Brad Richards, Marc-Andre Fleury lead list of contract buyout candidates

Marc-Andre Fleury (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the NHL’s 2013-14 season at an end, teams will immediately embark on making changes to their roster. In addition to trades and free agency, GMs will have, for one last summer, the option to buy out contracts with no salary cap penalty.

The amnesty buyout period, which began last off-season but starts again today, provides each franchise with the opportunity to buy out two contracts; four teams (Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto) used their two buyouts last season, while ten (Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, Nashville, New Jersey, the Islanders, Rangers, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and Washington) have bought out one contract. That leaves 16 teams (Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Winnipeg) with two buyout options), but there’s no guarantee any of those franchises will utilize them.

That said, it’s a virtual certainty a handful of players signed to expensive contracts will be amnestied. In reverse order, here are the top five NHLer contracts likely to be bought out:

5. Anton Volchenkov, Devils. At $4.25 million per season for the next two years, Volchenkov is the fourth-highest paid player on New Jersey – ahead of goalie Cory Schneider ($4 million) – and their top-earning blueliner. However, the 32-year-old Russian plays an average of just 16:47 per game – dead last among Devils D-men. He’s also missed at least 10 games every season since 2006-07.

The Devils currently have $57 million in used salary cap space for the 2014-15 campaign; if they hope to bring back unrestricted free agent defenseman Mark Fayne – and when they need to sign Schneider to a new deal next summer – using Volchenkov’s money will be a big help. Read more

Trading Spezza will spell end of an era in Ottawa – but that’s the circle of NHL life

Jason Spezza (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The expected trading of Senators captain Jason Spezza in the coming weeks spells the end of an era in Ottawa. Seven years after the Sens won the Eastern Conference, Spezza and fellow key cornerstone Daniel Alfredsson (who left via free agency last summer) will be gone – and only two players (Chris Phillips and Chris Neil) from that Stanley Cup finalist roster will remain with the franchise.

But that’s about the maximum life cycle of a Cup frontrunner in the modern era. If you’re an NHL GM talented and fortunate to build an elite team, you get seven years – if you’re lucky – to win with a particular group of players before you have to almost completely reboot your system.

Go back 10 years to the then-champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They thought they were set for a long time with two 24-year-olds (Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier), but only four years later, the team’s struggles and cap imbalances forced them to trade Richards to Dallas and the slow dismantling began. Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis lasted longer than most in one market, but they too eventually moved on. It was unthinkable at the time to picture them in other uniforms, but it should’ve seemed inevitable.

History shows us how fleeting ultimate success in the NHL can be. Read more

What would a 1-16 Stanley Cup playoff format look like?

Tyler Seguin

Since the Stanley Cup championship became a best-of-7 in 1939, there have been 20 sweeps. That’s 27 percent. And Scotty Bowman was a coach in nine of them – five series wins, four series losses.

But it hasn’t happened for a while. The last four-game sweep in the Stanley Cup final was completed by the Detroit Red Wings over the Washington Capitals in 1998. Bowman’s team did it to Philadelphia in 1997 too.

We’ve been lucky that 12 of the past 14 finals have extended beyond even five games, including six Game 7s. The post-2005 parity era has given us some pretty good championship rounds that have been tightly contested between West and East.

It appears this year will end that streak. Though the New York Rangers put up a valiant effort on the road in Games 1 and 2, they came away winless and were then shut out on home ice in Game 3. Sure, the script playing out in 2014 is very similar to the one in 2012, when Los Angeles won the first two games against New Jersey in OT, shut them out in Game 3 and the series went six games anyway. But, really, that result has no bearing on this series.

The Kings look prepped to wrap this sucker up in four games.

If the Stanley Cup is in fact awarded on Wednesday, it would be a shame to end these playoffs on such a low note. Most people will agree this has been the best post-season in years, so to end with a sweep would be to go into the off-season with a whimper.

This series speaks to the disparity between the competition in the East and West. Aside from maybe the Bruins, no Eastern team would have been a favorite in the Cup final. From the start, it was unlikely we’d get a final that would be better than the Los Angeles-San Jose series or the Chicago-St. Louis series. And while I’m a fan of the current divisional play down format – and recognize it’s the best, realistic option – there is another design that would set us up to get the best possible final more often than not.

The NHL has used a 1-16 playoff format for a few years before, though it won’t likely again because of travel costs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the league pooled all of the playoff qualifiers into one ranking and re-seeded them each round based on regular season point totals. Rivalries may not be as easily fostered as they are through the divisional lineup, but it would provide fresh and intriguing matchups – and result in more quality conclusions.

What would a 1-16 format have looked like in Round 1 this year? Division winners automatically get the top four seeds. Read more

Top 10 off-season trade candidates, from Ryan Kesler to Evander Kane

Jason-Spezza-OTT

If you judge the potential of this off-season by the trade rumors ramping it up, summer has all the makings of blockbuster heaven.

First, you have a combination of teams that failed to meet expectations, or completely fell apart and are desperate for change. The Pittsburgh Penguins will surely make changes to their lineup this off-season, but with an eye on the present. This will be a team looking to add to improve their chances, rather than dress down with draft picks. San Jose, Washington and Vancouver each had their own kind of implosion and we can expect all sorts of movement in those cities.

Second, you have a few players in an individual situation that puts them on the block. Ottawa’s Jason Spezza finds himself in RumorLand thanks to his expiring contract, while Kesler finds himself there because he demanded it. And what about Evander Kane – is this the summer his tumultuous relationship with the Jets ends?

With so many players to keep an eye on this summer, we take a look at the top 10 trade candidates. Players who will become a UFA on July 1 (whose rights can be traded) do not qualify. Honorable mentions go to Kris Letang, Nail Yakupov, Brent Burns, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.

1. Ryan Kesler
Kesler reportedly first mentioned wanting a trade out of Vancouver at the Sochi Olympics, but we thought a new GM and a new coach might change the center’s mind. No so. Kesler apparently still wants to be traded out of Vancouver this summer and since the Canucks need change anyway, it’s a good opportunity to inject something new. The question is, will the Canucks want to acquire contributing NHLers, or promising futures? Simply losing a No. 2 center on the level of Kesler could have devastating effects. There will be no shortage of teams interested, from Anaheim to Pittsburgh, but this summer’s trade market is also unusually busy with solid pivots.

2. Jason Spezza
With one season left on his contract at a cap hit of $7 million, the Senators are seeing if they can move Spezza by the June 27 NHL draft. And why not? The draft has become a busy place for big trades and since Ottawa doesn’t hold a first round pick this year, it’s a good time for them to make a transition. The Anaheim Ducks appear to be a contender for Spezza’s services, who becomes affordable for them because he’s only owed $4 million in actual salary in 2014-15. The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek writes about using “trade backs” in a move like this. Could the Sens get a similar return out of Anaheim as they gave up for Bobby Ryan? Read more

Top 5: Points by a defenseman in a single playoff run

brianleetch

At 24, Drew Doughty has already etched himself quite the legacy. The Max Kaminsky Trophy for the Ontario League’s best defenseman, two Olympic gold medals, a Stanley Cup, and perhaps a second league title on the way. At his current pace, leading the playoffs in defenseman scoring, a Conn Smythe Trophy could be Doughty’s next accolade.

With 17 points so far, Doughty’s playoff point total doesn’t quite crack the top 30 all-time highest-scoring playoff seasons by a defender. But with the potential to play six more games (though he’d surely rather play only three more), Doughty only needs four more points to leapfrog his way into the top 10. There’s a good chance he does, but there’s no chance he cracks the top three. Here’s the five most productive playoff runs by defensemen. Read more

Penguins fire coach Dan Bylsma – and here’s where he could wind up next

Dan Bylsma (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Within minutes of hiring Jim Rutherford as their new GM, the Pittsburgh Penguins did what many expected was inevitable: they fired head coach Dan Bylsma. The writing was on the wall for Bylsma the moment Ray Shero was fired in mid-May, but Pens ownership wanted to give Shero’s replacement the respect of deciding Bylsma’s fate for himself.

That happened very quickly and now the question becomes where Bylsma lands. Here’s one guesstimated ranking of the most likely landing spot for the Stanley Cup-winner and 2010-11 Jack Adams Award honoree:

1. Vancouver. This choice comes with the following caveat: if Bylsma wants to get back behind the bench by the time training camp begins, his best option for contending for a Cup will be in Vancouver. Don’t get me wrong – I still maintain the best option for the Canucks is to strip down their roster and embark on a full rebuild, but all indications are that organization will retain most of their veterans and attempt to regain the competitive form they displayed prior to their nuclear bomb of a 2013-14 campaign. Read more

New Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford must build a better blueline than he did in Carolina

Adam Proteau
Jim Rutherford

In choosing former Hurricanes architect Jim Rutherford to replace Ray Shero, the Pittsburgh Penguins have opted for experience over a more youthful, longer-term solution. The 65-year-old Rutherford is a well-respected NHL executive, but he’ll face intense scrutiny from anyone who looks at the Pens’ major issues on the blueline, compares them with the at-best-mediocre defense corps Rutherford built when he was running the Canes for the past two decades, and comes away skeptical he’ll be able to adequately address them.

Any GM who has won a Stanley Cup as Rutherford did in Carolina in 2006 accumulates a cachet of the benefit of the doubt. But the fact is, after the Hurricanes won a championship, they’ve made the playoffs only once. And their defense has been a mess; if Joni Pitkanen is your best blueliner in the past eight years and you’ve brought back Joe Corvo for a second tour of duty, you’ve got a lot of room for improvement. If Rutherford is to have any success in Pittsburgh, he has to do a better job of building his back end. Read more

Pierre McGuire – or whomever gets the Penguins’ GM job – must address the back end

Adam Proteau
Pierre McGuire

In the midst of mounting speculation, Pierre McGuire confirmed to a Toronto radio station Tuesday morning he was in conversation with the Pittsburgh Penguins about their vacant GM job.

If it does come to pass, McGuire’s hiring would make major headlines and lead to heated debates about the choice to bring in a broadcaster who last worked as part of a hockey organization in 1996. But whomever owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle choose to replace Ray Shero is unlikely to be the perfect candidate; there is no executive on the market who is assured of fixing what ails the Pens.

The less immediate, but bigger story – at least, in the sense of what fans will see on the ice next season – is what McGuire or someone else is going to do with Pittsburgh’s key issue heading into this off-season: their defense and goaltending.

Deciding the fate of head coach Dan Bylsma will be one of the first orders of business for the Penguins’ new GM, but the more crucial decisions will be made regarding the future of the franchise’s back end. Read more