We’re just 10 days past the opening of free agency (and 85 days away from the start of the 2017-18 season), but most of the key UFAs are off the market.
There are still some good finds to be had, from analytics darling Cody Franson to possession monster and fan favourite Jaromir Jagr, but when it comes to determining who the winners and losers of the off-season are, most of the work has been done.
Who are some of the most improved teams of the summer to this point? Keeping in mind that the Stanley Cup isn’t handed out in July, the Tape to Tape podcast discussed some of the most positive movers so far.
The Hurricanes are a team we’re waiting, and expecting, to break out and get into the playoffs at some point. With a fantastic young defence corps that’s still running cheap for another season, Carolina fell just shy of qualifying in 2016-17. They won 10 of 15 games during a stretch in March, but faded badly and dropped five of their last six games to finish eight points shy of the playoffs.
There were two main roster concerns general manager Ron Francis needed to take care of: lack of scoring and quality goaltending. While the team hasn’t acquired a game-breaking scorer (yet), Francis did improve the team’s depth up front by signing UFA Justin Williams and trading for Chicago cap casualty Marcus Kruger.
“Just looks like things are starting to come together really nicely there and they have the flexibility because of their defence corps that if they do need to go out, if you really think they need another forward, they can probably leverage one of those defencemen into something if the right move comes up,” Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon said on the Tape to Tape podcast.
Because of this overflow of young blue line talent in their organization, the Hurricanes were linked to Matt Duchene for a while — and the acquisition of Trevor van Riemsdyk seemed to bolster this thought that Carolina would move a defenceman. The Colorado Avalanche are obviously in need of an improvement on the blue line so the match seemed to be a fit. But as the Hurricanes got depth elsewhere and aren’t really feeling the pressure to make any hasty win-now moves, the price for Duchene as it currently stands is too rich, so Carolina can bide its time.
The move that should have the most noticeable positive impact on Carolina’s 2017-18 season happened before July 1. The Canes brought in goalie Scott Darling from Chicago for a third-round pick and then signed the pending UFA to a four-year deal. Darling, 28, hasn’t been an NHL starter yet, but posted a .924 save percentage in 32 games this past season. In fact, he’s been at or above .915 in the AHL or NHL since 2013-14.
“He’s the kind of guy who you could see do the Cam Talbot thing where he’s a solid backup for a while behind a good team and another good goalie,” said T2T co-host Rory Boylen. “He didn’t have a chance to earn the No. 1 job in Chicago, but everything we’ve seen from Darling would suggest he’ll probably be a pretty good starter.”
As much as Carolina needed a boost up front (namely on the power play), the goaltending was an especially sore spot this past season. Longtime starter Cam Ward and Eddie Lack struggled to individually stay above the .900 save percentage mark and as a result, the Canes had the second-lowest 5-on-5 team save percentage in the league at .913 — just above the lowly Avalanche.
No team, outside of the newly formed Vegas franchise, made more moves than the Dallas Stars who were busy on the trade and free agent signing fronts.
“Big ups to (Stars GM) Jim Nill, the kind of GM who I like to see in my fantasy hockey league making moves, not afraid to trade big guys, make splashes,” Boylen said.
The most glaring area of need was in net, where the Stars were a complete wasteland after the $10.4-million Antti Niemi-Kari Lehtonen tandem proved a complete disaster. It was the first thing Nill addressed this summer too, as he acquired Ben Bishop from the Kings all the way back on May 9 for a fourth-rounder and then signed the pending UFA to a six-year deal.
Bishop, a Vezina finalist in 2016, experienced his worst season as an NHL starter to date, which was slowed by a lower-body injury. In 32 games with Tampa, he had a .911 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against average before he was shipped to L.A. for insurance at the deadline.
The next-most pressing area of concern was the defence and Nill took a cut there, too, acquiring expansion draft pick Marc Methot from the Vegas Golden Knights for cheap: a goalie prospect and 2020 second-rounder. After playing as the stay-at-home complement to Erik Karlsson the past few seasons, Methot figures to find a similar spot beside 24-year-old John Klingberg in 2017-18. The Stars also have a few homegrown early-20s defencemen in Esa Lindell and Julius Honka. Lindell was extended for two years this summer and figures to play a bigger role, while Honka is coming off a nice AHL season and hopes to earn a full-time NHL spot out of camp.
There were moves up front, too. The Stars already had one of the most exciting duos in the NHL with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and now the vision of putting them with free agent pickup Alexander Radulov has us thinking Dallas’ potential top line could be the league’s most explosive.
Another UFA, Martin Hanzal, was added and he brings flexibility as a big-body centre for the third line or potential second-line winger next to Jason Spezza.
Nill left little doubt that the Stars are going for it as soon as next season. Inside the Central Division, rival Chicago seemingly made moves to get worse this summer, while St. Louis appears more susceptible to fall out of the playoffs than in any recent season. In the Pacific, Los Angeles is no longer a power, San Jose seems to have peaked and Anaheim will be without two key defencemen for the first couple months of the season. The opportunity for a 2016-17 outsider to get in is there and with all these changes, Dallas may be at the top of that list.
If they do get back in, though, the MVP for that charge might be head coach Ken Hitchcock, who returns for his second tour of duty with the Stars. He’ll strive to tighten up the team’s defensive play while making sure the stars this team is built on can keep doing their thing.
“He’s one of those guys who after a few years he tends to wear out his welcome, but the first couple years he’s money, he’s going to get results,” Boylen said.
With 30 wins and 70 points in 2016-17, the Coyotes missed the playoffs by a cavernous 24 points and with youngsters such as Max Domi, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun and Clayton Keller in the fold, this budget team seemed set on a long-term game plan.
But everything seemed to turn on a dime once Andrew Barroway took over sole ownership of the franchise. Out went old guards Shane Doan, Mike Smith, and longtime head coach Dave Tippett. And as attached as the Coyotes are to their young players, 25-year-old stud defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is just two seasons away from unrestricted free agency and he may not be willing to wait around in a wasteland with the hope green pastures will grow. So GM John Chayka went bold and made a couple big trades to help with a push forward.
The first was trading Smith to goalie-hungry Calgary to create some space, but it’s the two follow-up moves that made the Coyotes an off-season winner. In came shutdown defender Niklas Hjalmarsson in a cap-cutting move from Chicago for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy. Chayka then traded the eighth-overall pick and 21-year-old Anthony DeAngelo for first-line centre Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to replace Smith. Add to this the free agent signing of Alex Goligoski and the Coyotes suddenly surrounded their young, promising players with established vets.
All these make for a noted improvement on paper, but is it enough to make up all this ground in the Western Conference? That’s a topic for another day.
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That’s pretty good. #FactsOnlyFriday
Already a strong team with Stanley Cup aspirations, the Calgary Flames made some big and bold moves to ensure they got back to the post-season after they were undone by subpar goaltending in the playoffs. Brian Elliott posted a miserable .880 save percentage in a four-game sweep at the hands of Anaheim, which pushed GM Brad Treliving into the market where he got Smith, a 35-year-old with two seasons left on his contract.
“Mike Smith I think is a reasonable two-year gamble,” said Dixon. “I think you can hope that one of these years, out of those two, Mike Smith is going to be a .923 goalie and will really fortify you in the crease.”
Smith has done it before; leading Arizona to a conference final in 2012, but he’s been fairly up-and-down ever since. If you rack that up to him playing behind a poor team and thin defence, then you’ll be confident Smith will bounce back behind Calgary’s stellar blue line, which Treliving also improved.
Already with Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, and two years after trading draft picks for Dougie Hamilton, Treliving again moved high picks for a defenceman, this time bringing in 26-year-old Travis Hamonic. The Flames were also able to re-sign Michael Stone and are now running one of the best blue lines in the entire NHL. Five of their most important defencemen are signed for at least three seasons, so if Smith doesn’t work out, the makeup of this team could even take a crack at the Cup with another goalie in the future — perhaps either Jon Gillies or Tyler Parsons who are coming up through the system.
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The forward unit stayed the same, but the Flames can reasonably hope for an uptick in production from 21-year-old Sam Bennett and hope the low-risk pick-up of Curtis Lazar from the last trade deadline pays off with an improvement in his offence. But still with a little salary cap room, could the Flames put a cherry on top of their off-season by signing another impactful free agent to add up front?
“Legitimately, (Jaromir) Jagr may be a decent pick up for the Calgary Flames if they can get him on a cheap one-year deal. Maybe you stick him with (Johnny) Gaudreau and (Sean) Monahan – he’s used to playing with some young players,” Boylen said.
“He creates space, he gets pucks to guys, and he was a phenomenal possession player.”