Ben Chiarot

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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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The NHL’s off-season is under way and with free agency beginning July 1 there will be plenty of action this summer. Check back here for all of the trades and signings that teams will be making in hopes of improving their chances at winning the 2019-20 Stanley Cup.

July 20
• Carolina Hurricanes and Brock McGinn avoid arbitration, agree to a two-year, $4.2 million deal.

July 19
• Colorado Avalanche sign Bowen Byram to a three-year, $2.775 million entry level deal.

• Edmonton Oilers trade Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames for James Neal. (Link)

• Montreal Canadiens sign Charles Hudon to a one-year, $800,000 deal.

• New York Rangers sign Jacob Trouba to a seven-year, $56 million deal. (Link)

July 17
• Colorado Avalanche sign J.T. Compher to a four-year, $14 million deal. (Link)

• Detroit Red Wings sign Joe Hicketts to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• New York Rangers sign Phil Di Giuseppe to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Philadelphia Flyers sign Chris Stewart to a training camp PTO.

July 16
• Carolina Hurricanes sign Haydn Fleury to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Chicago Blackhawks trade Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers sign Josh Archibald to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Cal Petersen to a three-year, $2.575 million deal.

• Minnesota Wild sign Ryan Donato to a two-year, $3.8 million deal. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils sign Connor Carrick to a two-year, $3 million deal.

• Pittsburgh Penguins sign Teddy Blueger to a two-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Jake Bischoff to a three-year, $2.15 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Jakub Vrana a two-year, $6.7 million deal. (Link)

July 15
• Anaheim Ducks sign Chris Wideman to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Dylan Cozens to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $5.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Clark Bishop to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes’ Gustav Forsling accepts qualifying offer of $874,125 for the 2019-20 season.

• Colorado Avalanche sign Andre Burakovsky to a one-year, $3.25 million deal. (Link)

• Columbus Blue Jackets’ Sonny Milano accepts qualifying offer of $874,125 for the 2019-20 season.

• New York Islanders sign Simon Holmstrom to a three-year, $2.775 million entry-level deal.

July 14
• Detroit Red Wings sign Moritz Seider to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $5.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

July 13
• St. Louis Blues sign Jordan Binnington to a two-year, $8.8 million deal. (Link)

July 12
• Buffalo Sabres sign Johan Larsson to a one-year, $1.55 million deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Ryan Dzingel to a two-year, $6.75 million deal. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils sign Jack Hughes to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $11.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• Philadelphia Flyers sign Scott Laughton to a two-year, $4.6 million deal. (Link)

• St. Louis Blues sign Robby Fabbri to a one-year, $900,000 deal. (Link)

July 11
• Anaheim Ducks sign Michael Del Zotto to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• Dallas Stars sign Jason Dickinson to a two-year, $3 million deal. (Link)

• Montreal Canadiens sign Joel Armia to a two-year, $5.2 million deal. (Link)

• Montreal Canadiens sign Artturi Lehkonen to a two-year, $4.8 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers sign Kaapo Kakko to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $10.725 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• San Jose Sharks sign Dylan Gambrell to a two-year, $1.4 million deal. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks sign Antti Suomela to a one-year, $700,000 deal. (Link)

July 10
• Los Angeles Kings sign Alex Iafallo to a two-year, $4.85 million deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Micheal Ferland to a four-year, $14 million deal. (Link)

July 9
• Boston Bruins sign Danton Heinen to a two-year, $5.6 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Dillon Heatherington to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Malcolm Subban to a one-year, $850,000 deal. (Link)

July 8
• Chicago Blackhawks sign Kirby Dach to a three-year, $2.775 million entry-level deal.

• Colorado Avalanche signs Ryan Graves to a one-year, $735,000 deal.

• Dallas Stars sign Gavin Bayreuther to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• St. Louis Blues sign Zach Sanford to a two-year, $3 million deal, avoiding arbitration.

• San Jose Sharks sign Kevin Labanc to a one-year, $1 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Francis Perron to a one-year, $715,000 deal.

July 7
• Arizona Coyotes sign Victor Soderstrom to a three-year, $4.755 million entry-level contract.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Gemel Smith to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 6
• Boston Bruins sign Peter Cehlárik to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Marcus Johansson to two-year, $9 million deal. (Link)

July 5
• Anaheim Ducks sign Andreas Martinsen to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres re-sign Zemgus Girgensons to one-year, $1.6 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche re-sign Nikita Zadorov to one-year, $3.2 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Scott Harrington to a three-year, $4.9 million deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Mario Kempe to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Nick Cousins to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning re-sign Cedric Paquette to two-year, $3.3 million deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Josh Leivo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

July 4
• Arizona Coyotes sign Hudson Fasching to a two-year, $1.475 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Kevin Roy to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Ben Chiarot to a three-year, $10.5 million deal. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Cody Ceci to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Alexander Kerfoot to a four-year, $14 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Justin Bailey to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 3
• Montreal Canadiens sign Phil Varone to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Pittsburgh Penguins re-sign Joseph Blandisi to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 2
• Anaheim Ducks sign Anthony Stolarz to a two-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Arizona Coyotes sign Lawson Crouse to a three-year, $4.6 million deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes announce their intention to match the five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet Sebastian Aho signed with the Montreal Canadiens. (Link)

• Ottawa Senators sign Nick Paul to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• San Jose Sharks sign Dalton Prout to a one-year, $800,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Tyler Motte to one-year, $975,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Anthony Bitetto to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Mark Letestu to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 1
• Boston Bruins sign Brett Ritchie to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Boston Bruins re-sign Connor Clifton to a three-year, $3 million extension.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Curtis Lazar to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign John Gilmour to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Calgary Flames sign Cam Talbot to a one-year, $2.75 million. (Link)

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Petr Mrazek to a two-year, $6.25 million deal. (Link)

• Chicago Blackhawks sign Ryan Carpenter to a three-year, $3 million deal.

• Chicago Blackhawks sign Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5 million deal. (Link)

• Colorado Avalanche sign Joonas Donskoi to a four-year, $10.5 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche trade Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot and a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen, a 2020 third-round pick. The Avalanche will retain 50% of Barrie’s $5.5 million cap hit. (Link)

• Colorado Avalanche sign Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to two-year, $3.8 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche sign Colin Wilson to one-year, $2.6 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Ryan Murray to two-year, $9.2 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets re-sign Joonas Korpisalo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Gustav Nyquist to four-year, $22 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Andrej Sekera to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Joe Pavelski to a three-year, $21 million deal (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Corey Perry to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. (Link)

• Detroit Red Wings sign Valtteri Filppula to two-year, $6 million deal.

• Detroit Red Wings sign Patrik Nemeth to a two-year, $6 million deal.

• Detroit Red Wings sign Calvin Pickard to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Mike Smith to a one-year, $2 million deal. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers sign Jujhar Khaira to two-year, $2.4 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Markus Granlund to a one-year, $1.3 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Alex Chiasson to two-year, $4.3 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Tomas Jurco to a one-year, $750,00 deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Anton Stralman to a three-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Sergei Bobrovsky to seven-year, $70 million deal. (Link)

• Florida Panthers sign Noel Acciari to a three-year, $5 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Brett Connolly to a four-year, $14 million deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Joakim Ryan to a one-year, $725,000 deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Martin Frk to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Minnesota Wild sign Mats Zuccarello to five-year, $30 million contract. (Link)

• Minnesota Wild sign Ryan Hartman to a two-year, $3.8 million deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Riley Barber to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens have tendered a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. The Carolina Hurricanes have seven days to match or walk away. Should the Hurricanes walk away, the Canadiens will send them first-, second-, and third-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft. (Link)

• Nashville Predators sign Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal. (Link)

• Nashville Predators sign Daniel Carr to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• New Jersey Devils sign Wayne Simmonds to one-year, $5 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers sign Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers trade Jimmy Vesey to the Buffalo Sabres for a 2021 third-round pick. (Link)

• New York Islanders sign Anders Lee to a seven-year, $49 million deal. (Link)

• New York Islanders sign Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million deal. (Link)

• Ottawa Senators sign Ron Hainsey to one-year $3.5 million.

• Pittsburgh Penguins sign Brandon Tanev to six-year, $21 million contract. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks re-sign Timo Meier to a four-year, $24 million extension. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks re-sign Tim Heed to one-year contract.

• St. Louis Blues re-sign Sammy Blais to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• St. Louis Blues sign Nathan Walker to two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Curtis McElhinney to a two-year, $2.6 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Luke Schenn to a one-year, $700,00 deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Kevin Gravel to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Kenny Agostino to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs trade Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, prospect Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick in 2020 for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur and forward Michael Carcone. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Jason Spezza to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Tyler Myers to a five-year, $30 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Jordie Benn to a two-year, $4 million deal. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Brandon Pirri to two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Tomas Nosek to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Richard Panik to four-year, $11 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Garnet Hathaway to a four-year, $6 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Brendan Leipsic to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Nathan Beaulieu to a one-year, $1 million deal.

June 30
• Carolina Hurricanes trade Scott Darling and a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Florida Panthers for James Reimer. The Panthers have put Darling on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out. (Link)

• Chicago Blackhawks trade a second and seventh-round pick in 2020 and a third-round pick in 2021 to the Montreal Canadiens for Andrew Shaw and a seventh-round pick. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers have put Andrej Sekera on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out.

• Montreal Canadiens trade Nicolas Deslauriers in a trade to the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round draft pick in 2020.

• Philadelphia Flyers have put David Schlemko on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out.

June 29
• Dallas Stars place Valeri Nichushkin on waivers for purpose of a buyout. (Link)

• Pittsburgh Penguins trade Phil Kessel, a 2021 fourth-round pick, and Dane Birks to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Oliver Joseph. (Link)

• New York Islanders re-sign Tom Kuhnhackl to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks place Ryan Spooner on waivers for purpose of a buyout.

June 28
• Carolina Hurricanes re-sign Alex Nedeljkovic to a two-year, $1.475 million extension.

• Chicago Blackhawks re-sign Dylan Sikura and John Quenneville to extensions of two years worth $1.5 million each.

• Toronto Maple Leafs re-sign Kasperi Kapanen to a three-year, $9.6 million extension and Andreas Johnsson to a $13.6 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights trade Colin Miller to the Buffalo Sabres for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 fifth-round pick. (Link)

• Washington Capitals trade Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2020 second-round pick, 2020 third-round pick, and Scott Kosmachuk. (Link)

June 27
• Dallas Stars re-sign Taylor Fedun to a two-year, $1.475 million extension.

• St. Louis Blues re-sign Carl Gunnarsson to a two-year, $3.5 million extension.

• Toronto Maple Leafs re-sign Michael Hutchinson to a one-year, $700,000 extension.

June 26
• Philadelphia Flyers re-sign Brian Elliott to a one-year, $2 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights trade Erik Haula to the Carolina Hurricanes for Nicolas Roy and a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick. (Link)

June 25
• Colorado Avalanche trade Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes for Kevin Connauton and a 2020 third-round pick. (Link)

• Columbus Blue Jackets re-sign Adam Clendening to a two-year, $1.4 million extension.

• Ottawa Senators re-sign Cody Goloubef to a one-year, $800,000 extension.

June 24
• Boston Bruins re-sign Steven Kampfer to a two-year, $1.6 million extension.

• Carolina Hurricanes trade Calvin de Haan and Aleksi Saarela to the Chicago Blackhawks for Anton Forsberg and Gustav Forsling. (Link)

• Dallas Stars trade Tyler Pitlick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Ryan Hartman. (Link)

• Minnesota Wild re-sign Brad Hunt to a two-year, $1.4 million extension.

• Philadelphia Flyers re-sign Travis Sanheim to a two-year, $6.5 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights re-sign William Karlsson to an eight-year, $47.2 million extension. (Link)

June 22
• Nashville Predators trade P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, and second-round picks in 2019 and 2020. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils trade John Quenneville to the Chicago Blackhawks for John Hayden.

• Tampa Bay Lightning trade J.T. Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for Marek Mazanec, a 2019 third-round pick, and a conditional first-round pick in 2020 or 2021. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs trade Patrick Marleau and a conditional first-round pick in 2020 or 2021, seventh-round pick in 2020 to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 2020 sixth-round pick. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks trade Tom Pyatt and a 2019 sixth-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for Francis Perron and a 2019 seventh-round pick.

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

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.

Maple Leafs ace salary cap tests, but Marner challenge remains

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The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this offseason with possibly the toughest to-do list of any NHL team, and while the biggest challenge still awaits in signing RFA star Mitch Marner, GM Kyle Dubas deserves at least a B+ for his efforts.

You can bump Dubas & Co. up to an A depending upon taste, and certainly if you’re grading on a curve in considering that every other NHL team was well aware of Toronto’s predicament. Some teams managed to exploit those issues for their own gains, while some still managed to sucker themselves. Either way, mostly strong work so far.

Thursday presented the latest round of moves surrounding that pivotal Marner push, as the Maple Leafs signed Alex Kerfoot to a sensible extension and … meh, at least only signed Cody Ceci for one year? (Not trying, at least outwardly, to merely flip Ceci again and seek a cheaper alternative puzzles me, but maybe Toronto has internal data that argues that Ceci is better than people realize?)

While Nazem Kadri was a better luxury, getting Kerfoot at just $3.5M per year, with some term, is pretty nifty by my eyes. Maybe those eyes have been re-adjusted by the Montreal Canadiens giving marginal defenseman Ben Chiarot that same $3.5M AAV, but I’d wager that Kerfoot will at least be as valuable as his cap hit, if not deliver as a nice bargain.

It fits in wonderfully well with two very reasonable re-signings from earlier this summer, as the Maple Leafs took Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson off the docket, getting cost certainty and also avoiding the threat of other teams trying to poach them. For all the talk of Marner possibly signing an offer sheet, the bigger worry might be that an opposing team would instead make it uncomfortable for Toronto to keep mid-level, useful young players. Instead, Dubas got them re-signed, and likely at below market value, even if you take RFA statuses into account.

Good stuff.

Dubas wasn’t flawless in his efforts to get rid of those Marleau and Zaitsev problems, although I imagine that it wasn’t especially easy to find takers to alleviate those concerns.

The Carolina Hurricanes traded for Marleau and eventually bought the veteran out, essentially paying close to $4M to buy Toronto’s first-round pick. If you want an idea of how smart I thought Carolina was, I postulated that rebuilding teams should use that trade as something of a blueprint: basically, take a bribe of picks and prospects to relieve contenders of their Marleau-lite problems.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That’s a fairly hefty price for Toronto to pay, especially since contending teams could conceivably take care of some of the strain of top-heavy contracts by getting quality (or just stopgap) production from players on entry-level contracts.

Luckily for Dubas, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to burn another first-rounder to get rid of Zaitsev’s lengthy, challenging contract. Instead, he was able to package Zaitsev in a deal for Ceci, who will cost the same $4.5M AAV in 2019-20, with the difference being that Ceci’s deal lasts for one year, while Zaitsev’s albatross hangs around through 2023-24. It’s true that the Maple Leafs also had to part with Connor Brown in that trade, but, overall, that’s a comically Maple Leafs-friendly deal, considering how toxic Zaitsev’s contract is.

(The Senators not getting a higher-level return for taking on Zaitsev is, well, a nice reminder that, as much as that team’s plight stems from owner Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion’s also made some rough judgment calls in recent years.)

Time will tell if that blockbuster Kadri – Kerfoot – Tyson Barrie etc. trade ends up being a win, loss, or draw for Toronto, but as of this moment, it’s a bold and sensible example of two teams addressing weaknesses from areas of strength. Maybe Barrie has some flaws, but he’s a drastic upgrade at right-handed defense, Toronto’s biggest area of weakness. If it truly was time for the Leafs to part with Kadri, then that trade was really shrewd.

Speaking of shrewd, I quite enjoy some of the low-risk, medium-reward moves by Toronto. Jason Spezza‘s $7.5M cap hit made things downright awkward at times in Dallas last season, but at $750K, Spezza could be a sneaky-steal. Nick Shore’s an under-the-radar analytics darling, too, to the point that I was surprised that he had to sign in the KHL last season. (Too under the radar, I guess.)

It’s a little tricky to estimate precisely how much cap space the Maple Leafs have left for Marner, as you can see from this Cap Friendly tweet.

With Nathan Horton‘s looming $5.3M LTIR trip, that would put the Maple Leafs over $9M, with some wiggle room with other roster spots (again, see this thread to get an idea of some of the complications).

Toronto being where they are still leaves them vulnerable to an offer sheet on Marner, with these two compensation ranges (via the NHL) being the most relevant:

More than $8,454,871 to $10,568,589 — two first-round picks, one second-round pick and one third-round pick

More than $10,568,589 — four first-round picks (can be spread over five-year period)

Each offer sheet possibility would be interesting. An offer right under that $10,568,589 mark would at least make things a little uncomfortable. If a team wanted to push things into the stratosphere, they could also go well over $10.57M.

Under most circumstances, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to match a Marner offer sheet, yet that doesn’t mean that another team wouldn’t want to really put Toronto in a tough spot.

Theoretically, at least. It’s also plausible that teams a) don’t want to waste their time if an offer sheet wouldn’t work, b) winced at the reaction Marc Bergevin received, c) fear retribution if their big-ticket guys become eligible for offer sheets, or d) all of the above.

Overall, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Dubas. They’ve mostly walked that tightrope with skill, and could really settle this offseason if Marner just wants to hash things out.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see at least some lane to put Toronto in an uncomfortable spot, as the other dominoes have mostly fallen. Could a team try to push the salary up above that $10.57M mark, which might mean that Toronto would have to trade a nice player such as Zach Hyman ($2.25M) to make the pieces fit? Could a team go very high AAV for three years, so Marner’s deal would overlap with possibly needing to give Frederik Andersen a raise, as the goalie’s team-friendly $5M cap hit dissolves after 2020-21?

The Maple Leafs eased concerns about other players by getting Kapanen and Johnsson locked down, so if there’s any chance Marner just wants to get this over with, I’d be inclined to hammer a deal out.

***

Even in the unlikely event that Marner signs for the same cap hit as Sebastian Aho, the trio of Marner + Auston Matthews + John Tavares costs well over $30M ($22.634M for Matthews and Tavares alone).

That statement should neatly summarize the notion that, chances are, the Maple Leafs will struggle with salary cap headaches for the duration of their window of contention, if not longer.

As we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins, it’s difficult to avoid making mistakes, although Toronto will surely hope to avoid trading Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin-type gaffes, or … doing whatever it is the Penguins think they’re doing right now.

We won’t get the Maple Leafs’ full grade until we see how they handle the final exam that is the Marner situation, but judging by this summer school salary structure session, they’ve been honor students so far.

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.

Canadiens add much needed left-shot defenseman in Chiarot

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Coming into the summer, the Montreal Canadiens had three glaring holes on their roster that they had to address. They needed a scoring forward (they tried to get Sebastian Aho), another left-shot defenseman, and a backup goalie (they signed Keith Kinkaid on July 1st). On Thursday morning, general manager Marc Bergevin addressed one of those needs.

The Canadiens inked former Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot to a three-year, $10.5 million contract ($3.5 million AAV). The 28-year-old spent the first five seasons of his career with the Winnipeg Jets after being drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

He had five goals, 20 points, a plus-6 rating and 62 penalty minutes in 78 games with Winnipeg in 2018-19. He averaged 18:37 of ice time.

Chiarot gives the Canadiens some added size on the left side of their defense (he’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and he adds a physical presence which they didn’t have on that side with Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Rielly.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Last season, he spent most of his ice time playing on a pairing with Dustin Byfuglien. In 640 even-strength minutes with Byfuglien, Chiarot had a CF% of 51.59 percent, but that number dropped to 44.76 percent in 48 minutes without him (Byfuglien’s CF% spiked to 59.27 without Chiarot by his side). The FF% drops from 50.82 to 43.59 without Byfuglien, and the HDCF% goes from 50.26 percent to 35 percent. A 48-minute sample size isn’t huge, but it’s still something you need to be aware of with a depth defender.

Bergevin may not be done tweaking his defense, as he still has time to make a trade before the start of the year. Mete has spent some time playing with Shea Weber over the last two seasons, but he’s probably better suited to play in a lesser role at this stage of his career. So they may still need someone that can line up next to their captain at even-strength.

There’s still plenty of work for Bergevin to do, but time is still on his side.

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.