The NHL off-season has barely started. It’s also almost over. That’s the way things tend to go in the modern era – we get the draft, some big trades, and the opening of free agency all crammed into a week, and then everything starts to get quiet. And this summer hasn’t disappointed, with some days being crazier than others.
Some of those moves will work out. Others won’t. A few will be utter disasters. And like every off-season, some of the action has resulted in certain names being thrust directly into the hockey world’s spotlight.
Here are a half dozen names that will be getting some extra attention based on what’s happened over the off-season’s opening days.
It’s a little too easy to point to big-money free agent signings as names in the spotlight; that goes with the job. Andrew Ladd, David Backes, Kyle Okposo and every other player who signed a big deal last week will be watched closely next year and beyond, at least until the buyouts start rolling in.
So we’ll limit ourselves to one, and we’ll make it Milan Lucic, if only as an example of how spotlights aren’t always a bad thing. Put simply, nobody was a bigger winner in last week’s bidding wars than Lucic. Not only did he sign one of the largest contracts in recent free agency history, but he landed in a near-perfect situation.
We’re already seeing the narrative built up: Lucic isn’t just going to be a dangerous addition to the Oilers’ top six, he’s going to transform the team’s very identity. He’ll teach them how to win. He’ll scare them straight.
When it’s time to meet his new teammates, he’ll be threatening to crack skulls before he’s even done shaking hands. Hey, he’s been there before.
It’s an irresistible storyline, and it’s one that means that Lucic will get the credit for any improvement the Oilers can show over the next few years. And that’s a great spot to be in, because the Oilers almost certainly will show improvement, and maybe a whole lot of it.
Connor McDavid‘s emergence as the best player in the league will all but guarantee that, and the continued improvement of the team’s other best young players will add support.
Nobody who’s been paying attention over the last decade would ever say that an Oilers playoff push is a sure thing. But it’s close. And whether he plays well or not, Lucic is going to get a big chunk of the credit. Even if he struggles on the ice, the whole intangibles storyline will be too much to refrain from. And if he puts up the type of numbers he’s capable of, he may own the city within a year or two.
There are plenty of candidates for this list to be found in Montreal. Shea Weber will be under pressure to replace P.K. Subban. Alex Radulov will be watched closely both on and off the ice. And beleaguered GM Marc Bergevin, fresh off of a critical roasting for those two moves, will end up wearing his share of it too.
But the pick here is Therrien. Fair or not, the perception is that Subban was moved at least in part because of his history of butting heads with his coach. It’s rare for a coach to win a “there’s only room for one of us” battle with a superstar, and Montreal fans know how badly it can go when they do. If Weber or the Habs get off to a slow start while Subban shines in Nashville, plenty of fan anger will be directed Therrien’s way.
Factor in the challenge of getting the best out of Radulov while guiding a team that collapsed last year back into the playoff hunt, and Therrien will have his hands full. Sure, every Canadiens coach is under pressure from the moment they take the job. But Therrien’s spotlight will be even more intense than most based on how the last week has played out, and how angry so many Montreal fans are about it. For a guy who already spent most of last year on the hot seat, the margin for error here is starting to look just about non-existent.
Heading into free agency, it looked like James Reimer was suffering from a serious case of bad timing. He was hitting the market as the top goaltender available, coming off a strong regular season in which he’d played well behind a very bad Toronto team before heading to San Jose for a deep playoff run. He was all set to take in a big deal from some team that needed a starter. Just one problem: There didn’t seem to be any.
That had some of us thinking that Reimer may have to settle for a short-term deal and then try again later. Instead, he landed a five-year contract worth $17 million with the Panthers.
Which is strange, since the Panthers don’t need a goaltender. [Dramatic music.] Or do they?
The Reimer signing immediately led to questions about the status of Roberto Luongo. Is he hurt, or perhaps behind schedule on his recovery from off-season hip surgery? Has he given the team some indication that retirement could be coming over the next few years? Have the Panthers already decided that he’s going to be expansion bait? Did he mysteriously stop tweeting as soon as the Reimer news was announced because he smashed his laptop in a fit of rage?
Of course, it’s possible that there’s just nothing to see here. We’re told that Luongo is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season before returning to reclaim his net. Maybe the Panthers just saw a 37-year-old goalie who could use a bit more rest, and went out and got a top backup to take some of the heat off while providing an attractive target at next year’s expansion draft.
But in the meantime, expect every Luongo quote, soundbite or tweet to be scrutinized for any signs of bad blood. And once he’s back on the ice, look forward to plenty of overreaction to any stretch of shaky play.
That’s the one downside of having a strong backup – especially one your team just went and paid top dollar for.
Hey, remember when Kevin Shattenkirk was getting traded at the draft? His agent sure does:
And yet here we are, 10 days later, and Shattenkirk is still a member of the Blues. That’s despite a tumultuous few days in St. Louis that have seen Brian Elliott, Troy Brouwer and even captain Backes head out the door. It’s been a rough off-season for GM Doug Armstrong, and Shattenkirk sounds like his patience may be wearing thin.
And Shattenkirk isn’t the only star defenceman who was supposed to be on the move. Cam Fowler and Tyson Barrie and were also rumoured to be on the market, and neither has been dealt yet. This could be one of those situations where one domino needs to fall before the rest can follow. Maybe the Oilers giving up as much as they did for Adam Larsson threw the market for a loop. Or it could be that the demand just isn’t there, at least not enough for all three of those players, and something has to give.
It seems hard to imagine the Blues finishing next season with Shattenkirk in the lineup. But could they start the year that way? It didn’t seem possible even a few days ago, but things can change fast once the off-season moves start flying.
With apologies to Kris Russell, it might be fair to call Vesey the most sought-after free agent left on the menu. Of course, as an unsigned college player four years removed from his draft year, he won’t actually reach the open market until Aug. 15. That is, unless Tim Murray can work some magic.
The Sabres spent a third-round pick to acquire Vesey’s negotiating rights from the Predators, and their pitch is a strong one. The Sabres feature one of the best young rosters in the league, and their signing of Okposo signals that the patience phase of the rebuild is officially over and it’s time to start winning.
That all has to make for an attractive opportunity. But so far, the Sabres haven’t been able to close the deal, with Vesey still insisting that he’d prefer to wait until he’s a free agent to make a decision. And there will be plenty of teams to talk to, including his hometown Bruins as well as the Maple Leafs.
That latter option would generate some interesting reactions around the league, given that Vesey’s father works as a Leafs scout and there have been whispers that Toronto has been a done deal all along (they also drafted Jimmy’s brother Nolan in 2014).
But that’s still a month away, which gives the Sabres plenty of time to make their case. If Murray can work his charm and get a deal done, an already stacked Sabres system will get even better. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time the Sabres watched an off-season target slip away to a division rival.
Vesey’s decision will be a story worth watching no matter which team he chooses; the reactions from around the league may be even better.
It seems like the entire hockey world has spent the last few days singing the praises of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. After a week that saw him extend Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, he’s topped just about every winners and losers list you’re likely to find. And rightly so – Yzerman held his ground through a trying season, and it’s paid off.
But there’s some unfinished business on his list, and it goes beyond getting Nikita Kucherov locked down. Yzerman also slipped in an extension for Andrei Vasilevskiy, the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay, and it’s looking more and more like the future may be now.
With one year left on Ben Bishop‘s deal and an expansion draft looming, the Lightning are going to have to part ways with one of their goalies over the next year, and Bishop looks like the guy.
So what does Yzerman do? A trade seems like the best fit for everyone involved. As with Reimer, the Lightning won’t find many teams that need a starter. The difference is that, unlike Reimer, Bishop is an established star, the sort of guy that some teams might go out of their way to create a job opening for. And one team stands out as a natural fit: the Dallas Stars.
After a season in which they lit up the league with offence but fell victim to an iffy goaltending tandem, the Stars seem like the obvious destination for Bishop. (Their fans sure seem to think so.)
Acquiring Bishop probably moves the Stars to the top of the Western Conference forecasts heading into next year. But Yzerman knows that. And if we’ve learned anything about him over the last year, it’s that he doesn’t cave easily.
Add it all up, and Bishop might be the most interesting trade chip left in play. He’s no sure thing to be dealt; the Lightning are a Cup contender, and as he showed with Stamkos, Yzerman doesn’t subscribe to the “can’t risk losing him for nothing” school of thought. But if a deal did come together, it could tip the balance of power for some team out there – and maybe the entire Western Conference.