For better or for worse, summer is in the rearview mirror. We’re officially on the colder side of Labor Day, meaning beach season has been replaced by back-to-school season. But while the days continue to get shorter, they also carry us closer and closer to the only season that truly matters: Hockey season.
The NHL offseason’s days are numbered and training camp is right around the corner, and that can be a somewhat overwhelming development if you’re feeling a little behind on things. Maybe you’re the kind of fan that likes to turn your brain off and enjoy a few months of summer serenity before a new campaign gets started. Maybe you’ve just had trouble remembering and keeping up with all the news during a busy offseason. Perhaps you just need to fill in some blanks.
In any case, now is as good of a time as any to look back on the past few months and get a refresher on some of the biggest hockey developments of the summer.
Oilers bring in Duncan Keith
Edmonton helped set off a weird and wild NHL offseason by trading for Duncan Keith in July. In an attempt to improve defensively and add some veteran leadership, the Oilers sent Caleb Jones and a conditional third-round pick to the Blackhawks for Keith.
The most surprising thing about the Keith trade was the fact that Chicago didn’t have to retain any salary in the deal. Edmonton was willing to surrender assets AND take on the final two years of Keith’s contract ($5.5 million AAV) in full. The 38-year-old has steadily declined in recent years and is not nearly the player he was when he hoisted three Cups with the Blackhawks, but the Oilers felt it was still worth the investment.
It was the first of several surprising moves by Edmonton, but more on that in a bit.
A relatively tame expansion draft
The league welcomed its 32nd franchise this summer when the Seattle Kraken began filling out their roster via expansion draft in July. It was a fairly tame and underwhelming experience — a far cry from the wheeling and dealing leading up to the 2017 expansion draft in Vegas.
Our pal Frank Seravalli basically set fire to the expansion process, leaking almost every Seattle draft pick to Hockey Twitter hours before the event. On top of that, the Kraken made zero pre-draft trades, meaning there was essentially a drama- and mystery-free ceremony in Seattle.
Outside of a handful of surprising draft selections and some minor trades in the days following, there weren’t a whole lot of fireworks attached to this year’s expansion process.
Seth Jones commands a ton
It definitely wasn’t a surprise that Jones got dealt this offseason. Of all the big names expected to be moved, he was near the top in terms of trade certainty. However, when the Blackhawks traded for the defenseman, there was still plenty of shock value both in the return going back to the Blue Jackets as well as the contract extension given to Jones in the aftermath.
Columbus sent Jones, the 32nd overall pick and an additional sixth-round pick to Chicago in exchange for Adam Boqvist, two first-round picks (including the 12th overall this year) and a second-rounder. That’s a great haul for the Blue Jackets, who had little leverage with Jones after he said he wasn’t going to resign in Columbus beyond this season.
Then, the Blackhawks promptly gave Jones an extension worth $9.5 million annually over eight years (plus a full no-movement clause), enough to make him the third highest paid defenseman in the league.
Even as someone who believes that Jones has been evaluated too harshly at the hands of Hockey Twitter and the analytics community in recent years, it was hard not to raise my eyebrows at what it took to land Jones — both in terms of assets and financial commitment.
There’s no doubt Chicago’s back end is better now with Jones, but the Blackhawks are taking a big and expensive risk as they bank on him becoming a true No. 1 defenseman again. They better hope it works out.
Power goes No. 1 to Buffalo
This year’s NHL Draft lacked some pop at the top of the board. There were some great young prospects to be had, of course, but most scouts agreed that the 2021 class didn’t promise the generational talent or depth that previous incoming classes carried.
Still, there’s reason for Sabres fans to be excited about drafting Owen Power first overall. The big defenseman has frequently been referred to as a poor man’s Victor Hedman, which isn’t quite as insulting as it might sound considering what Hedman provides. With Rasmus Dahlin already employed on Buffalo’s blue line, the Sabres now have a really young and promising one-two punch on the back end.
Of course, fans are going to have to wait a bit to see what Power can do at the NHL level. He elected to return to Michigan to play college hockey this year rather than report to Buffalo. Considering the state of the Sabres at this point, I’d say that’s a strong testament to his decision-making abilities.
Defensemen get paid (and overpaid)
Heading into this offseason, there were only four NHL defensemen with contracts paying at least $9 million annually — Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. However, five guys will join that club thanks to deals signed this offseason.
We already touched on Seth Jones’ new contract (which kicks in next year) as well as Dougie Hamilton’s deal, but they weren’t the only ones to strike it rich. A young defensive trio of Zach Werenski (6 x $9.5M), Darnell Nurse (8 x $9.25M) and Cale Makar (6 x $9M) also cashed in over the past few months.
It feels safe to declare the Nurse contract as the most surprising of the bunch, as it reeks of a substantial overpay for a good-but-not-yet-great defenseman.
But even behind the big names, it was a good summer to be an NHL defenseman looking for a new deal. There was plenty of money and term being handed out to defensemen of varying capabilities, even those that can be classified as depth or replacement level contributors. Among the most surprising? Ryan Suter, Cody Ceci, David Savard and Tucker Poolman all got four-year contracts on the first day of free agency.
Coyotes face an uncertain future
To say it’s been a very eventful offseason for the Arizona Coyotes would probably be putting it lightly. They changed coaches. They began stripping away key pieces from their roster — including captain and franchise defenseman OIiver Ekmann-Larsson — in anticipation of a rebuild. They offered themselves up as a dumping ground for bad contracts and unwanted personnel in order to stockpile future assets. They announced a rebranding initiative. Oh, and they’re being evicted from Gila River Arena after this season.
But other than that … anything new?
There is so much change and uncertainty in Arizona right now and, one way or another, this legitimately feels like a turning point for the franchise. It’s a safe bet they’re going to finish near the bottom of the league standings this season but, beyond that, there’s a lot up in the air. As it stands, they’ve got six skaters signed beyond this upcoming season, and only three skaters signed into 2023. They have eight draft picks in the first two rounds (three firsts and five seconds) next summer. There’s a major reset coming.
We don’t quite know what the Coyotes are going to look like a year from now or where they’re even going to play, but it’s all very intriguing.
Kaprizov, Wild stuck in stalemate
The NHL’s Rookie of the Year is still without a contract. Kirill Kaprizov has been locked in a contractual standoff with the Minnesota Wild and general manager Bill Guerin all summer, with Kaprizov threatening to go back to the KHL for a year if he doesn’t get a satisfactory deal from Guerin.
The Wild have called that bluff to this point and, although there’s no deal on either side of the globe just yet, it does sound like progress is being made, albeit very slowly. According to Michael Russo of The Athletic, Kaprizov initially wanted a short-term deal that would carry him to unrestricted free agency in 2024 while paying him around $9 million annually, whereas the Wild wanted to sign the star forward to a long-term extension that would eat up some of those UFA years. Both sides have come off their demands a bit and are reportedly trying to meet somewhere in the middle — Russo projects a five-year deal worth around $9 million AAV.
Progress is promising. However, Wild fans aren’t going to be able to breathe easy until pen gets put to paper, and the collective anxiety of that fanbase has presumably been off the charts for weeks already. Kaprizov showed legitimate superstar potential during his first season and completely transformed Minnesota’s offensive attack, so the Wild need to get a deal done to keep him in the fold this year and beyond. It feels like it’ll get done eventually, but it’s already taken way longer and been way uglier than expected.
Veteran goalie carousel
Even as someone who is quite literally paid to keep track of what’s going on in the NHL, it’s tough to keep up with all the veteran goaltenders that changed teams this offseason. There’s been a TON of movement at the goalie position over the past few months, so here’s some of what you may have missed or forgotten.
- Braden Holtby to Stars (one year, $2 million)
- Jaroslav Halak to Canucks (one year, $1.5 million)
- James Reimer to Sharks (two years, $2.25 million AAV)
- Laurent Brossoit to Golden Knights (two years, $2.3 million AAV)
- Antti Raanta to Hurricanes (two years, $4 million AAV)
- Brian Elliott to Lightning (one year, $900,000)
- Petr Mrazek to Maple Leafs (three years, $3.8 million AAV)
- Frederik Andersen to Hurricanes (two years, $4.5 million AAV)
- Martin Jones to Flyers (one year, $2 million)
- Jonathan Bernier to Devils (two years, $4.125 million AAV)
- Carter Hutton to Coyotes (one year, $750,000)
- Aaron Dell to Sabres (one year, $750,000)
- Craig Anderson to Sabres (one year, $750,000)
- Dave Rittich to Predators (one year, $1.25 million)
- Philipp Grubauer to Kraken (six years, $5.9 million AAV)
- Darcy Kuemper to Avalanche (trade)
- Marc-Andre Fleury to Blackhawks (trade)
All things considered, the most notable of all those moves listed above has to be Fleury getting traded to the Blackhawks … for nothing in return! (OK, Vegas technically got minor-leaguer Mikael Hakkarainen in return but then terminated his contract.) It’s a wild turn of events for Fleury, who won the Vezina Trophy last season and was beloved after revitalizing his career with the Golden Knights. He almost retired instead of reporting to the Blackhawks but has decided to play and will add another chapter to what has been an incredibly bizarre career.
Kotkaniemi goes to Carolina
For the first time in over a decade, the NHL saw a successful offer sheet get processed, as the Hurricanes poached young center Jesperi Kotkaniemi from the Canadiens. It wasn’t just any ordinary offer sheet, either. It was one born out of revenge and pettiness.
To understand the levels of pettiness at play here, you have to go back to 2019 when Montreal presented an offer sheet to forward Sebastian Aho in an attempt to steal him from Carolina. The Canadiens offered Aho a contract laden with bonuses in the hopes that Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, who was reportedly having some financial issues at the time, wouldn’t have the cash to match a heavily front-loaded deal. Dundon didn’t flinch, and Carolina quickly matched the offer sheet.
It’s also important to understand that offer sheets are rarely presented in the NHL, partially because there seems to be a “gentleman’s agreement” among league executives that restricted free agents are not to be messed with. There’s a fear of blowback and future consequences for trying to poach a player via offer sheet, and it seems that most GMs don’t find the juice worth the squeeze.
Montreal went for it with Aho a few years ago, and Dundon clearly took it personally and held a grudge. This summer, the Canes owner saw an opportunity for revenge.
With the Canadiens in a cap crunch and Kotkaniemi remaining unsigned as a RFA, the Hurricanes moved in with a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet. That’s a whole lot of more money than the young center is worth at this juncture, so it’s not surprising that he accepted the deal from Carolina. It’s also not a huge shock that Montreal was unwilling to match the offer and instead decided to take the compensation (a first-round and third-round draft pick) for the player they drafted No. 3 overall in 2018.
After spending most of the offseason facing criticism for being cheap, the Hurricanes made it clear they were willing to pay whatever it cost to be the league’s biggest troll. Any attempts to dispel the idea that this offer sheet was vengeful were a waste of time. They basically copy-pasted the Canadiens’ press release from the Aho offer sheet and swapped out the names. The Canes’ official Twitter account announced the news in French. They included a $20 signing bonus on the offer to Kotkaniemi — a not-so-subtle reference to Aho’s jersey number.
I’m sure the Hurricanes like Kotkaniemi as a player and are glad he’s joining them (even at an inflated cost this year), but it’s hard to imagine any of this happening if Montreal didn’t try to embarrass Dundon a few years ago. Either way, I’m glad it did happen because the whole thing was ridiculous and provided some unexpected drama late in the offseason.
The Kane controversy
Following one of the best seasons of his career, Evander Kane has been the subject of some troubling headlines this summer. The Sharks forward is in the middle of a bitter divorce and his estranged wife has levied some serious allegations against him — including claims of domestic abuse and gambling on NHL games.
After Anna Kane alleged that Evander bet on NHL games, including throwing Sharks games for his own profit, the veteran winger denied that he has ever bet on hockey. The NHL promptly launched an investigation into the claims, and it’s expected that it will wrap up before the start of camp.
Evander Kane hasn’t been a stranger to off-ice controversy throughout his NHL career. In 2016, he was investigated (and later cleared) after an alleged sexual assault. He also was sued by The Cosmopolitan in 2019, with the Las Vegas casino claiming that Kane failed to pay off $500,000 in debts following a playoff series against the Golden Knights. (The lawsuit was later dropped.) Kane filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and cited $1.5 million lost to gambling.
Kane’s future in the league hinges on the findings of the ongoing investigation, but even if he’s cleared of the gambling allegations, his tenure in San Jose may still be in doubt. It was reported in August that several Sharks teammates don’t want Kane back this season due to his general “disrespect for team rules.”
Eichel stays put … for now
We’re still one phone call away from things changing, but right now, Jack Eichel remains with the Sabres. That’s a bit surprising considering it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he’d be moved this summer.
Eichel and the team remain at odds over his injured neck and how it should be treated, and all signs seem to be pointing toward a divorce sooner rather than later. If Buffalo doesn’t trade him this season, it will have to maneuver around a no-movement clause that kicks in next year that could hamper a return package.
The star center continues to make it clear that he doesn’t want to stick around. In early August, Eichel had his agents release a statement criticizing the Sabres for their handling of his neck injury — a clear tactic to help force a trade. That didn’t work, and Eichel switched agents, presumably to help move things along. It seems as though the player and the team are unquestionably past the point of no return.
That being said, it’s been surprisingly quiet on the trade front this offseason. Certain teams who were believed to be in on Eichel at the beginning of the summer have seemingly moved on and played their way out of the sweepstakes with other transactions. There hasn’t been much trade chatter leaked in a while, and things have seemingly stalled.
Still, until we hear about bridges (or necks) being repaired, it’s probably fair to keep assuming that Eichel has played his last game with Buffalo.
NHL preparing to send players back to Olympics
Earlier this month, the NHL and NHLPA officially announced that they had reached an agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation to send players to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. That means NHLers will be back on the Olympic circuit after the NHL blocked participation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
While that’s exciting news for fans who missed seeing the world’s best players compete on the sport’s biggest international stage, it may be wise to celebrate with caution. The participation agreement features plenty of COVID-related opt-outs and insurance policies, meaning that plans could drastically change depending on how the ongoing pandemic (and surging Delta variant) develops in the coming months. Players have the right to opt out without penalty, and the league has the right to terminate the agreement for any reason leading up to the start of the Olympics.
Again, cautious optimism here. Still, a tentative agreement is better than no agreement at all. Cross your fingers and hope we’ll get to see best versus best in China in February.