Who's under the most pressure in NHL free agency?


On July 1, unrestricted free agency begins in the NHL. Well, officially. It’s comical how much matchmaking is done before free agency opens, like rushing into an electronics store at midnight on Black Friday and having your Nintendo Switch already bagged at the register.

There are going to be winners and losers. There are going to be general managers that will be praised for inaction, and demonized for reaches. There are going to be players congratulated for smart moves, and decried for being overpaid.

Here are seven individuals facing a bunch of pressure around free agency, and all the transactions that surround it:

Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion. On the one hand, the bar is set so low for the Senators that their general manager could trade Mark Stone for “any hockey thing” and the majority of fans would applaud the effort. On the other, if Dorion has any hope of pointing this Titanic away from the sea of icebergs it’s currently pinballing around, it has to start with a hefty return on an Erik Karlsson trade. The problem: According to every pundit in Canada, the market isn’t where Dorion expected it to be for Karlsson. Then again, he’s a guy who couldn’t get a second-rounder for Mike Hoffman, and then watched the team he traded him to get a second-rounder for him. So maybe it’s not the market.

Free agent goalie Carter Hutton. All indications are that the affable St. Louis Blues goalie is going to land with the Buffalo Sabres, where he’ll mentor Linus Ullmark. The road through NHL unrestricted free agency is littered with the expectations placed on backup goalies when they sign free agent deals to play a bigger role. Is Hutton, 32, going to be Martin Jones or Cam Talbot (year one edition), or is he going to end up being Scott Darling? Some of that depends on what the Sabres do in front of him, and a lot of that depends on the deal Hutton signs.

New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello wasn’t hired to keep John Tavares. Sure, that was an intended effect, but not the prime directive. His task is nothing less than stabilizing the franchise and turning over a roster in stasis. Whether or not Lou is the reason Barry Trotz committed to the Islanders (along with the money and term), he’s there, and it’s a start. But he took over a team with eight forwards, four defenseman and a goalie under contract. There’s a lot more work to be done beyond the wooing of JT.

Free agent left wing James van Riemsdyk. This is a tough spot for JVR. He became too rich for the richest team in the league, which has future salary cap considerations. That’s tough, because he suffered through some rather lean years to finally see the team become a contender, and now he’s been jettisoned (we expect). Usually when that happens, the team gets Adam Larsson in return, but in JVR’s case, he’s unrestricted. Contributing to the tough spot: Left wing is by far the deepest position in the unrestricted free agent and trade market. Choose wisely, sir.

Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray. What a truly bizarre team the Ducks are. They had 101 points, seemed primed to contend, got their lunch handed to them by the Sharks in a first-round sweep, and are now looking at a roster with three prime players pushing 34, signed through 2021 with full trade protection. And one of them, Ryan Kesler, might not play next season. Is the window open or closed? Is the supporting cast good or bad? Can they move a defenseman or not? This is why Murray gets paid the big bucks.

Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton. The newly minted Wild GM was tasked with “tweaking” the roster, but there were rumors that the “tweaks” included having stalwarts Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle on the block. They were a 101-point team, as all Bruce Boudreau teams seemingly are, but the middling results caused a change in management. So it’s on Fenton to improve the Wild in short order.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The commissioner has reportedly offered some advice to his owners ahead of the next lockout in 2020. The New York Post reported that Bettman has “addressed/lectured the Board of Governors on the topic of signing bonuses for the lockout season; as in, stop giving them out.” The last time Bettman discouraged a contractual practice, the teams went ahead and handed out cap-circumventing contracts that had to be retroactively punished in the 2012 CBA. With players like Logan Couture, Drew Doughty and others looking to ink new deals ahead of hitting free agency, let’s see how much sway Bettman had here.

Speaking of Bettman …

Hall of Famer Gary Bettman

The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee hasn’t lacked for baffling decisions in the Builders category, like the interminable waits for Fred Shero, Pat Burns and Willie O’Ree in comparison to the vote-rigged (and subsequently scuttled) election of NHL president Gil Stein. Their selection of Gary Bettman for the Class of 2018 surprised even the commissioner himself, not to mention legions of NHL fans who found the decision to be abhorrent.

There have been two general reactions to the news. One of them is reasonable, and one of them is ignorant of the facts.

Let’s start, as is our wont, with the ignorance. Gary Bettman is a Hall of Famer, full stop. I chronicled his case in my look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Bettman during the 25th anniversary of his commissionership. The Builders are selected for “contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.” With Bettman at the helm, the NHL grew exponentially in size, in scope and in revenue (as his job dictates).

He organized the league meetings into something more professional than a cocktail party on Bill Wirtz’s yacht. He supported the Sun Belt strategy as a means to enrich the league through television contracts, and the ancillary effect from having these “non-traditional market” teams has been new generations of players that came to hockey because they existed (like Auston Matthews). He fought to prop up struggling franchises, including Canadian teams during economic downturns. He was a driving force behind the NHL initially going to the Olympics. He hired transformative executives in John Collins and Brendan Shanahan, and played matchmaker with teams and owners like Jeff Vinik in Tampa.

It’s not all been perfect, obviously. The work stoppages are frustrating, while the cancelled season remains an outright disgrace. His denials regarding the link between CTE and the sport make us all look bad. There have been specious marketing choices, criminal owners and the Olympics were eventually shelved partially so they could become a bargaining chip in CBA talks ahead of what’s probably another lockout.

But saying “replacement level commissioner X would have done better” isn’t a reasonable or factual argument against Bettman, nor is the notion that he’s a figurehead that’s been along for a prosperous ride. He’s a powerful force behind the scenes, for better or worse. His accomplishments mandate that he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Just not now.

Why? Why do this, selection committee? Is it to get ahead of a concussion lawsuit settlement? Is it because his legacy can’t handle two lost seasons if things go sideways in the next CBA war? The first black player in NHL history and one of the best goaltenders in NHL history were selected for immortality, and Bettman’s call sucked all the air out of the Hall announcement this week.

This vote occurred days after an embarrassing moment at the NHL draft, when Bettman appeared on stage to honor the victims of the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash and was met with lusty jeers from fans in attendance in Dallas. This was not done out of disrespect for the departed, but because there is a Pavlovian response from fans to boo Gary Bettman the moment he appears in a public forum — a response, it should be said, he encourages as a showing of enthusiasm. At this point, as an active commissioner, he’s divisive at best and toxic at worst as the public face of the NHL.

There’s a three-year waiting period for players that are selected for the Hall of Fame. I’ve always viewed it as a mandatory cooling-off period to create a little distance between the end of their career and enshrinement. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not saying that three years after Gary Bettman relinquishes the commissionership, the hockey world will all of a sudden start penning valentines to the guy. But at the very least, his selection wouldn’t be made under a cloud of a lawsuit from ex-players, pending labor strife and all the other problems that would no longer be in his purview as a private citizen.

They might not even boo him. Well, OK, they totally will, but maybe for not as long.

Jersey Foul of the Week

This week, we forego the usual Jersey Foul fare to mention a foul jersey, at least in the eyes of Czech National Team fans.

The Czechs changed the logo on their national team jerseys, going from what looked like a family crest to … a lion with a crown that also looks like it might have a puck in its mouth. According to Brian Kenety of Radio Praha, it’s “a stylizsed illustration of a white lion wearing a gold crown, which some detractors say looks cartoonish. Even some players have gone on record as against it: right winger David Pastrnak said he didn’t understand it, and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec called it a disgrace. Supporters argue it looks rather flash, like many NHL team jerseys.”

Honestly? It’s not bad. It’s not as stately as the previous logo, which looked like it belonged on a medieval battle flag, but it’s not bad. Especially when you pretend the mane is actually a Jaromir Jagr mullet.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Martin Brodeur was selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame this week, and joined us on the podcast to talk about his career, his future and that darn trapezoid. Plus, TSN’s John Lu tells out what it’s like to be on stakeout duty during the John Tavares pitches at CAA HQ in Los Angeles. Get it on iTunes here and stream it here.

Puck headlines

Canadian Olympic star Shannon Szabados talks about joining Buffalo of the NWHL and meeting the Pegulas. [Die By The Blade]

Dan Carcillo on whether the NHL should ban fighting: “I don’t really have an opinion on that. I’ll just say this: Boxing, UFC guys, every sport that allows fights requires their fists are wrapped and/or they have gloves on. Hockey is the only sport where you are allowed to punch someone in the face with your bare knuckles. It does a lot of damage, let’s just leave it at that.” [Chicago Mag]

Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith on the racial taunts he receives on the ice. [Detroit News]

Mario Lemieux‘s son is trying to make a name for himself. Good luck with all of that. [Tribune Review]

Larry Brooks is back on the “Rangers need an enforcer” bandwagon, despite some caveats. “The time of brawlers is done forever in the NHL and no one seriously believes a single player can act as an immutable deterrent on the ice. But credible strength is necessary and the amount of comfort Ryan Reaves — or a player with the same characteristics — is likely to be able to provide the young group assembled by management is important.” [NY Post]

Interesting look at the Professional Hockey Writers Association awards voting trends in the first year the ballots were made public. The verdict? Many of the wacky, off-the-board votes trailed off. [Hockey Graphs]

Breaking down the new Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes jerseys. [Hockey By Design]

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Our old pal Scott Burnside was in the Carolina Hurricanes’ strategy meetings for the NHL Draft. [The Athletic, sub. required]

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Which teams would John Tavares help the most? [Insider]

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