Fallout from the first wave of NHL free agency

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The 2018 NHL free-agent frenzy is over. Some teams found answers. Other teams created more questions.

Here’s a look at the 10 lingering mysteries and conundrums from NHL free agency and our attempts to address them thusly. Beginning with, of course, the greatest mystery of them all:


Why did John Tavares have an N-1 Naboo fighter on his childhood bed with the Toronto Maple Leafs sheets?

I mean, seriously, did everyone not wonder the same thing when they saw this picture of Johnny T, justifying his Leafs devotion with a childhood photo?

The mystery was somewhat solved by the venerable Bob McKenzie of TSN, who told me it was an alarm clock. “He wanted it right above his head because he had an early tournament game the next morning and was afraid his parents’ alarm might not work. So he doubled up with his own alarm clock,” he said.

Sorry, but we’re going to need more clarification. Is John Tavares a prequels apologist? Does he rank any of them higher than the original or sequel trilogy films? CGI or puppet Yoda? Is Jar Jar a tragic figure? And does he relate more than ever to the chosen one being betrayed by the institution that selected and trained him, forcing him down an irreversible path to the dark side?

The Islanders totally have to tank post-Tavares, right?

Wrong! Sure, it would be logical to assume that the Islanders would take the path of GM Lou Lamoriello’s previous team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and use a few horrible seasons to draft top-eight picks like William Nylander, Mitch Marner and first overall Auston Matthews. This would seem especially logical when a generational talent like Jack Hughes waits atop the 2019 draft class.

But this is not the path on which Lamoriello has the Islanders. “In Toronto, we had to really break it right down and get to the core, see who wanted to be a part of it for different reasons. I think it’s different here. There’s more talent here, at this given time, from the original core. It’s not a breakdown. It’s finding out how high the level is of the players that you do have,” he said on NHL Network Radio on Thursday. “Over half the team will be who was here before, going into the second year, as well as this first year. It’s not a case of breaking down.”

The Islanders have 13 players under contract for at least the next two seasons, with Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee due for new deals in 2019. They just handed a five-year contract to a coach who, even with a conservative estimate of Barry Trotz’s annual salary, gets paid more than all but five players on the team and would not seem the type to tank a season. And Lamoriello is 75 years old. Time does not wait for another rebuild.

So no, apparently the Islanders are not tanking it after John Tavares left. For better or worse.

If not the Islanders, who tanks?

Fun drinking game: Take a sip whenever Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning references “drafting and developing young players” and you’ll be under the table and dreaming in about three paragraphs. People assume the Shea Weber injury means the Montreal Canadiens will tank, but GM Marc Bergevin said the goal next season is a playoff spot, which is what happens when Carey Price is getting paid $15 million. (And Claude Julien isn’t paid for a rebuild, either.)

The Rangers might not tank, but they are going significantly younger next season. And the Ottawa Senators can’t tank until 2020 because they traded a conditional first-rounder to the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene, kept the No. 4 overall pick in 2018 to take Brady Tkachuk, and in 2019 will likely watch Duchene leave via free agency and Colorado select Jack Hughes first overall with the Senators’ lottery pick. Because what that dumpster fire needed was just a little more gasoline.

Speaking of Montreal … what?

At the very bottom of the Canadiens’ news release on Shea Weber’s knee surgery, which will put him out until mid-December, was this end note:

“Due to the complexity of the situation from a medical standpoint, and to avoid any distractions, it has been decided in the best interest of the Canadiens’ organization, to proceed with this announcement following the NHL draft and the free-agency period. Shea Weber missed one game (November 9) due to a knee injury last season, and missed a total of 55 games due to a foot injury.”

Bergevin didn’t mention the surgery at his postseason news conference, perhaps seeking to have the bad news hit at a time when he wouldn’t have to face the media. Was it mentioned when pitching free agents? What on earth did this mean?

Shea Weber, by the way, has had surgery on his knee and his foot in the last four months, and in the end will have been out of action for nine months total. Why, it’s as if literally everyone saw trading P.K. Subban for a player roughly four years older than him and said the short-term benefits did not outweigh the long-term concerns — and has been proved correct in short order. As if that was ever in doubt.

Does Ilya Kovalchuk still think it’s 2013?

Ilya Kovalchuk stunned more than a few folks by agreeing to a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings and proclaiming it was because they’re Stanley Cup contenders. In his interview around the signing, he didn’t seem to mind the age of the team, reiterated that the Kings were Cup contenders despite not having gotten out of the first round since 2014, and put over Jonathan Quick as one of the best goalies in the NHL. “When I played five years ago in the league, he was the toughest to play against,” Kovalchuk said.

I’m 60 percent sure that he thinks Darryl Sutter is still the coach.

Speaking of living in the past … guys, that Matt Cullen signing?

Matt Cullen had 22 points in 79 games last season for the Minnesota Wild, playing a career-low 11:54 per game. He turns 42 on Nov. 2. And now he’s a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, again, for a one-year, $650,000 contract that is an actual hockey deal and not one of those “You can retire a Penguin!” situations.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who never met a player he couldn’t reacquire, justified it like so: “We lacked some leadership last year. We lost some really key guys.”

Jeez, man, why not go for the full retro and sign Chris Kunitz back, too? Isn’t this the point of having veteran players move on? To task the next wave with stepping up, having understood what it takes to win through the example of players like Cullen?

Does anyone think that the Capitals, should they falter in the postseason in 2019, are going to respond by desperately attempting to bring Jay Beagle back into the fold? Because this is like that.

What does losing Paul Stastny mean for Winnipeg?

Losing Paul Stastny to the Vegas Golden Knights was a kick in the gut for the Jets. They cleared out money to sign him, even knowing that there was “a lot more surgery needed on the roster,” according to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. They gave him the same term (three years) and the chance to play with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers again; he took the Knights’ money and ran back to the U.S.

“We were hoping it would potentially come together, but we knew it would have some hurdles,” Cheveldayoff said.

It hurts on the ice because this Jets team seemed so much stronger with him in that slot, which might be turned back over to Bryan Little. The Central Division is an arms race, as the St. Louis Blues underscored in their offseason moves, and the Jets feel like they couldn’t keep up in losing Stastny. It hurts off the ice because this was a player who had every reason to remain with a burgeoning Stanley Cup contender and he opted to leave, which is a check in the “Winnipeg Has Problems Retaining Talent” column that had become balanced with the “Don’t Worry, Winnipeg Can Keep Its Players” side for the last few years.

Whither Kari Lehtonen?

We’ve seen 12 goalies sign new contracts since June 30, and none of them were named Kari Lehtonen. Which is weird. In 37 games with the Dallas Stars — who moved on to Anton Khudobin as a backup to Ben Bishop — he had a .912 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against average. Of his 30 starts, 63.3 percent were quality starts.

He’s a better option than many goalies who received contracts. Are teams scared off by his fragility? His age (34)? Did he ask for too much? In a perfect world, he slides into the backup spot for the Washington Capitals; all due respect to Pheonix Copley, but they’ve got a Cup to defend. Please note: You can now live where Kari Lehtonen lived in Dallas (if you’ve got $4.25 million available).

Will anyone ever let their star UFAs get to the ‘talking to other teams’ phase again?

The John Tavares saga has to strike fear in the hearts of other franchises with star players looking at unrestricted free agency. He basically decided during the pitches that he wanted to leave the Islanders, if his timeline is to be believed.

Drew Doughty, Logan Couture, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and (soon Erik Karlsson) were plucked off the market a year before they went UFA. You’re on the clock, Stars, because Tyler Seguin is totally the guy to have a weeklong pitch party at his agent’s office. Oh, and he’s from Ontario. Keep him away from Kyle Dubas at all costs!

Finally, how stale is John Tortorella’s act?

Oh, hey, look, it’s another heaping dollop of “us against the world” nonsense from the venerable Columbus Blue Jackets coach, because defenseman Jack Johnson dared to say that a team with two Stanley Cups in three seasons had more of a winning culture than a franchise that hasn’t won a first-round series in the four times it has qualified for the playoffs in its history, including back-to-back first-round exits under Tortorella.

Hey, crazy thought: Instead of whining about a player “backhand slapping” Columbus on the way to resurrecting his career with the Penguins, win a playoff series. Or anything of consequence. Heck, here’s an idea: Beat the Penguins in a playoff series. Third time’s a charm!


Jersey Foul of the Week

From the World Series of Poker:

There’s obviously something very appropriate about wearing a Vegas Golden Knights jersey to a poker championship. There’s obviously something very inappropriate about wearing an Alex Tuch Tribute jersey that reads “Tuch Yeah” pretty much anywhere.


Listen To ESPN On Ice

The season finale of ESPN On Ice was a full free-agency recap, including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston breaking down the John Tavares drama. Stream it here or grab it on iTunes here.


The ‘Rick and Morty’ goalie masks

Pop culture references on goalie masks are a time-honored tradition. So it was just a matter of time before the animated insanity of “Rick and Morty” found its way onto one. We just didn’t expect the reference to be so … specific.

Witness the dawn of the Mr. Meeseeks goalie masks.

And this one:

For the uninitiated, Meeseeks are creatures who are created to serve a singular purpose, like opening a jar of mayo. Once that task has been fulfilled, they vanish into thin air, their life’s task completed.

Why a goaltender would relate to someone charged with a task who becomes a total afterthought upon its completion is anyone’s guess …

Looking forward to the first Pickle Rick mask in the NHL.


Puck headlines

Kevin Allen, one of the most respected hockey scribes in the game, writes that Gary Bettman and the NHL should not allow Slava Voynov back into the league. “The NHL did the right thing about Voynov in 2014. Now it’s time for the NHL, or NHL teams, to do the right thing in 2018.” [USA Today]

As Islanders fans try to process his legacy, know this about John Tavares: It’s entirely possible he was actually underrated. [The Athletic]

The top five jerseys for the Sedin twins. [Hockey By Design]

The documentarian who played hockey against Vladimir Putin. “When he gets set up for a shot, he’s not bad,” [Jon] Alpert said of Putin. “But he’s not very mobile. The game slows down around him to accommodate it.” [New Yorker]

Will Gary Bettman’s legacy be ignoring head injuries? [Boston Globe]

A women’s hockey crisis in Sweden. [The Ice Garden]

Stan Fischler goes scorched earth on John Tavares. [Lighthouse Hockey]

Why the Senators took the “coward’s way out” on Erik Karlsson. “We know that we have been abandoned by the Ottawa Senators, and that they took the coward’s way out on the most important matter in franchise history.” [Silver Seven]

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Marco Sturm talks about potentially becoming an NHL head coach.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Scott Foster‘s wild night: From watching on the couch to taking the crease.



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