With the summer heat setting in, the dead of the NHL season has officially arrived. The playoffs have passed, with Washington finally securing it’s first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The draft has also passed, with highly touted first-overall-pick Rasmus Dahlin ready to make an impact for the Buffalo Sabres. Free agency, for the most part, has led to new homes for many different players, including the biggest name on the market in John Tavares. He will be returning to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs after signing a 7-year/$77million contract.
With much of the roster turnover for the upcoming season already completed, several teams have clearly improved this offseason, while others have taken drastic steps backward. Taking trades, draft picks, signings, and hiring’s/firing’s all into account, several teams appear to be offseason “winners”, while others appear to be “losers”—though the only real success that matters is the on-ice product, which remains to be seen.
Let’s start off on a bright note, with the winners. These three teams appeared to have made the greatest amount of positive change to their team so far this offseason to be labeled a “winner”. Here they are (in no particular order):
1) Toronto Maple Leafs: Leafs fans finally got what they have been dreaming about for years—the return of a hometown superstar (remember Stamkos last year?). John Tavares is going home to play for his childhood team next season, and there is a ton of reason for positivity in Toronto. Already loaded with one of the best young cores in the league, the Leafs went out and nabbed former first-overall pick and current all-star John Tavares from the Islanders. Not much can be said about how deadly Toronto’s center depth will be for years to come, as Tavares, Matthews, and Kadri will presumably be the best trio of centers in the NHL come next season. I’m sure no Leafs fans will complain about the loss of center Tyler Bozak with the addition of John Tavares.
While the Leafs obviously knew they also needed to upgrade their defensive corps–and addressed that with first-round pick Rasmus Sandin–they didn’t acquire any defensemen that can make an immediate impact. Sandin is still years away from playing in the NHL, so the Leafs better hope that 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren is ready to go. GM Kyle Dubas is ready for other young defensemen that have been in the system for a while, like Travis Dermott and Andreas Borgman, to take that next step and become quality NHL regulars. The rest of the draft showed Dubas searching for potential late round steals. 2nd round pick Sean Durzi (defenseman) has the potential to be just that after his impressive season in the OHL.
It was for the best that the Leafs let James van Riemsdyk walk, as well. While JVR was a nice piece, it was a net win for the Leafs to not overpay and save valuable cap space. In a few years, the will appreciate the extra salary for many of their young studs that are due big paychecks. JVR was bound to be overpaid, so Toronto let him sign in Philly to keep the talented young core intact with the addition of the expensive Tavares. The Leafs also made several smaller signings that could have upside, including defenseman Jordan Subban and LW Tyler Ennis.
All in all, Toronto was able to add a top-10 player in the NHL for nothing more than cash. This move is a rarity that will bring joy to Leafs fans next year and for years to come. Tavares might have devastated Islanders fans, but a 27-year-old superstar on the market is unheard of and no one can blame Toronto for locking him down. For that matter, Islanders fans can’t be mad at Johnny T either, as the Islanders front office repeatedly failed to provide Tavares with capable support. Toronto was one of the best teams in the East last season, will likely only become even better next year as their youngins grow and Tavares blossoms with capable support.
2) St. Louis Blues: The Blues have long been a team that has been good, but just not good enough. They have a plethora of good forwards and prospects already in place, with Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Brayden Schenn headlining talent on the front-end.
Obviously in need of an upgrade at center, GM Doug Armstrong went out and made a splash with free-agent Tyler Bozak. Bozak will be a great fit at 3C and provide the Blues with good, 2-way center depth. Free-agency also provided the Blues with a pair of wingers—former Blue and Golden Knight David Perron, and former Devil Patrick Maroon. Armstrong instantly improved the talent and depth of his forward core with these signings, but he wasn’t done there.
On the night of July 1st, it was announced that the Blues had traded for center Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres. O’Reilly provides the talent and dedication that the Blues desperately sought in a center. He will become one of the best players on their team in no time, likely centering one of the top 2 lines. In exchange, the Blues gave up depth forwards Berglund and Sobotka, prospect Tage Thompson, and a conditional 1st and 2nd round pick, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. This appears to be a trade that benefits both sides, as the Blues were able to snag the talented O’Reilly, someone that can make an immediate impact, for futures and players they replaced with Bozak, Perron, and Maroon.
Top prospects Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou will look to crack the forward line-up next season, which could provide the Blues with one of the most talented group of forwards in the NHL. Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev will also look to develop more consistency as they blossom as young players. 1st round pick Dominik Bokk is still a few years away from the NHL, but has the potential to be a prolific scorer when he comes overseas. 2nd rounder Scott Prunovich is a speedy young defenseman with upside, though his size could be a concern to some.
The Blues replaced goalie Carter Hutton, who signed in Buffalo, with goalie Chad Johnson (another former Sabre). If anything, goaltending appears to be the biggest concern with St. Louis at the moment. Jake Allen and Chad Johnson are both mediocre at best, but the talent in front of them should help cover up their weaknesses. Armstrong was able to keep St. Louis’ highly talented defensive core together, which will once again be one of the best in the NHL.
Alex Pietrangelo is a great guy to lead this team into the future. With plenty of new faces and changes, he should provide stability to a highly skilled core that finally looks to make a major run in the playoffs. O’Reilly and Bozak should both enjoy success down the middle on a revamped St. Louis roster, allowing some of the younger players to have an easier transition to the NHL. Good job GM Armstrong.
3) Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus Dahlin. Had the Sabres failed to make any other changes this offseason, this move alone would have put Buffalo in contention for offseason winners. The first-overall pick has been praised for years now, drawing comparisons to Niklas Lidstrom, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and just about any other all-star defenseman you could name. Dahlin has the potential to be one of the best defensemen in the NHL very soon, which is good news for the Sabres weak defense. The draft was followed with big LH defenseman Mattias Samuelsson chosen with the first pick in the 2nd round. Botterill made sure that the defense would have plenty of depth in the future, with all but one pick being spent on defensemen. This bodes well for potential depth, as the Sabres are a team building for the future.
In addition to this, the 31st place Sabres added a couple key pieces through trades and free agency. My hometown team had nowhere to go but up after last season, and GM Jason Botterill knew changes were necessary. The former Penguins AGM traded for Penguin Conor Sheary, who should be a welcome addition on LW in the top 6. A conditional pick landed Sheary, as well as depth defenseman Matt Hunwick. Lawrence Pilut, the top-scoring defenseman in Sweden’s top professional league, was also signed to an entry-level contract. He should be a nice candidate to groom his game in Rochester this season. Perhaps the most exciting transaction to Sabres fans is the fact that the abysmal goaltending tandem of Lehner/Johnson is finally gone. The newly signed Carter Hutton from St. Louis and youngster Linus Ullmark from Rochester will replace the two goalies.
The biggest splash, however, came from the removal of one of Buffalo’s key pieces from the past several seasons—Ryan O’Reilly. While O’Reilly’s talent is undeniable, he seemed to have soured both within the locker-room and within management. Much like Evander Kane at the trade deadline, it was well known that Buffalo was trying to shop #90. Just before O’Reilly was due for his $7.5 million bonus, the news of his trade broke—meaning the Sabres would not be responsible to pay. In exchange for O’Reilly, the Sabres received C Patrik Berglund, LW Vladimir Sobotka, C/W Tage Thompson, and conditional 2019 first round and 2020 second round picks. Berglund can help fill the defensive center role left by O’Reilly and allow rookie center Casey Mittelstadt to showcase his offensive tools. Thompson, 20, is a former first-round pick with great size and a big shot that has a real chance to make the top-six next season. Sobotka, while slightly overpaid, will at the very least be an upgrade to Buffalo’s bottom-six. The two picks represent further building towards the future.
Of these teams, Buffalo made the most offseason changes to their roster. It remains to be seen just how successful these moves will be, but it appears Buffalo is finally moving in the right direction towards becoming an elite team, though expectations for next season should be tempered. GM Botterill is doing his best to fix the disaster left by previous GM Tim Murray, which will inevitably take time. The Sabres have the most talented core they’ve had in a long time, which previous GM Tim Murray showed us should not be rushed.
Honorable Mention: Calgary Flames: It seems like Calgary is always on the cusp of taking that next step, but come just short. Perhaps the swap of defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Michael Ferland for defenseman Noah Hanifin and forward Elias Lindholm from Carolina will be enough. The Flames opted for younger guys with higher potential in this deal. Just in case, the Flames also went out and signed forwards James Neal, a pure goalscorer, and Derek Ryan, a good depth center, in free agency. The Flames possess more depth than they have in a long time, so Calgary should be an interesting team to watch next season.
Stay tuned for the second piece of this segment, which will explore the losers of the NHL offseason so far.