The Ask Me Anything Mailbag is back after a long layoff, and I thank you, readers, for blitzing me with enough top-notch questions that I could’ve included 20 here. I pared the list down to five, primarily looking ahead to the off-season but also addressing the elephant – or zebra – in the room.
Bobby Callahan @Space_Cowboy_19 asks…
What are your odds for the New Jersey Devils taking Kaapo Kakko first overall?
The idea of Kakko being a legitimate threat to steal Jack Hughes’ No. 1 overall draft status is nothing like the faux, clickbaity chatter in 2016 touting Patrik Laine as a potential first-overall pick over Auston Matthews. The talk is for real this time. Jack Hughes projects as a franchise-changing player – think Patrick Kane, but as a center – yet so does Kakko.
Working on a story about Kakko, which you can find here, for our 2019 Draft Preview magazine, I spoke with his two most recent coaches, Jussi Ahokas from the 2019 gold-medallist Finnish world-junior squad and Kalle Kaskinen, coach of TPS, Kakko’s Finnish pro club team. You always expect coaches to gush about their own prospects, but their reverence for Kakko went beyond the norm.
“He’s a better skater than Mikko Rantanen at that age, I have to say,” Ahokas said. “I’ve seen them both at that age, and he’s actually a much better skater than Mikko was. They have really good hockey sense, but Kappo would be a little bit ahead of what Mikko was at that point in his career. “
“I would combine Peter Forsberg and Auston Matthews,” Kaskinen said with a laugh. “He’s not a bully, but he’s really proud of who he is, and he wants to be the best, and he shows it every shift. Maybe that’s closer to Forsberg. Forsberg, Saku Koivu and Auston Matthews. That’s how I’d put the combination.”
Wow. What praise. I can’t remember a prospect as beloved by his coaches as Kakko. Kaskinen calls him the best Finn he’s ever seen in the Liiga at that age – ahead of Mikael Granlund and Aleksander Barkov. Kakko is big, strong, mature defensively for his age and capable of ragging the puck in the offensive zone. He absolutely projects to reach the NHL next season. It’s a virtual certainty.
Kakko is also a right winger. Ray Shero has been an NHL GM for 12 drafts between Pittsburgh and New Jersey. He’s taken a forward with his first pick seven times, and he chose a center six of those times. He added Jordan Staal to the Penguins’ core of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Shero’s first three Devils first-rounders were Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod and Nico Hischier. Center, center, center. Shero believes in building teams up the middle. I thus expect the Devils to take Jack Hughes first overall, not because Kakko isn’t worthy, but because their GM clearly favors centers over wingers when breaking a tie between two draft candidates close in skill.
Curtis Mankewich (@CurtisSaysThis) asks…
What the heck happens in Winnipeg?
The Jets find themselves in an off-season quagmire. They entered 2017-18 carrying enormous expectations – including a predicted Stanley Cup win from us – following a 114-point campaign and Western Conference final berth. But the team just never quite got off the ground in 2018-19, eh? Patrik Laine couldn’t find his scoring touch, the Jets rarely iced a fully healthy lineup and goalie Connor Hellebuyck regressed when facing a higher degree of shot difficulty than last year’s with the defense in front of him springing leaks.
Theoretically, a team in its Stanley Cup contention window must act decisively to get back on track this off-season, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces many complicated decisions. The simplest is signing RFA Kyle Connor to a long-term extension, but it won’t be cheap after his consecutive 30-goal campaigns. Might he crack a $7-million AAV given Nikolaj Ehlers earns $6 million? Then there’s the Laine decision. After he regressed to 30 goals and 50 points, might his camp be more interested in a bridge contract, hoping he explodes during that time like Nikita Kucherov did and can ink a monster-money extension a few years from now? It wouldn’t be the worst idea for both sides. Then you have Jacob Trouba, an RFA again after going to arbitration last year, who has clearly earned a huge long-term pact in the range of, say, Aaron Ekblad’s eight year, $60-million deal. Given Trouba’s history of contentious negotiations and previous trade request, however, he could wind up dealt. Josh Morrissey is eligible to sign an extension this July, too, since he’s a 2020 RFA.
So Cheveldayoff must deal with his RFAs, which will eat up tens of millions of cap-space dollars, before figuring out the UFAs. Kevin Hayes was a nice trade-deadline fit as a middle-six center but, like Paul Stastny last year, likely ends up a cap casualty. Grinder Brandon Tanev could face a similar fate after a career year. Both guys feel like luxuries. Given the premium on right-handed defensemen, Tyler Myers will get plenty of lucrative offers on the open market, too. He’ll be expensive to keep, but if the Jets don’t keep him, who replaces him?
The Jets don’t strike me as a team that will have much wiggle room, because they have so much to figure out with their free agents. They instead may have to be that talented team that hopes to improve from within, which is entirely plausible, by the way. Laine will be better, young center Jack Roslovic is still ascending, and the Jets could get contributions from left winger Kristian Vesalainen and defenseman Sami Niku next year, too, if the right spots open up on the depth chart. If there’s a major move to expect from the Jets aside from re-signing guys, it’s a Trouba trade, which feels like better than a 50/50 bet to happen.
Jeff Putnam (@Putsky88) asks…
Which team will be the most active with trades, transactions, buyout etc. leading up to the draft in Vancouver?
The Nashville Predators went from Stanley Cup final to Presidents’ Trophy to first-round exit over the past three seasons and, after giving his team a vote of confidence with minimal changes last off-season, GM David Poile should be aggressive this time. Don’t be surprised if he swings a major trade to break up the blueline Big Four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban, with Subban the likeliest name to go for reasons I outlined here.
But the team I expect to be the most active of all? It’s the one rumored as a potential trade partner with the Preds, the Pittsburgh Penguins. General manager Jim Rutherford is a smart man and likely sees that his Penguins, after being swept in Round 1 of the playoffs, resemble the 2017 Blackhawks, a top-heavy, star-studded empire that began to crumble, got swept in Round 1 and ended up with two straight playoff misses after that. Sidney Crosby turns 32 in August. He showed this season he’s still an elite player, but he only has so many prime seasons left. To give Pittsburgh another shot at the Stanley Cup in the Crosby era, Rutherford must (a) make major moves to upgrade his team immediately or (b) deliberately weaken his team by dumping a star for futures in hopes of quickly replenishing Pittsburgh’s farm system, which is the league’s most barren, and providing some higher-upside reinforcements to join Crosby in a year or two. Chicago seems to be attempting option (b), building around a new core of Alex DeBrincat, Adam Boqvist, Dylan Strome and Henri Jokiharju, which might ascend quickly enough to make that team relevant again while Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have good years left.
Whichever path Rutherford chooses – reload, retool, rebuild – it should a busy one involving blockbuster deals, because the Penguins have pretty much no cap space. Phil Kessel is obviously the top trade candidate, but not even Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are safe at this point. Crosby is the only Penguin guaranteed to stay put. Rutherford has always been one of the league’s boldest GMs, making 38 trades since taking the job in Pittsburgh five years ago, so there’s no way he stands pat with a team that disappointed so much in 2018-19.
Jorge (@JorgeQ1974) asks…
Hey Matt, who do you think are the likely Leaf players to be traded or not re-signed, and who or what type of player may the Leafs be interested in picking up this summer via trade or free agency? Cheers.
Hey Jorge. The Leafs, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, are pretty much in Cap Hell this off-season. Hey, that’s a good problem, as it’s the result of having good players who have earned good money: namely, RFA wingers Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
“Everybody knows our situation,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said Friday over the phone. “We’ve got three restricted free agents up front that are important not just in the short term but the long term, because they’re relatively young guys. You’ve got Andreas who is 24, ‘Kappy’ will be turning 23, and Mitch just turned 22. So you’ve got those guys that we want to lock up because we see them as very important core pieces of our group.”
So with the RFAs paramount, the Leafs aren’t likely to be aggressive players in the UFA market this summer. The 2019 class is forward-heavy anyway, and while some big, physical assets such as Micheal Ferland might be tempting, the Leafs’ clear need for right-side defensive help trumps that. They can’t afford to chase Erik Karlsson, and one of the top three options is their own probably-gone lefty Jake Gardiner, meaning the only UFA blueliner that could theoretically appeal to the Leafs would be Tyler Myers. But Toronto doesn’t have the cap space to land a big or even medium-sized UFA fish for “merely money.” The way to find the upgrades they need will have to be the trade route, as it would let them send money the other way in a deal.
So who would be the trade piece for Toronto to move? Forget any talk of Marner. I don’t believe any of the speculation about him getting dealt. If we’re looking at lower-end pieces that could free up a bit of cap space, Connor Brown might make sense. He’s been relegated primarily to checking-line duty, meaning his $2.1-million AAV isn’t much of a bargain anymore relative to role, but he could play higher in the lineup on a weaker team. The Leafs could move Brown and give, say, Jeremy Bracco a chance to crack the lineup next year.
Still, if Toronto wants to get what it really needs – a right-shot, top-pair defenseman in the vein of Jacob Trouba, Dougie Hamilton or Colton Parayko – it has to move a bigger piece. Might it be Kapanen or Johnsson? We can’t say for sure, and Dubas’ best-case scenario is to obviously to keep both, but he did point out to me something important about Johnsson’s status.
“He was a restricted free agent last year and took his qualifying offer, so he’s arbitration eligible now, which means there will be a resolution,” Dubas said. “It won’t be long and drawn out. By the end of July, we’ll have a solution to his status one way or another, whether that’s a negotiated settlement or whether the arbiter declares what his worth is. And regardless of what the outcome of the summer is for him, he is a player that we strongly value. “
Because Johnsson’s contract situation, as Dubas explains, has a clear resolution timeline, you could make a case Johnsson is more likely than Kapanen to remain a Leaf, as there’s still the possibility Kapanen ends up in the same boat as William Nylander with a lengthy negotiation.
Still, after what transpired with Nazem Kadri for a second consecutive post-season and, given his affordable $4.5-million cap hit, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he was the Leaf who ended up dealt. Nylander, whose cap hit comes in at just below $7 million, would be the best player to move from a financial standpoint, but Dubas has insisted he won’t trade him.
Long story short: we know the Leafs need a right-shot blueliner, but the RFAs are their first priority. Once those contracts – at the very least Marner’s – are sorted, Dubas can turn his attention to chasing that D-man. The guess here is that it will require trading Brown plus one of the team’s core secondary forwards from the group of Johnsson, Kapanen, Kadri and Nylander
Justin Dabiri @JDabiri13) asks…
The NFL requires video review for all scoring plays and plays under two minutes left. Should the NHL look at some version of this setup for their game, and if so – what would that look like? (i.e. all OT goals subject to video confirmation before official)
Hi Justin. Replay has weighed heavily on seemingly every hockey person’s mind all spring during what has been, let’s face it, an embarrassingly bad post-season for the officials. It’s clear something has to change.
Last-minute booth reviews, a-la NFL, would be interesting in that they would ensure the calls are made correctly on crucial late-game plays such as the Timo Meier hand pass in overtime this week. But if by “booth review” in this case we’re substituting “calling up Toronto,” then guaranteed reviews on all scoring plays, especially in the regular season, would create a bit of chaos in the NHL’s Toronto war room, where the hockey-operations staff watch every game simultaneously. Getting calls for case-by-case reviews is one thing, but reviews on every late-game scoring play might require the league to add extra staff to its war room to handle the volume (picture, for instance, a busy Saturday night with a ton of East-Coast games ending at roughly the same time and every game needing reviews for the late goals).
Another problem, as wisely explained by Michael Rand of Minnesota Star-Tribune this week, is the fallacy of assigning extra value to all late-game incidents when, really, every missed call at every point in a game has potential to affect the outcome.
It’s also a slippery slope, as my pal Michael Traikos at Post-Media points out in light of Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour’s comments this week. If you review hand passes, why not major penalties? If majors, why not minors? What about icings? And so on. It’s interesting that all the hand wringing over officiating in these playoffs has drowned out what was a pretty steady stream of complaints over the past couple years about offside reviews slowing down the game. Expanded replay reviews would exacerbate that problem.
If it were up to me? Get rid of all offside reviews and replace them with reviews only on major penalties to prevent situations the Golden Knights-Sharks Game 7. I’m skeptical that the next GM meetings will yield a major change, however.
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