The NHL off-season is far from over, although the summer sun pushes many of the league’s shot callers to the cottage or golf course so transactions tend to slow to a trickle. Most of the biggest free agents are off the board, too.
There are some noteworthy names still available to the highest bidder, but enough moves have been made to give us a sense of who the off-season winners and losers will be.
On Tuesday we looked at four teams that have improved the most this summer, so naturally we have to look at who has improved the least in our “losers” edition.
Every summer, GM Marc Bergevin seems determined to narrow the Canadiens’ championship window, which now seems to be all about Carey Price and how far he can carry a withering roster.
It should be noted the Habs did have some positivity, adding and signing 22-year-old Jonathan Drouin, locking up Price for eight years before his expiring deal became a concerning story line, and also re-signing Alex Galchenyuk amid a storm of trade rumours.
But overall, there was more bad here.
Bergevin continued to make puzzling decisions in regards to his defence, starting with the trade of Nathan Beaulieu for a third-round pick. While it was certain the Habs would have left him unprotected in the expansion draft, Beaulieu marks the loss of another skating, puck-moving defenceman. A first-round pick (17th overall) in 2011, it hardly seems like good asset management to move him for what is essentially a lottery ticket and commit even more to a slower defence, which opposes league-wide trends.
Bergevin doubled down on that commitment by signing Karl Alzner, who no one will call fleet of foot and who doesn’t add anything to a 13th-ranked power play that lost Beaulieu and, potentially, Andrei Markov. The battle with their 38-year-old career-long Hab on his contract might be the most puzzling thing of all — especially when you take into account the rumours that Montreal was sniffing out the possibility of bringing back expansion draft pick Alexei Emelin.
The Habs suffered another blow when they lost Alexander Radulov to Dallas in free agency. For some, the risk of putting down a $6.25 million cap hit for five years on a 31-year-old after a one-year return was too much to swallow. But again, by shortening the window to win in the past year, it feels as though Bergevin already made the decision that kind of signing was not only acceptable, but necessary for these Habs. By not bringing back Radulov, the Drouin addition is at least a wash for next season, and some will argue that for the immediate future, it’s a possible downgrade.
Freaky for me to think this, but I think they'll miss Radulov. Drouin is not the same player (or a proper replacement of skillset).
— Gus Katsaros (@KatsHockey) July 12, 2017
Speaking of Drouin, his arrival also came at a hefty cost of the team’s lone blue chip, blue line prospect in Mikhail Sergachev, who we all figured would be moved for a No. 1 centre. Drouin may ultimately end up playing there, but it hasn’t been his primary position in the NHL so questions remain. Galchenyuk, a natural centre, would seem to be a fit, but the team has been reticent to use him as a pivot. In fact, there’s almost an expectation Bergevin will still trade Galchenyuk.
The Habs will go as far as Price takes them, but rather than build a roster around him that either has a better chance to win right away than last year’s team, or has more long-term staying power, the Habs did neither and spun their wheels.
The Capitals, with seven regular season division titles in the past 10 years, are finally running into the same problems the Chicago Blackhawks have had managing a contending team against a salary cap. The difference, of course, is that Washington hasn’t even made it to a conference final with its talent.
The Caps had a number of unrestricted free agents and were able to re-sign one of them, locking in T.J. Oshie for eight years and a $5.75 million cap hit (losing Justin Williams and Alzner). The Caps couldn’t really walk away from all of their UFAs, but putting this down on a player who had a shooting percentage nearly 10 per cent higher than his career average is still a shaky move for a team against the cap.
That signing also contributed to the trade of 26-year-old centre Marcus Johansson, coming off a career year of 24 goals and 58 points, for a paltry return of a second- and third-round draft pick.
With 17 players on the pro roster currently, Washington only has $4 million in cap space and are limited to cheap depth options just to fill out the lineup. They could get some value from 21-year-old Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick from 2014, who has 70 points in 85 AHL games the past two seasons.
None of this is to say Washington has a bad team that will fall out of playoff contention, but the cap problems get worse from here. Lars Eller and John Carlson will be UFAs next summer and RFA backup goalie Philipp Grubauer will need a new deal after re-upping for one year.
After forming a team to go hard after a Stanley Cup this past season, cap and depth concerns cloud Washington’s ceiling for 2017-18 and beyond. They may have already iced their best team of this generation with nothing to show for it, and with coach Barry Trotz already on the hot seat, GM Brian MacLellan may be faced with the very real prospect of trading Alex Ovechkin in the future for the valuable $9.5 million in cap space. That in itself would signal the end of an era.
Chicago has been here before, pressing up against the cap and losing key players — remember when they had Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien in their primes? But they have managed it well and won Cups in 2013 and 2015 after the first great cap-induced sell off.
But now, after back-to-back first-round losses and three combined wins in two playoff seasons, the latest losses will sting a little more.
Niklas Hjalmarsson was the first to go, traded to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin, 24- and 22-year-olds who could help the team rebound from this summer in the long run. But while Hjalmarsson isn’t a big offensive contributor, he averaged 21:29 of ice time per game and led the way on Chicago’s penalty kill, which was already bottom-third in the league. He’s quietly effective and, as a result, underrated.
The penalty kill took a further hit with the soft retirement of Marian Hossa, who will go on long-term injury reserve at the start of the season and miss 2017-18 with an equipment allergy. Taking his $5.275 million off the books is beneficial, but losing the future Hall of Famer altogether will sting Chicago’s quality of depth, a trait most championship teams have.
Speaking of depth, while there was no chance UFA Scott Darling would come back, his departure takes away a reliable safety net if Corey Crawford becomes injured. Both J-F Berube and Anton Forsberg could step into a backup role, but neither has been especially good in their short NHL careers yet. If they have to fill in for an extended period, it’ll spell trouble for the Hawks.
The Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad trade may have been the only move Chicago made that didn’t have cap implications as both players have the same AAV. The Hawks gave up offence in that deal, but acquired more of a 200-foot player and Saad’s contract has an extra two seasons on it to boot.