Early Predictions for the 2021 NHL Offseason

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2021

Early Predictions for the 2021 NHL Offseason

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    The 2021 NHL offseason could shape up to be one of the busiest in some time.

    Several noteworthy stars, such as Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, have surfaced as trade candidates. Some of them could be moved during draft weekend July 23-24.

    Free agency could also provide some drama when the market opens July 28. This year's notable unrestricted free agents include Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

    The expansion draft July 21 will provide additional spice to this offseason. The Seattle Kraken can select a player from each club except the Vegas Golden Knights. They could find quality talent for their inaugural roster.

    It's difficult to predict how things could shake out in the coming weeks, but it's fun to give it a try. Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Pekka Rinne Returns to the Nashville Predators

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    Pekka Rinne has spent his entire 15-season NHL career with the Nashville Predators. From 2008-09 to 2018-19, he was their undisputed starting goaltender and one of the league's top netminders. Then a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2014-15, Rinne won the award in 2017-18. He also backstopped the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

    Over the past two seasons, however, age and the wear and tear of his position have caught up with the 38-year-old. In 2019-20, he won 18 of his 36 games with a 3.17 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. This season he improved to 2.84 and .907, but he won just 10 of 24 games.

    Rinne was moved into a backup role behind Juuse Saros, and this season felt like his last. Since he will become an unrestricted free agent, retirement seems imminent.

    Rinne, however, hasn't sounded like he's ready to retire. On June 8, the Tennessean's Paul Skrbina made the case for the Predators to sign Rinne, pointing out they have no replacement. He also noted general manager David Poile would like to bring Rinne back.

    Given how much Rinne has meant to the Predators, don't be surprised if he returns for a last hurrah on a one-year, bonus-laden deal.

William Eklund Gets Selected 1st in the Draft

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    The Buffalo Sabres hold the first pick in the draft. Owen Power, a 6'6", 213-pound defenseman from the University of Michigan, is ranked as this year's top prospect and appears most likely to be selected.

    However, the Sabres could surprise by going with William Eklund of Djurgarden in the Swedish Hockey League. A skilled forward who can play center or left wing, the 18-year-old is considered a top-five prospect. Several scouting publications, including Elite Prospects, projected he'll be chosen second. NHL Central Scouting ranked him No. 1 among international skaters.

    On June 30, the Buffalo News' Lance Lysowski reported the Sabres were higher on Eklund than any other forward in the class and that they could select him if they added another top-10 pick.

    There is reportedly growing interest from other clubs regarding Jack Eichel.  An early first-round pick could be part of Buffalo's asking price for the captain. However, it might not use that pick on Eklund.

    If the Sabres move Eichel or Sam Reinhart before the draft, they could seek a potential future replacement through the draft. With 2018 No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin already patrolling their blue line, they could use the top pick on Eklund and consider other options if they get a second top-10 pick.

The Seattle Kraken Build A Solid Defense Corps

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    Fans will soon get their first look at the Seattle Kraken roster.

    The 30 clubs must submit their lists of protected players to the league by July 17. The Kraken will also have a window from July 18-21 to negotiate with free agents left unprotected.

    While the Kraken aren't likely to land any superstars, they should be able to select a decent group of talented players. However, they could emerge with a solid defense corps. That's because most teams could opt to protect seven forwards and three defensemen rather than eight skaters, leaving more blueliners exposed.  

    On June 17, The Athletic's Ryan S. Clark, Eric Duhatschek and Dom Luszczyszyn staged a mock expansion draft. The notable players they expected to be available included quality defensemen.

    Among them: Mark Giordano (Calgary Flames), Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild), Ryan Graves (Colorado Avalanche), Vince Dunn (St. Louis Blues), Jake Bean (Carolina Hurricanes), Calvin de Haan (Chicago Blackhawks), Travis Dermott (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Brenden Dillon (Washington Capitals).

    There's no certainty any of them will be available or picked if they are. Some could be protected, while others could be passed over, especially if teams cut side deals with the Kraken to select other players. Still, there could be some good blueliners in the Kraken's opening-night lineup.

Duncan Keith Traded to the Edmonton Oilers

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    After 16 seasons, Duncan Keith's tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks could be coming to an end. There's a good chance he ends up with the Edmonton Oilers.

    Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman broke the story last Wednesday, indicating Keith and the Blackhawks were working on a trade to the Pacific Northwest or Western Canada. The 37-year-old defenseman's son lives in British Columbia, and he'd like to move closer to him.

    The Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken might be options. However, The Athletic's Scott Powers reported Friday that the Oilers could be a possibility, citing their need for a defenseman and their trade assets.

    Keith could slot into the Oilers' second-pairing left-side defense position behind Darnell Nurse. That would normally be where Oscar Klefbom would play, but the 27-year-old faces an uncertain future after missing this season with a shoulder injury. If Klefbom can't play in 2021-22, the Oilers will need a skilled replacement.

    The Blackhawks aren't likely to seek a big return for Keith, as they could use the cap savings to pursue a replacement via trade or free agency. The Oilers have $16.2 million in projected cap space but could be reluctant to take on Keith's $5.5 million cap hit for each of the next two seasons.

    Chicago could absorb part of Keith's cap hit. Failing that, it could acquire a player from Edmonton and buy him out. Either way, it should arrive at an agreement to send Keith to Alberta in the coming weeks.

Seth Jones Acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks

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    Seth Jones is expected to be traded this summer after he informed the Columbus Blue Jackets in May that he intends to test next summer's free-agent market. The 26-year-old defenseman has a year remaining on his contract with an average annual value of $5.4 million.

    On Thursday, The Athletic's Aaron Portzline and Corey Pronman reported Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has heard from "just about every GM in the league" about Jones. They wrote the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers were the front-runners.

    The Blackhawks, however, could have the inside track. On June 17, The Athletic's Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers reported the club intends to pursue Jones or Carolina Hurricanes rearguard Dougie Hamilton, a pending free agent.

    Jones' two-way style could be better for a defense that surrendered the second-most shots against per game (33.7) this season. The Blackhawks have just $6.2 million in projected cap space but could draw upon another $10.8 million with Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw on long-term injured reserve to sign Jones to an extension. They could free up another $5.5 million if they find a trade partner for Duncan Keith.

    Keith's potential departure would make Jones, if acquired, the Blackhawks' No. 1 defenseman. He'd also fill a leadership role, which could entice him to sign a long-term contract extension.

Dougie Hamilton Signs with the Philadelphia Flyers

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    Dougie Hamilton is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. However, the Carolina Hurricanes have granted him permission to speak with other teams before then. It could give the Hurricanes an opportunity to match an offer or set up a sign-and-trade scenario. Carolina could also just let him walk.

    As the top defenseman in this summer's free-agent market, Hamilton should draw interest from a number of clubs. Over the past three seasons, the 28-year-old led all rearguards in goals (42) and was fourth on the Hurricanes in points (121).

    Hamilton could be just what the Philadelphia Flyers need. The sudden retirement of Matt Niskanen in October left general manager Chuck Fletcher struggling to replace him and created a big hole on the right side of the defense, which Hamilton could fill.

    On June 15, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman speculated the Flyers may instead look to Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets or Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild. The Blue Jackets are expected to trade Jones after he informed them that he'll test next summer's free-agent market. Fletcher, meanwhile, knows Dumba well from his days as the Wild GM.

    The Flyers, however, could face stiff competition from other clubs for Jones' services. Dumba could be shopped by the Wild if they risk losing him in the expansion draft. That won't be necessary, however, if they find a way to protect him or entice the Kraken with a side deal not to select him. 

    That could leave the Flyers to land Hamilton. They'll have to free up some salary-cap space, as he could cost them $8 million annually on a seven-year deal. It would be worth it, though, since he'd be a solid addition alongside Ivan Provorov on the top defense pairing.

Alex Ovechkin Re-Signs with the Washington Capitals

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    The very idea of Alex Ovechkin skating for another club seems absurd.

    For 16 seasons, Ovechkin has been the face of the Washington Capitals. He's their franchise player, the biggest star they've ever had. One of the greatest goal scorers in league history, he turned the Capitals into a dominant team and led them to their first Stanley Cup title in 2018.

    Nevertheless, Ovechkin is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Despite missing 11 games this season, the 35-year-old left winger finished just outside the top 10 with 24 goals.

    Ovechkin is completing a 13-year, $124 million deal, which he signed back when there were no term limits on contracts. His age ensures he won't get a league-maximum eight years with the Capitals or a seven-year deal with another club. Still, he remains among the league's most dangerous scorers. There will be teams willing to pay over $9 million annually for his services on a short-term deal.

    The smart money, however, is on Ovechkin staying put. On May 25, he expressed confidence in working out a new contract to finish his career with Washington. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he and team ownership want Ovechkin to stay.

    There hasn't been word on any progress in contract discussions. However, that could mean they've already got a deal in place and are waiting for the right time to announce it. On June 28, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman wrote that he couldn't find anyone in the league who thought Ovechkin's new contract with the Capitals wasn't already "in the drawer."

Jack Eichel Remains with the Buffalo Sabres

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    The Jack Eichel trade rumor mill has been grinding away since May 10. That's when the Sabres captain spoke of "a bit of a disconnect" between himself and management regarding treatment for a herniated disk in his neck.

    On June 16, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported that trade discussions with the Sabres were "getting more intense and serious." He listed the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers as among the suitors. Three days later, the New York Post's Larry Brooks included the Chicago Blackhawks.

    It seems only a matter of time before Eichel is shipped to a new club. However, several factors could ensure he suits up for the Sabres next season.

    Treatment of Eichel's injury is a key concern. He wants to undergo surgery, but team doctors prefer rest and rehab over a procedure never before performed on an NHL player. Combine that with his $10 million annual salary-cap hit for the next five seasons, and you've got a player who'd be a risky acquisition despite his obvious talent.

    The Sabres' asking price could be the biggest stumbling block. On June 28, Brooks reported the club sought "at least four pieces that would be equivalent of first-rounders."

    Those factors seem to have whittled down the field of contenders. On June 24, The Athletic's Aaron Portzline reported the Blue Jackets didn't appear to be in hot pursuit of Eichel. The following day, Portzline's colleague Michael Russo cited the Wild's limited cap space and general manager Bill Guerin's reluctance to mortgage the club's future.

    On Friday, The Athletic's Scott Powers reported the Blackhawks dismissed the notion of acquiring Eichel. A source pointed out it would be difficult to add Eichel's contract when Chicago already has two $10 million players (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) on the roster.


    Stats via NHL.com. Salary info via Cap Friendly. Additional player information via Hockey Reference.