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NHL Free Agency: 10 things we learned on a crazy July 1

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As far as free agency signing days go this July 1 turned out to be one of the wilder ones we have seen in years.

The New York Rangers landed a star, the Montreal Canadiens utilized the offer sheet option, there was a blockbuster trade that significantly altered two potential Stanley Cup contenders, and one general manager uttered one of the weirdest quotes you will ever read regarding a signing.

We take a look at all of those storylines and more with 10 things we learned on a crazy free agent signing day.

1. Montreal’s offer sheet did not go far enough

Credit to Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens for exploring every possible option when it comes to trying to make their team better. It has been far too long since a team signed a restricted free agent offer sheet, and when word first surfaced that the Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho there was an immediate sense of excitement that free agency was about to get interesting … right up until the terms of the deal were released.

The five-year offer comes with a salary cap hit of $8.45 million per season and would require the Canadiens to give up a first, second, and third-round pick if the Hurricanes do not match.

It is an offer the Hurricanes seem almost certain to match, especially given the reaction of general manager Don Waddell at his press conference discussing the offer. Waddell said he was surprised the offer was not higher, and that he may take all seven days to decide on whether or not to match it because it may prevent Montreal from signing other players and he may not want to help them out. He also joked that it saved him a lot of time because now he will not have to spend the summer negotiating a new contract. Those are the words of a general manager who is confident and comfortable in what he is doing. He is matching.

The Canadiens capped their offer at $8.45 million per season because going any higher would have increased the compensation to two first-round picks as long as it remained under $10.568 million (anything higher than that would require four first-round draft picks).

The first question here is if you are going to go this direction, why make an offer that can so easily be matched? Given how good Aho is, it’s not like he wouldn’t be worth a $9-10 million contract for the next five or six years, especially since he will be in the prime of his career at his peak level of production. He is a star with the best days of his career directly in front of him.

The second question is why not target a player on a team in a more dire salary cap situation? It was reported on Monday by Pierre LeBrun that the Canadiens had also considered making an offer to Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point before focussing on Aho.

Had the Canadiens made a similar offer to Point (who also would have been worth it) the Lightning would have almost certainly had to clear salary cap space in another move just to create enough room to match it.

It was a great idea in theory and a bold move. It was simply not bold enough.

2. The New York Rangers are back in business

At least one team that calls Madison Square Garden home was able to finish the deal and lure in a top free agent this summer.

The Rangers paid a significant price for Artemi Panarin, but it continued what has been a potentially franchise-shifting offseason for the team.

One year ago they were telling their fans to prepare for a lengthy and painful rebuild.

This summer they added a bonafide star (Panarin), a potential star (Kaapo Kakko), and a top-four defender in Jacob Trouba.

Is that enough to get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2019-20? Maybe not, especially in a Metropolitan Division that is setting itself up to be a complete free-for-all, but all of it definitely puts the rebuild on an accelerated path.

Free agency is always a risk and more often than not the long-term contracts signed on July 1 are going to end up as buyouts or trade fodder a couple of years down the line, but Panarin is the rare exception that it is worth it to go all in on. He still has several more years as an elite player, and in his first four years in the league has proven to be one of the best and most productive forwards in the league.

If you are going to hand out a big contract, you better make sure it is a star and an impact player.

The Rangers did that.

3. The Maple Leafs and Avalanche both got what they needed

Congratulations to Tyson Barrie for finally getting his hame removed from the “always on the trading block but never actually traded” list.

He is on the move to Toronto, along with Alexander Kerfoot, in the blockbuster deal that sends Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche.

It continued what was an extremely active day for the Maple Leafs that saw them overturn a significant chunk of their roster for two very big reasons: Clearing salary cap space to secure restricted free agent Mitch Marner, and also improving a defense that was the obvious Achilles heel of the team the past couple of years.

With the departures of Jake Gardiner (well, he is likely to depart) and Ron Hainsey in free agency, as well as the trade of Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa, there were an awful lot of holes on that Toronto defense.

There had to be another shoe to drop.

The other shoe was Barrie.

He is a massive addition to the Maple Leafs’ defense and gives them a very formidable top-three along with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. The fact Colorado is picking up half of Barrie’s contract also helps given Toronto’s salary cap situation.

As for Colorado, Kadri gives the Avalanche a great second-line center to play behind Nathan MacKinnon, and along with the free addition of Joonas Donskoi greatly improves their forward depth.

Kadri is an outstanding player due to his shutdown defensive play and 30-goal potential, but his inability to control himself proved costly for the Maple Leafs in consecutive postseasons.

If he can stick to playing hockey without crossing the line and getting himself suspended at the worst possible time he is going to help.

Losing Barrie hurts, but the Avalanche have an exciting crop of young defenders coming through the pipeline that are ready to make an impact in the NHL with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram all ready to take over.

They also have an absurd amount of salary cap space and could still complete another move to replace Barrie. They are still in business and still building something that could be special.

[Related: Maple Leafs, Avalanche make blockbuster trade involving Kadri, Barrie]

4. The Penguins did not learn their lesson

For the second year in a row the Penguins gave a bottom-of-the-lineup role player a long-term contract that defies pretty much any and all logic given their roster and salary cap situation.

Signing Brandon Tanev for $3.5 million per season is, on its own, probably a defensible signing. The cap hit is not terrible, and probably not far from what someone of his skillset should get on the open market. He will do nothing for your offense, but he is a good defensive player, he can kill penalties, he plays hard, he can help you form a good fourth line. There is nothing wrong with him as a player. But as I argued on Sunday following the Phil Kessel trade, the key for the Penguins was always going to be what they did with their newly acquired salary cap space and how efficiently they could use it.

They failed.

There is no reason to give a fourth-liner a six-year contract, just as there is no reason to give a third-pairing defender a five-year contract, just as there is no reason to acquire another third-pairing defender that makes $4 million per season.

On their own, each of them is a little mistake and a small mis-use of limited salary cap space.

On their own, none of them alters the franchise in a positive or negative direction.

But when you add all of them together all of those little mistakes turn into one big mistake and suddenly a team that is constantly talking about how tight the salary cap is and how little wiggle room they have under has more than $10 million committed to bottom-line, replacement level players.

Despite the general managers insistence they still have holes on defense, especially when it comes to moving the puck, and they are still going too far in their quest to be “tough to play against” and finding “pushback.”

Tom Wilson broke them three years ago and he is still in their heads today.

5. The Canucks are still a rudderless ship

The Canucks have an emerging superstar in Elias Pettersson and another top-line player in Brock Boeser.

That is great.

But then what?

General manager Jim Benning seems to be stuck between trying to orchestrate a rebuild while also still trying to put a winning team on the ice, but hasn’t picked a direction or done a good enough job with either approach to send them toward a set path.

They paid a steep price to get J.T. Miller in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the draft, and while he’s a fine player he doesn’t do anything to move the needle in a meaningful direction.

On Monday, he gave Tyler Myers a huge contract that you might want to say is a buyout waiting to happen, except it is a contract that is loaded with signing bonuses which pretty much makes it buyout proof.

In the end, the Canucks seem destined toward another season where they finish 24th or 25th in the league standings and miss the playoffs by a mile, but are not quite bad enough to get the best lottery odds.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Florida had money to spend and got one of its targets

The Panarin-Sergei Bobrovsky package deal didn’t work out, but the Panthers at least got one of them.

But did they get the right one?

Bobrovsky definitely fills a much bigger need in the short-term as the team’s new No. 1 goalie, but he carries significantly more risk given his age and the position he plays.

He is definitely the more boom-or-bust signing.

As long as Bobrovsky is at his peak and playing at the level he has shown over the past seven years he could be the missing piece to get the Panthers back in the playoffs as soon as this season.

But how long do you trust a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to play at such a level?

If he doesn’t, they are on the hook for a massive salary cap hit at one of the most impactful and important positions on the ice.

The other intriguing layer to this is the Panthers just used their first-round pick on … a goalie.

Obviously you are not going to draft for need in the NHL draft because most players are so far away from making an impact and you just want the best player that you think has the best chance to become a star. But goalie is a little different because you only get one of them on the ice at a time, and the Panthers just their first-round pick on a player that, in an ideal world, they will not need to count on and rely on for another five or six years.

Not saying it is wrong. Not saying it is bad. It is just … interesting.

7. Jim Nill makes his yearly big splash

Another year, another offseason championship for Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars.

Every year he finds a way to bring in big-name players, and he pulled it off again with Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

Perry is a total wild card but there is almost no commitment to him or risk with that signing. If he turns out to be done, the Stars don’t really lose anything. Maybe they catch lightning in a bottle and can squeeze some value out of him.

Pavelski seems destined to follow the path Patrick Marleau took when he left San Jose by being really good for one more year, just okay for the second year, and then be a potential buyout before year three.

He could still make a major impact this season.

8. Minnesota is still a total mystery

The Wild have made some strange moves over the past year, gutting their roster of veterans in an effort to get younger and cheaper, and then turning around this offseason and trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players.

They tried and failed to get Phil Kessel.

They succeeded in getting Mats Zuccarello on a five-year, $30 million contract, resulting in one of the weirdest comments you will ever read from an NHL general manager.

That is your general manager, Minnesota.

You are in … some kind of hands?

9. The Islanders are stuck in neutral

By re-signing captain Anders Lee they managed to bring back three of their top unrestricted free agent forwards (Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson being the other two), and that is obviously a big deal even if Lee’s contract looks like a potential long-term trap given his age.

Other than that, there isn’t much happening here for this team.

They missed out on Panarin, the circumstances around the departure of Robin Lehner creates more questions than answers, while they replaced him with an older, more injury-prone, and probably lesser goalie in Semyon Varlamov and then committed four years and $20 million to him.

As it stands right now, they are bringing back mostly the same team — one that struggled to score goals — with a different goalie.

This will be a big test on whether the Islanders success in 2018-19 was goalie driven, or if it really was the work of Barry Trotz and his defensive system behind the bench.

10. The Blackhawks are not comfortable with Corey Crawford‘s health

What other conclusion can you jump to after the signing of Robin Lehner?

When healthy Crawford is a top goalie in the league and one of the most impactful players on the Blackhawks roster. He has been the difference between the team winning and losing for the better part of the past two years … when he plays.

The problem is he has not always been available due to injury and they have not had anyone capable of even coming close to replacing him.

Given their other offseason additions (Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, re-acquiring Andrew Shaw) it is pretty clear the Blackhawks are trying to win now and re-open their window for contention with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. Given that, you don’t sign a potential starting goalie if you are completely comfortable with the status of your current goalie.

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.

What’s driving Coyotes’ fast start, and how can they maintain it?

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PITTSBURGH — The Arizona Coyotes probably deserved a better result Friday night in Pittsburgh.

A lost face-off followed by a fluke bounce, Phil Kessel missing a wide open net, and a couple of jaw-dropping saves by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry were just enough to turn yet another solid road effort into a tough-luck 2-0 loss, dropping them one point back of the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division. Even with that result the Coyotes are still off to one of the best starts in franchise history (even dating back to the Winnipeg days) and have at least put themselves on solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

Here’s how good their start has been:

  • Their .613 points percentage as of Friday is fourth best in the Western Conference, while they have a six-point cushion between them and the group of teams outside the playoff picture. That may not seem like a huge gap in early December with still three quarters of the season remaining, but history suggests not many teams (less than 20 percent) are able to make up that sort of deficit. The odds are in their favor.
  • Their 38 points through 31 games are tied for the fourth most in the franchise’s 40-year history, and are the most since they had 41 points during the 2013-14 season (that team ended up missing the playoffs by just two points following a second-half collapse. The Western Conference was also far more competitive and top-heavy that season than it is this season).
  • They allowing just 2.26 goals per game, the second lowest total in the league.

In a lot of ways this team has been a Western Conference version of the New York Islanders. They don’t really have an offense that is going to break games open, and they don’t rate very highly in a lot of analytical areas when it comes to shot attempts or shot rates, all of which can lead to some skepticism. But like the Islanders they help make up for the lack of quantity in a couple of other key areas. Their “expected goals against” rate (via Natural Stat Trick) is in the top-10 in the league, indicating that while they give up a lot of attempts they don’t give up the type of attempts that typically turn into goals. They are one of the most disciplined and least penalized teams in the league, almost entirely eliminating the special teams battle. And the most important element? They have one of the best goaltending duos in the league in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

Those two many not be household names around the league, but since being united in Arizona the list of goalies that have outperformed them can be counted on one hand. Since the start of the 2017-18 season both Raanta and Kuemper are in the top-five (among the 56 goalies with at least 50 games played) in all situations save percentage and even-strength save percentage, while both are in the top-10 in penalty kill save percentage. When a team gets that sort of goaltending a lot of flaws that might otherwise exist suddenly go away, and given that both have been able to play at such a high level for an extended period of time it’s easy to buy into it being sustainable. Even before arriving in Arizona both goalies had shown an ability to be above average goalies but were simply in positions where they were unable to get real playing time.

So how do the Coyotes build on this start and turn it into something that can extend their season into the spring?

1. Resist the urge to trade a goalie. Don’t try to to “trade from a strength to fill a weakness,” or even try to suggest it. The strength is what is literally driving the team right now. Not only that, it is almost a necessity to have two good goalies to win in the NHL these days because of how important it is to limit the starter’s workload and keep them fresh. Having two highly productive goalies signed to cap-friendly contracts through next season is a massive advantage. Take advantage of it. Keep them both and keep each them fresh by playing them each regularly. Their success isn’t a fluke.

2. Hope for a rebound from the top players. One of the most surprising aspects of their start is the trio of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has combined for just 13 goals this season, putting them on a pace for only 34 goals over 82 games. A year ago that trio scored 55 goals. All three are currently being crushed on the shooting percentage front, and while Keller has never really been a high percentage scorer, the other two have been. Kessel has shown signs the past few games that he could be on the verge of one of his goal-scoring binges, while Ekman-Larsson has scored at least 12 goals in each of the past six seasons, at least 14 goals in five of those seasons. He is due. If those two can get their puck luck to change the offense will suddenly look a lot different (and better).

3. Get Niklas Hjalmarsson back. The other surprising element of their success has been that they have played almost the entire season without Hjalmarsson after he was injured back in October when he was hit by a shot. He is back on the ice skating, and given his original time frame is probably a couple of weeks away from returning to the lineup. It would be a significant add because Hjalmarsson is one of the team’s best defensive players. If he can return to that level it would be a significant addition to a lineup that is already one of the best teams in the league at preventing goals.

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.

 

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.