Mitch Marner

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The Buzzer: McDavid, Matthews deliver on opening night

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Three Stars

1. Leon DraisaitlOilers

The big Oilers forward blew away previous career-highs last season, scoring an impressive 50 goals and 105 points. Considering the 21.6 shooting percentage he rode, and previous seasons of 70 and 77 points, many expected Draisaitl to come down to Earth.

Well, he began the 2019-20 season just as hot.

Draisaitl was the only player to score three points on Wednesday (one goal, two assists), and the Oilers needed all three of them in a snug 3-2 win against the Canucks. Draistail also generated a +2 rating, six shots on goal, and logged a defenseman-like 26:46 TOI in that win (about five minutes more than Connor McDavid‘s 21:40).

2. Auston MatthewsMaple Leafs

Matthews continues to be a force on opening nights, generating two goals as the Maple Leafs shook off a shaky start to cruise against the Senators. One of Matthews’ two goals ended up being the game-winner, and both came off absolutely splendid passes (from William Nylander and Mitch Marner respectively).

John Tavares ended up being named captain instead of Matthews (understandably), but if you handed out an “O” for opening nights, you’d have to hand that letter to Matthews.

Matthews had a +2 rating and eight SOG.

3. Reilly SmithGolden Knights

If you prefer, you might name Mark Stone as the better Golden Knight of that dominant win for Vegas, as Stone generated two points (1G, 1A) of his own while being great all-around as always.

It felt like Smith was everywhere whenever given a chance, though. Smith scored two goals, including a shorthanded laugher, and could easily have had two shorthanded tallies if not for a great breakaway save by Martin Jones.

Wednesday was quite a display for Vegas’ long-running top (or 1A/1B?) line of Smith (five SOG), William Karlsson (two assists, six SOG), and Jonathan Marchessault (an unusually deferential one SOG).

Highlight of the Night

Connor McDavid’s goal wasn’t necessarily the prettiest of the first night of the 2019-20 season, but it ranks as one of those moments where McDavid makes NHL defensemen look overmatched and, well, not like professionals. While the Oilers haven’t been on most preseason picks lists, few would be that shocked if McDavid, Draisaitl, and a select few other players find a way to drag Edmonton to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Especially after watching goals like these:

Factoids

  • Cody Glass already made history by becoming the first Golden Knights draft pick to play an NHL game for Vegas. He followed that up by scoring a nice goal, becoming the youngest Golden Knights player (20 years, 184 days apparently) to score a goal.
  • Again, Matthews is really good at this Game 1 thing.

Apparently this is McDavid’s sixth goal in an opener, setting an Oilers record.

Golden Knights did a thing

Scores

TOR 5 – OTT 3
WSH 3 – STL 2 (OT)
EDM 3 – VAN 2
VGK 4 – SJS 1

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s Stanley Cup picks
• Your 2019-20 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.

Big winners of the NHL’s restricted free agent signing period

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With Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Mikko Rantanen all signing new contract extensions this weekend, the NHL’s summer-long restricted free agency drama has come to a mostly anticlimactic end.

All the top players stayed where they were supposed to stay, nobody unexpected ended up getting traded, no additional offer sheets were actually signed, and the only big development was the shift by players to opt for shorter-term bridge deals instead of max long-term contracts.

Now that everyone is signed for the start of the 2019-20 season (which starts Wednesday night with Blues-Caps at 7 pm on NBCSN), let’s take a look at some of the big winners from the RFA signing period.

Teams that won big

Tampa Bay Lightning. Brayden Point‘s three-year deal is a massive short-term win for the Lightning. They entered the offseason facing a salary cap crunch but still managed to get one of their top players — Point — re-signed without really having to do anything significant to the rest of the roster. At a salary cap hit of just a little more than $6 million per season for the next three years the Lightning have a steal in Point given the way he blends elite offense and Selke caliber defense. Having a core player that good, signed for that cheap, is a huge advantage to a contender whose championship window remains wide open.

Boston Bruins. This looked like it was going to be a tricky situation for Don Sweeney at the beginning of the summer as he had to try to re-sign top defenders Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, as well as forward Danton Heinen, all while having limited wiggle room under the cap. He managed to get all three players signed for a combined cap hit of under $11 million per season. Not bad. McAvoy should have a monster contract coming his way when his current deal ends, but a lot current money will be off the books by then.

San Jose Sharks. Timo Meier‘s contract (four years, $24 million) was the big one this summer and looks like a perfectly fair deal for both sides. Meier very well could end up outperforming that deal before it’s done, but he will still be young enough to secure another significant contract. But getting Kevin Labanc signed for just $1 million for this season after his 17-goal, 56-point season was a really nice bonus for the Sharks. He is betting on himself, but in the short-term the Sharks are getting a huge advantage this season with some additional cap flexibility as they try to get Joe Thornton his Stanley Cup ring.

Carolina Hurricanes. They won at the very beginning of the summer when the Montreal Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer sheet. The Hurricanes easily matched it, got their franchise player signed, and the whole process helped them to avoid all of the drama and stress that every other team had to deal with in trying to negotiate a deal. That is a win.

Players that won big

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs. He managed to get a six-year deal out of the Maple Leafs that averages just under $11 million per year. The breakdown of the contract will pay him $41 million over the first three years, including $31 million in the first two years and $16 million this season. It is, by far, the biggest of all the RFA deals signed this summer and when compared to the deals signed by Point and Rantanen (two players that are not only similar to him, but maybe even better) it is a huge win for him to get pretty much exactly what he wanted.

Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers. Provorov has No. 1 defender potential and the Flyers definitely treat him like a No. 1 defender, but he has not yet consistently played at a level to justify all of that. Despite that, he still managed to get a six-year, $40.5 million contract this summer. That is significantly larger than the deals signed by McAvoy and Zach Werenski (Columbus), both of whom are probably already better than Provorov. If he becomes the player the Flyers think he can be, it will be a fine contract. But he has to become that player first.

Jacob Trouba, New York Rangers. He managed to get out of Winnipeg (something that seemed inevitable for a couple of years now) thanks to a trade to the New York Rangers where he signed a huge seven-year, $56 million contract, complete with a no-move clause and trade protections. Of the major RFA defenders this offseason (Trouba, McAvoy, Provorov, Zach Werenski) this is by far the biggest contract signed. That $8 million per year cap hit is also tied for the fifth largest among all defenders in the NHL. Is he that good? Trouba is a fine player and will make the Rangers’ defense better, but that is a huge investment in a player that is probably best suited to be a No. 2 defender on a contending team. Risky move for the Rangers, but a huge win for the player across the board.

More RFA signing news:
Jets lock up Connor with seven-year contract
Avalanche avoid breaking bank with Rantanen’s contract
Jets come to short-term agreement with Laine

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.

Examining Avs’ salary cap, Stanley cup window after signing Rantanen

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It took almost the entire offseason, but the Colorado Avalanche did it. They locked down the last big-name RFA remaining by signing Mikko Rantanen to a six-year deal that carries a $9.2 million AAV.

Initially, it brings to mind favorable comparisons to the Maple Leafs, as Mitch Marner received the same term at an expensive $10.893M cap hit.

But consider another comparison: Matthew Tkachuk and the Flames. In that case, a three-year deal with a $7M AAV opened a three-year window for Calgary to compete for a Stanley Cup, or at least on paper. (As we saw with the Washington Capitals, sometimes the breakthrough comes after you think you had your best chance.)

In the case of the Avalanche, you can look at a few different windows thanks to a few different factors.

The Mac Factor (through 2022-23)

The biggest window comes from getting Nathan MacKinnon, easily one of the most dynamic stars in the NHL, for what feels like close to a 50-percent discount at an absurdly low $6.3M cap hit. To the envy of basically the entire league, that almost larcenous deal runs through 2022-23.

The Avalanche getting four years of Rantanen and MacKinnon for a combined AAV of $15.5M provides an enormous competitive advantage. You could argue that “the rest is gravy,” but in a team sport like hockey, that gravy would be needed to complete a championship meal.

Other noteworthy contracts that last at least four more years include:

The Avalanche added some term with a few of these deals, and also made a key decision to move on from Tyson Barrie, exchanging him in a deal that brought in Nazem Kadri (28, $4.5M through 2021-22).

Decisions coming after 2020-21

Eventually, the Avs will need to decide who will remain a core player over the longer haul, who might be “the guy” in net, and how much they’ll pay key prospects.

While Ian Cole (30, $4.25M) strikes as less of an agonizing choice one way or another, not every decision will be easy. Captain Gabriel Landeskog often combines with MacKinnon and Rantanen to form one of the best bang-for-your-puck, top-heavy top lines in the league, and he’s dirt-cheap at $5.57M, but only for two more seasons. Despite it feeling like Landeskog’s been around forever, he’s only 26, yet the Avs will need to decide if he’d be worth handing what you’d assume would be a much bigger contract, even if he likely would fall behind Rantanen’s big deal.

Two years also covers the contract of Philipp Grubauer, 27, and his $3.33M AAV. Grubauer shook off early struggles to look promising, but will he be a franchise goalie? We’ll see.

With two years remaining on his rookie deal, Cale Makar could earn an astronomical raise from his $880K, considering the promise he’s shown already.

Colorado will also need to make choices regarding Andre Burakovsky and others entering contract years.

Strike soon

The Avalanche were fairly aggressive this offseason, although they didn’t land a big fish on the scale of a, say, Artemi Panarin.

With savings only lasting two years for Makar and four for MacKinnon, Colorado should be proactive in trying to take their best shots, and soon. Whether they try to do so by trade or free agency, the best time for blockbuster moves might be the 2020 offseason. They’ll no longer have $4.25M in dead money from retaining salary for Tyson Barrie and buying out Brooks Orpik, and so it’s not surprising there’s big space coming soon. Cap Friendly estimates their cap spendings for 2020-21 at about $57.136M with 13 roster spots covered, which would provide $24.37M to work with if the ceiling remained at $81.5M.

That’s a lot of money to work with, and now that they have cost certainty for a while with their biggest names, they can try to take a big shot. Maybe that would mean targeting the next Mark Stone like Vegas did: by identifying someone via trade, rather than free agency, and thus buying another playoff run from that player. They should have room to work with in 2019-20, although you never know if there’s a lower internal budget for spending …

***

There’s a lot to be excited about with the Avalanche, especially with Rantanen being 22, MacKinnon being 24, Makar being 20, and so on.

The instinct might be to sit back and relax, but the Avalanche should instead leap at this opportunity to make big leaps rather than more modest steps. As impressive as these bargains are, those coupons will eventually expire.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Avs avoid breaking the bank with Rantanen’s six-year deal

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The Colorado Avalanche locked down the last big RFA of this offseason on Saturday night, and their deal with Mikko Rantanen looks like a pretty big win for everyone.

… Except maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs, who would probably love it if people had less fuel to criticize the $10.893 million cap hit that Mitch Marner‘s deal will carry.

The Avalanche gave Rantanen the same six-year term, only the AAV for the talented winger will be a manageable $9.25M, according to reporters including A.J. Haefele of DNVR Sports and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. On first impact, this seems like a mostly-great deal for the Avalanche, although Rantanen made out well himself, getting a nice $55.5M payday, and the term that comes with such a pact:

Now, it’s fair to argue a little bit about how difficult it is to zero in on Rantanen’s exact value for a simple reason: he’s spent a ton of his career on the same line with Nathan MacKinnon, who has flourished to the point that he’s become one of the best players in the NHL. Of course, Rantanen and MacKinnon clearly have a symbiotic relationship, much like how Patrick Kane reached even higher levels when paired with Artemi Panarin. Consider that, since Rantanen came into the league in 2015-16, he’s spent 1,632:31 even-strength time with MacKinnon, and only 552:54 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Rantanen generated 84 points in 2017-18 and 87 in 2018-19, skyrocketing up the ranks of the NHL’s best forwards. Yet, one wonders how much he would excel without MacKinnon (and, to some extent, vice versa). That’s relevant since, at a $9.25M clip, the Avalanche might get to the point where they ask each star to carry their own lines.

But those very minor quibbles are easy to get over, because Rantanen’s clearly fantastic.

You could also sell the package as Rantanen plus MacKinnon at his absurd rate of $6.3M per year, a luxury that the Avalanche will enjoy for four more seasons. There’s really no argument that a combined cap hit of $15.5M is a mega-steal for such a dynamic duo, and with Gabriel Landeskog also being a bargain ($5.57M AAV through 2020-21), the Avalanche have a high-end top line that doesn’t just compare in impact to Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak; both trios should also make other teams jealous because of the sheer value involved.

[MORE: The Avalanche’s two and four-year windows to best take advantage of all of their value.]

Other teams have every reason to envy the Avalanche’s overall bang-for-the-buck, especially since they’re not paying a ton for starting goalie Philipp Grubauer ($3.33M AAV for two more seasons), and they also will enjoy more entry-level years from the likes of Bowen Byram and Cale Makar.

Yes, the Avalanche will eventually need to start paying up, or letting people go — that happens to any hopeful contender, really. Yet, by avoiding giving too much to Rantanen, they’re expanding their window to continue climbing the ranks.

Rantanen being 22 and MacKinnon still just being 24 makes it that much scarier for their opponents, and may end up leaving other NHL owners asking their GMs,” Why can’t you be more like Joe Sakic?”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Maple Leafs among Canadian teams looking to take next step

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Auston Matthews watched the NBA champion Raptors parade through the streets of Toronto and couldn’t help but wonder.

What if instead of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, it was him and his Maple Leafs teammates celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1967?

”I definitely get stuck thinking about stuff like that,” Matthews said. ”You kind of picture yourself in that situation.”

Matthews first wants to picture the Maple Leafs on a long playoff run after three consecutive first-round exits. For Toronto and all seven Canada-based NHL teams, this season is about taking the next step, whether it’s into Cup contender status, into the postseason or a long-term rebuild.

The Maple Leafs with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front and a retooled blue line featuring former Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on paper look like the best hope to end Canada’s Cup drought that dates to 1993. But they play in arguably hockey’s toughest division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the improved Florida Panthers , so they can’t really be judged until they get into the playoffs and show what they can do.

”Obviously the Achilles heel has been that first round for us,” Matthews said. ”It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it. For us obviously it’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – the same team, same result. So for us just making sure that everybody’s really focused and dialed in and ready to kind of get over that hump.”

Toronto lost to Boston in Game 7 of the first round each of the past two seasons. The Bruins got to Game 7 of the Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.

”They were that close,” Matthews said. ”It’s always in the back of your mind kind of that ‘What could have been.”’

WESTERN POWERS

Out West, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are each coming off disappointing first-round defeats and have high expectations of burying those memories and advancing further this spring.

”We never really found that level that we did two years ago when we made it to the conference finals, and we need to get back at that,” Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. ”We need to find that and we need to find it earlier. I’m excited for this year and I think the guys are, too.”

The Jets traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers, lost Tyler Myers in free agency and are dealing with the possibility that Dustin Byfuglien could retire. The uncertain futures of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor add to the uncertainty in Winnipeg.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Ehlers said.

MONTREAL’S HUMP

The Montreal Canadiens just want to get back to the playoffs after missing in two of the past three seasons. They haven’t won a round since 2015, and forward Max Domi can’t imagine what his first home playoff game will be like in a city starved for it.

”I watch videos all the time of people with their iPhones at a live Bell Centre Montreal Canadiens game in the playoffs and just visualizing how cool that would be,” Domi said. ”It’s a dream of mine.”

Carey Price, who in 2015 won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender, is the biggest reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the odds and make the playoffs.

”He’s the best goalie in the world for a reason,” Domi said. ”It’s a major confidence boost, for sure. He’s outstanding.”

OIL SHORTAGE

The Edmonton Oilers have one playoff appearance in 13 years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They have a new general manager in Ken Holland, a new coach in Dave Tippett and new questions about captain Connor McDavid coming off a knee injury. Of course, the biggest question in Edmonton is if this once-proud franchise can put it all together and stop wasting McDavid’s prime.

”We all get frustrated at times,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”You’re kidding yourself if you say it doesn’t. We’ve got to find our way out of it. There’s no point dwelling on it, no point getting down about it. You’ve just got to push through and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it together.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson gives the Vancouver Canucks hope that they can return to prominence with a new wave of young talent. It’s still a process for Vancouver, which will need to build up some more talent before contending.

Defenseman Thomas Chabot‘s $64 million, eight-year extension is similarly good news for the Ottawa Senators that a rising star wants to stay there and be part of the solution. The Senators need a handful more players like Chabot before they can reach the playoffs again.