Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs

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With the NHL salary cap flat for the near future, a lot of pending free agents are kicking themselves. (Sorry, Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo.)

But the “free agent frenzy” can still inspire teams to open their wallets. Heck, the Wild just handed $42M to defensive defenseman Jonas Brodin.

You know what gets the wallets cracking even more? Thoughts of adding that clutch piece. That logic can really fly out the window when a player drives his team’s playoff success, especially when that ends with a raising of the Stanley Cup. Let’s look at top free agents from the remaining teams in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: which Dallas Stars, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning free agents might be bumping up their value?

Of course, Anton Khudobin is as prominent as a sliding Semyon Varlamov here. Let’s start with the team we already know is headed to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Key Stars free agents heading into Stanley Cup Final

Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs Lehner
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Anton Khudobin

Even Khudobin’s boosters would’ve been surprised to see him share headline space with Mathew Barzal, but here we are.

As covered recently, Khudobin’s built an impressive resume as something of a super backup. It’s difficult to place what kind of contract would be appropriate, and even what contract Khudobin should set his sights on.

While it’s not ideal that he’s 34, he at least wouldn’t count as a dreaded 35-plus contract. His save percentage with the Stars is impeccable (.926 in 71 games played over two regular seasons), and his career save percentage is better than most hand-picked NHL starters (.919).

You may have heard this during various broadcasts as Khudobin’s workload piled up, but he also hasn’t really carried a big burden very often in his career. Khudobin set a career-high with 41 games played with Dallas in 2018-19, and he boasts four other seasons of 30-plus appearances (including a stout showing this season).

So, the ideal fit is probably still a platoon situation. Could that boil down to staying with the Stars? Ben Bishop is on the hook for about $5M in cap space per season through 2022-23, so that would entail a lot of money wrapped up in goalies. (Khudobin falling anywhere near his current $2.5M cap hit would be a fireable offense for his agent.)

With quite a few names likely to hit the free agent market, it’s that much tougher to forecast what’s ahead for Khudobin. Except you’d almost be certain it’s a raise.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Young restricted free agents such as Hintz, Faksa

After Roope Hintz made a splash during the 2019 postseason, many pictured a breakthrough for the occasionally bulldozing forward. But like with Denis Gurianov and other young forwards, the Stars have been reluctant to take the training wheels off of Hintz, including dropping the 23-year-old’s postseason ice time considerably from last year (16:06) to this run (14:02).

If you’re a Stars fan who’s been frustrated by this, that’s understandable, especially since Hintz managed 19 goals this season despite tepid use. But at least that might keep his earning power down?

  • At the other end of the spectrum, Radek Faksa is a low-scoring, high-leverage forward, and has been for some time for the Stars. The 26-year-old is arbitration-eligible, so that could be interesting to watch.
  • Speaking of Gurianov, he’s an RFA, as well. Gurianov followed a 20-goal (albeit with just nine assists) regular season with what’s been a productive postseason. As hot-and-cold as his production has been, Gurianov sits at 17 points (8G, 9A) in 21 playoff games.

Grizzled veterans

  • Corey Perry suffered through a lousy regular season, and his playoff numbers don’t jump off the page. Yet, even so, it wouldn’t be surprising if Perry, 35, gets snatched up by a team looking for a scrappy veteran who can draw penalties.
  • Speaking of scrappy veterans, Andrej Sekera may be over his significant, career-threatening injury issues. We’ll see if he’s done enough to get another look as a depth piece in the NHL.

Closing Stars salary cap thoughts

All things considered, the Stars are in a fascinating spot to possibly exploit a chaotic market, much like their pals in Colorado. Having an estimated $15.5M in cap space might encourage them to overextend to keep Khudobin, which is understandable since this team is very goalie-reliant. (Also: Bishop gets hurt about as often as he plays extremely well, which is a real bummer.)

But if the Stars decided to try some bold moves? That would be awfully interesting.

Islanders face challenges in fitting in restricted free agents Barzal, Pulock

Setting a high Barzal

If you look at Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool, a $9.581M cap hit would be appropriate for eight years of Mathew Barzal’s services. While it wouldn’t be surprising if that projection tool received a(nother?) post-pandemic revision, it wouldn’t be outrageous to actually give Barzal that kind of money. He’s a special player, and would make gobs of dough on an actual free market.

But Barzal is a restricted free agent at 23, and Lou Lamoriello is likely to be about as yielding as a brick wall here. One can only speculate about the threat of an offer sheet, especially in this financial climate.

As of this writing, the Islanders hold about $9M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly. There’s certainly room for wiggling (ever visited “Robidas Island,” Andrew Ladd?), but this won’t be easy. And it might make Lamoriello’s GM of the Year work feel like Belt Tightening for a Decade.

That’s because the Islanders have more than just a superstar to wrap up …

Khudobin, Barzal, other NHL free agents thriving during Stanley Cup Playoffs Cirelli
Barzal and Cirelli, two centers ready for raises. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Not just Barzal, either

The Islanders have a fascinating salary structure.

Forwards: Tons of term, varying degrees of quality.
Defensemen: Very little term, with Scott Mayfield being the “lifer” with three years remaining at $1.45M per.
Goalies: Semyon Varlamov for three more years, Ilya Sorokin as his understudy.

So, there are some key decisions looming.

  • Two very valuable RFA defensemen need new deals: Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. Pulock is the Islanders’ leader in average ice time (22:31) this postseason, while Toews has been a key contributor during this push (20:27). Locking those down, whether via “bridge” deals or contracts with term, will be tricky.
  • The Islanders paid a pretty penny to “rent” Andy Greene, and at 37 amid cap challenges, that’s probably it. Right?
  • You’d also think that they can’t make Matt Martin or Derick Brassard fit, but Lou and Barry Trotz both love Martin-type players, so who knows?
  • Thomas Greiss is virtually certain to be gone, and being that he’s provided Khudobin-like value for much of his career, could end up being dearly missed. (If I were a GM, I’d cross my fingers that Greiss slips under the radar and becomes an affordable platoon option.)

More dark salary cap arts from “Loophole Lou?”

Being that Lamoriello has had almost creepy tendency to “make things work,” I’m sure he has a plan. Frankly, I’m elated to find out what that is, because this is going to require some Houdini-like maneuvering.

Free agent losses likely for Lightning as they continue playoff push

Cirelli and Sergachev: biggest Lightning concerns

  • Most importantly, they need to find a way to fit Anthony Cirelli under the cap. The good news for the Lightning is that a) they keep getting bargains, over and over, and over and … b) Cirelli isn’t scoring like the star he could end up being.

The Lightning want to save every penny they can, but Evolving Hockey’s projection ($5.8M at a six-year term) would run parallel to Cirelli’s ascent to becoming recognized like Selke winner Sean Couturier (whose similar contract is a boon to the Flyers).

This is probably a good time to mention that you can file many Lightning problems under “problems almost every other NHL teams would like to have.”

  • It sure feels like Mikhail Sergachev could enjoy a breakthrough one of these seasons. That said, Tampa Bay’s bringing him along relatively slowly, which might help them suppress his value.

Even so, it wouldn’t be obscene if Cirelli and Sergachev commanded the Lightning’s cap space each. So yeah.

Cernak and others

  • There are other interesting players, chiefly another RFA in Erik Cernak. Don’t expect him to fall into a lofty range, but he’s a valuable young defenseman.
  • Beyond the bigger names, there are youngsters (Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe) and veterans (Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon) who only add to the complications. OK, some do. It’s hard to imagine Shattenkirk not costing significantly more than $1.75M.

Closing Lightning salary cap thoughts

Cap Friendly places the Lightning’s cap space at $5.33 million. Uncomfortably, that’s based on $76.16M going to just 15 roster spots.

Clearly, the Lightning are going to need to shift some units here. Considering the circumstances, they might need to go beyond the obvious, such as moving Tyler Johnson‘s $5M.

Much like “Loophole Lou,” the Lightning keep finding ways to make this work. Even when it hurts, like seeing J.T. Miller thrive in Vancouver. (Though that first-rounder will soothe some wounds … or maybe help them buy their way out of some problems?)

Either way, players like Barzal, Khudobin, and Cirelli face more chances to up their value even more as the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs go on. One of them will even get to mention that they’re Stanley Cup champions, pandemic-permitting.

MORE STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final schedule

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.

Blackhawks’ Dominik Kubalik keeping quiet about free agency

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CHICAGO — Heading into his rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dominik Kubalik just focused on making the team.

Now his contract situation is one of the biggest questions for the Blackhawks.

Kubalik is eligible for restricted free agency after he led NHL rookies with 30 goals this season. He also had 16 assists in 68 games, making a smooth transition to Chicago after playing in Switzerland the previous season.

Negotiations between Kubalik’s representation and the Blackhawks could be tricky. The 6-foot-2 winger turned 25 last week, and his breakout performance in his only year in the league makes for an unusual case.

Plus, goaltender Corey Crawford, forwards Dylan Strome and Drake Caggiula, and defenseman Slater Koekkoek also are eligible for free agency, and the Blackhawks have salary-cap issues they have to work out.

Kubalik, a finalist for the Calder Trophy awarded to the NHL’s top rookie, said Thursday he hadn’t thought about free agency just yet.

“The season just ended, so I’m really happy to be home,” he said in a video conference call from his native Czech Republic. “It’s going to be probably a conversation with my agent in the next couple days and weeks.

“After this year, hopefully, I’m confident that I’m on a good way and I would love to stay in Chicago. So that’s probably all I can say about it right now.”

Chicago acquired Kubalik in a January 2019 trade with Los Angeles for a fifth-round pick. He was drafted by the Kings in the seventh round in 2013, but he never played for the team.

He made the Blackhawks out of training camp, making his NHL debut in Prague, and scored his first goal in his second game. But he really started to hit his stride toward the end of 2019, collecting 13 goals and six assists in a 15-game stretch from Dec. 19 to Jan. 19.

“When you start feeling more and more comfortable then you’re starting reaching your goals and then you still want more and more,” he said. “So I think that’s normal and obviously that’s what I want right now for next year. Obviously I want to get better. I need to get better, that’s for sure.”

Kubalik and the rest of Chicago’s young players got a closer look at what they need to do to improve when the Blackhawks made a surprising playoff appearance after the NHL season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kubalik had three goals and three assists as Chicago eliminated Edmonton in the qualifying round in four games. But he was held in check in the first round of the playoffs, finishing with just two points in a five-game loss against top-seeded Vegas.

“The hockey level was obviously higher than the regular season, and that’s great,” Kubalik said. “That’s where you can get more and more experiences and you can learn way quicker. So I’m really happy that we got a chance, an opportunity to be there.”

Bruins, Lightning players discuss deciding to play Game 3

The NHL held a “moment of reflection,” but then the Bruins and Lightning engaged in a Game 3 that Tampa Bay won 7-1. Game 3 of Islanders – Flyers was already underway when news picked up about games being canceled in other sports, while there was no “moment of reflection” before Game 3 of the Stars – Avalanche.

Again, Islanders forward Anders Lee mentioned that he just heard of games being cancelled or postponed right after the Flyers’ win. But what about members of the Bruins and Lightning, as there was more time to decide against playing their Game 3?

Meanwhile, there was no moment of reflection before Avalanche – Stars Game 3. Nazem Kadri and others gave similar answers to what you’ll see below, aside from this great point:

Bergeron, Chara, Shattenkirk among those explaining Bruins, Lightning playing Game 3

For what it’s worth, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he would have supported players if they didn’t want to play.

Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara said a lot of the right things during their postgame press conference. Chara indicated that there wasn’t enough time to make the call not to play in Game 3:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Going to the other end of the ice, Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk echoed such thoughts. Interestingly, Shattenkirk also indicated something Anders Lee and others did: that it’s something “we’ll address going forward.”

Could future NHL playoff games get postponed? If so, it would solidify Matt Dumba commenting that the NHL can be “late to the party” on many of these matters.

Ultimately, all three Wednesday playoff games happened as scheduled, though. Such decisions prompted plenty of criticism, which you can read about in posts like these. With some time to reflect on the NHL’s reaction to how other sports are protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Evander Kane called it “straight up insulting.”

If you want an idea of the response — again, it didn’t happen before Avs vs. Stars — watch the “moment of reflection” in the video above this post’s headline.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round schedule

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.

NHL holds ‘moment of reflection’ before Game 3 of Bruins – Lightning

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While various games in the NBA, MLB, WNBA, and MLS have been postponed, canceled, or forfeited, Game 3 of Bruins – Lightning went on as scheduled on Wednesday. The NHL held a “moment of reflection” before the performing of the national anthems.

“End Racism” and “We Skate for Black Lives” were displayed on screens during the statement in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. You can watch that “moment of reflection” in the video above. Here’s the text of the NHL statement, which PA announcer Mike Ross read:

“Racism has been embedded in our society for far too long. Today and every day, the NHL and the hockey community are committed in the mission to combat racial injustice and achieve a fair society for all. The NHL would like to take this moment to wish Jacob Blake and his family well and call out to our fans and communities to stand up for social justice and the effort to end racism.”

Later on Wednesday, there was no “moment of reflection” before Avalanche – Stars Game 3.

Reactions to NHL’s decision to play games, “Moment of Reflection”

Islanders forward Anders Lee indicated that he found out about NBA players deciding not to play right before he answered questions from the media following the Flyers’ 4-3 overtime win.

While the Islanders and Flyers were in a tough spot, plenty of players, media, and fans criticized the NHL and its players for not postponing Game 3 of Bruins – Lightning (and, as far as it looks, Game 3 of Avalanche – Stars). Matt Dumba, a prominent member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, told Sportsnet 650 that it was “disheartening.”

“NHL is always last to the party on these topics,” Dumba said, via ESPN. “It’s kind of sad and disheartening for me and for members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, and I’m sure for other guys across the league. But if no one stands up and does anything, then it’s the same thing. That silence. You’re just outside, looking in on actually being leaders and evoking real change when you have such an opportunity to do so.”

Before Bruins – Lightning Game 3, Sportsnet’s Kelly Hrudey ranked among those criticizing the decision to play on. While it’s fair to note that not every single other game was canceled, many prominent ones were.

Players have a role in this, too

As the league absorbs criticism for the decision, it’s important to consider the players involved. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that NHL exec Bill Daly mentioned “our players are free to express themselves in any manner they feel is appropriate.” Evander Kane, for example, called for more solidarity, something worth considering after seeing Dumba make a heartfelt speech by himself earlier in the NHL Return to Play.

NBC Sports’ Anson Carter called for more action, too:

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round schedule

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.

How 2020 NHL playoffs will work: Format, seeding, locations, more for Stanley Cup playoffs

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The NHL’s 24-team playoff begins Saturday. But there could be questions about how the 2020 NHL playoffs will work. We’re here with answers, schedules and more.

Qualifiers begin August 1. See a full schedule here and below.

For more on how they settled on everything, including the CBA and Return to Play agreement, click here.

[FULL CONFERENCE FINALS NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE]

How the 24-team playoff format works

The NHL shared the “competitive format” for the 24-team playoff setup for how the 2020 NHL playoffs will work. The “round robin” pertains to the seeding for the top four teams in each conference. The “qualifying round” has previously been referred to as a “play-in” round. Toronto will host the  Eastern Conference teams at Scotiabank Arena, while Edmonton will have the Western Conference teams at Rogers Place.

Competitive Format

In each Conference, teams seeded by points percentage.

Round Robin: The top 4 teams play for First Round seeding (regular-season overtime rules in effect)

Qualifying Round: The remaining 8 teams play best-of-5 series to advance to the First Round (playoff overtime rules in effect)

First Round and Second Round: Format (seeding vs. bracket) and series lengths will be best-of-seven.

Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final: Best-of-7 series will take place at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

* The winners from the Qualifying Round play the top 4 seeds in the First Round. Individual First Round series matchups remain to be determined.

RELATED: Final standings, draft lottery results

Stanley Cup playoffs schedule

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

Round-robin

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (recap)

First Round matchups
• Flyers vs. Canadiens
• Capitals vs. Islanders
• Bruins vs. Hurricanes
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canadiens 2, Penguins 0 (recap)

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (CAR won series 3-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders 5, Panthers 1 (recap)

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (CBJ won series 3-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets 3, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

Round-robin

Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars 2, Blues 1 (SO) (recap)

First Round matchups
• Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks
• Avalanche vs. Coyotes
• Stars vs. Flames
• Blues vs. Canucks

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2 (recap)

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (ARZ won series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Predators 4, Coyotes 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (OT) (recap)

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN won series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT) (recap)

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames 4, Jets 0 (recap)

Key Dates for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL Free Agency, Draft

So, we just covered how the 2020 NHL playoffs will work and the “where” for the NHL’s playoff return to award a 2020 Stanley Cup. Let’s cover the “when.”

Aug 10: Phase 2 of NHL Draft Lottery to determine No. 1 overall pick
Aug 11: First Round begins
Aug 25: Second Round begins
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded
Oct. 9-10: 2020 NHL Draft (must follow end of Cup Final and take place before free agency)
Mid-Oct.: free agent period opens
Nov. 17: Training camps open for 2020-21 season
Dec. 1: 2020-21 NHL season begins