And so we reach the narrow edge of the wedge. Four teams each, now eight wins away from Stanley Cup immortality. So close you can almost taste it.
The storylines are as varied as the markets they represent. The City of Champions celebrates the return of its Edmonton Oilers to the conference final for the first time since 2006. Their opponents in Denver have not been to a final four since four years earlier in 2002. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been off since sweeping the Panthers on May 23, awaiting the winner of the home-only series between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes, with the Rangers finally breaking the spell on Monday night in Raleigh. Even though the Lightning will start on the road as they did against Toronto and Florida, they will begin as heavy favorites in their bid to become the first team to win at least three Cups in a row since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.
So, what’s on our mind heading into this new set of clashes? Glad you asked.
Kane and Kadri
Yes, the focus will be on Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon in this battle of the superstars in the Western Conference Final (and throw in the superlative Leon Draisaitl and his 26 playoff points for good measure). But with each passing series, each passing game, two polarizing players, Nazem Kadri and Evander Kane, are creating a story whose drama will extend far beyond the end of this series and whoever advances to their first-ever Cup final. Both have baggage of various descriptions and both have answered the bell about whether they can elevate their games and put troubling issues behind them. Both have been instrumental in their respective teams’ success thus far, with Kane leading the NHL with 12 goals and Kadri playing beyond racist taunts and threats to his safety against St. Louis to collect 10 points in 10 games thus far for the Avs. Both are on expiring contracts, and it may be difficult for the Oilers and Avs to lock these players up long-term, which means lots of GMs are watching this drama unfold with an eye to a possible move once free agency opens July 13.
Kadri, a center whose on-ice discipline problems certainly pale compared to Kane’s many off-ice issues, will be looking at a career-changing contract. Could it be in Denver? The Avs have about $26.5 million in cap space and 10 UFAs and two RFAs to deal, with including Kadri, netminder Darcy Kuemper and two deadline acquisitions in Artturi Lehkonen (RFA) and Josh Manson (UFA). Nathan MacKinnon has one more year before free agency. So the short answer is: it’s hard to see how an $8-million Kadri fits, and $8 million per season might not get it done given the strides Kadri has taken this season. I would argue Kadri would be as valuable a free agent commodity as there will be on the open market, with all due respect to Claude Giroux, Kris Letang and even Johnny Gaudreau. In fact, until a late-season injury I would have had Kadri somewhere on my Hart Trophy ballot given his work during an injury-plagued Avalanche regular season. Would Kadri be a fit in Detroit ,where Steve Yzerman is looking for a coach and potentially a couple of core players to pull this team around the corner? Philadelphia needs all kinds of help everywhere. What about Carolina, which has built a Cup contender but needs a piece or two to get over the hump? Kadri would fit Rod Brind’Amour’s style of play to a ‘T.’
Kane is a little harder to handicap. San Jose acquired Kane after he (again) wore out his welcome in Buffalo and then gave him an extension that they later nullified after all kinds of internal and external turmoil including bankruptcy brought on by a gambling habit. The Oilers were desperate and so took a chance on the power forward, and he has more than repaid them for their belief he could fit in. Kane is a winger, so his value on the market is not as great as Kadri’s but he plays with the kind of snarl, and possesses elite offensive skills that we have seen mesh perfectly with Connor McDavid, that will make him a powerful draw come free agency. Will a team ignore the past and tempt Kane with dollar and term? That seems to be the big question, and the longer the Oilers keep playing, the more likely the list of suitors pursuing Kane will grow and grow.