While the Stanley Cup is still going on, the rest of the NHL’s 29 teams are in full off-season mode. The free-agent negotiation window opens in just two-and-a-half weeks on June 23, but teams will want to know before then whether or not their players (especially UFAs) will stay put, or if the GM needs to begin engaging on Plan B.
“I think in the next few days we’re going to learn a lot more about some of these UFAs and whether they’re staying in their situations or if they’re going,” Elliotte Friedman said on the latest 31 Thoughts Podcast. “That’s I think the next big story outside of the Cup Final.”
On top of that, the NHL Draft is quickly coming up and with the combine over rumours are picking up around what might happen this year. In 2018 we saw the blockbuster Carolina-Calgary trade, but aside from that most of the pre-draft speculation didn’t come to fruition. This year could be different, with various teams reportedly open to dealing a pick in the first round.
Here’s the latest buzz from around the NHL.
COULD NIKITA ZAITSEV LAND IN VANCOUVER?
It’s no secret that after a good start to his NHL career in 2016-17, Nikita Zaitsev has struggled in Toronto the past two seasons. A story out of Russia last week quoted a frustrated Zaitsev and then reports surfaced that the Maple Leafs were working with the player and his agent to find a trade to a new home. Zaitsev has a modified no-trade clause and can list 10 teams to which he would not accept a deal.
Because of his struggles the past two seasons, plus a contract that still runs another five years with a $4.5-million cap hit, the general assumption is that Zaitsev doesn’t come with much value and that Toronto may not find much of a market for the 27-year-old without adding a valuable asset. But that may not end up being true.
“I think he gets dealt,” Elliotte Friedman said. “Look, teams are always looking for right shot D. And Zaitsev — the issue there is more term than money, the five years left. I just think that because you’re always looking for defencemen in this league there is a fit there, again it just depends on how the return looks. How much do teams want Toronto to eat of it? You’re not going to need a huge sweetener to make it happen because I think there’s people who believe Zaitsev was just really unhappy in Toronto and a quieter change of scenery will just be better for him.”
One of the teams that could be interested in him are the Vancouver Canucks. The expectations around Canada’s western-most team in 2019-20 are starting to shift where eyes will be on reaching the playoffs, which is leading to some speculation that this could be a busy off-season for GM Jim Benning.
Most of that work for the Canucks could be second-tier players or depth further down the lineup. There have been rumours in the past that they could make a big offer on UFA defenceman Erik Karlsson, but NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger indicated otherwise when talking to Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver.
“I talked to Jim Benning a couple days ago,” he said. “He does want to add to the defence, but the one thing he is steadfast — and he said the same thing to me before the trade deadline — he is not going to trade away assets, a.k.a. draft picks or young players, to try for the instant fix. I just don’t see them making the big splash.”
Benning joined Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver on Wednesday to talk about the difference in the summer plan from last year to this year.
“There’s a lot of conversations going on right now,” he said. “This year our needs have shifted. We’re looking if we can add players we want to try to add top-four defencemen, or top-six forwards to continue to help out our young players and their development.”
In the meantime, the Canucks have their own presumably big-money RFA to get under contract. Brock Boeser has 55 goals in 131 NHL games, but didn’t play more than 69 games in either of his first two seasons. He’s part of this summer’s loaded class of high-end RFAs, but there doesn’t appear to be any imminent contract signing.
THE IMPLICATIONS IN SAN JOSE IF ERIK KARLSSON LEAVES
The Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan stirred up the emotions and excitement of some Canadian fans with his report on Tuesday that Erik Karlsson was hoping “to receive competitive offers” from the Montreal Canadiens and even his former team, the Ottawa Senators.
Sportsnet.ca columnists Eric Engels and Wayne Scanlan weighed in from Montreal and Ottawa, respectively. The takeaway from those: the Habs could really expedite their rebuild with Karlsson and should go all-in to get him, but that the ship has sailed in Ottawa, where all the focus and resources are on building again from the ground up.
But there are still rumblings Karlsson could end up right back in San Jose. They are the only team that can sign him to an eight-year extension. Over the weekend, Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada that Karlsson was “taking a long, hard look” at staying with the Sharks, as he wants to win and San Jose is a perennial powerhouse. It’s a situation that could become more clear by the end of the week. As always, the Tampa Bay Lightning remain an option, though their GM Julien BriseBois would need to bend over backwards to limbo under the salary cap.
If Karlsson does sign elsewhere it leaves the Sharks with all sorts of implications. San Jose has a projected $24.7 million in cap room this summer, and that’s without not just Karlsson, but other UFAs Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Joe Pavelski, who curiously hasn’t already signed a deal.
“I think they’ve got a lot of balls in the air,” Friedman noted. “Depending on what happens with Karlsson I think they could try to keep Nyquist. I think they could try to keep Donskoi, though that’s not a big number. One thing I’m just not sure about is Pavelski. As we sit here at the beginning of June there’s a lot of talk that he’s going to test free agency, but a lot could change between now and then.”
WHY YOU’RE HEARING THE NAMES T.J. BRODIE/TRAVIS HAMONIC IN CALGARY’S TRADE RUMOUR MILL
Flames GM Brad Treliving is no stranger to big summer blockbusters. Last summer it was sending Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. In June 2017 he sent three draft picks to the Islanders for Travis Hamonic. Now, after finishing first in the Western Conference only to get bounced by Colorado in the first round, the expectation is that Treliving will again be busy on the trade market trying to tweak and upgrade his team for a playoff run.
The two names that come up most often are defencemen T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic. Friedman noted he didn’t believe Treliving was necessarily eager to move either, and that this speculation has more to do with roster strength and team needs than anything else.
“There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence there,” he told Pinder and Steinberg on Sportsnet 960 in Calgary. “Your strength is your back end, you know who you’re not trading, so all of a sudden you’re sitting here with two names. And I think the other thing that’s a factor is both those guys are a year away from their contracts being up.
“I just think one of the reasons you’re hearing those names is they are the most logical names from Calgary’s biggest area of strength.”
With Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund already occupying the top two centre spots, the Flames could explore options to acquire a new third-line pivot. Nazem Kadri’s name has been floated in rumours out of Toronto and there would be no shortage of suitors for him, so it may turn out to be a bidding war Treliving chooses to not engage in.
Michael Frolik is also expected to be dealt this summer and after watching UFA signing James Neal struggle to just seven goals this past season, the more glaring area of need may be a scoring winger.
And of course, there’s lots to figure out in net. David Rittich is an RFA, but Mike Smith took over the No. 1 job by the end of the season and he is a UFA. Will Calgary be able to get him under a new contract, or have to look elsewhere this summer?
LOTS OF DRAFT PICKS COULD BE ON THE MOVE
It would be a shock to see either New Jersey or the Rangers trade the first- and second-overall selections. In some order, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko will go to those teams and then the feeling is the draft really starts at three. At that point, it’s unclear who the best prospect is, whether it’s defenceman Bowen Byram, centre Alex Turcotte, or some other wild card (perhaps Vasily Podkolzin who has two years left on his KHL contract). But also, the Blackhawks appear willing to move the pick.
“I think there’s a lot of teams willing to move around,” Friedman said. “That’s the No. 1 thing I’m hearing… There’s a lot of talk at the combine of teams willing to move around. Down, up all over the place.
“Depending on what (the Blackhawks) do, teams are telling me there’s a lot of talk about movement because obviously teams are going to value some of these guys very differently.”
The Colorado Avalanche hold two first-round picks — Ottawa’s at No. 4 overall, and their own at 16. The general belief is they’ll use No. 4 to add a high-end prospect, but that it’s entirely possible the 16th overall could be in play to add something to the roster, likely to their forward unit which lacks scoring depth. GM Joe Sakic has already said this off-season that he plans on acting aggressively.
And how about the Philadelphia Flyers? The 31 Thoughts Podcast discussed that ownership was lacking patience and was itching for this team to get back into the playoffs. That was part of the reason Ron Hextall was fired as GM during the season, while new GM Chuck Fletcher had to settle the trade speculation upon his arrival. Now in the summer, all bets are off, and local beat reporters are suggesting the 11th-overall pick could be in play.
At the combine, Fletcher himself said there was no league-wide consensus on the ranking of prospects from Nos. 3-10, so every team could end up happy with who they get. Speaking to NHL.com, Fletcher noted he felt “pretty strongly the player available to us at 11 … we’ll have ranked somewhere between 5-8.”
On one hand, perhaps that creates an environment where the Flyers are happy to stay put and select that player. On the other, it could mean that someone another team has ranked that highly falls to 11, pushing them into trade talks with the Flyers.
Overall, there are five teams with multiple first-round draft picks this year, and all of them could make things interesting on June 21 if they choose to leverage one of them in a deal.
COULD MARLEAU END UP IN ANAHEIM?
It’s no secret Marleau and the Maple Leafs are “ready to part ways” this summer. Marleau will be 40 years old by the time next season starts and his $6.25-million cap hit is becoming too much of a burden for the Maple Leafs, who are beginning to tighten against the cap ceiling.
Given Marleau has a no-movement clause he will have final say on any move. The preference would be to head back out West to be closer to his family, who Nick Kypreos said on Saturday are “going to move back to San Jose.” As discussed above, the Sharks have plenty to figure out on their own, so a simple return to his original team may not be in the cards. Colorado, Arizona and the Los Angeles Kings are other potential suitors, but Friedman explained on Sportsnet 960 in Calgary why another Pacific Division team may be where Marleau ultimately ends up.
“I’ve heard Arizona, what they wanted was way too high. They weren’t willing to do it without a serious, serious incentive. I’ve heard Colorado was really not that interested. I don’t think San Jose is interested. And that leaves L.A., which was kind of out, but I think Toronto knows what L.A. is willing to do.
“The one interesting team I’m curious about is Anaheim. Remember a few years ago when Marleau was in San Jose and he asked for a trade? Anaheim was one of the teams he wanted to go to. And when he signed with the Leafs, Anaheim and San Jose were the other two teams at the end. I don’t know what the Ducks are willing to do or not do, but I just think it could be an option. Right now I don’t think there’s a lot of places Toronto can go.”
Ryan Kesler is likely to miss next season in Anaheim, so placing him on LTIR could save up to $6.875 million. And there certainly is a hunger to try something different in Anaheim after another season that fell short of expectations.
“We’ve got to turn it over and change it,” Murray said during Anaheim’s locker clean out in April. “It all depends on how far we want to go.”