Hurricanes the team to watch as trade deadline approaches

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The Carolina Hurricanes are a team worth watching right now for a lot of reasons.

By winning eight of their past 11 games they have inched their way back into the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference. At least enough to be considered on the bubble. Yes, five points back in mid-January is still a pretty big hill to climb, but they’re making a run at it.

They also have the Storm Surge celebrations after wins on home ice as they add a little excitement to the league. Great stuff.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

One of the other reasons you should be keeping an eye on them is they are one of the most intriguing teams in the league when it comes to the upcoming Feb. 25 trade deadline because of the contract situations, the makeup of their roster, and their position in the standings.

The contract and roster situations include…

  • Almost all of their long-term commitments being on the blue line. All of their regular NHL defenders are signed through at least the end of next season, while four of them run through at least 2021 (and two of them go beyond 2024).
  • Their only goalie under contract beyond this season is Scott Darling … who is currently buried in the American Hockey League. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are both unrestricted free agents after this season.
  • Almost all of their forwards are some kind of a free agent after this season. The only forwards under contract beyond this season are Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, and Lucas Wallmark. The latter three are still on their entry-level deals. They have four potential unrestricted free agents (including captain Justin Williams) and five restricted free agents, including two of their top offensive players in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Then there is the place in the standings. Like a lot of the teams in the Western Conference wild card race, the Hurricanes have to figure out exactly what they are this season — a team that has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs and might want to add something, or at least stay the course as currently constructed? Or are they a team that is too far back and needs to go into “sell” mode, especially with its current crop of free agents?

One thing is certain, the Hurricanes have a lot of intriguing players when it comes to potential trade chips.

For one, they still have a ton of depth along the blue line and could still flip one of their defenders for help elsewhere around the roster. Justin Faulk‘s name was all over the rumor mill during the offseason (especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton) but remained with the team. There was also a rumbling in recent weeks that they might — might — be willing to listen to offers on Hamilton, but that seems like a real long-shot given that they are barely a half of a season into it and they would probably be dealing him at his lowest possible value. The best bet there is to hold on to him and trust that he regains the form and production he has shown throughout his career.

The forwards are where the real intrigue comes in because, again, so many of them are on expiring contracts.

It is probably pretty safe to say that Aho and Teravainen are not going anywhere. Not only are the team’s two best forwards, they are both young and just now entering their primes. Even if you assume the Hurricanes are not going to be a team that spends to the salary cap they still have all the flexibility in the world to get them signed.

The most likely player to get moved would seem to be forward Micheal Ferland (the other part of the Hamilton trade) who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is probably in line for a fairly substantial raise from his current $1.75 million salary. He would also probably be able to get that on the open market because he’s the type of player that appeals to pretty much everyone in the league. He has size, is physical, is probably going to be a 20-goal, 40-point player for the second year in a row and once again has strong underlying numbers. He’s a good player that a lot of teams would want — especially around playoff time.

The other variable in all of this is just where the Hurricanes sit in the standings as we get closer to the deadline.

They have been a patient team that has always kept the long-term goal in mind, and even with the recent surge they really haven’t picked up that much ground in the standings when it comes to wild card positioning. It’s still asking a lot for them to get in or to expect them to try and actually add to this roster this season by giving up younger, future assets.

But it is also a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, and if they can stack a few more wins together and keep staying afloat in the race it might change how much they are willing to trade or sell off in the short-term.

There are a lot of different directions this can go in the coming weeks, and a lot of it will probably depend on how long they can keep up this recent strong play.

More: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

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.

Which defenseman should Hurricanes trade?

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It’s no secret that Carolina is deep on defense. It’s also no secret that they could use a forward or two to score more goals.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell acknowledged as much on Sportsnet Central at Noon on Tuesday, telling Jeff Marek and Nick Kypreos that a) he’s been receiving a lot of calls about a possible trade for one of those defensemen, b) that the Hurricanes want an immediate return, not futures, and c) they’re looking for a forward. This backs up Pierre LeBrun in last week’s edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, who stated that they’re hoping to land a top-six guy as soon as possible.

Waddell himself admits that trades don’t happen often during this time of year, but it can often be better to be proactive. And, if nothing else, the Hurricanes might want to consider how certain decisions might make certain players more or less “marketable.”

Let’s look at the five defensemen one could (perhaps loosely) deem “premiere,” by Waddell’s words. More realistic movers will receive extra attention, and the defenders are listed in order of their 2018-19 cap hits.

Dougie Hamilton, RD, 25 years old, $5.75 million cap hit through 2020-21

Yes, it would be a bit odd if the Hurricanes traded Hamilton mere months after that big trade during the weekend of the 2018 NHL Draft. They’d also be selling low, as Hamilton’s off to a mediocre offensive start (three goals, 10 points in 28 games) and is averaging one fewer minute per game (20:32 TOI average) than he did during his final year with Calgary.

Yet, for a savvy team, Hamilton remains enticing.

Just about every sign points to him being more useful in a different situation, especially if you sprinkle in better luck. Hamilton is a strong possession player even relative to teammates on a dominant puck possession team, and a low on-ice percentage indicates that he’s not getting bounces.

PHT’s been beating this drum for some time now, but the situation is practically screaming for Hamilton to be the Hurricanes’ top power-play defenseman. The logic wouldn’t just revolve around restoring trade value, as he simply seems to be the most explosive scoring option on that blueline. Much like with Calgary, it’s maddening that the Hurricanes aren’t finding more time for Hamilton in these situations. The Hurricanes want more goals, and while you’re best served having forwards take most of the shots on the power play, it’s not outrageous to wonder if Hamilton could provide added punch if better optimized.

Maybe there’s just an impasse with Rod Brind’Amour? If so, the Hurricanes may be wise to cut their losses, and Hamilton could very well be worth the cost of a decent top-six forward. While his contract has some term on it, that affordable rate – at least for a rehabilitated Hamilton – could make for a bargain, and some helpful cost certainty.

Jaccob Slavin, LD, 24, $5.3M through 2024-25

It’s tough to imagine the Hurricanes trading away their biggest minute-eating defenseman (23:22 per game). Slavin is young, and his contract looks solid now, but could grow to outright-fantastic as the cap rises.

Then again, those reasons might prop him up as the sort of player who could land a truly outstanding return. During that TSN Insider Trading segment, Darren Dreger mentioned that Hurricanes’ left-handed defensemen were being looked at – not just righties, where they’re most overloaded – so Slavin’s worth at least mentioning.

Again, I wouldn’t count on it, though.

Justin Faulk, RD, 26, $4.833M through 2019-20

Honestly, when the Hurricanes landed Hamilton, I figured that Faulk’s days were numbered … to the point that he might not have even begun the season with Carolina. That’s obviously not the case, and Faulk continues to be the QB of a power play that’s been disappointing at best, and his pedestrian scoring numbers (just eight points in 28 games despite that plum job) factor into the bewilderment over Hamilton’s light usage.

Faulk’s possession stats are pretty strong, although they’re actually a little behind relative to his teammates (again, Carolina’s quite gawdy when it comes to “heating up their Corsi”).

It made some sense to trot out Faulk on the top power play unit earlier this season, as the Hurricanes might have viewed pumping up Faulk’s trade value as the tiebreaker against giving Hamilton that role. That course really isn’t doing anyone favors at this point – especially the Hurricanes, who could be dangerous with at least an adequate power play – but it’s not all bad news.

While his standing in the league isn’t what it once was (anyone else forget that Faulk is a three-time All-Star?) Faulk is on an affordable contract that expires after next season. Good right-handed defensemen are hard to find, so it’s conceivable that a team might give up some decent pieces for Faulk.

Calvin de Haan, LD, $4.55M through 2021-22

It was a touch surprising that the Hurricanes made their defense even deeper by signing the former Islanders defenseman this summer, yet it was also lauded as an analytics-friendly move. By those measures, De Haan is mostly living up to those standards.

Like other Carolina blueliners, he’s not getting the scoring stats that are easiest to market, however, as De Haan has just four points.

Considering the significant term of his contract, middling scoring stats, and the notion that he’s sneaky-good, a De Haan trade feels quite unlikely. And that’s perfectly fine for Carolina.

Brett Pesce, RD, $4.025M through 2023-24

The logjam of quality right-handed defensemen dealt the harshest blow to Pesce. His possession stats are troubling relative to his teammates, he’s not scoring much (four points in 19 games), and his ice time has dropped by almost two minutes per game to 19:04.

Take a look at this visualization via Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool, and you’ll see the glaring drop from 2017-18 to 2018-19:

via Bill Comeau

Yikes. Hamilton and Faulk are both in spots where their market value would likely be depressed, but it’s especially glaring with Pesce. Considering his talent (again, those possession stats are still promising) and contract, it’s really tough to imagine Carolina moving him. That said, it’s also likely that plenty of NHL people still hold him in high regard, so he’s listed.

Others: Trevor van Riemsdyk (RD) and Haydin Fleury (LD).

These two aren’t really in that “premiere” tier (in Fleury’s case, at least not yet?). Theoretically, one could be moved if a lower-cost swap would happen, though.

***

One can only speculate about what other NHL GMs would take, and what they would give up, so there are a ton of scenarios that could play out.

Personally, the most realistic ones would involve moving Faulk or Hamilton. To an extent, they both have redundant skills/roles, right-handed shots, and contracts that are fairly movable.

The notion that a trade would likely come later, rather than sooner, points in two very different directions. On one hand, the Hurricanes don’t get to clear that logjam. They lose extra games to integrate a new player into the system after a hypothetical move. Conversely, the Hurricanes could get hotter offensively, which could restore/drive up trade value for the likes of Hamilton or Faulk.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes have a better chance of taking that next, crucial step to the playoffs if they strike a balance. There’s a lot to like about this team right now, but moving an excess defenseman for that elusive additional forward could provide that extra oomph.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

How to heat up ice-cold Hurricanes

To an extent, it’s the same old story with the Carolina Hurricanes.

They’re “heating up their Corsi” like always this season (thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal), yet that quantity isn’t always translating to quality.

That’s especially true lately. Carolina’s managed just four goals total during the past four games, winning once and grabbing an overtime point as they slipped to a middling 12-10-4.

So, what gives? This post examines a few things that are working, some facets that are not, and proposes some potential solutions.

Quantity over quality, or quantity and quality?

Again, the Hurricanes are “heating up their Corsi” as usual, thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal. Despite easily topping all NHL teams with 38.7 SOG per game, they’re only averaging 2.5 goals per contest, the third-lowest total in the league.

To some extent, that might be the nature of the beast for this team.

Here’s the thing: while heating up of said Corsi numbers might present something of a mirage, it’s likely still a sign that they’re hogging the puck in a way that gives them a good chance to win.

After all, there is some element of quality to go with all of that quantity. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes generate 57.19-percent of high-danger chances at even-strength, second only to the Minnesota Wild.

Is it frustrating to dominate the shot clock and not always reap the benefits? Sure, but I’d argue that the Hurricanes are putting themselves in a better position than, say, the Anaheim Ducks (who suffer a barrage of shots and generally hope that John Gibson can save them, over and over again).

Finding a fix?

Interestingly, goaltending – the Hurricanes’ biggest headache for ages – has been alleviated, at least in the short-term.

Claiming Curtis McElhinney has worked gloriously well so far. Through 10 games, the 35-year-old is 7-2-1 with a tremendous .930 save percentage. By Hurricanes terms, McElhinney has been vintage Dominik Hasek with a side of non-irate Patrick Roy.

As you might guess, counting on McElhinney to be “the guy” all season would be tenuous. Obviously, there’s the age factor. He’s also only carried a semi-reasonable workload twice (28 games in 2013-14 and 32 in 2014-15 with Columbus), and was only in the teens the past five seasons.

That said, his career .910 save percentage is quite competent by the standards of a journeyman backup, and the Hurricanes might just be able to create a nurturing-enough atmosphere to make things work … enough.

With Petr Mrazek‘s continued struggles and the waiving of Scott Darling in mind, McElhinney is clearly the option right now.

This post mainly focuses on how Carolina can improve, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room: the goaltending could collapse once again, possibly erasing any gains made through these suggested tweaks.

So, maybe the Hurricanes need to keep an eye out for other goalies on waivers, or even trade options? Sure, McElhinney could save the day, yet they’d be foolish not to be on the lookout for Plan … D? E? Z?

Putrid power play

On Oct. 24, I took a deeper look at Dougie Hamilton‘s disappointing start with the Hurricanes. My takeaway was that, for whatever struggles he was enduring, Carolina was leaving production on the table by not deploying Hamilton with the top power play unit. Simply put, Justin Faulk‘s production since at least 2017-18 has been disappointing, and the Hurricanes’ power play numbers argued that point further.

Well, very little has changed since that post was published. (Sheesh, the Hurricanes have the gall to ignore free advice. How rude.)

Faulk remains their top power play minutes man, despite managing a paltry eight points in 26 games. Faulk only managing two of those points on the power play is, honestly, a little alarming. Hamilton, meanwhile, ranks slightly behind Jaccob Slavin as their third-most-used PP defenseman, and he’s low down the order overall.

That would be acceptable if Carolina’s power play was scoring in buckets. After all, plenty of good power-play units leave talented players out of the mix, as there are typically only five spots.

The Hurricanes power play is not very good, though. They’re connecting at 15.9-percent success rate, eighth-worst in the NHL (and very close to being bottom-five).

Earlier in the season, playing Faulk in that position made sense to me for a more cynical reason: pumping up his trade value. It’s unclear if that was ever actually the plan, but either way, it clearly isn’t working.

To the credit of Rod Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes staff, Left Wing Lock’s latest listings indicate that they’ve at least realized that, at 37, Justin Williams probably isn’t top power-play material any longer. It’s not ideal that he came into Tuesday with the same (2:42 per game) average as a far more spry Teuvo Teravainen, but this stands as a step in the right direction.

This isn’t to say that Williams cannot play. He’s still a heady winger who manages strong possession numbers, even on a team brimming with guys who keep the puck going in the right direction. It’s simply to say that it might be more appropriate to pass the torch to those with more potential, such as …

Unleash Andrei

Look, it’s understandable why teams want to ease players into the NHL. This is a young man’s league nonetheless, so it’s becoming increasingly clear that Andrei Svechnikov deserves more reps.

Really, the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft hasn’t looked out of place. Svechnikov has 12 points in 26 games so far, and could have more considering his 8.7 shooting percentage. He’s not getting buried in the lineup (14:10 per game), but I’d like to see him deployed even more often. They could always scale back his minutes if the burden ends up being too heavy for him to carry.

The deeper you dig, the more it becomes clear that Svechnikov might have more to offer.

Why not see if this sleeping giant could enjoy a monster rookie season? Why wait? Hurricanes fans have been asked to be patient for long enough, right?

Management should also keep an eye on the progress of Martin Necas. He was demoted to the AHL after seven middling games, but it might be worth burning a year off of his rookie deal if it seems like he can give them a shot in the arm later this season. As Jordan Staal showed many moons ago in helping the Penguins make the playoffs with 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks.

Shake things up?

We’ve seen quite a few “lateral trades” lately, and such a thought might make sense for the Hurricanes.

For one thing, there’s Faulk, whose contract ($4.8M cap hit) expires after next season. Carolina’s rife with right-handed defensemen, especially with Brett Pesce possibly coming back soon. Maybe it’s time to break up that logjam?

Victor Rask is another player who might need to relocate. Rask is only getting minimal ice time (11:49 per game) and has only scored a goal in his six games this season. His $4M cap hit could at least be close to the sweet spot to get a deal done, particularly for a team that has a similar player who’s getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe he could rebound to his respectable 40-plus point form after getting a clean slate?

***

The Hurricanes can be frustrating, and not just because they tend to dominate the shot clock without doing the same on the scoreboard. This feels like a team that’s failed to take that next step, instead finding themselves as the perpetual wallflower at a grade school dance.

You can’t control every bounce, and Carolina’s goalie worries linger not very far off in the distance, but this team has a lot going for it. Few NHL squads can compare to Carolina’s depth on defense, and this is still a franchise brimming with young talent.

If they can survive in net, then improving that power play and giving more ice time to skilled players like Hamilton and Svechnikov might just make the difference.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

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Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

***

The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

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Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

***

Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Lundqvist dominates, Fowler’s trick ends Ducks’ losing streak

AP
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Three Stars

1. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers. He may be 36 years old, he may not be the player he was a few years ago, but Henrik Lundqvist can still take over and steal a game. He did that on Sunday night in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres by turning aside 39 of the 40 shots he faced to help lead them to their third consecutive win. The win for Lundqvist is the 435th of his career and he is now just two wins behind Jacques Plante for seventh on the all-time list (via NHL PR).

2. Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay Lightning. With Victor Hedman sidelined the Tampa Bay Lightning need some other players on their blue line to step up. Ryan McDonagh has done that and more over the past week. He played an incredible game on Sunday, recording three assists in the Lightning’s wild come-from-behind win and forced the turnover on the game-tying goal in the closing seconds. This is his second three-point game in his past four games.

3. Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks. Over the first month of the season Anaheim Ducks games have mostly been the John Gibson show. Even though he was really good again on Sunday night, it was defenseman Cam Fowler that ended up stealing the show as he literally provided all of the offense in the Ducks’ 3-2 overtime win. Fowler scored all three goals in the win, including the game-winner in overtime, to record his first career hat trick. He is just the 12th different defender over the past 10 years to record a hat trick, and the first since Justin Faulk on Feb. 13, 2018. He is the third Ducks defender over the past 10 years to score three goals in a game, joining Hampus Lindholm and Lubomir Visnovsky. This win snapped what had been a seven-game losing streak for the Ducks and came on the same night they lost Ryan Getzlaf to another injury, this time an upper-body injury. To say they needed this one would be quite the understatement.

Highlights of the Night

The Tampa Bay Lightning were 30 seconds away from losing in Ottawa. Then Ryan McDonagh started this play to tie the game.

Here is Cam Fowler completing his first career hat trick.

Factoids of the Night

The New York Rangers scored a pair of goals in the first minute of the second period on Sunday night. That is something they have not done in quite some time.

More on Cam Fowler’s big night for the Anaheim Ducks.

 

Scores

New York Rangers 3, Buffalo Sabres 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Ottawa Senators 3 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.