If it’s true that Ryan Kesler will only agree to play for two teams in the NHL next year – the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins – then new Vancouver Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning will have his work cut out for him, trying to make that deal work.
Because of his skill, versatility and reasonably cheap salary cap number ($5-million per season for two more years), Kesler would be a good fit on any number of teams willing to gamble on his health.
Chicago has long needed a No. 2 centre to play behind Jonathan Toews and last week, told one of the players who’ve been trying to fill the void, Michal Handzus, he wouldn’t be back. Pittsburgh doesn’t have an obvious need for a centre, not with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brenden Sutter there, but Malkin can play the wing, as can Kesler.
It would be interesting to see if Kesler could develop chemistry with one or the other, or if the new Penguins coach – whomever that may eventually be – would just keep Crosby and Malkin together, which has worked well in the past.
No, the issue is that both the Blackhawks and Penguins are usually maxed out at the cap, and Chicago needs to be mindful of the raises that both Toews and Patrick Kane are going to get in their next deals. Their current contracts expire after the 2014-15 season and negotiations for the new deals are already underway. Since the same agent, Pat Brisson, represents both, there is not expected to be any difficulty or rancor in getting the deals done. The hope in Chicago is that they can be announced soon after July 1. Since both figure to get $2.5-million bumps from their current $6.3-million annual cap-averaged contracts, it means the ongoing task of staying competitive and cap-compliant never seems to end for Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.
Adding Kesler would require him not only to surrender young organizational assets, but may also force him to move contributing players from the roster.
As for Pittsburgh, new general manager Jim Rutherford is still finding his way around the team’s reserve list, and until he determines what’s missing from an organization with lots of high-end talent that hasn’t followed up with playoff success, he may be reluctant to part with the young assets needed to get a deal done (and Pittsburgh has young defensive depth, almost on par with Anaheim’s, that they could flip to get a major piece in place).
The Ducks will also be in the bidding for Kesler, after they cleared even more room on the NHL roster last week by announcing that Saku Koivu, among others, wouldn’t be back. Anaheim likes prospect Rickard Rakell and he will likely be in the NHL next season, but the Ducks too are trying to figure out if they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, given that they’ll go with a young and mostly untried goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen next year.
Last week, in a conference call with reporters, GM Bob Murray acknowledged that the Ducks “obviously have some things that people want” but it’s what you have “to give to get” that will ultimately determine how aggressive he will be to land that second centre to play behind Ryan Getzlaf. Kesler, Jason Spezza and even Joe Thornton (admittedly a long shot) have been linked to the Ducks in possible trade scenarios.
A KING-SIZED IDEA: Los Angeles Kings’ general manager Dean Lombardi is known among his colleagues for thinking outside the box and he was at it again on Friday, on two different fronts. Lombardi proposed to the Los Angeles Times that his team take the Stanley Cup to Parliament Hill in Ottawa at some point this season, mirroring the tradition of the Stanley Cup champion making an annual White House visit.
Lombardi’s reasoning is sound and actually quite admirable: Even if his team is based in southern California, two thirds of the roster responsible for winning the championship hail from Canada, including some important key pieces such as Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and others. All of them will get their individual days with the Stanley Cup this summer, but why not have a group get together in Ottawa as well? Why not indeed? Someone else will have to hammer out the logistics, but if they can make it work, they should. Lombardi also revealed to the Times that the team would not use a compliance buy out on Richards and the remaining six years of his contract, which represents an important leap of faith by the Kings and Lombardi – that Richards can get his game back on the rails after a difficult second half.
Richards’s return may make it harder to sign unrestricted free agent forward Marian Gaborik to a contract. Gaborik had an excellent playoff – a league-leading 14 goals – but if he wants to squeeze every last dollar out of his next contract, he may have to go onto the open market to get it. You’d have to think that isn’t going to happen and that both sides find a compromise solution.
If they can’t sign Gaborik, then the Kings could simply move Williams to the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and shop for more scoring at next year’s NHL trading deadline. Wonder if Columbus will make anybody available to them again?
ROCKIE MOUNTAIN HIGH: The NHL hands out its annual awards in Las Vegas Tuesday and the Colorado Avalanche may need to back a truck up against the Wynn Hotel, with all the hardware they could haul off.
The Avs have a chance to take home four awards – Jack Adams, where Patrick Roy is nominated for coach of the year; Calder, where Nathan MacKinnon should be close to a unanimous choice; Lady Byng, where Ryan O’Reilly scored 64 points in 80 games while receiving only a single minor penalty, and Vezina, where Semyon Varlamov is considered the second favourite to the Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask.
But even if they only get three winners, that’ll be a significant achievement from a franchise that made a dramatic rise in the Western Conference regular-season standings (which is what the voting is based on). The Avalanche is at a unique crossroads in terms of keeping their core intact because of that unexpected surge.
They are faced with the prospect of losing second-line centre Paul Stastny to unrestricted free agency because he can command more on the open market than the Avalanche can reasonably expect to pay him at this juncture in their development.
Wonder if Stastny will go to St. Louis, where the Blues are trying to find a centre to play behind David Backes and have been exploring trade options for the likes of Spezza and Kesler as well? If the Blues really wanted to make an impact, they’d trade for Spezza and sign Stastny. That would make the NHL sit up and take notice.
The Avs’ negotiations’ with O’Reilly are less pressing, given that they’ve already filed notice that they will take him to salary arbitration, if a contract can’t be negotiated – which means he is effectively signed for the next two years anyway; and only the dollar figures have yet to be determined.
Colorado’s on-ice relationship with O’Reilly has been great, but it has been far pricklier off the ice. In fact, the O’Reilly camp was getting nowhere in trying to get him signed after the last lockout ended, and as a result, he signed an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames coming out of the work stoppage.
Well, that was a mess – Colorado matched the Calgary offer, which saved the Flames from the embarrassment of surrendering a first-round draft choice to the Avs for a player they would have had to immediately waive, under terms of the expiring CBA.
That they’ve decided to go to arbitration already suggests there’s still a lingering difference of opinion over his real value to the team. But mostly what the Avs, in the early stages of a rebuild, are trying to do is keep their payroll reined in, so that there’ll be money to spend on the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene in the years to come.
O’Reilly had an excellent season last year, playing mostly wing on the top line alongside Duchene. Paul Stastny mostly centered the second line, with MacKinnon, another transplanted centre playing out of position. Stastny is an unrestricted free agent coming off a long-term contract that averaged $6.6-million per season. Even though Stastny had a great playoff and a decent regular season, it is clear the Avalanche don’t see him as a $6.6-million player. Someone could pay that in free agency, because free agency is all about overpaying to get an asset for nothing but the cash outlay, but in Colorado’s case, they have centres playing out of position that can slip back in the middle if Stastny bolts, a luxury few teams can boast.
O’Reilly’s situation is a little trickier – his value can’t just be determined by points because he is a multi-dimensional player. Many arbitration requests never actually go to a hearing, with the teams almost always finding a compromise before they go into the hearing room and start saying nasty things about one another that can’t be taken back.
O’Reilly will earn at least $5.5-million next year, no matter what, a 10 per cent raise over his $5-million cap hit, but if that’s all he gets, it will be a de facto pay cut from the real dollars he earned last year – $6.5-million. In any event, the people running Colorado – Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy – who had their own issues coming to terms with their respective teams at different times in their careers, appear to have a clear idea of what they are prepared to pay their players going forward.
THIS AND THAT: The fact that Willie Desjardins, at age 57, is a candidate to become a head coach in the NHL for the first time could be attributed to many factors, but the first that comes to mind is that more and more teams are taking a second look at career coaches, and wondering if there’s some untapped potential there that’s been missed all along.
All four of the coaches of the Stanley Cup semi-finalists were 50 or over. Desjardins’s decision to go with Vancouver over Pittsburgh has more to do with his long-term relationship with the Canucks’ Trevor Linden than any other factor – contract etc. He most recently coached the Dallas Stars’ AHL affiliate to the Calder Cup championship and previously won two Western Hockey League titles with the Medicine Hat Tigers, where the relationship with Linden started.
Last Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes introduced Bill Peters, 48, a former Red Wings’ assistant who coached in Chicago’s system in Rockford for three years, as their head coach. It is also Peters’s first NHL gig after a lifetime in the game.
He is the third assistant hired off Mike Babcock’s staff in Detroit to run an NHL team, after Todd McLellan (San Jose) and Paul MacLean (Ottawa). Peters and Babcock go all the way back to their time together in Spokane, where Peters stepped in after Babcock left and won a Memorial Cup with the Chiefs in 2008.
AND FINALLY: Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray is a little bit like his uncle Bryan in the sense that he doesn’t mind giving up straight answers to simple questions. Murray, speaking to the Buffalo News, articulated the view of just about everybody in the NHL who privately believe there is no question any more as to who the No. 1 overall pick in the draft will be – defenceman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. Murray figures Ekblad will either go to the Florida Panthers if they hold onto the top pick, or to whichever team acquires the pick from them in trade. That would leave the Sabres to draft from among a trio of forwards that includes Samuel Bennett, Sam Reinhart (son of Paul, the third member of the Reinhart clan to enter the draft in the past few years) and Leon Draisaitl, son of the former German national team player who played junior in the Western Hockey League this past year. “I believe that Ekblad is going to go one, and then we pick who we have left with the next guy on our list,” Murray told the News. “If he doesn’t go one, I’d be surprised, I guess, but then I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”