July 12 — Free Agents & Runners-Up

WE CAN’T WAIT FOR: NHL Expansion Draft: July 21 — NHL Entry Draft: July 23 & 24 — NHL Free Agency: July 28

Days until start of 2021-22 NHL Season: 92 days

Editor’s Note: Like any offseason recovery, the Morning Skate will be taking some time off this summer. Have no fear, we will still be providing content weekly — however, we will be scaling back to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for now.

Friday’s Forecheck

CAPITAL PROBLEM?: Washington forward T.J. Oshie has had no discussions with his current team around the expansion draft — though he did have some kind words for Seattle coach Dave Hakstol, who coached him in college.

REST IN PEACE: Former NHL defenseman Bryan “Bugsy” Watson died on Thursday at the age of 78 after a bout with pneumonia. Watson wore many hats over the years: He was the all-time penalty minutes leader when he retired from the league (he currently ranks 42nd), he briefly coached Wayne Gretzky, and owned a very popular restaurant in Alexandria, VA. Here’s to a life well lived.

HOME, SWEET HOME (KINDA): The Kraken are set to play three exhibition games around the state of Washington beginning on September 26 — with matchups against the Canucks in Spokane, the Oilers in Everett (Go AquaSox!), and the Flames in Kent.

Saturday’s Snipes

BEST BUDS: Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy joined teammate Nikita Kucherov with a Bud Light sponsorship, which we’re sure is absolutely, positively, not related to the latter’s beer-laden post-championship press conference. Cheers! (Literally!)

WANNA FIGHT?: An interesting hat trick of personalities took in UFC 264 together, as Toronto teammates Auston Matthews and Joe Thornton were accompanied by entertainer Justin Bieber during Saturday night’s festivities. Think they sang karaoke after?

Sunday’s Cellys

JAGR BOMBS: Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Penguins/Capitals deal that sent Jaromir Jagr to Washington, and while the deal is decades old, it clearly still resonates with some across the league.

SLAM DUNCAN: The Oilers and Blackhawks continue to reportedly discuss a deal involving defenseman Duncan Keith, though if speculation around Chicago’s asking price is correct, this one may be a tough deal to close.

Top-5 Names to Watch this Summer

A late finish to the 2020-21 NHL season means that fans don’t have much down time now that the Tampa Bay Lightning have been awarded their second straight Stanley Cup. It will be two weeks to the day from the Bolts closing out the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 to when the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft kicks off what promises to be a busy offseason. Two days following that, the 2021 NHL Entry Draft will usher in a new crop of hockey talent. And then, five days after that, free agency is set to open for those hoping to land Alex Ovechkin (don’t bet on it).

With all this stuff to gear up for, and not a ton of time to do it, it’s worth examining some big names who could prove to be difference-makers this summer.

Jack Eichel

While Eichel won’t be the only player to get traded this summer, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be the only 24-year-old franchise center on the move. In a league where superstar players rarely change teams, the Eichel saga in Buffalo is incredibly compelling and already generating plenty of buzz. What’s more, the biggest story line of the offseason may still be drawn out for some time.

The particulars surrounding Eichel aren’t simple. Sure, his relationship with the Sabres is reportedly icy and there will be no shortage of suitors lined up to acquire his services — but any potential trade is complicated by his whopping $10 million cap hit for each of the next five years and the lingering neck issues that have caused a rift with his current club.

Ron Francis

Name a big upcoming date on the NHL calendar and chances are, Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis is right in the thick of it. Expansion Draft? He’s the man pulling all the strings, brokering deals, and forcing rival GM’s to build their offseason plan around who he might nab. Entry Draft? He’s got the No. 2 pick and isn’t tipping his hand regarding where he might be leaning.

It isn’t an overstatement to say that in the next two weeks, Francis might just be the most important person in all of hockey.

Dougie Hamilton

Ahead of the July 28 opening of free agency, Ovechkin looms as the biggest name set to hit the market. But wild as it may seem to envision Ovie donning another jersey, it ain’t happening — at least not until he decides to return to Russia and join the KHL, anyway. That leaves Hamilton as the top free agent with a real shot at switching teams this summer.

Hamilton is widely expected to test the market, and it’s entirely possible that the going rate for the offensive-minded 28-year-old blueliner will be richer than the Carolina Hurricanes are prepared to spend to retain him. While just about every team needs defensive help, only a handful of teams can afford the Toronto native. We should see in the coming weeks how teams might reorganize in order to make a run at this top pairing d-man.

Vladimir Tarasenko

How much of a market is there for a sniper with all of seven goals and 34 games played over the past two seasons? If you’re going by existent trade buzz, then there should be plenty of suitors for disgruntled St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko. The 29-year-old Russian is three years removed from his last full season — one that coincided with the Blues winning the Cup — and six years removed from his 40-goal campaign, but Tarasenko hasn’t hit 30 yet and could still have something left.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What remains to be seen is how many teams come knocking on the door of Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong. Tarasenko should still draw some interest for how dominant an offensive force he’s been in the past. He fits nicely among a group of trade candidates that, while a step below the profile of Eichel, also could include impact players like Seth Jones and perhaps even Johnny Gaudreau.

Owen Power

Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams is playing it pretty cool right now — but surely he must be freaking out, given that presumptive No. 1 draft pick Owen Power continues to openly consider returning to school for the upcoming season. Ahead of the July 23 draft, Power stands to shake up the entire top of the board as he mulls whether to declare for the NHL and, in all likelihood, join Buffalo.

As if Adams didn’t already have enough to worry about!

After a season that was like no other, we already have a late-starting offseason in which the Kraken will have their pick of unprotected players from all teams except the Vegas Golden Knights, a draft in which the likely No. 1 pick could return to school, and a number of big names eyeing a change of scenery. Whew!

What Went Wrong

Here we are one last time. We’ve crowned a Stanley Cup champion for the 2020-21 NHL season, but that wouldn’t have been possible without also having a runner-up. In lieu of any participation parades, let’s send off the 2020-21 season with one final What Went Wrong.

Montreal Canadiens

You might think that nothing but a championship would appease a franchise that has set the NHL standard with 24 Stanley Cups, but there’s simply no way to look at the 2020-21 season as anything but a smashing success for the Canadiens.

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. The Habs backpedaled into the postseason with the fewest points of any playoff-bound team and quickly found themselves in a 3-1 series hole against rival Toronto Maple Leafs. From there, they reeled off three straight wins for an incredible comeback, swept the Winnipeg Jets, then shocked the powerhouse Vegas Golden Knights to reach the Final.

That resiliency revealed a lot more about the state of the franchise than its 24-21-11 regular season record did.

Offseason additions Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson made GM Marc Bergevin look prescient, Carey Price found his peak form when it mattered most, and the club got an early preview of their very bright future in Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi providing plenty of fireworks. That they were ultimately waylaid by a loaded Tampa Bay Lightning squad shouldn’t diminish their achievement.

So, now what? Bergevin will have to get right back to work, with Montreal having only seven forwards under contract for next season (eight if you count Jonathan Drouin). The club has approximated $15 million to solidify their forward corps — including a new deal for restricted free agent Kotkaniemi and trying to retain shutdown center Philip Danault, who will be unrestricted.

We don’t know what the Canadiens will look like come training camp — but suffice to say that the rest of the league has learned its lesson and won’t be too quick to judge the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge again.

Morning Skate Playoff Challenge

Final Standings:
1) Pat Brown — 10-5
2) Kyle Knopp — 8-7
3) Ben Fisher — 7-8
4) Kristy Flannery — 5-10