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Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were already one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive hockey teams.

Even though they missed Auston Matthews, their best players, for 20 games last season, they still finished as the third-highest scoring team in the league with 270 goals. Not only will they — hopefully — be getting a full season out of Matthews in 2018-19, but they also went into free agency and snagged John Tavares to add to a roster that is already loaded.

It is not out of the question to think that this could be the best offensive team in hockey this season, something that the Maple Leafs have rarely had in their existence. It’s been two decades (1998-99) since the Maple Leafs finished as the NHL’s leading goal-scoring team, and it’s something that has only happened once in the post-Original Six era. Even during the Original Six era you have to go all the way back to the 1940s to find a Maple Leafs team that scored the most goals in hockey.

This team is capable of pacing the league.

Just look at what they have at their disposal going into the season. It is an embarrassment of riches at forward.

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

— In Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Nazem Kadri the Maple Leafs have five of the top-70 players in points-per-game over the past two seasons. No other team in the league has more than four players in the top-70. All of those players will be age 28 or younger on opening night, while Matthews, Nylander, and Marner are all just now entering what should be their peak offensive years in the NHL. Those three were Toronto’s top point-producers this past season and not one of them had celebrated their 22nd birthday yet. It is not a stretch to think that all three of those players could improve on what they did this past season and be even better.

Patrick Marleau may be 39 years old and closer to the end of his career than his prime, but he has still been a lock for at least 25 goals and 45 points over the past four years. He scored 27 goals (one of six players on the roster to score at least 20) during the 2017-18 season and was awesome (four goals in seven games) in the playoffs. He is still an excellent player.

— Along with the established, front-line, All-Star level talent, the Maple Leafs still have a collection of younger, cheaper players that can complement their top players on the scoresheet. Zach Hyman and Connor Brown are both capable of 15-20 goals for a combined salary cap hit of less than $5 million over the next two years. Kasperi Kapanen, one of the key pieces in the Phil Kessel trade from three years ago, showed signs of being an impact player last season.

In short, there really isn’t much of a weakness anywhere in the forward lines, while they also jettisoned probably the two weakest links offensively in Leo Komarov and Matt Martin this summer.

There are a lot of teams at the top of the NHL that have superstar talents and strong depth (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, Winnipeg) but Toronto is really the only one that still has its most significant and impactful core players still in the prime of their careers, or just entering their prime with still having room to grow.

There is massive potential here for what this team could be capable of offensively and on any given night five or six goals (or more) is certainly possible. Will it result in a Stanley Cup this year or in future years? Odds are probably against them (that is just the nature of sports when it comes to betting one team against the field), but there may not be a more exciting team anywhere else in the league.

 

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.

Leafs’ smartest bet is to sign Matthews, Marner, Nylander now

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Late July ranks as “the dog days of the hockey summer,” so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the Toronto Maple Leafs’ in-house big three (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander) provide virtually identical quotes about taking it easy regarding their contract situations. You can basically copy and paste the “shrug, gonna leave it to my agent”-type comments.

If you ask me,* Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas shouldn’t take such a nonchalant approach. Instead, he should get all three done. Like, now.

The natural leaning is to say that Nylander is the most urgent, and that’s a reasonable assumption. After all, he’s currently an RFA without a contract for 2018-19, while Matthews and Marner are set to enter the final year of their rookie deals. The deadlines are more urgent when it comes to Nylander.

But, in seeing the Maple Leafs allow James van Riemsdyk to walk in free agency, you can probably see that Dubas & Co. are fully aware that some big contract decisions loom. Just about every indication is that the Maple Leafs would be much better off signing all three – not just Nylander – as soon as possible.

[From earlier this summer: more on Leafs’ toughest work just beginning]

Now, it’s worth noting that such talks would require mutual interest, which is far from guaranteed.

If Marner and Matthews have zero interest in signing extensions before the season begins, then it’s a bit of a moot discussion. Early rumblings are that discussions have at least started, and players would only be reasonable to strongly consider accepting a decent extension, as the threat of a career-altering injury must loom over the head of any NHL player.

Let’s keep it simple and assume that Marner and Matthews would be glad to sign a fair extension sometime this summer. With that caveat out of the way, here are some of the factors for why it makes a ton of sense to push hard for an immediate solution, even if Dubas is – publicly – playing it close to the vest.

We haven’t seen their best, maybe not even close

You can make a strong argument that all three forwards saw their value either subtly or starkly diluted in 2017-18.

  • In the case of Auston Matthews, there were a few factors worth considering.

One was out of everyone’s hands, as Matthews was limited to 62 regular-season games thanks to injury issues. It’s quite plausible that his postseason struggles had at least something to do with lingering health challenges, too.

Power play context is also interesting for Matthews. While he received decent power play TOI (essentially clustered with the heaviest-use players at 2:09 per game), you can see from Left Wing Lock’s listings that Matthews wasn’t a part of Toronto’s robust top unit. That’s fairly unusual for a high-end young talent.

“Puck luck” might have been the lone factor that pushed Matthews’ numbers in a positive direction, as his high 18.2 shooting percentage helped him generate 34 goals in just 62 games. Then again, Matthews could very well boast elite shooting talent to go with his hearty shooting volume, so the Maple Leafs must be cognizant of a potentially outrageous contract year for the American star.

That’s especially true if a top power play unit features Matthews with John Tavares, and if Tavares forces defenses to send lesser opponents against Matthews.

  • Nylander might be the player whose stats were least subverted by context and Mike Babcock’s quirks in 2017-18.

Granted, it probably didn’t help that Matthews missed some time … but even then, Nylander rarely spent even-strength shifts away from number 34.

This post won’t focus a ton upon Nylander anyway, as the Maple Leafs don’t really have much of a choice but to sign him this summer. (If they don’t it would be a huge headache holdout stretching into a promising season.)

  • Here’s a take for you: Mitch Marner’s situation is actually the most pivotal.

Matthews is the most important player for the Maple Leafs’ future, probably even including Tavares, considering the age difference. That said, Matthews falls in line with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, and other no-brainer “face of the franchise” players that you simply have to pay a lot, and merely hope that they leave a little money on the table. This post asserts that the Maple Leafs would gain very little in waiting with Matthews, but one way or another, he’s getting paid, and almost certainly long term.

The Marner situation, more than the situation of those two others, seems the most mysterious from a value standpoint.

Simply put, John Tavares can dramatically drive up Marner’s value. It’s to the point that an incredibly simple observation – Marner told Sportsnet that he plans on increasing his shooting volume – would scare the daylights out of me if I was in Dubas’ shiny shoes.

“In the corners, how he can get away from people and draw people into him, I think that’s very important to have on your line,” Marner said of Tavares. “For me, personally, it kinda makes me think I need to shoot more. Going into this season, I have to be ready to shoot. He can make those plays quick.”

Marner fired 194 shots on goal in 82 games last season (2.37 SOG per game), scoring 22 goals for an 11.3 shooting percentage. It’s easy to picture Marner flirting with three SOG per game, particularly in the very likely event that his ice time skyrockets from last season’s average of 16:23 minutes per night.

It’s far from outrageous to picture Marner scoring 40 goals and 80-something points if he’s a full-time winger for Tavares. Far lesser players have raked in the dough with Tavares.

Marner scored 69 points last season despite spending portions of 2017-18 in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. He took off with Nazem Kadri, yet he spent a bit more time lining up with an aging Patrick Marleau and a good-but-unspectacular Zach Hyman. There were significant factors holding Marner’s numbers in the stratosphere, and the Maple Leafs would be foolish not to take advantage of any doubt that he could be a star-level producer.

A season with Tavares would remove just about any doubt, and maybe inflate his stats to the point that he’d play over his head. That would be a real problem for the Maple Leafs.

Cap percentages, cautionary tales

Yes, there are cases when a team might have been better off waiting, even with a prominent player.

Aaron Ekblad comes to mind as a nice piece who’s making the sort of money his team might regret, but he stands in contrast to Marner and Matthews in that he was riding peak performance years while those Leafs forwards’ stats were subdued (as discussed in the previous section).

Dubas & Co. should be more concerned about contracts that ran their course and ended up costing big money.

The Oilers are lucky that, in all honesty, Leon Draisaitl probably is worth $8.5M per year. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much money they might have saved if they signed him during the summer of 2016 when his career-high for points was 51 and he didn’t enjoy a long run maximizing his numbers with Connor McDavid (Draisaitl scored 29 goals and 77 points during his 2016-17 contract year).

Matthews is 20. Marner is 21. They’re already revealing themselves to be difference-makers, but it’s not outrageous to picture them both making quantum leaps in 2018-19. If that happens, those contract values will soar.

The early bird also gets the worm when it comes to simpler arguments.

If Matthews’ and/or Marner’s reps want to say “My client is worth x percent of the salary cap” – a very reasonable negotiating ploy – wouldn’t you want that discussion to revolve around 2018-19’s upper limit of $79.5M, rather than a 2019-20 top end that’s likely to be higher, maybe considerably so? Contracts that seem steep today can look a lot better down the line thanks to the rising cap, not to mention if some big-ticket players raise the bar for salaries.

What would Y do?

Again, this discussion hinges on Matthews and Marner being at least reasonably interested in extensions. If any players would roll the dice with health, it would be ones as young as these two. That’s especially true since the best-case scenario for 2018-19 could be each forward tearing up the NHL, and the Leafs finally making a deep run.

That said, “sign your core players as early as possible” has been a theme for much of PHT’s off-season writings (see these divisional breakdowns), and will likely carry over to August and beyond.

Few teams have as much to gain or lose by such discussions as the Maple Leafs do, at least with the Lightning somehow walking the tight rope with Nikita Kucherov after working magic with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman (Kucherov and Hedman rank as proactive extensions, by the way).

Can Dubas match or at least echo Yzerman’s successes? Toronto presents some additional challenges – steeper taxes, tougher media coverage – but the Maple Leafs would be wise to do the best they can to pull off their own Matrix-line cap maneuverings. Even if it means dropping the casual facade.

* – You didn’t and the Maple Leafs certainly did not; I’m aware of that.

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.

Where they stand: Atlantic Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands. 

With August approaching, NHL GMs are mostly transitioning from “time at the cottage” to “tropical drinks on the beach.”

There’s more work to do, but much of it may happen closer to training camp time, aside from some deals to settle RFA situations and avoid salary arbitration. This seems like a great time to ponder which teams look likely to rise or fall in each division, so let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins

Summer summary: “Meh” seems like the right word to summarize Boston’s off-season.

They lost the Ri-Nashes (Rick Nash and Riley Nash), swapped backups, said goodbye to some depth players, and signed John Moore to a somewhat bewildering contract. So, yeah, meh.

More to do?: The B’s covered their free agent bases already, so their near $3 million in space (via Cap Friendly) could come in handy, with a “rental” probably making most sense.

The most interesting questions revolve around making some near-future calls regarding defense.

Brilliant young defenseman Charlie McAvoy‘s rookie contract expires after next season, while Zdeno Chara has to slow down at some point, right? The Bruins are lucky that Chara is OK with one-year commitments, but a raise is coming for McAvoy. Maybe they’d be better off settling on an extension now, rather than after another high-level season?

Where they stand: On somewhat shaky ground.

Consider this: the Maple Leafs pushed them to a Game 7 without John Tavares. The Lightning didn’t make any big splashes, yet they creamed the B’s with their current crew. Florida finished last season on a strong note, and could be really dangerous if the Mike Hoffman gamble works out.

So, the Bruins face challenges even if they maintain last season’s often-impressive progress. What if some key players hit the aging curve hard, too? Patrice Bergeron is somehow 33, and they feature some old Davids (Backes and Krejci) along their brilliant young one (Pastrnak). Chara is 41, and even Brad Marchand is 30.

On the other hand, the Bruins entered 2017-18 with some worries, and instead looked really promising while seeing some young players emerge. It wouldn’t be shocking to see some young talent rise to the occasion once again.

Buffalo Sabres

Summer summary: The Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly, and probably lost that trade, yet they may have improved overall this summer.

For one thing, the package they landed for ROR should at least help them get deeper. More obviously, Rasmus Dahlin is now in the organization, and he could very well pay significant dividends as a rookie. Speaking of rookies, Casey Mittelstadt may also be a difference-maker.

Landing Conor Sheary is pretty neat, especially if he finds almost as much chemistry with someone like Jack Eichel as he did with Sidney Crosby.

Between those additions and going with Carter Hutton instead of Robin Lehner in net, the Sabres should be very interesting this season. Now, will interesting translate to better?

More to do?: Sam Reinhart stands as a significant player still in need of a contract, as he’s currently a 22-year-old RFA.

With no arbitration date set, that situation might drag on for a while. Sure, Reinhart hasn’t been spectacular considering that he was the second pick in 2014, but he’s hit 20+ goals twice and scored 50 points in 2017-18. You can see where there might be some room for haggling there.

Without a Reinhart contract settled, the Sabres have about $12.2M in cap space. Buffalo’s likely better off waiting and seeing if real progress is possible before spending much more of that surplus.

Where they stand: Possibly in that same awkward “baby steps” stage that they seem perpetually stuck in?

There’s a lot to like with what Buffalo’s done – although, even if ROR needed to be traded, it’s not an upgrade – but it still feels like a work in progress.

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Detroit Red Wings

Summer summary: Detroit still seems a bit stuck in purgatory, adding veterans (Thomas Vanek and Jonathan Bernier) you’d expect more of a contender to seek. There’s still a vibe of “one foot in, one foot out” when it comes to a should-be rebuild.

At least they seemed to get the 2018 NHL Draft very, very right, though. Filip Zadina fell to them at the sixth pick, and Joe Veleno going 30th seemed to be a potential steal, too. You never know how college-age players will actually turn out, but these prospects seem quite promising. Getting those picks right matters a lot more than minor free agent signings.

More to do?: The Red Wings signed reasonable bridge deals with Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, but Dylan Larkin is still an RFA. PHT’s advice is for the Red Wings to sign Larkin for as long as possible.

That’s about it, unless the Red Wings can convince other teams to take some of their bad contracts.

Where they stand: They seem slated to be mediocre, but will they be bad enough? Because they’re better off being really bad and landing another premium prospect. Oh yeah, and they should also try to get rid of bad contracts.

Florida Panthers

Summer summary: After enduring jokes about Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith during much of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers … didn’t commit any major unforced errors. Progress.

Then again, if Mike Hoffman ends up being a disruptive force, maybe they did make a mistake? Eh, at least it’s a much smarter summer on paper.

More to do?: The Panthers don’t have any significant RFAs to deal with, and not much cap space, particularly for a franchise that frequently gets described as a “budget team.” Landing Hoffman gives this team a pretty robust top-nine of forwards, so that will probably have to do.

Where they stand: The Panthers finished 2017-18 on a tear, and it seems like they’ve gotten better heading into 2018-19. Aleksander Barkov centers one of the best top lines in the NHL, Vincent Trocheck‘s second trio really got things going later in the year, and Hoffman could give them more punch (whether it means adding to existing strengths or giving the third line a boost).

From here, it sure seems like Florida has playoff potential. Then again, we’ve seen this movie before.

Montreal Canadiens

Summer summary: Another year, another questionable trade featuring another player who seemed to absorb inexplicably harsh criticisms.

Much like P.K. Subban, Alex Galchenyuk‘s seemingly inevitable trade happened, netting Montreal Max Domi. The Canadiens also managed to get Joel Armia, while throwing fans a bone by bringing Tomas Plekanec back (his turtleneck never looked right in Maple Leaf blue anyway).

It will be fascinating to see if Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a worthy choice at third overall or if the Habs reached. It also remains to be seen if he can make the team, and if doing so would even be beneficial for either the player or the Habs.

More to do?: Ideally? Or maybe not?

The Max Pacioretty situation remains unsettled, as they haven’t been able to trade the winger and allegedly don’t seem particularly interested in signing “Patches” to an extension.

It’s a nerve-wracking situation. On one hand, Pacioretty seems less valuable as the season goes along, at least if a side deal for an extension would be a no-go. On the other hand, Habs GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to land proper value in trades. Maybe no move would somehow be better than another bad move?

Where they stand: It’s been frustrating to watch Montreal bleed talent year after year, a painful Bergevin tradition. You can’t totally dismiss the Canadiens’ chances while they have Carey Price in the mix. Yes, his contract is terrifying, particularly long-term, but it’s feasible that he could still generate elite work. If so, the Canadiens could very well compete for a playoff spot.

Is it really best for them to scratch and claw to get in the playoff bubble instead of landing another high-end pick, though? Probably not.

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Ottawa Senators

Summer summary: Woof.

Oh, you wanted more? The Senators have been a full-fledged disaster, both on and off the ice, during the past few months. And they haven’t even traded Erik Karlsson yet. Again, woof.

More to do?: Again, that Karlsson trade is brewing, and allowing it to drag into the regular season would rank as yet another ugly distraction for a team that’s setting a new standard for being substandard.

Beyond the enormously important Karlsson situation, the Senators have two lingering RFA situations (both slated for salary arbitration): Mark Stone and Cody Ceci. Stone, in particular, stands as a crucial consideration. Already sour fans could become outright outraged if the Senators nickle-and-dime Stone out of town.

Where they stand: Normally, they’d have every reason to tumble down the rankings and try to land Jack Hughes.

The Matt Duchene trade, and Ottawa’s decision to make the fourth pick in 2018, means that Colorado gets their 2019 NHL Draft pick. So Senators fans can’t even enjoy the cognitive dissonance of half-enjoying their team’s failures thanks to tanking, as the team doesn’t even have that luxury. (Did we mention “woof?”)

The Senators sometimes surprise the hockey world by winning when not expected, and it’s fair to expect that Craig Anderson will be better next season – he couldn’t get much worse – but the outlook is quite dismal.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Summer summary: Instead of landing a big name – so far? – the Lightning instead raised some eyebrows by handing hefty extensions to J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh.

The most important extension was handed to Nikita Kucherov. It might seem strange to call a $9.5M cap hit a bargain, but considering what Kucherov brings to the table, what he’s paid now, and what he’d get on the open market … yes, it’s a big bargain.

So, even though the Lightning haven’t made another splashy addition, Stevie Y hasn’t exactly been loafing.

More to do?: Can they still win the Karlsson sweepstakes? The Lightning rank among the teams who’d be most sensible if Karlsson is a mere rental, even though there’s talk that Tampa Bay is one of the few placed he’d be interesting in signing an early extension. If Karlsson talks reignite, then there’s quite a lot of work to do.

One way or another, it sure wouldn’t hurt to move Ryan Callahan‘s contract. One also can’t help but wonder about Anton Stralman. Are the Lightning content to let him play out his contract and then leave?

Where they stand: The Lightning head into 2018-19 as a genuine contender, with or without a splashy addition.

Honestly, the McDonagh trade’s greatest benefits might be seen this season, as players often struggle to make a full impact amid the rush of being moved around the deadline. McDonagh gets to settle in with a training camp and extension in hand, so maybe he’ll be more effective?

As good as the Lightning seem – and they appear poised to be a strong team – they could fall in the second round and not really underachieve. That’s because of the NHL’s playoff setup, which could set the stage for annual showdowns with the Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Summer summary: Oh, no big deal. Basically a leisurely stroll.

The Maple Leafs accomplished something incredibly rare in the NHL salary cap era, landing a true superstar free agent in John Tavares. Adding Tavares to Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri gives the Buds the sort of center depth just about any franchise would envy.

That would be a big enough change, but the Maple Leafs also saw big organizational changes, and in some cases departures.

The team is now in Kyle Dubas’ hands, as he became GM while Lou Lamoriello and others left town. Key subtractions also happened to the roster, as James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and Matt Martin are all gone.

Expectations will be sky-high in Toronto.

More to do?: People will appraise the Dubas era for more than just signing Tavares, as he faces quite the juggling act in trying to navigate new contracts for William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner.

Nylander is most pressing, as he still needs a contract heading into 2018-19 as an RFA. Meanwhile, Matthews and Marner can be signed to extensions, but they’re both entering contract years. It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs saving a lot of money in letting any of those situations drag out, especially if Marner ends up on a line with Tavares.

(Pro tip: Tavares’ wingers get paid.)

Where they stand: Maple Leafs fans have, for the most part, been patient when it comes to Brendan Shanahan’s rebuilding plan. Fans and media have been holding out for a moment like this, though, so the stakes are skyrocketing.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have some flaws, as they lack a true shutdown defenseman. Still, there’s talent even in that area, and Toronto’s forward group and an underrated workhorse goalie in Frederik Andersen make for a formidable opponent.

It’s going to be a huge challenge for Mike Babcock to mold all of these pieces into a true contender, especially considering capable competition, particularly with Tampa Bay. There’s a strong chance that this roster will live up to the hype, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

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.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

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.

Six NHL teams that improved the most this summer (so far)

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The start of the NHL season is still a few months away and there is obviously time for a lot to change between now and then when it comes to roster movement.

Erik Karlsson is still likely to get traded.

Artemi Panarin and Max Pacioretty could get traded.

There are still probably a handful of bargain bin free agents floating around that are capable of making some sort of an impact. There are still ways for the 31 general managers to improve their rosters before the puck drops on the 2018-19 regular season.

So while it is probably still a little early to officially determine the winners and losers of the offseason, we can at least take a look at which teams have done the most to improve themselves so far.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — Uh, this one is pretty obvious, right? The Maple Leafs, already loaded with young impact talent at forward, added one of the best players in the league in John Tavares on the first day of free agency and that alone makes them better.

The Maple Leafs still have some work to do when it comes to solidifying their blue line, but you can’t fault them for adding Tavares. When you have a chance to add a player of that caliber (and it is rare that you do) you have to take advantage of that. Now they have a 1-2-3 center group of Auston Matthews, Tavares, and Nazem Kadri that is every bit as good as any other center trio in the league.

[Related: John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs]

2. Carolina Hurricanes — A lot here depends on whether or not they trade Jeff Skinner and/or Justin Faulk and what they might end up getting for them in return. Overall, though, this has been a strong offseason for the Hurricanes. Still not sold on their goaltending situation and until that gets fixed that is probably always going to be the thing that holds them back, but can Petr Mrazek really be any worse than Cam Ward was? And, hey, Scott Darling really has nowhere to go but up after a dismal debut with the team. So there is that.

The real encouraging news comes from the fact they were fortunate enough to address probably their second biggest need (after goaltending) when they selected goal-scoring sniper Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick.

Then they went and traded for Dougie Hamilton (full trade here), a borderline elite defenseman, to strengthen their blue line.

Hamilton led all defenseman in goals last season, is a dominant possession player, is still only 25 years old, and is signed for three more seasons at $5.75 million per season, — a steal of a price given his production. Hamilton’s addition perhaps could give them some added flexibility to maybe trade Faulk for help elsewhere, or perhaps even better, simply keep him and continue to build what could be an outstanding defense around those two, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce.

Update: The Hurricanes continued to strengthen their defense on Tuesday by signing Calvin de Haan, formerly of the New York Islanders, to a four-year, $18 million contract in free agency.

3. Philadelphia Flyers — The Flyers seem like an intriguing possibility for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, given need, cap space, and perhaps even assets that could be traded. Will it actually happen? Well, probably not, but it sure is fun to think about. As far as actual moves the team has made, bringing back James van Riemsdyk was a strong addition in free agency as it gives the Flyers some much-needed secondary scoring punch.

Once you got below Tavares on the list of available free agents van Riemsdyk was probably the best pure offensive name available on the market and still at an age where a long-term contract (in this case five years) wasn’t a massive gamble.

He has scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons, a stretch where he has been one of the best goal-scorers (both at even-strength and in all situations) in the entire league.

[Related: Five logical landing spots for Erik Karlsson]

4. St. Louis Blues — The immediate reaction to the Blues’ acquisition of Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres seemed to be one of shock because of the number of pieces going the other way. But that is just it. It was a quantity over quality package, and when you break down the assets that the Blues gave up how many of them were actually something that they might truly miss?

Prospect Tage Thompson and the first-round pick are obviously the key pieces. But what else are the Blues going to miss?

Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka turned into contracts that the Blues probably no longer wanted, and a second-round pick (probably one in the second half of that round) is nothing more than a lottery ticket with low odds of turning into anything impactful. At the end of the day the Blues still got what was by far the best player in the trade.

They also added Tyler Bozak and David Perron in free agency, two players that will probably end up outproducing what Berglund and Sobotka provided (or will provde). The Blues were 24th in the NHL in goals this past season and needed to do something to address that. They absolutely did address it.

[Related: Blues acquire Ryan O’Reilly from Sabres]

5. Arizona Coyotes — There is reason for optimism in Arizona. They kept their franchise player in Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a long-term contract, they have some outstanding young talent starting to emerge from their farm system, and after a miserable first half of the 2017-18 season they finished on a very strong note by going 17-10-2 over their final 29 games (that would be a 101-point pace over 82 games). How much that carries over to this upcoming season obviously remains to be seen, but for the second offseason in a row they made some big additions.

They landed a potential impact player in Alex Galchenyuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi, and then dipped into the free agent market by bringing in speedster Michael Grabner. Grabner has his flaws, but his speed can cause havoc during 5-on-5 play and the penalty kill while they have more than enough salary cap space to handle his three-year, $10 million contract. Those additions, combined with what will hopefully be a full year from Antti Raanta and perhaps the development of Dylan Strome could make Arizona a surprise team in the Western Conference. Especially in a Pacific Division that is completely wide open.

6. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings didn’t really do much to make themselves younger or faster, and there are some questions as to how much he has left in the tank given his age and the fact he spent the past five years playing in Russia, but Ilya Kovalchuk gives the Kings the type of offensive weapon they desperately needed this past season. I still don’t love the Kings’ long-term outlook, but Kovalchuk could be a pretty big addition and makes them better in the short-term even if he is not the 40-goal, point-per-game player he was during his prime years in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s NHL 2018 free agency tracker]

More NHL Free agency:
Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights
Kings add Kovalchuk on three-year contract
Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson, bring back Matt Cullen

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.