Drew Doughty

Pending free agents confront injury risk in NHL playoffs

Alex Pietrangelo and his wife had ongoing discussions about whether he should return to the ice when the NHL season resumes.

In addition to wanting to keep the couple’s infant triplets safe during the pandemic, the 30-year-old captain of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues is heading into free agency while in his prime. He decided to play.

”The focus right now is just kind of getting through this healthy and playing and we’ll see where things end up,” Pietrangelo said.

Staying healthy has added importance for Pietrangelo, Boston’s Torey Krug, Arizona’s Taylor Hall, Washington’s Braden Holtby and more than 100 other pending unrestricted free agents taking part in the 24-team playoffs. Instead of cashing in July 1 had this been a normal year, they face the risk of injury after several months off that could put big paydays in jeopardy.

”Being a free agent that goes into this situation, it’s definitely risky,” Krug said. ”I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not. Having three or four months off, and then going right into the most intense hockey you could possibly play at any level, there’s always risk for injury no matter when you play. But certainly in this moment you don’t have the normal training that you do, the preparation, all the work to make sure your body feels good and you can go in without any worries.”

The worries weren’t severe enough for most to opt out. Calgary’s Travis Hamonic and Edmonton’s Mike Green are pending free agents who decided not to play, but they cited family health concerns as the reason.

The thought of not playing never crossed Holtby’s mind. Two years removed from backstopping the Capitals to their first title, the 30-year-old goaltender is more focused on trying to win the Cup again than endangering his future earnings by doing so.

”My job right now is to win a championship with the Caps,” Holtby said. ”Everything else after that is completely irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve ever worried about injuries or anything like that. Any game that you get to play, you are pretty fortunate to get to play in this league.”

Florida teammates Evgenii Dadonov and Mark Pysyk are on that same page, too. Pysyk said he gave little to no thought about opting out, figuring this was no different from competing in the playoffs any other season. Dadonov said he’s ”not scared” about risking injury.

Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon doesn’t think he has it worse as a pending free agent than others around the league.

”There’s always a risk when you have a big layoff like this,” Dillon said. ”I think it just goes to the preparation for us as players in general, whether you are (a free agent) or a guy on a six-year deal.”

Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal with the Capitals in January, and had more than a few people tell him he’s lucky for getting that done. Under the collective bargaining extension the league and players’ union agreed to, the salary cap will remain flat at the current $81.5 million for at least next season and possibly beyond because of revenue lost during the pandemic.

That economic reality could mean Pietrangelo doesn’t get the kind of monster contract other elite defensemen such as Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Roman Josi signed. Holtby might have to settle for something less than the $70 million, seven-year deal fellow Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky got from the Panthers last summer.

They might have to choose between taking less money from a championship contender or more from a rebuilding team. But they insist that will be a worry for after the season when free agency opens in October.

”I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Krug said. ”I’m just trying to take it day by day and worry about the playoffs right now and then I’ll probably prepare for free agency and see what happens from there.”

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.

NHL Awards: Draisaitl, Ovechkin among regular season winners

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Now that we know the NHL’s Return to Play format, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the 2019-20 regular season is considered over. That means all records and stats are final.

But what about those eight Qualifying Round series? That discussion is on-going, but if they were to count they would be considered playoff statistics.

That means we have a definitive answer to some regular season awards.

Handing out a few trophies

Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak share the Rocket Richard Trophy with 48 goals. It’s the ninth win for the Capitals captain and first for the Bruins forward. This is the third time the award will be shared and first since Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby tied with 51 goals in 2009-10.

• Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl wins his first Art Ross Trophy with 110 points. He was the only player to reach the 100-point mark and finished 13 points ahead of teammate Connor McDavid, who hit his jersey number, 97. Draisaitl also led the league with 67 assists and in posts/crossbars hit with 14.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

• The Bruins are the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners. They led the league with 100 points at the time of the March 12 pause and also own the best points percentage (.714) among all NHL teams. This is the third time they’ve won the award and first since the 2013-14 season.

Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak will share the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed since they both played at least 25 games. The tandem allowed 167 goals in 70 games played (2.39 goals allowed per game).

Other statistical notes

• Ovechkin will be denied a ninth 50-goal season. The Capitals had 13 games remaining on their schedule.

• McDavid will fall short of his fourth-straight 100-point season. Artemi Panarin (95), David Pastrnak (95), and Nathan MacKinnon (93) were all primed to hit 100 points for the first time in their careers.

• The Sabres will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. They played their last game on March 9, meaning it could be a very long off-season if we’re not seeing a 2020-21 season begin until November or December, at the earliest.

• Oh, what could have been for the Sabres. According to the NHL on NBC research team, if Buffalo had beat Montreal in regulation on March 12 (the day of the NHL pause), they would have jumped the Canadiens in terms of points percentage and would be set to play the Penguins.

• Detroit owns the top odds (18.5%) in the first lottery draw for the No. 1 overall pick.

• How good are Brady Tkachuk and Brad Marchand at getting under the skins of opponents? They led the NHL in penalties draw with 47 and 45, respectively.

• Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot is your ice time leader, averaging 22:30 per game. That’s 2:54 more than Drew Doughty, who finished second.

• Finally, David Rittich of the Flames is your shootout king with a 6-0 record and only two goals allowed on 21 shots against.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.

NHL agent poll hits many topics, shows optimism about avoiding 2022 lockout

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For a long time, agents in the NHL and other sports were demonized, often to the advantage of ownership. As many fans have started to realize a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes, such viewpoints have become more nuanced. It doesn’t hurt that agents can express their message — and their clients’ perspectives — more freely over social media.

Then again, for every outspoken agent like Allan Walsh, there are plenty we don’t hear a whole lot from. That’s part of what makes Puck Pedia’s NHL agent poll so fascinating.

While the full post is worth your time, here are some of the highlights from Puck Pedia’s NHL agent poll.

NHL agent poll provides optimism about avoiding 2022 lockout

Puck Pedia polled 25 top NHL agents in late January to early February, so COVID-19 issues aren’t really touched upon. As they mentioned, it’s possible that the pandemic might push certain opinions a bit, but for the most part, I’d agree that these results are still worth mulling over.

Maybe the most important one is that 80 percent of NHL agents polled believe that there won’t be a 2022 lockout.

Reports indicate that the NHL and NHLPA underwent some CBA extension/new CBA talks amid the pause. So, to some extent, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Still, I think I speak for most hockey fans when I say that any positive lockout-avoidance talk remains good news. It probably always will be after 2004-05 was scuttled, and 2012-13 was shortened.

Other issues the poll covers

  • When it came to viewpoints on specific GMs, one former and one current Toronto Maple Leafs GM represented polar opposites.

Thirty three percent of NHL agents in the poll chose Lou Lamoriello as the most difficult GM to work with. Meanwhile, when asked about a GM you’d want to work with to get a great deal for a client, Kyle Dubas received 29 percent of votes. The closest GM behind Lamoriello was Bob Murray at 14 percent, while Dubas topped the other list by an even more dramatic margin (no other GM exceeded six percent).

As Puck Pedia notes, recency bias likely inflates Dubas. Recency bias surfaces in plenty of polls like these, including for players. (Though you won’t see players changing their minds about, say, Carey Price or Drew Doughty too quickly, either.)

But I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Maple Leafs fans will grit their teeth at this. After all, you can spin that in a pretty negative way.

  • Some of the best contract votes (Nathan MacKinnon as team-friendly) and worst (Milan Lucic, Brent Seabrook) ended up being far from surprising. Others were a little bit unexpected, though.
  • On the negative side, it was surprising to see Erik Karlsson garner more votes than, say, Sergei Bobrovsky. From a recency bias perspective, maybe absence made hearts grow fonder about David Clarkson? (I’m guessing absence made at least an NHL agent or 20 straight-up forget about Clarkson.)
  • The positives inspired some interesting choices, too. I’m not sure many people would rank Calle Jarnkrok alongside David Pastrnak, but they were tied at 14 percent. Jarnkrok’s deal being more team-friendly than Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Brad Marchand? You do you, 14 percent of those NHL agents.

NHL agent poll ends up reasonable — for the most part

For the most part, this NHL agent poll seemed to produce some understandable results. They certainly seem to have more grounded expectations than the sometimes-audacious things NHL executives want to change about the CBA, at least.

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.

Roundtable: Which non-playoff team has the brightest future?

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Which non-playoff team’s future do you feel most confident about?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Senators’ future could be real bright if they’re allowed the resources to develop their prospect pool and manage to keep them in Ottawa.

What the Senators have been able to do over the last few years is build up a prospect cupboard that could form an extremely talented core down the line. Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Colin White have established themselves as roster regulars under age 22. Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom, and Logan Brown were given decent looks this season, but there’s more coming.

Alex Formenton and Josh Norris were named to the AHL’s 2019-20 All-Rookie Team and were First (Norris) and Second (Formenton) Team All-Stars with Belleville. Vitaly Abramov also had a strong year with the Baby Sens, while Jacob Bernard-Docker could be an offensive weapon from the blue line in the future.

One of the Senators’ biggest areas of need will be in net. Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg look to be next after Craig Anderson‘s time comes to an end.

That’s a decent amount of names we could be seeing in Ottawa over the next few seasons. But wait — there could be more! GM Pierre Dorion has managed to stock pile up to nine picks in the opening three rounds of the 2020 draft. Not to mention four in the first two rounds in 2021. Some of those picks could be used in trades to bulk up the roster, of course, which shows the Senators are pointed in the right direction. They just have to follow the correct route.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: When in doubt, go with youth, so I lean toward the Devils.

First and foremost, they already have two really good young forwards in fellow first overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. The Devils recently extended Hischier to a reasonable deal, while they get to enjoy the luxury of Hughes having two more years on his rookie contract.

Such saving means that P.K. Subban‘s $9M price tag doesn’t hurt quite as much.

Beyond that, the Devils also have a lot of ammo to improve. They currently own three first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, and at least two of those figure to be pretty good choices. The Devils could either add to their crop of prospects, move those picks in creative deals to get better sooner, or do a bit of both. New Jersey has cap space to either seek free agents or trades, too.

Now, the Devils have a lot of work to do, including deciding if Tom Fitzgerald gets to take “interim” off of his GM title. Goaltending and defense remain massive problems, and they sure could use more scoring depth, as well.

But at least the Devils have some building blocks in place. Also, the Senators have similar opportunities, yet they also have Eugene Melnyk as their owner. I’ll take the Devils in that duel, even if I can’t help but wonder about their ownership situation, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The pause couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Kings, for two reasons. First, they had won seven games in a row – the league’s longest active winning streak. Second, the streak had pushed them down a couple spots in the lottery race. So they lost the chance to build even more momentum heading into the offseason, while also hurting their chances to win the No. 1 overall pick.

All that said, there should be serious optimism about the direction of the team. At the NHL level, there appear to be prime years left for Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and yes, perhaps even Jonathan Quick (from November on, he posted a 2.38 GAA and .916 SV%). Unheralded younger players like Alex Iafallo (17 goals, 43 points) and Matt Roy (team-leading +16) are becoming legitimate contributors. A big question was answered when oft-injured former first-rounder Gabe Vilardi finally made his NHL debut, and looked like he belonged scoring 7 points in 10 games. In small sample sizes each of the past two seasons, Cal Petersen has showed starter-level talent between the pipes.

With no key players on expiring contracts, GM Rob Blake has plenty of cap space (north of $23M) to work with this offseason. Could Los Angeles be a darkhorse destination for Taylor Hall?

But the biggest reason for confidence: the loaded prospect pool. The Kings have arguably the best non-NHL talent of any organization. They sent nine players to the 2020 World Juniors – most of any team – and from that group came the tournament’s leading goal and point scorer Samuel Fagemo, as well as Canada’s golden goal scorer Akil Thomas. Plus, with 6 picks in the first 3 rounds this year, things only stand to improve.

The big question for Kings fans: can enough of these prospects develop into quality NHL players while Kopitar and Doughty remain top-end talents? If so, LA may have what it takes to contend for a Cup once again.

PREVIOUS PHT ROUNDTABLES:
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Our favorite hockey call of all-time
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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.