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Red Wings should sign Dylan Larkin for as long as possible

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For all the things that went wrong for the Edmonton Oilers last season, a funny thing snuck under the radar: Leon Draisaitl was probably worth the money.

Granted, that’s a relative thing, but from here, $8.5 million per year doesn’t seem so outrageous for a 70-point player who showed some promise without Connor McDavid, became dominant at little things like face-offs, and won’t turn 23 until October.

While I’d argue that the Oilers could have saved some money if they extended Draisaitl as early as possible instead of allowing him to break through during a contract year, the truth is that this situation is probably superior in the big picture. Just think of what a difference-making center like Draisaitl will cost by 2024-25, the final year of his current deal.

The Detroit Red Wings should follow a similar train of thought when it comes to their own blue-chip center, Dylan Larkin.

Possible parallels

The Athletic’s Craig Custance provided a detailed breakdown of Larkin’s contract with the Red Wings as an RFA, a read that’s easily worth your time. Every indication is that the negotiations have been healthy, including this quote from Larkin following the end of Detroit’s 2017-18 season.

“It’s got to make sense for the team as well as myself,” Larkin said. “I don’t want to be a burden on the cap or for the team. I really want to do something that — obviously it’s my future, when I want to have a family later in life, it’s something that can be pretty significant — but I also want to win and I want to be on a team that can have good players and can be competitive.”

Sure, there’s always a chance that this is Classic Lip Service, yet quotes like these just as often do portend a player who wants to find a compromise everyone can live with.

Custance also compares Larkin to Draisaitl (sub required), rightly noting that it would be risky for the Red Wings to assume that Larkin could make the leap to be the 70-point player Draisaitl’s been during the past two seasons. After all, Larkin scored 63 points in 2017-18, easily the best output of his also-very-young career.

If I were in Ken Holland’s shoes, I would have approached the free agent summer totally differently, I’d sign Larkin for as long as possible, even if it meant rolling the dice a bit when it comes to AAV.

I mean, sure, it’s enticing to try to land a big bargain. David Pastrnak, one of Custance’s comparables, looks like a serious bargain for Boston at his deal-with-the-devil $6.66M. Matt Cane’s remarkably accurate contract estimates call for Larkin to land six years at a $6.32M clip, which is the sort of situation that can make bargain-hunters salivate.

And, no doubt, the Red Wings could use some wins. Just check the scary money and term for Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, and Danny DeKeyser if you need a reason to cringe.

A Larkin contract shouldn’t be about all of that, as ideally, his term would far outlast even Holland’s worst opuses.

One more intriguing comparison

While Larkin doesn’t boast the exact same ceiling, the Red Wings could luck into a sweet, sweet deal like the Colorado Avalanche did with their lightning-fast center Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avalanche signed MacKinnon in July 2016, when he was coming off of a 52-point season, and he followed it up with a modest 53 points. But after almost winning a Hart Trophy via a brilliant 39-goal, 97-point season, the 22-year-old’s $6.3M cap hit through 2022-23 stands as arguably the best steal in the NHL. Things are looking up for Colorado right now, yet eventually GM Joe Sakic should be judged by whether or not he can leverage that jaw-dropping bargain to greater success.

Speed isn’t the only area where MacKinnon and Larkin share some fascinating similarities, either.

MacKinnon had long been a low-percentage shooter before 2017-18, hitting a low point of 6.4 percent in 2016-17. That changed last season, playing some role in his leap from “very good” to “one of the best.”

What if Larkin can parallel MacKinnon in the near future? He only scored 16 goals this past season, but Larkin connected at just a 6.9 shooting percentage (232 SOG in 82 games). Like MacKinnon, Larkin’s career has been a bit on the quantity over quality side, as his career average is just 8.9 percent.

The nightmare scenario is that he simply lacks shooting talent, yet the ideal one is that a spike is looming. Sometimes people get a little too wrapped up in believing that every prospect simply hasn’t unlocked some fleeting potential, but that’s a lot more reasonable in a guy who’s a) already produced, b) will turn just 22 on July 30, and c) probably has, at times, tried to do too much on bad teams.

Beyond the bridge

Alongside sending baffling contracts to veterans who are unlikely to be part of any broader solution, the Red Wings also frustrate a bit in only signing Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha to two-year deals.

Yes, the cap hits were very reasonable, but the Red Wings face the very real threat of having to pay up for more expensive deals once they’re in a better situation to more viably contend. That will be the time when they’ll wish they rolled the dice with younger talent boasting some room to grow, particularly since those same players are easier to trade if management sours on them.

Of course, there’s the possibility that neither player wanted to ink a lengthier deal with the Red Wings, so getting something done is absolutely better than nothing.

Either way, handing a substantial, prime-covering contract to Larkin would serve as quite the balm for the concerns of future-minded fans and critics.

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Look, there’s no denying that the Red Wings’ cap situation is tight, even with Johan Franzen headed for LTIR. Such concerns raise the degree of difficulty for signing Larkin, and a reasonable six-year deal certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Smart teams find bargains when they can, and show foresight in their planning.

Such descriptions haven’t exactly fit the bill for the Red Wings in some time, but if they want to get back to that level, they’ll need to get things right with players such as Larkin. He’s easily worth the risk.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jets building long-term contender; NHL yet to figure out how to pay goalies

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The dates for arbitration destiny (if they make it there) are set for a bevy of the NHL’s restricted free agents. (TSN.ca)

Connor Hellebuyck the first shoe to drop in Winnipeg, with several more waiting their turn. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Hellebuyck’s extension also proved once again that the Jets are building a long-term contender right away. (The Hockey News)

• The NHL has yet to figure out how to pay their goalies. (TSN.ca)

Kevin Shattenkirk is on track to be ready for Rangers training camp. (NHL.com)

• Vancouver Canucks seventh overall draft pick this year Quinn Hughes is set to benefit from wherever he plays this coming year. (Sportsnet)

• The salary cap in Edmonton is tight. Quite tight. So tight, that defenseman Darnell Nurse doesn’t want a long-term deal with the team right now. (Edmonton Sun)

Logan Couture, who signed an eight-year, $64 million extension with the San Jose Sharks on July 1, says it was an easy decision to make. (NHL.com)

• Who do the top 2018 NHL draft picks remind us of? Prospect expert Chris Peters explains. (ESPN)

• Sauce Hockey in hot water over crude t-shirts after Wal-Mart pulls them off store shelves in Canada. (CBC.ca)

• Mall celebrity upstages both Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon in viral photo. (The Star Halifax)

• Woman fighting ovarian cancer used playing hockey as therapy before she tragically passed away. (The Western Star)

• Tavares, Maple Leafs tough to match up with at center, opponents say. (NHL.com)

• Is St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong a master trader? (The Hockey Writers)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Power Rankings: The top 20 NHL free agents

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The start of the NHL’s free agent signing period is less than a week away and already two of the biggest names available have been taken off of the list, thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk‘s signing with the Los Angeles Kings and defenseman John Carlson re-signing with the Washington Capitals.

That does not mean there are not still quality players ready to hit the open market on July 1.

In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the top-20 free agents available, starting with what could be — potentially — one of the biggest UFAs to hit the open market in recent history.

1. John Tavares, C — This is a no-brainer for the top of the list. Tavares is not only by far the best free agent available this summer, he is one of the best players in the NHL. Whether or not he actually gets to the open market remains to be seen. Usually players like him end up re-signing right where they are, and the New York Islanders still seem to be the favorite to get him back. But he has a lengthy list of teams he is speaking with during the open interview period and he would help make any of them an instant contender. (Signed: seven years, $77 million – John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs to live ‘childhood dream’)

2. James van Riemsdyk, LW — van Riemsdyk does one very important thing and he does it really, really well — he scores goals. A lot of goals. He is coming off a career-high 36-goal performance for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and over the past two years has been one of the top-15 goal scorers in the entire league. Along with that he has also scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons (he scored 11 in 40 games in the other year). Not a superstar, not a player that is going to change the fortunes of your franchise, but there are not many players in the league that can put the puck in the net the way he has over the past five years. That is a valuable commodity. (Signed: five years, $35 million – James van Riemsdyk signing could spell end for Simmonds with Flyers)

3. Paul Stastny, C — Stastny ended up being one of the most impactful players to change teams at the trade deadline and is going to be a popular player on the open market. The Winnipeg Jets would love to keep him but they have a lot of work to do under the salary cap to make that happen. He is going to turn 33 this season but he has still been a remarkably steady 20-goal, 50-point center that posts strong possession numbers in recent years. He is not a No. 1 center, but if he is centering your second or third line your team is in pretty good shape. Given the lack of depth on the free agent market after Tavares and van Riemsdyk he is in a great position to get one more big pay day in his NHL career. (Signed: three years, $19.5 million with Vegas Golden Knights – Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights)

4. Joe Thornton, C — This is a challenging one. Big picture, Thornton is one of the best players of all-time and a truly dominant two-way center. A slam dunk Hall of Famer. I would argue he would probably should have won the Hart Trophy two years ago when the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final. Now that he is just days away from turning 39 his play has obviously declined from that level and he is coming off of an injury-shortened season in 2017-18. The injury is going to be a concern. The age is going to be a concern. But here is the thing about Thornton: When he was healthy this past season he was still really good. He was on a 62-point pace over 82 games, still driving possession at an elite level, and still making an impact all over the ice. He would almost have to be a one-year deal at this point because anything more than that would probably be too much of a risk, but he can still help somebody right now. Health permitted. (Re-signed: One year, $5 million with the San Jose Sharks.)

5. James Neal, LW — Very similar to van Riemsdyk, only maybe not quite as productive. In the end you are going to get 25 goals and a forward that “plays with an edge.” Edge” meaning that he is probably just one shift away from taking a bad penalty or doing something that flirts with crossing the line into dirty territory. Good, productive player that has a lethal shot and will add some offense.

6. Rick Nash, LW — He had another difficult postseason showing in 2018, this time as a member of the Boston Bruins, but he is still a really good two-way player that can help in all phases of the game. He is probably only a 20-goal winger at this point but he can kill penalties, drive possession and just be a solid all-around player. You can knock his playoff production in recent years if you want — and you wouldn’t be wrong, it is what it is — but he is going to help somebody a lot this year. (Nash unsure about NHL return next season)

7. Mike Green, D — He is not a top-pairing defenseman anymore but he can still help your power play and add some offense from the blue line. The drawback: You have to assume he is going to miss at least 10-15 games and while he was never as bad defensively as his critics have always wanted you to believe, he probably gives up a little more in the defensive end than he once did. Now that Carlson has re-signed with the Capitals he is probably the most attractive option for a team looking to add some scoring punch from its defense. (Re-signed: two years, $10.75 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

8. David Perron, LW –– Based on the way he played in 2017-18 as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, he would be one of the top players available this summer (and to be fair — he still kind of is). But when you’re signing a free agent you’re not signing them for what they did a year ago, you’re signing them for what they are going to do for you this season. There is very little to suggest that Perron is going to duplicate his 66-point in 70-game performance. In other words, he is probably not as good as his regular season point production from this past season would indicate, and not as bad as his postseason struggles (resulting in him being a healthy scratch on occasion would indicate. (Signed: four years, $16 million – Blues bring back Perron yet again)

9. Thomas Vanek, LW — Vanek has entered the point of his career where he has pretty much become a short-term hired gun, having played for five different teams over the past three seasons. During that time he has scored at a 28-goal, 54-point pace per 82 games. (Signed: one year, $3 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

10. Tyler Bozak, C — Bozak’s career is an interesting one to look at. In the beginning he was viewed as a center that was mostly just riding shotgun along Phil Kessel and only racking up points because he played alongside an elite goal-scorer. To a point, that was kind of true because his production away from Kessel was barely that of a fourth-liner. But over the past few years he has become a much better player and even had some of his best years in the NHL over the past two seasons. (Signed: three years, $15 million with St. Louis Blues.)

11. Calvin de Haan, D — He was limited to just 33 games this past season for the Islanders. Do not expect a lot of offense from him, but he is a reliable defensive player that can move the puck out of his zone and be a steady player on defense.

12. Carter Hutton, G — The free agent goalie market is incredibly thin but Hutton is probably the one that is going to get the most attention. He was great for the Blues in limited work this season, finishing with a league-best .931 save percentage. That is the good news. The questionable news is he only played in 32 games. The other question mark: He turns 33 years old this season and we still don’t really know how good he actually is given that he has only played 138 games in the NHL. (Signed: three years, $8.25 million with Buffalo Sabres.)

13. Robin Lehner, G — Lehner was added to the unrestricted free agent market when the Buffalo Sabres decided not to tender him a contract as a restricted free agent. Could be a nice bounceback candidate for a team in need of goaltending help. He is coming off of a brutal 2017-18 season for the Sabres but in his first two years with the team was quite good while playing behind a terrible team.

14. Patrick Maroon, LW — Maroon is the type of player that can appeal to both old school hockey types and the analytics crowd. He is a big, physical player that also posts consistently strong possession numbers and pretty decent second-line production. He is probably never going to repeat his 27-goal effort from two years ago in Edmonton (and he didn’t this past season) but he still managed to finish with more points in fewer games in 2017-18.

15. Ian Cole, D — Cole played a fairly big role on two Stanley Cup winning teams in Pittsburgh but that probably did more to overrate him than anything else. He is really good third-pairing defenseman, a fearless shot-blocker, and a solid, if unspectacular player. If you go in with those expectations you will not be disappointed with what you get. If you expect him to significantly alter your defense or be anything more than that you will almost certainly be wondering what happened. (Signed: three years, $12.75 million with Colorado Avalanche.)

16. Michael Grabner, RW — When the New York Rangers went into rebuild mode this past season and started selling off their veterans Grabner became one of the most sought after players on the trade market. There is a lot to like about what he brings to the table. He is one of the fastest players in hockey, has scored 27 goals in each of the past two seasons, and can kill penalties. He will also probably be a source of frustration because based on the number of breakaways and odd-man rushes he helps create with his speed you will probably walk away from him wondering how he didn’t score 35 or 40 goals. (Signed: three years, $10.05 million with Arizona Coyotes.)

17. Riley Nash, C — A depth player for his entire career, Nash was fortunate enough to have a career year (15 goals, 41 points) in what was a contract year for him. He has consistently posted strong underlying numbers throughout his career so even though his goal-scoring spike this year mostly due to a spike in shooting percentage, there is still reason to believe he can be a useful depth player. (Signed: three years, $5.2 million with Columbus Blue Jackets)

18. Jonathan Bernier, G — While Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention for Colorado’s turnaround, one of the more underrated aspects of it was the simple fact their goaltending situation was not a raging dumpster fire all year. Bernier helped solidify the position by appearing in half of the team’s games and giving them league average goaltending, something he has done throughout his career. At this point that is pretty much what he is; a solid veteran that can be a good backup or platoon partner with another goalie that can get you through a season and fill in as a starter for extended periods of time. (Signed: three years, $9 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

19. John Moore, D — A thin crop of blue liners on the open market is going to probably be beneficial for players like Moore. The Devils leaned on him as a top-four defender the past three years, including for more than 20 minutes per night in 2017-18. He was solid in that role, but is probably best served as a third-pairing defender. (Signed: five years, $13.75 million with Boston Bruins.)

20. Derek Ryan, C  — Ryan didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 29 years old but he has managed to begin carving out a nice career for himself. His underlying numbers are tremendous (he was a 57 percent Corsi player this season for the Carolina Hurricanes) and he has scored 26 goals over the past two seasons, including 15 this past season. (Signed: three years, $9.375 million with Calgary Flames.)

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.

Lightning’s best chance for Stanley Cup is now, with or without Tavares

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Remember when the Washington Capitals viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as their “two-year window” to win a Stanley Cup, and then they ended up hoisting it one year after that window seemingly closed?

A similar situation may be brewing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now, it’s important to first clarify that Capitals GM Brian McLellan wasn’t saying that the Capitals would either win by 2016-17 or fall flat. Instead, he viewed those two years as Washington’s best opportunities. Considering the regular season splendors versus this past season’s moderate dip (before the unprecedented highs), it was easy to understand that logic.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a similar statement, but looking at their salary structure on Cap Friendly, it would be reasonable if he has thoughts along the same lines.

It’s a big reason why the Lightning rank as arguably the most logical destinations if Erik Karlsson and/or John Tavares decide to make a one-season stop somewhere, rather than signing on longer term at a destination. And it’s a situation that has to at least be in the back of Yzerman’s mind as free agency opens up on Sunday.

Consider some of the contracts that will expire after 2018-19, or soon after:

Yzerman authored one of the truly great summers of wizardry in 2016, avoiding losing Steven Stamkos yet landing him for a team-friendly $8.5 million cap hit, signing Victor Hedman to a bargain extension, and hammering RFA leverage with Kucherov. Landing three years of the elite winger’s services for $4.767M per season through 2018-19 was a gob-smacking steal then, and it only looks more incredible after campaigns of 85 and 100 points.

Another example of Stevie Y’s deftness comes in the fact that Kucherov will still be eligible for RFA – not UFA – status after next season, but you’d have to think that Kucherov would strike an enormously tougher bargain for his next deal.

Maybe management can try to point to Stamkos’ $8.5M as a “ceiling” for deals, or at least argue that Kucherov shouldn’t make much more than that. Such arguments may fall on deaf ears for a winger who was massively, almost insultingly underpaid for years, though.

One cannot help but wonder if the Lightning are watching Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation nervously when it comes to their own Vezina-caliber goalie.

The comparison isn’t one-to-one (Bob could be a UFA without an extension, while Vasilevskiy would be an RFA), yet the Lightning must hope that few other goalies make anywhere near Carey Price‘s $10.5M cap hit once they’re able to negotiate with Vasilevskiy.

He’ll command a hefty raise. Much like with Kucherov, the Lightning just have to hope it’s not to a devastating level.

Do you think there’s a small part of Yzerman that’s glad that certain Lightning players fell short at the 2018 NHL Awards?

During a less robust season for rookies, Gourde would have been a Calder Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He scored 25 goals and 64 points in 2017-18. For context, consider that Auston Matthews only generated five more during his 2017 Calder season, and Gourde’s 64 slightly edges some other strong winning seasons including Nathan MacKinnon in 2013-14 and Jeff Skinner in 2010-11 (both scored 63 points).

Point, meanwhile, followed up a nice rookie season (18 goals and 40 points in 68 games) in 2016-17 by scoring 32 goals and 66 points in 2017-18.

If the Lightning couldn’t hammer out some proactive extensions – plausible if the players want to maximize value, or if Tampa Bay wants more cap ceiling clarity – there’d be few moments in recent history where other GMs would be more justified to break up the country club mentality and send some challenging offer sheets to the likes of Point, Gourde, and maybe even Kucherov.

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Naturally, it’s foolish to question Yzerman considering his history as a Salary Cap Houdini.

When asked about the Lightning seeking Tavares and how they’d make the cap crunch work, he likely shed some light on how this team expects to maneuver in the probable scenario where they don’t land the big fish.

“Well, we would have to make room,” Yzerman said simply enough early this week, via The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “If we brought in a significant salary, we would have to (make cap room).”

Again, Yzerman’s been able to move cap space and bad contracts before, and he’s likely to pull such slights of hand off again.

Even then, the Lightning will almost certainly need to lose some of the supporting cast members that play a part in making Tampa Bay not just dangerous, but also deep. As we saw with the Capitals, the best days might come when things are leaner, as long as they keep their core intact.

(And maybe they’ll just find more Points, Gourdes, and Tyler Johnsons and continue laughing at the rest of the league. That could happen too.)


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.

All-Rookie, All-Star Teams and rest of 2018 NHL Awards

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Let’s recap the remaining winners from the 2018 NHL Awards. Before we do so, here are the other big winners and corresponding links.

Hart Trophy

Taylor Hall

GM of the Year

George McPhee

Vezina Trophy

Pekka Rinne

Selke Trophy

Anze Kopitar

Jack Adams Award

Gerard Gallant

Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman

Calder Trophy

Mathew Barzal

Bill Masterton Trophy

Brian Boyle

Ted Lindsay

Connor McDavid

Lady Byng

William Karlsson

Also:

P.K. Subban named cover star for “NHL 19.”

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late coach Darcy Haugan (Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award).

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Now, let’s jump into the remaining awards and honors.

Mark Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (see video above this post’s headline)

King Clancy

Daniel and Henrik Sedin

William Jennings

Jonathan Quick with Jack Campbell

Of course, Alex Ovechkin won the Maurice Richard Trophy and Connor McDavid took the Art Ross.

First NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Taylor Hall
Center: Connor McDavid
Right Wing: Nikita Kucherov
Defense: Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman
Goalie: Pekka Rinne

Second NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Claude Giroux
Center: Nathan MacKinnon
Right Wing: Blake Wheeler
Defense: Seth Jones and P.K. Subban
Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

All-Rookie Team

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Brock Boeser, and Mathew Barzal
Defense: Charlie McAvoy and Will Butcher
Goalie: Juuse Saros

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.