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NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

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.

Stanley Cup Buzzer: Bruins, Blues are going to Game 7

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  • Don’t blame it on the jinx. Superstitions didn’t stump St. Louis; instead, it was superlative play from Tuukka Rask. He shut down the Blues while they really carried the play through the first 40 minutes of Game 6, and then the Bruins blew open what had been just a 1-0 game heading into the third period. Prepare for the agony and ecstasy of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, hockey fans.

Boston Bruins 5, St. Louis Blues 1 (Series tied 3-3; Game 7 airs at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday [NBC; stream here])

This one was a lot closer than it indicated, and not just because Zdeno Chara scored an empty-netter for Boston. While Jordan Binnington was the star of Game 5 for St. Louis, Rask stole one (or at least two-thirds of this one) for Boston, and the Bruins ran away with the final frame to sap any drama from the latter stages of Sunday’s contest. Really, if you step back and look at the series, it only seems fitting that this one is going the distance.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tuukka Rask

Even the one goal Rask allowed tells part of the story of his Game 6, as it initially looked like he made the save, by Ryan O'Reilly‘s attempt barely went over the red line.

Really, the Blues didn’t deserve to be shut out, not that goose eggs only happen by merit. They put forth a ferocious effort, although their special teams let them down at key times. Rask made 28 out of 29 saves in this one, although there was one close call that will really leave you scratching your head.

It’s tough to make a definitive argument for a specific Blues player to win the Conn Smythe, if they get it, as it’s been a team effort. The Bruins have enjoyed some nice performances from plenty of other cast members, but if a Boston player gets it, it’s going to Rask. He’s been dynamite.

[More on Rask’s big Game 6 performance.]

2. Brad Marchand

Consider this a collective award for “The Perfection Line.” Even with Patrice Bergeron failing to generate a point in Game 6, his effort was considerable, including six shots on goal.

It’s really a jump ball between Marchand and David Pastrnak, though, as both forwards ended Game 6 with a goal and an assist. For my money, Marchand’s goal was the most crucial of the contest. The Blues were really pouring it on, and the Bruins couldn’t squander a 5-on-3 power play opportunity. They didn’t, thanks to some great puck movement, and a nice finish by Marchand. That 1-0 goal wouldn’t serve as the game-winner, but Boston really needed it.

Marchand assisted on Pastrnak’s pretty 4-1 goal, which was a nice display of skill and poise, while throwing a bucket of ice water on any semblance of resistance after ROR shrunk Boston’s lead to a more tenable 3-1.

3. Charlie McAvoy

The second star basically went to two forwards, while the third goes to the overall Bruins’ defensive effort, personified most boldly by McAvoy.

Now, you could make an argument for Jake DeBrusk and the Bruins’ second line, as they made a difference in Game 6, with DeBrusk shining when things were tight. Other Bruins defensemen could jockey for the third billing; Chara scored that empty-netter and showed courage once again, while Brandon Carlo‘s bouncer was the GWG.

And, yes, a very cursory glance at McAvoy’s stats (zero points, what could have been a problematic penalty against Vladimir Tarasenko) wouldn’t impress.

If you dig deeper, you’ll realize how crucial McAvoy was. McAvoy really tilted the ice in his favor during his 25:22 TOI, including almost 21 minutes of tough five-on-five play. He was on the right end of the possession battle to an impressive extent; according to Natural Stat Trick, McAvoy was on the ice for 15 shots for and only six against at even-strength. McAvoy stands far above his other Bruins teammates in other, fancier measures, as well.

Oh yeah, and he also helped Rask keep that puck out – somehow – on that memorably batty play.

Hot take: the Bruins  better make sure they sign McAvoy, who’s a pending RFA.

Factoids

  • Being that the Blues had been swept in all of their previous Stanley Cup Final appearances, it’s redundant to say that this is new for them, and the Bruins have played in a Game 7 in a Stanley Cup Final. This is, however, new for Boston, as this is the first time the Bruins will host a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final. Every other “Original Six” team has already hosted at least one Game 7 of a SCF.
  • Karson Kuhlman is the 21st different Bruins player to score at least one goal during this run. The Bruins have tied the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers for the record for most unique scorers during a single postseason. Clearly, Tuukka Rask needs to break the tie. (Sportsnet points out John Moore as a more realistic, less entertaining option.)
  • Speaking of Rask, Sportsnet notes that he has an absurd .966 save percentage on the road during his last seven road playoff games.
  • Torey Krug has six points during this Round 4 series. Only one other Bruins defenseman has generated more points during a Stanley Cup Final series: Bobby Orr scored eight in 1972 and seven in 1974.
  • The Bruins are now 25-1 in playoff games when Brad Marchand scores a goal. His seven goals in Stanley Cup Final games (19 games played) ties Marchand for second all-time among Bruins, with Orr (eight goals in 16 GP) and Johnny Bucyk (eight goals in 24 GP) tied for first. Marchand is currently tied with Wayne Cashman, who generated seven goals in 26 games.

How to watch Game 7

Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday (stream here).

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Chara’s status for Game 5 unclear; Grzelcyk skates

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(UPDATE: Chara will play in Game 5.)

BOSTON — Zdeno Chara’s status for Thursday’s Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final remains unclear.

The Boston Bruins defenseman wasn’t at TD Garden for Wednesday’s practice two days after taking a puck to the mouth in their Game 4 defeat. While reports state he has a broken jaw, there won’t be any update until at least Thursday. One encouraging sign was the sight of Matt Grzelcyk on the ice, though he skated in a non-contact jersey. 

Grzelcyk, who’s been out since a Game 2 hit that put him in concussion protocol and and saw St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist suspended one game, said he was feeling better, but still needed to be cleared in order to make a return to the Bruins’ lineup.

“I think the toughest thing Is just not being out there with the team,” Grzelcyk said. “Having to sit and watch is tough. I’m just happy to be back around the guys, feeling a lot more like myself.”

With the absences of Chara and Grzelcyk, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy tweaked his defense pairings on Wednesday. John Moore, who’s been a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs, including Games 1 and 2 of the Cup Final, was playing on the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy. Steven Kampfer was out there with Connor Clifton. Grzelcyk skated with Urho Vaakanainen, who will likely not see any action if Cassidy decides to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

As the Bruins await status updates on Chara and Grzelcyk, it’ll once again be that next man up mentality.

“It kind of helped knowing we had a couple of days here to get ready for it,” said Kampfer. “Nobody really knows who’s in, who’s out [Thursday]. You’re mentally ready for any situation to happen. I’ve had it before guys have gotten sick in the afternoon and you’re jumping in and playing a game that you didn’t think you were playing in at 3:30 p.m. It’s just making sure you’re mentally with it all the time.”

The Bruins are used to missing pieces from their lineup this postseason, so having been through that experience numerous times will help with the potential loss of Chara.

“I think our guys are good that way knowing that the team will pull together,” said Cassidy. “It’s just tough when you lose your captain. He is your captain and he plays some valuable minutes in this particular series. Against a heavier team, that’s where you miss the actual what he brings to the table.

“But in terms of the mentality, I think this team will be OK. And we don’t know Zee if he misses one game, if he wouldn’t be available for the next one if that’s the case, either. We don’t really know right now. There’s a little bit of that hope factor for us as well.”

Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday (stream here).

MORE: Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options for Game 5

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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.

Stanley Cup Final: Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options for Game 5

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Monday’s Game 4 loss to the St. Louis Blues was already the second time in the Stanley Cup Final that the Boston Bruins have had to finish a game with only five healthy defenders.

And for the second time they were on the losing end of the decision thanks in part to their shorthanded lineup.

In Game 2, it was Matt Grzelcyk that was sidelined after he was on the receiving end of an illegal check that kept him out of Games 3 and 4 of the series, while also resulting in a one-game suspension for Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.

In Game 4 it was veteran Zdeno Chara exiting the game after he was hit in the face by a Brayden Schenn shot that deflected off of Chara’s own stick. Even though he returned to the bench wearing a full face-shield for the entire third period, he never took another shift and was unavailable the entire time.

The status of both players remains very much in doubt for Game 5 of the series on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC) when it shifts back to Boston. That could be a huge problem for the Bruins.

It is still possible that one — or both — could be available, but that is still a huge unknown at this point and there is still the possibility that neither could be in the lineup. That is the potential doomsday scenario for the Bruins.

If there is one thing that can be said about this Bruins team it’s that they have done a remarkable job overcoming injuries all season, and it might be one of the most impressive aspects of their regular season record and run to the Stanley Cup Final. They have spent a significant portion of the season playing without some of their best players (often at the same time) and still managed to finish with one of the league’s best records. When everyone (or at least most of their lineup) is healthy they have looked like a powerhouse team that can be nearly impossible to beat.

They just haven’t always had that luxury, and when they haven’t they have at times looked vulnerable.

Especially when the injuries come on their blue line.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If Chara and Grzelcyk are unable to go that would mean the Bruins would be without two of their top-five defenders from the regular season in terms of ice-time.

That is a situation they found themselves in for 26 games during the regular season where at least two of Chara, Grzcelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, or Brandon Carlo (their top-five defenders in ice-time) were out of the lineup. For one seven-game stretch in late November they were actually without three of them. While they remained competitive throughout all of that, they were pretty close to a .500 team in those 26 games with a 13-10-3 record.

Pretty good considering the circumstances, but obviously not anywhere near as dominant as they were when everyone was healthy.

When all five are in the lineup, including playoffs, the Bruins are 25-10-4.

Here’s the good news, such as it is, for the Bruins if Chara and/or Grzelcyk miss any additional team: They still have their best and most important defenders in the lineup in McAvoy and Krug. Those are the players that really drive the Bruins’ defense at this point and can make the biggest impact. They are the best skaters, the best puck-movers, the best ones at jumping into the play and joining the rush, and the ones that can most impact the team’s transition game. Carlo, for whatever shortcomings he might have with the puck, is also still one of their better defensive players.

We already looked at the depth issues associated with Grzelyck’s absence before Game 3, and taking Chara out of the mix only adds to them even if he is no longer one of their most impactful players.

Chara is one of the best defenders of his generation, but at age 42 he is a shell of his former dominant self. He can still be useful, he can he still be strong on the penalty kill, and he is still a huge presence (quite literally) on and off the ice. But he is no longer one of the players driving the bus for this team. The fact the Bruins will still have the players that are doing that is going to help as Bruce Cassidy can still lean on them.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be issues.

For one, none of the potential options are better than Chara and Grzelcyk. If they were, they would already be playing, and anytime you get down to the seventh or eighth defenders on your depth chart you are starting to get into a tough spot.

One option that Cassidy talked about on Tuesday is potentially using seven defenders in Game 5.

“Well, the back end could have a domino effect,” said Cassidy when asked about potential lineup decisions. “Again, speculation, I hate doing this, but if we are out two D, [Grzelcyk and Chara], we might have to play seven defensemen. Putting guys in that haven’t played a ton. Maybe you’ve got to look at how does this best work out to use a guy situationally, take Z’s PK minutes, if the other guys match up, which of course would be reaching into an area that a young kid hasn’t played in the Playoffs at all. You have to be careful there. Forwards, I think we can manage. We’ve used different guys, double-shifted throughout the year. So that part doesn’t worry me as much as how is it going to affect the young kid coming out of the lineup. We’ve plugged a D in, it’s worked well for us so far. That’s the other option. I don’t think we’ll go any other route. We’ve gone this far. Those are our options right now. That’s dictated by health right now.”

With veteran John Moore playing Games 3 and 4 he would obviously be a candidate to remain in the lineup if one of Grzlecyk or Chara can not go. If they are both out, and the Bruins opt to go with seven defenders, their remaining options would include veteran Steve Kampfer and rookies Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril. None of the rookies have ever played in a single playoff game and have just 20 regular season games between them.

Throwing one of them right into a Stanley Cup Final game would be a massive jump, especially since none of them have played an NHL game of any kind anytime recently.

The idea of seven defenders is a tough one because it can create a lot of problems.

On one hand when you are already deep into your depth chart and short on players it doesn’t seem to make a ton sense to play MORE of your defenders that aren’t good enough to crack your regular lineup. It also shortens your forward lineup and takes out a player that is probably better and more useful than the extra defender you are putting in the lineup (which forward do you want to scratch if you are the Bruins? Nobody deserves it).

But doing so could give Cassidy and his coaching staff the option to limit who plays in what situations, putting them into positions where they can succeed and don’t risk having their flaws as exposed (like penalty kill situations, for example, or defensive zone starts against the Blues’ top line).

In the end it is a potentially difficult situation for the Bruins to navigate, and one that could significantly impact the outcome of the series.

If neither one can go none of their options are particularly good ones. Their best hope is that both are, somehow, healthy enough to play.

Game 5 of Blues-Bruins is Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC from TD Garden in Boston

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
Bruins confident they can overcome injuries 
Chara’s status for Game 5 unknown
Chara bloodied after taking puck to face

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.

Blues, Bruins turning to their depth for Game 3

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ST. LOUIS — John Moore has experienced entering a Stanley Cup Final in the middle of the series.

In 2014, while with the New York Rangers, he returned to the lineup for Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings after serving a two-game suspension. Five years later, the 28-year-old defenseman is in another “next man up” situation, one that the Boston Bruins have gotten used to this season.

Matt Grzelcyk did not travel to St. Louis for Games 3 and 4 against the Blues after being boarded by Oskar Sundqvist of the Blues in Game 2. Sundqvist was suspended one game. Moore will take Grzelcyk’s place Saturday night.

“The forecheck was a strength of theirs [in Game 2] and a weakness of ours — breaking pucks out,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “[Grzelcyk] is good at the big escape and the big clean pass to get our forwards moving. We lost some of that element.”

Once again, Cassidy has to dip into his depth in an attempt to grab a 2-1 series lead (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) at Enterprise Center. Moore will likely fill in on the third pairing with Connor Clifton, and depending how the game goes, it’ll be interesting to see how the minutes are distributed on the back end.

For the Bruins, it’s been easy to slide in a new player when needed. The veteran core has seen their share of injuries over the years considering it’s a war of attrition to make it to the Cup Final.

“Well, I think for our team, our guys are so inclusive that they’re going to make that guy feel welcome,” said Cassidy. “Coming into good lineups, that certainly makes it easier. And it’s also on the individual. If he’s the type who a little more laid back, probably a little easier this time of year.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I feel like we’ve had that happen to us a number of times this season,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “Very early on, I think, in November, we probably lost three regulars on the back end and probably two or three regulars on the front and each time we had guys really stepping up playing big minutes and big roles and did a great job for our team. 

“I think that it’s not any different this time. We saw it in the playoffs a number of times guys played big, really answered some of the questions that we are answering today of how they’re going to be. They always respond well and this team always relies on the depth that we have.”

The Bruins (22) and Blues (21) have both needed to rely on extra bodies in these playoffs. As Cassidy deals with his own situation, Craig Berube will turn to Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford to replace the injured Robert Thomas and suspended Sundqvist for Game 3.

Much like the Bruins, the Blues have had to use the “next man up” mentality. Despite two changes ahead for Game 3, the Blues are confident in their depth and they’re confident multiple new faces in the lineup won’t disrupt any part of their game plan.

“I think we have a good team. Anyone’s able to come in,” said Blues defenseman Colton Parayko. “We’ve done it all season long. Guys have stepped into different roles. Guys have done different things at different times. That’s the character of our group and it’s definitely not being tested.”

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
The Wraparound: Stanley Cup Final returns to St. Louis
Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist suspended
Blues’ Tarasenko sniping at Ovechkin-like level
Grzelcyk’s absence could be significant for Bruins
Blues’ top line getting best of Bruins’ top line so far

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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.