Nikita Kucherov and Erik Karlsson.
Can the Karlsson blockbuster really happen? Who is the sneakiest trade deadline pickup out there? Should the Isles trade Tavares? And more.
Now comes the really fun time of year for the Ask Me Anything mailbag. The all-star break is behind us, and many teams have tough questions to answer, while many fans – that’s you folks – have some tough questions for me to answer. You really brought your best stuff this week. I wish there were more hours in the day to answer them all! Damn. There were a few clusters of similar questions this week (I got a ton of Tampa Bay trade questions and New York Islanders/John Tavares/Garth Snow firing questions), so in those cases I’ll answer one with the goal of providing a blanket answer to many.
Also, sometimes I get questions that I’ve already answered in recent mailbags, so if you want to check some past editions in case I’ve covered off your desired topic (Pacioretty trade, for example), click here.
#BellLet’sTalk (@Bolt_Man1992) asks…
In years past, when the Lightning were on a playoff run, Steve Yzerman has stood his ground. Must the Lightning make a 2004-esque Darryl Sydor trade in order to get this team to the championship level or are they there now?
Hey there Bolt Man. Yes, I believe it’s time for the Lightning to get aggressive. As I recently wrote here after the All-Star Game in Tampa, the Bolts have an ideal window of contention in the next two seasons. In summer 2019, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point become RFAs, and I see them eating up, at the absolute minimum, $15 million in cap space. Yzerman has every core player except 2018 RFA Vlad Namestnikov signed through next season, so now’s a great time to pursue upgrades – and not just rentals, such as Mike Green, but also players with additional years left on their deals. That could include blueliners Ryan McDonagh and, yes, Erik Karlsson.
Let’s address the Karlsson situation for starters, because it’s set Twitter ablaze ever since fans saw Karlsson, Steven Stamkos and Kucherov taking the ice together for the Atlantic Division during last weekend’s 3-on-3 tournament. It was amazingly video-game-like and fun. A power play including Karlsson, Stamkos, Kucherov and Victor Hedman would be absolutely unfair. But we have to wipe the stars out of our eyes on this one.
Ottawa would require such an enormous return for Karlsson, one of the greatest players of his generation, that it would offset Tampa’s roster upgrade of getting Karlsson. Merely trading for futures wouldn’t get the deal done because (a) the Lightning’s first-round pick will be so low that it’s a glorified second-rounder and (b) the Bolts’ farm system, while reasonably deep, lacks an A-list prospect. The likes of Taylor Raddysh and Libor Hajek wouldn’t be enough to land Karlsson even if packaged together. The only way Yzerman pries Karlsson from Ottawa is with a pile of assets including at least one excellent, young core player. I’m talking Point or Mikhail Sergachev. Both are stars in the making, and both are still on their entry-level contracts, so it would be a dangerous sacrifice to move one for 1.5 seasons of Karlsson. Yzerman is too measured, too wise to get that reckless – especially when his existing team is already the best, highest-scoring group in the NHL.
I wrote a big story on Yzerman in summer 2016. Wanting to avoid the spotlight, he requested I focus on the team instead. We wanted to feature Yzerman, though, so I talked to the people who have worked closest with him over the years: Red Wings GM Ken Holland, Stars GM Jim Nill (formerly of the Wings), and former Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson among them. One thing Holland said about Yzerman when he was learning under Holland stood out to me:
“I would say he’s strong-willed. That's one of the traits I thought made him a great player and a fierce competitor. He’s determined, he’s intense. It’s not like you go from a player into the front office and you lose all those traits. Certainly I think he understands and he’s analyzed everything, and when he comes to those conclusions he stands by them. (When he worked with me) in Detroit, and I’m sure everybody does it, you have a two-year look, try and look three and four years into the future. You’re the manager. The coach worries about today and this week, worries about this game. And Steve, I’m sure when he gets into negotiations, he’s going in, he's done his homework, he’s done his research, he’s determined what he thinks is fair, and then you have to sell fair. “
So Yzerman is so calculated and forward-thinking that he’d understand what losing a Point or a Sergachev would do to his team’s future. I thus believe he’d walk away from a Karlsson blockbuster. And on the Ottawa side, if you can’t get a Point or a Sergachev as part of a package for Karlsson, that’s a non-starter. The Sens just finished with their worst attendance in 20 years during a season in which they came within one goal of the Stanley Cup final. What would happen if they tore the franchise’s heart out by dealing their best player? Owner Eugene Melnyk’s warning about relocating in the event of an attendance disaster might come true. If the Sens can’t fill their building when the team is competitive, I shudder at the thought of them doing so without Karlsson. Trading him might punch the franchise’s ticket to Quebec City.
So I don’t see a Karlsson trade working for either side. That said, a UFA rental such as Green or 1.5 seasons of Ryan McDonagh seems attainable. A first-round pick and some combination of those second-tier prospects might be a sufficient price, and it’s worth it for Tampa to augment its top four on defense in the name of a Cup crusade.
Richard Liebrecht (@rwliebrecht) asks…
Of all the players potentially on the market, who would have the greatest playoff impact in a bottom-six/second-or-third-pairing role? i.e. who would make a GM look brilliant by mid-playoffs?
That’s a fun question, Richard. Really gets the gears turning in my brain.
I’ll start with the bottom-six forward. A name I’d watch carefully is Michael Grabner. He typically languishes on the New York Rangers’ third line and never plays on the power play, yet he’s quietly tied for 20th among all NHL players with 48 goals since the start of 2016-17. Grabner has one more goal than Connor McDavid and has played six fewer games over that span. Grabner is an even-strength demon, ranking fourth in the NHL with 46 goals since the start of last year. He can create opportunities for himself with his tremendous speed. He can turn a third line into a unit that can catch teams off guard. Most importantly, Grabner kills penalties and is a shorthanded scoring threat. He’s a nice fit for a team looking for a depth forward who can help on the penalty kill and also chip in surprise goals here and there. He’s a UFA this summer, so he’s a quintessential rental type. If the Rangers decide to sell, they have to move Grabner.
As for a bottom-pairing defenseman, how about Niklas Hjalmarsson? He’s obviously had a nightmarish year, but so has every Coyotes player, and that could bring down Hjalmarsson’s price quite conveniently, too. He’s likely starting to decline at 30 but has tremendous experience, with three Stanley Cup rings and 128 playoff games to his name. He’s big, he plays the right side (despite shooting left), he blocks shots, and he can be leaned on in high-leverage situations, as he averaged more than 26 minutes per game just three years ago during Chicago’s last championship run. He’s not the shutdown force he was a couple years back but, at his current trade value, he won’t have to be. He’d be a nice stash on a major contender’s back pair. The Coyotes likely wouldn’t mind eating some of his $4.1-million cap hit in a deal, either. As a perpetual salary-floor squad, they often swallow cash. They did so in the 2015 Keith Yandle trade and the 2017 Mike Smith trade.
Evil Morty (@JonathanLAK) asks…
Do you think the Kings will make a move to acquire a goal scorer? Or are we okay at the moment?
Hey there Evil Morty. Nice nickname. Great show. Would I describe the Kings as “okay” at the moment? Not particularly. They started the season 9-1-1 and are 18-18-4 since, including eight losses in their past 11 games. The same problem that plagued them in the Darryl Sutter years has popped up again: a lack of offense. They rank 21st in the NHL in goals per game at 2.75.
But they’re going about that “not scoring” thing differently. Under new coach John Stevens, the Kings are finishing a bit better, improving on last season’s league-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 6.21 to rank 15th at 7.50. But we all know the Kings were shot attempt monsters under Sutter, regularly dominating in Corsi. Under Stevens? Mediocre at best. So the Kings are converting better on their shots this year but not generating nearly as many chances as they did under Sutter.
Theoretically, yes, they do need more offense, but that doesn’t mean they should pursue it right now. The Kings fired Sutter plus GM Dean Lombardi because they missed the playoffs twice in a three-year stretch. They were caught on the playoff bubble and made very few roster additions in the 2017 off-season aside from the internal promotions of guys like Adrian Kempe and Alex Iafallo. Even if they play a different style under Stevens, they aren’t much different from last year in terms of overall roster talent. In other words, this team isn’t winning the Stanley Cup this year. As a result of contending for many years in the Lombardi era, the Kings burned a lot of their picks and prospects in the name of upgrading for playoff pushes, and there was nothing wrong with that. From 2011 to 2016, they only picked in the first round twice, and those picks were 29th and 30th overall. The Kings, not surprisingly, have one of the league’s weakest farm crops.
Pursuing a goal scorer would mean a team desperate for more picks and prospects would likely have to give up picks and prospects. Last year’s 11th overall pick of Gabe Vilardi was L.A.’s highest since nabbing Brayden Schenn fifth overall in 2009. If I’m a Kings fan, I’m hoping to see more of that. We know it’s a young man’s league now. Look at the Toronto Maple Leafs last season and the New Jersey Devils this season. You can turn around a team quickly with the right influx of youth. So if I’m GM Rob Blake, I’m thinking long term, not short term. He can just treat Jeff Carter as the equivalent of a huge trade-deadline acquisition when Carter returns from his leg injury in a few weeks.
Niels Jongmans (@Pengpo87) asks…
Usually lists come up on the Internet with a number of unbeatable records held by Wayne Gretzky, but what are some of the (realistically) beatable records that Gretzky holds?
Hi Niels. You’re right about Gretzky having so many prominent, unbeatable records. In my opinion he’s the most dominant athlete in the history of major professional team sports. Think of Barry Bonds’ 73 homer season, then change it to a 90-homer season. That’s how far Gretzky was ahead of his competition. Luc Robitaille once told me Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point-game in basketball was the only comparison he could think of – and that was a single game! The average margin of victory in Gretzky’s 10 scoring titles was 49 points. He won it by 70 or more points six times.
I can’t see anyone touching 50 goals in 39 games or 163 assists or 215 points. The window to score 92 goals in a season has passed, too. So which of Gretzky’s records might be beatable?
Career goals is interesting. Gretzky finished with 894. Last weekend at the All-Star Game, I sat down with Alex Ovechkin and asked if he thinks he can pull a Jaromir Jagr, play until age 45 and become the sport’s all-time leading goal scorer. He said it’ll depend a lot on his health and parenthood, as he plans to have a big family, but he didn’t say no to the possibility, either. So let’s project out some numbers.
He’s got 30 goals in 50 games this season. If he maintains that pace, he’ll finish 2017-18 with 49 goals, which would up his career total to 607. Ovie has been remarkably durable in his career, missing more than four games in a season just once, but let’s play it uber-conservative for this estimation. Say Ovie (a) retires at 38, (b) misses seven games a year for the rest of his career and (c) averages just 30 goals per 75 games over that stretch. He’d rack up 180 more goals and finish at 787. That would put Ovie third all-time behind only Gretzky and Gordie Howe. What if we get optimistic and decide, OK, Ovie plays until 40 and has two more 40-goal years before averaging 30 after that? Then he’s at 867, at which point he’d be 27 goals behind Gretzky and would likely want to keep playing.
A lot has to go right for that latter projection to come true, but the point is – it’s not a ludicrous pipedream of an idea. It wouldn’t be the craziest thing to bet on the best goal scorer of this millennium to…score more goals. I thus wouldn’t call Gretzky’s all-time goals record unbreakable.
Other than some single-game records, which can be fluky, Gretzky’s other records look pretty sturdy. Maybe Ovechkin has a shot to equal Gretzky’s nine 50-goal seasons? He’d have to score 20 goals in his next 32 games to get 50 this year, then he’d need one more 50-goal campaign in his career. Gretzky’s goal-scoring marks look the most penetrable to me. The assists and points records, though? No chance.
Adam of House Jazdzewski (@LedgerSko) asks…
Carolina needs scoring. If they offer Jake Bean+, what more would Ottawa want?
Hey Adam. I like this question because I can give you some info straight from the proper source: Hurricanes GM Ron Francis. I spoke with him on the phone two weeks ago and did my best to grill him about the trade deadline and whether he would consider moving a blueliner for a forward. Sebastian Aho had just been concussed at the time, so Francis was eagerly waiting to learn more about Aho’s recovery before dipping any toes in the trade waters, but Aho is back now, of course. Here’s what Francis had to say when I specifically asked about dealing a D-man for forward help:
“Everyone wants that skilled scoring center (laughs). We’re not the only team looking for that. They’re hard to find. What we do think we do have from an internal standpoint is, Sebastian Aho, we drafted him as a centerman, so we may be able to move him off the wing into the middle, which may help in that regard. And Marty Necas who we drafted last year is tracking pretty good, just finished a really strong world juniors for the Czech team. So he may be another guy who can step in and play up on those top two lines and be a point-producing offensive guy. We may be able to fix it internally. But I think everybody’s looking for that guy. They don’t really come along every day because they’re so hard to find.
“We’re in a better position to look at things, but I do still think you’ve got to assess where you are. Any deal you look at, it either makes sense or doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to speculate. Am I gonna sell the farm for something right now? No. Absolutely not. “
So we can assess his comments two ways. Maybe Francis is still playing it conservative with a team that isn’t currently in a playoff spot and whiffed horribly on goaltending with the Scott Darling acquisition, and maybe he believes he has the answers to the hole at forward in Necas’ eventual arrival. On the other hand, maybe Francis has such a surplus on defense that he can spare a prospect like Jake Bean and not really “mortgage the future.” The Canes still have Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk and Haydn Fleury, after all. And maybe, if the Canes want to try Aho at center, they can pursue a winger on the trade market – which might come a bit cheaper than a center.
As for the Senators, I assume you’re referring to Mike Hoffman, then. To me he’s only a fit if Carolina indeed moves Aho to center. If so, the return would have to be significant. Ottawa gave up a ridiculous package to get Matt Duchene, and Hoffman is cheaper at $5.19 million. If I were Pierre Dorion I’d want Bean, a first-round pick and probably a B-level prospect such as Janne Kuokkanen.
The Lunz (@lunz71) asks…
Will the Islanders move John Tavares before the deadline? They clearly aren’t contenders this year and the arena situation is years from resolving.
I’ll cut to the chase and quote Garth Snow in Pierre LeBrun’s latest story for the Athletic: “I’m not trading John Tavares.”
And I don’t blame Snow for that stance. The Islanders risk losing Tavares for nothing, of course, by not acquiring anything for him. But until he’s a legitimate threat to leave the franchise at all, the worst-case scenario is losing him, period. Tavares has done everything in his power to squash talk of him leaving the team so far. He’s left no door open. I disagree with the idea that the arena situation is years away from resolving. Quite the contrary. It’s resolved. The Islanders won the bid to build an arena in Belmont Park. The projected completion date is 2020. If Tavares re-signs, it’ll be for eight years, which would mean six of those years are played in the new arena. Plus the franchise announced a return from Brooklyn to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum for 12 home games next season. Tavares has repeatedly expressed how ecstatic he is at the thought of the team moving back where it belongs. He’s also a low-key guy by superstar standards and seems to enjoy the relative anonymity he gets playing in such a saturated sports market. To me, Tavares leaving would be a shock, not the other way around.
That’s why, if I’m Snow, I’m doing the exact opposite of shopping Tavares. I’m searching high and low for more support. I’m trying to acquire a goaltending upgrade and a top-four defenseman. I’m sending the message to Tavares that this team wants to win now. The Isles are “last” in the Metro Division but just one game out of a playoff spot. With Matt Barzal busting out as an elite secondary option at center, the organization can sell Tavares on building a championship core around those two. I can’t stress enough how important Barzal’s emergence has been for Tavares’ future.
So I wouldn’t expect a Tavares deal, nor do I think Snow should pursue one. The philosophy right now should be just the opposite. It’s all about showing Tavares how much he – and winning – matters.