About one third of NHL teams have been eerily quiet this off-season. Should their fans be worried about the lack of activity?
August marks hockey’s “silly season.” Very little happens. And idle hands are the devils’ playthings, right? Countless blog commenters and Twitter trolls dust off the “Slow news day?” insult whenever we find something to talk about. During the month before NHL training camps begin, fan bases twiddle their thumbs. And think. And overthink. And worry.
“Why hasn’t my team DONE anything this off-season?”
You know who you are. You, from that city with the sandwich everyone needs to try. Your team has been uncomfortably quiet this off-season, with nary a big trade or free agent splash. Should you panic over your team’s 2016-17 outlook? Or will you end up patting your favorite GM on the back for staying the course?
Here’s a rundown of the summer’s most tranquil teams – and whether their fan bases should worry.
The Penguins had little to change this off-season after winning the Stanley Cup, and they aren’t your typical champion. They went off like a supernova at mid-season when Mike Sullivan took over as head coach and changed the way the team played. So it’s possible we haven’t even seen these Penguins peak yet, believe it or not. They blossomed in the aggressive attacking system, which emphasized north-south puck movement and shot attempts. Even with unsigned veteran center Matt Cullen questionable at best to return and veteran blueliner Ben Lovejoy off to New Jersey as a free agent, the holes they leave in Pittsburgh’s lineup aren’t worrisome. Sullivan’s system has shown it can make somebody out of perceived nobodies. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust jumped from the AHL to make crucial contributions as top-nine forwards last season, as did Oilers castoff Justin Schultz on defense.
The Pens thus shouldn’t have a problem replacing their minor departures. Maybe rookie right winger Daniel Sprong sticks in the NHL this time. Maybe Derrick Pouliot proves himself an NHL-ready defenseman. Reigning GM of the year Jim Rutherford has to hope so, as his team has zero cap space to speak of. That’s why he’s been quiet this off-season. The only major move to anticipate is a trade of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but that likely would’ve happened by now if it was going to before 2016-17 commences.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts are an odd pick for a blog on teams doing nothing this off-season, as GM Steve Yzerman has been as busy as anyone. It’s just that all his major moves were internal. Tampa convinced franchise pillars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, unrestricted free agents this summer and next, respectively, to stay. They took what look like discounts on paper given their perceived value, but Florida’s tax breaks offset that. Yzerman locked up restricted free agents Alex Killorn and Vlad Namestnikov, too, plus RFA Andrei Vasilevskiy a year in advance. Next up is Nikita Kucherov. So it’s understandable why the Lightning’s most noteworthy new arrival is Jeremy Morin. Adding bodies wasn’t a priority financially.
The Bolts are not only stacked, but they’re also stacked with players just entering their primes or smack in the middle. They have a championship-caliber roster already. It was just a matter of keeping the talent in town. Like the Penguins, the Lightning have a goaltender to trade, likely Ben Bishop, but no move appears to be imminent.
The Caps didn’t do absolutely nothing. They replaced free agent departure Jason Chimera by trading for Lars Eller, who lacks Chimera’s grit but is a more versatile player and 10 years younger.
Washington fans just watched their team win the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best regular season record in one of the most dominant campaigns in recent memory – only to lose in the second round of the post-season yet again. So some restlessness over GM Brian MacLellan’s quiet summer is understandable. But it’s not necessary. The Caps should continue to grow internally. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov is just breaking out as a star NHL scorer, and left winger Andre Burakovsky may be next on the team to do so. Madison Bowey is a promising prospect to watch on defense. He could be a game changer if he makes the Caps this season. And, really, there wasn’t money left to pursue additional help. Washington has $3.45 million in cap space and has to re-sign RFA Dmitry Orlov.
The Jets aren’t sitting pretty as Stanley Cup contenders like the teams listed above them but, to me, they’re justified in making bottom-six forward Shawn Matthias their biggest off-season acquisition. They had to leave a spot on the roster for the Next Big Thing.
Patrik Laine, drafted second overall, should immediately challenge for the Calder Trophy as a game-changing shooter. He joins a team that now belongs to franchise center Mark Scheifele and impressive sophomore Nikolaj Ehlers. And it’s almost time for that elite farm system to take over in Winnipeg. Connor Hellebuyck is good enough to start in net if this team can just get out of its own way and bump Ondrej Pavelec aside. And the Jets could get meaningful contributions up front from some combination of Marko Dano, Kyle Connor, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux and Nic Petan this season.
The Jets’ top priority this off-season was locking up Scheifele, an RFA, long term. They did just that for eight years at a palatable $6.13-million cap hit. They have more than $10 million remaining in cap space but have to solve quite a conundrum with RFA blueliner Jacob Trouba. Seeing that youngsters like Ehlers and Laine will need new deals in the next few years, the Jets were wise to avoid frivolous free agent pursuits this summer.
TRY TO REMAIN CALM, BUT…
Weren’t the Ducks supposed to be an ideal landing spot for big-ticket free agent wingers like Loui Eriksson, Kyle Okposo and Andrew Ladd? Anaheim lost David Perron, Jamie McGinn, Brandon Pirri and Chris Stewart as UFAs. Mason Raymond is the lone replacement for that group…and that’s not OK.
The Ducks have an enviable young stable of defensemen, from Hampus Lindholm to Cam Fowler to Sami Vatanen to Shea Theodore, plus a great goaltender to rely on for years to come in John Gibson. That doesn’t mean this team is in “win later” mode, however. Star forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are 31. Shutdown center Ryan Kesler turns 32 before the start of the season. The Ducks fired Bruce Boudreau and brought back Randy Carlyle as coach, and Carlyle has a history of deferring to veterans. The Ducks have a window to contend right now and, even though GM Bob Murray has to devote off-season spending to crucial contract extensions for RFAs Lindholm and Rickard Rakell, it’s a downer to see so few repairs to the forward corps. The Ducks can’t afford to waste the last years of Getzlaf’s and Perry’s primes.
Seeing Anaheim’s blueline is so deep it barely has room to deploy the NHL-ready Theodore, how about trading someone from that group? Still waiting on a Cam-Fowler-for-a-forward trade.
Los Angeles Kings
Dress up the Teddy Purcell signing all you want. In our collective heart of hearts we know he won’t replace Milan Lucic. The Kings are forever dangerous under coach Darryl Sutter, as they play such a strong possession game, but their forward group looks shallower than it has in years. Will prospect left winger Adrian Kempe make a permanent jump to the NHL this season? Quite possibly, but it’s concerning if L.A. is depending on that rather than merely hoping. Same goes for the Chicago Blackhawks with Nick Schmaltz.
Newbies Purcell, Michael Latta and Tom Gilbert are no match for the Kings’ departures, which include Lucic, Kris Versteeg, Vincent Lecavalier and Jamie McBain. It sure seems like L.A. got worse this off-season.
St. Louis Blues
Trading away Brian Elliott was the right move. Jake Allen hasn’t been quite as good on a per-game basis but was always the long-term starter. It’s time to give him his chance. The off-season departure that stings the most is obviously that of captain David Backes. The Blues might maintain their effectiveness as a team given last year’s great rookie contributors, Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, should only get better. But it’s inaccurate to say the Blues are better positioned for a Cup run in 2016-17 than they were in 2015-16. Bringing back David Perron doesn’t trump the loss of Backes and his all-around game up the middle, not to mention that of hulking right winger Troy Brouwer, who came up huge in the 2016 playoffs.
The Avs didn’t face the pressure to improve befitting a contender, as they’re fresh off a second straight playoff miss. It should nevertheless alarm their fans to see D-men Patrick Wiercioch and Fedor Tyutin and right winger Joe Colborne headline Colorado’s list of off-season “gets.” This franchise has a fundamental problem: shot attempts and team defense. Per corsica.hockey, the Avs finished dead last in score- and venue-adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 at 63.42 percent. In layman’s terms: they got absolutely peppered with shot attempts night in and night out. They’ve ranked 27th, 24th, 29th and 30th in that stat over the past four seasons.
In other words, Colorado needs a major influx of defensive help, especially if it refuses to consider removing Patrick Roy as head coach. Seeing such minor additions to their blueline all but ensures more of the same in 2016-17. How can we expect anything less than a last-place finish in the vicious Central Division?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus and GM Jarmo Kekalainen have painted themselves into a corner. They have nine rostered players making at least $4 million annually. Of that group, only Brandon Saad made the All-Star Game last season. Their expensive core has underachieved. David Clarkson’s $5.25-million cap hit is virtually unmovable. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s $7.425-million AAV has become an anchor as he repeatedly succumbs to soft-tissue injuries.
The Jackets simply could not spend on talent this off-season. They’re almost maxed out against the cap. They extended their star D-man, Seth Jones, and that’s about it. They can only hope their overpriced veterans play to their potential. Otherwise, they can expect to compete in the draft lottery for a second straight June.
A team that snatched the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference counts Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon and T.J. Brennan as its top additions. It will likely depend on a formerly buried contract, a player returning from serious surgery and a rookie to hold down its blueline. The Flyers’ forward corps consists of several high-impact players in their primes: Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn. This is a team ready to make immediate noise if it gets a shot in the arm, particularly on defense.
But…nothing of note this summer. While GM Ron Hextall likely didn’t want to overspend and didn’t have a ton of cap space to do so, the lack of a major splash could end up nudging Philly out of a playoff position.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin