Lack of mega-money players an anomaly this postseason

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Every postseason a new storyline emerges as to how NHL teams should construct their rosters, and it usually revolves around the teams playing the deepest in the playoffs and how they managed to get there.

After all, everyone wants to copy off the teams that win and not the teams sitting at home.

The new trend could be anything, really. Sometimes it revolves around defensive structure, or size and grit. Sometimes it is about speed and skill. We are always looking for the next “thing” that is going to take over the NHL. To be fair, there can be some merit to these storylines and trends.

The one thing that stands out about the four teams playing in the Conference Finals this season is that none of them have a really huge salary on their roster. This is a fact that was pointed out in an article by the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Monday when talking about the upcoming crop of restricted free agents and how teams might try to approach them given the salary structures of the remaining playoff teams.

There is not a single player in the top-20 of NHL salary cap hits still playing in the playoffs, while San Jose’s Brent Burns ($8 million) is the only one in the top-25.

St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly ($7.5 million each) and Boston’s David Krejci ($7.25 million) are the only other ones in the top-40.

Carolina’s highest paid player is Jordan Staal who counts $6 million against the cap, the 89th largest salary cap hit in the league. The Hurricanes also have one of the lowest total payrolls.

In the article LeBrun quotes an unnamed NHL executive who points out of the favorite talking points of executives in the salary cap era: “You need depth to win and can’t allocate too much cap space to any individual players.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The first part is 100 percent true, because you do need depth to win.

The second point is just … wrong. That is not a personal opinion, and it is not something that is going to change just because of one mostly unpredictable postseason. It is a fact. That is what makes it so maddening every single time it gets mentioned. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ core can’t be discussed without fear over their future salary cap situation and how they are going to build a contending team around so many big-money players. There is always trade speculation mentioned around teams that “need” to shed salary because they have too much money going to too few players.

I hate this mindset, mostly because there is zero factual evidence to back it up.

While it is true that the four Conference Finalists this season have made it this far without a mega-money player on their roster, it is also true that this development is an anomaly in recent postseason history.

Burns is currently the only player in the Conference Finals that accounts for more than 10 percent of the league salary cap this season.

The Blues and Bruins both have players in the 9 percent range, while the Hurricanes don’t have anyone that takes up more than 7.5 percent.

Let’s just take a quick look at how that compares to the past five years of Conference Finalists. The table below looks at the highest cap percentage on each team that played in the Conference Finals that season.

Of the 20 teams over the previous five years, 16 of them had at least one player accounting for more than 10 percent of their allotted salary cap space that season; 13 of them had one taking up more than 10.5 percent; nine had more than 11 percent; seven had a player taking up at least 12 percent.

That includes multiple Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington over the previous three seasons.

Many of these teams also had multiple players taken up between 10 to 12 percent of the salary cap on their own.

In any contract negotiation there are always going to be two sides with very different goals. The player is usually going to try and get as much money as they possibly can for their production. They have short careers and an even shorter window to get a significant contract, so they are going to try and cash in when they can. The team is going to try and get the player for the best bang for their buck, not only because of the salary cap, but because that is just how sports teams work. It is obviously beneficial for a team to get a superstar at a below market contract (think Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado) in a capped league but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you have to pay your best player top dollar. It is always worth it.

If there is a team in the NHL this offseason looking at the roster construction of these four teams and thinks it is going to be beneficial to trade a big money, star player for multiple, cheaper assets or play hardball with an RFA over an extra two or three million it is probably going to end very, very badly for them. Because they are either going to make a bad trade for the wrong reasons (quality for quantity) or risk damaging a relationship (or maybe even losing) a core player.

Just because this particular postseason will not have a mega-money player in the Stanley Cup Final does not mean that is always the best way to go about building your team.

Star players still matter a lot, and star players still cost a lot money.

One postseason will not change that.

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.

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.