Ekman-Larsson, Jones Blockbuster Trades Peak Of Wild 2021 NHL Offseason
The 2020 NHL offseason was understandably defined by trepidation. Maybe it was just the lack of summer heat, but uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season and a brand new flat salary cap world probably had more to do with. There were a couple of big moves; Vegas moved heaven, Earth, Paul Stastny, and Nate Schmidt to bring in Alex Pietrangelo, stacking their defense. St. Louis replaced their captain by signing the next best defenseman one year after beating him in the Stanley Cup Final. Taylor Hall’s 1-year deal in Buffalo worked horribly for the Sabres and horribly for Hall until he was dealt to a much better home in Boston. There were a couple of notable trades (Josh Anderson for Max Domi, Matt Murray to Ottawa), but overall it was a pretty passive offseason.
Of course, we knew things were going to be different this summer. The cap is still flat, but at least there’s precedent for how to navigate that. Star players across the league were either not willing to negotiate extensions or flat out requested a trade. More are going to be restricted or unrestricted free agents on July 28 hoping for a payday and maybe a change of scenery. Oh, and for just the second time since 2000, a new franchise and subsequent expansion draft was set to grace the league’s landscape. All of the pieces for an exciting summer were there. But would it really matriculate in the NHL, a league known for its lack of flare compared to other sports?
As is normal, things started small. On June 29, with the Stanley Cup yet to be awarded, the Edmonton Oilers locked up Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to an 8-year, $41 million extension, a solid deal for a versatile top-six forward. Two days later, the LA Kings acquired Viktor Arvidsson from Nashville. The deal made sense; Nashville was looking to move Arvidsson before the expansion draft, and the Kings need scoring wingers to support Anze Kopitar and their plethora of young centers. One day after that, Minnesota inked young, defensively stout center Joel Eriksson Ek to nearly the same contract Nugent-Hopkins received. Some pretty decent sized moves. But they were the calm before the storm.
It took another week for anything notable to happen. But once the hot stove resumed, things got weird, fast. After sixteen legendary seasons in Chicago, Duncan Keith was dealt to the Oilers to be closer to his family. Despite the lack of leverage, Chicago did very well in the trade, acquiring a conditional 3rd and Caleb Jones, whose brother Seth happened to be on the trade block (a mere coincidence, I’m sure). The Bruins signed defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo to a 6-year, $24.6 million extension. As these moves happened, a trade freeze to allow Seattle to make their expansion draft selections in peace was nearing.
Deadlines spur actions, as the saying goes, and the freeze basically became a second trade deadline. It seemed like only just a couple of minor deals would result from it; the Avalanche traded Ryan Graves to the Devils in a fair trade all-around. And the Red Wings took on Nick Leddy from the Islanders for a 2nd and Richard Pánik at 50% retained salary. Better than nothing, but casual fans probably didn’t even bat an eye at them.
But right before the freeze, all hell broke loose. The Stars traded Jason Dickinson, then extended Miro Heiskanen for eight years days later. Toronto sent Filip Hållanader back to the Penguins less than a year after acquiring from Pittsburgh to acquire Jared McCann as Alex Kerfoot insurance. Arizona ate all of Andrew Ladd’s albatross contract for 2 2nds and a conditional 3rd. The Rangers have deluded themselves into thinking grit is all that separates them from throwing the clock back to 1994, trading for Barclay Goodrow’s rights and signing him to a massive extension. In fact, they doubled down on that Friday by trading a consistent 20-25 goal, 50-60 point player in Pavel Buchnevich for a 2nd and bottom-sixer Samuel Blais. Significant moves, but would the freeze lead to any true blockbusters?
Yep. If the Arvidsson trade and Pekka Rinne’s retirement didn’t fully symbolize the end of an era in Smashville, trading Ryan Ellis does. Philadelphia finally finds their Matt Niskanen replacement, making what will surely be their only notable move for a right-handed defenseman this summer. Getting young defenseman Phil Myers and former #2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is a decent but slightly underwhelming return. Flipping Patrick to Vegas for the player drafted four picks after him in 2017? That’s just gutsy. And it’s exactly what the Predators and Golden Knights did.
Pencils down, everybody, it’s Seattle’s time to shine. The Kraken came away with a decent team from the expansion draft. But they did make some confusing picks and didn’t make a single side deal to acquire additional assets. Then again, Seattle has $28 million in cap space, so there’s probably much more in store. With the NHL Draft coming just two days after Seattle made their picks, it was fair to wonder if we might not see any big moves until free agency opened on July 28.
Then the Hurricanes decided they didn’t want to pay breakout goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and shipped him off to Detroit. Seattle made their first trade in franchise history, dealing effective bottom-sixer Tyler Pitlick to Calgary for a 4th. And on Friday, oh Friday, the Bruins signed Taylor Hall to a very reasonable 4-year, $24 million extension. Surely every move made on Friday would be reasonable.
And then the Flyers went nuts and dealt their 1st, a 2023 2nd, and Robert Hägg for analytics whipping boy Rasmus Ristolainen, a terrible trade for Philadelphia and the worst of the offseason so far (especially considering the Flyers also had to pay Arizona a 2nd and 7th to take on Shayne Gostisbehere to make the cap work). Vancouver took that as a challenge, taking on 88% of Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s six-year albatross contract to rid overpaid but short-term deals handed out to Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and Loui Eriksson.
Oh, and the Canucks also gave up the 9th pick in a draft where there is a consensus top-nine, plus a 2022 2nd and 2023 7th. Yes, they also acquired Conor Garland, an outstanding and underrated scoring winger who should fill the void Tyler Toffoli left behind next to Bo Horvat. But paying Ekman-Larsson $7.26 million until 2027 is a tough pill to swallow. He used to be one of the game’s best offensive defensemen, but his game has dropped off hard in recent years.
Speaking of overpaying defensemen for well over a half-decade; remember the brother of that Caleb Jones fellow? He’ll be playing with Caleb on the Blackhawks this year and the next eight after following a trade and massive extension. That’s right; Seth Jones is heading to Chicago, along with the 31st pick in the 2021 Draft and a 2022 6th. Like Ristolainen and Ekman-Larsson, Seth Jones didn’t grade out very well by analytics. But he probably has the highest floor of the group and is only a few years removed from being a legitimate Norris contender. As a player, I definitely value him much higher than Ristolainen or Ekman-Larsson.
But not nearly high enough to justify an eight-year extension at $9.5 million a season. That’s almost a million more and an extra year than Pietrangelo received last year. And as for what Columbus got back? The 12th and 44th picks in this year’s draft, plus Chicago’s 2022 1st round pick (Erik Karlsson vibes, anyone?). Plus Adam Boqvist, already a solid top-four caliber defenseman at just 20 years old. He’s not the only young defenseman they acquired Friday; Columbus flipped pick 44 for Carolina’s Jake Bean, 2019-20 AHL defenseman of the year and an outstanding puck-moving defenseman.
Yes, the Blue Jackets lose their fifth star player in the last two years. But even considering they got Patrik Laine for one of them, this is probably the best return package to date. Welcome back to Columbus, John Davidson; it’s like you never left. Good day to be trading a big name defenseman, huh? Rarely does the team trading the best player in a trade win it. But that’s what seems to have transpired in all three of Friday’s big moves.
This has already been of the craziest off seasons in recent memory. And we’ve still got the majority of the draft and free agency on the horizon. Stars like Dougie Hamilton and Gabriel Landeskog could also be on the move in the coming days and weeks. Vladimir Tarasenko’s trade request is still hanging in the air. As a hockey fan, it’s refreshing to see such an exciting offseason, one that can at least somewhat rival the jaw-dropping headlines we usually see this time of year in the NBA and NFL. I’m sure ESPN feels the same way as well. Enjoy the next few days, hockey fans. They might be some of the last notable ones until the season starts October 12; but it seems like they’ll be worth paying attention to.
Unless your team makes a terrible move, of course. Then you can shut it down until the fall and go watch baseball or something.
All Salary Cap Information via CapFriendly