The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs have come to a close with the Tampa Bay Lighting ousting the Dallas Stars in six games, and taking this season’s running of the ‘last man standing’ award. Although celebrating the conclusion of the longest-ever season of hockey in front of just a few family members and team staff, the hub city bubble of Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB. seemed eerily quiet during the Cup presentation and ensuing parties.
With this year’s Conn Smythe Trophy race being one of the tightest in history, it begs the avid speculator and even your every-day, average Joe to ponder life with four potential Conn Smythe recipients in the same lineup.
Voted upon by 18 members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, full transparency of the ballots cast paint the narrowest margin of victory for Hedman over teammate Brayden Point. Also in the running was Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Hedman received nine first-place votes as compared to Point’s eight, swinging the pendulum his direction, by way of four points.
Victor Hedman 70 points (9-8-1)
Brayden Point 66 points (8-8-2)
Nikita Kucherov 25 points (1-2-14)
Andrei Vasilevskiy 1 point (0-0-1)
Voting was scored in a 5-3-1 points format and ballots were due with 10 minutes remaining in Game 6.
Now, back to the thought of having four players capable of winning the Conn Smythe on an active roster – quite the accomplishment considering team captain Steven Stamkos sat out all but 2:47 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while his teammates picked up the slack and drove the bus all the way to glory, in time for the 30-year-old to appear from the tunnel and accept the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
All things considered, the Lightning drafted players exceptionally well, made some gambles at the deadline, while putting all their collective eggs in one basket for the opportunity to do what they did into the early morning hours of Tuesday.
With former GM Steve Yzerman putting many of the pieces into play prior to his departure to Detroit, and Julien Brisebois taking over and finishing what Stevie Y began, the management team could settle with nothing short of the Stanley Cup following the club’s four-game, opening-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.
Adding Patrick Maroon in the offseason provided the squad with a player gifted with the rare combination of offensive skill and physical grit, while also filling a void in the team’s leadership group. Maroon was the only player on the Bolts to have his name etched on Lord Stanley’s mug prior to Monday night.
An offensive design shaped similar to that of the Winnipeg Jets, sees Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million AAV) fill a role similar to that of Patrik Laine ($6.75 million AAV), while captains Blake Wheeler ($8.25 million AAV) and Steven Stamkos ($8.5 million AAV) round out the other highest-paid offenders. Kyle Connor ($7.14 million AAV) and Brayden Point ($6.75 million AAV) serve as the offence drivers, while Mark Schiefele ($6.13 million AAV) and Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million AAV) are the “I can’t believe their contracts are that team-friendly” members of the respective forward squads.
Goaltending is very similar to the extent that both Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy have squared off in the Vezina Trophy runnings, with the latter taking home the prize in 2018 and 19, before the former earned his first major award following this season of work. Contractually, Hellebuyck comes in at a steal ($6.17 million AAV), as compared to Vasilevskiy’s $9.5 million annual average value. But he didn’t lead the league in wins for three-straight seasons for nothing.
Despite the similarities between the team’s top-four forwards and starting netminders, the comparisons come to a dead stop thereafter. On defence, the Bolts have a Norris winner in Victor Hedman, a young stud in Mikhail Sergachev, a former captain in Ryan McDonagh and a number of repurposed veteran castaways in Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk pulling their weight.
Winnipeg, on the other hand, has a promising new defensive lead in Neal Pionk, alongside up-and-coming top-pair stalwart Josh Morrissey. Behind those two, the picture is as clear as mud. Tucker Poolman is under contract for one more season, but all of Dylan DeMelo, Nathan Bealieu, Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Niku have seen their respective contracts expire.
What is missing? Well, a top-pair, minute-crunching, power play-quarterbacking, penalty-killing leader, of course. No, there really isn’t much chance the Jets land top free agent defenceman Alex Pietrangelo this October, but it’s always worth a try. Other available blueliners include Tyson Barrie, Torey Krug, TJ Brodie, Chris Tanev, Justin Schultz, and Travis Hamonic – any of which would serve as a huge improvement on the back-end, for a squad absolutely torn apart by injuries in 2019-20.
With the Jets needing to sign a good number of defencemen, as well as some offensive talent, the free agent pool is shockingly rather large this offseason. Despite the vast uncertainty surrounding the dormant cap (COVID-19 concerns) and with players potentially expected to settle for less than past years have indicated, a few hot names to keep in mind on the offence include: Tyler Toffoli, Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman, Vladislav Namestnikov, Mikael Granlund and Conor Sheary.
Despite seeing captain Blake Wheeler, centreman Adam Lowry and defenceman Nate Beaulieu throw down upon occasion last season, the Jets are also in some serious need of toughness inserted into the lineup, following the losses of Dustin Byfuglien, Brandon Tanev and Brendan Lemieux. Players such as Wayne Simmonds, Patty Maroon, Kyle Clifford, Mark Borowiecki and Radko Gudas may be potential fits.
Taking a gamble with money is never easy, especially when playing out of a less-than-desirable landing market, but with Arizona shifting over to the Central Division in 2021-22 and the thought of an easier travel schedule in the future, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff very well may have some extra leash available at his hands.
But with the Stanley Cup window fast closing on the prime years of Wheeler’s reign, the time is now for Chevy and Co. to strike gold on a massive free agent signing. With the 2020 NHL Entry Draft occurring on October 6 and 7, the free agent signing period begins the following weekend. Following the Tampa Bay model, a number of solid defencemen and some grit will be required.
Last trade deadline Bolts GM Julien Brisebois assessed a need and jumped on it, giving away a first round pick and youngster Nolan Foote to New Jersey for Blake Coleman – something Cheveldayoff has actually now done twice (Paul Stastny in 2018 and Kevin Hayes in 2019). However, for Chevy, it didn’t work out in his favour. It actually backfired big-time, considering the lack of up-and-coming prospects currently within the Jets’ system.
Already missing out on Brandon’s Joel Edmundson, as Montreal jumped the gun and traded a measly fifth-round pick for the 27-year-old’s negotiating rights prior to signing the blueliner to a solid deal, the Jets need to come to a decision and act on it, and fast. Because in this situation, as the old saying goes, the early bird very likely will get the worm.