Hockey seems to be around the corner. A Jan. 13 start date for the 2020-21 NHL season, while not settled, appears like a go. They want to play, pandemic be damned.
That could mean some last-minute holiday shopping for a few bargain-hunting general managers.
Entering the weekend, the payrolls of 10 teams were north of the salary cap’s upper limit ($81.5 million). To be cap-compliant by opening night, there will be movement in a third of the league’s cities. Those living a little too richly at the moment: Arizona, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Vegas, Vancouver, Toronto, Washington, Anaheim, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.
This is where the Bruins could, if so inspired, widen their championship window a little by dealing wisely with a needy partner.
Of course, trading is difficult, as Don Sweeney noted this past week. It may be more difficult now, with a flat cap, uncertainty surrounding 2020-21, and internal financial constraints squeezing activity leaguewide. The likes of Mike Hoffman, Mikael Granlund, Sami Vatanen, Zdeno Chara, and Erik Haula remain unsigned. Teams with high-caliber restricted free agents, such as the Islanders (Mathew Barzal), Blue Jackets (Pierre-Luc Dubois), Lightning (Anthony Cirelli), and Blackhawks (Dylan Strome), are trying to make the numbers work.
But fortune favors the bold. Let’s see if the Bruins could lend a hand to a few of the league’s most over-the-cap teams (salary-cap data from CapFriendly.com) …
Arizona Coyotes — Over by: $2.77 million.
Recent activity: In the desert, good players are paid like great ones. How about eight years of Clayton Keller at $7.15 million per, and seven years of Oliver Ekman-Larsson at $8.25 million per? They hope Phil Kessel forgets his 14-goal season last year, since he’s on for another two years at $6.8 million per. It is a team in need of an overhaul, but bottoming out is harder for small-market teams. Why? Put it this way: If Chicago and New York enter rebuild mode, no one in Quebec City bats an eyelash.
How they fix it: Arizona has $14.4 million in aging defensemen (Alex Gologoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Jason Demers) coming off the books after this season, along with Marian Hossa’s dead money ($5.275 million). But new general manager Bill Armstrong has no first-round pick in 2021, thanks to the club’s illegal prospect testing under former GM John Chayka, so tanking won’t bring a sorely needed franchise player. They also lost their second-rounder in 2022 from the testing misstep, and surrendered their 2020 first and 2021 third (plus three prospects) to get three months and nine playoff games out of Taylor Hall. Good luck.
Could the Bruins help? If the price for Ekman-Larsson comes down, sure, but it seems that ship has sailed. Arizona would be foolish to cough up young talents such as Scituate’s Conor Garland (22 goals in 68 games for $775,000), who will be restricted after this season. If the Bruins are still looking for left-side stability come the trade deadline, Gologoski or Hjalmarsson could be in play, in exchange for a prospect to help restock the Coyotes’ thin farm system.
Vancouver Canucks — Over by: $1.5 million
Recent activity: Tough sledding for Jim Benning, Peter Chiarelli’s former assistant GM in Boston. After letting No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom and recently acquired winger Tyler Toffoli walk last summer, the Canucks are carrying a heft of high-dollar, low-return contracts: two more years each of Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle, at a combined $12 million AAV, plus $3-plus million in retired Roberto Luongo’s cap recapture penalty, a shade over $1 million in a Ryan Spooner buyout, and $1.7 million in carryover bonuses. They could free up $15 million or so in pending UFA money next summer, but Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson will be owed bank-breaking second contracts. Things are tight.
How they fix it: Offloading a pending UFA such as defenseman Jordie Benn ($2 million) would make them cap-compliant, but does it make them better? Answer: no. Would Alex Edler ($6 million, expiring) waive his no-trade? Word from Vancouver is that he wouldn’t. They could put Micheal Ferland on long-term injured reserve, and bury Sven Baertschi to free up enough dough for opening night 2020-21. But that’s punting the problems down the road.
Could the Bruins help? Benn (or Edler, if willing) could be left-side help at the deadline. The last Bruins-Canucks trade was in 2004, when Brian Burke shipped Jiri Slegr to Boston for future considerations.
St. Louis Blues — Over by: $1.18 million
Recent activity: Over the last season, they lost captain Alex Pietrangelo, and brought in Justin Faulk and Torey Krug, both of whom were signed to seven-year deals worth $6.5 million per. They offloaded backup goalie Jake Allen to Montreal. Top winger Vladimir Tarasenko, saddled with shoulder trouble, is likely to start the year on long-term injured reserve.
How they fix it: By finding a taker for pending UFA Tyler Bozak ($5 million), or Jaden Schwartz ($5.35 million), who is six years younger (28). But what team could afford those salaries?
Could the Bruins help? Vince Dunn, a 24-year-old, left-shot RFA defenseman who needs a contract, would be a quality add if the Bruins do not use their projected cap space (about $3 million) on Chara. Trading Jeremy Lauzon or Urho Vaakanainen for Dunn’s rights, and signing him to a short-term deal worth about $3 million per, would strengthen the Bruins’ back end.
Vegas Golden Knights — Over by: $1.05 million
Recent activity: Handed Pietrangelo the heftiest contract of the offseason (seven years, $61.6 million). Extended Robin Lehner (five years, $25 million) despite the presence of Marc-Andre Fleury. Essentially gave away Nate Schmidt (Vancouver) and Paul Stastny (Winnipeg), saving a combined $12.45 million. Again, tough trade market.
How they fix it: Unless waiving someone is the move, there are no shortage of trade candidates: Fleury, still owed $7 million for the next two years; Jonathan Marchessault, $4 million times four years; or a player of greater interest around here, Max Pacioretty. The New Canaan, Conn., product is one of the better goal scorers in the game (team-high 32 last year, his sixth season of 30 or more). He has a $7 million cap hit, with three years left, and has a no-trade list of 10 teams. It’s unclear if the Bruins are on it.
Could the Bruins help: The ask for Pacioretty would be Jake DeBrusk-plus. Would it benefit the Bruins to deal a 24-year-old left wing with potential for a 32-year-old who has proven it? If Vegas retained some of the money, yes.
Tampa Bay Lightning — Over by: $1.9 million
Recent activity: Banners are forever, but this roster won’t be. Someone has to go if Julien BriseBois wants to hold onto RFAs Cirelli (in line for a bridge deal worth around $4 million per) and Erik Cernak (somewhere in the $2 million range). The other 30 GMs didn’t blink when Tyler Johnson’s remaining four years at $5 million per passed through waivers in October. What, no one wants to help the champs?
How they fix it: Trading captain Steven Stamkos seems unlikely, given his no-movement clause, status in the organization, and paycheck (four years left at $8.5 million per), but if there are any takers, BriseBois would have to consider it. If the Red Wings were a bit further along in their rebuild, perhaps former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman would be hunting for a veteran centerpiece to boost his collection of high picks. One short-term fix, dealing Alex Killorn (three years at $4.45 million per, with a modified no-trade to boot), would only get them part of the way there in order to retain the RFAs. They would have to send a sweetener to get someone to take Johnson.
Could the Bruins help? Doubtful. As fun as it would have been to see someone extend an offer sheet to young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, before he re-signed at Charlie McAvoy money (three years, $4.8 million per), the Bruins will watch and hope a few Bolts get shaken loose.
PROSPECT IN LIMBO
Zech is stashed awaiting word
Like most everyone in hockey, Cooper Zech is waiting for the word. He doesn’t know when he’s coming back from Nitra, Slovakia, where he is tuning up with HK Nitra (2-2—4 in six games), or when the AHL might start up again.
“We don’t hear a ton of news on it until it’s finalized,” said the Bruins prospect, a defenseman in the Torey Krug mold. “I’m hoping the NHL and NHLPA come to an agreement. Hopefully, I can get a spot in NHL camp and translate what I’ve been working on the last nine months. If I can’t, hopefully I can translate it to Providence camp.”
Zech, who spent last season with the P-Bruins after signing out of Ferris State the previous spring, is 21 with a loaded hockey passport. Undersized now at 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds, the South Lyon, Mich., native was about 5-7, 140, when he spent two of his mid-teenage years on the West Texas plains, with the NAHL’s Odessa Jackalopes (leading the team in scoring one year: a 16-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, now with the Hurricanes). A spring in the USHL (Muskegon, Mich.) didn’t convince Zech he was on a pro track. He didn’t start to believe it was possible until a breakout season in the BCHL, the second-tier Canadian junior league, as an 18-year-old in 2017-18. His 69 points in 58 games with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild earned him a look at Ferris State.
Another curveball: Zech was training last summer near Ann Arbor, Mich., with a group that included Quinn Hughes, Jack Hughes, Kyle Connor, and Zach Werenski, and in mid-August he learned he had COVID-19.
“I didn’t even know I had it,” said Zech, whose girlfriend had tested positive. She is OK now, after losing her sense of taste and smell for a week. He was asymptomatic.
“My first thought was it was a little scary, because you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Every day that went by I was waiting for more symptoms. I kept bracing for it, and it never really hit me as hard as it did some people.”
Late last month he arrived in Nitra (population: about 78,000), where the team set him up with a downtown apartment and a car he hasn’t used. He walks around town in his spare time, looking at the castles and mountains surrounding the city. An avid fisherman, he is also ready if the opportunity strikes.
“I brought a fly rod that breaks down into four pieces,” said Zech, who figures he might try for some trout. “I just threw it in my hockey bag, the reel in my backpack, and I have a little fly box. Brought it just in case. When I unpacked it, the coach here was looking like, ‘What the hell is he pulling out of there?’ ”
Thanks to COVID-19, realignment on way
With the season coming into greater focus — camps could open Jan. 2 —- commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed Tuesday that the US-Canada border closure would necessitate the one-year reimagining of divisions, including the creation of an all-Canadian section. While not finalized — or given working titles — TSN reported that the proposed order is:
East — Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington.
Central — Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Florida, Minnesota, Nashville, and Tampa Bay.
West — Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Jose, and Vegas.
Canada — Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.
In that setup, how would 56 games of intradivisional play look for the Bruins?
They would avoid Tampa Bay, still expected to be the class of the league, and Original Six rivals Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, and Toronto. The most interesting games would likely be against the stouter teams in the current Metropolitan Division: Pittsburgh, Philly, and Washington. The Flyers, with netminder Carter Hart and other talented youngsters, should challenge for the division with the aging Capitals, Penguins, and Bruins.
As for the also-rans: The Rangers look to be on the upswing after adding top-two overall draft picks (Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere) in the last two seasons. The Sabres should be more watchable after adding Taylor Hall on a one-year, $8 million deal, but like the Blueshirts, they aren’t on anyone’s list of threats to knock off the Lightning. The Devils are rebuilding. Too early to know what to make of the Islanders, who can seemingly grind out 2-1 wins against anyone.
NHL opens door to ads on uniforms
Though other sports leagues — notably, the NBA — have deigned to put ads on game uniforms, the NHL has resisted. The day may soon come when the Spoked-B is accented by a logo of some local coffee, beer, or sneaker conglomerate.
The NHL may experiment with ads on players’ helmets first, Sportsnet reported, as a way to dip its toes into the water without committing to a full-blown sponsorship package. For a league hurting for revenue, at least compared with its major-sports counterparts, this is long overdue.
NHL teams have long sold ads on practice jerseys. As for game threads, the NBA showed that aesthetic concerns are overblown about a little banner on the shoulder. No doubt sponsors would bid high for real estate on an Original Six sweater, and there’s a way to incorporate a patch tastefully into the design. After all, there’s no way the NHL would ever go full Euro with its unis.
The standard issue Bruins prospect Cooper Zech wears in Slovakia has at least 21 patches or stickers, covering the helmet, chest, arms, back, and pants with company logos (the ugliest: the white box ads covering the pants, front and back).
“We have ads anywhere you can put an ad,” Zech said. “It looks a little strange to me, just because it’s foreign to me. You don’t notice it when you’re playing. However it has to happen, if that’s how the league had to make money, I can wear a couple patches. It doesn’t bother me.”
If Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid took a COVID-19 vaccine, would that help persuade the public of its safety? That’s one of the questions that follow a report from longtime NHL broadcaster John Shannon, that the league plans to privately purchase vaccines for those involved with the restart, should they become available. During the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, staff, players, and family members of the Calgary Flames received shots while thousands in Alberta waited. A subsequent provincial inquiry led to the firing of a senior staff member who helped the Flames skip the line. The NHL would not want to be seen as doing the same during a pandemic … TSN reported Blues general manager Doug Armstrong will be Team Canada’s GM at the Beijing 2022 Olympics, with Ken Holland (Edmonton) and Ron Francis (Seattle) helping him construct the roster. One strong candidate for head coach: Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, a favorite son of Ottawa … Team USA’s brass in Beijing could include Jeff Gorton (Rangers), Bill Guerin (Minnesota), Ray Shero (ex-of New Jersey), David Poile (Nashville), Bill Zito (Florida), and Don Waddell (Carolina). If the Yanks don’t return to John Tortorella behind the bench, could Peter Laviolette get another run? What about his Turin 2006 assistant (and Torts’s assistant at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey), Mike Sullivan? Would Jeff Blashill or John Hynes get a turn? … Retired blue liner Brooks Orpik has returned to The Heights, where he won a national title in 2001, as a Boston College assistant coach. If any Eagles don’t know how to block shots, they will soon.