If the two best words in hockey are “game seven,” the most exciting words to see paired when it comes to off-ice activity are “pressure point.”
Whether it’s the trade deadline, the NHL draft, or the days that directly bookend the start of free agency, there are specific times throughout the hockey calendar that spur movement. The start of a new season represents another period when things come to a head, as teams are finally forced to deal with issues they’ve been able to duck through the dog days of the off-season, including salary cap crunches, stalled contract negotiations and — once in a while — a good ol’ fashioned disgruntled player.
The last time we had September-based training camps, the defending-champion St. Louis Blues acquired Justin Faulk from the Carolina Hurricanes and singed him to a $45-million extension he wasn’t going to get from the Canes. One year prior to that, enormous subplots in Montreal and Ottawa were at long last resolved when the Canadiens dealt Max Pacioretty to Vegas (more on Max later) and the Sens sent Erik Karlsson to the Sharks in moves that occurred with less than a month to go before puck-drop on a new campaign.
As we inch closer to an abbreviated season everyone hopes is coming, there are lingering situations around the league that could — and, in some cases, must — be resolved before the first game of the 2021 campaign. The most intriguing ones are listed below.
Tampa Bay’s Cap Crunch
The Bolts have signed one of two key RFAs this off-season — Mikhail Sergachev put pen to paper on Nov. 25, while Anthony Cirelli has yet to agree on terms — and we’re now in the “No, really” stage of questioning how the defending champs will get under the cap. Not long after they won the Cup, speculation flared up that Tampa would at least explore the option of clearing $8.5 million by dealing Steven Stamkos. The captain, of course, has a no-move clause and by the time you eliminate the teams he’d have no interest in playing for and those that simply can’t fit him under their own cap, the list of legit suitors evaporates fast.
Alex Killorn — who can only veto trades to 16 teams — has long heard his name come up in the context of being a cap causality. He’s a great player who makes $4.5 million against the cap for the next three years. Tampa could surely find a dance partner there, but that likely won’t loosen the belt enough once Cirelli signs.
Vegas’s Cap Crunch
Somehow the Golden Knights are circled as a team that both needs to shed money, yet also could be in on the aforementioned Stamkos if he becomes available. Say this about Vegas’s swashbuckling hockey club; it sure adopted the no-inhibitions mentality of its city.
The Alex Pietrangelo in, Nate Schmidt out equation still leaves Vegas in a position where it needs to make a move. Names like Pacioretty, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Marchessault have cycled through the rumour mill. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said in October that Fleury wouldn’t be traded, and in fact the Knights could be relying heavily on the original franchise face since batterymate Robin Lehner had off-season shoulder surgery. Owner Bill Foley recently said Pacioretty isn’t going anywhere, so perhaps there’s fireless smoke there.
Regardless, there are titillating forces at play because Vegas is all-in, has to do something, and has a well-established willingness to make upper-case moves.
If Vegas is a fast-twitch muscle when it comes to monster transactions, Winnipeg moves at the speed of a finger nail. Famously patient GM Kevin Cheveldayoff won’t be rushed into anything and there’s plenty of reason to fret about trading Laine at all. Still, this situation hasn’t seemed completely healthy in a long time and this off-season saw what feels like the most serious version of talks around the fact Laine won’t be happy unless he’s guaranteed a spot on Winnipeg’s top line.
We’ve mentioned the role pressure points play in making deals happen. Well, Laine is now essentially seven months away from becoming an RFA for the second time in three summers. He’s also creeping closer and closer to being able to leave for nothing as a UFA, which is basically why Winnipeg finally parted ways with Jacob Trouba — another guy who never felt long for Manitoba — ahead of the 2019 NHL Draft.
Laine would be an attractive player to all sorts of teams, so if one of them will cough up, maybe this finally happens.
New York Islanders’ Cap Crunch
When much of the fall and early winter is spent wondering if there will be a season at all, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact one of the best young stars in the game — Mathew Barzal — is still without a contract. Getting Barzal inked looked like it was going to require some serious inge-Lou-ity (2020 has robbed of us of so much; we get to keep dorky puns) from GM Lou Lamoriello, but the math changed when Johnny Boychuk retired due to an eye injury. The blue-liner’s $6-million hit can now move onto long-term injury reserve, thus creating some breathing room for a New York club that already bit down and shipped out up-and-coming defenceman Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche because it didn’t have the room to offer him a new deal.
We know at last year’s trade deadline the Islanders and Minnesota Wild went way down the path toward a deal that would have seen Zach Parise move east and send Andrew Ladd to the State of Hockey. Ladd has three years remaining on a hit of $5.5 million against the cap, so while the Islanders would need to inject a serious sweetener, a rebuilding team devoid of cap concerns might be amenable to acquiring a solid citizen who’s won a Cup and served as captain of an NHL club.
In theory, the book was closed on this when the Arizona Coyotes failed to meet OEL’s demands of being moved before the start of free agency to either the Vancouver Canucks or Boston Bruins. The Canucks subsequently acquired Schmidt from Vegas, so we’ll assume they won’t soon be adding another defenceman — particularly one with an AAV of $8.25 million.
Boston, however, could still be lurking in the weeds. The B’s certainly don’t have a ton of cap space, but if they make the pieces line up, it’s conceivable they could still add the 29-year-old Ekman-Larsson to a club that’s about to get its final kicks at the can.
And, of course, if the career Coyote agrees to expand the list of teams he’d consider, new ’Zona GM Bill Armstrong could certainly make something work.