Free agency drives NHL

Jun 19, 2019 3:02 AM

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to NHL future odds: There’s not going to be a situation like the NBA where the Los Angeles Lakers go from cellar-dwellers to the proverbial favorites in a matter of days. 

That’s what mortgaging your future for Anthony Davis looks like. 

But the futures don’t really move the needle unless an earth-shattering move is made. Case in point, the San Jose Sharks trading for defenseman Erik Karlsson last season. Adding Karlsson to that already-stacked roster in San Jose made the Sharks title contenders, and they were two wins away from reaching the Cup Final before the St. Louis Blues rode the Gloria wave all the way to their first championship in team history.

Now with Karlsson re-signing with the Sharks on Monday (eight years, Average Annual Value $11.5 million), San Jose is going all in with a defensive triad of Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. They’ll only have about $12.5 million in cap space and still need to re-sign captain Joe Pavelski, ageless wonder Joe Thornton, plus restricted free agents in 22-year-old Timo Meier and 23-year-old Kevin Labanc, and trade deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquist.

The Sharks moved up to 14-1 to win the Cup once Karlsson’s signing was official, which was 16-1 prior.

“Not a huge dramatic jump, but it was a little bit,” said Chuck Esposito, sportsbook director at Sunset Station. “I think you look at the division that they play in and how many good teams there are in that division and how balanced the Western Conference is, and they do have salary cap questions … but that is the first domino to drop.”

Free agency is going to be a crapshoot this summer. Not only because there’s really no shift in the balance of power from the top teams as of this moment, but the action could be dictated more on the restricted free agency market than those UFAs that will be available.

With Karlsson off the market, the top free agents are all coming from Columbus: forwards Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets invested literally everything to get Duchene and make a run at the Cup Final, all with the hopes of maybe Panarin and Bobrovsky giving it one more go. Now, the Jackets will likely lose all three.

Duchene has long wanted to play in Nashville, and there’s need for the Predators to add another scorer after a disappointing first-round exit in April. Panarin and Bobrovsky have both been linked to the Florida Panthers and would be assets in a much-needed market for a team that’s in need of immediate, proven talent.

The Blue Jackets went from 20-1 to 30-1 in a matter of a month, while the Panthers are steadying at 25-1. If Florida lands both of the Columbus stalwarts, the playoffs might be a legitimate concept in Sunrise, Florida.

Restricted free agency is where the fun will be this summer. The notable names include forwards Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Patrik Laine and Vegas Golden Knights center William Karlsson.

There hasn’t been an offer sheet since 2013, when this year’s Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Calgary Flames, which the Colorado Avalanche ultimately matched.

With how many talented players there are in the RFA market, it comes down to what teams can keep their players for the right price. Karlsson is the first that comes to mind with the Golden Knights in dire need to clear cap space if they hope to keep their former 43-goal scorer.

“We’re talking about a very good team that, if they lose Karlsson, they’ve got options,” Esposito said. “With or without Karlsson, I don’t think it’s a dramatic change. They’re a good team, they’ve got guys that can plug in. For a team only in their second year, they’re still building.”

Vegas, which are 7-1 favorites to win the Cup next year (only trailing Tampa Bay), has some decisions to make. They’re still going to be fine with their top five, but it changes completely if Karlsson does not come back to Vegas next season. He’s expected to command up to $6 million AAV in comparison to what the New York Islanders gave Brock Nelson last month. Vegas and Karlsson were $3 million apart in talks last season before ultimately settling on the one-year, $5.25 million deal to avoid arbitration.

“Although with the success of the Knights, I think it has helped educate the bettors from the other side of the counter about player movement and the salary cap,” Esposito said. “I think there’s a lot more interest going into the draft this year because of the success the Knights have had the last couple of years.”

NHL Draft

The NHL Draft is on Friday, signaling that the hockey world never sleeps.

The New Jersey Devils have been on the clock since shockingly winning the lottery in April, and have long been linked to taking U.S. center Jack Hughes with the top overall selection. The New York Rangers at No. 2 should, and will, take Finnish prodigy Kaapo Kakko.

Once you get to No. 3, it’s anybody’s guess. And if you’re the Chicago Blackhawks sitting with the third pick, it’s not a fun time. WHL center Dylan Cozens would give the Blackhawks some needed center depth in the pipeline. They have the pick of the litter between Cozens and U.S. center Alex Turcotte, whom I think the Colorado Avalanche will take at No. 4 if they decide not to trade that pick for more assets.

And the Los Angeles Kings, rounding out the top five, need anybody. They could go for Saskatoon center Kirby Dach or WHL defenseman Bowen Byram, or maybe U.S. winger Cole Caufield. Literally get anyone on the Kings. They need it.

As for the Golden Knights, they have the 17th pick and the options are endless. They could go best player available ranging from Ryan Suzuki, Spencer Knight, Alex Newhook or Raphael Lavoie. Vegas could also package that pick and trade down, or package it with a player they want to move (i.e. Colin Miller) and maybe trade up.

If Vegas stays pat, I think Lavoie would be the best fit. After trading Nick Suzuki to Montreal last summer, the Golden Knights need a prospect who can score. Lavoie had 73 points in 62 games with Halifax in the QMJHL last season.

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