July 22, 2024

Steven Stamkos, Jake Guentzel and the latest around the NHL

Draft day is here (7 p.m. ET on ESPN) and this year, more than in years past, people around the league are preparing for fireworks. I’ve had four general managers tell me they’re open to moving their first-round picks, and they’re not alone, though it seems prices are steep to move into the top 10. Blockbuster trades involving NHL players could go down.

As one GM said: “I’d be shocked if we got through Friday without something shocking.”

Then free agency opens on July 1, and with the biggest single-season salary cap jump in NHL history ($4.5 million), teams are ready to spend.

Here’s the latest of what I’m hearing could go down in the NHL this week.

IT’S NEVER EASY to keep the band together after winning a Stanley Cup. The Lightning struggled with this mightily because of salary cap constraints. Now their in-state rivals, the Panthers, will feel the same pain. Florida has 11 unrestricted free agents, including half of their defense (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brandon Montour, Dmitry Kulikov) and seven forwards, headlined by 57-goal scorer Sam Reinhart.

Talking to people around the league, the expectation is Montour will get a bigger payday elsewhere. The expectation is that Reinhart will re-sign, but it has been a slow process. Reinhart’s camp and the Panthers had stayed in communication all season, and there was mutual interest to get something done. There wasn’t a rush, I’m told, especially from Reinhart’s side. That was rooted in trust. Remember, Florida revived Reinhart’s career when they traded for him from Buffalo and immediately signed him to a three-year deal. Not only does Reinhart score, but he’s one of the best defensive forwards in hockey.

A rival front office executive projected Reinhart will take a hometown discount even though he could’ve commanded more on the open market. Reinhart’s discount could open the door for Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe extensions.

SPEAKING OF TAMPA BAY, the Lightning are trying to run it back after reacquiring Ryan McDonagh. But entering draft day, there’s still a stalemate on a new deal for captain Steven Stamkos. This seems like a redux of 2016, when Stamkos almost made it to free agency before striking a last-minute deal in Tampa. That could easily happen again, but it also sounds like this process has been uncomfortable at times. Rival teams I’ve talked to said they wouldn’t be surprised to see Stamkos hit the open market. There would be big-time interest.

ONE TEAM THAT could make big waves this offseason is the New York Rangers. I have been told they’ve had conversations with other teams on Kaapo Kakko. While New York was unwilling to part with the former No. 2 pick in the past, including this past traded deadline, it sounds like both sides would welcome a change of scenery now. He just signed a one-year deal for $2.4 million, which is cost certainty.

There are more stories bubbling about the Rangers, ranging from exploring a Jacob Trouba trade to a possible reunion with Patrick Kane. I heard GM Chris Drury met with Trouba, whose no-move clause becomes a 15-team no-trade list on July 1, recently to discuss his future. A trade is hardly guaranteed, but the team is exploring options.

I’m told that Drury is telling people around the league he’s looking to clear cap space.

Ultimately I think the team would like to focus on acquiring younger players, but I do get the sense a lot is on the table right now.

ON KANE, I was told he’s very much still in contact with Detroit as of this week and could re-sign as a Red Wing. Kane views Detroit as a good team going in the right direction.

The two things that are most important to Kane are fit and a legitimate chance to win. I also think he’d like some term, and was told he doesn’t want to play on a bargain contract, such as the veterans minimum. Kane played for $2.75 million last season, then proved he still has it now that his surgically repaired hip held up. Depending on where and what term, I’ve been told he could double his salary next season.

While Detroit and New York are in the mix, I also wouldn’t discount Vegas, which made one of the strongest pushes for Kane when he was a free agent this past fall. The Golden Knights, as usual, are stealthily in on everything. Vegas has continued to have conversations with Jonathan Marchessault (who shares an agent with Kane), though nothing has materialized yet.

IT’S HARD TO predict anything Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman is going to do. Example: Everyone I talked to around the league seemed surprised they gave away a second-round pick to trade the recently extended Jake Walman, though it was clearly a move to open space on the blue line for prospects and to clear cap space. Yzerman has signaled that he’s very much looking for goalies. I’d also look at impact wingers and defensemen for them. Patience has worn out, Detroit is ready to roar back into the playoffs.

JUST LIKE AT the trade deadline, it seems like everyone is in on Jake Guentzel. Proven playoff performers just don’t come around like this too often. I believe the door closed on a Pittsburgh reunion once he was traded. However, Carolina, where he finished the season, is still trying to work something out. The Canes are the only team able to give him an eighth year — but also have told teams they could trade for Guentzel’s rights or do a sign-and-trade to get that eighth contract year. Interest around the league is so intense, it’s hard to handicap at this point where he’ll land. I believe Carolina seriously upped its offer this week.

THE CANES HAVE a ton of business to attend to besides Guentzel. Their top priority was a Jaccob Slavin extension, which was agreed to in principle. It sounds like Brett Pesce will sign elsewhere. I was told Carolina will let Teuvo Teravainen walk. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan Martinook or Brady Skjei re-sign, though I haven’t heard about progress on either contract. The next domino to drop — and possibly on draft day — is a Martin Necas trade. Discussions have intensified, though Carolina’s front office will hold a firm asking price.

THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS are still in a rebuild, but their GM Kyle Davidson told me they’re ready to take the next step. They’ve collected enough draft picks and prospects. They have a huge wave of first-year pros hitting their AHL team next year. For the NHL roster, it’s time to start making some strides.

As for free agency, Davidson said they are willing to give out contracts with term. They don’t have specific positional needs. “Nothing is set in stone in terms of philosophy,” Davidson said. “We’re very open to whatever comes our way.”

When I spoke to Davidson two days before the draft, the team had decided on who it was going to select at No. 2. (Other teams around the league have told me Chicago’s decision is likely between winger Ivan Demidov and defenseman Artyom Levshunov). Davidson said it wasn’t necessarily a clear decision, because they had great options. Unlike last year, when Connor Bedard was the unquestioned choice, it was educational for the front office to run the process. The Blackhawks ultimately will pick the player who fits best into the team construction long term and allows for sustainable success in Chicago.

BUFFALO SABRES GM Kevyn Adams told me he has spent a lot of time identifying why the Sabres were so wildly inconsistent last season. At times they looked tremendous against top teams in the league. But too often, their starts weren’t very good, and they chased games. Their power play struggled, which frustrated the top offensive players and allowed them not to stay in the moment.

Entering this season with new coach Lindy Ruff, they’re looking for a reset. I’d anticipate Buffalo naming a new captain ahead of the season. Big picture, Adams likes the defensive core and how it’s built. They’re set on NHL goaltending, but will need to acquire depth netminders (think No. 3, 4 and 5 in the organization).

They have high-end prospects in the minors, such as Jiri Kulich, but Adams said he’s okay letting those players force management’s hand to get on the NHL roster with their play. Adams will continue to explore the trade market — and has dangled the No. 11 pick to other GM’s. In free agency, they’re looking for more physicality and identity. The last few years, they played a bit too much on the perimeter, relying on skill. Adams and Ruff want the team to play more direct, with pace, and not freelance as much.

ONE TEAM I don’t expect to make a big splash in free agency is the Minnesota Wild. They are in their last year of salary cap stress, thanks to the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. That said, GM Bill Guerin told me he expects his team to push for the playoffs, as long as they don’t have the same poor injury luck as last year. On July 1, Guerin said he’s looking for middle six/bottom six forwards who fit their physical and hard to play against identity.

The core players Guerin is building around: Kirill Kaprizov, Matt Boldy, Brock Faber and Joel Eriksson Ek, all aged 21-27. With goalie Marc-Andre Fleury returning for a final season, I’ve heard the Wild have explored trading Filip Gustavsson. The team drafted Jesper Wallstedt in the first round in 2021. Guerin said the main goal for Wallstedt is a bigger workload in 2024-25 (the 21-year-old played in 45 games in the AHL last season, and just three in the NHL).

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS GM Danny Briere knows his team is likely to take a step back this season after they unexpectedly pushed for a playoff spot through mid-April.

The goal, Briere said, is to soften the blow. “We don’t have the money to do much,” Briere said. “All we can afford at the moment is depth guys that are good leaders.” To that end, I believe there is momentum to bring back defenseman Erik Johnson, who Briere complimented as “excellent for the room” after he was acquired at the deadline.

The team will continue to explore hockey trades, knowing they have players on their roster who might not fit Philadelphia’s timeline for winning. While the Flyers said they were open to any options with their first-round picks (No. 12, and No. 32 — originally Florida’s pick, from the Claude Giroux trade), Briere predicted any movement would come on draft day. He added that if they do stay, they will select the best player available, especially in the first round, though their biggest organizational need is in the center position.

THE SAN JOSE SHARKS are beyond excited to select Macklin Celebrini at No. 1, especially with their other top prospect, Will Smith, set to join the NHL roster next season. While nothing is set in stone for Celebrini next season, I’d be surprised if he didn’t turn pro right away.

Big picture, GM Mike Grier doesn’t think the team is as far away as they looked for much of last season. They will add free agents, but be cautious on term, likely only offering one to four years. A big priority is becoming tougher to play against, and they’ve already begun to address that by acquiring Barclay Goodrow and Ty Dellandrea.

I ASKED ANAHEIM GM Pat Verbeek where he saw his team right now. “Not sure,” he said. “Depends on what I can do the next few days.”

The Ducks are in on a lot. Verbeek is looking to add a right shot defenseman and a top six forward. Last year was a bit of a culture shock for the team, with a new coach in Greg Cronin, who introduced a completely different style. As the season went on, consistency and comfortability followed. Verbeek feels the team showed enough foundation to take the next step, and he wants the Ducks to be playing meaningful games late into next season.

At the No. 3 pick, Verbeek has stayed consistent on his philosophy: He wants high drive competitors with hockey sense who can skate.

There are other questions on the roster. Goalie Lukas Dostal took a big step forward last year, while veteran John Gibson finds himself in trade rumors yet again. When I asked Verbeek where he saw his goaltending, he said it’s going to be competitive. Whoever plays best takes the net.

As with Gibson — or anyone on his roster, including Trevor Zegras, whose name also remains in the rumor mill — Verbeek will be patient and looking at the long view. “I always say, ‘Wayne Gretzky got traded,'” Verbeek said. “I’m always looking to improve the team. And if it’s something to improve the team, I’ll do it. I’m not afraid to do that.”