It’s cottage season in the NHL.
Sure, prospect-development camps will go on, and there’s the business of salary arbitration settlements to undertake. There may still be a blockbuster trade or two between now and when training camps open, too — last year’s was Matthew Tkachuk-for-Jonathan Huberdeau, which was announced at approximately 11 p.m. ET on Friday, July 25.
But with the season, awards, draft, and free agency behind us, hockey people are mostly headed to their offseason retreats for a relaxing summer of peace.
With that in mind, here are the offseason winners and losers.
NHL Free Agency Winners
Los Angeles Kings
LA was once again the big offseason winner in the Western Conference by landing highly coveted center Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Kings have a loaded center group highlighted by Dubois, Phillip Danault, and veteran mainstay Anže Kopitar, who continues to put up huge offensive numbers.
Kings GM Rob Blake has done a great job leveraging his team’s highly coveted market, especially over the past three offseasons. LA has acquired core members in Dubois, forwards Kevin Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson, and defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov via trade and signed Danault in 2021.
Given these moves and much of the Pacific Division falling off around them, the Kings look like a dark horse to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils’ offseason has made them the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Not only did the Devils get their house in order, locking up forwards Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Erik Haula before July 1, but they added impact forward Tyler Toffoli in a trade with the Calgary Flames.
While the rest of the East either flailed or watched from the sidelines due to the flat salary cap, the Devils managed to stock their cupboard while retaining about $6 million in cap space just in case they want to bring in a goalie.
The NHL is a copy-cat league, and the big, bad Vegas Golden Knights used a combination of size and skill to wear teams down on their run to the Stanley Cup.
Thus, 36-year-old Ryan Reaves got a three-year contract from the Maple Leafs, who also shelled out one-year deals for gritty forwards Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi. The Minnesota Wild traded for Pat Maroon, and the Colorado Avalanche gave Miles Wood a six-year contract in what may have been the biggest head-scratcher doled out on July 1.
Size is still highly coveted by NHL teams, and it’s warranted. Maroon is the poster child for big, skilled players since he was impactful on three straight Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Not only did the Chicago Blackhawks effectively guarantee themselves nightly sellouts by winning the draft lottery and the right to choose Connor Bedard, but they also became a destination again.
Chicago supercharged its rebuild by selecting Bedard but also added veteran mentors Taylor Hall, Corey Perry, and Nick Foligno, as well as Oliver Moore, the consensus best skater in the 2023 draft.
It will also have multiple first-round picks over the next two drafts, along with about $60 million in cap space to load up next offseason.
The future is suddenly looking extremely sunny in the Windy City.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus lost a franchise record 563 man-games to injury, and only Johnny Gaudreau and Andrew Peeke played 80 games last season.
With a core of talented forwards in place, GM Jarmo Kekäläinen spent the summer loading up his defense since Columbus allowed the second-most goals last season (330). Columbus acquired Flyers No. 1 defenseman Ivan Provorov and New Jersey mainstay Damon Severson to join Peeke, Zach Werenski, and 2022 first-round picks David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk on the back end.
Plus, the Blue Jackets landed a potential franchise center in Adam Fantilli, who fell to them at No. 3 when Anaheim chose Leo Carlsson directly after Bedard. Then, they picked first-round talent and Fantilli’s University of Michigan teammate Gavin Brindley with their second-round selection.
Columbus has made significant moves but has not reached the playoffs since 2020. Yet, it’s looking closer than the 33-point gap it missed the postseason by last season.
NHL Free Agency Losers
The Flames are, pardon the pun, having a fire sale.
Calgary has already traded Toffoli and will likely need to at least offload defenseman Noah Hanifin if not more, since it has eight potential unrestricted free agents poised to hit the market on July 1, 2024, and many have indicated they won’t re-sign in the Canadian Rockies.
Watching the mass exodus unfold in Calgary is unfortunate, particularly on the heels of the 2022 offseason, where the Flames lost both Tkachuk and Gaudreau.
Rookie GM Craig Conroy will have his work cut out for him to try and extend the Flames’ window since they’re only 15 months removed from a Pacific Division title.
New York Islanders
I’ll give Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello this; he has successfully kept his group together. The Islanders have just three pending unrestricted free agents poised after this season and have $82.5 million in cap committed to 19 players for 2024-25.
But is this a group the Islanders should want to keep together? And why did Lamoriello give such long-term commitments to journeymen and veteran role players?
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Forward Pierre Engvall, a 26-year-old whose career best is 35 points, got a seven-year deal, as did defenseman Scott Mayfield, who will turn 31 in October. Backup goalie Semyon Varlamov, 35, got a four-year contract.
New York’s 93-point season in 2022-23 was largely propped up by an extraordinary season from goalie Ilya Sorokin. Maybe the roster can get the Isles to the postseason again, but that seems like the ceiling for this group.
There’s always one high-profile UFA whose case drags beyond July 2, and unfortunately for Tarasenko, this year is his.
Yet, unlike previous cases, the Tarasenko saga has taken a sudden and odd twist. The 31-year-old Stanley Cup champion and six-time 30-goal scorer reportedly fired his agents on July 5 after receiving underwhelming offers.
“We have come to square one,” Tarasenko’s new agent J.P. Barry told The Athletic.
The Carolina Hurricanes seem like the most natural fit, yet Tarasenko reportedly rebuffed their initial contract offer.
I’m curious if the New York Rangers can move enough money to bring back Tarasenko, who had eight goals and 21 points in 31 games after coming to New York from the St. Louis Blues in February.
History may ultimately be kind to the Ducks’ offseason, but it’s easy to second-guess some of their moves right now.
Choosing Greg Cronin as coach, taking Carlsson over Fantilli with the second pick, and giving long-term deals to 33-year-olds Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas look like suspect decisions at the moment.
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And the uncertainty about Anaheim goalie John Gibson’s future is further clouding things. Frank Seravalli of Daily Faceoff reported Gibson has asked for a trade, which Gibson’s camp vehemently denied.
The soon-to-be 30-year-old is a significant trade chip that could fetch Anaheim a huge haul and hasten its rebuild.
GM Pat Verbeek needs to work out new contracts for star RFAs Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, and Jamie Drysdale, and the Gibson drama could also be locking that up.
For as much of the draft was spent celebrating David Poile, Nashville GM Barry Trotz went to work undoing most of his hard work. The Predators are spending 10 percent of their salary cap on players that won’t play for them, notably Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, the latter of whom was bought out.
So, the Predators are rebuilding, right? Wrong! They signed center Ryan O’Reilly to a four-year contract and veteran defenseman Luke Schenn to a three-year deal.
The Predators still have a world-class troika of perennial Norris Trophy favorite Roman Josi, forward Filip Forsberg, and goalie Juuse Saros, and they only missed the playoffs by three points last season.
But Nashville will spend this season stuck between competing and reloading, and with nine pending UFAs and three potential RFAs on July 1, 2024, this season might be painful in Music City.