One month has passed since the Chicago Blackhawks lifted the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons and, during that time, the landscape of the league suffered important transformations, with two of the most talked-about prospects in a number of years finding their new homes, several unrestricted free agents changing addresses, and a few huge trades shipping elite players out of their misery.
This article started as a draft day impression’s notebook and grew up into a list of takeaways/thoughts/recollections about an NHL offseason that will now inevitably slow down into the dog days of summer. As such, pretty much every team in the league is cited, with a couple relegated to the end. As I projected to do this on a bullet-points structure, I ended up deciding to numerate them just so I could…well, find a title for the article.
To facilitate the search through all this, I highlighted the name of the team mainly featured in every part. Here we go:
1. The Buffalo Sabres and GM Tim Murray had an absolutely terrific draft weekend. They knew they were getting their hands on Jack Eichel, the best consolation prize since Evgeni Malkin and a sure-fire franchise center, but adding a player of Ryan O’Reilly’s calibre was a major coup. The 24-year-old has already six seasons of NHL experience and he’s just what they needed to insulate Eichel during his first season, slotting as a second line center in the future: a solid faceoff man (53.4% in 2014-15) used to be deployed in defensive situations, a top penalty killer, and a two-way force with some scoring touch (28 goals in 2013-14). About to become a UFA in 2016, O’Reilly inked a massive 7 years/52.5M deal a few days later with the Sabres, a cap hit that surprised most fans but which won’t look that high when names like Anze Kopitar and Steven Stamkos agree to new extensions. The 2009 2nd round pick has proven capable of handling first line assignments during his time with the Avs and that will be his job for now, even if in the future he may need to move to the wing. Also, with that value hanging over his head and an expanded leadership role, maybe he’ll get more respect from Selke voters that sometimes undervalued his importance.
With Zemgus Girgensons and 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart primed to stick with the big club this time, the Sabres are set up the middle for a long time, and may even contemplate the idea of parting with Reinhart if they can acquire a stud young defenseman. Girgensons has the talent to be an answer on that third line slot and I’m not sold on Reinhart becoming a major scorer on the NHL with his lack of a distinctive skill. He’s a finesse, playmaking center with good vision, passing and poise but lacks dynamic skating skills and may struggle to adjust to the higher tempo of the NHL.
The price for O’Reilly was steep (31st overall pick, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and JT Compher and D Nikita Zadorov) and the inclusion of the hulking Russian defenseman hurts, but the team has Rasmus Ristolainen to help cover the void and Jake McCabe, a 2nd round pick in 2012, ready to step on the line-up.
Earlier in draft day, Murray also got a new starting goalie, the talented 24-year-old Robin Lehner, who never took advantage of the chances to claim Ottawa’s net. The Swede, barring another acquisition for the net, will have ample opportunities on the Sabres and must pan out to merit the 21st pick sent back to the Sens for him and veteran David Legwand.
2. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy finally ceded on keeping the clearly disgruntled O’Reilly and managed to secure an interesting haul. Getting a young top-four D in return was crucial and Zadorov has every tool to fill that need on the near future, possessing size, skating, a strong shot and some bite. Grigorenko had his development completely mismanaged by the Sabres, but the Avs are banking on nurturing a player that was considered a top 5 talent entering the 2012 draft, while Compher may someday amount to an energetic third liner that can add some scoring. Flipping the 31st pick to SJ for the 39th and getting back the 2nd rounder next season was also a smart move by the Colorado Avalanche, although signing Carl Soderberg to a 5 years/23.75M deal doesn’t seem like the best idea for a 29-year-old center with a defined offensive edge that is destined for nothing more than a third line role.
Winger Blake Comeau joined in at the start of free agency, agreeing to a 3-year-deal that improves the team depth on the offense, but the team’s other addiction was more controversial. Francois Beauchemin will help a sub-par backline but 3-years and 13.5M are way too rich for a declining 35-year-old defenseman, even more because they’ll need to extend Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and Zadorov in the summer of 2016.
With the 10th overall pick the Avs selected Mikko Rantanen, a Finnish winger that shined at this year’s World Juniors and already has almost two complete seasons under his belt playing against professional players. As a big, supremely skilled right winger, Rantanen will provide balance to a talented and young forward group that will continue to lead the Avalanche going forward, joining, in short term, either Matt Duchene or Nathan MacKinnon on the team’s top two lines.
3. With Brendan Shanahan at the top and Mike Babcock on the bench, a new era of accountability and intelligence choices seems to have arrived for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the draft was a perfect example of that. Indeed, Kyle Dubas, the Leafs assistant GM in office, gave a lesson of asset management to the previous occupants of the GM position. After selecting the super-skilled but undersized Mitch Marner with the fourth pick, an hometown boy no less, Dubas traded down twice at the end of the first round to add more picks and prospects to the organization. First, the #24 was sent to Philadelphia for the #29 and a supplementary 2nd round pick (#61), and then he flipped #29 for the 34th and 68th picks. With these three assets, Dubas proceeded to stock his pipeline with skilled players, with D Travis Dermott and FW Jeremy Bracco, who beat Patrick Kane’s US NTDP assist record during the season, deserving approving reviews from draft experts.
With chief amateur scout Mark Hunter driving the bus, the Leafs kept picking up speed and skill through the latter rounds, a welcome difference from the years of searching and valuing “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” above all. To cap it, the Leafs also added 23-year-old defenseman Martin Marincin, a former 2nd round pick that lost space on the Edmonton Oilers system but has already played in 85 NHL games. Marincin is a lanky, mobile blueliner that can add more snarl to his game, but possesses some offensive skills that the Leafs can develop into a middle-pair performer. His promise is certainly worth of a fourth round pick plus a low-level prospect like Brad Ross, a relic of the past after being selected in the 2nd round in 2010 for his hard-nosed style and agitating qualities.
4. The chaotic situation at the draft floor wasn’t ideal to offload the top-earning players on the Leafs roster but, a few days later, the Leafs brass pulled the gun on the biggest blockbuster of the summer, flipping Phil Kessel for more assets. Thus, the mercurial goal scorer was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the talented 19-year-old Kasperi Kapanen, a character, stay-at-home promising defenseman in Scott Harrington, a first and third round picks plus some throw-ins from both sides, comprising a return that failed to impress Toronto’s avid press. However, with the Leafs clearly in rebuild and intent on clearing money from the books, Kessel’s steep cap hit, and lack of other interested suitors, Dubas and Shanahan had to settle for a deal with a Penguins team desperate to add a star player. Retaining 15% of his salary might be a better option than absorbing Rob Scuderi’s contract until 2017, and giving back a 2nd round pick was not in the plans, but the most important thing was achieved: shaking the losing core that sunk the ship throughout the second half of last season.
After solving this situation, Toronto was back to promoting indisputably smart decisions, filling out his roster with several cheap, undervalued, short-term contracts that can be used to acquire more assets down the line, including PA Parenteau for 1.5M, Mark Arcobello for 1.1M and Daniel Winnik for 5.5M over two years. Shawn Matthias at 2.3M, though, was the best of the lot, with the 27-year-old versatile forward primed to build on a great second half of 2014-15 by playing top-six minutes. RFA Nazem Kadri signed a one-year, “show-me” deal and will have ample opportunities to prove himself now that Tyler Bozak’s buddy is not around anymore, while starting goalie Jonathan Bernier has yet to agree to terms with the team.
5. With the addition of a stud blueliner like Noah Hanifin with the fifth pick, the Carolina Hurricanes now have three former top 12 picks in the draft on their defensive cupboard, joining offensive-minded Ryan Murphy and Hayden Fleury, last year’s seventh pick. Ron Francis seems to be building the foundation of his team from the backend, slotting pieces around 23-year-old Justin Faulk, an established all-star calibre rearguard.
However, to buy time for their jewel’s development, Francis managed to improve his defence for now by trading for James Wisniewski, the Ducks’ pricy trade deadline acquisition that saw the entire playoffs from the press box but will have ample opportunities to regain his mojo in Carolina, probably running the first powerplay unit. Moving Anton Khudobin for Wisniewski to make space for Eddie Lack is a lateral move on the net in terms of quality, although the Swede makes less than half in relation to the Russian netminder, always an important factor on a budget team. The former Canucks’ goaltender has one more year before becoming a UFA, mirroring the situation of veteran Cam Ward, and the Canes will closely follow his performance to determine if he can be an important part of their team going forward.
6. Going into July 1, the Canes announced the buyout of the mercurial Alex Semin, which never justified the 35 M/5-year deal signed before the 2013-14 season. The operation will cut 2.3M from their cap space for the next six years but the move was justified by the Russian’s inability to feed on a productive first season with the team (44 pts in 44 games in 2012-13, 61 pts in 122 games since then). The talented Semin has undoubtedly one of the most lethal releases in the league but with his profile on the downswing again, he’ll have to settle for one year, mid-level (probably on the 3-4M range, maybe even less) offers to continue his career in the NHL. A gamble some NHL teams looking for a top-six winger will make and one that could pay off on the right situation.
7. Another GM that left Florida with a building block for his defensive core was Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall, who saw Ivan Provorov, for a lot of observers the most complete defenseman on the draft, fall to their lap. An all-around, mobile, physical defenseman, the Russian may well become the decade-long franchise blueliner the team has coveted and it’s not out of reach that he sticks with the Flyers in 2014-15. Hextall moved quicky to sign Provorov to an entry-level deal, and he could bring size, agility and some offensive flair to a defence that lacks those qualities.
After Provorov, the Flyers collected a few more pieces for their future, starting by trading up on the latter part of the first round to select Travis Konecny, a skilled, energetic, yet undersized winger, and picking up a pair of athletic, promising goaltending prospects in Sweden’s Felix Sandstrom and Slovakia’s Felix Tomek. In the latter rounds, they kept getting away from the usual Flyers mentality, going with speed and skill instead of grit and physicality, showing that most NHL organizations are learning from mistakes and understanding the evolution of the game.
8. Hextall and the Flyers brass had a good couple of days at the draft but the GM had more up his sleeve when he finalized a trade to get rid of the slow, expensive Nicklas Grossmann, sent to the Coyotes in return for center Sam Gagner, who, in spite of never fully blossoming on the league, can certainly help an offense that relied too heavily on their top guns. Along with Grossmann, Hextall dumped Chris Pronger’s contract to Arizona, opening some wiggle room to orchestrate more moves. The Flyers’ legend will continue to make everything in his power to offload the contracts of Vinny Lecavalier and R.J Umberger, but can take solace on the way he completely pickpocketed Boston’s Don Sweeney, prying a 3rd round pick for agitator Zac Rinaldo. And with Michael Neuvirth as the new backup to Steve Mason, the Flyers put on one of the team’s best goaltending tandems in quite some time.
9. The rookie Boston Bruins’ GM was the talk of draft day and his summer just keeps delivering. Pressed against the salary cap, Sweeney traded two core members of his roster and the returns were less than stellar. First was Dougie Hamilton, the burgeoning 22-year-old defenseman that accrued 42 pts in 2014-15, traded to Calgary for picks 15th, 45th and 52nd in the draft, slightly more than the team would receive for an offer sheet in the range of Hamilton’s salary demands, but nothing close to fair value for one of the best young defenseman in the league.
Meanwhile, Milan Lucic, the emblematic 27-year old left winger, was sent to the LA Kings for the 13th pick, goaltender Martin Jones, and mid-level defensive prospect Collin Miller, on a move intended to clear his 6M cap hit. However, the Bruins had to retain almost half of it (2.7M) and lost a top-six physical forward that, for years, had served as the model of their “Big, Bad Bruins” mantra.
Despite the divisive moves, Sweeney was now armed with the 13th, 14th and 15th pick and everyone thought he would move up to select a blue chip prospect. Wrong! The Bruins made the three consecutive selections and went off-the-board in all three, taking D Jakub Zboril and LW Jake Debrusk, both projected to go in the 20-30 range, plus winger Zachary Senychyn, a late 2nd/early 3rd round talent heading into the draft. The decisions earned scorn from multiple sectors and, even if we’ll have to wait years to realize whether they were the right ones, Sweeney should have definitely managed better his resources if he intended to come away with this trio.
10. A few days later, after taking notice of Jones’ financial demands, Sweeney tossed the goalie he had acquired to the San Jose Sharks, collecting a 2016 1st round pick, and ended his roster retool by signing Matt Beleskey to a surprisingly reasonable 5-years/19M deal, covering Lucic’s loss with a player that cashed out on a career-high 22 goals’ season. He also exchanged forward Reilly Smith for a cheaper secondary scoring threat on Florida’s Jimmy Hayes (a Boston-native…).
In the end, the Bruins downgraded twice on the attack and lost a stud, massively talented young defenseman for picks and some prospects, assets several years away from making an impact at the NHL level. Nonetheless, at least Sweeney followed Hextall’s lead and finally got rid of Marc Savard’s contract in the deal with the Panthers.
Oh, almost forgot, he also blew everyone away by valuing Zac Rinaldo as mid-round-pick-worthy…
11. Milan Lucic will fit right in with LA’s heavy style of hockey, and having him at a 3.3M cap hit until he reaches UFA status next summer is a solid deal for Dean Lombardi and the Kings, but the team won’t be happy with how the rest of the offseason is going on. Losing Justin Williams because they couldn’t match a perfectly reasonable 2-year-offer for the veteran winger stinks, and Andrej Sekera long-term contract with the Oilers was way too rich for another team way up against the cap. The Jarret Stoll drug situation sealed his exit as a pending UFA but Lombardi won’t have the same freedom to get rid of Slava Voynov and Mike Richards, no matter the subterfuges he tries to use.
Jhonas Enroth’s signing to backup Jonathan Quick was wise, replacing Martin Jones, who, like Jonathan Bernier before, outperformed his role and effectively forced the GM’s hand to cash in on an asset. Tyler Toffoli’s 2-year bridge deal, worth a total of 6.5M, represents a compromise that seems to work for both the team and a player on the verge of a scoring outburst.
12. When he traded Jones to Boston, Lombardi didn’t envision the goaltender facing off his former teammates multiples times over the next few years, but Doug Wilson was aggressive moving in for the promising goalie and he got a new starter shortly after sending the UFA rights of incumbent Antti Niemi to the Dallas Stars. Jones inked a 3-year/9M deal with the Sharks and will have every opportunity to carve his spot, with 27-year-old Alex Stalock pushing him like he did with Niemi.
Then, the San Jose Sharks GM pounced twice on the free agency pool to add Paul Martin in order to complement his defensive core, envisioning the steady veteran alongside Brent Burns on the top pair, and improving his scoring depth with former Capital Joel Ward. Both players are 34-years-old and Wilson wasn’t shy about offering multi-year deals (4 to Martin, 3 to Ward) to the pair but, in the short term, his team is definitely improved, an inversion of last summer’s behaviour, where they did absolutely nothing to climb the ladder on the West and were left behind, missing the playoffs.
13. Before settling for Jones, Doug Wilson went hard after NY Rangers’ Cam Talbot but Henrik Lundqvist’s understudy was ultimately sent to Edmonton, with a 59-game NHL career seemingly impressive enough to merit a place on the Oilers’ quest to find the right starting goalie for the future. Although Peter Chiarelli was able to resist the urge to send a 1st round pick for the 28-year-old unproven netminder, packaging a 2nd, 3rd and 7th round selections is nothing to sneeze at even for a team full of draft assets. Two more picks, the 16th and 33rd, were used to land former 4th overall selection (2010) Griffin Reinhart, a solid all-around defender that has taken more time than expected to break into regular NHL duties and had fallen out of favour inside a stacked NY Islanders’ cupboard.
Reinhart’s addition led to the trade of Martin Marincin, because, obviously, you can’t have too many young defensemen fighting for spots, but the true reinforcement at the position is Andrej Sekera, who, at age 29 and holding a new, shiny 33M deal, will carry the expectations directed at a No. 2D.
14. However, for all the Oilers did, the offseason will always be remembered for Connor McDavid’s arrival. Nothing is left to say about the new Canadian sensation, but look out for the implications on fellow young Center Leon Draisatl, the 3rd overall pick in 2014, who slides on the depth chart, stuck behind McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The German has already expressed his willingness to adapt to the wing, at least for now, and he may need to stick there for some time until another solution emerges, since neither he or Nugent-Hopkins seem suited for a third line role.
15. The beginning of the McDavid era in Edmonton will also mark the full reboot of one the best rivalries in the league, with the Calgary Flames already stocking up to counter the offensive fireworks coming out of Oil Land. In this sense, the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton gives the Flames one of the deepest bluelines in the NHL, with a formidable top-three in Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Hamilton allowing Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell to slide further down the line-up card. Furthermore, Deryk Engelland will spend most of his time on the press box, which makes his compensation seem even more ridiculous (2.7M.PER.YEAR!!!).
The GM Brad Treliving decided to keep the 1A/1B model at the net, re-signing Karri Ramo to rekindle the pair with Jonas Hiller, and he managed to snatch one of the most sought-after forwards on the market, Czech Republic’s right winger Michael Frolik, who will receive 21.5M for 5 years of contract, adding versatility, speed and an impressive two-way game to a team on the upswing. With Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau a year away from the end of their entry-level deals, and Jiri Hudler also set to close his contract in 2016, Treliving did a good job locking up another core player in Swedish center Mikael Backlund, at worst a really capable, possession-driving, third line center with skill.
16. Most of the Pacific Division emblems got better and the current Champions, the Anaheim Ducks, followed their challengers’ lead, enhancing the speed of their attack with the arrival of Carl Hagelin, whose RFA status made him expendable on a cap-strapped NY Rangers team. The 26-year-old winger has a chance to join Perry and Getzlaf on the top line, shatter his career-highs set last year (17G, 35 pts), and bank on it next summer. Obviously, for this to happen, he’ll have to sacrifice money and term now, something GM Bob Murray will have to mull on because his team is miles away (18M) from the cap, making the Ducks a prime example of a clear title contender with roster flexibility due to several low-cost deals assigned to key contributors like Sami Vatanen, Hamphus Lindholm or Rickard Rackell. The gamble on Chris Stewart, re-signing Jacob Silfverberg, and the new figure to Hagelin’s deal will cut into that number, but the team will have a major opportunity, once again, to load up come the trade deadline.
Murray exchanged Francois Beauchemin, who bolted to Denver, for the acquired Kevin Bieksa, saving one year both in contract duration and age, and brought in depth at the goal with Anton Khudobin, allowing some more development time for John Gibson, who figures to be less than thrilled if forced to start the season in the AHL.
17. In Arizona, the disappointment of missing out on McDavid and Jack Eichel will take some more time to go away but GM Dave Maloney made the right decision in holding on to the 3rd overall pick, logically selecting a prototypical No. 1C in Dylan Strome, a highly-competitive kid with size (6-3), skill and speed. He’s definitely not a Messiah but a franchise cornerstone forward to build around, something the Coyotes have lacked for years. Strome may not stick on the NHL in 2015-16, but a youthful injection is coming to Arizona, with top prospects like Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Brendan Perlini knocking on the door and several spots on the attack to fill.
To surround the rookies (and reach the salary floor), several veterans were brought back into the fold, with defensive specialist Boyd Gordon rescued from the Oilers, and the pair Antoine Vermette / Zbynek Michalek choosing to return after being flipped for futures at the trade deadline. Brad Richardson is another solid depth addiction to stabilize the lower offensive lines, while the arrival of Chris Pronger’s contract will certainly inspire Klas Dahlbeck and Brandon Gormley to prove their value to Arizona’s future plans. In the middle of this rebuild, a poor, sad, young man in stalwart defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is already getting ready for another year drowning in the desert.
18. If the Pacific Division has seen some major changes, the Central is surprisingly quiet, with the Blackhawks’ rivals perhaps waiting to see the complete outcome of the 2015 Great Chicago Stampede. Experiencing difficulties to unload the 5.9M due to Patrick Sharp and the 4M Bryan Bickell is scheduled to earn next season, the Stanley Cup Champions shipped out the up-and-coming Brandon Saad, a 22-year-old winger that EVERYONE thought would share the locker room with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for years to come. Stan Bowman wouldn’t go above the 5M threshold on a long-term offer for the sought-after RFA, and decided to trade him to the Columbus Blue Jackets instead of risk being backed into the wall by an offer sheet.
The return, as always happens when you are forced to give up on a talent of Saad’s calibre, isn’t stellar but Bowman looked happy for finally solving the 2nd line central conundrum with Artem Anisimov, a big, two-way player the team had coveted for some time. Getting the 20-year-old Marko Dano, an NHL-ready winger with two years of his entry-level deal yet to burn, was also significant for a team in need of cheap talent to fill attacking roles, and Jeremy Morin should get a chance to crack the lineup. As much as trading Saad hurts, these are the kind of returns that keep good teams always refreshed and ready to contend year after year, and Bowman delivered put on a difficult situation once again.
Also, surrounded by little fanfare but potentially off no lesser importance, the Hawks guaranteed the services of Viktor Tikhonov, who joins his compatriot Artemi Panarin for a combined total of less than 2M, a true bargain for a pair of skilled forwards with potential to fill scoring line roles.
19. However, a difficult summer for the Hawks is just starting and Bowman still has to work the miracle of dumping Bickell somewhere, carving cap space to bring back Marcus Kruger, a player who has shown the willingness to wait due to his burning desire to stay in Chicago. Patrick Sharp, despite his clear decline, still holds some value and the Dallas Stars recently took him off Bowman’s hands, tossing back defenseman Trevor Daley, overmatched last year on Dallas’ first pair, and agitator Ryan Garbutt, on a move that, money-wise, didn’t really made a significant difference.
20. Eliminated by the Hawks in the first round, the Nashville Predators settled for the usual low-profile moves, taking a chance on the puzzling Cody Hodgson, who completely flamed out in Buffalo last season, and signing Barret Jackman to fill the veteran, mentoring role on their defence, probably by the side of Seth Jones on the second pair. The two-year extension for Mike Ribeiro is debatable, in light of the criminal accusations hanging over his head and his age (35), but the Preds didn’t have a lot of options to substitute a player who was effective as their No 1C. Mike Fischer will also be in Nashville for another couple of years after he proved last season that he’s still an effective shutdown guy.
Two other middleman, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson, both 25-years-old, are RFAs coming off deals with a 2M cap hit, and it’s not out of question that they double that after their arbitration hearings.
21. The Dallas Stars need reinforcements on defence, yet GM Jim Nill decided to spend money on a second starting goalie, trading for the rights to Antti Niemi and locking him up quickly to a three-year extension. The move left the Stars with 10.3M stuck on Niemi and compatriot Kari Lehtonen until 2018, but still 8M to use this season and Nill showed no hesitation making a trade for a significant offensive addiction for the third consecutive summer.
Patrick Sharp increases the firepower of the NHL’s second-best attack in 2014-15 and also becomes the second player in the team with the biggest cap hit, in front of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who make a total of 11M for the next two seasons.
With the out-of-nowhere emergence of John Klingberg, the skating acumen of Trevor Daley was expendable, but to come back into the playoffs the Stars still need to add a sure-fire top-four blueliner, even if Stephen Johns, also acquired in the Sharp deal, was already on the verge of Chicago’s roster. With 6M to use, a full complement of players and names like Johnny Oduya, Cody Franson and Christian Ehrhoff still on the market, Jim Nill could take action or wait for what the future holds.
22. The Minnesota Wild offseason is marked by the success in the Mike Reilly sweepstakes, plucking the 21-year-old dynamic offensive defenseman that declined to ink an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The American spurned several other suitors, notably the Hawks, Rangers and Pens, for a chance to star for his home state team, and they can certainly use a cost-controlled, mobile puck moving defenseman with Jared Spurgeon entering the last year of his deal and Matt Dumba finishing his rookie agreement.
The Wild are also in a bit of a cap crunch, with Erik Haula yet to sign and goalie Niklas Backstrom injured – and, as so, unable to be bought out – but Chuck Fletcher opened space by dumping Matt Cooke. Then, he managed to keep Mikael Granlund on a bridge two-year deal and season saviour Devan Dubnyk with a six-year offer worth 4.3M per year, a solid compromise with a goalie that just 12 months ago was out of the league. Trade deadline acquisitions’ Chris Stewart and Sean Bergenheim didn’t work as expected and were let go.
23. After another frustrating end of the season for the St. Louis Blues, changes were undoubtedly on the way and when Ken Hitchcock was brought back, the spotlight switched to some of the most important forwards in the team. Between David Backes, an UFA in 2016, Alex Steen and TJ Oshie, one had to go and the hammer dropped on the American right winger, sent to the Washington Capitals. Although getting Troy Brouwer and a 3rd round pick for Oshie is kind of underwhelming, especially because the physical winger represents a clear downgrade on a team that already lacked game-breaking skill, the message to the core group was delivered loud and clear.
Also decisive and definitive was the commitment, in the form of 8 seasons and 60M, to Vladimir Tarasenko as the team’s cornerstone forward through his prime years, with the Blues hoping the 23-year-old sniper will take on more responsibilities in the fall. The St. Louis outfit appears to have already set its roster after giving Jake Allen two more years to usurp Brian Elliot and prove that he can be a starter on a Cup contender.
24. Oshie left one of the better well-rounded squads in the NHL but he won’t be unhappy to get a chance to nail the spot on the Washington Capitals’ top line, certainly welcoming the opportunity to be the sidekick Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have desired for years. However, Barry Trotz will have another recent arrival vying for the same after the Caps convinced advanced-stats darling Justin Williams to pen a two-year deal with the team. The term and money were an absolute win for GM Brian MacLellan, and surely left some Kings fans exasperated but, more importantly, the Caps upgraded significantly on the right wing position.
Third line center Eric Fehr is still unsigned but it’s not impossible he comes back as soon as they reach an agreement with Braden Holtby, looking for a deal in the 6M range, and forward Marcus Johansson. Evgeni Kuznetsov accepted a two-year bridge deal for 3M per season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he explodes in a way that resembles his compatriot Tarasenko. The arrivals of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik forced Mike Green into a secondary role at even strength during the season and the parts naturally agreed to move on, with the former 30-goal scorer landing in Detroit.
25. The Red Wings had been looking for a left handed, offensive minded blue-liner for some time and Ken Holland, after being spurned several times over the last summers, finally filled the void, handing a 3-year contract to Mike Green, who was able to keep his 6M cap hit. The reeling Brad Richards also landed in Detroit, for 3M on a one-year-deal, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the buyout of Stephen Weiss, a complete failure during his term with the team, even if some of the funds were also reallocated to a deserved and fair 4-year extension for Gustav Nyquist.
26. Ray Shero inherited from Lou Lamoriello a roster bare of young talent, especially on the attack, and his first move was to select a big, skilled center with the sixth overall pick in the draft, turning Pavel Zacha into the best and most important prospect the New Jersey Devils have had in years. However, Zacha may still be a couple of seasons away from contributing on the NHL and Shero will have to add some goal scoring until then. The market isn’t stuffed with that but, at least, he has already started to decrease the average age of his roster by adding 24-year-old, New Jersey-born forward Kyle Palmieri for a second round pick to the Ducks.
Several veterans won’t don the Devils’ jersey again, including Scott Gomez and Martin Havlat, but to expedite the renovation maybe Shero can aggressively revive one of his favourite moves as a Pittsburgh Penguins GM, dangling one of his young defenseman (Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson or Jon Merrill) for a similarly-aged prospect up front.
27. The Columbus Blue Jackets have no such problems, with the Saad coup arranged by GM Jarmo Kekalainen netting what could be a perennial running-mate for Ryan Johansen, provided the 22-year-old center forgets about the quarrels of his renovation by the time they sit down to talk again in 2017. Saad’s speed and strength will fit in nicely on a team built on those qualities, and the Jackets top-six now features Johansen, Saad, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell and Boone Jenner, with Cam Atkinson and 20-year-old sophomore Alexander Wennberg bumped to the third line. This is a forward group that should scare their Metropolitan Division opponents’, and if the team builds on last season’s superb finish, watch out.
The backend will need an impressive and injury-free season from the battered Ryan Murray, the 2nd overall pick in 2012, or else the lack of depth could be exposed (being spurned by Mike Reilly really hurts here), but remember they have Sergei Bobrovsky covering the mistakes. This squad is well positioned to battle for way more than a single playoff position and I won’t be surprised to see them squaring for supremacy in the East come the spring of 2016.
28. Severely threatened by Columbus improvements’ are the two teams that have dominated the Division over the last few seasons. The New York Rangers, now under the direction of rookie GM Jeff Gorton, smartly auctioned an overvalued asset like Cam Talbot and replaced him with Antti Raanta, a backup capable enough to fill in for Lundqvist in the 15-20 games he should take to rest. However, they have 10M of cap space to use and some valuable RFA forwards to sign, with the most important, Derek Stepan, poised to hoard a major chunk of the pie. The Ryan O’Reilly extension in Buffalo will certainly be the comparison to use and those aren’t great news for the team, which hoped to agree to a deal starting with a “6”, while now the award may well move above the 7M per year. JT Miller, Jesper Fast and new recruit Emerson Etem, who welcomes the fresh start after never breaking through for the Ducks, are in line for much smaller payments and short-term deals, but the trio should reserve the entire space, with another forward left to close the roster after the cheap signing of Viktor Stalberg.
With little wiggle room, Gorton may be forced to part with one of his defenders, also anticipating the raises that Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes will deserve next year, with Kevin Klein (2.9M) and Keith Yandle, despite being a bargain at 2.65 M (Arizona is picking up half of his check until 2016), on the forefront.
29. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins, already sensing the prime years of the Crosby/Malkin era running out without sniffing another Cup, had to beef up yet again and shipped out more young assets on the Phil Kessel deal, a bet that Jim Rutherford and the organization were once again forced to do. Ponying up their only top-end forward prospect, a former 2nd round pick and the 2016 first round pick almost empties their cupboard, but at least they succeeded in keeping prized young defenders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta.
Although Kessel is, arguably, the third most lethal sniper in the NHL today, after Ovechkin and Stamkos, and a tremendous weapon to join Crosby or Malkin at even strength, his presence on the powerplay can be even more crucial. His left shot stationed on the right side could open up precious space so that the two-headed monster could work on the left, maybe turning a scary but unbalanced unit into a mass destruction device. With Kessel, the whole Penguins offensive lineup also stretches out better, with the team now holding, when everyone is healthy, as many as ten legit top-nine forwards.
Rutherford has yet to assemble his entire 4th line, weighing if the time is right to take a chance on untested youngsters like Oskar Sundqvist and Scott Wilson, and he would certainly love to find a taker for Rob Scuderi’s contract, but, for now, the team figures to enter the season with a really young blueline after losing veterans Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff due to cap constraints.
30. Since we got all the way till here, a few quick ideas on the teams missing :
Florida Panthers: parted ways with several veteran forwards (Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Brad Boyes) to open space for home-grown talents like Vincent Trocheck and Quinton Howden;
Montreal Canadiens: re-signed sound top-four defenseman Jeff Petry to a rich six-years/33M deal and swapped Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian, who’s already 24-years-old and missing the boat towards becoming more than a physical, pesky, low-end forward;
New York Islanders: extended forward Anders Lee and defenseman Thomas Hickey on deserved multi-year deals;
Ottawa Senators: smartly locked out last year’s rookie of the year candidate Mark Stone to a reasonable 3 year/10.5M deal, and resisted the pressure to give up on lanky defenseman Jared Cowen, going through a bout of low-confidence;
Tampa Bay Lightning: rounded out the bottom-six with the smart signing of possession-driver, ex-Ottawa Senator, Erik Condra;
Vancouver Canucks: for some reason decided that paying 2.5M to Brandon Prust was what they needed and even threw-in a 5th round pick to make it happen. Cashed in on Eddie Lack after deciding he wasn’t a long-term solution on goal, opening a slot for Jacob Markstrom to prove that he belongs in the NHL. However, Jim Benning was unable to keep the other piece of the Luongo deal, losing Shawn Matthias, an affordable, productive third line option.
Winnipeg Jets: Kevin Cheveldayoff managed to snare Alexander Burmistrov back from the KHL, adding a talented and versatile forward that can play anywhere on the top-nine, and retained, on a two-year deal, Drew Stafford, a key element over the stretch run last season. Michael Frolik, an influential defensive-ace, moved to the Calgary Flames even if the Jets made offers in the neighbourhood of what he got. Really important point to keep in mind: the Jets system is brimming with talent at every position and stellar prospects like Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrisey and Nic Petan can force their way in as early as opening night;
31. Top five Unrestricted Free Agents left in the market and my bet on where they’ll land:
RW Alex Semin (Montreal Canadiens)
D Christian Ehrhoff (Philadelphia Flyers)
D Cody Franson (Columbus Blue Jackets)
D Johnny Oduya (Dallas Stars)
C Eric Fehr (New Jersey Devils)