Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

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Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

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The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

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Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

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Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

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.

Day 3 of NHL training camps sees Kaprizov talk, Fleury absent again

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Day 3 of Return to Play training camps is another day closer to the puck being dropped for real. Teams are still trying to get back into game rhythm and rekindle the chemistry that was put on pause in mid-March.

The popular phrase “unfit to play” wasn’t uttered as much as it was on Monday and Tuesday. But given the “new normal” of injury reporting in the NHL now, we’ve certainly not heard the last of teams not expanding on why a player wasn’t on the ice.

Let’s take a quick skate around Wednesday’s happenings.

No panic over another Fleury absence

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not on the ice for the third straight day. The team stressed his absence was not COVID-19-related. Head coach Peter DeBoer said it’s just maintenance and he expects him to join the team before the weekend.

“He’s feeling good,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got a long runway here before we start. He really practiced hard. He doesn’t have anything significant. The plan is he will be on the ice before the weekend.”

Kaprizov signed, sealed, but yet to be delivered

Three head coaches and four general managers later, Kirill Kaprizov is finally a Wild player. The 2015 draft pick held a Zoom call with reporters and was virtually presented with his No. 97 jersey by GM Bill Guerin.

Wild TV

While Kaprizov is able to burn the first year of his two-year entry-level contract, he won’t be able to play in the Return to Play program. He will be able to practice with the Wild, pending he’s able to join the team before they head to Edmonton. The team is still working on visas for the 23-year-old forward. There’s also the issue of international quarantine once he arrives from Russia.

“He knows everybody’s waiting for him, and he can’t wait to put on the jersey himself, as well,” Kaprizov said through interpreter Alex Buzi. “He hopes that’s going to happen sometime as soon as next week, and he’s really eager and excited to join the team.”

What might Patrik Laine do during his down time in the bubble?

Maple Leafs getting into game mode early

There are roster spots up for grabs for the Maple Leafs, so what better way to help the selection process than a good old fashioned tournament.

That’s what head coach Sheldon Keefe did on Wednesday, splitting the squad up into two teams — Team Auston and Team Freddie — in a best-of-five series featuring officials.

“I think it was great. You’ve got to get used to where the refs are out there again. Coming into the zone, just setting up in the zone, it’s a little different when they’re not there,” said William Nylander said. “They take up some space so running our power play without would leave some extra space that we wouldn’t be used to once the games start. I think that was a great aspect to have included.”

The NHL has stepped in, however, and said no to officials in the future. The risk of exposure for both sides is too great of a risk.

Keeping up with the Kovalchuks

Ilya Kovalchuk played only seven games with the Capitals following the February trade from Montreal. After a forgettable time with the Kings, he was rejuvenated with the Canadiens, and there’s plenty of excitement to see him in that Washington lineup on an extended basis.

The 37-year-old was busy during the break with training and being occupied with his four kids.

“I gotta keep them busy and I want to lead by example, so we’re doing something every day,” he said. “No days off for our family.”

Even the training sessions became a family affair:

Vatanan healthy for Hurricanes

When the Hurricanes play the Rangers, Sami Vatanen will make his long-awaited debut for his new team. The defenseman has been out since suffering a leg injury Feb. 1. He was dealt from the Devils later that month but did not play for Carolina before the pause. Five months later, he’s good to go.

“Health-wise, I feel 100 percent,” Vatanen said. “I have no worries about that. Of course, it takes a little time to get to game speed, but we have a long time still until we start to play, so I will be ready.”

The Hurricanes’ blue line will be bolstered for their series with New York. Not only will they get Vatanen back, Dougie Hamilton will also make a return from injury. He fractured his left fibula in January.

“Dougie’s back, and now we’ve got to find somewhere else to put [Vatanen],” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “He’s a talented player. You’re talking power play. That’s what he does. He’s good at it, but there’s a learning curve, and we can’t wait five games to see if it will work with him.”

MORE: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

‘Luck in disguise’: Layoff helps Blue Jackets get healthy

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Considering they are about to resume the season amid a pandemic, the Columbus Blue Jackets are healthier than they’ve been in a long while.

When the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, injuries to top players had piled up, and coach John Tortorella had started to fret that the youngsters he plugged into the lineup wouldn’t have the steam to carry the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.

All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand were out with broken ankles. A long list of others had missed games with various injuries, including the two top goalies.

“When Oliver goes out — and he was our best player at that point in time — when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time,” Tortorella said after opening practice this week ahead of a five-game playoff qualifying series against Toronto set to begin Aug. 2.

“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games we had to play,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to say we weren’t going to get in, but it was a struggle.”

Jones and Bjorkstrand are healed and back at full speed. So is veteran Cam Atkinson, who had struggled with a high ankle sprain. Goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom excelled at different times this season, are healthy and will compete to start in the net against Toronto.

Jones, who had surgery Feb. 11, called the forced layoff “luck in disguise.”

“It’s so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on our team that have been such as asset to us,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale. We’re getting back our leaders.”

The season was unusual for the Blue Jackets even before the coronavirus. The team was struggling in early December before a winning streak helped it climb into contention in the Metropolitan Division.

As regulars went down to injuries, Tortorella summoned players who had started the season at the team’s top minor league club in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets stayed in it, and when the season was paused on March 12, they were above the wildcard line in the Eastern Division. When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason upon resumption, Columbus was seeded ninth in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in the play-in round.

Some of those young players, including forwards Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson are expected to contribute even with the team back to near full strength.

Columbus will face a potent Maple Leaf attack led by stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Toronto’s 237 goals were second in the league to Tampa Bay’s 243 when the season was suspended.

“Essentially, we’re all starting from zero, right?” Atkinson said. “So it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season, what teams were hot, the injuries and what not. We’re just all healed up and ready to go.”

Tortorella said safety is the priority as the team travels to Toronto to enter the “playoff bubble.”

“We’re going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach. “There is a point — and I talked to the team — I don’t want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We’re going to protect the players, the league is going to protect the players, we need to get ready to play hockey also.”

Matthews, Toronto’s star center, said Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 last month in his home state of Arizona but was largely asymptomatic and has fully recovered. Columbus has reported no cases.

2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists: Hughes, Makar, Kubalik

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The NHL announced Quinn Hughes (Canucks), Cale Makar (Avalanche), and Dominik Kubalik (Blackhawks) as the 2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists. The wording of the Calder, aka rookie of the year, is that it’s given to the player who was  “most proficient in his first year of competition.”

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on the Calder Trophy each year. Elias Pettersson took home the Calder Trophy in 2018-19.

This year’s Calder Trophy winner will be announced sometime during the Conference Finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Calder Trophy cases for finalists Hughes, Kubalik, Makar

The case for Quinn Hughes

Hughes, 20, topped all rookies — not just rookie defensemen, all rookies — with 53 points in 2019-20. In doing so, Hughes became just the third rookie defenseman to top rookie scoring outright (joining Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch).

By averaging 21:53 time on ice, Hughes ranked second (just a slight bit behind Ethan Bear of the Oilers [21:58]). Alexander Edler (22:37) stood as the only Canucks player who averaged more ice time than Hughes this season.

Hughes joined Makar among rookie defensemen who jumped immediately into big roles, and passed most tests with flying colors.

This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey captures some of what made Hughes special. He created offense while avoiding many of the mistakes you’d expect a rookie (and an offensive-minded defenseman, in general) to make:

Calder Trophy finalists Quinn Hughes RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

The case for Cale Makar

While Hughes tops some of the volume stats, Makar makes a “quality-over-quantity” argument for the Calder.

Makar scored more goals (12) than Hughes (eight) even though he appeared in fewer games (57 games played to Hughes’ 68). Despite missing that time, Makar finished second among all rookies with 50 points. Averaging .88 points per game is difficult for any defenseman; it’s extremely rare for a rookie. Makar expands the list of rookie defensemen with at least .88 points-per-game with 50+ games played, joining Larry Murphy and Al MacInnis.

Like Hughes, Makar didn’t totally sacrifice defense to create offense. Makar grades well on Evolving Hockey RAPM charts, too:

2020 Calder Trophy finalists Makar RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

[More: Hughes vs. Makar from earlier in 2019-20]

The case for Dominik Kubalik

It will be a tough call between Hughes and Makar, but others enjoyed strong rookie seasons. A certain portion of hockey fans may debate Kubalik vs. other 2020 Calder Trophy finalists for some time. Beyond historic seasons for Hughes and Makar, defensemen like Adam Fox and John Marino made this a special year for rookie defensemen.

But Kubalik turned heads, too, even more than other high-scoring rookie forwards such as Victor Olofsson of the Sabres.

Kubalik topped all rookies in goals with 30, scoring 46 points in 68 games. While the Blackhawks forward is unlikely to become the first Czech-born Calder Trophy winner, he’s the first Czech-born player to lead all rookies in goals.

Hughes, Kubalik, and Makar are all involved in the 24-team 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so you can get another peak at the 2020 Calder Trophy finalists during the return to play. (COVID-19 permitting.)

NHL AWARD FINALISTS, ANNOUNCEMENT DATES

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.

Cassidy, Tortorella, Vigneault are 2019-20 Jack Adams Award finalists

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Bruce Cassidy of the Bruins, John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets, and Alain Vigneault of the Flyers have been named finalists for the 2019-20 Jack Adams Award, given to the head coach who has “contributed the most to his team’s success.”

All three head coaches aren’t strangers to being a finalist for the Jack Adams. This is Cassidy’s second time in the last three seasons in the top three, while Tortorella and Vigneault have been honored five times. Tortorella has won it twice (2003-04 and 2016-17), while Vigneault took home the award in 2006-07.

Barry Trotz of the Islanders was last season’s winner.

The NHL Broadcasters’ Association vote, with the winner announced during the conference finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

The case for Bruce Cassidy: At the time of the March NHL pause Cassidy’s Bruins had the most points (100) and highest points percentage (.714) in the league. That success resulted in a Presidents’ Trophy for the franchise. Boston led the NHL in wins with 44 and hit the 40-win mark for the seventh straight season. Special teams played a big role in another strong year as the Bruins boasted the second-best power play (25.2%) and third-best penalty kill (84.3%). A win would make Cassidy the fourth coach in franchise history to win the award following Don Cherry (1975-76), Pat Burns (1997-98) and Claude Julien (2008-09).

The case for John Tortorella: Despite losing their two biggest stars in free agency, Tortorella’s Blue Jackets didn’t allow that to hold them back. Columbus surprised many and put themselves in position to be part of the NHL’s expanded Return to Play plan. During their final 41 games the Blue Jackets had two separate double-digit point streaks to keep them in the postseason mix. He’s the only coach in franchise history to have won the Jack Adams.

The case for Alain Vigneault: In his first season with the Flyers, Vigneault led them to a .645 points percentage at the time of the March pause and put them among the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds. A nine-game winning streak in mid-February help push them up the standings. He would become the fifth coach in franchise history to win the Jack Adams after Fred Shero (1973-74), Pat Quinn (1979-80), Mike Keenan (1984-85) and Bill Barber (2000-01).

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik

• Thursday, July 16: Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy
• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.