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Maple Leafs ace salary cap tests, but Marner challenge remains

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The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this offseason with possibly the toughest to-do list of any NHL team, and while the biggest challenge still awaits in signing RFA star Mitch Marner, GM Kyle Dubas deserves at least a B+ for his efforts.

You can bump Dubas & Co. up to an A depending upon taste, and certainly if you’re grading on a curve in considering that every other NHL team was well aware of Toronto’s predicament. Some teams managed to exploit those issues for their own gains, while some still managed to sucker themselves. Either way, mostly strong work so far.

Thursday presented the latest round of moves surrounding that pivotal Marner push, as the Maple Leafs signed Alex Kerfoot to a sensible extension and … meh, at least only signed Cody Ceci for one year? (Not trying, at least outwardly, to merely flip Ceci again and seek a cheaper alternative puzzles me, but maybe Toronto has internal data that argues that Ceci is better than people realize?)

While Nazem Kadri was a better luxury, getting Kerfoot at just $3.5M per year, with some term, is pretty nifty by my eyes. Maybe those eyes have been re-adjusted by the Montreal Canadiens giving marginal defenseman Ben Chiarot that same $3.5M AAV, but I’d wager that Kerfoot will at least be as valuable as his cap hit, if not deliver as a nice bargain.

It fits in wonderfully well with two very reasonable re-signings from earlier this summer, as the Maple Leafs took Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson off the docket, getting cost certainty and also avoiding the threat of other teams trying to poach them. For all the talk of Marner possibly signing an offer sheet, the bigger worry might be that an opposing team would instead make it uncomfortable for Toronto to keep mid-level, useful young players. Instead, Dubas got them re-signed, and likely at below market value, even if you take RFA statuses into account.

Good stuff.

Dubas wasn’t flawless in his efforts to get rid of those Marleau and Zaitsev problems, although I imagine that it wasn’t especially easy to find takers to alleviate those concerns.

The Carolina Hurricanes traded for Marleau and eventually bought the veteran out, essentially paying close to $4M to buy Toronto’s first-round pick. If you want an idea of how smart I thought Carolina was, I postulated that rebuilding teams should use that trade as something of a blueprint: basically, take a bribe of picks and prospects to relieve contenders of their Marleau-lite problems.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That’s a fairly hefty price for Toronto to pay, especially since contending teams could conceivably take care of some of the strain of top-heavy contracts by getting quality (or just stopgap) production from players on entry-level contracts.

Luckily for Dubas, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to burn another first-rounder to get rid of Zaitsev’s lengthy, challenging contract. Instead, he was able to package Zaitsev in a deal for Ceci, who will cost the same $4.5M AAV in 2019-20, with the difference being that Ceci’s deal lasts for one year, while Zaitsev’s albatross hangs around through 2023-24. It’s true that the Maple Leafs also had to part with Connor Brown in that trade, but, overall, that’s a comically Maple Leafs-friendly deal, considering how toxic Zaitsev’s contract is.

(The Senators not getting a higher-level return for taking on Zaitsev is, well, a nice reminder that, as much as that team’s plight stems from owner Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion’s also made some rough judgment calls in recent years.)

Time will tell if that blockbuster Kadri – Kerfoot – Tyson Barrie etc. trade ends up being a win, loss, or draw for Toronto, but as of this moment, it’s a bold and sensible example of two teams addressing weaknesses from areas of strength. Maybe Barrie has some flaws, but he’s a drastic upgrade at right-handed defense, Toronto’s biggest area of weakness. If it truly was time for the Leafs to part with Kadri, then that trade was really shrewd.

Speaking of shrewd, I quite enjoy some of the low-risk, medium-reward moves by Toronto. Jason Spezza‘s $7.5M cap hit made things downright awkward at times in Dallas last season, but at $750K, Spezza could be a sneaky-steal. Nick Shore’s an under-the-radar analytics darling, too, to the point that I was surprised that he had to sign in the KHL last season. (Too under the radar, I guess.)

It’s a little tricky to estimate precisely how much cap space the Maple Leafs have left for Marner, as you can see from this Cap Friendly tweet.

With Nathan Horton‘s looming $5.3M LTIR trip, that would put the Maple Leafs over $9M, with some wiggle room with other roster spots (again, see this thread to get an idea of some of the complications).

Toronto being where they are still leaves them vulnerable to an offer sheet on Marner, with these two compensation ranges (via the NHL) being the most relevant:

More than $8,454,871 to $10,568,589 — two first-round picks, one second-round pick and one third-round pick

More than $10,568,589 — four first-round picks (can be spread over five-year period)

Each offer sheet possibility would be interesting. An offer right under that $10,568,589 mark would at least make things a little uncomfortable. If a team wanted to push things into the stratosphere, they could also go well over $10.57M.

Under most circumstances, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to match a Marner offer sheet, yet that doesn’t mean that another team wouldn’t want to really put Toronto in a tough spot.

Theoretically, at least. It’s also plausible that teams a) don’t want to waste their time if an offer sheet wouldn’t work, b) winced at the reaction Marc Bergevin received, c) fear retribution if their big-ticket guys become eligible for offer sheets, or d) all of the above.

Overall, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Dubas. They’ve mostly walked that tightrope with skill, and could really settle this offseason if Marner just wants to hash things out.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see at least some lane to put Toronto in an uncomfortable spot, as the other dominoes have mostly fallen. Could a team try to push the salary up above that $10.57M mark, which might mean that Toronto would have to trade a nice player such as Zach Hyman ($2.25M) to make the pieces fit? Could a team go very high AAV for three years, so Marner’s deal would overlap with possibly needing to give Frederik Andersen a raise, as the goalie’s team-friendly $5M cap hit dissolves after 2020-21?

The Maple Leafs eased concerns about other players by getting Kapanen and Johnsson locked down, so if there’s any chance Marner just wants to get this over with, I’d be inclined to hammer a deal out.

***

Even in the unlikely event that Marner signs for the same cap hit as Sebastian Aho, the trio of Marner + Auston Matthews + John Tavares costs well over $30M ($22.634M for Matthews and Tavares alone).

That statement should neatly summarize the notion that, chances are, the Maple Leafs will struggle with salary cap headaches for the duration of their window of contention, if not longer.

As we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins, it’s difficult to avoid making mistakes, although Toronto will surely hope to avoid trading Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin-type gaffes, or … doing whatever it is the Penguins think they’re doing right now.

We won’t get the Maple Leafs’ full grade until we see how they handle the final exam that is the Marner situation, but judging by this summer school salary structure session, they’ve been honor students so far.

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

***

For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

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.

Rask’s roll has Bruins a win away from Stanley Cup Final

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Tuukka Rask is stopping just about any puck playoff opponents can shoot his way – even the ones he doesn’t see.

The goaltender has been dominant in the Boston Bruins’ six-game postseason winning streak that has them on the doorstep of the Stanley Cup Final. Just don’t expect him to make any grand declaration of being ”in the zone” as he makes stop after stop in these playoffs.

He’s confident and comfortable. Leave it at that.

”I’ve felt good for many, many months,” Rask said. ”It’s just the way when you’re seeing the puck, when you feel comfortable. It’s about timing and patience and all that. I think experience helps that. … The way I usually want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big and maybe even tough chances, try to make it look easy kind of.

”So if that’s in the zone, then so be it. But I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”

That’s exactly what Rask has been doing, too, in helping the Bruins to a 3-0 lead on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final. Boston goes for the sweep Thursday night in Raleigh.

The 32-year-old Finnish netminder has stopped 85 of 90 shots in the first three games of the series with the Hurricanes, who have just been unable to solve Rask even when getting a handful of open-net chances. He’s allowed nine goals amid 205 shots in the six-game streak, good for a .956 save percentage and a 1.5 goals-against average.

Overall, he’s second in the playoffs for save percentage (.939) and goals-against average (1.96) while posting a playoff-best 11 victories in 16 games.

”He looks super calm right now,” said Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who spent three seasons as Rask’s teammate with the Bruins. ”We have to do a better job of getting in his face and making it harder on him. I mean, if he’s going to see it, he’s going to stop it, so we’ve got to get some sloppy stuff around the net.”

Yet it didn’t matter what the Hurricanes did Tuesday night in an all-out attack on Rask to start the game. They couldn’t zip or slip one by him.

Rask stopped 20 first-period shots – 20! – and ensured the Bruins went into the first intermission in a scoreless game despite the Hurricanes carrying play in front of a rowdy crowd that had helped Carolina go 5-0 at home in the postseason to that point.

That included one sequence roughly three minutes in when Rask stopped Nino Niederreiter‘s tip, Micheal Ferland‘s putback at the crease and Justin Williams‘ follow-up try despite Rask losing his stick. There was another Williams rebound that wasn’t officially counted as a shot on goal,, too. It was a harrowing few seconds for Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who quipped: ”I might have had my eyes closed for three of them.”

”He’s been dialed in” since the start of the playoffs, Cassidy said. ”He’s been excellent. He really hasn’t had a poor night. He’s had a couple that were, I’d say, above average and the rest have been very good. Tonight the first period was excellent.”

That gave the Bruins a chance to regroup, then come out and score twice in the second period to take control.

Sure, Rask caught a break when Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen missed a wide-open net in the opening minute when the goalie fell trying to slide across the crease. And Rask said there were shots that he never spotted until the puck hit him.

”There’s a couple of chances I didn’t see in the first period,” he said. ”A lot of times, if you don’t see it and don’t move, you’re going to have a better shot at saving it than if you would move too much.”

Then again, when a goaltender is playing as well as Rask is, sometimes he makes his own luck.

”He’s always given us a chance to win,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. ”That being said, right now he’s definitely in the zone and doing some amazing stuff.”

NOTES: Cassidy said fourth-line winger Chris Wagner has returned to Boston for further testing and will not play in Game 4. Wagner, who scored the Bruins’ first goal in Game 3, hurt his right arm while blocking a shot late in the third period. … Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said Curtis McElhinney would ”probably” make his second straight start in goal. Petr Mrazek started the Hurricanes’ first nine playoff games but allowed 10 goals in the first two games of this series.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

The Wraparound: Hurricanes need to solve Rask to avoid sweep

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

This is it for the Carolina Hurricanes. Either they win tonight against the Boston Bruins or their Cinderella story ends in an Eastern Conference Final sweep (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

After Boston scored 11 goals over the first two contests, the Hurricanes decided to switch from goaltender Petr Mrazek to Curtis McElhinney for Game 3. McElhinney performed admirably, stopping 29 of 31 shots, but Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has gotten better and better over the course of the 2019 playoffs. Only Calvin de Haan was able to get the puck by Rask on Tuesday en route to 2-1 victory for Boston that put the Bruins up 3-0 in the series.

After his strong performance, McElhinney will probably be in the net again tonight, though Hurricanes Rod Brind’Amour declined to said anything definitively.

“You never know,” Brind’Amour said, per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston

Despite dropping the contest, the Hurricanes took some silver linings from Game 3. Obviously they’re in a terrible position, but they do feel that they played better on Tuesday and are hoping if they carry that into tonight’s action, they’ll get a better result.

“We’ve been hit three times here, it takes four to knock us down,” Justin Williams said, per the News & Observer. “We’re just going to keep showing up and see what happens.”

The Hurricanes need to solve Rask. Ultimately, he’s the single biggest obstacle in their way. In particular, it would certainly help if Nino Niederreiter could step up. Niederreiter has just a goal and four points in 14 playoff games and has been held off the scoresheet in the Western Conference Final.

That’s in stark contrast to the regular season. Niederreiter scored 14 goals and 30 points in 36 contests after being acquired by Carolina to help the Hurricanes make the playoffs in the first place.

Teuvo Teravainen is another forward they could use more from. He had six goals and nine points in 11 playoff contests going into the series, but he’s been limited to a single point so far in the Eastern Conference Final. He logged 22:58 minutes in Game 3, but didn’t record any shots on goal.

Carolina also desperately needs to capitalize on their power-play chances. The Hurricanes were 0-for-5 on the power play in Game 3, dropping them to 1-for-12 in the series.

Even if the Hurricanes breakthrough Rask, the odds are still stacked heavily against them. Having up to four chances to close out the series is a huge luxury for Boston. Still, Carolina has no choice but to focus exclusively on this game and worry about the future only if they create one.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WEDNESDAY’S SCOREBOARD
Sharks 5, Blues 4 (OT) (Sharks lead 2-1)

The Buzzer has more on Wednesday’s action

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT roundtable
• Hurricanes/Bruins series preview
• PHT Conference Finals predictions

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.