Nikita Kucherov

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NHL’s restricted free agents have proven to be untouchables

Some of the NHL’s best, young players are available.

Technically.

Mitch Marner, Brayden Point and Jacob Trouba are just a few of the restricted free agents in a bumper crop.

Every team in the league would like to add any of those players this summer. However, it would be a big surprise in the NHL if any team tries to sign them away.

The Montreal Canadiens became the first franchise in six years to extend an offer sheet to a restricted free agent earlier this week, hoping the Carolina Hurricanes would pass on matching the $42 million, five-year deal for Sebastian Aho. Less than 24 hours later, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell announced the franchise was going to keep its star forward .

Drafting and developing players is what NHL teams attempt to do well as they chase the Stanley Cup, certainly in the salary cap era. And, that is one of the reasons teams are reluctant to extend offer sheets to restricted free agents.

”The way the system is set up with offer sheets, it’s too punitive because of the draft picks you have to give up,” said sports agent Kurt Overhardt, who represents Trouba. ”The record has shown it doesn’t make sense for a lot of teams. Montreal took a chance, forcing a notoriously frugal owner to make a decision and he matched. But as long as you have the cap space, you have to match.”

If Carolina chose not to match the offer for Aho, the Canadiens would have given up a draft pick in the first, second and third rounds. If Montreal offered a little more money on the offer sheet, it risked losing an additional first-round selection. And if the franchise offered Aho an average of at least $10,568,590 over the course of the contract, it would have lost four first-round picks if the Hurricanes refused to pay Aho that much.

Agents of restricted free agents attempt to use the possibility of offer sheets in negotiations. Teams, meanwhile, know offer sheets are extremely uncommon and they seem to have the power in talks. That is true particularly when players don’t have arbitration rights.

”As an RFA you just want to be paid what you feel your value is and the offer sheet is one of a few points of leverage you can use,” Winnipeg Jets center Andrew Copp said. ”It’s more important to have arbitration rights, but you only have so many options as a restricted player so it can be frustrating not being able to use one of your options.”

Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman said it’s tough to predict if Montreal’s move would be made by another team this summer.

”There’s obviously several very high-profile, very good, young players out there,” Yzerman said. ”If this is a trend, I really don’t know. I’m curious to see how it plays out.”

As good as Marner, Point and Trouba are, they will likely end up being re-signed rather than extended an offer sheet.

The salary cap-squeezed Toronto Maple Leafs recently made moves to free up money to re-sign the 22-year-old Marner. The third-year center ranked fourth in the NHL with 68 assists and was just outside of the top 10 in the league with 94 points last season.

Tampa Bay does not appear to have a lot of money to spend, with stars Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos counting $18 million per year against the salary cap, but it will want to find a way to keep the 23-year-old Point. The center had 92 points last season and has 198 in his three years in the NHL.

The New York Rangers acquired Trouba in a trade with Winnipeg even though they would have to sign the offensive-minded defenseman as a restricted free agent. The Rangers invested a lot in free agent Artemi Panarin , giving him $81.5 million over seven years this week, and don’t seem worried about an offer sheet making negotiations more challenging with Trouba.

”Restricted is the emphasized word in restricted free agency,” said agent Brian Bartlett, whose clients include restricted free agent Will Butcher, who had 74 points in two seasons as a New Jersey Devils defenseman. ”The teams know it’s unlikely and yet with Aho, it probably helped move negotiations along because you would assume Carolina didn’t offer the same structure in its contract offer.

”There’s always the opportunity for an offer sheet, but it has happened once every six years and the odds are against it happening more when you consider the thousands of players who have been restricted free agents.”

Golden Knights could give up a gem if they trade Gusev

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The Vegas Golden Knights are struggling to walk a negotiating tightrope with intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Other teams should do everything they can to upset that balance by acquiring his rights in a trade.

Vegas? They’re likely to regret trading Gusev to keep players with far less potential.

An exciting talent

It’s hasty to call Gusev “the next” Artemi Panarin. Yet, for teams that couldn’t ferment enough interest to bring in “The Bread Man,” it’s tantalizing to wonder if Gusev could be the next forward to make a successful leap from the KHL to the NHL. While Panarin’s become a full-priced star, he too began his career on the cheap with Chicago; it’s asking too much for Gusev to deliver at that level, but teams should put themselves in position to take advantage of the considerable value he’s likely to bring.

You see, the Vegas Golden Knights currently hold Gusev’s rights as an RFA, yet even after trading away Colin Miller and Erik Haula to clear room, they’re still in a tight salary cap situation. That situation might just squeeze out Gusev.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee acknowledged the possibility of a trade to The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required) on July 1.

“There’s definitely an interest in him,” McPhee said. “We’ve had people call us on him. We’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you what will happen, but we’ll work on it. He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked very hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”

There are some interesting mysteries surrounding Gusev, from how a team might land him, to how much of an impact we can expect from a guy who’s found chemistry with the likes of Nikita Kucherov.

Mysterious value

It’s not easy to predict Gusev’s NHL impact, but the odds are high that he will make a positive impact. He’s distinguished himself at multiple levels, from international play, to winning the KHL’s MVP for a stirling season where Gusev generated 82 points in 62 games, and was also productive in the playoffs. While 2018-19 marks his peak so far, he’s enjoyed other strong seasons, including generating 71 points in the KHL in 2016-17.

The challenges of translating overseas work to play in the NHL likely make contract talks tricky, but I’d argue it also sets the stage for teams to land fantastic value. How much is Gusev worth before he’s played a single shift at the NHL level, at 26? Would a team be better off going with a one-year deal, or something with additional term? Granger reports that there’s as much as a $2M gap between Gusev and the Golden Knights, which sounds dicey at first. Yet, if Gusev is asking for something along the lines of $4M AAV for two years, as Igor Eronko reports, then the Golden Knights risk throwing away a golden goose.

I’ll say this: I’d risk $4M-ish on Gusev over multiple years of Brandon Tanev at $3.5M, any day of the week.

Beyond the mystery of what Gusev might get paid, there’s also the question of what the Golden Knights might demand in a trade.

Vegas should find better ways to clean up its mess

As a reminder, Vegas is in a vulnerable position; Cap Friendly estimates their space at about $2.675M, and they either need to sign RFA Malcolm Subban or find a different backup goalie option, among other situations to resolve.

Really, potential poor trade return options might be the key factor that wakes up Vegas to the possibility that they’re risking a big mistake.

The Golden Knights would likely be wiser to save money by shedding inessentials; this post suggests that contenders bribe rebuilding teams to take on shaky contracts, and Vegas should explore those avenues multiple times, rather than letting Gusev get away for pennies on the dollar. Cody Eakin‘s a luxury as a bottom-six forward at $3.85M, and likely to move on after 2019-20 one way or another, with that contract expiring. Personally, I see Ryan Reaves‘ $2.755M as a colossal overpay, and trading away that cap hit would also force Gerard Gallant to play a more useful forward, whether that ends up being Brandon Pirri or a prospect like Cody Glass. Nick Holden‘s tough to justify at $2M, either.

Personally, I’d move all three of Eakin, Reaves, and Holden if it meant keeping Gusev. That flies even if Gusev was a bit pricer than $4M per year.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Gusev could be push a strong VGK team to an even higher level

Vegas is already spending big money to contend, and they already have a strong top-six. In adding Gusev to Alex Tuch (and Cody Glass, if he transitions smoothly), Vegas would create matchup nightmares left and right. McPhee himself told Granger that would be a “heck of a lineup,” so why let that slip through your fingers to keep replacement-level players?

So, again, another team should be swirling like a bloodthirsty shark (and hope that the San Jose Sharks don’t get involved, because Doug Wilson is a beast).

Again, there’s always a chance that things don’t work out — Vegas might be overreacting to the Vadim Shipachyov situation, for one — but you won’t find many better risk-reward values in July.

If Vegas must sell, buyers should swarm

Really, most NHL teams should be in the bidding, although some have cleaner cap situations than others. Here are some of the teams who should be calling McPhee the most:

  • Habs Eyes on the Prize discusses Gusev as an excellent consolation prize for the Montreal Canadiens after the Sebastian Aho offer sheet didn’t work out, and this article also provides some insight regarding why Gusev is such an intriguing talent.
  • The Athletic’s Rob Rossi offers up a hypothetical three-team trade where the Penguins would get Gusev, give up Nick Bjugstad, and well … it’s a lot (sub required).
  • Even after paying up to keep Anders Lee, the Islanders might feel a little bummed out after falling short with Artemi Panarin. Gusev may occasionally drive Barry Trotz up the wall, but would be worth it for a team that could stand to add more skill.
  • Winnipeg Jets – Things are going to be tight with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor needing new contracts, but Gusev could help ease the sting of the talent losses of Jacob Trouba and Kevin Hayes.
  • Buffalo Sabres – Keeping Jeff Skinner was crucial; landing Colin Miller was uplifting. The Sabres still see a huge drop-off from Skinner – Jack Eichel to everyone else on offense, so Gusev could help to stem the tide. They’re also paying Skinner and Eichel $19M combined, not to mention uncomfortable money to the likes of Kyle Okposo, so the Sabres would likely delight in getting a potential bargain for a change. This would also make their offseason a little less reliant on the smaller move on trading for Jimmy Vesey.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets – Maybe the team that lost Panarin could land the “next” Panarin? (Note: again, the comparison isn’t really fair to Gusev … but it’s fun to imagine another superlative talent arriving in the NHL. Hey, it’s the offseason, the time when teams dream that Tyler Myers can be worth $6M.)
  • New Jersey Devils – The Devils are aggressively trying to improve, both to take advantage of rookie contracts, and also keep Taylor Hall around. Why not see if Gusev nudges that talent level (and Hall’s interest in re-signing) forward even more?

In a bolder league like the NBA, I’d be certain that all of the teams above, and more, were straining to take Gusev off of the Golden Knights’ hands. The risk is just so small compared to potentially significant rewards.

I’m not sure if there would be as many suitors in the less-creative, more conservative NHL, but all it takes is one team to trade for Gusev to mean a move happens. The Golden Knights would be wise just to remain Gusev’s team, instead, but we’ll see.

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.

Examining different contract routes for Jets, Patrik Laine

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Outside of Winnipeg, it’s Mitch Marner’s contract stalemate with the Toronto Maple Leafs that is all the rage.

But inside Winnipeg’s city limits, where thoughts of the Maple Leafs account for more squeamish faces than anything else, it’s Patrik Laine’s name that reigns supreme.

In a perfect Winnipeg world, the Leafs would either lose Marner or sign him to something so ridiculous that Toronto suffers until global warming makes it impossible to play hockey.

Really, though, Winnipeg is good.

At least Laine once said so, maybe, as it appeared in The Players’ Tribune story Laine couldn’t fully remember telling.

Nevertheless, it spawned an affectionate relationship between the fanbase and the 21-year-old who’s scored more goals than anyone not named Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov since entering the NHL in 2016.

One might be the greatest goal scorer the league has ever seen and the other just won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. Fair to say Laine is keeping some damn good company atop the goal-scoring pantheon.

Laine is good, too. And the man who once grew a goat beard because Finnish players can do what they want these days in the NHL, just so happens to be up for a mammoth raise.

Ah yes, another superstar about to cash in. It happens every offseason in the NHL, and sometimes during the season, too.

Big names need big pay. Laine’s about to make it rain. How long cash will pour from the Jets’ coffers, however, is still to be determined.

The number of years and how many zeroes will come after that first comma is the most fascinating thing in Winnipeg these days.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Winnipeg will be good when Laine’s future is decided, but what does said future hold? Let’s take a look at three scenarios that could come to pass for Winnipeg’s future richest 21-year-old.

A bridge too far

This is highly unfavorable for the Jets. Let’s clear that bit up.

Sure, the Jets would save money for a minute. And some may even think that this would be best because the risk wouldn’t be so high. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Laine scores goals in droves. And while he had a down year in this third season in the NHL, one can’t discredit the 100-plus he’s banked in three short years.

Laine’s agent isn’t at the negotiating table with last seasons statistics as his only ammunition. Laine’s an elite goal scorer whose shooting percentage was down six percent than the year before, his 44-goal season, and five percent lower than his 36-goal rookie campaign.

If anything, Laine’s set to rebound (perhaps off some rebounds? I’ll see myself out).

Look, If cap relief came in pill form,Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would be in a self-induced coma at this moment. But as cash-strapped as Winnipeg might be this summer, if Laine returns to his 40-plus goal self from two seasons ago, he’s bound to score a good 80 or 90, maybe even 100 during those bridge deal years.

Guess where that AAV goes? And it goes there faster than a Laine one-timer.

Laine dealt with a bad back, a bad groin and a lack of confidence last season and still scored 30. He scored 18 in one month, which no one else does. And he took real, tangible steps late in the season and into the playoffs where he looked like an imposing power forward who could play at both ends of the ice.

It’s not Russian roulette, but giving Laine a bridge and thinking, ‘This is fine’ (you know, that meme the dog and the fire all around him) is pretty close. Laine didn’t lose his skill. He didn’t misplace his deadly accuracy or wicked shot.

And if the Jets ever find him a center, the goal-scoring ceiling becomes unknown.

Simply put, the risk is too high. The only thing bridging him will do is make him cost more in two year’s time when they have to buy more unrestricted free agent years on top of whatever the market dictates what a 50-goal scorer should make. Hint: it’s more than seven figures.

The five-year plan

Auston Matthews really created something interesting when he decided against an eight-year deal to take three fewer seasons and leaving some money on the table.

Superstars taking less term and lightly less money while having the world at their feet vying for their services in five years could turn into somewhat of the norm. If Laine doesn’t hit his prime until his mid-20s, a deal of this length would allow him to really maximize his earning potential while shooting him into unrestricted free agency at the end of it.

And that has to have Laine thinking, ‘Why not try that?’ He’s 21, about to get stinkin’ rich now, then again at 26 and perhaps one more time in his early 30s? The stinkin’ rich hat trick, as it were.

For the Jets, it might be a happy medium. It’s not ideal for Cheveldayoff. The full eight years is like where he wants to be. But if Laine’s back problems are a legitimate concern within the organization (nothing has suggested this), or if they legitimately feel Laine played beyond his abilities a year ago and regressed to his normal self this year, then perhaps it makes sense.

The Jets save money on AAV as they don’t have to purchase those UFA years and they retain the services of a guy who could lead them to a Stanley Cup. The downside is they could lose him three years earlier.

The deal doesn’t have to be five years, necessarily. The Matthews deal could be a one-off, a shrewd move by that player’s agent. Or it could become the new standard for stud franchise players looking to extract everything they can from the pockets of their owners.

Whatever it is, this middle option seems to keep both sides of the balance scale somewhat even.

The Jets get some degree of extended term and the player receives a nice cache of greenbacks direct-deposited into their bank about every couple of weeks.

The maximum

The full monty.

Eight years. The maximum term Laine can be offered and only Winnipeg can offer it. The AVV will be higher but the player will be in their possession for longer, well into his prime years. The Jets, of course, would have to pay for those UFA years and they assume some risk as stated above, more on the side of Laine most recent season being the norm and not the exception.

Still, this is the best deal for Winnipeg in the long run. Assuming he’s healthy and he develops measures to manage his confidence from dipping too far, the deal could look like a steal halfway through its life.

And at the end of the day, it’s a risk worth taking for a player that all the right stars had to align just to be able to draft him. Laine’s addition sped up Winnipeg’s re-tooling efforts. They found a power play maestro and a player that could use his large frame one day to become a dominant power forward.

Yes, this deal likely hits the cap for the most. While Evolving Wild’s model has him in the seven-year, $49 million range, I believe this is too low. If the Jets can lock up Laine at anything under $10 million on an eight-year pact, they’re dancing. And they’re still in good shape if not.

And while one can argue that Laine isn’t the best player on the team, nor the second or third best, he’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL. In my mind, it can’t be stressed enough. And I don’t think it’s something slipping the mind of Laine’s agent at the moment either.

Cheveldayoff has his most important and challenging offseason to date. Laine’s contract aside, he still has to sign Kyle Connor to a deal that’s going to be up there in terms of AAV, as well. And then he has to find the right pieces to still keep the team highly competitive after the loss of Jacob Trouba and likely some other pieces, including Tyler Myers and Brandon Tanev (the latter two, I believe, are easily replaceable).

But the first order of business should be not betting against Laine. The odds (and the statistical information that backs them) are just too compelling to not throw down big money on the table.

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.

Is Marner really going to leave Toronto?

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It looks like there’s some potential for negotiations between the Toronto Maple Leafs and restricted free agent Mitch Marner to turn ugly this summer. But just how ugly will it get?

Various reports have surfaced over the last few days suggesting that Marner doesn’t care what Mikko Rantanen is going to fetch on his next contract because he feels his comparable is teammate Auston Matthews, who signed a five-year, $58.17 million contract during the season ($11.634 million AAV).

Given that the Leafs are tight against the salary cap, they won’t be able to pay Marner that kind of money without getting rid of a player or two along the way. The issue for general manager Kyle Dubas is that as of July 1st other teams can submit an offer sheet to Marner. Now, that rarely ever happens and Marner would have to agree to sign it but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could accept another team’s offer. The Leafs could then accept to match that offer, but it would put them in an ugly situation with the cap. They’d become even more desperate to unload players which means other teams wouldn’t be as inclined to offer up top assets for those players.

Earlier this week, Dubas spoke about the possibility of Marner receiving an offer sheet from a rival GM, and his answer may surprise you a little bit.

“If there were an offer sheet, we’d look at what they are and what the compensation is for our team and make the decision based off that,” Dubas said, per NHL.com. “They’re all very important players for us, so it’s our intention they’re here for as long as we can possibly keep them, but if the dollar amount doesn’t make sense in terms of our internal economics in the marketplace and the compensation and such, it’s going to be a decision on our end as to what we do. I wouldn’t know one (way) or another without knowing where those are going to land, if they happen.”

So basically he wants to let Marner know that if he signs an offer sheet for big money, there’s no guarantee the Leafs would match it. After all, they could net four first-round draft picks as a return for Marner. It’s a smart move by Dubas to suggest this openly, because it may force Marner to think twice about signing an offer sheet from a team he doesn’t really want to go to just because he assumes Toronto will match.

How did we even get to this point?

Marner has been part of the solution in Toronto, not the problem. Yes, centers like Matthews are typically worth more than a winger, but Marner plays like a centre (a lot like Patrick Kane does). He’s not your typical winger. He can score, he can distribute the puck and he can play both special teams, too. It’s not Marner’s fault that the Leafs have a lot of high-priced players on their roster.

The 22-year-old posted 26 goals and 94 points in 82 games last season. He deserves to get paid. The Leafs need to figure this out before next week. They can’t leave themselves exposed to a potential outside offer that could tempt their star forward.

Dubas is a smart guy. Maybe he knows Marner isn’t really going to go anywhere, but why take the chance? To save a few dollars on the salary cap? It doesn’t really make sense. Winger Nikita Kucherov, who just won the Hart Trophy, recently signed an extension worth $9.5 million per year in Tampa. We all know about the different tax situations in Florida and Toronto, so you can understand why he settled on a lesser number to stay in Tampa. Marner hasn’t won a Hart Trophy, but he’s put up some incredible numbers at a young age. His next cap number has to reflect that.

In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the two sides call their own bluff and agree to a new long-term deal. They just need to make sure that the relationship doesn’t cross a point of no return. The Leafs are one of the most exciting young squads in the league, and seeing them split up Matthews and Marner because of a few dollars would be silly.

Make it work.

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.

2019 NHL Awards: All the winners, video, more

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A lot naturally happened during the 2019 NHL Awards and there are still some winners left to highlight. Before we do that though, let’s recap some of tonight’s big winners:

Calder Trophy: Elias Pettersson

Lady Byng: Aleksander Barkov

GM of the Year: Don Sweeney

Norris Trophy: Mark Giordano

Masterton Trophy: Robin Lehner

Selke Trophy: Ryan O’Reilly

Jack Adams: Barry Trotz

Vezina Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay: Nikita Kucherov

Now let’s tackle the other winners.

King Clancy Trophy: Jason Zucker,

Zucker and his wife Carly began the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio with a $160,000 donation and have raised over $1.2 million in under a year. The project allows kids and their families at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to watch Minnesota Wild games in a space that mimics the experience of being at the game.

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award: Wayne Simmonds

Before being traded to the Nashville Predators in February, Simmonds was deeply involved with the Flyers’ community efforts. Among other things, he was a board member for the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation for six years. He also spent four years as an honorary chairman of their annual golf tournament, which is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award: Rico Phillips

Of course, the Art Ross Trophy went to Nikita Kucherov, the Rocket Richard Trophy went to Alex Ovechkin, and the Jennings Trophy was shared by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

First All-Star Team:
G: Andrei Vasilevskiy
D: Brent Burns
D: Mark Giordano
C: Connor McDavid
RW: Nikita Kucherov
LW: Alex Ovechkin

Second All-Star Team:
G: Ben Bishop
D: Victor Hedman
D: John Carlson
C: Sidney Crosby
RW: Patrick Kane
LW: Brad Marchand

All-Rookie Team:
G: Jordan Binnington
D: Rasmus Dahlin
D: Miro Heiskanen
F: Elias Pettersson
F: Anthony Cirelli
F: Brady Tkachuk

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.