Roundtable: Best, worst offseasons; favorite free agent signings

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One month into free agency, who’s had the best summer and who’s had a not-so-good summer?

SEAN: There are two obvious answers for best and that’s the Devils and Rangers. Their summers have been well-documented. I want to give some love to the Avalanche, who are primed for a big season in 2019-20.

Joe Sakic brought in Joonas Donskoi, who’s primed for a bigger season after back-to-back 14 goal campaigns; brought in Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to help with the penalty kill; swapped Tyson Barrie for Nazem Kadri; and acquired and signed Andre Burakovsky to a one-year deal that could pay big dividends. Add in re-signing Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher and Samuel Girard, and drafting Bowen Byram fourth overall and things are looking bright in Denver. Once they lock up Mikko Rantanen the Avs will have a solid core intact to build on going forward.

Rantanen is the only RFA left for Sakic to re-sign and that’s with the team still $15 million under the salary cap ceiling.

The Minnesota Wild expect to be a playoff team in 2020. But they’re so hamstrung by the salary cap, thanks to their own decisions, that the future looks pretty bleak. The Zach Parise and Ryan Suter contracts eat up $15 million in cap space for six more seasons. Mats Zuccarello, 31, has a $6 million cap hit until 2024. Victor Rask underwhelmed after coming over from Carolina and has three more years at $4 million per. It’s ugly and whoever replaces Paul Fenton as general manager is inheriting a mess … much like Fenton inherited Chuck Fletcher’s work.

JAMES: The Devils are best-in-class because they’ve added impact players like P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, and they’ve also done so without risking the future on a terrifying term. Even Subban’s supposedly poisonous contract only lasts for three more years. Other rebuilding teams better take copious notes.

The Canucks … have not been taking notes. They’ve been snoring through every lecture. They added a lousy Tyler Myers contract to a pit of lousy contracts, clearly learning nothing from the Loui Eriksson blunder. Even when they add good players like J.T. Miller, they also make questionable value decisions. The Lightning were aching to get rid of some money; why spend a first-rounder to take Miller off of their hands? Because Jim Benning, that’s why.

JOEY: The Rangers are in a little bit of cap trouble right now, but they’ve managed to add Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba this summer. They also drafted Kaapo Kakko second overall. Panarin was the premier free agent on the market this year while Trouba is a talented defenseman that immediately makes them better on the back end. General manager Jeff Gorton will find a way to get under the salary cap. Just a short while after sending a letter to their fans explaining that they had to go through a rebuild, the Rangers have gotten themselves back on the right track.

Not many teams have had a worse summer than the Columbus Blue Jackets. I don’t think they’ll be a bottom-feeder in 2019-20, but losing Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene certainly won’t help their chances of going back to the playoffs. The Gustav Nyquist signing was a good one, but it’s not enough to compensate for all the players they lost. GM Jarmo Kekalainen will have his work cut out for him over the next few years.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

ADAM: For the best, it is a two-team race between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, no question. It’s remarkable how similar their offseasons are with draft lottery luck and blockbuster moves.  For as much as I love what the Devils have done to get Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds for next to nothing, I still think I will go with the Rangers. Artemi Panarin is still a superstar offensive player, Jacob Trouba may not be on Subban’s level but he is a really good top-four defender, and Kakko gives them another top-prospect on the win. I also think they are closer to a playoff spot right now than the Devils because they still have the better goaltending.

As for a not-so-good, I think the Penguins adding another bad contract for a depth player really hurts them and I am not sure how replacing Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta with Dominik Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev makes them better.

Also, think the Kings’ inactivity is a big problem because it just further delays the much-needed rebuild.

SCOTT: It’s hard to pick between the Devils and the Rangers. Both have been aggressive, both had the two highest picks at the 2019 NHL Draft, and both will look dramatically different to start the 2019-20 season.

So I won’t pick either.

Instead, I will go with the Avalanche. As tough as the Metropolitan Division is, there are likely five spots in the Central Division that will head to the playoffs this year and this summer has been it’s on sort of Cold War when it comes to stockpiling weapons. And while the Dallas Stars added a couple of old guys, the Avalanche made some shrewd moves, including adding Joonas Donskoi, Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. A team that needed more depth scoring last year went out and got it, signed all but one of their big-ticket restricted free agents, and have money left over to give Mikko Rantanen the cash he deserves. Oh, and they had a fourth-overall pick at the draft and took a guy many consider to be very, very good in Bowen Byram.

I want to pick the Vancouver Canucks because they’re trying to rebuild and also compete at the same time and that road leads to a dead-end called ‘disaster.’

But they aren’t there yet. A team that is, however, is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who mortgaged the future at the trade deadline for a playoff win and some ooey-gooey feelings that their fans will have forgotten when they 20 games below .500 by Christmas.

These are a selection of names the Blue Jackets lost this summer: Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. They added Gustav Nyquist and… (checks notes)… yeah, that’s it. Yikes.

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Why do you think the high-profile restricted free agent signings (Laine, Marner, etc.) are dragging on?

SEAN: It feels like it’s just not Toronto Maple Leafs fans waiting for Mitch Marner to sign. Considering how big and long that contract might be, and how GM Kyle Dubas has been trying all summer to open up enough salary-cap space, the two sides will come to an agreement at some point. The question is will it linger into the start of the 2019-20 season, like William Nylander’s situation this past season.

The agents for Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, and Matthew Tkachuk, among others, could just be waiting for Marner to sign and set the market. If that’s the case, it’ll be interesting to see how long those camps wait if the Marner negotiations remain unresolved as the calendar moves into September and even October.

JAMES: More than anything else, teams are waiting for key dominoes to fall. The only real “deadlines” are training camp and the regular season, and as we’ve seen with William Nylander, these situations can drag on even into when the games start to matter. Without salary arbitration hearings to serve as pressure points, we could be waiting a while.

Also, the Maple Leafs, Lightning, and Jets have had to square salary cap situations away beyond their RFA stars, so that hasn’t exactly helped things to accelerate from this molasses state.

JOEY: I think you’re trying to see teams regain control of the market when it comes to players coming out of their entry-level contracts. Those restricted free agents don’t have any arbitration rights, so they either sign the contracts the teams present them or they sit and wait (a la William Nylander). In the end, most of the teams can’t afford to keep their star RFAs on the sidelines, so the players know the organizations will have to cave eventually. None of these top-end players are panicking about not having a new contract this late.

ADAM: Honestly it just seems like everyone is waiting for the market to be set by someone. Players not wanting to settle for less than they have earned, teams not wanting to pay more than they have to. Just a massive game of chicken.  If it were not for the Canadiens’ offer sheet to Sebastian Aho pretty much every top RFA would still be unsigned right now, which is pretty remarkable.

SCOTT: In some cases, the salary cap has dictated all of this. Cash-strapped teams with big-ticket RFAs need to sort some things out before they can lavish those players with mountains of money.

But it also seems like someone needs to bite the bullet and sign on the dotted line first. The players (and their agents who are running the show) want to be highly renumerated and deservingly so. Mitch Marner is a very good player. So, too, is Brayden Point and Mikko Rantanen and the list goes on and on. And all these guys want to make more than the other. Egos, or something like that.

What’s your favorite contract of the off-season so far, good or bad?

SEAN: The Jordan Binnington deal is the perfect deal for both sides. The player gets a nice hefty raise from his $660,000 salary and will make $8.8 million over the next two seasons. The team doesn’t give up a ton of money and doesn’t get tied down with term. Binnington turned 26 this summer and after coming out of nowhere and leading the Blues to a Stanley Cup title, he gets two seasons to prove 2018-19 wasn’t a fluke. If he does, he’ll get a rich reward when he’s up for another extension.

JAMES: The Sharks getting Timo Meier for $6M for four years is going to be one of those game-changer contracts. If the Sharks end up hanging in there as contenders even as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson age out of their primes, it’s going to be thanks to bargains for the likes of Meier and Tomas Hertl. (As obscene as the Kevin Labanc steal is, it’s only for one year, but I don’t fault anyone for choosing that $1M as the best. That dollar amount is so low, it makes you wonder if you need glasses.)

JOEY: I just loved the drama around Sebastian Aho. I know the Canadiens didn’t offer enough money to tempt the Hurricanes into taking the draft pick compensation, but I still loved the fact that Marc Bergevin was willing to tender an offer sheet to a high-end restricted free agent. We need more of that. In the end, Carolina brings back their franchise player on a deal that was good for both sides but the 24 to 48 hours of drama that came with the offer sheet was perfect. It made my summer! Now, we just need more of it.

ADAM: Honestly, it is Aho’s with the Hurricanes just because of the circumstances around it. You have the Canadiens trying to improve their team by going after a top-line player and showing that offer sheets are still possible. Then they simply did not go far enough and made it ridiculously easy for the Hurricanes to match. Now they have their franchise player signed long-term, he still has the contract expire when he is in the prime of his career and can still sign another huge contract, and neither side has to worry about a summer full of negotiations potentially dragging on to the regular season.

SCOTT: Kevin Labanc. The guy certainly is worth more than $1 million next season, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how this ends up. Does he sign a long-term extension on Jan. 1? What have the Sharks promised him so he would take that kind of risk? And what happens if Labanc picks up a long-term injury of some sort? It’s my favorite deal because of all the variables attached to it. (A close second is the offer sheet because it’s so rare.)

MORE:
Breakout candidates for 2019-20
NHL GM hot seat tiers
Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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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.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.