NWHL Offseason Primer: Free agency being prioritized over draft

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The NWHL offseason is about to be eventful.

The draft, perhaps, may be underwhelming. Most elite collegiate players are staying at their respective schools with the extra eligibility option. Free agency, though, could make things interesting

In addition to league free agents who may switch teams, the NWHL could see an increase in external talent, too. The increase in the league salary cap by double is an opportunity for PWHPA players to make the leap if they choose. Team representatives have mentioned more of an interest from US-based PWHPA players that could result in signings after their event in St Louis, but that remains to be seen.

Whether the league sees an increase in external talent or not, as teams head back to playing in their home arenas and outside of bubbles, there could be quite a bit of movement this off-season. Almost every general manager and coach has put heavy priority on signings, not the draft.

As a note, no one really knows who will be in the draft this season, so any draft notables are just looking at players who haven’t committed to returning or are known to be in the transfer portal as of now.

Boston Pride

Needs: Defensive depth

Draft targets: Veronika Pettey, F (Northeastern)

Player to keep: Taylor Turnquist: There were reports earlier this week Turnquist might go to Minnesota where her boyfriend, Nico Sturm, plays for the Wild in the NHL. Boston love Turnquist; every conversation with them has been around keeping her. They drafted her last season with high expectations.

Player to add: Sarah Steele: Steele went to BU and the Pride love their Terriers. If they need to make up for lost depth with Turnquist, she might be the best blue liner to turn their sights towards.

The Pride are the deepest team in the NWHL and are going to have the fewest roster spots to fill. Even if they lose a handful of players like they did before last season — Lexi Bender, Emily Fluke, Alyssa Wohfeiler — they have more depth than anyone else.

It might actually be tough for them to add, especially if few players from the Isobel Cup championship season stick around. It’s going to take elite players who aren’t in the league yet, perhaps some PWHPA players, who have the ability to usurp championship talent.

Even then, the Pride have a good thing going. Since their culture shift after the 2017-18 season, they’ve been building and that’s an inseparable group if they can help it.

Minnesota Whitecaps

Needs: Forward depth

Draft targets: Hannah Bates, D (St. Cloud State), Emma Bigham, F (St. Cloud State), Janna Haeg, F (St. Cloud State), Taylor Wente, F (Minnesota)

Player to keep: Sydney Baldwin: There’s a case to be made for Baldwin being more valuable to her team than a single other player in the NWHL. She was just behind defender of the year Kaleigh Fratkin and finalist Lindsay Eastwood in most categories. For whatever reason she’s gone overlooked, and the Whitecaps defense without her isn’t the same at all.

Player to add: Taylor Turnquist: As mentioned, Turnquist might have an interest in going home to Minnesota, and she would be a tremendous addition to the Whitecaps blue line.

The Whitecaps are one of the deepest teams in the league. They came close to toppling Boston to win the Isobel Cup but feel just short in a tight game. There’s not really much they can do, but they can always get better and keep up with other improving teams.

Corrinne Buie didn’t play at all last season, so it’ll be interesting to see what she’ll be up to. Retaining Baldwin seems real important after her impact this season, and the Whitecaps could use another defender, too.

Minnesota is by far the oldest team in the league and one has to wonder how much time their more experienced players have left on the ice. It might be an important year for them to restock; luckily for them, if any PWHPA players do convert, Minnesota is one of the most attractive options.

Toronto Six

Needs: Defense

Draft targets: Shelby Wood, D (Colgate), Lisa Bruno, D (Ohio State)

Player to keep: Any defender: Toronto didn’t have the most defensive depth heading into their first season in the NWHL as it was and ended up taking fewer to Boston for their playoff game. Losing anyone else is going to be tough for them.

Player to add: Whitney Dove: If Toronto is going to target anyone to bring in currently in the league, Dove may be a bit. She showed some serious flashes during Buffalo’s Lake Placid run and they need any defense. She’s Canadian, too.

The Six have the advantage in being, currently, the only Canadian club in the NWHL. Almost any new Canadian talent would head to Toronto, presumably. That could be worth watching if any Hockey Canada players who didn’t make the national team cut decide to give it a go, something that has long been avoided to date.

We’ll see if any of their off-season concern cause anyone to leave as well. General manager Mandy Cronin was suddenly dismissed back in February, and some players were alarmed. Toronto is still the only professional team in Canada paying players, though, so they’ll never be out of options.

They showed promise in year one, but they’re going to need a larger roster for the long haul, too.

Connecticut Whale

Needs: Defense, scoring depth

Draft targets: Jessica Adolfsson, D (Penn State)

Player to keep: Melissa Samoskevich: She’s only gotten one game in with the Whale since being the second overall selection in 2018, and that was the Whale’s most recent game in the semi-finals. She changes the entire dynamic of the offense, and if she returns will almost certainly be their leader.

Player to add: Briana Mastel: She likely won’t leave Boston, but if she were to feel a squeeze on defense, the Whale would take the Connecticut native. Especially if they do end up needing to replace Shannon Doyle, they might make a run for her.

After being the third NWHL club to have an independent owner, the Whale may suddenly be a lot more desirable to play for. Connecticut has been in the basement nearly its entire NWHL tenure before turning a clear corner last season. With a new ownership structure — and higher salary cap — the Whale might be more attractive to free agents than in years past.

Shannon Doyle, the Whale captain, seemed like she’d be retiring after last season, but recent social media videos show her on the ice in Whale gear. Perhaps she does return after all; Connecticut would certainly welcome it.

After the Whale were ready to leave the bubble in Lake Placid before being called back for the playoffs in Boston, that’s a close-knit group. It wouldn’t be surprising for most of the pod to stay intact.

Connecticut also always makes sneaky free agent signings. Wohlfieler was a terrific add last season. Who might they swipe this year?

Metropolitan Riveters

Needs: Scoring depth

Draft targets: Laura Kluge, F (St. Cloud State), Emma Polaski, F (Syracuse)

Player to keep: Paige Voight: Minnesota natives seem to flock to the Whitecaps at the end of the day. Voight is a Minnesota native. She didn’t produce in her first three games with the Rivs but after her Merrimack career certainly has the potential. Depending on what other moves they make this offseason, she’s worth convincing to keep around.

Player to add: Kristen Barbara: The Toronto defender and power play leader just recently took a job coaching in New Jersey, so if she wanted to be closer by, the Riveters could sure use her.

New general manager Anya Packer sure has an interesting case on her hands. The Riveters were the first team out last season after Covid cases made their way into the initial NWHL location in Lake Placid, but they were also one of the most dominant teams right out of the gate.

It’ll be interesting how many players they retain. There’s been a lot of talk of a culture change, and Packer has been at the forefront, at least publicly. Kate Whitman-Annis, the former general manager, is on the league side as well now, so the roster could take an entirely different shape.

Buffalo Beauts

Needs: Scoring

Draft targets: Coraline Larose, F (Colgate), Janine Alder, G (St. Cloud State), Brooke Schembri, F (Adrian)

Player to keep: Taylor Accursi: Accursi didn’t play during the Lake Placid season with other commitments, but make no mistake; she’s one of the key pieces of the Beauts lineup.

Player to add: Bridgette Prentiss: Prentiss is from Buffalo and was widely speculated to be drafted there last season but went to the Riveters. If they want to bulk up defensive depth, she could be worth a look.

Buffalo got a head start on everyone in retaining defender Marie-Jo Pelletier  The alternate captain has proven herself as one of the elite defenders in the league despite playing on a team that’s had other defensive flaws

The Beauts showed some flashes last season but also looked stagnant. Their offense couldn’t penetrate most of the elite defenses. Part of that was missing Accursi, but another part was simply needing more scoring. General manager Nate Oliver has done great work to create a strong culture in Buffalo. Goaltender Carly Jackson is one of the future stars of the league. They have a lot they can build around.

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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    Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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    PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

    The break ended shortly thereafter.

    Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

    The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

    All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

    “I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

    Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

    While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

    Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

    Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

    Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

    “I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

    Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

    Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

    Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

    Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

    In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

    He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

    Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

    Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

    Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

    “Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”

    Seattle Kraken sign GM Ron Francis to 3-year extension through 2026-27 season

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    SEATTLE — Ron Francis was initially approached about extending his stay as the general manager of the Seattle Kraken back in the winter, but putting finality to the decision took longer than expected.

    The Kraken kept winning and pushed what was mostly a formality to a secondary need until after Seattle’s unexpected playoff run finally ended.

    “At that point it was kind of verbally done, just kind of a few little small details. And then we get into the playoffs and busy and it kind of got put on the back burner and I didn’t want it to be a distraction with the team and where they were at,” Francis said.

    That finality came when the Kraken announced Francis had signed a three-year extension through the 2026-27 season. Francis originally signed a five-year deal when he became the first GM in franchise history back in 2019 and the new contract will kick in starting with the 2024-25 season.

    “I’ll never forget the day that he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready to do this,’” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said. “But today is another great day for our fans because not only did he come and build, he is going to stay here and continue to build this franchise.”

    Seattle reached the second round of the NHL playoffs in its second year of existence, following a challenging first year where it underachieved and was among the worst teams in the league.

    But Francis navigated through that difficult first season and helped land the pieces that turned Seattle into a playoff team in the second year without mortgaging future opportunities or putting the Kraken into challenging salary cap situations.

    “He has been the leader that’s gotten us to where we are today. And he is the leader to take us to the next level,” Seattle co-owner Samantha Holloway said.

    Seattle is the second stop for Francis as an executive after spending seven seasons in the front office of the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis started as director of hockey operations before becoming the general manager in 2014. Francis was let go by the Hurricanes after the 2018 season.

    Seattle jumped at the chance to bring the Hall of Fame player in to lead the front office. Seattle’s expansion season was a major underachievement with the Kraken going 27-49-6 and finishing last in the Pacific Division with 60 points. But Francis was able to move veteran players to stockpile draft picks and left enough salary cap room to make some key moves entering the second season.

    Seattle signed free agent forward Andre Burakovksy, traded for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand and inserted rookie Matty Beniers into the lineup on Seattle’s top line from the first day of the season. The results on the ice couldn’t be argued. Seattle went 46-28-8 and reached 100 points, knocked off defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Dallas in seven games in the conference semifinals.

    “It’s been a real team effort. I’m sitting up here today and they’re saying good things about me, but it’s a much bigger picture than just me,” Francis said. “I’m excited to be here for a few more years and hopefully everybody’s opinion doesn’t change, but we’re going to stick to the plan and continue building it the right way so we can be a great franchise for multiple years.”

    Francis also stuck with coach Dave Hakstol after that difficult first season. He may be the next in line for a contract extension from the team after a season where he was recognized as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for top coach in the league.

    Maple Leafs hire Brad Treliving as team’s new general manager

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    TORONTO — Brad Treliving has a new job.

    And the Maple Leafs have a new plan.

    Treliving was hired as Toronto’s general manager less than two weeks after firing Kyle Dubas.

    The 53-year-old Treliving left the Calgary Flames in April following nine seasons that included five playoff appearances and two 100-point seasons.

    “Brad brings a wealth of knowledge from his years of experience as a general manager and hockey executive in Calgary, Arizona and beyond,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “He has earned tremendous respect amongst his peers throughout his years in the NHL and has built excellent relationships at all levels within the game.”

    Treliving joins the Leafs at a crucial juncture in the wake of Shanahan’s stunning dismissal of Dubas on May 19.

    The Original Six franchise, whose Stanley Cup drought stands at 56 years, won a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades with a victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning this spring, but then lost to the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers in five games.

    Dubas, who had been Toronto’s GM since 2018 and didn’t have a contract beyond June 30, suggested at an end of season news conference May 15 he wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in the role – at least in part because of the stress on his young family.

    A roller coaster five days followed, with Shanahan ultimately firing the 37-year-old Dubas despite previously wanting to keep his GM, and the now-unemployed executive eventually indicating to his boss he wished to stay.

    Treliving is the third GM – joining Dubas and Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello – hired in Toronto by Shanahan, whose so-called “Shanaplan” aimed at getting the storied franchise back on its feet when he came on board in 2014 has seen unparalleled regular-season success, but just that one series victory in eight attempts.

    “I’m thrilled to join an Original Six team and recognize how much the Maple Leafs mean to this community,” Treliving said. “This is a very exciting day for my family and I.”

    Treliving has a lot to deal with as he settles into his new office at Scotiabank Arena.

    Treliving, who served in the Phoenix Coyotes’ front office for seven seasons before arriving in Calgary, will have to decide the future of head coach Sheldon Keefe, while stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander can sign contract extensions as of July 1.

    Matthews and Mitch Marner have full no-movement clauses ready to kick in the same day. Nylander will have a 10-team list.

    The NHL draft is also set for the end of June in Nashville, Tennessee, while the Leafs have 12 roster players primed to hit free agency at noon EDT on July 1.

    The Flames, who missed the playoffs this season, won the Pacific Division in 2021-22 under Treliving before falling to the Edmonton Oilers in the second round.

    Johnny Gaudreau then stunned the organization by leaving Calgary for the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency last summer. Fellow star forward Matthew Tkachuk added another wrinkle by informing the team he didn’t plan to re-sign.

    Treliving subsequently dealt the winger to Florida as part of a package that included forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar heading to southern Alberta.

    Huberdeau then signed an eight-year, $84 million contract extension with the Flames that kicks in next season.

    Tkachuk, a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as playoff MVP, and the Panthers open the Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Despite the departures of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, the Flames looked like contenders ahead of the 2022-23 season.

    The acquisition of Huberdeau and the signing of center Nazem Kadri was expected to fill the void left by Gaudreau and Tkachuk, but the mix wasn’t right for a group led by hard-nosed coach Darryl Sutter.

    Huberdeau and Kadri finished well off their career-high points totals of the previous season – the former went from 115 with Florida to 55 in Calgary – while subpar goaltending was an issue much of the season.

    Treliving now turns his attention to Toronto.

    Just like last summer, he has lots of work to do.

    Nashville Predators hire Andrew Brunette after firing John Hynes

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn.– The coaching shuffle in Nashville is complete, with Andrew Brunette officially hired as the Predators coach a little over 12 hours after the team announced that John Hynes was fired.

    The moves are the first being made by incoming general manager Barry Trotz and come about six weeks after the Predators missed the playoffs.

    The 49-year-old Brunette spent the past season as a New Jersey Devils associate coach under Lindy Ruff and has previous head-coaching experience.

    He was promoted to interim coach of the Florida Panthers during the 2021-22 season and oversaw a team that set franchise records for wins (58) and points (122) in claiming the Presidents’ Trophy before being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. Brunette finished second in the Jack Adams Award voting for the NHL’s coach of the year.

    He becomes just the fourth coach in the history of a Predators franchise and returns to Nashville, where Brunette played for the Trotz-coached team during its inaugural season in 1998-99. Their relationship goes back to 1993-94, when Brunette played under Trotz, who was head coach of the Washington Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine.

    “I feel like this is coming full circle for my career – from pulling on the jersey for the first time 25 years ago to returning now to take care of some unfinished business,” Brunette said in a statement. “It has been awesome to see how this city and its fanbase have grown since I played here and I look forward to continuing the legacy and the culture behind the bench that Barry cultivated that inaugural season.”

    Trotz, meantime, has an eye on building on the Predators’ youth and offensively skilled players as he takes over as GM for David Poile, who is retiring at the end of June after 26 years overseeing the franchise.

    “We want to become more of an offensive team and Andrew specializes on that side of the ice – he lived it as a player, and he coaches it as a coach, Trotz said. “He is as good of an offensive teacher and power-play coach as there is in the game today. He will be great with our young players, and I know, because of his background as a player, he will connect well with our top, skilled players.”

    In Florida, Brunette coached a Panthers team that led the NHL with 337 goals and had the league’s fourth-best power-play unit.

    The Predators missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and the first under Hynes, who took over as coach during the 2019-20 season after Peter Laviolette was fired.

    Brunette, who is from Sudbury, Ontario, spent 16 seasons playing in the NHL, ending with a one-year stint with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011-12. He finished with 268 goals and 733 points in 1,110 career games split among six teams, including two separate stints in Minnesota. Brunette is one of 25 players selected in the seventh round or later to appear in more than 1,000 NHL games.

    Upon his retirement, Brunette spent seven seasons with the Wild in various off-ice roles, including assistant coach and assistant GM, before being hired by the Panthers as an assistant coach in 2019-2020.