Down Goes Brown: How playoffs have changed NHL off-season outlook

Mark Spector and Sean Reynolds discuss the Nashville Predators eliminating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 and advancing to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

• Shattenkirk’s playoffs may have cost him
• Fleury now the best goalie on trade market
• Draisaitl could get superstar money

The conference finals are always a bit of a weird time for hockey fans. On the one hand, three teams are still alive, fighting tooth and nail for the right to lift the Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more important in this sport than the do-or-die games we’re watching right now.

On the other hand, we’ve got 28 teams on the sidelines, and some of those teams have been there since early April. If we’re being honest, at least some fans are already thinking about the off-season. We’ve got a summer’s worth of trades, free-agency signings, and this year even an expansion draft waiting for us. It can be hard to keep focused on the playoffs without looking ahead.

So which is it, playoffs or off-season? Today, let’s do both. Let’s look at how this year’s playoffs may have changed what we should expect to see in the coming off-season. After all, an especially good or bad playoff run can influence or even completely upend the perception of a player (just ask Dave Bolland). Maybe it shouldn’t — a handful of games shouldn’t change how we view a guy who’s been around for years — but that doesn’t really matter. A few weeks in, the spring can rewrite everything that’s going to happen in the summer.

This year will be no different. Now we just need to figure out who’s changed what. We’ll look at a few key aspects of the off-season, starting with what some GM’s have called the biggest day of the year for off-season mistakes: July 1.

Free agency

There’s nothing like a disappointing playoff run to send a player into unrestricted free agency with a dark cloud hanging over them. Fair or not, a player can cost themselves some serious money with a poorly timed post-season slump.

That may have been what we just saw happen to Kevin Shattenkirk. Widely considered to be the top player on this year’s market, Shattenkirk doubled as the biggest name to move at the trade deadline. He seemed like an ideal fit for a Capitals team that was already the Stanley Cup favourite. But a disappointing playoffs saw Shattenkirk paired with Brooks Orpik, and the two veterans struggled to keep the puck out of their net.

After eight games, Shattenkirk was sitting at a minus-7 rating, a performance that his own coach publicly called “not good enough”. He rebounded somewhat after that, including scoring the OT winner in game three against Pittsburgh. But heading towards July 1, teams will be asking themselves if Shattenkirk deserves to be paid like a top-pairing defenceman, and his playoff performance didn’t give him much evidence to point to.

The Capitals’ other pending UFAs were more of a mixed bag. T.J. Oshie had a productive post-season and probably boosted his value at least a little bit while Karl Azner struggled. Meanwhile, Justin Williams played well but lost his Mr. Game Seven aura against the Penguins.

The deadline’s other top name didn’t fare much better that Shattenkirk. Minnesota’s Martin Hanzal heads into free agency after managing just a single point during the Wild’s abbreviated run. He’s a two-way player who wasn’t brought in to light up the scoreboard, but when your own owner is publicly wishing his team hadn’t traded for you, you may have cost yourself a few dollars.

Brian Elliott‘s playoff run was as short as they come, lasting just four games, but he probably closed a few doors with a shaky performance for the Flames. On the flip side of the coin, Alexander Radulov looked like a beast at times for the Canadiens, and Kris Russell didn’t do his usual Kris Russell things for the Oilers. Other pending UFAs either played through injury (Joe Thornton, Patrick Eaves) or did about what was probably expected (Patrick Marleau, Brian Boyle).

A few of the league’s higher-profile RFAs featured prominently in the playoffs. Ryan Johansen was emerging as a legitimate top-tier centre before an injury ended his season, and Evgeny Kuznetsov was solid for the Caps. Alex Galchenyuk, Sam Bennett and Mikael Granlund may have missed opportunities to boost their value.

And then there was the player who stands as perhaps the playoffs’ biggest winner so far. It’s likely that no pending free agent made himself more money than Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who followed a great regular season with an even better playoffs and may now be in line to earn superstar money on his new deal.

The trade market

The leaguewide trade market has been declining for years, as tight salary caps and risk-averse GMs have combined to make the art of the deal far less a priority than it was a generation ago. But that said, the days around the entry draft remain the one time of year when true blockbusters still seem to be in play. We saw that first-hand on one unforgettable afternoon last summer, and players like Phil Kessel, Cam Talbot, Ryan O’Reilly and Dougie Hamilton have been traded around the draft in recent years.

Typically, the post-season’s biggest impact on the trade market comes from seeing which teams have glaring needs exposed. For example, it’s fair to assume that Marc Bergevin will be under extra pressure to land a centre after this Canadiens team struggled to generate offence during a disappointing first-round exit. Of course, some Habs fans may be reluctant to see Bergevin go to work on the trade market given how this post-season is playing out, but he’ll probably have no choice.

Another factor that Montreal will have to weigh: The Atlantic seems wide open heading into next year. In hindsight, the Ottawa Senators were the division’s most aggressive team at the deadline, and it paid off with a trip to the conference final (and maybe beyond). That success could encourage other teams to be more aggressive; for example, do the Maple Leafs put their first-round pick in play? The Leafs are expected to make a play for a blue liner, and while rebuilding teams aren’t supposed to trade first rounders, Toronto might watch what Ottawa has done and feel like home ice or even a division title is in play.

With apologies to the Habs and Leafs, no team in the East will be under the gun to shake up their roster like the Capitals. Their second-round exit has put just about everyone on the table, including Alex Ovechkin. That seems like a long shot, although after last year’s craziness we can’t consider anyone untouchable. It’s possible that GM Brian MacLellan may decide to stay the course, although it’s hard to imagine that playing well in Washington. So if it’s not Ovechkin, then who? John Carlson‘s name has come up, given that he’s got just one year left on his deal. Under normal circumstances, 27-year-old defencemen don’t get moved, but yet another playoff flameout may have changed the equation in Washington.

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Elsewhere, you’d have to assume that the Blackhawks’ stunning first-round sweep means that Stan Bowman will look to make changes. The Flames will need a goaltender, and missing out on Ben Bishop ups the ante, while the Oilers probably saw any hope of getting decent value back for Jordan Eberle disappear after his playoff no-show. The Rangers may have to consider a blue-line buyout after watching Marc Staal and Dan Girardi struggle. And while there weren’t any Avalanche anywhere near the NHL playoffs, Nathan MacKinnon‘s strong play at the World Championships may make Joe Sakic feel better about finally moving Matt Duchene.

And then there’s the one player who may have done more to change his trade value than anyone else in the league over the last few weeks: Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s long been assumed that the Penguins would trade Fleury and hand the job over to Matt Murray, and it was a minor surprise when it didn’t happen after last season. Instead, the team decided to hold onto the veteran as insurance, and that move paid off when Murray was injured before their playoff opener. Fleury was brilliant in relief before finally relinquishing the job back to Murray after Game 3 against Ottawa.

The Penguins still need to make a move here — they can only protect one goalie in the expansion draft — but the price tag on Fleury has to have gone up. Two months ago, he seemed like a veteran fallback plan for teams that missed out on Bishop; now he may be the best goaltender on the trade market. He has an NMC, which complicates things, and the Stars and Hurricanes have already made their move for goaltenders. But it’s suddenly not all that hard to see the Penguins getting some serious value in exchange for a player who, just a month ago, seemed like a tough sell.

Expansion

Of course, if Fleury isn’t traded, the Penguins will have to figure out a way to either get him to waive his NMC and be exposed, or convince the Golden Knights to pass on Murray. They won’t be the only team with some tough choices to make around the June expansion draft. And a few teams have seen their situations change since the end of the regular season.

For instance, the Ottawa Senators may be viewing their protected list differently based on their Cinderella run. It wasn’t all that long ago that it looked like Bobby Ryan could be made available, given his lacklustre season and big-ticket contract, and there was even some speculation that the Senators might be willing to offer the Golden Knights something to take Ryan off their hands. But that was before Ryan’s post-season transformation into the dominant power forward the Senators thought they were getting when they traded for him four years ago.

While not as extreme, Ottawa has seen a similar playoff renaissance for Dion Phaneuf, which leaves the Senators with four defencemen worth protecting. Phaneuf’s NMC was always going to complicated things, but there had been talk of asking him to waive it in hopes that the Golden Knights would pass on him. That’s no sure thing now, and could end up forcing the Senators to either lose someone like Marc Methot, or pay up to make a side deal with the Knights.

The Ducks are another final-four team facing some tough expansion questions. As one of the few teams expected to protect four defencemen, they’ll only have room to protect one forward apart from the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry/Ryan Kesler trio of NMCs. With both Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell enjoying breakout playoff runs, the Ducks are facing the prospect of losing one to the Knights. They won’t — GM Bob Murray would find a trade partner before he’d lose a key player for nothing — but you’d have to assume that the last few weeks have ratcheted up the urgency to get a deal done.

Other teams are likely updating their plans as the playoffs wear on. The Predators have gone from a team that was likely to protect four defencemen to all but a sure thing, given how good their blue line has looked so far. Zack Kassian has probably moved himself from a question mark to a good bet to be protected in Edmonton, thanks to some timely goals and a pointless performance from Benoit Pouliot. And after yet another serious Kris Letang injury, would the Penguins give any consideration to protecting four defencemen to make sure that Olli Maatta and RFAs Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz could all stay?

Whichever way you slice it, there are 14 GMs out there whose teams didn’t make the playoffs and no doubt wish they’d had a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. But if there’s a bright side to missing out, at least those GMs have had a chance to nail down their off-season approach. Other teams have been updating as they go, and a few are still crumpling up their best-laid plans and tossing them into office wastebaskets with just weeks to go before the full-fledged off-season arrives. It’s a nice problem to have, to be sure, but it’s enough to make an already complicated job a whole lot tougher.

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