Expansion draft, stagnant salary cap could produce free-agent fireworks this summer

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

For my money, the coming offseason will be the busiest in the 100-year history of the NHL.

The combination of an expansion draft and a relatively stagnant salary cap are going to produce fireworks, mostly in June, as teams jockey for free agents and make key roster decisions.

During his season-ending news conference on Tuesday, I asked Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello about the trade market for defensemen, because his team will be among the many looking for top-four help this summer. The veteran executive made a point in his response to underline how much of a wild card the expansion draft will be, that perhaps there are players people aren't even thinking about now who might end up being available to other teams because of it.

So much of it comes back to what decisions theAnaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wildmake leading up to the expansion draft. The Ducks and Wild can't protect all of their depth on defense, but there's no way they're just going to let the new Vegas Knights take a good blueliner for free in the expansion draft, either. I think they will either made a side deal with Vegas or simply trade whichever defenseman they can't protect in the draft to another NHL team.

That's where I think teams -- such as Toronto, the Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning, just to name a few -- will want to at least investigate their options.

But I will also say this about the Leafs: I don't believe management is insisting that they get a top-four defenseman this summer at any cost. If someone they like is available for the right price, of course they want to upgrade the blue line. But the long-term plan and vision for the team still trumps all. Toronto's surprisingly successful season won't accelerate the plan. The Leafs brass won't do anything that jeopardizes that plan. They won't force the issue.

Never say never, but I think that means you can forget them accepting an offer from a team for William Nylander, for example, in that context. He's a big part of their future.

Another interesting team to watch this offseason is the San Jose Sharks. Both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will be unrestricted free agents on July 1. Both would prefer to stay put in San Jose. But the term of any potential deal will be key in those discussions.

As I reported earlier this season, Thornton's camp months ago expressed a desire for a three-year deal. Jumbo Joe -- who played with a torn MCL and torn ACL during the first round of the playoffs, and underwent surgery on Monday -- has certainly has poured his heart and soul into the Sharks franchise. And there's no question ownership and management value everything he's done for them.

But, at the end of the day, I just don't see the Sharks being willing to go past one year in term for a player who will turn 38 on July 2. The 35-and-over rule and its cap implications are probably too tough to ignore for San Jose, a team that has always been careful about how it has managed its contracts.

The same goes for Marleau. The Sharks would probably have interest in keeping him, but I doubt they would offer him more than a one-year deal, as he turns 38 in September.

Thornton was keen to see teammateBrent Burns signed long-term, and the Sharks inked him to a $64 million, eight-year contract extension in November. But, as he contemplates his own future, I believe Thornton would also like to see Marleau kept on.

In the meantime, can Thornton live with a one-year deal? Or will he actually talk to other teams in late June, when the free-agent window opens to hear from clubs? I don't know the answer to that.

But what's interesting is that, for reasons of roster flexibility alone ahead of the expansion draft, there's no way the Sharks would want to re-sign either Thornton or Marleau until after Vegas announces its roster. (Pending UFAs don't need to be protected by teams ahead of the expansion draft.)

All of which will make things rather interesting, at least in terms of timing, on all those fronts.

The two biggest contract negotiations of the offseason for San Jose, however, will be with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones. They're both one year away from UFA status. I expect the Sharks to try to extend both of them this offseason to long-term deals or at least begin the conversation to that end. Those are two core players in their prime whom the Sharks must lock up.