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Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Seattle’s addition looms as part of draft weekend story

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — While the selections of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kaako and the P.K. Subban trade all got their deserved attention during the NHL draft, one of the biggest crowds of the weekend surrounded a 59-year-old team executive and a Hollywood filmmaker.

More than six months after the NHL announced its 32nd franchise, what’s happening in Seattle remains a curiosity in the hockey community. With the draft in Vancouver, and Seattle team president and CEO Tod Leiweke and part-owner Jerry Bruckheimer hanging out for the weekend, it amplified the questions about what is to come next for the yet-to-be-named franchise a couple hours to the south.

Seattle is still two years away from an expansion draft, its first league-wide draft and eventually dropping the puck on its inaugural season. Yet the healthy interest in what is happening there was a big part of the draft weekend.

What’s going to be the team name? What will the colors be? Is the arena timeline still on track so the building could host the 2021 draft as the Seattle group desires?

Maybe most important to the hockey operations side of the 31 other teams – who is going to be the general manager and when will that person be hired?

”I will say this, the rest of the league is so excited about Seattle,” Leiweke said. ”We’re going to bring the Pacific Northwest into the league. It’s a big territory. We’ve got Oregon, Washington, Alaska so I think the teams are really excited. They’re really friendly right now, I’m not so sure they’re going to be that way forever. For the time being they’re fantastic.”

Yes, teams are being helpful and welcoming of the Seattle franchise, in part due to the respect they have for Leiweke. His success in previous NHL stops when Minnesota was getting started and in revitalizing Tampa Bay has given him clout among the rest of the league. The other league executives know Leiweke will demand Seattle be an elite franchise from the start.

”He’s done this a lot,” said Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman, who worked with Leiweke in Tampa Bay and was at one time thought to be a GM candidate in Seattle. ”He knows how to run a team, he knows how to build a building. He knows how to create an environment, the in-game presentation, everything about running the business side of a pro sports team he’s done it. His personality and energy and people skills, he gets it done.”

But franchises also are starting to take account of what their own rosters will look like two years from now when Seattle starts to pillage other teams under the same rules that helped make Vegas so successful in its first season.

GMs are smarter now and creative ways to potentially protect players are popping up. For example, when the Philadelphia Flyers signed center Kevin Hayes to a $50 million, seven-year deal, they included a full no-movement clause in the first three seasons to protect him from Seattle expansion. Hayes has a 12-team no-trade list in the final four years of the contract.

”It’s still early. Your roster is going to be different in two years and you have an outlook, but you know it’s coming,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. ”We didn’t worry about it last time (with Vegas), but we were the worst team in the league last time. If you have to worry you have two or three guys they might select, chances are you have a pretty good team.”

Whether Seattle can have the same expansion draft success as Vegas will largely depend on its GM and staff. While Seattle’s management was in Vancouver to learn some of the logistics of potentially hosting the draft in the future, the status of its GM opening remained a priority.

Seattle did make one addition, hiring Alexandra Mandrycky as the team’s director of hockey administration. Mandrycky was previously a hockey operations analyst for Minnesota.

”I’m incredibly enthusiastic about the faith Tod and the team have shown in me and their desire to use analytics to help build an outstanding team,” Mandrycky said.

Leiweke said there could be a GM hire this summer. Whenever it happens, it’ll be the first of many dominos over the next several months that’ll eventually include a nickname and colors.

”We’re prepared to make that investment if we land on the right candidate who says the right things, we’re prepared to do that,” Leiweke said. ”Part of what Jerry and I have been doing is having dinners and lunches and coffees with folks to get their take. It’s really a lot of fun.”

Nashville GM David Poile went through the expansion process with the Predators in 1998 and said while there was pressure with creating a new franchise, it also was freeing to try out new things and build a team from its infancy.

Whoever ends up being the GM in Seattle will have a similar experience.

”It’s one of those things where you get your handprints, fingerprints over everything that is being done in the franchise from hiring your scouting staff to coaches, to working on your rink, your dressing room, all those things,” Poile said. ”I thought it was one of the most fun years I’ve ever had.”

AP Hockey Writers John Wawrow and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Perry’s free agent value; McDavid’s shoelace belt

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

• What we learned at the 2019 NHL draft (ESPN)

• One standout from each round at the NHL Draft. (Sportsnet)

• Interview period spices up UFA rumor mill. (Toronto Sun)

• Diversity on display at the NHL Draft. (NHL.com)

• US program won the draft, but the Ontario Hockey League poised for a bounceback. (London Free Press)

• Stars’ Zuccarello set to test free agent waters. (NHL.com)

• Steve Yzerman’s first selection as GM of the Detroit Red Wings raised some eyebrows. (Winging it in Motown)

• The top 14 names taken in the NHL Draft. (SB Nation)

• With the draft behind them, the real challenge begins for the Winnipeg Jets. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Marleau deal could set a precedent for other trades. (Yardbarker)

• How should Corey Perry be valued as a free agent? (Sportsnet)

Connor McDavid wore a shoelace-belt to the NHL Awards. Here’s why you shouldn’t chirp him about it. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

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.

Rebooting World Cup of Hockey to be part of NHL labor talks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — With labor talks having already begun on an informal basis, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Don Fehr are in favor of rebooting the World Cup of Hockey tournament and holding it every four years.

The stumbling block to laying out a long-term calendar of international competition, however, revolves around the hot-button topic of the NHL competing at the Winter Olympics after skipping out on South Korea last year.

”One of the things I hope we will have is an agreement to establish the long-term schedule for international events which would include World Cups of Hockey,” said Fehr, stressing the plural ”Cups” during an interview with The Associated Press at the league’s draft festivities in Vancouver, British Columbia, this past weekend. ”That’s a stand-alone event. It should not be seen as competing with or replacing the Olympics. It can be done.”

Bettman is on board when it comes to the World Cup.

”We think that’s a great event and it’s something we’ve been trying to work out for more than two years,” he said. ”We’re all in favor of setting an international calendar, and it takes two to tango, so to speak.”

There’s a caveat, of course, and the reason why the two sides aren’t tangoing just yet.

”We think the World Cup of Hockey can be a wonderful event, particularly if we don’t go to the Olympics,” Bettman said.

Though resolving a way to reduce the percentage of players’ salaries being held back annually in an escrow fund is the NHL Players’ Association’s most pressing concern with the collective bargaining agreement, international competition is also on the list.

And that’s where the World Cup – revived in 2016 – and Olympic Games participation will play a role once formal negotiations begin this summer leading up to September deadlines in which either side can choose to opt out and terminate the current CBA by the fall of 2020. The owners have until Sept. 1 and players on Sept. 15 to reach their decisions and set the clock ticking toward another potential work stoppage.

”There have been a series of discussions. I don’t think I would call them formal negotiations yet,” Fehr said. ”And if your next question’s going to be how it’s going to end up, I’m going to tell you, ask me in the middle of August because I don’t know yet.”

Players are unhappy with the league’s decision to skip the most recent Winter Games after having participated in the previous five. Shutting down the regular season for two weeks is an issue for owners, as was the time difference regarding South Korea, with games being played in the early morning for North American audiences.

The union sides with the league involving other issues regarding Olympic participation such as players’ medical insurance coverage and marketing rights.

None of those apply when it comes to the World Cup because it’s jointly controlled by the league and union, with both sides splitting the revenue.

The World Cup’s return was greeted with a tremendous amount of fanfare when Bettman and Fehr shared the podium at the 2015 all-star game festivities in Columbus, Ohio, to announce the eight-team event would be held in Toronto the following year.

There was even discussion – but no resolution – of having it held every four years. The World Cup was previously played in 1996 and 2004, and succeeded the Canada Cup, which was held five times from 1976-91.

Speaking only for himself and not the union, Fehr said he would prefer the NHL compete at the Olympics and then have the World Cup held every four years – with two years separating the events.

”If it was up to me, I’d do it all sooner rather than later, but we’ll see,” Fehr said. ”The question is, can we get the agreement on all the intervening pieces.”

Fehr noted the union and NHL can’t resolve the Olympic participation question alone in labor talks because outstanding issues must also be negotiated with the International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee.

Bettman doesn’t see why the two sides can’t reach a deal on the World Cup, given they’re both in favor.

”Yes, so it should get done,” Bettman said. ”We’re going to ultimately come together and figure out something that everybody’s comfortable with.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Subban excited with trade to Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — P.K. Subban wasn’t exactly shocked Saturday when the six-time NHL defenseman was traded from the Nashville Predators to the New Jersey Devils.

”I’ve been through the process before,” Subban said in a conference call with the media Sunday. ”There was a lot of talk after the season about what the Predators would do. Being in a (salary) cap world, every time you’re up against the cap and when you draft well, you have to pay players. We kind of knew that there would be changes, especially after losing in the first round (of the NHL playoffs to the Dallas Stars). I didn’t know what to expect.”

But when Subban got the call while in California that he had been traded to the Devils for defenseman Steven Santini, prospect Jeremy Davies and second-round draft picks Saturday and in 2020, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner was elated.

”When I found out that I was traded to the New Jersey Devils, I was extremely excited,” the 30-year-old Subban said. ”I’m looking at it as a fresh start. My job is to come out and help build a championship team. Winning is the most important thing to me. It’s the one thing I look at. I’m not playing for a contract. The most important thing is a championship and I haven’t won one yet. I’m going to an organization that has won. You have to set yourself up to win a Stanley Cup.”

The Devils won the Stanley Cup three times, in 1995, 2000 and 2003, but have qualified for the NHL playoffs just once in the last seven years, that being a first-round loss in 2018 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Devils failed to make the playoffs in 2019, but earned the first pick overall in the NHL Draft Saturday, with which the team selected American star Jack Hughes.

Although Subban is coming off the least productive season of his 10-year NHL career, scoring just nine goals and collecting 22 assists for 31 points in a career-low 63 games, he is confident that he can rebound with his new club.

”I always have something to prove,” Subban said. ”I don’t look at anything as being my low year. I always have to look at the big picture. I have trust in my body. Before last year, I played 82 games. I’m confident that I have a lot of good hockey in me. We had a lot of great defensemen in Nashville. In New Jersey, it will be a different situation and a different opportunity. I can take on a leadership role.”

Subban knows that getting traded to a new franchise will increase expectations.

”I have three years left in my contract (an 8-year, $72 million deal he signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015 and he’s expected to earn $10 million a year with the Devils this season),” Subban said. ”My expectations are to be in the top three or top five defensemen in the league. I know that if I’m at the top of my game, I could be the best in the league.”

Subban said that he plans on moving to New Jersey with his girlfriend, former Olympic gold medal skier Lindsay Vonn.

”I have an amazing girlfriend,” Subban said. ”After games, it’s great to have someone like that to come home to. She’s really excited about coming to New Jersey. She’s very supportive. She’s no longer competing, but she’s brought the competitive spirit over to my game. She talks about every player and is very interested. She has a lot of friends in the New Jersey area. She lived with me in Nashville and will be moving with me to New Jersey.”

Although the Devils struggled in 2018-19, Subban is confident that the team will bounce back with the addition of him and top draft pick Hughes.

”The system in New Jersey has always been built on winning,” Subban said. ”It was always tough to play the New Jersey Devils. They didn’t give you much. The players show a commitment to winning. They have a lot of young talented players who play. Growing up, watching the New Jersey Devils, I watched players like Ken Daneyko, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, old school players who respected the game.”

Subban seemed to be overjoyed by the trade to the Devils, even if the team is still in contract negotiations with former NHL Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall.

”He’s one of the go-to guys there and we have to get him signed,” Subban said of Hall. ”People understand that I’m not the only person there. All of us together want to make this team a champion. A lot of teams would dream to have the young talent that the Devils have. I’m there to compliment the young players. I’m confident that the best years are still ahead of me. I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact.”