What burning questions remain this NHL off-season?

Ryan Johansen is coming off his entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets, but hasn't signed an extension yet. (Getty Images)

These truly are the dog days of summer. Players, GMs and coaches get their brief time off between the free agency boom and training camps. Media have time to do fun stuff like rank every logo in the NHL. With no hockey, we spend our nights watching Bachelor in Paradise baseball.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening in the NHL. If you squint, you’ll notice several important questions still unanswered, such as…

1. Will Columbus mend fences with Ryan Johansen and sign him long-term?

The most recent reports out of Columbus had restricted free agent Johansen and the Jackets still $3 million apart. Per season. That’s a Grand Canyonesque gap. So far, the P.K. Subban story isn’t working as a cautionary tale about short-term bridge contracts. After his bridge, Subban won the Norris Trophy and his new long-term cap hit is probably about $2 million more than it would’ve been had Montreal ponied up two years ago and paid him, say, Drew Doughty money.

The Jackets want Johansen to prove his 33-goal breakout was for real, just as they wanted Sergei Bobrovsky to back up his Vezina Trophy campaign when they inked him to a bridge deal last summer. The difference? Nothing about Johansen’s development says fluke. He has pedigree as the No. 4 overall pick in 2010. He was always supposed to be this good. There’s every reason to trust him. Columbus could live to regret a bridge contract. The East is wide open, and this team can contend with its top pivot signed and happy.

Read more

Nashville Predators GM David Poile breaks down his (many) off-season moves

Matt Larkin
David Poile

Surely, some Nashville Predators fan out there took trip to a remote country in early June and just got home now.

“What did I miss? Preds do anything?”

“Gary, you better sit down.”

There’s a ceiling on how exciting it is to cheer for Nashville at the moment. Sharing a division with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas will do that. Still, the Predators’ wild flurry of off-season activity should have their fans as amped up as they could possibly be. A year ago, the Preds had drafted Seth Jones, but GM David Poile’s biggest off-season additions were, drumroll, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg.

This summer: no more Mr. Nice Poile. He realized the team needed a complete philosophical shift, and he went for it. First, Poile said goodbye to Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history. It was an amicable split, but a difficult one. In came offense-minded Peter Laviolette. The change in coaching approach was as drastic as can be, as Laviolette teams tend to forecheck ferociously and pay less attention to defense.

“That’s partly why we made the changes,” Poile said. “We need to push forward a bit more. We feel very confident in our goaltending with Pekka Rinne coming back healthy this season, and our defense led by Shea Weber, Roman Josi, young players like Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. We feel we’re terrific in goaltending and defense, and as Peter Laviolette says, we need to go forward more. We need to try to be a more dangerous team offensively. I don’t think we’ve scared too many teams offensively in the past. They knew they were going to get a good, hard game, but we have not been able to put up a lot of goals on a regular basis. That’s prevented us from making the playoffs the last couple years.”

Read more

The All-Squeeze Team: NHL players who signed for less cash in 2014-15

Brian Costello
Minnesota Wild v Detroit Red Wings

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but there were more and more contract announcements this summer that resulted in the free agent signing for less money than he made last season.

Almost 50 players by my count, but probably a few more if you move into the fringe zone of NHL rosters. In most cases, these bargain contracts went to veterans hanging on for another season in the best league in the world, or to players coming off poor years having to agree to redemption contracts.

While most free agents signing new deals this summer received substantial raises, the number of players on squeeze contracts is anecdotally higher as well.

For every few players getting a P.K. Subban-like 313 percent pay hike (from $2.875 million to $9 million), there was a player like Brad Richards seeing his stipend whacked 70 percent (from $6.67 million to $2 million.) Even the astronomical – and absurd – 512 percent pay increases like the one fringe defenseman Deryk Engelland got from Calgary (from $566,667 to $2.9 million) were offset by the 86.67 percent drops like the one Dany Heatley got in Anaheim (from $7.5 million to $1 million).

Read more

Should these five aging NHL veterans hang in there or hang ‘em up?

Daniel Alfredsson (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

As we approach late summer, a handful of older NHL veterans remain unsigned. And that begs the question: are they not listening to Father Time telling them they’re due to retire, or are they right to hold out in the hope a job opens up for them? Let’s take a look at five such players and offer an opinion on whether they should hang in there or hang ‘em up:

Saku Koivu, C: At age 39, Koivu had 11 goals and 29 points for Anaheim last season. His Corsi-for number has fallen steadily since 2012 and his ice time has been reduced by an average of more than three minutes a game (to just 15:02 last year) since 2011-12, but remember, he’s been on a deep Ducks team that didn’t need to rely on him. In the right environment – in other words, on a playoff-bound franchise – he can provide help down the middle and on faceoffs. Hang in there or hang ‘em up? Hang in there

Martin Brodeur, G: Nobody questions why Brodeur wants to continue playing. When you’ve accomplished as much as he has and is considered one of the greatest goaltenders in hockey history, it’s only natural you’d want to stick around for as long as possible. But anyone who’s seen the decline in his game in recent years wouldn’t hold it against him if he retired. The lack of interest in him as a starter is telling. If the 42-year-old is willing to play a backup role on a contender, he might have a little bit left in the tank. If not, the writing is on the wall. Hang in there or hang ‘em up? Hang in there as a backup; hang ‘em up as a starter. Read more

Signing Michael Del Zotto an indictment of Flyers’ middling defense corps

Michael Del Zotto (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

After receiving tough news Tuesday about veteran blueliner Kimmo Timonen, the Philadelphia Flyers moved quickly to replace their most experienced defenseman by signing Michael Del Zotto to a one-year, $1.3-million contract. But the fact GM Ron Hextall turned to a former hot property whose stock has fallen precipitously is an indication Philly’s defense corps could be the area that prevents the Flyers from securing a playoff berth this season.

Since star blueliner Chris Pronger had his career ended in 2011 by post-concussion syndrome, the Flyers have been searching to bolster their blueline. Timonen and Braydon Coburn are the only holdovers from Pronger’s time in Philadelphia, and because the organization hasn’t been able to produce a home-grown d-man of impact, they’ve had to look elsewhere – namely, the New York Islanders, from whom they acquired former Isles blueliners Mark Streit (via free agency) and Andrew MacDonald (via trade). They dealt skilled young winger James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn. And those moves didn’t produce the desired result; Philly was 17th in Corsi-for last season and were in the lower tier of the NHL in goals-allowed (20th overall at 2.77 goals per game).

Those numbers won’t improve with the arrival of Del Zotto, who at age 24 has arrived at a crossroads in his five-year NHL career and who had to accept a major pay cut (from $2.55 million last season) to continue playing in hockey’s top league. Read more

P.K. Subban’s new contract a win-lose for Canadiens GM Bergevin

Adam Proteau
P.K. Subban (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The reaction in Montreal to P.K. Subban signing an eight-year, $72-million contract extension with the Canadiens Saturday afternoon was a combination of relief and elation: relief that the ticking time bomb of arbitration had been defused after Friday’s hearing had concluded in tight jaws and terse words; and elation that their star defenseman would return to the fold happy and secure.

Now that the smoke is clearing, two things are apparent: firstly, that Habs GM Marc Bergevin deserves credit for backing away from the abyss and coming to his senses before it was too late. Had he waited another day and allowed the arbitrator’s verdict to be rendered, who knows what bitterness would’ve lingered between the two parties and where that would’ve led.

But it’s also clear Bergevin’s 2012 gamble with Subban on a short-term, “bridge deal” has not paid off for him. In fact, it held him upside-down by the ankles and shook free more money and salary cap space than the franchise would’ve needed to utilize had the Canadiens invested on a longer-term deal two years ago.

You want to know why the Maple Leafs invested five years and $20.25 million in Jake Gardiner last week, and why so many teams sign their youngsters coming out of their entry level deals to long-term deals? This is why. Longer-term gambles are cheaper gambles. And if things don’t work out on one of those longer-term contracts, GMs usually can find a team to take the underachieving player off their hands. That’s because rivals always think they can tweak a player’s game and help him realize the promise that made his first team invest in him.

But that’s not what happened with Subban. All he did after Montreal gave him a two-year, $5.75-million deal two years ago was deliver on every count: he improved in each year; he won a Norris Trophy; he emerged as a leader and a frontrunner to take over the captaincy from Buffalo-bound Brian Gionta; and last spring, he proved he could deliver in the playoffs as a near point-per-game player (14 points in 17 games).

In other words, Subban didn’t just win this bet with Bergevin. He won it running away.

Would it have been possible to get Subban’s name on a five-year, $25-million contract after the NHL lockout ended in early 2013? You’d better believe it. He was making $875,000 in the final year of his rookie contract and was still honing his game. A four-to-six-year deal would’ve given him a tremendous raise, bought out some of those unrestricted free agent years and still allowed him to sign another massive contract at age 28 or 29.

Instead, the Habs now have to pay much more, much sooner. Yes, the cap ceiling will rise and reduce the amount of space Subban’s deal takes up, but Bergevin’s process with one of his young stars has hurt his team’s flexibility. He’s had a strong run as a young GM, but Bergevin burned his hand on the stove this time. He saved himself some money in the short-term, but nobody much cares for or remembers that anymore. All they’ll remember is that, while it’s great he didn’t allow the situation to backslide into open acrimony, Bergevin’s risk-reward policy didn’t pay off.

Veteran gamblers understand the house usually wins. But Bergevin learned the hard way: when it comes to player contracts, the players are the house. The league’s collective bargaining agreement is designed to make teams project and make tough decisions on elite young players earlier than ever.

By opting for that bridge deal, Bergevin tried to delay that process by two years. You’d hope that, as the ink dries on Subban’s new deal, he realizes why that was a mistake.

Michael Del Zotto is waiting. What team will give him a shot?

Matt Larkin
Del Zotto

Piecing together what we do know makes what we don’t know about Michael Del Zotto all the more mysterious.

We know the Nashville Predators traded steady stay-at-home defenseman Kevin Klein to get Del Zotto, a talented but inconsistent puck-moving blueliner, this past winter.

We know Del Zotto struggled to do what he did best, scoring once and adding just four assists in 25 games with Nashville. Then-coach Barry Trotz said Del Zotto’s game had slipped and, and he criticized Del Zotto’s decision making.

We know the Predators decided not to extend Del Zotto, a restricted free agent, a qualifying offer after the season, and that GM David Poile said Del Zotto “wasn’t a fit.”

We know Del Zotto, despite his growing reputation as difficult to coach, is just 24 years old. And we know Nashville decided center Mike Ribeiro, 34 and with well-documented off-ice problems, was safe to sign.

Lastly, Poile declined to say anything more on Del Zotto when I asked him to discuss the topic this week. More telling: Poile wasn’t declining an interview. He gladly obliged and we talked about his team. But he actively refused to comment on Del Zotto.

It all paints a cloudy picture of how Del Zotto is perceived, especially when he’s yet to sign with an NHL team into August. Speaking to Del Zotto and those close to him doesn’t cast him as prima donna at all. He’s living with Tyler Seguin in Toronto this summer (save your jokes), and the two are training hard under renowned guru Matt Nichol.

“He’s been unbelievable for me so far,” Del Zotto said of Nichol. “I took two weeks off after the season and got right back into it. It’s been a phenomenal summer of training.”

Read more

At what point this summer do we change the “U” in UFA to unwanted?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals

For those NHL players who don’t step willingly into retirement, there eventually comes a day when UFA stands for unwanted free agent rather than unrestricted free agent.

As July ends and August begins, we’re now closer to the start of NHL training camps than we are the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For unsigned UFAs, that’s an added layer of anxiety. What if nobody wants me and I’ve played my last NHL game?

Take a browse through capgeek.com and you’ll see half the NHL teams are already at the 23-man NHL roster limit. Another nine teams are at 22 players. And that doesn’t even include the several dozen or so non-roster rookie prospects who will surely make big-league rosters in October.

So not a lot of roster openings remain.

Read more