WINNIPEG — An extensive renovation project is underway in the Central Division and to the surprise of no one, Doug Armstrong is attempting to lead the charge.
Armed with three first-round picks in the 2023 NHL Draft, the St. Louis Blues GM was always going to be someone to watch in the days leading up to the selection of this latest crop of top prospects. He had the internet buzzing on Saturday when word came down he was deep in discussions on a big deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The deal has centre Kevin Hayes and defenceman Travis Sanheim as the primary pieces. The trade reportedly stalled when one of the Blues defencemen (believed to be Torey Krug) invoked his no-trade clause, leaving the two sides to either look for an alternative or to convince Krug and his camp to change his mind, since he was likely going to be flipped to another team anyway.
Even after being one of the most active teams at the NHL trade deadline, the Blues weren’t likely to embrace a rebuild and this only reinforces those thoughts.
The last time the Blues missed the Stanley Cup playoffs, back in 2018, they traded Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets at the deadline, then went out and traded for Ryan O’Reilly and signed unrestricted free agents Tyler Bozak and David Perron on July 1.
With the Flyers expected to retain salary on Hayes, who has four more seasons at $7.143 million, the Blues will surely be sending one of those first-rounders (their current picks are at 10, 25 and 29) out in the deal.
This way the Blues will be bringing in a two-way centre in Hayes, who is 31 years old and coming off a season where he had 18 goals and 54 points in 81 games.
Sanheim, 27, is a mobile, puck-moving D-man who signed an eight-year, $50-million ($6.25 million AAV) extension with the Flyers last summer that kicks in on July 1.
His no-trade clause doesn’t kick in until July 1 and with new GM Danny Briere and the Flyers openly embracing this full rebuild, moving Sanheim makes a lot of sense.
The Blues shipped out captain O’Reilly, fellow forwards Ivan Barbashev and Vladimir Tarasenko as well as defenceman Mikko Mikola in February. They will have some holes to fill, either via trade or free agency.
This would be an important step in the retooling-on-the-fly process and Armstrong still has the draft capital (the Blues would still likely have two first-rounders, two thirds, a fourth, a fifth, sixth and seventh in 2023) to build up the prospect pool or to have at his disposal.
The Blues forward group includes Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, two players who received a big commitment from the franchise last summer, Brayden Schenn and Pavel Buchnevich. Plus, Armstrong brought in both Kasperi Kapanen and Jakub Vrana last season to help enhance team speed.
Armstrong is surely looking to make another deal or push hard in free agency in order to get back to playoff contention.
The Blues have Jordan Binnington in goal, while top prospect Joel Hofer got a taste of the NHL game during the stretch run.
That leaves the defence, where the Blues have invested close to $30 million for seven players, with five of those players having some sort of trade protection (Krug, Justin Faulk, Colton Parayko, Nick Leddy and Marco Scandella).
So, no matter what happens with this prospective deal, the Blues might still be looking to make some alterations on the blue line as well.
The Arizona Coyotes are also bringing an abundance of draft capital to Nashville. GM Bill Armstrong holds two first-rounders, a second-rounder, four third-rounders, a fifth and two sixths for 2023 alone.
Bill Armstrong was also busy modifying his roster this week, buying out defenceman Patrik Nemeth and forward Zack Kassian while adding defenceman Sean Durzi in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings for a 2024 second-round pick.
Durzi is an offensive blue-liner who has one more season at $1.7 million before he can become a restricted free agent.
The Coyotes have made it clear they’d like to take a step forward as a franchise and they’ve got plenty of work to do, though this was a tidy piece of business.
Armstrong also has more than $30 million of cap space at his disposal, though the Coyotes are expected to be closer to the floor than to the ceiling as they play next season in Mullett Arena.
Why would the Kings be unloading a useful and relatively young (Durzi turns 25 in October) D-man with term?
Kings GM Rob Blake is believed to be big-game hunting and needs to clear cap space to do so.
One of his targets is Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The interesting thing here is whether the Jets and Kings can find a deal that includes a long-term extension, which would raise the cost of acquisition.
There’s been plenty of drama surrounding Dubois’ future and moving him is an important domino for the Jets, who are either going to buy out or trade veteran right-winger Blake Wheeler in the coming days.
The work for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff won’t end there. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck and centre Mark Scheifele could be among the individuals in play, since they are pending UFAs in 2024, along with defencemen Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo and forward Nino Niederreiter.
All to say the heavy lifting is just beginning for the Jets, who are believed to be focused on a return from the Kings that likely has Gabriel Vilardi or Quinton Byfield as the centrepiece.
Vilardi, a restricted free agent who will be 24 in August, is coming off a career season (23 goals, 41 points in 63 games).
He’s battled through injuries since being the 11th-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft but seems to be coming into his own.
Byfield, chosen second overall in 2020, won’t turn 21 until August and had three goals and 22 points in 53 NHL games last season, spending ample time on a line with Anze Kopitar.
Both Vilardi and Byfield fit the criteria of players with team control for multiple seasons that the Jets will be looking to acquire as they attempt to retool on the fly.
The Kings would also likely be looking to unload salary in the deal in the form of forward Alex Iofallo (two seasons at $4 million) or Viktor Arvidsson (one season left at $4.25 million).
After the Durzi deal, the Kings project to have roughly $9 million in cap space, but they’ll also need to bring in a starting goalie to share the crease with Pheonix Copley.
If the Kings don’t retain fellow goalie Joonas Korpisalo before he becomes a UFA, the Jets could be a team to keep an eye on in his pursuit, should a Hellebuyck deal get completed.
The chatter around Hellebuyck could pick up in the coming days as well, though the fact he could be seeking a long-term extension in the $9-million-to-$10-million range might be an impediment for some contenders.
As for Scheifele, one can’t help but wonder if the Boston Bruins might consider turning to him as an option, though they’d have to do some salary cap gymnastics to work in an extension for him that could be north of $8 million.
For a team with more cap space that prefers to stay under the radar, the Detroit Red Wings are a team that makes sense on a number of levels for Scheifele — and not because they were his favourite team growing up and his favourite player is currently the GM.
Scheifele would slide in nicely behind captain Dylan Larkin and be reunited with his former roommate Andrew Copp.
It’s also possible the Jets give this situation additional time to breathe and it’s not out of the question Scheifele opens the season as the No. 1 centre with the team that chose him seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Draft.
For the second time in as many years, the Colorado Avalanche made a preemptive strike for a position of need, putting a deal together to acquire Ryan Johansen from the Nashville Predators for pending UFA forward Alex Galchenyuk.
Roughly 12 months ago, the Avalanche struck a deal with the New York Rangers for Alexandar Georgiev to become their No. 1 goalie and he responded with an outstanding season.
The Predators also retain 50 per cent of Johansen’s contract for the next two seasons, leaving him as an $8-million bet to fill the role of second-line centre.
Johansen, who turns 31 next month, had a down season (12 goals, 28 points in 55 games) but delivered 26 goals and 63 points in 79 games in 2021-22.
He’s a nifty playmaker who has 189 goals and 555 points in 842 career NHL games.
No, he’s not going to produce 87 points like Nazem Kadri did in the season before his departure as an unrestricted free agent, but the Avalanche just need Johansen to be a solid performer behind Nathan MacKinnon. Playing alongside the likes of Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen (and occasionally Mikko Rantanen) could allow Johansen to flourish.
Where does this move leave pending UFA centre J.T. Compher?
With defenceman Bowen Byram needing a new deal as an RFA, GM Chris MacFarland is going to need to get creative to keep Compher in the fold — or the versatile forward is likely going to need to take a little less money than he would get on the open market.
Compher, 28, is coming off a career season (52 points, including 17 goals, which was one short of his career high) and this is his best bet to cash in on a deal that could include an AAV north of $5 million.
The Avalanche are a team to watch during the coming weeks. They’ve got some pieces to fill in the bottom six with either youth or veterans looking to try to win on a bargain-basement contract.
What does this mean for the Predators under new GM Barry Trotz?
It’s difficult to predict whether this move could open the door to do something similar with centre Matt Duchene, who has three seasons left on a deal that carries an $8 million AAV.
Duchene, 32, has a seven-team no-movement clause but has 65 goals and 142 points over the past two seasons and might be someone a team looking for offence would consider, especially if the Predators were open to retain some of the money.
The Dallas Stars are on the rise and they’ll likely be looking for a forward or two, whether that means finding a way to try to retain pending UFA forward Max Domi or getting involved in the sweepstakes for winger Alex DeBrincat.
That leaves the Chicago Blackhawks, who remain in the early stages of a massive overhaul to a roster that is about to receive an immediate jolt after securing the No. 1 pick at the NHL Draft Lottery.
Although there will be plenty of competition for his services — and the Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights would still like to retain him — the idea raised by colleague Jeff Marek of Barbashev joining the Blackhawks is something that makes a lot of sense.
Barbashev has shown he has the ability to play with high-end talent and produce, he’s also a physical force who could provide a level of insulation for certain No. 1 pick Connor Bedard.
Chicago has plenty of cap space available to make this type of deal work, while leaving plenty in reserve for future additions when the team is closer to contending.
It’s also possible that Barbashev, a two-time Stanley Cup winner (2019 and 2023), would like to play a few more years alongside Jack Eichel, though making that work would require the Golden Knights to move out money in a trade.
MOCK DRAFT 1.0
With the NHL combine in the rearview mirror, many of the top prospects will convene in Music City for a final round of interviews with NHL teams before the names start getting called in Wednesday’s first round.
Although realizing it’s best to leave the mock drafts to the professionals — Sam Cosentino and Jason Bukala do a fantastic job for Sportsnet — it’s impossible to resist weighing in.
But know full well this is an exercise to reinforce why you should be reading and listening to Cosentino and Bukala because they’ve watched these players a lot more closely than I have.
Every year there seems to be a team that announces a name that brings an audible gasp. Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen referenced that in an interview with Marek last week, referring to selecting Dubois third overall in 2016 instead of Jesse Puljujarvi, so it’s a matter of trying to identify when that moment will come this time around.
Much of the chatter is on Russian forward Matvei Michkov, who is under contract in the KHL through the 2025-26 season, which could complicate matters for teams that would otherwise be interested or have him ranked higher on their respective draft boards.
With that in mind, here’s my unscientific best guesses for the top 10:
1. Chicago Blackhawks: Connor Bedard
2. Anaheim Ducks: Matvei Michkov
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: Adam Fantilli
4. San Jose Sharks: Leo Carlsson
5. Montreal Canadiens: Will Smith
6. Arizona Coyotes: David Reinbacher
7. Philadelphia Flyers: Ryan Leonard
8. Washington Capitals: Zach Benson
9. Detroit Red Wings: Axel Sandin Pellikka
10. St. Louis Blues: Colby Barlow
• With plenty of chatter surrounding the Calgary Flames, look for GM Craig Conroy to pull the trigger on several franchise-altering moves this week. Several teams could be waiting on the decision surrounding centre Elias Lindholm, a two-way force with one season left on a contract that carries a modest $4.85 million.
The bigger issue will be finding a team with the ability to afford the extension that will have an AAV north of $8 million. Other players who could be on the move include D-man Noah Hanifin and right winger Tyler Toffoli.
Should the Flames get to the stage of openly rebuilding, it will be interesting to see if goalie Jacob Markstrom is asked to consider waiving his no-movement clause to go to a contender. Markstrom, 33, has three more seasons at $6 million. With Dustin Wolf ready for NHL duty, much of the trade speculation has revolved around Dan Vladar (two more seasons with a $2.2 million AAV) but perhaps the news of last week and the pending departures could change matters.
• It seems fitting that the Carolina Hurricanes are keeping captain Jordan Staal in the fold as they move forward. The 34-year-old centre on Sunday officially inked a four-year deal that carries a cap hit of $2.9 million. Staal provided Selke-level play this past season and can chip in ample complementary offence to go along with his excellent defensive work.
The second-overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft had 17 goals and 34 points in 81 games during the regular season before adding two goals and eight points in 15 playoff games last spring. Because he signed the deal before he turns 35, there won’t be any cap recapture if Staal decides to retire before the end of the contract.
• The Hershey Bears bucked the trend of the home team winning each of the previous six games, earning a 3-2 overtime victory over the Coachella Valley Firebirds in Game 7 of the Calder Cup final last Wednesday.
Right winger Michael Vecchione, 30, scored the clincher at 16:19 of the first overtime to propel the Bears to the 12th AHL championship in franchise history for the Bears. It was the fourth AHL crown for the Bears since becoming the primary affiliate of the Washington Capitals.
Vecchione, an undrafted forward with three NHL games on his resume, delivered his fifth goal (and eighth point) of the Calder Cup playoffs in his 20th post-season game after finishing second on the Bears in goals (23) and points (55) during the regular season.
Bears goalie Hunter Shepard capped off an outstanding run between the pipes by being named the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy winner as playoff MVP after making 45 saves in Game 7. Shepard, 27, started all 20 games during the playoff run and finished with a 14-6 record, a 2.27 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and three shutouts.
Bears head coach Todd Nelson had a fantastic appearance on The Jeff Marek Show this week and shared a great story about an impromptu BBQ at the team hotel on the night between Game 6 (which the Bears lost 5-2) and the season finale. Nelson, who had a brief stint as interim coach with the Edmonton Oilers, is a guy who deserves another shot to run an NHL bench and it will be interesting to see if he’s added to an NHL staff as an associate coach in the coming days/weeks or if he remains in the AHL.
• One final plug for my colleagues. If you haven’t done so already, check out the latest edition of 32 Thoughts, which features an in-depth interview with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and is available wherever you get your podcasts.