Maple Leafs and Nylander: Contract deadline, trade talk, more

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Despite Saturday’s 5 p.m. ET contract deadline being achingly close, it’s still any outsider’s guess what will happen between the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander. For all we know, both the player and team aren’t 100-percent sure, either.

It’s also unclear how the Maple Leafs’ pending salary cap crunch will impact Nylander’s future with the team beyond 2018-19.

Let’s try to wade through the many ins and outs of this situation, with the best information currently available. If your head starts spinning, at least realize that you’re not alone.

Various rumblings about what a contract might look like with Toronto

During an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday, Bob McKenzie provided one of many possible windows for a Nylander contract. As opposed to many other situations where it’s difficult to hash out a deal, McKenzie reports that Nylander would actually not prefer a shorter “bridge” contract. Instead, he’d lean toward six years. McKenzie placed Toronto’s preferred cost at $6.7 million per year, while Nylander might want something closer to $7M.

This jives with figures from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, who somewhat recently placed a possible compromise at $6.9M per year.

(Such reports bring to mind a somewhat amusing cacophony. On one hand, it feels absurd that a few hundred thousand would make such a difference when you’re talking about multiple millions. On the other hand … most of us would absorb multiple slashes to our softest parts for that difference alone.)

Do note that McKenzie at least floated the possibility of what would be closer to a “bridge” deal, even if it doesn’t sound like this would be Nylander’s first choice:

One factor to keep in mind is that, if the Maple Leafs reach a deal with Nylander before that Saturday dinner deadline, it would be “prorated” since we’re already more than a quarter through the 2018-19 season. Cap Friendly broke down how such variables might play out:

Basically, either a three-year or six-year deal (or other permutations) could be a great fit for the Maple Leafs. The 2018-19 year of a contract would feature a significantly increased cap hit (which works for Toronto, as they’re flush this season before the crunch hits) and then years two and on would be deflated.

What if there’s no deal at all?

Nylander wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL in 2018-19, thus possibly forcing him to play in an overseas league (or, if he doesn’t want to risk injury, not play at all). In that McKenzie video, you’ll note that Nylander wouldn’t gain any additional leverage if he sat out a season, as he’s not yet eligible for salary arbitration.

A couple weeks ago, Pierre LeBrun brought up a different – though difficult to imagine, even now – Feb. 25 deadline in an article for The Athletic (sub required).

In that scenario, the Leafs would trade Nylander’s rights. Such a maneuver would essentially only open up possibilities for teams not making the playoffs, as Nylander would still be unable to play in the NHL in 2018-19.

Seems unlikely, right? It’s worth mentioning, especially as we move to more plausible trade scenarios.

Talking trades

That Feb. 25 deadline is part of a potential trade deadline. Let’s start with the earliest link in that chain: moving Nylander’s rights before Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.

Multiple reporters (including LeBrun) indicate that the Maple Leafs would prefer to sign Nylander, not trade him. Even so, Toronto GM Kyle Dubas is at least touching bases. TSN’s Frank Seravalli points to a specific team that’s been in contact: the Philadelphia Flyers.

Landing a prime winger like Nylander would certainly make a boatload of sense for the Flyers, particularly if they wanted to make a statement after firing a shocked Ron Hextall from his GM position.

Theoretically, another team would be able to add Nylander with fewer worries about the future. On the other hand, few teams really have the cap space to easily add Nylander’s prorated deal in, as discussed earlier in this post. During the latest edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, McKenzie notes that the trade market has been “shrinking” because of those cap concerns.

So, that would make Nylander tougher to trade … for this season.

What if the Maple Leafs sign Nylander, only to trade him in the future, even if he gets a longer-term deal? Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman grimly stated on “Tim & Sid” that he believes that Nylander won’t be a Maple Leaf after this season, and pegged the 2019 NHL Draft as possibly the latest he’d be traded:

One can debate the likelihood of any trade happening, but there are a few potential windows to consider. A quick “tl;dr” recap, then:

Potential path 1: Before Saturday’s signing deadline.
Potential path 2:Feb. 25 – no signing happens, but a team could trade for his rights for 2019-20 and beyond.
Potential path 3: Nylander signs a contract with Toronto, only to be traded by the 2019 NHL Draft?
Potential path 4: No trade at all?

The elephants in the room

Most likely know this full well, but 2019-20 and beyond looms as a conundrum for the Maple Leafs with good reasons: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need new contracts.

That Insider Trading segment noted that many big-ticket RFAs are preferring to wait until 2018-19 ends to really negotiate, rather than signing extensions now.

In the case of Marner, a proactive extension might not be especially cheap. Even at a shorter four-ish year commitment, a $10M number is being thrown around. Considering how many points Marner could put up during a full season as John Tavares‘ wingman, it’s no surprise that he could be pricey.

Matthews stands as almost certainly an even more expensive proposition. Could Toronto convince him to match Tavares’ $11M, or somewhere close? Would Connor McDavid‘s slight discount $12.5M serve as a ceiling? How will potential deals for other stars like Patrik Laine affect Matthews’ bargaining?

All of those questions – not to mention what to do with Jake Gardiner, and which steps to take to make the team better – don’t just plague the Maple Leafs for the future. They must consider them now.

Such a cap crunch might force Toronto’s hand with Nylander, even if they truly believe he’s worth paying in the $7M range. That’s especially true if, say, they can’t unload Nikita Zaitsev‘s deal off ($4.5M through 2023-24[!]) to a lower-end team at a price, or do something similar with the last year of Patrick Marleau‘s $6.25M cap hit.

Happy place

Of course, there’s also a possibility that the Maple Leafs have no intention to trade Nylander at all.

Let’s not forget that other teams have handled cap crunches to the point that they’ve at least retained their key guys. The Lightning defied odds in signing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman; in many cases, Tampa Bay landed them below-market-value, sometimes by leveraging RFA years. While it’s true that the Blackhawks couldn’t walk the tightrope forever, they won three Stanley Cups in part because they were able to walk that thin line for a long time. Some of us thought they’d collapse much sooner.

Is it that outrageous to imagine the Maple Leafs making this work?

Granted, the recent history of tough contract holdouts and strained situations have often resulted in eventual trades. P.K. Subban feels like the most prescient example, yet there are others.

The Maple Leafs are run by what seems to be smart people, and Mike Babcock recently stated that he expects Nylander to be a “career Leaf.”

It’s not that difficult to imagine the Maple Leafs bribing someone to take a nonessential contract in exchange for assets or other considerations. They did it with David Clarkson‘s ghastly deal, and it’s perfectly plausible that they can make it happen again.

Let’s not forget that the salary cap has been rising, too. Last season, the ceiling was $75M, while it’s up to $79.5M for 2018-19. A comparable jump for 2019-10 might just give the Maple Leafs enough breathing room to afford Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Frederik Andersen, and maybe even a few other players above a replacement level.

***

Complicated stuff, right?

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to predict how this will play out, especially when you zoom out beyond the already-tricky deadline Nylander and the Maple Leafs face on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET.

For fans of the sport and/or those interested in team-building, it should be almost as fascinating to watch as it is to watch this blazingly talented Maple Leafs team actually play games.

What would you do if you were running the Maple Leafs? What do you expect to find out? We won’t have to wait long for actual answers.

At least, for some answers.

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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.