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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.

It’s Philadelphia Flyers Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

2018-19
37-37-8, 82 points (6th in the Metropolitan Division, 11th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Kevin Hayes
Matt Niskanen
Justin Braun
Tyler Pitlick
Kurtis Gabriel
Nate Prosser
Alain Vigneault – head coach

OUT
Andrew Macdonald (buyout)
Jori Lehtera
Radko Gudas
Cam Talbot
Michal Neuvirth
Wayne Simmonds
Phil Varone
Anthony Stolarz

RE-SIGNED:
Travis Sanheim
Brian Elliott
Scott Laughton

2018-19 Summary

If you’re an NHL team that sets a league record for most starting goalies used over the course of a single season, it’s unlikely that said record is synonymous with winning.

Here’s the list, in no particular order:

• Brian Elliott
• Anthony Stolarz
Calvin Pickard
• Michal Neuvirth
• Alex Lyon
• Mike McKenna
• Cam Talbot
Carter Hart

Eight starting goalies, one more than the previous record of seven held by three other teams with the most recent being the 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings.

Cam Talbot set the record in February, but it was No. 7 that tied the mark that stuck out in more ways than one.

First, when you start seven different goalies by Dec. 18, you can be damn sure things have gone horribly awry.

But No. 7 turned out to be lucky No. 7 in the end. Of all the goalies on that list, it’s 21-year-old rookie Hart who stole the show in the city best known for its goalie graveyard.

The good news, then, is that Hart managed to fend off the grim goalie reaper, starting 29 more times after that Dec. 18 debut and posting a very respectable .917 save percentage on a team that surrendered a pile of shots and the third most goals against. Mix in horrible power play and a porous penalty kill and a Hart was seeing all sorts of rubber.

If he would have begun the season sooner, he would have been firmly planted in the Calder Trophy discussion, much like Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. More importantly, if the Flyers would have had him playing like he did in the second half of the season, they may have been in the playoff conversation.

Neither ended up being true but finding a potential stud starting goaltender in another otherwise lost season would be viewed as a silver lining that’s not just an illusion.

The offseason will be debated when it comes to its success. Yes, they got a second-line center in Kevin Hayes who will allow for Claude Giroux to play out on the wing, a place he recorded 102 points two seasons ago alongside Sean Couturier. But they paid through the ears and the nose and whatever other orifices you want to name in your head.

Seven years and $50 million is a lot of term and a lot of cash to hand a player who has hit the 50-point plateau just once in his five-year NHL career. One can suppose that if he adds to the spine of the team, takes some pressure of Nolan Patrick and allows Giroux the freedom to do his thing offensively, then the money is well spent.

But this is a player who couldn’t make it as Winnipeg’s second-line center when the job was handed to him at the trade deadline last season. It’s a risky contract, no doubt.

Some of the other moves have been more targeted. Matt Niskanen comes in to help on the blue line and on the penalty kill. Justin Braun, too, is there for defensive fortifications.

And there’s a new bench boss in Alain Vigneault after the team fired Dave Hakstol back in December and rode Scott Gordon in the interim, and a new general manager in Chuck Fletcher after the Flyers decided to ax Ron Hextall.

Are the Flyers reverted back to old ways?

It’s been a wild past 12 months in Philly and who knows how it is all going to turn out.

The Flyers top brass seemed unwilling to allow Hextall’s methodical approach to building a winner. Fletcher comes with a lot more flair, for sure. The jury is still out on whether flair is needed when taking things slow would have been much more desirable, however.

Win, lose or shootout(?), at least there’s Gritty.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Islanders agree to terms with Brassard on 1-year deal

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) — The New York Islanders agreed to terms with Derick Brassard on a one-year contract Wednesday.

Brassard, who will turn 32 on Sept. 22, had 14 goals and nine assists in 70 games last season while with Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He also had an assist in nine playoff games with the Avalanche.

Financial terms of the deal were not announced.

The 23 points last season was his lowest total since he had a goal and an assist in 17 games as a rookie with Columbus in 2007-08.

For his career, Brassard has totaled 176 goals and 275 assists in 786 games while also playing for the New York Rangers and Ottawa. He also has 23 goals and 37 assists in 99 career postseason games.

For the Islanders, his fifth team in three seasons, Brassard will likely center the third line, filling the role held by Valtteri Filppula last season. Filppula signed with Detroit earlier this summer.

Forward Anthony Beauvillier remains the Islanders’ lone restricted free agent unsigned after the team agreed to deals with Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang earlier in the week

PHT Morning Skate: Backstrom, Holtby extension talks; Price right for reset?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Elias Lindholm has a theory about Flames’ post-season flop. (Sportsnet)

• The top 10 candidates to be traded this season. (The Hockey News)

• Backstrom, Holtby extension talks in Capitals’ plans before camp. (NHL.com)

• After out-sized expectations perhaps under-sized Kailer Yamamoto can finally make his pro hockey mark. (Edmonton Journal)

• Will the Sabres trade Rasmus Ristolainen before the season begins? (The Hockey News)

• Former ‘Miracle on Ice’ hockey player charged in attack. (Associated Press)

• The best (and worst) NHL teams of the past decade. (ESPN)

Rasmus Andersson is the key to the Flames moving forward. (The Hockey Writers)

• Can Canadiens star Carey Price hang on until GM’s reset is complete? (Montreal Gazette)

• Steady Tavares won’t be a distraction. (Canada.com)

• Russ Conway, acclaimed journalist who brought down Alan Eagleson, passes away at 70. (The Hockey News)

• Five predictions for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2019-20 season. (Pensburgh)

• Oilers’ Jesse Puljujarvi wants top-6 role. Is it realistic? (Sporting News)

• Bruins talking extension with Cassidy. (TSN.ca)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Advice for new Wild GM Bill Guerin

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In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that the Minnesota Wild announced Bill Guerin as their next GM during Ottawa Senators Day at PHT.

After all, Guerin is stepping into a GM gig that might be just as tough as what Pierre Dorion is dealing with in Ottawa, even if the challenges are different.

Despite missing the playoffs in 2018-19 and failing to win a series from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Craig Leipold continues to drink the Kool-Aid, rather than pulling off the Band-Aid. He wants the Wild to contend, so if any rebuilding happens, it needs to take place while the Wild also try to compete.

Mock former GM Paul Fenton all you want, but that isn’t exactly an easy juggling act.

The question, then, is will Guerin be able to juggle better than Fenton? (After all, he does have the hands of a former NHL sniper.)

Here’s some friendly advice for Guerin because, frankly, he’ll probably need all the help he can get.

1. Find out who wants out

As a former player, Guerin likely has a leg up on most GMs when it comes to being able to relate to other players. That might come in handy when it comes to a sensitive subject: waiving no-trade and no-movement clauses.

Theoretically, it would be awkward to have such a conversation with a veteran player who’s meant a lot to the franchise, whether that be Zach Parise and his seemingly eternal contract, or Mikko Koivu on a one-year deal. Yet, as we’ve seen from Parise doing some summer soul-searching with The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required), some of these players have already pondered moving on. It’s easier to have such chats when you’re accomodating a veteran player trying to win that elusive Stanley Cup than it is to ask if you can uproot their family via a trade, after all.

2. Identify your core, and don’t settle

Such clause talk brings up some tough decisions for Guerin when it comes to who is a core Wild player and who is expendable.

As stuck as the Wild seem right now, it’s remarkable how much of a clean slate Guerin can enjoy in the not-so-distant future … at least if he makes smart calls. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $9.5M in cap space, although RFAs Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek still need deals. Even if the cap remained at $81.5M, the Wild’s 2020-21 cap space would rise to $22M, and then all the way up to about $44M heading into 2021-22.

With that in mind, Guerin needs to be cold and calculating. Should the Wild sign Jared Spurgeon, a soon-to-be 30-year-old defenseman who figures to be expensive following this upcoming contract year, or would it be smarter to trade a quality defenseman for what could be a big haul, and build for the future? The Wild have already seen how bad a long-term contract can look, and while Spurgeon could age gracefully, he could just as easily become another albatross.

Spurgeon isn’t the only tough call, but he’s among the toughest.

[From Wild Day at PHT: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

3. Invest in analytics

Firing Fenton after a bit more than a year wasn’t the greatest look for the Wild, but the silver lining was that it kept Fenton from flubbing a Jason Zucker trade in the same way he made the worst blunder of his time, the atrocious Nino Niederreiter trade.

According to Russo’s scathing, incredible rundown of Fenton’s reign in Minnesota, the Niederreiter trade was essentially made during a Florida retreat where the Wild’s top analytics staffers weren’t even invited.

The dream would be for Minnesota to be cutting edge, yet at a minimum, Guerin can avoiding shooting himself in the Fenton … er, foot.

4. Bring in your people

On the other hand, Russo’s reporting also enforced why it can be so important to surround yourself with people you trust.

As much criticism as Fenton drew in that piece regarding being paranoid about leaks … it also is worth mentioning that stunning details ended up leaking out of Minnesota about Fenton’s foibles. Is that ironic, or Alanis Morissette ironic? Considering all that surfaced, can you blame Guerin if he poaches some of the people he knew from Pittsburgh?

Guerin must aim for the right balance between hiring people you can trust, and fresh faces who innovate. I’d wager there’s a sweet spot between Lincoln’s “team of rivals” and Jon Gruden sending his scouting staff home during draft time out of paranoia.

5. Manage Leipold

Perhaps reality will slowly dawn upon Leipold that the Wild need to at least reboot things a bit. In the meantime, though, Guerin needs to hit the right buttons: keeping this team reasonably competitive, without totally mortgaging the future for marginal present-day gains.

***

Chances are, there will be missed shots here and there for Guerin, but if he gets big picture decisions right where Fenton right wrong, the Wild might just become the top-shelf team Leipold demands.

Eventually.

MORE:
• Did the Wild learn from the Fenton era?
• Why the Wild are better off being terrible this season
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.