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Canadiens re-sign Finnish forwards Armia, Lehkonen

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MONTREAL (AP) — The Montreal Canadiens re-signed Finnish forwards Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen to two-year contracts Thursday.

Armia’s contract has an average annual value of $2.6 million, while Lehkonen’s has an average of $2.4 million.

The 26-year-old Armia set career highs for goals (13), power-play goals (two), and power-play points (six) in his first year with the Canadiens this past season. He also added 10 assists. Armia has 39 goals and 42 assists in 237 career NHL games for the Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets, and Canadiens.

The 24-year-old Lehkonen appeared in all 82 games for the Canadiens last season, setting career highs in assists (20), points (31), game-winning goals (four), shots (176), and differential (plus-10). He has 41 goals and 30 assists in 221 career games, all with Montreal.

Five non-playoff teams that could make postseason in 2020

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The New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars all had something in common in 2019. They all went from being non-playoff teams in 2018 to making it to the postseason last year. So if that scenario were to repeat itself next season, who would the new five playoff teams be?

There’s no denying that the current salary cap system has created way too much parity in the NHL over the last few years. It’s not difficult to envision five non-playoff teams sneak into the postseason at all, because a lot of these teams are so evenly matched.

So which non-playoff teams do we expect to make it to the postseason in 2020?

Florida Panthers: The Panthers made a couple of significant acquisitions in free agency this summer, as they added franchise netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Brett Connolly. Signing Bobrovksy was huge because it addressed the team’s biggest need. Roberto Luongo couldn’t stay healthy anymore and James Reimer simply wasn’t getting the job done. The Panthers also have several offensive weapons at their disposal, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Vincent Trocheck. They could make a lot of noise in 2019-20.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens put up 96 points last year and still missed out on the playoffs, but there were plenty of positives for them to build on. First, Max Domi‘s adjustment to Montreal was seamless. He fit like a glove. Secondly, Carey Price and Shea Weber were able to stay healthy down the stretch. That will be the biggest key for the Habs in 2019-20. Getting sophomore forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi to contribute more offensively could also propel them into a playoff spot.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers got off to a bad start last year for a few reasons, but none more obvious than their mediocre goaltending. Once Carter Hart came into the picture, he managed to settle things down between the pipes. Avoiding a sophomore slump will be key for him if the Flyers are going to get back into the postseason, but they clearly have a talented enough roster to get themselves in.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

New York Rangers: The Rangers have been incredibly aggressive with their roster since sending a letter out to their fans outlining their plan to rebuild. Not only did they luck into getting Kappo Kakko in the NHL Entry Draft, they also found a way to sign the most dynamic free agent on the market, Artemi Panarin. The biggest question mark on this team is on defense, as they have big money committed to Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal and Brendan Smith. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist isn’t the same player he used to be but Alexandar Georgiev has the ability to fill in whenever King Henrik needs a break.

Chicago Blackhawks: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has made tweaks to his roster this summer. He’s added Calvin de Haan, Olli Maatta and Andrew Shaw via trade and he also signed Robin Lehner in free agency. The core group of players is still around and they can still contribute at a high enough level to help the ‘Hawks get into the postseason. But the West is going to be competitive this year, so the Blackhawks will have to stay pretty consistent throughout the year.

Honorable mention: The New Jersey Devils have added P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes to their roster, so seeing them improve by a wide margin wouldn’t be surprising. There’s still big questions surrounding the team’s defense and goaltending, but they were a playoff team two years ago. They could definitely be one of the biggest surprises in 2019-20. For now, they’re the sixth-likeliest team to go from not being in the playoffs to making it again.

MORE: 5 playoff teams that could miss postseason in 2020

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.

Hurricanes make it official, match Aho offer sheet

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Sebastian Aho will not become a Montreal Canadien.

In one of hockey’s worst kept secrets over the past week, the Carolina Hurricanes officially matched an offer sheet for their superstar forward on Sunday after Canadiens threw a wrench into the mix last week when they put forth an offer sheet for Aho’s services.

The deal came in right under the third tier threshold — an annual average value of $8.45 million or some $871 under the limit — meaning that if Hurricanes would have agreed to let Aho go, they’d received a first, second and third-round pick in 2020 from the Canadiens as compensation.

The offer sheet also meant that Aho agreed to the terms of the contract, including the money. For that price — given than some had Aho in the $10 million range per season — it seems he would have been happy to play with the Habs had the Hurricanes not matched it.

On Sunday, however, they did.

“I am grateful for the offer from the Montreal Canadiens, but it was always my hope to return to the Hurricanes,” Aho told NHL.com. “As a restricted free agent, I had limited options for moving along the process to get a deal done. It was always important to me to be on the ice for the first day of training camp. This entire situation has been difficult for me and my family, and I am happy it is at an end.

“We have a young and exciting group in Carolina and I can’t wait to be there with my teammates and get to work. I love it in Raleigh and I am thrilled that we can continue what we started last season.”

With a day to spare to make the decision, it was one that was already made much earlier last week.

The Hurricanes announced they’d match it on July 1, just a day after Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens tendered the offer.

“This was an easy decision,” said Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell in a statement. “Sebastian is one of the best players in the league and the centerpiece of what we’re building here. We’ve spoken to him throughout this process and he’s made it clear that he wants to be in Raleigh and be a part of this organization.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

“It’s our job to manage our cap space as our players develop and hit free agency. There was no concern at any point that we would not be able to match this contract. Once again, the Carolina Hurricanes should not be underestimated. We have a plan and all the resources to win a Stanley Cup.”

Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said the team was both surprised and happy to have the deal done.

“We’re surprised. We love the player and we’re happy to have this done. And surprised someone would have thought this would work,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon told the News and Observer. “We were never going to let him go. He didn’t want to go. This is just part of the business of getting the deal done. I said the day I bought the team and nothing has changed, he’s one of if not the most important part of our future and we’re lucky to have him.”

With a week to digest the first offer sheet since 2013, some have wondered why the Canadiens didn’t go bigger and bolder if they wanted to actually sign the player.

To move to the next tier, they would have been able to offer Aho upward of $10.5 million while only giving up a second first-round draft pick as compensation.

Given the talents Aho possesses, it seems like a no-brainer and still falls short of the final tier where a team would have to give up four consecutive first-round picks for a deal worth over that $10.5 million amount. If nothing else, it would have put more pressure on the Hurricanes to commit.

It’s hard to envision a world where they would have just let Aho go, but if you’re going to try, why not at least go all-in?

Carolina had seven days to match the deal. Montreal is now free to throw another iron into the fire if they so choose.

Meanwhile, Aho is about to be a very, very rich man.

He’s over $21 million in the first year of the contract — all a part of two signing bonuses.

And this deal takes Aho right up to unrestricted free agency. In five year’s time, he will have the world at his feet throwing bags of money his way to obtain his services. At 21, Aho will just be entering his prime, so he takes a little less now and will likely have a larger salary cap and, by extension, a massive deal waiting for him on the other side.


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

Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

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.

Canadiens add much needed left-shot defenseman in Chiarot

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Coming into the summer, the Montreal Canadiens had three glaring holes on their roster that they had to address. They needed a scoring forward (they tried to get Sebastian Aho), another left-shot defenseman, and a backup goalie (they signed Keith Kinkaid on July 1st). On Thursday morning, general manager Marc Bergevin addressed one of those needs.

The Canadiens inked former Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot to a three-year, $10.5 million contract ($3.5 million AAV). The 28-year-old spent the first five seasons of his career with the Winnipeg Jets after being drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

He had five goals, 20 points, a plus-6 rating and 62 penalty minutes in 78 games with Winnipeg in 2018-19. He averaged 18:37 of ice time.

Chiarot gives the Canadiens some added size on the left side of their defense (he’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and he adds a physical presence which they didn’t have on that side with Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Rielly.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Last season, he spent most of his ice time playing on a pairing with Dustin Byfuglien. In 640 even-strength minutes with Byfuglien, Chiarot had a CF% of 51.59 percent, but that number dropped to 44.76 percent in 48 minutes without him (Byfuglien’s CF% spiked to 59.27 without Chiarot by his side). The FF% drops from 50.82 to 43.59 without Byfuglien, and the HDCF% goes from 50.26 percent to 35 percent. A 48-minute sample size isn’t huge, but it’s still something you need to be aware of with a depth defender.

Bergevin may not be done tweaking his defense, as he still has time to make a trade before the start of the year. Mete has spent some time playing with Shea Weber over the last two seasons, but he’s probably better suited to play in a lesser role at this stage of his career. So they may still need someone that can line up next to their captain at even-strength.

There’s still plenty of work for Bergevin to do, but time is still on his side.

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.