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Darnell Nurse, Oilers hammer out two-year bridge deal

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Days after returning to Toronto to continue his workouts as he waited for a new contract, Darnell Nurse now has a good reason to head back to Edmonton.

The Oilers announced on Monday they’ve handed Nurse a two-year, $6.4M extension. He’ll remain a restricted free agent when this contract expires after the 2019-20 NHL season.

“I was losing my mind sitting at home and not being able to be on the ice,” he told the Oilers website. “I’m happy it was only a few days and I can get on the ice again tomorrow.”

Getting Nurse in the fold is important for the Oilers’ blue line as Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely after another Achilles injury.

For Nurse, there was no doubt a deal would get done. He was confident this summer that it would all work out. Of course, he probably didn’t think he’d miss the first few days of camp, but he wasn’t making it sound like there was any negativity coming from either side in the quest to complete an extension — even if there was some disagreement on value between his agent and Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli.

The 23-year-old Nurse is coming off his best season in the NHL. He posted career highs in goals (6), points (26) and time on ice (22:15). His possession game (50.9 percent Corsi) was improved, and he credits the jump to working with Paul Coffey, who was hired by the Oilers in January as a skills development coach.

“Paul’s been a great help,” Nurse told Michael Traikos of the National Post in August. “He sees the game different than most people you get to work with… I think the offensive side of my game will continue to come out. I think last year I made a little bit of a stride. I was happy, but I wasn’t content with my offensive game. I know there’s a whole other level I can get to.”

Nurse, like Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrisseywho signed a similar two-year extension on Sunday, is betting on himself over the next two years to continue his development and cash in. If the salary cap ceiling continues to increase and the Oilers’ cap situation improves, he’ll put himself in line for a long-term, big money deal. But that’s something to worry about in two years time. The blue liner has plenty of work ahead of him before he can start eyeing that kind of extension.

MORE: Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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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.

Morrissey finally signs; is Nurse next?

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(UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal with the Oilers.)

One of the notable restricted free agents left to sign is now off that list.

The Winnipeg Jets got great value on Sunday, signing one of the league’s more underrated defenseman in Josh Morrissey to a two-year bridge deal with a $3.15 million annual value.

The signing ended a stalemate between both the club and Morrissey’s camp that surprisingly crept into training camp. Morrissey missed the first three days as preseason proceedings got underway in Winnipeg on Friday.

It’s likely the Jets were trying to get Morrissey to sign a long-term deal with the club at a cap-friendly price given the Jets are dangerously close to the $79.5 million ceiling.

Instead, Morrissey will bet on himself and the chance to get a big payday in 2020 when he will become an RFA once again, and the Jets will enjoy two more seasons of the 23-year-old at a bargain price. With the future of Jacob Trouba up in the air and with Dustin Byfuglien set to become an unrestricted free agent a after the 2020-21 season, Morrissey could be in line for a long-term deal worth more than double what he is making now.

[MORE: Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season]

In the interim, the deal solidifies Winnipeg’s top pairing with Morrissey and Trouba in a big year for the Jets, who got to the Western Conference Final last season on the back of a 52-win, 114-point regular season.

With Morrissey’s deal done, it will be interesting to see if the ball gets rolling in Edmonton with another high-profile RFA in defenseman in Darnell Nurse.

With the news of Andrej Sekera being out indefinitely with a torn Achilles‘, it’s somewhat shocking that the Oilers haven’t got Nurse under contract given their thin depth on defense.

Talks there seem to be at an impasse with Nurse reportedly wanting $4 million. Perhaps Morrissey’s signing can kickstart negotiations again now that there’s a benchmark in place.

Toronto’s William Nylander also is in need of a new contract although, like Nurse, talks between general manager Kyle Dubas and the young Swede seem to be at a standstill.

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

Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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With NHL training camps underway and the big trades we were all waiting for (Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty) completed the next big thing to watch around the league are the remaining unsigned restricted free agents.

There are seven of them around the league and they all find themselves in a similar situation: They are either 22 or 23 years old, they are coming off of their entry-level contracts, and none of them had any arbitration rights this offseason. As much as everyone around the league hates the arbitration process, there is no denying that it gets things done (either before arbitration or during it), something Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee recently pointed out as he deals with one of the ongoing RFA situations with defenseman Shea Theodore.

“People get pressured into getting a deal done or you go to arbitration,” McPhee said at the start of training camp this past week, via NHL.com. “There’s a group of 10-15 good young players in the League that don’t have arbitration rights and don’t have contracts right now. And it just seems to take a while to work them out.”

A lot of times the big issue at play is the team preferring to sign the player to a shorter-term bridge contract, while the player tends to want the security that comes with a long-term contract.

Let us go around the league and take a quick look at the seven teams and players that still need to reach a deal.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs — Nylander is the big one still out there because he’s a front-line player and, well, he plays for Toronto and that immediately makes him a big story. He’s already missed the first days of training camp and there are reports that the two sides are still far apart on a deal as Nylander doesn’t want to sign a bridge deal. And quite honestly, neither should Toronto. At this point we have a pretty good idea of the type of player that Nylander is (a really good one) and he is just now entering his peak years. Signing him to a two-year contract now and then signing him to a long-term contract after that after he’s continued to develop into his prime years is probably going to end up costing Toronto more money than if it just signed him to a long-term deal now that is comparable to, say, the one David Pastrnak signed in Boston before the 2017-18 season.

The concern that everyone will have here for Toronto is making this all work under the salary cap. The team spent big money on John Tavares in free agency this summer and after this season will have to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to new contracts. They will not be cheap.

Some might argue that Toronto will have to trade one of the young guys (either Nylander or Marner, with Nylander usually the one being suggested) but the Maple Leafs can make this work with all of them.

Keep your young, impact talent.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights — Theodore’s absence and lack of a contract is a pretty big deal for Vegas right now.

Not only was he one of the Golden Knights’ top defenseman a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes a night and finishing with 26 points from the blue line, but with Nate Schmidt set to miss the first 20 games of the season due to a suspension the team is already going to be shorthanded on the blue line.

As recently as Friday afternoon the word here (via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun) is that the two sides were far apart.

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers — Like the situation in Vegas with Theodore, the Oilers really need Nurse on the ice because an already undermanned unit became even thinner when the Oilers lost Andrej Sekera to injury. On Friday Nurse’s agent told the Edmonton Journal the two sides have a disagreement on what Nurse’s value is currently is, resulting in the 23-year-old defenseman returning to Toronto to continue to train.

Via the Journal:

“We have a disagreement on what Darnell’s value is and at this time there’s no meeting of the minds,” said Nurse’s agent Anton Thun, who feels there’s no reason for Nurse to stay in Edmonton now.

“He’s not under contract with the Oilers. He’s gone back to train where he did all summer, training in the same rink and gym. He can skate with a university or junior team. He won’t be skating by himself,” said Thun, who doesn’t feel Nurse, because of his age (24) is losing that much by not being in camp right now.

“If he didn’t know who his defence partners were or didn’t know the team, it would be important to be on the ice learning the ropes but this is his fourth year in the organization.”

Nurse appeared in all 82 games for the Oilers a year ago and set new career-highs across the board and played more minutes than anyone on the team. (UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal.)

Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres — Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, may never be a superstar but his production through the first three years of his career has been remarkably consistent, and he should still be viewed as one of the team’s core players along with Jack Eichel and top pick Rasmus Dahlin.

He set new career-highs a year ago with 25 goals (tied for the team lead) and 50 points for the Sabres.

Still, there is a bit of a mystery as to what he can still be. At 22 he is still fairly young and probably has not entered his prime years yet, but after three consecutive years of 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, how much more untapped potential is there with him?

We can try to figure that out a little bit.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been 31 forwards — including Reinhart — that have played at least 149 games through their age 22 season and averaged between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game (here is the list of players via Hockey-Reference).

Overall, it is a fairly strong list with some really good players.

The three best players that went on to become All-Star level players are Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Jakub Voracek, while there very few players that regressed or failed to go on to have productive careers (Steve Bernier, Peter Mueller, and Ryan Strome might fit that category). So there is a chance he could still really break out, but most likely this is probably close to what you should expect from him going forward. If you have a forward that can consistently get you 25 goals and 50 points you have yourself a pretty good top-six forward. Not a superstar by any means, but a player you can certainly win with.

Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils — Wood was one of the many young players the Devils relied on last season as they made their return to the playoffs. His 19 goals were fourth-most on the team (behind only Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier) and he did that while playing just 12 minutes per game over 76 games. On a per-minute basis he was one of the Devils’ most productive goal scorers and it wasn’t really the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. He was legitimately good.

General manager Ray Shero said at the start of camp that the two sides are pretty close, but that there are “some philosophical issues that need to be worked out about how the system works.”

Added Shero, via NJ.com, “That’s not just a situation with his agents or Miles himself.”

So chalk another one up under the system isn’t perfect category.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets — This isn’t the first time the Jets have had an RFA contract dispute with a young defenseman, going through this pretty regularly over the past few years with Jacob Trouba. That situation has reached a point where it remains unlikely that Trouba remains in Winnipeg long-term. They really do not want that storyline to repeat itself here. Morrissey isn’t quite as good as Trouba, but he is still a former first-round draft pick that has developed nicely and was one of the team’s top-four defenders a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes per night. (UPDATE: Morrissey is now signed.)

Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks — Of all the remaining unsigned RFA’s Ritchie is the one that probably has the least amount of leverage because his career to this point has been, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. The No. 10 overall pick in 2014, Ritchie has appeared in 186 games in his NHL career and recorded just 26 goals and 33 assists (59 total points), including only 10 goals in 76 games a year ago. He is not quite a bust, but he also has not really taken a significant step forward (he actually scored four fewer goals this past season than he did the year before. If there is any player out of this group that should be destined for a “prove it” bridge type of contract, Ritchie is almost certainly the one.

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.

Signing Laine and other Jets cap challenges after Wheeler extension

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The Winnipeg Jets answered a big question on Tuesday by signing captain and star winger Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 million extension. That removes a huge item from the franchise’s to-do list, yet they face plenty of challenges in keeping this talent-packed roster together for the long haul.

Much of the future worries come down to extending Patrik Laine, but there are other considerations that can make an impact on this loaded team’s ability to contend.

Winnipeg’s cap questions are pretty involved, so let’s go step by step.

(Note via Cap Friendly’s numbers: Winnipeg has about $10.24M in cap space as of this writing. They have about $52.48M committed to 11 players heading into 2019-20, which would give them a bit more than $27M to work with in the unlikely event that the cap would remain at $79.5M.)

More Morrissey

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces one more big obstacle for 2018-19: hashing out a contract with RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Right now, the tone seems to be “don’t panic,” even though training camp is rapidly approaching.

The Jets are running some risky business when it comes to their young defensemen.

Jacob Trouba may just become hockey’s answer to Kirk Cousins: a player either forced to or willingly choosing to make short-term bets on himself with the goal of a big payday in the future. Winnipeg is lucky enough that, despite that arduous arbitration hearing, Trouba would only be considered an RFA if he makes it to next summer without a deal. Still, it’s tough to shake the impression that the situation will end with Trouba eventually playing for a different NHL team, much like Cousins ultimately left Washington.

Winnipeg must walk a fine line with two young defensemen (Trouba’s 24, Morrissey is 23). It’s easy to see why Morrissey would prefer a “bridge” contract, particularly considering the defensemen who may be forced out with the cap crunch.

Beyond the Trouba turmoil, Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after 2018-19, with both of those defensemen carrying $5.5M cap hits. Morrissey could goose his numbers by naturally earning more minutes next season, but especially so in the likely event that Myers can’t fit under the cap.

Then again, the added security of term could be quite appealing if the Jets decide that Morrissey is worthy of a Noah Hanifin-ish commitment.

(Goalie Eric Comrie is also an RFA in need of a deal.)

While Morrissey’s situation is unsettled, the Jets made substantial investments in other players, for better or worse:

Long-term commitments: the very good, and the troubling

Whether they end up being wise or imprudent investments, Cheveldayoff committed to some serious term in recent (and semi-recent) situations.

Wheeler’s cap hit goes from $5.6M next season to $8.25M starting in 2019-20. As of this writing, he’s a bargain at both rates, but the unavoidable concern is for regression, considering that the American-born forward is already 32. (He’ll be 33 right before his extension kicks in.)

The Jets also made an interesting bet on young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, handing the 25-year-old a six-year contract that carries a $6.167M AAV. It says a lot about how perception can change in a year, as the Jets signed Steve Mason to a fairly healthy two-year, $8M deal heading into 2017-18 thanks to the uncertainty they still faced in net. If Hellebuyck replicates (or at least produces work close to) his strong, steady season, then that cap hit could be a nice bargain. Goalies are risky, though, and the Jets ended up regretting Ondrej Pavelec’s rancid contract for basically its entirety. Maybe the Hellebuyck contract is “the price of doing business,” but that bill could create some buyer’s remorse if last year was a mirage.

Overall, the Jets boast eight lengthy commitments (three years or more) at significant rates* as of this writing: Wheeler, Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, and Adam Lowry.

Scheifele’s $6.125M ranks on the shortlist of the absolute best bargains in the NHL, especially since it runs for six more seasons. If the Jets manage to wade through this jungle of cap challenges, credit that Scheifele bargain and also locking down Ehlers at an affordable (and potentially steal-worthy) $6M long-term as two key developments.

Some of the veterans might provide problems, though. Little’s been a hidden gem through even the Atlanta Thrashers days, yet the 30-year-old’s $5.292M cap hit already looks dicey, and it runs through 2023-24. Little’s contract may force out a valuable-yet-not-essential player like Perreault, who virtually always shines from an analytics standpoint, and does so at a reasonable $4.125M clip.

Winnipeg’s cap crunch could force out some combination of Little, Perreault, or Lowry, while Dmitry Kulikov may force some LTIR shenanigans.

(Hey, at least other contenders have set a template for how Winnipeg could … “bend some rules.”)

* – Sorry, Tucker Poolman, whose name will forever sound like a fake handle for someone in a fantasy league.

Aiming for raises

All of the situations above bleed into the Jets’ biggest worries: what’s next to come.

Patrik Laine’s rookie contract expires after next season, and Winnipeg can sign him to an extension at any time. Laine already scored 80 goals and 134 points in just 155 games, and it’s tough to imagine his standing in the league falling after 2018-19. The Jets essentially have to hope that Laine will fall in line with other rising stars who’ve signed for relative discounts, as his RFA status only means so much.

Laine is the biggest ticket item, but far from the only player who could rake in big bucks.

Kyle Connor represents a potentially tricky situation. After a minimal, truncated rookie season (5 points in 20 games in 2016-17), Connor broke through last year, managing 31 goals and 57 points.

If you’re Winnipeg, you probably would prefer to sign him to a reasonable extension instead of letting him flirt with even bigger totals in 2018-19, considering that only seven of his 31 goals came on the power play. (Though, to be fair, Connor received pretty healthy reps.)

With Trouba’s situation merely postponed for a year and Morrissey possibly only getting a bridge deal, the Jets could still face some big calls with key players. That’s especially true if management views re-signing Tyler Myers as a necessity rather than a luxury.

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Overall, the Jets need to try to find value in the next deals for Laine and Connor, while making the right calls with Morrissey and Trouba.

While contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that you can get out of a bad deal or two, they’ve also cemented the notion that you might end up regretting being loyal to the wrong players. The Jets handed out no-trade or no-movement clauses to veterans such as Wheeler, Byfuglien, Little, Kulikov and Perreault, which may only complicate matters.

For a GM who inspired puns about “taking the day off,” Kevin Cheveldayoff sure has his work cut out for him.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Kyle Connor

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

Kevin Chevaldayoff and his staff have done one thing exceptionally well during their time in Winnipeg. They have drafted as well as (or better than) pretty much any other team in the NHL, particularly in the first round.

Since 2011 their first-round picks have included Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, and Kyle Connor. That group has not only become the core of what is now one of the best teams in the league and what should be a Stanley Cup contender, but the Jets were able to get them while selecting mostly (Laine and Trouba excluded) in the middle of the first round. They weren’t really relying on lottery picks or tanking to get their franchise-changing players. Even the Laine draft was the result of some good fortune in the lottery (moving up from sixth to second).

In recent years Scheifele, Trouba, Ehlers, and Laine all had their breakout seasons.

This past season, it was Connor’s turn. And he was tremendous.

Playing in his first full year in the league, Connor burst on to the scene for the Jets by scoring 31 goals (most among all rookies) and finishing fourth in the Calder Trophy voting behind Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser, and Clayton Keller.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure| Three Questions]

After a brief trip to the American Hockey League early in the season, Connor eventually found a spot on a line with the big club alongside Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, a dominant trio that helped drive the NHL’s second-best scoring offense. Even when Scheifele was sidelined for a significant chunk of the season from the end of December until early February Connor was still able to help drive the offense by scoring six goals (tops on the team) and adding six more assists.

If there was any sort of a red flag for Connor it was the simple fact he didn’t generate a ton of shots on goal (2.53 per game) and had a fairly high shooting percentage (16.8 percent), two developments that could indicate he might be due for a regression. But even that is probably a reach. If you look at comparable performances from recent NHL history it paints a pretty strong picture for what Connor could be capable of in the future.

Over the past 20 years the NHL has seen nine different players under the age of 22 put together a 30-goal season while averaging less than 2.6 shots on goal per game and carrying a shooting percentage over 15 percent (Connor scored 31 goals on 2.53 shots and 16 percent). That list includes Sean Monahan, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Bryan Little, Simon Gagne, Mike Comrie, Jordan Eberle, and Connor. The least successful player on that list is probably Comrie, and even he scored 20 goals five different times in the NHL.

In other words, there is really nothing to indicate that Connor isn’t on his way to becoming one heck of an NHL player and being a significant part of a Stanley Cup contender.

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.