Over-Thought: Wading into the Offseason Rumor Mill

Depending how things shake out over the next few days, Jason Botterill will have just missed out on having an awfully busy month of May. The Sabres’ head coaching vacancy has been filled by Ralph Krueger, Buffalo made their first free agent signing of the summer and reports indicate that Botterill is inching closer to an agreement with Jeff Skinner on a contract extension.

The scouting combine ought to help push trade negotiations further ahead and that’s with one potential blockbuster already hanging out there. The most recent 31 Thoughts blog offered up plenty of juicy talking points on trade rumors and more. Check it out here if you haven’t already.

1. Here’s my sense of what’s going on with Phil Kessel: he vetoed a trade to Minnesota and the story is out because both teams are unhappy. He cannot be traded to the Wild without specific approval, and, if you know Kessel, you know he will stand up for his rights no matter what anyone else thinks. The fact it got out may make it even harder to complete, because he’ll push back against pressure.

I’d heard things went badly last season between him and the organization, and this confirms it. He knows he will be traded because there’s no benefit to staying, but he’s going to make sure it is on his terms if the Penguins want to send him anywhere other than his eight-team list. My guess is Arizona would be high on his choice of destinations, but I don’t see an easy fit. The Penguins want scoring in return and the Coyotes finished 28th in goals-for. Memorial Day weekend comes at a perfect time for everyone to take a deep breath, drink some strawberry daiquiris, then search for a solution.

Kessel holds the hammer here and he may even have a list of eight teams which limit Pittsburgh’s flexibility even more. If three of his teams are cap crunched or division rivals Jim Rutherford might have that much more trouble finding a suitor for the disgruntled winger. Friedman mentions the Coyotes here and it’s not the first time I’ve seen Kessel connected to Arizona. Friedman has mentioned it at least once along with a few other mentions on social and other podcasts.

That fit makes a lot of sense to me as the Coyotes are in need of another scorer or two to finally get over the hump on their rebuild. I’m curious to know what the Pens would want. The cap flexibility moving Kessel may be more valuable to the Pens than pretty much anything else. The Coyotes could offer the 14th pick as a starting point – an asset the Pens would almost certainly covet as they try to keep young talent in their pipeline, while keeping the Crosby and Malkin-led window open. That first could also give the Pens another asset to leverage in a separate trade. Combined with the space Kessel frees up, Rutherford probably has the space to make a significant addition or two to his roster.

2. You know who else can’t be thrilled? Jason Zucker. That’s twice (Calgary at the deadline) he’s been sent somewhere, only to have it aborted. Someone is going to get a very motivated player. He must want to strangle someone.

Clearly Paul Fenton wants to clear out the old core from the Wild locker room. Nino Niederreiter is gone, as is Mikael Grandlund. As noted above, Zucker has nearly been moved twice in the past four months, it will be shocking if he’s back in a Wild uniform next year.

Given the report about how easy it was for the Hurricanes to acquire Nino, Jason Botterill should be on the phone everyday sending offers to Fenton for Zucker. A fast, scoring winger, Zucker offers the Sabres another player capable of providing scoring depth. If the Conor Sheary acquisition has you gun shy (it shouldn’t), Zucker doesn’t have the stigma of producing next to a superstar center. Whether on Jack Eichel’s wing or with another unit, Zucker would make the Sabres better right away. And his contract is extremely palatable.

5. After the Hurricanes were eliminated, a couple of sources indicated there was some in-season frustration from Brett Pesce that might force a trade. Waddell confirmed that was true, but is no longer a concern. From the start of the season through December, Pesce was seventh on the team in ice-time, down 1:31 per night from his 2017-18 average. From New Year’s Day on, he jumped to 21:20, behind only Slavin and Justin Faulk. (His playoff number was 23:06, also third). Crisis averted. Good news for Carolina, he’s a good player. If there is a defenceman who might get moved, it is Haydn Fleury. No longer waiver-eligible, he needs a place to play.

Freidman notes that any drama surrounding Pesce has been squashed, though I think the Canes will still be looking for a way to turn one or two of their defensemen into forwards. Pesce, Justin Faulk and apparently Haydn Fleury are guys I think are the most likely to move. Jaccob Slavin isn’t going anywhere, Dougie Hamilton seemed to really settle in as a key cog. The two extra righties and Fleury strike me as being very available. The Willie Nylander stuff will probably crop back up and it wouldn’t shock me if they poked around on Phil Kessel. If Kessel was worried about whether or not the Wild would compete, I’d assume he’d be okay hanging out with the conference finalist Hurricanes. I could also see Rutherford having some interest in grabbing one of those excess defensemen to help stabilize the Pens back-end. Even though he did say it was the best unit he’s had since he arrived in Pittsburgh.

One side note on the Pesce stuff. Even though he’s probably only attainable for the right NHL forward, he’d be a pretty decent replacement for Rasmus Ristolainen should the big Finn be moved. If you imagine one deal that moves Ristolainen for help at forward, let’s assume center help for now, a separate deal for Pesce would backfill the hole on the Sabres right side.

9. Kelly Hrudey saw something interesting with Martin Jones. In two similar plays vs Vegas and Colorado, he was three feet apart in goal. Against the Golden Knights, he was 7.4 feet out. Against the Avalanche, it was 4.2.

This note stood out to me regarding the change the Sharks goalie coach, Johan Hedberg, made with Jones. It’s always been my view that good goalie coaches find the happy medium between managing a goalie’s comfort level with how they want to play and the need for technical changes. For example, Mitch Korn and Piero Greco managed to push the right buttons with Robin Lehner in getting him to sharpen his skates more than once during the year and using a slightly taller stick. It’s easy to push goalies out of their comfort levels just as it’s easy for coaches to fall too far into the comfort zone which can prevent the necessary growth. Obviously Hedberg and Jones did the necessary film study to tighten up the latter’s game and the Sharks got the results they were looking for.

I wasn’t going to include a Sabres tie-in to this originally but given that a new coaching staff is likely to be put in place for 2019-20, a new goalie coach is probably on the horizon. Andrew Allen came to Buffalo having aided Scott Darling and Antti Raanta in Chicago and in his first year, both Lehner and Chad Johnson produced quality results. Buffalo’s goaltending hasn’t been quite as strong since then and the tweaks the Islanders got Lehner to make seem to be something Allen didn’t push Lehner on. Or, at the very least, he was allowing his goaltender to do what made him most comfortable in net. If it’s true that Allen is more hands off with making certain tweaks to a player’s game, I don’t blame him. Goalie coaching at high levels isn’t about making sweeping changes but managing the relationship and helping keep players dialed in. Finding that sweet spot is tricky and given the team and goaltending results over the past two years, it seems that Allen may pay the price with his job. Would pushing for more tweaks have kept him employed? Probably not. Buffalo’s issues are far more systemic than Robin Lehner not sharpening his skates. But in a results-based business, that’s how it goes.

16. Speaking of free-agent centres, Derick Brassard is expected to begin workouts Monday in Montreal and has told friends around the NHL that he will be doing more skating than ever. It was a hard season for him, with 14 goals and 23 points for Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He hasn’t had too many long summers — 99 playoff games in the past seven seasons — but has made it clear he’s determined to take advantage of this one.

Including Brassard here as someone I could see the Sabres circling as someone who can bolster their center depth. I think he’d be a “break glass in case of emergency” option if the trade market and other free agents don’t take well to what the Sabres are selling. Not a sexy option by any means, but he may be someone to keep in the back of your mind should some of the bigger names go elsewhere.

17. One way Vegas can ease its cap crunch is by moving the final season of David Clarkson’s contract. The hit is $5.25 million, but it is $3.25 million of actual cash. The Golden Knights will try. Another move is expected on defence.

Collin Miller has already been floated as a likely casualty in Vegas and plenty of Sabres bloggers have already noted that he’d be a good value add for the Sabres bottom pair. Even after signing a potential Skinner extension, the Sabres will have the wiggle room to take on some cap if they so choose. We’ve seen a lot of talk about Ryan Callahan but there are a few other clubs with cap constraints the Sabres could take advantage of.

If anteing up for Miller and taking on Clarkson lowers the price on someone like William Karlsson, it may be a better deal for the Sabres than whatever has been spitballed on alleviating Tampa’s cap crunch.

24.The Arizona sale is expected to be on the agenda of the Board of Governors’ meeting during Awards week in Vegas.

I guess it’s good that this most recent sale of the Coyotes has been a heck of a lot quieter than pretty much every other sale or potential sale in their history in the desert. It still leaves me wondering how many more swings they’re going to get. They sold a few more tickets this season as the team started to turn things around and it seems likely that they’re inching closer to contending. Still, this is a club that’s been mired in a whole lot of off-ice drama. At what point do you run out of owners willing to gut it out in Arizona? And at what point does a location like Houston start to become a more attractive option for the league to consider?

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