For NHL teams, it’s that time of the year.
The St. Louis Blues have claimed their first Stanley Cup, officially ending the 2018-19 season and unofficially kicking off the silly season of trade speculation, draft gossip and free agent scuttlebutt. Hockey fans love it. Social media thrives on it.
The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t immune, of course. With the 2019 NHL Draft just days away, the Canes already are immersed in some of the trade talk, some of it self-induced.
The Canes, after picking second in the 2018 draft and taking forward Andrei Svechnikov, have the 28th pick in the first round this year, which isn’t a problem given it’s an indication of how a team finished in the league’s pecking order -- in Carolina’s case, in the final four after reaching the Eastern Conference finals in the playoffs.
The Canes will go into the draft, which begins Friday in Vancouver, with three of the top 37 selections and 10 picks in all. Three are in the second round, the Canes adding one pick in the August 2018 trade that sent forward Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres and another in the April 30 trade that sent defensive prospect Adam Fox to the New York Rangers.
“Last year we knew 100 percent what player we would take in the first round,” general manager Don Waddell said. “This year is different. We’re looking at all our options. There are good players on the (draft) board. But we still want to make our team better and if there’s a deal that can make us better there may no reason not to trade some of our picks.”
Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour has said he’d like to keep his team as intact as possible from last season, possibly with a tweak here and there. “We don’t want to lose guys,” he said.
But with the uncertainly about team captain Justin Williams -- will he retire, will he return? -- and forward Micheal Ferland likely to leave in free agency and the contract negotiations with goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney ongoing, some changes soon could be in the works.
Mrazek and McElhinney are due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 if not re-signed. Waddell continues to say he’d like to have both back but that’s becoming more problematic with the start of NHL free agency fast approaching and neither signed.
The Canes pulled off the biggest, splashiest trade during the 2018 draft in Dallas, obtaining Ferland and defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames for forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin. The Canes also received Fox, a college star at Harvard, as part of the deal.
And this year’s priority? “We need a top-nine forward who can score,” Waddell said.
Could that be someone like, say, Nickolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets? TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported Tuesday that the Jets are believed to have offered Elhers to the Canes for a right-handed shooting defenseman.
Ehlers, 23, has had 20 or more goals three times in four NHL seasons and was the ninth overall pick by the Jets in the 2014 draft. The winger has six years left on his contract paying $6 million a season.
The Jets already have made a major move, trading defenseman Jacob Trouba, another former first-round pick, on Monday to the Rangers. The Jets in return received defenseman Neal Pionk and the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th) this year.
The Rangers, coming off a disappointing season, now have added Trouba and Fox, who could be in their lineup next season. Another Metropolitan Division team, the New Jersey Devils, won the 2019 draft lottery and appear set to make American forward Jack Hughes the No. 1 pick.
Look for speculation to intensify as NHL folks first gather in Las Vegas for the NHL Awards on Wednesday. Waddell is a finalist for the General Manager of the Year award, and Williams a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
Everyone then heads to Vancouver, where many player agents will be waiting to speak to many general managers. That will include Sebastian Aho’s agent, Gerry Johansson, as the Canes and Aho try to hammer out a long-term contract that both sides want, but at what price?
Waddell has said he would prefer an agreement “sooner rather than later” and not let negotiations drag into August and September.