But managing a flat salary cap — likely by shedding players they didn’t want to expel — is a job for overwhelmed GMs, particularly of big-market teams. For the rest of us, we can fill some time by daydreaming about different NHL free agent scenarios. (Some more realistic than others.)
In other words, what are the best destinations for some of the NHL’s top free agents? Actually, scratch that. Let’s go with the most fun NHL free agent situations. They occasionally might even make sense!
NHL fans have watched too many “super teams” form in the NBA. In some of those cases, said NBA stars flexed their leverage by agreeing to shorter deals. LeBron James left Cleveland after getting a hometown ring. Kawhi Leonard can eat apples elsewhere if the whole Clippers thing doesn’t work out.
In the case of this hypothetical scenario with the Avalanche, it would be more of an “everybody wins” scenario — except maybe Colorado’s competition. Consider these factors:
Pietrangelo would just block promising young defensemen like Bowen Byram working into the mix with Cale Makar if Pietrangelo signed a long-term deal. But if it was short? He buys Colorado time and can maybe hand down some life lessons to those kiddos.
Taylor Hall has suffered enough. Let’s get him on a good team, which Colorado … at least has a good chance of being for the foreseeable future. Right? Possibly?
Let’s be honest, with all of the financial turmoil going on, Pietrangelo and Hall might not enjoy much of a market. Truly, Pietrangelo might be better off taking a one-year deal to stay in St. Louis. But that’s not as fun (unless you’re a Blues fan).
The Avalanche figure to have a lot of money to burn, but I’m not sure that it would be wise to risk Hall and Pietrangelo hitting the aging curve. This scenario basically buys everyone some time for longer-term solutions, while taking a big swing at a 2020-21 Stanley Cup.
To which I retort: we’d get to talk about that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Was it as much of a disaster as we thought? (Sounds like quality content either way.)
2. Buffy to Buffalo
Just imagine the bad puns and headlines that could come from Dustin Byfuglien reviving his career with the Buffalo Sabres.
As much as anything else, the Sabres and their fans need some joy. Adding a much-needed defenseman who’s as flat-out as unusual as Byfuglien would be pretty fun, if you ask me.
Could it be another disaster? Sure, but in that scenario, at least cruel people would have fun? I think it’s worth the risk. (<— Person not signing any of these checks.)
3. Hurricanes and Robin Lehner, an NHL Free Agency story of “Finally”
Despite putting up fantastic numbers for two seasons, Robin Lehner can’t seem to get the sort of stability he wants. Despite putting together deep and talented teams, the Hurricanes are always a few netminding meltdowns from throwing all of that shrewd team-building away.
Frankly, I was a little surprised the Hurricanes shrugged their shoulders at Lehner last summer. Sure, they’re analytics-leaning with Eric Tulsky calling a lot of shots (although I wonder if Don Waddell “went camping” by acquiring Brady Skjei and his not-particularly-fancy-stats?). But Lehner seemed like a buy-low candidate, particularly in signing a low-risk, one-year deal with the Blackhawks during the 2020 offseason.
Maybe it’s finally time for Carolina to take the plunge?
OK, so the smarter move might be to continue going shorter term. Perhaps Corey Crawford would take a shorter deal than what Lehner is clearly seeking. Jacob Markstrom might be the craftier addition, if the Canucks let him walk.
Lehner and the Hurricanes would rank as the more interesting story, though.
Speaking of interesting narratives that might not be as wise as they look on paper, Holtby to the Sharks would be fascinating.
Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been disastrous for the Sharks lately. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, though, as the Sharks defense often hangs its goalies out to dry.
In Holtby, you have a Stanley Cup winner whose overall body of work is highly impressive. For a Sharks team tormented by playoff letdowns, Holtby’s postseason resume shines especially bright (Stanley Cup win, .928 save percentage over 89 career playoff games).
Yet, on the other hand, things have been bumpy for Holtby for some time. His game had already been slipping, but it really dipped badly in 2019-20 with a disturbing .897 save percentage. Holtby probably will demand a hefty contract thanks to his prior work, too.
So … there are a lot of red flags here. That said, the Sharks are pretty desperate. At minimum, it would be interesting to see if that gamble would pay off for San Jose.
Assorted fun NHL free agent scenarios of varying realism
As interesting as it would be for Joe Thornton to ship back up to Boston, I keep going back to Thornton with the Winnipeg Jets for some reason. The Jets would actually be a sensible landing spot for someone like Torey Krug, but Thornton chasing a Stanley Cup with the Jets just feels right.
The Maple Leafs are going to experience an agonizing cap squeeze. If Kevin Shattenkirk took another one-year, low-dollar deal, maybe Toronto would come calling? He’s the sort of double-edged sword defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs more than hurt them. But oh, how that hockey-crazed media and fan base will overreact to those mistakes …
The Blackhawks seem pretty deep in a “just try to outscore their problems” phase. Is there a better defenseman for that pursuit than Tyson Barrie? I mean, probably, but that could make for a white-knuckle ride.
Let’s get Evgenii Dadonov to a California team. With any luck, Dad would attend a Padres game.
Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.
In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”
Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.
Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?
With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.
Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?
If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.
“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”
It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)
Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.
(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)
Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.
Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?
An unexpectedly crowded defense
During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.
The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.
On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …
“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.
(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)
So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:
Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).
Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.
But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?
More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
Combined with regulation losses by the Carolina Hurricanes (against Philadelphia) and the New York Islanders (against Ottawa) on Thursday, the results helped the Rangers inch a little bit closer to a potential playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The odds are still stacked against them, but the fact they are even in the race at this point is a remarkable accomplishment and a minor hockey miracle.
As of Friday the Rangers are two points back of the Islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Hurricanes, and two points ahead of the Florida Panthers.
Here is how the current Wild Card race shakes out, including every team’s current pace.
Given their current paces you can see the Rangers still have some work to do to catch either the Columbus Blue Jackets or Islanders and stay ahead of the Hurricanes, but this is still a dramatic change from what we saw as recently as one month ago.
Go back to the start of February and the Rangers were 10 points back of the Islanders and seven points back of both the Hurricanes and Panthers. Today, they have pretty much drawn even with the Hurricanes, moved ahead of the Panthers, and climbed to within striking distance of the Islanders. Those are significant gaps to close in that period of time. It is remarkably rare for teams to make up even a four-or five-point gap at the halfway point of the season, and the Rangers are currently in the process of closing 7-10 point gaps in just a little more than a month.
It’s been the perfect storm of the Rangers getting white hot and quite literally every team in direct competition with them starting to crumble for a variety of reasons.
Columbus, a team that has been completely devastated by injuries this season, has lost 11 out of its past 13 games (six of those losses have come in overtime or shootout, though).
The Islanders still have a decent hold on a Wild Card spot, but have been one of the league’s worst teams (no exaggeration) since that early-season point streak came to an end in late November. In 45 games since Nov. 25 the Islanders own only a .489 points percentage, 24th in the league during that stretch. Most recently, they have won just two of their past 11 games and take a five-game losing streak into Saturday’s game with the Hurricanes.
Speaking of the Hurricanes, their current injury situation is really starting to catch up with them.
They are still playing without both of their regular goalies (Petr Mrazek and James Reimer) and have lost four in a row since they exited the lineup. The most recent Hurricanes goalie to record a win was David Ayres. Even more concerning the goalie situation is the fact they are now without Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. That puts an absolutely massive dent in their blue line, and for as good as trade deadline acquisitions Brady Skjei and Sam Vatanen are, neither one is an upgrade over the two injured players and Vatanen has still yet to appear in a game due to his own injury. They are just 8-7-1 since Hamilton went out of the lineup, and remain winless since Pesce went out.
That’s not to say the Rangers don’t have their own concerns right now.
Igor Shesterkin, who had overtaken both Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist as the team’s no No. 1 goalie, remains out of the lineup due to injuries sustained in a car accident just before the NHL trade deadline. Chris Kreider, meanwhile, is going to miss most — if not all — of the remaining games in the regular season due to an ankle injury. In the meantime, they are going to need to keep leaning on the duo of Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin to keep carrying the offense, and hope that the Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets continue the recent slides that have helped close the gap.
It’s asking a lot, and any extended slump by the Rangers or any winning streak by the Islanders, Blue Jackets or Hurricanes could render all of this meaningless. But the Rangers have at least given themselves a chance and a reason for their fans to pay close attention to the stretch run of the regular season.
The Philadelphia Flyers have flown under the radar this season but now sit atop the Metropolitan Division alongside the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals lost in overtime to the New York Rangers but currently own the tiebreaker due to one additional victory in regulation and overtime. Each team has 87 points to date in 67 games this season.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Sean Couturier scored 26 seconds apart in the third period and the Flyers extended their winning streak to eight games after a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday.
Justin Williams netted the Hurricanes’ lone goal, but they fell for the fourth consecutive game. Carolina trails the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
Newly acquired Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei turned the puck over behind his own net and Aube-Kubel took advantage to expand the Flyers’ lead to 3-1 early in the third period. Shortly after, Couturier buried a rebound to put the game out of reach.
Alex Nedeljkovic made 28 saves in his second start of the season for the Hurricanes.
Provorov opened the scoring when he collected his own rebound and deposited a backhand 18:23 into the first period. Flyers defensemen have scored an NHL-best 44 goals this season.
Raffl doubled the Flyers’ advantage midway through the second period. Scott Laughton picked up his second assist of the night on the play.
Injuries piling up
Prior to the game, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell announced Brett Pesce underwent surgery on his right shoulder. The defenseman is expected to be sidelined for the next four to six months.
He originally injured his shoulder against the Toronto Maple Leafs February 24.
In addition to Pesce, Sami Vatanen had a setback Thursday morning and is not expected to make his debut for Carolina in the near future.
“This is a tough injury. He came off (the ice early); that’s not good,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour told reporters this morning. “We were hoping to get him closer to playing. Now it looks like he’s further away.”
— Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.