Down Goes Brown: NHL headlines we’d like to see, but won’t

Hockey Central's John Shannon joins Evanka Osmak to discuss where John Tavares might end up signing if he leaves the New York Islanders.

After a relatively quiet draft weekend, it feels like we’re on the verge of some serious fireworks in the NHL off-season. There are plenty of big names still on the trade block, lots of teams with roster holes to fill, and the free-agency window for teams to talk to players is open.

We’re going to see some major headlines over the next few days. But which ones? That’s the multimillion-dollar question.

But if history is any indication, we can safely predict that whatever happens, it won’t be what you were hoping for. It never is. That’s just how the NHL works. So we might as well take some time now to get excited over what could happen, before we’re inevitably let down by what actually does.

In that spirit, here are a half-dozen headlines that I’d like to see over the next few days (but almost certainly won’t).

1) “John Tavares signs a one-year max deal”

The idea works something like this: Instead of signing a contract for the maximum length (eight years with the Islanders, seven years with anyone else), John Tavares should sign a one-year deal for the maximum dollar value. That would come in just under $16 million, and would make Tavares the highest-paid player in the history of the league in terms of full-season cap hit.

This one is hardly a new concept. In fact, in recent weeks it’s bubbled up from the fringes of hockey thinking to become a fairly regular talking point in Tavares speculation. And let’s be honest, at least part of that is because it’s a scenario that would favour the big-market Maple Leafs.

But there’s another good reason: It kind of makes sense.

That sort of contract would be essentially unheard of in the NHL. We occasionally see short-term deals signed by young RFAs, or by veteran UFAs nearing the end of their career. But an established star in his prime? Those guys almost always go for the longest deal they can get.

But look beyond the hockey world, and the idea starts to feel a little more familiar. NBA players have been willing to sign short contracts; LeBron James set the trend of stars signing one-year deals, and he’s made a fortune doing it. James seems like a pretty smart guy, so if the tactic is good enough for him, you’d think other athletes might at least want to consider it.

Why count out John Tavares winning with the Islanders?
June 26 2018

Would it be the right move for Tavares? From a purely financial perspective, sure. He’d almost certainly come out ahead on total dollars in the long run, perhaps significantly so. And he’d have control over his future, with the ability to leave a situation that wasn’t working and seek greener pastures elsewhere. That could give him a chance to try out a new home like Toronto, San Jose or Dallas. But it could also mean giving the Islanders one more year to get their act together and sell him on finishing his career there.

There would be downsides. For one, there’s the small but non-zero risk of an injury that torpedoes his long-term value. More importantly, it’s quite possible that Tavares isn’t enjoying his UFA journey, and isn’t eager to sign up to do it all over again a year from now. There’s something to be said for settling into a sense of permanence, even if it ultimately costs you a few dollars down the line.

But from a fan’s perspective, it would be fun to see Tavares blow up some long-held assumptions over how free agency is supposed to work. It feels inevitable that some NHL star will eventually go this route, and when it happens it will scramble our expectations of what an offseason looks like. It might even encourage more players to go to the market, and breathe new life into a UFA process that’s been getting dull over the years.

Tavares is in the perfect position to be that guy. He probably won’t, and if he chooses security and stability nobody will be able to blame him. But a little bit of short-term thinking would make things very interesting over the next few days.


2) “Somebody signs an offer sheet”

Somebody. Anybody. It doesn’t even have to be a major star. Just give us some sort of sign that NHL GMs remember these things exist.

As always, there’s no shortage of players who would make sense to target. And as always, the most likely outcome is that we make it through the summer without a single offer sheet being signed. That’s because the current system is broken, and the incentives for GMs to be aggressive just aren’t there.

Could this year be different? You can’t rule it out, and there are a handful of players who could be worth watching. For example, there’s Toronto’s William Nylander. The Leafs are loaded with young talent that’s about to get very expensive, and a rival team might want to make sure that happens as quickly as possible. The Leafs would almost certainly match, but forcing them to shell out more than necessary on the deal could cost the Leafs the final piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle someday down the line. And if the Leafs were to somehow pry Tavares away from the Islanders, Lou Lamoriello would almost have to fire off a retaliatory offer sheet just out of spite, wouldn’t he?

Mark Stone is another obvious candidate. With the Senators looking like a tire fire and Eugene Melnyk’s notoriously tight budget in play, the winger might just be looking for a ticket out. If you want to get particularly nasty, you could point out that the Avalanche should try to pluck Stone away. Remember, if anyone knows about signing big offer sheets, it’s Joe Sakic. And the Avs would end up either weakening the Senators’ roster or crippling their budget heading into a year in which Colorado holds Ottawa’s first-round pick, increasing their odds of seeing the Matt Duchene trade morph into Jack Hughes.

Speaking of which…

3) “The Ottawa Senators buy insurance”

One of the off-season’s early subplots involved that draft pick that the Senators owed the Avalanche. On Friday, Ottawa went ahead and used their own pick to select Brady Tkachuk, which means they’ll have to send next year’s first to Colorado. That pick won’t have any sort of lottery protection on it, meaning it could end up falling in the top three. It was a tough choice, but the Senators ultimately decided to take the risk, and now what’s done is done.

Or is it?

While the Avalanche now own the Sens’ unprotected pick, there’s nothing that says the two teams can’t circle back and work out an additional layer to the deal, with Colorado agreeing to put some kind of protection on the pick in exchange for an asset or two right now. The two teams could agree that if the pick ends up being in the top three (or four or five or whatever), Ottawa would keep it and Colorado would get the 2020 pick instead. Essentially, the Senators would be buying insurance against the worst-case scenario of suffering through a miserable season and then winning the lottery with a pick they no longer own.

What would that kind of insurance policy cost? I have no idea. Nobody does, because it would be essentially unprecedented. We know the approximate price to rent a top-six forward at the trade deadline, or to move up a few spots in the first round of the draft, because we’ve seen plenty of those deals in the past. This would be something new, and it would be fascinating to see where the Senators and Avalanche could settle on a fair return.

One thing we do know: It wouldn’t be cheap. If it were, there’d be no reason for the Avalanche to even consider it. From the Senators’ perspective, this is the equivalent to buying car insurance after you’ve already been in an accident, but before you know just how bad the damage might be. It won’t come at a discount. Sakic would hold all the leverage here, and he’d no doubt want to use it to extract as much as he could.

Maybe that means it wouldn’t be worth it, and it’s better for Pierre Dorion to just accept the risk and let the chips fall where they may rather than deal from a position of weakness. But if he’s feeling creative – or desperate – it might be worth a phone call or two to find out what Sakic would want. And if so, it would give the rest of us a new category of trade to debate.

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4) “The free-agent market for depth goes cold”

It happens every year. We get to July 1, there are a handful of impact players available, and just about everyone else falls into the category of depth pieces. They’re good players, the kind that can help a team, but they’re not exactly make-or-break additions.

And yet, NHL teams rush to throw money and term at them. Inevitably, many of those deals end up being the worst signings of the summer. Within a year or two, the players are buyout candidates, or being shopped as a salary dump. All because some GM decided they absolutely had to ice a third line that featured David Clarkson or Matt Beleskey or Dave Bolland or Ville Leino or whoever.

It never makes sense. If you have a shot at an elite talent like Tavares, then sure, you pay what you need to pay and sort out the cap implications later. But when you’re filling out your middle six or your third pairing, spending big money on a long-term commitment seems like a path to disaster. And it almost always works out that way.

But maybe this is the year that we see the market for depth go cold. It’s been trending that way over recent years, albeit slowly. But this year, something happened that should make every GM stop and think: The Vegas Golden Knights.

We all assumed the Knights would be terrible, and they nearly won the Stanley Cup. How did they do it? Coaching, goaltending and a little bit of luck were part of the equation, as they always are for good teams. But what set the Knights apart was guys like William Karlsson. He was viewed as a fringe NHLer in Columbus, but turned into a 40-goal scorer when given an opportunity to move up the lineup in Vegas. He was the extreme case, and almost certainly an outlier, but the Knights had plenty of other players who exceeded expectations once they were given a chance.

If you’re an NHL GM, you have to wonder if you have any players on your roster who could do the same. You probably don’t, at least not at the Karlsson level. But wouldn’t it be worth trying to find out, rather than spending millions to plug a hole with an expensive veteran contract you’ll almost immediately regret? Why not leave a few key lineup spots open heading into the season, and see if anybody shows you something you weren’t expecting?

If worse comes to worst and you get to the end of October without anybody stepping up, there should be plenty of useful veteran free agents still looking for a contract. And by that point, those guys won’t cost you top dollar anymore.

Maybe you don’t end up getting your first choice, or that guy your coach had 10 years ago and absolutely loves. But you also don’t get an albatross to hang on your cap situation. And as the Knights showed, there’s at least a chance that somebody you never suspected ends up surprising you.

5) “The Golden Knights sign everyone”

Whether you loved them or hated them or fell somewhere in between, there wasn’t a more interesting story from last season than the Knights’ run to the Cup final. So let’s keep the party going. Let’s have the Knights spend the summer signing just about every star player on the market.

They have the cap room, especially if they let some of their own UFAs walk. Right now, Vegas has about $30 million to spend, which could be enough to lock down four or five top free agents, and maybe more. So let’s do this, George McPhee.

Granted, we’re already off to a bad start on this one, since the Knights missed out on Ilya Kovalchuk and are reportedly not one of the five teams invited to the first wave of Tavares pitches. But even with that early stumble, the Knights could still emerge as the off-season’s top destination. The city is all sorts of fun, the state has no taxes, and the team went to the final last year. They check every box that a typical UFA is looking for.

So let’s get crazy. Have the team call a press conference for noon on July 1. Do it up with the usual Vegas trappings – laser shows, rock concerts, the whole bit. Have the knight come out and fight a sad-looking fan from a traditional market muttering about doing things the right away. Then have them unveil Rick Nash, Paul Stastny, Jack Johnson, Mike Green and James van Riemsdyk. Have them each wear a different colour, then form into a super-UFA like Voltron.

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Does this directly contradict the last point about promoting from within instead of throwing money at free agents? Sure. But it would be fun, for two reasons. First, the NHL has never really had a super-team during the cap era, and that concept sure seems to be working OK for the NBA. Watching a team put together an all-star roster in an all-out attempt to buy a championship would be fascinating.

But you know what would be even more fun? Watching that super-team fail. Find an old-time hockey fan and ask them about the year the Red Wings went crazy at the trade deadline, or the time the Avalanche signed Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne on the same day. Both of those teams face-planted with their new acquisitions, and it was great. The Knights would probably do it, too. After all, everybody seems to already think that they’ll regress next year, and maybe even miss the playoffs altogether. And when has the entire hockey world ever been wrong about the Vegas Golden Knights?

So do it, Vegas. Give us all something to hate. Sign every big-name UFA you can find.

Well, except for one…

6) “The Maple Leafs sign Joe Thornton

Allow me to close with one blatant homer pick. I want to see Thornton come to Toronto.

There’s virtually no chance of it happening. Thornton seems to want to stay in San Jose, and why wouldn’t he? He’s been there for over a decade, and it’s hard to imagine a better place to play hockey for a living. And if for some reason the Sharks didn’t bring him back, he presumably wouldn’t be looking to pack up and move all the way across the continent to find a new team. It’s not happening.

But it would be great if it did.

For one thing, the Leafs need a centre. And they’ll have plenty of cap room for the kind of one-year deal a veteran like Thornton would presumably be looking for. He could even reunite with old pal Patrick Marleau. Sure, you’d have to mend some fences with Nazem Kadri, but if Michael Peca can forgive Darcy Tucker then there’s hope.

Would pairing the player who can never win the Cup with the franchise that can never win the Cup be a good idea? Well… maybe, right? It would be like a double negative. It’s like your parents always used to say: Two wrongs make a right. I’m pretty sure that’s what they said.

But even if the move didn’t help the Leafs win, it would at least make them more fun to watch. Imagine Thornton strolling shirtless down the street, only this time with hundreds of screeching Leaf fans chasing after him like he’s Justin Bieber. And really, what better way to celebrate the end of the Lou Lamoriello era than by bringing in the league’s most famous beard?

Also, it would mean that Kyle Dubas could still get some use out of the “JT + TML 4EVER” chest tattoo that he got for the Tavares presentation. So there’s that.

I don’t ask for much, Maple Leafs. For once, let’s make your fans happy on UFA day.

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