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Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents

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The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.

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Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.

The Jets sent Jacob Trouba‘s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.

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Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt NiskanenRadko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.

While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments … c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:

 

Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.

P.K. Subban The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.

There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi‘s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.

There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated – as some have intimated – but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.

For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.

Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.

The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.

But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.

Jacob Trouba – Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.

Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.

My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.

That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.

Kris Letang – It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.

Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere – P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster … and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.

Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.

Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.

Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton – Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.

Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).

Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.

Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.

Colin Miller – While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.

Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.

Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.

An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals — don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.

If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.

Jared SpurgeonIn my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.

That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half … limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.

So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.

A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.

T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.

So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).

Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.

Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.

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Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.

For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.

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.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.