By Lori Bennett
Business continues in the NHL as teams work through the free agency window to shape their rosters.
Last weekend the Montreal Canadiens traded defenceman Jeff Petry and centreman Ryan Poehling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenceman Michael Matheson and a fourth round pick. Petry had asked for a trade after his pregnant wife and three sons moved back to the United States seeking family support during the pandemic. In Matheson, the Canadiens get a similar, but younger, player who originates from Montreal and is eager to don the red, white and blue.
After clearing some cap space in the move, the Habs didn’t waste any time signing free agent Rem Pitlick to a two-year deal. Pitlick had been claimed off waivers by the Habs last season from the Minnesota Wild. After a solid performance, the restricted free agent had priced himself out of Montreal and did not receive a qualifying offer. After a few days on the market, he was still available to the Habs once they had cleared cap space. The Habs also inked goaltender Samuel Montembeault to a two-year contract extension.
The Toronto Maple Leafs also made some tweaks to the roster, despite being as cap-strapped as the Habs. They re-signed forward Pierre Engvall and added free agent forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. These moves have helped address forward depth, but they are currently exceeding the salary cap and defenceman Rasmus Sandin remains unsigned and vulnerable to an offer sheet. GM Kyle Dubas should have a word with the Habs about how awkward that can be. Dubas has some additional work to free up space to extend Sandin.
It’s a rough time to be a Calgary Flames fan. Less than a week after losing goal scorer Johnny Gaudreau to the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency, it looks like another fan favourite may be on his way out of town. Matthew Tkachuk, who was drafted by Calgary in 2016, and was an option to fill the vacant captaincy, is a restricted free agent and has not arrived at a new deal with the Flames.
On Monday the Flames filed for salary arbitration to avoid the possibility of an offer sheet from another team. Then on Wednesday reports surfaced that Tkachuk had told Flames management that he does not intend to sign a long-term contract and his plan is to test free agency. GM Brad Treliving, if he has learned anything from the Gaudreau case study, will be working on a trade to recoup some assets for Tkachuk.
This represents a new dynamic in the NHL – one that has been a reality in the NBA for years – where players are taking charge of their futures before they reach free agency. Both Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Winnipeg Jets, and now Tkachuk, have stated their intentions to test free agency when the time comes, even though that time is still two years away. The tactic confirms to the team with the player’s rights that they will eventually leave, so the smart move would be to facilitate a trade rather than lose the player for nothing in free agency.
Teams that may be interested in trading for the player will base their offers on whether they believe they are getting the player for a year or two, or if they can sign him long term. The best package is likely to come from teams who see potential for a long term relationship with the player. In this regard, by announcing his intentions, the player increases control over where they play before they reach free agency.
In Dubois’ case, agent Pat Brisson confirmed to the media that he wants to play in Montreal, which significantly limits options for the Jets to maximize return. So far, we have only heard rumours of preferred destinations for Tkachuk, but that may change as this situation unfolds.
As of press deadline, two of the biggest names in free agency were still on the board. Centre Nazem Kadri and defenceman John Klingberg had not yet made decisions about their future. The thing we have learned from past off-seasons is that this often means the market is not as lucrative as anticipated, as I predict is the case with Klingberg, or the player is contemplating a return to his previous team and is waiting for the money to get sorted, as I expect is true for Kadri.
Blue Jays Babble
The Major League Baseball All-Star Break took place this past week. The Toronto Blue Jays sent five players to the festivities, including pitchers Alek Manoah and Jordan Romano, first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., infielder Santiago Espinal and catcher Alejandro Kirk. Outfielder George Springer was also selected but chose to skip to rest his ailing elbow.
The MLB Draft also took place this week. With their first round pick the Jays selected left-handed pitcher Brandon Barriera. He projects to be a starter for Toronto.
The Blue Jays went into the break with a 50-43 record and in third place in the American League East. They need to have a stronger second half to make up ground and land themselves in the playoff picture. It’s too early for Barriera to help, while the Baby Blue continues to wait on management to bolster their pitching. The Jays were due to get back at it on Friday in a weekend series against the Red Sox in Boston.