It’s not quite the late summer of 2019, when a slew of restricted free agents — including Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Mikko Rantanen — went into September without contract extensions. But entering the weekend, several high-profile RFAs remained unsigned.
In Vancouver, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were awaiting big money. Likewise Brady Tkachuk in Ottawa, Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo, and Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota. These are franchise building blocks, with the caveat that Dahlin, the No. 1 pick in 2018, hasn’t yet popped in Western New York.
The Canucks had the heaviest lift, having to fit the 2019 Calder Trophy winner (Pettersson) and 2020 runner-up (Hughes) under a tight salary cap. General manager Jim Benning had this to do, after taking on $7.26 million of Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s deal (and rising star Conor Garland) in exchange for the inflated contracts of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel. It doesn’t look like we’ll see a dramatic change of scenery for any, or another offer sheet in the vein of Carolina landing Montreal RFA Jesperi Kotkaniemi last week.
J.P. Barry, the agent for Pettersson and Hughes, said in June that his players wanted to stay in Vancouver (Hughes is not eligible for an offer sheet, while Pettersson is). The camp for Kaprizov, fresh off his Calder win, dangled the threat of the KHL — Kaprizov, too, is offer sheet-ineligible, so that’s his primary leverage — but Minnesota GM Bill Guerin is holding firm. Tkachuk, wearing an “A” for the Senators, has expressed several times his wish to push the rebuild forward in Canada’s capital.
What’s just as intriguing this time of year, with training camps set to open in a couple weeks, is assessing the players entering the final years of their deals.
Take the Sharks, for example. They’ve been bottom of the barrel of late, finishing 26th last season and 29th the season before, with a salary cap choked by big contracts signed during the team’s playoff runs of the previous decade. What will they do with Tomas Hertl, set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer?
“I wonder if San Jose will want to sign me, and if I’ll want to stay here,” the 27-year-old center recently told Czech outlet iDNES.cz, expressing his disappointment with where the club stands.
One of the best two-way pivots in the game, he has a three-team trade list (per CapFriendly) and could choose which club gives him a raise on his current salary-cap hit ($5.625 million). Dealing him would kick-start San Jose’s rebuild, which would flourish if it can find takers for misfit forward Evander Kane and/or aging defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (each making $7 million for the next four years, with Vlasic signed for five). That’s doubtful.
If you’re Predators general manager David Poile, don’t you have to try to deal Filip Forsberg? His expiring $6 million deal is reasonably priced and lacks trade protection. Nashville, lacking oomph on the roster and shedding other veterans (Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson), might think about flipping the 27-year-old scorer for exciting prospects and young NHLers who have yet to peak.
Running through a few more pending free agent names to watch this season, with some semi-bold predictions:
Not going anywhere
▪ Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Penguins — Sidney Crosby is unlikely to sign off on a rebuild, the first step of which would involve moving either. Malkin’s injuries are a concern, but he’s still Malkin. Letang (7-38—45 in 55 games) played nearly 25 minutes a night.
▪ Patrice Bergeron, Bruins — He was born July 24, 1985, and was drafted June 21, 2003, a span of 6,541 days. This past May 18, when the Bruins were playing the Capitals in the first round, Bergeron reached the “Bruin for exactly half his life” point. Said this past week he’ll wait to decide his future after the season. He’ll retire a Bruin — whenever that is.
▪ Aleksander Barkov, Panthers — Will earn a major raise on his $5.9 million cap hit. If he becomes available, the whole league would be interested. Locking up the best homegrown player in franchise history would be further proof Panthers are for real.
▪ Matthew Tkachuk, Flames (RFA) — The Flames would reset their operation by trading him, but Tkachuk would be an obvious choice as new captain.
Let’s talk about it
▪ Johnny Gaudreau, Flames — Has Gaudreau, 28, hit his peak? He’s been good, not great since his 99-point season in 2019.
▪ Laine, Blue Jackets (RFA) — Someone’s got to get another 40-goal season out of this guy, right? Could have a long-term home if he clicks with new staff, but at 23 he’s worth a bet on potential.
▪ Mark Giordano, Kraken — If the Kraken stumble out of the gate, the former Flames captain could help someone else come playoff time.
▪ Phil Kessel, Coyotes — Little reason bargain-basement Coyotes should hang on to an $8 million scorer come the trade deadline. Or, now.
▪ Marc-Andre Fleury, Blackhawks — The Blackhawks feel they’ve improved with the return of Jonathan Toews and addition of Seth Jones. If that turns out to be an illusion, would anyone want the reigning Vezina winner?
Could stay at a discount
▪ P.K. Subban, Devils — Price tag ($9 million) way too high for what he offers at this stage, but Devils’ defense could use solid vets. If salary is retained, he could be attractive to a team lacking right-shot D (Boston, perhaps?).
▪ Claude Giroux, Flyers — Not worth $8.275 million, but Flyers won’t easily part with their captain.
▪ Mika Zibanejad, Rangers — Team seems to want more than Zibanejad at No. 1 center (you may have heard them connected to Jack Eichel), but if he’s not looking to break the bank (current cap hit: $5.35 million), the Rangers might be able to fit him in.
TEEING THEM UP
Bergeron leaves door open for Krejci’s return
Notes from the Bruins’ first team-wide appearance of the preseason, the annual Boston Bruins Foundation golf tournament this past week:
▪ Patrice Bergeron did little to quiet the speculation that David Krejci could return stateside after the Czech season ends. The pair of centers, atop the Bruins’ depth chart since Krejci’s arrival in 2007 and friends in the years since, talked in advance of Krejci’s decision to play for hometown HC Olomouc.
“Krech has done so much for this organization,” Bergeron said. “I always say that family always has to come first. He thought about making sure his kids would learn the language that his [parents] speak. They cannot speak English. It was a hard decision for him. At the same time, we respect that decision and wish him all the best.
“We’re going to be in contact. Hopefully we’ll see him back. But at the same time, we can’t control anything more than his decision and wish him all the best.”
▪ The Bruins seem well set up to handle the NHL’s new COVID-19 protocols, which include harsh penalties for the unvaccinated. Bergeron said “most of the guys” have had their shots. “I don’t know exactly the number, but I think we’re pretty high.”
In an e-mail, general manager Don Sweeney said teams cannot mandate players to get the vaccine.
“Protocols, however, will be more restrictive for players that chose not to be vaccinated, including potentially not be able to travel to certain games,” Sweeney wrote. “The decision ultimately remains in the players’ hands.”
Charlie Coyle, who lives near a bunch of Bruins in the Seaport (where several other NHLers make their offseason homes), said he and his crew are vaccinated.
“The team and organization takes it very seriously,” said fellow Seaport resident Matt Grzelcyk, who is also vaccinated. “[The team sends e-mails and texts] right away … they do a great job of making our job as easy as possible.”
▪ Coyle, coming off left knee surgery, expects to be 100 percent for the Oct. 16 season opener against Dallas. He said his injury worsened over the last two or three years.
“We finally found what it was [avulsion fracture in the kneecap, patellar tendon tear]. Hopefully put that behind me.”
▪ Nick Foligno, a lively quote, pointed to the 2019 second-round series between Boston and Columbus to illuminate his respect for the Bruins.
“They came in waves,” Foligno said. “They just consistently play the right way. We just didn’t have the understanding as a group of how to do that on a nightly basis. It’s almost like they got stronger as they felt that. That’s what it was like playing against them. Ask anybody. They have their top line. But then those other lines they have — Krejci’s line, the third line, would come out and play the exact same way.
“I hated these guys when I played against them . . . I think it’s the biggest letdown in the league, when you expect a hard night and they don’t quite give it to you. That’s never the case with the Boston Bruins.”
▪ Brandon Carlo and his fiancée, Mayson Corbett, welcomed a daughter, Wren Elizabeth, on Sept. 2. Carlo: “Sleep hasn’t been going so great, but other than that . . . what an amazing blessing. I can’t even explain how full my heart is.”
▪ Bergeron’s golf game is not as flawless as his hockey. A report from the course said Bergeron was joking about needing a few more balls to finish his round.
Name change says a lot about PHF
The National Women’s Hockey League, under founding commissioner Dani Rylan Kearney, successor Tyler Tumminia, and dozens of players and staffers, worked hard to earn a foothold in its first seven seasons.
At a glance, they’re starting from scratch after ditching the NWHL moniker and reemerging as the PHF — Premier Hockey Federation.
Of course, that’s not how Tumminia sees it.
This past week’s name change — “refreshing the brand,” in her words — was considered with the idea that “we are quite new on the inside,” she said in a phone call. “Everything has changed. We wanted to take it to the next level. The time to rebrand was right now.”
Players liked the moniker, Tumminia said. It gives the league, which had its first international player draft this summer, a global flavor. Tumminia alluded to sponsorship deals outside North America. Removing “women’s” from the name refocuses attention on the sport, rather than gender; the NHL is not called the National Men’s Hockey League.
What’s at the heart of the change, Tumminia said, is including transgender and non-binary players. College teams (e.g. Baylor) are dropping “Lady” from their nicknames. There are players in the PHF who don’t identify as female, yet on the rosters provided to broadcasters at the then-NWHL’s February tournament in Lake Placid, the pronouns next to every player’s name were “she/her.”
“This has been a long process of thought and discussion,” Tumminia said. “As the world of sport is going to relabel, rename themselves, it was going to happen sooner rather than later.”
▪ Expect the league’s players association to name a successor to executive director Anya Packer before the season. Packer, ex-of Waltham High and Boston University, is now GM of the Metropolitan Riveters.
▪ The PHF is delaying expansion to Montreal until next season. Asked if two teams could come in, Tumminia noted she’d like to have an even number of teams (Montreal would make it seven).
▪ The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which includes most of the Olympic-level players, plans to hold exhibitions for the third year in a row. Boston will reportedly replace New Hampshire as a training hub, with Calgary, Minnesota, Montreal, and Toronto.
The question remains: Will the PWHPA and PHF ever partner up? Tumminia did say that “in the last 10 months,” she’s had “more conversations with the PWHPA” than the sides had “in the last three years.”
The Penguins will start the season without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby, who had wrist surgery this past week, is slated to miss six weeks, at least. Malkin is out indefinitely after knee surgery. The Penguins’ 1-2 center punch, until the big dogs return, might be Jake Guentzel and Jeff Carter. The Metropolitan Division goes five or six deep with playoff-caliber teams, so the Penguins can’t fall too far. If Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry, the two incumbent goalies who struggled last season, aren’t on their games, they could be out of it by Thanksgiving. Marc-Andre Fleury reunion, anyone? . . . Still no movement on the Jack Eichel front, with a change of agents (Peter Fish and Clark Donatelli out, Pat Brisson in) promising to kick-start the process. It remains an imbroglio: Teams dealing for Eichel pre-neck surgery would want a discount, Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams wants max return for his superstar captain, Eichel can’t start training camp without having a surgery, and team and player can’t agree on the type of procedure. Wondering: Is Buffalo going to wind up with Eichel on LTIR and with $10 million of cap space? . . . Stick salute to David Backes, a gentleman during some difficult times in Boston. After finishing his distinguished career in Anaheim, he signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the St. Louis Blues. Would not be a surprise to see him in management . . . Meanwhile, Ondrej Kase, acquired by the Bruins in the February 2020 deal that offloaded Backes’s $6 million contract to Anaheim, is trying to stay healthy and make the Maple Leafs’ roster. The Bruins didn’t qualify the RFA, who signed with Toronto along with fellow ex-Duck Nick Ritchie . . . This season is the Islanders’ 50th anniversary, as they move into sparkling UBS Arena. Expect an all-NHL arenas and road trips ranking in this space, once we see the new place (Dec. 16, Bruins at Islanders). Another franchise celebrating a milestone: Ottawa (30th) . . . Seems like a dicey move, the Senators committing to general manager Pierre Dorion — whose on-ice results have been, uh, unspectacular — until at least 2025. But Dorion, on the job since 2016, has brought in young talent as part of the rebuild (he also shipped out Erik Karlsson), and there’s something to be said for stability. Can’t hurt to let him see it through . . . The Kraken, among 1,110 donors, chipped in some $150,000 of the $3 million needed to save the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves hockey program. The Seawolves, who will resume play in 2022-23, were part of the now-disbanded Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Next up: finding opponents . . . Recommendation here for “Untold: Crime and Penalties,” the Netflix documentary about the short-lived Danbury Trashers of the United Hockey League. It’s the rollicking story of what happened when Jimmy Galante, the real-life inspiration for Tony Soprano and a garbage-business lord with ties to organized crime, bought his 17-year-old son a minor league hockey team during the 2004-05 lockout. Compelling stuff . . . Canucks prospects such as West Roxbury’s Jack Rathbone will have an easier time this season. Vancouver’s change of AHL affiliate from Utica, N.Y., to Abbotsford, British Columbia, saves call-ups a full day of commercial travel: Utica to Syracuse by car, then Detroit, Seattle, and Vancouver by plane. Have to admit there were times, while staring at the walls during the pandemic, where that would have sounded like fun.