The Ask Me Anything Mailbag returns after a hiatus of…who knows how long? After a COVID-19 lockdown and an NHL season that took a full calendar year to complete, I’ve lost touch with any concept of time. It’s good to be back taking your questions regardless. The theme this week is draft and free-agency related, naturally, as they arrive next week on Oct. 6 and 9, respectively. Let’s do this!
Redcoloredstar #ALLCAPS (@RedColouredStar) asks…
Hi Matt. What’s the likelihood of seeing Braden Holtby sign with Calgary? It’s close to home, and Calgary certainly needs a better solution in net.
I’ve been calling Holtby to Calgary for a full calendar year now. The first reason was that Holtby was such a good bet to make it to market. It was clear then that the Capitals had enough money to re-sign Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom but not both, and it all but sealed Holtby’s fate when Backstrom signed a five-year, $46-million extension in January. If there was a door open a crack for Holtby to come back at a discount, Ilya Samsonov slammed it shut by outplaying Holtby for roughly the first two thirds of the season. Samsonov was drafted in the first round to become a star No. 1 netminder, and he’s ready to slide into that alpha-dog role next season.
So we know Holtby will play for a new team in 2020-21. It’s been confirmed as recently as this week. And the Flames have made sense to me as a suitor for quite some time.
Their need for a new No. 1 goalie is obvious. David Rittich showed flashes over past couple seasons, but the organization never trusted him, going with grizzled Mike Smith as the starter in the 2019 playoffs and gradually handing the job to Cam Talbot this past season. It’s possible Talbot re-signs after such a good year. He expressed in late August that he was “very open” to returning. If the Flames want to spend the bulk of their money to chase a Moby Dick UFA such as Alex Pietrangelo, it might make sense to go the bargain route and bring back Talbot. But Talbot’s long-term track record is one of fits and starts, of great years followed by down years and crises of confidence. The pressure is on GM Brad Treliving to deliver a winner in his seventh season helming the team, so I expect him to be one of the busiest GMs in the league this off-season. The list of moves could include bringing in a more proven No. 1 who can handle large workloads.
As a Vezina winner and Stanley Cup winner, Holtby will undoubtedly be seeking a team that makes him the unquestioned No. 1 netminder, and the Flames join the Edmonton Oilers as the two closest NHL teams to his hometown of Lloydminster, Sask. The fit from his perspective seems undeniable. But is he a fit for the Flames?
There’s no denying Holtby’s game has cratered the past couple seasons, which produced the three lowest save percentages of his career. Over the past three years, 62 goaltenders logged at least 2,000 minutes of play at 5-on-5. Among that group, Holtby sits 50th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes; 50th in save percentage; and 54th in high-danger save percentage. On the other hand, he had the third-highest expected goals-against per 60 in the league over that span, meaning his workload was rated as the third toughest. Only four goalies faced more high-danger shots against per 60 over that span.
So is Holtby as washed as some believe he is? That’s debatable. The drop in his numbers coincides with a major decline in Washington’s defensive play. He’s also just 31 despite the fact it feels like he’s been around forever. Of the 87 goalies to play an NHL regular season game this season, 31 are older than him. If Talbot could experience a huge career revival working with Flames goalie coach Jordan Sigalet, what would Holtby do? He’s much more accomplished, and he’s two years younger than Talbot.
So, in summary: I’ve believed Holtby would sign with Calgary for a while, and nothing has changed that opinion. I think both parties are ideal fits for each other. That said, Holtby will have plenty of options. By no means is he a lock to become a Flame.
Luke Dyment (@lwdyment) asks…
Jamie Drysdale has been the consensus top D-man in the draft, but Jake Sanderson has surged up the board lately and has been in the discussion more. Has it really become that close between the two despite neither player really even playing since March? Which ones gets picked first?
Hey Luke. Yes, it really has become that close. Our draft expert Ryan Kennedy spends hours – days – weeks – months! – talking to scouts and prepping his exhaustive draft rankings, so I absolutely trust any tweaks he makes. When we published our Draft Preview Magazine (plug time – buy it digitally here), Ryan had Drysdale at No. 5 as the consensus top defenseman with Sanderson slotted 11th. In the mock draft Ryan published this week: Sanderson seventh, Drysdale eighth.
So why the momentum shift when games aren’t being played? For one: games may not have been played in the past several months, but videos have been watched. A couple months ago, one NHL team’s director of amateur scouting told me he was practically passing out at his monitor from watching so much video as a result of not being able to observe prospects live. So all the cramming, which surely every team has done, could have led to some new observations that adjusted teams’ perceptions despite no new games being played.
So what, then, might give Sanderson the 51/49 edge on Drysdale in a coin flip at the moment? While size doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to, it can still be a tiebreaker when two kids are ranked really closely. Drysdale is 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds and is a gifted, hyper-intelligent puck-mover. Sanderson is 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, with a frame that can add more muscle, and he can absolutely fly like his NHLer dad Geoff did. Sanderson projects as arguably a more complete defenseman who can handle the physical rigors of the position better – while still providing the wheels and puck rushing you can get from Drysdale. So if teams are breaking a tie and go with Sanderson, that’s probably why. Drysdale has the higher offensive ceiling, but Sanderson projects more as a guy you could play for 25 minutes a night in all situations during a playoff series at his career peak.
Kevin Rogers (@KARogers77) asks…
If the Habs could sign any free agent, who would be the best fit, and what would the contract look like?
This question is more relevant this year than most, as Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has made it clear he plans to be active this off-season. He’s even openly dangling the No. 16 overall pick in a trade. There’s merit to the idea given (a) the Habs’ farm system is already stacked, one of the game’s best, and (b) they have 11 picks in the 2020 draft, so they have quite the surplus.
My guess is the Canadiens are more likely to be busy on the trade front than the UFA front – there’s a good chance they do something big and ship out one of Max Domi or Phillip Danault. My money is still on Domi. But I do expect they’ll be bigger players than normal in free agency this year. They have $10.2 million in cap space, albeit that’s before working out a contract for RFA Domi.
So who are the best fits? To me, the Habs’ top needs are a goal-scoring winger and a quick-paced defenseman on the left side of the ice. I think the former is more important right now. I know there’s a lot of talk of Torey Krug being a nice fit to join his buddy Jeff Petry, but top prospect Alexander Romanov is ready for the NHL, so the cap space is probably better spent on the winger need.
Could you take a run at Taylor Hall? Maybe. But rather than commit a gargantuan number to him, might it make more sense to target a sniper in the next tier down? I think Mike Hoffman would be a really nice fit for Montreal, and he should cost $2 million less per season than Hall, give or take. Across his six full seasons, Hoffman averages 30 goals per 82 games. If you want me to predict the deal…given he’ll be 31 when 2020-21 begins, how about five years and $35 million? Montreal wouldn’t be a massive culture change for him, either, given he has played for a Canadian NHL team before and played major junior in the QMJHL.
Matt (@mtoggel) asks…
Which player will sign the worst contract (from a team perspective) this year, too much for too long?
It’s going to take a lot of money to land Hall. When was the last time a Hart Trophy winner became available on the open market when he was still in his 20s? If my research is right: it was Bobby Orr in 1976. That’s how rare it is. Hall’s agent, Darren Ferris, can practically wave that trophy around during negotiations. Hall is easily the top UFA forward available.
Despite pundits such as myself pitching the idea for Hall to pull a 2008 Marian Hossa and sign a one-year deal with a contender to bypass the flat salary cap, Hall has made it clear he wants to sign a long-term extension. That’s smart on his part, because security should matter for a player who has battled injuries throughout his career. To get Hall, then, the winning bidder will have to offer a chunky term of six or seven years at an AAV of, say, $9 million or higher. The number of suitors will force teams to drive up the quality of their offers – and the removal of the UFA negotiation window will mean every team has to operate within one frenzy starting Oct. 9, which could lead to some panicked spending.
“Before 2013, we had a true free-agent frenzy,” Octagon agent and co-managing director Allan Walsh told me a couple months ago. “I went to the market on July 1 with several high-profile free agents. I’m in L.A., 9:00 a.m. pacific, 12:00 eastern, and the gun goes off, the phone starts ringing like crazy at exactly the start. And GMs are throwing offers from the moment it opens, and from the first conversation, there’s a little desperation in the voice.”
So it’s a good bet that Hall receives a humdinger of an offer that will pay him big money until he’s about 35 years old. That’s a dicey proposition considering he has eclipsed 76 games once in his career. I’m not saying Hall will be a bust. He’ll likely make a major impact early on, especially if he lands on a true contender, which he’s never played on in his life. He could even post career-best numbers in the right situation if he stays on the ice. But, given the frenzied pace at which he plays and his propensity to get banged up, there’s a strong chance he starts to decline steeply in his early 30s, at which point his contract could look ugly.
THE ASKAROV SECTION
I received three different questions about Yaroslav Askarov this week, so I’ll tackle ’em together.
Jason Fischbach (@hockeyfisch) asks…
Do you think the Russian-on-Russian goaltending in the Stanley Cup final increases Askarov’s stock at all?
J P Green (@JPGreen10) asks…
Is there any chance the Senators would really take Askarov at No. 5, or is that just idle chatter?
Alfonso (@Alfonso7Acevedo) asks…
Should the Oilers consider moving up in the draft to take Askarov?
First off, Jesse’s question. No, I don’t think seeing Andrei Vasilevskiy and Anton Khudobin opposite each other in the final will influence drafters. That’s not a knock on Askarov. It’s a compliment. Askarov’s stock was already so high that the Stanley Cup wouldn’t have influenced any projections. When you’re already rated as a 10 out of 10 on the ceiling scale, you can’t rise any higher. With all due respect to Samsonov, Spencer Knight and even 2012 Vasilevskiy, Askarov is the most hyped goaltending prospect during his draft year since Carey Price in 2005. Askarov is just 18 yet he’s already making a splash in the KHL with some video-game numbers. He’s considered an ideal blend of size, athleticism, technique and confidence.
As for the questions on the Senators picking Askarov at No. 5 or the Oilers moving up to draft him: tough calls. The Senators could really use Askarov. Since Mads Sogaard is still a project, we can’t say for sure that this team has a goaltender of the future, and Ottawa’s prospect pool is loaded at every other position, with the likes of Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot already at the NHL level and Erik Brannstrom, Josh Norris and many more on the bubble. So, hockey wise, Askarov fits, and Ottawa could get him at No. 5 after using the third-overall pick on another potential star such as center/left winger Tim Stutzle.
Still…goalies are just so fickle, even the most hyped ones. Can you burn the No. 5 pick on Askarov if a Jamie Drysdale or Marco Rossi is sitting there? Whatever Ottawa does, it’s win-win given the team has three first-round picks in 2020.
As for the Oilers? They’re another team that badly needs a top-notch goalie, and I can’t see Askarov still being there at 14 overall. The problem with trading up for Askarov: because he’s still under contract in the KHL through 2022, he can’t play in the NHL until 2022-23. That doesn’t work for Edmonton’s current vision. This team has arrived at win-now mode. It can’t burn any more years of Connor McDavid’s and Leon Draisaitl’s primes. The Oilers have already been linked to players like blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson in trade rumors, so it appears GM Ken Holland will behave aggressively this off-season. That will almost certainly include targeting a goalie who can help right now, such as Matt Murray.
The Oilers don’t pick until the fifth round after their first-rounder, so if they want to trade up, they’ll have to deal picks from 2021 or players from the current roster. I think it’s more likely they stand pat with their current position, assuming they don’t do something wild and deal the pick away to get ‘OEL’. If Askarov is somehow available at pick 14, maybe he’s too good to pass up, but it will also be tempting to add a goal-scoring winger who can help the Oilers much sooner.