How 2023’s superstar UFAs could shake up this summer

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Maybe Vasi’s better after all.

1. We’re only a month out from the frenzy of free agency.

And while the immediate concerns of this summer’s UFAs and RFAs will take precedence in most markets, some back-burner contractual situations are worth keeping an eye on.

Particularly up front, with some (super)star forwards that can change a game and, possibly, a franchise.

Remember: these guys will all be eligible to sign extensions (max term: eight years) with their current clubs as early as July 13. And the longer they do not, the more questions will mount.

With respect to the top-four defencemen (Shayne Gostisbehere, MacKenzie Weegar, Matt Dumba, Travis Sanheim, Brian Dumoulin, Artem Zub) and starting goalies (Tristan Jarry, Frederik Andersen, Cam Talbot), the UFA Class of 2023 belongs to the scorers up front.

Nathan MacKinnon leads the group after playing for a $6.3-million AAV for seven seasons. Thievery. In 2019, the Avalanche force suggested he’d “take less again.” Maybe that’s the Sidney Crosby influence talking. But if MacKinnon wishes to eclipse Connor McDavid’s league-high $12.5-million cap hit, he could give it a run.

Beloved in Sunrise, will anyone be shocked if Jonathan Huberdeau follows Aleksander Barkov’s lead last summer and signs up to be a lifelong Panther? His bargaining power is at its peak.

After that, things get interesting fast. Trade possibilities get real.

As rookie Canucks GM Patrik Allvin stares at his Brock Boeser (RFA 2022) conundrum, he must plot a long-term future for 2023 UFAs J.T. Miller and captain Bo Horvat. There simply isn’t enough money to keep everyone happy.

The Chicago Blackhawks are firmly in reset mode, so what does that mean for aging pillars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews? Kane, 33, is still hot off a 92-point showing and will have a weighty say in his own course. But what an incredible addition he would be.

Kane wasn’t thrilled when the club traded away favourite winger Artemi Panarin, and now Chicago is willing to listen to your Alex DeBrincat offers.

“I’ve developed some chemistry with DeBrincat over the years,” Kane told reporters at locker cleanout. “So if he’s here and he’s a big piece, that makes it easier for me too, right? Because I’m playing with him every day and he’s such a good player, and it makes it fun to be out there with him. We’ll see how it shakes out, though.”

A contender like St. Louis must decide if captain Ryan O’Reilly (likely) and sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (less so) will be part of a longer window, while an up-and-comer like Detroit needs to figure out if captain Dylan Larkin and power forward Tyler Bertuzzi are the ones to lead a young core.

The most compelling will-he-or-won’t-he of all, however, is Boston’s David Pastrnak — a 50-goal threat firmly in his prime but belonging to an unsettled franchise that appears to be contemplating a step backward.

Like MacKinnon, Pastrnak has been scoring for cheap. Like Miller, the club can ill-afford to walk such a coveted asset out the door for nothing.

Boston must do its best to lock up Pastrnak this summer, but the player holds all the leverage here.

Extension talks are set to begin next month. How they go could not just indicate the next course for the Bruins but, possibly, alter the power balance in the East.

2. Last time Boston axed a highly respected coach, Claude Julien in February 2017, the Montreal Canadiens fired their own coach, Michel Therrien, and snapped up Julien immediately. This despite being in first place in the Atlantic Division at the time.

Bruce Cassidy got blindsided this week after leading the Bruins to five consecutive playoff berths, a .672 regular-season points percentage, and within one win of the 2019 Stanley Cup.

“I just felt the messaging and the voice that was going to be required — I felt we needed a new direction,” GM Don Sweeney told reporters.

Yet during a 50-minute call with local writers Thursday — a session Cassidy requested and the Bruins facilitated — the fired coach said he was told his job was not in jeopardy at his exit meeting.

On Monday, Sweeney came to his house and let him go.

It begs the question: Did the decision come from above the GM’s head, a GM that could now be considered to be on the hot seat himself?

Cassidy is a beat reporter’s dream, always taking time to thoughtfully answer questions and get specific when many coaches prefer their comments short and vague.

He denied any rift with captain Patrice Bergeron — “I’d like to take him with me…. We have a tremendous relationship” — and defended his rep for being demanding on the inexperienced end of the roster — “I’m very proud of my record with young guys. I think what happens is when you’re a team that’s contending for the Stanley Cup, there’s not much room on the roster.”

Cassidy’s unemployment should last roughly as long as Julien’s did in ’17. He has already talked to multiple teams and wants another job ASAP.

But is there a franchise that would do something as bold as the 2017 Habs did? Fire to make a higher.

Organizations love to talk about a willingness to upgrade at every position. Cassidy would upgrade the coaching position in most markets.

“I had term on my contract, and I wanted to keep coaching the Boston Bruins,” Cassidy said. “I wanna get back to work. Hopefully, it’s a really good fit for both sides.”

3. Put on your surprise face: Bergeron won another Selke Trophy.

The actual eye-opener is the Bruins captain revealing that he underwent surgery on his left elbow to repair a tendon that had been nagging him for the last two years. He should be recovered in 10 weeks. (Imagine how he’d play pain-free.)

Speaking prior to Cassidy’s firing this week, Bergeron said he is in no rush to make a retirement call. 

“I still think I have a lot of time ahead of me to make that decision,” Bergeron said. “I’m going to make sure that I take all the time I need to make the right one.”

Sweeney said he won’t rush his first-ballot Hall of Famer into a choice, but what a pressure point.

“You could look at plans B and C and such, but let’s be honest: You don’t replace that type of player and what he means to our organization. That might take years to replace that player in that sense,” Sweeney said. “He’s given us indications that he’s not going to hold us up in terms of what we may have to do subsequent to making a decision. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s a timetable on it.”

With Bergeron uncommitted, Boston’s centre depth is ravaged. You’re looking at Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, and Tomas Nosek.

Sweeney could swing this thing one of two ways.

Dive into a thin UFA centre market — Nazem Kadri? Vincent Trocheck? Ryan Strome? Claude Giroux, who’s looking better on the wing these days? — and keep Cup-chasing.

Or bite the bullet on a roster reset.

Interestingly, the GM will leave a door open for 36-year-old David Krejci, who put up 46 points in 51 Czech league games this season.

“If he decides he wants to return, then hopefully I get a call and we can have a conversation,” Sweeney said. “But I have not gone down that path for several months.”

Shows how scarce trusted centremen are these days.

4. The Toronto Maple Leafs have long been reluctant, if not resistant, to allowing assistant coaches to speak on the record, relying on a singular voice of the head coach.

So, I found it rare and insightful to sit in on a lengthy presentation now-former goaltending coach Steve Briere gave during the 2018 off-season.

“I’m a short, fat, bald guy from Winnipeg. (I’ve) got a master’s degree, a beautiful wife. I’ve been around the world, all from being a goalie,” Briere said during the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference. “Facing adversity from a young age, that pressure — it’s the greatest gift anybody could’ve ever given me.

“My dream is to be the best goalie coach in the world.”

Briere is a fierce advocate for his pupils, as his defence of Frederik Andersen in the All or Nothing doc attests. And he placed great emphasis on the mental side of the position, believing 90 per cent of elite netminding takes place between the ears.

Here are some of Briere’s beliefs when it comes to coaching goalies:

• The goalie should be first on the ice at practice every day: “I want them to show their teammates without saying a word that they are the leaders of the team.”

• Practice should be purposeful and intense. Hard work releases endorphins in the brain (think: runner’s high), which makes the goalie feel good about himself.

• Communication is key. Consistent, reliable cues should be established between the goalie and the players for how he handles the puck: Rim it! Pass it! Leave it!

• Goals should be short-term and set daily (rebound control, one-on-one contests with a forward). A long-term goal of, say, reaching a .920 save percentage will only pay off at the end of the year. Good-feeling serotonin is created from goal-reaching.

• Spend time working on vision and tracking through eye exercises: “If you can’t see the puck, you can’t stop the puck.”

• Proper diet is integral to peak performance and mood.

• Head coaches should make the goalie feel part of the team, not a side project.

5. Outside of Petr Mrazek, Toronto doesn’t have an NHL-level goaltender under contract for 2022-23, but they continue to stock up on minor-league ones.

And now they’re on the hunt for a fresh goaltending coach (or coaches) to oversee a program that hasn’t graduated an NHL-level goalie that stuck since James Reimer in 2010.

The Marlies signed Luke Cavallin to a two-year AHL deal on the heels of the undrafted 21-year-old posting an OHL-best 36 wins with the Flint Firebirds.

The organization has struggled to draft and develop a legitimate NHL starter and has routinely lost in the post-season to its opponent’s homegrown netminder.

Surely, GM Kyle Dubas is hoping one of Erik Källgren, Joseph Woll, Ian Scott (RFA), Keith Petruzzelli, Dryden McKay, or Cavallin can grow into the real deal.

Lots of darts being chucked at the board here, and plenty of intriguing internal competition in the minor ranks.

6. You better believe Nazem Kadri (thumb) will do everything possible to appear in the Cup Final. Surely the Avalanche are hoping Rangers-Lightning goes seven games.

That would push Game 1 of the championship from Wednesday to next Saturday and give Kadri and Andrew Cogliano three extra days to heal up. (No. 1 goalie Darcy Kuemper assures us he is good to go.)

7. Quote of the Week comes courtesy of Nathan MacKinnon, on deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen, who scored the Western Conference Final–clinching goal:

“I’d trade 10 first-rounders for him right now. We’ll all be gone when those guys come in the league anyway.”

Talk about clutch.

8. In the words of Mike Smith, there’s no participation medal for losing in the conference final.

But there is participation money.

The collective bargaining agreement stipulates that $20 million worth of Player Fund dollars be doled out to players participating in the post-season. (Note: NHLers only receive salary cheques during the regular season.)

It’s up to the NHLPA to divide that $20 million pot how it sees fit. The deeper you go, the bigger the bonus. Here’s the payout breakdown for the 2022 playoffs, with a bump off the top for the Florida Panthers:


9. Truly appreciate this Magic Loogie-level breakdown of the Avalanche’s debate over whether to touch or not touch the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

I also love that Joe Sakic and I are on the same page: Not touching a trophy you rightly earned must be the silliest superstition in sports.

10. A couple of interesting short-term deals for mid-range forwards who were headed toward RFA status.

Denis Gurianov re-upped for one year in Dallas for a cap-friendly $2.9 million that will give him arbitration rights next summer. A 20-goal man in 2019-20, Gurianov’s production is in curious decline (11 goals in 73 games this season), and it will fall upon the winger and the new Stars coach to get better out of him.

Jack Roslovic committed two more seasons to his native Columbus, the first piece of the Pierre-Luc Dubois–Patrik Laine trade to re-sign.

Roslovic set career highs in goals (22) and assists (23), but more impressive was his increased defensive responsibility and ability to cut down his penalties.

Roslovic was a plus-two, the best mark among all regulars on a team with a minus-38 goal differential.

His $4 million AAV came in higher than expected and will walk him right to UFA status at age 27.

But Jarmo Kekalainen is betting that Roslovic, bumped all over lineups so far in his career, will take strides toward becoming a top-two centreman coaches can trust in every situation.

It’s worth noting that Roslovic started more than 66 per cent of his shifts in the O-zone in 2021-22 and is a career 42.4 per cent in the face-off dot.

At this point, Kekalainen is paying for potential.

11. Classy touch having Tanya and Lucie Bossy, the daughter and wife of three-time Lady Byng winner Mike Bossy, present the trophy to this year’s winner, Kyle Connor.

“Obviously Mike’s a very special player. Unfortunate, the way he passed away this past year,” Connor said. “To get a very special award from those two was pretty cool.”

The Jets sniper — a slam-dunk winner with 122 first-place votes to runner-up Jaccob Slavin’s 31 — was genuinely touched by the honour.

The Shelby Township, Mich., native and self-described “Detroit kid watching the Red Wings every single night” cited the influence of Pavel Datsyuk, who captured four consecutive Lady Byng trophies between 2005 and 2009.

“For me, I try to replicate and do everything that he did. I watched a ton of YouTube videos. He was so creative. I just loved that and tried to play as much as Pavel Datsyuk as I could. To see it come full circle and get my name on the same trophy as him is pretty special,” Connor said.

Awesome moment for an individual trophy that, at times, can be held in lesser regard than some of the others.

Connor fondly recalled going head-to-head against his idol just once, at the 2016 IIHF World Championships, when Team USA dipped into the NCAA ranks.

“A dream come true,” Connor said.

Connor is still grateful to coach Todd Woodcroft for securing him an autographed Datsyuk stick after facing Russia.

12. When the rest of the NHL awards are handed out June 21 (in a ceremony hosted by Mighty Duck Kenan Thomson — yes!), I’m not convinced Cale Makar will win the Norris. Roman Josi’s outscoring Makar 96-86 this season will sway many a voter’s mind.

But I am 100 per cent convinced Makar is the best defenceman in hockey.