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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.

U.S. tops Germans 3-1 for 5th win in row at world championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Dylan Larkin scored midway through the third period to help the United States beat Germany 3-1 Sunday at the world championships.

Alec Martinez had two assists for the U.S., and Cory Schneider stopped 24 shots. Jack Eichel made it 3-1 late in the third.

Frederik Tiffels put Germany in front midway through the first period, and James van Riemsdyk tied it for the Americans less than two minutes later.

The U.S. has won five straight games in Group A since opening with a 4-1 loss to the host Slovaks.

”This is a hard tournament, harder than I think people realize,” U.S. coach Jeff Blashill said. ”We got some real strong performances from guys like (Ryan) Suter, Martinez, Larkin and van Riemsdyk, but I thought Jack Eichel really raised his game and played like he wasn’t going to be denied.”

The U.S. closes the preliminary round Tuesday against rival Canada, and the quarterfinals begin Thursday.

The Americans trail group-leading Finland, which blanked France 3-0 with a goal in each period and Kevin Lankinen’s strong play in net.

Michael Frolik scored to help the Czech Republic beat winless Austria 8-0 in Bratislava in Group B. In the same group, Nikita Kucherov scored twice and Russia beat Switzerland 3-0 to stay undefeated.

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

Flames’ once-red-hot top line has been ice cold

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For years now, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate, so it was startling to see Bill Peters split them up, even briefly.

With the Calgary Flames going through (very much relative) struggles lately, Peters has tried different things. Sometimes that means pushing Elias Lindholm up and down the lineup, trying Michael Frolik with Gaudreau, and most jarringly, placing Monahan as a third-line center, with Gaudreau on Derek Ryan‘s wing.

If morning skate lines stick, the Flames are going back to that combination of Monahan, Gaudreau, and Lindholm on Friday. Let’s take a look at their recent funk, which explains why Peters decided to shuffle up the deck chairs in the first place:

Monahan: Five-game pointless streak, a four-point game against the Devils representing the only time he’s generated points in the last eight games (one goal, three assists from that contest against New Jersey).

Lindholm: Also on a five-game pointless streak, and also not much going on beyond blowing the doors off of the lowly Devils. Lindholm has one assist in his last seven games. He’s failed to generate a point in 11 of his last 13 games. Much like Monahan, getting those four points against the Devils (one goal, three assists in that one) camouflages a big drought to an extent. Overall, he has one goal and four assists for five points in his past 13 games.

Gaudreau: Had an assist in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, but has been slumping by his standards, too. Gaudreau only has two points (1G, 1A) in his last six games. He thumped the Devils for an-even-more-ridiculous six(!) points, making his last 11 games look fine with five goals and four assists for nine points, yet he’s been held without a point in seven of his last 11 games.

Taking it to heart

Gaudreau still tends to pass the “eye test” most nights, and with Lindholm feeling a bit like “found money” as a newcomer with unclear expectations heading into 2018-19, much of the angst seems focused most on Monahan. Even weeks ago, a Flames Nation mailbag seemed to be all about what’s wrong with Monahan.

During his brief demotion, it seemed clear that Monahan is all-too-conscious of his cold streak.

“Yeah, when things aren’t going your way and you’re feeling frustrated, that’s when you tend to tighten up your stick and not make the plays you want to make,” Monahan said, via the Calgary Sun’s Daniel Austin. “When you’re coming into a game without that confidence, usually it tends to be a tough game so you’ve got to be tough-minded and ready to go each and every night.”

The bounces dry up

This is an opportunity for Monahan, Lindholm, and Gaudreau to get on track, but to me, it would be wise if someone emphasized optimism with these players. After all, consider that:

  • Gaudreau’s already at career-highs for goals (35) and points (93), blowing away last season’s career-high of 84 points.
  • Monahan’s tied his career-high of 31 goals, and after peaking with 64 points last season, he’s at a career-best 76 points.
  • Lindholm never had a 20-goal season in Carolina, yet he has 27 in his first go with the Flames. Lindholm has more assists (50) this season than he ever generated points with the Hurricanes (his ‘Canes-high was 45), making Lindholm’s 77 points in as many games a truly profound jump.
  • The Flames already clinched a playoff spot, and seem almost certain to win the Pacific. They can take the time to a) rest and b) regain their confidence, while also avoiding a scary first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights.

In the grand scheme of things, the Flames’ top line was playing over their heads for much of this season, and regression recently hit them like a cruel bucket of ice water.

Just consider their shooting percentages before and after the All-Star Break.

Gaudreau pre: 29 goals in 51 games, 17.8 percent.
Gaudreau post: 6 goals in 26 games, 7.9 percent.

Lindholm pre: 21 goals in 51 games, 17.6 percent.
Lindholm post: 6 goals in 26 games, 10.3 percent.

Monahan pre: 27 goals in 51 games, 17.1 percent
Monahan post: 4 goals in 24 games, 8.9 percent.

Maybe it’s not very satisfying to say that a lot of this comes down to luck and bounces, but … a lot of this comes down to luck and bounces.

Now, with a playoff spot locked down and their seeding close to guaranteed, the Flames would likely be wise to rest prominent players. Monahan was recently injured, and even if he can play, maybe he’d benefit more from a brief breather? Gaudreau’s a player who uses his elusiveness to avoid some of the grind of the NHL, but an 82-game season wears on everyone.

(And, while Mark Giordano defies age as a strong Norris candidate at 35, the Flames would probably be wise to let him heal up before the big games, too.)

***

None of this totally dismisses the unease that comes from seeing a dominant line’s numbers dry up. That is a little scary. And it’s a bit troubling to realize that, while this trio should give opponents fits, their early numbers might have been a bit of a mirage.

Yet, the Flames have one of the best second lines in the NHL, and chances are, their top line will start moving the needle again soon enough. Nonetheless, it’s something to watch, both as the season winds down and the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

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: Matthew Tkachuk gets first hat trick before Keith did

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Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Matthew generated his first NHL hat trick at age 21 … and 89 days. His father, Keith Tkachuk, generated his first hat trick at age 21, but at 209 days. Getting to that mark sooner than Keith? That’s impressive stuff.

Tkachuk’s third goal was an empty-netter, but he also had an assist in Calgary’s 6-3 win against Vegas, so that’s an impressive four-point night overall. He now has 29 goals and 67 points in 69 games this season, lining himself up for a substantial second contract.

The Flames were so potent offensively, they deserve at least two of the top three spots. At least since no one else really produced on the same scale on Sunday.

As a bonus, there’s this remarkable photo from Getty Images, with also includes Brady Tkachuk, who’s basically unmistakable:

via Getty Images

2. Michael Frolik

As is often the case with the three stars, your preference likely comes down to what you weigh the heaviest. It seems too boring to just reward the entire “3M Line” with all three stars, really, so we’re going to need to make a distinction here.

Again, Mikael Backlund has a strong case. He scored two goals and one assist, with his helper being a primary assist. All of those points came before Tkachuk’s empty-netter.

One of Frolik’s four assists were on that empty-netter, but … four assists, everyone. That’s quite impressive.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Frolik, as this four-point outburst ended what was a six-game pointless streak. Frolik has been a healthy scratch this season, and has generally struggled to convince Bill Peters that he should maintain the 3M-edness of “The 3M Line.” Nights like Sunday argue that, maybe, Peters should take the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) approach here.

3. Pheonix Copley

No goalie generated a shutout on Sunday, but there were some nice performances nonetheless.

Both Jaroslav Halak and Matt Murray provided strong performances in an exciting Penguins win against the Bruins, with Murray stopping 39 out of 41 shots. It’s tempting to give Murray something of a “weekend achievement” award after he made some astounding stops on Saturday, too.

Yet, Copley gets the slight nod. Copley made 33 out of 34 saves to help the Capitals beat the Jets on Sunday. As sparsely used as Copley is, he’s now on a five-game winning streak.

Highlight of the Night

From the great Sidney Crosby pass to the fantastic goal by Jake Guentzel, the GWG from the Penguins – Bruins game gets the nod:

Factoids:

Scores

FLA 6 – DET 1
WSH 3 – WPG 1
PIT 4 – BOS 2
CGY 6 – VGK 3
LAK 3 – ANA 2

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.

Devils say Mueller didn’t suffer concussion or neck injury from scary fall

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When New Jersey Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller suffered a frightening fall during Wednesday’s game against the Flames, many feared the worst. He was stretchered off after that incident, at least showing that he was able to give the “thumbs up,” but it was still a pretty scary scene.

From the sound of the latest update, maybe it looked worse than it really was?

Devils coach John Hynes said that, somehow, Mueller didn’t suffer a concussion nor a neck injury from that fall with Michael Frolik. Instead, Hynes described it as “basically a left shoulder injury right now,” according to Amanda Stein of the team’s website.

” … For as bad as the hit looked and what we all thought possibly could happen, there was really good news on that,” Hynes said. “It’s nice to see him not be too injured, and a left shoulder injury coming out of that is a real positive.”

Indeed, it’s pretty hard to believe that Mueller, 23, may only end up dealing with a shoulder issue from that moment. (You can see the collision and fall in the video above this post’s headline.)

Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, has been making some headway since being traded to the Devils from the San Jose Sharks in 2017. After generating four points and averaging 16:41 ice time per game in 28 contests last season, Mueller’s managed 10 points in 47 games this season, logging a career-high 18:09 TOI per game in 2018-19. Here’s hoping this injury isn’t too big of a setback for a defenseman who seems to be establishing himself as an NHL regular.

This isn’t the only bit of injury news for the Devils this week, as the team announced that star Taylor Hall underwent knee surgery.

New Jersey hasn’t officially announced that either Mueller or Hall are done for the season, but with little but pride to play for, it would be surprising to see either back before 2019-20.

Honestly, it’s promising that such a possibility is even being considered for Mueller, considering how bad his fall into the boards looked the moment it happened.

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.