Panthers, Canadiens top list of most aggressive teams early in NHL offseason
The Panthers have almost completely rebuilt their blue line this summer
The NHL offseason is barely three weeks old and it's already been awfully busy. From some stunning trades to key signings, multiple teams have been working feverishly in preparation for the 2016-17 campaign and beyond.
Due to the small increase in the salary cap, some teams couldn't do a whole lot aside from shed salary and mostly stand pat when the free agents started signing. Others, however, got creative and several got particularly aggressive when it came to signing players, making trades or retaining their biggest stars.
Whatever the case, these are the teams that have been most aggressive in the early goings in the NHL offseason, with the Florida Panthers high above the rest of the field at No. 1.
1. Florida Panthers: To call the changes in South Florida dramatic would be underselling it. When you consider they even went so far as to completely re-brand the team after decades with the same primary logo. Little did we know at the time we learned new uniforms were coming, that so much more was going to change for this franchise over the course of mere weeks.
It all started in mid-May when GM Dale Tallon was "promoted" to president of hockey operations, getting replaced by Tom Rowe as GM. Like other times we've seen established GMs moved up the ladder, the new GM comes in and really starts to put his own stamp on the team. It did not take long for Rowe and company to start making aggressive moves, including essentially a complete tear down and rebuild of their defense on the fly.
It started before the Stanley Cup was even presented to the Pittsburgh Penguins as the team traded away Erik Gudbranson who was signed to a new extension just two weeks prior by Tallon.
Knowing they were probably losing Brian Campbell and not planning to bring Willie Mitchell back, the new front office made its most aggressive move of the summer, when they traded for the negotiating rights of New York Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, who was about to become one of, if not the most sought after defenseman in a weak free agent market. It was a calculated risk, but an important one knowing that an open competition for Yandle could be difficult to win.
The day before the NHL Draft, Yandle signed a seven-year, $44.5 million contract to give Florida a puck-moving replacement for Campbell, who is both younger and came with a cheaper cap hit than the team had with Campbell's previous deal.
Up next, they traded Dmitry Kulikov for Mark Pysyk, a slightly younger, much cheaper blueliner than the player he was acquired for. Jason Demers was signed as a free agent on July 2 to complete the defensive makeover.
Meanwhile, the team re-signed star defenseman Aaron Ekblad to a max extension and also got new contracts done with Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck. Florida also signed free agent goalie James Reimer to a multi-year deal.
Over the span of only a few weeks, the Panthers essentially solidified the long-term future of their franchise from a player personnel standpoint. With the exception of Jonathan Huberdeau, who is on the last year of his contract in 2016-17, the Panthers have nine players signed through at least 2021. Six of those players were signed to new contracts within the last two weeks.
Now we have to see if it is all going to work. According to Rowe, Panthers ownership has set a mandate to win the Stanley Cup in three years. There are no guarantees in a cap league, which is why it's still going to be difficult to meet that mandate, but the way things have been structured in Florida, they have a pretty wide-open Stanley Cup window right now, and looks like it could stay open for a while.
Everything that happened did two things. First, the Panthers are better today than when they started the summer. Secondly, ownership has signified to the players on the roster, their fans and everyone around the league that they are committed to building a competitive roster and will spend the money to make it happen.
2. Montreal Canadiens: Trading away one of your best and most popular players is extremely aggressive. It may also be foolish. It's going to take some time to find out, but Montreal may be OK in the short term here. That's not just because they added Shea Weber, but because they made multiple moves and we expect Carey Price to be healthy next year.
Aside from the Weber-Subban trade, signing Alex Radulov who has spent the last several years destroying the KHL, is a risk. He could boost scoring in a meaningful way, if he transitions back to the NHL fast enough. However, with his checkered past in his previous NHL run and his occasional head-butting even with his Russian teams, there's always the chance this blows up in GM Marc Bergevin's face. It's high-risk, high-reward, though.
Bergevin also added Andrew Shaw, expending two second-round draft picks and a rather large six-year deal with a $3.9 million annual cap hit attached to it. There were more affordable adds as well, however, as Zach Redmond improves defensive depth on the cheap and Al Montoya gives the team the veteran backup they so badly could have used last year.
3. Arizona Coyotes: Firing Don Maloney in the midst of a rebuild was a risky move, but even more surprisingly, the Coyotes turned the team over to John Chayka, the youngest GM in the history of the NHL. The now 27-year-old has not wasted any time in his new role, making multiple bold moves to help take steps toward getting out of the rebuilding phase and getting back to competing.
The first big move of his tenure was securing the negotiating rights for defenseman Alex Goligoski and signing him to a five-year deal before he was able to hit unrestricted free agency. That plugs a hole in the team's top-four and gives their blue line a more dynamic puck-moving element.
Then at the draft, the Coyotes didn't shy away from the smaller, but highly skilled Clayton Keller with the No. 7 pick at the draft. After that Chayka really turned heads when he traded for Pavel Datsyuk's cap hit in order to trade up in the draft and land Jakob Chychrun, who had fallen further than anyone expected in the first round.
Now we have to see what they'll do with captain Shane Doan, who has yet to sign a new deal with the club.
4. Edmonton Oilers: Trading away one of the perceived building blocks of the rebuilding franchise seems kind of crazy. It very well may be, but Peter Chiarelli felt so strongly about improving Edmonton's defense that he sent Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson. While Larsson no doubt helps Edmonton's terrible blue line get better than it was last year, this still seems like too high a price to pay.
The club also went big on money and term by landing Milan Lucic at seven years, $42 million. That signing is important because they replace Hall with an experienced scorer, but they also showed that Edmonton can still land a big-time free agent. Will he adequately replace Hall? Probably not over the life of the contract, but he brings different things and could help Edmonton in other ways.
For the Hall trade alone, Chiarelli showed he's going to be aggressive in how he feels he must improve the team. Whether that's the right kind of aggressive or not will take some time to find out.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning's aggressiveness had to do a lot with their own roster. Steve Yzerman had a plan in place and had to stick to it. That, in itself, is bold considering just how close they could have come to losing their star player.
Risking losing Steven Stamkos in order to stay within the team's desired budget for their star player, was one of Yzerman's most challenging moments as the team's GM, but as he has so often in his relatively young career as an excutive, he came out on top.
Stamkos could have gone anywhere that had the cap space to fit him in, but Yzerman never came off the long reported offer of $8.5 million per season. It paid off when Stamkos agreed to stay. Then Yzerman quickly got to work on other important deals, signing Victor Hedman to a new extension and then making a reasonable commitment to Andrei Vasilevskiy that solidifies their goaltending plan going forward. In a span of three days, the Lightning's future went from murky to completely clear.
In a cap world, making a commitment to your core players has proven fruitful for recent Stanley Cup champions. It continually challenges general managers, but Yzerman has been able to do it without destroying the team's salary cap so far. There are more moves to be made -- possibly trading Ben Bishop and re-signing Nikita Kucherov among the most pressing -- but the Lightning have already started to solidify their future and remain as one of the true powers in the Eastern Conference.
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