31 Thoughts: All eyes on Senators as trade deadline nears

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins David Amber to go over all the news and notes from around the NHL.

• No shortage of likely suitors for Sens forwards
• Boston looking to add at deadline
• Could Kings make a play for Panarin?

So here we are, 11 days until the deadline. The biggest question: What is Ottawa going to do?

Matt Duchene, unrestricted Mark Stone, unrestricted. Ryan Dzingel, unrestricted. Cody Ceci, restricted, but one year away from being able to pick any destination.

Trade them or sign them?

The best information I can give you as I write this: You are going to hear both possibilities in each case. My belief is the Senators are going to test the market for all of them, while reserving the right to keep any particular player if they can agree on terms.

The players obviously have a big say in this, and, even though the organization would like to know as soon as possible, the fact is that deadlines spur action — and the only deadlines now are soft. One of the difficult things about covering this on a daily basis is that feelings change. While Duchene has been very public with his thoughts, Stone, a more private person, hasn’t. He’s made it very clear he doesn’t like anyone guessing what he thinks, so you have to be careful.

The safest thing to say is that, at different times, feelings change. A player may lean one way, then another. The Senators, wisely, have held the position that if they want to keep someone, they will wait out any uncertainty as long as they possibly can.

To protect themselves, my belief is they are going to look around. But, again, until told they’ve got no chance at keeping people — or they decide they can’t — they will wait.

So, let’s check the market. The big-game hunters for rentals (including Artemi Panarin) are Calgary, the Islanders, Nashville and Winnipeg for sure. I’ll have more on Boston below, but the Bruins are lurking. Columbus is incredibly intriguing, because, if they don’t keep Panarin, they will use what they get for him to add. I think Pittsburgh and San Jose would be there if they had more assets. Jim Rutherford and Doug Wilson are fearless, but previous moves prevent this.

Vegas is another interesting one. They did it last year. But does George McPhee feel strongly enough about his group to do it again? I could also make arguments for Tampa, Toronto and Washington to pull surprise moves. They have the pieces; I just can’t measure the will.

Things are about to get busier. But, as I’ve been warned, don’t jump to conclusions.

1. Why Boston’s Don Sweeney could very well be telling the truth when he says David Pastrnak’s injury won’t change his deadline plans: Initially, the Bruins weren’t thrilled with the idea of another Rick Nash-style rental, because you can’t do that too often. As time passed (they currently sit 17th in goals per game), it sounds like they re-visited the idea, recognizing they need offensive help, even with a healthy Pastrnak. Maybe they go for someone with term or team control, but they are looking to add. Of course, in their first game without the talented winger, they scored six against Chicago.

2. One GM who could change the market over the next few days? Minnesota’s Paul Fenton. His team is still clinging to a playoff spot, but Mikko Koivu is out for the year. Ownership always pushes for the playoffs, but what do the Wild honestly think about their situation?

3. A few sources pushed back hard against the idea of Florida trading Jonathan Huberdeau, but a couple warned that the Panthers — looking to free themselves from future obligations — are investigating a lot of things that may or may not come to fruition. The more space Florida clears, the closer we get to Columbus mining for phone bills.

4. I’m wondering if Los Angeles makes a play for Panarin. The Kings aren’t interested in a lengthy rebuild, and southern California is believed to be high on the winger’s list of priorities. They could wait until June, but the benefit of getting him now is the eighth year. Los Angeles has two first-rounders (their own and Toronto’s from the Jake Muzzin trade), and have asked a high price for Tyler Toffoli — but that seems an enticing package. Columbus was in on Ilya Kovalchuk, but he has control over where he goes and the Blue Jackets might not want him for two more seasons. Such a move would certainly breathe new life into L.A.

5. Can’t be sure, but there are rumblings Toronto GM Kyle Dubas asked about Kyle Clifford when he was talking to Los Angeles about Muzzin. Dubas knows Clifford from his days working at Uptown, which still represents the winger. Clifford has a great reputation, and a contract Toronto could fit. Those, of course, are two reasons L.A. is happy to keep him.

6. The Maple Leafs told potential trade partners they will not move Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin or a first-round pick for a rental.

7. Winnipeg deflected requests for Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic in its search for improvement. Nick Kypreos reported last Saturday the asks may spread to Sami Niku, just returned to AHL Manitoba. But one player the Jets will move — providing it makes sense for him and the team — is Nic Petan. Limited to 13 games, it is time for a fresh start.

8. Another player who could get a fresh start is Montreal’s Charles Hudon. The Canadiens have been looking for a mid-round pick in exchange. GM Marc Bergevin is re-shaping his fourth line, which has drawn coach Claude Julien’s ire.

9. Twice during Bob Murray’s playing career, Chicago GM Bob Pulford stepped behind the bench himself (first when Keith Magnuson resigned in 1982, and again when Orval Tessier was fired in 1985). Borrowing a page from Pulford’s book, Murray makes his NHL coaching debut Wednesday night against Vancouver. This is not about running a bench, however. It is about the GM getting an up-close evaluation of his team and his players. One of the most revealing answers from his Sunday conference call was when the Los Angeles Times’s Helene Elliott asked if he was going to bring up any of the talented prospects from AHL San Diego.

“It’s good for as many (of them) as I can to get a feel of [the NHL] in a positive environment, and that’s what I am worried about the most by bringing them here right now,” Murray answered. “But, if we can get a little bit of a positive environment, I will not shy away from… if they deserve it… getting them in for a few games.”

He is going to determine who creates a positive environment and who doesn’t. The betting is that whatever happens this season with 20-year-olds Max Jones, Sam Steel and Troy Terry, they will be in Anaheim for 2019–20 — with Dallas Eakins.

10. Murray added that he told his group, “We have good players, [but] we just aren’t a good team right now.” That’s true, and it gives him an advantage if he does want to make moves. The Ducks have players who will appeal not just to contenders. Teams who are not going for it in 2019 will be interested in what he chooses to offer. For example, putting Cam Fowler (who does have limited protection) on the market would lead to a lengthy lineup, but I’m not convinced that’s where Murray wants to go. He’s going to get a lot of questions about his blue line.

11. When it comes to Jakob Silfverberg, it sounds like the final hurdle is term more than dollars.

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12. Prior to Olli Maatta’s injury, Pittsburgh continued to look at available forwards.

13. Vancouver learned a lesson the hard way on Monday night — that, in what soon will be a 32-team league, goalies are the most precious of resources. Toronto was surprised to lose both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers, but it was a sign of where we are going. There simply aren’t enough goalies to go around, so hoarding is becoming a popular pastime. Carolina kept three for awhile, and Philadelphia is juggling them like a circus performer. When Frederik Andersen was hurting post-Christmas, the Maple Leafs paid the fifth-rounder to get Michael Hutchinson before things got, well, to where they got for the Canucks. And it is going to get even stingier now that each of the Original 30 must expose one netminder for the Seattle expansion draft.

14. That’s why the safest prop bet of the year is Jordan Binnington will play at least 13 more games. If the St. Louis goalie doesn’t reach 27 NHL appearances of at least 30 minutes in 2018–19, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Now 10-1-1 with a 1.82 goals against average and a .927 save percentage, he has revived the Blues and potentially saved their season.

St. Louis took him 88th overall in 2011, their interest sealed when he took OHL Owen Sound to the Memorial Cup as a 17-year-old. Prior to this season, he’d appeared in just one NHL game and was passed as the organization’s “goalie of the future” by Ville Husso. But one man’s injury is another man’s opportunity, and Binnington ran with it when Husso was unavailable.

15. St. Louis, now the first wild card with two games in hand on ninth-place Vancouver, was dead last on Jan. 3. By my research (so you know it is sketchy), if the Blues pull this off, they will be the first playoff team to overcome that fate this late into a season since the 1996-97 Senators. Ottawa was the worst team in the NHL on Jan. 26, 1997. They went 17-14-6 from that point on, making the post-season for the first time ever. (Chicago also has a shot at this.)

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16. With Ken Hitchcock watching practice from the seats one day and then blasting the Oilers’ effort following Saturday’s 5–2 loss to San Jose, that there were rumours he’d had enough and would step down. That obviously didn’t happen, but it underlines how tense things are in Edmonton.

Giving Cam Talbot three straight starts made it look like he was being showcased to clear cap room, but the Oilers are having difficulty opening space for Andrej Sekera when he is ready to go.

17. When Edmonton gets down to GM interviews, the favourites are Kelly McCrimmon and Mark Hunter. But, there are expected to be other conversations. Interim GM Keith Gretzky has history with current Bruins executive director of player personnel John Ferguson, so it would not be a surprise to see him involved.

18. Anthony Stewart, who played 12 pro seasons in exotic locales from AHL Rochester to KHL Zagreb, is lending his knowledge to Sportsnet. He says brother Chris, who played the most recent of his 652 NHL games last season in Calgary, is in England, getting ready to make a comeback for next season. Anthony said Chris had tryout offers with Boston and Toronto, but decided to take a pass last fall.

19. On July 1, 2019, the Toronto Maple Leafs are scheduled to pay $50 million in signing bonuses, with almost 60 per cent of that to Auston Matthews and John Tavares. I know that drives people insane. But, if I owned a big-money team that contributed to revenue-sharing and couldn’t take advantage of NBA-style exceptions to the cap, I’d flex my muscles any way I could, too.

20. Let’s empty the notebook on Matthews negotiations. A couple executives said that one of the conspiracy theories was someone would offer-sheet Matthews for four years at a huge number, knowing Toronto would match. The problem with that term is it walked the franchise cornerstone directly to unrestricted free agency — the thing the Maple Leafs wanted the least. Was it true? Who knows? But it was out there, and the team had to be cognizant of it. As for the upcoming roster choices Toronto must make, the safest comment is that everyone’s play during the rest of the season and playoffs will answer those questions. William Nylander is catching up to everyone else’s three-month head start.

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21. Matthews mentioned in his media conference that a three-year deal was on the table. That term was tossed aside because it was too much of a risk for the player. For that reason, the AAV on that term would be higher than you’d think.

22. If his contract does have the expected effect on second contracts for other players, a few execs believe it could have a squeeze on salary arbitration and qualifying offers. Teams do have the ability to “walk away” from an arbitration decision if a) it was the player’s choice to go through the process, and b) the award is higher than a certain threshold (set at $4,222,941 in 2018).

23. Just wanted to clear up one note from last week’s blog: I referred to Sidney Crosby’s percentage of the cap as 15.3 per cent for his five-year, $8.7-million AAV second contract, and several people pointed out it was 17.3. What I should have clarified was that, with the benefit of history, I applied it to the first season that deal took effect, as opposed to the year he actually signed it. The official date of the extension was July 7, 2007 — with a $50.3-million ceiling, so 17.3 per cent. His first year under the new deal was 2008-09 — with a $56.7-million limit, so 15.3 per cent.

Connor McDavid’s percentage was 16.7 when he signed, 15.7 when it took effect. Matthews’s numbers are 14.6 and 14 (presuming the cap is at the projected $83 million for 2019–20). The percentage at signing is relevant, because agents use that as a comparison for franchise players.

24. There was a time, Peter Forsberg admitted, that he couldn’t watch hockey.

“I was struggling at the end of my career,” he said this week on the 31 Thoughts podcast. “It was back and forth, injuries here and there. And I just wanted to be… not that close anymore. I was watching more soccer, football and other sports. But after a while, I started watching it more and more, and I really enjoy watching it from the side now. Before maybe it was because I wanted to be on the ice, and I couldn’t be there. Nowadays, I’ve got the perspective that I’m just way too old… so I think it is more relaxing to sit and watch.”

Forsberg is back in a big way, investing in the 4sports hockey agency, which features former teammate and current player agent Claude Lemieux.

25. Forsberg laughed at the idea of negotiating against Avalanche GM Joe Sakic.

“That would be hilarious, actually,” he said. “It would be pretty cool to have (my) first argument with Joe, since we’ve been friends for 20 years. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing how Joe is when he gets mad. I’ve never really seen that. That would be great to watch.”

The two men told some great stories, with Lemieux saying there was one game in Washington where he didn’t feel great in warm-up. Forsberg told him not to worry about it, then set up his winger for a hat trick.

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26. Arizona is so banged up that, as the Coyotes beat Vegas 5-2 on Tuesday night, AHL Tucson could dress only 17 players in a 2–1 shootout loss to San Jose at the same time.

27. Blake Wheeler is on pace for 17 goals and 97 points, which puts him close to a unique accomplishment. No player has ever totalled 100 points with fewer than 20 goals. Four were close: Wayne Gretzky (23 goals and 102 points, 1995–96), Brian Leetch (22 and 102, 1991–92), Adam Oates (23 and 102, 1989–90) and Joe Thornton (22 and 114, 2006–07). But Wheeler’s got a chance to be all alone.

28. How important is Dustin Byfuglien to the Jets? When he got hurt on Dec. 29, the team’s power-play goal leaders were Patrik Laine (10), Mark Scheifele (7) and Kyle Connor (6). Without that bomb to keep everyone honest, those three combined for just one (Connor) in Byfuglien’s absence. Meanwhile, the second unit caught fire with Jack Roslovic scoring five times and Bryan Little twice. (Roslovic’s since been promoted to the top group, with Laine dropped down.)

Since I’m an overwhelmingly positive person, it is only fair to point out that Scheifele and Wheeler have not let their power-play struggles affect their five-on-five performance. Both are top 16 in the NHL in even-strength points.

29. A couple of weeks ago, we mentioned Arizona State goalie Joey Daccord, who looks like a shrewd late-round pick by Ottawa. (He can be a free agent this summer.)

The Sun Devils have built something out of nothing, currently ranked 12th in the NCAA, and teams are taking notice. Two other free agents are being watched by NHL clubs. Phoenix-born Johnny Walker — who will be 23 in August — leads the country with 22 goals. He went to Columbus’s development camp last summer. The other is team captain Brinson Pasichnuk, a 21-year-old defender from Bonnyville, Alta. He’s second in team scoring behind Walker and attended development camps with Arizona, Minnesota and Montreal.

30. Does anyone else in the Eastern time zone miss that post-All-Star Western Conference break where we all got to sleep at a decent hour?

31. I prefer this blog to be a politics-free zone, but there are times you have to stand for something. Last week was very difficult for autism families in Ontario. The changes are being spun as a good thing, but they aren’t. Wait times are going to be eliminated — which should be positive — but the trade-off is a slash in funding amounts, crushing those who legitimately need help to purchase the necessary therapy. People are being labelled as professional protestors, but they aren’t. (Seriously, that accusation is embarrassing.) They are parents worried about the futures of their children, young boys and girls who can succeed with the proper teaching. The problem, as I see it, is that recommendations from parents and professionals are ignored; experts in the field aren’t consulted at all. There’s no question that this is a complex problem, but the architects of the plan could use better intel. The challenge of navigating the spectrum toughens your skin. These families will not give up their fight.

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