Once again, the Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup champions after what's been an unprecedented season. And once again, teams now head into a condensed off-season facing a flat salary cap and plenty of questions.
Here's an overview of the key dates, events, and themes to follow as we get into what will likely be an eventful summer in the NHL.
July 8: NHL buyout window opens (24 hours after Stanley Cup is awarded). Window closes July 27.
July 17: Deadline for teams to submit protected lists for Seattle Expansion Draft (5 p.m. ET).
July 18-20: Seattle's exclusive window to interview teams' unprotected pending free agents.
July 21: Seattle Expansion Draft (8 p.m. ET).
July 23: 2021 NHL Draft, Round 1.
July 24: 2021 NHL Draft, Rounds 2-7.
July 28: NHL free agency opens. RFA & UFA signing period begins (noon ET).
The NHL has not yet released the start date or schedule for the 2021-22 regular season, but commissioner Gary Bettman indicated in June that it would begin in the "first half" of October.
SALARY CAP AT-A-GLANCE
2021-22 salary cap ceiling: 81.5 million (no change from 2020-21)
2021-22 salary cap floor: 60.2 million
2021 NHL DRAFT
While there's not exactly a clear-cut consensus No. 1 overall pick like we've seen in draft classes past, it's looking increasingly likely that the Buffalo Sabres will select Owen Power first overall out of Michigan. Power checks all the boxes of a steady, top-four defenceman and is built for the NHL. After a strong freshman season with the Wolverines, Power put on a show with Team Canada at the IIHF world championships, solidifying his status as the top prospect of 2021.
Overall, the class of 2021 has been really difficult to assess, making this year's draft particularly tough to predict. With developmental leagues around the globe being hit by varying degrees of disruption, NHL prospects simply haven't had as much opportunity to show their skills. And with team brass unable to meet with many prospects face-to-face, teams have had to find other ways to assess talent and intangibles.
Like last year's event, the 2021 draft will be conducted virtually.
Sportsnet's resident draft expert Sam Cosentino has been ranking the year's top prospects over the course of what has been a strange, difficult season for NHL hopefuls. Here's how he sees the top 10 pick unfolding, via his latest mock draft:
1. Buffalo Sabres: Owen Power, D
2. Seattle Kraken: Brandt Clarke, D
3. Anaheim Ducks: Simon Edvinsson, D
4. New Jersey Devils: Luke Hughes, D
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: Matt Beniers, C
6. Detroit Red Wings: William Eklund, LW
7. San Jose Sharks: Kent Johnson, C
8. Los Angeles Kings: Dylan Guenther, RW
9. Vancouver Canucks: Mason McTavish, C
10. Ottawa Senators: Chaz Lucius, C
SEATTLE EXPANSION DRAFT
Later this month we'll find out exactly who will make up the roster of the NHL's 32nd team ahead of the Seattle Kraken's debut this fall.
The Kraken will follow the same expansion draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights did in 2017:
• On July 21, Seattle brass will select one player from each NHL team, minus Vegas, for a total of 30 players: 14 forwards, nine defencemen, and three goaltenders.
• The Golden Knights, as part of their expansion agreement, are exempt and will not have to give up a player to Seattle.
• Of Seattle's 30 players selected via expansion, at least 20 must be under contract for the 2021-22 regular season.
Current NHL teams (minus Vegas) can choose to protect:
• Seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie, for a total of 11 players; or
• Eight skaters (forwards/defencemen) and one goalie, for a total of nine players
Teams are obligated to protect all players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft who do not choose to waive those rights. Teams must also ensure they are leaving exposed at minimum:
• One defenceman and two forwards who are under contract for 2021-22; and appeared in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons combined.
• One goalie who is under contract for 2021-22 or is a restricted free agent at the end of 2020-21. If a team exposes an RFA goalie, that goalie must have already received his qualifying offer from the club prior to the submission of the team's protected list.
Note: A player with potential career-ending injury, and who has missed more than 60 consecutive games (or who has been confirmed to have a career-threatening injury) cannot count towards a team's player exposure requirements without approval from the NHL. These players may be deemed exempt from selection.
Teams are not obligated to protect all first- and second-year players and unsigned draft selections. These players are exempt from the expansion draft, do not count toward teams' protected lists, and cannot be selected by Seattle.
Just prior to the expansion draft, from July 18-21, is an exclusive window for Seattle to talk to teams' unprotected pending free agents. A player signed within this window counts as Seattle's selection from that player's current team.
NHL FREE AGENCY
This summer is shaping up to a really interesting one when it comes to free agency, with a star-studded group of UFAs and RFAs and not much cap space to sign them once the new league year opens on July 28 at noon ET.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin leads the field of UFAs when it comes to star status, but it's Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Dougie Hamilton who's top-of-list when it comes to intrigue around where he'll end up.
Meanwhile, among the top RFAs due new deals are a trio of elite defenders in Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and Quinn Hughes.
STORYLINES THAT COULD SHAPE THIS SUMMER
With a flat cap and an impending expansion draft driving general managers' decisions and some big-name trade candidates looking for fresh starts after an extremely challenging pair of pandemic-affected seasons, this summer's shortened off-season might not be so restful around the NHL.
Stars on the move
It's not often we see a 24-year-old franchise centreman available on the trade market, but that appears to be the case in Buffalo with Jack Eichel. Eichel's health and injury recovery plan, the very thing at the centre of this fallout and lack of trust between player and team, will affect which teams seek his services and how much they send to the Sabres in return, making this next chapter of the saga very interesting. Wherever he lands -- L.A.? Vegas? New York? -- will be one of the biggest stories this summer.
We appear to be getting closer to a resolution and a likely new home for Jack Eichel.@RoryBoylen takes a look at seven teams believed to be in the running for the Sabres star, and what sort of players and assets they might be able to put on the tablehttps://t.co/dTQcQeXB8d
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 6, 2021
Eichel, of course, is not the only big-name player who could be on the move via trade this off-season. According to Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko submitted a trade request earlier this month. Injuries -- his struggle with them, and the team's treatment -- are at the core of this case, too, per Rutherford.
It sounds like longtime Chicago Blackhawks cornerstone Duncan Keith is on the move, too.
Seattle is watching
Four years after navigating the Vegas expansion draft with varying degrees of success and regret, GMs are about to do it all again for Seattle. Adding to the intrigue this year is a flat salary cap, with some teams perhaps choosing to expose bigger names (and bigger cap hits) as one route to financial flexibility.
Among the most fascinating teams to watch as the expansion draft draws near are Colorado (how big a risk is it to leave captain and UFA Gabriel Landeskog exposed in order to re-sign him on July 28?), Minnesota (might Zach Parise waive his no-move to give the club more flexibility?) and Calgary, which is at a turning point and could be exposing captain Mark Giordano.
How will teams navigate another flat cap?
"The team knows we're probably not going to be together next year," said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, following his club's second straight Stanley Cup victory. While the Lightning's cap situation is obviously the most urgently in need of addressing (post-parade, of course), you know there are coaches and GMs around the league nodding along in agreement when looking at their own rosters.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 8, 2021
Confronted with another flat cap, will we see more buyouts than usual? Can rebuilding teams rich in cap space (Detroit! New Jersey! Buffalo!) capitalize? How might Seattle weaponize its clean cap slate? Will the era of the bridge deal continue with another elite class of RFAs, and how many top UFAs will have to practise patience on the open market?
With so many moving parts and less time to puzzle rosters together in this shortened off-season, things are about to get interesting.