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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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.