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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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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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.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”