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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.

Pass or Fail: LA Kings’ 2020 Stadium Series jerseys

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One day after the Colorado Avalanche showed off their jerseys for next month’s Stadium Series game, the Los Angeles Kings revealed what they will wear when they hit the ice at at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC).

As is tradition for Stadium Series games, the design is very unique and out there. The black, white, and silver is there along with the LA from their regular jerseys “taking flight” since the game will take place on the campus of the Air Force Academy.

adidas / Kings

Now while you’re maybe distracted by the black and white of the jerseys and the sweet white gloves, do not overlook one neat feature: the shiny silver helmets.

adidas / Kings

Some additional notes from adidas:

Crest: A new L.A. crest takes flight on diagonal bisected blocking, inspired by aircraft battle stripes.

Design: The architecture of the venue’s Air Force Academy, coupled with a pilot’s ambition to push to the edge, inspired the oblique angles used to shape the jersey’s typography and numbering. A checkerboard design graphic is implemented along the neckline.

What do you think? The black, white, and silver against the burgundy, blue, and white will be an interesting look on the ice.

MORE: Avalanche reveal 2020 Stadium Series jersey

The 2020 Stadium Series game between the Avalanche and Kings will take place Feb. 15 at Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.. The game will air on NBC at 8 p.m. ET.

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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.

Bad news on Hurricanes’ Hamilton: broken bone in leg

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The Carolina Hurricanes and others hoped that Dougie Hamilton‘s nasty injury looked worse than it was. Unfortunately, the result is pretty bad: Hamilton suffered a broken fibula (broken bone in his left leg) on Thursday.

You can watch and cringe at Hamilton’s bad luck in the video above.

Michael Smith of the Hurricanes website confirmed the broken fibula, stating that Hamilton may undergo surgery as soon as Friday. Smith noted that a recovery timeline might become known later tonight. Either way, it’s clear that this is a huge loss for the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes teammate Jaccob Slavin replaced Hamilton on the 2020 NHL All-Star Game roster.

What Hamilton broken fibula injury might mean to Hurricanes

The Hurricanes face a small margin of error after losing Hamilton and Thursday’s game to the Blue Jackets. Looking at the standings, it’s tough to imagine them wading into the Metro’s top three, while the bubble race could be tight:

Speculating on how long Hamilton might be out is pretty tricky. A commenter in this thread pointed out that Jason Zucker returned from a break in as little as four weeks. On the other hand, Nick Kypreos notes that Hamilton’s Hurricanes teammate Jordan Staal missed half of a season with a similar injury.

Plenty of injuries are tough to figure, and that’s quite true with breaks.

The bottom line is that even an optimistic recovery window would be painful for Carolina. Earlier in January, Adam Gretz broke down why Hamilton ranks as one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

In a nutshell: Hamilton provides explosive offensive (14 goals[!] and 40 points [!!] in 47 games this season) while being better defensively than his critics realize. This Hockey Viz Heat Map tells much of the story:

So, yeah, this hurts a lot for Hurricanes team that could be in quite the battle (most likely) for one of the East’s two wild-card spots. Perhaps it might even push the Hurricanes to try to find some help on the trade market?

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.

Bruins place David Backes on waivers

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David Backes has played only 16 games for the Bruins this season and spent many a night as a healthy scratch. On Friday the 35-year-old forward was placed on waivers.

“At the end of the day, you do what’s best for the team,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on Friday.

Should he clear, which he will, Backes will report to Providence of the American Hockey League.

This season Backes has only one goal and three points while playing a career low 8:33 per night.

“We’re going to look at younger guys and just felt at the end of the day, you do what’s best for your team, what makes you the best team,” Cassidy said. “Ultimately [general manager Don Sweeney] put him on waivers, feeling that was the best thing. I know David doesn’t agree with the situation, but that’s the decision we made [was] for the good of the team. I respect David as a person, as a player. We just felt we had better options, and that’s how we’re going to go forward and see how it plays out.”

It’s been downhill for Backes in Boston since signing a five-year, $30 million deal in 2016. His offensive output has declined and he’s dealt with numerous injuries. Under Cassidy he’s found it difficult to carve out a role in the Bruins’ lineup and be a consistent face among their 12 forwards.

“It’s gymnastics, there’s no question about it,” said Backes last week. “But that’s where we’re at right now, that’s a sign of a good team. If I’m not cracking the lineup, I think we’ve got a pretty good team. That’s kind of my perspective on it and I’m going to be called on at some point, kind of same way I was in the playoffs where didn’t start in there but was able to I feel like make an impact on a few games and help our team win. That’s what we’re about here is team first, and I’m trying to exemplify that when I’m in, when I’m out and be ready whenever I get called.”

Backes has one year left on a contract that carries a $6 million cap hit and $4 million salary through the end of the 2020-21 season. A buyout this summer would put $4 million on the Bruins’ salary cap in 2020-21 and $1 million on it for 2021-22, per Cap Friendly. That could be an option for GM Don Sweeney, but it’s going to be another offseason with a tight salary cap picture. The salary cap ceiling may rise only a few million dollars and extensions will be due this summer for restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk and unrestricted free agents Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Jaroslav Halak.

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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.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.