The Maple Leafs wheezed to the 2015-16 finish line with the fewest points in the NHL, which is an accomplishment, considering this is usually an Oilers birthright. Jonathan Bernier, their most experienced returning goalie, posted a .908 save percentage, a number that will not do in any league. Toronto has Joffrey Lupul on its books for two more seasons at $5.25 million annually, a contract that looks as dated as a PT Cruiser.
For all that, there’s a lot to like about how the Leafs are rebuilding what was a punch line of a franchise. They somehow convinced Ottawa to take on Dion Phaneuf and the $7 million he’s due annually through 2021. They have eight picks in the first four rounds of the 2016 NHL Draft, including the best odds to land Auston Matthews. They’re favored to land Jimmy Vesey when the Charlestown native becomes unrestricted on Aug. 15.
Wednesday’s extension for Nazem Kadri, which will pay the center $4.5 million annually for the next six years, is black-and-white proof there’s good thinking going on in the front office and behind the bench. Kadri’s deal was announced on the same day the Leafs signed Morgan Rielly to a six-year, $30 million extension.
The Leafs’ unrestricted investment in brainpower (led by an all-star roster of president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello, assistant GM Kyle Dubas, director of player personnel Mark Hunter, and coach Mike Babcock) is already paying off, even when the salary cap puts limits on how they assemble their roster.
“To have it happen at the same time maybe even puts an emphasis that we’re going to do things as they come about,” Lamoriello said during a Wednesday conference call, “and continue to reinforce the plan Brendan has put into place and Mike has certainly put into place. This is just another step toward where we want to be as far as developing the foundation of this franchise.”
Rielly’s deal was a slam dunk. It follows the template for good defensemen coming off their entry-level deals.
Defensemen who signed similar second contracts include Dougie Hamilton (six years, $34.5 million), Justin Faulk (six years, $29 million), and John Klingberg (seven years, $29.75 million).
Rielly’s first three seasons, including 2015-16 (9-27—36 in 82 games, 23:13 average ice time), gave the Leafs plenty of data to commit to an extension that follows standard operating procedure for D-men of his potential.
“I don’t think if we didn’t consider him a top defenseman that we’d be sitting here today talking about this length of term,” Lamoriello said. “That speaks for itself. I had the opportunity to see him in 80-something games this year and practices. I know what the coaching staff thinks of him. There’s no question in my mind what his potential is. Not only his potential, but where he is today. All you have to do is look at the ice time he gets against top teams.”
Kadri’s case wasn’t so simple.
Kadri is 25 years old. His last two contracts were show-me deals. For his second contract, Kadri signed a two-year, $5.8 million bridge deal. In 2015-16, Kadri worked on a one-year, $4.1 million contract.
Some executives would have wanted one final short-term look to determine whether blips were cause for future concern. On April 4, Kadri was suspended for the final four games because of his hit to the head of Luke Glendening. Kadri scored 45 points, off his previous career high of 50 in 2013-14. The NHL gave Kadri three cautions this past season for diving, resulting in a $5,000 fine on April 1.
It was a little more than a year ago that the Leafs parked Kadri for three games late in 2014-15, partly because he was late for a team meeting. Former coach Randy Carlyle once had Kadri’s car towed from the Leafs’ practice facility — mostly for a gag, but also because it was blocking an entrance.
But the Leafs committed big term at cheap dough. There was enough clarity in Kadri’s past performance to forecast what he’ll become: a borderline No. 1 center who can assume a second-line role once younger Leafs (William Nylander, possibly Matthews) develop into first-unit skill.
Kadri led the Leafs in scoring with 17 goals and 28 assists. He averaged 18:16 of ice time, most of any team forward. Kadri buried just 6.5 percent of his 260 shots on net, well off the 16.8 percent he converted in 2012-13, when he scored 18 goals in 48 games. Kadri performed at a good offensive level despite playing against every top pairing and power line.
“He can be put in any role no matter what it might be,” Lamoriello said. “He found himself in a shutdown role. He found himself offensively on the power play. Depending on what the team looks like and what Mike feels is best for Naz, he’ll do. I think the great thing about him is he’ll accept whatever role is given to him. He knows now the respect the organization has for him and [what] he can do. I think he can do anything and everything asked of him.”
The Leafs locked up Kadri for what, in all likelihood, will be high-performing years. In the final season of his extension, Kadri will be 31 years old. The Leafs staggered the extension accurately.
In comparison, the Bruins have a difficult decision on Brad Marchand, who will be 29 when he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2017. Marchand will ask for a long-term extension.
It would not be in the Bruins’ best interest to sign Marchand to anything longer than four seasons. Marchand’s most important component is his acceleration. Once that fades, it will affect the rest of his game.
Kadri’s annual cap hit is the cherry atop the sundae. He will earn less per year than Stephen Weiss, Carl Soderberg, and Artem Anisimov.
“There’s more they can do,” Lamoriello said of Kadri and Rielly. “All you have to do is look at the age where they’re at and look at what they’ve experienced. There’s no question they have a level they haven’t reached yet. It’s up to them to commit to that and do the things necessary to get there. It’s up to us to help them do that.”
WORD GETTING AROUND
Can Senators attract talent?
There are plenty of hungry coaches who would jump at the chance to call the shots behind an NHL bench, regardless of the situation. There are not many openings at the end of each season. Opportunities go faster than they come. Consider hockey lifer Craig Ramsay: one-and-done whacks in Philadelphia and Atlanta amid a pedigree of results as an assistant.
The résumés will flood into Ottawa following the sacking of Dave Cameron. Assuming new GM Pierre Dorion knows what he’s doing, the Senators should be able to identify a good young coach among the applicants.
But it will be hard for Ottawa to attract Grade-A talent, either behind the bench or on the ice, if the owner continues to blast away.
It is Eugene Melnyk’s right to say anything he wants. The Senators are his possession.
But every time Melnyk carves into his employees, prospective ones take another step back from considering the Senators.
Before the end of the regular season, Melnyk set up Cameron for his firing by questioning his use of former Boston University goalie Matt O’Connor in Game No. 3 against Montreal. Melnyk dropped a word that continues to shake Cameron: stupidity.
“That was hurtful,” Cameron told Ottawa reporters on Thursday. “I didn’t think there was any need for it. I felt like I was fired for three weeks.”
Mike Yeo is among the former NHL coaches looking for work. If he wants to get back in the game promptly, Ottawa would be a possible landing spot. But the ex-Wild coach has term remaining on his contract. It would be prudent for Yeo or other experienced coaches (Guy Boucher, Kirk Muller, Todd Richards) to practice patience and wait for other positions to open. An owner who doesn’t spend to the cap and undermines his people is not someone who will attract credible talent.
Bruins need some backup
The Bruins are not likely to trade Tuukka Rask. But they are not satisfied with his 2015-16 performance. Rask is the third-highest-paid goalie ($7 million annually) in the league behind Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million) and Sergei Bobrovsky ($7.425 million). He did not play up to his contract.
Rask’s .915 save percentage put him in the neighborhood of Martin Jones (.918), Cam Talbot (.917), and Ryan Miller (.916). His five-on-five .829 high-danger save percentage, according to war-on-ice.com, was even with Cam Ward. In comparison, Corey Crawford turned back 87.2 percent of high-danger chances, which is Vezina-level stuff.
Rask has to be better. So does his defense. But Rask’s bosses have to give him a better backup. A repeat of Jonas Gustavsson simply won’t do.
Gustavsson won 11 of his 24 appearances. Wins, however, are not an accurate reflection of goaltending performance. Gustavsson’s .908 save percentage did not win any awards. Neither did his ability to control pucks and steer rebounds into harmless areas.
The season-ending injury to Malcolm Subban happened at the wrong time. In January, Subban posted a .935 save percentage in eight starts. Had he continued at that pace, it’s possible the Bruins would have recalled Subban and assigned Gustavsson to Providence. But Subban suffered a fractured larynx on Feb. 6. How Subban rebounds from the injury to push Rask in 2016-17 remains to be seen. Facing 100-mile-per-hour shots will be a difficult mental block to overcome.
Assuming Subban needs more time in Providence in the fall, it’s management’s responsibility to pursue a varsity goalie who can both push Rask and be a trustworthy alternative. Jhonas Enroth and Al Montoya will be unrestricted free agents. Either would be an upgrade. Gustavsson came cheap at $700,000. But it’s not a position where the Bruins can afford to be frugal.
Don Sweeney did the right thing by not sacking Claude Julien after the first season of his three-year contract. The GM should insist, however, on one condition in 2016-17: tone down the bellowing. Julien never hesitates to bark at the referees after just about every whistle. It’s not good form for the man in charge of the bench to blame the officials on every call that goes against the team. First, the players can’t help but fall in line with their boss’s rants. Second, it’s human nature for officials not to give Julien the benefit of the doubt when he’s carving them at every opportunity. It’s a good bet that during the Bruins’ 5-2 loss to the Rangers on March 23, David Krejci’s marginal holding penalty was influenced by Julien’s very vocal insistence that a previous play be blown dead because the puck hit the netting behind the Boston goal. The Bruins went on the power play just 234 times, third-least ahead of the Rangers (226) and Islanders (229). In 2014-15, they had the second-fewest opportunities. In 2013-14, they had the least. It’s time for coach and players to shut their mouths and head to the box without complaint.
Best is yet to come
Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher has some tough contracts on his books, Zach Parise (signed through 2025 at $7,538,461) and Thomas Vanek (one more season at $6.5 million) being two. In comparison, the $3.2 million Charlie Coyle is due annually through 2020 is already a bargain. During his entry-level deal, the East Weymouth native showed flickers of softness that might have prompted other GMs to chase a bridge deal. But Coyle showed Fletcher enough over his first three pro seasons for the Wild to commit to a five-year, $16 million second contract. During the first season of his extension, Coyle submitted a 21-21—42 line in 82 games. The 6-foot-3-inch, 221-pound Coyle has a lot of Blake Wheeler in his game: speed, size, power, and touch. A 30-goal season should be in Coyle’s future.
Grunt work awaits in New York
If the Leafs shop any of their upcoming picks, expect Rangers GM Jeff Gorton to raise his hand. The short-term Bruins interim GM is facing years of grunt work to keep his team competitive and make it younger. The Rangers are currently without a first-round pick. It will be the fourth straight season the Rangers scouts duck out for coffee while their counterparts do their work in the opening round. Gorton’s albatross is Dan Girardi, locked in through 2020 at $5.5 million per. Girardi will turn 32 on April 29. Gorton’s jobs include acquiring futures, finding a taker for Girardi, fixing the defense, and filling out the bottom six. Also, 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist will be playing in smaller gear next season. Lundqvist has always been considered a liberal user of bloated equipment.
Peters has an open mind
I’ve always thought highly of Bill Peters, from his work as one of Mike Babcock’s assistants in Detroit to the two seasons he’s been the head man in Carolina. Peters climbed even higher when, during his post-mortem, he told Hurricanes reporters about his regard for hockey analyst Eric Tulsky. Tulsky, who studied chemistry and physics at Harvard and earned his PhD in chemistry at Cal-Berkeley, completed his first season as a Hurricanes employee. “I think it’s been an unbelievably valuable asset to our organization,” Peters said. “I enjoy the conversations with Eric and the information he puts out to us as coaches. It’s very thought-provoking and helpful. He makes you better. It makes you think and think through different scenarios and situations. It’s all about finding ways to be more successful. I embrace it.” Tulsky and other experts in analytics may not have all the answers. But the value in their work is extracting information and illuminating his bosses by convincing them to think about the game differently. Peters has listened to Tulsky, which some hockey lifers may not have done. If the Hurricanes can improve their goaltending, they’ll make a playoff push next year.
The buzz out of Buffalo is that Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is angrier about his team’s shortcomings this year than he was last season. The heat will be on CEO Charlie Jacobs and president Cam Neely to deliver better results in 2016-17, both on the ice and at the cash registers . . . Ken Hitchcock has always been an innovative thinker. But the St. Louis coach placed a goofy emphasis on his team’s need to throw more hits after a one-goal overtime win over Chicago in Game 1. By their count, the Blues connected with 57 hits, 13 short of the 70 Hitchcock wanted to see. A team that connects with more thumps means it’s chasing the puck more than controlling it . . . Ryan Spooner should not be buying any green bananas. The 24-year-old is the Bruins’ best trade chip. He is under contract for next year at a $950,000 cap hit, an excellent number for a fast and skilled pivot coming off a 49-point season. The Bruins may have had enough of his defensive shortcomings and use him in a trade for blue-line help . . . Considering the masses growing on the chins of Brent Burns and Joe Thornton, the Sharks should be called for too many men every time the two are on the ice.
Happy to help
A rather unknown streak came to an end last week when the Senators’ Erik Karlsson became the first defenseman since Bruins great Bobby Orr in 1974-75 to lead the league in assists. Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, was already one of just five blue liners to come within 10 points of ending that streak:
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.