The strands connecting the NHL’s 30 general managers are sticky. They spend most of their hours offering each other anchors and sniffing for life preservers. But they are thick as thieves, their friendships grown tighter by the pressure of their respective markets.
Three of the 30 GMs spent nine seasons in the same web. Now, in varying degrees, they’re fighting over the same players.
Don Sweeney and Jim Benning used to be Peter Chiarelli’s lieutenants in Boston. Benning left his post under good terms when he became Vancouver’s GM in 2014. The Bruins booted Chiarelli out of Boston one year later. Chiarelli promptly resurfaced in Edmonton, where he played a part in his ex-colleague’s hasty decision to trade Dougie Hamilton out of fear of an offer sheet.
Sweeney and Chiarelli are both in the market for a puck-moving defenseman, a profile that describes former Boston University blue liner Kevin Shattenkirk. In turn, Chiarelli and Benning are interested in experienced muscle up front — a pursuit that has ex-Bruin Milan Lucic in both of their sights.
The brains that once collaborated in building one franchise now have their own interests in mind, regardless of how well they worked in assembling a Stanley Cup champion.
“Those are strong relationships from the time I was in Boston,” Chiarelli said. “So you can’t ignore them. Maybe you’re a little more open with them. But if we’re pursuing the same guy, I’m not going to tell them what we’re offering or something like that.”
Of the three ex-colleagues, Chiarelli is the most desperate to initiate player movement. Edmonton is the Crying Jordan meme on skates. Four former No. 1 overall picks in Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall have done nothing besides make the Oilers the punch line to every joke in the NHL.
So far, Chiarelli is skating in familiar grooves. During his first season in Boston, Chiarelli oversaw a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. As a first-year Oiler, Chiarelli did even worse, serving as steward of a 14th-place organization.
As he did in his second year in Boston, Chiarelli is aiming to initiate a similar turnaround in Edmonton. He has the armaments to do so, more than Sweeney has in his arsenal. Other than McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Oscar Klefbom, Chiarelli is not committed to any of his assets — not Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, or Jordan Eberle. Sweeney’s best chip is Ryan Spooner, whose advantage over his Edmonton counterparts is his price ($925,000 annually for one more year), not his skill.
“When you lose, you’ve got to make changes. You’ve got to fix things,” Chiarelli said. “That’s what we’re looking at doing.”
Desperation and a deeper pool of tradeable assets may put Chiarelli in a stronger position to acquire a defenseman than Sweeney. They will not be as helpful when it comes to the opening of free agency. When Lucic officially reaches unrestricted status on Friday, it will be about salary, term, fit, and ability to win. Chiarelli is planning to make as many dollars available as possible if the Oilers deem the crash-and-bang Lucic as a primary target.
“We’ve got cap room. We’ve got flexibility,” Chiarelli said. “If we decide to go after an expensive free agent, we’ll make sure we’re in a good spot cap-wise.”
That may not be good enough. Lucic wanted to stay in Los Angeles. But the left wing was not willing to take enough of a discount to make Manhattan Beach, his home in 2015-16, his permanent residence. This will be the 28-year-old Lucic’s first and most likely last opportunity at free agency. Given his age, impact, and projected window of decline, Lucic will seek max money and term. The Canucks will pitch a homecoming to the East Vancouver native as hard as possible.
“He’d be a guy we have interest in,” Benning confirmed. “He’s from Vancouver. He’s been a good player in the league for a long time. He’s a unique player, a power forward. We would definitely have interest in him.”
The Canucks are in a different position than the Oilers. Vancouver needs to get younger, which is something Lucic would not address. The Sedin twins, Alex Burrows, and Ryan Miller are 35 years old. The Canucks traded 20-year-old Jared McCann, their 2014 first-rounder, to Florida for Erik Gudbranson.
But Edmonton has something Vancouver does not: promise. It’s hard to comprehend future failure for the Oilers to make the playoffs with McDavid leading the charge. The Canucks do not have a guaranteed McDavid-like moneymaker in their future, which is why the draft is Vancouver’s perpetual priority, even if adding more 2016 selections was not in their cards.
“It seems like the two hardest things to do right now is to move money, existing contracts, and to try to come up with extra draft picks,” Benning said on Thursday. “We’re going to continue to try. But I don’t know if that’s something that’s going to happen.”
None of the three former coworkers made the playoffs in 2015-16. They will do anything to keep that from happening next year, including bagging players the others may want.
“At the end of the day, if we’re competing for the same player, it depends on your assets and what you’re going to give up for that player,” Chiarelli said. “I don’t think you’re going to have any more guile than anyone else. You have assets and you have timing.”
BUYING IN EARLY
Yandle, Goligoski were wanted men
The Panthers and Coyotes could have waited until Saturday, the opening of the NHL’s interview period, to speak with Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski. It would have cost them nothing to do so.
Instead, rookie GMs Tom Rowe and John Chayka took proactive measures to enter exclusive negotiating periods with both defensemen by acquiring their rights. Their respective trades (a 2016 sixth-rounder and a 2017 fourth-rounder for Yandle, a 2016 fifth-rounder for Goligoski) were worthwhile assets for the freedom to get their claws on their pursuits before their competitors.
Whether their contracts will be worthwhile is another story.
Yandle is laughing all the way to the bank after netting a seven-year, $44.45 million blockbuster. The Milton native will be 36 years old in the final season of his contract. While Yandle should be a good offensive defenseman for the win-now Panthers, his deal may not be so team-friendly closer to its conclusion.
Yandle is a natural skater, similar to 37-year-old Brian Campbell, his short-term Florida teammate. He has been a positive possession player for six of his eight NHL seasons. There is no questioning Yandle’s touch on the power play, where he led the Rangers with 22 man-up points (two goals, 20 helpers).
But Yandle’s five-on-five performance cannot be qualified as dependable. Like others in his segment of puck-moving defenseman, he makes risky plays that blow up in his face. In five-on-five action in 2015-16, according to www.corsica.hockey, Yandle averaged 0.99 points per 60 minutes of play, the second-lowest rate of his career. It’s debatable whether Yandle has the defensive chops to execute the grunt work for Gerard Gallant, who insists on defensive accountability. Yet the Panthers had no trouble giving Yandle a higher average annual value than Brent Burns.
Goligoski did not strike it as rich as Yandle. The ex-Star signed a five-year, $27.375 million deal with Arizona, where he will complement No. 1 defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. But it is a fair valuation for the consistent Goligoski, who can provide some of Yandle’s skills and amplify others, albeit with less flair. Goligoski scored five goals and 32 assists while averaging 23:50 of ice time last year, including 2:20 on the penalty kill and 1:57 on the power play.
Yandle and Goligoski were the top UFA-to-be defensemen. It leaves Campbell, Jason Demers, and Dan Hamhuis as the best remaining blue liners who will be available on Friday. By being aggressive with their picks, the Panthers and Coyotes landed the top players in a thoroughly underwhelming class.
Protection is part of expansion
On Thursday, the NHL presented GMs with clarity on rules regarding the expansion draft, which will take place on June 21, 2017. Teams can choose one of two player-protection options: seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; or eight skaters and one goalie.
Criteria for the protected lists:
■ Players who decline to waive their no-movement clauses must be protected.
■ First- and second-year pros and unsigned draft picks will be exempt from selection.
■ Teams must expose one defenseman who is under contract in 2017-18 and played in 40-plus NHL games the previous season or 70-plus NHL games in the two prior seasons.
■ Teams must expose two forwards who are under contract in 2017-18 and meet the same games-played threshold as an exposed defenseman.
■ Teams must expose one goalie who is either under contract or a restricted free agent in 2017-18.
Currently, good bets for the Bruins to protect in Option 1 include Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak, Matt Beleskey, Brett Connolly, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Colin Miller, and Tuukka Rask. Players at risk of exposure include Jimmy Hayes, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Dennis Seidenberg, and Malcolm Subban.
As such, teams are trying to find a balance between being wary of who they might lose and not making premature moves in preparation for expansion. For example, expansion was a likely factor in Anaheim’s decision to trade Frederik Andersen to Toronto for a 2016 first-rounder and a 2017 second-round pick. Las Vegas would have been sure to take either Andersen or John Gibson. The Ducks would have had to expose one of the two goalies.
“It is an element that everyone’s aware of,” Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “I don’t think you can hide from it. You have to be aware of it.
“ There’s still 12 months before that’s going to become a reality.”
Flames not rushing Gillies
Calgary GM Brad Treliving spent a good percentage of his draft week chasing a No. 1 goalie. Treliving got his man on Friday in Brian Elliott from St. Louis for a 2016 second-rounder and a 2018 third-rounder. Elliott is an instant upgrade over Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, and Joni Ortio, who all fought the puck in 2015-16. As tempting as it might have been for Treliving to spend his resources elsewhere because of the presence of prospect Jon Gillies, the Calgary GM was realistic about the development timeline of the former Providence College national champion. The Flames picked Gillies No. 75 overall in 2012, eight slots ahead of recent ring-winner Matt Murray. But Murray spent a year and a half in the AHL before his NHL promotion. Gillies, who turned pro after his junior season, played just seven games as a first-year pro in 2015-16 before undergoing hip surgery. “You’ve got to be careful about saying, ‘Well, this guy can be ready on this date,’ ” Treliving said. “We think Jon is a terrific prospect. But that’s what he is right now — a prospect who didn’t play a whole lot of hockey last year.”
Eye-opener for scout
In 2012, Jim Vesey looked at the draft as a father. That year, son Jimmy went No. 66 to Nashville. Four years later, Jim Vesey approached the draft from a different perspective. The senior Vesey spent 2015-16 as an amateur scout for the Maple Leafs, partly because of two connections: Kelly Chase (good friends with Toronto president Brendan Shanahan) and Chris Nilan (tight with Mark Hunter, director of player personnel). It has been an enriching reentry to the game for Vesey. The trick, however, is that not every player he scouts is as consistent as his oldest son. “One thing I’m learning is you can go one night and the kid can look dynamite,” Vesey said. “You can call your bosses to come in. Then show up for the next two or three nights and the kid stunk. I firmly believe you’ve got to see a guy more than four or five times. You can’t write a guy off unless he’s brutal. But you’ve got to watch a guy over and over again. You can’t just say, ‘I found my guy.’ I’ve learned that.”
The vote here is negligence
Based on the disclosure of voting for the Vezina Trophy, one GM believed Gibson was the second-best goalie in the NHL. This is the same Gibson who appeared in just 40 games, posted a .920 all-situations save percentage, and a .922 five-on-five save percentage. In the latter category, Gibson ranked No. 26 among goalies with 1,500 minutes or more of play. While just one GM was culpable in Gibson’s questionable recognition, all 30 failed to identify Henrik Lundqvist was one of the nine best goalies in the league. Lundqvist was the only reason the Rangers made the playoffs. The King had the fourth-best five-on-five save percentage in the league. He was in net for a league-high 1,944 shots. Either the GMs don’t take the voting seriously or don’t know what they’re watching. Both scenarios are troubling.
Gudas a sound investment
The Flyers made a sound investment in Radko Gudas by signing the nasty defenseman to a four-year, $13.4 million extension on Thursday. The right-shot Gudas is classified as a stay-at-homer. But he’s good at turning shutdown situations into offensive opportunities for his more skilled teammates. Gudas was a positive possession player as a first-year Flyer while averaging 19:50 of ice time per game. The Flyers have up-tempo blue-line prospects Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim pushing to join offensive dynamo Shayne Gostisbehere. The Flyers will be able to push the pace when they integrate them into the lineup. But by extending Gudas, they’ll also have a harder and surlier presence to clear out the front of the net. As much as teams require mobile blue lines, it’s important to have a space-clearer or two.
The consensus is that top forwards Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Jesse Puljujarvi are good enough to play in the NHL in 2016-17 and eventually become first-line players. Matthews projects to be another version of Anze Kopitar. Laine has drawn shoot-first similarities to Alex Ovechkin. GMs expect Puljujarvi to be a point-per-game two-way player. It’s not so certain that there will be a future No. 1 defenseman in the 2016 class. “I think there’s some No. 2’s,” the Oilers’ Peter Chiarelli said.
Zach Trotman had the size, strength, and willingness to be a dependable third-pairing defenseman. He should have been a good fit in Claude Julien’s defensive system. But the final pick in the 2010 draft will become unrestricted on Friday because of a disappointing track record of being unable to correct mistakes. In retrospect, Trotman’s physical assets could not overcome shortcomings in hockey sense and confidence. Trotman will be 26 in August, which gives him time for a reboot elsewhere . . . It’s not just to keep their captain happy that the Stars re-upped Jordie Benn to a three-year extension on Friday. Jamie Benn’s big brother is an inexpensive ($1.1 million annually) and reliable defensive defenseman who doesn’t get caved in while defending his net . . . Ryan Callahan is out five months after undergoing surgery on his right hip on Tuesday. Guess it’s clear which pocket Callahan, who’s due $5.8 million annually through 2020, keeps his wallet.
In Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s 10 seasons together in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have never missed the playoffs — though the two stars both sat out the 2011 postseason because of injuries. In their nine playoff runs together, they have combined to average at least 2 points per game five times, including a peak of 2.79 when they won their first Cup in 2009. During this season’s title run, Crosby and Malkin averaged just 1.54 points per game, their second-lowest figure among the nine.