David Clarkson

Winners and losers of the 2019 NHL trade deadline

9 Comments

Well, that was fun. The 2019 NHL trade deadline is over and 20 deals involving 32 players were made on Monday featuring plenty of buyers and sellers. There were a number of of trades in the weeks and days leading up to the deadline, which has some teams strengthening for a Stanley Cup run and others eyeing the future as they hope they are in the midst of building a contender.

As the dust settles, let’s take a look at some winners and losers from the 2019 NHL trade deadline.

WINNER: Columbus Blue Jackets fans

Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have given no indication they’ll re-sign and made it clear they want to test the market on July 1 as unrestricted free agents. So with that news GM Jarmo Kekalainen didn’t throw away the season and deal them off for futures. He kept them and loaded up to make a playoff run. Adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in separate deals with the Senators showed that they’re all-in to make some noise in the postseason. They also picked up Adam McQuaid for depth on defense and Keith Kinkaid for some insurance in net. For a franchise that’s yet to win a playoff round, good for them. The value in creating some excitement in the market is greater than whatever futures some team would throw their way in exchange for a couple of rentals.

Blue Jackets power up for playoff run by adding Matt Duchene
Blue Jackets load up with Dzingel

LOSER: Columbus’ 2019 NHL draft plans

With Kekalainen’s flurry of moves before the deadline, the Blue Jackets currently only own two picks in June’s NHL draft: Round 3 and Round 7 (originally Calgary’s). They could add to that if they end up dealing Panarin’s and/or Bobrovsky’s negotiating rights, but for now the prospect cupboard won’t see many additions when the league gathers in Vancouver. They also don’t have a second- or third-round pick in 2020.

WINNER: Nashville’s power play

The Predators’ power play has been atrocious this season, checking in at an NHL-worst 12.6 percent. The unit was at 21.6 percent last season and in the high teens from 2015-17. Simmonds’ addition will help that and the team’s second line. Since 2013, the 30-year-old forward has scored 74 power play goals and recorded 119 points with the man advantage.

Predators go bold at trade deadline with Simmonds, Granlund

LOSER: Jim Rutherford

The Penguins’ blue line through the 2020-21 season will see Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson eating $7.25M in cap space. Not ideal! (Johnson is signed through 2022-23.) You knew they were going to try and add a defenseman with the Brian Dumoulin injury, but…

As our own Adam Gretz pointed out, trading Pearson is also another in long line of decisions by GM Jim Rutherford that he’s undone within a season. Pearson joins Antti Niemi, Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick, Jamie Oleksiak, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard, and Derek Grant as being acquired only to be shipped out again.

Rutherford has already brought in Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to aid up front. But with the deadline in the rear-view mirror now, are the Penguins that much better to contend in the East?

Gudbranson – Pearson trade looks ugly for Penguins — on paper

WINNER: Nick Jensen

Not only does the 28-year-old blue liner go from one of the worst teams in the league to the defending Stanley Cup champions who are chasing a Metropolitan Division title, neither side wasted any time extending their relationship. Not long as the trade was announced, the Capitals signed Jensen to a four-year, $10M extension.

Capitals hope to land another defensive gem in Jensen

LOSER: Edmonton Oilers

No one wanted any of the pieces they may have been dangling, leaving interim GM Keith Gretzky with lots of work to do in the off-season.

Edmonton media has been talking up Alex Chiasson lately for some reason, thinking he could fetch a draft pick. The 28-year-old forward has one goal since Christmas and is still shooting 19.8 percent, which shows you how bad the regression monster has been affecting him since starting the season off strong with 16 goals in his first 30 games.

Getty Images

WINNER AND LOSER: Ottawa Senators

We knew that Pierre Dorion was going to be active and in sell mode with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone on the market. Now that all three are gone, the Senators brought in a combined package of:

NHL players: Oscar Lindberg, Anthony Duclair
Prospects: Vitaly Abramoff, Jonathan Davidsson, Erik Brannstrom
Draft picks: Two 2020 second-round picks, 2021 second-round pick, 2019 and 2020 conditional picks

The Stone deal leaves something to be desired, especially since Dorion was unable to get a first-round pick for him. 

These moves, however, leave the Senators with a little over $35M in cap space for next season, per Cap Friendly. They won’t spend to the limit just yet, but they will have to at least get to the projected floor of $58M, so they’ll be active before next season. Maybe that includes taking on a dead contract like, say, David Clarkson’s, which is a $5.25M cap hit through the end of the 2019-20 season.

While the draft picks and prospects could turn into something good in the future, right now there is no confidence from the fan base that the future holds anything positive for the team. The inability to extend Duchene, Dzingel or Stone did not sit well with fans and adds to their lack of belief that Eugene Melnyk will spearhead some huge spending spree in a couple of years as he said he plans to do.

Watching that trio leave has to make you wonder what will happen when it’s time for Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk to re-sign?

“We’re rebuilding and hoping to bring a Stanley Cup very soon,” said Melnyk on Monday after the Stone trade. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

WINNER: Mark Stone

Much like Jensen, Stone moves from a bottom team to a Cup contender and gets an extension to boot. Because of tagging issues, the contract won’t be official until March 1, but it will be eight years with an average annual value of $9.5M and a full no-move clause. Stone told TSN that an “ownership commitment to winning” was a big reason why he agreed to the extension with Vegas, which should tell you everything about why he never ended up putting pen to paper on a deal with the Senators.

Golden Knights win Mark Stone sweepstakes, agree to extension

LOSER: Those hoping for a big move from the Flames

As the Jets, Predators, Sharks, and Golden Knights loaded up, the Flames stayed quiet, only making a depth move on defense by picking up Oscar Fantenberg from the Kings and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020. GM Brad Treliving had a maximum price in mind that he would pay to add a big name like Mark Stone. What Ottawa and other sellers were looking for was apparently too rich for his blood.

Treliving wasn’t going to part with prospect Juuso Valimaki, and is pleased to go into battle with his current lineup.

“Today, there is no mourning,” said Treliving Monday afternoon. “The hearse is not driving by, and none of us are climbing in. We’re pretty excited about our team. The fact that we wake up and I’m going to have a cold beer right now and still have guys like Valimaki in our organization, that’s a pretty good day. “So let’s all put it in perspective. We have a good hockey team.”

WINNER: Eric Staal

Owner of a modified no-trade clause, Staal said repeatedly he did not want to leave Minnesota. He wasn’t dealt and will be staying for at least two more seasons after inking a two-year, $6.5M extension.

LOSER: Mats Zuccarello/Dallas Stars

This has nothing to do with the deal, as it was a good addition by GM Jim Nill. But the Stars only got to enjoy Zuccarello for barely 40 minutes before he blocked a shot and suffered a broken arm that will keep him out of the lineup for at least four weeks.

Knowing their newest acquisition is out at least a month, Nill didn’t go out and add any pieces on Monday, making it a quiet day in Big D.

Stars land Zuccarello
Zuccarello injured during Stars debut, out at least four weeks

WINNER: Conditional draft picks

Since Oct. 1, 20 conditional picks have been part of deals. The New York Rangers lead the way with four conditional picks acquired, while the Senators picked up three and Los Angeles received two.

LOSER: Henrik Lundqvist

He took the trade of Zuccarello very hard, as shown after Sunday’s game:

We see it every trade deadline when beloved players move on and their former teams really feel the hole they’re leaving behind. Also, the trade deadline affects more than just the players:

WINNER: New York Rangers

The rebuild could take a turn this summer as GM Jeff Gorton will have five picks in the first two rounds of the 2019 draft to play with. He has said he’ll try to use those to acquire players who can step in and make an impact next season. Right now they could have over $20M in cap space this off-season.

Rangers’ sell-off continues as Kevin Hayes heads to Jets

WINNER: Thomas Vanek

For the first time in three years “Mr. Trade Deadline” stays put after the Red Wings did not deal the 35-year-old forward. Vanek has been dealt on three different NHL trade deadlines in his career.

LOSER: Jimmy Howard

There wasn’t much of a goalie market this trade deadline, and Howard, who can walk as a UFA this summer, stayed put. The price Detroit was seeking was reportedly high, but now GM Ken Holland will turn his sights into trying to re-sign the 34-year-old.

————

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.

Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft

AP Images
8 Comments

By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Hindsight is 43/35 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That’s how many goals and assists William Karlsson put up for the Vegas Golden Knights after the Blue Jackets let him go in the most recent NHL expansion draft. They also sent first- and second-round draft picks to Vegas to unload David Clarkson‘s contract and hold on to forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

”I think we’ve looked at probably 100 times already that, ‘Could we have done something different the last time around?”’ Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Probably not. You’re going to make some mistakes and you might let the wrong guy go. You do your studying, you do your evaluation of your players and you do your projections and it’s not an exact science.”

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021, when Seattle enters the league. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.

”We might get to a situation where we’re like, ‘Boy I don’t want to lose any of these guys,’ so a team may have to do it again,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. ”But we’ve lived it now and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it. And if you’re going to (make a trade), you’re going to make sure it’s for the right person. You’re going to be like: ‘I’m giving up a lot of assets here. Is this the right thing to do?”’

McPhee held all the leverage that summer, and he stockpiled talent as a result. Because only seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender (or seven skaters at any position and a goaltender) could be protected, a lot of deep teams were stuck with core players unprotected and willing to do almost anything to keep them.

Just some of the ”fear factor” moves: The Wild traded prospect Alex Tuch and let center Erik Haula go to Vegas to keep Matt Dumba. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault. The Islanders traded a first-round pick to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. The Ducks traded Shea Theodore to clear Clayton Stoner’s salary and keep Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. The Penguins even sent a future second-round pick to ensure Vegas would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota’s GM, figured out the hard way that expansion means every team loses something. Now with Philadelphia, his approach will likely be to lose as little as possible to Seattle.

”No matter what you do you’re going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. ”You either let them make the choice for you or you try to help them out by making sure you’re keeping the things you want to keep. It was a great process to go through and I’m sure there were some lessons learned, but at the end of the day, if you have too many players than you can protect, you’ve got to pick your poison.”

A popular choice last time? Teams giving up players to clear salary-cap space. That was the impetus for the Fleury move and others, but so much time to prepare could reduce the need for those trades in the summer of 2021.

”That’s just one thing that I see could happen, that if the teams aren’t financially strapped against the cap then they don’t have to make those sacrifices of young players to get the cap relief,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said.

With two full offseasons until Seattle can plunder 30 NHL teams (Vegas will not participate), a lot of GMs are already planning ahead. Offices in Columbus and Dallas have already been the scene of some long-range preparation while acknowledging a lot can change between now and then. Nill said teams will likely need to decide whether someone is a ”core player” or someone who isn’t going to be around in the future.

All GMs will need to grapple with the impact of no-movement clauses in player contracts that the NHL decreed must be protected in any expansion draft. Ottawa lost defenseman Marc Methot, in part, because Dion Phaneuf wouldn’t waive his no-movement clause. Now that GMs know the rules, deals through 2021 could be affected.

”You’re reluctant to give no-move clauses at any time, but certainly with knowing what your expansion protected list is going to be, I think that will make teams a little more cautious,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said.

According to PuckPedia , there are already 36 players with no-movement clauses for 2021-22. The Penguins, Stars and Blackhawks lead the league with four players each. Don’t be surprised if GMs attempt to change some of those situations to put themselves in a better spot.

”You don’t want to fill your protection list with guys that you have to protect because of the clauses in their contract,” Kekalainen said. ”You want to fill it with the guys you want to protect, so you want to leave that option to yourself.”

DE-IMPROVED PENGUINS

After sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh is 6-2-2 in its past 10 games to surge up the standings. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has stepped up for injured starter Matt Murray, is a big part of that with his 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage over that time.

”I’m not surprised,” Rutherford said. ”Casey took the long road to the National Hockey League. He worked at it. He’s worked very close with Mike Buckley, our goalie coach, and he’s a goalie that really worked on his fundamentals.”

The Penguins activated Murray off injured reserve Wednesday. Even with Murray’s return, don’t expect Pittsburgh to keep DeSmith on the bench for long.

”You have to have two goalies because if you want to have a long run in the spring, you can’t wear your No. 1 goalie out,” Rutherford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division face off Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 25; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 39; Points: Rantanen, 52; Ice time: Seth Jones (Columbus), 26:29; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.91; Save percentage: Rinne, 9.32.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed from Vancouver.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

10 Comments

After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

***

Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

***

The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

***

Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

***

Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Maple Leafs and Nylander: Contract deadline, trade talk, more

13 Comments

Despite Saturday’s 5 p.m. ET contract deadline being achingly close, it’s still any outsider’s guess what will happen between the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander. For all we know, both the player and team aren’t 100-percent sure, either.

It’s also unclear how the Maple Leafs’ pending salary cap crunch will impact Nylander’s future with the team beyond 2018-19.

Let’s try to wade through the many ins and outs of this situation, with the best information currently available. If your head starts spinning, at least realize that you’re not alone.

Various rumblings about what a contract might look like with Toronto

During an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday, Bob McKenzie provided one of many possible windows for a Nylander contract. As opposed to many other situations where it’s difficult to hash out a deal, McKenzie reports that Nylander would actually not prefer a shorter “bridge” contract. Instead, he’d lean toward six years. McKenzie placed Toronto’s preferred cost at $6.7 million per year, while Nylander might want something closer to $7M.

This jives with figures from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, who somewhat recently placed a possible compromise at $6.9M per year.

(Such reports bring to mind a somewhat amusing cacophony. On one hand, it feels absurd that a few hundred thousand would make such a difference when you’re talking about multiple millions. On the other hand … most of us would absorb multiple slashes to our softest parts for that difference alone.)

Do note that McKenzie at least floated the possibility of what would be closer to a “bridge” deal, even if it doesn’t sound like this would be Nylander’s first choice:

One factor to keep in mind is that, if the Maple Leafs reach a deal with Nylander before that Saturday dinner deadline, it would be “prorated” since we’re already more than a quarter through the 2018-19 season. Cap Friendly broke down how such variables might play out:

Basically, either a three-year or six-year deal (or other permutations) could be a great fit for the Maple Leafs. The 2018-19 year of a contract would feature a significantly increased cap hit (which works for Toronto, as they’re flush this season before the crunch hits) and then years two and on would be deflated.

What if there’s no deal at all?

Nylander wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL in 2018-19, thus possibly forcing him to play in an overseas league (or, if he doesn’t want to risk injury, not play at all). In that McKenzie video, you’ll note that Nylander wouldn’t gain any additional leverage if he sat out a season, as he’s not yet eligible for salary arbitration.

A couple weeks ago, Pierre LeBrun brought up a different – though difficult to imagine, even now – Feb. 25 deadline in an article for The Athletic (sub required).

In that scenario, the Leafs would trade Nylander’s rights. Such a maneuver would essentially only open up possibilities for teams not making the playoffs, as Nylander would still be unable to play in the NHL in 2018-19.

Seems unlikely, right? It’s worth mentioning, especially as we move to more plausible trade scenarios.

Talking trades

That Feb. 25 deadline is part of a potential trade deadline. Let’s start with the earliest link in that chain: moving Nylander’s rights before Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.

Multiple reporters (including LeBrun) indicate that the Maple Leafs would prefer to sign Nylander, not trade him. Even so, Toronto GM Kyle Dubas is at least touching bases. TSN’s Frank Seravalli points to a specific team that’s been in contact: the Philadelphia Flyers.

Landing a prime winger like Nylander would certainly make a boatload of sense for the Flyers, particularly if they wanted to make a statement after firing a shocked Ron Hextall from his GM position.

Theoretically, another team would be able to add Nylander with fewer worries about the future. On the other hand, few teams really have the cap space to easily add Nylander’s prorated deal in, as discussed earlier in this post. During the latest edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, McKenzie notes that the trade market has been “shrinking” because of those cap concerns.

So, that would make Nylander tougher to trade … for this season.

What if the Maple Leafs sign Nylander, only to trade him in the future, even if he gets a longer-term deal? Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman grimly stated on “Tim & Sid” that he believes that Nylander won’t be a Maple Leaf after this season, and pegged the 2019 NHL Draft as possibly the latest he’d be traded:

One can debate the likelihood of any trade happening, but there are a few potential windows to consider. A quick “tl;dr” recap, then:

Potential path 1: Before Saturday’s signing deadline.
Potential path 2:Feb. 25 – no signing happens, but a team could trade for his rights for 2019-20 and beyond.
Potential path 3: Nylander signs a contract with Toronto, only to be traded by the 2019 NHL Draft?
Potential path 4: No trade at all?

The elephants in the room

Most likely know this full well, but 2019-20 and beyond looms as a conundrum for the Maple Leafs with good reasons: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need new contracts.

That Insider Trading segment noted that many big-ticket RFAs are preferring to wait until 2018-19 ends to really negotiate, rather than signing extensions now.

In the case of Marner, a proactive extension might not be especially cheap. Even at a shorter four-ish year commitment, a $10M number is being thrown around. Considering how many points Marner could put up during a full season as John Tavares‘ wingman, it’s no surprise that he could be pricey.

Matthews stands as almost certainly an even more expensive proposition. Could Toronto convince him to match Tavares’ $11M, or somewhere close? Would Connor McDavid‘s slight discount $12.5M serve as a ceiling? How will potential deals for other stars like Patrik Laine affect Matthews’ bargaining?

All of those questions – not to mention what to do with Jake Gardiner, and which steps to take to make the team better – don’t just plague the Maple Leafs for the future. They must consider them now.

Such a cap crunch might force Toronto’s hand with Nylander, even if they truly believe he’s worth paying in the $7M range. That’s especially true if, say, they can’t unload Nikita Zaitsev‘s deal off ($4.5M through 2023-24[!]) to a lower-end team at a price, or do something similar with the last year of Patrick Marleau‘s $6.25M cap hit.

Happy place

Of course, there’s also a possibility that the Maple Leafs have no intention to trade Nylander at all.

Let’s not forget that other teams have handled cap crunches to the point that they’ve at least retained their key guys. The Lightning defied odds in signing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman; in many cases, Tampa Bay landed them below-market-value, sometimes by leveraging RFA years. While it’s true that the Blackhawks couldn’t walk the tightrope forever, they won three Stanley Cups in part because they were able to walk that thin line for a long time. Some of us thought they’d collapse much sooner.

Is it that outrageous to imagine the Maple Leafs making this work?

Granted, the recent history of tough contract holdouts and strained situations have often resulted in eventual trades. P.K. Subban feels like the most prescient example, yet there are others.

The Maple Leafs are run by what seems to be smart people, and Mike Babcock recently stated that he expects Nylander to be a “career Leaf.”

It’s not that difficult to imagine the Maple Leafs bribing someone to take a nonessential contract in exchange for assets or other considerations. They did it with David Clarkson‘s ghastly deal, and it’s perfectly plausible that they can make it happen again.

Let’s not forget that the salary cap has been rising, too. Last season, the ceiling was $75M, while it’s up to $79.5M for 2018-19. A comparable jump for 2019-10 might just give the Maple Leafs enough breathing room to afford Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Frederik Andersen, and maybe even a few other players above a replacement level.

***

Complicated stuff, right?

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to predict how this will play out, especially when you zoom out beyond the already-tricky deadline Nylander and the Maple Leafs face on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET.

For fans of the sport and/or those interested in team-building, it should be almost as fascinating to watch as it is to watch this blazingly talented Maple Leafs team actually play games.

What would you do if you were running the Maple Leafs? What do you expect to find out? We won’t have to wait long for actual answers.

At least, for some answers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sorting out the sad mess between Kovalchuk, Kings

16 Comments

Even at 35, the only logical explanation for Ilya Kovalchuk playing just six minutes and 20 seconds for the moribund Los Angeles Kings would be that he was hurt.

OK, if it was later in the season – in an alternate universe where this team is … good – maybe the Kings would be resting Kovalchuk heading into the postseason. Instead, still-new Kings head coach Willie Desjardins admitted that it was a coach’s decision during Los Angeles’ 5-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.

LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen passes along quotes where both sides are straining to say as close to the right things as possible.

“I don’t know how to be on the bench because that’s the first time in my career I sat there for the third period, but I’m that kind of guy – I don’t care, we were winning, and that’s all that matters,” Kovalchuk said.

You can practically feel Kovalchuk saying those things through gritted teeth, and Desjardins’ comments got pretty weird, as if he’s expecting Kovalchuk to snap at any moment.

” … He’s in a tough one,” Desjardins said. “He’s got to score on his chances, he’s got to create some offense, but like I said before, when I call his name, he’s excited to go. It hasn’t happened yet that I’ve called him and he’s like kind of where he doesn’t care. That’s a good sign. That’s a tough role for a guy that’s played so well in the NHL. That’s a tough role for him.”

Look, Kovalchuk isn’t perfect. No one could reasonably expect that from him at his age, particularly on a struggling team that’s playing a style that simply isn’t in rhythm with an NHL that’s getting faster and more skilled.

But that “we won the game” shield is flimsy for a team that’s solidly last in the league in standings points, and it’s patently absurd that such an offense-needy group isn’t finding every excuse to get Kovalchuk on the ice.

And, uh, judging by his linemates (Nate Thompson and Sheldon Rempal, who is not a created player in NHL 19 franchise mode), it sounds like things aren’t thawing out just yet.

Even with this nine-game pointless drought in mind, Kovalchuk remains tied for the Kings’ scoring lead alongside Drew Doughty with 14 points.

Just about every number feels like a flashing sign pointing to the Kings leaning more on Kovalchuk (or trading Kovalchuk), not less. Consider that:

  • Their power play success rate is an abysmal 15.3 percent, the fourth-worst mark in the NHL so far in 2018-19.
  • The Kings’ 50 goals scored ranks last in the league, and their 2.17 goals-per-game average is only better than their pals in Anaheim.
  • Sure, Los Angeles often marches to the slow beat of its own drum, which used to mean hogging the puck. That’s not really working out so well, as they’re allowing three more shots per game (31.2) than they’re generating (28.1).
  • Maybe Desjardins was placed in a position to fail with the Vancouver Canucks, but his reputation as “Whiteboard Willie” didn’t exactly remain ironclad. We’re talking about a coach who only saw one Canucks team make the playoffs in three seasons, and never won a playoff series. His current coaching record is under .500 (113-116-27). Should a lame duck coach really be estranging such an important player, and for what sure looks like minimal-at-best gains?
  • More on those minimal gains: it really might be true that the Kings’ best chance to win is to play low-event hockey, which likely wouldn’t mean optimizing Kovalchuk. (Although, even then, he could have some use on the power play and in offensive zone starts.) But, really, what’s the ceiling on such a gameplan for the Kings? At some point you’re just fighting against reality.

The trading question

Honestly, if I were in Kovalchuk’s position or running the Kings, a trade seems like it would be the wisest idea for both sides. Sometimes it’s best just to admit that you made a mistake and call for a mulligan.

Simply put, the Kings could very well scrounge together a respectable bid for a playoff berth, but you’d really need to be sipping the Kool-Aid to believe that this aging bunch really has a shot at the Stanley Cup. Just about everything broke the Kings’ way in 2017-18, and that run ended with them getting absolutely smoked by the Vegas Golden Knights.

(That was a tight series scoring-wise, but my goodness did the Kings ever look overmatched.)

Kovalchuk is staring down the barrel of a nightmare situation: playing on a bad team and possibly warming the bench for the first time in his career.

Now, it’s undeniable that Kovalchuk chose the Kings as his free agent destination, and probably for reasons beyond winning. While Kovalchuk isn’t getting Lebron James’ marketing opportunities, the friendly weather of Los Angeles likely weighed heavily in Kovalchuk’s thought process.

Even a hit-or-miss coach like Desjardins will probably get the memo and play Kovalchuk at a more respectable level soon, too. At minimum, management should demand as much, even if a trade ends up happening. You don’t exactly want to flatten his value altogether, do you?

With a full no-movement clause through the first two seasons and the option of providing a seven-team list in 2020-21 (via Cap Friendly), it would be Kovalchuk’s call to accept a trade. A potential team would carry the additional risks of Kovalchuk’s deal being a 35+ contract, too.

But, really, why wouldn’t Kovalchuk want to shake the Etch-a-Sketch here? This is a miserable situation that might not get much worse, and there are other teams with better chances of contending and warmer climates. Heck, if the former Atlanta Thrasher were to land with another Sunbelt team, he’d be able to keep a larger portion of that $6.25M cap hit.

The Kings should be looking to the future as much as possible, and dealing Kovalchuk – again, if he wanted it – could really allow them to stockpile some assets.

Consider a scenario where the Kings take on a bad contract to make a Kovalchuk trade work, with the bonus being a better return? What if the Kings took David Clarkson‘s contract off of Vegas’ hands, offered the Flyers a jolt of life while absorbing Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M, or allowed the Penguins to admit that the Jack Johnson signing was a free agent flub of their own?

The organization seems ready to make more changes, as Elliotte Friedman briefly alluded to in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts” for Sportsnet:

11. Last week, I reported that Los Angeles wanted to see how things changed after hiring Willie Desjardins and trading Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin. That patience has expired.

***

None of this is to say that a Kovalchuk trade is necessarily pressing or likely. He may simply refuse to play anywhere else. Considering his age, Kovalchuk might just want to stay put.

Imagining him in other places is fun, especially when no one’s having fun in this current L.A. situation.

One thing’s clear: if Desjardins really wants to keep this job for a while, he better press the right buttons with Kovalchuk and others. So far … not so good.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.