Roundtable: Under-the-radar UFAs; offer sheet targets

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What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?

SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.

JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.

Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)

I’m not saying Talbot will be the next Robin Lehner, but maybe he could be the next Jaroslav Halak?

Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”

ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.

JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.

SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.

If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
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What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?

SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?

Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.

JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.

Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.

There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.

ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.

Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.

JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.

SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.

The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?

SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.

The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.

Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.

JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.

For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.

At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.

But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)

When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.

(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)

ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.

JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.

SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.

MORE: Top NHL free agents to sign, and ones to avoid

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.