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Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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.

Bruins address Marchand licking, future plans

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The Boston Bruins’ brass addressed the media on a wide range of issues Wednesday. If you want to keep your humor Brad Marchand-topical, you might call it an appetizer for the offseason.

After at least one lick/personal bubble-bursting moment in each round of their 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run (Leo Komarov and Ryan Callahan ranking among his … run-ins), Marchand eventually got a talking-to. Management addressed as much today, and they generally kept it from getting too salty.

“Brad should be contrite,” Cam Neely said (see around the minute mark). “ … He’s gotten to the point now where his game on the ice – without the antics – should speak for itself.”

You know it’s a serious headache – not just a punchline and strange routine – when Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs needs to weigh in. His comments give the impression that Marchand doesn’t have much of a margin of error.

More teaching, less licking

As refreshing as it is to discuss “Zen and the Art of Licking,” some might view it as empty calorie content.

Luckily, the Bruins also shed some light on how they view the 2017-18 season (mostly positive, especially when it comes to integrating young talent, while the ending was bittersweet) and how they might approach free agency and the summer. If you’re the type who shuddered at the idea of targeting a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency – and the comments indicate that quite a few people did – then you’d probably be glad to hear some of the reactions.

Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs spoke highly of players who could make a future impact on the B’s (“from Providence and Europe”), so Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy might be tasked with much of the “teaching” Cam Neely spoke of today.

Backup plan

Curiously, as NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty points out, the Bruins might make the backup goalie position an area they’re aiming for improvement with.

There are a few factors to consider in that regard.

For one thing, Anton Khudobin‘s $1.2 million contract expires. The 32-year-old played well enough at times – finishing with a nice-for-backup .913 save percentage – to drum up some minor goalie controversies (depending upon who you asked during 2017-18) when Tuukka Rask struggled. The Bruins are committed to Rask at $7M through 2020-21, yet they might want to at least attempt to get a No. 2 who could moonlight as a No. 1.

Beyond perusing trade opportunities, free agency, or even bringing back Khudobin, you wonder how long of a look the Bruins might give Zane McIntyre as Rask’s backup in 2018-19. After all, McIntyre’s already 25, and could be feeling a little restless (after a dominant AHL season in 2016-17, his numbers were solid but a bit more modest last season).

Other considerations, and a warning

There were discussions of other possible tweaks, such as possibly adding more size at the left D position behind Zdeno Chara. Even then, you wonder how deeply they’ll probe in that area; after all, Torey Krug had a strong season and Matt Grzelcyk came along nicely.

Broadly speaking, it sounds like the Bruins will lean more toward “improving from within” instead of pursuing more established players. Considering the way GM Don Sweeney’s been drafting and the team’s been developing lately, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Then again, perhaps some bolder opportunities might surface? As promising as some of the future pieces in Boston seem to be, the B’s must also realize that the window could start to close on their core. Zdeno Chara’s in the clearest battle with Father Time at 41, but sometimes the aging curve can dilute the dominance of guys like Patrice Bergeron (32) and Brad Marchand (30) with troubling speed. Considering how frightening Bergeron and Marchand were on most nights alongside young stud David Pastrnak, a slip – even from “elite” to merely “quite good” – could alter Boston’s trajectory, or force them to lean on younger talent even more.

***

So, there are some factors to juggle, but can you really blame management for feeling so optimistic compared to the mixed feelings that were likely on display during last year’s pressers regarding the team’s outlook?

Jacobs himself spoke of the Bruins being spry in keeping up with league trends, and justifiably so. If the NHL’s smartest teams continue this rapid evolution, then Boston must remain just as nimble this summer. At least if they want to maintain their status as a revitalized heavy-hitter in the NHL.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

‘I’ve got to cut that [stuff] out’: Marchand admits he went too far

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Leading up to Bruins media day on Wednesday, we hadn’t heard anything suggesting Brad Marchand regretted the licks heard around the hockey world. His tune has suddenly changed.

During the team’s final media availability of the season, the 29-year-old admitted that what he did was unacceptable.

“After having a couple days, kind of looking back on the year and seeing what’s happened the last few days with all the media and everything, I think the biggest thing for me now is to really take a pretty hard looking in the mirror and realize the actions, some of the things that I’m doing have much bigger consequences,” Marchand said. “I’ve always been a pretty easy-going guy and there’s not a whole lot that phases me at all. I think it’s kind of gotten to the point where the last thing I ever want to do is bring the embarrassment to my teammates and the organization that it did.

“I have to be a lot better. I know I’ve said that in the past but that’s got to be the thing that I really work on the most. I think I’ve gotten my game to a pretty decent spot but I’ve got some character things and things that I’ve done that clearly need some fixing. That’s going to be the biggest thing that I take away from what’s happened the last few days.

“At the time, I didn’t think it there was a big deal at all. I couldn’t believe where it was going that it was even worth talking about it.”

“I’ve got to cut that [expletive] out,” Marchand added, per the Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa.

Either Marchand figured that out in a hurry, or someone in the Bruins organization got to him before he addressed the media. Without knowing for sure, it seems like someone spoke to him about kissing/licking opponents because his previous quotes and tweets suggested he had no regrets.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Either way, this is probably the best possible look for him heading into the offseason.

On another note, the Bruins forward announced that he played through a groin injury in the second round.

He wasn’t the only one on his team that had to battle through injury. Noel Acciari‘s groin injury will require offseason surgery, Riley Nash is hoping his injured hip doesn’t need to be operated on, Jake DeBrusk was dealing with a shoulder injury, Zdeno Chara played through an upper-body injury and Torey Krug suffered a fractured ankle in Game 4 against Tampa. He won’t require surgery, but he’ll have to be in a boot for two months.

Patrice Bergeron missed Game 4 against Toronto because of concussion-like symptoms. He had also been dealing with a groin injury that likely won’t require an operation.

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.

Byfuglien continues to be key difference maker for Jets

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Dustin Byfuglien busted out his dance moves for a little celebration of his latest big goal, which may have caught many people by surprise.

Not his teammates.

“He’s so loose before games,” Winnipeg center Bryan Little said. “He’s a joker, definitely the prankster on the team. It’s strange for me to see him talking to you guys in front of the camera. It’s like, ‘That’s not who I know.”‘

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Byfuglien is making a big impression on the NHL playoffs on both ends of the ice as the Jets have muscled their way to within one win of Winnipeg’s first berth in the Western Conference Final. Timely goals, rugged defense, leadership – it’s all part of his game. He dropped jaws during the second-round series against the Predators by literally manhandling two Nashville players, one in each hand.

His journey back to the postseason has been a long one, but the 33-year-old Byfuglien has made Winnipeg his home and is a key reason the Jets are Canada’s last surviving team this postseason. The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993, and the 25-year drought is a painful one in the home of hockey.

Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler considers Byfuglien a “great equalizer” and unlike anybody else in the NHL.

“Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play,” Wheeler said. “That’s the type of player he is and from Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”

Byfuglien is making the most of his deepest postseason run since helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010,

Not only has he been a strong counter to Nashville by outplaying a group often considered the NHL’s best top four defensemen, Byfuglien is leading all defensemen this postseason with four goals. He’s also tied with Boston’s Torey Krug for most points with 12 while skating an average of 26 minutes, 25 seconds a game.

Byfuglien started the Jets’ rally in Game 3 against Nashville from a 3-0 deficit by scoring the first goal and his tying goal prompted his little dance. He wound up with the game-winning goal in Winnipeg’s 6-2 victory Saturday night that put the Jets on the verge of clinching only their second series – all this postseason.

“What makes him unique is he can, I don’t know if ‘take over’ is right, but he can make an impact in a game in just about every single way possible,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “He can defend, he can play real physical, nobody wants to drop the gloves with him, and then there’s an offensive side, it’s a perfectly placed shot, quick hands, all the other things that he can do offensively.”

And Chicago gave all that potential up in 2010. Byfuglien switched from defense to forward for the Blackhawks and scored three game-winning goals in a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1992. He had a hat trick against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.

But the Blackhawks were strapped for salary cap space after contract extensions for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on top of pricey deals for Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. Byfuglien was traded away to the then-Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

“There’s only one Dustin Byfuglien, and you want him on your team,” Little said. “You can’t imagine what it would be like playing against him. There’s only one of him. You can’t really compare him to anyone out there.”

Winnipeg has become home to Byfuglien. The town is just 115 miles as the crow flies from where he grew up in Roseau, Minnesota. Since the franchise moved to Winnipeg, Byfuglien married, and has three children. The Jets rewarded him in February 2016 with a five-year, $38 million contract to make him a key piece of the Jets’ future.

He just isn’t a big talker. Asked where his dance came from in Game 2, Byfuglien said he didn’t know.

He sure is talking to his teammates, trying to share his experience from that 2010 Cup run and offering advice on how to handle what they hope is a two-month run.

“We’ve obviously talked as a group,” Byfuglien said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride. It’s just take one game at a time, one shift at a time, and just believe in each other.”

Having Big Buff around certainly provides a confidence boost,

“Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous,” Little said.

Bruins’ Krug done for series with ankle injury

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This is not good news for the Boston Bruins ahead of Sunday’s Game 5 in Tampa Bay.

Not only will they be facing elimination and a 3-1 series deficit against the Lightning, but they will have to try and keep their season alive for another game without the services of one of their top defenseman, Torey Krug.

Krug exited Friday’s Game 4 with an apparent ankle injury midway through the third period. He did not return and did not play in overtime where the Lightning went on to win, 4-3, thanks to a Dan Girardi goal.

On Saturday, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy announced that Krug did not make the trip to Tampa Bay with the team and that he will not be available for the game.

Later in the day, the Bruins broke more bad news regarding Krug.

Per the Bruins’ team website:

Boston Bruins Head Team Physician Dr. Peter Asnis issued the following update on defenseman Torey Krug:

Torey Krug injured his left ankle during Game 4 of the second round playoff series on Friday, May 4. He will not be available for the remainder of this series as he undergoes additional testing to determine the full extent of the injury. Further information will be made available after all testing is complete.

Nick Holden, acquired in a pre-deadline trade from the New York Rangers, will play in Krug’s spot.

“He did a good job for us when he went in,” Cassidy told NHL.com on Saturday. “We’re going to miss Torey, obviously. He’s a good player for us and really adds to our offensive side of things, but Nick’s done a good job so in he’ll go.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The 30-year-old Holden has only played in one game this postseason, logging 12 minutes of ice-time and recording an assist in the a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 of their first-round series.

The Bruins are already playing without defenseman Brandon Carlo who has been sidelined since the end of March with an ankle injury.

Krug’s absence is going to be significant because he is such a big part of the team’s offense. He finished the 2017-18 season as the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 59 points (14 goals, 45 assists) in 76 games. He was also — by a pretty wide margin — the team’s leading scorer among defensemen.

More on Bruins vs. Lightning

Girardi, Lightning push Bruins to brink of elimination
Brad Marchand enrages Lightning with lick, low-bridge (Video)
NHL tells Marchand to stop licking opponents

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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.