30 Thoughts: Players like Kessel tough to find

Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas joins Prime Time Sports to talk about the timeline of trading Phil Kessel and the idea behind the deal plus much more.

To borrow some earthquake terminology, there are usually post-July 1 NHL aftershocks.

In 2011, the New York Rangers won a competitive process to sign Brad Richards for $60 million, while three other clubs spent another $29 million on Tim Connolly, Simon Gagne and Tomas Kaberle.

In 2012, Minnesota Wild spent the GDP of Kiribati on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Hours later, the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Matt Carle for $33.5 million. Last July 2, the New York Islanders dropped $37 million on Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, while the Vancouver Canucks snared Radim Vrbata for $10 million.

This year? Not so much.

The biggest free agent move after Canada Day was July 3, with San Jose grabbing Joel Ward for three years at just under $10 million. As one agent said, “The market opened… and then it closed.”

There are several useful bodies still out there: Brad Boyes, Christian Ehrhoff, Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, Cody Franson, Curtis Glencross, Jim Slater, Lee Stempniak and Scottie Upshall among them. But everything’s in a holding pattern. How long will they have to wait?

“I think you’re going to see some good players having to accept training camp tryouts,” one GM said Wednesday. Yikes.

So, what happened?

It sounds like a combination of three things. First, it wasn’t the best free-agent class we’ve seen. Second, the tightening salary cap. If expansion money was part of Hockey Related Revenue, teams would be spending like your newly-divorced uncle going through his mid-life crisis. But it isn’t, so the upcoming windfall won’t raise the ceiling.

Third: Dougie Hamilton, Brandon Saad and P.K. Subban.

We’re seeing more restricted free agents avoid the bridge contract and go right to the mega-payday. Subban’s contract standoff with the Canadiens is a big part of that. As St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong said after signing Vladimir Tarasenko, “We told him when negotiations began we were going to pay him like a star.” (As always, no one quoted in this blog is used as an anonymous source.)

You save yourself money and aggravation. The Oilers were roasted for the long-term deals given to Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. They haven’t resulted in the on-ice success you want, but one GM who ripped away when they happened admitted this week they don’t look so bad now.

Hamilton’s situation is a little different, because his new contract in Calgary made it clear his split from Boston wasn’t about money. The Bruins’ offer was within $1 million of what he signed for in Alberta, so this was a player who wanted a change. But, there’s no question GM Don Sweeney felt he had to do something before losing control of the situation via an offer sheet.

Saad was a stunner.

“A month before it happened,” one exec said, “Who would have thought Chicago was trading Saad? (Stan Bowman) would give his left arm instead.”

Who knows if an offer was coming, but the Blackhawks — like the Bruins — clearly felt they risked losing control of the situation. In the past, Bowman had to trade good players but always kept his critical core.

With Saad, he couldn’t. That trade occurring so close to free agency caused teams to pause and ask, “Are we that vulnerable?”

Is this newfound austerity going to be a regular occurrence, or a one-year wonder? The 2016 free agent list is sparkling: Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Giordano, Ryan Kesler, Anze Kopitar, Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo, Brent Seabrook, Steven Stamkos, Jakub Voracek and more. Can’t imagine all of them getting there. Can’t imagine teams being able to hold back from whoever does.

But that’s a factor, too. No doubt some GMs looked ahead and said, “Better save up.”


1. So, how long is Johnny Oduya willing to wait? The consensus is he wants to return to Chicago and the feeling is mutual. But is there a time limit on this? Bowman didn’t deal Saad until the last second and followed the same protocol with Nick Leddy one year ago. A couple of sources indicated Oduya’s contract requests are not unreasonable, so it all comes down to his comfort with the pace of the process. Boston is believed to be among the most interested parties. Buffalo was there at some point, although the Sabres’ desire is unknown now. A couple of teams suspect Dallas is a quiet lurker, especially since the term does not appear onerous. He’d be a great fit there.

2. Bowman was not available to comment (and probably wouldn’t have said much even if he was) but my guess is potential moves involving Bryan Bickell and Patrick Sharp stalled over what else he’d be willing to do. It’s possible he was asked to swallow money and include a draft pick/prospect to get it done, and that wasn’t appealing to him. Washington certainly looked at Sharp but, instead of his $5.9 million cap hit, opted for T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. (St. Louis could take Troy Brouwer — not an option for Chicago.) Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if someone asked for AHLer Mark McNeill. Another GM said he heard a team brought up for Teuvo Teravainen. If true, I wish I could have seen Bowman’s reaction.

3. No confirmation from Bowman or agent Lewis Gross, but I believe Chicago’s final offer to Saad was five years and $25 million.

4. Would expect the Capitals to add another forward, but probably not until contracts are done with Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson. Make sure you know exactly how much room you have.

5. I was surprised when Kevin Shattenkirk’s name came up in trade rumours. When he was injured last season, everyone in the organization, from Doug Armstrong to Ken Hitchcock to his teammates, said it was much harder to get the puck out of the defensive zone in his absence. When asked how those trade murmurs started, Armstrong said, “The media. Every one of our players’ names was out there.”

Shattenkirk was surprised, too: “I’d just finished working out and was on the way to pay golf with a buddy. There were a bunch of text messages, and a missed call from (agent Jordan Neumann). I was a little taken aback. In my end-of-year meetings, we were disappointed as a team, but I felt positive about the future.” Shattenkirk said Neumann reached out to Armstrong, who downplayed everything. “Doug has never been one to shy away from the truth. He treats us all like that. I place a lot of faith in him, he’s never lied.”

6. Shattenkirk, author of two brilliant pieces for The Players’ Tribune about elite defencemen, has great perspective.

“St. Louis has been great to me, but this is a salary cap league. There are 10 guys who are probably safe. Look at Phil Kessel. If a team gets the right price, you can get traded. As players, you realize that more and more. I was traded for the first overall pick (Erik Johnson). Anything can happen.” That deal was Feb. 19, 2011 from Colorado with Chris Stewart for Johnson and Jay McClement. “That was the lesson I learned, I thought I was king of the world. Playing well, made the rookie All-Star Team. I was locked-in there. A day later, I was traded.”

7. So, what really happened here? Armstrong refused to comment any further. From what I gather, teams knew he wanted to make changes and asked if Shattenkirk was available. Who wouldn't want a puck-moving defenceman signed for two more years? Also, the Blues are trying to shake up their group and probably don’t mind things being a little uncomfortable. Aside from the Oshie trade, there was a rumour at the draft St. Louis was making a run at San Jose’s ninth overall pick. I can’t tell you what was involved, because I don’t know. But I do believe any possibility of such a trade ended when Timo Meier was still on the board. That’s the guy the Sharks wanted. If he was gone, maybe we’d have seen something.

8. Getting Tarasenko done long-term is a huge win for St. Louis. Both Armstrong and agent Mike Liut said the negotiations didn’t really start until after the draft. The player was overseas and getting married, which made contact a little more difficult and, as Liut added, “Even when you’re close, you need to think about it for a few days.”

As far as I can tell, the only players with richer post-entry level deals (in the cap era) are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. That shows the team’s commitment to him, and him to them. The GM and agent worked out a contract that won’t hurt the cap situation. Tarasenko could easily have gone short term and held free agency over the organization, but, as Shattenkirk pointed out, “He knows St. Louis is a great fit.”

Bob McCown’s advice is best: “Don’t (bleep) with happy.”

9. Armstrong repeated it will now be on Tarasenko to expand his role and responsibility — penalty killing, for example. Last season, the team asked Alex Pietrangelo to take more defensive-zone draws than ever before, which makes sense for your best defenceman, but hurt his offence. That will not be done with Tarasenko.

“We’re not going to turn him into a checker. When you pay this much, you’re paying to score.”

10. Finally, Armstrong on what he said to Jake Allen in his exit meeting: “This was a great learning experience…Last year, you started behind Brian Elliott, now you have a chance to be the starter on Opening Night. But I told him the same thing.”

11. With Tarasenko done, eyes move to several massive potential extensions alluded to above — especially Kopitar and Stamkos. Stamkos just arrived home for the summer (where his agency is located), and things haven’t progressed yet. Kopitar talks began this month.

Flyers GM Ron Hextall confirmed things were underway with Jakub Voracek, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Voracek has 189 points in the last three seasons, 10th in the NHL. Ahead of him: Nicklas Backstrom, Jamie Benn, Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel, Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin and John Tavares. I looked at the contracts involved to find comparables. Throw out Crosby and Ovechkin, because he’s not going that high. Throw out Backstrom, Benn, Seguin and Tavares, because those players had several years of restricted free agency remaining, unlike Voracek. That leaves Getzlaf, Giroux and Kessel who signed on the cusp of freedom. AAVs are $8M for Kessel, $8.25M for Getzlaf and $8.275 for Giroux. Is Philly going to go there? Is Voracek? At the very least, you have to think his number starts with a 7.

12. One interesting note about those 10 points leaders: look at their even-strength percentage. Getzlaf .728 (150 of 206 points); Benn .698 (139 of 199); Seguin .689 (133 of 193); Kessel .658 (127 of 193); Crosby .648 (158 of 244); Tavares .633 (126 of 199); Voracek .614 (116 of 189); Giroux .536 (111 of 207); Ovechkin .532 (115 of 216); Backstrom .532 (109 of 205).

13. Marc Bergevin is one of the more active GMs, in terms of working the phones. It’s difficult to know sometimes from the outside if he’s trying to do something, or simply collecting information. The Canadiens were in on a few things. They took a run at Matt Beleskey, but weren’t willing to go five years like Boston. There was dialogue with Shawn Matthias, but it’s tough to tell how far it got. And, knowing their needs, I’d be surprised if they didn’t at least inquire about Oshie. Again, though, I’m not sure it went anywhere. One agent did say Quebec’s taxes are a bigger factor than we consider, because they have to bid higher or give more term to overcome. Bergevin is very wary about that, because it will block his young players. One GM pointed out that Daniel Carr (who led AHL Hamilton in goals), and Sven Andrighetto (fourth in points) are waiver-eligible after next season. The Canadiens have to find out if they are NHLers.

14. Another example of how the market fooled people: the day before free agency, word was Toronto felt Matthias was out of its price range. A week later, he signed for one year and $2.3 million. He’s going to get a chance to play top six minutes — a big opportunity for him.

15. With time to decompress from the Phil Kessel trade, it’s clear that was one tricky negotiation. According to several sources, it looked dead on Sunday, about 72 hours before it happened. The Penguins were adamant Derrick Pouliot was not to be included. The Maple Leafs said no to keeping $2.5 million of Kessel’s salary per season, then no to $2 million, before agreeing to $1.2 million. There was a time Toronto agreed to take Rob Scuderi’s contract. That didn’t happen, but there were multiple denials Chris Kunitz was ever discussed. The Maple Leafs would not comment. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t want to address all this, simply saying, “We wanted Kessel because he was the best player for us.”

16. At the end of the day, Kessel was traded because he was Toronto’s most marketable player they were willing to deal. He could get the best return, including cap space. Nothing else excited them and bringing back the same group was unacceptable to Brendan Shanahan. There’s no doubt this was unfulfilled potential for him and for the team. He’s a lightning rod, a polarizing figure and is responsible for that. But the toughest thing the Maple Leafs lose is a talented player who (for the most part) could ignore the market noise. You need guys like that in Canada, who either embrace it (Subban) or tune it out (Sedins). That’s hard to find. And I think there are some charities who will really miss him. He did a lot, very quietly.

17. Rutherford on Brandon Sutter: “I’m not planning to move him. I like him. We have 10 guys who can play in our top nine — including Beau Bennett. But, we are up against the cap pretty good, so we’ll have to do something.” I’d heard Chicago likes Sutter, but with Artem Anisimov ensconced, there doesn’t seem to be a fit.

18. The Penguins’ GM credited assistant Tom Fitzgerald with pushing to sign Russian free agent Sergei Plotnikov, who the Penguins hope can play in their top six. Fitzgerald said he noticed Plotnikov upon arrival at the World Championships.

“He just stood out to me, very detailed. He played centre in (the first game I saw), moved well, straight-line player. The next game, he moved to the wing and was very effective there. Against the Swedes, he played on the left side with Ovechkin.” He became more attractive when the team realized he was still going to be on an entry-level contract, because you know the cost.

“What’s the risk here?” Fitzgerald added. “He never turns his back on the play… stops and starts, supports the puck, plays a way that you have to play to win in the playoffs.”

Fitzgerald also saw some YouTube videos where Plotnikov fought.

“We’re not going to ask him to do that, but it shows he’s tough. Not afraid to stick up for himself.”

19. Fitzgerald’s son Ryan (the 120th pick in 2013) will be at Boston’s development camp next week. Another boy, Casey, (who was not drafted last month), got an invite to New Jersey’s.

20. Wrote in the last blog that Edmonton was interested in Robin Lehner but didn’t want to take Colin Greening’s contract as part of it. One source reached out to say that’s not true — Greening wasn’t the problem. The issue was the draft pick. Buffalo gave the 21st to the Senators, while the Oilers were willing to give No. 16, but only if they got Ottawa’s No. 18 in return. Greening’s had a tough run, so worth correcting for sure.

21. One exec on the oft-rumoured Jared Cowen, “(Bryan Murray) doesn’t want to give up on him. Feels it’s too soon.”

22. Another exec said his team asked Edmonton about Leon Draisaitl and was rebuffed. During development camp, the forward told reporters he didn’t have a problem with moving to the wing. Don’t be surprised if the Oilers take him up on that offer.

“He can protect the puck and make a pass from either wing,” one GM said. Tough to find strong forwards with skill, and Edmonton knows it.

23. The Oilers filed for arbitration with Justin Schultz, although no one would be surprised if an agreement is reached beforehand. What this does is it allows the team another buyout window and speculation is Nikita Nikitin could be a victim. The team doesn’t need the cap room now, so doesn’t it make sense to keep him for his final year instead of wasting $1.5 million next season when you might need the space?

24. Edmonton had to fight off a lot of competition for Andrej Sekera. Colorado, Detroit and San Jose all went hard for him. The Oilers were aggressive with the sixth year, which made the difference.

25. Tried to piece together how close Winnipeg came to re-signing Michael Frolik because it’s clear GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was frustrated. Agent Allan Walsh wouldn’t comment, but a couple teams suspected the Jets offered four years at $16 million before free agency began, then talked about the possibility of $4.25M per, although I’m not sure it actually got there. There was at least one offer higher than Calgary's. I wondered if it was New Jersey, because Walsh has a good history with Ray Shero, but that’s purely a guess. He’s an excellent fit for the Flames. Frolik’s departure could be a gift for Alexander Burmistrov, who wants a top-nine role. Yes, he’s normally a centre, but can play wing. This is a relationship that needs some trust built back into it, and stepping into the void would be a good start. The Jets may also give a long look to Joel Armia, acquired in the Evander Kane trade.

26. One exec on Don Sweeney: “Give him credit, he had the (guts) to pull the trigger. It would have been easy to do nothing.” There are still teams upset they didn’t know about Hamilton, and I’m curious to know if the Bruins would handle that one differently with a second chance, but his other moves were very reasonable.

27. How will Hamilton’s new contract (six years and $34.5M) affect Anaheim’s ability to extend Hampus Lindholm? That’s on Bob Murray’s summer agenda.

28. Derek Stepan can’t use Ryan O’Reilly’s contract as an arbitration comparable, because it takes effect when the Sabre becomes unrestricted. UFA deals cannot be used in those hearings for RFAs. But the Rangers know it is absolutely a factor in any long-term negotiation. I’ve heard they’ve been asked about Kevin Klein, but don’t want to go that route. He’s signed for three more years at a very reasonable $2.9 million — not easy to replace at that cost. In a perfect world, they’d want to take one more run with this group, but Stepan’s number probably determines that. I don’t think they want to move Keith Yandle, but what if they’re really stuck?

29. Corey Hirsch tweeted that Frederic Chabot was on-ice with the Coyotes at their development camp. He may end up coaching prospects in the system.

30. How much has Jeff Blashill thought about replacing the big personality that is Mike Babcock?

“Only in the sense that I have to be myself,” he said Wednesday. “The way we think how to teach hockey is somewhat similar, but I am a different person. The most important thing about leadership, in sports or non-sports, is that I’ll be Jeff Blashill.”

Craig Simpson, one of several HNIC personalities who taught me how to properly watch practice, always liked the way Detroit skated. Quick tempo, not very long on the ice, always stopping at the net, etc. Will that continue to be the way?

“It better be,” Blashill answered. “Every single thing you do in practice is what you do in games… It’s a huge part of winning. Do it hard and do it right.” Sometimes, his pre-game skates in AHL Grand Rapids lasted only 15 minutes. “You can build a good habit doing just two things… Don’t have to think at all, the same drills, real simple and repetitive.”

31. It’s common knowledge Detroit’s younger players know Blashill well, but so far, he hasn’t had a ton of interaction with them. He has met/spoken with Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg. With the captain, he discussed things like practice schedules, travel and hotels. Blashill laughed when asked if Zetterberg demanded no rooms with two double beds. “Winners will tell you what they need to win. Those three are winners,” he said.

32. So, does Blashill want Zetterberg at centre, or on the wing aside Datsyuk?

“I would say we would love to be able to put him with Datsyuk. They have great chemistry together and think the game at such a high level… And ‘Z’ brought up to me that it would make the younger players have even more responsibility, to take hold of more leadership by not having one of them on their line.”

So, who is ready for that? Blashill thought for a second, then mentioned Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar.

“The next step for them might not be more production. It might be the same production, but doing it consistently without (Datsyuk) or (Zetterberg). I believe they can do that. There are lots of good young players who are paid lots of money, but don’t carry their line. To be the elite of the elite, that is the next challenge.”

33. Blashill had a great line when asked if anyone told him that on the phone, he sounds like Babcock. They did work together, and he clearly picked up some of the cadence.

“Since I met Ken Holland, I do wave my hands more when I talk to people,” he said. “I say I’m better looking (than Babcock), but he points out he’s got way more hair.”

34. On June 21, Columbus goaltending coach Ian Clark boarded a flight in Dallas, continuing to London, Moscow and Novokuznetsk, Russia.

“I took off at 6pm and landed at 7am on the 23rd,” he said Wednesday. He met one of the Siberian city’s famous sons, Sergei Bobrovsky, for a special early summer training camp. “Traditionally, he has not stepped on the ice until September. One of the ideas we had, we basically created a three-week mid-summer camp for him… He conducted the first two weeks, I was there for the third.” Clark said the two decided on this wrinkle so Bobrovsky wouldn’t have to wait to experiment with adjustments at training camp. (The 2013 Vezina winner will return to Columbus a little earlier than he normally does.) The local KHL club skated with him, as did Washington’s Dmitry Orlov.

“It was a pretty significant dynamic, not one shooter, at least eight guys on the ice all the time,” said Clark.

35. So, what are they working on?

“Nothing dramatic,” Clark said. “Last summer our focus was the shootout, working to improve that. This year it’s little things. His ability to manage net-front scrambles… what are the coverage priorities? You have very limited time and space, often off-balance, (worry about) protecting the middle of net, not getting jittery. Also, his depth game — the difference from the goal line in different situations.”

Clark added he and Bobrovsky are discussing ways to ease the goalie’s self-imposed heavy non-game routine.

“He’s such a hard worker at times. Is the volume of work creating any risk of emotional or physical fatigue? Is there a better life balance we can create?” Bobrovsky’s goals are team-related, and by understanding when you need to relax, he can stay healthier, which is what the Blue Jackets crave.

36. I answered the phone Wednesday night and heard, “Hammer here.” So began a conversation with Sheldon Souray, now officially retired after a 758-game career that featured both great moments and great challenges. Souray was paid the last two seasons despite a wrist injury that did not allow him to play.

“If my career ended with my first wrist surgery (he missed the 2002-03 season), I couldn’t have handled it,” he said. “I’ve come to terms with it now. Who wouldn't love to go out like Kimmo Timonen? Ending by being paid not to play was bad, but the game was so good to me.”

37. Souray's career highlights: “To be part of a select group that made it this far, to be able to say I did something cool. I loved playing in Montreal — having that pressure there, but in such a good way… Saku Koivu’s comeback night from cancer,” before a pause, as he thinks about it. “Getting a chance in Dallas the year after Edmonton sent me to the minors, that meant a lot to me. I was not going to let them win, they were not going to beat me.”

Souray says his current injuries mean his “golf game sucks, which is too bad, but I’m grateful and thankful for everything I went through. I’m in a good place — a soccer dad now.” Good to hear.

38. Quick note on expansion: The NHL is doing a three-stage process to separate the contenders from the pretenders, with the first stage ending July 20 and the last one on Sept. 4. The non-refundable part of the deposit is $2 million, which should scare away any freeloaders. Will the new teams — desperately needing draft picks — have to give compensation for their coaches and GMs?

39. During the meetings in Las Vegas, the idea of another “goaltending group” was discussed. The Competition Committee — featuring representatives from both the NHL and NHLPA — took aim at the pants and chest area during its meeting last month. There is a desire for change, although it would be too late for next season. Two years ago, Ryan Miller led the charge among active goalies to decrease pad lengths. Cory Schneider, who was on the competition committee, would probably be a member.

40. One of the stats I look at is the “special teams combo,” where you add a team’s powerplay and penalty-kill percentages to see where they rank. Washington had the best number in 2014-15, at 106.5. St. Louis was next at 106 and Vancouver third (105). The Canucks were led by their penalty kill, second in the NHL behind Minnesota. Two key members of that unit are gone, so it will be critical to adequately replace Kevin Bieksa and Brad Richardson. Bieksa was fifth among defencemen in short-handed time-on-ice per game, but within 52 seconds of leader Chris Tanev. Richardson tied with Nick Bonino among forwards. That sounds like something Bo Horvat might do.

41. Coach Wille Desjardins has some interesting decisions to make with Horvat. If Alex Burrows is to stay with the Sedins, the second-year centre between Radim Vrbata and Sven Baertschi probably provides the best shot at secondary scoring. But is that the role Desjardins wants for him?

42. New regimes have the right to hire who they want — and should, really — but it’s such a personality change in Vancouver with Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack gone on the ice and Mike Burnstein, Eric Crawford, Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning off it. Gilman, in particular, highlights the difficulty of friendships between reporters and the people they cover. Ran into him the night before the Sedins signed their latest extensions. I asked if they were getting close, and he said, “No, still working at it.” Next day, done deal. At the 2014 Heritage Classic, I got a tip there were Roberto Luongo talks going on with Florida. He denied it. Days later, Luongo was traded. That one had some hard feelings. But it’s how this goes.

43. Most surreal moment of the season: At Montreal’s first home game following Jean Beliveau’s death, I brought a copy of his autobiography — My Life in Hockey — to prepare for the funeral coverage. After the game, I dropped my things in the media room before heading to talk to the players. Sitting out in plain view were my bag, my wallet (accidentally), my laptop, and the book. Guess what was taken?

44. Have a great summer, everyone. If it wasn’t for the readers, there would be no point in doing this blog. Your interest is much appreciated. Thanks to all my co-workers at Rogers for making this one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had.

See you in September.