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Why Joe Pavelski is an unusual free agent risk-reward case

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It’s kind of hard to believe it, but Joe Pavelski will turn 35 on July 11.

Frankly, Pavelski doesn’t really feel like a player who’s about to turn 35, so maybe it’s fitting that his next contract apparently won’t fall under the 35+ designation, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others note.

In a nutshell: 35+ contracts exist to keep teams from trying to sign veteran players to longer deals that are front-loaded to circumvent the salary cap, while the provisions also provide some protections for players fearing buyouts, AHL demotions, and other ignominious ends.

So, Pavelski not being eligible for that 35+ provision is great news for potential suitors, right?

Well … we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s remember how good Pavelski is.

Pavelski’s really good!

Either way, reports indicate that the market has been strong for Pavelski. In a free agent roundup on Friday (sub required), The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that Pavelski’s suitors are in the “double digits,” while Friedman reports that Pavelski’s had the luxury of rejecting teams who (in his opinion) aren’t close to contending. There are mixed impressions of Pavelski’s willingness to sign with the Minnesota Wild, for example, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo indicates that the situation is fluid (sub required there, too).

Bottom line: it sounds like Pavelski has plenty of options, and Friedman indicates that Pavelski is seeking term and a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

On its face, that’s great, and the down-the-line flexibility of Pavelski not being a 35+ contract makes multiple years far less intimidating to bidders.

Because, let’s be clear: Pavelski remains a fantastic player. While it’s unrealistic to expect a 38 goal in 75 game pace like Pavelski enjoyed last season, what with a 20.2 shooting percentage that’s high even for a quality shooter with a 12.5 career average, 2018-19 marked the third season in a row of at least 64 points. Before that, Pavelski was even better, generating 70+ points for three consecutive seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Pavelski’s scored 355 goals since coming into the NHL in 2006-07, ranking him 10th best. His 221 goals since the latest NHL lockout in 2012-13 is even more impressive, placing him at sixth, ahead of the likes of Steven Stamkos, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Phil Kessel.

It’s about more than scoring for Pavelski, too, as he checks plenty of “fancy stats” boxes, while also pleasing the old-school crowd by often playing through absolute agony during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

If you’re a team hoping to take the next step by adding Pavelski – or, in the case of the Sharks, by keeping him – then you might be wondering what’s not to like?

Risky business

Here’s a medium-hot take: 35+ contracts might sometimes protect teams from themselves – they tend to make foolish decisions on July 1, or thereabouts – and that hurdle might have been a blessing in disguise for those who want Pavelski.

Personally, I’d probably want to spend more on Pavelski on a per-year basis, while keeping his term low. That way, if Pavelski hits the aging curve — not outrageous, especially after the extremely painful year he endured — you can at least mitigate the risk in term.

Instead, Pavelski is basically like every other UFA, and considering his substantial talent (and intangibles?), he’ll be one of the biggest targets. That means he gets to pick and choose, which probably means big money (fine) and maybe the most term he can find (probably not so fine).

You merely need to look to Patrick Marleau as an example of how this could go wrong for a Pavelski suitor.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with the 35+ provision hovering as a red flag, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Marleau three years of term. In maybe the most predictable outcome ever, that deal went sour pretty quickly, especially when you consider how that extra year backed Toronto into a corner. They were able to get out of that bind, but at the extreme cost of a first-round pick. For a team that could really benefit from unearthing a difference-maker on a cheap entry-level contract, that really burns.

Again, Pavelski wouldn’t be on a 35+ contract, but signing an older player and not really worrying that much about the future can have adverse effects.

The Anaheim Ducks bought out Corey Perry, even though the benefits were actually … kind of minimal? Perry wasn’t 35+ (he’s 34, yet seems about five years older than Pavelski considering Perry’s decline), but he serves as a reminder that, actually, the buy out option isn’t always much of a boon, either.

A team could really take on some serious risks if they sign Pavelski for a considerable term. While there’s a risk with just about any free agent, those warning signs crop up sooner for a player who’s 35, and it’s not as though Pavelski’s lacking mileage even beyond his age.

Take the Stars, for example.

Right now, the idea of adding Pavelski is really enticing. The Stars struggled mightily to score beyond Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn, but with Roope Hintz rising, imagine how tough an out that team could be if they added Pavelski?

Fascinating, but if the term is excessive, then the Marleau parallels crop up, even though Pavelski wouldn’t be a 35+ contract.

In signing Pavelski, it would be that much tougher to squeeze everyone under the cap as time goes along. Miro Heiskanen could be in line for a huge raise once his rookie deal expires after 2020-21, and John Klingberg‘s bargain $4.25M cap hit only lasts through 2021-22.

There’s the thought that, if Pavelski was 35+, he might only sign for two or three years, in which case the Stars could funnel whatever he makes to Heiskanen or Klingberg. Instead, if there’s overlap, and especially if there’s overlap and Pavelski’s play plummets, then the Stars might have to bribe someone to take Pavelski off their hands, much like the Leafs with Marleau.

***

In other words, if Pavelski carried the greater risk of the 35+ contract, that might have … actually convinced teams to reduce their own risks?

Of course, this is also assuming that NHL GMs care, either way. In an auction-like setting such as the “free agent frenzy,” maybe GMs would have given Pavelski virtually the same, extremely risky deal, under even riskier 35+ circumstances. These executives aren’t always all that forward-thinking, particularly if their jobs are on the line.

Let’s recall what then-Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said about signing David Clarkson to a terrifying seven-year contract:

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now,” Nonis said back in 2013, via The Globe & Mail. “I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

As it turned out, Clarkson was someone to worry about from the very beginning, but the point stands.

Is Pavelski worth the risk of a longer contract? That depends on a number of factors, including how much term might bring the per-year number down, and how much a given team actually believes in their Stanley Cup chances.

Ultimately, though, if you’re a team-building nerd like me, you’re amused by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the heightened risk of Pavelski if he was a 35+ contract might have actually saved some teams from themselves. Pavelski’s been a great player, and could be great or at least very good in the near future, but Father Time’s punishment can be as sudden as it is cruel, so we’ll have to see how this all works out.

Be warned teams, even if that 35+ isn’t hovering like Michael Myers creeping on his next victim.

(Wait, is Michael Myers … Father Time?)

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.

Stanley Cup: Stars and Lightning turn defense into offense

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This was already going to be an unusual Stanley Cup, and it now has a matchup for all of those who like their games to be a bit defensive.

The Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the league’s southernmost teams playing for the title in a bubble in the NHL’s northernmost arena in Edmonton, have defensemen who provide plenty of points.

Is that defensive offense or offensive defense? Either way, they’ve done that and also been pretty good at what blueline players are primarily expected to do in shutting down the opponent.

”In today’s NHL you need that for your team to be successful,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Friday. ”You need that second wave of players joining the rush. … It’s something that we stress.”

Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup is Saturday night, two days after Tampa Bay won the Eastern Conference in Game 6 against the New York Islanders. The Stars eliminated Western Conference top seed Vegas in Game 5 on Monday.

Tampa Bay veteran Victor Hedman, a fourth-time finalist for the Norris Trophy that goes to the league’s best all-around defenseman, is scoring postseason goals at a record pace. The Stars have Miro Heiskanen, who at barely 21 is already the highest-scoring defenseman ever in a postseason for his franchise.

”We’re not surprised,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. ”Let Miro be Miro, and he’s going to take over games.”

Only Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov (26 points) and Brayden Point (25 points), and Colorado center Nathan McKinnon (25 points in 15 games), have more postseason points than the 22 (five goals, 17 assists) by Heiskanen, the third overall pick in the 2017 draft.

Heiskanen and Klingberg (three goals, 13 assists), who has two game-winning goals, have outpointed some standout teammates: Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who are primarily on the top line with captain Jamie Benn, and playoff veteran Joe Pavelski, who is in his first season with Dallas.

”It’s way easier to play with with five guys on the ice than three or two,” said Heiskanen, whose birthday was during the NHL’s 4 1/2-month pause because of the pandemic. ”So it’s great to have the good D core, and let’s try to use it as much as we can, and just keep going there.”

Dallas defensemen have combined for 53 points (13 goals, 40 assists), the most during a postseason in history of the franchise in its first Stanley Cup Final since 2000. The previous mark was 47 (nine goals, 38 assists) in 1981 when the Minnesota North Stars lost in the final.

”Modern hockey, you create a lot of offense from the back end as well and you want to be able to have your Ds join the rush,” Klingberg said.

Tampa Bay defensemen have 46 points, and helped the Lighting go 10-2 in one-goal games this postseason. Since falling behind 1-0 in Game 4 against New York, they have allowed only three goals in more than 195 minutes.

”They have some big D, guys that can move and score,” Pavelski said. ”You see what Hedman’s doing right now.”

The Stars are 1-0 in one-goal games, and held Vegas to two goals or fewer in each of their wins in the West final. They scored five goals in each of their four wins against Colorado.

Hedman, the 6-foot-6 Swede who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, had the only goal in regulation for the Lightning in their East-clinching 2-1 victory over the Islanders.

It was Hedman’s sixth goal in eight games and part of his NHL-best plus-19 rating since the season resumed. His nine goals are the most ever in a postseason for a Tampa Bay defenseman, the most in the NHL since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers had 11 in 1994 and only three shy of the league record 12 by Edmonton’s Paul Coffey in 1985.

”I think any time he gets the puck, in his mind, he’s shooting it because he knows the kind of run that he’s on,” said fellow defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. ”Whenever I get the puck at the blue line, I’m trying to find him as often as possible. … He’s doing it all right now.”

The Stars signed 14-year veteran Andrej Sekera as a free agent last summer, and he is finally in his first Stanley Cup Final with his fifth team. Their other defensemen who have played 20 games this postseason – Heiskanen, Klingberg, 2014 first-rounder Jamie Oleksiak and Esa Lindell – were all drafted by the Stars.

Shattenkirk, a free agency addition last offseason who is a plus-11 this postseason, and McDonagh are among four Lightning defensemen with at least 10 seasons of NHL experience now in their first Stanley Cup Final. The others are Zach Bogosian, the 12-year veteran who became available in February when Buffalo terminated his contract, and Luke Schenn.

”Everyone is obviously very hungry to go all of the way,” said Hedman, part of Tampa Bay’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final five years ago. ”They’ve been in the league for a long time, and they haven’t been in this situation before. They’re super excited and played a huge part in why we’re here.”

How Tampa Bay Lightning put together a Stanley Cup contender

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As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC: livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Earlier on Friday, we broke down how the Dallas Stars were built by GM of the Yeafinalist Jim Nill.

Now let’s consider the Tampa Bay Lightning, built by another GM of the Year finalist, Julien BriseBois. (With ample credit also going to Steve Yzerman, of course.)

How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a roster that reached the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

Two huge first-round stars, but a sneaky-high number of misses

The Lightning’s reputation for shrewd drafting is well-earned. When it comes to the first round, though, they didn’t always find the mark.

That said, they did when it mattered the most. Landing Steven Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second in 2009) was instrumental in turning the Lightning around.

Of course, the Lightning got this far with Stamkos on the shelf, so they didn’t only live off of being in the right place, at the right time.

Again, though, the Lightning can feel the Stars’ pain in biffing a few first-rounders.

Slater Koekkoek (10th, 2012), Jonathan Drouin (third, 2013), and Tony DeAngelo (19th, 2014) all ended up on other teams, with only Drouin netting the Lightning a big-time return in potential star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

But the Lightning are where they are today because of what they did outside of the first round, and sometimes outside of the draft altogether.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Lightning made huge draft (and undrafted) gains, largely with small players

Old-school types feasted on a perceived lack of toughness when the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning. Yet, you kind of wonder if there’s a defensiveness there. After all, the Lightning feasted on old-school obsessions with size over skill and production.

From Nikita Kucherov (58th in 2011) to Brayden Point (79th in 2014), the Lightning unearthed its top stars by looking below the 6-foot-mark. Ignoring height when it came to Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson allowed the Bolts to unearth undrafted gems.

Not every Lightning draft steal boiled down to different cover songs of finding Martin St. Louis, mind you.

But either way, the Bolts paralleled the Red Wings dynasty era by finding diamonds in the rough.

Potential future Selke winner Anthony Cirelli slipped to 72nd in 2015. If you want a seventh-rounder, consider Ondrej Palat (208th in 2011). From Alex Killorn to Mathieu Joseph to Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay outfitted its roster with draft picks.

Like Brayden Point dangling around helpless defensemen, sometimes the Lightning made their peers look silly in the process.

[MORE: How the Dallas Stars were built.]

Building around Vasi

If you want to follow some of the most interesting Lightning-related team-building debates, follow the career of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

During a time when teams were timid about picking goalies in the first round, the Lightning snatched Vasilevskiy at 19th overall. Generally speaking, the “smart money” is not on picking a goalie in the first round, but it worked out in a big way for Tampa Bay.

That’s because, if you get it right and that goalie develops reasonably quickly, you can save money. The Lightning really only started paying Vasilevskiy big money ($9.5M cap hit) this season. Before, he was making just $3.5M per year.

Paying a goalie that much also flies in the face of “smart money,” yet Vasilevskiy’s been an ace for the Lightning. At 26, his prime years are ahead of him — although goalies are voodoo, so that $9.5M could still end up looking bad.

Overall, Vasilevskiy looms large as a huge part of the Lightning’s foundation.

Free agency: scraps, and mainly trying to avoid losses

As brilliant as the Lightning are in many team-building areas, they aren’t immune to the salary cap crunch that confounds contenders. (Even if they’ve basically been wizards at convincing stars to take less money. They must love to jet ski.)

But, either way, free agency for the Lightning mainly boils down to finding scraps, and trying not to lose too many important players.

This leaves the Lightning with the amusing distinction of having two Atlanta Thrashers high first-round picks in Zach Bogosian (third in 2008) and Braydon Coburn (eighth in 2003).

Yet, for every marginal depth defenseman (Luke Schenn, who went fifth in 2008), the Lightning sometimes convince quality veterans to accept pocket change to chase a Stanley Cup. Warts and all, Kevin Shattenkirk has been a great value for Tampa Bay. And, now that he’s healthy, Patrick Maroon has been useful during the playoffs.

Again, though: free agency is more an area of desperation than aspiration for GM Julien BriseBois.

Lightning are busy traders

While the Stars are light with trading but heavier on free agency, the Lightning are generally the reverse.

At the very top, this team is built around draft picks such as Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy. Even so, the supporting cast features significant trade additions, often at significant costs.

Consider Ryan McDonagh the result of the more blockbuster-quality trades Tampa Bay sought as it was growing. As mentioned before, Sergachev for Drouin was another tide-turning trade, and we’re still waiting to see the full impact.

After being swept, and with the salary cap closing in, the Lightning have been selling off picks and prospects in pursuit of that Stanley Cup. That’s meant saying goodbye to J.T. Miller in a trade that, for all its pain, was still pretty brilliant considering the Lightning’s desperation. That also meant paying expensive premiums to land quality depth in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

Factoring in all the Lightning’s bumps and bruises — not to mention the Stars’ stingy, exacting style — it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay leans on Coleman and Goodrow quite a bit during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning shine as one of the league’s most aggressive, and creative traders. They make things fun even when they’re not on the ice.

Final thoughts on how Lightning built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

To criticize the Lightning blueprint, you really have to nitpick about some first-round misses. Otherwise, they’re lapping all but the quickest of their peers.

They’ve found a great mix of skill and sandpaper, and oh yeah, they also employ one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper. For all of the hysteria over that Blue Jackets sweep, the Lightning put together deep playoff run after deep playoff run for a reason.

Still, with the salary cap shackles clamping on, this team was also built to win now, and it remains to be seen if this strong foundation turns into a wobbly Jenga tower.

Then again, we thought it would topple multiple times before, yet BriseBois & Co. keep finding answers.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

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SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Penguins re-sign Jared McCann to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH — Jared McCann is sticking with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The team announced Friday it has re-signed the 24-year-old forward to a two-year contract that runs through the 2021-22 season. The deal carries an average annual value of $2.94 million.

McCann tied a career high with 35 points during the 2020-21 season, collecting 14 goals and 21 assists in 66 games. He added one assist in Pittsburgh’s four-game loss to Montreal in the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and was a healthy scratch for Game 3.

”Jared is a good offensive player who can play center or wing,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said in a statement. ”We saw improvement in his play this year and feel that there is more upside to his game.”

The Penguins acquired McCann from Florida on Feb. 1, 2019 and he has played primarily on the third line during his time with the team.