Maple Leafs hoping core players will take less money

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As of Wednesday evening there were still two restricted free agents sitting at home away from their teams in need of a new contract.

In Anaheim, the Ducks have yet to come to terms on a new deal with forward Nick Ritchie, while the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the same position with star forward William Nylander.

With all due respect to Ritchie, who is a decent enough young player with a solid future in the league, Nylander is the player that everyone is watching. Not only because he is the superior talent, but because he is one of the game’s brightest young stars that also happens to be a cornerstone piece for a team that is supposed to be one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That team is also based in Toronto.

The issue between the two sides seems to be the same one that always exists between team and player when these situations (a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights) arise: Bridge deal vs. Long-term deal, and the team’s willingness to invest in a young player.

Toronto is in a complicated position right now because it enters the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space — even after signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract over the summer — and is going to have to pay all of its young core players significant raises over the next year.

Nylander is a restricted free agent this season, while Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will find themselves in the exact same position after the season.

None of them will be cheap, and all of that extra salary cap space will quickly start to disappear.

On Wednesday, just hours before the start of their season opening game against the Montreal Canadiens, team president Brendan Shanahan talked about the program the Maple Leafs have going on right now and how he hopes their core players might be willing to take somewhat of a hometown discount to stay in Toronto.

He referenced his experiences from his playing days in Detroit where the team was able to build an annual powerhouse around the same core of players.

“I can speak from personal experience, that when I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit we talk about winning together and growing together and that’s what we remember looking back,” said Shanahan on Wednesday.

He continued: “At the end of the day we all found a way to fit with each other so we could keep adding to the group. That’s obviously what we are asking some of our young leaders to do. There is a lot of other voices, and understandably so … it’s not for everyone, we’re not for everyone, but we think the players we currently have, while it’s not going to be easy, we have great confidence that they have bought into being a part of this program, and being a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and representing Toronto in a way that they understand what is going to be most important. What I hope they can look back on 20 years, 30 years down the road and is going to be most important to them, is whether or not they maxed out as an individual and as a team and have championships to look back on and remember fondly.”

He also made reference to Tavares turning down less money from other teams (San Jose reportedly offered more money than the $11 million per year Toronto offered) and how, “he is still doing very, very well financially,” and that  “it wasn’t his responsibility to set a new bar or please other people with other interests. He’s a hockey player. He wanted to come here and win hockey games.”

The message there seems to be very clear to Nylander, Matthews, and Marner: Take less money for the betterment of the team so the team can win.

Obviously, this is the approach one might expect from management in professional sports. They are aways going to try and get their players for a cheaper price, especially in a salary capped league where they only have a set amount of money to spend when building the roster.

Still, there are some issues here, especially with Shanahan’s memories about his playing days in Detroit. While it may be true that he and his teammates played for less money than some other stars around the league, the Red Wings were routinely one of the highest salaried teams in the league. It was also a non-capped era so it really didn’t matter what they made to anyone except for the people signing the checks. They could have — and probably should have — gotten even more.

Also: Tavares is from Toronto which gave the Maple Leafs a unique advantage when it came to luring him there for less than what he could have had elsewhere. That is not always going to work in free agency.

But even when taking into account the difference in era, why does the onus fall on the star players to take less money in this situation to help the team? Players in all professional sports have an extremely short window for maximum earning potential, and you should not blame them for wanting to take advantage of that and cash in when they can.

There is also this point from TSN analyst and former NHL player Ray Ferraro that should not be overlooked:

It reminds me of how Connor McDavid took a little less money annually to allow the Oilers to have some “wiggle room” under the salary cap.

The Oilers rewarded him by trading Jordan Eberle, the team’s best right winger, after giving a few extra million and a few more years to the likes of Kris Russell and Milan Lucic.

So … thanks, Connor?

The belief from my corner has always been that even in a salary capped league like the NHL you have to keep your stars and you have to keep them happy, even if it means dedicating significant salary cap resources to a small number of players. The idea that you can not win with that sort of roster construction is completely unfounded because almost every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era has been built in such a manner.

If that means constantly trimming around the edges and always retooling your depth, the so be it. It is a heck of a lot easier to find third-and fourth-liners and second-and third-pairing defenders than it is to find another Auston Matthews or William Nylander.

There is no doubt that a lot of star players around the league have taken below market contracts, and if that is what they want to do, they are well within their rights to do that if they so choose. But it should not be the expectation, and their commitment to being part of a winning team should not be judged for not being willing to do it (especially when recent history shows it will not negatively impact the team’s chances of winning — if it knows what it is doing). If you’re a star, get paid like one, because as Ferraro pointed out your team may not correctly use that money you left them on the table, and they will not look out for you when they feel it is time to move on for any reason.

If the team can treat it like a business, so can the player.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.