Patrik Laine

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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

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.

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.

Duchene heads to Smashville on seven-year, $56M deal

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When David Poile sent P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils, the hockey world knew something was up.

Yes, Poile had to make room for a pending big-money contract for fellow defenseman Roman Josi, whose current team-friendly deal will be anything but in the near future.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

But he was also clearing cap space for one of the most coveted free agents on the board: Matt Duchene, a player Poile wanted badly — enough to trade Subban from their formidable rearguard.

And now it’s official. Poile got his man, to the tune of seven years and $56 million.

“Our objective this offseason was to bolster our offense, and signing Matt Duchene gives us another dynamic goal-scoring, playmaking center,” Poile said in a statement. “We are excited to add his skill and experience to our top-six forwards and look forward to the next seven years of Matt and his family in Smashville. Matt’s love of country music and passion for the city of Nashville make this partnership a perfect fit.”

Considering some whispers went into the eight-figure range, this seems to be a very good deal.

The Predators now boast quite the spine up front with Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris (whom they acquired in a deal that helped send Duchene from Colorado to Ottawa), Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons (and RFA).

The deal also helps Nashville keep pace in the arms race that is the Central Division.

With the Dallas Stars signing Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera, and the Minnesota Wild locking up Mats Zuccarello, the Preds aren’t being left in the dust. Not in the least.

It should be an interesting day for the rest of the division.

The Winnipeg Jets don’t appear like they’ll be making any big splashes, only signing defensemen Nathan Beaulieu to a $1 million deal. They have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, both restricted free agents and both in need of big money.

The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, added Joonas Donskoi and re-sign Colin Wilson.

And what will the St. Louis Blues do? They got by just fine this season without a superstar making mountains of money and have yet to do anything.


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.

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.