This past weekend saw many moves that unequivocally changed the NHL landscape. A new guard seems to be emerging, and how the mantle is passed from the juggernauts of the present to the titans of the future will be influenced by what happened at the Draft. What follows are the winners and losers before free agency begins.
The chorus proclaiming the Carolina Hurricanes as a sleeper playoff team/team of the future is coming, and the framework behind this assessment is sturdy. They have a No. 1 defenseman in Justin Faulk. They have a scoring center in 20-year-old Elias Lindholm, and a nice complement in the aging but still effective Eric Staal. They have a cadre of high-upside defensive prospects in Noah Hanafin, Haydn Fleury, and Ryan Murphy.
Despite the Canes’ underwhelming record in 2014-15, their underlying statistics presage hope: In 2014-15, Carolina finished ninth in Corsi for percentage at 5 on 5 and last in the NHL in PDO, per stats.hockeyanalysis.com. Translation: Carolina controlled the puck and was the unluckiest team in the NHL. When considering these factors, one can see the Hurricanes competing for a playoff spot next season.
The James Wisniewski trade is a sneaky good move by Carolina. Fit is tremendously important for a player and his output. Anaheim determined it had no use for Wisniewski, although he had been a solid top-four contributor in Columbus. Conversely, the Ducks traded for Simon Despres to be a top-four backliner even though his time in Pittsburgh had been rocky.
Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison is another example of how one team’s trash is another team’s treasure. He was deemed expendable to a less-than-perfect Vancouver defensive group, yet fit in a second-pair role in Tampa Bay. The Garrison comparison is especially germane because Wisniewski is also a player with some mobility and a big shot, who thrives with power-play time.
In Carolina, Wisniewski will see plenty of playing time and get precious opportunity on the man advantage. By adding a steady presence on the back end, Carolina is helping to ease the transition for their young defensemen.
A lesson that we learned from the Stanley Cup playoffs is that having three really skilled centers is better than possessing two skilled centers and a grinding pivot to lead the third line. To wit, Tampa Bay could roll out Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Tyler Johnson, divvying things up so that all three centers received ample playing time. If the Bolts wanted to give Filppula or Stammer more ice time, they could put one at wing with the other taking faceoffs and assuming the defensive duties of a center.
In essence, the more skill down the middle the better. Which leads us to Buffalo. The Sabres went from being the worst team in the NHL to possessing Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, and Sam Reinhart. My goodness. The Sabres now have that same palatable option where they can unspool them to shepherd separate lines. At the game’s most important position, the Sabres have three pronounced talents. That is the definition of winning the draft-day weekend.
The trade for goaltender Robin Lehner shows that Buffalo has its sights on accelerating the process of being competitive. The Sabres have the cap room and owner approval to keep beefing up their roster via free agency, with possible targets to bolster the back end in Andrej Sekera and Paul Martin. Buffalo has stockpiled blue-chip talent. And when an organization achieves that goal, filling out the rest of the roster is an easier task.
Everyone has heard plenty about Eichel (and how he is the best American prospect since Patrick Kane), but acquiring O’Reilly was a significant coup. In Colorado, he was one of several mega-talents at forward, so he flew a little under the radar. With the Avalanche, O’Reilly was saddled with one of the worst defensive groups in the NHL, and the amount of work he put in to aid a flailing breakout, precipitate the transition, and create in the offensive zone was extremely taxing.
O’Reilly is a strong possession player who can score and add defensive value. And he is only 24! Acquiring a center of his caliber in his age bracket is unfathomable. On a Cup team, he is the perfect No. 2 center. He can be what Ryan Kesler was for Anaheim last year. And that is what makes this addition so amazing. Kesler was on the brink of 30 when the Ducks acquired him. Buffalo is very young and has visible flaws; they are not about to become a powerhouse in the East next season. But O’Reilly escaped the sinking ship that is Colorado and landed on a team that has a good core, and management that understands what it is doing.
Trading Dougie Hamilton was a colossal blunder by Boston, and the way his arrival in Calgary reslots the rest of the Flames’ defensive group is beautiful. Dennis Wideman can play third pair. Hamilton can team with Kris Russell, allowing Calgary to have to lean less on Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie to carry the tough minutes. Suddenly Calgary has a strong defensive group to empower their young, skilled forwards (Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sam Bennett). After several seasons where the California teams dominated the Pacific Division, the power has begun to shift toward Western Canada.
The Flames’ 2014-15 season was buoyed by prolific puck luck and a team playing above the sum of its parts. In the first round of the postseason, the Flames’ victory was enabled by the Canucks’ deficient goaltending. Calgary is going to struggle to reclaim some of the magic they captured in their unlikely postseason berth from last season, even with the Hamilton addition. Forward depth is extremely important, and the Flames were a one-line team last year. But by adding Hamilton to their defensive corps, they have a team strength that separates them from other teams in the conference. The primary actors are in place, and like Buffalo, Calgary is starting the process of completing the rest of their roster with players that can supplement their top-tier talent.
Recency bias strikes again! The most recent narrative that has become comically inflated is that size doesn’t matter at all in the NHL anymore – that speed has superseded size as the most important NHL attribute. There is some truth to that, but it exaggerates reality. Size and speed are both important. In a perfect world, a player has both.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi is a smart man who understands that the NHL can be a copycat league, and that if everyone is zigging it makes sense for his team to zag. By adding Milan Lucic, the Kings hope they can win by brawn and size. This is not an unreasonable bet, given that the Kings won two Cups with their fusion of skill and heavy play. Which is not to say that the Cup-winning Kings team couldn’t skate. Jeff Carter is one of the fastest players in the league. Anze Kopitar is a gazelle. Drew Doughty’s puck control and playmaking ability are facilitated by his sensational skating ability. But, in their best seasons, the team’s blend of physicality, skill, and size overwhelmed their opponent. It helped them maintain possession on the cycle and bought them an extra half-second on zone exits.
The Kings were assassins in possession again last season. If they lose forward Justin Williams that will hurt a lot, but they still have enough skill to be elite in controlling shot attempts. The Kings want to dominate the puck battles, and they still have many players who can overpower opponents along the boards and in the corners. Lucic is not a creator. Without David Krejci last year, Lucic was a shell, completely exposed. Lucic was incapable of generating any offense on his own. But Los Angeles has enough playmakers to feed him the puck and maintain possession on the cycle. Lucic can jam a rebound home and drive hard to the far post. He will simplify his game with Los Angeles. Once again, the Kings stay ahead of the curve. Also, getting Tyler Toffoli, a darling of the stats community, on a favorable bridge contract, was a nice bit of finesse.
Adding the most coveted prospect since Sidney Crosby was a draft-eligible teenager obviously makes the Oilers a big winner. With Connor McDavid officially an Oiler, its forward group gets to recalibrate, and its plethora of prospects becomes more fearsome. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will have a center who can alleviate some of the pressure on him. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle can be separated without the Oilers’ offense getting spread thin. Nail Yakupov gets to retreat further into the background, and hopefully less attention and scrutiny will allow him to start honing a consistently effective NHL game. What Leon Draisaitl’s role will be this upcoming season with the big club is undetermined, but as an 18-year-old, he showed flashes of being a difference-making forward. The hoarding of forward talent will pay off at some point. As always, the question with the Oilers is how quickly will the maturation process happen?
The Oilers have been dreadful in every statistic imaginable for the last several seasons, but the secret sauce to improving that is… more talent! Especially on defense. With the acquisition of Griffin Reinhart, the fourth overall pick from 2012, Edmonton makes a bet that Reinhart’s talent was underdeveloped in New York and that a new environment will stoke his progress.
Furthermore, IH loves what it has seen from defensive prospect Darnell Nurse. But Justin Schultz, Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference, and Mark Fayne are all going to be featured in Edmonton’s defensive group, which means the back end is still a weakness.
The best way to shore up defects in Edmonton’s defensive group is by having the Oilers’ forwards make a concerted effort in their own end to assist on zone exits and stifle their opponents’ cycle. Given the low level of effort displayed over the last few seasons, they should have plenty of energy in reserve. Tampa Bay provides a nice template for how the Oilers’ forwards supplying defensive value can make their defense adequate.
After the Bolts’ excellent top pair, Tampa Bay’s second and third pair are sufficient, but the Lightning had incredible success because of the commitment from their forwards in the defensive zone. Tampa Bay’s forwards gave their defensemen passing targets to initiate the breakout and obstructed their opponents’ shooting and passing lanes. They did a strong job stymying opposing teams’ rush attacks with their relentless forward back pressure. That kind of commitment engendered confidence in the Bolts’ defensemen and allowed them to be more aggressive at challenging opposing forwards.
With new Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli in place, their defensive group is going to get a makeover, but it will take time. The addition of goaltender Cam Talbot will be valuable if the Oilers understand their defensive assignments and demonstrate eagerness to execute them. New head coach Todd McLellan will be integral in this mission, and it is unreasonable to expect the Oilers to surge to the top of the Pacific Division this upcoming season. The good news is that the organization has skilled personnel to put on the ice, and the right stewards are behind the bench and in management. The Oilers are finally poised to escape from the basement.
What a disaster. Boston fired Chiarelli and promoted Don Sweeney to GM because they were dissatisfied with their roster, but Sweeney has been frighteningly near-sighted, foremost by trading Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton not only established himself as an NHL regular, but also was receiving top-pair minutes. He was pitted against the toughest competition and exceled in driving play. Hamilton has size and skating, as well as offensive upside that he is still sharpening. He has a strong shot and like any 22-year-old, his decision-making is imperfect, but should improve with more reps. The Bruins just traded their No. 1 defenseman of the future, which seems unfathomable after trading superstar Tyler Seguin two years ago.
Boston’s relinquishing of Milan Lucic and Carl Soderberg was expected by many forecasters, but its impact on the team in aggregate is alarming. Granted, the Bruins’ forward group suffered through a wave of injuries last season, but Soderberg and Lucic finished third and fourth on the team in scoring. And this is on a team that struggled to score goals! Patrice Bergeron, Krejci, and Brad Marchand are players who were paramount in the Bruins teams that were Cup contenders, but last season a confluence of factors torpedoed their chances.
Boston’s defensive group struggled last season, but jettisoning Hamilton leaves them with an aging Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller and one replacement-level extra defenseman. With management razing the roster, the high-end players will be subject to a very trying season. This is a sad way to squander the rest of Bergeron’s peak performance years.
Nathan MacKinnon-Matt Duchene-Gabriel Landeskog
Speaking of unfairly stacking the odds against the nucleus of your team, one has to feel bad for Colorado’s young studs. Losing Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly in consecutive seasons is unconscionable, and the Avalanche are a serious contender for the No. 1 overall pick in 2016.
Johnny Oduya Doubters
What Los Angeles is doing with the Toffoli bridge deal, the trading of a first-round pick for Lucic, the Mike Richards saga, and the handwringing over Anze Kopitar’s mega-contract all point to one thing: The Kings’ Cup window is shutting soon and they want to do anything and everything possible to win now. They are sacrificing good will, the future, karma, and integrity for the goal of forging a Cup-level roster this season. And they are completely right to do that. A team should always mortgage tomorrow for today when their players are in their prime.
The Blackhawks should take a page from the Kings’ book when viewing Johnny Oduya’s contract. He is 34 in October and at some point he will lose his efficacy. But he was crucial in the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup win, and losing him will submarine their chances of repeating. There is no one available to provide the same three-zone impact that Oduya does. Aside from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Marian Hossa, and Teuvo Teravainen, every other Chicago forward is expendable. Losing a member of the Blackhawks’ top four would be devastating.
It is a huge mistake to underrate Oduya’s value at shutting down first-rate opposing forwards while still managing to push the pace with stretch passes and activate on the rush. Even if Chicago has to overpay and give him more term than they would like, they absolutely need to think in terms of winning in the present. The Blackhawks are adept at filling in the bottom half of their roster with capable players, and they may need to sell off most of their supporting forwards to do so. But Oduya is a necessity on their back end. The Blackhawks need to continue to push their chips to the table for winning in the present. Their future depends on it.