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Ennis signing a glimpse into Maple Leafs’ free agent future

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When people look back at Kyle Dubas’ time as Toronto Maple Leafs GM, they’re not going to devote a chapter of that book to signing Tyler Ennis to a dirt-cheap contract.

Still, the thing about Dubas is that, in an ideal scenario, he might use his analytics background to make smart moves not just in bombastic ways by signing John Tavares, but also by improving the Maple Leafs at the margins.

There’s no guarantee that Ennis will be an everyday player for the Maple Leafs, as it’s quite plausible that the 28-year-old could be passed up in training camp by Marlies hoping to graduate from winning a Calder Cup in the AHL (and exciting Dubas greatly) to roster sports with the big team.

Yet, by signing Ennis to a $650K clip, the Maple Leafs are opening the door for the diminutive forward to provide really nice value.

Barely landing an NHL contract should provide plenty of motivation for Ennis to give this all he has, and while he’s undoubtedly a small player, he can side into a variety of spots in the lineup and bring skill to the table. While Ennis only scored 22 points in 73 games for Minnesota last season, he only averaged about 12 minutes of ice time.

No doubt, the last three seasons have been brutal, with 2015-16 and 2016-17 ravaged by injuries.

Even so, Ennis is a three-time 20+ goal scorer, generating three 40+ point seasons and scoring at least 30 points on two other occasions. If injuries hit the Maple Leafs this season, it’s conceivable that Ennis could enjoy a reclamation season. If not, he could easily be demoted to the AHL or serve as a healthy scratch. The reward could be solid, while the risk is quite low.

Ennis-type signings are almost certainly going to be a more frequent feature of the Maple Leafs’ future than flashy ones like landing Tavares, too, at least when it comes to adding players from outside the organization.

Dubas pointedly states that the Maple Leafs will be able to retain core players around Tavares, which means striking a deal with William Nylander this summer and eventually coming to agreements with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“We can, and we will,” Dubas said about signing those players during an interview on the “31 Thoughts” podcast.

Getting Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to sign team-friendly deals would be arguably an even more impressive feat than convincing Tavares to come home to Toronto, and it’s plausible to make it work. As much demand as those three could draw, the Maple Leafs boast a ton of leverage being that all three are/would be RFAs. It also doesn’t hurt that this team is built nicely to compete for quite a few years.

Depth is important in the NHL, though, and the other challenge for Dubas is to find dirt-cheap and/or value players to be the electrons to that high-level nucleus.

Some of that process comes down to cutting the fat. Toronto managed to get rid of an excessive depth contract without retaining salary by trading Matt Martin. It may end up being ideal to move Patrick Marleau in the final year of his contract, and recent events have shown that rebuilding NHL teams will often house cap hits for the cost of futures.

(Considering how Dubas likes to gather a quantity of picks by trading down, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’d have plenty of room to bribe teams while still having selections left over.)

Beyond that, it will be about rummaging through the bargain bin for supporting cast members, and echoing their rivals the Lightning in finding gems in the draft. Barring a skyrocketing salary cap over the next few years, there will be more Ennis-type signings than Tavares blockbusters for Toronto, at least if Dubas truly “can and will” keep the big four forwards in town.

So, the Ennis signing isn’t spectacular in a vacuum, yet if teams win more of these, they’ll win in the long run.

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.

John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs to live ‘childhood dream’

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have landed the big fish in free agency.

John Tavares announced on Sunday that he is leaving the New York Islanders after nine seasons to sign with the Maple Leafs. The contract is a seven-year deal (the maximum length he can sign as a free agent) that will pay him $11 million per season.

Tavares announced his decision in a two-part message on Twitter, addressing both the Islanders organization and the Islanders fanbase.

While this is a devastating loss for the Islanders, it is a massive addition for the Maple Leafs and should make them one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference. Tavares is one of the top offensive players in hockey and is joining a young team that is already loaded with talent. Between Tavares and Auston Matthews the Maple Leafs are going to have one of the best 1-2 duos in the league.

Now the hard work begins for the Maple Leafs front office. In the short-term (meaning this season) the Maple Leafs have plenty of salary cap room to add Tavares without much of an issue, even with the restricted free agent status of young star forward William Nylander. But Nylander, Matthews, and Mitch Marner are all going to need new contract extensions over the next year. They will all be costly. Along with that they still have to work to do to improve the defense.

Even with all of that, there is almost no downside to this for the Maple Leafs.

It is not very often that you have a chance to add a franchise, top-line player without having to give up anything in return. Players like this do not usually end up hitting the open market. When that chance presents itself you have to take it and worry about everything else later.

MORE: What’s next for the Islanders with Tavares gone?

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.

Pros and cons for each team on John Tavares’ list

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Potential unrestricted free agent John Tavares will begin meeting with the teams on his shortlist on Monday. According to The Athletic writers Arthur Staple and Pierre LeBrun, that list includes: the Islanders, Maple Leafs, Stars, Sharks, Bruins and Lightning.

There’s pros and cons that are attached to every NHL city, so let’s take a look at those points for each of the teams Tavares is reportedly considering.

• New York Islanders

Pros: Well, for starters, there’s some familiarity there. Tavares has spent his entire career with the Isles, so there has to be a certain value attached to that. But beyond familiarity, there’s other reasons he might stay.

Mathew Barzal would be one. He put up some impressive offensive totals during his first full year in the NHL and he’ll only get better as his career advances.

The Islanders have also added a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz and they’ve made major changes to their front office that now has Lou Lamoriello as general manager. Those changes have seemingly helped the odds of Tavares re-signing with his current team.

New York also has the most cap space in the league right now, as they can spend over $32 million this summer (that will change if Tavares re-signs).

Cons: Tavares has been with the Islanders for almost a decade and they still haven’t been able to go on a long playoff run. Yes, there are new people in charge, but the roster will remain the same as it was last year.

Speaking of the roster, the Isles still don’t have a number one goalie and they have a hard time keeping the puck out of their own net. That was a major issue last season. Tavares can’t fix everything.

The Isles also have that unique arena situation. They’re getting a new arena but splitting games between two different venues is far from ideal, no matter how convenient the team tries to make it. Who knows how he feels about that?

• Toronto Maple Leafs

Pros: Tavares was born in Mississauga, Ontario, so going to play for the Leafs would be a type of homecoming for him. Going back there might not be a priority for him, but it can’t hurt.

The Leafs have built a team with a solid young core that includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Jake Gardiner. Tavares wouldn’t have to go to Toronto and be the go-to guy, he could go there and be one of the guys.

Although they haven’t had much playoff success over the last decade, adding Tavares would clearly take them to another level. He has to be aware of that.

Cons: Although Toronto is “home” for him, he also knows that it comes with a ton of media pressure. It might not be enough of a reason for him to stay away from the Leafs, but it’s definitely not a selling point.

Like the Islanders, there’s no denying that the Leafs have an issue on defense. It might not be as bad as the situation in New York, but the team isn’t good enough on the blue line right now and adding Tavares won’t fix that.

The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series in quite some time (2004), so if he’s looking for a team that has had playoff success lately, Toronto isn’t the place.

There’s also a bit of unknown with new GM Kyle Dubas. How will the rookie general manager adapt to his new responsibilities? It appears as though he’ll be fine, but we really won’t know for a couple of years.

• Dallas Stars

Pros: The Stars have a dynamic attack led by Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. Adding Tavares to that mix would make them even more dangerous. That has to be enticing for the 27-year-old. Oh, and they also have John Klingberg on the blue line doesn’t hurt.

Like the Isles, the Stars also have a new head coach in Jim Montgomery. Obviously, he’s not as proven as Trotz, but he was in demand this spring.

Who doesn’t like money? The fact that there’s no state income tax in Texas is a huge plus for a guy who’s about to sign a long-term deal worth a lot of cash.

If you hate winter, the weather isn’t too shabby, either.

Cons: As talented as Dallas’ attack is, they’ve missed the playoffs in back-to-seasons and in eight of the last 10 years. Adding Tavares to the roster helps, but a lot of their shortcomings are things he can’t fix (like in Toronto and in New York).

The Stars have $19.8 million in cap space right now, but they only have 14 players under contract right now. Adding Tavares will cost roughly $12 million per year, so how much money will be left over to fix the rest of the issues on the roster?

No disrespect to Dallas, but it’s not a traditional hockey market. If that’s one of the things Tavares is looking for, he won’t find it there.

• San Jose Sharks

Pros: Sharks GM Doug Wilson has created almost $19 million in cap space for his team to make a serious push at Tavares. Unlike the Stars, the Sharks already have 19 players under contract for 2018-19.

In San Jose, he’ll be surrounded by players like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton (maybe), Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones. That’s a solid group.

The Sharks have also made it to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, and they’ve gone at least two rounds in two of those years. That’s not too shabby given the parity in the NHL.

It’s California, baby!

Cons: That appearance in the Stanley Cup Final seems like it was a lifetime ago. Can they get back to that level if Tavares signs there? That remains to be seen.

The core players aren’t exactly spring chickens. Couture (29), Pavelski (33), Thornton (38), Burns (33) and Vlasic (31) are all close to 30 or over 30. Tavares would step in and become the youngest player of the bunch.

Kane and Melker Karlsson are the only forwards signed beyond next season. If things don’t work out this year, how different will the team look starting in 2020?

• Boston Bruins

Pros: The Bruins proved to be one of the better teams in the league from November on. Bruce Cassidy had them playing smart and fast hockey. If they could get Tavares to buy in to what they’re selling, that would be unreal.

This could be good or bad, but Tavares wouldn’t have to play on the top line if he joins the Bruins. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand have incredible chemistry, so teams will focus most of their attention on them. That would leave Tavares with some juicy matchups.

Boston also has an incredible group of young talent and strong prospects coming through their pipeline. So even though they have older guys, there is a fresh batch of talent coming through the pipeline. Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy and company could make the decision easier for Tavares.

Cons: Tavares is still one of the elite players in the NHL. How would he feel to playing second fiddle to the top line? There’s plenty of ice time and power play time to go around, but it’s still something that has to be considered. He’s been the top guy on his team since the day he stepped onto NHL ice.

As of right now, the Bruins have under $12 million in cap space. Sure, moves can be made, but they also have potential free agents that they’d like to bring back (Riley Nash being one). They have to add a backup goaltender if they let Anton Khudobin walk, too.

• Tampa Bay Lightning

Pros: Look at the Lightning’s roster, they’re stacked. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej, Palat, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point, J.T. Miller, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Can you imagine if they add Tavares?

It’s not a traditional hockey market, but their recent success has given them quite a bit of national attention over the last couple of years. He still wouldn’t have to deal with a crazy amount of media on a daily basis.

Yes, weather and a lack of a state income tax comes into play here, too.

They’ve also gone at least three rounds in three of the last four years.

Cons: For whatever reason, the Lightning haven’t been able to get over the hump. Sure, they’ve been to the conference final three times in four years, but they’ve come up just short.

Tampa also has $10.5 million in cap space and they still have to re-sign Miller and a couple of role players.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Galchenyuk trade just one reason Coyotes are excited

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Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.

It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.

Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.

After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.

  • The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.

Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.

If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.

  • Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.

There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.

(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)

The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.

Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.

Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.

  • A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.

Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.

  • They can add more talent this summer.

On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.

Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?

Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.

  • Their young players could improve.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.

The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.

“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

  • Enviable flexibility

In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.

The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.

Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.

No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.

***

No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.

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.

Leafs GM job means huge challenges, opportunities for Dubas

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Earlier today, the rumblings were confirmed, as the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that 32-year-old Kyle Dubas was promoted to the level of being their new GM. By many accounts, the push for Lou Lamoriello’s successor came down to Dubas or more experienced executive Mark Hunter.

However Leafs fans feel about this bold (if expected) choice, it should be grab-your-popcorn-level fun to see how everything plays out. Well, if you’re enraptured by nerdy team-building stuff, that is.

(Raises hand emphatically.)

The good news is that Lamoriello & Co. left behind a great situation for Dubas, who’s been learning the ropes since joining the organization in July 2014. With great organizational powers come great responsibility, however, and the young executive faces an array of short and long-term decisions that will make a huge impact on the fortunes of the massively popular NHL franchise.

Let’s take a look at some the opportunities at his fingertips, the obstacles in his way, and ponder some important situations that could go well or blow up in Toronto’s face.

An outstanding young core, a fairly clean slate

The best is almost certainly yet to come for this outstanding nucleus of young players.

Auston Matthews is 20, Mitch Marner is 21, William Nylander is 22, and even Morgan Rielly is only 24. Frederik Andersen should have prime years left at 28.

Toronto managed to get rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s contract, while Joffrey Lupul will no longer need to shade the Leafs about using his deal as a loophole. Aside from a few exceptions (Matt Martin, Nikita Zaitsev), there isn’t the baggage you normally see amid a regime change. Chalk that up to the Shanaplan if you want, but the world is Dubas’ oyster.

A small window and some big extensions

According to Cap Friendly, the Maple Leafs have $50.1 million devoted to 15 players for 2018-19. Dubas faces some intriguing possibilities considering the fact that the cap ceiling is expected to range between $78-$82M.

Sure, some of that space will be eaten up by RFA deals, most notably that of William Nylander.

The bottom line, though, is that the Maple Leafs should be flush … for one summer. The entry-level contracts for Matthews and Marner are set to expire after 2018-19, with those two becoming eligible for proactive extensions as early as this July.

First things first, Dubas is charged with pushing the right buttons as far as signing Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to team-friendly deals. Any free agent moves would surely be made realizing that those three will make this cushion evaporate with considerable speed.

With that in mind, Dubas might opt for creative one-year contracts. If James van Riemsdyk ends up unhappy with the market, would he take a rich, one-year deal to stay with Toronto? Would the Maple Leafs be able to convince a useful player to take a one-year deal under similar circumstances in the more likely case where JVR leaves?

Tavares or another blockbuster addition?

Again, with just about any situation, a team should make it work if John Tavares is interested in signing up. Of course, the Maple Leafs join the Sharks on the short list of teams that make the most realistic sense for Tavares if he doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders. The Maple Leafs could give Tavares a real chance to win it all; on the other hand, he might not appreciate being under such a magnifying glass with Toronto.

(Personally, I think Tavares would love the challenge, but it’s tough to know for sure what he actually wants to do.)

The Maple Leafs could get some ancillary benefits from signing Tavares to what would almost certainly demand a $10M+ cap hit. Signing Tavares could conceivably help to set a ceiling of sorts for Matthews, and perhaps Marner and/or Nylander would be more willing to sacrifice a bit of cash to be a part of what could really be a contender? One wouldn’t expect these RFAs to take an extreme cut from what they might otherwise get, but even a million here or there could be huge if Toronto ends up scraping against the cap ceiling with rapid speed.

There’s also the amusing thought of Tavares signing close to the maximum for one year, although it’s difficult to picture the star player signing such a risky deal.

Interestingly, similar circumstances could arise if the Maple Leafs landed a big fish in a trade. The Senators wouldn’t trade Erik Karlsson to their bitter rivals, but maybe he’d sign there in the 2019 summer? Maybe the Maple Leafs would land another would-be 2019 free agent in Drew Doughty or Oliver Ekman-Larsson?

This flexibility in 2018-19 could help the Maple Leafs into the future, especially if Dubas gets creative.

Liked by Mike?

Mike Babcock might have his old-school tendencies, yet he’s also shown plenty of signs of being pretty progressive, especially for a coach with his impeccable resume. Chances are, he’ll be fair to Dubas.

Still, there’s a human nature element to this that should be fascinating to watch, even if the juicy stuff would likely only happen behind closed doors.

Consider this. Like Mark Hunter, Babcock is 55 years old. Lou Lamoriello is old enough to be Babs’ father at 75, while Dubas could be the grandchild at 32. As professional as everyone involved surely must be, that could make for an odd dynamic when inevitable turmoil surfaces. Granted, it certainly helps that Dubas has already been with the organization for about four years, giving him plenty of chances to build chemistry and trust.

You wonder how often Dubas will feel compelled to “throw Babcock a bone.” Like just about every NHL coach, Babcock has “his guys.” Will Dubas grudgingly sign off on some minutes for Roman Polak if the Maple Leafs otherwise embody a more modern approach?

It’s going to be a little uncomfortable at times for Babcock to take orders from a guy who’s 23 years younger than him. Here’s hoping that the situation doesn’t devolve like Art Howe grumbling about analytics in “Moneyball,” although it might be fun to banter about which Hollywood actor would play Babcock.

***

As expansive as this post is, it doesn’t cover everything facing Dubas. That tells you how complex a GM’s job can be, particularly in a high-pressure market such as Toronto.

Dubas will be charged with finding ways to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense. He’ll need to manage the cap with those sweetheart rookie deals set to expire. Eventually, it will be crucial for the Maple Leafs to find new sweetheart rookie deals by drafting well, even with less favorable draft positions.

It’s been ages since the Maple Leafs boasted such potential at just about every level, not to mention a coach who can get the most out of those players. Toronto fans have been patient with the process so far, but that honeymoon stage probably won’t last longer than Matthews’ ELC.

Fair or not, Dubas will be judged as a failure if he can’t mold this potential into a contender, if not a flat-out champion.

He’s been handed the keys to a great situation, but Dubas must avoid some serious pot holes. Either way, it will be fascinating to observe, and considering his age and preferences, it might just change how NHL teams conduct business.

No pressure, barely-not-a-kid.

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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.