Monday, June 23, 2014

NHL offseason primer

Hey, remember when that one team won the Stanley Cup? Seemed like a good team; I think they wore black. I seem to recall something about a grumpy coach who took off his shirt during the parade, although that may have been a nightmare I had.

But it’s easy to forget all that these days. After all, the Stanley Cup final ended 10 days ago, and that’s quite a while in the NHL at this time of year. We’re now firmly into offseason mode, and the next few weeks are the busiest of the year for NHL front offices working toward reshaping their franchises.

By the end of next week, rosters around the league will look very different than they do right now. Some teams will have transformed themselves into contenders; others will tread water; and a special few will manage to ruin any chances they had.

Here’s a guide to what to look for between now and then.

Compliance Buyout Window

The first order of business is the buyout period, which has already started. Buyouts can fall into two categories, and while players can also be bought out the old-fashioned way, accompanied by a cap-hit penalty that lasts twice the number of years remaining on their deal, the real focus will be on compliance buyouts.

Last year’s CBA gave each team two compliance buyouts,1 and this is the last year they can be used. A player who receives this kind of buyout still gets his money, but his cap hit disappears from the books.

It’s a two-step process, with players first needing to clear waivers before a team can make the buyout official. Several players hit the wire over the first few days, including Aaron Rome, Jordin Tootoo, and David Booth; we also saw the merciful end of the Ville Leino era in Buffalo. But the biggest news broke late last week.

First up came the Rangers’ buyout of Brad Richards, whose impending doom was an uncomfortable side plot of the Rangers’ Cup playoffs run. His age (34) and contract (six years left at a $6.67 million cap hit) made the move inevitable, and having his ice time cut in the final basically sealed the deal. He’ll land on his feet somewhere, but the Rangers really had no choice.

The Kings faced a similar dilemma with Mike Richards, although he was never the sure thing his Rangers namesake seems to be. But he owns a similar contract2 and really seemed to have lost a step during the team’s playoff run. You’ll note that I said “owns,” as in present tense — the team eventually ended the speculation by announcing that it wouldn’t be buying him out.

That leaves a few more players still awaiting word on their fates, including:

Martin Havlat, San Jose Sharks: The onetime star was a healthy scratch during the playoffs and carries a cap hit of $5 million next year. On a team looking to make changes, this one’s an easy call. He’s gone.

Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning: Declining production mixed with problems off the ice and a $4.5 million cap hit mean that, like Havlat, he’s all but a sure thing.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: If he’d struggled again in the playoffs, Fleury probably would have been another easy call. Instead, he played fine, and that could be enough for the Penguins to hold on to him. Pittsburgh has a new GM, and has indicated it may not use its buyouts at all. Also working in Fleury’s favor: His deal expires after next year.

The Trade Market

To some extent, the draft has replaced trade deadline day as the most likely source of blockbuster deals (with the added bonus of then seeing those deals awkwardly announced live by Gary Bettman). This year features an unusually high number of star players who could be moved. And you know what that means: Get ready to hear endless reports about teams wanting “a player, a pick, and a prospect.”

Here are five star players who could have new homes by Saturday:

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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