Jason Pominville

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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.

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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.

Skinner signs $72 million extension to stay with Sabres

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The Buffalo Sabres have a new coach and now they’ve locked up one the biggest names on the roster to a long-term deal.

Jeff Skinner is staying in Buffalo after the Sabres announced Friday night that he has signed an eight-year extension worth $72 million. The contract carries a $9M average annual value and runs through the 2026-27 NHL season. The cap hit is the second-highest on the team behind Jack Eichel, whose AAV is at $10M.

In his first season with the Sabres following last summer’s trade from Carolina, the 27-year-old Skinner set a career high in goals with 40 and tied his career high in points with 63. Of those 40 goals, 32 came at even strength.

Last week, James took a look at whether a hefty, long-term deal for Skinner was worth it. The backend of the deal may not look pretty once the forward is north of 30, an age where many snipers go cold, but general manager Jason Botterill needed to lock him up and show the fanbase that they are moving in a positive direction. The second half decline in 2018-19 left a sour taste in the mouths of fans and after watching Ryan O'Reilly get traded and excel with the St. Louis Blues, seeing Skinner walk for no assets in return on July 1 and produce somewhere else was not an option.

With Skinner tied down, next on Botterill’s summer to-do list figure out what to do with restricted free agents Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Evan Rodrigues, Jake McCabe, and Linus Ullmark, as well as unrestricted free agent and franchise favorite Jason Pominville.

MORE: Is Jeff Skinner worth $9M to Sabres?

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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.

No Canada: Nation’s Stanley Cup drought approaches 26 years

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Whenever Eric Desjardins reunites with his 1993 Montreal Canadiens teammates, the topic of Canada’s ongoing Stanley Cup drought doesn’t come up in conversation.

”We don’t see it that way. Canadian team, American team, it’s just that we were part of the NHL,” the former star defenseman said. ”Sure, it’s been a while in Montreal, but we don’t really talk about the 26 years.”

That’s right. With the NHL playoffs set to open Wednesday, it will be going on 26 years since the Canadiens – or any other Canadian team – brought home the Cup.

Desjardins, who enjoyed a 17-year career split between Montreal and Philadelphia, chalks up the drought to NHL expansion across the United States and league-wide parity ushered in with the introduction of the salary cap in 2005.

”It’s supposed to be our national sport, and we’re supposed to be the best at it,” said Desjardins, who’s from Montreal. ”But now, the way the league’s structured I think it could go anywhere. … I think anybody can win it now. And I think it makes it more interesting.”

Still, the 49-year-old acknowledged a quarter century between Cups in Canada is far too long, and Desjardins can see himself rooting for any Canadian team making it to this year’s Final.

”If the Final’s between Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, yeah I would root, even though I like Pittsburgh,” he said. ”But yeah, against Calgary, Winnipeg, I would cheer for the Canadian team.”

Canada’s Cup hopes this spring rest on three teams – Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto – to end the drought. Of course, most current Canadian-born NHL players weren’t alive to see Desjardins and Co. celebrate their five-game series win over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.

Sabres forward Jason Pominville is among the exceptions.

He was 10 when his hometown Habs won, and Pominville still vividly recalls Game 2 of the series in which Desjardins scored all three goals in Montreal’s 3-2 overtime win after the Canadiens lost the opener.

”I remember watching that and celebrating in my living room, and fist-pumping when he scored,” Pominville said. ”I was a big fan of Gretzky, too. But when you’re in Montreal, it’s tough not to root for that team when you’re growing up.”

In Montreal, there was a time when winning the Cup was considered a birthright. The Canadiens still top the list with 24 championships, 23 coming after the NHL was founded in 1917.

And yet, Montreal hasn’t reached the Final since ’93, while only five Canadian teams have done so; Vancouver is the only one to make two appearances during the drought, in 1994 and 2011.

Then there are the Maple Leafs, who haven’t reached the Final since winning the Cup in 1967, the last year of the NHL’s Original Six era.

The low point might have been the 2016 playoffs, the first since 1970 to not feature a Canadian team

This was not always the case. From 1927 to 1995, the lengthiest stretch for a Canadian team not appearing in the Final was two years. It last happened in 1991-92, when Pittsburgh won consecutive championships by beating Minnesota and Chicago.

As for Canada’s lengthiest Cup drought before the ’93 Habs, it was a six-year span from 1936-41.

The current drought has gone on for so long, former executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said the math simply doesn’t add up.

”It doesn’t make sense. There’s 31 teams, so seven out of 31 teams, a Canadian team should win every four-and-a-half years,” said Burke, who has worked in the front offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.

The problem, Burke said, is Canadian teams are at a disadvantage because many players don’t want to play north of the border for several reasons.

The first, he said, is a lack of privacy and the amount of pressure placed on players to win north of the border. Burke said a large number of players, including Canadians, often list all seven Canadian teams on the no-trade clauses of their contracts.

”Even in Calgary, we had our lists where players got to put 10 teams on a no-trade list, and all the Canadian teams were on those lists,” he said.

The second issue is Canada’s taxation rate.

”There’s no privacy. Horrible personal criticisms on social media, and then you take home way less money, so it’s pretty easy,” Burke said.

He can only imagine how much national attention will be paid to the next Canadian team to win it all.

”The next GM that wins a Cup in Canada, they’ll be naming schools after him, and streets,” Burke said.

Don’t think Flames GM Brad Treliving hasn’t given ending the drought some thought.

”Hey, that’s all you dream about,” he said, while attempting to keep the pressures of winning in Canada in perspective.

”You got to bed at night and it’s no different than any other manager or any other person involved in the game: That’s what you want to accomplish” Treliving said. ”If you really put the energy and the effort into doing the right things, the results will come.”

Having lost in the Final twice, Desjardins can’t remember a sweeter moment than winning the Cup.

”It’s a reward that’s indescribable,” Desjardins said. ”When you win, you can share it. You share it with your teammates, you share it with the coaching staff.”

In Canada, it will be shared with an entire nation.

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

What to watch for in final days of 2018-19 NHL season

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There is only playoff spot still up for grabs in the NHL’s playoff race, and it could be decided as early as Friday night if the Columbus Blue Jackets can beat the New York Rangers. While that would be somewhat disappointing as it relates to drama and excitement for the final day of the regular season, there will still be plenty of big storylines to watch.

What should you be paying attention to? Let’s take a look.

1. Columbus just needs one win. Everything is sitting right there for the Blue Jackets. All they have to do is win one game against either the sixth-worst team in the league (the Rangers on Friday) or the worst team in the league (the Ottawa Senators on Saturday). That is it. That is all they need to do. If they manage to miss the playoffs (which they would do with if they fail to collect two points over those two games and if Montreal beats Toronto) it would probably be one of the most stunning end-of-season collapses in league history. No pressure!

2. Tampa Bay looks to tie the NHL’s single season win record. They can’t break the record, but if the Lightning beat the Boston Bruins they would win their 62nd game of the season, tying them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season. They are currently one of just three teams to have ever won at least 60 in a single season.

3. More Nikita Kucherov milestones. Assuming they do not rest him, Nikita Kucherov would need four points to become the first player since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the 1995-96 season to record at least 130 points in a season. He is also four assists away from 90 for the season. While that seems like a tall order, keep in mind he already has eight four-point games this season, including one four-assist game.

4. Blues try to go from worst to first. In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. With a win on Saturday, combined with losses by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they would finish the season in first place in the Central Division. That is a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

5. Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares shoot for 50. You have to go all the way back to the 2011-12 season to find the last time the NHL had multiple 50-goal scorers in the same season (Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin did it) but we have a chance to see it happen again this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl needs just one to become the first Oilers player since Wayne Gretzky scored 62 during the 1986-87 season (that is, if you exclude Craig Simpson’s 1987-88 season, where he only scored 43 of his goals as a member of the Oilers). His season has been kind of lost in the shadows of another monster year from Connor McDavid and overlooked because of the rest of the team’s struggles, but he has been sensational. Tavares, if he plays in what is a meaningless game for Toronto, would need to score three goals against the Montreal Canadiens to record his first 50-goal season. There have only been seven 50-goal performances since the start of the 2010-11 season, and four of them belong to Alex Ovechkin.

6. Four players are within reach of 100 points. Kucherov, McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand are already at the century mark, and with big games in their regular season finales Sidney Crosby (98 points), Johnny Gaudreau (98 points), Nathan MacKinnon (98 points), and Stamkos (97 points) could also get there. That is, of course, assuming they play. Pittsburgh (Crosby) and Colorado (MacKinnon) are the only players on teams that can improve their place in the standings, so it is possible Gaudreau or Stamkos could be held out. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov is the next closest player with 94 points, but would need an incredible effort to get to 100 on the season.

7. The potential for some finales. While there is no indication that he is going to retire, the reality is that Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40 years old and his future with the team (or in the NHL) could very much be in doubt. With the Wild missing the playoffs and a new general manager in charge, it is possible Bruce Boudreau could be coaching his final game in Minnesota. Jason Pominville, a long-time fan favorite in Buffalo, could be appearing in his final game as a member of the Sabres.

8. The draft lottery watch. The Ottawa Senators are locked in to the NHL’s worst record meaning their first-round pick (which now belongs to the Colorado Avalanche) will have the best odds to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But several other teams could see their odds change depending on the outcome of their remaining games. The big ones to watch are the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Entering play on Friday the Kings have the second worst record in the league, sitting just one point behind the Devils. A Devils regulation loss, combined with one Kings win, would see New Jersey’s lottery odds jump up from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

9. The Nichushkin and Rieder watch. Tobias Rieder has played 66 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season and not scored a goal. Valeri Nichushkin has played 57 games for the Dallas Stars and not scored a goal OR taken a penalty. Will one of them get a goal? At least let Rieder get one after he had to take all of the blame for the Oilers’ struggles this season.

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.

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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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.