Winners and Losers of the 2021 NHL Offseason (So Far)

Credit: James Guillory/USA Today Sports

It’s insane to believe that we’re only a couple months away from the upcoming NHL season, but here we are.

The Seattle Expansion Draft, which felt like a Seattle tourism ad/ham-fisted spectacle hybrid, is over and done. The Entry Draft is all finished up. The initial wave of free agency has passed, and several trade chips have officially gone off the table. While there are a few high-profile signings remaining and the big fish of the offseason in Jack Eichel is still in play, it feels safe to say that much of the heavy lifting of this offseason has been done already.

With this in mind, we can observe the new lay of the land and see which teams improved or devolved. If you’ve followed my blog, you know the format of these winners and losers posts by now: there will be five teams on each side, and each team will be given a rundown as to why their spot on either side is justified. However, due to the sheer insanity of this offseason, I feel it’s also appropriate to briefly mention teams that also made waves during the offseason, for better or worse. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them honorable mentions, but their trajectories as far as this offseason is concerned are worth discussing.

Let the discussion begin!

Loser #5: Vancouver Canucks

Oh, what life must be like as a fly in Jim Benning’s office.

Let’s observe some of the optics of the Canucks’ moves this offseason, shall we? A year ago, Benning extended Jake Virtanen in the hopes that he would take the next step up, signed Braden Holtby to serve as a veteran mentor and 1A goaltender to Thatcher Demko, and traded a third-round pick to Vegas for Nate Schmidt in the hopes of solidifying their top four defensemen. This offseason, however? Virtanen and Holtby were both bought out of their contracts, while Schmidt was flipped to Winnipeg for a third-round pick after a mediocre season. It wasn’t entirely unjustified, but it doesn’t speak well to the organization when it has to change directions so soon after making moves.

Where the Canucks failed most this offseason, however, was creating cap space. They were buried under several bad contracts due to Benning’s whiffs in free agency, and needed to work out a few deals. The good news is they did work out a deal with Arizona that saw Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle all come off the books; the bad news is they were instantly replaced by two longer contracts of nearly-equal value in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland. They also used up more of their cap to bring back Travis Hamonic and sign Tucker Poolman, neither of whom is a real impact signing on the defense. While the players Vancouver received should do more to contribute than who they had to give up, it doesn’t help them with their key problems: Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. Both are restricted free agents and will be demanding large extensions, which is all but guaranteed to consume Vancouver’s $14 million in cap space (this is before factoring in other RFAs like Olli Juolevi and Jason Dickinson, the latter of which having recently filed for salary arbitration). Brock Boeser will also be hitting restricted free agency after this season, so the Canucks will now likely be forced to trade a key player to balance out the books (they’d prefer to lose Tyler Myers, but my guess is teams will be more focused on J.T. Miller).

The moves the Canucks made this offseason aren’t bad in a vacuum, hence their low placement on the losers side. However, with added context, it paints a picture of an organization that still isn’t quite sure about the direction it wants to go in.

Winner #5: Dallas Stars

Sometimes, you don’t need to be a major player to win the offseason.

Missing the postseason just one season after being in the Stanley Cup Final, the Stars didn’t panic and elected to reload the team. Given the going rate of young defensemen, the Stars may have gotten a relative bargain on Miro Heiskanen’s extension. The team also assisted their young defenseman by giving him an upgrade on his opposite side and a key mentor in Ryan Suter. The length of contract is a concern, as it does mean Suter will be locked up in Dallas until he’s 40, but he still has some tread left on the tires and will only assist in building Heiskanen’s game up.

Smaller pieces like Jani Hakanpaa, Luke Glendening, and Michael Raffl were brought in as well to stabilize the end of the lineup. It was intriguing to see the Stars sign Braden Holtby however, as it indicates Ben Bishop’s injury is more serious than anticipated, as well as the team potentially shopping Anton Khudobin (Arizona and Buffalo would be in the market for a starting goaltender, while St. Louis, Winnipeg, and even Calgary would like a stable backup). It would put Holtby back in the role of mentor (this time to Jake Oettinger), but it’s a fine low-risk signing. It also gives the Stars some cap flexibility, as Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov’s expiring deals would make way for extensions to John Klingberg, Jason Robertson, and Denis Gurianov.

Give credit to the Stars for staying calm and sticking to their guns, when lesser front offices would have panicked and changed direction. The Cup run may have been an aberration, but this is still a playoff-caliber team.

Loser #4: New York Rangers

What the heck did Tom Wilson do to you, Rangers?

Whether it was Wilson’s hit in a late-season game against the Rangers that saw Artemi Panarin miss the remainder of the year, or his sort-of T-pose in the penalty box, or the slap of the wrist given to the Capitals wing by the Department of Player Safety, something triggered the Blueshirts just enough to focus this offseason on a single trait: grit. Such became obvious when they traded for Barclay Goodrow, which was understandable in and of itself…before chucking a six-year extension at him with a $3.64 million AAV and a 15-team no trade clause to boot. Given how poorly power forwards like Goodrow age at the NHL level and Goodrow being 28, it’s very likely the Rangers will be paying him for his declining years.

Other signings like Patrik Nemeth, Greg McKegg, Dryden Hunt, and Jarred Tinordi also add little but veteran depth and grit to the roster. Trading a third-round pick to Vegas for Ryan Reaves and extending him for a year also shows what New York was really focused on this offseason (convince me all you want it’s because of his familiarity with Gallant, we all know what James Dolan and crew really got him for.) Extra points for trading away Pavel Buchnevich and Alexandar Georgiev requesting a trade as well, while still needing to provide an extension to Igor Shesterkin. While there is still time for the Rangers to fix this and come up with a way to land Jack Eichel, look at who will be notable free agents next season: Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Georgiev, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Sammy Blais. Unless the Rangers are willing to part with a chunk of these expiring contracts (my guess would be Strome, Georgiev, and Kakko would go back), Eichel is off the table by their own doing.

It’s a combination of banking on younger talent to step up, and trying too desperately to fill out a part of the lineup that only realistically needs a couple options. The excitement on Broadway might be dimming a bit.

Winner #4: Los Angeles Kings

Don’t look now, but Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille are building a contender once again in LA.

They were one of the big winners of the Expansion Draft, with the Seattle Kraken (more on them later) choosing to select Kurtis MacDermid over higher-upside options like Carl Grundstrom and Kale Clague. Before the Draft, they traded for Viktor Arvidsson from Nashville, who gives Los Angeles another reliable scoring option in their top-six forward group.

Free agency was also a success for the Kings, who landed one of the bigger prizes of the class in Phillip Danault. Coming off of a Cup Final run with Montreal, Danault’s strong two-way play will make him a fixture in Los Angeles’ middle six. Alexander Edler also comes to stabilize the defensive corps, letting the Kings further develop their younger options and provide leadership from the back end. The best part about these signings is that it gives LA options on what to do about its strong prospect core; younger prospects like Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, and Tobias Bjornfot are NHL-ready, but Danault and Edler give the Kings an avenue to give them more development time.

The Kings might not be back to the Cup-winning days of the early 2010s, but there’s no reason to think they can’t get there. For now, it’s time to focus on this current phase of the rebuild and push for a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division.

Loser #3: Buffalo Sabres

Forget the head-scratching moves that the Pegula family are currently making with the Bills for a second; the hockey team is still in quite the mess.

After last year’s complete disaster, the Sabres seem content to blow up their core. A fine strategy with all things considered, but they seem to be struggling with being even remotely competitive. Will Butcher fell out of favor in New Jersey, so moving to a rebuilding team made sense for him. They also got a fine haul out of Rasmus Ristolainen from a Flyers team that was desperate for defense. Sam Reinhart is also off to Florida after basically saying he would only take a year-long contract in Buffalo to hit unrestricted free agency and bail.

The only real questions now are this: where’s the Eichel drama going, and what’s Buffalo’s plan in net this season? Jack Eichel’s saga is feeling more like Deshaun Watson’s by the day: it’s painfully obvious to anyone watching that he’s played his final game in Buffalo, and the team is only hurting themselves the longer they delay the inevitable. Many suitors are at their door (New York Rangers, Minnesota, Anaheim, etc.) bearing gifts of first-round picks and top prospects, and the Sabres will have to answer the door sooner rather than later. Also…is anyone sold on what the Sabres are doing for goaltending? After Linus Ullmark defected and signed with Boston, the Sabres signed Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell to veteran-minimum deals. While both are penciled in as the Sabres’ goaltenders this season, there’s no chance that will end well for either player or team. An Eichel trade could net either Georgiev from New York or Kaapo Kahkonen from Minnesota, or the Sabres can pull out another deal for someone like Anton Khudobin or even Mikko Koskinen from Edmonton. If they fail in that regard, it looks like top prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen may endure a trial by fire by midseason.

With Owen Power likely remaining in Michigan to continue his development, there’s little reason to be confident in the Sabres. It’s likely that, when Power comes over to Buffalo, there will be another number 1 pick to play alongside.

Winner #3: Boston Bruins

The Bruins knew what their gameplan was, and they deserve credit for sticking with it.

The Bruins got their top order of business finished early, signing Taylor Hall to a reasonable four-year extension worth $6 million per year. Hall was one of the best players on the ice since arriving from Buffalo, and it appears he’s finally landed on the contender he sought when he hit free agency last season. While losing longtime players like Tuukka Rask and David Krejci hurt, the Bruins did a good job of patching the holes there, as well.

To replace the Rask-Halak tandem in net, the Bruins swiped Linus Ullmark from Buffalo in free agency. Ullmark was one of the rare bright spots on a Buffalo team, so there’s reason to believe his play should look better under a much more defensively-responsible structure. Joining him would be rookie Jeremy Swayman, who looked strong in his late-season call-up with the Bruins. To replace Krejci and other middle-tier free agents like Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase, the Bruins made some quality signings with Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, and Derek Forbort. All four should play key roles for the Bruins this season, and gives Boston options in multiple situations. Even if the Bruins do choose to trade Jake DeBrusk, the Bruins could easily fill in his spot with in-house options like Trent Frederic or Jack Studnicka.

The Atlantic Division will be a battle this season, but at least the Bruins worked on keeping their Cup window open for longer. That alone is worthy of some praise.

Loser #2: Edmonton Oilers

With the three losers before now, I could at least understand a little bit of the rationale behind their moves and/or there is a way to still come out decent in their situation. For the Oilers and the team below them, not so much.

It feels bad to speak ill about Ken Holland, but the final years of his tenure in Detroit and his current run in Edmonton can only make me think one thing: the hockey world has passed him by. Let’s start with his big move in acquiring Zach Hyman as free agency started. Hyman is a good player, but being on Toronto’s top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner is bound to inflate statistical output for any player. It didn’t scare Holland away from signing him to a seven-year deal at $5.5 million AAV. It’s also unlikely that Hyman even sees first-line minutes, as the extension of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will likely put Hyman on a second line with natural goal-scorers such as Leon Draisaitl and Jesse Puljujarvi. It’s a fit that could cause trouble quickly, and the term is banking on Hyman gelling with his new team quickly.

Even scarier than Hyman’s deal is what’s going on with the defense. While Darnell Nurse is emerging as a great number one defenseman and Evan Bouchard comes it with a lot of hype, the rest of the Oilers’ blueline has me mildly concerned. To counter Oscar Klefbom going on LTIR this season, the Oilers paid the Blackhawks their asking price on 38-year-old Duncan Keith, who just went through his worst season as a professional player. To replace Adam Larsson after he was selected by Seattle in the Expansion Draft, the Oilers grossly overpaid Cody Ceci for four years at $3.25 million AAV. That’s a lot of term and money for a player coming off his first good season in five years. Tyson Barrie also returns as a power-play specialist to pair with Connor McDavid and Draisaitl, but would it have been more sound to let another team overpay, especially with Nurse hitting unrestricted free agency next season? And was it worth trading another top-four defenseman in Ethan Bear for another grinding forward in Warren Foegele?

It’s unlikely the Oilers miss out on a playoff spot in the Pacific due to the lack of depth within the division. However, the common formula is still in place: McDavid and Draisaitl carrying this team as far as it will go.

Winner #2: Seattle Kraken

Talk about the surprise of the free agency period.

After a relatively mediocre Expansion Draft and a so-so entry draft, I was starting to get incredibly concerned about the Kraken in their maiden season. I had a lot of questions about whether they had done enough to even be competitive, or if they would go the way of many expansion teams and struggle early on in their existence. Instead, it appears Ron Francis and company decided to try and pull off the inverse of the Golden Knights’ formula. They won through side deals during the Expansion Draft? The Kraken would win in free agency.

Ticked off about Carey Price not being selected? Here’s a Vezina finalist in Philipp Grubauer at half of Price’s AAV (yes, the NHL did reject Seattle’s contract with Grubauer, but the issue isn’t something that a simple restructure won’t fix.) Worried that the Kraken don’t have enough players who can score goals? Take one of the league’s more underrated forwards in Jaden Schwartz. Concerned about center depth with number two pick Matt Beniers staying in Michigan and Yanni Gourde needing shoulder surgery that will cause him to miss the start of the season? Alexander Wennberg on a reasonable deal makes perfect sense. Not a bad free agent haul for the team’s first go-around.

Before free agency, the Kraken were seen as a team that would be fortunate to finish out of the Pacific’s basement. Now, there’s actually an outside shot of being a playoff team right out of the gate.

Loser #1: Carolina Hurricanes

What. Is. Going. On?

That’s all I can say about the Hurricanes and…whatever their offseason was supposed to be. They finally had a solution in net with Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek, but the Hurricanes now have neither. They let Nedeljkovic, someone who was emerging as the Hurricanes’ first potential franchise netminder since Cam Ward, leave for Detroit for the signing rights of Jonathan Bernier and a mid-round pick. They didn’t even manage to secure Bernier, who joined New Jersey in free agency. Now, the Hurricanes are counting on Frederik Andersen, who had regressed every year in his tenure with Toronto, and an injury-prone Antti Raanta. Not a good look.

Losing Dougie Hamilton was also a blow, so the Hurricanes needed to match his production on defense. Jake Bean was traded to Columbus, so the problem required an entirely new solution. Picking up Ethan Bear from Edmonton was a good idea…and then Carolina destroyed all goodwill by signing Tony DeAngelo. For those who don’t know (or tried to forget) about DeAngelo, take a look at this. A history of using racial and homophobic slurs in junior hockey? Being one of the few athletes who not only holds strong pro-Trump views, but openly flaunts them on social media? A physical altercation with multiple players that saw his tenure with the Rangers end in disgrace? At what point do you just call it a lost cause? This is a move that only works if DeAngelo plays well enough to justify his presence…and his time in New York did little to convince me of that.

The Hurricanes are, bar none, the biggest loser of the offseason. I wish I could say it was strictly for DeAngelo, but that’s just the sour icing on top of the moldy cake. And it was all going so well…

Winner #1: New Jersey Devils

The Devils may be stuck in the toughest division in hockey in the Metropolitan, but they sure are trying to make a push.

After years of struggle on the defense, it appears the Devils may be getting their act together. Trading for Ryan Graves was already a good start, but then they pulled the big fish: they won the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes. The deal is a big commitment, but it’s well worth it to acquire one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL in his prime. With Ty Smith, Damon Severson, and a sheltered P.K. Subban still on the roster, the Devils’ defensive corps could be one of the best at providing offense from the back end in the league. With reinforcements like Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, and Shakir Mukhamadullin also in the system, the Devils have set themselves up nicely on defense for the short and long term.

Jonathan Bernier was also a very sound pickup, providing Mackenzie Blackwood with a mentor and a true 1B goaltender that can give him some well-needed rest. The best part is that the Devils might not even be done yet. With only Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich needing extensions, they will still have plenty of cap space to play around with. With the free agent market calming down, the quiet could give Tom Fitzgerald an opportunity to snag talent on short-term deals in order to better the team now and give the prospects more development.

For a rebuilding team, where the Devils are right now is a good position to be in. They might not be a playoff contender quite yet, but they look poised to take advantage when juggernauts like Washington and Pittsburgh begin to slow down.

Honorable Mentions

Arizona Coyotes: Hard reset here. With most of the core either traded or soon to be traded, the Coyotes have gone back to taking bad contracts (Shayne Gostisbehere, Anton Stralman, the Vancouver triple threat) in exchange for significant future assets. Their deals did get them a few intriguing pieces, however; Conor Timmins should have an impact early, number nine overall pick Dylan Guenther could arrive as soon as this season, and they now have seven picks in the first two rounds of a loaded 2022 Draft. Oh, and taking a flier on reigning KHL MVP Dmitrij Jaskin is a smart bit of business.

Chicago Blackhawks: This is an all-in push if I’ve ever seen one. Seth Jones was acquired for significant assets, while Marc-Andre Fleury and Tyler Johnson were practically given to them as salary dumps. It’s fine, but Jones’s extension is a bit troubling, and the Hawks would be hoping Fleury and Johnson can either keep or regain their forms. Otherwise, the cap situation might look worse than it already is, and Stan Bowman might be fired before he gets a chance to clean up his own mess.

Colorado Avalanche: On one hand, the Avalanche were successful at locking up Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar long term. On the other, Philipp Grubauer was swiped by Seattle, and the Avalanche had to cover by sending Conor Timmins and a first-round pick to Arizona for former punching bag Darcy Kuemper. You win some, you lose some.

Detroit Red Wings: Knowing the pain of the Oilers all too well, the Red Wings have to be more than okay with Steve Yzerman running the ship steady. Landing Alex Nedeljkovic as a bargain was one of the moves of the offseason, and they also brought in Pius Suter to a good deal. Other than that, it’s looking like the youth are about to invade Hockeytown; Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider could both be in the lineup on Opening Night, while the likes of Joe Veleno, Jonatan Berggren, and Wyatt Newpower could all make appearances at some point this season.

Montreal Canadiens/Vegas Golden Knights: Ironically, these two playoff foes endured similar offseasons. For the most part, they’ve done alright; Montreal made two good signings in David Savard and Mike Hoffman, while Vegas retained key pieces like Alec Martinez and landed an intriguing buy-low candidate in Evgenii Dadonov. Unfortunately, it’s been a loss from a PR standpoint. Montreal made headlines for all the wrong reasons by drafting convicted sex offender Logan Mailloux with their first-round pick, while Vegas traded Vezina-winning goaltender and face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury for a player who won’t even play in their system this season. Both look like villains at this point, but nothing smooths relationships over quite like winning does (Marc Bergevin would be the first to tell you that.)

Philadelphia Flyers: After being let down tremendously by their defense this past season, the Flyers committed to a full-scale overhaul. Gone are Shayne Gostisbehere, Philippe Myers, and Robert Hagg; in are Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle. The only people who are praying for the success of this new-look defense more than Flyers fans are Carter Hart and free-agent acquisition Martin Jones: no two goalies in the NHL may need a larger boost in confidence than them.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The receipt for back-to-back Stanley Cup victories is finally coming around for the Lightning. Their entire third line of Blake Coleman (Calgary), Yanni Gourde (Seattle), and Barclay Goodrow (New York Rangers) have all gone elsewhere, and Tyler Johnson became another cap casualty. They did lock up Brayden Point long term, but with Stanley Cup Final hero Ross Colton needing a deal and filing arbitration, could the payroll shedding still be going on in Tampa?


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