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PHT Power Rankings: Best salary cap era teams to not win Stanley Cup

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look step into the present and look at the best trades that have been made (so far) this summer.

For better or worse the success or failure of teams in the major North American sports is defined almost entirely by what they do in the playoffs. It is not always fair because it puts all of the emphasis on what happens in a small sampling of games where anything from injuries, to bad luck, to one poorly timed bad game can turn things completely upside down.

Sometimes the best team in a given season is not the one that is holding the trophy at the end of the playoffs.

Sometimes there is still a lot to be said for being one of the best teams over an 82-game schedule, no matter what does or does not happen in the playoffs.

This week’s power rankings is about teams that might fall into that group as we look back at the best teams in the salary cap era to not win the Stanley Cup.

1. 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings. This Red Wings team was absolutely insane both in terms of its roster and what it accomplished on the ice during the regular season.

On an individual level Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were just entering the prime of their careers. Nick Lidstrom won his third Norris Trophy. Brendan Shanahan was a 40-goal scorer at the age of 37. Eight different players scored at least 20 goals while Steve Yzerman, at the age of 40, scored 14 in only 61 games. On a team level, they scored 301 goals (one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in a single season in the salary cap era) and won 58 games, the fourth-most in NHL history. Before you start screaming about shootout wins, only four of those wins came in the shootout, so even if you exclude those four games (dropping the win total to 54 regulation/overtime wins) it still would have been a top-five total in league history in the pre-shootout era.

They were amazing.

The only thing this team did not have: Great goaltending, and that played a pretty significant factor in them going out in in the first round to the No. 8 seeded Edmonton Oilers, who were just beginning a rather stunning and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.

2. 2009-10 Washington Capitals. If we really wanted to we could probably throw three or four Capitals teams on this list (like the three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy), but of all the Capitals teams that did not win the Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era this team was by far the best. I am not even a Capitals fan and it makes me irrationally angry that they did not win it all. Not only because they were absolutely good enough to win it all, but because of what not winning in this season did to the franchise — and the narrative surrounding Ovechkin’s career — in the coming years.

This Capitals team just flat out steamrolled teams during the regular season, winning 54 games (only losing 15 in regulation) and scoring 313 goals, the most of any team in the cap era. What makes that 313 total so outrageous is that they are one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in this era (the Red Wings team listed above being one of the others), and one of only four to score more than 290. The other three teams to top the 290 mark did it during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons coming right out of the lockout when goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed.

Their goal total in this season was 45 more than the next closest team (the Vancouver Canucks, who scored 268). That gap between the Capitals and Canucks was the same as the gap between the Canucks in the second spot and the Red Wings … who were 14th in the league in goals. This Capitals team was scoring goals like it was 1985 in an era where everyone else was reverting back to the dead-puck era.

Then they lost in the first-round to the Montreal Canadiens, which began that multiple-season process where too many people (including the Capitals) decided a 54-win team that scored nearly 50 more goals than every other team in the league was doing something wrong and had to change, shifting way too far in the opposite direction and probably setting the franchise back several years.

What makes the first-round exit even more frustrating is that they were the better team, only to lose because Jaroslav Halak just so happened play the three best games of his life in Games 5-6-7 of the series. If Halak was anything other than superhuman in just one of those three games the Capitals easily move on. It was all very stupid.

3. 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings. The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were a force. They won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record, then dominated every team they faced in the playoffs, including a really good Pittsburgh Penguins team in the Stanley Cup Final that, at times, looked like it didn’t even belong on the same ice as the Red Wings (Game 1 and 2 in particular were laughably one-sided in Detroit’s favor).

What did Detroit do the following offseason? They just brought back almost the exact same roster, and then added to it by signing Marian Hossa (one of the best players on the Pittsburgh team that it had beaten in the previous year’s Final) to a one-year contract.

With Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Hossa the Red Wings had three of the five best two-way forwards in the NHL, the league’s best defense pairing in Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and a bunch of damn good players throughout the lineup (Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom) that made the roster incredibly intimidating.

On paper and on the ice this team was stacked, and they had the results to back it all up, finishing with one of the best records in the league (112 points, third best) and obliterating the Western Conference in the playoffs with a 12-3 record. The only team that gave them a fight was Anaheim in the second round.

Their quest for a second consecutive title, however, came up just short in the Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Penguins when they lost Games 6 and 7, with the latter ending with Marc-Andre Fleury‘s buzzer-beating save on Lidstrom.

4. 2005-06/2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Am I cheating here a little by including both seasons? Maybe. But they are both pretty much carbon copies in how they turned out.

The Sabres were one of the NHL’s most exciting teams coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and had assembled a fast, high-powered offense led by Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Jason Pominville that was a ton of fun to watch. They won 105 regular season games between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons (second only to the Red Wings during that stretch) and found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals in both seasons, only to lose both times.

The 2005-06 campaign was probably the most devastating because that series went all the way to a Game 7 — a Game 7 where the Sabres went into the third period with a 2-1 lead before self-destructing over the final 19 minutes, allowing three consecutive goals to a Hurricanes team that would go on to win its first Stanley Cup.

5. 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have had quite a few excellent teams in the cap era, reaching the Stanley Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three other times.

The best of those teams was probably the one they put on the ice this past season. How good were they?

They finished with 117 total points in the standings thanks to a roster that boasted…

  • Two of the top-offensive players in the league (including the league’s third-leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov) as part of a ridiculously deep offensive team that scored 17 more goals than any other team in the league.
  • The Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman.
  • A Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Extremely impressive roster and tremendous results.

Unfortunately for the Lightning it was yet another disappointing ending as they let a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final slip away, capped off with a blowout loss in Game 7 at home to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

It was the third time in four years they were a part of the NHL’s Final Four and allowed a series lead to slip away.

[Related: How the Lightning keep coming up just short]

6. 2013-14 Boston Bruins. The Bruins had an incredible run between 2010 and 2014 where they played in the Stanley Cup Final twice (winning one) and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team.

The 2013-14 team was the Presidents’ Trophy winning team, finishing with 54 wins and coming back strong after a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss the previous season.

This particular era of Bruins hockey was highlighted by suffocating defensive play and outstanding goaltending, with this particular team being the most dominant of them all in that area. During this season Bruins allowed just 2.09 goals per game and had two goalies (Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson) appear in at least 25 games and finish with a save percentage above .925.

While they were shutting teams down defensively, they also averaged more than 3.15 goals per game and were the third highest scoring team in the league complete with six different 50-point forwards (and a seventh, Carl Soderberg, that had 48 points in only 73 games).

Their run came to an end, however, in the second round against their arch rivals in Montreal, blowing a 3-2 series lead when their offense dried up, scoring just one goal (total) in Games 6 and 7.

7. 2010-11/2011-12 Vancouver Canucks. Like the Sabres up above we are combing these two because, well, they were just so similar in each season.

Today we may know the Canucks as a bumbling franchise haphazardly stumbling along in some kind of a rebuild that may or may not have much of a direction.

But there was a time — not that long ago! — that they were one of the elite teams in the league, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back years in 2010-11 and 2011-12, with the former going all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final only to lose in Game 7 to the Bruins. They came back the next season and finished with the best record once again, only to then be easily dismissed in the first-round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

The foundation of these teams were Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the top of the lineup, and an incredible goaltending duo in Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. The Sedins were especially dominant during this stretch with Daniel winning the Art Ross trophy during the 2010-11 season, while they were both among the top-four point producers in the league during the two-year stretch.

Things rapidly fell apart for the Canucks after the 2011-12 season. The Sedins started to slow down, Schneider and Luongo were eventually traded in separate deals, while the team has made the playoffs just twice since then and has not made it out of the first round.

8. 2008-09 San Jose Sharks. Even though the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau era never produced a Stanley Cup for the Sharks, it was still an incredible run when they were together prior to Marleau’s exit to Toronto.

The 2008-09 season was the franchise’s high point (at least as far as regular season performance goes) as the Sharks finished with the best record in the league.

Thornton and Marleau were still close to being point-per-game players at the top of the lineup, while the front office strengthened the defense prior to the season by trading for Dan Boyle and signing Rob Blake to add to a blue line that already had Christian Ehrhoff and a young Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The result was a 117-point regular season, a total that only four teams in the cap era have topped (the 2005-06 Red Wings, and three different Capitals teams).

Their postseason run ended in six games at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

9. 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins. In between their back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, and their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a lot of early and disappointing exits in the playoffs. A lot of those teams were unfairly labeled as “underachieving” or having missed an opportunity to win another championship when the reality is a lot of them just simply weren’t good enough beyond their top couple of stars.

Of all the Penguins teams between 2009 and 2016 that didn’t win the Stanley Cup, this is the one you can look at and fairly say “they missed an opportunity” or underachieved.

This team, when healthy, was absolutely loaded and should have gone further in the playoffs.

By the end of the season Sidney Crosby was back healthy after his concussion/neck issues and was at the height of his power as an offensive player, and along with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave the team an unmatched trio of centers down the middle. When all three were in the lineup they were all but unstoppable. On top of that they had a 40-goal scorer in James Neal on the wing, a lethal power play, and plenty of depth at forward. They closed out the regular season on an 18-4-2 run and looked to be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Their biggest flaw: A collectively short fuse that saw them fly off the handle and melt down when someone punched them in the face. This was on display in their first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers (a total gong show of a series), as well as the bad version of Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs when he played what was perhaps the worst playoff series of his life.

10. 2005-06 Ottawa Senators. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the Ottawa Senators had a lot of really good teams that were loaded with talent. Even though the 2006-07 team ended up being the only one of them to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the 2005-06 team may have been the best. 

Daniel Aldredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were all 90-point scorers (with Spezza doing it in only 68 games), Zdeno Chara was leading the defense in his final season with the team before leaving in free agency after the season, and Dominik Hasek played his one season with the team.

Hasek’s situation is the great “what if” here.

Even though he was 41 years old he was still having an outstanding season with a .925 save percentage (among the best in the NHL) before suffering an injury as a member of the Czech Olympic team at the 2006 games in Turin. That injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, leaving rookie Ray Emery as the Senators’ primary goalie the rest of the way. While Emery played well in the regular season and in the first-round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he struggled in the second round against the one of the aforementioned Sabres teams, resulting in a five-game loss. With a healthy Hasek this may have been a team capable of winning it all.

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.

Trade: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder

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The New York Rangers signaled that they were rebuilding at the end of the 2017-18 season, but they didn’t necessarily indicate that it would be a long one. Acquiring Jacob Trouba‘s RFA rights from the Winnipeg Jets goes a long way in accelerating that process.

The Rangers sent the Jets a first-round pick (20th overall, which the Jets sent to the Rangers for a few months of Kevin Hayes‘ services) and defenseman Neal Pionk for Trouba’s rights.

To emphasize: the picture isn’t yet complete, as to fully judge this deal, we’ll need to find out how much Trouba, 25, receives from the Rangers. One would assume that it would be a pretty hard sell to imagine Trouba actually not signing at all with the Rangers … but it’s still not a guarantee that he’ll ink a deal with New York until he does it.

What the Rangers get in Trouba

As discussed in this post about how NHL teams are more likely to improve their defense through trades than free agency this offseason, it’s my opinion that – for as impressive as Trouba has already been – it’s possible that the defenseman could show more.

Honestly, it feels like PHT’s been wondering about Trouba’s future with Winnipeg for ages. Back in August 2016, it was noted that Trouba rescinded his trade request during frosty negotiations on a “bridge” contract, one we thought might backfire for Winnipeg down the line when discussing it in 2017.

It wasn’t just about money, either. Trouba wanted a prominent role as a right-handed defensemen, yet he sometimes saw his opportunities go to Dustin Byfuglien (reasonable, but debatable) or Tyler Myers (not so reasonable) instead. None of this is to say that Trouba was “buried” in the lineup, yet there was sort of a start-and-stop element. Consider that, after peaking with 24:58 TOI per game in 2016-17, Trouba’s minutes plummeted to 21:54 per game in 2017-18, and only went up to 22:53 on average this past season.

Trouba erupted in 2018-19, nonetheless, setting easily a career-high with 50 points (his previous high mark was 33).

Now, you can get carried away by over-projecting Trouba to the point that you get out of control. Maybe he’s not a superstar in the making, but he’s very, very, good, and instantly becomes the Rangers’ best defenseman, and one of their best overall assets alongside underrated center Mika Zibanejad, and the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft.

The question for the Rangers isn’t if Trouba is good, but just how good. It also brings up interesting questions about what’s next, beyond drafting the second pick, whether that be Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes.

Beyond that, though, does Trouba make the Rangers a more interesting consideration for Artemi Panarin, or some other free agent? Trouba’s young enough that, if the Rangers don’t get the greatest luck in accelerating this rebuild really fast, they can still succeed with a slower approach.

Either way … goodness, are the Rangers ever doing a deft job lately. It’s OK for fans to just “chef’s kiss” endlessly.

The Jets’ side, on the other hand, is more fraught.

Jets upsetting

It will probably help the sanity of Jets fans to look at the first-rounder as merely a first-rounder, and the 20th pick at that, and not as an alternate view: that the Rangers basically kept that pick warm while Hayes was a Jet, and then sent it back to Winnipeg.

(Seriously, Jets fans, try to look at it as positively as you can.)

It’s up to debate if a) the Rangers successfully pulled off a “pump and dump” with Neal Pionk or b) the Jets are actually realistic about Pionk’s limited potential, and will hope he can merely be a contributor.

Pionk, 23, just completed his second NHL season, but it was essentially his first full one (28 games in 2017-18; 73 games in 2018-19). He’s shown some flashes of brilliance on the offensive side, managing to score 40 points over his first 101 regular-season games. Heck, if Jets fans want to soothe and delude themselves, they merely need to watch the memorable goal the defenseman scored against the Montreal Canadiens back in November:

*fans self*

But, yeah, the bigger picture with Pionk is … less than ideal, as he was under water possession-wise.

It wouldn’t be shocking if a lot of those tough numbers come from being in over his head (even a defense-poor team like the Rangers were putting Pionk in a tough spot, as he averaged 21:30 TOI per game through two seasons), so maybe Pionk can help out in a less pronounced role.

Again, some of this comes down to public vs. private. Perhaps the Jets can spin it publicly by trumpeting Pionk’s face-value numbers (and the first-rounder), while privately realizing that Pionk is closer than a bit part than to a savvy Trouba replacement. Under almost all circumstances, any Pionk vs. Trouba comparisons would be unflattering, and unfair.

Jets fueled their own mistake

Of course, the biggest key is to remember the bind the Jets found themselves in. If they knew they couldn’t afford to keep Trouba, what with the salary cap crunch coming with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor as prominent RFAs, then they needed to do something.

Personally, I would have been desperate to try to bribe a different rebuilder to soak up problem contracts like that of Dmitry Kulikov and/or Bryan Little, if at all possible, but that either wasn’t a conversation that worked out, or the Jets simply didn’t want to have the conversation at all.

But, again, it’s not as though this situation just popped out of thin air.

The Jets have been putting off a long-term deal with Trouba for some time now, and eventually it ended his tenure. We’ve seen certain “bridge” situations turn untenable before, with P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens (and also Ryan O'Reilly with the Colorado Avalanche) coming to mind. Those two situations obviously backfired, and it’s another lesson to other teams: lock up your core pieces for term, then see if you can keep the Littles and add the Kulikovs.

Maybe the Jets simply never believed that Trouba is a “core” guy, which would honestly be baffling. For plenty of Jets fans, it could be a nauseating experience to see Trouba answer those questions, one way or another, as a member of the New York Rangers.

MORE:  Trouba was one of the headliners of this potential trade targets list, but he wasn’t alone.

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.

Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents

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The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.

***

Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.

The Jets sent Jacob Trouba‘s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.

***

Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt NiskanenRadko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.

While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments … c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:

 

Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.

P.K. Subban The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.

There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi‘s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.

There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated – as some have intimated – but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.

For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.

Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.

The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.

But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.

Jacob Trouba – Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.

Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.

My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.

That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.

Kris Letang – It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.

Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere – P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster … and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.

Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.

Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.

Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton – Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.

Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).

Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.

Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.

Colin Miller – While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.

Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.

Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.

An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals — don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.

If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.

Jared SpurgeonIn my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.

That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half … limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.

So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.

A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.

T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.

So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).

Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.

Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.

***

Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.

For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.

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.

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

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.

Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension

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For the San Jose Sharks, priority No. 1 has been checked off their offseason to-do list.

That bit came on Monday morning when the Sharks re-signed defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth what reports suggest will be $92 million once the team makes it official.

That’s a hefty chunk of change for one of the game’s premier rearguards, and rightly so. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Karlsson has game-breaking capabilities from the back end. It’s not surprising that he’s one of the highest paid players in the NHL.

But behind the elation general manager Doug Wilson is feeling at the moment, there also has to be a bit of trepidation.

With Karlsson’s contract expected to be in the $11.5 million AAV region, that leaves the Sharks with roughly $13 million in cap space remaining and only 16 players signed, including 11 forwards.

It’s safe to assume that the end of an era is coming for someone in the Bay Area.

Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are both unrestricted free agents come July 1. Thornton has signed one-year deals with the club for several years now. Pavelski enters the free agent arena for the first time in five seasons after completing the final year of a five-year, $30 million deal.

[MORE: Sharks give Karlsson eight-year extension]

Both are integral parts of the Sharks. And the Sharks may have to let them walk this time.

At 39, Thornton’s on-ice play isn’t worth the $5 million he made last season. He’s the de facto leader of the team, but the Sharks simply can’t afford him at that price point again. If they want him back, a low-salary, bonus-laden contract could be an option.

Losing Pavelski, their captain, would also be a blow.

Despite being 34 (35 next season), Pavelski had 38 goals and 64 points in 75 games last season. Not bad for $6 million, and perhaps he goes the Thornton route for a few years and signs one-year deals that allow the Sharks some breathing room.

Does Pavelski deserve a longer-term commitment? Sure. But the Sharks are once again going all-in with the Karlsson signing and this might be Pavelski’s best shot at a Stanley Cup ring as a captain of the team.

Aside from the two superstars, the Sharks need to make sure they lock down some of their younger talent.

Joonas Donskoi is set to become a UFA, as is Gustav Nyquist — a trade deadline pick up who meshed well with the team.

Nyquist is likely the odd-man out here. Going by Evolving Wild’s free agent model projection, Nyquist, 29, could earn a six-year deal in the $5.7 million range. That’s too rich if you’re planning on keeping Thornton and Pavelski around.

Donskoi, 27, is projected to get a three-year deal in the $3 million average annual value region.

And then there’s the restricted free agent crop.

Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc have become great pieces for the Sharks and both now need raises.

Evolving Wild has Meier taking a six-year deal with a cap hit close to $6 million while Labanc is more affordable at three years and around $3.5 million.

Remember, the Sharks have $13 million to play with following the Karlsson extension.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Pavelski gets $7 million and Thornton gets $5 million. That’s $12 million and roughly $1 million left on the cap.

See the problem? And how many extensions do the Sharks want to give older players? Logan Couture‘s six-year, $8 million AAV deal kicks in next season. He’s 30. Brent Burns, 34, has six more years left on a deal that’s paying him the same amount as Couture per season.

The Sharks only need to look further down on a California state map to see Los Angeles and the devastating effects handing big contracts to old players can have.

Still, banners fly forever and the Kings have two of them and the Sharks have zero.

The Sharks could sell off some assets, too, including a Justin Braun ($3.8 million, one year left) or a Brenden Dillon ($3.2 million, one year left) on the back end for some cap relief.

And the point of this exercise is that someone has to go.

The question now is, who?

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck