Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enough is enough with the NHL's stupid "terms were not disclosed" policy

Derek Stepan’s final score was nine minutes.

That’s how long it took yesterday, from the Rangers officially announcing the star center’s new contract while pointedly declining to include the actual terms, to the moment we knew the exact dollar value involved. That just barely beats Michael Del Zotto and Alexander Semin (both of whom clocked in at an even 10), but falls well short of Brandon Saad (four) and Gustav Nyquist (the unofficial record holder, at two).

It’s become an offseason hobby for NHL fans on Twitter, one popularized by TSN analytics columnist Scott Cullen: Wait for a team to publicly announce a signing, note its refusal to actually mention the dollar value of the deal, and then see how many minutes it takes for a media insider to get the goods. So far, nobody has made it past 10.

All of which raises an obvious question: Why are NHL teams doing this? Why bother taking the time to announce news without bothering to include, you know, the actual news?

If there’s a good reason for the practice, it’s a well-kept secret. I recently asked one PR rep from an NHL team that doesn’t disclose terms about the logic behind the practice, and he admitted he wasn’t aware of any particularly good reason for the policy. A player agent offered up the theory that some teams may exclude salary info “based on a philosophical belief the information is confidential,” but quickly added that “there is no legal basis for this assumption and contract terms are readily available on the NHLPA’s public website.” As for what other benefit the teams could be hoping to achieve by leaving details out, he was also stumped.

The NHL has had a tricky history with player salaries. For years they were tightly kept secrets, as owners reasoned (correctly) that having the information made public would just drive up prices around the league. Through the ’80s and early ’90s, it was rare to hear specifics about a player’s contract. But by the late ’90s, salaries for star players were well-publicized, and fans became used to knowing exactly how much top players were signing for. That was all well and good, and it gave the fans a sense of empowerment — after all, if you’re going to scream “we pay your salary” at some underachieving third-liner, it’s nice to know what that salary is.

But the 2005 lockout changed everything. That’s when the league introduced a hard salary cap, and information about how much each player makes went from nice-to-know to downright crucial. In a pre-cap world, a bad contract could strain a team’s budget and affect how it built the rest of the roster, but it could usually be dealt with. And “bad contract” was strictly a relative term — Bobby Holik was never worth $9 million a year, but if that money was coming from the Rangers’ bottomless pit, who really cared? Once the cap was in place, every contract mattered, with small mistakes adding up into big problems and some players even ending up representing negative value.

Hockey fans understand this. The league and its teams apparently don’t, or at least wants to act that way. After becoming the only pro sports league to lose an entire season to a work stoppage, all in the name of establishing a hard cap, the NHL now wants to selectively act like that cap doesn’t exist.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Offseason Bizarro-meter rankings: The Eastern Conference

Welcome to part two of the offseason Bizarro-meter rankings, in which we look at all the decisions made by every team in the NHL and try to figure out which team has had the weirdest summer. Yesterday, we went through the Western Conference, where the Anaheim Ducks rode one of the worst contracts in recent league history to land an impressive score of 9.2 and clubhouse-leader status.

Can somebody from the East beat that score? Let’s find out …


Washington Capitals

Their offseason so far: They said goodbye to UFAs Mike Green, Joel Ward and (presumably) Eric Fehr. They used some of that cap space to sign Justin Williams away from the Kings, and also landed T.J. Oshie in a trade with the Blues. Pretty solid moves all around, really, and nothing that didn’t make sense.

But their strangest move was: Letting goaltender Braden Holtby remain unsigned. After yet another strong season, Holtby seems poised to move into the top tier of NHL goaltenders. But he still doesn’t have a new contract, and barring a last-minute settlement he’ll go to arbitration today with the two sides far apart. Those last-minute settlements almost always come, and there’s a good chance one will have already been announced by the time you read this. Actual arbitration hearings in the NHL are rare but notoriously brutal, and they can be particularly rough on goaltenders. The Caps wouldn’t really put their young superstar through that … would they?

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.3/10. That’s assuming they avoid arbitration with Holtby. Bump it up to 7.5/10 if they don’t.

New York Islanders

Their offseason so far: In terms of signings and trades, they haven’t done much. Adding backup goalie Thomas Greiss was pretty much it.

But their strangest move was: GM Garth Snow went into the draft without a first-round pick, and left with two thanks to some aggressive wheeling and dealing. That included trading former fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart to the Oilers for a mid-round first and early second, a deal that most seem to think the Islanders won handily.

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.5/10. “Garth Snow, downright solid NHL general manager” is a thing I will never get used to.

Carolina Hurricanes

Their offseason so far: Their big move was trading for Eddie Lack, who’ll come in as Cam Ward’s backup but be starting full-time by November. That allowed them to flip Anton Khudobin for James Wisniewski, upgrading a blue line that will also welcome no. 5 overall draft pick Noah Hanifin. All in all, a fairly solid summer.

But their strangest move was: Their owner launched into a weird tirade against former GM Jim Rutherford, the Penguins, and Phil Kessel, which wasn’t actually a “move” per se but was still really strange.

Bizarro-meter reading: 4.2/10. I admit, I did not have “Carolina and Pittsburgh” in my “Who will emerge as the Tupac and Biggie of the hockey world?” office pool.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Their offseason so far: They pulled off a shocker by landing Brandon Saad in a trade with the Blackhawks. It didn’t come cheap, costing them a package that included (but was not limited to) useful forward Artem Anisimov and prospect Marko Dano and then a six-year, $36 million extension for the young winger. Still, Saad has a chance to develop into a first-line power forward, and guys like that aren’t available very often.

But their strangest move was: Not doing all that much else. For a team that was never really in the playoff race last season, is adding one player enough?

Bizarro-meter reading: 4.7/10. Saad makes them better, both now and in the future. He won’t be enough to make them a playoff team on his own, so they’ll hope for continued development from other young players and some better luck than last season’s train wreck.

New York Rangers

Their offseason so far: They’ve been busy, trading Cam Talbot for picks, replacing him with Antti Raanta, and dealing Carl Hagelin for the not-as-good-but-cheaper Emerson Etem. They also said goodbye to Martin St. Louis, who announced his retirement.

But their strangest move was: Replacing Glen Sather as GM with Jeff Gorton. The move was expected — Sather is 71, and the team’s refusal to let other teams interview Gorton for openings was a giveaway that he’d be taking over in New York sooner rather than later. But it’s still going to be strange to see someone other than the cigar-chomping Sather running the show for the Rangers.

Bizarro-meter reading: 5.3/10. Oh, and speaking of longtime GMs stepping aside …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Offseason Bizarro-meter rankings: The Western Conference

NHL offseason, Week 3. Nothing is happening. Nobody is making trades. All the good free agents are gone. We’re reduced to arguing about arbitration hearings. Some poor souls among us have gone completely mad and started covering rookie camps. And, worst of all, we still have another full month of this to go.

And that means it’s time to once again fire up Grantland’s NHL Offseason Bizarro-meter, the highly sophisticated technology that takes into account every decision a team has made during its offseason, weighs them against other options that were available, and then spits out a ranking that I have basically made up based on a complex and proprietary formula.

We took the system for a test run in 2013, using a Toronto Maple Leafs offseason that by now is widely considered one of the worst in league history. Last year, we opened it up to the entire league in an attempt to figure out which team had put together the strangest offseason. The winner: the San Jose Sharks, with an impressive score of 9.4. Can somebody beat that this year? We’re about to find out.

Before we get started, a reminder that “bizarre” doesn’t necessarily mean bad. A team can lose its mind and spend the summer doing a bunch of crazy things that somehow end up working. A team can also play it conservative, make all the expected moves and nothing more, and end up worse off because of it. A high score on the Bizarro-meter doesn’t necessarily mean your favorite team is screwed. But it might be.

Today, we’re going to start in the Western Conference, home of the reigning Stanley Cup winners, the league’s best division, and last year’s Bizarro-meter champ.


Winnipeg Jets

Their offseason so far: They managed to keep free agents Drew Stafford and Adam Pardy. But they lost Michael Frolik to free agency, along with midseason pickups Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak.

But their strangest move was: Bringing back Alexander Burmistrov, the young Russian forward they’d taken with the eighth overall pick in 2010 but who bolted for the KHL in 2013. There’s been bad blood between management and Burmistrov, so it was mildly surprising to see him return, but he has talent. He’s a risk, but at a cap hit of just $1.55 million, he’s a reasonable one.

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.8/10. Not much to see here, as the Jets continue their slow-but-steady ascent. The big question is whether slow but steady is going to cut it when the toughest division in hockey keeps getting better.

Minnesota Wild

Their offseason so far: It’s another quiet one, although they did buy out veteran Matt Cooke and let various supporting-cast veterans walk. They also signed college free agent Mike Reilly to a deal that absolutely nobody saw coming except for everybody.

But their strangest move was: Re-signing Vezina finalist and season savior Devan Dubnyk, which wasn’t bizarre because it happened (everyone assumed it would), but because of how long it took (the deal came only a few days before Dubnyk would have hit free agency).

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.9/10. Much like the Jets, nothing jumps out as a mistake. But a veteran team that’s now lost to the Blackhawks three straight years didn’t really get any better, and that makes it tough to see a clear path out of the division for a team that spent big to become a contender.

Dallas Stars

Their offseason so far: They added a pair of Blackhawks veterans in Johnny Oduya and Patrick Sharp. The former was a free agent on a nice deal; the latter came in a trade that cost them Trevor Daley, who’d been a useful defenseman and whose skates Oduya will be expected to fill.

But their strangest move was: Signing goaltender Antti Niemi to share crease duties with Kari Lehtonen. Goaltending was an issue last season, sure, but now they’ll be spending well more than $10 million in cap space on the position, which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Bizarro-meter reading: 4.2/10. The moves for former Blackhawks made headlines but weren’t all that bizarre — in theory, they improved themselves and weakened the team they’re chasing. The Stars certainly seem to be in “win now” mode, which is a bit odd given that they didn’t win much last season, but at least for today they look like a playoff team.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The NHL 2014-15 season's IMDB Goofs page

Editor’s note: Grantland hockey writer Sean McIndoe called in sick, so his scheduled post recapping the 2014-15 NHL season has instead been written by a guest contributor: the guy who does the “Goofs” pages on IMDb.

NHL Season (2014-15): Goofs

Errors in geography: At a press conference, league officials announce they’re thrilled with the progress of the ongoing season-ticket drive and are confident it will result in an expansion team being placed in a viable long-term hockey market. However, when the camera pulls back, they are standing in Las Vegas.

Unsynchronized audiovisual: Throughout the season, every time Sabres GM Tim Murray can be heard to say “Oh no, we lost again, now we’re in last place, how terrible!” he is smiling and pumping his fist.

Continuity: In one scene, we meet a man who has just started a new job at the NHL head office after having been unemployed for several years. In the next scene, that same man is an active player who has just been traded to the Arizona Coyotes.

Anachronism: At one point early on, every other character is walking around with the mumps like it’s the freaking 1700s.

Revealing mistakes: In the scene in which Gary Bettman says that only the media is interested in knowing the details of player contracts and that fans just don’t care about that kind of stuff, you can see the strings that the league’s GMs pull on to make him talk.

Character error: For reasons that are never fully explained, the role of 19-year-old Panthers rookie Aaron Ekblad is played by a 45-year-old man.

Continuity: When Bob Murray is explaining that Ryan Kesler’s new $42 million contract makes sense because he is one of the most effective centers in the league, he should be much more woozy from the time travel that has apparently just brought him back from 2010.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ten Facts About a Fun Team: The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings

Last month, it was announced that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in their first year of eligibility, this November. It’s fitting that the two players will go into the hall together since they had a lot in common; both racked up individual honors throughout their careers, both had extensive international experience, and both defied the stereotype of European stars being too flashy by excelling at both ends of the ice.

And, of course, they had one more thing in common: They spent more than a decade as teammates with the Detroit Red Wings in the ’90s and early ’00s. And most important of all, now that they’ve been named to the 2015 Hall of Fame class, they’ve finally earned a seat at the big kids’ table for 2002 Red Wings team reunions. More on that in a second.

We’ll tend to use this feature to highlight teams that were underappreciated or largely forgotten, and it’s hard to make that argument for the 2001-02 Red Wings. After all (spoiler alert), they ended up winning the Stanley Cup. But we’ll make an exception here, because while the ’02 Red Wings were certainly impressive at the time, the lens of history has left them several magnitudes more fun. And it’s becoming apparent that we’ll never see a team quite like them again.

1. They’d been pretty good the year before, but it ended badly

The 2000-01 Red Wings had racked up 111 points, tied for the second-best total in the league. That team was pretty stacked in its own right, with Lidstrom and Fedorov joined by established stars like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, and Igor Larionov.

The 2001 Wings went into the playoffs as solid favorites over the Kings, who by this point were well into the eminently forgettable Ziggy Palffy era. But after a pair of convincing Detroit wins to start the series, Los Angeles squeaked out four straight one-goal wins to take the series, finishing things off with Adam Deadmarsh’s Game 6 overtime winner against Chris Osgood.

Clearly, a first-round exit for a team with as much talent as the Red Wings was unacceptable. Something had to be done. But what?

2. They went a little nutty in the offseason

Detroit general manager Ken Holland had already been on the job for several seasons and two Stanley Cups (one as GM), so he wasn’t a guy who’d be afraid to come up with a strategy and execute it. In the case of the 2001 offseason, that strategy apparently involved watching a VHS tape of an All-Star Game from the early ’90s and screaming, “Get me all those guys.”

Holland got started in late June, trading Vyacheslav Kozlov and picks to the Buffalo Sabres for legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek. It was a lopsided trade in the Wings’ favor, driven more by the Sabres’ finances and Hasek’s desire to chase a Cup outside of Buffalo than by actual hockey concerns, and Holland took advantage. The acquisition paved the way for Osgood’s exit, as he was picked first overall by the Islanders in the waiver draft.

Days later, Detroit signed Luc Robitaille, who’d been part of the Kings team that had knocked the Wings out of the playoffs months earlier. They followed that up by signing Brett Hull in August, making them the first team in NHL history to have three 500-goal scorers on the roster at the same time. (The three were Hull, Robitaille, and Yzerman; Shanahan would make it four late in the season.)

When all was said and done, the 2002 Red Wings were very, very good. They were also old. Very, very old.

3. They were ridiculously old

So, so old.

The acquisition of Hull gave the Red Wings a stunning 10 players who’d be 35 or older by the end of the season. And we’re not talking about some grizzled veterans playing supporting roles — virtually all of the team’s top players were ancient. Larionov was already in his forties and Chelios would join him during the season. Hull and Hasek were 37, Yzerman was 36, and Robitaille was 35. Guys like Shanahan, Lidstrom, and Fedorov were considered the team’s youthful core, despite all being well into their thirties.

And it wasn’t just the big names. The 2001-02 Red Wings roster also contains a nice selection of “I forgot he ever played for them” old guys, including Steve Duchesne, Fredrik Olausson, and Uwe Krupp.

You could never build a team like this in today’s NHL; not only would the salary cap make it impossible, but today’s style of play would see all those old guys get eaten alive. But while the 2001-02 Red Wings were still in the middle of the clutch-and-grab era, the game wasn’t that much different, and plenty of people thought Holland was crazy to assemble this many old codgers on one roster and think he could win with them.

Then again, if you’ve got to load up on old guys, they might as well be good ones …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The ten most intriguing free agents left

We’re into mid-July, which means sunshine and cookouts and cold beer on the patio. It also means that, if you’re an NHL unrestricted free agent who hasn’t signed a contract yet, you’re probably screwed.

The market for UFAs dries up around the second week of July every year, with limited cap space leaguewide meaning fewer dollars available to the unfortunate leftovers still looking for work. That’s been especially true this year; the market was uncharacteristically reasonable at the start, indicating that the league’s GMs had finally realized that good teams aren’t built by throwing around millions in July.

That all paints a grim picture for the many players still available. If there’s any good news, it’s that at least a few of the remaining names present some interesting possibilities for the right team. There’s not much point trying to rank the available players in terms of best or worst; at this point, success or failure is as much about fit as anything, and one team’s best will be another team’s bust. So instead, let’s pick out a few guys who are still on the market and rank them from least to most intriguing. That’s a broad term that leaves us with plenty of room to get subjective, granted, but here are 10 names that would be worth keeping an eye on in between cold ones.

10. Christian Ehrhoff

2014-15 numbers: 49 GP, 3 G, 11 A, 14 pts; $4M cap hit

Why teams should sign him: Ehrhoff spent the first few years of his career in San Jose and Vancouver as a “so underrated he might be overrated” defenseman, topping out with an impressive 50 points as part of the Canucks’ near-Cup-winning team in 2011. That earned him a ridiculous 10-year, $40 million contract with the Sabres, one that was heavily front-loaded to keep the cap hit down. That front-loading made it a mild surprise when he was bought out last summer — the Sabres had already paid him $23.6 million for three years’ work — and his one-year deal with Pittsburgh seemed like one of the best bargains of the summer.

Why they haven’t: A disappointing season in Pittsburgh seems to have dampened any enthusiasm for Ehrhoff’s services. He missed a big chunk of the season because of injuries and wasn’t especially productive when he did play. With a surprisingly cool market and better blue-line options available, there’s been almost no buzz around Ehrhoff’s status.

What comes next: Like many players on this list, Ehrhoff will likely have to settle for a short-term deal and a pay cut. That’s fair — he just turned 33, so teams are right to be nervous about whether last season was a fluke or the start of a decline. But keep an eye on him; in the right situation, he could be one of those late-summer bargains that ends up making GMs wonder why they didn’t make a phone call.

9. Brad Boyes

2014-15 numbers: 78 GP, 14 G, 24 A, 38 pts; $2.625M cap hit

Why teams should sign him: Boyes has had a weird career path, bouncing around the league early on, briefly looking like a star in St. Louis, and then resuming his NHL-wide tour in recent years. But wherever he’s been, he’s almost always chipped in offensively. Not a ton — his days as a 40-goal scorer are long gone — but he’s scored 35 goals over the past two seasons, and plenty of teams could use that kind of scoring from their third line.

Why they haven’t: The Panthers clearly didn’t like what they saw, buying Boyes out despite those goals. He’s not a guy who really impresses you when he isn’t scoring, and it’s possible he doesn’t do that often enough these days to be worth a roster spot over a younger, cheaper option.

What comes next: There’s been speculation that Boyes may have to wait for a training camp tryout invite, which wouldn’t be unprecedented; that’s how he wound up in Florida two years ago. Still, it would be surprising if not one team could find space for a potential 20-goal scorer on the roster between now and then.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Making sense of Vladimir Tarasenko's monster contract

There’s always one. Every summer, as we all get settled into the NHL offseason doldrums, there’s always one young superstar who drops a mid-summer contract bomb on our sleepy little hockey hamlet.

Last year it was P.K. Subban. This year, it’s Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues winger just signed a massive extension, one that largely redefines the market for young players.

What does it all mean? Let’s figure it out.

What happened?

The St. Louis Blues announced the signing of Vladimir Tarasenko to an eight-year, $60 million contract. The deal carries a cap hit of $7.5 million, making Tarasenko the Blues’ highest-paid player in terms of average annual value.

The deal comes on the heels of a breakout season in which he scored 37 goals and recorded 73 points in 77 games, good for tenth in overall league scoring. He had been a restricted free agent, meaning he was free to sign an offer sheet with any team. Instead, the Blues locked him up for eight years, which is the maximum allowable contract length under the current CBA.

Is $60 million a lot? It sounds like a lot.

It’s a lot. The annual cap hit will be among the top 20 in the league, and makes Tarasenko the seventh-highest-paid winger in the game.

More importantly, the deal is almost unprecedented, in that it’s only Tarasenko’s second NHL contract. After just three seasons in the league, he was still years away from reaching unrestricted free agency. Similar deals to players like Phil Kessel or Corey Perry came with UFA status looming, giving the players leverage to demand a big deal or walk away and hit the open market. Players in Tarasenko’s situation have typically had to settle for signing a bridge deal before going long-term; we’ve never seen a player this young get this much money.

Sorry, what’s a bridge deal?

This is a question that’s often asked by hockey fans who are relatively new to following contract negotiations; these days, it’s also one asked by smirking player agents, feigning confusion while getting ready to shake a GM upside down and collect all the money that falls out.

When the NHL entered the salary cap era, the players agreed to accept restrictive rules around entry-level contracts that basically guaranteed that teams would get to keep young players for the first three years of their career at a very cheap price point, typically under $1 million annually. In return, the players got earlier access to unrestricted free agency, which meant they could hit their big payday as soon as seven years into their NHL career.

That left at least a four-year gap between the entry-level deal and UFA status, during which players could become restricted free agents and qualify for arbitration rights. For all intents and purposes, the player was still under team control, meaning he had to negotiate his second (and sometimes third and fourth) pro contract without having much leverage beyond being willing to sit out.

Enter the concept of the “bridge deal,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a meet-in-the-middle contract that would take a player from ELC to UFA, giving him a nice raise on his entry-level salary while still dangling the carrot of a bigger payday down the road. The deals came to be viewed as a sort of “prove it” contract — you want to hit the jackpot, kid? Show us what you’ve got.

That sounds reasonable. Why shouldn’t players like Tarasenko have to prove their worth?

Bridge deals have been falling out of favor in recent years, with good young players often skipping the “prove it” phase and going straight to hitting the jackpot. The deals aren’t extinct — Evgeny Kuznetsov signed one just a few days ago — but they’re no longer a mandatory step toward a future big payday.

That’s been a frustrating development for lots of hockey people, especially those in front offices around the league who can no longer rely on below-market deals for young stars to keep their caps manageable. But there are good arguments against bridge deals. For one, they can backfire on the team that signs them; that’s essentially what happened to the Habs with Subban, who signed a “prove it” deal and then went out and proved it so decisively that he became the league’s highest-paid defenseman.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, July 6, 2015

Free agency winners and losers

Welcome to the second week of July. Or, as hockey fans call it, a black hole of summer boredom from which no interesting news can escape.

Well, that’s not quite true — there are still lots of free agents out there, and we’re still waiting on that Patrick Sharp trade, so something has to happen over the coming days and weeks. But for the most part, the NHL offseason starts off full of sound and fury during the week of the draft and continues right through the first few days of July, and then slams on the brakes for the next two months or so. It’s a situation you Americans might relate to; by July 5, the fireworks are over.

So while the free-agency market isn’t done, it’s cooled off enough that we can start handing out some report cards. According to long-standing hockey bylaws, all free-agency summaries must be presented in a winner/loser format.1 So let’s take a look back at the first few days since the market opened to see who came out ahead and who’s having a rough start to the summer.

Winners: Andrej Sekera and Michael Frolik. That Sekera and Frolik signed two of the biggest UFA deals in terms of overall money pretty much says all you need to know about this year’s market — i.e., it wasn’t very good. Both are solid players; neither would be considered a star.2 But when there’s not much available, teams pay for what they can get, and that’s what the Oilers and Flames did here. Edmonton has needed a top-pairing defenseman forever, and while Sekera may or may not actually be that, he’s as close as it was going to get this year, and that’s why he’ll make $33 million over the next six years. And a good young Flames team that was looking for some veteran help up front figured Frolik was worth $21.5 million over five years.

Those are big deals, although that doesn’t necessarily make them bad deals. Both Alberta teams had a need to address and cap room to spare, and, like most wintery Canadian markets, both probably have to pay a premium to get players to sign. Nobody is looking at either deal as any kind of a bargain, but they’re unlikely to turn out to be disasters — which, as we’ll get to in a bit, turned out to be a bit of a theme.

Loser: Cody Franson. Franson hasn’t signed yet, so we’ll write this one in pencil instead of ink. But history tells us that his odds of cashing in big aren’t good — after the first day or two, the free-agent landscape tends to shift rapidly from a seller’s market to a buyer’s one. Franson went into July 1 as one of the top defensemen available, and he was rumored to be in high demand and looking at a monster payday. But while fellow defensemen like Sekera and Mike Green having already signed big contracts, Franson is still waiting to get a deal done.

He should still get a decent deal somewhere — he’s probably the best player left on the market, and a few teams still have money available. But after spending the last few seasons in Toronto3 getting nickeled-and-dimed (by a franchise that threw crazy money at just about everyone else), he was probably counting down the days until he could hit a home run as a UFA. There’s still a chance it could happen, but it’s fading quickly.

Winner: Washington Capitals. Remember, we’re going by free agency only here, so the Caps don’t even get credit for acquiring T.J. Oshie via trade. Oshie is somewhat overrated — yes, sure, the shootout against Russia was super-cool, but he’s only scored 20 goals once in his career — but still came cheap enough that it was a great deal for Washington.

But again, that was a trade, so we won’t factor it in here. What moves the Capitals into the win column is signing Justin Williams to a two-year, $6.5 million deal. That’s a perfectly reasonable cap hit, and the short term means there’s not much risk involved. And the synergy is almost impossibly perfect, with the guy nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” joining the team with a history of collapsing in Game 7. This would be like the Oilers signing a guy nicknamed “Mr. Still in the Playoff Hunt in November,” or the Canadiens signing a guy nicknamed “Mr. Pregame Ceremony of an Appropriate Length.”

It wasn’t a perfect week for the Caps — let’s remember that they lost Green to the Red Wings and Joel Ward to the Sharks. But getting Williams on a deal like this makes so much sense that it’s more than enough to move them into positive territory.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Making sense of the Phil Kessel trade

If the last few days of NHL transactions have reminded us of anything, it’s this: There’s a huge difference between the trade you choose to make and the one you need to make.

After a round of failed contract talks with Dougie Hamilton and a growing sense that he wanted out, the Boston Bruins felt like they needed to trade him. With a cap crunch and the threat, real or perceived, of an offer sheet looming, the Blackhawks felt like they needed to trade Brandon Saad. In both cases, the return was underwhelming and widely panned. That’s what happens when it’s a trade you need to make — you end up taking what you can get when you can get it, even if that means you’re selling at a discount.

On the surface, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to trade Phil Kessel. The 27-year-old sniper has seven years left on his contract, so he wasn’t hitting the open market anytime soon. At an $8 million cap hit, he certainly wasn’t cheap, but he also wasn’t especially overpaid based on his production. And he was easily the team’s best player, and among the very best in the league when it comes to what he does best; only Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Corey Perry have scored more goals over the last five years, and Kessel managed that while dragging Tyler Bozak around the ice as his center.

Now, the Leafs did need to trade someone — president Brendan Shanahan had said as much in April, acknowledging that “for whatever reason, the mix doesn’t work” — and after yet another disastrous season, nobody on the roster deserved to be untouchable. If the right offer came along, anyone was available. But if there was one guy among the team’s core that you’d be happy to keep, you’d think Kessel would be that guy. The Maple Leafs could certainly choose to trade him, but they didn’t need to.

Or did they? Yesterday, the Maple Leafs sent Kessel to the Penguins in a trade that would make sense only if it were one they thought they needed to make. The full deal has Toronto sending Kessel to Pittsburgh along with a second-round pick, Tyler Biggs, and Tim Erixon. In exchange, they get prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, forward Nick Spaling, a first, and a third.

That’s a mouthful, but we can trim it down for evaluation purposes. Biggs and Erixon are minor pieces that were presumably included primarily to free up contract spots, and Spaling is a mildly useful player who’s mostly a salary dump. It’s not unfair to think of this trade as boiling down to Kessel for Kapanen, Harrington, and a first.

That’s not an awful return, but it’s not the sort of package that typically makes a team move its top player. Kapanen is a good prospect, a skilled winger who was the Penguins’ top pick in 2014 and still hasn’t turned 19. He projects as a top-six guy, maybe even a future first-liner if everything breaks just right. Harrington is a 22-year-old defenseman who could still top out as a solid second-pairing guy. Both have value; neither is a sure thing. As for the first-rounder, it’s actually a conditional pick that can’t fall into the lottery, and could revert down to a second-rounder if the Penguins miss the playoffs in each of the next two years.

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of salary retention. The Leafs will eat $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary and cap hit for all seven years left on his deal. Shanahan has (correctly) refused to put a timeline on the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, but it’s safe to say that it’s not “eight years or more.” At some point when the plan calls for them to be contending for a championship, the Leafs will still be sitting with $1.2 million in dead cap space on the books from this deal. That hurts.

So if that’s the best Toronto could do for Kessel, why trade him at all? Why not focus on moving out other players and hold on to the guy you can pencil in for 30 goals and 80 points most years? And in fact, the Leafs had spent the last few weeks assuring everyone that they were perfectly prepared to do just that. If the market wasn’t there, why not wait it out?

Today, the answer seems clear: They were bluffing. They were always going to move Kessel this summer. They didn’t think they had a choice.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Free agency preview

NHL unrestricted free agency is awful. Let’s just put that out there to start. In the salary-cap era, good players rarely make it to the market, and the ones that do get ridiculous deals that almost always end up being viewed as mistakes. Meanwhile, miscellaneous depth guys somehow transform into stars for one day, get paid accordingly, and then go right back to being what they’ve always been. It’s a mess.

We’ve been doing this for a decade now, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. At some point, smart teams are going to start sitting out July 1 entirely and wait around for prices to come down and bargains to emerge. But the lure of getting a player for nothing — and the ability to ignore the fact that a cap-crippling contract is certainly not “nothing” — almost always seems to prove too powerful.

So here’s your free-agency preview: Your favorite team won’t do anything. You’ll complain. Then your favorite team will do something. You’ll feel vaguely uneasy about it. Months later, you’ll realize they made a horrible mistake, and you’ll vow never to get suckered in by July 1 ever again. You will break this vow.

This year could be even worse than usual, because there’s a distinct lack of talent available. Remember last year, when free agency featured reasonably big names like Ryan Miller, Paul Stastny, and Thomas Vanek? Good times. (Well, except for the teams that signed those guys.) This year’s list pales in comparison, with very few players who could be considered stars, or potential stars, or even former stars.

But teams have cap space and impatient GMs, so somebody is going to get paid. Here are 10 players to watch as the action unfolds today.

Mike Green

Former team: Washington Capitals

2014-15 salary: $6.25 million ($6.08 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A team looking for a veteran blueliner and power-play quarterback. Green is the biggest name available among defensemen, and maybe the biggest at any position. He can eat minutes, and he’s a big right-handed shot in a league where that’s rare. And he has a résumé; he’s the only defenseman this century to score more than 30 goals in a season, and he’s twice been the runner-up for the Norris Trophy.

As long as you can ignore: Those big seasons were a long time ago. Green hasn’t been a star since 2010, and last year he spent most of the season playing on the Capitals’ third pairing. He’s not awful defensively, but it’s not a strength, and he’ll turn 30 in the season’s first week. If you sign him for anything close to last year’s money, you’re basically paying for the past instead of the present. Someone will.

Justin Williams

Former team: Los Angeles Kings

2014-15 salary: $3.05 million ($3.65 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A contender with its eye on the Stanley Cup. Williams would be a good fit just about anywhere — he’s always been an excellent possession player, so stats guys get little hearts in their eyes when they talk about him — but he’d be especially attractive to a team that considered itself a Cup favorite. That’s because of his track record in crunch time; he has a history of coming up big in Game 7s, and he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 2014. If you believe in “clutch,” Williams is your guy.

As long as you can ignore: For one, the Game 7 stuff is based on a grand total of seven career games, so all standard disclaimers about small sample size apply. More importantly, Williams will be 34 on opening night and has been a 40-point player in each of the last two seasons. That’s still worth paying for, but any team that goes longer than three years will probably regret it down the line.

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