NHL training camps are in full swing, aside from the World Cup participants that are slowly meandering back into camp with their full-time clubs. The preseason games have begun and season preparations are fully underway.
Aside from the natural things that grab attention during training camps -- roster spot battles, veterans on PTOs, rookies to watch and so on -- this preseason has quite a bit of off-ice drama to follow as well.
Among the many items hanging over training camps, still-unsigned restricted free agents, a notable trade demand and World Cup-related injuries are right at the forefront of the preseason storylines.
1. Several unsigned RFAs could come down to the wire
I can't remember an offseason where there were this many restricted free agents without contracts heading into training camp. Almost all of them are higher-profile players on their respective teams as well.
There is none more high-profile than Johnny Gaudreau, who is reportedly seeking a major extension with the Calgary Flames. As a first-time RFA, he has limited leverage, but he is also not a player the Flames can afford to be without. He finished sixth in the league with 78 points last season and just keeps getting better and better. The Flames are better off paying a premium for his services now than fracturing the relationship and losing him before he leaves his prime years.
Nikita Kucherov is another big-time RFA that needs a new deal. The Tampa Bay Lightning want to get something done quickly, too. The problem is that they've had to commit a lot of money to multiple players in the long term. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn all signed long-term extensions. A 30-goal scorer last year, Kucherov should expect a big contract but the Bolts have just over $5.5 million in cap space remaining. It's a tough one to get done and it may require the team moving some money out at some point.
Other high-profile RFAs that remain unsigned include Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets (more on him below), Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, Tobias Rieder of the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks' Swedish duo Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.
All of these players are doing what they can to maximize their earnings, but this now becomes a game of chicken. The teams know they need these players, the players obviously would prefer not to miss any portion of the season, but this is going to become more common as young players make bigger impacts league-wide.
With the way the league has set up unrestricted free agent eligibility, a player is often going to play their most productive seasons while under restricted free agency eligibility. To see more RFAs fight back a bit and make greater demands for what could be the best seasons of their career could be a more common occurrence. Many of these negotiations could have a long-term impact on restricted free agency going forward.
2. Jacob Trouba's trade request provides a surprising preseason twist
After apparently initially requesting a trade from the Jets in May, restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba's agent took the request public over the weekend. It puts pressure on the Jets and alerts all of the other teams that Trouba wants out.
According to the player and his agent, Trouba's main desire is to be a top-four defenseman while playing his natural position on the right side. He has Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers ahead of him on the depth chart on the right side in Winnipeg.
According to a report from Gary Lawless of TSN, the Jets are seeking a comparable left-shot defenseman in a trade for Trouba.
lots of teams have spoken with #nhljets about a trade for Jacob Trouba. Ask is very clear - left hand D of same calibre and age— gary lawless (@garylawless) September 25, 2016
It's a big ask and a big reason why the Jets are going to have a hard time getting a deal done. That might be the idea, though.
Winnipeg has said that they still view Trouba as part of their long-term plans. The former No. 7 pick has been a solid performer over the last three seasons, despite sub-optimal usage. At 22, he is only going to get better.
There are so many teams out there that could use a player like Trouba that Winnipeg has no choice but to see what's out there. But they can slow play this in the hopes that Trouba relents, re-signs and gets back in the lineup.
This has all the makings of a dragged-out process, but NHL executives will all be watching very closely. Also, keep the date Dec. 1 in mind. If the Jets can't get Trouba re-signed or traded before then, he would not be eligible to play at all during the 2016-17 campaign. Surely, no one is hoping it gets to that point.
3. World Cup-related injuries piling up
It should not come as a surprise that hockey players get hurt playing competitive hockey. It is one of the risks the league was willing to take on with the World Cup and now we're seeing the damage.
The highest-profile injury actually happened before the tournament. Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin, freshly rehabbed from an Achilles injury that cost him the last portion of the regular season and limited him to one playoff game, sustained a hairline fracture in his heel in a pre-tournament game. The Stars believe he'll be ready to go for opening night, but shouldn't be rushing their star center.
Another big injury was the broken hand sustained by Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He is likely to miss the start of the regular season with a 3-6 week recovery timeline. After leading to the Penguins to the Stanley Cup last season, he was set to battle Marc-Andre Fleury for primary starting duties for the upcoming season. That competition is put on hold as Fleury gets the leg up on keeping the job.
Monday, it was revealed that Marian Gaborik of the Los Angeles Kings will be sidelined eight weeks after suffering a foot injury in Team Europe's semifinal against Sweden. He'll have to miss the World Cup championship series and now will start the season on the shelf. He missed the last quarter of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury and was looking for a bounce-back season. That is going to get off to a rough start now.
Aaron Ekblad was another one of the players injured at the World Cup, being forced to leave after just one game due to what was believed to be a concussion. He has resumed skating, but the Panthers are easing him back into things and believe he should be ready to go to start the season.
These put teams a little bit behind to start the season and it's going to be one of the talking points when the NHL discusses the risk vs. reward of the World Cup.
4. New coaches getting acclimated
Around the NHL, there are several coaches just getting into the swing of things with their new teams. The Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche all have new men behind the bench.
For the Ducks, their new coach is the old coach. There are fewer players from Randy Carlyle's first stint still with the team, but the transition may be easier here with the familiarity the veterans. What the on-ice product is going to look like is anyone's guess as this is a team that fired its coach after four straight division titles (and four postseason failures). Carlyle didn't coach anywhere last year, so it will be interesting to see if he learned anything from his spectacular failure in Toronto.
Speaking of the coach Carlyle replaced, Bruce Boudreau is looking is starting with a new team to begin a season for the first time in his career. His previous two jobs came after the season had already started. After helping turn around the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks, as far as the regular season goes, he'll be looking to elevate the Minnesota Wild from relative stagnation. They've been good enough to get into the playoffs, but not good enough to stick around for very long. He brings a new style to the team, but it remains to be seen if he has the personnel to execute it effectively.
Perhaps one of the more interesting training camps will be the one in Colorado as rookie head coach Jared Bednar takes over after Patrick Roy's surprise resignation in August. This is a team with a lot of talent, but they have been backsliding. Perhaps a fresh start is just what they need. Bednar has a lot of weapons at his disposal and once everyone gets back from the World Cup, he can get them all on the same page.
Meanwhile, Guy Boucher in Ottawa and Glen Gulutzan in Calgary will be looking for big improvements as each heads into their second NHL head coaching job.