Player: Simo Rouvinen (F)
When the Leafs acquired Jared McCann for a low price, fans were ecstatic that the team got an analytical darling for basically nothing which they felt was too good to be true. Well, that proved to be the case as he was left exposed in the expansion draft and taken by the Kraken, leaving many confused and angered over why they gave up on him so quickly.
The days that followed saw many debate over what the purpose of the move was and whether or not they made the correct decision in the end. Now with a new season fast approaching, we got our answer in a short clip from the team’s latest offering of “The Leaf: Blueprint.”
It appears that the Leafs did indeed trade for Jared McCann so that they could lose him in the expansion draft and keep Alexander Kerfoot pic.twitter.com/aEN3jLVPVY
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) September 25, 2021
In the nearly 30 second clip, Kyle Dubas brings up to the management team that they have a trade offer from the Penguins to acquire McCann in exchange for Fillip Hallander and a seventh-round pick. Brendan Shanahan then suggests the team goes through with it so that they can lose him in the expansion draft and keep Alexander Kerfoot on the roster.
If we’re taking this clip at face value, then it is obvious that the Leafs were willing to expose McCann from the get-go and that his acquisition was to bait the Kraken into taking him. This resulted in the team not really losing anything valuable from the perspective of the trade and they could retain their roster heading into free agent frenzy, which included the prime candidates in Kerfoot and Justin Holl.
Say what you will about Holl’s play in the second half of the 2021 season, but he has proven to be an important addition to their blueline and developed strong chemistry alongside Jake Muzzin to form the team’s shutdown pair. Add to that the ludicrous prices that defenceman went for on the open market this past summer and the Leafs made the right decision to hold onto Holl instead of leaving him exposed. As for Kerfoot, he is coming off his best showing yet in the playoffs when he stepped up his production in the wake of John Tavares’ serious injury. He and William Nylander were a big part in why the Leafs were able to go up 3-1 in their series against the Canadiens and remained productive even when things fell apart as a whole. Kerfoot’s flexibility to play both the middle and the wings ensures that he will likely remain in the Blue and White for the foreseeable future, and he enters the season with a clean slate. It obviously would have been nice to keep McCann on the roster for the season, but it would have likely resulted in the Leafs losing a key member of their team for nothing.
Whether or not the decision to leave McCann exposed was the right one is an answer we will never truly know until years down the line. But for the time being, we at least know that the Leafs didn’t just blindly acquire him without considering the looming expansion draft.
On Day 2 of training camp, the Winnipeg Jets made Connor Hellebuyck and Blake Wheeler, among others, available to the media. Overall, their comments were fairly positive, but there was one major takeaway from each of their press conferences, time is running out for this team to make a serious run at a Stanley Cup.
It’s now been three seasons since the Jets appeared in the Western Conference Finals, and no one is getting any younger here, especially when it comes to the club’s team captain. Entering his age-35 season, there’s no question Wheeler isn’t a young skater anymore, and hasn’t been for some time now, meaning he might not be that far away from the R-word. Yes, retirement.
With that in mind, let’s explore how Wheeler and Hellebuyck are feeling ahead of the highly-anticipated 2021-22 season.
Starting with Hellebuyck, the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner was asked for his thoughts on the Jets’ current roster and replied with, “I’m really excited for the season. I’m always excited to come back to play hockey, but this one it feels like we really sold the farm and we’re really going for it. Every year that’s my mindset, but everyone else [the other Jets players] has the same mindset. I’m excited to see what we can do and I’ll give it my all.”
Winnipeg’s starting goaltender was also asked if the team feels different this year because of all the new faces that’ll be joining the club and stated, “I don’t know if it feels different, but we have a slightly different mindset going in. We’re getting older and not any younger – our time is running out.”
These two statements get me really excited. The best player on the Jets believes in this team every single year no matter what. Hellebuyck knows this club is close, but the window is closing on them with some of the core starting to age out.
As for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Hellebuyck was asked if he’s changed his mindset considering he could potentially become Team USA’s starting goaltender, and replied with, “I haven’t put too much thought into the Olympics. I’ll have a moment if I’m selected to be on their team and it would be a great milestone to play in the Olympics, but I have one thing on my mind and that’s to win a Stanley Cup. When we get closer to the Olympics, I’m sure my mindset will change but right now I’m focused on winning a cup.”
I know talk is cheap, but when you have only advanced to a Western Conference Finals once in your career, there’s obviously going to be some extra motivation involved when you’re about to enter your age-28 season. When you listen to Hellebuyck, there’s some extra confidence in his voice and the way he talks gives me hope the Jets are in very good hands.
Asked about this past off-season, Wheeler discussed, “We’re definitely excited with the off-season. It’s definitely a change from what we’re used to. We haven’t historically had off-seasons like that, so I think that gives some of the guys who have been here for a while a little extra boost going into training camp.”
I’ll point out the obvious, the Jets experienced a much more exciting off-season than usual. Wheeler knows it, and the front office trusts him to be the leader of a team that’s putting all of their chips into the middle of the table this season.
As for how this current group looks, Wheeler, well, provided a blunt response, replying, “I‘ve skated with these guys one time… Let’s play some games because ‘on paper’ doesn’t mean a thing. The best team on paper isn’t the team that wins. Tampa Bay has some talent and they had talent when they were swept by Columbus [in 2019]. So there’s way more to it than that. On paper we look pretty good, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
That quote is why Wheeler is one of the better captains in the NHL. He knows how good this team looks, but, also knows that it just takes one bad apple to wreck the entire group. Hopefully, this team won’t have to worry about anything like that, however, that’s usually why the schedule is normally compared to a marathon and not a sprint.
Asked if featuring multiple veterans on the roster could remove some of the pressure off him, Wheeler replied, “Leadership is a shared identity, the best teams have layers of that. It’s not just on one or two guys, you have it throughout your lineup. When you get into your mid-to-late 20s, you need to start stepping up and we’ve got guys who’re in that position now.”
The time is now for this current group that’s played and grown together. They have veterans who’ve played on competitive teams, who display quality leadership traits and want to win a Stanley Cup. In addition, there are also some quality rookies on the roster who can grow from some playoff success.
Lots of key moves occurred over the summer for the Jets, and though it’s early, this team seems ready to handle any issue that’s thrown at them. From these interviews, there’s clearly a healthy mix of cautious optimism and positive mindsets within the organization. This is the Jets’ year, and the boys appear ready.
The Calgary Flames have no captain, as you may have heard. Incumbent captain Mark Giordano was left unprotected in July’s expansion draft and was selected by the Seattle Kraken, leaving the position vacant.
As training camp opened over the last few days, key members of the Flames’ front office have made comments to the media that don’t make it seem like they’re in a huge rush to name a replacement.
Here’s what general manager Brad Treliving said on Wednesday:
I don’t think you can name a captain just so you can check a box and say that you have that stroked off the list. Darryl and I have talked a lot about it, and I think that’s something that’s going to have to play itself out over camp and we’re going to see in the coming days.
On Thursday, head coach Darryl Sutter added a bit of context to Treliving’s statement.
To be quite honest I’ve been on championship teams that changed captains and it was never about the C, it was about the leadership group. And I think that’s really important for this team. That’s an earned position, that’s not a given position.
[He was asked a brief follow-up.]
I haven’t even given it much thought. I’ve talked to Brad a little bit, it’s really not that big an issue. I think what’s more important is the group itself, the leadership group. This organization was very fortunate to have, just off the top of my mind, some great captains when you look at, even just look at the last two: Gio and Jarome. Is there anybody in that class? Those guys were great captains ’cause maybe they had guys around them, too. That’s the next part. It’s the evolution of this group and the maturity in terms of the age of it.
The Flames’ formal leadership group includes holdover alternate captains Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. Chris Tanev wore the alternate captain’s A last season while Monahan was injured, and Milan Lucic has also worn an A during his career in various stops.
The Flames have had a full-time captain for every season since 1990-91, when they had rotating captains and alternates following the departure of then-captain Brad McCrimmon in an off-season trade. The team’s options are to either name a full-time captain (and go with a captain and two alternates for each game) or decline to do so (and go with three alternates instead).
Only time will tell if someone emerges during camp to claim the C, or if the Flames opt for a more conservative approach. Either way, brass doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to stitch the letter to somebody’s chest.
Earlier this week, we had a good, earnest look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the three-year contract extension that Elias Pettersson was reportedly considering. At the time, we mentioned that a long-term deal still might be on the table for Quinn Hughes.
Now, a few days later, contracts for Pettersson and Hughes don’t seem any closer to completion, but there are increasing whispers that Jim Benning and Co. would prefer to sign both of them to bridge deals.
And as was the case with Pettersson, there are some short-term benefits and some long-term detriments to consider when it comes to an extension of three years or fewer for Hughes.
The Good: Enough cap space to extend Brock Boeser
Choosing to offer Hughes a bridge deal instead of a long-term extension has one primary and obvious advantage, and that’s saving cash and cap space in the present day.
The recent three-year, $6 million AAV contract signed by Rasmus Dahlin looks like a fine and reasonable comparable for Hughes.
Contrast that with Miro Heiskanen’s eight-year, $8.45 million AAV extension from earlier in the summer, one that was frequently trotted out as Hughes comparable.
Any way you shake it, a bridge deal for Hughes should come with about a $2 million cheaper cap hit than a long-term deal, and that’s $2 million that the Canucks could desperately use.
In September of 2021, that extra space is all the Canucks need to get comfortably under the cap before training camp with a full 23-player roster, avoiding any unnecessary waivings. Then, it becomes increasingly valuable through the next couple of offseasons, starting with the summer of 2022, in which the Canucks will hope to extend Brock Boeser.
The cap saved on short-term deals for Hughes and Pettersson should be more than enough to accommodate a raise for Boeser, allowing the team to keep its core together at least a little bit longer.
The extra $2 million probably can’t be stretched far enough to allow for the further extension of Bo Horvat and JT Miller in summer 2023, but it’s not going to hurt, either.
In the era of the flat ceiling, cap space is one of the most valuable assets around, and a short-term Hughes extension provides it in a not inconsiderable quantity. That, for now at least, is undoubtedly a good thing.
If only it were that simple…
The Bad: The out-of-control market for NHL D
We’ve written about this one before, but it bears repeating.
The market for high-end NHL blueliners has exploded this past offseason, and it doesn’t seem to be a one-off occurrence. An unexpected consequence of the flat cap appears to be the emergence of an inequality gap in league salaries, with low- and middle-tier players feeling the financial squeeze while the price for elite talent continues to climb.
Seth Jones at eight years, $9.5 million AAV.
Cale Makar at six years, $9 million AAV.
Dougie Hamilton at seven years, $9 million AAV.
Zach Werenski at six years, $9.583 million AAV.
Darnell Nurse at eight years, $9.25 million AAV.
The market now dictates that blueliners who contribute heavily to their team’s offence will be paid accordingly. And, as some of the names on that list clearly indicate, being an effective defensive player is not necessarily a requirement for a big payday.
Some believe that Hughes will improve his two-way play starting with 2021/22. Some don’t believe he ever will. But either way, there aren’t many who don’t think he’ll continue to pile up points for the Canucks. There’s a good chance he scores more points in 2021/22 than any defender has before in franchise history, and that sort of raw total is impossible to ignore during contract negotiations.
If Hughes keeps scoring at a clip of around 0.75 PPG, or higher, over the two or three years of a bridge deal, he’ll be looking at an extension thereafter for which the bidding starts at $8.5 million AAV and only climbs from there.
Keep in mind, too, that several other big-ticket blueline signings will occur over the next few years, each of them boosted by the comparables listed above, and then each, in turn, serving as comparables to further jack up Hughes’ asking price.
In fact, the situation actually gets downright unmanageable if Hughes doesn’t develop much more defensively. Then the Canucks are stuck in an awkward situation where they have to pay Hughes what he’s worth and seek out another, more defensively responsible high-end defender — one that will be prohibitively expensive, thanks to the very same out of control market.
There might not be room for both, and speaking of hard choices…
The Ugly: Impossible choices in the years to come
Bridging Hughes and Pettersson now, and then giving them long-term extensions when those bridge deals are up, is a pretty simple equation in terms of cost/benefit. You save money and cap space today on years one-through-three, but you definitely end up paying more for years four-through-eight than you would have if you signed them to long-term deals right now.
This avoids the difficult situation of having to trade someone during Training Camp 2021 in order to get under the cap. But it also creates some difficult, nigh-impossible, choices in the offseasons to come.
The Canucks should be able to extend Boeser after bridging Hughes and Pettersson, locking up their core for at least two seasons. But then it gets dicey. Horvat and Miller need new contracts in 2023, and even if the Canucks manage to afford both, they’ll find themselves tight up against the cap again, with no room available to improve the rest of the roster.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson isn’t going anywhere. Tyler Myers’ big, tall contract expires in 2024, which is right around when a short-term Hughes contract would expire. Benning and Co. could essentially split Myers’ $6 million cap hit in half and turn that into raises for Hughes and Pettersson, but then who replaces Myers?
Most would agree that the Canucks’ blueline is not contender-quality in the present day, and this could put them into a position where improving it is not possible.
And where does the money come from when it’s Jack Rathbone, Nils Höglander, Vasily Podkolzin, and others looking for new contracts?
Hard decisions would have to follow, and that would be especially heartbreaking as the team finally entered a competitive window.
Conversely, long-term contracts for Hughes and Pettersson would cost more right now, but save the Canucks some cap from 2023 onward, which is when they’ll need it most — to not just maintain the current roster, but to transform it into a true contender.
Unfortunately, the reality of the Canucks’ cap structure today means that those long-term deals are no longer feasible. And so, Vancouver fans will probably have to live with the consequences of extending its star players for three seasons or fewer — good, bad, and ugly.