Your First Official NHL Offseason Primer

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The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup four days ago, but you could be forgiven if you’ve already forgotten about that. Based on their reports from Wednesday’s media event, even the Chicago players are a little fuzzy on the details at this point.

As for the rest of us, we’re just doing what hockey fans do: forgetting all about the just-concluded playoffs and immediately moving into offseason mode. And that’s probably a good thing, since the NHL doesn’t exactly give us much of a breather. The offseason has already arrived, with buyout and arbitration windows opening up and just more than one week until the entry draft. Here’s a look at everything you need to know to get you through the next few days and weeks.

The Draft

The entry draft happens next Friday and Saturday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, and unlike recent years there won’t be much suspense over the top picks. The first round will open with the official coronation of Connor McDavid as the league’s Next Big Thing, not to mention the latest savior of the Edmonton Oilers. After that, the Sabres will pick Jack Eichel, and GM Tim Murray will try really, really hard to seem happy about it.

That’s when things will get unpredictable, as the next tier of top prospects could go in any order. The Coyotes hold the third pick and could opt for defensemen Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov, or take one of the top forwards, like Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner. Their choice will dictate what the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, and Devils do with the next picks, and whether any other teams want to swoop in and move up. It should lead to an interesting opening round of a draft class that’s considered reasonably strong if not top-heavy. We’ll have a full preview next week.

Of course, as has become tradition, the actual picks may be overshadowed by the wheeling and dealing that goes on down on the draft floor. Which brings us to …

The Trade Market

You remember blockbuster trades. They were those things that used to happen all the time and were amazing fun for fans to argue about, right up until every GM in the league got timid and decided the salary cap gave them plausible cover to stop doing their jobs. Ringing any bells? Vaguely?

If so, you’re in luck, because the first few weeks of the offseason are now just about our only chance to see some big deals get done. Thanks to most teams having cap space to work with1 and the pressure to move up or down in the draft to get that prospect your scouts are screaming about, it’s the one time of year when GMs seem willing to at least think about taking on some risk by pulling the trigger on a big deal. Here are some of the bigger names who could be on the move.

Phil Kessel, Toronto: Under Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs have turned over just about the entire organization since last year, from coaches to the front office to the scouting staff. Now comes the tough part: blowing up an underachieving roster clogged with long-term, big-money contracts. Everyone from Dion Phaneuf to Tyler Bozak to Joffrey Lupul is available, but Kessel will be the biggest prize. His contract is big, but it’s a fair deal given his typical production, and there’s apparently plenty of interest.

Milan Lucic, Boston: The Bruins are still tight up against the salary cap and will probably have to move someone. Lucic hits unrestricted free agency next offseason and his production has dropped in recent years, but his physical game will make him attractive to plenty of teams. The rumor mill has linked him to the Oilers for a while, and former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli just happens to be running the show in Edmonton now.

Patrick Sharp, Chicago: It seems almost cruel to talk about trading away key pieces from a team that hasn’t even finished celebrating its latest Stanley Cup, but that’s business in the modern NHL. The Blackhawks are facing a cap crunch, and something will have to give; Sharp seems to be the most likely candidate to be moved.

Ryan O’Reilly, Colorado: The Avalanche center has been front and center in trade rumors dating back to his failed (and hilarious) offer sheet with the Flames in 2013. With UFA status looming next year, this may be the time for Colorado to finally pull the trigger. The Avs are stacked up front but could use help on the blue line, so a rare player-for-player deal isn’t out of the question.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh: The former MVP would no doubt be the biggest name on the trade market if he were actually made available. But despite a flurry of rumors after the Penguins were eliminated, all seems fairly quiet on the Malkin front right now. There were reports he wanted out followed by the predictable round of denials. At this point a deal seems unlikely, but if it was going to happen, now would be the time.

David Backes, St. Louis: After yet another first-round exit, the Blues are almost certainly going to make moves to shake up their core. The question is who ends up going, and with one year left before he’s a UFA, Backes seems like the best candidate.

All of those goaltenders: While some call it the most important position in hockey, there’s a glut of goaltenders available this summer and not many teams that need one. The Rangers could move Cam Talbot, the Senators need to deal either Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner, the Stars would probably like to move Kari Lehtonen, the Canucks might deal Eddie Lack … the list goes on and on, and that’s assuming that a bigger name like Corey Crawford or Jonathan Bernier2 doesn’t get dropped into the mix. All of that adds up to good news for teams like the Oilers and Sabres who need starters.

Unrestricted Free Agency

Teams can start signing unrestricted free agents on July 1. Teams can start regretting those signings on July 2.

That’s pretty much been how free agency has worked in the cap era, with only a handful of big-dollar deals actually working out. That’s likely to be the case again this year, as a relatively weak class hits the open market and we all wonder what went wrong in our lives that we’re obsessing over Cody Franson.

One question to watch: Is this the year we see teams wait out the market? Every summer, teams rush to sign big deals on July 1, most of which end up being disasters. Then, in late July and August, a handful of teams pick through what’s left and end up getting good players on bargain-basement deals. It’s a smart strategy — so smart, that at some point you have to figure more teams will try it. And if so, those late-summer bargains might not be bargains anymore.

Here are five players to watch:

1. Mike Green, Washington: Green is the biggest name available. That doesn’t mean he’s the best player — he’s not — but he’ll get plenty of attention, and somebody will be willing to pay him. At 29 and coming off several injury-plagued seasons, he’s not the same player who scored a ridiculous 31 goals in 2008-09, and that means he may need to take less than his current $6 million cap hit. But it won’t be much less, because again, everyone in the NHL loses their minds on July 1.

2. Justin Williams, Los Angeles: Last year’s Conn Smythe winner has a two-part reputation that’s hard to resist: He’s an analytics golden boy and a clutch playoff performer. At 33, he’s going to be a risk for anyone who offers up multiple years, but that playoff résumé is probably too tempting for a contender to ignore.

3. Martin St. Louis, New York Rangers: He turned 40 on Thursday — happy birthday, Martin! — and is coming off a so-so season followed by a disappointing playoff run. He says he’s not retiring and wants to be back in New York. But the Rangers are tight against the cap and may not be a fit. If he has to go elsewhere, he’d be an interesting gamble for a contender on a one-year deal, especially if he’s willing to take less money to squeeze into the right situation (a move that recently worked out pretty well for a certain ex-teammate).

4. Matt Beleskey, Anaheim: It never fails. Take a weak UFA field, mix in a healthy dose of recency bias to overrate a previous playoff performance, and garnish liberally with the average GM’s ongoing love affair with grit and heart, and you wind up with a furious bidding war over a third-liner with pedestrian career numbers. This year, that guy figures to be Beleskey, and while he won’t quite get David Clarkson or Dave Bolland money, someone will open up the vault and probably end up regretting it.

5. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota: It feels like cheating to even include Dubnyk here, since everyone assumes he’s re-signing with the Wild. He has to — it makes perfect sense for both him and the team, and after his magnificent run after coming over in a trade in January, it’s impossible to picture the deal not getting done. And yet, as of right now, it’s not. Hmm. They couldn’t possibly find a way to … nah.

Restricted Free Agency

The good news: Unlike its UFA cousin, the RFA market features plenty of players you’d actually like to see your team bid on. The bad news: They almost never end up going anywhere.

True, with several teams facing tough cap situations, it’s always possible we could end up seeing the dreaded Offer Sheet of Doom dropped on one or more of these guys. That’s rare — one hasn’t been signed since early in the 2012-13 season, and one hasn’t succeeded since 2007 — but with smart teams looking for any sort of market inefficiency to exploit, the apparent gentlemen’s agreement against poaching RFAs could be broken.3

Don’t hold your breath. But if anyone does try to poach an RFA, the target will likely be one of these guys.

1. Dougie Hamilton, Boston: Much of the offer-sheet speculation has focused on Hamilton, for two reasons: He’s one of the game’s best young defensemen, and the Bruins are dangerously close to being capped out. Could a young team with cap space that needs a defenseman ([cough] … Edmonton) throw an $8 million–plus offer at Hamilton in hopes the Bruins couldn’t match? It’s unlikely, but we can hold out hope just for the sheer entertainment value.

2. Brandon Saad, Chicago: Another excellent young player on a team with cap troubles, Saad is coming off an electrifying playoffs and will no doubt generate plenty of interest. But it’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks letting the 22-year-old go, even if it means shedding veteran deals to clear up space, and Saad’s recent comments about taking a hometown discount all but assure that he stays in Chicago one way or another.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis: Unlike the Hawks and Bruins, the Blues will be able to ensure they have plenty of cap space to fend off any offer sheets for the gifted Russian, so the odds of losing him are close to zero. That still leaves the small matter of getting him signed to a long-term deal, given that he’s coming off a 37-goal season and is basically the only player on the team who had a strong playoffs.

4. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit: He went from the NHL’s flavor of the month during last year’s breakout to being largely forgotten this season, even though his numbers were solid. At 25, he doesn’t have the same upside as Saad or Tarasenko, and with his limited track record this may be a case in which a shorter deal makes sense for both sides.

5. Derek Stepan, New York Rangers: While he doesn’t carry quite the same star power as the players above, Stepan has been instrumental to the Rangers’ recent run of playoff success, and the team’s tight cap situation could make for a tough negotiation. Then again, no GM is better at clearing out bad deals4 than Glen Sather, so you figure New York will find a way to get this done.

Extension Season

While July 1 is the big day for free agents, it also marks an important milestone for players entering the last year of their contracts. Beginning on July 1, those players are eligible to sign extensions. In today’s NHL, star players almost always do — when was the last time an elite player hit UFA in his prime? — and these guys are almost certain to follow suit.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay: This is the big one, and he’ll probably sign something in the range of the record-breaking Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane $84 million deals, if not beyond. Any delay in getting the extension done will spur all sorts of speculation about Stamkos having an eye on free agency — hell, it’s already out there — but he’s staying put. The extension might not happen right away because these sorts of deals take time to put together,5 but don’t panic, Lightning fans. Steve Yzerman will get this done.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles: Kopitar is often compared to Toews and will probably get paid like him. This is another one that could take a while; the Kings are tight against the cap and still have to sign RFA Tyler Toffoli. And besides, Kopitar will probably want to see where Stamkos’s number lands and then shoot for just under that.

Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg: Unlike Kopitar and Stamkos, Byfuglien isn’t a no-brainer. While he’s one of the league’s most dominant players when he’s at his best, his inconsistency is a concern. More importantly, we’ve really never seen a guy this big play defense in the NHL, which makes projecting an aging curve all but impossible. Would you gamble on signing him through the age of 38? If you want him on your team, you’ll probably have to.

Eric Staal, Carolina: Staal’s $8.25 million cap hit ranks among the league’s 10 highest, and at 30 years old and coming off a 54-point season, he’d be unlikely to get that much on his next deal. But his situation is part of a big-picture question in Carolina: Just where are the Hurricanes headed? If they still feel like they can compete, they’ll likely want to keep their captain, and he seems to want to stay (and has a full no-trade clause that he’s apparently willing to use). But if it’s time for a full-scale rebuild, he’d make for ideal trade bait. Today, the Canes say they’re not moving him … for now. But if he heads into the season without a new deal, that will be a good indication of which path they’re taking.

Mark Giordano, Calgary: Giordano’s another player on the wrong side of 30, although it’s hard to argue that he’s past his prime given how dominant he’s been over the past two seasons. Assuming his recovery from the biceps injury that ended his season is on schedule, the Flames will get this done. It will cost a lot more than his current $4 million cap hit, but they’ve got space to work with.

Brent Seabrook, Chicago: We’ve covered the Blackhawks’ cap problems already, and they’ll probably have to wait for the Saad situation to play out before turning to Seabrook. He’s been such a great fit in Chicago that it’s hard to imagine him elsewhere, but Stan Bowman has shown an ability to be ruthless when he needs to be.

And More …

Buyouts: Remember that there are no more compliance buyouts; those cap-saving wonders introduced after the 2013 lockout were only good for two years. So we’re back to the old-fashioned buyout, which aren’t all that attractive because they cost cap space. Teams can start using them now through June 30. It’s unlikely we’ll see any used on stars; you might see overpaid veterans like Vincent Lecavalier as targets (although reportedly not yet).

The hiring line: There’s not a lot of intrigue here, as all 30 teams have head coaches and the only one without a GM, the Maple Leafs, seems content to stay that way for the short term.6 But there are a handful of jobs open in the assistant coach ranks and the minors that could be worth watching: The Penguins still need an AHL coach, and the Ducks have talked to former Jack Adams winner Paul MacLean about an assistant’s role.

The awards: The NHL Awards will be held on Wednesday. Carey Price will take home the Hart and Vezina, but the race figures to be considerably tighter for the Norris, Calder, and Selke.7 Rob Riggle hosts, with a special musical performance from that one band from six years ago. Also, the awards are once again being held in Las Vegas, which is convenient because …

Expansion: Since everyone’s going to be in town anyway, could this be the week we finally get some guidance (if not a formal announcement) from the league as to what’s happening with the potential Las Vegas expansion team? While a new team likely wouldn’t actually begin playing for several years, at some point the league needs to drop the “we’re just exploring” routine and put some stakes in the ground. With the Las Vegas ticket drive going well and an arena under construction, Wednesday could mark a good time to finally take the next step.

Training camp: It’s already less than three months away. Try to work in a day off or two between now and then.

Filed Under: NHL, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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