Quick Shifts: Why some compelling RFAs could become UFAs

Sportsnet's Brian Burke joins The Leadoff to discuss when the 2020-21 NHL season will most likely start and that the NHL wants to push it back to see if it's possible to bring back fans.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Alas, our final blog of the longest hockey season ever.

1. Can you ever recall such a flurry of off-ice action during the Stanley Cup Final?

This bizarre year has us pounding out a blog in the middle of a championship back-to-back as general managers sign off on trades, multi-year extensions and headline-making buyouts between the most important whistles of the season.

Commissioner Gary Bettman traditionally prefers teams not involved in the Final to stay quiet in the shadows and keep the spotlight on the games, but with a truncated off-season schedule and a tougher cap puzzle to solve, the other 29 GMs have no choice but to work.

Focus will soon zero in on the draft and free agency, but there is another key date to remember.

Qualifying offers for restricted free agents are due by Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. ET. Those offers can begin to be accepted on Oct. 9 and expire on Oct. 18.

Quick refresher: If an RFA is not qualified, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Qualifying offers to players making a minimum of $1 million must be equal to their current salary.

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It will be worth paying attention to see who does not get qualified this season, with teams pinching pennies to appease owners and fall in line with a flat salary cap.

The team might even like its player but not at his current salary and could try to strike a deal for less in advance.

We scanned the pending RFA crop for a few players that will at least raise questions before being handed a qualifying offer:

• Leafs GM Kyle Dubas likes the versatility of the recently acquired Evan Rodrigues. But does he like a single-digit-goal guy at $2 million in his bottom six?

• Columbus only dressed forward Devin Shore twice in the post-season. Does a fringe forward on an offence-starved franchise deserve $2.4 million?

• Calgary’s Mark Jankowski isn’t making a ton of money ($1.75 million), but that price point is getting harder to justify.

• The bruising Brett Ritchie, 27, has essentially been a bust in his brief Boston tenure, but is it worth $1 million to keep him for depth and hope he feels renewed at training camp?

Jake Virtanen provided 18 goals for $1.5 million, which looks like fine value on paper. Yet Jim Benning was not impressed by the 24-year-old’s post-season. If cap-tight Vancouver can’t locate a trading partner in the next couple of weeks, do they make an effort to at least retain Virtanen’s negotiating rights?

This one is especially tricky because Virtanen has arbitration rights, and his offensive numbers should result in a raise, further stressing Benning’s cap picture.


2. The Ottawa Senators had been trying to weasel out of Bobby Ryan’s contract for a while. In the 2018 off-season, they tried their darnedest to package Ryan with superstar Erik Karlsson, their ultimate trade bait.

The trade buzz reached a point that Ryan asked Karlsson to give him a heads-up as soon as he heard anything. Karlsson was “gracious enough” to always keep Ryan in the loop.

“I thought a couple points this summer I was gone,” Ryan told me when we sat down at training camp that September. As fate would have it, Karlsson was being traded to San Jose that very day, but like the Golden Knights and other suitors, the Sharks didn’t have room for Ryan’s contract either.

It’s not the player. It’s the paperwork.

During our chat two Septembers ago, the forthcoming, affable Ryan didn’t agree when I asked if he felt the same way about his cumbersome contract (seven years, $50.75 million) that Roberto Luongo once thought about his in Vancouver. That it sucked.

“People are free to say it. I didn’t ask for the contract. That’s why you pay an agent, and that’s why they negotiate with people across the hall,” Ryan said that day at camp.

“A lot of people probably feel that way. I don’t. My contract is alright with me.”

He smiled a smile worth a million bucks.

“I understand the ramifications of it, but that’s the business side. I get to be pretty isolated. I go home. I turn my phone off and enjoy my time away,” he went on.

“I just learned a long time ago to control what you can control.”

Flash forward two autumns, and the Bill Masterton Trophy winner has never been in so much control as he will be this weekend. He’s got the upper hand on his demons, and the whole hockey world is in his corner.

We needn’t look any further than the Stanley Cup Final to see bought-out veterans contributing to contenders. Kevin Shattenkirk. Corey Perry. Zach Bogosian. Andrej Sekera.

Ryan is only 33. Last season he was a plus-player on a bad team. We can’t wait to see what he can accomplish slotted properly and without the weight of a cap hit that was near-impossible to live up to.

He’ll have some control over where that is.

3. I did not include Ryan on my list of buyout candidates for the next two weeks because I figured the Senators would need a couple NHLers to go along with all those prospects and draft picks.

The line that so often accompanied Ryan’s contract in Ottawa sports bars was, “Well, at least it gets us to the floor.”

The Senators’ projected cap hit Saturday morning is a league-low $38.24 million. That is $43.26 million below a 2020-21 ceiling they have no intention of sniffing and $22 million below the $60.24 million floor. Currently, the Sens have a grand total of three NHL forwards under contract.

By the time Pierre Dorion re-ups with his long line of RFAs — Anthony Duclair, Connor Brown, Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, et al. — and signs another goalie, he should be able to qualify his roster for play.

Eugene Melnyk is taking this thing right down to the wood.

A serious concern should be surrounding all those exciting kids with enough veterans. There is something to be said for earning a spot in the show, not just being handed one because, hey, entry-level deals are cheap.

Curious if the Senators use any of their extra space to take on other clubs’ LTIR issues. Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler is the biggie. Although the Ducks are still in rebuild mode themselves, they could use a little breathing room.

Another smart route would be finding useful pros in the final year of their deal that can be strong examples for the young group but flipped for futures at the 2021 deadline.

4. I recall reading about how, generally speaking, gold medallists and bronze medallists leave the Olympics with the greatest sense of accomplishment. Nothing beats gold, of course. And the bronze winners were excited to have reached the podium and fly home with a memento.

The silver medallists and fourth-place finishers have the toughest go, because they tend to agonize about how close they were to another level of recognition.

So, in that spirit, here’s a little love for the fourth-place finishers for the major NHL awards, all of whom narrowly missed on the prestige and press of being a finalist:

Hart Trophy – David Pastrnak
Norris Trophy – Alex Pietrangelo
Vezina Trophy – Jacob Markstrom
Calder Trophy – Adam Fox
Selke Trophy – Anthony Cirelli
Jack Adams Award – Craig Berube
GM of the Year – Joe Sakic
Lady Byng Trophy – Jaccob Slavin

5. Connor McDavid rallied from the most complicated of knee injuries to score the second-most points (97 in 64 games) yet only finished fifth in Hart voting. He also failed to make the First — or Second — All-Star Team, ending a three-year streak.

McDavid is often referred to as the best hockey player on the planet, yet the trophy case (one Hart in five seasons; only twice a finalist) hardly reflects that notion.

We often talk about NHL parity in terms of teams, but the league’s MVP award has been handed to 11 different players in the past 11 years. Incredible.

The Hart has been around since 1923-24. Never in its history has it enjoyed a hot-potato run like this.

6. Patric Hornqvist said he was “blindsided” by his trade to the Florida Panthers this week. After all, the 33-year-old negotiated a no-trade clause for a reason.

When you discover that one team wants you and one doesn’t, waiving your no-trade suddenly makes sense. Sticking around out of spite isn’t much fun.

“It was an easy choice for me and my family,” Hornqvist said Friday, on his first Zoom call as a Panther. “You don’t think this question is going to come up. When it came up, I took my time to go through every scenario.”

The shake-up will have ripple effects for both Bill Zito and Jim Rutherford’s clubs.

In Pittsburgh, Mike Matheson joins Marcus Pettersson as young left-shot defencemen under cost-certain deals through 2024-25. Rutherford has no interest in trading lefty Brian Dumoulin, who is on a reasonable deal through 2022-23. Can a cap team afford to pay a fourth LD — Jack Johnson — $3.25 million for each of the next three seasons?

If he can’t be traded, add Johnson to your buyout radar.

In Florida, Matheson’s removal frees up some blueline money to give RFA MacKenzie Weegar a raise, and Hornqvist instantly becomes the oldest forward under contract.

This is a move as much to up the work ethic in Sunrise as it is for the 40-some points Hornqvist can contribute by crashing the crease.

“I know I bring a lot of energy,” Hornqvist said. “I bring leadership. I play hard every shift. Nothing is going to change with whatever jersey I’m wearing. I’m super excited for this opportunity. I think they have a great group of young core players. [Aleksander] Barkov is probably the most underrated player in the league. I’m excited to play with them. With the coach we have, too, he knows what we need to win. That’s a reason why they want me here.”

Hornqvist’s arrival is also insurance for the possible departure of wingers Mike Hoffman, Evgeni Dadonov and Erik Haula, all of whom are days away from UFA.

7. Paul MacLean was named an assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday and will serve in an eye-in-the-sky role.

A Jack Adams and Stanley Cup winner, MacLean, 62, balances a young coaching staff with some big-league experience. None of Sheldon Keefe, Manny Malhotra or Dave Hakstol have an NHL playoff series victory while standing on the bench.

MacLean has had a close eye on these Leafs for a while now, spotted at practices and games this past season. And his son, A.J., is an assistant with the Marlies.

8. Like so many annual customs, 2020 threw a wrench into the top prospects’ visit to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s always been cool to observe the young players about to be drafted in the top 10 mingle with established superstars, meet the press and take in a live game.

Instead, we settled for a virtual introduction from their respective homes this week.

Germany’s Tim Stuetzle could go as early as No. 2 overall behind Alexis Lafreniere and set a new benchmark for his country. The Los Angeles Kings have a coin to flip between the NHL-ready Stuetzle and Newmarket, Ont.’s Quinton Byfield, who is said to need more development.

Stuetzle referenced Leon Draisaitl (third overall in 2014) as a motivating force for him and other budding stars in a German program that is on the uprise.

It’s no small thing when the reigning Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay champ reps the same flag.

“Leon really showed everything off. He was an unbelievable role model last season and the year before as well,” Stuetzle said. “Germany is definitely on the right way.”

9. Our A-1 Quote of the Week goes to everyone’s favourite 1B goalie.

When Anton Khudobin saw the Stanley Cup make a sparkling appearance prior to Game 1 of the final, he turned to his Stars teammates with an idea: “Maybe we just steal it and run?”

I’d go to a multiplex mid-pandemic to see Khudobin star in Safe Men sequel.

Seriously: I loved the theatre of having the greatest trophy in sports lording over the on-ice action. If it were for the popularity of the high flip, how great would it be to just hang the Cup like a disco ball from centre ice all series? A constant, glimmering reminder of what it’s all for.

10. Jimmy Howard will turn 37 next season.

His save percentage has fallen in each of the past three years. Among all impending UFA goaltenders, he ranks last with a .883 mark in 2019-20 (minimum 18 appearances).

No doubt, taking the crease behind a tanking team has something to do with that. The market is so flooded with goalies, Howard feels like a tough add. That said, Howard’s refusal to go out without a fight is admirable.

Teams looking to supplement their starter with a 35-plus veteran can also kick tires on Craig Anderson, Mike Smith, Ryan Miller, Brian Elliott and Corey Crawford. Thomas Greiss and Khudobin are 34.

Like Howard, Anderson isn’t ready to call it quits either. He’s working out to be ready to go for his first new team in a decade. The 39-year-old is a realist. The 34 games he played this past season is the type of workload he’s looking for.

11. The 2020 Conn Smythe race feels a lot like the 2015 race — the last time the Lightning were in the final, and the last time a defenceman was crowned MVP of the playoffs.

Much like the ’15 Chicago Blackhawks, the Lightning have reaped the rewards of an incredible 200-foot centreman (Jonathan Toews/Brayden Point), an all-world winger (Patrick Kane/Nikita Kucherov), and a stellar goalie who doesn’t get a large enough slice of the credit pie (Corey Crawford/Andrei Vasilevskiy).

Yet their engine is a defenceman who does it all and plays roughly half a game.

If the Lightning triumph, here’s betting Victor Hedman is correctly acknowledged with the Conn Smythe, just as Duncan Keith was when he helped crush Hedman’s dream five years ago.

12. Goofy story from the New York Post.

Four Hillsborough County police officers rushed to a Florida man’s house when it reported he was yelling, “Shoot! Shoot!” inside his home.

Turns out, Devon Garnett and his buddies were simply urging the Tampa Bay Lightning to fire the puck during Game 3.

“They came to the door and thought there were guns in the house. We’re like, ‘Nope, we’re just screaming for Steven Stamkos,” Garnett told the outlet. “[They] completely understood and just laughed it off.”

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