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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.

Predators decide Tolvanen still isn’t ready for NHL

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The Nashville Predators made some roster cuts on Sunday, with one being a little bit surprising: Eeli Tolvanen.

This doesn’t send a signal to panic, but it is a little frustrating to see the stilted development of the 20-year-old forward, who was the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

For much of 2017-18, Tolvanen made highlight-reel plays in Finland that led people to believe that the Predators pulled off a big steal. That momentum was seemingly halted late in that season, however, as he received limited use in three regular-season games with the Predators. Still, hopes were high for the then-rookie winger.

To Tolvanen’s credit, he didn’t explore a potential out-clause as he stagnated in the AHL last season. Apparently that didn’t earn him enough cool points with the Predators to get him a longer look during this training camp, though.

To be fair to the Predators, they might just want to see more out of Tolvanen before pulling the trigger on a longer NHL look. He was fine in the AHL last season (15 goals and 35 points in 58 games with the Milwaukee Admirals), but not quite mind-blowing enough to kick the door down.

That said, it was a little frustrating to see a lack of experimentation from Predators head coach Peter Laviolette last season. Personally, I felt like Tolvanen was worth a try on a power play unit that was absolutely awful; the 2018-19 rendition of the Predators didn’t have a ton of players with a shot on par with what Tolvanen can unleash.

With Matt Duchene‘s shot added as an option on the power play, it might have been tougher to squeeze Tolvanen into the mix, although his abilities make you believe that it was worth more of a try.

It remains a little baffling that the Predators are sending Tolvanen down so early, although his waive exempt status plays a role in the decision.

A player like Tolvanen can sometimes provide that extra spark — and some extra easy goals — that can help you win a few extra games, or maybe even break open a tight playoff game. Of course, Laviolette might contest that he’s still at a point in his career where he’d make a mistake that would instead open up such opportunities for the Predators’ opponents.

Tolvanen could easily resurface for the Predators during the 2019-20 season, and maybe do so more than once. It’s nonetheless difficult to fight a bit of impatience when he’s down in the AHL, especially if it means he’s losing opportunities to one or more of Frederick Gaudreau or Miikka Salomaki.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better after an impressive offseason.

Getting to match what’s basically a team-friendly offer sheet for Sebastian Aho was a nice start, but the dirt-cheap Jake Gardiner signing capped quite a run of savvy moves. While Gardiner makes them even richer on defense, they have a more varied offense after adding Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel to the mix.

Strengths: If the Hurricanes don’t have the best defense in the NHL, they’re absolutely in the top five, and their group might be the deepest. It’s possible that Gardiner may help them boost a middling power play, and all of that defensive depth could allow management to make a trade down the line.

Their offense is looking considerably more impressive on paper, especially if they acknowledge the obvious and truly unleash Andrei Svechnikov next season.

Carolina figures to be a five-on-five beast once again.

Weaknesses: Petr Mrazek put together a strong finish to last season, but goaltending remains an issue. It’s unclear what James Reimer has left to offer, although he was once an analytics darling.

It’s plausible that the power play may remain hit-or-miss, as the Hurricanes might lack at least a tiny bit in that true superstar finishing ability.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It seemed like Rod Brind’Amour was a pretty nifty fit in Carolina in his first season as a head coach, keeping an even keel through some early season bumps, and allowing his team to loosen up with the “Storm Surge.” This franchise doesn’t want to go right back to missing the playoffs after breaking their last drought, but even in that situation, “Rod the Bod” seems fairly safe. Let’s put him at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mrazek, Martin Necas, Justin Faulk

Mrazek breathed life into his NHL career by playing well enough down the stretch to convince Carolina to stick with him via a new contract. He still has quite a bit to prove. If you cannot succeed behind this defense, then you don’t have a lot of excuses.

Necas seems like he’s on the verge of a full-time leap to the NHL, yet the Hurricanes don’t necessarily have a ton of room to carry a player if it’s evident that he can’t hang at this level in 2019-20. Getting another burst of high-end skill could really move the needle for Carolina, though.

Will Faulk stick with the Hurricanes through this season (and maybe even beyond), being that he’s entering a contract year? Could he even be traded before the upcoming campaign begins? It sounds like it was close to happening before, and should be a situation to watch until we get some resolution.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Metropolitan Division is a bit of a mystery, what with the Blue Jackets suffering huge losses while the Devils and Rangers made big strides forward. It sure seems like there’s a lane for the Hurricanes to make the playoffs pretty comfortably, and their superior depth might just put them in a cozy position to win the division.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

The Golden Knights cringed under a cap crunch during this offseason, losing intriguing KHL import Nikita Gusev, valuable scorer Erik Haula, and underrated defenseman Colin Miller while getting table scraps in return.

Luckily, the Golden Knights have been feasting lately, as Mark Stone is really only getting started after being a late addition around the 2018-19 trade deadline.

Strengths: The Golden Knights’ forward group is remarkable. Stone basically elevates Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to the equivalent of a top line, and Vegas already had one (or, at worst, a strong “1B”) in Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a top-six-quality winger in Alex Tuch if someone goes cold or gets hurt. Few teams can match that group, and it remains resounding that Vegas built this group up so quickly.

Bonus points if Cody Glass ends up making the team and getting meaningful minutes.

When he’s hot, Marc-Andre Fleury can still steal games for his team.

Weaknesses: It sure feels like the Golden Knights are rolling the dice a bit in net, though. Fleury turns 35 on Nov. 28, and their backup options leave a lot to be desired. That netminder situation sometimes resembles a wobbly Jenga tower.

While I like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, and believe the latter may have “another gear,” it’s fair to wonder if the Golden Knights’ defense is a stride or two behind the NHL’s best. They’ve done well to craft a pretty good defense in a short time, but that group isn’t as impressive as their forwards.

Gerard Gallant has made some magic, but like with any NHL head coach, he has his quirks. If he indulges in leaning too much on Fleury, Ryan Reaves, and Deryk Engelland, it could be to the Golden Knights’ detriment.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Gallant won the Jack Adams in 2017-18, and has managed to bring Vegas to two playoff berths in as many seasons. About the only glaring criticism you can muster (beyond those smaller aforementioned quirks) is that maybe — just maybe — Gallant could have done more to settle his team down after Cody Eakin drew that notorious major penalty in Game 7 against the Sharks.

Overall, Gallant is pretty safe, although the Golden Knights aren’t shy about spending, so they expect to be a contender. Let’s put Gallant at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Theodore, Glass, and Stone.

Theodore had a cancer scare a few months ago, and thankfully, it sounds like he took care of that matter. Here’s hoping that he’s 100 percent to start the season, because he’s a blast to watch.

Glass is intriguing as a prospect who could, ideally, give Vegas another weapon — if he makes the team.

After a tumultuous final season with the Senators and trade to Vegas, Stone gets to settle in. This could be a good time for those in the hockey world who didn’t already know it to clue into something: he’s probably even better than he’s hyped up to be.

Playoffs or Lottery: With a weak Pacific Division in mind, the Golden Knights should be focused on winning a Stanley Cup, not merely making the playoffs.

It’s strange to say this so early in the team’s existence, but a trip to the lottery would be as disastrous as owing an old mob casino a bunch of money.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.