As seen on most recent sports channel broadcasts recently, the biggest thing happening around NHL teams are early-season golf tournaments.
What it really means? All quiet on the hockey front, for now.
Rookie camps have concluded and main camps get going later this week, except for the Los Angeles Kings, who got things going Tuesday.
It was an off-season filled with a bit of intrigue on the free agent front and a draft that left both the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers happy with their haul (no. 1 Nico Hischier and no. 2 Nolan Patrick, respectively).
The Vegas Golden Knights finally fleshed out their roster with the dispersal draft, followed by their inaugural 12 draft picks (including three first rounders via trade) and then some wheeling and dealing around free agency.
When it comes down to it, several teams got better through a combination of the draft, trades and free agency.
Here are 14 we believe did get better, in no particular order.
14. Vancouver Canucks
With the Sedin Twins recently re-stating their desire to stay in Van City, it was incumbent upon GM Jim Benning to improve the team around them. Benning did fairly well, first in free agency by signing surprise performer Sam Gagner to a three-year contract and D Michael Del Zotto to a two-year deal. Gagner, who signed a cap friendly deal worth $9.45 million total, notched 50 points in a comeback season for Columbus and will be key down the right wing in Vancouver. Del Zotto, at times brilliant and very ordinary with Philadelphia, is a decent top four addition who will bring leadership. In addition to those fairly significant moves, Benning also got good depth by signing free agents G Anders Nilsson, D Patrick Wiercioch, F Thomas Vanek and F Alex Burmistrov. On the prospect side, some of their recent draft picks may be edging closer to the big time, including first rounders D Olli Juolevi (2016), F Brock Boeser (2015), as well as 2014 second rounder, G Thatcher Demko.
13. Columbus Blue Jackets
In June, the Blue Jackets may have pulled off the heist of the summer, trading Brandon Saad, Anton Forsberg and a 2018 fifth rounder to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, Tyler Motte and a 2017 sixth rounder (Jonathan Davidsson, Djurgardens IF). In a deal that took advantage of the Blackhawks’ cap crunch, the Jackets get a two-time 30-goal, 70-point man who they can plug in with recently re-signed C Alex Wennberg and RW Cam Atkinson to form a potent first line. The Wild also picked up some nice depth down the right side in former first round pick Jordan Schroeder, who had 13 points in 37 games with Minnesota last year. As far as prospects go, it remains to be seen when 2016 first rounder (3rd overall) Pierre-Luc Dubois is ready for prime time. Ditto 2014 first round selection Sonny Milano, who has seven games of experience. The biggest coup though, may have been getting David Clarkson’s dead cap money of the books in an expansion draft trade with Vegas.
12. Vegas Golden Knights
Sure, every player they have is new, but wily GM George McPhee, once he had his allotment of dispersal/expansion draft picks and entry draft selections, still had to wheel and deal to make his team competitive. Of his shrewd deals at the expansion draft on June 21, he got two extra first round picks for selecting mutually beneficial players (i.e. “expansion draft considerations”). He got the 13th overall pick (Nick Suzuki, Owen Sound Attack) from Winnipeg and the 15th overall selection (D Erik Brannstrom, HV71 Jonkoping) from the New York Islanders. McPhee also managed to snare, for those “expansion draft considerations”, the likes of Mikhail Grabovski (Islanders) and D Shea Theodore (Anaheim). Of McPhee’s expansion draft selections, some of the best were G Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh), D Nate Schmidt (Washington), D Brayden McNabb (Los Angeles), LW Erik Haula (Minnesota), C Jonathan Marchessault (Florida), LW James Neal (Nashville) and RW Reilly Smith (also Florida).
11. New Jersey Devils
When the Devils number came up at the entry draft in June, they didn’t instantly get better, but being able to select Nico Hischier first overall sure didn’t hurt. The Halifax Mooseheads playmaker was one of two big names at the top, including Nolan Patrick, and the Devils opted for the Swiss native. The Devils, who cut loose Mike Cammalleri, further solidified their strength up the middle by trading second and third round picks in 2018 for Washington center Marcus Johansson. The seven-year veteran is a solid, two-way pivot who had a career year in 2016-17, reaching highs in goals (24) and points (58). The last move to ensure dominance on the face-off dot was signing free agent center Brian Boyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs. These veteran signings ensure that former first round picks, and centers, like Michael McLeod and John Quenneville can develop slowly and properly.
10. New York Rangers
Unlike crosstown rival New Jersey, the Rangers haven’t had the luxury of stocking their team instantly through the draft. Although, they did have a top 10 pick in this year’s draft after trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona for Anthony DeAngelo and the no. 7 selection. They used it to select top-rated Swedish forward Lias Andersson of elite league team HV71 Jonkoping. As for DeAngelo, he is a puck-moving former first round pick (19th overall by Tampa in 2014), who should fluorish in New York. He’ll have the experience of big-time free agent acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to draw on as the New Rochelle, NY native signed a big four-year deal with the Blueshirts. In a smaller move, the Rangers got C David Desharnais for a cap friendly $1 million on a one-year deal to provide creativity and experience up the middle.
9. Edmonton Oilers
For the first time in nine years, the Oilers didn’t have a top 10 pick (or no. 1 for that matter) in the entry draft. This speaks to the fact that they were a playoff team for the first time in forever and made moves to get better before the 2016-17 season. While some may sniff at the off-season trade that sent Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome, consider that Strome is three years younger and is a center with a lot of upside, while Eberle is a winger with a bigger contract ($6 million for two more years compared to Strome’s $2.5 million for one). In an in-house move to secure the future, the Oilers also signed center Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. On the prospects side, the Oil did very well with their 22nd overall pick in the draft, taking diminutive Spokane native Kailer Yamamoto. The scoring pivot (99 points in 65 games with his hometown Chiefs) will give the Oilers plenty of playmaking moxie up the middle for years to come. Signing veteran free agent left winger Jussi Jokinen to a one-year deal was also prudent.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
If Steven Stamkos is as ready as he says he is, the Bolts are already a better team. The captain and elite sniper missed all but 17 games in 2016-17 and having him back in the fold should have Eastern Conference foes scrambling to prepare game plans for him. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman didn’t sit on his thumbs this off-season either, making a bold statement by moving Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for promising young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev. The Windsor Spitfires phenom will get to apprentice under Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on a Lightning blueline that is vastly improved. Yzerman signed veteran blueliner Dan Girardi to a two-year, $6 million contract, another prudent move to bring in a dependable two-way presence. Stevie Y also offset the loss of Drouin’s production by signing Pittsburgh Penguins playmaking winger Chris Kunitz to a one-year, $2 million contract.
7. Winnipeg Jets
With 2016 first round pick Patrik Laine lighting things up and Mark Scheifele breaking through last year, the Jets were fairly fearsome up front. It was incumbent, then, on GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to improve the back end in the off-season. His first move of importance was to take a gamble on former first round pick (14th overall in 2009 by Florida) Dmitry Kulikov. The eight-year veteran floundered on a bad Buffalo Sabres team in 2016-17, scoring just five points in 47 games and logging a -26. However, in seven seasons with the Panthers, Kulikov had 138 points in 460 games and was a collective -38. So, he may be due for a bounceback on a better blueline in Winnipeg. On the same day, July 1, Chevy also inked Philadelphia Flyers’ veteran netminder Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2 million contract. After a few seasons of middling goaltending, Mason may provide the kind of puck-stopping the Jets need to propel them back to the playoffs.
6. Buffalo Sabres
It was on off-season of change aplenty in the Queen City, as new GM Jason Botterill took over and Phil Housley was named head coach. Botterill’s first order of business was making the Sabres more respectable, in order that he will have a leg up in negotiating a long-term contract with superstar Jack Eichel. Botterill got the ball rolling with a June 17 trade that brought in veteran Montreal defenceman Nathan Beaulieu for a third rounder in the draft. Two weeks later he packaged up forwards Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and a 2018 third rounder to Minnesota for another dependable defenceman in Marco Scandella and former Sabre Jason Pominville, who notched 47 points in 78 games with the Wild last year. Not content with just moving player for player, Botterill made some small, tactful moves to improve his squad. He signed veteran goalie Chad Johnson to a one-year deal, as well as giving a cap friendly deal to veteran winger Benoit Pouliot (one year, $1.15 million). The drafting of American center Casey Mittelstadt at no. 8 could turn out to be huge for the Sabres too.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs, suddenly very dangerous and potentially on the precipice of greater things to come, dipped into the free agent pool in the off-season. They improved a young team with elite scoring ability by signing San Jose veteran winger Patrick Marleau (three years, $18.75 million), former Leaf and center Dominic Moore (one year, $1 million) and Stanley Cup winning defenceman Ron Hainsey (two years, $6 million). These moves all represent different things to a young Maple Leafs squad. Marleau, who will be 38 Friday, still scored 27 goals last year and could be plugged in alongside budding superstar Auston Matthews. Moore makes up for the loss of face-off dot specialist Brian Boyle and gives Toronto one of the deepest center crews in the NHL (along with Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nazem Kadri). And Hainsey, fresh off a great run with Pittsburgh, is top four material who can impart his vast experience and knowledge to the likes of Morgan Reilly and Nikita Zaitsev. The draft of puck-moving defenceman Timothy Liljegren at no. 17 in the draft looks pretty good too.
4. Calgary Flames
The Flames, via the acquisition of decent NHL defenceman Travis Hamonic, now boast one to the top bluelines in the NHL. He is part of a core that includes recently re-signed Michael Stone (he was traded to the Flames at the 2017 deadline), T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. As far as goaltending goes, the Flames lost Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, but replaced them with Mike Smith and Eddie Lack. We’ll call that one a wash and put a “wait and see” on the new duo. GM Brad Treliving didn’t feel the need to tweak his youngish forward corps all that much, choosing instead to go into housekeeping mode and re-sign Sam Bennett (two years, $3.9 million), Michael Ferland (two years, $3.5 million), and Kris Versteeg (one year, $1.75 million). The Flames are better and will have to be tough it out in the West.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
Say one thing about GM Ron Francis, he likes to do things away from the spotlight to make his team better. A team with plenty of potential up front and on defence got a boost when Francis brought back scoring right winger Justin Williams (24 goals and 24 assists with Washington in his 16th season), as well as veteran back-up goalie Scott Darling, defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk and forward Marcus Kruger from the Chicago Blackhawks (though Kruger was actually a Vegas Golden Knight for two days). Francis locked up budding star rearguard Jaccob Slavin with a seven-year, $37.1 million contract, as well as fellow American Brett Pesce (six years, $24.15 million). First round pick (12th overall) , C Martin Necas, got an entry level deal worth just under $4.4 million over three years. The Canes are certainly better now than they were in the spring.
2. Arizona Coyotes
Forever one of those “wait ’til next year” teams, we think the ‘Yotes did well enough in the off-season to make a jump in the standings. Their moves in free agency didn’t inspire us, but they did make a couple of shrewd trades to augment their depth and provide scoring, defence and goaltending. On June 23, they traded minor leaguer Laurent Dauphin and D Connor Murphy to Chicago for steady two-time Cup winning defender Niklas Hjalmarsson. That same day, the ‘Yotes also got playmaking center Derek Stepan and back-up goalie Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers for defenceman Anthony DeAngelo and a 2017 first round pick. Coming soon up the pipe for the Coyotes could be 2015 first rounder, C Dylan Strome and 2016 seventh overall pick Clayton Keller, also a center.
1. Dallas Stars
If there was a more disappointing team in the NHL last season, please let us know. The Stars floundered their way to an 11th place finish in the Western Conference and well out of playoff contention. The biggest hurdle facing GM Jim Nill was getting rid of — and replacing — mediocre goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Niemi was let go to free agency and signed with Pittsburgh, while Lehtonen was retained. However, Nill made the earlier bold step of trading a fourth round pick to Los Angeles for Ben Bishop. Then he heisted sound defenceman Marc Methot from Vegas for Dylan Ferguson and a 2020 second round pick. In free agency, Nill got aggressive, outbidding several teams to sign Montreal sniper Alexander Radulov (five years, $31.25 million) and Minnesota Wild C Martin Hanzal (three years, $14.25 million). All of a sudden, Dallas is a legitimate playoff contender and maybe a favorite to go deep in the 2018 playoffs, too.