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Pressure ratchets up on already cap-strapped teams

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News of a lower-than-expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season would have put a damper on the 2019 NHL Draft over the weekend for some NHL outfits.

The number, $81.5 million, came down shortly after the conclusion of the final round of Saturday’s seventh round and was $1.5 million shy of what was expected to be around $83 million since December.

For some, they leave Vancouver unperturbed by the news. Not every team is experiencing a cap crunch this season. But for others, the flight home may have been slightly sweatier, and not because of any in-flight turbulence, but rather the increased instability on the balance sheet heading into next season.

Let’s take a look at a few teams who are feeling the squeeze the most with the news.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs 

For a team that still has a player hoping to make $11 million at least, it’s not ideal that even with the trade of Patrick Marleau, there’s only $13.5 million to play with and roughly $7 million of that expected to go to Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as soon as Sunday. Toronto’s price to shed Marleau came in a future first-round pick, which came along with Marleau to Carolina. That means Kyle Dubas needs to trim even more fat off his roster to make way to accommodate Marner’s Auston Matthews-like cap hit.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

As of Sunday, the Golden Knights have $0 in cap space. In fact, they’re over the limit. And they still have William Karlsson, a restricted free agent, to pay, and perhaps Brendan Pirri, and unrestricted free agent, too. Someone’s got to go.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

The sell-off began on Saturday when J.T. Miller and his $5.25 million contract was shipped to Vancouver. The Lightning must make room for Brayden Point, who is going to command a pretty penny. With Miller’s departure, they have just over $10 million to spend, with most, if not all, going to Point. And it gets worse for Tampa next season when Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s time as a very underpaid Vezina winner comes to an end.

4. Winnipeg Jets

Perhaps the best example of building through the draft and then having to consider parting ways with players they’ve pumped all sorts of development into, the Jets have been forced into making decisions such as trading Nikolaj Ehlers (along with trading Jacob Trouba, although in a much different scenario).

The Jets have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor this offseason, two deals that could combine for $18 million or somewhere in that region. Winnipeg has $23 million to throw around at the moment, but Laine and Connor are just two players on a roster that only has 14 signed so far for next season. Like it has in the past, the Jets will employ the services of players they’ve developed after drafting them.

* * *

It’s hard not to sympathize with teams who draft well, develop better and then have to sell off those players or others as a punishment for doing a good job as an organization.

But the realities of a capless world means teams with owners that have the deepest pockets would most likely reign supreme.

Perhaps there’s a compromise? What about teams not having to count players they draft and develop against the cap? Or perhaps only a portion of their salary, so they don’t have to sell off those players down the road because they’re forced to be cap compliant?

For now, every team dealing in the upper limits is forced to adapt.

We saw that on Saturday with the trade of P.K. Subban out of Nashville to the New Jersey Devils. We saw it with the aforementioned Lightning and Miller. And we will see more of it in the days and weeks to come with other teams plastered to the ceiling.

“I know we’ve taken a good player off our team so I can’t sit here and say we’re a better team for doing that,” Preds GM David Poile told the media in Vancouver on Saturday.

“We had to make a business decision. With an aim at strengthening our forward corps this offseason, and the continued strength of our defensive group, we felt it was necessary to clear up salary cap space this way.”

Parity in the NHL comes at a cost, but one has to wonder if that cost won’t become a point of contention somewhere down the line.

Being penalized for drafting well or pulling off a shrewd move or two shouldn’t sit well for teams in an uber-competitive league, where every advantage is needed to get ahead.

At the moment, it’s a feeding frenzy for bottom-feeding teams who can absorb large contracts and get immediately better — see: New Jersey. The Devils could go from a terrible team in 2018-19 to a playoff contender with Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban. Meanwhile, a team like the Predators — a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — perhaps ceases to be that caliber of a team, at least for now.

Nobody said life was fair.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
• Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
• 
Round 1 draft tracker
• Rounds 2-7 draft tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

PHT Morning Skate: Rask an early Conn Smythe favorite; Should all goals be reviewable?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 16

• Following the Blues’ loss in Game 3 after a missed hand pass call, Benjamin Hochman argues that all goals and the plays leading up to them should be reviewable. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The reaction from the Sharks and Blues to the call was naturally different. Joe Thornton took issue with an earlier decision not to call a delay of game penalty on David Perron in the second period. (CSN Bay Area)

Tuukka Rask is looking like a Conn Smythe favorite:

• Derek Boogaard’s mother is fighting to keep the memory of her son alive. Derek passed away eight years ago due to accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. (The Hockey News)

• Charles Glenn, 64, has been singing the national anthems at St. Louis Blues’ games for 19 years, including nearly eight years since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s been getting increasingly difficult and he decided back in January that this would be his last season, but thanks to the Blues’ turnaround and postseason success, he’s got to extend his final run for longer than anticipated. (ESPN)

Brad Marchand seems to have succeeded in getting in Justin Williams‘ head. (CSN Boston)

• The Bruins’ fourth line played a major role in their Game 3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. (WEEI)

• After winning the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery, would it make sense for the Rangers to prioritize pursuing Erik Karlsson over Artemi Panarin, should both of them end up as unrestricted free agents? (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Sharks are partnering with local tattoo shops to offer free Sharks tattoos during each Western Conference road game. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Although his playing days are long over, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is still dedicated to his own personal fitness to the point that Sebastian Aho thinks their bench boss can “outlift everyone in the whole league.” (USA Today)

• There are connecting threads between the underdog stories of the St. Louis Blues and Carolina Hurricanes. (Sports Illustrated)

• Islanders assistant Lane Lambert could end up as a head coach for the 2019-20 campaign. At a minimum, the Anaheim Ducks have offered him an interview. (Anaheim Calling)

• A look at 10 potential buyout candidates. (Sportsnet)

Andreas Johnsson isn’t one of the Maple Leafs’ bigger names, but he played a valuable role for the squad in 2018-19. (EP Rinkside)

• It seemed like Ralph Krueger might be done with the NHL in a coaching capacity, but talking with Sabres GM Jason Botterill and the talent on Buffalo’s roster convinced him to become their new head coach. (Buffalo News)

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Kucherov making plenty of points for NHL’s MVP consideration

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Connor McDavid knows better than to risk making end-of-season NHL award projections.

Through no fault of his own, the Edmonton Oilers captain was not included among last year’s three MVP candidates, causing a stir back home. So McDavid understandably deferred when recently asked to list his Hart Trophy front-runners this year.

”After last year, I’m not commenting,” McDavid said, chuckling. ”I have no idea who will win it at all.”

McDavid, who won the Hart in 2017 after leading the Oilers to their first playoff berth in 11 years, isn’t likely to be included among this year’s finalists even though he entered the final week of the season second in the league with 115 points. Trouble is, the Oilers have already been eliminated from playoff contention, and McDavid and everyone else are being overshadowed by the numbers Nikita Kucherov is putting up with the President’s Trophy-clinching Tampa Bay Lightning.

With 125 points through 80 games, Kucherov has already matched Joe Thornton‘s league-leading total in 2005-06. The highest total after that is Jaromir Jagr’s 127 points in 1998-99, and the last player to top 130 points was Mario Lemieux, who had 161 in 1995-96.

”It’s not at all surprising. He was unbelievable last year, and seemed to get no recognition for it,” McDavid said, noting how Kucherov finished third in the NHL with 100 points last season. ”They’re a team that scores a lot of goals. And he’s in on most of them. It’s pretty impressive.”

Kucherov is tied for the Lightning lead with seven game-winning goals and part of a team that became only the NHL’s third to win 60 or more games. Kucherov has also led the points race since Dec. 28, and gone no more than two games without registering a point this season.

That’s not to say there aren’t others worthy of mention.

Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, with a career-best 97 points already, has played a key role in helping the Flames clinch their first division title in 13 years.

Though Sidney Crosby‘s production has tailed off with just three assists in Pittsburgh’s past nine games, the Penguins could have been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006 if not for their captain’s team-leading 95 points. Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who enjoyed a 20-game point streak, would deserve consideration if not for the Blackhawks sitting last in the Central Division.

Former NHL executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said it’s difficult to consider anyone ahead of Kucherov, suggesting he has essentially ”lapped the field.”

”You’d have to be statistically such an aberration, such a unicorn, that voters would have no choice but to say, ‘OK, that’s the guy,”’ Burke said.

”But that’s not the case where you’ve got Kucherov. So there’s no unicorns,” Burke added. ”You’ve already got a guy who’s blowing everyone away.”

That said, here is The Associated Press list of end-of-season award contenders:

HART (MVP)

In the conversation: Crosby, Gaudreau, Kucherov and Brad Marchand (Boston).

Who should win: Kucherov.

Comment: To quote Burke: ”There’s no unicorns.”

NORRIS (Top defenseman)

In the conversation: Brent Burns (San Jose), John Carlson (Washington), Mark Giordano (Calgary), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Giordano.

Comment: A career-best season for a captain on the Pacific Division’s top team.

VEZINA (Top goalie)

In the conversation: Ben Bishop (Dallas), Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), Carey Price (Montreal) Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Vasilevskiy.

Comment: Tightest race to call and could include Islanders’ tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, though each eliminate each other by splitting starts.

SELKE (Top defensive forward)

In the conversation: Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Patrice Bergeron (Boston), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia), Mark Stone (Vegas), Ryan O'Reilly (St. Louis).

Who should win: Stone.

Comment: Before being traded to Vegas, Stone had an exceptional plus-13 rating on a Senators team that has currently allowed an NHL-worst 285 goals.

CALDER (Top rookie)

In the conversation: Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo), Andreas Johnsson (Toronto), Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa).

Who should win: Pettersson.

Comment: Pettersson leads rookie forwards in averaging 18:20 of ice time per game.

JACK ADAMS (Top coach)

In the conversation: Craig Berube (St. Louis), Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay), Bill Peters (Calgary), Barry Trotz (Islanders).

Who should win: Cooper.

Comment: Though Berube and Trotz deserve consideration, it is difficult to overlook the job Cooper’s done with a 60-win team.

THEY SAID IT

Blue Jackets John Tortorella wasn’t initially in the mood to divulge what was discussed during a team meeting after a 4-1 loss at Edmonton on March 21 that extended Columbus’ skid to 0-2-1.

”That’s none of your business,” he responded. Pressed further, given how Columbus rebounded to win its next five, Tortorella said: ”We (stunk) against Edmonton. I mean it was pitiful against Edmonton, so we tried to clean some things up.”

Blackhawks survive late Leafs assault to win fourth straight

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Score five straight goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and hold on for dear life.

It’s a plan that the Chicago Blackhawks executed to perfection (planned or otherwise) on Wednesday night in a ___ win against their Original Six foes. And my goodness did they ever have to hold on.

Chicago came out with the determination of a team needing two points to keep their playoff dreams going. They scored four times in the first period — chasing Frederik Andersen after he allowed four on 14 shots — and added a fifth later in the second period, appearing to seal it with less than half a game to go.

The Leafs have been struggling since beating the Calgary Flames 6-2. And it’s unraveled now, after getting made to look like the JV squad against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then decimated once again against the Blackhawks.

A 5-0 deficit seemed like the next chapter in their recent story, but Andreas Johnsson‘s goal with 1:33 left in the second period seemed to give the Leafs some life.

The Leafs owned the third period, with Chicago looking content to sit back and wait for the final buzzer. It didn’t help Chicago’s cause that Corey Crawford, who was solid through the first two periods, didn’t emerge for the third after falling ill with the flu. Collin Delia had to come in cold and the game became very interesting.

Auston Matthews and Co. went to work in the third. Matthews grabbed his 32nd of the season at 7:57 of the period followed by Morgan Rielly‘s 19th three minutes later to make it 5-3. With the net empty and 1:31 to go, John Tavares clawed the Leafs back to 5-4, banging in a shot from a bad angle past Delia to set a new career high with his 39th.

Toronto fired 30 pucks on goal in final frame, with Delia getting a game’s worth of shots sent his way in a 20-minute span of complete chaos.

The final 90 seconds, particularly, were epic and well worth the watch.

When the dust settled after the final whistle, the Blackhawks moved four points back of the idle Arizona Coyotes for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. ‘

The odds aren’t great, but all Chicago can do is keep winning and let the chips fall where they may.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck