews is the most important player for the Maple Leafs’ future, probably even including Tavares, considering the age difference. That said, Matthews falls in line with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, and other no-brainer “face of the franchise” players that you simply have to pay a lot, and merely hope that they leave a little money on the table. This post asserts that the Maple Leafs would gain very little in waiting with Matthews, but one way or another, he’s getting paid, and almost certainly long term.

The Marner situation, more than the situation of those two others, seems the most mysterious from a value standpoint.

Simply put, John Tavares can dramatically drive up Marner’s value. It’s to the point that an incredibly simple observation – Marner told Sportsnet that he plans on increasing his shooting volume – would scare the daylights out of me if I was in Dubas’ shiny shoes.

“In the corners, how he can get away from people and draw people into him, I think that’s very important to have on your line,” Marner said of Tavares. “For me, personally, it kinda makes me think I need to shoot more. Going into this season, I have to be ready to shoot. He can make those plays quick.”

Marner fired 194 shots on goal in 82 games last season (2.37 SOG per game), scoring 22 goals for an 11.3 shooting percentage. It’s easy to picture Marner flirting with three SOG per game, particularly in the very likely event that his ice time skyrockets from last season’s average of 16:23 minutes per night.

It’s far from outrageous to picture Marner scoring 40 goals and 80-something points if he’s a full-time winger for Tavares. Far lesser players have raked in the dough with Tavares.

Marner scored 69 points last season despite spending portions of 2017-18 in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. He took off with Nazem Kadri, yet he spent a bit more time lining up with an aging Patrick Marleau and a good-but-unspectacular Zach Hyman. There were significant factors holding Marner’s numbers in the stratosphere, and the Maple Leafs would be foolish not to take advantage of any doubt that he could be a star-level producer.

A season with Tavares would remove just about any doubt, and maybe inflate his stats to the point that he’d play over his head. That would be a real problem for the Maple Leafs.

Cap percentages, cautionary tales

Yes, there are cases when a team might have been better off waiting, even with a prominent player.

Aaron Ekblad comes to mind as a nice piece who’s making the sort of money his team might regret, but he stands in contrast to Marner and Matthews in that he was riding peak performance years while those Leafs forwards’ stats were subdued (as discussed in the previous section).

Dubas & Co. should be more concerned about contracts that ran their course and ended up costing big money.

The Oilers are lucky that, in all honesty, Leon Draisaitl probably is worth $8.5M per year. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much money they might have saved if they signed him during the summer of 2016 when his career-high for points was 51 and he didn’t enjoy a long run maximizing his numbers with Connor McDavid (Draisaitl scored 29 goals and 77 points during his 2016-17 contract year).

Matthews is 20. Marner is 21. They’re already revealing themselves to be difference-makers, but it’s not outrageous to picture them both making quantum leaps in 2018-19. If that happens, those contract values will soar.

The early bird also gets the worm when it comes to simpler arguments.

If Matthews’ and/or Marner’s reps want to say “My client is worth x percent of the salary cap” – a very reasonable negotiating ploy – wouldn’t you want that discussion to revolve around 2018-19’s upper limit of $79.5M, rather than a 2019-20 top end that’s likely to be higher, maybe considerably so? Contracts that seem steep today can look a lot better down the line thanks to the rising cap, not to mention if some big-ticket players raise the bar for salaries.

What would Y do?

Again, this discussion hinges on Matthews and Marner being at least reasonably interested in extensions. If any players would roll the dice with health, it would be ones as young as these two. That’s especially true since the best-case scenario for 2018-19 could be each forward tearing up the NHL, and the Leafs finally making a deep run.

That said, “sign your core players as early as possible” has been a theme for much of PHT’s off-season writings (see these divisional breakdowns), and will likely carry over to August and beyond.

Few teams have as much to gain or lose by such discussions as the Maple Leafs do, at least with the Lightning somehow walking the tight rope with Nikita Kucherov after working magic with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman (Kucherov and Hedman rank as proactive extensions, by the way).

Can Dubas match or at least echo Yzerman’s successes? Toronto presents some additional challenges – steeper taxes, tougher media coverage – but the Maple Leafs would be wise to do the best they can to pull off their own Matrix-line cap maneuverings. Even if it means dropping the casual facade.

* – You didn’t and the Maple Leafs certainly did not; I’m aware of that.

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.

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.