Quick Shifts: Beware of the 4 teams with extra first-round picks

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. This week's blog was written outside the blue.

1. Hockey executives, in general, are a rather conservative bunch. They loathe to part with a high first-round draft picks and risk missing out on an elite talent (or ticking off their owner or their fan base).

But those mid-to-late Round 1 tickets, especially for teams with another first-rounder in the bank, have a much greater tendency to be in play for trades.

The 2020 NHL Draft took forever to get a hard date, but now we have one — Oct. 6 — and it’s less than four weeks away.

So, with the trade winds a-blowing, it’s worth keeping an eye on the four teams with extra first-round selections, particularly the two rebuilding clubs who’ve hoarded three first-rounders. Make ’em an offer.

New York Rangers (picks 1 and 22): While no one should anticipate Jeff Gorton dealing away his lucky golden ticket for Alexis Lafreniere, the 22nd-overall pick could be in play. Obtained from Carolina via February’s Brady Skjei trade, Gorton could dangle that pick in attempt to bolster his roster right now. New York is looking to boost its centre depth and improve the left side of its blueline. There’s precedent here: In the days leading up to the 2019 draft, Gorton used his late first-rounder to help bring Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg.

Ottawa Senators (picks 3, 5 and 28): An organization rich in picks and prospects, the Sens have an incredible nine picks in the first three rounds and 13 in total. “We know we’re going to get two impactful players,” Dorion said of his third- and fifth-overall choices. Yes, the rebuilding club is content to stock its cupboards, but make an offer on the 28th-overall pick Dorion acquired from the Islanders in the Jean-Gabriel Pageau deal. At some point, the Sens need to sign or acquire some actual NHLers.

Anaheim Ducks (picks 6 and 27): Of all the clubs with extra first-rounders, Anaheim might be best off to gather as much high-end young talent as possible. GM Bob Murray certainly obtained good value at the deadline by dealing Ondrej Kase to the Boston Bruins for the 27th-overall pick. (Kase underwhelmed in Beantown, failing to score a goal in 17 appearances.) But Murray sounded less than patient with his group’s poor showing this season, and the fact he was rumoured to be interested in Kasperi Kapanen trade talks suggests he might be in the market for proven players.

New Jersey Devils (picks 7, 18 and 20): Few teams will have the cap flexibility Tom Fitzgerald inherited in January. The new guy has already proven adept at moving out assets, but we’re about to get a sense of his vision for building around core pieces like Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and Mackenzie Blackwood. We’d be shocked if Fitzgerald doesn’t use his seventh-overall choice in a class with a loaded top 10. But does the rookie GM get creative with the 18th (via Arizona) and 20th (via Vancouver) overall choices?

2. The catch with the Washington Capitals’ consideration of a recently fired head coach like Mike Babcock, Peter Laviolette or Gerard Gallant is picking up the majority of the salary they’re already owed.

Babcock’s record-setting $5.875-million annual salary is guaranteed through June 30, 2023.

If/when he lands a new gig, the Toronto Maple Leafs must pick up whatever portion of his new salary is left over to make him whole.

As we detailed earlier this season, the Leafs could argue that his new employer must pay Babcock a market-representative salary. Babcock’s closest comparables would be Claude Julien and Todd McLellan, each of whom earns in the ballpark of $5 million.

Theoretically, if the Capitals (or whomever) decide Babcock is their guy, they’ll have to reach an agreement with the Maple Leafs on this.

“It’s not the right approach, but sometimes emotions get in the way. I’ve had this happen where I’ve literally had to negotiate with both sides,” Neil Glasberg of PBI Sports & Entertainment explained. Glasberg is a professional negotiator and personal-brand manager who represents 40-plus coaches (but not Babcock) at the NHL and AHL levels.

“The challenge is, he’s very expensive. He’s at least a $4-million guy.”

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has shown a willingness to spend, but it’s difficult to imagine coaching salaries — riding a crest last year with Florida’s signing of Joel Quenneville — not taking a dive alongside the players’ salaries through the pandemic.

3. Bruins general manager Don Sweeney conducted a virtual debriefing with reporters Wednesday. Here are some key takeaways:

• Sweeney has not spoken with Tuukka Rask directly since Rask left the bubble but reports that his No. 1 goalie and his family are doing well. Sweeney said he has “zero reservations about where Tuukka will be both on and off the ice for us” in 2020-21, Rask’s contract season. “You have to respect his privacy and allow him the latitude to take care of [personal issues],” Sweeney maintained. “And ultimately it hasn’t affected his play on the ice. We have good goaltending, and we’ll continue to do so.”

• The GM said he will “explore opportunities” to re-sign Zdeno Chara, a 43-year-old UFA who wants another deal in Boston. To these ears, Sweeney was certainly respectful but noncommittal on the idea, and he also mentioned the need for one of the oldest teams in the league to get pushed by younger players in the system.

• On UFA-to-be Torey Krug, who has made it clear he is swinging for the fences: “I would be the last person to begrudge any player trying to make the best decision for they and their family, and in a perfect world it's with us, but we know that the world is anything but perfect right about now.”

• The Bruins expect to protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie in the 2021 Seattle expansion draft, although that plan could change based on in-season moves.

4. Kyle Clifford is still wearing a Maple Leafs sweater in his social-media avatar, but fans took notice Tuesday when the impending unrestricted free agent removed his affiliation with his hometown club from his Twitter bio.

Prior to the return to play, both Clifford and the Leafs brass expressed mutual interest in making the bottom-six winger more than a deadline rental, but there is a hitch here, and it’s exasperated by the flat cap.

If Dubas does not re-sign Clifford, he will surrender a 2021 third-round pick to Los Angeles for the trade. But if Dubas does re-sign Clifford, that pick gets automatically upgraded to a second-rounder, a condition Rob Blake shrewdly built in.

Clifford, who will turn 30 in January, is facing his last, best shot at a raise, and Toronto is trying to keep the AAVs on its bottom-six low.

Sounds like both sides will explore their options.

There will be a segment calling for Scarborough-bred UFA Wayne Simmonds to take Clifford’s role of sandpaper veteran winger with decent hands, and Dubas should inquire for sure.

Thing is, Simmonds did not succumb to a discount in 2019 as a free agent, scoring a $5-million deal with some trade protection from a non-contending Devils club.

Dubas, whose priority should be the blue line, might be hard-pressed to outbid rival GMs for the services of bottom-six forwards, even if he appeals to their roots.

5. The New York Islanders’ 8-2 blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 forced the lowest seed remaining into an uphill climb in the Eastern Conference Final. In most corners the laugher — atypical of the Isles’ consistent performance through three rounds — was chalked up to a schedule loss. Rightly so.

What I take issue with is the notion that the Islanders were unfairly punished by only having one day’s rest between rounds and needing to travel two time zones west to be fodder for the rested and ready Lightning.

Firstly, the players have had a voice in the pace of schedule here, and they want to keep it moving in order to be done with the bubble and return to their families.

Secondly, if you don’t want to be at a disadvantage, you need to finish your own opponent off quicker. The Isles were up 3-1 on Philadelphia in the conference semis but allowed the Flyers to hang around for a seventh game. The Lightning earned their extra days off by eliminating Boston — as fine a No. 4 seed you’ll find — swiftly.

I have no problem with Tampa’s Game 1 advantage, which set a strong tone for the series.

6. A small thing but a big thing took place in garbage time of that series-opening game.

Already up by six goals, the Lightning drew a lengthy 5-on-3 power-play in the third period due to consecutive too-many-men and puck-over-glass minors committed by New York.

Despite being given ample time to rest his best players — Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov were each in the throes of a five-point night — during a TV timeout, Lightning coach Jon Cooper refused to give his top power-play unit one second of ice during the 1:49 5-on-3.

Instead, the second power-play unit hopped the boards and completed 20(!) passes before finally getting a long-range shot on net.

Electing not to test the hockey gods or embarrass fellow Athol Murray College of Notre Dame (Wilcox, Sask.) alum Barry Trotz, Cooper followed with a two-man-advantage shift that featured seventh defenceman Luke Schenn and Mikhail Sergachev, plus third-liners Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow.

Cooper’s deployment stands in contrast to an incident in Round 1, when Flyers coach Alain Vigneault publicly blasted Montreal assistant Kirk Muller for throwing the Habs’ top PP unit on the ice late with a 5-0 lead and tried to use it as a rallying point for his own group.

“We had embarrassed ourselves enough. I don’t think we needed to get embarrassed more,” Vigneault had said, post-game. “I’m going to make sure our team is very aware of that next game.”

Cooper made certain to avoid any such pot-stirring or karma-testing.

7. What a weekend to be a Tampa sports junkie.

Not only are the Rays running away with the American League East, but Sunday’s schedule promises to wear out many a 'last channel' button on remotes in West Florida.

Puck drops on Game 4 of the Lightning-Islanders series at 3 p.m. local, and Tom Brady’s Buccaneers kick off their season versus the New Orleans Saints at 4:25 p.m.

“So, we’re going head to head?” Cooper smiled this week.

“The one thing about Tampa sports that I’ve learned: I’ve never felt there’s any competition. We’ve had Rays out to practices. We’ve had multiple Bucs come to games, practices, down to the locker room. And I know they’ve done the same.

“Tampa Bay really pulls for each other. When the Rays made their run a few years ago, that remarkable playoffs they had, we were all in it together.

“I know when Tom signed with the Bucs, everybody on our team was incredibly excited. And then it was a trickle-down effect of everybody else that signed there. So, I think if there’s one big thing coming out of all this, I think the guys are upset that they can’t go to that game. Because I know a lot of them would have.”

8. Jim Benning is in quite the bind, and how he navigates his Vancouver Canucks through this potentially treacherous fall will be fascinating.

RFA Jake Virtanen, 24, represents a particularly tricky case. The winger is coming off his most productive season — 18 goals and 36 points in 69 games — but was ineffective in the playoffs (two goals and three points in 16 games).

“We've been patient with him and his development but he’s a guy who I was expecting to produce more for us,” Benning said on Sportsnet 650.

“I was expecting more from Jake in the playoffs. He can skate, he’s strong, he can get to the net, and he’s a guy that we’re going to have to talk about here moving forward.”

Virtanen holds trade value. Teams love youth and promise, and top-six picks that don’t pan out with their drafting club usually get a second chance.

The Canucks have forward prospects on entry-level deals that can help ease their cap situation in 2020-21, but are they NHL-ready?

Surely, Benning would love to find a way to claw back a pick in the first or second round come October.

9. Benning’s language around pending UFA Jacob Markstrom has changed significantly.

The GM has flipped from projecting confidence that the sides will work something out, as he did on Hockey Night in Canada, to realizing Vancouver might not be able to match what Markstrom is seeking in security.

“Jacob has earned that right if he needs to test the market, if he’s not happy with where we end up,” Benning said during his media rounds this week.

Heck, the executive isn’t certain the Canucks, like many others, will get the green light from ownership to spend to the ceiling.

Tough call for the goalie, who deserves to cash in and has always professed his desire to remain in Vancouver.

A sticking point will be how desperately Markstrom craves a no-movement clause (i.e., a guarantee he won’t be drafted to Seattle in the spring).

No chance Benning can risk exposing Thatcher Demko — whom he has dubbed “our goalie of the future” — to the Kraken. Not after the kid’s performance in the bubble.

10. Nashville centre Mikael Granlund will be testing free agency’s waters on Oct. 9, according to his agent, Todd Diamond (per The Athletic). The Finn has dropped from a 69-point guy to a 49-point guy to a 30-point guy. His production in the post-season has routinely underwhelmed, be it with the Wild or the Predators.

The Kevin Fiala trade appears to be going down as a decisive win for Minnesota.

Would any team offer Granlund a contract in the range of his current $5.75 average annual value?

The sense is middle-class free agents will feel the pandemic squeeze, but some lucky GMs will be able to scoop bargains once the Alex Pietrangelos and Taylor Halls get claimed.

11. How difficult is it to score a playoff goal on the left side of the bracket? Here are the team save percentages in the Western Conference Final through three games:

Dallas Stars: .948
Vegas Golden Knights: .944

And to think, neither side is relying on their No. 1 goalie to start the season.

12. Pavel Datsyuk found the net in his 250th career KHL game this week and already has three points in the three games for Yekaterinburg Automobilist.

Incredible. At age 42, he can still conjure magic.

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