All posts by Connor Keith

2018 Offseason Preview: Minnesota Wild

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Minnesota Wild and their outlook for the summer.

Just like they have for previous five seasons, the Wild’s 2017-18 campaign saw them advance to the playoffs for the sixth-straight year. And, just like they have for the previous two postseasons, the Wild’s 2018 playoffs ended in the first round (in fact, Minnesota has won only one playoff game apiece for the past two seasons) for a third-straight year.

Whether you’d call it idling, treading water or stalling, the point remains the same: the Wild aren’t getting better, and any time a team isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.

Is this a problem that can be resolved this offseason? Or will newly appointed General Manager Paul Fenton be able to duplicate his Nashville success in St. Paul?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

With the 24th-overall pick in this year’s deep draft, the Wild are still in the running for landing an excellent prospect. Personally, I’m leaning towards Minnesota snagging D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Benoit-Olivier Groulx (Halifax Mooseheads), D Jared McIsaac (Halifax Mooseheads) or C Jay O’Brien (Thayer Academy), pending each player’s availability.

Of the 18-year-old defensemen, Alexeyev is the more offensive-minded of the two as his .82 points per game this season is superior to McIsaac’s .72 points per game, but both would make an already dangerous Wild blue line even more lethal.

Determining the better of the two centers is a taller task, as O’Brien is still playing with his high school team (posting 43-37-80 totals in 30 games played) while Groulx has been facing tougher competition in the QMJHL (posting 28-27-55 totals in 68 games played). However, clocking in at 6-foot, 174 pounds at only 18-years-old, O’Brien just might be worth the risk to propel Minnesota forward.

Pending free agents

With both G Devan Dubnyk and G Alex Stalock under contract for at least one more season, the only way there’s something changing here is if Fenton makes a trade – and I doubt he does it.

The Wild have three pending RFA defensemen to make decisions on, the most important of which is soon-to-be 24-year-old D Mathew Dumba. The seventh-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Dumba’s 23:49 time on ice per game is third on his club at his position, while his .61 points per game is second among Wild defensemen with at least two games played.

Minnesota has just under $7.5 million in projected cap space for this upcoming season, but more than $2.55 million of that is going to be heading Dumba’s way (that’s the price at which he signed his last two-year contract).

Without even signing D Ryan Murphy or D Nick Seeler, the Wild would have eight NHL defenseman contracts on their books. Odds are very good that at least one Minnesota defenesman will be shipped off in some sort of trade this offseason, and that number could climb all the way to three.

How am I so confident in that prediction? The Wild also have five free agent forwards to ponder, including primary target W Jason Zucker – a pending RFA. The 59th-overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft posted decent 33-31-64 totals in 82 games played (.78 points per game) from his spot on the first line, scoring the second-most tallies on the team for a career-high.

This Wild team without Zucker would be helpless, so I have a hard time believing Fenton will allow him to wear a different sweater next season if he’s committed to winning now. As such, Zucker will likely improve on his $2 million contract, even if it’s only a one-year deal to get him to his 27th birthday – the graduation into unrestricted free agency.

And just like that, we’ve spent almost $6 million of the $7.5 million available on Dumba and Zucker. As such, Minnesota is likely going to be forced into some uncomfortable trades that could likely damage the team and potentially put its six-year playoff run at risk.

One thing to keep in mind is that, as unsigned restricted free agents, Dumba and Zucker may not be necessarily off the trading table. Both (especially Dumba) will be valuable haggling pieces if the Wild decide to do a retool, but they’ll need to make sure to get the right pieces in return to avoid wasting anymore of Dubnyk’s prime.

2018 Offseason Preview: Anaheim Ducks

The theme of aquatic birds continues in DtFR’s offseason preview series, as it’s time to tackle the Anaheim Ducks’ priorities regarding their pending free agents.

Featuring a playoff roster with an average age of 28.5-years-old, logic would indicate the Ducks are in their prime. However, even though they’ve qualified for the postseason for six-straight seasons, they’ve failed to advance beyond the first round in half of those appearances – including a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks this April.

One of the biggest concerns about this Anaheim club is it plays an old-fashioned, grind-it-out style that simply doesn’t mesh well against the increasingly quicker and technically-sound opponents.

In simpler terms, the Ducks need to get younger and faster.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

One of the easiest ways to get younger is with a solid draft class, and Anaheim will have that opportunity with the 23rd-overall selection.

If one of the mock drafts I’ve compiled (all of which are available at Elite Prospects) are correct, I’d bet on General Manager Bob Murray selecting D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Ryan McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads), D Rasmus Sandin (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP) with his first round selection.

If there’s one thing the Ducks’ scouts know, it’s definitely defense. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are all solid blueliners 26-years-old or younger that will service this organization for years to come, and I’d only expect Alexeyev, Sandin or Wilde to join the group if they’re deemed truly worthy.

That’s what makes McLeod such an attractive option. Even though the 18-year-old is all but ensured at least one more season with the Steelheads, Anaheim’s deep defense gives it the opportunity to invest in restocking its attack.

McLeod had a breakout season in 2017-18, registering 26-44-70 totals in 68 games played (1.03 points per game), followed by 2-3-5 marks in his six postseason appearances. If he can take command of the club following the potential departure of brother F Michael McLeod (12th-overall pick by New Jersey in 2016) and lead Mississauga on a deep playoff run, Anaheim could happen into a stellar young forward.

Pending free agents

Let’s tackle Anaheim’s easiest position first: goaltending. G John Gibson and G Ryan Miller are both under contract for one more season, so the Ducks will likely make no moves in this department. The most important note here is making sure Murray reserves money on the back burner for Gibson next summer (he’ll be an RFA, for those that care about those sorts of things). He currently has a touch over $9 million in cap space this season and a whopping $23 million to play with in 2019-20.

Along the blue line, D Kevin Bieksa (UFA), D Brandon Montour (RFA) and D Andy Welinski (RFA) are all looking for jobs, but I’d argue that only Montour is truly worth a big-time contract.

Montour’s 20:28 time on ice per game was fourth on the team, and the same can be said for his .4 points per game. At 24-years-old, he’ll be worth every penny of any contract he receives to play an imposing presence as a top-four defenseman.

Having just turned 37-years-old Saturday following a 0-8-8, -13 season in 59 games played, it’s hard to see a way Bieksa returns to Anaheim for a fourth season. That makes signing Welinski –  the Ducks’ third-round pick in 2011 – to a low-cost, two-way contract all the easier to swallow.

Instead, the toughest decisions for Anaheim will be made in the forwards room. RW J.T. Brown, W Jason Chimera, C Derek Grant, W Ondrej Kase, F Chris Kelly, LW Nick Ritchie and F Antoine Vermette are all looking for contracts this summer, with all but Kase and Ritchie being of the UFA variety.

Regardless of type, Kase is by far the most important free agent on Anaheim’s plate this summer. He reached the 20-goal plateau in his second season in the NHL, and he needed only 66 games to do it. He may not compare to RW Teemu Selanne (I mean, the Finnish Flash did score 76 goals in his rookie season compared to Kase’s five), but I believe he’s fully ready to climb into a top-six position with F Rickard Rakell to lead this Ducks team when F Ryan Kesler and C Ryan Getzlaf depart.

In a similar fashion, fellow 22-year-old Ritchie should also receive a fresh deal to keep him in Orange County. While not quite the scorer Kase is (he managed only 10-17-27 totals in 76 games played this season), Ritchie is an excellent third-liner that still has more than enough time to develop into a real weapon from his position. Get him a bridge deal for a cap hit under $1.25 million and move on.

Anaheim’s most important UFA is Grant, a player that provided 12-12-24 totals in 66 appearances this season from his position on the fourth line. Coming off a one-year, $650 thousand deal, he’ll likely sign for cheap to give the Ducks four solid centers.

The rest of the UFAs (Brown – 27, Chimera – 39, Kelly – 37, Vermette – 35) either don’t fit with the “get younger” plan or simply aren’t worth the money (looking at you, Brown). Anaheim can either promote a forward from its organization (I like pending RFA F Kalle Kossila) or acquire another from outside to fill its 13th forward position.

2018 Offseason Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Only a few more teams’ offseason previews remain before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft gets started this Friday. First up today is the Pittsburgh Penguins!

The chance to become the NHL’s first official dynasty since the 1983-90 Edmonton Oilers is still available to C Sidney Crosby‘s Penguins, but falling in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Washington Capitals has forced them into a situation that requires another title in 2019.

Among others, the major flaw in this Penguins club during the postseason was clearly a disappearance of the depth scoring that became so expected during their previous two Stanley Cup runs, as well as a defense that – while playing well overall (their 26.6 shots against per game in the playoffs was best of all 16 teams) – had a habit of allowing its few mistakes to become major problems.

Was this just a result of a tired squad, or is General Manager Jim Rutherford going to have to make some major adjustments?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

For any Pittsburgh fans planning on addressing these issues in the draft, you’re in for some bad news: the Penguins’ first round pick belongs to Ottawa as a result of the trade that yielded C Derick Brassard.

Slated to turn 31-years-old this September, Brassard certainly does not provide the Penguins the scoring youth they would have received in the draft (speaking of, I’d expect Ottawa to select C Benoit-Olivier Groulx [Halifax Mooseheads], RW Martin Kaut [HC Dynamo Pardubice], F Isac Lundeström [Luleå HF] or RW Serron Noel [Oshawa Generals] with Pittsburgh’s pick). However, there’s a reason Columbus selected him sixth-overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Under contract for one more year, Brassard is still capable of providing the depth scoring Pittsburgh needs, as he’s notched at least .64 points per game in three of his last four seasons. After a summer off the ice to fully recover from his groin injury, I have no doubt Brassard will make Rutherford’s trade look like an excellent idea.

Pending free agents

With almost $4.8 million to play with, Pittsburgh needs to sign or trade for a minimum of three players just to reach the minimum 20-man roster required by the NHL. That’s not very much wiggle room, especially since that would leave the Pens without a 13th forward and a seventh defenseman.

To put it simply, Rutherford is going to need to put in some serious work if he wants to get his club back to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in four years.

With nine forwards on the current roster, it’s a no-brainer that a minimum of three rosters are going to be added into the mix. If the Penguins elect to change things up in their bottom-six, they’re certainly going to have that option, as W Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, W Bryan Rust, C Riley Sheahan and F Dominik Simon are all pending free agents, with all but Rowney being of the restricted variety.

Of the five, Rust is clearly the most talented offensively, as his 13-25-38 totals in 69 games played are the most of the group. Making him more impressive, Rust bounced all over the Pens’ lineup this season, proving that his numbers weren’t just a result of playing with Crosby or F Evgeni Malkin.

With unrestricted free agency only one year away, odds are very slim of seeing Rust settle for much of a team-friendly deal given his two championship rings. If I were a gambling man, I’d put my chips on Rutherford shipping Rust’s rights to a team that has cap space and needs a proven winner (perhaps F Ryan Dzingel or W Micheal Ferland would be available if Pittsburgh could find an acceptable package).

Sheahan is another player that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wearing a different sweater next season. Though he is still excellent at the face-off dot (he won 54.2 percent of draws this season), it’s hard to justify his 11-21-32 totals (.4 points per game) at the $2.075 million price tag he was awarded in 2016 by Detroit. Unless Sheahan – who will be eligible to test unrestricted free agency following his next contract’s completion – is willing to take a pay cut, he might meet the same fate as Rust.

Of their free agents I’d actually expect the Penguins to resign, Simon looks to be the best bet. Turning 24-years-old in August, the Czech posted 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL appearances this season, spending time on the first and third lines. Considering how good Crosby has made young players look in the past (ex: F Jake Guentzel, W Conor Sheary and Rust), there’s a strong chance Rutherford gives Simon a slight raise to a three-year, $1 million AAV contract to keep him in town.

A resigning of Simon also makes Kuhnhackl expendable if the two parties cannot come to terms on a team-friendly deal. The German provided only 2-6-8 totals in 69 games played from his fourth-line role at a $625 thousand price tag. If he tries to leverage his two championships for a raise, Rutherford will likely go no higher than $1 million per season.

Lastly, if Rutherford resigns Rowney for a cent more than the league minimum ($700 thousand starting this season), he loses his job. It’s that plain and simple in my book. The Penguins simply don’t have the cap space to keep a player who’s averaged only .17 points per game for his career.

His only saving grace in staying with the team is the Pens not wanting to risk having too few players. He’s a known commodity, which makes him a better asset on the fourth line than a player from outside the organization.

One thing to keep in mind regarding the signing of any of these free agents is the fact that Guentzel will be looking for a contract this time next year. Given his 23 goals and 42 points in 37 Stanley Cup playoff games, the Nebraskan will fetch a pretty penny that Rutherford will need to plan for if he sees Guentzel as a longtime member of the organization.

With Pittsburgh set in net (G Matt Murray and G Casey DeSmith have respective two and one seasons remaining on their contracts), the only contract to focus on defensively is RFA D Jamie Oleksiak. Oleksiak’s 17:24 time on ice per game was seventh among Penguins defensemen, while his .3 points per game clocked in at fourth-best.

For the past three offseasons, Oleksiak has signed one-year deals of increasing value, the most recent of which was worth almost $965 thousand.

Figuring out if Oleksiak gets a new contract is a difficult task, as Pittsburgh could certainly save money by promoting from within. Since 2015, the Penguins have drafted eight defensemen – including three in the first three rounds – but none of those players have even been signed by the club.

If promotion is in fact the route Pittsburgh elects to take, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s best option, D Andrey Pedan, is no longer on the table due to his decision to take his talents to Russia. Similarly, both D Frank Corrado and D Kevin Czuczman are in the same position as Oleksiak, as their identical one-year, $650 thousand contracts expired following the Charlotte Checkers’ three-game sweep against the Pens.

If Rutherford can pull off the signings listed above, he’ll have approximately $2 million to play with to keep Oleksiak around and/or acquire additional skaters.

2018 Offseason Preview: New Jersey Devils

Now that the current Colorado franchise is out of the way, next up in DtFR’s offseason previews are the former Colorado Rockies: the New Jersey Devils!

Ending a five-year playoff drought is hard, but maintaining and growing upon that success can often be harder.

Such is the situation facing this young Devils squad headlined by Hart-finalist F Taylor Hall. New Jersey finished the season with a 44-29-9 record that was good enough for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, staving off the Florida Panthers by only a lone point for the second wild card.

One of Jersey’s best strengths was its special teams, both of which were ranked among the top-nine in the NHL. However, the next step for this club is to improve its average play at even-strength, the status at which most action takes place.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

To help the Devils in that effort,  they have the opportunity to take advantage of this deep draft class with the 17th-overall selection. Especially given their cap flexibility (New Jersey has almost $20 million in space available for this season, and that only grows even higher until no current players are under contract for the 2023-24 season), there’s certainly potential the Devils could flip this pick for a major return in NHL-ready talent.

However, lets assume that General Manager Ray Shero wants to keep this pick, shall we?

Should he do just that, I think Shero will select D Adam Ginning (Linköping HC), D Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), C Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP).

Smith and Wilde represent yet another two-way defenseman option for a team that already employs the services of D Will Butcher and D Sami Vatanen, while Ginning is definitely of the traditional, stay-at-home variety.

Should Thomas end up being the most attractive option to Shero, he certainly won’t be disappointed. In his first two seasons in the OHL, Thomas has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer, and he’s also vastly improved at his puck distribution in this most recent season with 59 assists to his credit (32 more than his rookie campaign).

Chances are slim Thomas would be ready for the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ripens a bit quicker than his peers. After all, his 81 points this season exceed that of presumed No. 2 overall pick RW Andrei Svechnikov (72 points) and barely trail Czech LW Filip Zadina (82 points).

Pending free agents

Like Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: “With great cap flexibility comes many new contracts.”

Something along those lines.

Looking just at the Devils forwards, eight players are pending free agents that need to be addressed before July 1. F Brian Gibbons, W Michael Grabner, RW Jimmy Hayes, W Patrick Maroon and W Drew Stafford are all currently slated to test unrestricted free agency, while F Blake Coleman, RW Stefan Noesen and LW Miles Wood are of the restricted variety.

Without a doubt, signing Maroon needs to be among Shero’s biggest priorities, as the former Oiler (how many of those currently play for the Devils?) provided .58 points per game last season – a mark that is made even better when only considering his production with New Jersey (.76 points per game in 17 contests). While Maroon’s 27-goal total from the 2016-17 season did drop off by 10 tallies last year, his usual production in even-strength play is just the help the Devils could use to improve.

10 players provided .58 points per game last season, amassing an average salary of over $3.25 million (three players earned $6 million). With 30-year-old Maroon coming off a three-year, $2 million deal, any contract under $4 million should be a win in Shero’s book.

27 goals in each of the last two seasons have seen Grabner revitalize his career just in time to test free agency and improve on the two-year, $1.65 million contract he signed with the Rangers a couple summers ago.

A pure goalscorer is a weapon Jersey could certainly use for a full season (unless you consider fellow pending free agent Gibbons’ 12 goals on 72 shots [.167 shooting percentage] to qualify him for sniper status), but there has to be fear that the Devils could end up with the same Grabner Toronto did three years ago: one making $3 million, but providing only nine markers and 18 points.

An interesting note in Grabner’s contract negotiation – whether it’s with New Jersey or any of the other 30 teams – will be the status of Stanley Cup champions W Andre Burakovsky and RW Tom Wilson. Both also finished their seasons with .45 points per game and will undoubtedly be receiving raises on their respective $3 million and $2 million contracts given their new hardware. If either are signed before Grabner, he’ll surely try to use their contracts as a benchmark in his own negotiations.

On the surface, a final 30-year-old worth a look is Gibbons, the player who brilliantly returned to the NHL last season after a 2.6-year stint in the AHL. Gibbons posted a breakout campaign with 12-14-26 totals in 59 games played. However, after suffering a broken right thumb in late January that required over a month to heal, he returned to provide only three assists in his last 16 showings (that includes the two playoff games against Tampa he participated in).

If it seems like he’s fully healed from that injury and ready to be a potent scoring threat from a bottom-six position, then perhaps Gibbons is worth another contract similar to the one-year, $650 thousand deal he played on last season. If not, Shero would be wise to let another team make the mistake of signing him based on his overall season statistics.

Simply put, neither Hayes and Stafford are worth big money. Shero can certainly afford to sign them to low-cost contracts, but he could also find players of a same or higher quality on the free agent market.

Wood represents the Devils’ best RFA, and at 23-years-old (as of September 13), he’ll likely get another contract. He’s coming off a three-year, $925 thousand contract and will likely receive a $1-1.5 million bridge contract.

John Moore and Steven Santini represent Jersey’s two defensive free agents, with the former being a pending UFA and the latter being a pending RFA. Both played top-four minutes per game last season, as well as averaging at least .22 points per game. They’re both worth new contracts.

2018 Offseason Preview: Montréal Canadiens

Day 1 of our offseason preview series reaches a close with the third lottery-winning team, the Montréal Canadiens.

After finishing the season with a 29-40-13 record good enough for fourth-worst in the NHL, there’s little doubting the league’s most-storied franchise is in a bit of a funk right now. The offense was anemic (averaging a third-worst 2.52 goals per game), the defensive zone was equally as bad (allowing a seventh-worst 3.15 goals against per game) and the defense did little to make G Carey Price‘s life any easier (Montréal allowed a 12th-worst 32.3 shots against per game).

What can General Manager Marc Bergevin do to fix this mess?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

I’m of the firm belief that, barring select and rare circumstances, teams of any sport should always draft the best player available. Should Bergevin – as well as Buffalo and Carolina with their own selections – prescribe to that theory, I’d bank on Czech W Filip Zadina continuing to study his French after a season with QMJHL side Halifax.

Having played only one season with the Mooseheads, the 18-year-old was far and away the brightest rookie in his league. In 57 regular season games, Zadina posted wildly impressive 44-38-82 totals for 1.44 points per game, the fifth-best mark of any player in that league that played at least 51 games.

The tough predicament with Zadina is figuring out if he’ll join the Canadiens and begin his rookie season immediately, or if he’ll return to Halifax to develop another year in juniors. He certainly has the talent on his own, but the answer to that question has a better chance of being discovered after taking a look at how Montréal tackles free agency.

Pending free agents

The Habs have five forwards with NHL contracts that expired at the culmination of the regular season, but only RW Ales Hemsky is of the unrestricted variety. LW Daniel Carr, F Phillip Danault, F Jacob de la Rose and F Logan Shaw are all RFAs.

Turning 35-years-old before the 2018-19 season gets underway, there’s a chance Hemsky’s playing days could be behind him. In the last two seasons, he’s appeared in only 22 NHL games and hasn’t registered a point since his goal against the Devils on March 26, 2017. If anything, I’d expect the Oilers to offer him a one-day deal so he could retire with the team that drafted him 13th-overall in 2001.

Without a doubt, Carr and Danault should be seeing some of the Canadiens’ available $12 million slid their way, as the club’s struggles were far from a result of their play.

In the contract year of a $1.825 million, two-year deal, Danault posted decent 8-17-25 totals in 52 appearances (made only better in light of Montréal’s overall poor offense) for .48 points per game. At 25-years-old, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sign another two-year deal – this one worth at least $1.5 million per year.

In a similar strain, I’d also be just fine with seeing Carr sign for $1 million, even if it was only a one or two-year contract. Carr only played in 38 games this season, but he posted 6-10-16 totals to average .42 points per game. Carr may never develop into a top-six player, but most teams will gladly take that kind of production from a third-liner.

Back on the blue line, there’s exactly zero pending NHL free agents. That’s not exactly a good thing for Montréal considering its miserable defensive performance this season, so I would expect at least one of the Habs’ D-men to be on the move.

Even though he’ll turn 33-years-old this August, D Shea Weber is still the Canadiens’ best defenseman, but his attractiveness on the trade front is severely hampered by the eight remaining years on his $110 million contract (yes, your math is correct: Nashville signed Weber until he is 41-years-old).

Instead, D Jeff Petry might fetch a very nice return from a team lacking defense but wants to win now. He has three years remaining on his $5.5 million AAV contract and would likely fetch a similar, if not higher, price the Habs paid for him three years ago (a second and fourth-round pick).

Similar to the defensemen, Montréal has little to worry about in the goaltending department. This season is the first of Price’s eight-year, $84 million contract extension, and G Antti Niemi still has one year left on his sub-$1 million deal. Especially in light of Niemi posting a .929 save percentage in 19 appearances with the Canadiens last season, I doubt much will be changing here.

The only way this situation might be altered is if a team wants to trade for Niemi, but my guess is that sort of transaction is better suited for the trade deadline given his lackluster performances over the last few seasons.

2018 Offseason Preview: Carolina Hurricanes

Picking second in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft are the Carolina Hurricanes, so pack your bags for the Raleigh heat! We’re heading to the Research Triangle for the Canes’ offseason preview!

With a new owner, general manager and head coach in town, the Hurricanes are certainly a difficult team to predict. Will owner Tom Dundon initiate the fire sale many have mused he might after his $420 million toy failed to live up to expectations, or will this newly-formed management team pull their heads together and realize that they truly do – at least in my opinion – have some valuable pieces that, if directed the correct way, could turn into something special?

With the 2018 NHL Entry Draft only 11 days away, something tells me we’ll have our answer sooner rather than later. For sake of argument within this piece, we’ll assume the Canes try to keep their relatively young club together and continue trying to push forward.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

With Buffalo likely drafting D Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick, new General Manager Don Waddell will have to settle for RW Andrei Svechnikov of the Barrie Colts, the consensus second-best prospect available in this year’s draft.

Fortunately for Waddell, this crop of young players is rife with talent, and Svechnikov is no exception. In 44 games played with Barrie during the 2017-18 season, the 18-year-old Russian scored a whopping 40 goals en route to a 72-point season, both of which led OHL rookies. In fact, Svechnikov’s 1.64 points per game not only led all first-year players in his league, but was also fifth-most among all players.

Svechnikov may be only the second-best player in this draft, but Carolina will be receiving a far from second-rate player.

Pending free agents

Especially given the five pending free agent forwards associated with Carolina, there’s an extremely good chance Svechnikov gets a spot on this Hurricanes roster that fell 14 points short of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In particular, the youngster has to be licking his chops knowing 35-year-old RW Lee Stempniak has yet to sign a contract with his club of two years. Playing only 37 games to a 3-6-9 stat line, the NHL journeyman did little to convince Waddell – or any GM, for that matter – that he’s worth keeping around, especially at the $2.5 million price the Canes signed him to a couple Julys ago.

Instead, RFA F Elias Lindholm and UFA C Derek Ryan will attract much of the attention among the Canes’ free agent forwards. Should Carolina be interested in the services of either or both, it will certainly have the money to keep them around, as Waddell has a touch over $27 million to play with.

Of the two, 23-year-old Lindholm is undoubtedly the biggest target considering his 16-28-44 totals in 81 games this season. Coming off a contract that saw him earn $2.7 million, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sign a three or four-year deal worth a minimum of $3.5 million per year.

Considering he only made $725 thousand last season, RFA Phillip Di Giuseppe will likely also be retained in a bottom-six role, but his performance will need to improve unless he’d like to lose his roster spot to C Martin Necas, Carolina’s first-round pick in last year’s draft, or fellow RFA C Lucas Wallmark, the 2014 fourth-round pick who posted solid 17-38-55 totals in 45 games with the Charlotte Checkers.

Along the blue line, Carolina only has two RFAs to worry about in 21-year-old Noah Hanifin and 26-year-old Trevor van Riemsdyk, and I’m of the opinion that Waddell should do everything he can to keep them with his club. Hanifin in particular played a major role on this squad this season, as his 10 goals led Hurricanes defensemen. However, coming off a $1.775 million contract, he’ll be looking for a significant pay raise. I wouldn’t expect a contract under $4 million per year.

Amassing a career 318-244-84 record all with the Hurricanes, there’s a possibility G Cam Ward‘s 13-year tenure at PNC Arena could be coming to an end. The 34-year-old netminder posted only a .906 save percentage in his 43 appearances this season in a contract year.

Playing in Ward’s favor is the fact that Carolina does not appear to have a netminder ready to jump into the NHL from the minor leagues. Unless Waddell can pull off the Canes’ second major goaltending trade in the past two years or land a young free agent (I like the prospect of G Christopher Gibson playing behind this defense, if anybody’s wondering), Ward just might be able to hold on to his job for a year or two longer.

2018 Offseason Preview: Buffalo Sabres

With the most coveted trophy in sports being handed out Thursday night in Sin City, the 2017-18 season came to a bittersweet end. However, before the Washington Capitals had even finished taking their victory laps around T-Mobile Arena, Down the Frozen River was already taking a look ahead at all the exciting possibilities this summer.

Welcome to the 2018 NHL offseason.

Stay tuned to DtFR for the next 10 days, as we’ll be breaking down each and every team’s needs, wants, holes and excesses and how they might address them before training camps commence in September.

We’ll be tackling this series in the same order as the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, so that means the Buffalo Sabres are first up!

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Forgive me for making too many assumptions, but I think this might be the most clear-cut decision of the offseason for any of the 31 clubs in the NHL. The first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is scheduled for June 22, and it might as well start with D Rasmus Dahlin standing next to Commissioner Gary Bettman already wearing blue and gold.

Whether or not the 18-year-old Swede will be able to play the high-level defense demanded of this league right out of the gate is irrelevant, as Dahlin is clearly the most talented option available in this year’s crop of prospects.

Assuming they select him like everyone believes they will, the Sabres are hoping Dahlin develops into the two-way defenseman of any coach’s dreams: one cut from the same mold as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, but potentially even better.

If the 2017-18 season in his domestic league is any indicator, Dahlin will only continue to impress. His 19:02 time on ice per game was third on his team (Frölunda HC in the SHL) behind two players at least nine years his senior, and his .49 points per game was 13th-best in the league among all defensemen that played at least 35 games (another group in which every other player was at least four years older than him).

Of course, what truly sets Dahlin apart is his scoring touch. In only 41 games played this season, the young blueliner buried seven goals for .17 goals per game. Among defensemen that played at least eight games, that was second-best in the SHL.

Seven goals may not sound like a lot, but the number grows much more impressive when we acknowledge that he managed one more marker than the Sabres’ current No. 1 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen, who had the benefit of 32 more games played this season.

In other words, Dahlin should slot in nicely as a bottom-four defenseman for Buffalo in his debut season.

Pending free agents

With a touch over $19 million in projected cap space, the Sabres – who finished the season with a league-worst 25-45-12 record – have only nine NHL contracts that expired when the campaign came to a close, split as evenly as possible among the three positions and between the restricted and unrestricted varieties.

F Jordan Nolan and LW Benoit Pouliot are Buffalo’s only forwards that could become UFAs come July 1, and it has rights to F Sam Reinhart and F Scott Wilson due to them being RFAs since they are under 27-years-old.

Of those, 22-year-old Reinhart is clearly the most valuable, as his (t)team-leading 25 goals and .61 points per game from the 2017-18 season easily dwarf the efforts of Wilson (six goals, .29 point per game), Pouliot (13 goals, .26 points per game) and Nolan (four goals, .12 points per game).

It would certainly not be unexpected for General Manager Jason Botterill and Reinhart to hammer out a four-year deal that saw the forward receive an increase in pay from the $3.5 million per year he’s been receiving from his entry-level contract, as a signing of that length would allow the player to test free agency at its completion. I’d estimate a pay increase to at least $4 million per year, likely more.

There is always the possibility that Buffalo could trade the natural center, who spent a lot of the season on the wing due to the Sabres’ plethora of talent at that position, but I’m led to believe the rumors that F Ryan O’Reilly could be on the move sooner than Reinhart, who has yet post a season worse than the one before it. That would free up $7.5 million and a center position for Reinhart, which would allow W Alexander Nylander to compete for a full-time roster spot of his own.

Defensively, D Victor Antipin is Buffalo’s only RFA, while both D Justin Falk and D Josh Gorges are slated to test free agency. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Falk in new colors come September, but the Sabres would be silly not to keep Antipin – who averaged .21 points per game in 47 showings this season, the fourth-best of any Buffalo defenseman with at least 38 appearances – in the organization.

Oh, he said he’s going to head back to the KHL next season? Dang… Well, the league’s (t)ninth-worst defense in terms of shots against just took another step back. All eyes are truly on you Dahlin, though D Brendan Guhle – Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft – will likely have intentions of earning a full-time role with the Sabres instead of the Rochester Americans.

Where things are undoubtedly going to look different in the 2018-19 season for Buffalo is its goaltending depth chart, as G Jonas Johansson and G Linus Ullmark are the only two netminders with contracts in the Sabres’ system. Botterill has indicated that Ullmark will be one of Buffalo’s two goalies, which doesn’t look good for 31-year-old UFA G Chad Johnson‘s chances of returning to Upstate New York.

Sporting a .908 save percentage in 50 starts this season, RFA G Robin Lehner is also unlikely to get much attention from the Sabres this offseason. Since he made $4 million this season, Buffalo would have to offer him another one-year contract at the same price unless it took him to arbitration, which would only bring the deal down to $3.4 million. Instead of the club going through all that, I think Botterill will try to attract the services of a free agent from outside the organization or package Lehner’s rights in a deal for a more established netminder.

If free agency is the route the Sabres elect to take, one of the most attractive free agent goaltenders this summer is going to be G Carter Hutton. Though he is 32-years-old, it’s hard to knock Hutton’s .931 save percentage and 17-7-3 record in a season that saw him take home only $1 million. Hutton will likely earn himself a pay raise on what should be his last major contract, but he will likely still fall within Botterill’s budget.

Burakovsky and Holtby lead Caps to Cup Finals

 

With his second-straight shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, First Star of the Game G Braden Holtby lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals entered this game with a 7-2 record away from Capital One Arena this postseason, but a 4-11 all-time record in Game 7s for their franchise history.

One of these records had to give.

Doing his best to turn the tables in Washington’s favor, Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (F Evgeny Kuznetsov and RW Tom Wilson) provided one of his patented slap shots from above the left face-off circle only 62 seconds into the contest to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage.

That goal proved to be the game-winner, due in large part to the excellent performance of Holtby. He saved all 29 shots he faced during regulation, with 22 of those being struck in the first two periods.

While Holtby is certainly deserving of credit, it is not without some fortuitous bounces that he held on to his clean sheet. There were more than a few occasions in this tilt that a puck initially beat him between his legs or rang off the post, but he was fortunate that his defense was there to keep the Lightning from scoring off the rebound.

D John Carlson‘s unbelievable five shot blocks (a game-high) played a major role defensively for Washington, as did Ovechkin’s five hits (tied with D Victor Hedman and LW Chris Kunitz for a game-high) and C Lars Eller‘s two takeaways (you guessed it, another game-high).

Additionally, all this talk about Holtby is not to discredit the work done by G Andrei Vasilevskiy. Playing in the second Eastern Finals Game 7 of his young career, the Russian’s 19-for-22 stat line (.864 save percentage) is not reflective of his performance, as he made more than his fair share of awe-inspiring saves.

In fact, the two insurance goals scored in the second period by Second Star W Andre Burakovsky could largely be pinned on Vasilevskiy’s defense, as both were buried as a result of one-on-one matchups.

At the 8:59 mark of the second period, Burakovsky took advantage of D Dan Girardi mishandling the puck in his own zone to register his first playoff tally since May 8, 2017 – another two-goal performance. After wrapping his way around the defenseman, the Austrian slid towards Vasilevskiy’s crease before sneaking a wrist shot under the netminder’s right arm to the far post.

7:32 later, Burakovsky was on the receiving end of another play by a defenseman, but this blueliner was one of his own. Carlson intercepted a Lightning pass off the boards in his own defensive zone and quickly sprang his waiting teammate at the red line, setting Burakovsky up for his second breakaway opportunity of the frame. Just before D Ryan McDonagh caught up to him, the winger slid his wrister past Vasilevsky five-hole, setting the score at 3-0 with 23:29 remaining in regulation.

The final goal of the game belonged to C Nicklas Backstrom, who scored an empty netter with 3:43 remaining in the Lightning’s season.

No Game 7 is complete without tempers flaring, and that box was checked early. With 7:01 remaining in the first period, a seemingly innocent meeting of the minds in Vasilevskiy’s crease – following an incredible save, no less – proved to be nothing of the sort, as the ensuing shoving match between D Braydon Coburn and Kuznetsov resulted in the former possessing two sweaters: the one he was wearing and his opponent’s.

That ignited the fury of Wilson, who tried his hardest to rush Coburn but was intercepted by an official. Both Coburn and Wilson were charged with matching unsportsmanlike penalties, setting play at even-strength four-on-four for two minutes.

However, this was not a simple cool-down period in the penalty box. Immediately upon their release, Coburn and Wilson elected to engage in an exciting bout of fisticuffs. Coburn won by virtue of Wilson falling first, but both earned “five for fighting” major penalties and were sent to their respective dressing rooms for the remainder of the frame.

If Coburn elected to fight Wilson to inspire his club, it did little to do that. After his bout, the Bolts managed only one more shot on goal in the frame, and only 20 for the remainder of the game. Throw in the excellent form that Holtby was sporting, and there was little Tampa – the preseason favorite in many’s eyes – could do to stave off elimination.

With the Prince of Wales Trophy in hand, Washington will wage war against the Vegas Golden Knights in a Stanley Cup Final that features two teams searching for their first title. Game 1 is scheduled for Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern from the theatrical confines of T-Mobile Arena and will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN1 and TVAS.

An early note regarding these Finals in relation to these playoffs: In the First Round, the Boston Bruins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, but were eliminated in the Second Round. Similarly, the Second Round featured the Winnipeg Jets besting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7, but falling in the Western Conference Finals.

After the Caps required seven contests to eliminate Tampa Bay, will they suffer a similar fate against Vegas? Or will they buck yet another trend?

Only time – and at least four hockey games – will tell.

Fleury off to third-straight Stanley Cup Final

 

The Campbell Bowl is the possession of the Vegas Golden Knights after they beat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 at Bell MTS Place in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

Winnipeg did all it could to win this game and prolong its postseason: the Jets matched Vegas in shots on goal (32 apiece), earned four power plays to the Knights’ two and G Connor Hellebuyck saved 30-for-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage).

However, G Marc-Andre Fleury was none too interested in starting a summer without the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2015. Fleury saved 31-of-32 shots faced (.969 save percentage). He refused to yield to even one of the Jets’ power plays, making miraculous save after miraculous save.

Pair Fleury’s performance with First Star of the Game RW Alex Tuch‘s (F Ryan Carpenter) wrist shot only 5:11 into the game, and the Jets were facing an uphill battle that was made even more steep by the fact that Third Star D Josh Morrissey‘s giveaway was what directly led to the tally.

Morrissey didn’t successfully corral Hellebuyck’s pass along the boards, leading to Carpenter knocking the puck off his stick to Tuch in the high slot, which he proceeded to squeeze between the netminder’s right arm and the post.

The only flaw in Fleury’s game struck 12:03 later when Morrissey (F Bryan Little) made amends for his giveaway to score off a face-off. Won by Little at the dot to Fleury’s right, Morrissey ended up with the puck above the face-off circles and one-timed a white-hot slap shot over the goalie’s glove.

The resulting 1-1 tie held for almost 20 minutes – 16:07, to be exact – before Second Star RW Ryan Reaves (D Luca Sbisa and F Tomas Nosek) potted what proved to be the series-clinching goal.

Though this goal can’t be blamed on Hellebuyck, that’s not to say that Reaves was truly intending to score on this play. Sbisa fired an elevated initial wrister from the point that likely would have been either blocked by a Jet or saved by Hellebuyck, but Reaves intercepted that attempt and deflected it just under the bar over the goalie’s right shoulder.

If Reaves were only a foot or two closer to the crease, his shot surely would have flown over the crossbar, but the trade acquisition was in the right place at the right time to secure his and his club’s first-ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

In the third period, the Golden Knights clamped down on the talented Jets offense to limit them to only eight shots on goal. D Colin Miller converted one takeaway, while eight different Knights either blocked a Winnipeg third period shot or threw a body check.

Winnipeg also was its own worst enemy by aiming five third period shots to the wrong side of the iron. In particular, RW Patrik Laine was responsible for sending two of those shots wide or over the net.

The Golden Knights await the victor of the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Tampa Bay Lightning currently lead 3-2. Should the Bolts hold on to clinch the Prince of Wales Trophy, Vegas will travel to Florida for Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. However, if the Washington Capitals can win two-straight games, they will travel to Vegas for the first games of the series.

Game 6 of the Eastern Finals from Capital One Arena will take place Monday, May 21 at 8 p.m. Eastern. Fans interested in seeing who the Knights will square off against should tune their televisions to CBC, NBCSN, SN1 or TVAS.

Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.