Beyond Headlines: Expect trade action before NHL’s holiday freeze

The Hockey Night in Canada panel looks at the biggest news and rumours around the NHL, with Alex Pietrangelo talk heating up around the league and the Maple Leafs needing to lock down Auston Matthews.

‘Beyond Headlines’ is a deeper dive into some of the stories — and even some that weren’t — discussed each week on Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Headlines’ segment.

DUCHENE PICKLE

The Ottawa Senators have been in a pickle since the day Matt Duchene arrived.

Through no fault of the player’s making, the three-team trade that brought Duchene to the nation’s capital 13 months ago stands as a sea-change moment for the organization. It was an all-in move for general manager Pierre Dorion, who ended up shifting course and stripping important parts off his roster almost immediately afterwards.

Now Duchene is at the centre of another crucial decision for the Sens.

The team wants an indication about his future intentions early in the new year, as colleague Nick Kypreos reported on “Headlines,” since it will need to contemplate a trade before the Feb. 25 deadline if he’s not going to sign in Ottawa long-term.

This is a highly nuanced situation.

Duchene likes the city and team, but has played just eight playoff games during his NHL career. Approaching age 28 he wants to be part of a winner. He will also be influenced to some extent by the future of Mark Stone, Ottawa’s other pending UFA forward who can’t sign an extension before Jan. 1.

If Stone stays, there’s a better chance he does, too.

Duchene has preferred to keep his focus largely on hockey this season, but will have some extra time to think big picture after suffering a groin injury on Thursday night that will sideline him for at least a couple weeks, halting a career year.

The Senators, unfortunately, will get a glimpse of life without him.

They are in a win-now mode even while deploying several young players since they don’t own their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. That went to Colorado in the Duchene deal, furthering complicating the decisions to come.

TRADE CHATTER

Kyper certainly made a big headline, tossing right-shot defenceman Alex Pietrangelo’s name into the rumour mill and attaching it to the Toronto Maple Leafs during our “Headlines” segment.

It would take some doozy of a trade for the Leafs and Blues to make that one work — although with the teams going in opposite directions there’s at least the motivation to explore a potential fit.

Elliotte Friedman keyed in on the larger league-wide trend, which is the fact so many of these conversations are being had right now. December is not typically a big trading month in the NHL, but there’s plenty percolating.

The Anaheim Ducks are actively searching for scoring help, even after acquiring Daniel Sprong earlier in the week. The Carolina Hurricanes want a top-six forward. Jim Rutherford is hamstrung by cap issues in Pittsburgh, but there’s no way he’s going to sit idly by with his Penguins out of playoff position.

Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Louis are at the very bottom of the standings and in need of a refresh. They’ve each got assets to sell. Boston could use some offensive help while weathering a steady stream of injury issues. Friedge is hearing that Philadelphia, Minnesota and Florida are actively exploring the trade market as well.

Basically, if you come across an NHL general manager these days, don’t be surprised if he’s got an ear pressed tightly to his cellphone.

“Teams are starting to make deals earlier in the year now,” Ducks GM Bob Murray told reporters on Saturday. “Things were really quiet because of the Toronto-Nylander situation. Since that has been put to bed, there has been a lot more chatter since that time.”

Expect some trade action before the NHL’s holiday roster freeze comes into effect at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 19.

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SIGNING PAPI+PATRIK

Superstars rarely get into their third NHL season before signing their second NHL contract.

Everyone from Connor McDavid to Jack Eichel to Evgeni Malkin to Sidney Crosby was locked up to an extension a year out from the expiry of his entry-level deal. The one notable exception is Alex Ovechkin, who waited until Jan. 10, 2008 — midway through his third season with the Washington Capitals — before signing the landmark $124-million, 13-year contract he’s still playing on today.

Which brings us to Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, each a pending RFA who is currently challenging Ovechkin for the title of the league’s most dangerous scorer.

There is no question about the superstar status of either player. The Nos. 1 and 2 picks from the 2016 draft have delivered on their promise and then some since being called to the stage in Buffalo.

It’s put both Matthews and Laine on the cusp of a massive payday, with the Leafs and Jets arguably having already cost themselves more money by not getting an extension done last summer. Matthews has 16 goals in 16 games this season. Laine has 21 in 28.

Their agents will also now be negotiating off a projected salary cap of $83 million for next season, rather than the $79.5 million it is in 2018-19.

As I reported on “Headlines,” there’s a strong belief inside the industry that Matthews will be a prime target for an offer sheet should he remain unsigned on July 1. I’m led to believe Laine would be as well.

Now, a player has to agree to sign one of those, and there’s no reason to believe either Matthews or Laine is eager to leave a contending team. But if someone comes forward with a seven-year offer at, say, $15 million per, would we expect them to say ‘no’ out of loyalty?

Not likely.

After our second-intermission segment wrapped up on Saturday, Brian Burke was anxious to discuss the potential of an offer sheet in the green room. Remember that he once challenged Kevin Lowe to a barn fight over one of those. Big Burkie agreed with the sentiment that we’re likely to see our first offer sheet this summer since 2012.

“There used to be a code,” he said. “I don’t think these guys care anymore.”

The leverage is shifting towards young NHL players in these type of negotiations.

Especially the superstars.

PHILLY HOMECOMING?

The answer to the longest-running riddle in hockey may come from an unexpected place: As the Philadelphia Flyers ruminate on how to shore up their goaltending — at least until prospect Carter Hart is ready to take the wheel — there are whispers they will take a run at Sergei Bobrovsky on July 1.

Yes, that’s the same Sergei Bobrovsky the Flyers once signed as an undrafted free agent out of Russia. The same Sergei Bobrovsky they traded to Columbus for a second-, third- and fourth-round draft pick, only to see him win the Vezina Trophy twice.

Bobrovsky has posted the NHL’s second-best save percentage (.921) since being dealt to the Blue Jackets in 2012. It’s a strong track record that accounts for his struggles in the first third of this season — struggles that will probably be overlooked by the Flyers, Islanders and others should he hit the open market this summer, as expected.

Philadelphia has cycled through a couple different coaching staffs and front office setups since the Bobrovsky deal (Paul Holmgren, the GM at the time, is now team president), all while trying an alphabet-spanning list of goaltenders that ranges from Alex Lyon to Rob Zepp.

With none of their NHL options signed beyond this season, the Flyers will be looking for another answer this summer. It may just be Bobrovsky.

STUBBORN OWNERS

The playoff believers continue to dream. Undeterred by commissioner Gary Bettman’s strong opposition to an expanded Stanley Cup tournament, there were team owners who made use of the off-hours at this week’s Board of Governors meeting to debate the merits of what that could look like.

At minimum they would love to see the creation of two play-in games in each conference, as we’ve discussed previously on “Headlines.” That’s most easily accomplished with No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 in the East and West.

However, they’ve also kicked around more radical ideas. One governor is even in favour of cutting the regular season back to 78 games and seeing 24 teams qualify for the playoffs — a pie-in-the-sky notion if ever there was one.

“No league has ever regretted adding more teams to its post-season,” he reasoned.

The belief among the playoff truthers is that Bettman will eventually be swayed. They point out that he was vehemently against legalized sports gambling until he wasn’t; that he’s always been willing to shift his position when there’s a way for the league to become more profitable.

With the NHL set to expand again in 2021, that’s the only belief they have to cling to.

The league is growing, but the stubborn owners are going to need to do a lot more lobbying before the playoff pool grows with it.

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