Adam McQuaid

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Blue Jackets look to reassemble pieces after free agent losses

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets watched three of their best players leave for other teams on the opening day of free agency and did relatively little to fill the holes.

When the dust settled after Monday’s comings and goings, many questions remained about whether general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will be able reassemble enough pieces for Columbus to make a run at the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

The success of the team in 2019-20 will depend on a player or combination of players filling the offensive void left by departed forward Artemi Panarin. And it will require last year’s backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo – or someone else – to be nearly as good as two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

Panarin, who was considered a long shot to re-sign with Columbus after two seasons, inked a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $81.5 million. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers after seven years in Columbus, and center Matt Duchene, picked up at the February trade deadline, moved on to Nashville.

Forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all acquired at the deadline and now unrestricted free agents – are not likely to stay with Columbus, which also lost its top executive, John Davidson, to the Rangers’ front office.

The Blue Jackets did pick up free-agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks. The Swedish winger was dealt by the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline and helped the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 22 goals and 38 assists last season.

Kekalainen has said he wants only players who are happy to play in Columbus. Nyquist said that includes him.

”I think it’s a team that has some really good pieces, some young pieces and also some great veteran leaders, and a team that’s really heading in the right direction,” Nyquist said. ”You saw that in last year’s playoffs. Those were things that really excited me.”

Nyquist said the departure of some of the stars doesn’t concern him.

”I’m sure the media will talk about that,” he said. ”But I think we want to prove that there is going to be opportunity for other guys who are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes, and I’m sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they’ve done here for the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a really good team.”

Kekalainen had declined to deal Panarin and Bobrovsky at the February trade deadline, even though he knew there was scant chance of re-signing either. Instead, he added Duchene, Dzingel and others for an ”all in” playoff run.

That paid off when Columbus won its first postseason series in franchise history, stunning the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning with a four-game sweep. The Blue Jackets then lost to Boston in six games in the second round.

Kekalainen said he knew some of those players might leave, but ”then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

That increases the reliance on scoring forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson. It also puts pressure on underachieving center Alexander Wennberg to play up to his potential.

Talented defenseman Ryan Murray and Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky’s backup last season, signed new contracts Monday. Bobrovsky leaves huge skates to fill for Korpisalo, who will compete with flashy rookie Elvis Merzlikins for the starting job in the net.

Trouba trade highlights Rangers’ brilliant rebuild

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While it’s important to understand the context for why the Jets made the trade, the bottom line is that the Jacob Trouba trade is a slam dunk for the New York Rangers. Scratch that, we need a more pronounced sports metaphor: it was a grand slam.

It also says a lot about the Rangers’ rebuild process that, while the Trouba trade might be management’s best move yet, there are plenty of other fantastic moves to choose from.

Brassard bonanza

If you want a starting point that includes an exclamation point, begin with the monstrously one-sided Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard trade. The trade seems to get more lopsided with every Zibanejad goal, and after every time Brassard sadly packs his bag after being traded once again. It’s almost cruel that the Rangers received a second-rounder while Ottawa only nabbed a seventh-rounder as part of that deal.

(Really, that trade isn’t that far off from the Rangers’ buddies in New Jersey stealing Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson.)

If you start with the Zibanejad heist and end with trading for Trouba plus the near-certain selection of high-end prospect Kaapo Kakko, you’d see that the Rangers are writing the blueprint for how to run an NHL rebuild. Sure, there’s been luck here and there – particularly in getting 2019’s second pick – but the Rangers have done more to make their own luck than any other rebuilding team.

Turning Pionk and the 20th pick into Trouba

Neal Pionk‘s presence in the Trouba trade stands as one of the testaments to the Rangers’ full rebuild approach.

Where the occasionally rebuild-resistant Red Wings gave opportunities to aging veterans like Mike Green and Thomas Vanek (Vanek had a no-trade clause this past season!), the Rangers pulled a perfect “pump-and-dump” with Pionk. There’s some evidence that Pionk was a fairly substantial part of the package for the Jets, so the Rangers deserve some credit for driving up Pionk’s value. Depending upon whom you ask, the Rangers might have profited from the Jets overlooking dismal underlying numbers for Pionk.

Whatever Winnipeg’s actual opinion of Pionk might be, the bottom line is that Trouba is an enormous addition for the Rangers. You can get into a debate about how good or great Trouba really is, but the bottom line is that he’s immediately the Rangers’ best blueliner, and almost certainly by a wide margin.

(As great as the Pionk pump-and-dump turned out, the Rangers’ paltry defense opened up that scenario by … you know, being really bad.)

Putting on a hard hat for this rebuild

Yes, the Rangers have lucked out here and there (a huge lottery jump to the upcoming No. 2 pick, the Jets being in a bind so they needed to trade Trouba, the hilarity of the Zibanejad heist), but they’ve also made their own luck by making tough decisions.

Lesser teams would have kept all or some of Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta, possibly losing them for nothing via free agency anyway. Instead, the Rangers made those often-painful choices, and are healing faster after pulling off those Band-Aids.

Thanks to that hard work, they’ve added a nice war chest of picks, prospects, players, and assets.

  • Again, Trouba is a top-pairing defenseman, if not a star, and is thus a huge addition.
  • Adam Fox is a hyped defensive prospect in his own right, costing the Rangers a couple draft picks.
  • We’ll see how Lias Andersson develops, but the Rangers wouldn’t have received the seventh pick of the 2017 NHL Draft if they didn’t trade Stepan and Raanta.
  • Maybe the Rangers didn’t get a perfect deal for McDonagh and J.T. Miller, but it was another example of New York loading up on volume in picks and prospects. For example: if K’Andre Miller (22nd overall in 2018) becomes a gem, note that the Rangers used some of their quantity of draft picks to move up a bit and snag him.
  • A Stars’ Game 7 win against the Blues in Round 2 would have turned a 2019 second-rounder into a 2019 first-rounder for New York, but the bottom line is that the Rangers got a nice deal for Zuccarello. Also, if Zuccarello re-signs with the Stars, the Rangers get a first-rounder in 2020, instead of a third-rounder. You simply need to make that call with a 31-year-old winger, even one as beloved as Zuccarello.
  • The 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft went from the Jets to the Rangers in the Kevin Hayes deal, and that the Rangers sent it back to Winnipeg in the Trouba trade. So, if the Rangers didn’t trade Hayes, they might not have landed Trouba. Again: load up on picks and assets, and load up on scenarios where you can get better. The Rangers have been masterful at this.
  • If there was hand-wringing over giving up assets for Adam Fox, the Rangers soothed some of them by landing some lesser picks for Adam McQuaid.

Phew, that’s a lot of stuff, and this is the abridged version of that trade book; you can see a fuller list via Cap Friendly’s handy trade history page.

Mix those above moves with some interesting picks like Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov, and the Rangers are making leaps, rather than baby steps, toward being competitive once again.

Kaapo Kakko ranks as the biggest pending prospect addition, yet he could have some nice help thanks to the Rangers’ other moves.

More work to do

Speaking of other moves, the Rangers’ work isn’t done yet.

The most intriguing situation would come down to switching gears if Artemi Panarin really is interested in hitting Broadway.

The Trouba trade, not to mention the influx of talent headlined by Kakko, could make the Rangers a more appealing destination for Panarin. That’s especially true if the Rangers have even more tricks up their sleeves as Cap Friendly projects their cap space at about $19M (though a Trouba contract and Panarin pact would make that dry up fast).

The Rangers don’t have to rush things if they don’t want to, or if Panarin looks elsewhere, though.

For one thing, Mika Zibanejad rules, is just 26, and is a bargain for some time ($5.3M cap hit through 2021-22). A potential trio of DJ Z-Bad, The Bread Man, and (whatever nickname we give) Kakko could be one heck of a start.

Especially since the Rangers boast other interesting forwards at or near their primes.

Chris Kreider (28, $4.625M), Vladislav Namestnikov (26, $4M), and Jimmy Vesey (26, $2.275M) all enter contract years in 2018-19. The Rangers could trade one or more of those three forwards, either before the season or even at the trade deadline, or keep them around if they’re primed for immediate competition. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Sabres have already contacted the Rangers about Vesey, so for all we know, more significant moves could come soon.

(If you ask me, Kreider is the standout of those three, although that might make him even more appealing to trade.)

Money clearing up

The Rangers’ salary structure should look a lot cleaner after 2020-21, too.

Consider three expensive, aging veterans who are all coming off the books after two more seasons: Henrik Lundqvist (37, $8.5M per season), Kevin Shattenkirk (30, $6.65M), and Marc Staal (32, $5.75M).

For some, the Rangers’ rebuild is held back by Lundqvist, as there’s an objective argument that it would be wiser to part ways with the future Hall of Famer. That makes sense in a vacuum, but context matters: trading Lundqvist would be a very difficult thing to spin PR-wise, particularly since the Rangers are already asking fans to be patient. Maybe trading away “King Henrik” would be too extreme for fans paying big bucks at MSG.

It’s probably healthier to look at that situation with a more optimistic outlook.

There’s a scenario where the Rangers do indeed make a quantum leap from rebuilder to contender, giving Lundqvist one or two more chances to chase that coveted first Stanley Cup.

On the other hand, maybe the Rangers strategically stink, and Lundqvist either: a) plays out his contract, thus eventually opening up a ton of space in two years or b) gets antsy and asks for a trade to a contender, likely easing angst from fans if the Rangers did make a trade. Maybe Rangers fans could cheer on Lundqvist somewhere else, as some Bruins fans did when Ray Bourque lifted a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche?

All things considered, it could be worse, right?

You can apply similar logic to Shattenkirk and Staal.

In Shattenkirk’s case, I wouldn’t be shocked if the American-born defenseman rebounded at least to some extent. In 2017-18, he was hampered by a knee injury that eventually prompted surgery. Last season, it was probably tough for any Rangers defenseman to look respectable. (Hey, Shattenkirk’s relative stats are OK.)

It’s not outrageous to picture Shattenkirk’s perception rise if Trouba helps his fellow right-handed defenseman slide into a sheltered, and less prominent role. If that happened, the Rangers could either get more out of Shattenkirk from improved play, or maybe even trading him. This is a league where teams are desperate for defense, so you never know.

Marc Staal seems like more of a lost cause, at least if you look at deeper numbers, yet as we’ve seen frequently in the NHL, plenty of teams either don’t care about analytics, or will value narratives about “sturdy veterans” more than any graphs or stats.

Those teams are more liable to pursue Staal now that his term is down to two years remaining, and the Rangers could also offer to retain salary to make something happen.

Now, it’s possible that none of Lundqvist, Shattenkirk, or Staal would get traded. There may be no takers, and all three have clauses of some kind to make deals more difficult to strike.

But even if they play things out, and so at a disappointing level, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that light isn’t even very far away.

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After heaping all of this praise on the Rangers, it’s important to reiterate that there’s plenty of work to do, and plenty of ways where things could still go wrong. Maybe the Rangers make Bobby Holik-type free agent mistakes again once they start spending money, or maybe management gets impatient with losing and pulls the plug on the rebuild before the foundation settles?

Overall, though, you can’t ask for much better work than what we’ve seen from the Rangers, especially in the NHL, where teams aren’t always as bold as they should be when it comes to making trades and getting creative.

This could very well be the peak of the rebuild as far as a single week of moves goes, but this isn’t an isolated incident. The Rangers have done a brilliant job of building a brighter future after being in a pretty dark situation not that long ago.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ ‘Fist Bump Kid’ continues raising awareness, money for charity

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Nearly five years after some fist bumps turned him into a viral sensation, and six years after beating leukemia, Liam Fitzgerald and his family have continued to use that moment to help raise money and awareness for good causes.

It was in Nov. 2014 when Liam was spotted on the TD Garden Jumbotron and was then invited to be on the Boston Bruins’ bench for warmups. As each player skated off the ice, eight-year-old Liam handed out fist bumps on their way to the dressing room. The video went viral and Fitzgerald was soon everywhere. 

The Boston sports teams embraced Liam and welcomed him to their stadiums for once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like giving New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a fist bump. There was an ESPN E:60 profile and he was even given his own hockey card from Upper Deck.

These days Liam is a 13-year-old teenager who stays busy with football, basketball and swimming, but hockey remains No. 1 in his heart. He says he wants to be a broadcaster when he gets older, or work in sports in some capacity, and that his favorite play-by-play announcer is NBC’s own ‘Doc’ Emrick.

Patrice Bergeron is Liam’s favorite Bruin and the Fitzgeralds were there in February for his 1,000th NHL game celebration. That favorite player title was previously held by Adam McQuaid. For Halloween in 2013, Liam dressed as the defenseman, and the two met a few months later after a game before he became a viral sensation.

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Liam is still every bit the celebrity these days whenever he’s at a Bruins game, or even out to dinner with his family.

“He’s pretty much still recognizable in the hockey world, even walking through the North End where it’s a real hockey community,” said Liam’s mom, Christine. “We’ve been in there for dinner and people have stopped him.”

The beneficiaries of Liam’s viral fame were a number of charities and causes. In 2015 he was named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s “Man of the Year” after raising over $152,000 in just 10 weeks. The Fitzgeralds have also raised money for UMass Memorial Medical Center, where Liam was treated after being diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. Then there’s Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and Cradles to Crayons, which saw Liam give up receiving gifts for his birthday and run a drive that collected 642 pairs of pajamas and $1,065 for children in need.

“It feels good,” said Liam about helping other kids. “I like donating some stuff to other children when they need it.”

The family has certainly been keeping busy.

“Busy in a good way,” said Christine. “I can’t say enough about giving back. That’s one thing if you look at the Bruins and the hockey community they’re both great on and off the ice. They do so much in the community and so much for so many it makes you want to be a better person and do the same thing.”

While life can be hectic, these experiences have allowed the Fitzgeralds to help plenty of people in need and allow sports to assist Liam as he battled through adversity at such a young age,.

“[T]he good thing about it is it’s taken some things in our lives that have been challenging and given us and the Bruins and others a platform to increase awareness for Down syndrome and learning disabilities, as well childhood cancer, which is huge,” said Christine. “Also, I think it’s incredibly important to think about the role sports plays in the lives of people and that [Liam’s] story teaches a lot of that — that he may not ever be able to be a hockey player because he can’t really skate well, but boy, can he participate in sports and boy, has hockey had a huge impact on him growing up. 

“The hockey community, there’s just nothing like it.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

John Davidson resigns from Blue Jackets, joins Rangers as president

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A busy off-season for the Columbus Blue Jackets is under way with the news that John Davidson, the team’s President of Hockey Operations and Alternate Governor since 2012, has resigned and will be taking up the role of president with the New York Rangers.

Davidson replaces Glen Sather, who stepped down from the position in April.

In a statement released on Friday, Blue Jackets’ president Mike Priest confirmed that the team granted the Rangers permission to speak with Davidson about the job. Davidson still had four years left on his contract with the Blue Jackets, but rumblings of his departure for New York surfaced this spring and only seemed to grow once their postseason run ended.

It’s expected that Davidson will be introduced by the Rangers on Wednesday.

“Today is the start of a new and exciting chapter in New York Rangers history,” said Rangers owner James Dolan in a statement. “John Davidson is one of the premier executives in the National Hockey League. As we continue to build a team that can consistently compete for the Stanley Cup, John’s knowledge of the game and his experience and passion for the Rangers logo make him the ideal choice to oversee our Hockey Operations department. I am thrilled to welcome ‘JD’ and his family home.”

Davidson played parts of eight seasons with the Rangers and was one half of their television broadcast team for two decades before he moved into management as the President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues from 2006-2012.

According to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, there will be no replacement for Davidson within the Blue Jackets’ organization. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will now lead the hockey operations department and assume the alternate governor role.

Davidson’s exit could be the first of many this off-season for the Blue Jackets. Unrestricted free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are looking like they’ll be leaving, while the futures of fellow UFAs Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid are also cloudy. Back inside the management offices, assistant GM Bill Zito has interviewed for open GM positions around the league, including the expansion NHL Seattle franchise.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.