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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.

Darcy Kuemper slams Matthew Tkachuk to ice, nearly sparks goalie fight (Video)

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You can add Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper to the lengthy list of players around the NHL that has snapped in the presence of Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Late in the second period of the Coyotes’ 3-0 win on Saturday afternoon, Kuemper came to the defense of his teammate, defenseman Jason Demers, and slammed Tkachuk to the ice setting off a chaotic line brawl that nearly ended with a goalie fight.

It all started when Demers knocked Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau to the ice away from the play.

Gaudreau responded by skating up behind Demers and cross-checking him in the back, knocking him to the ice. While Demers was down on the ice, Gaudreau and Tkachuk each got in a little extra shot and it was at that point that Kuemper decided to enter the situation.

Once that happened, Flames goalie David Rittich stormed the length of the ice and tried to come to the defense of his teammate. The two goalies never actually fought, but they did both receive their share of penalties. Kuemper was assessed two roughing minors, while Rittich was given a two-minute penalty for leaving the crease to join an altercation.

Kuemper now has 20 penalty minutes since the start of the 2017-18 season which is by far the highest total of any goalie in the league. Rittich (now with 10) is the only other goalie with more than eight.

Tkachuk was also given four minutes for roughing, while Gaudreau received two minutes for cross-checking and Demers was assessed two for roughing.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

As for the actual game itself, it was a huge day for Kuemper as he stopped 38 shots to record the shutout and help the Coyotes improve to 12-7-2 on the season.

It is his second shutout of the season and improved his save percentage to an outstanding .937 in 14 appearances.

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.

 

Paul Bissonnette to get chance to back up lacrosse boast

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Paul Bissonnette will have a chance to back up his lacrosse boast.

Two days after tweeting that he could make a National Lacrosse League team without having ever played a game, the former NHL player signed a professional tryout Friday with the Vancouver Warriors.

”Bissonnette will be given every opportunity to make the Vancouver Warriors,” Warriors coach Chris Gill said. ”Paul talks a pretty big game. Let’s see if he can back it up and be a part of our team.”

The 34-year-old Bissonnette, now the radio color commentator for the Arizona Coyotes, played 202 NHL games with Pittsburgh and Arizona. He had seven goals, 15 assists and 340 penalty minutes in his six NHL seasons.

He’s gained notoriety more for his outspoken and often humorous tweets commenting on hockey and others sports.

Bissonnette will join the Warriors for their final week of training camp at Rogers Arena on Nov. 22 and 23.

The Buzzer: Bruins end slump; Blackwood baffles Penguins

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Three Stars

1. Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils

If the Devils are going to dig themselves out of the big hole they made to start 2019-20, it’s highly likely that Blackwood will be the goalie who helps them do it.

Lately, the 22-year-old has been rotating nice wins (.968 save percentage or higher in three victories) with tough losses (.889 or lower in three defeats). Friday represented one of the nicest wins yet, as he stopped 38 out of 39 of the Penguins’ shots to help the Devils steal a 2-1 decision.

Natural Stat Trick places the Penguins’ expected goals at 3.55, and their high-danger chances at 14 at all strengths, so Blackwood was the clear difference-maker in that narrow triumph.

2. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

The Habs got revenge on the scoreboard after Alex Ovechkin landed that devastating hit on Jonathan Drouin, and Tatar was a big catalyst for that rally.

Yes, his goal was an empty-netter, but Tatar already had a top-three-worthy night when he piled up three assists. If you’d prefer his linemate Phillip Danault (1G, 2A, nothing on that ENG), that’s fine, too. Being boiling up some righteous indignation, the plus side of Drouin getting shaken up might be that Claude Julien went back to Tatar, Danault, and Brendan Gallagher as a line ever so briefly. Via Natural Stat Trick, they generated two five-on-five goals for in just 42 seconds of TOI together. Piping-hot take: maybe keep them with each other a little bit longer?

Overall, Tatar was an absurd possession beast on Friday, generating a ridiculous 80% Fenwick Four. By any measure, he was spectacular, and there’s a compelling case for Tatar being placed above Blackwood as the top star of the night.

3. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Attempting to defense the Bruins’ top line must be agonizing, as Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak just bring so many strengths to the table. It might be especially frustrating to try to contain Marchand, though.

Not only will he trash talk you (and back it up), but he’s also very smart and elusive, finding openings even when there’s just a bit of space to work with. Marchand played a big role in Boston ending its winning streak, and also extending Toronto’s torment, by scoring two goals, including the game-winner.

But, yeah, that troll game is also there.

Highlight of the Night

Zach Werenski had been off to a bit of a slow start scoring-wise for the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, but the 22-year-old is gaining some serious steam lately. Werenski scored the overtime game-winner for Columbus on Friday, extending his goal streak to three games (three goals, one assist).

(Some might vote for the Ovechkin hit as the clip of the night, though.)

Factoids

  • Via NHL PR: Zdeno Chara became the fourth defenseman in NHL history aged 42 or older to generate a three-game point streak. Chris Chelios has done it twice, and holds the best run with a four-game tear. The other two (Doug Harvey, Tim Horton) make it quite the list.
  • Another aging defenseman stat from NHL PR: Shea Weber became the third active NHL defenseman to generate at least a five-game point streak at age 34 or older. Chara did it in 2011-12, while Mark Giordano has two streaks of seven games. Weber also scored his 209th goal, placing him 18th all-time among NHL defensemen, via Sportsnet.
  • Saucy one from Sportsnet: the Maple Leafs and Oilers have the same point percentage (.531) in 64 games since Jan. 1, and Edmonton actually has one more win (30 to 29).

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
NJD 2 – PIT 1
MTL 5 – WSH 2
CBJ 3 – STL 2 (OT)
OTT 2 – PHI 1

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.

Alex Ovechkin lights up Habs’ Drouin with huge hit

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Alex Ovechkin is known for scoring goals (my personal favorite, which was nearly replicated by a Penguins prospect), but the Washington Capitals superstar is so fun to watch because he’s also perfectly willing to throw his body around for a big check. It’s one of those things that made you believe that maybe he’d wear down, yet that Russian Machine Never Breaks.

Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin received a painful reminder that you need to keep your head on a swivel when Ovechkin’s on the ice, as the Capitals winger leveled Drouin with a huge hit on Friday.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Drouin was shaken up almost as much by the second impact:

Drouin left immediately for the locker room, but he’s taken some shifts afterward, so he might be OK … we’ll have to see.

There’s at least some debate about the legality of the hit, for what it’s worth:

Sometimes big hits like that light a fire under teams. Maybe Ovechkin was hoping it would do so for Washington, but instead Montreal might channeled that anger into getting even on the scoreboard, as they rattled off a 4-0 lead in response, and ended up winning 5-2.

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.