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Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

***

For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

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.

Andrei Markov heads back to KHL on tryout deal

Veteran defender Andrei Markov has been hoping to make a return to the NHL after spending the past two seasons playing in the KHL, but it appears as if those plans will remain on hold.

The KHL announced on Thursday that Markov has signed a professional tryout contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Markov played for Kazan Ak-Bars the past two seasons, tallying seven goals and 47 points in 104 regular season games.

Markov, now 40, spent his entire 16-year career with the Montreal Canadiens and was hoping to make a return to the team this season but the feeling never seemed to be mutual.

“Two years ago, his contract was due, we made an offer,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told Canada’s RDS back in September. “Efforts were made to sign it and he chose another direction that was KHL. It was two years ago. Since that time, things have changed. The player has aged. The organization has changed direction. We have a lot of young people growing up.”

Markov’s agent said back in August that five teams had checked in on Markov’s availability and that he was seeking a one-year deal.

He is 10 games shy of playing his 1,000th game in the NHL, something that would be a nice milestone for what has been an extremely productive career. When he was at his best and not limited by injury (he had terrible injury luck for a three-year run between 2009 and 2012) Markov was an outstanding player and big point producer from the Canadiens’ blue line. Even in his last NHL season he had 36 points and a 54 percent Corsi rating in 66 games as a 38-year-old. Not exactly a small accomplishment.

Unfortunately for Markov there did not seem to be much of a market this year (at least not yet) for a 40-year-old defender.

The only players in the NHL over the age of 38 this season are Zdeno Chara (42), Patrick Marleau (40), Joe Thornton (40), and Ron Hainsey (38). Chara and Hainsey are the only defenders.

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.

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

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.

Will Carolina fill defensive openings on UFA, trade markets?

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The Carolina Hurricanes have just four defensemen signed with at least 100 games worth of NHL experience. That makes their blueline a major question mark going into training camp, but even as we near the end of July, there are still plenty of options out there for teams looking to bolster their defense.

For example, Christian Ehrhoff and Cody Franson are both still available on the open market. There’s also presumably cheaper options out there like Andrej Meszaros and Jan Hejda.

“There’s been some dialogue with some guys, but we’re still sitting and waiting to see where the numbers go,” Hurricanes GM Ron Francis told the News & Observer. “The guys we’ve talked about are not in a range we’d be comfortable with yet, so we’re keeping an eye on it. I’m not in a hurry to jump in.”

Francis added that as more arbitration eligible players either get judgments or otherwise sign, more players might be made available. Additionally, Jeff Skinner is still reportedly on the block, so Carolina might end up making a more substantial trade before the summer is done.

All that being said, Francis sees some appeal in maintaining the status quo.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a spot open going into camp,” Francis said. “It sends a good message to our younger guys.”

With James Wisniewski, Justin Faulk, John-Michael Liles, and Ron Hainsey all presumably locks to make the roster, that would leave 2015 fifth overall pick Noah Hanifin, Ryan Murphy, Danny Biega, Michal Jordan, Rasmus Rissanen, and Haydn Fleury to compete for the final three openings.

Jagr: ‘A break? I don’t believe in this’

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Apparently Jaromir Jagr doesn’t believe the New Jersey Devils have earned a Christmas break.

Following the team’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night, Jagr sounded off.

“A break? I don’t believe in this,” Jagr told the Star-Ledger’s Rich Chere. “You can’t have a break and after three days with the holidays and without a practice are we going to be the best team in hockey? I don’t believe that. I believe in hard work, but I’m different.”

The Devils have won just three of 12 games this month.

Stephen Gionta had the lone Devils goal while Ron Hainsey’s goal midway through the third forced overtime.

Chris Terry was the lone scorer in the shootout.

“(It’s) a lack of scoring. I think a lack of confidence, too,” Jagr suggested. “I think it has to do with the practices. We’re going to have less games, so we’re going to have a chance to practice more. I think it’s going to help us for sure. It’s going to help me. I cannot talk for everybody else.”

Cory Schneider saw his record drop to 11-16-4 in the loss while Anton Khudobin made 18 saves for his first win of the season.