Dust off your sticks, hit the links, and let the waiting games begin. The National Hockey League has just entered its most stagnant quarter of the year, and boy is this one going to be a doozie. The dust has started to settle after one of the single most exciting July 1st ‘s since 1867 when Canada officially became America’s younger sibling. July 1st, the Canadian equivalent of the fourth of July, officially marks the beginning of free agency in the NHL and unofficially signifies a fresh start for teams and players who have been on the outside looking in since April instead of making a run at the cup. Much happened before the first though; the league’s potential future stars were selected at the entry draft in Buffalo, NY, and fans got a taste of what the ‘blockbuster’ trades of old felt like. Let’s take a look at the action from the previous month and what we might be able to expect before the season commences in October.
The Pittsburgh Penguins make history by winning the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup in game six against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks were able to push the series to six games but relied heavily on the stellar play of 26 year-old goalie Martin Jones in their two victories. The Penguins prove to us that speed and creativity on offense paired with a stalwart defense – as well as a rookie goalie with everything to prove – are everything when it comes to making it deep into the playoffs. They showed us that one of the best regular seasons in league history means nothing unless you have depth players that can take you the distance in the playoffs (sorry Caps fans). Look for teams to try to replicate the talent pool the Penguins have created up and down the lineup in the offseason.
Long awaited news comes out of Las Vegas, as the NHL officially approves the city for hosting an expansion team. The move is far from unprecedented, as talk of expansion to the Strip has been in the works for over a year now. This decision marks the first time a team will be added to the league since 2000 when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild rounded out the league to an even 30 teams. Division realignment in 2013 laid the groundwork for future expansion teams – most notably in the West – but the yet unnamed Las Vegas team will be the first to join the ranks. This move adds an extra level of complexity to all trades and signings during the summer as general managers must now plan ahead to the expansion draft in the summer of 2017 with regards to which players they will protect and which they will expose for the Vegas team to acquire. The Vegas team has expressed plans to name its first GM by August 1st. Next up, Seattle.
The day of the NHL Entry Draft. The unanimous No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews is just that, taken first by the Toronto Maple Leafs. A relatively elite-talent-thin draft class ended with few surprises, aside from top Finnish prospect Jesse Puljujärvi being passed up by the Blue Jackets only to fall to the Edmonton Oilers – a team already laden with young talent – at the fourth overall pick. While not overly surprising on its own, this move would allow the Oilers to make some big moves in the days to come. The draft was also an indication of the success of the United States hockey development system, as a record 12 Americans were taken in the first round with 55 taken in the draft overall. Matthews, a centerman from Arizona, was the first American taken at the number one overall spot since Patrick Kane in 2007. Many believe Matthews is on a path to have as prolific a career as Kane. The Maple Leafs surely hope so.
Draft day always includes a handful of trades, most of which are comprised of future or current draft picks, rights to players, or for depth guys already on contract. It is rare for big names to be traded on draft day, but not completely out of the picture. This year’s draft day was business as usual; a handful of deals were made that while notable, are not groundbreaking. Trades including forward Lars Eller to the Capitals, forward Andrew Shaw to the Canadiens and goalie Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames headlined the day, among others. The real fun would start just five days later.
The hockey world is shocked as the Edmonton Oilers trade 24-year-old Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for 23-year-old defenseman Adam Larsson. Many think that New Jersey wins the deal as Taylor Hall has already proven that he could be a top winger in the league, and now he has time to grow as a leader on the struggling Devils. Edmonton, however, picked up a very solid defenseman in Larsson. Look for him to fill a hole on defense that the Oilers have been struggling with for some time. This trade provided plenty of fodder for analysts and critics alike, and would likely stand as the biggest trade we would see all summer. And it was the biggest trade…until later that day. Just hours after the EDM-NJ trade, news broke of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban being traded for Nashville Predators d-man Shea Weber. This brand of trade is something we rarely see in the league today, a 1-for-1 swap of superstars. Naturally, people on the outside argue which team ‘won’ the trade, but regardless, the swap of the all-star defensemen indicates a culture shift within each organization. The Canadiens gave up the fun, fast-paced, young star Subban for the stoic, natural leader Shea Weber. Montreal wants more of a veteran leader type position to lead the team forward while the Preds look to increase speed, gumption, and high-energy talent on an already exciting team.
The biggest single day in the sport’s offseason; free agency day. This is the day that all players with contracts set to end in 2016 can officially sign with whichever team is going to offer them the most money, best term, or the best chance at winning a cup. On July 1st, 2016 we saw plenty of all three. Through the first five days of free agency, a total of $508 Million has been promised in signed contracts, just $10 Million less than what LeBron is expected to make next season. The Florida Panthers made several big moves at the onset of free agency, already strengthening their ability to make another playoff push. They were able to land some big name guys in G James Reimer and D Jason Demers, as well as some depth guys F Colton Sceviour and F Jonathan Marchessault. Perhaps most notably though, Florida was able to extend key role players F Vincent Trocheck and all-star defenseman Aaron Ekblad to long term deals. Florida’s offseason is archetypal of a successful team; extend important core players while bringing in new, fresh talent. Speaking of success, kudos to the Tampa Bay Lightning front office for locking down free agents F Steven Stamkos and D Victor Hedman, two of the best players in the league at their respective positions. These two played huge parts in the Lightning’s trip to the Eastern Conference Final last season, and very well could have found themselves skating elsewhere by the beginning of the ’16-’17 season.
Interestingly, some of the biggest signings included older, more experienced players. After much speculation F Milan Lucic ultimately signed with the Edmonton Oilers, helping to fill the hole left by Hall noted previously. F Troy Brouwer and F David Backes both left St. Louis for the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, respectively. Backes signing with the Bruins, after ten years with the Blues, reminds us that while these athletes are loyal to their teams and cities, money and career success (read: Stanley Cups) sometimes take precedence. Hey, at least it’s not the NBA, where 14 PPG earns you the largest contract in league history.
Speaking of the Lucic signing, though, F Matt Martin signed a four-year deal with the Maple Leafs. Why, you ask, is this all that significant? Well, the Leafs just drafted a generational talent in Auston Matthews and it seems that Martin may be playing the role of protector while the young talent develops. The same goes for Lucic and F Connor McDavid of the Oilers. For better or worse, hockey has certainly lost some of its more ‘brutish’ qualities that were mainstream 20 years ago. Lucic and Martin signing as ‘superstar insurance’ may bring a bit of this 90’s-esque play back in to the light.
Throw in some juicy rumors, all too expected signings, and some deals that only time will reveal as smart or stupid, and that wraps up the first day of free agency. Many unrestricted and restricted free agents remain as we enter the start of the rest of the summer, where arbitration begins to unfold and impatience from teams and players grows ever more frustrating.
Signings and trades will continue throughout the summer months. Thankfully the wait for hockey will be cut a bit shorter this year because of the reimagined World Cup of Hockey, set to begin in September. Who knows, maybe the WCoH will be as extraordinary as the Olympics, where players battle for a few weeks in a tight knit schedule hoping to bring glory home on the world stage. Players set aside rivalries and differences to temporarily and valiantly compete for the nations they call home. Either that or it will be serve as preseason of the preseason, and skaters will go through the motions until the real fun begins.
Ahh yes…hockey in the summer. Is it October yet?