2021 NHL Offseason: The Biggest Winners and Losers
One of the busiest off-seasons in recent memory has officially reached a dead period. Other than the occasional RFA signing here and arbitration figure there, everyone who is anyone in the NHL is chilling at a cottage somewhere near a lake. But there is no shortage of trades, buyouts, signings, and draft picks for the rest of us to debate. Now that the dust has largely settled, we take a sweeping look at who has come out ahead this summer, and who might be in for some regret down the line.
Winner: Defensemen’s Wallets
Every offseason has a theme, and this year’s was big-name defensemen getting PAID. Of the ten highest cap hits for defenseman in 2022-23 (a lot of those big deals are extensions that do not kick in for another year), six of them were signed within the last month. The wisdom of these deals varied. Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar, picked #3 and #4 in 2017, are both young, elite defenders just entering their prime. Makar is coming off a Norris nomination and Heiskanen was a beast for Dallas in the 2019 and 2020 playoffs. Betting on players like these is about as safe as it gets; they should provide tremendous value to their teams throughout their eight-year pacts.
The lone UFA to receive one of those contracts was Dougie Hamilton, who stays (still returns?) in the Metropolitan Division, heading from Carolina to New Jersey. Hamilton is an offensive machine with some of the best underlying numbers in the entire sport; the definition of a legit number one defenseman at 5v5 and a great power-play quarterback. At age 29, a seven-year, $63 million could age fairly well. Especially since Hamilton is not an overly physical player (those types of players tend to age poorly due to the added wear-and-tear). He should be everything the Devils thought their other $9 million defender (P.K. Subban) would be and then some.
Then we get to the extensions category, home of the most questionable deals of the summer. Seth Jones, Zack Werenski, and Darnell Nurse are all good players; no one is disputing that. But Jones is coming off a nightmare year; and truth be told, his underlying numbers have been more good than great for his entire career. Nurse’s career-best offensive season was buoyed by a 10.6% shooting percentage; his career shooting percentage coming into 2021 was 3.8%
Werenski will have to deal with life after Jones (and vice versa). And it really felt like the Blue Jackets paid a bit extra because they felt they had to keep at least one of their stars around. All are fine at a $7 million cap hit; in the $9.5 million range is a pretty significant overpay, with the potential for these deals to become albatrosses if injuries or the aging curve wreak havoc.
Loser: New York Islanders CapFriendly Page
The rise of the Internet has allowed hockey fans to be more locked in on the sport than ever. With the click of a button, you can find countless information about your favorite teams and players. Cap space has always been important; but with the pandemic halting the cap at $81.5 million for the third straight season, it is more vital than ever. Comparing cap space and depth charts is vital when assessing an organization’s competitiveness and overall health for the future. For 31 NHL teams, we can do just that with certainty.
And then we have the New York Islanders and loophole Lou Lamoriello. Look up the Islanders’ official roster, and you might think the team is a little weak at wing. Check out CapFriendly, and you think they have plenty of cap space to sign RFAs Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin. In reality, the Islanders have already allocated… some of that space to re-sign Casey Cizikas and Kyle Palmieri, also adding Zach Parise a year behind schedule. How much cap space do they have? Nobody knows! That makes the prospect of offer-sheeting Beauvillier or/and Sorokin even lower (but how can you go lower than zero, hockey fans rightfully point out) and keeps us all on our toes, though this category actually becomes a winner if solely looking at Adam Pelech’s contract. Considering what some other defenders got this summer, Pelech’s deal is a steal.
Winner: Edmonton Oilers Forward Core
Hockey and Oilers fans alike have loathed the lack of support Edmonton has provided Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl since their debuts. But that issue finally seems ready to become a thing of the past. The big get for Edmonton is Zach Hyman, a physical forechecking menace who has improved offensively every year of his career. Some of his production is no doubt a product of playing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But Hyman is a good player in his own right, and he will have plenty of star-power to play alongside in Edmonton.
You can debate whether the Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele trade was a good one. But even if the Oilers wind up regretting losing Bear, Foegele has scored at a 34-point pace over the last two years without the benefit of playing alongside anyone like Leon Draisaitl. He is a solid player. If Kailer Yamamoto can bounce back, Edmonton’s top-six (especially if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plays wing) is as balanced and better than ever.
Loser: Edmonton Oilers Defensive Core
Of course, scoring goals is only half of hockey. The Oilers may look impressive up front, but their backend and goaltenders are as big a question mark as ever. The team finally addressed their lack of quality wingers but every decision they made about their defense was very ill-advised. Start with trading a decent young defender in Caleb Jones for Duncan Keith, a 37-year old in a steady decline with two years left at a not insignificant cap hit. While I like Foegele, dealing a promising young, right-handed defenseman in Ethan Bear for him seems ill-advised. In a vacuum, the move is not terrible, but add in the context the Oilers largely made the trade because they prioritized re-signing the one-dimensional Tyson Barrie and downright terrible for three of the last four seasons Cody Ceci to sizable deals, and the move is a trainwreck, plain and simple.
Yet none of those moves carry nearly as much risk as the aforementioned gigantic 8-year, $74 million extension the team tossed at Darnell Nurse. Nurse is a good player being paid like one of the very best in the world at his position, which he almost certainly is not. And despite a big push for Darcy Kuemper, the Oilers are set to run back with the Mike Smith-Mikko Koskinen duo in net. Koskinen was bad last year and is highly overpaid at $4.5 million. Smith did have a tremendous 2021 season, but he is 38 and was brutal the year prior. Did Ken Holland really need to give him a two-year deal? Oh, and they may never see their previous number one defenseman Oskar Klefbom play for them again due to injury. That is obviously not management’s fault, but it is salt in what is looking like a massive wound.
Winner: Dallas Stars
Stars fans know being champions of the offseason does not guarantee immediate success. But after a Murphy’s Law 2021 campaign, the Stars are doing everything in their power to pull off another deep playoff run. Miro Heiskanen’s extension is huge but well deserved. The last two years of Ryan Suter’s four year contract may be a bit ugly. But the 36-year old is a more than capable top-four defenseman who should replace Jamie Oleksiak on Dallas’ second-pair. Michael Raffl and Blake Comeau are solid fourth-line veterans (Luke Glendening was a bit of an overpay, though). Same for Jani Hakanpää on the back-end. The Braden Holtby signing is a bit confusing; even if Ben Bishop misses the entire year, the team already seemingly has a stable tandem in Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger. But I really like Dallas’ makeup heading into 2021-22 and I believe the team is in great position to bounce back.
Loser: Stars Demanding Trades
No, we are not talking about the Dallas Stars again. For as massive as this offseason has been so far, it could be so much bigger. The Jack Eichel and Vladimir Tarasenko situations are pretty similar; star players known for their goal-scoring are demanding a trade in part because of how their team is handling a fairly significant injury. Of course, there is more to the story in Buffalo; the team’s underperformance for Eichel’s entire tenure is a huge reason why he wants out, yet neither team has pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade. Both teams are talking like they are content with keeping their disgruntled stars around, but it is better for everyone if they are on different teams before training camp starts in late September. It remains to be seen if that will be the case.
Winner: 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks
After four straight underwhelming seasons, the Blackhawks had two possible paths to take. They could have rebuilt, ended an era, and focused on the future. Instead, Stan Bowman decided to maximize the last two years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ contracts. Jones may not be worth his extension, but he is certainly a better player than he showed last year. And acquiring a player whose ceiling is borderline Norris levels (he finished 4th in 2017-18 voting) is not easy. Jake McCabe is a good defensive defenseman on a much more reasonable contract, although he is coming off a scary injury.
Even harder (usually) is trading for THE REIGNING VEZINA WINNER. But because cap space is king these days Vegas handed Marc-Andre Fleury right into Chicago’s hands. Add in a still somewhat productive Tyler Johnson (plus a second-round pick for taking on his contract), and it is difficult to argue that the Hawks are not one of the most improved teams in the league. Having a healthy Jonathan Toews back in the lineup amplifies that.
Loser: Post 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have chosen a clear direction to go in, but was it the right one? I am skeptical. There is no guarantee for how well Toews will play after missing a year. He is 33 and Kane is 32, so while they are far from washed the pair has also started to decline. Chicago could have gotten a ton back for them if they were willing to retain 50% or so of their $10.5 million cap hit (both have two years left). Building around Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Adam Boqvist, Kevin Lankinen and others seemed like a pretty appealing option.
What you are instead left with is an older team, Strome reportedly on the block, no Boqvist, no 2022 1st round pick, and a potentially cap crippling contract in Jones. Not to mention Johnson has three years left at $5 million and could become more of an albatross than he is now if he fails to produce. There is a time to go all-in, but I do not think this was it for Chicago.
Winner: New Jersey Devils
What looked like a team in it for the long haul has pivoted towards winning in near-record time. Almost out of nowhere, the Devils emerged as front-runners for Dougie Hamilton. They had already acquired Ryan Graves from Colorado for a reasonable price, but bringing in Hamilton instantly makes New Jersey’s defense above average, especially if Ty Smith builds on his strong rookie year. Jonathan Bernier is not exactly the next Martin Brodeur, but he should be part of an excellent tandem with MacKenzie Blackwood. The cap hit ($4.125 million) is a bit pricey, but only for two years.
Speaking of two-year deals with an AAV of a little over $4 million, New Jersey addressed their second biggest weakness (wingers) by signing Tomas Tatar to a 2-year, $9 million deal. It is concerning that he has been benched in the playoffs two of the last four years. But in the regular season, Tatar can score at a top-six rate and drives play at an elite level. Will it be enough to get them to the playoffs in a tough Metropolitan Division? Maybe. But the Devils should definitely be a competitive team deep into the regular season, an improvement over the bottom-feeder they’ve been the last three seasons.
Loser: Colorado’s Goaltending Situation
There was simply no way the Avalanche would be able to bring everybody back from last year’s team that dominated their first 62 games before falling apart four straight times. Graves was dealt to New Jersey
to pay for his sins in Game 5 against Vegas because of the expansion draft. Brandon Saad walked to divisional rival St. Louis. But those players were secondary pieces. Joe Sakic knew it, and turned his attention to locking up his core. We’ve already gushed about Cale Makar’s extension. The Gabriel Landeskog negotiations were a bit dicey. But it made sense for both sides to bring the captain back, and that is exactly what the Avs did. Only one objective remained: to lock up Philipp Grubauer, and set up the President’s Trophy winners to largely run it back.
But then the Avs got cute. The team apparently low-balled Grubauer, who departed to Seattle on a pretty reasonable 6-year, $35.4 million deal. That is the same Grubauer who is tied for ninth in save percentage over the last three seasons, ranked 11th in goals saved above expected (GSAE) in 2021, and was nominated for the Vezina last season. If the argument was that any goaltender could succeed behind Colorado’s stellar defense, I could understand that. But that is clearly not what Joe Sakic believes, considering he traded a first-rounder and a nice prospect in Connor Timmins to acquire Darcy Kuemper from Arizona.
You see, by the time Grubauer signed, practically every good goaltender was off the market. Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong had all the leverage, and really squeezed the Avs here. After two stellar seasons, Kuemper was extremely average in 2021 (.908 SV%, -0.2 GSAE). And he is under contract for only one more year at $4.5 million. There is no way $1.4 million in cap space should have cost such significant futures. Especially seeing as it likely puts Colorado in the same situation next year. Joe Sakic has done tremendous work here over the last half-decade, and this move does not offset that, but the Avalanche definitely played themselves when it came to finding their starting goaltender.
Winner: Arizona Coyotes
This very well may be the only thing the Coyotes win this season; when your starting goaltender is Carter Hutton, you are pretty obviously tanking. But I really like what the Coyotes did this offseason. Arizona acquired four (!) seconds (plus a prospect taken in the second round in 2019) and a fourth for taking on the contracts of Shayne Gostisbehere, Andrew Ladd, and Anton Strålman. Plus, Gostisbehere is good enough to be flipped for assets next year when his contract is down to one year left.
Then they jettisoned one of the worst contracts in the sport in Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver. Losing Conor Garland stings – he is an underrated scorer and an impact player – but considering the Coyotes also acquired the ninth pick (selecting Dylan Guenther), a second, and a seventh, and the bad contracts they took back will be up at the end of the year, they seem like clear winners here, even with the retained salary. Dealing Phil Kessel, a UFA at season’s end, at some point will net even more picks or/and prospects. But one request: do not trade Christian Dvorak. Centers signed at a reasonable cap hit for four years do not grow on trees. He is young and good enough to help the Coyotes win on the other side of this.
Loser: Carolina Hurricanes
Why is it the likable teams that always seem to make the worst decisions? There are some really weird vibes coming out of Raleigh, and while the Canes should still be a good team, they have undeniably taken a step back. Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta could be a great tandem, but both had underwhelming 2021 seasons and have injury concerns. It was stunning to see the team trade away Calder finalist Alex Nedeljokvic because the 25-year old apparently wanted too much money, then sign two older goaltenders for significantly more.
But the biggest loss is of course losing Dougie Hamilton, one of the game’s premier defensemen. The Canes never seemed interested in offering anything close to market value for Hamilton, who has been top five in Norris voting two years running. The Hurricanes instead tried to recreate him in the aggregate. Trading for Ethan Bear is a good start, but it felt sketchy to see another RFA in Warren Foegele shipped out. Tony DeAngelo can replace a good chunk of Hamilton’s offensive production. But it does not seem worth the headaches he brings in the defensive zone and the locker room. That “Bunch of Jerks” mantra must have gone straight to the front office’s heads.
Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
This is not just because they earned another Cup to ease the blow of their cap crunch a few months ago. Look, losing every member of their vaunted third-line hurts. So does dealing a second-rounder just so the Blackhawks would take on Tyler Johnson’s pricey contract. But considering other teams in cap crunches have lost players like Fleury, Hyman, Grubauer, Jordan Eberle, keeping the entire top-six forwards, top-four defensemen, and Conn Smythe winning goalie of the defending champions together is unbelievable. Tampa Bay even made a few low-cost, low-risk veteran additions like Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, brought back 2020 Cup champ Zach Bogosian, and found Curtis McElhinney 2.0 in Brian Elliott. Oh, and the $9.5 million AAV contract the Lightning handed out was far from ill-advised; for Brayden Point, it is actually a steal. They will be amazing again in 2021-22.
Loser: New York Rangers
Watching the Rangers offseason felt like seeing a slow-motion car crash unfold. Instead of continuing to progress their rebuild and load up enough talent to ascend the Metropolitan Division ranks, the Rangers “solved” their Tom Wilson “problem” by creating a host of others in a series of poor decisions. Contrary to what their new management group appears to think, the Rangers only play the Capitals four times this season, just like every other year. Maybe Samuel Blais, Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, or Barclay Goodrow will beat him up and make MSG go nuts. And sure, that would be a nice moment to see.
The problem is that moment will not be worth a second-round pick and impact scorer Pavel Buchnevich for the former, a 6-year, $21.85 million deal for the latter, or $4.25 against the cap combined for the next two years (and an extra year for Nemeth at $2.5 million) for the middle two. The Rangers are putting a ton on the shoulders of a young core of players who have not lived up to the expectations yet. Kappo Kakko, Alexis Lafrenière, K’Andre Miller, and Filip Chytil are no longer support pieces; they are vital cogs to the Rangers success, with no viable fail-safe in case they struggle.
Grit and physicality are important things to have, but not at the expense of having a better team. The key is to find good players who bring those qualities to the table (see: Lightning, Tampa Bay) at a reasonable cost. It does not seem like the Rangers have done that this offseason, and that failure will be the primary catalyst for a missed playoff berth for the fifth straight year.
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