The Biggest Winners and Losers from 2021 NHL Preseason

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIIOctober 10, 2021

The Biggest Winners and Losers from 2021 NHL Preseason

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    And just like that, the 2021-22 NHL season is upon us.

    Over the past few months, we've watched contenders try to bolster their Stanley Cup aspirations or scramble to keep their band together. The Tampa Bay Lightning lost their entire third line, for example.

    We've seen middling clubs commit to hard rebuilds. We've witnessed stars try to force their way out of unhappy situations.

    We all spent hours reading over projected protection lists, wondering which players the Seattle Kraken would get a shot at taking. We wondered how the NHL draft would unfold. Which way the lotto balls would fall, which prospects would rise and so on.

    The motion of the offseason naturally creates winners and losers, and that's what we're going to take a look at here.

    It's worth noting that some of these assessments will inevitably be wrong by the end of the season. And that's A-OK. It's one of the best things about sports. Nothing is set in stone, and each team and player is, at least to some degree, in control of their own destiny.

    Can the Arizona Coyotes simply will their way to the level of the Colorado Avalanche? Of course not. But could the former be better than expected, while the latter is worse? Probably not, but the possibility is always there.

    That's what makes this opportunity a fun one. One last chance to look back at what's happened and consider what could be before the puck finally drops Tuesday to open the campaign.

Winners: Dougie Hamilton and the New Jersey Devils

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    Free agency is typically where NHL teams can go sideways most quickly. At the start of the day, a general manager has a cap sheet that looks nice and clean. If you're one of the league's better executives, you may only have one or two slight overpays on your docket.

    This offseason was no different, with various organizations handing out brutal deals that will haunt them for years to come—don't worry, we'll get to some of them later.

    The New Jersey Devils weren't among the teams that overpaid for their player, securing Dougie Hamilton for seven years and $63 million. There's risk involved in any big-time free-agent deal, but general manager Tom Fitzgerald did well to land the biggest fish in the pond without making a massive overpay.

    Hamilton likely came at something of a discount because of his split reputation in hockey circles. Some folks buy him as a legit top-flight defenseman, as evidenced when he finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season. Others don't seem so sure.

    Take the 28-year-old's former team as the foremost example. Assistant general manager Eric Tulsky was one of the earliest public proponents of analytics, and the Carolina Hurricanes were one of the first teams to start looking for an edge in underlying numbers.

    That they passed on Hamilton—especially if he would have signed a deal similar to the one that New Jersey gave him—could be seen as a red flag.

    Regardless, public data largely suggests that Hamilton is, at the very least, a legit No. 1 defenseman. And the Devils landed him for the same cap hit that P.K. Subban got when he signed his extension—back in 2014. Not a bad day's work for New Jersey.

Losers: Edmonton Oilers' Blue Line

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    How you feel about what the Edmonton Oilers did over the offseason probably says a lot about how you view and analyze the game of hockey.

    One way to see things is that the Oilers added a grizzled, Stanley-Cup winning defenseman in Duncan Keith. They signed Cody Ceci to shore up their second defensive pair. Goalie Mike Smith was inked to a two-year extension after playing lights out last season.

    General manager Ken Holland was active, doing his best to try to get the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of his maneuvering, however.

    For starters, Keith is an absolute shade of his former self. Once considered one of the most steady defensive anchors in the game, he now has a ton of miles on his odometer. There's a monster gap between what Edmonton is hoping the former Chicago Blackhawk can be and what he is at this stage of his career.

    He might not be as bad as he's being projected to be, but that doesn't mean that Keith was a savvy add.

    Willingly rostering Ceci is another puzzling move by Holland. Like Keith, he might not be as bad as strict analytics subscribers believe, but he's just not the second-pairing defenseman that the Oilers are paying him to be, either. It's another gamble by Holland that he has insight into a player that, by and large, appears to be earning more than he's worth.

    The roll of the dice on Smith might be the most perplexing. Yes, he was outstanding a year ago, finishing seventh in GSAA and turning back the clock to his prime. But the reality is that it was the first time in three seasons that he had finished with a positive GSAA, and he's nine years removed from the last time that he played as he did in 2020-21.

    Smith will turn 40 in March. Which version do you think is the most likely to show up in 2021-22? He could continue his stellar string of play, but asking him to do so for two more seasons seems misguided.

     

Winner: Florida Panthers

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    The Florida Panthers haven't won a playoff round since 1996. For context, that's the year that the team's defensive stalwart, Aaron Ekblad, was born. Since then, they have been one of the most consistently underwhelming teams in pro hockey, undermined by management and owners that never seemed to take the on-ice product seriously.

    What a difference a few years can make.

    Florida surprised in 2019-20, making the playoffs, and then they followed up that performance by having the best campaign in franchise history. 

    Sometimes, jumps forward like this can be flash-in-the-pan-ish. Hockey is incredibly random, and while talent tends to make pucks bounce in a particular direction over an 82-game season, nothing is guaranteed. 

    What's happening with the Panthers now is not a flash in the pan, however. This is a team that is structured for success, even as they carry Sergei Bobrovsky's ridiculous $10 million cap hit until 2026.

    While they didn't have a perfect summer, they made some important moves that will likely help them be one of the 10 or 11 best teams in the NHL in 2021-22. Losing Chris Driedger to the Seattle Kraken stings. Yet the Panthers happen to have one of the game's best goaltending prospects waiting in the wings in Spencer Knight should Bobrovsky buckle again.

    Panthers GM Bill Zito also deserves a lot of credit for allowing Alexander Wennberg to walk, understanding who was actually driving play when the center was on the ice (here's a secret for Kraken fans: it was Jonathan Huberdeau, not Wennberg).

    They also have plenty of internal options to replace Keith Yandle, and it's hard not to feel good about what Zito did—or, for the most part, didn't do—this offseason. Getting Aleksander Barkov's name on an eight-year, $80 million extension was just another feather in the cap of a franchise that is quickly ditching its reputation as a laughing stock.

Loser: Montreal Canadiens

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    We'll be the first ones to admit that it might be unwise to bet against the Montreal Canadiens. There are no unique ways left to describe how they defied all odds en route to a Stanley Cup Final appearance last season. What the Habs did was what makes the NHL playoffs so special.

    All you have to do is get invited to the dance. Once there, who knows what will happen.

    The Atlantic Division is nothing short of a gauntlet, though. We're back to 82 games, and the Boston Bruins, Panthers, Lightning and Maple Leafs are all strong clubs. The latter two could well end up challenging for the Presidents' Trophy as the league's best team.

    Tomas Tatar didn't factor into Montreal's playoff run much, but he was still a top-six staple during the regular season and was one of the squad's most effective scorers over the past three years. He's in New Jersey now.

    We aren't sure whether we'll ever see defenseman Shea Weber play a pro game again, a clear blow to the Canadiens blue line. Phillip Danault made good on his reputation as an outstanding defensive forward, cashing in with the L.A. Kings as a free agent to the tune of $33 million over six years.

    The heir apparent to his role at center, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, was pried away via an offer sheet by the Carolina Hurricanes. Corey Perry also decided to take a crack at another Stanley Cup ring in Tampa.

    Tack on goaltender Carey Price's 100 percent understandable absence (read this powerful column by Arpon Basu, who did a fantastic job of examining this situation), and it's unclear just how good this team can be.

    This is a tremendous amount of talent for a team to lose, especially when the Canadiens weren't thought to be capable of making it to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. They did, of course, but doing it again is going to be arduous, to say the least.

    Montreal tried to fill in the gaps the best they could, but David Savard is no Weber. Mike Hoffman is one of the most one-dimensional players in the NHL, sticking in the league strictly because of how lethal he is on the power play.

    The futures of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are bright, but asking these two young players to shoulder so much so soon might be too much.

Winner: Zach Parise

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    It's easy for analysts and pundits of professional sports to sometimes get bogged down by things that are black and white. When you're paying attention to, and trying to make sense of, an entire league and not just one team, you almost have to lean on underlying numbers and public data to break things down.

    Anecdotes have a place in these exercises, but when it comes down to it, we should be using available information to confirm what the eyes see.

    Sometimes, though, a story comes along that just yanks at the heartstrings of even the most committed chart-a-phobe. Enter Zach Parise joining the New York Islanders as this offseason's feel-good story.

    One could argue that the forward should have been on Long Island from the very beginning. The Islanders could have drafted him back in 2003 but passed on him for Robert Nilsson. Two picks later, the Devils didn't hesitate to snatch up the high-octane forward.

    Fast-forward to 2021, and at 37, Parise joins his father's former team to chase his first Stanley Cup championship. The Islanders just might have enough talent to take a legit run at another banner too.

    See, this is where the age curves and possession metrics start to fade a little. Because Parise brings more than that to the Islanders. Head coach Barry Trotz gushed about the wing recently, speaking to Arthur Staple of The Athletic:

    "You talk about professionalism, you talk about a good example day in and day out. If you're going to have a winning culture, Zach Parise — his mindset, how he prepares, how he goes through every drill — everything he does is at a very high level and detailed..."

    Sometimes it doesn't make sense to be romantic about sports. Watching a player of Parise's caliber and character chase a Cup while wearing his father's old colors after getting bought out? C'mon. It doesn't get much more Disney script than that.

Losers: New York Rangers

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    If you thought that Tom Wilson wasn't living in the heads of the New York Rangers, rent-free, before this offseason, well, it sure seems like the Blueshirts went out of their way to prove you wrong.

    Toughness absolutely has a place in hockey. We're thankfully a generation removed from it being a blood sport of sorts, but physicality generally pays dividends during the playoffs. It seems like we see a team overpay for a truculent player every offseason.

    Signing one free agent for league minimum is one thing. Aggressively trading away skilled players for tough ones is not the road to a Stanley Cup championship, however. And after their offseason, one has to believe that the Rangers are going to figure that out the hard way.

    The good news first: New York now rosters four or five really tough guys for Wilson to fight when the Rangers play the Washington Capitals.

    The bad news is that while Wilson is actually a solid top-six player—it's what makes him such a key cog for the Capitals—the Rangers sought out, uh, the opposite of good players to combat him.

    Ryan Reaves will actively cost the team wins and is a possession black hole—his relative Corsi for percentage last season was -4.0. Trading Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues was a mind-numbing move and one that isn't going to pay off for New York. He's a play-driver and top-six forward.

    Sammy Blais hasn't been an effective player since entering the league in 2017. He's been great in the preseason, but so have Brendan Perlini and Lawson Crouse. Not to take anything away from them, but these aren't meaningful games. And they don't make moving Buchnevich make sense.

    It's stoutness for the sake of it, and ironically, in getting tougher, the Rangers made it even tougher on themselves to make the playoffs at all.

Winner: Seth Jones

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    We aren't exactly sure whether Seth Jones is going to work out the way the Chicago Blackhawks are hoping that he will. The organization was arguably the busiest of the NHL offseason, bringing in the blueliner and Marc-Andre Fleury in separate trades.

    The clear goal is to squeeze the last bit of potential out of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews while they are still active and playing in the Windy City.

    Will it get the Hawks back into Stanley Cup contention? Probably not, and if that's what fans are expecting the 27-year-old to do, then they are going to be let down.

    During the earlier stages of his career, Jones seemed poised to become a perennial Norris Trophy contender. Especially during the initial part of his stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the former fourth overall pick was an anchor on the back end, flirting with becoming one of the game's elite defenders.

    While Jones may have been there for a time, his game slipped significantly last year. With everything that was going on outside of this game we sometimes take too seriously, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Even if he isn't elite, Jones is still good.

    And while it may come back to bite the Blackhawks down the line, we can't help but feel good for the defender after he signed an eight-year extension worth $76 million. Chicago doesn't have a lot of wiggle room for error following this deal, but in the eyes of many, Jones earned this kind of money.

    Who are we to begrudge someone for getting their bag?

Losers: Fans of the Arizona Coyotes

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    This may come as a shock to fans in other NHL cities, but the Arizona Coyotes do have their supporters out in the desert. No one is going to get Glendale confused with Montreal, but these are still people who spend their hard-earned money to watch this team play.

    At this point, they are probably numb to the pain, but this offseason might have been one of the ugliest in franchise history. Which is saying something.

    In mid-August, the city of Glendale announced that it would be cutting ties with the embattled franchise. While it was reportedly an economic decision, it still means that the Coyotes will be homeless at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

    This, of course, came after the Coyotes had to forfeit their first-round pick (11th overall) in the 2021 draft for conducting physical testing on draft-eligible players prior to the combine in 2020, which the league determined broke the rules.

    That, of course, came after Katie Strang of The Athletic published a special report detailing the dysfunction in the desert. It would be impossible to boil that column down into CliffsNotes, but for the uninitiated, the Coyotes weren't just bad on the ice. A level of toxicity reportedly existed in the front office too, and it went all the way to the top.

    After all this—after getting evicted, after losing a high draft pick and after having their top brass exposed in print—the Coyotes still weren't done.

    General manager Bill Armstrong triggered another rebuild, trading almost every talented player on the roster for draft capital. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic projects that Arizona dealt away eight wins worth of skill. For a team that wasn't projected to win much ahead of that exodus, that's a tough blow for fans.

    If you have any empathy and the capacity to feel sorry for fans of an NHL franchise, you've got to feel for the people who support this team.

    Hey, at least they brought back the white Kachina sweaters. Those are admittedly pretty dope.

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