Off-Season underway, Copp and Strome not looking promising for Rangers, Lightning trade McDonagh to Predators, re-sign Paul, NHL Draft this week, latest free agent news and leaks

The hockey off-season is underway. Even though free agency isn’t official until July 13. That’s still another nine days away.

However, that hasn’t prevented teams from making some moves. The activity hasn’t been too busy. But we’ve already seen a few general managers get going right away. Especially when it comes to making big decisions on key players.

One GM who’s been busy is Julien BriseBois. The Lightning executive didn’t hesitate to re-sign Nick Paul. The two-way forward wanted to stay put in Tampa. They were able to hammer out a seven-year contract worth an average cap hit of $3.15 million that will run through 2029.

The first four years of the contract includes a no-trade clause. Once 2026-27 hits when Paul is 31, it becomes a modified NTC. In retaining the valuable forward who can shift to center and take face-offs while playing penalty kill, the Bolts again showed their fans how committed they are to winning.

Paul was on my radar for potential replacements for unrestricted free agents Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp. Both of who sound unlikely to return to the Rangers. The price might be too rich due to Chris Drury having just over $10 million left in cap space.

It sounds more likely that Strome could circle back to the Rangers if he isn’t signed by a new team. He has stronger ties to the roster due to spending the last few years in the Big Apple. Having partnered with Artemi Panarin, he has been a good fit and a great teammate. A locker room leader as well.

Copp certainly checks off all the boxes. He proved it with his play after being acquired from Winnipeg. He was a terrific fit on the second line where he could also take draws. The good Copp played in every situation including second power play and on the penalty kill where he often teamed up with Barclay Goodrow to form a good shorthanded duo.

There are expected to be many interested teams who could drive up his price. It’s possible he could wind up out of range with a long-term contract between $5.5 to 5.8 million for the versatile forward. There aren’t many players like him. If he does go, he’ll help whatever team he signs with.

Whatever happens, Drury will need to have a second center to play with Panarin and possibly Kaapo Kakko. If you believe Vince Mercogliano, then the two sides were working on a bridge deal that would keep the still unproven 2019 second pick on Broadway.

Although his play picked up during the postseason run to the Conference Finals, Kakko was definitely the third wheel on the effective Kid Line. Filip Chytil had a strong showing as did former top pick Alexis Lafreniere, who turned heads with his work. Lafreniere isn’t going anywhere and neither should Chytil.

There has been speculation that the organization was considering acquiring a center via trade. However, I wouldn’t touch Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s going to earn at least $6.5 million due to a qualifier. Is it really worth exploring when the cost will be high for the 24-year old center? Larry Brooks had a good column on it. I’d pass.

There’s also Nazem Kadri. He was terrific for the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche all season. After missing four games due to an injury suffered on an Evander Kane cheap shot, all he did was score the goal of the Cup by beating both Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev and scoring the overtime winner that nobody saw until the replay in Game Four.

Kadri is going to get paid. We’re talking at least nine million. As much as I’d love to have him here, there isn’t enough room. Not when Drury must also attempt to re-sign checking forward Tyler Motte and perhaps Frank Vatrano if he’s willing to take a discount to stay.

The Rangers will be looking for a new backup goalie with Alex Georgiev either getting moved at the NHL Draft or being non-qualified which would make him unrestricted. They can’t afford to keep Georgiev, who’s at the point in his career where he would like to have a chance of becoming a starter. Best of luck to him.

Would Justin Braun consider returning on a short-term deal to again play that sixth defenseman role that he did a solid job with once free agent bust Patrik Nemeth went into witness protection? Can Drury find a taker for Nemeth ($2.5 million AAV) by attaching a second round pick to free up necessary space?

I wouldn’t mind Ian Cole or a reunion with Brendan Smith. Remember too that the Rangers want to take a closer look at Zac Jones, Nils Lundkvist and Matthew Robertson. That’s if all three stay. But would they chance their third pair on say a Jones-Braden Schneider partnership? Not over a full 82. They’ll need a veteran.

While we wait and see what they decide, trust in Drury who had an excellent first season as Team President and GM. Are they ever gonna announce that GM award? We all know he deserves it. But it will probably go to Joe Sakic for all the slick moves he made that turned the Avalanche into a Stanley Cup champion.

If I remember correctly, that’s supposed to be revealed at the 2022 NHL Draft. So, it’s either Thursday night during what should be an exciting and unpredictable first round in Montreal or on Day Two this Friday when Rounds 2-7 take place at Bell Centre.

When the Canadiens get ready to pick in front of their diehard fans, who will it be? Shane Wright or Juraj Slafkovsky. Would they actually bypass both for top American prospect Logan Cooley? It likely will be a center for the Habs. Conventional wisdom says they go for the French Canadian Wright, who projects to be a good overall center. He could form a nice 1-2 punch with emerging star Nick Suzuki.

At number two are the Devils. The second pick is rumored to be available for the right trade. That would mean acquiring a scoring forward to finally speed up their rebuild. But if they didn’t move it, the scoring wing Slafovsky would make sense. But so could defenseman Simon Nemec. We’ll see what Tom Fitzgerald decides.

As had been discussed, the Lightning freed up cap space yesterday. They traded popular veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh to the Predators for Philippe Myers and Grant Mismash. Myers is a $2.55 million cap hit. About four million less than McDonagh, who agreed to wave his NTC to go to Music City.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Mac Truck. He was a terrific Ranger for our Black and Blueshirts teams that made three appearances in the Conference Finals and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. I don’t think there’s one Ranger fan who doesn’t have the ultimate respect for what McDonagh has accomplished.

It still breaks my heart that those teams couldn’t win the Cup here. They sure were fun to watch. They played with so much grit and determination led by McDonagh, who formed a memorable top pair with Dan Girardi. You had Marc Staal and Anton Stralman together.

There was the gigantic performance by McDonagh against the team that drafted him when the Rangers defeated the Canadiens in six games to advance to their first Cup Finals since 1994. He was gigantic. Ultimately, they lost to the Kings.

What about how battered and bruised the defense was the next year in the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning. McDonagh played on a broken foot. Girardi was broken in half along with Staal and Keith Yandle. As frustrating a loss as that was, it’s more understandable now.

Who knew McDonagh would join the original Rangers South after The Letter? It remains one of the worst trades in franchise history. McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning for Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and a first round pick that became Nils Lundkvist and the forgotten Karl Henriksson. Ugh.

Jeff Gorton really screwed the pooch with that one. Think Glen Sather with Brian Leetch. That bad. The Leetch trade was even worse. What did they have to show for it? Lauri Korpikoski? Until they traded him for Enver Freaking Lisin. They did swap Max Kondratiev for Petr Sykora for ’06. But that was short-lived. Yikes.

At least they conned the Bruins by getting Ryan Lindgren and turning Ryan Spooner into Strome for Rick Nash. They also turned the first round pick they got into K’Andre Miller by swapping with Ottawa in 2018. What a great trade.

When it comes down to it, some deals turnout much better than others. The McDonagh trade was a disaster. He helped the Lightning win back-to-back Cups. They nearly pulled off a three-peat. It isn’t possible without the likable 33-year old who played for Wisconsin. Bolts fans appreciate him just as much as we did.

If there is a difference between the brothers, Dylan Strome is stronger on face-offs. He posted his best season winning 52.3 percent (460-and-419) of draws. He also had 47 takeaways to just 22 giveaways. A positive for the 25-year old who’s due a qualifying offer of $3.6 million.

Here’s a closer look at McDonagh’s NHL career. You can see the splits. It includes both regular season and postseason. Mac has never missed the playoffs making it all 12 seasons he’s played so far. He’ll look to make it a lucky 13 in Nashville.

He’s had an outstanding career. It’s hard to believe it was Glen Sather who brought him over from Montreal in a salary dump of Scott Gomez 13 years ago. That trade included Gomez, Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto to the Canadiens in exchange for McDonagh, Chris Higgins, Doug Janik and Pavel Valentenko on June 30, 2009.

While Gomez did have early success helping the Habs make a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Final in ’09-10, it was McDonagh who became the Rangers’ best defenseman last decade. After spending three years at Wisconsin, he debuted with the Rangers during ’10-11.

He quickly blossomed into one of the league’s best defensemen. When they faced the Habs in 2014, Mac haunted them by scoring two goals and adding eight assists for a series best 10 points in the Conference Finals. His impact was enormous in helping lead the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Kings.

From age 21 to 28, he was the best defenseman the Rangers had since Brian Leetch. His skating combined with physicality and instincts made him a tough defenseman for opponents. He and Girardi were often matched up against some of the game’s best players. Alexander Ovechkin had some battles with both.

Now, he moves onto Nashville. A team that made the playoffs due in large part to Roman Josi, who carried them into the second wildcard after the loss of Vezina finalist Juuse Saros. They were no match for the Avalanche minus their starting netminder getting swept.

The Preds are hoping to re-sign big free agent Filip Forsberg. He is in line for a huge contract after achieving career highs in goals (42), assists (42), points (84) and even strength goals (32). The 27-year old right wing made six million this past season. With over $18 million in cap space, Nashville should be able to keep Forsberg. He could cost between nine to ten million. They can offer him the extra year for more term.

Adding McDonagh to the blue line should improve the team defensively. With Josi as the headliner along with Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro, McDonagh can slide into the second pair to help provide more balance. They also still have Jeremy Lauzon and Mark Borowiecki under contract. Plus the promising Alexandre Carrier.

For those critics who claim the Predators did the Lightning a favor, not exactly. They improved their roster. This isn’t a salary dump of a player who is either washed up or done. They just added a high character veteran leader who’ll make the Preds better. As long as they keep Forsberg, they should be in the playoffs again next year.

In minor news that amounts to nothing, the Rangers re-signed Julien Gauthier for a year at $800,000. He requested a trade. It’s obvious that the former first round pick doesn’t have a future in NYC. He didn’t get into one postseason game after totaling a whopping nine points (3 goals) over 49 contests. Hopefully, he’ll be gone soon. I would take a used pair of skates for him.

Kaapo Kakko is in discussions with the club on a new contract. The two sides are said to be close. As long as it’s not more than two years, fine. The 2019 second pick has 26 goals and 32 assists for 58 points in 157 games. He went 2-3-5 in the playoffs and was scratched by Gerard Gallant in Game Six versus the Lightning.

The 21-year old Kakko expressed his disappointment over not playing in what turned out to be the team’s final game of the season. For good reason. When Dryden Hunt plays over you, it’s mind numbing. We’ll see how much that benching motivates him. He has much to prove.

In terms of other early news this off-season, Brock Boeser was re-signed by the Canucks over the weekend. He stays in Vancouver for three years at an AAV of $6.65 million. The first two years don’t include a NTC. Year three does.

The Canucks must decide what to do with J.T. Miller. Their leading scorer set career bests in goals (32), assists (67) and points (99). At 29, he has one more year left on his contract. With a bargain 5.25 million AAV that expires next summer, they don’t have to trade him. They can wait.

Are the Canucks going to sign Miller to an extension? Is he available? Would the Rangers be interested? They were linked to their former first round pick they foolishly included in the McDonagh trade. There is a need at center. If neither Copp or Strome return, maybe Drury checks on Miller’s availability.

Of course, this is pure speculation. I’d be happy to keep Copp, who’s a little younger. He turns 28 in two days. But if there is a considerable market for the Ann Arbor, Michigan native that could include the hometown Red Wings, who are looking to make a splash under Steve Yzerman, he’s as good as gone.

I wouldn’t mind a reunion with Strome if he circled back for a similar cap hit to what Miller currently makes. The issue according to those close is term. He probably wants more security. He really loved being a Ranger. You could see it in his demeanor and interviews. Don’t rule it out.

If not, a possible option might be trading for his younger brother. Dylan Strome is a restricted free agent with the Blackhawks. Also a former third pick, he’s become a good player in Chicago. Originally selected by the Coyotes number three in 2015, he was dealt to the Hawks with Brendan Perlini for Nick Schmaltz.

A left center instead of a right like Ryan, he completed his fourth season with Chicago. In 69 games, Strome posted a career high 22 goals with 26 helpers for 48 points. Seventeen of the twenty-two goals came at even strength. The breakdown was 32 even strength points and 16 power play points.

His rights could be dealt at the Draft. Rumored suitors include the Blue Jackets, Ducks, Leafs and Senators.

It feels like a long shot. Other teams have better draft capital. But Strome played well with talented wingers. Maybe he could do similar with Artemi Panarin in New York. He’d cost less for now. But a good season would definitely increase his market value.

There isn’t much else Rangers related happening. Who knows. Maybe we’ll have a better idea after this weekend.

The Avalanche are busy celebrating the Stanley Cup. That is when they’re not damaging it. Add Kurtis MacDermid to the list of players who lost control.

Will they break it like the ’94 Rangers did? Most recently, Cup winning coach Jared Bednar and long-time defenseman Erik Johnson brought the Cup to Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center. A nice gesture.

Sharing it with veterans and their families is one of the coolest things ever. Kudos to them on having such a special day for those true heroes who really matter.

Johnson has certainly had fun celebrating with fellow veteran Jack Johnson. Asked if he’s retiring, he told reporters no. He wants to stick around a bit longer. Good. Ditto for Jack Johnson, who comes out looking like gold after how he was treated by our loser fans.

In more news, the Avalanche kept veteran forward Andrew Cogliano. He re-signed for a year, $1.25 million. Good for him. Had he not gotten screwed over, he might still have the longest Iron Man streak. A feat Keith Yandle holds after breaking the record.

Of course, the Avalanche have bigger decisions coming on Darcy Kuemper, Valeri Nichushkin and Kadri. I’m sure they’d love to keep Kadri. But at what cost. Nichushkin should draw a lot of interest. What about Kuemper? Do they keep him? He was the Cup winning goalie. Pavel Francouz is the backup.

With the Draft two days away, there’ll be a lot more rumblings. Stay tuned.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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