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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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. 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.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native 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.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

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

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.