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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.

The Buzzer: Panthers get last-gasp winner; Kadri, Makar lead Avs

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THREE STARS

1. Keith Yandle, Panthers

A wild game in Minnesota ended with the Panthers topping the Wild 5-4 and Yandle finishing with a goal and four points. Noel Acciari tipped home a shot with 5.6 seconds left for the win. The final period began with the game tied at two. Evgenii Dadonov put home his 22nd of the season and Minnesota scored twice to make it a 4-3 Wild lead. Then it was Vincent Trocheck tying the game with 4:08 to go and Acciari giving Florida the two points with the late winner:

2. Nazem Kadri, Avalanche

Kadri had two goals and an assist during a 6-3 Monday matinee win over the Red Wings. With his pair of goals Kadri now has 17 on the season, surpassing his total from 2018-19. His career high is 32, which was reached in back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with the Maple Leafs.

3. Cale Makar, Avalanche

One of the favorites for the Calder Trophy, Makar picked up two primary assists in the Avs’ win. He’s now in sole possession of first place in the rookie scoring race with 37 points and is three helpers behind Quinn Hughes for tops among rookies. Per the NHL, Makar’s multi-point day helped him match Bruce Bell for most points in a single season by a rookie defenseman in Avalanche/Nordiques history.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• This was a pretty setup by the Red Wings for Givani Smith‘s second career NHL goal:

Nathan MacKinnon scored twice and reached the 30th goal mark for the third straight season:

Aleksander Barkov keeps doing wonderful things:

• The Wild’s pup, Breezer, took care of some business pregame:

STAT OF THE NIGHT

SCORES
Avalanche 6, Red Wings 3
Panthers 5, Wild 4

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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.

NHL injury roundup: Jets’ Lowry out 4 weeks; Schultz, Krejci near returns

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Checking in on some injury situations around the NHL…

Jets lose Adam Lowry for a minimum of four weeks

The Winnipeg Jets have won just six of their past 18 games and have been dominated in their most recent two, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks by a 12-3 margin. Not great. Also not great is the fact coach Paul Maurice announced on Monday that forward Adam Lowry is going to be sidelined for a minimum of four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

Lowry isn not a big driver of the team’s offense (only four goals and 10 total points in 47 games) but he is a good defensive forward and a big loss for a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. As of Monday, the Jets are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Justin Schultz game-time decision for Penguins; Dominik Kahun has concussion

The Penguins could be getting one of their top defenseman back on Tuesday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers. Justin Schultz, sidelined since Dec. 17, was a full participant in practice on Monday and is not ruling out playing on Tuesday. Schultz is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and would no doubt love to have a big second half to boost his value. In 27 games this season he has just two goals and eight total points for the Penguins. If he is able to return it is likely that either Chad Ruhwedel or Jusso Rikkola would sit.

In other Penguins injury news, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that forward Dominik Kahun is going to be sidelined with a concussion that he suffered in Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the Boston Bruins. Kahun has been a great addition to the Penguins lineup this season bringing some much-needed youth, speed, and two-way play to their forward group. He has 10 goals and 27 total points in 48 games this season. Dominik Simon was also injured on Sunday, but was at practice on Monday and is considered a game-time decision for Tuesday.

Krejci back at practice for Bruins

After missing the past two games an upper-body injury, veteran forward David Krejci was back at Bruins practice on Monday in a non-contact jersey. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci will “give it a go” in the morning skate on Tuesday before their game against Vegas, but there is no guarantee he can play.

Following Tuesday’s game the Bruins will have nine days off before their next game.

Starting goalie Tuukka Rask was also back on the ice on Monday and skated on his own before practice. He has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by Columbus’ Emil Benstrom. He is also not expected to play on Tuesday against the Golden Knights.

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.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

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.