TAMPA, Fla. – It’s an annual summit that brings together the best and brightest stars in the NHL to flex their skills, but the All-Star Game that descended on Tampa this weekend also looked like it could have been orientation for the 2019 class of unrestricted free agents.
Ten players eligible to hit the market almost a year and a half from now were featured at the midseason festivities, which culminate Sunday in the three-on-three, division-style tournament at Amalie Arena that has a $1 million prize up for grabs.
And with a handful of those billed as franchise cornerstones, it’s no surprise buzz has already begun to generate for the likes of Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty.
“That hasn’t been an issue for me,” Doughty said. “Obviously, I get asked about it once in a while by the media. But I just answer the question as truthfully as I can. I’m a pretty honest person. Still a little ways away before me and L.A. can start talking again. But obviously don’t plan on going anywhere.”
Regardless of where each ends up, both are in store for a major payday that could very well exceed the $9 million cap hit Predators blue-liner P.K. Subban carries, which is currently the highest among NHL defensemen.
“Obviously, you think of a number, how long you want and all those type of things,” Doughty said. “It’s impossible for it to not go through your mind. But to be honest, I haven’t been dwelling on it or anything. I’ve just been going out there, playing hockey and having fun. When the time comes, I’ll really have to think about it.”
And if either does decide to trigger a bidding war, the process that unfolds is poised to be a memorable one considering how it has been for previous high-profile free agents like the Wild’s Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
“It’s amazing,” Suter said. “It’s a fun experience but a lot going on. July 1 comes, and it’s chaos.”
Suter and Parise were the headliners of the 2012 free-agent class, and they forever embossed July 4 of that year in Wild history by signing identical 13-year, $98 million contracts to come to Minnesota.
In the lead-up to that decision, Suter wanted to keep his options open and explore all possibilities.
“It wasn’t stressful,” he recalled. “I went about my days just like any other summer day. It’s not like the movies where it’s all hyped up. It’s pretty laid-back calls with different teams.”
An impending status change rolled over in Parise’s mind during the 2011-12 season and although he had some talks with then-Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello, both sides agreed to reconvene after the season.
When it came time to make a final call, though, both consulted with family members and agents, and competitiveness and lifestyle were the factors Suter and Parise considered.
“You want to be in the mix,” Parise said. “You want to have a chance.”
Suter didn’t grow up in the area like Bloomington native Parise did, but Suter’s wife, Becky, is from Minnesota and the drive to games from Wisconsin would be much easier than the trek his dad, Bob, would make to Nashville before he died in 2014 — factors that, ultimately, guided the experience to an easy conclusion.
“It wasn’t that hard of a decision to come here,” Suter said.
• The spotlight on goaltender interference only seems to be getting brighter. In the NHL’s final day of action before the All-Star break, the issue sparked controversy after a goal by the Oilers was overturned in overtime against the Flames — this after the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews had a goal taken away Monday (the Wild also had one of its goals wiped away Thursday by a Penguins challenge). Confusion seems to be the consensus, and although the rules are spelled out, the interpretation appears inconsistent — an unfortunate reality.
• Less than a year after surgery to repair torn ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee, Sharks center Joe Thornton recently underwent another procedure to address a right-knee injury, and it’s unclear when he’ll resume playing. This is quite a setback for the Sharks, who are narrowly ahead of the Flames, Kings and Ducks in the Pacific Division. It’s also a tough blow for Thornton, who was in the midst of a bounce-back season.
• The Professional Hockey Writers Association released its midseason awards Friday, and there were few surprises. Nikita Kucherov (Hart Trophy), Andrei Vasilevskiy (Vezina Trophy) and Gerard Gallant (Jack Adams’ Trophy) are clear first-half front-runners, and while it seems impossible anyone is prying the Coach of the Year honors away from Gallant, perhaps Nathan MacKinnon could challenge for the MVP title if the Avalanche advance. And if Vasilevskiy can’t overcome his recent struggles, that would only appear to open the door for another candidate among the goalies.
Wild’s week ahead
Tuesday: 6 p.m. at Columbus
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. Vegas
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Dallas
Tues. and Sat. on FSN, Fri on NBCSN
Player to watch: William Karlsson, Golden Knights
The center is enjoying a breakout season, tying for the second-most goals in the NHL with 27 — this after he buried just six last season and nine in 2015-16, his previous career high.
“It doesn’t feel nice. You always want to go into a break feeling good about yourself. … But at the same time, you need to look at the bigger picture. It’s one loss that we’ve got tO rebound from. Take the chance to recover and restore your juices and be ready for a huge tilt in Columbus.”
Center Eric Staal after the Wild’s 6-3 loss to the Penguins Thursday before the All-Star break.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.