NHL Off-Season Power Rankings: Who’s improved most (so far)?

NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr discusses his impressions of where the salary cap figure landed, how it effects the escrow issue, and whether he ever envisions a world without hard cap?

Monster signings, juicy trades and four weeks have passed since Alex Pietrangelo hoisted sport’s most storied chalice, officially triggering hockey’s off-season.

With a top-heavy draft, a couple intriguing free-agency bidding wars, coaches fired and hired, and RFA negotiations as tricky as ever, the league has undergone some drastic roster shuffling over the past month.

We step back to evaluate the NHL landscape and rank the moves its 31 general managers have made so far this summer in our annual NHL Off-Season Power Rankings.

While there’s still plenty of time to tinker and trade, and a Manila envelope is stuffed with unsettled arbitration cases, some clubs have improved for the better and others have taken a step back — on paper, of course.

All teams have been ranked from one through 31, according to off-season performance only. (This is not an order of strength heading into 2019-20 — we’ll get around to that at training camp — but strictly an assessment of recent front office moves.)

1. New York Rangers

Artemi Panarin at a discount in a tax-heavy state, Kaapo Kakko in the easiest second-overall draft selection since Jack Eichel, Jacob Trouba at a Craiglist price, Adam Fox for a song… the New York Rangers are your 2019 off-season champions of the world.

2. New Jersey Devils

Ray Shero saved his cap space for a splash, stealing a Norris winner and marketer’s magnet from cap-strapped Nashville. Yes, the P.K. Subban trade nearly overshadowed the selection of Jack freaking Hughes at No. 1 overall. We also like Wayne Simmonds and the Devils gambling on each other for a comeback year. New Jersey just got a helluva lot more interesting.

3. Dallas Stars

Jim Nill was aching for secondary scoring, leadership and experience. In Joe Pavelski, he found all three. Captain America is a fine fit in Dallas, and $1.5 million for a motivated Corey Perry is the type of risk worth taking when your defence and goaltending is among the elite.

4. Florida Panthers

So much time has passed since the Panthers came up short of the playoffs, you may have forgotten they landed one of the greatest free agents of the off-season: future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville. Dale Tallon missed out on Panarin, but he saved money through Roberto Luongo’s retirement, solidified his crease (at an overpay, IMHO) with the best goalie available, Sergei Bobrovsky, and complemented his depth and experience with 22-goal man Brett Connolly as well as defender Anton Stralman. The Cats will make the dance.

5. San Jose Sharks

Doug Wilson re-signed the best defenceman available, preventing him from becoming available. He shrugged as his long-serving captain walked to a conference rival for more money and term. Then he convinced a 56-point scorer on the rise, Kevin Labanc to sign for $1 million, presumably while being kept hostage. He’s cold. He’s effective. And his Sharks should again be a Stanley Cup contender.

6. Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago’s offence wasn’t the issue last season, so Stan Bowman aggressively stocked up on D (Calvin De Haan, Olli Maatta) and picked up the Robin Lehner contract the Islanders somehow fumbled. A healthy Crawford-Lehner tandem gets Chicago a 2020 wild-card spot.

7. Nashville Predators

Country music, no state taxes and a chance to win a Stanley Cup: David Poile’s pitch to top UFA centre Matt Duchene didn’t leave his competitors with a prayer. We understand why Subban and his pricey contract had to go, but the underwhelming return is still mind-boggling.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

A busy Kyle “We Can And We Will” Dubas finally traded from his flush forward corps (Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown) in order to remodel the right side of his defence (Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci). He was able to clear a couple more Lou Lamoriello signings (Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau) off the books and get his 20-goal RFAs, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, to agree to reasonable bridge deals. But Dubas said at the outset that a Mitchell Marner extension was top priority, and there’s no indication that one is imminent.

9. Colorado Avalanche

We loved the pure hockey trade Joe Sakic worked out with Kyle Dubas. Knowing he has younger, cheaper puck-movers coming, Sakic wasn’t interested in extending game-breaker Tyson Barrie beyond 2019-20, so he flipped him to Toronto for a true No. 2 centre, Nazem Kadri. A motivated Kadri should thrive behind Nathan MacKinnon. So what if Sakic swung and whiffed on some of the big UFA names? He has to pay Mikko Rantanen, and Joonas Donskoi has the potential to be a steal.

10. Vegas Golden Knights

George McPhee continues to impress. Securing a 26-year-old William Karlsson — a top-two centre whose defensive attributes don’t get enough credit — through his prime at under $6 million per season should look like a steal a couple of years from now. The trading of Colin Miller was a necessary cap casualty, and getting two years of 28-year-old playmaker Brandon Pirri (12 goals in 31 games last season) for a hair over the league minimum was my favourite bargain buy on Canada Day.

11. Buffalo Sabres

After overpaying for Jeff Skinner with his back against the wall and taking an intriguing gamble with his (likely) final coach hiring, Ralph Kruger, Jason Botterill made a series of nice smaller moves, including getting Miller, Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey on short-term, fair-price deals. We’re still not convinced the Sabres have playoff-calibre goaltending, though.

12. Arizona Coyotes

A few more goals and the 2018-19 Coyotes make the playoffs. Enter Phil Kessel, whose 27 goals and 82 points last season immediately make him Arizona’s deadliest weapon. The Yotes didn’t have a 20-goal scorer or a 50-point man. Coach Rick Tocchet is the Phil whisperer. Arizona has a chance to be sneaky good.

13. Tampa Bay Lightning

So far so good for Julien BriseBois’s first summer on the job. The Tampa GM secured a first- and a third-rounder from Vancouver in exchange for clearing J.T. Miller’s salary and got some relief when Ryan Callahan agreed to go on LTIR. The Curtis McElhinney pickup ($1.3 AAV) is money well spent on goalie insurance, while Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette were shrewd low-cost, low-term depth re-signings. And yet, the major question remains: How much is Brayden Point gonna cost?

14. Vancouver Canucks

Yes, Jim Benning might have been able to squeeze Brisebois for a better price on J.T. Miller (the first-rounder is a gut punch), but Vancouver is desperate for secondary scoring and responsible wingers. The two-year Alex Edler extension was the perfect compromise, and the Tyler Myers deal (tradeable in the final year) came in at a better rate than expected. We’ll withhold final judgment here, however, until we see Brock Boeser’s contract.

15. Edmonton Oilers

Mike Smith gives the Oilers’ net some sorely needed stability and familiarity, provided the 37-year-old can stay healthy. At $2 million, it’s a gamble worth taking. Ken Holland is a fine GM and Dave Tippett is a great coach, but the Oilers’ 2019 off-season might be remembered for who stayed, instead of who was brought in. We like that Holland hasn’t buckled to Jesse Puljujarvi’s trade request and dealt a once-prized prospect for 25 cents on the dollar, but he has also been unable to dump Milan Lucic and some of his other cap-hindering vets.

16. St. Louis Blues

Any off-season that includes turning the Stanley Cup into the world’s largest margarita vessel can’t be all bad. Still, Doug Armstrong — very quiet compared to his splashy 2018 off-season — has a whole lineup full of RFAs to sort through, including a compelling case involving Jordan Binnington. The good news? The defending champs will dress a near-identical roster in October as the one that rejoiced after Game 7.

17. Los Angeles Kings

Perhaps still feeling the burn from getting caught up in last summer’s Ilya Kovalchuk firestorm, the Kings’ Rob Blake took a breather this off-season. But his most significant move, hiring head coach Todd McLellan, was a wise one. Another fresh start to see if there is another run to be milked from an accomplished but aging core.

18. Detroit Red Wings

Steve Yzerman has taken a more patient approach to his first summer with his new/old franchise than we imagined. His big free agency purchases were 35-year-old Valterri Filppula and 27-year-old Patrik Nemeth (two years, $6 million each). Eleven Red Wings are set to come off the books in 2020. That should be the Summer of Stevie, when the full-scale renovations begin.

19. Philadelphia Flyers

Chuck Fletcher came in like a man hungry to shake things up and make the playoffs in a division that suddenly feels like jump ball. More than $7 million annually for Kevin Hayes is a reach for a solid centre who’s only hit the 20-goal plateau once. But adding Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to a young back end will eat minutes and relieve pressure from all those twentysomethings still finding their way.

20. Ottawa Senators

We’ll give it up to the Senators for embracing the rebuild and positioning themselves well for the future. Besides Bobby “He’ll Get You to the Floor!” Ryan and Nikita Zaitsev, not one player is signed beyond 2021. Cody Ceci wasn’t sticking around anyway, so the D.J. Smith–approved Maple Leafs invasion that includes Ron Hainsey, Tyler Ennis and Connor Brown up the number of good pros in the nation’s capital without the risk of taking the Sens out of the lottery. How this off-season becomes a win for Pierre Dorion is a multi-year extension for Thomas Chabot before he gets even better.

21. Calgary Flames

Brad Treliving — one of our 2018 off-season winners — still has some major work cut out for him. Not only is he staring down arbitration deadlines with Sam Bennett and his new No. 1 goalie, David Rittich, but he has to figure a way to keep future captain Matthew Tkachuk at a reasonable rate and avoid walking him to unrestricted free agency too soon. In order to accomplish all of this, the Flames are a team to watch out for when it comes to midsummer trades. Word is, T.J. Brodie, Michael Frolik and James Neal are among those available.

22. Boston Bruins

Needing to re-sign young talent (Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen), the Eastern champs lost rental Marcus Johansson, but will essentially bring back the same squad for another decent shot to go all the way. Is there a roster more in need of a few months off to heal and catch their breath?

23. Montreal Canadiens

Ignore the failed Sebastian Aho offer sheet and Duchene pitch. What is really different about this Habs squad? Jordie Benn gets supplanted by Ben Chiarot? Shrug. Keith Kinkaid is Carey Price’s new low-investment backup? Sounds decent. The big issue, however, remains unsolved: Can Marc Bergevin acquire top-six scoring talent, or will the kids develop fast and give the Habs a scoring punch? I’m just not sure the franchise can bank on a 28-goal, 72-point explosion from Max Domi every year.

24. Washington Capitals

We’re not certain Brian MacLellan didn’t overpay for bottom-six talent, giving veterans Carl Hagelin, 30, and Richard Panik, 28, four-year deals at $2.75-million AAVs. At that age, forwards generally lose a step — and these signings were made prior to figuring out 23-year-old RFA Jakub Vrana’s next deal. I’m also not quite sold on the trading of Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas. I know Niskanen is older and more expensive, but with Braden Holtby and Niklas Backstrom on expiring deals, the Caps are in win-now mode. Are they better today than they were in April?

25. Anaheim Ducks

Bob Murray described buying out Perry as one of the most difficult tasks of his long tenure, but it was imperative to the club’s future. Finding all-star John Gibson decent backup support (Ryan Miller and Anthony Stolarz) for under $2 million total was great, but we’re not convinced this roster has enough goals in it to compete for a playoff spot.

26. Pittsburgh Penguins

Jim Rutherford made the most curious off-season transaction — and, no, we’re not talking about bringing in Alex Galchenyuk for Kessel, who had worn out his welcome. The most secure Penguins are Sidney Crosby and — wait for it — Brandon Tanev, whose contracts don’t end until 2025. Tanev is a fine role player, to be sure, but how a bottom-six 27-year-old leveraged a six-year, $21-million deal is beyond me. Thumbs up on the Mike Sullivan extension, though.

27. Winnipeg Jets

The Jets find themselves in a way. Two reliable defencemen, Myers and Trouba, are gone. Ditto Brandon Tanev, a gritty, useful role player. Neither Patrik Laine nor Kyle Connor have a contract, and with Central Division rivals like Colorado, Nashville and Dallas making positive additions, there is a reasonable concern that their Cup window may be shutting fast.

28. Carolina Hurricanes

Swatting Bergevin’s offer sheet away like Manute Bol rejecting a Muggsy Bogues layup, Tom Dundon gave himself five years of a young franchise centre at under $9 million per season. Great value, but negotiations should’ve never reached that point in the first place. Pay your stars. The Canes also weaponized their cap space, buying out Patrick Marleau to the tune of a first-round pick. But unless UFAs Justin Williams and Michael Ferlund come back, or some other forwards aren’t found, we’re concerned the Bunch of Jerks will fail to score a bunch of goals.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets

We knew a series of hyped-up UFAs were walking out the door after the greatest Blue Jackets campaign in franchise history. We didn’t know Gustav Nyquist would be the only talent of note coming to fill the void, or that Jarmo Kekalainen would roll the dice on the unproven goalie tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. I’d love to know how hard he went after Lehner or Petr Mrazek.

30. Minnesota Wild

New GM Paul Fenton is reading from the former GM’s playbook: Go old and go hard. We love Mats Zuccarello. We don’t love the Wild signing another 30-something to big money and big term. Minnesota should take notes from Jeff Gorton’s Rangers and realize one step back can get you two steps ahead.

31. New York Islanders

The Isles lost Vezina finalist Lehner and solid depth centre Filppula, but managed to retain UFA forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle. Four years and $20 million to Semyon Varlamov, 31, looks like a terrible mistake. Unless that mythical offer sheet goes through, the Isles — one of the best stories of 2018-19 — are poised to take a step back in 2019-20.

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