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What to know for the NHL off-season

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After Vegas (over?)celebrated its Stanley Cup championship Saturday night on the Strip, we’re about to enter the busiest stretch of the NHL off-season. It starts tomorrow with the unveiling of the 2023 Hockey Hall of Fame class and continues next week with the NHL awards show on Monday night, the draft on Wednesday and Thursday and the start of free agency on Saturday, July 1.

Here’s a look at what to expect:

Hall of Fame

The only top-shelf candidate among the first-year eligibles is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He played all 15 of his NHL seasons with the New York Rangers, finishing sixth all-time in wins. Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best goalie in 2012 and Olympic gold with Sweden in 2006, but never captured the Stanley Cup.

Considering the dearth of strong new candidates, the committee might turn to players it has rejected in the past. Those include star forwards Alexander Mogilny, Theo Fleury, Rod Brind’Amour, Pierre Turgeon, Henrik Zetterberg, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick; defenceman Sergei Gonchar; and goalie Curtis Joseph. A maximum of four men can be elected in the players’ category.

Up to two women’s players can also be inducted. The candidates include multi-time Olympic and world champions Jennifer Botterill and Caroline Ouellette of Canada and former U.S. captain Meghan Duggan. Read more about the Hockey Hall of Fame candidates here.

Awards

There’s no intrigue when it comes to the biggest prize. Connor McDavid will almost certainly win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player after piling up 153 points — the most in the league since Mario Lemieux had 161 in 1995-96 — to lead Edmonton to the second-best record in the Western Conference. This will be the third Hart for the 26-year-old McDavid, matching Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Alex Ovechkin, among others.

McDavid will also collect his first Rocket Richard Trophy after scoring a league-high 64 goals and his fifth Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points. Only Lemieux (6), Gordie Howe (6) and Wayne Gretzky (10) have won the Art Ross more times. The Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) will also presumably go to McDavid for the fourth time.

Three other players from Canadian-based teams are finalists for major awards: Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck (Vezina Trophy), Toronto’s Mitch Marner (Selke Trophy for best defensive forward) and Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner (Calder Trophy for rookie of the year).

Draft

Just as predictable as the Hart Trophy winner is the player Chicago will take with the No. 1 overall pick. It’ll be Connor Bedard, the 17-year-old phenom who scored 71 goals in 57 games this season for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League and added 10 more in seven playoff games. Bedard also led Canada to gold at the world junior championship in Halifax, where he set numerous scoring records and dazzled everyone with his skills — particularly on his incredible overtime winner in the quarterfinals.

After Bedard, the top prospects are a quartet of forwards from different countries: Canada’s Adam Fantilli, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. collegiate hockey this season; Sweden’s Leo Carlsson; Russia’s Matvei Michkov; and American Will Smith.

Montreal, picking fifth, has the highest choice among Canadian teams.

Free agency

Teams looking for a real game-changer probably won’t find one in this year’s class of unrestricted free agents. But there are some guys who might help put a championship-calibre team over the top, including a few big-name forwards in the third period of their careers.

Toronto’s Ryan O’Reilly, 32, doesn’t put up points like he used to, but he’s still a dependable two-way centre who won the Selke and Conn Smythe trophies four years ago. The Rangers’ Vladimir Tarasenko won the Cup with O’Reilly in St. Louis and was a point-a-game player as recently as 2021-22. A riskier option is Patrick Kane, the 2015-16 NHL scoring champion and MVP who won three Cups with Chicago before they traded him to the Rangers in February. Kane, 34, underwent hip surgery recently and will likely miss the start of the regular season.

Teams really looking to roll the dice could try Carolina’s Max Pacioretty, an accomplished scorer who played in only five games this season for Carolina and is coming off his second Achilles surgery. Or Jonathan Toews, the 35-year-old longtime Chicago captain who’s not sure he wants to play anymore after battling health issues the past few years. Five-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron is also technically about to hit the market, but he’ll almost certainly return to Boston if he doesn’t retire.

Safer (but probably more expensive) choices at forward include Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn, who helped Tampa Bay to back-to-back Stanley Cups before scoring a career-high 27 goals this season, and Boston’s Tyler Bertuzzi, who potted 30 goals with Detroit two seasons ago.

The consensus top defenceman on the market is Dmitry Orlov, 31, who had 36 points in 66 games for Washington and Boston last season. Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, 28, could also cash in as a younger alternative.

Free-agent goalies always seem to be a crapshoot, and the gambles this year include Adin Hill, who just backstopped Vegas to the Cup but has never appeared in more than 27 games in a regular season. There’s also oft-injured Frederik Andersen of Carolina and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry.

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