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Golden Knights have big decisions to make after Karlsson extension

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the teams that are going to be hit the hardest by the lower-than-expected salary cap ceiling for the 2019-20 season.

As of Sunday the team has, quite literally, zero salary cap space and is reportedly on the verge of signing restricted free agent William Karlsson to a long-term contract extension this upcoming week. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Karlsson’s new contract is going to be a max-term eight-year contract, with TSN’s Bob McKenzie adding that the salary cap hit will come in at “a shade under” $6 million per season. That is yet another hefty contract handed out by the Golden Knights, something that they have done pretty regularly over their first two years in the league.

In a vacuum, Karlsson’s extension seems pretty fair.

The eight-year term is significant, but he is still only 26 years old and isn’t likely to fall off a cliff in his production for several years. The cap hit is also probably significantly less than he could get on the open market, which is probably a tradeoff with the longer term.

He is probably never going repeat his improbable 40-goal season from two years ago, but he showed this past season that he can still be an excellent all-around player. There is a lot of value in a possession-driving, 25-goal, 55-point forward (assuming Karlsson is able to maintain that sort of production).

Once Karlsson’s deal becomes official, the Golden Knights will have six players signed through the end of the 2024 season. That group doesn’t include the long-term contracts recently signed by Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Given that the Golden Knights will still need to fill out three more roster spots even after making the Karlsson contract official the salary cap situation means that somebody, somewhere on the roster, is going to have to go.

That means first-year general manager Kelly McCrimmon is going to have some major decisions to make over the next couple of months.

It is probably a safe assumption that Fleury, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch are fairly secure with their spots in the organization because they are pretty clearly the foundation of the team. Fleury and Marchessault have been from day one, while Stone just signed a massive contract extension following his acquisition from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. Tuch is still only 22 years old and is on a contract that looks like it could be a steal for the team.

After that, all bets should be off.

Max Pacioretty could be an option and would shed $7 million per year after the team’s cap number, but that would be a complicated deal to make work and justify. Not only does Pacioretty have some control over where he goes (he had a modified no-trade clause) but trading him after just one season would be a tough pill to swallow given the sequence of events and the price they had to pay to get him. The Golden Knights traded Tomas Tatar (after trading three draft picks, including a 2018 first-rounder) and a top prospect in Nick Suzuki to get Pacioretty and then immediately signed him to a new long-term contract that, technically speaking, has not even started yet.

It is also doubtful they would be able to come out ahead by trading him given that he will be 31 this season, carries a pretty big cap hit, and is not the goal-scorer he was during his prime. Are you going to get back anything close to what you gave up for him just one year ago?

He had a fine year in 2018-19 when he was healthy, but his days of pushing the 40-goal mark are probably in the rear-view mirror.

Sticking with potential top-line players to be on the move, Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith both count more than $5 million against the cap, but like Pacioretty also have some control over where they go with limited no-trade clauses. The other issue is that Pacioretty and Stastny were great together on a line, and Vegas probably doesn’t want to break that up (nor should it).

After that you get into the depth players. Erik Haula, Cody Eakin, and Ryan Reaves all count more than $2 million against the cap and while all have proven to be quality depth players, none of them are irreplaceable.

Defender Colin Miller is another player whose name has been mentioned in trade speculation, but his cap hit is relatively small and he has been a pretty big part of an underrated defense.

No matter who goes, and whether it is a significant core player or a bunch of smaller depth players, the Golden Knights are set to be one of the busiest and most active teams in the league in the coming days and weeks. They really have no other choice.

Related: Pressure ratchets up on cap-strapped teams

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.

 

Is Jeff Skinner worth $9M to Sabres?

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Is Jeff Skinner worth an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit between $8.5 million and $9.5 million?

That’s the “sweet spot” Bob McKenzie identified for the 27-year-old winger and the Buffalo Sabres during an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday (the Skinner-related details kick in a bit after the 4:45 mark of the video above).

McKenzie indicates that negotiations have picked up recently with the NHL Scouting Combine taking place in Buffalo. While he says there’s “optimism” that a deal can be done, going as far as to indicate that it’s “very close,” McKenzie also emphasizes that it also could fall through. McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger also noted that mix of hesitation and optimism during a WGR 550 radio appearance on Friday.

So, to summarize, a deal around $9M per year, for eight years, could end up happening — maybe.

Is this a wise idea for the Sabres? Let’s consider the details surrounding this situation.

Why $9M+ might be a bit much

Back in March, The Athletic’s John Vogl made in-depth comparisons between Skinner and some peers (sub required), with the resulting impression being that an $8M cap hit would be closer to Skinner’s true value than, say, the $9.6M that fellow, similarly-aged winger Mark Stone received from the Vegas Golden Knights.

A lot of that is fair.

Yes, Skinner scored 40 goals in 2018-19, but he still only matched his career-high for points with 63. While Skinner’s tilted the ice in his team’s favor for most (if not all) of his career, he’s not a perennial Selke candidate in the making like Stone, either.

None of this is to denigrate Skinner. He’s really, really good, and will justifiably be raking it in. It’s just fair to note that the Sabres might grimace a bit at his rate, particularly since they’re already paying Jack Eichel $10M per season. The more pertinent thought could be that the Sabres have been burned by risking contracts before, including Kyle Okposo, who’s limited at 31 and will carry a $6M cap hit through 2022-23.

So, sure, there are some arguments for why a new Skinner contract could cause some indigestion, especially since one with an eight-year term would likely get highly challenging as it goes along, since many snipers hit the wall hard around the time they turn 30.

Supply and demand

Honestly, though, the Sabres need this.

This is a mess of a franchise whose troubles sapped Ryan O'Reilly‘s joy of the sport, and that was one failed season ago. The Sabres have burned through dicey contracts and ripped through coaches at a troubling rate. Even if they re-sign Skinner, Buffalo faces a steep uphill battle to end a postseason drought that stretches back to 2011-12, to say nothing of winning their first series since 2006-07.

Just consider how dramatic the drop-off is from Skinner, Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and a select few others when it comes to metrics like Goals Above Replacement (visualization by Sean Tierney, data via Evolving Hockey).

Not ideal, right?

Whether you look at deeper stats or simple box scores, it’s clear that the Sabres need to add players, not subtract the likes of Skinner.

While there are some other decent players readying to hit free agency, particularly if you believe that we’re finally going to hit the Age of the Offer Sheet, there aren’t a ton of better bets than Skinner. If anything, the Sabres should cross their fingers that they can add Skinner and another needle-mover, whether it be a defenseman like Erik Karlsson or (more likely) a forward such as Matt Duchene.

Cap Friendly estimates that Buffalo’s cap space hovers at about $29.4M allocated to 15 players, so Buffalo would likely have about $20M to work with if they signed Skinner.

This is a pretty straightforward situation: the Sabres badly need talent, and their fans sorely need some bright sides to look on. While, yes, a Skinner contract would cause some to worry about worst-case scenarios (particularly those who remember his early-career struggles with concussions), it’s reasonable to assume that far more Sabres fans would be deeply saddened if Skinner walked away instead.

A nice situation for Skinner

It’s crucial for Skinner to like Buffalo and to believe that the team has at least a shot at being competitive.

If those boxes are checked off, then sticking with the Sabres makes a lot of sense for Skinner. To start, Buffalo can offer the max term of eight years, while he’d only be able to land a seven-year contract if he waited until July.

Skinner also showed great chemistry with Eichel, and he’d know that he’d be a BMOC of sorts, getting top minutes and playing a go-to role. Skinner’s 18:31 TOI per game from 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career, and 2012-13 was the last Hurricanes season where he averaged 18+ minutes per night.

McKenzie reports that new Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger pitched Skinner on his system producing better results. In the event that Skinner views Buffalo as having a reasonable chance to compete, then there’s a lot to like for his side of the deal.

***

If you look at Skinner potentially making $9M+ per year, you can tie yourself into knots comparing that would-be contract to Sidney Crosby getting $8.7M AAV, Nikita Kucherov getting $9.5M per year at age 25, and so on. And, yes, that potential price tag is steep for Skinner, especially since an eight-year deal would stretch to age 34.

But when you zoom out and consider the changing market around Skinner, and the sense of urgency – if not outright anxiety – surrounding the Sabres, this potential deal starts to look pretty logical for Buffalo.

It’s risky, yet if you want to get better in sports, you often need to make calculated risks. Do you think this would be the right call for the Sabres overall?

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.

Canada escapes; U.S., Sweden fall at IIHF World Championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Damon Severson and Mark Stone helped Canada escape to the world hockey championship semifinals while the United States and defending champion Sweden dropped out.

Canada beat Switzerland 3-2 in overtime Thursday night. Severson tied it with 0.4 seconds left on a goal confirmed by video review. Stone ended it at 5:07 of the 3-on-3 overtime off a pass from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

”In these elimination games, you need to have guys step up. (Severson) stepped up for us to get the game tied, and then Dubois makes a ridiculous play to get it finished for us,” Stone said. ”Pretty big goal. It sends us to the semifinals, but I didn’t really have to do much. I just put my stick on the ice, went to the net and Dubois makes that winning goal happen.”

The tying goal came with goalie Matt Murray off an extra attacker. Severson’s shot from the point dribbled over the goal line after it hit goalie Leonardo Genoni’s pad and blocker.

”It’s one of those things that you can’t really make it up. We were very fortunate to get that late goal,” Severson said. ”It was a 2-1 hockey game the entire third period and the goalie was playing great. We got a lot of chances but we just couldn’t seem to sneak one by him. With under a second left I just took a shot and it ended up bouncing in. To score a goal like on a big stage like this is definitely very exciting.”

Stone had a goal and an assist in regulation. Nico Hischier and Sven Andrighetto scored for Switzerland.

In the semifinals Saturday, Canada will face the Czech Republic, and Russia will play Finland.

In Bratislava, Nikita Gusev and Mikhail Sergachyov each had a goal and two assists in Russia’s 4-3 victory over the United States. Kirill Kaprizov and Mikhail Grigorenko also scored. Brady Skjei, Noah Hanifin and Alex DeBrincat scored for the Americans.

”It’s disappointing because we had high expectations, so we’re not happy our tournament’s done so quickly,” Skjei said. ”You know, they’re a really good team. We know that, but we’ve got a good team, too, and we thought we could beat them, and I still think that we could have.”

Finland beat Sweden 5-4 in overtime in Kosice. Marko Anttila tied it for Finland with 1:29 left and Sakari Manninen won it in overtime.

”We always believed,” forward Juho Lammikko said. ”We had a lot of chances to put the puck in the net. You never quit until the final whistle. The game before us, you saw Canada score the tying goal with less than a second. It’s a 60-minute game. We didn’t let it bother us when they had the lead. Good things happen when you never give up.”

The Czech Republic topped Germany 5-1 in Bratislava. Jan Kovar scored twice for the Czechs.

”It’s good that we were able to score some goals and, in the end, we were able to put some space between us, but it wasn’t a one-sided win and we all know that,” Kovar said. ”We’re glad that we won, but we’re not really all that excited about the way we played for the most part. We can play better and we’ll need to play better.”

New Golden Knights GM faces big opportunities, challenges

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The Vegas Golden Knights announced a passing of the torch on Thursday, as Kelly McCrimmon becomes GM, while George McPhee is no longer GM, but sticks around as president of hockey operations.

It’s a move that echoes Steve Yzerman giving way to Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay: like the Lightning with BriseBois, the Golden Knights didn’t want to lose a respected executive in McCrimmon. There are also parallels in the job McCrimmon is transitioning into. Much like the Lightning, the Golden Knights boast a talent-rich roster, and while Vegas features some Lightning-like bargains, the bottom line is that a cap crunch hovers over all of that luxurious skill.

Let’s take a look at the road ahead for McCrimmon, McPhee, and the Golden Knights.

Flipping assets for that hair flip?

After an out-of-nowhere 43-goal, 78-point breakthrough in 2017-18, William Karlsson needed a new contract last summer. The two sides settled on something of a one-year “prove it” deal for 2018-19, and while he didn’t sustain the unsustainable 23.4 shooting percentage from 2017-18, Karlsson confirmed that his ascension wasn’t a mere mirage.

Now Karlsson finds himself as an RFA once again at age 26, and paying up for his next contract is the pivot point for the Golden Knights’ off-season.

With Mark Stone‘s (clearly justifiable) $9.6 million cap hit set to kick in starting next season, and the Golden Knights’ well-stocked with other legitimate talents, Vegas is in a congested situation even before you factor in whatever dollar amount Karlsson will command. A glance at Cap Friendly gives the impression that Vegas is less than $700K under the ceiling, and maybe some final details might tweak that, the bigger picture is that this is a challenging situation.

Here are a few players who could get moved out to accommodate this situation. I’m leaving out plenty of names such as Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Nate Schmidt for a simple reason: they’re all on manageable, if not outright bargain contracts, and so I’d think McCrimmon would be making huge errors in moving any of them out.

  • Cody Eakin, 27, $3.85M cap hit expires after 2019-20: No, this isn’t because the major penalty he was whistled for that turned that unforgettable Game 7 on its head.

Instead, it’s simple math. The Golden Knights have a plethora of forwards, and Eakin’s pricey for a depth player, which is how he’d fall in the lineup under basically all circumstances.

  • Erik Haula, 28, $2.75M through 2019-20: His pretty scary injury wrecked his 2018-19 campaign after his 29-goal breakthrough the year before. This would be more about dumping salary than any indictment on Haula, and Vegas would be unlikely to get fair value in such a trade. That might have to do it if teams don’t bite on other trade possibilities, though.
  • Ryan Reaves, 32, $2.775M through 2019-20: Yes, he’s an entertaining quote and menacing presence, but it’s not quite ideal to spend nearly $3M on an enforcer in the modern NHL. Not when every dime counts. Really, the Golden Knights could save big money and force Gerard Gallant to put more talent on the ice.
  • Colin Miller, 26, $3.875M through 2021-22: If I were an opportunistic opposing GM, I’d circle Miller like a (not necessarily San Jose) Shark. He’s a good, useful player on a reasonable deal, but with Miller occasionally landing in Gallant’s doghouse, he could be almost $4M used in a less optimal way. Plenty of teams need RHD, and could get a nice gem if they pounce. And if, frankly, McCrimmon makes a mistake.

There are other possibilities (Brayden McNabb maybe?) but those are generally the most feasible salary dump options in trades, with different players appealing to different mindsets.

Supporting cast calls

Remarkably, Vegas already has a strong core, for the most part. They face some noteworthy decisions around those key players, though.

There are some free agents to consider. Is Deryk Engelland going to retire, and if not, would the veteran take a team-friendly deal to stay with Vegas? Brandon Pirri deserves an NHL gig somewhere, but would he be lost in the shuffle in Vegas’ deep offense? Can the Golden Knights retain surprisingly effective fourth-line Pierre-Edouard Bellemare?

Alongside the aging pieces, you have intriguing talent looking to make a dent. Vegas must determine if Cody Glass is ready for the big time, as he could provide cheap production on a rookie deal. What will they do with Nikita Gusev and Jimmy Schuldt, who spent last season in the KHL and NCAA respectively, and need new deals?

Some of these situations are tricky, yet it’s plausible that Vegas could end up with enviable depth if they make the right moves (and get some good luck).

Beyond the flower

And, personally, I think McCrimmon really needs to take a long look at the team’s future in net.

Considering this cap crunch, it’s probably best to stick with Malcolm Subban on another short deal. He’s an RFA, and as The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes (sub required), the team seems to think he still has potential.

As a former first-rounder (24th overall in 2012), Subban’s potential may still be bandied about for years. Yet, at 25, there needs to be more real production to go with all of the theoreticals and hypotheticals.

Instead of spelling an aging Marc-Andre Fleury with regularity, thus keeping “The Flower” fresh for the spring and summer when the games matter the most, Gallant has been reluctant to start Subban, whose career save percentage is a middling .903 in 45 regular-season games.

Part of that might be attributed to Gallant’s tendency to lean heavily on his starters, yet it’s also easy to see why Gallant is reluctant to go with other options: those other options haven’t been very appealing. Fleury is 34, and you could argue “an old 34” with 940 games (regular season plus playoffs) under his belt, so this is an area the Golden Knights can’t neglect for much longer.

(Really, it’s one they probably should have been more aggressive to address already; it’s a little surprising they never pushed harder to land someone who ended up claimed on waivers like Curtis McElhinney, among other options.)

***

This is a challenging situation, no doubt. There are potential bumps in the road, especially if the aging curve hits “MAF” hard.

Yet the upside is also huge. If you saw the Golden Knights once they added Mark Stone, you’d likely agree that this team could be a viable contender, rather than a Cinderella story.

It’s up to McCrimmon to add volumes to this tale, rather than allowing cap concerns to slam that book shut.

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.

Bergeron, O’Reilly, Stone are the 2019 Selke Trophy finalists

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It’s awards season! The NHL has begun to roll out the nominees for the 2018-19 awards beginning with the Selke Trophy, which is awarded “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.”

The nominees, who are voted for by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the conclusion of the regular season, are Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, and Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights.

The trophy was first  presented in 1977 by the NHL Board of Governors in honor of Frank J. Selke, one of the architects of Montreal and Toronto Stanley Cup winning teams.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Patrice Bergeron: The four-time winner of the trophy, Bergeron finished the regular season with 32 goals and 79 points. He was eighth overall in face-off win percentage (56.6%), the 10th straight season he’s had a success rate in the dot of at least 56%. He also posted a 56.77% Corsi rating, the eighth consecutive season he’s reached at least the 55% mark in the category. This is his eighth straight year as a finalist and one more win will see him pass Bob Gainey for most Selke wins ever.

The Case For Ryan O’Reilly: Leading the Blues with 77 points, including 23 goals, O’Reilly enjoyed his first season with in St. Louis. He was once again strong in the face-off circle with a 56.9% success rate, posted a 53.44 Corsi %, his best since the 2013 NHL season, and had a 2.82 Corsi relative percentage. The Blues had a 93.39% on-ice save percentage when O’Reilly was out there at even strength and his 42.53 expected goals against percentage led the team’s forwards.

The Case For Mark Stone: A win here for the Golden Knights forward would bring a bit of history. The last Selke winner who wasn’t a center was Jere Lehtinen, who took home the award in 2002-03 while a member of the Dallas Stars. Stone was one of two players to have over 100 takeaways (122) this season, leading the NHL in that category. He posted a 52.99% Corsi rating and was third among all forwards with at least 800 5-on-5 minutes with an 8.16 Corsi relative percentage.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.