Since the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup in June, the landscape of the NHL has changed as a result of the entry draft, trades, and signings. With tomorrow marking one month since the opening of free agency, Sean Meyers and Patrick Williams provide an overview of the most notable action of the offseason.
1. What has been the biggest surprise of the NHL offseason?
SM: The sudden and unexpected “retirement” of Ilya Kovalchuk. Although Kovalchuk is not the first player to bolt to the KHL, he is by far the most significant. Even more surprising, he left behind a massive contract with the New Jersey Devils that would have paid him nearly $80 million over the next 12 seasons. The Devils organization must’ve been shocked as well, as Kovalchuk waited until about a week after free agency began to announce his plans. Perhaps this defection will open the door to many other marquee European players leaving the NHL to return home.
Another surprising move was the signing of Vincent Lacavalier by the Philadelphia Flyers. Although Lacavalier is still a very good player, the Flyers have much more pressing needs. I was shocked to learn that a team with almost no room under the salary cap signed a 33-year-old forward for more than $20 million.
PW: Quite simply, I would have to say that the retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk from the NHL is by far the biggest surprise of the offseason to many people. Nothing much shocks me in sports these days, but a star athlete walking away from the game in their prime is still something that does turn my head. This case was different though. Kovalchuk wasn’t walking away from the game, just the league. Averaging a point per game over his career and mostly doing so on putrid teams, Kovalchuk held several teams hostage when he demanded his big contract in the summer of 2010. He then fine-tuned his game enough to help New Jersey get to the finals, only to lose to the Kings. For a player that was often criticized of being offensive-minded and not giving it his all at times, he seemed to be making his new role work in the Devils defensive-minded system. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he up and leaves, completely leaving a gaping hole in the Devils offense for years to come.
Now, the even more peculiar part to me about all of this is the way the Devils seemed to not be surprised, or care, for that matter. Devils president Lou Lamoriello seemed as if this was perhaps doing him a favor, as if the cash strapped franchise was looking for an easy out in dealing with a long contract that extended another 12 years and owed Ilya $77 million over that time. And maybe that is the case here. Maybe it was mutually beneficial for both sides to do this. Regardless, it was weird to me and the lack of overall hype that came with it seemed to be just as weird.
The way I see it, Kovalchuk has every right to walk away when he wants if he is not going to be paid. However, he quit on his team, one that he bent over a barrel in trying to get a record-breaking deal done. The team is still paying the price to the league with a loss of a draft pick as compensation for “circumventing the salary cap” (something that I didn’t agree with either, but we will save that for another day). Kovalchuk certainly only seemed to be thinking of himself and if I were a Devils fan, I would probably have some disdain for him moving forward for not only quitting on my team, but for the timing of the whole situation. Had he made his decision just a week or two earlier, the Devils could have used his money to retain David Clarkson and perhaps even go out and make another move or two in the free agent market that would have allowed them to at least compete this season.
2. Which teams have been the biggest winners/losers this offseason?
SM: I have a hard time picking any unquestioned “winners” of the offseason, because frankly I believe most of the free agent contracts given out were ludicrous and will hamper the teams in the long run. The Chicago Blackhawks get top grades from me, not because they improved, but because they managed to keep the majority of their Stanley Cup winning team in tact. Although Victor Stalberg left for Nashville, retaining Bryan Bickell for $4 million per year was a bargain for the Hawks. Bickell, only 27-years-old, is coming off a dominant postseason run. He’s young, big and played a key role in winning a Stanley Cup. Very few players in the league can boast those attributes.
Although Toronto and Detroit are popular choices because they added some notable players by spending a significant amount of money, I think both squads made only moderate short-term gains while compromising long-term flexibility. Chicago also retained restricted free agents like Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger, and extended the contract of Head Coach Joel Quenneville.
The biggest loser of this offseason has to be the Vancouver Canucks. After another disappointing playoff exit, the Canucks made perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason, shipping netminder Cory Schneider to New Jersey for the ninth-overall pick in this year’s draft. This move returns the Canucks’ goaltending job to the struggling Roberto Luongo. Trading Schneider and keeping Luongo is a baffling decision to me. I realize that Schneider probably had much more trade value, but Vancouver really made the wrong move here. Schneider was considerably younger and cheaper, and for the past two seasons, has been the superior goalie. Furthermore, Vancouver made almost no impact moves to improve its team after losing Derek Roy. The Canucks’ biggest splash was signing Brad Richardson. This offseason will almost certainly remove the Canucks from legitimate Cup contenders.
PW: Well, with all that being said about Ilya Kovalchuk, I would have to say that the Devils are probably the biggest losers thus far, in my mind. It is hard for me to pick out winners though. There has been some lateral movement, or just movement that I didn’t foresee coming. The Tampa Bay Lightning bought out long time captain Vincent Lecavalier, a move that probably needed to happen being that Lecavalier was not living up to his hefty contract. Still, it was hard seeing the face of a franchise leave town in the Bay area and then even harder watching Steve Yzerman throw just about as nearly of an asinine contract at Valtteri Filppula to replace him.
In Ottawa, we watched long time captain Daniel Alfredsson leave in an attempt to pursue a cup run with the Red Wings. However, the Sens then brought in Bobby Ryan. Not that they didn’t give up major compensation to get him (Stefan Noesen, Jakob Silfverberg, and a first round pick to the Anaheim Ducks), but that should help them in the short and long term.
The Canucks made a move in the goaltending department, but it wasn’t the one that everyone was waiting for. They also made a major shakeup by bringing in coach John Tortorella. The Flyers moved some things around and bought out one crazy goaltender only to leave a question mark with the two on the roster as to whether they can do any better with the team in front of them (they also signed the aforementioned Lecavalier) The Sabres did absolutely nothing, making them losers in my mind. The Stars hired a decent coach (Lindy Ruff) but still have question marks galore on their roster. And the Hawks and Bruins lost several pieces of their teams that appeared in the finals this year, but then the B’s finally signed Jarome Iginla to what should be a very affordable contract. And these are just some of the big things that happened.
So, there is a lot of movement, but no team really established themselves as a big winner in the offseason. If I had to choose one I would have to say the Toronto Maple Leafs, I suppose. They landed Kings goalie Jonathan Bernier and ex-Blackhawks center Dave Bolland, as well as re-signed Tyler Bozak and brought in David Clarkson from the Devils. They were seemingly going in the right direction when the wheels fell off in the last period of game 7 against the Bruins (sorry for bringing that up, Leafs fans) so there is some hope in Toronto that they can make an even deeper run this next year. Time will tell.
3. Which players have been the biggest winners/loser this offseason?
SM: Free-agents 35 years old and over proved to be the winners of this offseason. It’s hard to fathom Daniel Alfredsson, 40, will likely receive $5.5 million next season in Detroit. Likewise, Jarome Iginla will earn $6 million from the Bruins if he meets his incentives. For the second straight year, Jaromir Jagr, now 41, will earn $4 million. The Flyers inked 35-year-old Mark Streit to a 4-year, $21 million contract after acquiring his rights from the Islanders. Meanwhile, the Islanders paid Evgeni Nabakov over $3 million despite a subpar playoff performance by the netminder. Perhaps because of the scarcity of proven talent available in free agency, teams did not hesitate this offseason to give lucrative deals to players well past their prime.
The player who lost the most this offseason is Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer. Despite carrying his team to the postseason and nearly upsetting the Bruins last season, Reimer lost his job when the Leafs traded for Jonathan Bernier in June. Although Reimer figures to still see a decent amount of action, the 25-year-old appeared to be headed towards stardom in Toronto. Now, he will likely be relegated to a backup role unless Toronto deals him away. The good news for Reimer, however, is that he still has a very attractive wife.
PW: This is a tougher question just simply because it is hard to define what makes a player a winner or loser. If getting paid makes you a winner then the Flyers’ Vincent Lecavalier is “the man”. He got bought out by one team and got overpaid by yet another to be a second line center that doesn’t have to score goals.
I’d say James Reimer of the Leafs got the biggest shaft of the offseason. He had a pretty decent year and looked to be ready to make his way towards establishing himself as a solid goalie in the league (2.46 goals against average, .924 save percentage in 2013) when the Leafs decided to get Bernier from the Kings. Now he will have to split time in the pipes, at the very least.
4. What is the biggest question mark or unsettled aspect of the offseason?
SM: If, and where, Tim Thomas will play. The former Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup winning goalie sat out the entire 2013 season, but indicated his desire to return to the ice for this upcoming campaign. Thomas was suspended by the Bruins, and subsequently traded to the Islanders during last season, but never suited up. Now as a free agent, he can choose to sign wherever he desires, but his options may be very limited. Teams like Philadelphia and Minnesota that had goaltending questions following last season have already addressed those needs. As a result, Thomas may elect to wait and see if any starting goalies around the league struggle or sustain injury.
In addition, several teams must make moves to accommodate a surplus of salary or roster spots. Pittsburgh and Detroit, in particular, could be teams to keep an eye on. The Pens must shed salary before the season starts, and General Manager Ray Shero may attempt to move a defenseman. Paul Martin could probably net the most in return through a trade, although Matt Niskanen could be replaced easier. Likewise, the Red Wings have too many forwards under contract, and will need to trade or release a few of them. Johan Franzen, Jordin Tootoo, Patrick Eaves and highly-touted youngster Tomas Tatar could all potentially have a new home by October.
PW: The biggest question mark to me is going to be with the Penguins. Ray Shero tried his best to keep a solid team intact, but it is also a team that got manhandled against the bigger Bruins. Does Pittsburgh have the talent needed to win a cup? Probably, but they need to show they can do it again. There is a strong doubt that even if they manage to all stay healthy long enough to play in the playoffs that they may not have what it takes to get over the “hump” and take it all. They didn’t look good outside of the Ottawa series in the playoffs, and with the losses of Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla, and Douglas Murray, they seemingly got weaker in several key areas. They will need to fill those gaps with young prospects and also get some solid goaltending out of both Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. Their biggest issue will be with the depth at defense and whether or not they can play a more consistent style once the playoffs roll around, one that starts in their own end with cleaning up the defensive zone and then breaks-out properly and efficiently to lead to a counter attack and sustainable offensive pressure.
With the new alignment it will be interesting to see how things pan out over the course of this season. Several teams are waiting until next year to make major moves, as the cap number will surely rise and rise significantly. I think a lot of teams were caught in between the transition and must wait things out to see how the market plays out going into next season. We may see a big trade deadline flurry of movement this season, though, since we didn’t get the big movement that people are used to in this offseason with so many teams being at or near the salary cap. It will be an interesting watch, that is for certain.