Kyle Okposo

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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.

Golden Knights could give up a gem if they trade Gusev

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The Vegas Golden Knights are struggling to walk a negotiating tightrope with intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Other teams should do everything they can to upset that balance by acquiring his rights in a trade.

Vegas? They’re likely to regret trading Gusev to keep players with far less potential.

An exciting talent

It’s hasty to call Gusev “the next” Artemi Panarin. Yet, for teams that couldn’t ferment enough interest to bring in “The Bread Man,” it’s tantalizing to wonder if Gusev could be the next forward to make a successful leap from the KHL to the NHL. While Panarin’s become a full-priced star, he too began his career on the cheap with Chicago; it’s asking too much for Gusev to deliver at that level, but teams should put themselves in position to take advantage of the considerable value he’s likely to bring.

You see, the Vegas Golden Knights currently hold Gusev’s rights as an RFA, yet even after trading away Colin Miller and Erik Haula to clear room, they’re still in a tight salary cap situation. That situation might just squeeze out Gusev.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee acknowledged the possibility of a trade to The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required) on July 1.

“There’s definitely an interest in him,” McPhee said. “We’ve had people call us on him. We’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you what will happen, but we’ll work on it. He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked very hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”

There are some interesting mysteries surrounding Gusev, from how a team might land him, to how much of an impact we can expect from a guy who’s found chemistry with the likes of Nikita Kucherov.

Mysterious value

It’s not easy to predict Gusev’s NHL impact, but the odds are high that he will make a positive impact. He’s distinguished himself at multiple levels, from international play, to winning the KHL’s MVP for a stirling season where Gusev generated 82 points in 62 games, and was also productive in the playoffs. While 2018-19 marks his peak so far, he’s enjoyed other strong seasons, including generating 71 points in the KHL in 2016-17.

The challenges of translating overseas work to play in the NHL likely make contract talks tricky, but I’d argue it also sets the stage for teams to land fantastic value. How much is Gusev worth before he’s played a single shift at the NHL level, at 26? Would a team be better off going with a one-year deal, or something with additional term? Granger reports that there’s as much as a $2M gap between Gusev and the Golden Knights, which sounds dicey at first. Yet, if Gusev is asking for something along the lines of $4M AAV for two years, as Igor Eronko reports, then the Golden Knights risk throwing away a golden goose.

I’ll say this: I’d risk $4M-ish on Gusev over multiple years of Brandon Tanev at $3.5M, any day of the week.

Beyond the mystery of what Gusev might get paid, there’s also the question of what the Golden Knights might demand in a trade.

Vegas should find better ways to clean up its mess

As a reminder, Vegas is in a vulnerable position; Cap Friendly estimates their space at about $2.675M, and they either need to sign RFA Malcolm Subban or find a different backup goalie option, among other situations to resolve.

Really, potential poor trade return options might be the key factor that wakes up Vegas to the possibility that they’re risking a big mistake.

The Golden Knights would likely be wiser to save money by shedding inessentials; this post suggests that contenders bribe rebuilding teams to take on shaky contracts, and Vegas should explore those avenues multiple times, rather than letting Gusev get away for pennies on the dollar. Cody Eakin‘s a luxury as a bottom-six forward at $3.85M, and likely to move on after 2019-20 one way or another, with that contract expiring. Personally, I see Ryan Reaves‘ $2.755M as a colossal overpay, and trading away that cap hit would also force Gerard Gallant to play a more useful forward, whether that ends up being Brandon Pirri or a prospect like Cody Glass. Nick Holden‘s tough to justify at $2M, either.

Personally, I’d move all three of Eakin, Reaves, and Holden if it meant keeping Gusev. That flies even if Gusev was a bit pricer than $4M per year.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Gusev could be push a strong VGK team to an even higher level

Vegas is already spending big money to contend, and they already have a strong top-six. In adding Gusev to Alex Tuch (and Cody Glass, if he transitions smoothly), Vegas would create matchup nightmares left and right. McPhee himself told Granger that would be a “heck of a lineup,” so why let that slip through your fingers to keep replacement-level players?

So, again, another team should be swirling like a bloodthirsty shark (and hope that the San Jose Sharks don’t get involved, because Doug Wilson is a beast).

Again, there’s always a chance that things don’t work out — Vegas might be overreacting to the Vadim Shipachyov situation, for one — but you won’t find many better risk-reward values in July.

If Vegas must sell, buyers should swarm

Really, most NHL teams should be in the bidding, although some have cleaner cap situations than others. Here are some of the teams who should be calling McPhee the most:

  • Habs Eyes on the Prize discusses Gusev as an excellent consolation prize for the Montreal Canadiens after the Sebastian Aho offer sheet didn’t work out, and this article also provides some insight regarding why Gusev is such an intriguing talent.
  • The Athletic’s Rob Rossi offers up a hypothetical three-team trade where the Penguins would get Gusev, give up Nick Bjugstad, and well … it’s a lot (sub required).
  • Even after paying up to keep Anders Lee, the Islanders might feel a little bummed out after falling short with Artemi Panarin. Gusev may occasionally drive Barry Trotz up the wall, but would be worth it for a team that could stand to add more skill.
  • Winnipeg Jets – Things are going to be tight with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor needing new contracts, but Gusev could help ease the sting of the talent losses of Jacob Trouba and Kevin Hayes.
  • Buffalo Sabres – Keeping Jeff Skinner was crucial; landing Colin Miller was uplifting. The Sabres still see a huge drop-off from Skinner – Jack Eichel to everyone else on offense, so Gusev could help to stem the tide. They’re also paying Skinner and Eichel $19M combined, not to mention uncomfortable money to the likes of Kyle Okposo, so the Sabres would likely delight in getting a potential bargain for a change. This would also make their offseason a little less reliant on the smaller move on trading for Jimmy Vesey.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets – Maybe the team that lost Panarin could land the “next” Panarin? (Note: again, the comparison isn’t really fair to Gusev … but it’s fun to imagine another superlative talent arriving in the NHL. Hey, it’s the offseason, the time when teams dream that Tyler Myers can be worth $6M.)
  • New Jersey Devils – The Devils are aggressively trying to improve, both to take advantage of rookie contracts, and also keep Taylor Hall around. Why not see if Gusev nudges that talent level (and Hall’s interest in re-signing) forward even more?

In a bolder league like the NBA, I’d be certain that all of the teams above, and more, were straining to take Gusev off of the Golden Knights’ hands. The risk is just so small compared to potentially significant rewards.

I’m not sure if there would be as many suitors in the less-creative, more conservative NHL, but all it takes is one team to trade for Gusev to mean a move happens. The Golden Knights would be wise just to remain Gusev’s team, instead, but we’ll see.

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.

Is Jeff Skinner worth $9M to Sabres?

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Is Jeff Skinner worth an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit between $8.5 million and $9.5 million?

That’s the “sweet spot” Bob McKenzie identified for the 27-year-old winger and the Buffalo Sabres during an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday (the Skinner-related details kick in a bit after the 4:45 mark of the video above).

McKenzie indicates that negotiations have picked up recently with the NHL Scouting Combine taking place in Buffalo. While he says there’s “optimism” that a deal can be done, going as far as to indicate that it’s “very close,” McKenzie also emphasizes that it also could fall through. McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger also noted that mix of hesitation and optimism during a WGR 550 radio appearance on Friday.

So, to summarize, a deal around $9M per year, for eight years, could end up happening — maybe.

Is this a wise idea for the Sabres? Let’s consider the details surrounding this situation.

Why $9M+ might be a bit much

Back in March, The Athletic’s John Vogl made in-depth comparisons between Skinner and some peers (sub required), with the resulting impression being that an $8M cap hit would be closer to Skinner’s true value than, say, the $9.6M that fellow, similarly-aged winger Mark Stone received from the Vegas Golden Knights.

A lot of that is fair.

Yes, Skinner scored 40 goals in 2018-19, but he still only matched his career-high for points with 63. While Skinner’s tilted the ice in his team’s favor for most (if not all) of his career, he’s not a perennial Selke candidate in the making like Stone, either.

None of this is to denigrate Skinner. He’s really, really good, and will justifiably be raking it in. It’s just fair to note that the Sabres might grimace a bit at his rate, particularly since they’re already paying Jack Eichel $10M per season. The more pertinent thought could be that the Sabres have been burned by risking contracts before, including Kyle Okposo, who’s limited at 31 and will carry a $6M cap hit through 2022-23.

So, sure, there are some arguments for why a new Skinner contract could cause some indigestion, especially since one with an eight-year term would likely get highly challenging as it goes along, since many snipers hit the wall hard around the time they turn 30.

Supply and demand

Honestly, though, the Sabres need this.

This is a mess of a franchise whose troubles sapped Ryan O'Reilly‘s joy of the sport, and that was one failed season ago. The Sabres have burned through dicey contracts and ripped through coaches at a troubling rate. Even if they re-sign Skinner, Buffalo faces a steep uphill battle to end a postseason drought that stretches back to 2011-12, to say nothing of winning their first series since 2006-07.

Just consider how dramatic the drop-off is from Skinner, Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and a select few others when it comes to metrics like Goals Above Replacement (visualization by Sean Tierney, data via Evolving Hockey).

Not ideal, right?

Whether you look at deeper stats or simple box scores, it’s clear that the Sabres need to add players, not subtract the likes of Skinner.

While there are some other decent players readying to hit free agency, particularly if you believe that we’re finally going to hit the Age of the Offer Sheet, there aren’t a ton of better bets than Skinner. If anything, the Sabres should cross their fingers that they can add Skinner and another needle-mover, whether it be a defenseman like Erik Karlsson or (more likely) a forward such as Matt Duchene.

Cap Friendly estimates that Buffalo’s cap space hovers at about $29.4M allocated to 15 players, so Buffalo would likely have about $20M to work with if they signed Skinner.

This is a pretty straightforward situation: the Sabres badly need talent, and their fans sorely need some bright sides to look on. While, yes, a Skinner contract would cause some to worry about worst-case scenarios (particularly those who remember his early-career struggles with concussions), it’s reasonable to assume that far more Sabres fans would be deeply saddened if Skinner walked away instead.

A nice situation for Skinner

It’s crucial for Skinner to like Buffalo and to believe that the team has at least a shot at being competitive.

If those boxes are checked off, then sticking with the Sabres makes a lot of sense for Skinner. To start, Buffalo can offer the max term of eight years, while he’d only be able to land a seven-year contract if he waited until July.

Skinner also showed great chemistry with Eichel, and he’d know that he’d be a BMOC of sorts, getting top minutes and playing a go-to role. Skinner’s 18:31 TOI per game from 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career, and 2012-13 was the last Hurricanes season where he averaged 18+ minutes per night.

McKenzie reports that new Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger pitched Skinner on his system producing better results. In the event that Skinner views Buffalo as having a reasonable chance to compete, then there’s a lot to like for his side of the deal.

***

If you look at Skinner potentially making $9M+ per year, you can tie yourself into knots comparing that would-be contract to Sidney Crosby getting $8.7M AAV, Nikita Kucherov getting $9.5M per year at age 25, and so on. And, yes, that potential price tag is steep for Skinner, especially since an eight-year deal would stretch to age 34.

But when you zoom out and consider the changing market around Skinner, and the sense of urgency – if not outright anxiety – surrounding the Sabres, this potential deal starts to look pretty logical for Buffalo.

It’s risky, yet if you want to get better in sports, you often need to make calculated risks. Do you think this would be the right call for the Sabres overall?

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.

Islanders continue to have all the answers, take 3-0 series lead vs. Penguins

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The New York Islanders took a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena

Once again, the Penguins had no answers for the Islanders, who displayed yet another strong defensive effort, controlled possession, and kept the high-danger chances low. New York also kept Pittsburgh’s stars quiet as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel combined for zero points. The last time Crosby went pointless in three straight playoff games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

When the Penguins thought they had an advantage — following Garrett Wilson‘s goal 12:54 into the first period for a 1-0 lead — the Islanders answered right back. Jordan Eberle continued his productive postseason by scoring his third goal of the series on a lovely shot following a fantastic feed from Ryan Pulock.

“We’ve got to do a better job of hanging onto the momentum when we get it,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said afterward.

Eberle is now the third Islanders players in since 1994 to score in three straight playoff games, joining Kyle Okposo (2013) and Kip Miller (2002).

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

The home crowd was silent, and then the anxiety grew 62 seconds later when Brock Nelson gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead.

Finding themselves trailing in another game this series, the Penguins, as they did in the previous two games, could not generate enough to test Lehner and threaten any sort of comeback. Leo Komarov‘s goal midway through the third period put the game out of reach and helped the Islanders improve to 41-2-2 when scoring at least three times this season.

The Islanders will go for the sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

MORE: Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders

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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.

Oilers, Sabres sagging despite being led by McDavid, Eichel

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — While keeping open the possibility of a late playoff push, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid acknowledged how much losing has worn on him this year. In Buffalo, Sabres captain Jack Eichel grew irritated when asked about his team’s inability to win consecutive games in nearly three months.

”I don’t have an answer for you right now,” Eichel said following a 5-2 loss at Toronto on Saturday, a day after beating Pittsburgh.

What’s becoming abundantly clear since McDavid and Eichel were selected with the top two picks in the 2015 draft is it takes more than the arrival of a so-called “once-in-a-generation” star to transform a losing team into a contender.

”It’s a team sport. Things don’t get fixed with one player,” Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said before a 4-3 loss to the Oilers on Monday night. ”They can certainly help. But it’s a collective effort.”

The game against Edmonton was an example of Okposo’s viewpoint. Eichel scored twice, including his career-high-matching 25th, but the Sabres squandered a 3-1 second-period lead.

McDavid and Eichel are the faces of their respective franchises based on both production and salary. The 22-year-old McDavid is in the first season of an eight-year, $100 million contract, and the 22-year-old Eichel is in the first season of an eight-year, $80 million deal.

Their respective teams have barely made a dent in the standings, with both entering the final month of the season in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

The comparisons are striking.

The Oilers have advanced to the playoffs just once with McDavid, in 2016-17, when they were knocked out in the second round by San Jose. Buffalo is in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, and finished last overall twice with Eichel.

Both teams also have changed GMs and coaches since 2015. The Oilers fired general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan in separate moves this season. The Sabres dismissed GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma in April 2017.

It doesn’t come close to the expectations right after the 2015 draft in Florida, where the Canadian-born McDavid was picked first and the American Eichel second, to the delight of each team’s respective fan base.

As much as McDavid and Eichel dislike the comparisons to each other, they’re in agreement in saying how unfair the expectations were.

”I don’t think that’s possible at all,” McDavid said of one player changing a franchise’s trajectory. ”I don’t think in this league, where it’s so competitive each and every night, that one guy can change it.”

McDavid has won two scoring titles and was the league’s MVP in 2017.

Overall, McDavid’s 348 points (120 goals, 228 assists) in 271 games are third among NHL players since 2015-16. Eichel has 249 points (98 goals, 151 assists) in 272 games, and ranks 29th over the same span following Monday’s game.

Inconsistency has all but scuttled the Sabres’ playoff chances this season.

In going 13-22-6 since a 10-game winning streak in November, they’ve gone from briefly sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings to 11th, and nine points out of contention.

It’s a slide during which Buffalo has failed to win consecutive games since Dec. 11-13. Eichel has been among the few constants. His worst point drought lasted five games.

”It’s a team game and you need everyone pulling in the same direction,” said Eichel, who has a career-best 72 points this season. ”It’s the best league in the world. You can’t expect it to be easy. And I think we all expected it to be hard, and I think it has been.”

The Oilers slipped out of the playoff race following a 1-8-2 skid that began on Jan. 19. Edmonton has rebounded by going 5-1-2 in its past eight, but still sits 11th in the West, and six points out of contention.

With 33 goals and 59 assists, McDavid is the first Oilers’ player to reach 90 points in three consecutive seasons since Jari Kurri (1983-1990) and Mark Messier (1987-90).

”Connor does a ton for us, and obviously, you see the offensive numbers, but it’s more than that,” forward Sam Gagner said when asked how the Oilers might miss the playoffs despite McDavid’s contributions.

”We still feel like we have an opportunity to get back in this,” Gagner added. ”We’re still in the playoff picture. And hopefully we can get there and put that issue to rest.”

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