Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been breaking down the good and the bad of what’s happened so far during the 2015 NHL offseason. After going through all four divisions, looking at the players that teams have added and subtracted, and how they’ve spent their money, I figured I would put together a big list of which teams are winners and losers, and which teams are floating in their own category somewhere in the middle. Hey, it’s the summer and we still have like seven weeks until the season starts, so it’s the perfect time to sit back and speculate.
Now, what constitutes a winner and a loser? And what does it mean to be somewhere in the middle? I figured it was best to look at each team in the context of their division, rather than trying to make broad comparisons across the entire league. It’s pretty easy to summarize what a winner and a loser is: they’re the teams who had the best, and well, the worst offseasons in their divisions based completely on the moves they made, and didn’t make. But it isn’t exactly that simple, which is why we have the “everybody in the middle category.” A winner, to me, isn’t just the team who had the best offseason in the division. A winner can be a team who did enough to maintain their playoff spot from the year before, or it can be a team who made such good moves that they’ll be able to overtake somebody else’s position. In contrast, a loser is a team that got worse in the short term, or made stupid moves that hurt themselves in the long term. Long story short, I’m trying to base each team’s grade on what the context of their division is, what the team is trying to accomplish short and long term, and how good of a job they did at accomplishing it because different teams can be winners and losers for different reasons.
Read on past the jump for my take on which teams should be considered winners, losers, or something in the middle. Oh yeah, I also put links to my offseason divisional breakdowns at the top of each section. That way, if you want to take more of a purely objective, informational approach to the offseason rather than reading my hot takes, you can.
It’s difficult to say which team in the Pacific Division has been the winner of the offseason so far, but it’s pretty obvious that the title belongs to one of the teams in Alberta. On one hand, you have the Edmonton Oilers, who managed to completely flip around what appeared to be a failing rebuild by putting an end to the Old Boys Club regime, adding a Head Coach and General Manager with impressive resumes to their name, and of course, drafting the best prospect to come around since Sidney Crosby. Even if Peter Chiarelli had stood pat after drafting McDavid and gave himself a full year to assess his roster before making any decisions, this offseason would have been a win for the Oilers. Instead, the new GM signed Andrej Sekera, arguably the best defenceman on the UFA market, and traded for Cam Talbot, giving the team a reasonable upgrade in net over the combination of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth they trotted out last season. On the other hand, you have the Calgary Flames, who were everybody’s trendy pick to take a huge step backwards after a breakout campaign last year. Then they went and acquired Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins for a very, very underwhelming package of draft picks, adding to an already elite blue line. When July 1 rolled around, the Flames inked UFA forward Michael Frolik to a five year deal, who’s strong possession and production numbers make him an excellent secondary scoring option. Not only did both of these teams take massive steps forward this summer, they did so without really compromising their future in any way. Is it fair to say the Battle of Alberta is close to becoming something worth mentioning again?
Right in the middle, in purgatory are the Arizona Coyotes. They didn’t get any better this summer, but that was their goal. It isn’t exactly a secret, but the Coyotes are doing pretty much everything they can — like trading their highest scoring forward for the contract of a player who was just recently inducted to the Hall of Fame — to increase their odds of drafting local hero Auston Matthews first overall on June. So there’s no point in calling the Coyotes a winner or a loser, because they’re technically winning by losing games, so I’ll stuff them in their own little tanking category.
Also in the middle are the San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings. Obviously they aren’t in the same category as the Coyotes, who are doing their own thing, but neither of them had good enough of an offseason to be considered winners. The Sharks added Paul Martin and Joel Ward through free agency and Martin Jones through trade, but even though those are nice moves, it’s likely too little too late for glory in San Jose. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s best years are behind them, and while they could make a return to the playoffs next season, their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut. The Kings couldn’t do much to help fix their ugly cap situation, aside from terminating the contract of Mike Richards. They lost Andrej Sekera and Justin Williams to free agency, but added Milan Lucic, and what happens with Slava Voynov and his domestic violence case still up in the air. Regardless, the Kings were a better team than their record last season would suggest, and even with a quiet offseason, they’re more than likely going to be contenders in the Pacific Division. Long story short, both of these California teams did enough to be at least as good, or slightly better than they were last year, meaning they’ll likely contend for a playoff position.
What about the Anaheim Ducks? They belong in a slightly different category than the other two California teams because they came into the offseason defending the division crown and they did enough to maintain it, although it comes with a long term consequence. They probably made enough improvements to their team to be considered an offseason winner, especially considering the fact they’re still easily the best team in the Pacific Division, but a massive extension to Ryan Kesler is somewhat curious. The Ducks made some nice depth moves, adding Shawn Horcoff, Chris Stewart, and Anton Khudobin, while shedding the salary of James Wisniewski and Mark Fistric. They’re also managing to ice a really good team with a ton of cap room available, as they’re heading into the season with over $8 million in free space. Like I said, though, Kesler’s contract is ugly. His current deal has a $5 million cap hit, and after this season, his new six year deal with a $6.875 million cap hit will kick in. Obviously that deal isn’t going to hurt them right now, but he’s turning 31 at the end of August, so a few years from now it isn’t going to look very good. Kesler’s Corsi For percentage has dropped consistently since the 2011 season (aside from the 2012-13 season in which he played just 17 games) and as he ages, I’m sure it’ll continue to drop. Although, if they win a Stanley Cup in the next year or two while he’s still worth the cap hit, it won’t be that big of a deal.
While it was difficult to pick a clear cut winner in the Pacific Division, it was pretty obvious who the loser was. The Vancouver Canucks made four notable trades this summer. Three of them were bad and one was pretty good. They acquired Brandon Sutter from the Penguins to slide into third line centre role, but they gave up arguably a better player in Nick Bonino, a really solid prospect in Adam Clendening, and a second round pick for good measure. They also traded away Eddie Lack — the better/cheaper/younger of their two starting goalies — for just a couple of draft picks. And then to continue with the theme of rolling with older and more expensive players, the Canucks sent Zack Kassian to the Habs for Brandon Prust. The one good trade they made was sending the rapidly declining Kevin Bieksa to the Ducks for second round pick. Ridding themselves of that contract was a nice move, but unfortunately, they went ahead and used the freed up cap space to sign Luca Sbisa to a three year deal in which he’ll carry a $3.6 million cap hit. While it wasn’t a terrible offseason (like the one in Boston), the Canucks look like they’re heading into the 2015-16 season as a slightly worse team than they had last year, while a few other teams behind them managed to get better.
I want to say that the Dallas Stars have been the winners the offseason in the Central Division, but that’s what everybody said last year, and we all know how that turned out. The Stars were picked as favourites to break out last season after an exciting offseason that saw them add Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza to an already potent offence. The Stars ended up finishing the season with 2.70 even strength goals per 60 minutes, good enough for second best in the league. Unfortunately, an elite offensive attack wasn’t enough to compensate for horrific goaltending and defence, as the Stars ended up missing the playoffs largely because of a 90.95 team save percentage at even strength. In order to improve on their ability to keep the puck out of the net, the Stars signed Antti Niemi and Johnny Oduya. They also traded Ryan Garbutt and Trevor Daley to the Hawks for Patrick Sharp, which seems odd, because the Stars didn’t have any issue scoring last season. Regardless, they managed to make an already potent attack even better, and adding to a strength is never a bad thing. Besides, once you get past Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza, there isn’t really much there. After those three, Dallas’ next highest scoring forward was Cody Eakin with 40 points. Then Erik Cole, then Hemsky, then Vernon Fiddler. Sharp will provide a necessary secondary scoring punch behind Dallas’ big three as Valeri Nichushkin eases his way back into playing full time after an injury plagued season.
I’m still really skeptical to call Dallas the winner of the Central Division’s offseason, largely because I don’t want to be fooled twice, but I’m not really sure who else deserves the title. I mean, nobody else in the division improved as much as the Stars did, so I guess they win by default. It certainly isn’t going to be the Colorado Avalanche, who didn’t do enough to crawl from the basement of the division into a playoff spot. After that, it basically comes down to which team did the best job at not getting worse. The St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators were all playoff teams who appear to be heading into this season as good, or almost as good, as they were last season, so they fall all together somewhere in the middle.
The theme for these teams wasn’t so much about adding to their rosters, but doing their best to keep them together. The Blues’ biggest task was figuring out a new contract for Vladmir Tarasenko, who emerged as the team’s best forward last season, scoring 73 points in 77 games. They managed to do so, coming to terms on an eight year deal with a $7.5 million cap hit. Otherwise, they didn’t do much to improve on their roster. They were forced to swap T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer in a deal with the Capitals to save some cap space over the next couple seasons, and their only signing of note was a one year deal to Kyle Brodziak. Regardless, signing Tarasenko to a long term deal warrants giving the Blues a passing grade on the offseason. The Wild had a similar task, as Devan Dubnyk became a UFA on July 1. Dubnyk became an elite goalie in Minnesota last season, posting a 0.936 save percentage and 22.82 goals saved above average over 39 games. They managed to come to terms on a new six year deal with a $4.33 million cap hit, which could look like a bargain if Dubnyk comes even close to keeping up his 2014-15 numbers, especially considering 21 other goalies around the league make more money per season. While they didn’t do much to make themselves any better (no, Mike Reilly doesn’t count), signing Dubnyk to a reasonable deal is also enough to give Minnesota a pass this summer. The Predators managed to sign both Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro to new two year deals and they signed Craig Smith and Colin Wilson long term, giving them five and four year deals respectively. Although they let Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, and Anton Volchenkov walk as free agents, the Preds have a boat load of cap space floating if they want to make a big splash at the deadline. Hopefully if they do, it’ll work out better than the moves they made last year. Finally, we have the Jets, who are welcoming back Alexander Burmistrov after a two year hiatus in the KHL. Hopefully him, or one of their young forwards like Nikolaj Ehlers can make up for the loss of Michael Frolik, who left via free agency.
The loser in the Central Division is pretty obvious. After they won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, everybody knew the Hawks were going to have a rough offseason, as they were pressed right up against the cap with $10.5 million extensions to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane set to kick in. Now, one of those two guys is the middle of a criminal investigation. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, if he’s going to be suspended or not, but regardless, the Hawks are right in the middle of a public relations nightmare. Just recently, EA Sports dropped Kane from the cover of their upcoming NHL 16 video game, which was supposed to feature him and Jonathan Toews hoisting the Stanley Cup together. I don’t really want to go too much into detail about Kane’s legal situation, so here’s an article outlining some possible outcomes. As a result of their cap situation, the Hawks were forced to send RFA forward Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets and Patrick Sharp to the Stars. In return, they received Artem Anisimov, who was immediately given a five year extension with a $4.55 million cap hit, Ryan Garbutt, Trevor Daley, and a collection of prospects. They were also forced to let Johnny Oduya and Antoine Vermette walk because there wasn’t enough cap space left to fit them in. All in all, the Hawks didn’t do a bad job acquiring cheaper players to fit into their cap picture, but the Kane situation has raised a lot of question marks that the organization is going to have to deal with moving forward. I’m sure the Hawks are going to make the playoffs again next season, but nobody else in the division took as big of a hit as they did this summer.
It’s hard to believe that the team who boasts arguably the two best forwards in the league could have such a difficult time scoring. Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a very, very disappointing season largely because they struggled to score goals. They finished the season as a middle of the pack team in terms of goal scoring production, averaging 2.25 goals per 60 minutes at even strength even though they were one of the best teams in the league at out shooting and out chancing their opponents. The Penguins averaged three more shots per game than their opponents at even strength and also boasted the fifth highest Corsi For percentage in the league at 52.8. Long story short, they had a really tough time scoring goals even though they were a good team, especially down the stretch. The Penguins lost 11 of their last 15 games of the regular season and in that stretch, they only scored 26 goals. So what did they do to fix it? Well, they went out and acquired Phil Kessel — one of the best pure goal scorers in the league — and they’re going to slide him onto a line with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If that doesn’t going to help your team score goals, I don’t know what will. That deal alone was enough to call the Penguins one of the winners of the offseason, but they weren’t done there. They also traded Brandon Sutter to the Canucks for Nick Bonino, another forward who can help them score more goals, Adam Clendening, and a second round pick — which is a really nice haul for a forward who doesn’t produce much offensively. I know that their blue line isn’t overly impressive and they didn’t really do anything to improve it this summer, but the Pens have done a good job of putting together an offence that should be able to outscore just about anybody in the league.
I think it’s also reasonable to say that the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets should be considered winners this summer too. The Capitals came into the summer in a bit of a bind with Mike Green, Joel Ward, and Eric Fehr set to hit free agency, and Braden Holtby in need of a new RFA contract. They managed to sign their franchise goalie to a long term deal and they were able to make improvements to their forward group by signing Justin Williams to a really team friendly deal and trading Troy Brouwer to the Blues for T.J. Oshie. For as long as I can remember, the Caps have had a hell of a time finding somebody to form a dynamic trio with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. You have to think that one of Justin Williams, who boasted some incredible possession stats with the Kings, or T.J. Oshie will be able to do just that. Even though losing Mike Green’s offence from the blue line hurts, the Capitals are a better team than they were last year because of the upgrades they made up front. The Blue Jackets were riddled by injuries — to key players like Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray, Brandon Dubinsky, and Sergei Bobrovsky — last season, which is a big reason why they weren’t able to take a step forward after what appeared to be a breakout campaign in 2013-14. Their biggest move of their summer was trading for RFA forward Brandon Saad, who’s already won two Stanley Cups at the tender age of 22. Of course, whenever you trade for a player from a really good team like the Hawks, there’s bound to be some skepticism. Saad has logged most of his ice time over the past two seasons with Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews, but even when he isn’t playing with them, his underlying numbers remain strong which is reason to suggest that he’s pulling his own weight. A good season from Saad and some good luck in the health department should result in the Jackets finding their way back into the playoffs for the third time in franchise history.
I figure I’ll lump the New York Rangers and Islanders into the same middle category here as playoff teams from last year who didn’t really get any better, but also didn’t get worse. The Rangers and Islanders came into the offseason as two very different teams. On one hand, you have the Rangers, who aren’t in a great cap situation with a closing window of opportunity. On the other, you have the Islanders, who have a whole bunch of free cap space to spend, and just enjoyed a breakout season last year. The Rangers didn’t have the money to make upgrades, but they managed to sign Derek Stepan to a six year deal, meaning they have their top two centres, him and Derick Brassard, signed for the foreseeable future. Part of me wants to call them a loser because they’re still paying Tanner Glass $1.45 million to play hockey for them. But I won’t be that cruel. Like I said, the Islanders have a fair amount of cap room to improve their team, and after a nice breakout season, they could have easily gone out on a shortsighted spending spree. Instead, they stood pat, which is a great idea because Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen become UFAs next summer and Ryan Strome, among others, is in need of a new RFA deal.
Along with the New York dominated middle category, I’ll also lump the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and Carolina Hurricanes in the same category as non-playoff teams who didn’t really get any better, but didn’t do anything horribly wrong either. The Flyers did a pretty solid job in shedding cap space as they try to drag themselves out of cap hell. They unloaded Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger’s contracts, but they still have Andrew MacDonald, Vinny Lecavalier, and R.J. Umberger signed for five, three, and two more years respectively. The Devils signed Adam Larsson to a six year deal with a reasonable $4.167 million cap hit and added John Moore and Kyle Palmeri, two players who fit nicely into their young, rebuilding core. Carolina also added Noah Hanifin to their rebuilding core, and they’ll likely be adding another stud prospect come June. They’ll also have to make decisions on Eric Staal and Cam Ward, who are set to become UFAs at the end of the season. It’ll be interesting to see what direction the Hurricanes decide to take their franchise and whether or not those two fit into their plans at all. I’m not really sure who deserves to be considered a loser in the Metropolitan Division. All of the playoff teams from last year did enough to maintain their positions and none of the non-playoff teams made any horrific moves that jeopardize their future enough to warrant calling them losers. All four of the playoff teams from last year did enough to maintain their positions, the Blue Jackets look like they’ve improved themselves enough to work their way into that mix, and the other three teams, while at different stages of their rebuilding processes, have done a fair job at improving themselves, or not hurting themselves, in the long term. It was a good summer all around in the Metro.
I think this has to be the easiest one of them all. I mean, there really isn’t any doubt at all that the loser in the Atlantic Division this summer is the Boston Bruins after one of the most bizarre, confusing offseasons in recent memory. Where do I even begin? First of all, they traded Dougie Hamilton, who’s emerging as one of the best young defencemen in the game, to the Flames for a first round pick and two second round picks. Apparently they couldn’t come to a reasonable RFA deal with Hamilton, but he ended up signing a six year deal with a cap hit of $5.75 million in Calgary, so I’m not really too sure what exactly the problem was. I think the worst part about apparently losing Hamilton over money is the fact they signed Adam McQuaid to a four year deal with a $2.75 million cap hit and Matt Beleskey to a five year deal with a $3.8 million cap hit. Had they not signed those two, they feasibly could have given Hamilton exactly what the Flames gave him and had some change left over to trade for a terrible player like Zac Rinadlo. Unfortunately for once proud Bruins fans, they only did one of those two things. They did make one good move though, which was sending Milan Lucic, who’s one year away from free agency, to the Kings for Martin Jones and a first round pick. That move gave them their third pick in the first round of the deep 2015 draft, which is a nice way to start a rebuild. Fair enough if you want to rebuild your franchise, but why on earth would you not find a way to come up with the money to sign a player like Dougie Hamilton? Isn’t he the type of player you’d want to build your team around?
So why I did I start this section with the Atlantic Division’s biggest loser this summer? I figured that it would be nice for the fans of the other teams in the division to read that first, because no matter how their summer went, it was better than the one the Bruins had. I’ll move on to the teams in the middle now. First of all, the Ottawa Senators look like a team who had a disappointing summer. Last year, they went on an incredible fly by night run into the playoffs thanks to a video game level performance from Andrew Hammond. Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything this summer to get better. That isn’t actually a bad thing, though. The Senators, although they made the playoffs, are still a young, rebuilding team. They’re also an internal budget team that needs to be smart with the money they spend in order to be successful. They didn’t allow a season in which they overachieved to trick them into making any emotionally driven signings or trades that could potentially come back to bite them in the face a few years from now, and for that, they deserve a pat on the back. There’s a decent chance the Sens fall out of the playoffs next season, but they’re still a young team with a nice cap situation moving forward, which is a reason to be excited. Also in the middle are the Florida Panthers, who didn’t make any horrible signings for the first time in a few years. They didn’t do much, but standing pat is a lot better than handing out a five year, $27.5 million contract to Dave Bolland. So yeah, pat on the back to the Panthers who look like they’re finally building something worthwhile in Sunrise.
In terms of winners, we have two categories: playoff teams who will continue to be playoff teams, and non-playoff teams who made really good moves to push them in the right direction. I’ll start with the first group of winners: the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Tampa Bay Lightning, who were playoff teams last year who did enough to more than likely be playoff teams again this year. Detroit may have lost head coach Mike Babcock, but they added Brad Richards and Mike Green, who are clear upgrades on the players they let go. I don’t really see a reason to suggest the Red Wings are going to have their 24 year playoff streak snapped, so that’s enough to say they had a pretty successful summer. Same goes for the Canadiens, who made a couple of nice low key moves, like signing Alexander Semin to a one year, $1 million deal and swapping Brandon Prust for Zack Kassian, making the team slightly younger and cheaper in the process. Rounding out the middling winners are the Tampa Bay Lightning. The only thing they really did this summer was replace Brenden Morrow with Erik Condra. There wasn’t much more they could do, because they’re pressed right up against the cap and Steven Stamkos becomes a UFA next summer, but they’re still arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, so they didn’t really have to do anything to be honest.
Finally, we have the other group of winners in the Atlantic Division’s offseason: the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Although they probably aren’t good enough to be playoff teams yet, both the Sabres and Leafs made moves that’ll help them be competitive this season and down the road. The Sabres made a two huge improvements via trade, acquiring Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche and Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators. Of course, the biggest acquisition of the summer was drafting Jack Eichel, who might be the second best prospect to come along since Sidney Crosby. Had it not been for Connor McDavid, he easily would have been the first overall pick in the draft and anybody in the league would have been thrilled to have him. Picking up O’Reilly helps the Sabres get better right now, and it helps Eichel’s individual development as a player because it takes pressure off of him having to be the best centre on the team as he adjusts to playing in the NHL. Once he does establish himself as a top line centre, O’Reilly can slide down the depth chart and go back to being the elite second line centre he was in Colorado. Some may suggest that the Leafs were losers this offseason because they traded Phil Kessel (and retained some of his salary) for a somewhat underwhelming return. But the Leafs are a rebuilding team who clearly didn’t view Kessel as a part of their future plans. Right or wrong, they decided he wasn’t the type of player they were going to win with, and now they can start building a team without him. As of right now, the Leafs boast one of the best prospect pools in the league, and they’re in a great position to improve it. They went out and made a bunch of Moneyball style signings of good depth players — Daniel Winnik P.A. Parenteau, Shawn Matthias, Mark Arcobello — on short and cheap contracts who can easily be flipped at the deadline for more draft picks. But the biggest reason why the Leafs are winners this offseason is the fact they landed possibly the most coveted free agent of the summer: Mike Babcock. Babcock is known for his ability to develop prospects nicely, which is exactly what the Leafs need in order to finally do this rebuild thing properly.
STATS COURTESY OF HOCKEY REFERENCE AND WAR ON ICE.