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Screen Shots: Kessel, Habs/Leafs and World Cup of Hockey Reboot

Adam Proteau discusses Phil Kessel's move to Vegas, the remaining off-season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, as well as what the field of teams could look like for the 2024 World Cup of Hockey.
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It’s time for a new Screen Shots column. Regular readers know we use this space to discuss a few hockey topics in a more brief format. Let’s get right down to business, shall we?

– One of the more recognizable names on the unrestricted free agent market – former Bruins/Leafs/Penguins/Coyotes sniper Phil Kessel – came off the market late Wednesday when Kessel signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. This isn’t a bad move for Vegas, which now is (according to CapFriendly.com) more than $7.2 million over the salary cap upper limit. However, offense probably wasn’t going to be a problem for the Golden Knights before Kessel signed, what with star forwards Mark Stone, Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault on board. Kessel will replace some of the point production lost by the cap-necessitated trading of star forward Max Pacioretty, but Kessel projects to be a third-line winger for Vegas, meaning his offensive numbers last season in Arizona (44 assists and 52 points in 82 games) aren’t likely to be much better.

No, the biggest area of concern for the Golden Knights is in net, as management has yet to address the season-ending injury to starter Robin Lehner. They did say they'll go with a tandem of 25-year-old Logan Thompson and 29-year-old journeyman Laurent Brossoit; the two goalies combined to play only 43 NHL games last season, with neither standing out for above-average play. The Golden Knights’ veteran top-four defensemen will make life somewhat easier on their goalies, but there’s a genuine and legitimate concern that problems between the pipes will sink the team.

As noted, Vegas still has work to get under the salary cap ceiling, so we’re probably not looking at the final roster that will take the ice on opening night. But there is not a plethora of even average goalies available, which means Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon may have to wait until the season begins for an experienced hand in net to trade for. Kessel should do well in new coach Bruce Cassidy’s system, but nobody should pretend his signing will be the difference in Vegas making or missing the playoffs. That’s going to come down to their netminding; right now, the picture in net is rather cloudy.

– As the free agent marketplace dries up, attention will turn to NHL teams that still have work to do before the regular season begins. Two of those teams – namely, the Original Six arch-rivals in Montreal and Toronto – are still expected to make moves of note during or before training camps begin in late September.

Under GM Kent Hughes, the Canadiens will probably make roster moves all season long as they continue their full rebuild. As such, current Habs veterans Evgeni Dadonov and newly-acquired experienced hands Sean Monahan and Michael Matheson are believed to be on the trade block. So too is goaltender Jake Allen – perhaps there’s a fit with Vegas for the 32-year-old – and perhaps even forwards Christian Dvorak and Josh Anderson could also be moved. There’s much room for more turnover in Montreal, and Hughes’ task is to turn those veterans into younger, better players for the long-term.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the Maple Leafs are currently $1.4 million over the cap ceiling, leaving GM Kyle Dubas no choice but to trim his lineup before the season begins. The Leafs also have restricted free agent defenseman Rasmus Sandin still to sign, which means Dubas has to cut deeper than just a single move. This is why many believe Dubas will be trading veteran defenseman Justin Holl and his $2-million salary and forward Alex Kerfoot ($3.5 million). Kerfoot and Holl are in the final years of their contracts, making them more appealing rentals for teams in contention, and Toronto fans can’t expect Dubas to get much in return for their services. What the Leafs will get when they trade them is cap space. That’s the asset. Moving them both would open up $5.5 million in space, allowing Dubas some flexibility in-season to address necessary moves.

They’re at far different stages in their development, but the Habs and Buds should be active on the trade market sooner rather than later. And Montreal and Toronto fans and media will be eating up all the attendant drama.

– Finally, the NHL reiterated that there are still plans in place to stage a new World Cup of Hockey in February of 2024. NHL deputy GM Bill Daly told NHL.com the league intends to put on a two-week tournament featuring 10 teams that would be narrowed to eight teams after a qualifying round.

However, the prospect of creating a tournament that wouldn’t include Russia – who are currently banned from any business partnership with the league or NHL players’ association – continues to raise eyebrows. Without the Russians, who continue to fight a despicable war of aggression in Ukraine, the overall pool of talent available in a World Cup would thin out fairly dramatically. We all hope saner heads prevail soon and Russia leaves Ukraine alone, but with every passing month, the chance of their participation in a World Cup drops. Sooner or later, logistically speaking, the league needs to nail down participating countries, and the league may have no option but to move ahead without the Russians.

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