Maple Leafs among NHL teams facing cap crunches next year

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By John Wawrow (AP Hockey Writer)

There are questions Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock won’t touch with a 10-foot hockey stick.

The challenge a team brimming with young talent faces in managing its payroll structure was one topic Babcock particularly enjoyed sidestepping shortly after Toronto and forward William Nylander ended a lengthy contract dispute this month.

”Well, I think you’ve got to talk to a manager about that,” said Babcock, referring to general manager Kyle Dubas.” I just coach the players.”

Babcock was so pleased with his response, he winked and added: ”I bailed on that one, eh?”

Funny, sure, but it doesn’t make the issue go away.

Nylander signing a six-year, $41.4 million contract was merely a prelude to what will be a busy 2019 for Dubas, who will have to be creative in keeping the young core of his team intact within the constraints of the NHL’s projected $83 million salary cap. With $55 million in salary already on the books for next season, the Leafs have little wiggle room with 2016 first-round draft pick Auston Matthews and forward Mitchell Marner, the team’s current leading scorer, both completing the final years of their contracts.

Matthews, who followed up his 40-goal rookie season with 34 last year, is expected to command a contract similar to the eight-year, $100 million deal Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid signed in the summer of 2017. And Marner, the fourth pick in the 2015 draft, likely won’t be far behind because he is on pace to top the career highs of 22 goals and 69 points he had last season.

”I don’t think any of our group and our whole organization should forgo the enjoyment of the season because we have good players that need contracts,” he said. ”I think it’s a fortunate position that we’re in.”

Dubas is not the only one in this fix.

In Winnipeg, forwards Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and defenseman Jacob Trouba are eligible to become restricted free agents. With an eye on the future, the Jets were unable to retain Paul Stastny, who elected to sign a better offer with Vegas last summer.

In Buffalo, newly acquired forward Jeff Skinner‘s asking price goes up with each goal he scores. Skinner has 25 already to match last season’s total and ranks second in the NHL behind only Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. Skinner will be an unrestricted free agent this summer if the Sabres can’t re-sign him.

Buffalo will have money to spend, but has to be cautious with center Jack Eichel in the first year of his eight-year, $80 million contract. And the team will also have to keep open a large portion of cap space once No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin‘s entry-level contract expires in three years.

The question becomes how teams retain their young stars while keeping enough money aside to fill the remainder of their roster.

”The philosophy is simple, and you’re seeing it around the league. The only way you can keep a lot of your top-end players is if you have other players coming up through the system,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill said, placing an emphasis on scouting and player development.

Botterill saw that firsthand working in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins complemented their core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang by filtering in younger players on cheaper entry-level contracts.

Still, it can get complicated once a team’s high-priced core starts aging.

The troubles are apparent in Chicago, which won three Stanley Cups from 2010-15 with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews but is now a team in transition with some big contracts in place. It’s no different in Los Angeles, where the Kings have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and missed the postseason three times since 2014, when they won their second Cup in three years.

”It’s not a perfect business,” Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. ”You make decisions and you may wake up two years later with different information, but it’s too late and you have to manage around that decision.”

What’s changed over the past decade? Teams are spending more money on retaining players over adding them in free agency.

It’s a philosophy that places an emphasis on evaluating potential at a younger age and determining whether they can perform to the value of their contract. Otherwise, a team could be stuck with a player with a high-priced guaranteed contract that handcuffs future decisions.

”I don’t think there’s any easier answer to it. I mean, you just have to make the right decisions on the player,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. ”One bad contract and it knocks everything out of line.”

Poile has done an adept job in maintaining a competitor on a roster that features six players taking up a combined $40.25 million in salary cap space this year.

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said keeping a team’s payroll structure in line also requires making unpopular decisions.

”You’ve got to be willing to say, ‘You know what, the guy that doesn’t quite fit in that core, we may need to make a decision that you have to move him,”’ Nill said. ”I know sometimes fans are going to say, ‘Whoa, why are they doing that?’ You’ve got no choice.”

The Maple Leafs are among the exceptions in trying to build through the draft and free agency, after signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract last summer.

Dubas insists retaining the team’s young talent is ”of vital importance.” Re-signing Nylander was the first step.

BUFFA-LOVE

After missing the playoffs during each of his eight seasons in Carolina, Skinner is enjoying the buzz the Sabres have created in Buffalo, a year after finishing last for the third time in five years.

”I haven’t really been here before and realized how much they love the Sabres. It’s been fun,” said Skinner, who waived his no-trade clause to approve the Hurricanes dealing him to Buffalo for prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks in August. ”Hopefully, we can keep giving them something to be proud of.”

Skinner was reminded of how those same fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” Skinner said. I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Points: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 56; Game-winning goals: Skinner and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado), 6; Rookie goals: Elias Petterson (Vancouver), 17; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 2.07; Shutouts: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 5.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to face Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Wednesday night.

AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage and Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this story.

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

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

NHL Draft Lottery: No. 1 pick to be awarded Monday night

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible and each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will pick first when the draft is held Oct. 9-10, 2020.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
========================
9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round who do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. That’s been settled. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

MORE:
Top NHL Draft Lottery memories

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.