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The Top 10 NHL Trades of 2021

Unprecedented roster turnover made 2021 a wildly memorable calendar year for major deals. Which ones will still have us talking years from now?
Dubois and Laine

The 2021 calendar year gifted us with the perfect storm of NHL roster turnover. The ripple effect of the salary-cap flattening in 2020 meant more short-term contracts and thus more expiring contracts, creating extra rental-trade opportunities at the 2021 deadline. After the 2020-21 season, the Seattle Kraken expansion draft left teams scrambling to meet their exposure requirements or make deals to ensure they didn’t lose assets for nothing. As a result, we saw 107 trades in the 2021, up from 83 in 2020.

Sorting through a whopping 107 deals makes it difficult to produce a top-10 list of the best ones made in the past year. Many high-profile trades didn’t make the cut, such as a three-team blockbuster that sent Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers and a “hockey trade” of Cam Atkinson for Jakub Voracek.

My key criteria for parsing out the top 10 were a combination of: (a) trades that produced clear winners and made immediately palpable impacts; (b) high-profile moves that made headlines; and (c) deals that had major long-term implications.

It’s an inexact science, of course, all in good fun, so feel free to disagree with the choices.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning acquire defenseman David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets, as part of a three-team trade with the Detroit Red Wings, for the Lightning's 2021 first-round pick (later traded to Chicago) and a 2021 third-round pick

The list wouldn’t feel complete without a trade that helped a team win a championship. The rugged Savard struggled a bit early in the 2021 post-season but found his shutdown groove as Tampa progressed. In the final two rounds against the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens, the Bolts held significant advantages at 5-on-5 in scoring chances and high-danger shot attempts with Savard on the ice. He left as a UFA but proved a worthwhile rental.

9. Florida Panthers acquire center Sam Bennett and a 2022 sixth-round pick from the Calgary Flames for left winger Emil Heineman and a 2022 second-round pick

Bennett was a perpetual underachiever from the moment Calgary drafted him fourth overall in 2014, especially because he would tease with strong playoff performances. The Panthers and GM Bill Zito saw potential they could unlock in Bennett, and it was night and day once he joined them. With a much larger ice-time share, he went off for six goals and 15 points in 10 games and averaged a point per game in the playoffs. He may never realize the potential that earned him all those Doug Gilmour comparisons in his draft year, but he’s established himself as a valuable member of Florida’s core.

8. Detroit Red Wings acquire goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic from the Carolina Hurricanes for goaltender Jonathan Bernier and a 2021 third-round pick (Aidan Hreschuk)

Why did the Hurricanes gift the Red Wings a Calder Trophy finalist? Reportedly, Carolina felt his ask of $3.5 million was too high and dealt him because he was arbitration eligible. The Wings swooped in and got ‘Ned,’ who had a .932 save percentage last season and ranked second among all qualified goalies in 5-on-5 goals saved above average per 60, for just $3 million a year. Anyone predicting he’d get a reality check playing on a rebuilding team is digesting crow. He held a .918 SP into mid-December despite getting significantly less defensive support than he had in Carolina.

All the Hurricanes ended up with was the third-rounder, as they couldn’t work out a deal with Bernier.

“We tried to make something work, the terms, and it just didn’t work,” Bernier told me in the off-season. “Especially for a goalie, it’s a great system, they have a great team, good defensive team and it would’ve been a big change from (Detroit) to there. But it’s a business, and they have a competitive team, so they had an amount and terms in their head they didn’t want to go over, so it just didn’t work out for both of us.”

7. Vancouver Canucks acquire defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and right winger Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes for left winger Loui Eriksson, center Jay Beagle, left winger Antoine Roussel and a 2021 first-round pick (Dylan Guenther), a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 seventh-round pick

Making like Rick Dalton at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong busted out the flamethrower and torched what was left of the previous regime’s roster structure. He miraculously got out from under the Ekman-Larsson contract, which had six years left, while only retaining $990,000 of the $8.25-million AAV. Armstrong also got the Coyotes back into the first round after they’d forfeited their original pick for their recruiting violation. If we celebrate a Coyotes turnaround in a few years, we’ll likely look back on this deal as a catalyst.

As for the Canucks’ side of the ledger here…well, the GM who made the move, Jim Benning, was out of a job less than five months later.

6. Washington Capitals acquire right winger Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings for left winger Jakub Vrana, right winger Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick (Wyatt Johnston) and 2022 second-round pick

Maybe this deal has faded from memory since Vrana has missed this whole season after shoulder surgery and Mantha got 10 games in before landing on LTIR. Last season, however, it was quite the 11th-hour hockey trade. Vrana was one of the league’s most efficient scorers as a Capital, but his ice time was always criminally low. He immediately earned top-line minutes upon arrival in Motown and exploded for eight goals in 11 games. Mantha, meanwhile, had his moments in Washington’s top six. If it weren’t for Vrana’s major injury, the Wings would look like a clear winner so far given they also netted a first-round pick.

5. Chicago Blackhawks acquire goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from the Vegas Golden Knights for forward Mikael Hakkarainen

Fleury became the first goalie in 20 years to win a Vezina Trophy and play his next game with a new team. That alone was jaw-dropping news, but even more shocking was Vegas’ infamously clumsy handling of the deal, which was leaked on social media before Fleury knew about it. The Golden Knights were committing long-term to the younger Robin Lehner in net and wanted to sweep the final year of Fleury’s deal at $7 million out of the way so they could pursue a big name – which turned out to be Jack Eichel months later. It set up what could’ve been the most exciting Goalie Revenge Narrative since Patrick Roy in 1995-96. Instead, the Blackhawks flopped so badly out of the gate that they likely won’t recover in time to make the playoffs. Will they move Fleury to a contender as a rental piece? Everyone knows the Edmonton Oilers need him more than anyone.

4. Boston Bruins acquire left winger Taylor Hall and center Curtis Lazar from the Buffalo Sabres for left winger Anders Bjork and a 2021 second-round pick (Aleksandr Kisakov)

Freed from a truly nightmarish half-season in Buffalo, Hall almost instantly rediscovered his confidence and scoring touch as a Bruin, striking up nice chemistry with David Krejci and Craig Smith on Boston’s second line. That trio balanced out an offense that had been relying on Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak to score almost half its goals. Hall hasn’t been as effective this season with Krejci returning home to play in the Czech Republic, but Hall is signed long-term at a winning-means-more-than-money cap hit of $6 million.

3. Chicago Blackhawks acquire defenseman Seth Jones, a 2021 first-round pick (Nolan Allan) and a 2022 sixth-round pick from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Adam Boqvist, a 2021 first-round pick (Cole Sillinger) and a 2021 second-round pick (Aleksi Heimosalmi).

It’s too early to know if one or both sides will regret this move, but it has to crack the top three after it fundamentally altered two franchises’ trajectories. For the Blue Jackets, it meant GM Jarmo Kekalainen embracing a rebuild. In one move, he landed a first-round blueline talent with lots of unrealized potential in Boqvist and secured a legitimately exciting prospect up front with the Sillinger pick.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, committed to an eight-year deal at a $9.5-million AAV as part of a sign and trade. It signified that they felt ready to start contending again.

A lot has happened since then, eh? Jones has a new interim coach and GM already. It remains to be seen if he can get his defensive play back on track over a full season, but he’s at the very least putting up points at a career-best rate.

“Chicago’s always been a fascinating city for me, an exciting city,” Jones told me before the season started. “Just playing in that building gives you chills, and you have a good feeling every time you’re playing the Blackhawks in the United Center. So they definitely were high on my list.

“There’s only really one opportunity to do this free-agent thing in your career, and this was my time to do it. Sometimes I wish it would’ve worked out in Columbus, of course, but it was just time to move on for me. I tried to give Columbus that option to trade me away because I do care about everyone in that organization and I wanted to give something back so that hopefully they can have success in the future.”

2. Vegas Golden Knights acquire center Jack Eichel rom the Buffalo Sabres for center Peyton Krebs, right winger Alex Tuch, a 2022 or 2023 first-round pick and a 2023 or 2024 second-round pick.

We obviously can’t declare anything close to a winner on this trade. No matter what happens, however, we’ll discuss it for years to come. Will it go down as the move that set Buffalo on the path back to respectability, given GM Kevyn Adams landed Vegas’ top prospect, a legit NHL power forward in Tuch and some future draft assets? Or will the return be remembered as too little, a-la Joe Thornton trade in 2005?

Will it go down as the superstar acquisition that put the Golden Knights over the top in their quest for the Stanley Cup? Or will it be remembered as one big move too many, a risky decision that depleted their prospect capital and forced them to jettison too many bodies for salary-cap compliance?

We’ll see. The early reports in Eichel’s recovery from his unprecedented disk-replacement surgery have been positive. But how will Vegas fit his $10-million AAV under the cap when he returns?

1. Winnipeg Jets acquire center Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Columbus Blue Jackets for right winger Patrik Laine and center Jack Roslovic.

This throwback blockbuster, featuring two guys selected back to back at No. 2 and 3 in the 2016 NHL draft, was dramatic at every turn. Laine spent more than a week in Ottawa waiting for the U.S. embassy to process his work visa, while Canada’s COVID-19 quarantine restrictions forced Dubois to isolate for 14 days. Upon arrival, it didn’t take long for Laine to land in John Tortorella’s doghouse. After a career-worst season in which Laine regularly got benched during games, ‘Torts’ and the Jackets mutually agreed to part ways. Dubois’ first season as a Jet was disastrous, too. A Columbus COVID-19 outbreak forced him to quarantine with workouts prohibited before the season, and he was delayed from joining the Jets upon arrival for another quarantine, so he felt his body never caught up in time for the season.

“If I had a good year and I talked about it, people would think, ‘Aw it’s fine, just a tough year,’ but since I had a bad year, it kind of sounds like an excuse, you know?” Dubois said just before this season began. “I felt like, the whole season, guys were at game 30 physically, and I was at game 10. Guys were at game 50 physically, and I was at game 20. I couldn’t catch up, even if I did sprints. Then you go overboard and get tired the next game. I was always chasing the game last year, physically. Once that starts, then it’s mental. Your physical attributes aren’t there as much, you make one mistake, you try to compensate, and then it’s just a snowball effect.”

Feeling physically right, Dubois has been a beast in his second season with Winnipeg. He’s looking like the top-two center the Jets believed they were getting a year ago. Laine has looked more comfortable when he’s been on the ice this season, but injuries and the sudden death of his father have limited him to a handful of games.

Whatever happens going forward, the Laine-Dubois deal had all the elements to win Trade of the Year: big-name players, dramatic circumstances and long-term ramifications for both franchises.

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