NHL Free Agency: 5 potential landing spots for Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin free agency
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[UPDATE: Malkin has signed a four-year, $24.4 million extension to stay in Pittsburgh.]

The big news on Monday was the report that Evgeni Malkin, unable to work out a new deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, intends to head to unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career on Wednesday.

While the possibility was always there, it still seems like a stunning development given his career in Pittsburgh and how it always seemed like a given that he and Sidney Crosby were going to play their entire careers with the Penguins.

Over the past few weeks the sticking point was reportedly over contract term in the offers. But Brian Burke told the Tribune-Review’s Seth Rorabaugh that reports the Penguins did not offer a fourth year were incorrect.

Either way, the specifics are irrelevant at this point and the only thing that matters is Malkin seems intent on going to free agency and the possibility of him playing for another team is very, very real.

The question now becomes where could he actually go?

Even entering his age 36 season he is still an impact player and will be one of the best players available on the open market.

[Related: Malkin will reportedly test unrestricted free agency]

But there are some concerns.

Injuries have limited him greatly the past few years, including significant knee ailments.

There is also concern about his 5-on-5 play declining. The thing is, even as recently as the 2021-22 season he was scoring goals and generating chances at the same rate he has throughout his career. He averaged 1.08 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this past season, which was still the fifth-highest mark of his career.

What dramatically declined this year was his assist rate, going all the way down to 0.86 assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Is that a sign of Malkin’s decline? Or is it the reality of spending most of his 5-on-5 time playing next to Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen?

So now that Malkin going elsewhere seems like a real possibility, what are some of the potential options? Let’s take a look at five of them.

New York Rangers

Available salary cap space: $10.2 million

Why they make sense: The Rangers are set to lose both Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp in free agency, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of their second line. They are in a win-now mode after a run to the Eastern Conference Final and Malkin would be a massive offensive upgrade in the middle of their lineup.

Why it would not work: They have the salary cap space to sign Malkin right now, but a No. 2 center is not their only need. They only have 16 players currently under contract and still have to address the depth and defensive issues that plagued them for so much of last season. Unless Malkin took a dramatically reduced rate they would need to clear out a contract to sign him and still make necessary improvements to the roster. That is easier said than done. They should trade Jacob Trouba yesterday but his contract and trade restrictions make that nearly impossible.

Washington Capitals

Available salary cap space: $8.9 million

Why they make sense: They are still a pretty good team and nobody knows when, or if, Nicklas Backstrom will play again. The obvious way of making this work is putting Backstrom on long-term injured reserve and simply sliding Malkin into that spot on the roster.

Why it would not work: A lot of this rests on the possibility of Backstrom not playing, and while that seems possible, if not likely, it is not a given. The Capitals also have some pretty significant holes to address with goaltending being the biggest, seeing as how they do not currently have any goalies on the roster. They also already have a roster full of players in their 30s with injury concerns. Do they want another one added to that mix?

[NHL free agency tracker 2022: Full list of offseason signings]

Dallas Stars

Available salary cap space: $17.8 million

Why they make sense: This …. this actually makes a lot of sense. The Stars are a good team, but are absolutely desperate for more offense. They have plenty of cap space (with a catch) and are not afraid to sign older players to significant contracts. Their top line is set with Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz, while signing Malkin could potentially allow him to center a second line that kicks Seguin out to a wing spot.

Why it would not work: Remember all of that salary cap space? They still need to re-sign Robertson and starting goalie Jake Oettinger, who are both restricted free agents. That could be a problem. Actually, that would be the problem. Maybe the only problem.

Colorado Avalanche

Available salary cap space: $14.9 million

Why they make sense: Nazem Kadri is set to leave and is going to leave a big hole on their second line. Imagine adding Malkin to the defending Stanley Cup champions who already have a scary offense. It would be comical. They also have the salary cap space to maybe pull this off. How is a team this good still so far under the cap?

Why it would not work:  They still need to sign six players to fill out their roster, including restricted free agent Artturi Lehkonen. But that still does not seem like much of a roadblock if they wanted to go this route.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Available salary cap space: $10.3 million

Why they make sense:  Of course. There is still a possibility here. They are clearly not ready to turn the page on the Crosby era and are throwing out long-term contracts to everybody in an effort to maximize the next few years as best they can. Forget the history Malkin and the team have or sentimentality, he is still their best option given their current win-now approach. Somebody like Vincent Trocheck is not going to walk in there and make them a better team. Not in the short term. Not in the long term.

Why it would not work: If this was going to happen you have to think it would have happened by now, right? It still could. It absolutely still could. But the closer this gets to the start of the free agent signing period on Wednesday the less likely it all seems.

(Salary cap information per Cap Friendly)

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.