Nichushkin, Palat, Lehkonen among players whose stock rose this postseason

NHL Free Agency
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There are few things that seem to have a bigger impact on an NHL player’s contract negotiation than a strong playoff showing.

It shows that players can perform in the clutch on the brightest stage, and when things get to be their toughest. It may not be the only factor in a contract, but it’s not meaningless, either. It gets noticed, and it often gets rewarded. It is also not just something that is important to unrestricted free agents. Restricted free agents can benefit as well.

So let’s take a look around the NHL at eight pending free agents (unrestricted and restricted) that helped their contract cases with big postseason showings.

Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche (UFA)

There is probably no player that did more for their contract case this postseason than Nichushkin. Ever since joining the Avalanche a couple of years ago he has been a strong, under-the-radar forward that can play great defense, drive possession, and chip in some nice complementary offense.

This year his game (and value) reached an entirely new level during the regular season and then had a rocket ship attached to it in the playoffs.

He was one of the Avalanche’s best players in all phases of the game, causing havoc on the forecheck, playing Selke Trophy caliber defense, and also adding an even stronger offensive/production aspect to his game than we have ever seen from him. He should be one of the most sought after free agents on the open market and get a massive contract. And he might be worth it.

It is a drastic change from three years ago when the Dallas Stars actually bought him out.

[Related: Even with free agency questions Avalanche are built to last]

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning (UFA)

Palat has been a key piece of the Lightning’s rise to the top of the NHL over the past eight seasons. He has never been a star, never been the most productive player on the team, and never the most impactful. But he has still been a vital cog and the type of complementary player that every championship caliber team needs.

He is going to be 31 years old this offseason and when his new contract begins, and that can be a danger zone for free agent contracts, but he showed this season and postseason that he can still be a top player on a contending team.

He averaged nearly a point per game in the playoffs (11 goals, 10 assists, 21 total points in 23 games) and scored some of Tampa Bay’s biggest goals on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning have a bit of a salary cap crunch and may not be able to retain him given what he could get on the open market. And this will be his last chance to get a significant contract on the open market. He should take it.

Artturi Lehkonen, Colorado Avalanche (RFA)

Reminder: Do not trade with the Avalanche. Or at least do so at your own risk.

The addition of Lehkonen was one of the best trades of the season and played a big role in helping the Avalanche become an unstoppable monster in the playoffs.

He is still an RFA this offseason, so Colorado still controls his free agency rights, but he earned himself a pretty significant contract. If offer sheets were more widely used a smart team would try to snag him and take advantage of Colorado’s need to re-sign several other key players.

The most likely scenario: Colorado re-signs him and he becomes their new version Nichushkin after Nichushkin moves on to a new team in free agency.

Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars (RFA)

The Stars opened the season with four NHL caliber goalies on their roster, and it was Oettinger who ended up being the last one standing by the team the playoffs rolled around.

And what a show he put on once he got there.

Oettinger was one of the top players in the First Round and nearly dragged the Stars past the Calgary Flames by himself.

He is still only 23 years old, was a first-round pick by the team, and even though his NHL resume consists of just 84 games (regular season and playoffs) he is off to a great start in his career. He is not going to consistently play the way he did in the playoffs this year, but he has started to show the Stars he can be their franchise goalie moving forward.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Top performances from 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]

Andrew Copp, New York Rangers (UFA)

Over the past two regular seasons Copp has scored at a 25-goal, 60-point pace over 82 games while playing really strong defense. He is a heckuva two-way player and was a huge addition for the Rangers at the trade deadline. He followed that up with an outstanding playoff run that saw him add six goals and eight assists in 20 games on their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Re-signing him might be a challenge for the Rangers given their salary cap situation and the fact they have a few other contracts to worry about, while also needing to improve.

[Related: Rangers took big step forward but more work needed]

Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (UFA)

There are more reasons to avoid signing Evander Kane than there are to sign him. But as the Oilers showed this season it only takes one team with an interest to make it happen, and Kane’s play in the playoffs (13 goals in 16 games) is going to be more than enough to get somebody (maybe Edmonton again) to look past everything else.

Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (UFA)

Kadri proved to be a perfect fit in Colorado over the past three years and followed up a career-best regular season performance with a big-time showing in the playoffs to help the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup.

The big issue with Kadri in recent years was the fact he always seemed to take himself out of playoff series’ with a suspension. That obviously did not happen this postseason, and he was outstanding with seven goals, eight assists, and 15 total points in 16 games. That includes a hat trick in the Second Round series against St. Louis and two-game winning goals, including an overtime game-winning goal in the Cup Final.

His all-around two-way play and top-line offense, combined with his playoff performance, will make him a top free agent on the market.

Frank Vatrano, New York Rangers (UFA)

This trade is still baffling to think about months later.

The Florida Panthers traded Vatrano to New York to create enough salary cap space to add players like Ben Chiarot, Robert Hagg, and Claude Giroux to their roster for their playoff run. While the Giroux addition was fine, the other two never made any sense at the time or after the fact.

And it cost them a really good goal scorer in Vatrano, a player they really could have used in the playoffs when their goal-scoring dried up.

The Rangers, meanwhile, got a really strong depth piece that scored some big goals and provided them with their own much-needed depth boost.

He is not a perfect player, but he averages about a 25-goal pace over 82 games and just had a strong playoff run for an Eastern Conference finalist. There is a a lot of value there.

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    NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

    For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

    “He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

    The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

    “I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    “That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

    The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

    Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

    Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

    “Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

    Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

    What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

    With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

    University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

    Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

    Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

    “You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

    What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

    Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

    In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

    He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

    Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

    Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

    “It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.