Jake Gardiner

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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

Jake Gardiner could be free agent steal

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One of the most surprising developments this offseason has to be the fact Jake Gardiner, probably the top defender to hit the open market, remains unsigned nearly two weeks into the free agent signing period.

Not only is he still unsigned as of publication on Saturday, but there has also been complete radio silence on any potential interest in signing the defender.

Little to no speculation on potential teams, or contract terms, or … anything. It’s almost as if he no longer exists in the NHL, which is completely stunning given how good he has been and some of the other contracts that have been signed this summer.

How does a team give Tyler Myers $30 million over six years on the first day of free agency, or give up multiple draft picks in a trade for Justin Braun, while a better player (Gardiner) remains sitting out there unsigned for anyone to go after?

The concerns

Let’s start with health.

Gardiner was limited throughout the 2018-19 season by a back injury that sidelined him for 20 games and clearly limited him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It creates quite a dilemma for any interested team because until this season Gardiner had been an extremely durable player, appearing in at least 75 games in six of his first seven seasons while playing more than 20 minutes per night every year. That includes five seasons where he played in at least 79 games, and back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 where he did not miss a single game.

Even though his injury has reportedly healed well this offseason, it is still understandable that a back injury for a 29-year-old defender could be a legitimate concern for a team on a long-term contract.

The other criticism that Gardiner faces is that he has had two of his worst games on the biggest possible stage, struggling in back-to-back Game 7 losses over the past two seasons.

But any team that puts more weight on those two games than his entire career track record is making a bad evaluation.

The playoffs are a strange beast because they are ultimately what teams (and players) are measured by when it comes to their success and/or failure. But that can also lead to a lot of mistakes because you are not always getting an accurate representation of what a team (or player) actually is. Especially when you drill it down to a single game, or even just a few single moments within a single game.

It is almost as if players that play on teams that don’t get into big games get evaluated more favorably than players that do, because the former hasn’t had a chance to have their flaws exposed or had a chance to have a bad performance in a big situation. Almost as if it’s better to NOT play in a big series or a big game, eliminating the risk of making a mistake that could be a negative on your track record, than it is to play in one and make that one mistake. I don’t necessarily think that teams are entirely shying away from Gardiner because he fumbled a few plays in Game 7s … but I also wouldn’t put it past teams to do that, either.

The production

The point with this is that the larger sampling should take greater priority over the one mistake in the one game you paid closest attention to.

When it comes to the larger sampling, Gardiner should be an attractive option because he has been a very good player.

He moves the puck well, he has consistently scored well in terms of possession and scoring chances throughout his career on teams that have not always been good in those areas, and he can provide some offense.

For his career he’s played 551 games, recorded 245 points, and has a career 51 percent Corsi percentage.

Among active defenders, he is one of only 12 defenders that hit all of those marks through their age 28 season, a list that also includes the likes of Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk, and Dougie Hamilton. All of them were (and are) on significant long-term contracts by age 29. Most players that make it this far into free agency do not typically get long-term deals, so it’s possible that Gardiner has to settle for something less than expected at the start of the free agent signing period.

The Maple Leafs theory

Let’s just throw one more possible theory out there, just for laughs.

The theory: the Maple Leafs want to bring him back, he wants to return, but neither side can move on that until the team gets the Mitch Marner restricted free agent situation, and by extension, the rest of their salary cap situation, completely settled.

Is it likely? Probably not. But it’s hard to figure out why an otherwise good, productive player at an important position where there are not a lot of good, productive players available is still unsigned this far in the summer.

As long as he is healthy there is no reason to think he will not be the same productive, top-four defensemen he has been throughout his entire career for whatever team that signs him this summer.

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.

NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.

Playoff-desperate Canucks sign Micheal Ferland

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In a vacuum, the Vancouver Canucks signing brawny-yet-reasonably-skilled forward Micheal Ferland is perfectly sensible, as TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that the four-year deal carries a $3.5 million cap hit (so it would total $14M). As with most free agent signings, Ferland carries risks, but those worries are soothed by a manageable price and term.

Unfortunately, when you examine the overall contents of this Canucks’ roster and offseason, it looks like GM Jim Benning is making a real mess. Will Ferland be enough to freshen this group up for a truly credible playoff run? The bigger picture is fuzzy, at best.

***

When you consider some of the worst gambles in NHL free agency, it’s crucial to realize that the people making the moves aren’t thinking about how those contracts will look in a few years. The teams they’re running are probably lucky if they’re even thinking about tomorrow.

So far, this offseason continues the Canucks’ baffling pattern of mostly-shrewd work in drafts, followed by reckless free agent spending sprees that light a lot of that draft-weekend goodwill on fire.

During the 2018 offseason, Jim Benning spent as if the Canucks were a team on the cusp of a playoff push, and even then, it was tough to defend a combined $6M cap hit for marginal veterans Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel. If you saw even a portion of the Canucks’ 2018-19 season, you’ll recall that they were quite far from the cusp, let alone a Stanley Cup.

And, while Ferland’s a respectable (if imperfect) investment, the bigger picture of the 2019 offseason is that Benning isn’t really learning lessons. Or, perhaps even worse, Benning just doesn’t care, because he’s panicking with his job on the line. The Canucks’ buddies in Edmonton can tell them all about how difficult it is to clean up after a GM who’s just sort of throwing money at everything, sometimes seemingly blindfolded.

The Tyler Myers contract smells so much like the defensive version of the Loui Eriksson debacle, it even shares the same frightening $6M AAV.

It’s questionable enough handing a $6M cap hit to Alex Edler for a mere two years, but Myers received five. If the Canucks are wrong in rolling their eyes at the many people warning that Myers simply isn’t very good, then they’re stuck with another Eriksson-type contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Benning’s strange calls mean that the Canucks are stuck with Myers, Beagle, and Roussel for a combined $12M, and for a troubling stretch of time. Again, those contracts don’t just look bad down the line; it’s doubtful that trio is worth anywhere near $12M in 2019-20 alone. Not good.

To reiterate: the Ferland bet is one of the most reasonable risks Benning’s taken in free agency, but there is some risk involved. Injuries were an issue for him during the Carolina Hurricanes’ push through the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and may have factored in him lingering on the free agent market until July 10. It’s also fair to bring up just how great his linemates have been, likely inflating his value:

But that affordable $3.5M cap hit does lower the stakes quite a bit.

If you must add “heavy hockey” to your mix, at least Ferland fits that bill while actually possessing some skill. Ferland is coming off of consecutive 40-point seasons, and hit 21 goals in 2017-18. There are certain analytics markers that indicate that he can at least keep up somewhat well in the modern game, despite being a big body, such as CJ Turtoro’s visualizations of Corey Sznajder’s zone entry and exit data:

Personally, I’d rather target quicker players to keep up with the increasingly speedy modern game, or perhaps even see if Jake Gardiner could be had at a cheaper rate, but there are far worse bets than Ferland.

Sadly for Canucks fans, Benning has made plenty of bad bets, and with Boeser still in need of a new contract as an RFA, Benning still has some crucial calls to make during this summer.

Here’s a sobering question: when you scan the Canucks’ Cap Friendly page and other roster outlooks, do the Canucks strike you as a playoff team? Were they really a Ferland away from giving themselves a strong chance to make it into the postseason, and have a credible opportunity to make waves if they got that far?

From Benning’s perspective, the goal seems to be to survive. If enough of these moves go sideways, the Canucks might not have the greatest odds to thrive, 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.

NHL Free Agency: Five UFAs who could provide value

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The dust has settled on free agent frenzy and many of the best players on the board are now off it.

But there are always some stragglers, players who are quite good at their craft who haven’t signed with a team just yet. Whether it be term, money, or doubt, or a combination of all three, several players remain ready to be plucked off the board.

Below is a list of five players who would provide teams with solid players. Not all of these players come out of the bargain bin, but all would make teams better in the right environment. Some have been left out entirely, guys like Joe Thornton who is probably only going to re-sign in San Jose, or Patrick Marleau, who seems to only have one team in mind. Ditto for Niklas Kronwall.

Honorable mentions: Derrick Brassard

5. Patrick Maroon

Ah, yes. The prototypical “room guy.” The one who plays the role of a hype beast and can also bring it on the ice. Maroon is that guy. He was a centerpiece of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup run, combining timely on-ice contributions with off-ice stuff that equally important, according to his teammates. He’s been a pretty decent possession player over the course of his career and puts up some OK points. He’s reliable. He boosts his team’s morale. He’s a perfect fit for St. Louis in that he’s the hometown guy, but not a perfect fit given the salary cap.

4. Ryan Dzingel

Dzingel is coming off a season where he recorded career highs in goals (26), assists (32) and points (56) but has yet to be signed by a team. Perhaps recency bias is playing some part in that. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire once traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the deadline. For a player who averages a little over a half-point per game, he was around that with 12 points in 21 regular season games. He was basically invisible in the playoffs, however, scoring just once in nine games. His possession numbers don’t jump off the page, but he played on a very bad Senators team. He hovered around 50 percent on a good Senators team from a couple of years ago.

Evolving Wild’s salary projection has him signing a four-year deal worth $4.25 per annum. Dzingel’s issue, at this point, is that teams who might want him may not be able to pay that. Still, teams like Chicago and Edmonton could certainly use a top-six guy like that with a little finagling.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

3. Micheal Ferland

Ferland is an interesting player, one who still combines a physical game with one is also tailored to the modern way of playing. In short, he’s an increasingly rare specimen that possesses the puck well, scores goals and will take your head off if afforded the opportunity. Ferland’s knocks are his durability. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule. And he can be inconsistent. He had 11 goals by the third week of November last season and then went 11 games without one. He closed out the regular season without scoring in the final 17 games he played. He then went goalless in the playoffs — seven games — and was also injured for a time as the Hurricanes marched to the Eastern Conference Final. Much like Dzingel, recency bias could be playing a part here. Evolving Wild has him making $4.1 million per year over a four-year deal. It’d not outlandish money, but there’s some risk attached to it.

2. Justin Williams

The 37-year-old isn’t getting any younger, but even at his age, he’s still producing 20-goal and 50-point seasons with relative ease. If you’re looking for durability, he’s your man having missed just three games in the past six years. If you’re looking for leadership, he’s got that, too. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup winner and has a Conn Smythe Trophy bearing his name. His possession numbers are incredible as well — elite over the past two years, including a 57.89 CF% last season. Since 2007 (as far back as Natural Stat Trick goes, Williams has never had a season below 50 percent.) Nearly 1,250 games into his NHL tenure, Williams isn’t aging the same way many do.

Evolving Wild’s metric has Williams signing a three-year contract worth just shy of $6 million a season. It seems absurd for a man of his age, but the numbers don’t lie. He puts up Kevin Hayes points and possession numbers rivaled by few others, boosting his teammates along the way. It works in Carolina and it seems as if Williams is Hurricanes or retirement at this point.

1. Jake Gardiner

Yes, there’s a top-four defenseman still on the list of UFAs yet to have a deal. That ugly playoff game from a couple years back became old news when the Maple Leafs were without Gardiner for 20 games last season. His absence showed that they missed him and his 50-point capabilities and 50-point defensemen earn many millions of dollars in today’s NHL. Perhaps that’s holding up proceedings. It shouldn’t be. Over the past three seasons, Gardiner has only become a better defenseman. His goals above replacement during that span is ninth in the league in all situations at 35.6 (fifth at even strength)

There are many more graphs and other things that show that Gardiner is a solid player. He’s looking for $7 million a season, according to reports. It’s probably a sticking point that shouldn’t be, but cash-strapped teams like the Winnipeg Jets, who might otherwise be interested in replacing Jacob Trouba with a player that’s showed just as well, are priced out unless they commit to some serious (and further) roster surgery. Perhaps the New Jersey Devils should make a play. Already having traded for P.K. Subban, Gardiner would only make that backend more formidable.

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