Once the Stanley Cup Final ends we’ll quickly find ourselves in the middle of the NHL’s “silly season.”
Just after the draft passes the free agent negotiation window will open, during which time any player with an expiring contract can talk with other teams to gauge what the market for their services will be, though no new deals can be signed until July 1.
In the meantime, the trade rumour mill is already picking up steam. In the off-season teams can go as much as 10 per cent over the salary cap as they adjust their rosters to make things work so it makes the possibility of big player movement more likely than during the season.
There is no shortage of player names being thrown around as potential summer trade candidates, whether for cap reasons or just because their teams are seeking a new look for 2019-20. So today we wanted to focus on some of the biggest names you’ll hear in the rumour mill this summer who, if they were moved, would constitute a blockbuster trade.
The door has already been opened for this trade. Heck, had Kessel waived his partial no-trade clause to go back to the state in which he played college hockey, he’d already be a member of the Minnesota Wild. But Kessel can supply the Penguins with a list of eight teams to which he would accept a deal and the Wild were not on it.
“I’d heard things went badly last season between him and the organization, and this confirms it,” Elliotte Friedman wrote in his most recent 31 Thoughts column. “He knows he will be traded because there’s no benefit to staying, but he’s going to make sure it is on his terms if the Penguins want to send him anywhere other than his eight-team list.”
What would the Penguins be looking for in a potential return? The rumoured trade to Minnesota was Kessel and defenceman Jack Johnson for centre Victor Rask and winger Jason Zucker, so that would indicate the Pens are looking for scoring to compensate for the loss of their third-highest goal scorer and second-highest point getter from this season.
But there may also end up being a need for a blueliner. Aside from Johnson’s name being attached in this potential deal, Olli Maatta has been mentioned in the rumour mill as well. Following Pittsburgh’s loss in the first round of the playoffs, Kris Letang’s name was also out there (along with Evgeni Malkin) but those seem to have cooled.
Cap space is also something GM Jim Rutherford needs to somehow get this summer. Assuming the salary cap rises to $83 million, the Penguins have just $3.2 million in cap space with only 18 players signed. A year from now RFAs Matt Murray and Jared McCann will be seeking new deals, as will UFA Justin Schultz.
But if Kessel isn’t open to going to Minnesota, where else might the Penguins look to do business? The Arizona Coyotes are another potential fit. Their head coach, Rick Tocchet, connected very well with Kessel when he was an assistant coach with the Penguins for the first two years Kessel was with the team. The only potential issue there is that the Coyotes are in the midst of finalizing an ownership change.
Whatever happens, it seems a near certainty Kessel will be moved at some point this summer, possibly before next month’s draft. He has three more seasons left on his contract and would cost $6.8 million against the cap if Pittsburgh doesn’t retain any salary. Over the past four seasons, Kessel’s 110 goals are tied for the 28th most in the NHL.
Unlike with Kessel, there doesn’t seem to be anything imminent here with Benn. And maybe this one isn’t likely at all. But if you think back to December and CEO Jim Lites ripping into his star players — specifically Benn and Tyler Seguin — for a lack of scoring production, the roots may be there for a summer trade. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro, who was present when Lites went off, suggested the primary target for those remarks was Benn.
“Seguin may have been ripped, but his attempted public shaming was a side effect of the Scud missile aimed at Benn,” Shapiro wrote. “The Stars’ captain was the true target of Lites’ comments; it was just convenient to include Seguin in the ripping, since he was recently signed to a similar contract.”
Benn’s contract would certainly be the catalyst to any move, but also what could thwart anything from happening. He has full no-trade protection and will make $13 million in salary next season. That’s a lot of money for someone who’s not posting the same offensive totals he did when he first signed.
He still has six years remaining on a deal that pays $9.5 million against the cap and managed only 53 points this season — his lowest total in an 82-game season since 2011-12. Benn signed this contract in July of 2016, just after he put up 41 goals and 89 points and one season after he won the Art Ross Trophy with 87 points. But in the three years since he’s scored 30 goals and 70 points once — reaching 36 and 79 in 2017-18.
Benn will turn 30 this July so it’s reasonable to suspect his prime years are in the past. Right now he is the fourth-highest paid winger in the game, behind only Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov, but while each of them are top 10 in scoring over the past three years, Benn comes in at 32nd.
From the moment of Lites’ comments through to the end of the regular season, Seguin became better than a point per game player, but Benn managed just 23 points in 41 games. He did have a strong playoff run, which could cool any trade possibility, but if CEO Lites and owner Tom Gaglardi remain unimpressed with their second-highest paid player, they may want to move on from him after 10 years and just two series wins. If it comes to that, it’d be Benn’s call whether or not that becomes a reality.
“We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done,” Lites said in December. “It’s embarrassing, and no one writes it.”
If the Stars do trade Benn, they’d have to bring back a return that would somehow improve their offence. The Stars ranked 27th in goals this season and have struggled to form a secondary line. Keeping pending UFA Mats Zuccarello would go a long way to helping them achieve that and dealing Benn would just open up more questions. The Vancouver Canucks, Benn’s home team, have been linked to him in rumours, but what exactly would they be able to give up that would fill Dallas’ needs?
The Predators’ window to win probably isn’t closed yet, but it’s obvious some change is needed. They finished with the 19th-ranked offence and a 12.9 per cent power play that was one of the worst units of the salary cap era. They have about $7.1 million in cap space with 21 players signed and no big, outstanding contracts this summer, but that picture becomes cloudier a year from now.
In the summer of 2020 the Preds will have three big-ticket contracts up. Captain Roman Josi will command a large raise up from his current team-friendly $4 million hit, while Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund, who already combine for $10 million against the cap, will both be UFA eligible. That Nashville didn’t look like the contender they had for a few years by the end of the regular season is reason enough to take a long, hard look at the roster this summer. Their offensive struggles make it even more likely something will happen to bring change. The cap crunch a year from now is a great indicator that GM David Poile, who isn’t at all shy about making a blockbuster swing, will do something big again.
“I’m not discouraged. I’m just disappointed,” Poile told Pierre LeBrun. “And I’m ready to go on for next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen exactly. Last year I pretty well said we weren’t going to make any changes. I’m not saying that this year. I’m also not saying we’re going to totally re-make our team.”
With Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, plus 20-year-old first-round pick Dante Fabbro knocking on the door, the Preds’ clearly have a strength on the blue line, so it’s natural to assume they’d pull someone from there to make an addition up front. Poile did this exactly in 2016 when he sent Seth Jones to Columbus for centre Ryan Johansen and it might be time to dust off that playbook.
When looking for a trade candidate on Nashville it really could be any number of players. But because Subban makes $9 million against the cap and doesn’t have any trade protection he is their best trade chip. Maybe we have to wait until Josi signs his new deal — thus ensuring stability — before Subban or any other blueliner moves. Josi’s eligible to sign that extension on July 1.
The Kings are in a transition period and when they return to the playoffs again, you can expect their lineup and style of play to be much different than it was when they were contending.
When you think clutch playoff performers Quick’s name will be one of the first that comes to mind. The acrobatic netminder has a .922 playoff save percentage since winning his first Stanley Cup in 2012 and his .946 save rate in that championship run is the best mark of the modern era. But with the Kings looking for a new identity, it may be time to move on from their No. 1.
Making this palatable is the fact 27-year-old Jack Campbell outplayed Quick this season. The 11th overall pick from the 2010 NHL Draft had a .928 save percentage in 31 games compared to Quick’s .888 mark in 46 games. Cal Petersen, 24, even showed well with a .924 save rate in his 11 games, so without Quick Los Angeles could move forward with a couple of younger, cheaper and capable netminders.[sidebar]
There may be some value to be had for an acquiring team, too. Quick counts for $5.8 million against the cap for another four seasons, but in the final three years of that deal his actual salary adds up to just $9 million. There are injury and age concerns — Quick will turn 34 next season — but if the Kings retain some salary it would be a risk worth taking. The Kings would also be able to get more in return. It’s just that an acquiring team would want to already have a solid and proven goalie in place to offset some of the performance/health risk.
“I don’t think we (will) concentrate as much on what we did in the past, as much as what we’re going to be doing, going forward,” GM Rob Blake told The Athletic following the Jake Muzzin trade to Toronto. “I can’t speculate on how many (moves) or what. Like I said, every move that we will make will be for the future, to get better. We’ve got to find a way to get better.”
It’s come to this. Trouba watch has been ongoing in Winnipeg for a few years and now that he’s 13 months away from being a 26-year-old eligible for unrestricted free agency, we’re nearing a conclusion. One way or another.
It really started in 2016 when Trouba and the Jets were engaged in a contract dispute that wasn’t resolved until the defenceman inked a short, two-year deal in November. When that lapsed, Trouba and the Jets went right through the arbitration process, which rarely happens in the league because most of the time the player and team reach a new contract before going in front of the arbiter. They came out of that with a one year deal, which brings us to today.
So has anything changed from Trouba’s perspective? The time to commit is now, so would he be open to a multi-year extension this time?
“Same answer as always,” he said at Winnipeg’s locker clean out. “We’ll figure it out once things get going in the summer, what’s best, and move forward from there. We gotta sit down, have a meeting and figure out what to do moving forward. I haven’t really thought about it. I tried to put it in the back of my mind as much as I could this year.”
Trouba is again arbitration eligible, but if there’s no deal to be had beyond one season Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to at least explore the possibility of trading him. But he won’t be an easy player to part with. Trouba’s coming off a career season in which he was the only Jets blueliner to play all 82 games, while his average ice time rose by a full minute over 2017-18. He was used heavily across all even strength, power play and penalty kill situations and the 50 points he posted set a new personal best.
As a player he holds tons of value. A right shot defenceman in the middle of his prime, coming off his best season. But without a contract extension that value is stunted to some degree as he could walk away from anyone in 2020.
So the question becomes, will Cheveldayoff be able to find a trade partner willing to give up something the Jets need? Would he have to sweeten the pot to turn this into a bigger deal? Or will Winnipeg’s GM just decide to keep Trouba for a year and use him as a sort of rental in another push for the Cup — maybe hoping a solid run will convince him to stay?
Winnipeg has $25.3 million in projected cap room, but with Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Trouba all needing new deals that will vanish in a hurry. Something is going to happen to this roster over the summer and Trouba has the clearest route out.
“Is the team going to be the same?” Cheveldayoff said after the Jets were eliminated. “I could stand here last year, and tell you with greater certainty that there was going to be a lot of pieces that we were going to do our darndest to keep, and come back. And even then, you saw we couldn’t do it all. This year, certainly there is going to be some changes.”
DOUGIE HAMILTON/ JUSTIN FAULK
If the Hurricanes dive into the trade market this summer they have the same needs and strengths as usual. They are absolutely stacked on the blue line already and have a couple more knocking on the door in Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury. Up front, their offence did start clicking in the second half of the season and from Jan. 1 on only the Tampa Bay Lightning scored more than Rod Brind’Amour’s charges. But in the playoffs their goals per game dropped to 2.6, which ranked 10th among the 16 teams. Nino Niederreiter, who was acquired via trade and scored in bunches right away, scored just once in 15 post-season games.
Their offence definitely improved and Sebastian Aho (who needs a new contract by the way) is still on the rise. But the Canes aren’t “there” yet in terms of their up-front weaponry. They’re not desperate to make a deal this summer — and aren’t necessarily shopping these players — but if an opportunity arises GM Don Waddell also isn’t in position to turn down scorers. They just made it to the conference final in their first playoff appearance in a decade — it’s time to build on that success.
Hamilton’s name is no stranger to trade rumours. They followed him in Boston and Calgary and earlier this season it again popped up — albeit before the Hurricanes started to surge.
“[A] name I’m curious about is Dougie Hamilton,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said on Hockey Night in Canada in January. “They have four right-shot defencemen, they’ve been asked about Hamilton. If you’re willing to come back to them with a scorer I think that they would consider doing it.”
Because of this log jam at the position something will have to give this summer. Fleury, 22, is no longer waiver eligible so it may be as simple as moving him in a deal, which would fall well below the level of “blockbuster.” But Faulk is one season away from being a UFA so when that extension can be signed on July 1, the team will have a good idea if the cost fits with their structure. And Hamilton will be UFA eligible in 2021.
If everyone stays that blue line will suddenly become very expensive — the better option may be to get out ahead of that conundrum and use a strength to acquire a need now.
OK so we won’t spend much time here on Malkin because this is the boy who cried wolf of trade rumours. Whenever the Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup, it seems Malkin’s name is one of the first to hit the rumour mill in the summer and of course, he hasn’t been moved once yet.
But this time — this time is…different?
“I’m not at the point where I’m making any decision on that at this point,” GM Jim Rutherford told The Athletic when asked if Malkin was a part of the Penguins’ long-term plans. “I just can’t answer that kind of question right now.”
On the 31 Thoughts Podcast Elliotte Friedman noted this could all be an exercise to motivate Malkin for next season. But while he was disengaged at times this season and started trying to force things out of frustration, it’s easy to forget Malkin still managed 72 points in 68 games. He will turn 33 years old in July, though, and has three years left with a $9.5 million AAV that is a bargain.
This wouldn’t be a rebuild trade. If Malkin is moved the Penguins would only do it if they think they’re improving and re-arranging for another Cup run. That screams blockbuster.
WILLIAM NYLANDER/ MITCH MARNER
Yes, yes we know. GM Kyle Dubas has made it clear he is confident about his ability to sign all of his best young players coming out of entry-level deals and keep the band together. And to be honest, we’d be surprised if one of these players moved on in the summer. But the question has to be asked, the possibilities explored. Because if Marner really will test the market as an RFA and shoot for a big-money contract at $11 million or more you have to legitimately wonder:
a) if he’s worth that price point, especially on a team that will be capped out for a while.
b) if the offer sheet compensation of four first round picks holds more value than whatever you’d get back in a trade.
c) how the Leafs could work their cap magic to keep all their best players without hurting depth.
Assuming an $83 million salary cap, Toronto heads into the summer with $8.79 million in space. Another $5.3 million opens up if Nathan Horton gets put on LTIR (which he wasn’t in 2018-19) so now we’re up to $14.09 million. Marner can reasonably be expected to eat up $9-10 million, but at the high end will go another for one or two million. Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen are also RFAs and there are only five signed defencemen on the roster.
The Leafs are facing a cap crunch, there’s no doubt about that. If they have to move out a player or two it may be someone like Johnsson or Kapanen who goes first, but again, it’s all about what that next contract for Marner looks like. Will he set a new benchmark for a winger and earn more than Patrick Kane’s league-high $10.5 million?
“Everything’s possible,” Chris Johnston said on the FAN 590, when asked if the Leafs could trade Marner. “I think if you get to a point where Mitch Marner missed camp and it’s clear there’s going to be no deal, the two sides are operating in different universes, I think at minimum you have to explore that possibility. Especially because the offer sheet seems to be something that there’s some interest in exploring from Mitch Marner’s side of things should he get to July 1, so I think it would only be due diligence to at least know what you might do.
“I just think that’s still, I have to stress, not the likely option here. But I don’t think it can be ruled out entirely because there’s only so much money to go around in the cap world.”
And if the Leafs explore moving out one of their higher-end wingers it doesn’t have to be Marner. Yes, Dubas told Nylander that he wouldn’t be traded when his contract impasse ended last November, but this is a business and Nylander doesn’t have any trade protection. The thing is, you’d be selling him low right now after a 27-point season, but Nylander very well could turn into a bargain at $6.9 million and just finished as the leading scorer at the World Championship. At least with Marner you’d be trading him while his value is in the stratosphere.
The point is, all options are on the table as the Leafs have to wrestle with the cap. And if other teams start negotiating with Marner this summer and start setting his market, it may be in Toronto’s interest to explore alternative outcomes.