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Jake Gardiner could be free agent steal

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One of the most surprising developments this offseason has to be the fact Jake Gardiner, probably the top defender to hit the open market, remains unsigned nearly two weeks into the free agent signing period.

Not only is he still unsigned as of publication on Saturday, but there has also been complete radio silence on any potential interest in signing the defender.

Little to no speculation on potential teams, or contract terms, or … anything. It’s almost as if he no longer exists in the NHL, which is completely stunning given how good he has been and some of the other contracts that have been signed this summer.

How does a team give Tyler Myers $30 million over six years on the first day of free agency, or give up multiple draft picks in a trade for Justin Braun, while a better player (Gardiner) remains sitting out there unsigned for anyone to go after?

The concerns

Let’s start with health.

Gardiner was limited throughout the 2018-19 season by a back injury that sidelined him for 20 games and clearly limited him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It creates quite a dilemma for any interested team because until this season Gardiner had been an extremely durable player, appearing in at least 75 games in six of his first seven seasons while playing more than 20 minutes per night every year. That includes five seasons where he played in at least 79 games, and back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 where he did not miss a single game.

Even though his injury has reportedly healed well this offseason, it is still understandable that a back injury for a 29-year-old defender could be a legitimate concern for a team on a long-term contract.

The other criticism that Gardiner faces is that he has had two of his worst games on the biggest possible stage, struggling in back-to-back Game 7 losses over the past two seasons.

But any team that puts more weight on those two games than his entire career track record is making a bad evaluation.

The playoffs are a strange beast because they are ultimately what teams (and players) are measured by when it comes to their success and/or failure. But that can also lead to a lot of mistakes because you are not always getting an accurate representation of what a team (or player) actually is. Especially when you drill it down to a single game, or even just a few single moments within a single game.

It is almost as if players that play on teams that don’t get into big games get evaluated more favorably than players that do, because the former hasn’t had a chance to have their flaws exposed or had a chance to have a bad performance in a big situation. Almost as if it’s better to NOT play in a big series or a big game, eliminating the risk of making a mistake that could be a negative on your track record, than it is to play in one and make that one mistake. I don’t necessarily think that teams are entirely shying away from Gardiner because he fumbled a few plays in Game 7s … but I also wouldn’t put it past teams to do that, either.

The production

The point with this is that the larger sampling should take greater priority over the one mistake in the one game you paid closest attention to.

When it comes to the larger sampling, Gardiner should be an attractive option because he has been a very good player.

He moves the puck well, he has consistently scored well in terms of possession and scoring chances throughout his career on teams that have not always been good in those areas, and he can provide some offense.

For his career he’s played 551 games, recorded 245 points, and has a career 51 percent Corsi percentage.

Among active defenders, he is one of only 12 defenders that hit all of those marks through their age 28 season, a list that also includes the likes of Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk, and Dougie Hamilton. All of them were (and are) on significant long-term contracts by age 29. Most players that make it this far into free agency do not typically get long-term deals, so it’s possible that Gardiner has to settle for something less than expected at the start of the free agent signing period.

The Maple Leafs theory

Let’s just throw one more possible theory out there, just for laughs.

The theory: the Maple Leafs want to bring him back, he wants to return, but neither side can move on that until the team gets the Mitch Marner restricted free agent situation, and by extension, the rest of their salary cap situation, completely settled.

Is it likely? Probably not. But it’s hard to figure out why an otherwise good, productive player at an important position where there are not a lot of good, productive players available is still unsigned this far in the summer.

As long as he is healthy there is no reason to think he will not be the same productive, top-four defensemen he has been throughout his entire career for whatever team that signs him this summer.

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.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.