Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
A few prominent unrestricted free agents have come off the board over the past week, most notably Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski, but plenty of big names remain in a rich 2016 class. My top 30 UFAs:
1. STEVEN STAMKOS, C
2015-16 cap hit: $7.5 million
Never has a talent of his caliber hit the open market so young. Could flirt with a record deal unless the blood clot scare drops his price.
2. KYLE OKPOSO, RW
2015-16 cap hit: $2.8 million
More productive than Andrew Ladd or Milan Lucic in recent years. Okposo less of a name brand and lacks Cup ring, so might come cheaper.
3. DAVID BACKES, C
2015-16 cap hit: $4.5 million
More mileage than most at his age. He’ll still strike it rich as a big, mean center with excellent two-way skills.
Restricted free agent Filip Forsberg’s six-year, $36-million contract extension with the Nashville Predators, announced Monday, was a slam-dunk deal.
In 2015-16 left winger Forsberg, 21, became the franchise’s first player in six years to crack 30 goals, equalling Jason Arnott’s team record of 33. Forsberg has averaged 29.5 goals and 63.5 points over his first two full NHL seasons, playing all 164 games. He’s safe, he’s young, and he’s already the best young scorer in Preds history. Six years at $6 million per? Fair deal for both sides. General manager David Poile has about $7.1 million in remaining cap space to play with for 2016-17. Some will go to re-signing RFA Calle Jarnkrok but, assuming Poile lets unrestricted free agents Paul Gaustad and Carter Hutton walk, he may have enough cash left for a medium-impact free agent signing.
Nashville can feel good about Forsberg’s deal. It’s an open-and-shut case. Forsberg got about exactly what we figured he’d get. What’s more interesting is pondering how it’ll affect negotiations involving a player with a comparable resume: Tampa Bay Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov.
BUFFALO – The Buffalo Sabres walked away with an impact Russian defenseman early in the NHL draft after all. No, it wasn’t Mikhail Sergachev, as they passed on him for a forward in Alex Nylander during Friday’s first round at No. 8 overall. Instead, GM Tim Murray upgraded his blueline Saturday morning by acquiring veteran Dmitry Kullikov and pick No. 33 (Rasmus Asplund) in Saturday’s draft from the Florida Panthers for D-man Mark Pysyk, picks No. 38 and No. 89.
Some trades are easier to understand than others, and this deal, first reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, makes perfect sense for the Sabres. They were very clearly in the market for a veteran top-four blueliner, commonly linked to the Anaheim Ducks’ Cam Fowler. Kulikov, a tenacious left-handed shooter who blocks shots with aplomb, shores up Murray’s blueline. Rasmus Ristolainen remains the cornerstone piece, and Kulkov, Cody Franson, Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges provide depth. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kulikov play on the top pairing with right-shooting Ristolainen.
Just as we’ve seen with the Leafs landing Frederik Andersen and the Coyotes signing Alex Goligoski, the Sabres send a message here they’re ready to start competing as a playoff hopeful. They’ve amassed a nice pile of promising young scorers in Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Nylander. They have their No. 1 stud blueliner in Ristolainen. Why not pick up an impact veteran in Kulikov, still young at 25, and start trying to push for a post-season berth in the weak Atlantic Division?
BUFFALO – Night 1 of the 2016 NHL draft gave us a bit of everything, a blend of expectant nods and wide-eyed gasps.
We saw the predictable occur. Auston Matthews went first overall, Patrik Laine second. The Calgary Flames acquired a goaltender in Brian Elliott. The Chicago Blackhawks squeezed another forward out because of their salary-cap crunch in Andrew Shaw, dealt to the Montreal Canadiens. The Detroit Red Wings shipped Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5-million cap hit to the one team we knew would take it: the Arizona Coyotes, striving for the salary floor.
We saw plenty of shocking moments, too. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the draft’s swing pick, usurped Jesse Puljujarvi, seemingly the consensus No. 3 overall selection. The Wings went off the board on Dennis Cholowski at No. 20 overall. We had him 37th in our 2016 Draft Preview, for what it’s worth.
But plenty of hyped storylines remain unresolved entering Day 2 of the draft. Let’s review a few.
BUFFALO –– The moment was surreal. Especially considering where the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise was even two years ago. Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, standing on the stage, handing a sweater to the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, representing the Blue and White? Did Leaf Nation dream this? Nope.
Toronto selected what it believes will be a franchise-defining player in center Auston Matthews. It was only fitting that, when Matthews donned his Leafs jersey, he became the first player to do so. The old getup, associated with too many years of failure, wouldn’t do. The “new” look includes the veined logo worn from 1938 to 1963, a period during which the Leafs won eight Stanley Cups. The rest of the design is understated, simple and classy: two horizontal stripes on each arm and some thicker piping along the bottom.
“It looks good,” Matthews said. “I like it. It felt unbelievable putting on the jersey. Such a storied franchise, so it was a big honor.”
BUFFALO – Weird. Vincent Lecavalier retired. You’d swear it was him, or a magical teenage version of him, sitting on a podium overlooking Lake Erie. That’s what it felt like talking to elite 2016 NHL draft prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Dubois, a friendly, rosy-cheeked tank of a youngster at 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, carries himself like a young Vinny. It’s a strange coincidence, as the last time the draft went down in Buffalo was 1998, when Lecavalier went first overall. Dubois was calm yet confident, exuding the poise of a man many years older, seemingly enjoying the questions as he sat outside on a windy Thursday. The novelty hadn’t yet worn off.
He was endearingly wide-eyed about the draft experience. He said his old QMJHL teammate, Red Wings 2015 first-rounder Evgeny Svechknikov, told him to have fun and not waste the experience. Dubois was gracious about his off-season workouts, in which he encountered the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Alex Killorn and Andrej Sustr and eventually worked up the courage to approach them for advice. Dubois can’t wait to face his childhood idol, Henrik Zetterberg, and couldn’t believe his eyes when, while he attended the Stanley Cup final in San Jose, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby approached and said, “Maybe I’ll see you soon.”
The NHL hands out its annual awards Wednesday. It will crown hockey’s most valuable player, best all-around defenseman, best goaltender, best defensive forward and more. But a few honors slip through the cracks. We never see the best defensive defenseman acknowledged, nor the best penalty killer, nor the toughest player. Heck, there’s no official award for the actual best player, even if the Hart Trophy has essentially become that.
So we at THN take it upon ourselves to fill the gaps with our annual awards. We still cover off the staples, but we add in a few custom virtual trophies. The 2015-16 results are in. Our system only factors in regular season play. We awarded five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place vote, three for a third-place vote, two for a fourth-place vote and one for a fifth-place vote.
We’re only as good as our scouts. In the pages of THN’s Draft Preview, we break down every nugget of relevant info we can find on prospects, from their amateur stats to their bodily measurements, but nothing matters more than our scouting reports.
Scouting is a grind. The NHL’s bird dogs freeze their toes in rinks all over the northern hemisphere studying kids to learn their strengths and weaknesses. But it’s also a passion and an art form. What are the secrets of the trade? What are the most important things to seek in a draft-hopeful kid? And what are the red flags? Is the travel as horrible as it’s rumored to be? We assembled a panel of experts with decades of experience in the business to find out.