Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs

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With the NHL salary cap flat for the near future, a lot of pending free agents are kicking themselves. (Sorry, Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo.)

But the “free agent frenzy” can still inspire teams to open their wallets. Heck, the Wild just handed $42M to defensive defenseman Jonas Brodin.

You know what gets the wallets cracking even more? Thoughts of adding that clutch piece. That logic can really fly out the window when a player drives his team’s playoff success, especially when that ends with a raising of the Stanley Cup. Let’s look at top free agents from the remaining teams in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: which Dallas Stars, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning free agents might be bumping up their value?

Of course, Anton Khudobin is as prominent as a sliding Semyon Varlamov here. Let’s start with the team we already know is headed to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Key Stars free agents heading into Stanley Cup Final

Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs Lehner
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Anton Khudobin

Even Khudobin’s boosters would’ve been surprised to see him share headline space with Mathew Barzal, but here we are.

As covered recently, Khudobin’s built an impressive resume as something of a super backup. It’s difficult to place what kind of contract would be appropriate, and even what contract Khudobin should set his sights on.

While it’s not ideal that he’s 34, he at least wouldn’t count as a dreaded 35-plus contract. His save percentage with the Stars is impeccable (.926 in 71 games played over two regular seasons), and his career save percentage is better than most hand-picked NHL starters (.919).

You may have heard this during various broadcasts as Khudobin’s workload piled up, but he also hasn’t really carried a big burden very often in his career. Khudobin set a career-high with 41 games played with Dallas in 2018-19, and he boasts four other seasons of 30-plus appearances (including a stout showing this season).

So, the ideal fit is probably still a platoon situation. Could that boil down to staying with the Stars? Ben Bishop is on the hook for about $5M in cap space per season through 2022-23, so that would entail a lot of money wrapped up in goalies. (Khudobin falling anywhere near his current $2.5M cap hit would be a fireable offense for his agent.)

With quite a few names likely to hit the free agent market, it’s that much tougher to forecast what’s ahead for Khudobin. Except you’d almost be certain it’s a raise.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Young restricted free agents such as Hintz, Faksa

After Roope Hintz made a splash during the 2019 postseason, many pictured a breakthrough for the occasionally bulldozing forward. But like with Denis Gurianov and other young forwards, the Stars have been reluctant to take the training wheels off of Hintz, including dropping the 23-year-old’s postseason ice time considerably from last year (16:06) to this run (14:02).

If you’re a Stars fan who’s been frustrated by this, that’s understandable, especially since Hintz managed 19 goals this season despite tepid use. But at least that might keep his earning power down?

  • At the other end of the spectrum, Radek Faksa is a low-scoring, high-leverage forward, and has been for some time for the Stars. The 26-year-old is arbitration-eligible, so that could be interesting to watch.
  • Speaking of Gurianov, he’s an RFA, as well. Gurianov followed a 20-goal (albeit with just nine assists) regular season with what’s been a productive postseason. As hot-and-cold as his production has been, Gurianov sits at 17 points (8G, 9A) in 21 playoff games.

Grizzled veterans

  • Corey Perry suffered through a lousy regular season, and his playoff numbers don’t jump off the page. Yet, even so, it wouldn’t be surprising if Perry, 35, gets snatched up by a team looking for a scrappy veteran who can draw penalties.
  • Speaking of scrappy veterans, Andrej Sekera may be over his significant, career-threatening injury issues. We’ll see if he’s done enough to get another look as a depth piece in the NHL.

Closing Stars salary cap thoughts

All things considered, the Stars are in a fascinating spot to possibly exploit a chaotic market, much like their pals in Colorado. Having an estimated $15.5M in cap space might encourage them to overextend to keep Khudobin, which is understandable since this team is very goalie-reliant. (Also: Bishop gets hurt about as often as he plays extremely well, which is a real bummer.)

But if the Stars decided to try some bold moves? That would be awfully interesting.

Islanders face challenges in fitting in restricted free agents Barzal, Pulock

Setting a high Barzal

If you look at Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool, a $9.581M cap hit would be appropriate for eight years of Mathew Barzal’s services. While it wouldn’t be surprising if that projection tool received a(nother?) post-pandemic revision, it wouldn’t be outrageous to actually give Barzal that kind of money. He’s a special player, and would make gobs of dough on an actual free market.

But Barzal is a restricted free agent at 23, and Lou Lamoriello is likely to be about as yielding as a brick wall here. One can only speculate about the threat of an offer sheet, especially in this financial climate.

As of this writing, the Islanders hold about $9M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly. There’s certainly room for wiggling (ever visited “Robidas Island,” Andrew Ladd?), but this won’t be easy. And it might make Lamoriello’s GM of the Year work feel like Belt Tightening for a Decade.

That’s because the Islanders have more than just a superstar to wrap up …

Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs Cirelli
Barzal and Cirelli, two centers ready for raises. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Not just Barzal, either

The Islanders have a fascinating salary structure.

Forwards: Tons of term, varying degrees of quality.
Defensemen: Very little term, with Scott Mayfield being the “lifer” with three years remaining at $1.45M per.
Goalies: Semyon Varlamov for three more years, Ilya Sorokin as his understudy.

So, there are some key decisions looming.

  • Two very valuable RFA defensemen need new deals: Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. Pulock is the Islanders’ leader in average ice time (22:31) this postseason, while Toews has been a key contributor during this push (20:27). Locking those down, whether via “bridge” deals or contracts with term, will be tricky.
  • The Islanders paid a pretty penny to “rent” Andy Greene, and at 37 amid cap challenges, that’s probably it. Right?
  • You’d also think that they can’t make Matt Martin or Derick Brassard fit, but Lou and Barry Trotz both love Martin-type players, so who knows?
  • Thomas Greiss is virtually certain to be gone, and being that he’s provided Khudobin-like value for much of his career, could end up being dearly missed. (If I were a GM, I’d cross my fingers that Greiss slips under the radar and becomes an affordable platoon option.)

More dark salary cap arts from “Loophole Lou?”

Being that Lamoriello has had almost creepy tendency to “make things work,” I’m sure he has a plan. Frankly, I’m elated to find out what that is, because this is going to require some Houdini-like maneuvering.

Free agent losses likely for Lightning as they continue playoff push

Cirelli and Sergachev: biggest Lightning concerns

  • Most importantly, they need to find a way to fit Anthony Cirelli under the cap. The good news for the Lightning is that a) they keep getting bargains, over and over, and over and … b) Cirelli isn’t scoring like the star he could end up being.

The Lightning want to save every penny they can, but Evolving Hockey’s projection ($5.8M at a six-year term) would run parallel to Cirelli’s ascent to becoming recognized like Selke winner Sean Couturier (whose similar contract is a boon to the Flyers).

This is probably a good time to mention that you can file many Lightning problems under “problems almost every other NHL teams would like to have.”

  • It sure feels like Mikhail Sergachev could enjoy a breakthrough one of these seasons. That said, Tampa Bay’s bringing him along relatively slowly, which might help them suppress his value.

Even so, it wouldn’t be obscene if Cirelli and Sergachev commanded the Lightning’s cap space each. So yeah.

Cernak and others

  • There are other interesting players, chiefly another RFA in Erik Cernak. Don’t expect him to fall into a lofty range, but he’s a valuable young defenseman.
  • Beyond the bigger names, there are youngsters (Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe) and veterans (Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon) who only add to the complications. OK, some do. It’s hard to imagine Shattenkirk not costing significantly more than $1.75M.

Closing Lightning salary cap thoughts

Cap Friendly places the Lightning’s cap space at $5.33 million. Uncomfortably, that’s based on $76.16M going to just 15 roster spots.

Clearly, the Lightning are going to need to shift some units here. Considering the circumstances, they might need to go beyond the obvious, such as moving Tyler Johnson‘s $5M.

Much like “Loophole Lou,” the Lightning keep finding ways to make this work. Even when it hurts, like seeing J.T. Miller thrive in Vancouver. (Though that first-rounder will soothe some wounds … or maybe help them buy their way out of some problems?)

Either way, players like Barzal, Khudobin, and Cirelli face more chances to up their value even more as the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs go on. One of them will even get to mention that they’re Stanley Cup champions, pandemic-permitting.

MORE STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final 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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.