Jordan Staal

Devils should go bold, and not just to keep Taylor Hall

Winning an NHL Draft Lottery should attach a rocket to your team’s hopes, especially when you land that top overall pick even though you don’t have the best odds.

Yet, Taylor Hall‘s been here plenty of times before, so forgive him for not looking at a draft lottery win as a cure-all. Instead, through his time seeing the Edmonton Oilers, and now the New Jersey Devils, landing unexpected No. 1 overall picks, Hall’s name has been associated more with memes (also: “the trade is one for one”) than with being one of the best wingers in the NHL.

The one-time Hart Trophy winner couldn’t help but lean into the jokes himself after the Devils landed the top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft:

No rush on extension

The Fourth Period’s Dave Pagnotta created a stir with a report that mentioned that “as of now,” Hall isn’t interested in signing a contract extension with the Devils, which he would be able to do by July.

Hall, 27, addressed the rumblings, telling The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required) that he’s confused that it would be such big news that he’s simply not in a rush to sign an extension. Hall’s agent and Devils GM Ray Shero made the same general points about there being no real rush to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale.

“We never really looked at July 1 as a deadline and Ray hasn’t looked at it like that either,” Hall said to Basu.

One key point people emphasized from Pagnotta’s report, either way, is the phrasing “as of now.”

In a way, you almost wonder if a light bulb was going off over Taylor Hall’s head as he watched Kawhi Leonard’s situation play out with the Toronto Raptors. Despite being an excellent scorer and player basically since his first NHL game, Hall’s only been to the playoffs once, and that was thanks to his Herculean Hart season where he dragged the Devils into the 2018-19 postseason. Why shouldn’t Hall wait and see if the Devils can actually contend before signing away his rights to hit the open market? As Hall’s agent Darren Ferris mentioned, some players only get one chance to truly sign the contract they want with the team they want to play for – without the artificial bindings of RFA status, and without the aging curve limiting their demands. Hall deserves to explore his options as much as just about anyone else, so it only makes sense that the Devils would need to be really convincing to lock him up for what would could be the rest of his prime.

Got to be smart to take advantage of being lucky

The thing is … the Devils should be aggressive to improve, even if Hall’s $6M cap hit wasn’t expiring after 2019-20.

While Hall’s Oilers blundered despite winning multiple draft lotteries, the Devils should view Jack Hughes’ or Kaapo Kakko’s rookie deal as a window of sorts. You can compete beyond that potential three-year entry-level contract, but you’ll never enjoy savings like these again with whoever the Devils pick first overall on June 21.

Consider that:

  • The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup of their current era (in 2008-09) when Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were in the final year of their rookie contracts, and made it to the previous Stanley Cup Final in the last year of Sidney Crosby‘s rookie deal.
  • The Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup of their run (in 2009-10) during the final year of rookie contracts for both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could still compete for years thanks to the bounty of talent they’ve accrued, yet the 2018-19 stings a bit extra because it represents the end of those rookie contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

So, really, the Devils have two directives to get aggressive during this offseason. First, adding more talent can show Taylor Hall that they’re serious about competing, after Shero’s (wisely) taken the slow-and-steady approach before. Secondly, with Jack Hughes/Kaapo Kakko, the Devils could have a difference-maker on a limited contract for three seasons.

A ton of cap space for Devils

While the Devils have a lot to work on – this post from January lays out big issues for their rebuild, including goaltending – Ray Shero has plenty of ammo to use if he wants to be bold. Which, again, the Devils should be, what with that top overall pick and the need to woo Hall.

As you can see from their Cap Friendly page, the Devils have a ton of cap space to work with, as they have an estimated $35.6M in space with 14 roster spots covered. Will Butcher is really the only truly prominent free agent to deal with, although Devils fans might interject with a Stefan Noesen or two.

Yes, Shero must be cognizant of future decisions. Along with Hall being up after 2019-20, Nico Hischier only has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, Sami Vatanen is also entering a contract year, and Kyle Palmieri‘s bargain $4.65M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

But, for the most part, the Devils boast as close to a clean slate as you can hope for in the modern salary cap era, and now is the time to really start taking advantage.

Trades, free agency … offer sheets?

While the free agent route is fascinating and more straightforward (is Newark close enough to New York for Artemi Panarin?), Shero can also get creative.

The Devils have three second-rounders and two third-rounders to go with their normal choices in the 2019 NHL Draft, so Shero could use those picks to swing trades for roster players or try to move up in the draft.

Maybe just as tantalizingly, the Devils’ bounty of 2019 NHL Draft picks could also make them more comfortable with the idea of forking over picks to go the offer sheet route. What if the Devils presented Hall with the opportunity to play with, say, Hughes/Kaakko, Hischier, and Mitch Marner or Brayden Point in the future?

Admittedly, offer sheets are a “believe it when you see it” proposition in the risk-averse NHL. Still, the Devils are one of the teams that are best situated to make such a move, as they have the cap space, the urgency to improve, and the requisite picks to hand over a challenging offer sheet.

(All About the Jersey’s CJ Turturo has a fantastic deep dive on offer sheets and how they relate to the Devils, which also understandably emphasizes that it’s an unlikely route.)

***

Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense that Devils fans might feel a little frightened here. There’s the nightmare scenario where Hall leaves the Devils for nothing, much like what happened with John Tavares and the Devils’ buddies on Long Island.

But, really, this situation should give the Devils another push to be aggressive – and maybe even creative – to get better, fast. Even if Hall isn’t a part of the longer solution, the Devils were gifted with the No. 1 pick, and should take advantage of the significant competitive advantage you can enjoy in competing while key players are on entry-level contracts.

If that aggressiveness impresses Hall enough to stay, then it’s all gravy … or sauce.

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.

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

***

For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

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 players forget outside world during long playoff runs

Two minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his wife, Lars Eller couldn’t remember anything.

”She would be, like a half-hour later, ‘Remember what we just talked about?”’ Eller recalled. ”I’m like: ‘No, I’m sorry. I completely forgot.”’

A lot of things were forgotten during the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run that culminated with Eller’s clinching goal. This is the time of year when hockey crowds virtually everything else out for players who go on deep playoff runs. Travel, hotel rooms, practices, sleep, playoff beards and, above all, the next game are front and center. Things like cutting the grass and paying the bills fall by the wayside. They can wait, right?

”The whole world is put on hold,” said Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. ”When I was playing in the playoffs, I wouldn’t pay bills back before I had automatic bill pays. Playoffs, if you go on a decent run, I have all these late payments because you just forget about everything. Nothing matters. You’re just so entrenched in it.”

Automatic bill payments have become Jordan Staal‘s friend growing up from a 20-year-old on Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship team to a husband and father a decade later with Carolina. As younger teammates like Teuvo Teravainen have no problem going all in on playoff hockey mode, Staal leans on loved ones to get him through the daily needs off the ice.

”There’s that small realm of what you’re focused on, and paying the bills may not be one of them,” Staal said. ”That’s when you’ve got a good family around you and good friends to kind of just take that stuff off your hands and let you focus on what you’ve got to do.”

Hurricanes captain Justin Williams loses track of what day it is: It’s either a game day or not a game day, though doing a daily newspaper crossword puzzle reminds him that it’s actually, say, Saturday. But after winning the Cup in 2006, 2012 and 2014 at different stages of his life and going on several other long runs, the grizzled veteran has it all figured out by now.

”It’s easy to do,” Williams said. ”You just deflect as much as you can and use the excuse of ‘I’ve got to focus on hockey’ for everything. When you’re home, it’s dad time. When you’re at the rink, it’s hockey.”

While Eller said his one-track hockey mind is always thinking about the last game or the next game during the playoffs, some players try to fight that instinct. Carl Hagelin, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, tries to forget about hockey when he’s not at the rink.

Easier said than done.

”Obviously you go into your own bubble,” Hagelin said. ”You’ve got to spend time with your family and do all that stuff. I guess stuff that doesn’t concern your family isn’t as important.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to players, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ‘s family knows all about how the playoffs take over. Bettman said his wife, Shelli, knows she can’t make any plans during the postseason unless it’s a place he can watch games on a TV or his iPad.

Bettman said he typically talks to director of hockey operations Colin Campbell multiple times on any given game day, well past midnight. But he loves every bit of it.

”This is the best time of year. This is just awesome,” Bettman said. ”As (Shelli) says, going out to dinner with my iPad and watching a game has become an excuse for our social life. But, yeah, everything’s on hold for two months because I never know where I have to be, what I have to do.”

Players and Bettman agree the thrill of the playoffs makes everything worth it. Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst, said ”you’re eating, sleeping and breathing this.”

Yes, about that: Players do have to remember to eat properly and get enough sleep.

”You’ve got to focus, prepare, eat, sleep and do whatever you can to be the best on the ice,” said Teravainen, who won the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. ”The playoffs, it’s all about hockey and you just prepare yourself for the game.”

Eller said he focuses on what matters most. And much like Staal, he knows his wife will keep his head straight.

”If you live with someone long enough, they know your tendencies and know you’re maybe not always quite there and at the end of the day it’s always things that can wait,” Eller said. ”But it can be a challenge sometimes because you give 100 percent of yourself to it and it means everything, right? You just live a little bit in your own world.”

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

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

Why Hurricanes have embraced ‘bunch of jerks’ moniker

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“Young men expressing themselves for joy of winning. You don’t do this thing in professional hockey. What are these guys? Jerks or something?”

“I know what I’m talking about. You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks as far as I’m concerned. Imagine Justin Williams doing stuff like that.”

Don Cherry is known for his colorful suits that he wears every Saturday during Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner” segment. Who knew he’d be the inspiration for one of the best-selling fashion designs in the state of North Carolina?

Taking to his pulpit on February 16, Cherry railed against the Carolina Hurricanes’ post-win celebrations, also known as the “Storm Surge.” The brainchild of team captain Justin Williams, they were quickly embraced by Hurricanes fans and around the hockey world. 

“Listen, things are changing,” Williams told NBC last week. “This isn’t a historic hockey market, it’s relatively fresh. We obviously won a Stanley Cup here, but it’s relatively fresh. This team got here in 1997. It’s not like the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadians or the Boston Bruins, an ‘Original Six’ who had decades and decades of hockey history.”

Following Cherry’s yelling at clouds, the Hurricanes acted fast and teamed up with BreakingT to create the “Bunch of Jerks” t-shirts, which sold well and sold out fast. The team store inside PNC Arena is constantly running out of inventory. (An update to the shirts was made after Cherry doubled-down on his criticism by labeling the fan base as “front running.”)

They weren’t popular just with fans, though.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Curtis McElhinney’s dad ordered a handful and shipped some to his son. Warren Foegele’s friends back home in Markham, Ontario hit him up asking if he could get them a few.

The Hurricanes embracing the “jerks” really blew up the entire “controversy” and emboldened the team and fan base even further.

“I think what I love about it is it could have went a different way when you get criticized for what you’re doing,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “But the guys, they didn’t. They took it and they ran with it in a positive light and the fans took it and ran with it in a positive light.  

“It’s not about everyone else, it’s about our team, it’s about our community, it’s about our fans and we’ve enjoyed this year. That ‘little bunch of jerks,’ whatever you want to call it, has kind of brought us together in a way that’s unified the fans and the players even that much more, which was already a pretty strong bond.”

As the Hurricanes pursued their first playoff berth since 2009, the extracurricular activity excited a fan base that had been patiently waiting for turnaround and helped create a new legion of supporters in the process.

“You know, I think we’ve been kind of irrelevant for a while here in Carolina and that was kind of one way to maybe boost some people in the stands, and obviously get people to think of us of a team that was playing really good hockey throughout the season,” said forward Jordan Staal.

The excitement isn’t contained to solely inside PNC Arena. Dougie Hamilton has noticed he’s been recognized more at dinner or out on the street this season. There’s been a buzz around Raleigh this season as the Hurricanes made their march to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then knocked out the defending champion Washington Capitals in seven games in Round 1.

From the night Cherry entered “bunch of jerks” into the lexicon to the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes were tied for the third-most points (33) in the NHL with a 16-7-1 record. They could have hit back at the longtime commentator, but instead, as they’ve done all season long, they leaned into the negativity and embraced it.

“I don’t want an apology,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in February via the News and Observer. “He can say what he wants to say. I should thank him. It was good for us.”

Game 3 of Hurricanes-Bruins is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Watch the live stream here).

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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.

Lack of mega-money players an anomaly this postseason

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Every postseason a new storyline emerges as to how NHL teams should construct their rosters, and it usually revolves around the teams playing the deepest in the playoffs and how they managed to get there.

After all, everyone wants to copy off the teams that win and not the teams sitting at home.

The new trend could be anything, really. Sometimes it revolves around defensive structure, or size and grit. Sometimes it is about speed and skill. We are always looking for the next “thing” that is going to take over the NHL. To be fair, there can be some merit to these storylines and trends.

The one thing that stands out about the four teams playing in the Conference Finals this season is that none of them have a really huge salary on their roster. This is a fact that was pointed out in an article by the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Monday when talking about the upcoming crop of restricted free agents and how teams might try to approach them given the salary structures of the remaining playoff teams.

There is not a single player in the top-20 of NHL salary cap hits still playing in the playoffs, while San Jose’s Brent Burns ($8 million) is the only one in the top-25.

St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly ($7.5 million each) and Boston’s David Krejci ($7.25 million) are the only other ones in the top-40.

Carolina’s highest paid player is Jordan Staal who counts $6 million against the cap, the 89th largest salary cap hit in the league. The Hurricanes also have one of the lowest total payrolls.

In the article LeBrun quotes an unnamed NHL executive who points out of the favorite talking points of executives in the salary cap era: “You need depth to win and can’t allocate too much cap space to any individual players.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The first part is 100 percent true, because you do need depth to win.

The second point is just … wrong. That is not a personal opinion, and it is not something that is going to change just because of one mostly unpredictable postseason. It is a fact. That is what makes it so maddening every single time it gets mentioned. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ core can’t be discussed without fear over their future salary cap situation and how they are going to build a contending team around so many big-money players. There is always trade speculation mentioned around teams that “need” to shed salary because they have too much money going to too few players.

I hate this mindset, mostly because there is zero factual evidence to back it up.

While it is true that the four Conference Finalists this season have made it this far without a mega-money player on their roster, it is also true that this development is an anomaly in recent postseason history.

Burns is currently the only player in the Conference Finals that accounts for more than 10 percent of the league salary cap this season.

The Blues and Bruins both have players in the 9 percent range, while the Hurricanes don’t have anyone that takes up more than 7.5 percent.

Let’s just take a quick look at how that compares to the past five years of Conference Finalists. The table below looks at the highest cap percentage on each team that played in the Conference Finals that season.

Of the 20 teams over the previous five years, 16 of them had at least one player accounting for more than 10 percent of their allotted salary cap space that season; 13 of them had one taking up more than 10.5 percent; nine had more than 11 percent; seven had a player taking up at least 12 percent.

That includes multiple Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington over the previous three seasons.

Many of these teams also had multiple players taken up between 10 to 12 percent of the salary cap on their own.

In any contract negotiation there are always going to be two sides with very different goals. The player is usually going to try and get as much money as they possibly can for their production. They have short careers and an even shorter window to get a significant contract, so they are going to try and cash in when they can. The team is going to try and get the player for the best bang for their buck, not only because of the salary cap, but because that is just how sports teams work. It is obviously beneficial for a team to get a superstar at a below market contract (think Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado) in a capped league but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you have to pay your best player top dollar. It is always worth it.

If there is a team in the NHL this offseason looking at the roster construction of these four teams and thinks it is going to be beneficial to trade a big money, star player for multiple, cheaper assets or play hardball with an RFA over an extra two or three million it is probably going to end very, very badly for them. Because they are either going to make a bad trade for the wrong reasons (quality for quantity) or risk damaging a relationship (or maybe even losing) a core player.

Just because this particular postseason will not have a mega-money player in the Stanley Cup Final does not mean that is always the best way to go about building your team.

Star players still matter a lot, and star players still cost a lot money.

One postseason will not change that.

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.