The Washington Capitals may have won the Stanley Cup five days ago, but it won’t be long before rosters begin turning over.
Just four days after Pittsburgh won the Cup last year, Montreal went heavy into the trade market by moving Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin. The NHL’s buyout window opens on June 15 at 12:01 a.m. ET, which could add to the free agent pool and open up space for teams to explore bigger trades. The draft, which goes June 22-23 in Dallas, has become a huge trading period for both picks and players. And then of course there’s Canada Day, July 1, when the free agent market opens and teams let the money fly.
You can bet the rumour mill will only heat up the closer we get to the draft and free agency.
This NHL off-season is set to be another exciting one, with no shortage of trade candidates or storylines to watch unfold. And as it goes on over the next few weeks, we’ll keep you up to date on the buzz around the league.
ILYA KOVALCHUK MAKES A TRIP TO CALIFORNIA
After spending the past five seasons in the KHL, we’re about to find out how much 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk has left in the tank.
The reigning KHL scoring champion, Kovalchuk left the NHL in 2013 with 417 goals in 816 games, a 0.511 career goals-per-game mark that ranks 18th-best in NHL history and behind only Alex Ovechkin (0.605) and Steven Stamkos (0.524) among active skaters. Any team that needs to add scoring this summer will be interested in Kovalchuk, though there is some risk here. Not only has Kovalchuk spent the past five years playing in a lower league, but since he’s 35 if a team wants to buy him out at a later date it won’t get any cap relief.
He can’t officially sign anywhere until July 1 like any other UFA, but Kovalchuk has already started talking to teams.
“As we know, Kovalchuk is touring the West Coast, but I think the Islanders are big into that, too,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman told Boomer and Warrener on Calgary 960. “He was out in L.A. and San Jose on the weekend. I can see Anaheim not being interested just both for cap reasons and it doesn’t really fit their philosophy — they’re not a team that goes big into the Russian market.”
The Los Angeles Kings are a team still trying to change and adapt themselves to an NHL that’s getting quicker by the day, and move away from a heavy hockey style they won a couple Stanley Cups with, but a style that seems to be fading out. The Kings had the 16th-best offence and 17th-best power play in the NHL this past season and are very thin production-wise up front. Anze Kopitar may have scored 35 goals and 92 points, but a big reason why he’s a Hart Trophy finalist is that he posted 31 more points than the next-highest King.
The biggest need for Los Angeles is to add scoring this summer, and Friedman noted they’ve already begun their due diligence.
“I think they were in on (Jeff) Skinner, I don’t know if they still are,” Friedman said. “I think they were in on (Max) Pacioretty. Kovalchuk fits with what they’re trying to do.”
But if Kovalchuk is coming back to the NHL with the Stanley Cup as his primary goal, the San Jose Sharks are an interesting potential destination. The Sharks had the 13th-best offence averaging 3.01 goals per game in 2017-18 and reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They already signed Evander Kane to a massive extension with a $7-million cap hit, and figure to be players for John Tavares and could still bring Joe Thornton back.
On top of money and a chance to contend, San Jose can offer a bit of a comfort factor with the head coach they have.
“They got a lot of cap room and Peter DeBoer went to a Stanley Cup Final with Kovalchuk and I think their relationship was pretty decent,” Friedman continued.
Beyond just these two California teams, the list of potential suitors for Kovalchuk is a long one. The New York Rangers have long been rumoured as the top destination of choice, and though they have shifted a bit and signalled a minor re-tool/rebuild, local columnist Larry Brooks thinks it would be a mistake to not pursue Kovalchuk.
The New York Islanders will be motivated buyers this summer as they try to get back on track under Lou Lamoriello, who signed Kovalchuk to his last NHL deal with the New Jersey Devils. Neither of these teams looks primed to offer Kovalchuk a chance at a Stanley Cup, however.
Both New York teams do have more than $24 million in cap space, though, and could offer enough money to make Kovalchuk think twice.
The St. Louis Blues and their 24th-ranked offence are another potential landing spot and the Detroit Red Wings, who have $17.3 million in cap room, have also reportedly shown interest. According to Friedman, Kovalchuk has also met with the Florida Panthers.
“Ilya’s doing the right thing, he’s building up the interest so that will benefit him at the end you would expect,” Friedman said.
ISLANDERS WORKING ON WAYS TO ENTICE TAVARES?
The No. 1 storyline heading into the summer is what’s going to happen with John Tavares. If he goes unsigned and hits the open market on July 1, the 27-year-old would be the most impactful and in-his-prime player to become a UFA in the salary cap era and could, potentially, end up as the highest-paid player in the league under that scenario. The Islanders could also trade his rights to another team before July 1, which would signal a break in negotiations.
In the meantime, Lamoriello can get to work on improving the roster to help him give a better pitch to Tavares.
“I still think there’s a chance he’s going back. I do think that Tavares is looking for them to give him a reason to stay,” Friedman told Evanka Osmak. “I do expect the Islanders to be big on (Kovalchuk) and I think the Islanders are going to be big on (Philipp) Grubauer too, the goaltender in Washington. They gotta show Tavares they’re going to make improvement. I believe they plan to do that and I don’t think it’s over yet between Tavares and the Islanders.”
ERIK KARLSSON MARKET MORE FAVOURABLE FOR SENATORS?
There is no shortage of big names who could be moved via trade, or free agency, this summer but one of them appears to be off the board.
Although Oliver Ekman-Larsson can’t officially sign an extension with Arizona until July 1, reports have surfaced that he has a verbal agreement with the team on an eight-year extension that would lock him in place for the long term.
Formerly one of the bigger tickets potentially available, the removal of Ekman-Larsson from the trade market narrows it a bit and helps a team looking to trade a high-end blueliner of its own, or for a UFA who could be looking for a new home. So the main beneficiaries of OEL’s extensions could be UFA-to-be John Carlson, and the Ottawa Senators.
“I think the one thing about the Ekman-Larsson signing is it takes one big name off the market,” Friedman said. “A lot of people are expecting (Drew) Doughty’s going to re-sign in L.A. until they’re told differently, so if you’re looking for a defenceman there’s John Carlson, who’s a free agent this year — unrestricted — and there’s Erik Karlsson if he doesn’t re-sign in Ottawa. And I do think this is going to drive up the market for Erik.”
Like Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson is one year away from unrestricted free agency and can sign an extension with Ottawa no earlier than July 1. But after a tough season for the Senators where there was plenty of disconnect between the team’s fans, its owner, and all sorts of speculation that Karlsson could be traded at the deadline, this move seems the most likely blue line blockbuster to happen.
However, since the Senators have to either give up their first-round pick this year or next to Colorado as a condition of the Matt Duchene trade (and they’ve indicated they’ll keep this year’s), they’d surely be interested in getting some collection of futures back for their star player.
“I think Vegas is interested,” Friedman said. “I think they were pretty close to getting him at the deadline — that deal fell apart.”
In his 31 Thoughts column this week, Friedman noted that Cody Glass was a hang-up in getting a Karlsson-to-Vegas deal done in February. Although the Golden Knights enjoyed instant success in their inaugural season, GM George McPhee has always had a goal to be stable for the long term and the one area he wasn’t guaranteed anything in when he picked the Vegas team a year ago was draft picks. This team is still building out a pool of prospects from scratch and already traded away its 2018 first-rounder in the Tomas Tatar trade, leaving it with one pick in the first three rounds this summer.
Glass was the sixth-overall pick by Vegas last summer and he scored 37 goals and 102 points in the WHL this season. He is the Golden Knights’ top prospect, which likely won’t change until he arrives in the pro ranks.