Mailbag: Gritty captains becoming a rare breed

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Nick Foligno is one of the few NHL captains left who brings some sandpaper to the equation.(Jay LaPrete/AP)
Nick Foligno is one of the few NHL captains left who brings some sandpaper to the equation.(Jay LaPrete/AP)

Things are really happening now. The start of training camp seems to have gotten everyone pulling in the right direction. Guys are signing after going all summer without a contract, cuts are being made, a search party has been dispatched for find Ryan Strome after Elias Pettersson deked him into a different dimension, all that good stuff.

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I’m just excited and, judging from the volume of questions this week, a lot of other people are too. These are the best times of the year for a lot of fans, you’d think. Their team and/or individual players haven’t had the chance to really disappoint them.

Let’s get to it:

Matt asks: “Rank the top five grittiest NHL captains.”

Now that it’s Sasha Barkov instead of Derek MacKenzie for Florida, in terms of straight-up grit I don’t think it gets grittier than Nick Foligno.

After that I think you get a pretty good indication of where the league is headed. None of the captains are straight-up grit guys (Foligno included but he’s certainly the closest).

So here’s my list:

Nick Foligno

Andy Greene

Justin Williams

Zdeno Chara

Ryan Getzlaf

The reason I picked this question, though, is to highlight the fact that nine of the league’s 31 teams are, as of this moment, going without captains altogether this season. I thought that was interesting. Probably because it’s not important to have a formalized captain most of the time.

Joe asks: “How about the new Reinhart deal in Buffalo?”

We’re gonna talk more about bridge deals later in the mailbag but I think this is the kind of player for whom a bridge deal makes a lot of sense, especially given Buffalo’s situation.

He’s a 50-point guy which is a good number, but he did a lot of scoring with Ryan O’Reilly (20 of those 50 points came with O’Reilly also getting on the scoresheet) and Eichel (12 of 50). if you really want to see what the guy brings to the table once he’s away from high-end talent, well, now is the time.

Reinhart is a guy who’s probably gonna have to drive the bus on his line now, because while the Sabres have definitely beefed up their forward corps, he’ll probably be the best player in a group with, I dunno, Patrik Berglund and Alex Nylander. In theory you can put him with Casey Mittelstadt instead, but even then you’d prefer Reinhart carry a heavy load so a teenaged rookie doesn’t have to do as much as he comes into the league.

It’s two years at relatively short money to see if he can really play and be his own guy or not. Supporting players are great to have but Reinhart is theoretically supposed to go above and beyond that given his age, past production, and draft position. And if he’s still just a 50-point guy who gets a good chunk of his scoring on the power play with better players, well that informs his next contract quite effectively.

I’m a little skeptical but wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him have a big year, but I think this is just a good gamble by Buffalo.

MDS asks: “What team(s) do you think are pretty much a lock to make the playoffs as of right now, but would also not surprise you at all if they didn’t make the playoffs?”

I’ll give you one from each conference.

Wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Philly misses, that’s for sure. They have a bunch of talent among their outfield players (Andrew MacDonald excluded) but that Brian Elliott/Michal Neuvirth tandem has the potential to sink them. They barely avoided that last year by having Claude Giroux turn in a near-MVP season. Can he do that again? Maybe. But also maybe not.

I think Minnesota is probably the other. No surprise there, right? Perfectly good team but that division is gonna be murder on just about everyone. Bruce Boudreau is a hell of a coach but a lot had to go right for these guys to even get into “get crushed in the first round” position; Dallas, Chicago, and St. Louis all crapped the bed for different reasons and should be better. Well, maybe not Chicago. That entirely depends on Corey Crawford being healthy and, if he is, also still being Corey Crawford.

You could probably talk me into Anaheim or LA in the Pacific as well, but Philly and Minnesota seem like the two big candidates.

David asks: “Why don’t they just have a player’s salary, that year, equal the cap hit? I’ve vaguely heard people say it would be abused, but can it really be any worse than what they do now?”

That probably makes it harder to balance the books from one year to the next, for one thing, but I think the bigger concern is that rich teams would front- or back-load contracts based on their needs.

Let’s take the Leafs, for instance. They’re having trouble signing Willy Nylander right now because he apparently wants a long-term deal, which would be fine this year because Toronto has about $18.6 million in cap room (if they needed to LTIR Nathan Horton, which they currently don’t), but would be a big problem next season because they also have to re-sign Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, among other players who are expected to be quite expensive.

So in theory, they could give Nylander $18 million in actual cash this season, then spread another $18 million over the next five years of a his deal ($3.6 million per, on average). That’s the same as paying the guy a $6-million AAV for six years in terms of actual dollars, but the advantage it gives the Leafs when it comes to re-signing everyone they need is incredible.

Conversely, if the Leafs are facing a cap crunch next year, they can say to Matthews, “If your AAV is $3 million the next three seasons we’ll give you $25 million in 2025 when the cap is way higher and we’ve probably won a few Cups.”

AAV just keeps teams from getting too creative.

Segs asks: “Which team will be most affected by a potential holdout to start the season of the remaining restricted free agents?”

With Reinhart signing in Buffalo yesterday, we’re down to just four: Miles Wood, Willy Nylander, Nick Ritchie, and Shea Theodore.

Haven’t heard much about Wood one way or the other but he and Ritchie can fighting it out at the bottom of my list in terms of impact. They’re both fine but not make-or-break talents.

Nylander is, coming off his second straight 61-point season, but Toronto has so much firepower up front with the addition of John Tavares that it’s maybe not as much as it would be for most teams losing a 60-point guy.

Theodore in Vegas, though? He’s like a 40-point defender on a team that already lost Nate Schmidt for a quarter of the season and thins out pretty fast after you get to No. 3 or 4 on the depth chart. All indications are that he and Vegas remain pretty far apart on a deal, which isn’t great for anyone.

Marc asks: “Does it not make the most sense to bridge guys after their ELC, and then go max?”

No, it does not.

Let’s, again, take a guy like Matthews or Nylander. They score a ton despite being on ELCs. You bridge them for a year or two as they continue to mature and, consequently, score more. Sure you get those savings in years Nos. 3-4 or 4-5 in the league (depending on ELC slide) but by the time that contract is coming to an end, they’re pretty close to their peak value, meaning you’re paying more money for what are likely to be more decline years.

But if you can lock a 21- or 22-year-old into an eight-year deal, versus doing that at 22 or 23, then that just fewer years after their 28th birthdays you have to pay for.

With this idea, though, I’m obviously advocating for trading those kinds of players towards the end of their deals (unless you have a legit shot at winning something), and letting someone else pay them too much from their late 20s into their early 30s.

I understand the impulse to keep guys for the entirety of their 20s but if you think you can sell high at 28, not going with a bridge deal makes a lot of sense.

Atlas asks: “With Ovie getting it done this summer and Iggy sadly retiring, which great-but-ultimately-fruitless players do you think are the favorites for folks (or even just you) to cheer for to get a Cup?”

Joe Thornton. Next question.

Brandon asks: “Which division could put together the best hockey team from all its teams?”

This one gave me more to think about than I expected, so I put together one team from each because I just wanted to weigh the strength of, say, the Atlantic’s forwards against the Pacific’s defenders on paper, y’know?

As usual with these questions I went with just starting lineups (sticking with guys playing their actual positions) because I’m not doing a full 20-guy roster, but here’s what I landed on.

Atlantic:

Brad Marchand – Auston Matthews – Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman – Charlie McAvoy

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Central:

Jamie Benn – Nathan MacKinnon – Patrick Kane

Roman Josi  – PK Subban

Connor Hellebuyck

Metropolitan:

Taylor Hall – Sidney Crosby – Jake Voracek

Seth Jones – Shayne Gostisbehere

Sergei Bobrovsky

Pacific:

Johnny Gaudreau – Connor McDavid – Reilly Smith

Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Erik Karlsson

John Gibson

The reason it gave me more pause than I thought was I would have said the Atlantic, and man that’s a good team, but overall I think you gotta go with the Pacific by a very very slight margin. When you have two of the three or four best players in the world on your team, that’s gotta give you an edge.

I would rank these teams, in order, Pacific, Atlantic, Metro, Central. But it’s not a big margin between 1 and 4 there.

Okay that’s it bye.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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.

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