Tuesday, June 27, 2017

This year, July 1 is all about extensions

It’s been called the day of the year when NHL GMs make their biggest mistakes. And now, July 1 is almost here. While most Canadians will be busy painting their faces and setting off fireworks, the hockey world will be keeping an eye on the wire for the latest signings.

Most years, that means watching the unrestricted free agents. But this year’s class isn’t an especially strong one. There’s Kevin Shattenkirk, and we’re all breathlessly waiting to see which teams he pretends to be interested in before signing with the Rangers. There are respected veterans, like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jarome Iginla. Alexander Radulov might get there, and Ryan Miller will be available. But as far as dramatic storylines, this year’s UFA class won’t have all that much to offer.

So instead, let’s turn our attention to the other July 1 class: players who are already under contract, but will become eligible to sign an extension. The CBA dictates that players on multi-year contracts can sign extensions one year before their current deal expires. And that means we’ll have plenty of big-name players who can re-up with their current teams as early as Saturday.

No doubt, plenty of negotiations have already taken place behind the scenes. Some players will sign almost immediately. Some might take a few days or weeks to get a deal done, like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2016. And others could head into the season without a new deal, Steven Stamkos or Anze Kopitar-style, which will no doubt cause some frayed nerves for their team’s fan base.

So today, let’s look at some of the bigger names who are eligible to steal the headlines from this year’s UFAs on July 1.

Carey Price

Price is one of two true superstars still in their prime who’ll be eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2018. With a recent Vezina and Hart Trophy on his resumé, he’s widely considered the best goaltender on the planet. Now he’ll have a chance to be paid like one.

But is it possible that it won’t happen in Montreal? The Canadiens have been an unpredictable team in recent years, both on and off the ice. They made headlines by trading Price’s friend P.K. Subban last year, and we can’t say for sure exactly how that sat with the goaltender. Price has also had to endure an injury, playoff disappointment and a coaching change, and his team still can’t score any goals for him. Could he secretly have his eye on the door?

Well… not really, no. As juicy a story as that would be, there’s been little indication of any true animosity between the Canadiens and their franchise player, and he’s explicitly said that he plans to stay. We won’t know for sure until the ink is dry on a new deal, but all indications are that it will happen, and probably quickly.

But the story won’t end there. While Price will almost certainly re-sign in Montreal, the question of how much it costs could loom large. Barring some sort of hometown discount, Price could become the highest-paid goaltender in the league. The top cap hit at the position right now belongs to Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million. That contract seems like a bit of an outlier — it’s over $1 million more expensive than the second-highest-paid goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky — but it should be in the ballpark for Price. If he wants even more, Marc Bergevin probably won’t have much choice.

Whatever Price winds up getting, Habs fans will be fine with it as long as he can maintain his recent level of play. But how much room does that leave Bergevin to sign guys like Radulov or Andrei Markov, or to get a new deal done for Alex Galchenyuk (if he’s still on the team)? And can Bergevin get a Price deal nailed down quickly enough to know what he’s working with when bidding on this year’s UFA market?

As always in Montreal, we’ll get some off-season drama. It may not end in another star player leaving town, but we’ll see how long the story drags on.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, June 26, 2017

The 12 teams facing the most offseason pressure

We’re well into the off-season, with expansion a memory and the entry draft weekend now over. But for NHL teams, the work has barely started. We’ve still got free agency on the horizon — not to mention buyouts, qualifying offers and arbitration. And of course, the week after the draft has been known to produce a trade or two. It’s going to be a busy summer.

Some teams already have a big chunk of their off-season work done. The Stars finally dealt for a goaltender in Ben Bishop. The Flames did too, landing Mike Smith, and added Travis Hamonic over the weekend. The Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Flyers and Rangers have all been swinging deals, and the Blackhawks’ annual salary-cap escape is well under way. The Lightning have cleared some space and resolved the long-running Jonathan Drouin drama, and the Oilers finally pulled the trigger on Jordan Eberle. Even the Penguins addressed a perceived need, although they raised a few eyebrows in doing so.

Other teams still have work to do. That’s a group that includes teams like the Blues, Jets and Bruins. The Sharks are still facing the possibility of two veteran franchise players, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, leaving as free agents. The Wild and Ducks both need to figure out what to do with their blue lines.

Meanwhile, rebuilding teams like the Canucks and Devils are trying to stay patient, and nobody’s quite sure what lane the Red Wings think they’re in.

But while all those teams are under varying degrees of pressure to have a successful off-season, certain teams stand out as facing an especially bright spotlight. So today, let’s count down a dozen teams who have the most at stake over the next few days and weeks, just how much they have left to do, and their odds of living up to those expectations.

12. Ottawa Senators

Already done: Nothing significant, apart from losing a top-pairing defenceman in the expansion draft. Which is probably not an optimal way to start an off-season.

The job ahead: After coming within a goal of playing for the Stanley Cup, the Senators head into the off-season trying to figure out how to repeat that success, if not exceed it. Losing Marc Methot was a blow, although one softened somewhat by the imminent arrival of top prospect Thomas Chabot. But in recent days, the possibility of a Dion Phaneuf trade has taken centre stage. Maybe that’s lingering bad feelings over his expansion draft culpability, or maybe it’s just a low-budget team being smart about its spending.

Then again, maybe it’s neither, and nothing comes of the rumours. Either way, if the Senators really think they’re contenders, Pierre Dorion has some work to do on the blue line.

Hot-seat factor: Virtually non-existent. One year into the job, Dorion has a trip to the final four and a spot as a GM of the Year finalist. He’s about as safe as they come.

Bottom line: One the one hand, last year’s playoff run bought everyone some good will in a town where patience was wearing thin. On the other, it also raised expectations, and with one more season before Erik Karlsson needs an extension, there’s pressure to take advantage of an open window. Dorion may be willing to hand himself top grades just for trying; we’ll see if Senators fans are feeling quite as generous.

11. Los Angeles Kings

Already done: They stunned much of the hockey world by firing both Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi, replacing them with a leadership group of coach John Stevens, GM Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille.

The job ahead: It’s a big one. The Kings don’t feel like a team headed for a full-scale rebuild, but this group clearly needs some changes. That’s a tricky path to weave, especially for Blake and Robitaille, two guys stepping into their respective roles for the first time. There’d been some hope that the expansion draft could somehow bail them out of an albatross contract like Dustin Brown or Marian Gaborik, but that was probably a pipe dream. Instead, the focus will be on juicing the teams’ sagging offence. In a league where goals are tough to come by, that’s a tall order.

Hot-seat factor: Blake and Robitaille just got here, so they’ll get some time to chart their course.

Bottom line: The Kings have won just one playoff game in three years, which makes them a team headed in the wrong direction. A tweak here or there isn’t going to cut it, so Blake has his work cut out for him.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 23, 2017

Podcast: The Biscuits season finale

In the season finale of the Biscuits podcast, Dave and I cover:
- The Golden Knights' vaguely disappointing expansion draft
- Marian Hossa's contract situation
- The NHL awards show
- The little Drake controversy
- The time I wrote jokes for the NHL Awards monologue
- Shane Doan as the party guest who won't take the hint
- Reader questions, and lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: The curious case of Little Drake

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Wait, holy crap, was that a 10-year-old Drake in last week's YouTube section?
- The Blackhawks are going to get out of Marian Hossa's contract, and that's fine
- An obscure player to make Oiler fans sad
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube clip that is -- and I do not say this lightly -- the weirdest moment in NHL Awards show history

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Winners and losers from the NHL expansion draft

The Golden Knights finally exist in a form beyond a name, a logo and a handful of free agents.

After last night’s expansion draft unveiling, the Knights finally have a full roster. And while it may not look all that much like the one they open the season with, it’s a start.

Let’s take a look at what the Knights gained and what everyone else around the league gave up, voluntarily or otherwise, as the first expansion draft of the cap era played out.

Here are the winners and losers from the last few days – and weeks, and months – of expansion maneuverings.

Winner: George McPhee’s creativity

The league made sure that the Knights would have some decent players to choose from, shifting the rules from previous drafts to make sure Vegas wouldn’t be left with a roster made up entirely of castoffs and has-beens. (Hey, $500 million has to buy you something.) So we knew that McPhee and his team would be able to find some talent.

But McPhee didn’t just grab the best available names and call it a day. Instead, he spent the weeks leading up to yesterday’s selections setting the table to cut deals with any team that wanted one. And when the time came, he was aggressive in getting those deals done. Heck, by the time this week rolled around, he was sounding like a mafia kingpin collecting protection money.

Not all of those deals will end up looking like winners, but they should add up to a solid foundation. That’s what yesterday was about, and McPhee and his front office worked hard to squeeze every drop of value they could out of the situation. They even showed a willingness to get creative, which is a trait sorely lacking in many of today’s GMs. That’s a good sign for the Knights’ chances of mattering once the new-car small has worn off in a few years.

Loser: George McPhee’s roster

The team is certainly better than some of the disasters that have emerged from expansion drafts in the past. But it’s not good.

With the obvious caveat that there are going to be some pending trades we don’t know about yet, some of the picks were head-scratchers. Passing on Detroit’s Petr Mrazek to take an AHLer who’ll be 25 on opening night, Tomas Nosek, seemed odd. Grabbing Deryk Engelland from Calgary was unexpected, although maybe the local connection plays a role there. Alexei Emelin, among others, felt like a reach.

Add it all up, and those “the Knights could make the playoffs in Year 1” takes already aren’t aging well.

And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. McPhee probably could have built himself a decent team, or at least one that would have been good enough to hang around the edge of the playoff race. But that would have been short-term thinking. Instead, McPhee focused on the future, landing a pile of draft picks including two extra firsts for this weekend. Those are assets that will be far more important to the Knights’ long-term success than a few extra wins in 2017-18. If they stick to the plan, the Knights won’t be one of those expansion nightmares that misses the playoffs for the better part of a decade. They’ll get there sooner than later. But in the meantime… well, at least the uniforms are nice.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet