If you’re a Bachelor franchise fan, you know host Chris Harrison claims every season finale is the “most dramatic in Bachelor history,” to the point it’s become a parody.
Sometimes, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to the NHL off-season. Every summer promises to be the wildest, with the most change, the most roster movement, the most hyped free agents. But, honestly, after a 2018 summer in which John Tavares was the top prize, 2019 really does shape up to be crazier. I’d go as far as selling it as the most interesting off-season in years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one of the most dizzying flurries of roster overhauling ever.
One reason for that premonition is, of course, the quality of the UFA class, which includes superstar blueliner Erik Karlsson, dynamic scorer Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The primary reason for the enormous summer storm clouds, though, is the salary cap. It appears an unprecedented number of teams find themselves in conundrums, hamstrung by departing UFAs or demanding RFAs, and a good number of franchises will have to trade important bodies out of necessity just to be cap compliant. On the other side, there’s a cluster of teams with a good amount of cap space and motivation to spend aggressively.
Which teams appear most likely to influence the 2019 NHL off-season? I've identified a group of eight with major potential to rock the boat. Just missing the list: the New York Rangers, who have a ton of cap space but don’t absolutely have to rush into the UFA waters because they’re early in their rebuild.
Joe Sakic has demonstrated commendable patience during his tenure as Avalanche GM. Even last summer, after an ahead-of-schedule playoff berth, he kept his eyes on the horizon. He didn’t make any major off-season additions and, even with the Avs in the playoff hunt this winter, didn’t go big-game hunting at the trade deadline. But now we have a better sense of where this team is headed. The No. 8 seed Avs shocked the Calgary Flames in Round 1 and even pushed the San Jose Sharks to Game 7 of Round 2. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen form one of the sport’s premier first lines, and the Avs showcased the No. 1 already-drafted prospect in the world when Cale Makar parachuted onto their blueline mid-playoffs. Philipp Grubauer gradually, predictably seized the crease from Semyon Varlamov as the season progressed, too.
So now we have a good, young, rising Colorado team, on the cusp of transitioning from upstart to real contender, badly needing some veteran forward upgrades, and boasting more than $37 million in cap space during a summer that happens to feature arguably the best UFA forward class of all-time. Even though Rantanen’s RFA deal should eat a quarter of the cap space or more, the Avs are swimming in cash. The conditions could not be better for them to spend.
The Atlantic Division already boasts three bully teams in the Bruins, Lightning and Leafs, but don’t be surprised if the Panthers look like a fourth by summer’s end. Every whisper around the organization, including those directly from GM Dale Tallon’s mouth, suggest the Panthers are done with mediocrity and ready to spend aggressively. The plan became pretty clear when they sent Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Penguins for three draft picks and two pending UFAs in Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard, the latter of whom they flipped to Colorado. They were clearing salary space and now have about $22 million available. Some people have already started stitching the Panarin and Bobrovsky jerseys. The Panthers, for my money, are the 2019 off-season’s Most Interesting Team in The World.
New GM Chuck Fletcher wants to make his mark and has already begun, acquiring the rights to UFA center Kevin Hayes from the Winnipeg Jets for a fifth-round pick last week. If the Flyers can ink Hayes, they’ll score a badly needed second-line center to take pressure off Nolan Patrick and let him develop at his own pace. They have two important RFAs in Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, and Provorov and fellow blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere have popped up in trade scuttlebutt often in recent months. Fletcher has publicly vowed to be active improving his team this off-season, particularly when it comes to pursuing veteran blueliners. Don’t be surprised if he inquires about some of his old Minnesota Wild players. Keep an eye on defenseman Jared Spurgeon and left winger Jason Zucker. With more than $33 million in cap space, the Flyers have an advantageous position in trade talks.
Most trade-candidate lists look like Penguin colonies at the moment, with big names such as Phil Kessel and Kris Letang at the top. The Penguins are drifting away from their multiple-championship peak of two years ago, fresh off a sweep loss in Round 1 of the playoffs, and have a measly $3.22 million in projected cap space. Few GMs behave more aggressively than Jim Rutherford. When his team’s wounded, his response is fight, not flight, and he likes to trade his way out of trouble. He likely wants to retool his club to give it one last chance to chase Cups before Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s prime years end. The Penguins are the safest bet on the board to make a major trade, likely in the days or weeks to come. Seriously, refresh Twitter right now. It may have happened already.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
A 62-win team, even one that choked in the first round this spring, obviously should compete for a Cup next year even if it adds no pieces. The problem is that the Lightning are more likely to lose pieces than add or maintain status quo. Half their D-corps goes UFA, and there’s no money to replace anyone at the moment, because every penny of Tampa’s $8.57 million in current cap space must go to RFA center Brayden Point. Even that might not be enough for him. The Lightning are thus pretty much shoo-ins to make some off-season trades. If Julien BriseBois had his choice, he’d likely clear J.T. Miller and/or Alex Killorn from the books, but the Bolts are more likely to attract suitors by dangling Tyler Johnson.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
‘The Center of the Hockey Universe’ will live up to its name this summer. The Leafs currently have an ulcer-inducing $8.79-million available according to a projected 2019-20 salary cap of $83 million. That figure alone won’t be enough to sign star RFA Mitch Marner, who is absolutely GM Kyle Dubas’ top priority, and the Leafs need to strike new pacts with crucial RFA wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. Johnsson is the easier deal to figure out because he’s Toronto's lone arbitration-eligible RFA and, as Dubas told me last month, that means the Leafs at least know they’ll have a resolution on Johnsson by late July.
Whatever happens, it’s clear the Leafs will hold a garage sale in coming weeks to clear cap space. Two lucky breaks for them: Patrick Marleau, 39, wants to return to the West Coast and already put his Toronto home up for sale. If the Leafs can find a taker, even if they have to eat up to 50 percent of Marleau’s salary, that would save at least $3.125 million of cap space. Zaitsev wants out, too, and while he’s been maligned for his play in Toronto, he’s a mobile, 27-year-old right-shot defender with five years of control at $4.5 million. Someone out there will pay for that hoping a fresh environment will salvage his career.
The Leafs also have a glaring need for a right-handed shot with or without Zaitsev in tow and will pursue one this summer, be it Jacob Trouba, Dougie Hamilton or someone else. They are a virtual lock to make multiple trades this off-season.
Before it’s time to start spending on veterans, a rebuilding team needs that critical mass of top-end prospects, the young core to build around. Well, let’s see…Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko…yep, it appears the Canucks have their base. Even after working out Boeser’s extension and those of a few lower-impact RFAs, the Canucks will be loaded with cap space. As of now, they have more than $30 million. Because this summer’s UFA class looks particularly strong and the Pacific Division is anyone’s for the taking every season these days, there’s a case to be made that GM Jim Benning would be justified in making a major signing. Defensemen Myers and Jake Gardiner have been linked to the Canucks, but there’s cause for chasing an even bigger fish. If only Erik Karlsson and wife Melinda had more interest in playing out West. Doing so wouldn’t solve the reported homesickness problem.
Just imagining what it’s like to be Kevin Cheveldayoff this off-season gives me a headache. Most of his problems are of the “good” variety, as they concern players ready to earn big money because of how talented they are, but Cheveldayoff faces major challenges nonetheless. Kyle Connor should command a $7-million AAV on a long-term deal after consecutive 30-goal seasons. More likely to go the bridge route, believe it or not, is Patrik Laine. It might be smart business to bet on himself after a 30-goal, 50-point season that disappointed by his standard. Cheveldayoff’s work is nowhere near finished after sorting out those two, however.
Does he trade RFA defenseman Jacob Trouba? It seems highly likely, as (a) Trouba requested a trade in the past, (b) virtually every negotiation between him and the Jets has been contentious, and the two sides went to arbitration last summer, and (c) he’s priced himself into the $7-million-plus range if he signs long-term. The Jets can get a handsome return for him. Of course, if you move Trouba, you have to replace Trouba on a right side that already has Tyler Myers going UFA. And, since he’s a right-handed shot, Myers will attract many bids and thus won’t be cheap to keep. The Jets also need to find a long-term No. 2 center after losing rentals Paul Stastny and Hayes in consecutive off-seasons. Perhaps the Trouba trade will address that need. Whatever happens, the Jets should make many headlines this off-season.
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