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RFAs and busy summer days

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

The NHL off-season wears on, and teams are still tying up some loose ends. This past week, the Montreal Canadiens announced they had signed their one remaining restricted free agent, Jesse Ylonen, to a two-year, two-way contract. General Manager Kent Hughes has had a productive off-season, and Ylonen was the final remaining RFA. Hughes will now turn his attention to refining his forward group, with a focus on finding a trade partner with interest in one of his veteran forwards who are no longer part of the Habs plan going forward. This next step in their rebuild process – finding roster spots for young players who are ready to make the leap by moving on from players no longer in the plan – may be easier said than done considering the current cap situation across the league. The Edmonton Oilers avoided their scheduled arbitration hearing for RFA forward Ryan McLeod when they signed him to a two-year contract this past week. The bigger priority is getting RFA is defenseman Evan Bouchard under contract. He remained unsigned by press deadline. The current cap situation for the Oilers may force GM Ken Holland to sign Bouchard to a bridge contract. After a breakout season last year, Bouchard is worth more on a long-term contract than the Oilers have cap space to pay. On the other hand, he is likely to command more at the end of a bridge contract than he would today, but this is a reality Holland may be forced to accept. The Winnipeg Jets also took care of an RFA, signing Rasmus Kupari to a two-year deal. This was an important signing for the Jets as Kupari was one of the players acquired in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. RFA defensemen Logan Stanley and Declan Chisholm are still in need of contract extensions. The bigger questions in Winnipeg revolve around two important players – Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele – entering the last year of their contracts. It seems unlikely that either will stay long term, and if that is the case GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has no choice but to try and get a return to improve the team. Those deals may still happen before the season opens. The Toronto Maple Leafs have no outstanding RFAs, but fans are still waiting to see how new GM Brad Treliving finalizes this season’s roster. Both Auston Matthews and William Nylander are entering the final year of their contracts, and new deals will need to be worked out or trades negotiated in the coming weeks and months. The Leafs are one of the teams that were confirmed to show interest in star defenseman Erik Karlsson. Finding cap space to add him would almost certainly require dealing Nylander, at a minimum, and then offering a package to compete with what GM Kyle Dubas is prepared to offer to get Karlsson to sign in Pittsburgh. The Ottawa Senators have two outstanding RFAs in Shane Pinto and Egor Sokolov. No doubt Pinto is the greater priority, and it’s likely that GM Pierre Dorion is looking at the contract the Habs signed earlier this summer with Alex Newhook as a comparable. The Calgary Flames are a team in limbo. While they have no RFAs to deal with, they have several veterans who will be unrestricted free agents next summer and have not indicated any interest in long term deals. Rookie GM Craig Conroy will need to confirm their status and decide whether it is time to retool the Flames with the packages these veterans might fetch. Conroy may also be ragging the puck, waiting to see if the team performs better under new coach Ryan Huska, and hoping the veterans will be prepared to commit in this new environment. He’s also hoping his predecessor’s last summer acquisition, Jonathan Huberdeau, will have a bounce back season. The Vancouver Canucks are in a similar situation. They have dealt with their RFAs but still have cap issues and contracts they’d like to move. Names like Tyler Myers and Conor Garland have been rumoured to be available, but so far their summer has been quiet. It’s tough to see direction forming in Vancouver. The clock is ticking on off-season action, and a number of UFAs remain unsigned including significant talents that can genuinely contribute like Matt Dumba, Tomas Tatar and Patrick Kane. There is still some serious business to unfold before the puck drops on another season.

Blue Jays Babble

Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays greeted the Los Angeles Angels for a three-game series. On Friday night, July 28, Kevin Gausman allowed just one run in six innings pitched, the bullpen held, and Whit Merrifield and Danny Jansen homered in a 4-1 win. Genesis Cabrera pitched his first win with the Jays on Saturday, coming in to relieve Alek Manoah after he hit a batter with a wild pitch. On Sunday the Blue Jays were unable to capitalize on a fantastic pitching outing from Jose Berrios to claim the series sweep, losing 3-2. On Sunday the Jays made a significant move ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline, acquiring right-handed pitcher Jordan Hicks from the St. Louis Cardinals for two minor league pitching prospects. Hicks was one of the best relief pitchers available. GM Ross Atkins was always going to add to the bullpen at this deadline, but gears were shifted when Jordan Romano went on the injured list on the weekend. This was a quality acquisition that might have sent a message that management was serious about winning this Fall. While Atkins was doing business, the Baltimore Orioles were in town for a four-game series. This was an important level-setting matchup between division rivals, with the Orioles holding first place in the division and the Jays trying to catch them while also laying claim to a wild card spot. In Game 1 on Monday, July 31, Chris Bassitt allowed four runs in six innings pitched in a 4-2 loss. Shortstop Bo Bichette left the game with an apparent leg injury. On Tuesday, the Jays made another deal ahead of the trade deadline, adding infielder Paul DeJong and from the Cardinals in exchange for a minor league pitcher. The addition allows Bichette to recover from his injury, and then adds another option at second base when Bichette returns. It was the only deal the Jays made on trade deadline day. The Jays approach to the deadline is somewhat confusing. Adding Hicks was a solid move, and DeJong is a stop gap while Bichette is out, and perhaps an upgrade over the options they already had at second base once Bichette returns. But they could really have used a game breaking batter, and Atkins wasn’t able to pull off a deal. Perhaps the Jays batting order isn’t the only bunch lacking in the clutch department. Then on Tuesday evening Hyun-Jin Ryu made his return from Tommy John surgery to start Game 2 against the Orioles. Ryu allowed four runs on nine hits in five innings pitched before the bullpen took over. The relievers got beaten up badly in a 13-3 loss. Yusei Kikuchi had a strong outing on Wednesday, Brandon Belt was solid at the bat, and DeJong played his first with the Jays in a 4-1 victory. The Jays were schedule to close out the series on Thursday before heading to Boston for a weekend series.

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