The dog days of summer are quickly coming to an end and the return of the NHL is on the horizon.
Next week we’ll see some rookie camps opening and the week after we’ll see NHL training camps start up. Position battles and player hype is upon us, but there are still plenty of unresolved off-season storylines to watch that could carry on into the new season.
Here are some things to keep an eye on in the last few days of the hockey off-season.
LOTS OF BIG RFAs STILL WITHOUT A CONTRACT
The Ottawa Senators made a substantial signing on Friday, inking 23-year-old Drake Batherson to a six-year deal with a $4.975 million AAV. Coming off a 17-goal season, the Sens are banking on Batherson with this long-term deal and it’ll be a relief they have one young and important piece in place for a while.
But their most important RFA is still without a deal.
Brady Tkachuk could be a future captain on this team if he’s there for the long haul, but it’s possible a bridge contract could be up first. Tkachuk, who turns 22 later this month, also had 17 goals last season and has true star upside. Anything less than a long-term deal here and Sens fans might already start becoming concerned about if he’ll stay when UFA years hit.
What would the price of a long-term commitment be for Tkachuk? Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, taken two spots ahead of Tkachuk in the 2018 draft, signed a max eight-year extension this summer at an AAV of $7.75 million. That’s a good starting point for Tkachuk, too.
But the market isn’t 100 per cent clear yet because Ottawa is far from the only team dealing with an unsigned RFA of great significance.
The Vancouver Canucks have two franchise cornerstones still without a contract in Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. Vancouver has roughly $10.6 million in projected cap space, per CapFriendly, and though they could still create a bit more room, this lack of wiggle room might make it more likely that one or both of these players ends up with a bridge contract.
In terms of market precedent for Hughes, Dallas re-signed Miro Heiskanen to an eight-year extension with a $8.45 million AAV this summer. Heiskanen was the third-overall selection in the 2017 draft and though he didn’t perform at quite the same level in his third season as he did in his first two, Heiskanen was still productive and is one of the better young defenders in the game today. Cale Makar, the fourth-overall pick in 2017, signed a six-year extension with Colorado that bought up two UFA seasons and came with a $9 million AAV. But Makar was a Norris Trophy finalist last season.
Making things more interesting is that Hughes was the seventh-overall pick in the 2018 draft and the first player chosen that season, Rasmus Dahlin, is another RFA defenceman without a contract. Though draft capital is of lesser concern than actual on-ice play — where Hughes has had greater NHL achievements — that dynamic will surely be an influencing factor for both players.
With Pettersson, the Canucks have the top producing forward from the 2017 draft so far. The top pick that year, Nico Hischier, is about to enter the second season of a seven-year pact he signed with the Devils that pays $7.25 million per season. On a long-term deal, Pettersson would figure to come at a higher price point than either Hischier or Svechnikov.
Another notable unsigned RFA is Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov, who took the league by storm in 2021 and won the Calder Trophy with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games as a 24-year-old. A late arriver to the NHL after he played out his KHL contract with CSKA Moscow, Kaprizov is in a different position than the younger RFAs because he is only three years away from being UFA eligible. And that makes these negotiations a bit more tricky.
According to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, the two sides had very different ideas of what an extension would look like early on in negotiations. While the Wild, understandably, were pushing for a seven- or eight-year deal around a $9 million AAV, Kaprizov’s camp was more inclined to go three years and walk right to UFA eligibility. That’s about the worst outcome for the team, though.
As negotiations continue, last week Russo reported that both sides seem to be making compromises to make a deal work, with Kaprizov willing to sign over some UFA years and the Wild open to less than max term. Kaprizov did not have any NHL leverage this summer since he wasn’t arbitration or offer sheet eligible, but there was a threat that he could instead return to the KHL. Wild GM Bill Guerin said he never took that too seriously and, in fact, the 2021-22 KHL season began on Sept. 1.
JACK EICHEL: THE BIGGEST TRADE ASSET STILL TO BE MOVED
“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. The most important thing now is to get healthy and be ready to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
Ever since that Jack Eichel sound bite in May, the table has been set for one of the top young centres in the league to be traded. But it hasn’t been so simple. Centres of his caliber are so rarely traded that finding a comparable deal to shoot for is next to impossible. And since Eichel still has five years left on his contract, the Sabres don’t have to be in a rush to move him.
Still, this feels like an irreparable relationship that is headed in one direction.
The NHL and NHLPA have gotten involved in the dispute between the team and player on how to approach treatment for his neck injury, with Eichel desiring a disk replacement surgery that hasn’t been performed on an NHL player yet, and the Sabres preferring rest.
Adding to the intrigue is that Eichel changed agents to Pat Brisson in late-August. A month earlier Eichel’s prior representation released a statement that they had fully expected him to have been traded before the opening of free agency in July. That, of course, didn’t happen.
The asking price remains high and the injury uncertainty does add some level of risk for a $10-million player.
THE CALGARY FLAMES AND A SURPRISINGLY QUIET OFF-SEASON
There were a number of teams we expected to be busy changing over some personnel this off-season, mostly because they were sort of stuck without an obvious path to improvement forward.
The Philadelphia Flyers were one and they made a few trades, rebuilt their blue line and swapped Jakub Voracek for Cam Atkinson. The Buffalo Sabres were another, and they moved Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart, plus an Eichel trade remains probable. The Minnesota Wild were on this list, and while they didn’t go about trading much, the move to buy out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter figures to have a massive impact in the locker room and carries salary cap implications for the next few years.
And then there’s the Calgary Flames.
GM Brad Treliving had to replace his coach last season, bringing back Darryl Sutter to try and get more out of this group. It didn’t work. At the end of the season in a Q&A with Eric Francis, Treliving said his team was “in a downward cycle at this point” and that seemed to set the table to a busy off-season.
Johnny Gaudreau‘s name had been a popular one in the trade rumour mill for a couple years leading to this point. First the question was whether or not he’d be traded with two years left on his contract to get ahead of having to move him as a rental. Then, this summer, there was lots of talk about possibly moving on from him before a modified no-trade clause kicked in. But when Gaudreau spoke, he talked about wanting to re-sign in Calgary.
So if Gaudreau wouldn’t be traded, what about Sean Monahan? You’d surely be selling low on him after a 28-point season. Matthew Tkachuk? He used to be on a captaincy track here — and perhaps still could be — but he also didn’t play to his usual level throughout 2021 and his long-term fit with the team came into question.
Calgary has yet to make an off-season trade of consequence and Blake Coleman (six years, $4.9 million AAV) was the most notable UFA signing brought in. That has to be one made with playoffs in mind.
At the same time, the Flames lost their captain, Mark Giordano, to Seattle in the expansion draft for nothing — which means they already figure to return with a worse blue line than a year ago, and more weight will fall on Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson. After a truly disappointing season and a rather quiet off-season, the question now is how do the Flames come back a better team?
Perhaps there is some hope that returning to the Pacific Division will lead to an easier path to the playoffs. Vegas and Edmonton would be the two best bets to qualify from that division, but after that there’s a whole lot of uncertainty and opportunity. Is that enough?
Gaudreau is now heading into the last year of his deal, after which he’ll be a UFA. Tkachuk has one year left on his contract before becoming an RFA and he’ll be just one more year away from being UFA-eligible himself. Long-term decisions need to be made on these players soon and you have to wonder how wise it is to keep pushing ahead with a team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2015.
Treliving will certainly be on any “GM hot seat” lists this season and that, too, should bring some urgency. Not afraid to make big splash trades, can he still find one before the season, or will the Flames really kick key decisions down the road, run it back and hope for the best?
EVANDER KANE AND THE SAN JOSE SHARKS
Multiple off-ice issues have surrounded Evander Kane this year, including a messy public divorce, and a bankruptcy filing that raised the question if his contract would be voided by the team.
According to The Athletic, Kane’s relationship with some of his teammates may be irreparable as well due to a disrespect of team rules and poor practice habits.
“Guys were going into Doug’s office all year long,” a source told Kevin Kurz, “saying Kane had to go. … All Doug would say is, ‘All teams have locker-room issues,’ which just isn’t true. Not the teams that win, anyway.”
But the unresolved Sharks storylines go beyond Kane’s troubles.
For most of the salary-cap era, this was one of the NHL’s most consistently strong teams even though they didn’t win a Stanley Cup. We’re talking four conference final appearances and one Stanley Cup final appearance from 2006 to 2019 — just two years ago they got six wins away from winning it all.
But for the past two years now the Sharks have been near the bottom of the standings, and had to forfeit a top-five pick to Ottawa in the 2020 draft to complete the Erik Karlsson trade that has been a whiff. And now we wonder if there’s anything to salvage here, or if they can get back to relevancy without a significant rebuild.
Tomas Hertl is heading into the last year of his contract, after which he’ll be a UFA. A possible trade candidate, Hertl recently spoke to a Czech news outlet and wasn’t sure about his future with the Sharks, saying he’d start this season and see how it turns out.
The Sharks finally bought out goalie Martin Jones this summer after they had the league’s worst netminding two years in a row, but now James Reimer and Adin Hill will be tasked to lead them back. They still haven’t gotten over the loss of Joe Pavelski in the locker room or on the ice.
An issue remains that the Sharks seem to have already made their salary cap bets. Five players (Kane, Karlsson, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), combine to make $41.5 million against the cap and they all have at least four years of term left on those deals. The next wave of talent isn’t obvious and if these players continue to underwhelm it figures to be another long year for the Sharks.
How GM Doug Wilson chooses to proceed from here will be a storyline to watch.