There’s no guarantee an off-season acquisition is going to pay dividends, and no team has seen both sides of the spectrum quite like the Calgary Flames through the first quarter of the current campaign.
You see, on one hand, Calgary has been absolutely delighted by the addition of Elias Lindholm. Picked up in a significant swap that sent Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to the Flames in exchange for Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland, who were bound for the Hurricanes, the 23-year-old winger has been the perfect fit for Calgary under his former Carolina bench boss, Bill Peters. On the heels of a solid 16-goal, 44-point campaign, Lindholm has shot out of the gate with 11 goals and 23 points in 22 games, all the while he’s been logging the heaviest minutes of any Flames forward. His 20:41 ice time average is nearly half a minute higher than even Johnny Gaudreau’s per-game minutes.
But the inverse of Lindholm, the summer acquisition who has fallen flat, is James Neal. The veteran winger was brought in as an unrestricted free agent on a five-year, $28.75-million pact with hopes he could provide second- or even top-line scoring punch as he had done with the Vegas Golden Knights and Nashville Predators in recent years. Neal’s production has absolutely fallen flat, however, and his contract is starting to look like one of the summer’s most regrettable. He has just three goals and four points in 22 games, and after logging 17:11 per game last season in Sin City, his ice time has dipped by a hair short of two minutes per outing.
Luckily for the league’s 31 teams, though, there have been far more Lindholms than there are Neals through the first 20-plus games of the season. So, with that in mind — and striking Lindholm from the list — who are five off-season acquisitions who have helped drive their clubs this season?
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s so little shocking about Tavares’ success in Toronto that it almost doesn’t warrant mentioning. That said, it’s impossible to leave the highest-scoring summer addition off the list. Tavares has been worth every cent of his blockbuster seven-year, $77-million contract, especially in the wake of the shoulder injury that has sidelined phenom Auston Matthews for nearly a month.
Offensively, Tavares has been unassailable. Currently riding a streak of goals in seven of his past nine games, the 28-year-old center is up to 14 goals and 26 points in 22 outings, which has put him on pace to set a pair of career-best marks. If he keeps scoring at this rate, he’s primed to end the year with 52 goals and 97 points. But it’s Tavares’ underrated play away from the puck, his defensive responsibility, that has made him as much a worthwhile addition as anything. He has driven play at a rate better than any other forward, and Toronto has a better goals for percentage with Tavares on ice than they do with any other player at five-a-side.
Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens
To call it a hunch that Domi would rediscover his scoring touch would be to give the Canadiens’ front office no credit, but it’d be foolish to believe that Montreal was expecting him to play anywhere near this level. That’s not a knock on Domi, either, but the 23-year-old entered this season having scored 36 goals and 135 points in 222 games with the Arizona Coyotes. That’s a rate of about .16 goals and .61 points per game. Compare that to Domi’s numbers through 22 games and the difference borders on mind-blowing: he has 11 goals and 26 points, a rate of .50 goal per game and 1.18 points per game. How’s that for significant improvement?
Domi has been an offensive powerhouse for the Canadiens, boasting a seven-point lead on the next-highest Montreal scorer — Jonathan Drouin, eight goals and 19 points. Domi is also staring down a 41-goal, 97-point season. Even if Domi’s scoring rate slows down by the end of the season, and that seems likely, he’s heading for a career year.
Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres
It was a perceived fit, and while perception and reality don’t always line up, they most certainly have in Buffalo. Skinner was thought to be the perfect addition to the Sabres’ top line, the high-scoring winger that Buffalo needed to play alongside Jack Eichel, and the numbers Skinner has put up speak volumes about how bang-on that assessment was. In 22 games, Skinner has 15 goals and 23 points, and not only do those totals put him on pace for the best numbers of his career, they see the 26-year-old more than halfway to last season’s goal total and nearly halfway to last season’s point total in 60 fewer games. Think about that for a second.
The big concern with Skinner is what his play now means for the future. Obviously, with the way he’s produced, the Sabres are going to want to hold onto the winger with both hands. He is a big reason for Buffalo’s success this season. But as a pending unrestricted free agent, Skinner’s numbers this season are going to make retaining him far more costly than it would have been had he signed an extension in, say, September.
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
There were plenty of reasons to consider O’Reilly a top-tier acquisition by the Blues. He was a replacement, in a sense, for the departed Paul Stastny, who had been traded at the 2017-18 trade deadline and subsequently signed with the Vegas Golden Knights. O’Reilly brings with him tremendous defensive acumen, and he’s been long undervalued as a two-way player who’s defensively responsible and offensively consistent. There was also the matter of O’Reilly’s discipline, which shouldn’t go overlooked. In more than 650 games entering this season, he had 84 penalty minutes.
But what O’Reilly has somewhat surprisingly provided is true first-line offensive production.
Entering this season, O’Reilly’s career-best campaigns over his nine-season career saw him post 28 goals and 64 points. He was considered a steady 20-goal, 55-point player. However, he’s in line to smash those numbers this season, already registering 10 goals and 23 points in 20 outings this season. Beyond leading St. Louis in all three scoring categories, O’Reilly is now on pace for a 41-goal, 94-point season. Will he hit either total? Likely not, but a 30-goal, 70-point campaign — twin career-high marks — seems well within the realm of possibility.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings
While it’s probably best to stop short of associating the term “high-scoring” with anything related to the Kings, Los Angeles’ decision to pursue former Rocket Richard Trophy winner Ilya Kovalchuk has panned out. All right, so the Kings are mired in the Western Conference basement and have the lowest point total in the NHL to go along with the fewest goals for, but imagine where this club would be without Kovalchuk, who is Los Angeles’ scoring leader through the first quarter of the campaign.
Kovalchuk, who spent the past five seasons in the KHL, isn’t going to be adding another Rocket to his trophy case anytime soon, but his five goals and 14 points are tidy point totals in his first campaign back in the bigs. In fact, if he keeps this up, he’s going to end up with 20 goals and 55 points in his return the NHL. That would signal an offensive downturn from his best years, true, but considering Kovalchuk, a regular 30-goal scorer during his prime, will be days away from his 36th birthday when the campaign ends, those are pretty solid offensive numbers.