The conference finals have, to this point, been very good. Entertaining hockey pretty much all the way around unless you count Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which was not very fun at all.
As you might imagine, the ultra-concentration on just one game per night leads people to ask increasingly specific questions about these remaining series, which I like because it’s nice to be able to really dig into this stuff and the meaning that springs from every win and loss, hero and goat.
Let’s just get right to it:
William asks: “Had Marchessault waited until the offseason to sign a new contract with Vegas, how much more could it have been for versus the six-year, $5 million per he ended up signing?”
I think this is an interesting question mainly because Marchessault is really just carrying on the high-quality play Vegas got from him all year.
The Golden Knights obviously have all the cap room in the world because they’re like $6 million below the ceiling for the season but that’s before all the guys they could LTIR and get cap relief for if they started going over the limit somehow. That’s why they were in the conversation for Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson at the deadline.
That said, Marchessault probably could have cashed in an extra mil or two, for sure, but six years sounds about right on the term. Moreover, when he signed that deal, he became the highest-paid non-LTIR skater on the team, tied with Reilly Smith. At that point he couldn’t reasonably demand more than what Smith was getting. After all, okay he had a great year with Smith and Bill Karlsson, but this is a guy who wasn’t even an NHL regular until he was 26 and, to the earlier point, he’s 5-foot-9, so you can see where teams, even his own, might be a little skeptical that he’d be worth the $30 million. (I think the skeptics would have been proven very, very wrong, but that’s beside the point.)
Marc-Andre Fleury makes $5.75 million against the cap, and the since-traded-for Tomas Tatar inexplicably pulls $5.3 million AAV. Smith and Marchessault settling in a shade below Tatar mostly makes sense.
Plus, you have to keep in mind that Nevada has no income tax, so that $5 million is actually worth more to him there than it would be elsewhere (he was, of course, a pending UFA). To put another way, one imagines Marchessault isn’t really going to miss the money he probably left on the table.
Michael asks: “This being a copycat league, do you see anything from the final four that could be a new trend developing?”
Let’s think about some of the best players on these teams. With the exception of Washington, there are a number of undersized star players on these teams. Jonathan Marchessault is probably the playoff MVP right now and he’s listed (perhaps a bit generously) at 5-foot-9. So is Yanni Gourde. Tyler Johnson is an inch shorter than that. Mathieu Perreault and Brayden Point are both 5-foot-10.
Obviously very few players are Patrik Laine where they’re giants who can skate like the wind, but I think we’re getting to an inflection point where there are just too many good teams powered by guys who are under 6 feet tall that you have to say teams will smarten up and realize that, in the modern game, you don’t need to be 6-foot-2 to be an impact player. It helps, obviously, if you can be effective at 6-foot-6 like Victor Hedman, or even 6-foot-3 like Mikhail Sergachev.
But I think (hope) we’re close to being past the point of “short guys have to prove they can play and tall guys have to prove they can’t.” Hopefully some day soon it’ll just be “guys have to prove they can play.” Because if things keep going like they have here, Marchessault being the Conn Smythe winner would mark the fourth time in six years a guy under 6 feet tall took the postseason MVP award home.
Mitch asks: “So was the Matt Niskanen Free Agency signing actually a good idea?”
Since he signed, he has arguably been the best defenseman on their team, John Carlson’s phenomenal contract year notwithstanding. He costs just $5.75 million against the cap, which is a bargain for a defender like Niskanen.
He’s having a great playoff (even if he isn’t scoring a ton; check the underlyings) and even if his regular season wasn’t great this year you have to look at how he was used to make things easier on other defensemen.
Since we’re all pretending like this is the best Caps team of the modern era, if the Caps don’t have Niskanen, I don’t think they get anywhere near this far in these playoffs.
The issue, obviously, is that he’s signed for four years after this one and that’s a long time given that he’ll be 32 in about six and a half months. If the Caps don’t win a Cup this season, what are their chances for doing it next year? Probably not great. And if they don’t do it then, they’re really not likely to improve in the remaining period of the Niskanen deal. At which point, they’ve gotten worse, he’s aged into his mid-30s, and people probably view the contract negatively.
But the Niskanen trophy case in terms of “engendering team success” is pretty good: Two Presidents’ Trophies and an Eastern Conference Final appearance at the very least. Seems pretty good.
Brandon asks: “Where does Steven Stamkos rank among the NHL’s elite?”
Obviously he ranks pretty high as a center, but he only played in 17 games last season while Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews really seemed to shake everything up in that time.
I wouldn’t say he’s top-5 at his position anymore. We’re three years removed from the 400-game stretch when he scored 250-something goals from age 19 to 24. Since then, he “only” has 72 in 172. That puts him tied for 49th in the NHL over the last three seasons and 13th in goals per game. But a big chunk of the guys in front of him (Malkin, Matthews, Crosby, McDavid, Seguin) score more goals per game and John Tavares, with less help, is 1/100th of a goal behind that pace. Plus Mark Scheifele seems to be emerging, and don’t forget about Sasha Barkov.
Stamkos is absolutely a top-10 center in the league, but I couldn’t in good conscience put him in the top five.
Just ballparking it, and without really digging into the numbers, I’d probably go something like McDavid, Crosby, Malkin, Matthews, MacKinnon, Tavares, Bergeron, Scheifele, Stamkos, Giroux for my top 10 right now? Something like that for sure.
Robbie asks: “The Jets look really good and are young. How long is their window going to be open, and are they just getting started?”
I guess I’m a little worried about their long-term prospects to some extent because a few of their really good players are 30-plus — Dustin Byfuglien is 33, same for Toby Enstrom, Blake Wheeler is 31 and Mathieu Perreault is 30.
These are players that, while not taking up a huge percentage of the roster, are also difficult to replace, and that’s especially true of Byfuglien. Who knows, though? The Jets have cap space to throw around once those guys slow down or have their contracts expire (Byfuglien and Perreault three more years, Wheeler just one.) Enstrom’s a UFA this summer.
But also: They have so many guys on RFA and entry-level deals that a bunch of that cap space is gonna go up in smoke in a hurry. This summer they need to re-sign Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Josh Morrissey. Next summer it’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Gets expensive in a hurry, doesn’t it?
So those are two factors that could hold them back from being mega-competitive in the long term. But if they maybe don’t return to the Conference Finals for a while longer, it won’t be because they don’t have enough talent. That’s what makes Kevin Cheveldayoff’s job so interesting for the next two years.
Anderson asks: “If the Caps blow this, is it still a successful season?”
Depends who you ask. I’d say yeah but you know how these freaks out here can be.
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All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise. Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.