Winners and Losers of the 2021 NHL Offseason so Far
It's an expansion year, so a fair amount of offseason activity and chaos was expected in the NHL this summer, but few could have predicted this much. Two marquee players have been on the trade market for months, but it appears that the general managers of the Buffalo Sabres and the St. Louis Blues have asked for a little too much for center Jack Eichel and winger Vladimir Tarasenko.
Players in the same realm as Eichel and Tarasenko changed teams, which isn't always common. Seth Jones was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Ryan Ellis went to the Philadelphia Flyers. A goalie that nearly won the Calder Trophy, Alex Nedeljkovic, was allowed to walk from the team that drafted him. And the New Jersey Devils took a huge step in their rebuilding efforts when they signed the top defenseman on the market and one of the best offensive defensemen in hockey in Dougie Hamilton.
The offseason isn't over, but it's winding down. Here are the winners, the losers the in-betweeners and the trends of the 2021 offseason this far into the summer.
Winner: New Jersey Devils
So here's the thing about the New Jersey Devils: Two years ago, after they drafted Jack Hughes first overall, traded for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev and signed Wayne Simmonds, the media was saying they won the offseason and the fans were saying the rebuild was over.
By December 2019, Taylor Hall was traded and coach John Hynes was fired. General manager Ray Shero didn't last much longer. So while New Jersey had a fantastic offseason, there will be no hyperbole about the new-look blue line and no declarative statements about the rebuild being over.
A rebuild isn't over until a team makes a deep playoff run. Not a first-round exit, like the team did in 2018, but a conference final appearance.
However, general manager Tom Fitzgerald deftly strengthened many of the team's weaknesses.
Once again, Mackenzie Blackwood has a veteran backup goalie in Jonathan Bernier. The defense corps has been a glaring weakness for years, even going back as far as that 2018 playoff team. But Dougie Hamilton can play alongside Ryan Graves, and the team's best defenseman, Damon Severson, can slot in next to the talented Ty Smith. Subban was acquired to be a top-pairing defenseman and a boon to the power play, but his diminished productivity has relegated him to the third pair, which is probably not a bad role for him at this point.
There are still questions about who is going to score goals. Tomas Tatar was a nice pickup, but Hughes and Nico Hischier don't have any elite wingers. A group of young forwards is expected to take a big leap in their development, but it's clear this team is still very much in the building process.
The Devils won big this year, just like they did two years ago, but rebuilds don't end in the offseason—they end in the postseason.
Loser: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers went out and grabbed a bunch of face-punchers. Why? No one is entirely sure. Getting tough is one thing, but the Rangers have a lot of high-end forward skill, and they gave up one of those young, cheap, skilled forwards in Pavel Buchnevich to get tougher, trading him to the St. Louis Blues for Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick. The team also added former Vegas Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves and former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Barclay Goodrow.
New general manager Chris Drury is presiding over his first offseason in charge. He took care of business in extending goalie Igor Shesterkin and made a savvy move to acquire Goodrow. But the team identity isn't quite clear. Why doesn't Artemi Panarin have an elite centerman to play alongside? Why was toughness valued over skill? Was it in response to the end-of-season melee with the Washington Capitals and Tom Wilson?
The Pittsburgh Penguins tried to counter Wilson by getting grittier a few years ago, and they haven't advanced past the first round of the postseason since 2018. The best teams need a mix of high-end skill and some big men who can deal big blows, but the Rangers seem to be tipping the scale toward the second part and may not be better off for it.
In the Middle: Chicago Blackhawks
It's nearly impossible not to include the Blackhawks' off-ice issues regarding the sexual assault allegations of former video coach Brad Aldrich. These issues are going to plague the club until the findings of the investigation from law firm Jenner & Block are released to the public. The brand may already be damaged, and according to The Athletic's Mark Lazerus and Scott Powers, some fans are canceling season tickets.
The on-ice moves made with the goal of returning to the playoffs were good, but the Hawks still look like a bubble team if Jonathan Toews isn't healthy.
Seth Jones has to live up to his massive contract. He's an offensive defenseman, so the expectation is that he will aid the rush, jump into the play and make the forwards in front of him better. One of those forwards will be Tyler Johnson, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Johnson gives the forward group some depth. Dependable blueliner Jake McCabe, a free-agent signing, does the same for the defense. It's not an exceptionally deep group, but if Jones' brother, Caleb, develops into a similar player, then it could become one.
Acquiring goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was crucial, but it might not be as crucial as having a healthy Toews. The Blackhawks made a lot of good offseason acquisitions, but the best one will be getting Toews back to full strength. The cap space is pretty much nonexistent, so unless Toews ends up on LTIR, the Blackhawks need all of these moves to be successful.
Oh boy, was there ever a market for defensemen this year.
Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and Dougie Hamilton of the New Jersey Devils each received long-term contracts in the $9 million AAV range. As two of the league's elite players at this position, these big paydays were warranted. As established, the Hamilton signing was a big indicator that the Devils are ready to compete again. The Avs also needed to lock up Makar to solidify their status as a contender.
But Seth Jones' deal, which probably helped set the market for defensemen, might have been a little much, at least depending on who you ask. An eight-year deal worth $9.5 million AAV is an overpay for many who value analytics.
And while you don't have to be an analytics darling to be an elite defenseman, some pointed to the fact that perennial Norris Trophy favorites like Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Alex Pietrangelo don't make $9.5 million. But their contracts were negotiated prior to this year. Jones is 26, and the Blackhawks still get one year of him at $5.4 million, so if he had hit the open market next season, he probably would have gotten something around $9 million since Hamilton received that as well.
Darnell Nurse's eight-year extension with the Edmonton Oilers at $9.25 million AAV was controversial as well, with many questioning whether he could repeat this 36-point season. It was a high production rate for an abbreviated year. He did put up 41 points in 2018-19, though, so the 26-year-old might be hitting his prime.
Does Vince Dunn deserve $4 million per year? The Seattle Kraken seem to think so. Is Zach Werenski worth more than Seth Jones at $9.58 million AAV? The Columbus Blue Jackets couldn't risk letting him go considering the roster turnover the club has had in recent seasons, so the 24-year-old will be earning that kind of cash for the next six years.
Learn to skate backward, kids. You just might get a big payday.
Loser: Vancouver Canucks
On one hand, the Vancouver Canucks managed to dump all of their bad contracts on to the Arizona Coyotes. The desert was once a place where bad contracts went to die, and it appears the new regime is still willing to take those on while undergoing yet another rebuild.
However, getting Oliver Ekman-Larsson's salary off the books was important for Arizona. As was acquiring draft capital, which the Coyotes did with the 2021 first-round pick, a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 seventh-round pick. Along with Conor Garland, the defenseman was sent to the Canucks for those three picks as well as forwards Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel.
For some reason, general manager Jim Benning decided it would be a good idea to take on a 30-year-old defenseman who has six years left on his contract at $7.26 million AAV. Ekman-Larsson has been underwhelming over the last few years, though it's possible he rebounds playing with someone like defenseman Quinn Hughes or in front of center Elias Pettersson. And Garland is a top-six forward, so the Canucks have that.
But Benning acquired one massively bad contract for high draft picks and a bunch of other bad contracts. Dumping the entire fourth line on Arizona wouldn't have been that bad had he not sacrificed a first-round pick this year and a second-round pick next year. The Coyotes got what they needed, and the Canucks got an albatross of a contract.
In the Middle: Seattle Kraken
It's tough to know what the Seattle Kraken are doing. The expansion draft resulted in an underwhelming roster and left us all waiting for some side deals, which, let's be honest, are the most exciting part of an expansion draft. There really weren't any. There were some good pickups, like center Yanni Gourde and winger Jordan Eberle, but the team passed on true stars like P.K. Subban and Carey Price.
Instead of Subban, Seattle selected fourth-line forward Nathan Bastian from the Devils. Instead of Price, the club selected defenseman Cale Fleury.
However, the game plan remains fascinating. A few years ago, some laughed at the Vegas Golden Knights roster—and then laughed at themselves when the Knights went to the Stanley Cup Final. Maybe the difference was that Vegas had an established head coach and the Kraken are giving former North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol another shot at NHL glory. But before Hakstol left the NCAA to helm the Philadelphia Flyers, he had a reputation as being an adept team-builder, so we could see those abilities in action this season.
Forget a Tampa Bay three-peat—the Kraken might be the most intriguing storyline of the 2021-22 season.