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

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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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.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.