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)

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.