Beyond the Headlines: Leafs’ Matthews will set bar for pending RFAs

Ron MacLean, Nick Kypreos, Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston get you all caught up on the latest new in the NHL on this week's rendition of Saturday Headlines.

They had some fun with us at the San Jose Sharks practice rink this week.

Chuckling, head coach Peter DeBoer said “I love the noise Toronto creates” amid a series of questions about Erik Karlsson’s snakebitten start. Then Brent Burns turned his scrum into an impromptu quiz on Joe Thornton’s career achievements, greeting an unanswered question with a chirp: “You’re the Toronto media. You guys got to know everything, no?”

Joe Pavelski had the best one of all. While answering a Maple Leafs-related query, he snuck in this quip: “You guys need a few more Nylander articles out there. It’s kind of been quiet lately.”

Point taken, Joe.

We’ll let it breathe on Nylander this weekend.

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But it’s hard not to look at the protracted standoff on his second NHL contract and wonder if it might be repeated again next fall. Young players are making a larger impact than ever before around the league and wanting to be paid accordingly — especially with a career lasting beyond their early 30’s far from guaranteed.

On Sunday morning, four of the league’s top-15 scorers were players on an expiring entry-level deal: Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen (first, 29 points), Toronto’s Mitch Marner (third, 26 points), Tampa’s Brayden Point (ninth, 24 points) and Carolina’s Sebastian Aho (14th, 23 points).

Among the other pending Group 2 free agents in need of a new deal? Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser and Columbus’ Zach Werenski.

The Matthews contract, in particular, will likely prove to be a bar-setter for the entire group — just as the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl extensions directly impacted those that came after summer 2017.

You have to believe Matthews will become priority No. 1 for Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas once the Nylander situation is resolved. An in-season extension makes a lot of sense.

The player’s leverage will increase as of July 1 and the threat of an offer sheet gets closer, and there’s no way he wants a repeat of what’s happened with Nylander with either Matthews or Marner.

PAVELSKI’S DEAL

Amid all of the discussion on L’Affaire Nylander, there’s been next to no talk about Pavelski’s own situation: The lifelong Shark is among those approaching unrestricted free agency.

It doesn’t sound as if there’s been any meaningful conversation yet on an extension for the 34-year-old forward, whose red-hot of late and has 13 goals through 21 games.
That makes some sense.

The future is now in San Jose. The organization has a decision to make on Karlsson this summer and a lot can change depending on how the season unfolds.

For his part, the Sharks captain says he’s taken some lessons from seeing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau endure similar situations in years gone by. He’s gained a new appreciation for how well they handled it.

“Obviously you probably understand the things they’ve gone through in the past a little bit better,” said Pavelski. “They’ve never taken away from the group and it’s never been a distraction. You just respect them as people for how they want to contribute to the group.”

You can count on the 205th pick from 2003 following that lowkey example.

Among NHL players taken in the seventh round, I’ve got him in my top five all-time: 1. Doug Gilmour, 2. Henrik Zetterberg, 3. Pavelski, 4. Cliff Ronning, 5. Andrew Brunette.

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TRADE TALK

In the wake of this week’s Carl Hagelin-for-Tanner Pearson swap, the struggling teams who hooked up on that deal are proceeding differently.

The Los Angeles Kings are likely to wait and see how things play out with Hagelin in the fold before making any further changes. The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t likely to stop at the Pearson addition — not while sitting last in the Eastern Conference and with Elliotte Friedman reporting on “Headlines” that GM Jim Rutherford is still anxious to deal.

The problem for Pittsburgh is determining where to go next.

We’ve heard the name of 21-year-old winger Daniel Sprong in the rumour mill. Olli Maatta’s has been there as well. There have even been some renewed whispers about Phil Kessel’s availability — although the Penguins need more scoring behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, not less, and Kessel has an eye-popping 115 points to show for his last 100 games.

There aren’t any obvious answers for a team pressed right up against the salary cap and weathering another sluggish start. But Rutherford is a riverboat gambler armed with a new three-year extension and he’s never been one to sit idly by.

SENS EXTENSIONS

The Ottawa Senators can’t officially get Mark Stone’s signature on an extension until Jan. 1, but you can’t blame them for wanting to start those conversations early.

While colleague Nick Kypreos mused on “Headlines” about Ottawa’s willingness to include heavy signing bonuses in a potential deal, it was notable that Kyper also reported that negotiations are set to begin next month.

Stone is on pace for a career-best 94 points and could be the next Senators captain if signed to a long-term extension.

Ottawa’s other notable UFA, Matt Duchene, is also off to an extremely productive start. He’s on pace for 98 points.

Duchene’s agent, Pat Brisson, met with Senators GM Pierre Dorion in Toronto earlier this week to further their discussion on his future.

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JET SET

This we know: the Winnipeg Jets recalled 2017 first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen one day after his KHL rights were transferred from SKA St. Petersburg to Jokerit Helsinki and one day before the European out-clause in his contract was set to kick in.

This we don’t: Is there enough of a role to be carved out for the 19-year-old winger among the Jets deep forward group to justify keeping him in the NHL?

For now, Vesalainen is skating with the big team. If he’s sent back to the American Hockey League this season, he has the right to continue his development back home in Finland.

SEATTLE CALLING

When the general managers met earlier this week in Toronto, they were told the timing of Seattle’s anticipated entrance into the league remains open. The NHL isn’t convinced the KeyArena revitalization can be completed in time for an October 2020 start, which would push it back to October 2021.

But that’s not how they’re approaching things on the ground.

The NHL Seattle group is keeping a low profile in advance of the Dec. 3-4 Board of Governors meeting where they’ll officially be granted a franchise, but they did confirm via a statement that they remained focused on a launch 22 months from now:

“NHL Seattle recognizes that its ability to begin to play in 2020 is dependent on the Arena being finished on time. We are confident that we will have a completed arena in time for the 2020 season and we will work closely with the NHL to keep them informed of our progress.”

This of high interest to GMs because it will impact the timing of an expansion draft.

If Seattle starts in 2020, current rookies like Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be exempt from the process. Should it be delayed until 2021, those players will have to use up one of their team’s protection slots.

NASH SIGHTING

There was a Rick Nash sighting this week on the Twitter account of his longtime agent Joe Resnick — the first we’ve seen of him since the playoffs ended with the Boston Bruins in the spring.

Nash drew interest from multiple teams before July 1, but decided to take a step back from the free-agent process while still dealing with concussion symptoms. He’s now living in Columbus with his wife and three kids and remains undecided on a potential playing future.

At some in the next month or two, he’ll likely decide if this it.

Either way, it’s nice to see him looking happy and healthy.

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