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Six NHL teams that improved the most this summer (so far)

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The start of the NHL season is still a few months away and there is obviously time for a lot to change between now and then when it comes to roster movement.

Erik Karlsson is still likely to get traded.

Artemi Panarin and Max Pacioretty could get traded.

There are still probably a handful of bargain bin free agents floating around that are capable of making some sort of an impact. There are still ways for the 31 general managers to improve their rosters before the puck drops on the 2018-19 regular season.

So while it is probably still a little early to officially determine the winners and losers of the offseason, we can at least take a look at which teams have done the most to improve themselves so far.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — Uh, this one is pretty obvious, right? The Maple Leafs, already loaded with young impact talent at forward, added one of the best players in the league in John Tavares on the first day of free agency and that alone makes them better.

The Maple Leafs still have some work to do when it comes to solidifying their blue line, but you can’t fault them for adding Tavares. When you have a chance to add a player of that caliber (and it is rare that you do) you have to take advantage of that. Now they have a 1-2-3 center group of Auston Matthews, Tavares, and Nazem Kadri that is every bit as good as any other center trio in the league.

[Related: John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs]

2. Carolina Hurricanes — A lot here depends on whether or not they trade Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk and what they might end up getting for them in return. Overall, though, this has been a strong offseason for the Hurricanes. Still not sold on their goaltending situation and until that gets fixed that is probably always going to be the thing that holds them back, but can Petr Mrazek really be any worse than Cam Ward was? And, hey, Scott Darling really has nowhere to go but up after a dismal debut with the team. So there is that.

The real encouraging news comes from the fact they were fortunate enough to address probably their second biggest need (after goaltending) when they selected goal-scoring sniper Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick.

Then they went and traded for Dougie Hamilton (full trade here), a borderline elite defenseman, to strengthen their blue line.

Hamilton led all defenseman in goals last season, is a dominant possession player, is still only 25 years old, and is signed for three more seasons at $5.75 million per season, — a steal of a price given his production. Hamilton’s addition perhaps could give them some added flexibility to maybe trade Faulk for help elsewhere, or perhaps even better, simply keep him and continue to build what could be an outstanding defense around those two, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce.

Update: The Hurricanes continued to strengthen their defense on Tuesday by signing Calvin de Haan, formerly of the New York Islanders, to a four-year, $18 million contract in free agency.

3. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers seem like an intriguing possibility for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, given need, cap space, and perhaps even assets that could be traded. Will it actually happen? Well, probably not, but it sure is fun to think about. As far as actual moves the team has made, bringing back James van Riemsdyk was a strong addition in free agency as it gives the Flyers some much-needed secondary scoring punch.

Once you got below Tavares on the list of available free agents van Riemsdyk was probably the best pure offensive name available on the market and still at an age where a long-term contract (in this case five years) wasn’t a massive gamble.

He has scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons, a stretch where he has been one of the best goal-scorers (both at even-strength and in all situations) in the entire league.

[Related: Five logical landing spots for Erik Karlsson]

4. St. Louis Blues — The immediate reaction to the Blues’ acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres seemed to be one of shock because of the number of pieces going the other way. But that is just it. It was a quantity over quality package, and when you break down the assets that the Blues gave up how many of them were actually something that they might truly miss?

Prospect Tage Thompson and the first-round pick are obviously the key pieces. But what else are the Blues going to miss?

Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka turned into contracts that the Blues probably no longer wanted, and a second-round pick (probably one in the second half of that round) is nothing more than a lottery ticket with low odds of turning into anything impactful. At the end of the day the Blues still got what was by far the best player in the trade.

They also added Tyler Bozak and David Perron in free agency, two players that will probably end up outproducing what Berglund and Sobotka provided (or will provde). The Blues were 24th in the NHL in goals this past season and needed to do something to address that. They absolutely did address it.

[Related: Blues acquire Ryan O’Reilly from Sabres]

5. Arizona Coyotes — There is reason for optimism in Arizona. They kept their franchise player in Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a long-term contract, they have some outstanding young talent starting to emerge from their farm system, and after a miserable first half of the 2017-18 season they finished on a very strong note by going 17-10-2 over their final 29 games (that would be a 101-point pace over 82 games). How much that carries over to this upcoming season obviously remains to be seen, but for the second offseason in a row they made some big additions.

They landed a potential impact player in Alex Galchenyuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi, and then dipped into the free agent market by bringing in speedster Michael Grabner. Grabner has his flaws, but his speed can cause havoc during 5-on-5 play and the penalty kill while they have more than enough salary cap space to handle his three-year, $10 million contract. Those additions, combined with what will hopefully be a full year from Antti Raanta and perhaps the development of Dylan Strome could make Arizona a surprise team in the Western Conference. Especially in a Pacific Division that is completely wide open.

6. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings didn’t really do much to make themselves younger or faster, and there are some questions as to how much he has left in the tank given his age and the fact he spent the past five years playing in Russia, but Ilya Kovalchuk gives the Kings the type of offensive weapon they desperately needed this past season. I still don’t love the Kings’ long-term outlook, but Kovalchuk could be a pretty big addition and makes them better in the short-term even if he is not the 40-goal, point-per-game player he was during his prime years in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s NHL 2018 free agency tracker]

More NHL Free agency:
Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights
Kings add Kovalchuk on three-year contract
Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson, bring back Matt Cullen

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Goalie of the future: Avs reportedly sign Grubauer

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Heading into the off-season, the Colorado Avalanche’s future in net was a little blurry. Now it’s clear that Philipp Grubauer will be their go-to guy.

On Friday, the Avalanche sent the 47th pick to the Washington Capitals for Grubauer, also absoring Brooks Orpik‘s contract. Today, Colorado got the wheels turning on a buyout for Orpik, and reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with Grubauer.

Significant investment

The three-year pact will be worth about $10 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie. If that’s accurate, the 26-year-old would carry about a $3.33M cap hit from 2018-19 through 2020-21. Do note that the Avalanche haven’t made the signing official just yet.

So, let’s consider the cost, then:

  • Cap hit between Grubauer and Orpik in 2018-19: About $5.83M.
  • In 2019-20: About $4.83M.
  • 2020-21: Just Grubauer’s $3.3M.
  • Also, the 47th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, which ended up being Kody Clark, Wendel Clark’s son.

Not exactly cheap, but the Avalanche have a pretty clean slate, and Grubauer was the most coveted goalie believed to be available this summer.

As usual with goalies, there are risks

Aside from brief struggles during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Grubauer’s passed just about every test thrown in way. In accruing 101 total regular-season games of NHL experience, Grubauer generated a strong .923 save percentage, the same mark he produced over 35 games during the 2017-18 campaign.

It’s easy to play hindsight 20/20 and say that Braden Holtby was “the clear choice” for the Capitals the whole time, but the truth is that Grubauer deserved that nod considering his superior play. While Holtby regained the starting job in Washington during the Stanley Cup run, Grubauer’s steadying presence was important.

Much like other rising backups, there’s a risk factor to investing heavily in Grubauer, who’s never carried a big workload.

The scariest comparison is probably Scott Darling.

Like Grubauer, Darling amassed a small but impressive resume as a backup for a good team. In Darling’s case, the towering goalie had only played 75 regular-season games for Chicago, generating a (wait for it) .923 save percentage, playing in 32 games during his final campaign with the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes are already regretting the four-year deal they handed to Darling, which carries a $4.15M cap hit.

There are plenty of counterpoints. Darling is three years older than Grubauer, and rarely excelled at other levels. Grubauer, on the other hand, put together respectable numbers in the ECHL and AHL before becoming a sturdy backup for the Caps.

Colorado likely hopes that Grubauer works out as well (or better) than more successful backup-turned-starters such as Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

Interesting setup

Will the Avalanche roll with a platoon situation involving Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov, whose $5.9M cap hit is set to expire after 2018-19? That’s at least the public plan right now.

It wouldn’t be one bit surprising if the Avalanche tried to find a trade partner for Varlamov, an expensive performer who’s dealt with some injury issues and other concerns in recent years. (One can’t help but note that, amusingly, the Avalanche also sent quite a bit of future assets to Washington in hopes that Varlamov would fix their goalie issues. Life moves fast.)

A Grubauer – Varlamov duo would cost about $9.2M in cap space, while Varlamov’s salary ($5.75M) is only slightly cheaper than his $5.9M cap hit next season.

You would think that would be too rich for the Avs, but maybe Colorado would just eat the coast with the advantage being that Varlamov’s presence could help Grubauer ease into the No. 1 role?

***

With Varlamov seemingly on his way out sooner or later and valuable backup Jonathan Bernier headed out the door, the Avalanche are passing the torch to Grubauer.

We’ll see what happens regarding who the other goalie will be in Colorado, but either way, Grubauer gets his wish: to be the man. Will the Avalanche look back at this as a smart decision, or could this be another case where an understudy flops in a headlining role?

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.

Galchenyuk trade just one reason Coyotes are excited

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Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.

It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.

Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.

After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.

  • The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.

Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.

If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.

  • Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.

There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.

(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)

The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.

Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.

Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.

  • A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.

Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.

  • They can add more talent this summer.

On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.

Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?

Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.

  • Their young players could improve.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.

The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.

“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

  • Enviable flexibility

In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.

The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.

Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.

No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.

***

No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.

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.

Trade: Coyotes get Alex Galchenyuk, Canadiens gamble on Max Domi

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The Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes have been aggressive in making big trades over the last few years. On Friday night, they combined to make the first big swap of what could be a very busy summer.

Coyotes receive: Alex Galchenyuk

Canadiens receive: Max Domi

Wow. This is one of those hard-to-believe-your-eyes trades. Although, again, Habs GM Marc Bergevin is happy to entertain us with bold trades. Of course some would replace “entertain us” with “make us laugh.”

As of this writing, this seems like a big win for the Coyotes, who showed some impatience with their station in the West cellar last summer by anteing up for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. GM John Chayka didn’t allow a disappointing season to discourage him from adding more immediate talent.

On paper, Galchenyuk stands as the more intriguing talent, indeed.

He scored 19 goals and 51 points during what was mostly a lost season for Montreal. “Chucky” is already a proven scorer in the NHL, as he’s scored 30 goals once, 20 goals one other time, and generated 50+ points in two of his past three seasons.

Even so, Galchenyuk felt a lot like the next P.K. Subban: a talented player who was seemingly always on the verge of being out the door, even after signing a new contract. The 24-year-old will carry a manageable $4.9 million cap hit through the next two seasons in Arizona, and then he’ll be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

In the case of Domi, there are a lot of “What if?” facets.

For one thing, the 23-year-old needs a new contract as an RFA.

It will be intriguing to see what kind of deal he nets. Bergevin wasn’t shy about paying Jonathan Drouin before playing a single game with Montreal, as Drouin received a massive six-year, $33M contract shortly after the ill-fated (for now?) trade involving Mikhail Sergachev.

This trade could look brighter in retrospect if the Canadiens sign Domi to a cheap contract, especially if they guess right and also lock him up for term. There’s a dream scenario where this works out like a lower level version of signing Max Pacioretty to bargain deal.

Montreal’s side of the trade could also age nicely if Domi’s shooting luck turns around. Thanks to a decent finish, he saved his 2017-18 season in a relative way, scoring nine goals after heading into February with just three, but that’s still not exactly the goal total you’d seek when you’re trading away a promising player such as Galchenyuk.

The key for Domi will be to generate a renewed confidence. He only connected on six percent of his shots on goal this past season, and only fired 150, less than two per night. Domi’s only generated an 8.7 shooting percentage during his 222-game career.

Is that a sign of poor shooting talent, or is it mere bad luck? If the answer is closer to “bad luck,” then Montreal might just be clever like a fox with this trade.

One side note is that this also ends the often-aggravating discussion about Galchenyuk’s competence as a center. He’ll likely get that chance to prove himself down the middle, but either way, a change of scenery could be refreshing for both forwards. (Domi, meanwhile, has consistently been a winger.)

Let’s not forget that they’re both entering their primes at nearly the same ages (again, Domi is 23 and Galchenyuk is 24). A lot can change.

Still, as of this writing, you’d reasonably argue that Galchenyuk has already shown the production that Montreal will hope to see from Domi. Right now, this seems like a big win – a really big win, honestly – for the Coyotes, and another strikeout for a wildly swinging, rarely connecting GM in Bergevin.

Time will tell if that reaction is correct, or if Bergevin finally pulled off a trick. Unless maybe he has something else up his sleeves that will make this move seem a little smarter?

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.

Long-term extension would make sense for Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are in talks about a possible eight-year contract extension that would carry a cap hit of a bit more than $8 million per season, according to Craig Morgan of ArizonaSports.com.

Do note that, whether a deal is actually close to be agreed upon or the situation is fluid, an extension wouldn’t become official until July, when “OEL” is first eligible for such a contract. (He’ll enter the final year of his current deal in 2018-19).

So, things could fall apart between now and then.

Still, such an extension could make a lot of sense for both the Swedish defenseman and the fledgling Coyotes. Let’s dive in under the assumption that an eight-year deal would cost (slightly?) more than $64M, which is essentially the extension Brent Burns signed with the San Jose Sharks in November 2016.

Peace of mind (and maybe some control?) for OEL

Ekman-Larsson (26, turning 27 on July 17) is currently on a deal with a $5.5M cap hit and $7M salary heading into 2018-19. OEL’s contract lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause, so if negotiations fell through, he could find himself in a less-than-desirable situation as a “rental.”

By signing a deal in that Burns range, he’d carry one of the biggest cap hits of any NHL defenseman, at least as of this writing (trailing P.K. Subban, but slightly more than Burns, Shea Weber, and Aaron Ekblad). Of course, as of this writing is the key phrase, but we’ll get to that in the Coyotes’ section.

OEL opting to sign that contract brings plenty of benefits:

  • Not needing to answer a bunch of questions about his contract year.
  • Avoiding the risk of an injury derailing/lowering his prospects of getting a new deal. Eight years is the maximum term, so OEL would land the most security possible, covering the next nine years of his career.
  • Speaking of years, the Coyotes are the only team that could sign him for eight. This could be advantageous for Ekman-Larsson even if things actually turned sour with Arizona, especially if he …
  • Possibly gets a no-trade or no-movement clause, gaining more say in his future, even if he loses the ultimate freedom of exploring the free agent market.

Yes, there’s a lot to like from OEL’s standpoint. So, what about the Coyotes?

Getting ahead of the gold rush for defensemen

Now, it’s worth noting that some key moments for soon-to-be-richer defensemen could happen in late June by way of trades at or around the 2018 NHL Draft on June 22. For all we know, Erik Karlsson could be traded from Ottawa, possibly accelerating his own schedule to sign an extension.

Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson are far from the only prominent defensemen who will enter 2018-19 as contract years (assuming they don’t sign extensions themselves). Karlsson and Drew Doughty aren’t shy about possibly driving up their own prices, maybe together. Ryan McDonagh isn’t setting the world on fire with the Lightning, but the market could still send piles of money his way consider the demand for defensemen and the scant supply of capable ones. Ryan Ellis is another defenseman worth watching if he rides things out with Nashville next season.

From OEL’s perspective, he’d avoid the threat of a potential buyers’ market. The Coyotes, on the other hand, might look at the very real potential for Doughty and Karlsson to command deals at or above Jack Eichel‘s extension, thus making $8M a reasonable, risk-reducing price.

Question of worth

Now, it’s fair to wonder if OEL would actually be worth $8M per season. Ekman-Larsson’s mostly been a strong possession player on a bad team, and his 85 goals since 2013-14 ranks second among defensemen. Still, he’s only passed the 50-point plateau once (2015-16), so he hasn’t necessarily had that “huge” year one might demand from a player seeking that big payday. (None of this is to say that he isn’t very good; instead, it’s just a reminder that big cash inspires big-time nitpicking.)

It’s tough to imagine him not being worth it for the Coyotes, though, so the debate feels a bit moot. Perhaps they’d be on firmer ground to grind something out if they won the draft lottery, but the fifth pick likely means adding another nice piece rather than a revolutionary one as Rasmus Dahlin is hyped to possibly be.

The Coyotes showed that they wanted to make the next step by trading for Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and Niklas Hjalmarsson last summer. While the results weren’t quite what they hoped for in 2017-18, would they really want to take a step back by letting their best defenseman/player* go after next season?

Yes, with just about any big extension or contract, there are risks to consider, especially in a sport where a career-derailing injury could always be one hard collision away. It’s also plausible that Ekman-Larsson might buckle under the pressure of such a contract. Being labeled an “albatross” can really mess with an athlete’s head, even if they don’t get the reference.

All things considered, if the Coyotes and OEL agree to a deal along the lines of what Morgan reports, it would probably rank as an “everyone wins” situation.

Bonus points if Ekman-Larsson can actually, you know, help the Coyotes start winning.

* – Hey, for all we know, Clayton Keller could become “The Guy” in Arizona by next season.

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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.