While contract talks are ongoing with several prominent restricted free agents, it appears that talks will also soon be occurring with arguably the top pending unrestricted free agent forward. Devils GM Ray Shero told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale that he plans to sit down with winger Taylor Hall at some point during training camp to discuss a potential contract extension. While he’s coming off a season that saw him play just 33 games due to a knee injury, he’s only a year removed from winning the Hart Trophy. Between that and the fact that a new market record was recently set for a winger when Artemi Panarin signed for an AAV just over $11.64MM with the Rangers back in July. Hall could certainly find himself in that range if he was to make it to the open market next summer which would represent a significant jump on his current $6MM cap hit.
After flirting with the KHL recently, Pavel Zacha has decided to stick around in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils have signed the young restricted free agent to a three-year deal that carries an average annual value of $2.25MM. GM Ray Shero released this statement on the signing:
We are happy to have finalized this three-year agreement as Pavel is an important part of our team. He has established himself as someone who can play in any situation and we are looking forward to his continued growth as a player.
Zacha will still be a restricted free agent when the deal expires, but will be arbitration-eligible. The full breakdown of the deal is as follows:
- 2019-20: $1.75MM
- 2020-21: $2.0MM
- 2021-22: $3.0MM
Once again it is important to note the back-loaded nature of an RFA contract, meaning the Devils will be forced to issue a $3MM qualifying offer in order to keep Zacha’s rights at the end of the deal. At that point he would be just one year from unrestricted free agency, meaning he could essentially turn this into a four-year, $9.75MM deal and walk himself right onto the open market if he chooses. Still, getting it done now will allow Zacha to have a full training camp to try and finally become a bigger part of the New Jersey offense.
Though the cap hit is still relatively low compared to some of the other free agent numbers being thrown around, it seems in this case as if Zacha’s KHL threat may have actually resulted in a stronger offer from the Devils. In 201 NHL games the 22-year old has just 29 goals and 76 points, unable to register more than 13 goals in any of his three full seasons. In contrast, Anthony Beauvillier, a player selected 22 spots after Zacha in the 2015 draft, has scored at a much higher pace (48 goals in 218 games) and recently agreed to a two-year deal worth just $2.1MM per season. Obviously buying out the third year is what bumped up the AAV in Zacha’s case, but the fact that he was able to secure it with such little production may have something to do with his (apparent) willingness to play overseas.
There’s no getting around it, Zacha has been a disappointment to this point in his career. Selected ahead of some of the most productive young players in the league, he’ll continually be compared to names like Timo Meier (selected 9th), Mikko Rantanen (10th), Mathew Barzal (16th) and Kyle Connor (17th). While his draft pedigree shouldn’t matter at this point and the comparisons aren’t exactly fair, the Devils have to hope they can coax more offense out of him while still developing Zacha into the strong defensive center he showed at times last season. Now that Jack Hughes is in town to pair with Nico Hischier in the top two pivot spots, Zacha has a chance to be a difference-maker on the third line if he can just take a few steps forward in his development.
1:20pm: Devils GM Ray Shero certainly isn’t concerned with the reports about Zacha and the KHL. The executive spoke to reporters including John Wawrow of the Associated Press and explained that if Zacha wants to go to the KHL “it’s a long way back to the NHL.” Shero still hopes to sign Zacha for this season, but is quick to point out that the Devils own his rights regardless.
8:30am: Though their offseason has focused on other things, the New Jersey Devils are another one of the teams around the NHL with an unsigned restricted free agent just a few days before training camp opens. Pavel Zacha is still without a contract, and he may not be getting one from the Devils anytime soon. Igor Eronko of Sport-Express passes on a report that Zacha has agreed to terms with Avangard of the KHL. There has been no official announcement from either side at this point, but losing Zacha to the KHL would be a big disappointment for a Devils team that has plans to contend for the playoffs this season. As a restricted free agent that received a qualifying offer, his rights would be retained by New Jersey.
Of course, it is very important to note that until a deal is actually signed—not just agreed to—Zacha could very well still end up in New Jersey. The 22-year old doesn’t have a ton of leverage in his negotiation after struggling to put up big offensive numbers and even seeing some time in the minor leagues last season. Originally selected sixth overall in 2015, the Czech forward has recorded just 76 points in 201 NHL games, though did post his career-high in goals last year with 13. Dealing with injuries and inconsistencies over his first three seasons, it seems likely that the Devils wouldn’t be offering a very lucrative deal for Zacha.
The fact that he is not arbitration eligible yet means there are only a couple of ways for this to end, and no real deadline other than December 1st. That’s when Zacha would become ineligible to play in 2019-20 should he not have an NHL contract filed with the league. Dropping a hint by agreeing to terms in the KHL may push a negotiation along, or it may be simply that Zacha intends on playing overseas this year to get his game back on track.
The Devils have added Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes to their forward group (among others) this season, making it even tougher for players like Zacha to crack the top-six and powerplay units moving forward.
The New York Islanders haven’t made any changes to its defense which was ranked first in the NHL as the team allowed just 2.33 goals per game. However, despite that success, the Islanders could add a key player to their defense as 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson might just be ready to join the Islanders, according to Newsday’s Andrew Gross.
The 19-year-old almost broke camp with New York in training camp a year ago, but eventually was sent back to his junior team, Acadie-Bathurst of the QMJHL. He struggled out of the gate there, but was eventually traded to Rouyn-Noranda, one of the top teams in the league, where his numbers took off, scoring six goals and 36 points in 28 games. He now feels ready to take the challenge of playing for the Islanders.
“I thought I had a really good last two years in junior and that put me in a good position,” Dobson said. “Now, I’ve got to go and try and earn a spot. But I’m definitely confident in my abilities and I feel like I can make the jump this year if I have a really good camp. But it’s going to be on me to try and make a hard decision on management.”
While Dobson would likely benefit from a year in the AHL, the prospect isn’t eligible to play there as he either must make the New York squad or be returned to Rouyn-Noranda for another season in juniors.
- While much of the attention in training camp will fall on the Philadelphia Flyers top three prospects, Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee and Isaac Ratcliffe, another Flyers’ prospect is already making an impact on the ice in German Rubtsov, who is hoping to win the third-line right-wing job, according to Sam Carchidi of Philly. com. The 21-year-old has flown under the radar despite being the 21st overall pick back in 2016. He joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and got off to a hot start, scoring six goals and 10 points in the first 16 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury ended his season prematurely. Originally drafted as a center, Rubtsov said he’s 100 percent healthy and is more than capable of switching over to the wing as he did play wing when he played in the KHL several years ago.
- In his first game in a Devils uniform on Saturday against players not in a Devils’ uniform, The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (subscription required) breaks down New Jersey Devils future star Jack Hughes play shift-by-shift. The scribe writes that the 2019 first-overall pick possessed a tremendous amount of energy and was talking constantly throughout the contest, although the 18-year-old did mention the game was more physical than he thought. “I think it’s a lot more physical,” Hughes said. “Not even because it’s the NHL, but because it’s a rookie camp. It’s a really physical tournament, and a lot of guys are trying to prove (themselves). You’ve got to watch out a little bit more, but it was definitely fast, a fast style of game.”
The New Jersey Devils are restructuring their front office ahead of the start of a new season. The Associated Press reports that the team has promoted two top executives to vice president status. Tom Fitzgerald, who has been linked to the Minnesota Wild GM opening in each of the past two years, will add Executive Vice President to his existing Assistant GM title. The former NHLer is entering his fourth season as Assistant GM in New Jersey after six seasons in the same role with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dan MacKinnon, who had previously served as the team’s Senior Director of Player Personnel, will take on the Senior Vice President role while also being officially named an Assistant GM as well. MacKinnon is another executive poached by GM Ray Shero from the Penguins; he served the team for a decade in player personnel before moving into the same role with the Devils in 2016. Having all worked together in Pittsburgh and now New Jersey for some time, Shero, Fitzgerald, and MacKinnon form a solid trio as the base of the front office operations for the Devils, as reflected by these new titles.
- With all of the teams currently holding more salary cap space also still needing to sign one or two prominent restricted free agents, the Ottawa Senators are the odds-on favorite to begin the regular season with the most cap flexibility. CapFriendly currently projects the team to have more than $10MM in space, even with a fully healthy, optimal lineup. Many have suggested that the Senators could use this space to add talent, or at least to pick up picks or prospects in a deal for an overpriced veteran, as they did with the injured Ryan Callahan. However, don’t expect any such move until farther along in training camp at the earliest. While Ottawa may have the least amount of dollars committed to their roster, they have the most contracts signed in the league, tied with the Los Angeles Kings with 49 of a maximum 50 slots filled. They can alleviate that contract crunch slightly by sending teenage prospects Jon Gruden or Lassi Thomson back to junior, but will likely wait to do so until they get a better look at the pair in training camp. In the meantime, and even afterward, the Senators are surely going to be a team keeping a close eye on the waiver wire, hoping to add a young, affordable player to the mix. Making a trade for a veteran too soon could interfere with their ability to make claims. If they can make it through to the start of the regular season and still have room to add a player, then they could re-emerge as a candidate to take on a bad contract from a cap-strapped contender.
- Both the Devils and Senators are among the teams that could be looking down the road a ways and following what Mark Divver calls the biggest recruiting battle in hockey right now. 16-year-old forward Zachary Bolduc is considered one of the top prospects in the 2021 NHL Draft class. The Quebec native is playing prep school hockey in Rhode Island this season, but still deciding what to do next year. Bolduc was the 14th overall pick in the QMJHL Entry Draft by Rimouski Oceanic this year and the club would very much like to sign the local product. However, Bolduc has also been eyeing the college route. Divver reports that he has already visited the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, and the University of Maine and has planned trips to the University of Michigan and the University of North Dakota. Should he opt for the NCAA, Bolduc could play in the USHL next year, having been drafted by the Sioux City Musketeers in the second round of the USHL Draft this year as well. The talented center has plenty of options and NHL teams will surely be interested to see which development route he chooses.
There were quite a few surprised on Friday when the Carolina Hurricanes announced that they had signed former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year, $16.2MM contract. After all, the team already had a significant amount of depth on their blueline to begin with. While many believe it’s the first piece of another potential trade, there is another major reason for signing Gardiner.
The Hurricanes’ biggest weakness last year was its power play, which ranked 20th in the league with a 17.8 percent success rate during the regular season. Despite that, the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Had they possessed even a competent power-play attack, who knows whether they could have advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. Adding Gardiner, according to The Athletic’s Sara Civian (subscription required), could solve some of those problems. The veteran has seen quite a bit of time over the years as a quarterback of a power play and should be able to bring those talents to the Hurricanes along with the additions of Erik Haula and rookie Martin Necas, all of whom the team hopes will turn around that power play.
- NJ.com’s Chris Ryan writes that the New Jersey Devils are still trying to figure out who will partner next to newly acquired star defenseman P.K. Subban this season. With New Jersey being overloaded with right-handed shot defensemen, including Subban, Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson, the team might have to move one of their top-four blue liners over to the left side. The most likely scenario is to move Vatanen over to the left side and then pair him with Subban on the team’s first defensive pair. One reason for that is that Vatanen has spent some time on the left side while with the Anaheim Ducks. “I played (left side) in Anaheim for a bit, and last year I played here sometimes,” Vatanen said, “It takes a little time to get used to it, but it’s a long season, so I’m ready to play wherever. I’ll start to be a goalie if they want me.” Vatanen claims to be 100 percent after missing all but four games over the final two months of the season due to concussion and an illness.
- In a notebook column, The Athletic’s Arthur Staple (subscription required) writes that unrestricted free agent Luca Sbisa is still skating with veterans of the New York Islanders. Sbisa agreed to a PTO last year and eventually signed a one-year deal, but only appeared in nine games over the course of the season, serving most of the time as a healthy scratch. Staple writes that Sbisa could return to Islanders camp once again on a PTO, but his chances of making the team would be much slimmer with a number of young defenseman who are ready to step into the lineup. Sbisa’s best chance is to impress another team for a potential job elsewhere.
- Philly.com’s Sam Carchidi reports that Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Friedman will miss rookie camp after undergoing offseason abdominal surgery over the summer. Already a longshot to make the Flyers team, his chances aren’t likely to improve by missing this camp. The 23-year-old is expected, however, to be at training camp next week with the veterans. Friedman had a solid season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms last season, his second season in the AHL, but will have to impress to have any shot at a NHL job.
The Calgary Flames have had countless headlines written about their ongoing negotiation with Matthew Tkachuk, but they actually have another restricted free agent still unsigned as well. Andrew Mangiapane is in danger of missing the start of training camp if something can’t get done, which is likely more important for a player that has just 54 NHL games under his belt and is fighting for a full-time roster spot. Eric Francis of Sportsnet reports that the two sides are $200K apart on a one-year deal, with the Flames offering $800K and Mangiapane “looking for closer to $1MM.”
Calgary GM Brad Treliving told Francis that the team isn’t waiting on Tkachuk to sign Mangiapane, but with such a small difference in offers you can bet the team is trying to make sure they don’t overpay even the slightest, knowing they don’t have a lot of wiggle room under the cap ceiling. The Flames currently project to have just over $7.7MM in cap space, though there are a few ways to create some extra room, like placing defenseman Juuso Valimaki on long-term injured reserve.
- Though Mitch Marner and Mikko Rantanen have raised eyebrows during their negotiations by being linked to clubs overseas, the latter decided to put that idea to rest in an interview with Russian outlet Business Online. Rantanen was very clear that the NHL is “the only option” for him this season and he won’t be discussing contracts with the KHL or other leagues. The Colorado Avalanche forward is coming off his second consecutive season scoring more than a point-per-game and has found a home on the top line beside Nathan MacKinnon. Still just 22, he could potentially become Colorado’s highest-paid player on his next contract.
- The New Jersey Devils won’t be able to get a closer look at prospect Nikita Okhotyuk at the Prospect Challenge this weekend, as the team announced he is out six to eight weeks following surgery on a broken finger. Okhotyuk was selected in the second round in June and will miss regular training camp as well. The 18-year old defenseman is expected to return to the Ottawa 67’s for the 2019-20 season.
Tuesday: Shapiro has new information today it seems, as the Athletic reporter now tweets that Noesen will be joining the Stars on a PTO after all.
Monday: It has been a quiet summer thus far for forward Stefan Noesen, who became an unrestricted free agent earlier this off-season when the New Jersey Devils opted not to extend a qualifying offer. Noesen’s name has hardly been whispered on the rumor mill with so many teams still needing to sign their RFA’s and other talented UFA’s waiting for the dominoes to fall. However, Noesen has finally resurfaced in the most likely of places. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro reports that the Texas native skated with the Dallas Stars today.
Now, Shapiro stops short of claiming this is an indication of even a PTO, nevertheless a contract. However, he does note that Noesen was the only non-Star in attendance and was wearing Dallas gear. That in itself is not conclusive, but surely lends itself to the idea that Noesen may be officially linked to the team in some way. Yet, Dallas’ roster construction may suggest the opposite. The Stars were active in free agency this summer, adding Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to a forward corps that was already relatively deep. It has left the team with less than $1MM in cap space with only 22 players on the projected roster. On a minimum contract, Noesen could fit as the final member of the roster, but it would leave the Stars with less roster flexibility than would a waiver-exempt prospect. The team could use a young, established bottom-six player, but likely not at the cost of cap and roster confusion.
Noesen, 26, would have to first prove he is worthy of a contract anyway. It is unlikely that the Stars, or any NHL team for that matter, are willing to give the two-way forward a guaranteed deal after such a down season. Noesen entered 2017-18 with high expectations after a career-high 27 points the year prior, but took a major step backwards. Noesen recorded just eight points in 41 games and watched the other 41 from the press box. The Devils themselves regressed as well, but Noesen’s struggles were mostly a product of his own poor play. The 2011 first-round pick still has the tools and experience to be an effective player, but he first needs to show that he is ready for NHL action. The Stars have already shown a willingness to add PTO’s, formally inviting Scottie Upshall to camp, so Noesen could very well be getting that shot. If not in Dallas, he still seems like a solid candidate to get a look somewhere. However the invitation is just the beginning and the once highly-regarded prospect will need to work hard to show he still belongs at the top level.
Many prominent free agents, restricted and unrestricted, remain unsigned, but the NHL markets largely remain relatively quiet. However, minor league teams, foreign clubs, and college programs continue to make make moves in preparation for the coming season. Keep up with all of those minor transactions here:
- The Toronto Maple Leafs announced their roster for their upcoming prospects tournament today, which included a slew of recent draft picks as well as recently signed young players. It also featured a large group of prospects currently signed to AHL deals with the Toronto Marlies, including two previously unreported extensions. According to the roster, incumbent forwards Ryan Moore and Hudson Elynuik have re-signed with the Marlies. Moore, 22, played in just one AHL game last season, but was effective in the ECHL just as he was at the junior level, despite a diminutive frame. He’ll be hoping to impress in the tournament in hopes of getting a chance to show his size won’t limit him at the next level either. Elynuik, 21, was a third-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016, but the team opted not to sign him. In his first pro season last year, the massive center skated in ten games with the Marlies and was a near point-per-game scorer in the ECHL. He should be ready to take on a larger role in the AHL this coming season.
- Philip Samuelsson is headed overseas. The 28-year-old defenseman, one of three hockey-playing sons of Ulf Samuelsson, has done all he can to stick in North America for several years. A second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and a standout at Boston College, Samuelsson entered the pro game with high expectations. However, over his eight-year career to date, Samuelsson has been almost entirely relegated to the AHL, skating in just 13 total NHL games and recording zero points. In fact, Samuelsson failed to even land an NHL contract last season, playing with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on a minor league pact. The Swedish-American defender has been a solid AHL contributor, but is looking for more in his career. He hopes to find it with Mountfield HK of the Czech Extraliga, who announced a one-year deal today. Samuelsson will undoubtedly be one of the best players on the team, but the question is whether he will be dominant enough at the top Czech pro level to turn any heads back in the NHL.
- Anyone hoping for an NHL return for Damien Brunner can put those thoughts to rest. The 33-year-old Swiss forward has signed a three-year extension with the NLA’s EHC Biel-Bienne, the team announced, all but guaranteeing that his days in North America are over. After dominating the NLA early in his career, Brunner made the jump to the NHL in 2012. He enjoyed a pair of strong – albeit injury-riddled – seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, totaling 51 points in 101 regular season games and a great 2013 postseason with five goals and nine points in 14 games. However, as soon as that production began to slip in his third NHL season, Brunner returned to Switzerland. As he continued to struggle with injuries, Brunner failed to re-gain his dominant form over the last few years. That is until last season, when he notched 37 points in 50 games for a well-timed bounce back campaign in a contract year. Biel-Bienne clearly did not want to lose their veteran leader, locking him down on a multi-year deal, something no NHL team would have entertained.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Marc Methot was considered to be a high-end shutdown defenseman. Actually, it was just two years ago when the veteran was with the Ottawa Senators, that he averaged just short of 19 minutes per game for eight straight seasons. However, after signing a four-year, $19.6MM extension to remain in Ottawa in 2015, the Senators choose to expose his contract in the Vegas expansion draft and the defense-greedy Golden Knights opted to grab him, immediately flipping him to Dallas for a prospect and a 2020 second-round pick.
Unfortunately, the Stars didn’t capitalize on Methot’s impressive defensive play as he struggled with injuries in his two years in Dallas. In those two years, he has appeared in just 45 games and only nine of them came in the 2018-19 season. In fact, the knee injury that sidelined Methot for most of the season last year, could keep him out even longer than people had expected.
Having hit free agency this year at age 34, TSN reported in July that Methot might not be ready for the 2019-20 season at all due to the knee surgery that he underwent in January. However, despite the injuries, he still was a valuable commodity when he was on the ice with his defensive play and ability to play physically and provide key hits during the game.
The most obvious suitor could be retirement depending on how Methot’s knee responds from his surgery. TSN’s Shawn Simpson reported last month that Methot has started skating, which could increase his suitors if he can prove he is ready to return to the ice. If his knee can hold up, he could provide key depth on any team’s defense as a shutdown third-pairing defenseman, which plenty of teams would need.
A reunion in either Ottawa or Columbus might make sense, but Ottawa has already added a number of veterans to its defensive core, including Ron Hainsey and with a number of young blueliners waiting to get playing time, he might not be a good fit with his hometown. However, Methot could find a way there. In Columbus, the team is likely set on defense, but one injury could change that and a coach like John Tortorella would appreciate a defensive-minded veteran.
The New Jersey Devils are a team that could be interested in Methot as he might provide a good fit at the bottom of their lineup. There are plenty of other teams that might still need some depth on their defense such as the Anaheim Ducks, Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals. However, much of who might be interested in Methot, may be determined by team injuries and their needs.
Methot’s situation might require him to wait to sign a contract until he can prove that he’s healthy and can really contribute to an NHL team, meaning he might have to wait until well into the 2019-20 season before signing a deal. Once he can prove he’s healthy, assuming he can and doesn’t opt to retire instead, Methot will likely have to settle for a minimum-salaried deal and prove his value to the team.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.