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Jake Gardiner could be free agent steal

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One of the most surprising developments this offseason has to be the fact Jake Gardiner, probably the top defender to hit the open market, remains unsigned nearly two weeks into the free agent signing period.

Not only is he still unsigned as of publication on Saturday, but there has also been complete radio silence on any potential interest in signing the defender.

Little to no speculation on potential teams, or contract terms, or … anything. It’s almost as if he no longer exists in the NHL, which is completely stunning given how good he has been and some of the other contracts that have been signed this summer.

How does a team give Tyler Myers $30 million over six years on the first day of free agency, or give up multiple draft picks in a trade for Justin Braun, while a better player (Gardiner) remains sitting out there unsigned for anyone to go after?

The concerns

Let’s start with health.

Gardiner was limited throughout the 2018-19 season by a back injury that sidelined him for 20 games and clearly limited him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It creates quite a dilemma for any interested team because until this season Gardiner had been an extremely durable player, appearing in at least 75 games in six of his first seven seasons while playing more than 20 minutes per night every year. That includes five seasons where he played in at least 79 games, and back-to-back seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 where he did not miss a single game.

Even though his injury has reportedly healed well this offseason, it is still understandable that a back injury for a 29-year-old defender could be a legitimate concern for a team on a long-term contract.

The other criticism that Gardiner faces is that he has had two of his worst games on the biggest possible stage, struggling in back-to-back Game 7 losses over the past two seasons.

But any team that puts more weight on those two games than his entire career track record is making a bad evaluation.

The playoffs are a strange beast because they are ultimately what teams (and players) are measured by when it comes to their success and/or failure. But that can also lead to a lot of mistakes because you are not always getting an accurate representation of what a team (or player) actually is. Especially when you drill it down to a single game, or even just a few single moments within a single game.

It is almost as if players that play on teams that don’t get into big games get evaluated more favorably than players that do, because the former hasn’t had a chance to have their flaws exposed or had a chance to have a bad performance in a big situation. Almost as if it’s better to NOT play in a big series or a big game, eliminating the risk of making a mistake that could be a negative on your track record, than it is to play in one and make that one mistake. I don’t necessarily think that teams are entirely shying away from Gardiner because he fumbled a few plays in Game 7s … but I also wouldn’t put it past teams to do that, either.

The production

The point with this is that the larger sampling should take greater priority over the one mistake in the one game you paid closest attention to.

When it comes to the larger sampling, Gardiner should be an attractive option because he has been a very good player.

He moves the puck well, he has consistently scored well in terms of possession and scoring chances throughout his career on teams that have not always been good in those areas, and he can provide some offense.

For his career he’s played 551 games, recorded 245 points, and has a career 51 percent Corsi percentage.

Among active defenders, he is one of only 12 defenders that hit all of those marks through their age 28 season, a list that also includes the likes of Victor Hedman, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk, and Dougie Hamilton. All of them were (and are) on significant long-term contracts by age 29. Most players that make it this far into free agency do not typically get long-term deals, so it’s possible that Gardiner has to settle for something less than expected at the start of the free agent signing period.

The Maple Leafs theory

Let’s just throw one more possible theory out there, just for laughs.

The theory: the Maple Leafs want to bring him back, he wants to return, but neither side can move on that until the team gets the Mitch Marner restricted free agent situation, and by extension, the rest of their salary cap situation, completely settled.

Is it likely? Probably not. But it’s hard to figure out why an otherwise good, productive player at an important position where there are not a lot of good, productive players available is still unsigned this far in the summer.

As long as he is healthy there is no reason to think he will not be the same productive, top-four defensemen he has been throughout his entire career for whatever team that signs him this summer.

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.

ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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The NHL’s off-season is under way and with free agency beginning July 1 there will be plenty of action this summer. Check back here for all of the trades and signings that teams will be making in hopes of improving their chances at winning the 2019-20 Stanley Cup.

July 17
• Philadelphia Flyers sign Chris Stewart to a training camp PTO.

July 16
• Carolina Hurricanes sign Haydn Fleury to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Chicago Blackhawks trade Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers sign Josh Archibald to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Cal Petersen to a three-year, $2.575 million deal.

• Minnesota Wild sign Ryan Donato to a two-year, $3.8 million deal. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils sign Connor Carrick to a two-year, $3 million deal.

• Pittsburgh Penguins sign Teddy Blueger to a two-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Jake Bischoff to a three-year, $2.15 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Jakub Vrana a two-year, $6.7 million deal. (Link)

July 15
• Anaheim Ducks sign Chris Wideman to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Dylan Cozens to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $5.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Clark Bishop to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes’ Gustav Forsling accepts qualifying offer of $874,125 for the 2019-20 season.

• Colorado Avalanche sign Andre Burakovsky to a one-year, $3.25 million deal. (Link)

• Columbus Blue Jackets’ Sonny Milano accepts qualifying offer of $874,125 for the 2019-20 season.

• New York Islanders sign Simon Holmstrom to a three-year, $2.775 million entry-level deal.

July 14
• Detroit Red Wings sign Moritz Seider to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $5.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

July 13
• St. Louis Blues sign Jordan Binnington to a two-year, $8.8 million deal. (Link)

July 12
• Buffalo Sabres sign Johan Larsson to a one-year, $1.55 million deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Ryan Dzingel to a two-year, $6.75 million deal. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils sign Jack Hughes to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $11.325 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• Philadelphia Flyers sign Scott Laughton to a two-year, $4.6 million deal. (Link)

• St. Louis Blues sign Robby Fabbri to a one-year, $900,000 deal. (Link)

July 11
• Anaheim Ducks sign Michael Del Zotto to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• Dallas Stars sign Jason Dickinson to a two-year, $3 million deal. (Link)

• Montreal Canadiens sign Joel Armia to a two-year, $5.2 million deal. (Link)

• Montreal Canadiens sign Artturi Lehkonen to a two-year, $4.8 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers sign Kaapo Kakko to a three-year entry-level deal worth up to $10.725 million if he hits all of his bonuses.

• San Jose Sharks sign Dylan Gambrell to a two-year, $1.4 million deal. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks sign Antti Suomela to a one-year, $700,000 deal. (Link)

July 10
• Los Angeles Kings sign Alex Iafallo to a two-year, $4.85 million deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Micheal Ferland to a four-year, $14 million deal. (Link)

July 9
• Boston Bruins sign Danton Heinen to a two-year, $5.6 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Dillon Heatherington to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Malcolm Subban to a one-year, $850,000 deal. (Link)

July 8
• Chicago Blackhawks sign Kirby Dach to a three-year, $2.775 million entry-level deal.

• Colorado Avalanche signs Ryan Graves to a one-year, $735,000 deal.

• Dallas Stars sign Gavin Bayreuther to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• St. Louis Blues sign Zach Sanford to a two-year, $3 million deal, avoiding arbitration.

• San Jose Sharks sign Kevin Labanc to a one-year, $1 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Francis Perron to a one-year, $715,000 deal.

July 7
• Arizona Coyotes sign Victor Soderstrom to a three-year, $4.755 million entry-level contract.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Gemel Smith to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 6
• Boston Bruins sign Peter Cehlárik to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Marcus Johansson to two-year, $9 million deal. (Link)

July 5
• Anaheim Ducks sign Andreas Martinsen to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres re-sign Zemgus Girgensons to one-year, $1.6 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche re-sign Nikita Zadorov to one-year, $3.2 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Scott Harrington to a three-year, $4.9 million deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Mario Kempe to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Nick Cousins to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning re-sign Cedric Paquette to two-year, $3.3 million deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Josh Leivo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

July 4
• Arizona Coyotes sign Hudson Fasching to a two-year, $1.475 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Kevin Roy to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Ben Chiarot to a three-year, $10.5 million deal. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Cody Ceci to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Alexander Kerfoot to a four-year, $14 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Justin Bailey to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 3
• Montreal Canadiens sign Phil Varone to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Pittsburgh Penguins re-sign Joseph Blandisi to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 2
• Anaheim Ducks sign Anthony Stolarz to a two-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Arizona Coyotes sign Lawson Crouse to a three-year, $4.6 million deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Carolina Hurricanes announce their intention to match the five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet Sebastian Aho signed with the Montreal Canadiens. (Link)

• Ottawa Senators sign Nick Paul to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

• San Jose Sharks sign Dalton Prout to a one-year, $800,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Tyler Motte to one-year, $975,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Anthony Bitetto to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Mark Letestu to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

July 1
• Boston Bruins sign Brett Ritchie to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Boston Bruins re-sign Connor Clifton to a three-year, $3 million extension.

• Buffalo Sabres sign Curtis Lazar to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Buffalo Sabres sign John Gilmour to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Calgary Flames sign Cam Talbot to a one-year, $2.75 million. (Link)

• Carolina Hurricanes sign Petr Mrazek to a two-year, $6.25 million deal. (Link)

• Chicago Blackhawks sign Ryan Carpenter to a three-year, $3 million deal.

• Chicago Blackhawks sign Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5 million deal. (Link)

• Colorado Avalanche sign Joonas Donskoi to a four-year, $10.5 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche trade Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot and a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Nazem Kadri, Calle Rosen, a 2020 third-round pick. The Avalanche will retain 50% of Barrie’s $5.5 million cap hit. (Link)

• Colorado Avalanche sign Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to two-year, $3.8 million deal.

• Colorado Avalanche sign Colin Wilson to one-year, $2.6 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Ryan Murray to two-year, $9.2 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets re-sign Joonas Korpisalo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

• Columbus Blue Jackets sign Gustav Nyquist to four-year, $22 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Andrej Sekera to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Joe Pavelski to a three-year, $21 million deal (Link)

• Dallas Stars sign Corey Perry to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. (Link)

• Detroit Red Wings sign Valtteri Filppula to two-year, $6 million deal.

• Detroit Red Wings sign Patrik Nemeth to a two-year, $6 million deal.

• Detroit Red Wings sign Calvin Pickard to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Mike Smith to a one-year, $2 million deal. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers sign Jujhar Khaira to two-year, $2.4 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Markus Granlund to a one-year, $1.3 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Alex Chiasson to two-year, $4.3 million deal.

• Edmonton Oilers sign Tomas Jurco to a one-year, $750,00 deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Anton Stralman to a three-year, $16.5 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Sergei Bobrovsky to seven-year, $70 million deal. (Link)

• Florida Panthers sign Noel Acciari to a three-year, $5 million deal.

• Florida Panthers sign Brett Connolly to a four-year, $14 million deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Joakim Ryan to a one-year, $725,000 deal.

• Los Angeles Kings sign Martin Frk to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Minnesota Wild sign Mats Zuccarello to five-year, $30 million contract. (Link)

• Minnesota Wild sign Ryan Hartman to a two-year, $3.8 million deal.

• Montreal Canadiens sign Riley Barber to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Montreal Canadiens have tendered a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. The Carolina Hurricanes have seven days to match or walk away. Should the Hurricanes walk away, the Canadiens will send them first-, second-, and third-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft. (Link)

• Nashville Predators sign Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal. (Link)

• Nashville Predators sign Daniel Carr to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• New Jersey Devils sign Wayne Simmonds to one-year, $5 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers sign Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million deal. (Link)

• New York Rangers trade Jimmy Vesey to the Buffalo Sabres for a 2021 third-round pick. (Link)

• New York Islanders sign Anders Lee to a seven-year, $49 million deal. (Link)

• New York Islanders sign Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million deal. (Link)

• Ottawa Senators sign Ron Hainsey to one-year $3.5 million.

• Pittsburgh Penguins sign Brandon Tanev to six-year, $21 million contract. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks re-sign Timo Meier to a four-year, $24 million extension. (Link)

• San Jose Sharks re-sign Tim Heed to one-year contract.

• St. Louis Blues re-sign Sammy Blais to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• St. Louis Blues sign Nathan Walker to two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Curtis McElhinney to a two-year, $2.6 million deal.

• Tampa Bay Lightning sign Luke Schenn to a one-year, $700,00 deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Kevin Gravel to one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Kenny Agostino to a two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Toronto Maple Leafs trade Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, prospect Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick in 2020 for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur and forward Michael Carcone. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs sign Jason Spezza to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks sign Tyler Myers to a five-year, $30 million deal. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks sign Jordie Benn to a two-year, $4 million deal. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Brandon Pirri to two-year, $1.4 million deal.

• Vegas Golden Knights sign Tomas Nosek to one-year, $1 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Richard Panik to four-year, $11 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Garnet Hathaway to a four-year, $6 million deal.

• Washington Capitals sign Brendan Leipsic to a one-year, $700,000 deal.

• Winnipeg Jets sign Nathan Beaulieu to a one-year, $1 million deal.

June 30
• Carolina Hurricanes trade Scott Darling and a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Florida Panthers for James Reimer. The Panthers have put Darling on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out. (Link)

• Chicago Blackhawks trade a second and seventh-round pick in 2020 and a third-round pick in 2021 to the Montreal Canadiens for Andrew Shaw and a seventh-round pick. (Link)

• Edmonton Oilers have put Andrej Sekera on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out.

• Montreal Canadiens trade Nicolas Deslauriers in a trade to the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round draft pick in 2020.

• Philadelphia Flyers have put David Schlemko on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out.

June 29
• Dallas Stars place Valeri Nichushkin on waivers for purpose of a buyout. (Link)

• Pittsburgh Penguins trade Phil Kessel, a 2021 fourth-round pick, and Dane Birks to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Oliver Joseph. (Link)

• New York Islanders re-sign Tom Kuhnhackl to a one-year, $850,000 deal.

• Vancouver Canucks place Ryan Spooner on waivers for purpose of a buyout.

June 28
• Carolina Hurricanes re-sign Alex Nedeljkovic to a two-year, $1.475 million extension.

• Chicago Blackhawks re-sign Dylan Sikura and John Quenneville to extensions of two years worth $1.5 million each.

• Toronto Maple Leafs re-sign Kasperi Kapanen to a three-year, $9.6 million extension and Andreas Johnsson to a $13.6 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights trade Colin Miller to the Buffalo Sabres for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 fifth-round pick. (Link)

• Washington Capitals trade Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2020 second-round pick, 2020 third-round pick, and Scott Kosmachuk. (Link)

June 27
• Dallas Stars re-sign Taylor Fedun to a two-year, $1.475 million extension.

• St. Louis Blues re-sign Carl Gunnarsson to a two-year, $3.5 million extension.

• Toronto Maple Leafs re-sign Michael Hutchinson to a one-year, $700,000 extension.

June 26
• Philadelphia Flyers re-sign Brian Elliott to a one-year, $2 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights trade Erik Haula to the Carolina Hurricanes for Nicolas Roy and a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick. (Link)

June 25
• Colorado Avalanche trade Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes for Kevin Connauton and a 2020 third-round pick. (Link)

• Columbus Blue Jackets re-sign Adam Clendening to a two-year, $1.4 million extension.

• Ottawa Senators re-sign Cody Goloubef to a one-year, $800,000 extension.

June 24
• Boston Bruins re-sign Steven Kampfer to a two-year, $1.6 million extension.

• Carolina Hurricanes trade Calvin de Haan and Aleksi Saarela to the Chicago Blackhawks for Anton Forsberg and Gustav Forsling. (Link)

• Dallas Stars trade Tyler Pitlick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Ryan Hartman. (Link)

• Minnesota Wild re-sign Brad Hunt to a two-year, $1.4 million extension.

• Philadelphia Flyers re-sign Travis Sanheim to a two-year, $6.5 million extension. (Link)

• Vegas Golden Knights re-sign William Karlsson to an eight-year, $47.2 million extension. (Link)

June 22
• Nashville Predators trade P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, and second-round picks in 2019 and 2020. (Link)

• New Jersey Devils trade John Quenneville to the Chicago Blackhawks for John Hayden.

• Tampa Bay Lightning trade J.T. Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for Marek Mazanec, a 2019 third-round pick, and a conditional first-round pick in 2020 or 2021. (Link)

• Toronto Maple Leafs trade Patrick Marleau and a conditional first-round pick in 2020 or 2021, seventh-round pick in 2020 to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 2020 sixth-round pick. (Link)

• Vancouver Canucks trade Tom Pyatt and a 2019 sixth-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for Francis Perron and a 2019 seventh-round pick.

PHT Morning Skate: Gardiner makes any team better; Hayes takes Flyers to another level

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Here’s a list of the five strangest signings yet in free agency. (The Hockey News)

• Don Cherry isn’t finished yet. (CBC.ca)

Jake Gardiner will make any team’s backend better. (TSN.ca)

• The growing number of high-end, American draft picks is no fluke. (Seattle Times)

• All of those moves by the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken the team a step back. (Yahoo Sports)

• How Joe Pavelski became the face of San Jose. (Fear the Fin)

• The future is bright in the Big Apple. (BlueSeat Blogs)

Kevin Hayes can take the Philadelphia Flyers to another level. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Do the Edmonton Oilers still have a shot of bringing in a UFA? (Oilers Nation)

• Vegas and mystery team talking to ECHL club about affiliation. (The Journal Gazette)

• Arizona hoping Phil the Thrill will do what Phil the Thrill does: score. (NHL.com)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have improved, but is it enough? (Featurd)

• How could Pavelski, Perry and Gurianov change Dallas’ look up front? (Sportsday Dallas)

• Flames GM Treliving calculating equations with impending contracts for Tkachuk, Rittich, Bennett. (Calgary Sun)

Mitch Marner, from a pure hockey perspective. (FanSided)

• Color of Hockey: Miley launches coaching career with Junior Hurricanes. (NHL.com)

• Welcome to the Golden Age of American hockey talent. (ESPN)

• Five Ducks who will make a comeback in 2019-20. (FanSided)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

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.

Maple Leafs ink Kerfoot, Ceci to extensions

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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has done a great job of creating cap space for his team, and it’s allowed him to re-sign a pair of trade acquisitions in Alex Kerfoot and Cody Ceci.

Per TSN’s Darren Dreger, Kerfoot has inked a four-year, $14 million extension ($3.5 million AAV) with the club and Ceci has signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Before these two deals were handed out, the Leafs had just over $11 million in cap space. Once these two contracts are made official, they’ll be down to roughly $3.765 million in cap space.

Kerfoot is expected to serve as the third line center for the Leafs heading into this year. Last year, that spot was occupied by Nazem Kadri, who made $4.5 million per year, so there’s a $1 million savings there. As for Ceci, he’ll serve as a replacement for Nikita Zaitsev, who was also making $4.5 million but on a long-term contract. So even though there’s no cap relief this year, there could be some coming in the near future.

The Leafs, of course, still have one more player they need to re-sign and he’s going to be expensive too. So what kind of money to they have left over for Mitch Marner?

We mentioned the $3.765 million in cap space they currently have, but that number will increase once they put Nathan Horton‘s $5.3 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve. That puts them back close $9 million in available cap space.

Including Kerfoot and Marner, Toronto has 14 forwards under contract. They’ll likely be sending at least one of those extra bodies down to the minors, which means another $700,000 could be coming off the books. They also have eight defenseman on the roster, so they can opt to carry seven guys if they wanted to.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So let’s recap the cap situation:

The Leafs currently have $3.765 million available to spend. They’ll put Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million hit on LTIR ($9.065 million in available space after that move is made). They can also send two players making roughly $700,000 each to the AHL without them counting on the cap. That would give them $10.465 million in available funds to spend on Marner. Will that be enough? No one can say for sure, but it’s in the ball park.

The team will look different when it hits the ice next year, but we always knew that was going to be the case because of the salaries they already had on the books. Dubas has done a good job of improving the roster as a whole while leaving himself some money to play with to make sure he could bring back key parts, too.

Now they just have to iron a contract out with Marner.

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.