Erik Karlsson had no wanderlust to test the free-agent market before re-signing in San Jose.
“I never thought outside that box,” Karlsson said. “I’m happy that it didn’t get to that.”
A handful of other teams aren’t so happy because the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman would have been the best unrestricted free agent available. Karlsson signing a US$92-million, eight-year contract with the Sharks is the first big domino to fall since St. Louis won the Stanley Cup because of all the ramifications it could have on the NHL off-season.
With Karlsson off the board, any team looking for a No. 1 defenceman has to either hope veteran Alexander Edler doesn’t re-sign with the Canucks and win that bidding war or go the trade route. Salary-cap concerns for San Jose, Washington and a handful of other Cup contenders could open the door to some significant player movement even before free agency starts July 1.
“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said Monday. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”
Already the Capitals have cleared cap space by trading defenceman Matt Niskanen to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas and used some of it to re-sign winger Carl Hagelin, the Islanders re-signed forward Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle, the Flyers acquired the rights to pending free agent Kevin Hayes from the Jets and the Rangers traded for Winnipeg defenceman Jacob Trouba.
The trade talk is just heating up ahead of the draft Friday and Saturday in Vancouver. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang and Nashville’s P.K. Subban are among the high-profile players who could be on the move.
“There’s a lot of talk,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. “There’s a lot of different names out there. There’s a lot of different ways to improve your team.”
Many of those moves will set the table for free agency, where Columbus winger Artemi Panarin, centre Matt Duchene and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are the top three players available.
Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner, Dallas winger Mats Zuccarello, Islanders winger Anders Lee, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, Bruins winger Marcus Johansson and Hurricanes winger Micheal Ferland are among the other possibilities. The salary cap is expected to increase by US$3.5-million to roughly US$83-million, and money will be spent.
“It’s a pretty good class this year,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. “[We] already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’ll want to talk to about joining our club. We see positions of need, of what we’re looking to do. There’s a few guys we’re going to want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that, but if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to, we’re not just going to go spend on anybody.”
Sakic’s Avalanche have the most projected cap space in the league with US$36-million, according to PuckPedia. The Flyers and rival New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Islanders will also have cap space to burn and a need for an elite defenceman or two.
“They’re not easy to find,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. “Certainly, if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we’d have the ability to acquire, we’ll certainly look at it.”
Karlsson was linked to the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and it took less than a day for the first direct response to him re-signing with the Sharks. The Lightning on Tuesday re-signed veteran defenceman Braydon Coburn to a US$3.4-million, two-year deal – cap space they likely would have needed for Karlsson if he was available.
But first, the draft
New Jersey is widely expected to select American centre Jack Hughes first over all, leaving Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers.
“Obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft,” Gorton said. “I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”
Chicago picks third and will get a nice boost to aid its turnaround after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
Bite out of Sharks
Committing US$11.5-million a year to Karlsson cuts significantly into San Jose’s off-season manoeuvring with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi set to be unrestricted free agents and emerging star Timo Meier needing a new contract as a restricted free agent.
“Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said, not ruling out bringing back Pavelski and others. “I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”
Russian package deal
Panarin and Bobrovsky played together with the Blue Jackets for two seasons and are hitting free agency at the same time. When Panarin switched agents to be represented by Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanous, it raised eyebrows that the Russian countrymen might want to go to the same team.
With some creative roster work, the Florida Panthers could be the ideal landing spot for Panarin and Bobrovsky and go from close to the playoffs to real contenders.
Even though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are no longer reigning Cup champions, Hagelin insisted he wouldn’t have signed an US$11-million, four-year contract with them if he didn’t think they could win it again over that time. To do so, GM Brian MacLellan will have to navigate a difficult cap situation around pending free-agent winger Brett Connolly and restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky and knowing deals with centre Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby expire next summer.
“I hope [Connolly and Burakovsky are] still here,” Hagelin said. “But at the end of the day, Conno, he’s a UFA so it’s up to him what he wants. You understand if a guy tests the market to see what’s out there. But I hope both of those guys come back.”