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Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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 should target a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency

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Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, Rick Nash was … well, Rick Nash during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fair or not, the typical narrative stuck. Nash generated a mountain of scoring chances (39 shots on goal in just 12 games), but connected on precious few, finishing with three goals and two assists for five points. It says a lot about his career-long playoff woes that his 7.7 shooting percentage during this run was actually a bit better than his career mark of six percent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nash is far from the only player outside of the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) who fell short of the mark, but he stands out as being a guy who’s unlikely to return considering his expiring contract. Whether they bounce back or not, guys like David Krejci and David Backes are locked down through 2020-21.

[Lightning eliminate Bruins in Game 5]

Ultimately, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should look to free agency and ask himself: “Who can give us a little more than Rick Nash and other depth players?”

An unclear window

The Bruins deserve a ton of credit for drafting and developing some real gems in Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie McAvoy. Even so, the Bruins are powered by some players whose windows of dominance could start to close. Brad Marchand will turn 30 on May 11. Krejci and Bergeron are both 32. Backes is 34. Zdeno Chara is still somehow a top pairing defenseman at 41.

Some aging curve questions are scary, and doubling down with a free agent can be really scary. That said, you never know when your window will close as a contender; the Bruins would be wise to take their best shots over the next season or two.

Intriguing wingers

The Bruins could very well get a younger version of Nash in some free agents who bring some size and skill to the table.

There’s a decent chance that Evander Kane will not hit the market, but if he does, the Bruins could conceivably be a good fit considering all of the veterans they have on hand. Kane isn’t the only interesting option, either.

James van Riemsdyk stands out as one of the more interesting fits. While there’s some risk that JVR could be the next Bobby Ryan (a consistent 20+ goal guy who was once cheap who could then sign an albatross deal), but the American winger has shown that he can score, even when he’s receiving minimal ice time. That said, van Riemsdyk is already 29 and hasn’t always been the most prolific playoff point producer, either.

Like Kane with the Sharks, it’s unclear if James Neal or David Perron will be back with the Vegas Golden Knights, but both are interesting considerations for Boston. Neal could add even more snarl to a lineup that already includes Backes and Marchand, not to mention his ability to score goals with remarkable consistency. Perron, meanwhile, would be the slicker option, and possibly the cheaper one?

Centers

Let’s get this out of the way first: any team with a shot at John Tavares should do what it takes to make it happen, even if it calls for creative trades. The Bruins are no exception, though it’s tough to image Tavares wearing the spoked B.

Another tough-to-imagine scenario: the return of Joe Thornton. That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it?

Now, the Nash example calls more for winger comparisons, but who’s to say that the Bruins wouldn’t dip into the market for a mid-level center? Such a gameplan could be fruitful if management believes that Krejci could be liberated by a Claude Giroux-style move to the wing, or more advantageous matchups as a third-line center. Among other ideas.

Paul Stastny would be intriguing.

He’s not the sexiest scorer, but Stastny is a strong two-way player. It’s tough to imagine the Jets being able to afford re-signing him considering that they’re going to have to give big raises to Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine going forward. There’s quite a bit of risk with Stastny being 32, but he makes some stylistic sense, too.

The funniest idea

Hey, Leo Komarov is a pending UFA, and he obviously has chemistry with Marchand …

(Ideally) cheaper options

Generally speaking, NHL teams are better off exploiting the bargain bin instead of taking big swings. The Bruins have seen that firsthand, as the Backes deal is one they’d almost certainly want to take back. Many of the above ideas are expressed while realizing that, eventually, those contracts will probably be a headache.

Boston may instead be better off going short-term or cheaper, possibly with more than one signing.

Patrick Maroon‘s value should be interesting to follow. Will a team overpay for a big guy who can score a bit, or will his solid work with New Jersey go under the radar?

The Bruins might be better off going after Maroon or fellow short-time Devil Michael Grabner. Thomas Vanek is another interesting consideration. While he’s become a notably one-dimensional player, Vanek showed that he can really boost a team’s offense. In a specialist role, Vanek might excel, and the Bruins should keep an eye on him if the market is tepid.

***

Look, players usually hit free agency in the NHL for a reason. These are players who, for whatever reason, end up being deemed expendable.

The Bruins and other teams must look at free agency as finding the cherry on top, rather than some cure-all. Rick Nash fell short of that mark, but maybe one of these options could make the difference?

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.

Penguins’ top line is doing all of the heavy lifting

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PITTSBURGH — Through four games the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have provided most of what was expected from them in their second round series. It is an evenly matched series that looks like it might go the distance, there has been a lot of nastiness, there has been some controversy, and the two biggest superstars in the NHL  — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — have been taking turns delivering haymakers for their respective teams on the scoreboard.

In Game 3 on Tuesday it was Ovechkin helping to continue to carry the Capitals. In the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4 on Thursday night, it was Crosby’s turn again as the duo of he and Jake Guentzel continued to dominate the postseason, scoring a pair of goals — both off the stick of Guentzel — to help the Penguins even the series at two games apiece.

With his two-goal effort on Thursday Guentzel is now up to 10 goals and is leading the league in playoff goal for the second year in a row. He scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games a year ago. Almost all of his damage this season has come alongside Crosby, and it is not a stretch to suggest that line has been helping to keep the Penguins afloat in these playoffs. They are quite literally the only line that is providing offense for them in this series.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Following Thursday’s win the Penguins have scored 10 goals in the series, while all of them have come with Crosby on the ice. He has had a hand in six of them, scoring two and assisting on four others. He did not factor into Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winning goal on Thursday, but he was on the ice as part of the Penguins’ power play.

There are a few ways to look at this.

This obviously is a big part of what makes Crosby the best player in the game (or at least 1A and 1B with Connor McDavid) and one of the best players of all-time. He can change a game and carry a team for an extended period of time. That is what he is trying to do right now for the Penguins.

“I just think he’s the best player in the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s the best player in the game. He plays his best when the stakes are high. He plays at both end of the rink. We rely on him to defend as much as we rely on him to score goals and create offense, and he’s really good at both.

“So it doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan continued. “He’s done it since I’ve been his coach, that has been my experience with him. I just have so much respect for the type of person he is, the type of player that he is, the care factor that he has for the team and winning, the way he always elevates his game for whatever our team needs. If we need a center to take a faceoff and defend a one-goal game when it’s a 6-on-5 situation, he’s the guy. If we need a goal and there’s a faceoff in the offensive zone, he’s the guy. That’s what separates him from every other player in the game. He is so multi-dimensional, there are so many layers to his game that no matter who he plays with he finds a way to have success and he does it night in and night out.”

With 19 points this postseason he already has as many points as he had in 24 postseason games in 2015-16 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and is only seven points off of his total from a year ago (when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy).

Crazy numbers.

[Related: Penguins, Capitals nastiness boils over again in Letang-Oshie fight]

Another crazy number: Of the 38 goals the Penguins have scored this postseason, Crosby has been on the ice for 28 of them. That is 74 percent!  If there is a concern from a Pittsburgh perspective it is the fact that percentage is probably a little too high and probably not a great recipe for sustained success. As great as Crosby and Guentzel have been together no one line can do that every single night for an entire postseason. Eventually they will have an off night. Eventually they get shut down for a game or two. Eventually the puck will not go in. The Penguins’ modus operandi the past two postseasons has been about depth and balanced scoring from all four lines. In 2015-16 Crosby was only on the ice for 41 percent of the Penguins’ playoff goals. A year ago it was 45 percent. They were getting production from everybody. This postseason, and especially in this series, they have not always been getting that.

Part of the Penguins’ depth problem this postseason has been the fact they simply have not been as healthy. Evgeni Malkin missed three games — including the first two games of this series — due to a lower body injury, and even though he scored on Thursday night still may not be 100 percent.

Carl Hagelin also missed three games after he was hit by Claude Giroux in Game 6 of the Philadelphia series.

Beyond those two, Phil Kessel has not looked himself (he could be fighting through an injury of his own) and has been a complete non-factor. That is a huge change from the past two postseasons when he was at times their biggest difference-maker.

Derick Brassard has not quite made the offensive impact the Penguins were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline and have put seemingly demoted him to fourth-line duty. Conor Sheary has two goals in his past 36 playoff games.

On Thursday the Penguins attempted to shuffle their lines a bit by dropping Patric Hornqvist from the Crosby-Gentuzel down to the second line alongside Malkin and Hagelin. Sullivan explained that was an effort to get other lines going, while also bringing some two-way balance to the Malkin line.

“We’re trying to find ways to get more production from other than one line,” said Sullivan.

“[Hornqvist] brings a certain dimension to any line particular line we put him on. When you look at the stretch Geno went through, probably a two or two-and-a-half month stretch in the regular season where he was filling the net, for the most part he was playing with [Hagelin] and [Hornqvist].

“Those two guys I think they force Geno to play a more straight ahead game and challenge him to shoot the puck more. [Hornqvist] is a guy that goes to the net, he wants the puck on the net, he’s constantly on him to shoot the puck. So we think that his presence on that line helps Geno play the type of game that he needs to play in the playoffs to have success. Do we tinker with that line or leave it as it is and try to move other people around. That is the direction we went with tonight, it is not etched in stone, we’l look at the game, see what we liked and make decisions accordingly.”

[Related: Guentzel helps Penguins tie series with Capitals]

Leaning on the Crosby-Guentzel line to this point has them in the second-round, now facing what is essentially a best-of-three series against the Metropolitan Division champion Capitals. They have done that will getting very little production from a line that does not have Crosby on it.

On one hand, that is a pretty good position to be in, and if they can get one or two of those other lines going again it could help propel them on another deep playoff run. On the other hand, if they do not get going they are only going to go as far as Crosby and Guentzel can carry them.  Relying on one line to do it all offensively is an awfully big ask. Even if it is a line centered by a player as great as Sidney Crosby.

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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.

Penguins get Carl Hagelin back for Game 4 against Capitals

Getting Evgeni Malkin back wasn’t enough for the Pittsburgh Penguins to win Game 3. Maybe the return of speedy winger Carl Hagelin can help tip the scales as Pittsburgh aims to tie its series in Game 4 against the Washington Capitals?

Hagelin, 29, has been sidelined since Game 6 (April 22) of the series against the Philadelphia Flyers, as a big hit by Claude Giroux forced him to miss the remainder of that contest and then the first three games versus the Caps.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It’s unclear how much this might stick, but so far, it looks like Hagelin will skate with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist.

Hagelin is playing Game 4 with a protective mask, but as nasty as this series is getting, the Capitals are unlikely to be able to give Hagelin the Joel Embiid treatment.

After scoring 10 goals and 31 points during the regular season, Hagelin generated three points through his first six games of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Check out Game 4 on NBCSN right now; here’s the livestream link.

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.

Hall, Kopitar, MacKinnon are 2018 Hart Trophy finalists

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Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Hart Trophy, given to “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

The award, voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, will be handed out on June 20 at the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas.

Hall and MacKinnon are also up for the Ted Lindsay Award, which is given to the “most outstanding player in the regular season” and voted on by members of the NHL Players’ Association.

The Hart Trophy race was an intriguing one this season and narrowing it down to a final three is certainly a tough task. Other than Hall, Kopitar and MacKinnon, you could have made cases for Claude Giroux, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and maybe even a few more depending on your definition of “value” to ones team.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Taylor Hall: The Devils forward finished seventh in goals (39) and sixth in points (93) while helping lead the team to a 27-point improvement and back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years. How valuable was Hall to his team? He finished 41 points ahead of teammate Nico Hischier. Among his season highlights included a streak that saw him record a point in 26 consecutive appearances, as well as a 19-game point streak. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Brian Boyle said earlier this month. “It just seems like you’re on the bench and thinking to yourself, ‘We need a play here,’ and he seems to make it every time.”

The Case for Anze Kopitar: Already a Selke Trophy finalist, the Kings forward had an incredible bounce-back season in 2017-18 with career highs in goals (35), assists (57) and points (92). In reaching the 90-point mark, Kopitar became the team’s first player to hit that total since Wayne Gretzky in 1993-94. Like Hall, Kopitar was a big offensive force for LA, finishing 31 points ahead of his next-closest teammate, Dustin Brown, who ended the year with 61 points.

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon: A career season ends with MVP consideration for MacKinnon, who led the Avs with 39 goals and 97 points as they posted a 47-point improvement that ended with a postseason return. Only McDavid (1.32) had a better points per game average than the 22-year-old forward (1.31), who recorded 13 three-point games this season.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Ted Lindsay Award

Jack Adams Award

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.