Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been using the power of hindsight to break down the good and the bad of what happened over the 2015 NHL offseason. I did the same thing in mid-August, but now that we have a few months of actual NHL play to analyze, I figured it was time to go back and see how each team’s moves (or lack of moves) have paid off. After going through all four divisions, looking at the players that teams have added and subtracted, and how they’ve spent their money, I figured I would put together a big list of which teams are winners and losers, and which teams are floating in their own category somewhere in the middle.
Before I get into it, what constitutes a winner and a loser? And what does it mean to be somewhere in the middle? I figured it was best to look at each team in the context of their division, rather than trying to make broad comparisons across the entire league. It’s pretty easy to summarize what a winner and a loser is: they’re the teams who had the best, and well, the worst offseasons in their divisions based completely on the moves they made, and didn’t make. But it isn’t exactly that simple, which is why we have the “everybody in the middle category.”
A winner, to me, isn’t just the team who had the best offseason in the division. A winner can be a team who did enough to maintain their playoff spot from the year before, or it can be a team who made such good moves that they’ll be able to overtake somebody else’s position. In contrast, a loser is a team that got worse in the short term, or made stupid moves that hurt themselves in the long term. Long story short, I’m trying to base each team’s grade on what the context of their division is, what the team is trying to accomplish short and long term, and how good of a job they did at accomplishing it because different teams can be winners and losers for different reasons.
The Pacific Division is pretty enigmatic and difficult to break down. It’s obviously the weakest division in the league, so it’s hard to say whether teams who are losing are actually losers, and if the teams who are winning should really be heralded as winners.
Anyways, I’ll start with the team who’s easiest to assess: The Arizona Coyotes. Back in August, I said the Coyotes were in their own middle category because they were the team most obviously in rebuild mode and they weren’t trying to be competitive this season. The goal was to give key prospects like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair a safe, easy introduction to the NHL, but ultimately tank for their best chance at winning the draft lottery and bringing hometown hero Auston Matthews to the desert. And to this point, pretty much everything has gone according to plan. The rookies have impressed, the veterans employed to make their transition easy have been effective, and while they did overachieve in the standings for a good chunk of the season, they’re falling down at the right time, and if they can have a good garage sale at the trade deadline, they’ll be setting comfortably in the Matthews sweepstakes. So, yeah, the Coyotes are winning by losing, as they’re stockpiling an excellent group of prospects while also not throwing them right into the deep end without life jackets on.
In terms of clear winners, I think it’s fair to say that the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks should be patting themselves on the back. Last year, both teams missed the playoffs, and now, they’re in first and second place in the division. I mean, in a vacuum, that level of improvement in the standings is difficult to argue against. The main reason both teams won this summer is they didn’t panic after forgettable seasons. The Kings, as we all know, are petty deep in the depth of cap hell. After missing the playoffs, it would have been easy to take a look up and down the roster and suggest that a fire sale would be the way to go. But looking a little deeper, it was clear that the 2014-15 Kings were a good team who suffered from some pretty lousy luck, so blowing it up would have been wasting a still open window of opportunity. Same goes for the Sharks, who, with their aging core, were a team who many suggested should take the hint and blow it up. Instead, they added Joel Ward, Martin Jones, and Paul Martin, and now they’re back to being a legitimate playoff contender. I mean, obviously they aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were a few years ago, but it’s important to remember how important being a consistent playoff team is to franchises in markets like San Jose. They don’t necessarily have the ability to go through a decade long rebuild like Canadian teams do. So, yeah, maybe it would have been smart for the Sharks to go into some kind of rebuild, I’m guessing their organizational goal was to remain competitive, which is what they’ve accomplished.
Looking at the division’s losers, we have the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks. Both teams anchored themselves with a few ugly contracts last summer and failed to make themselves better in the process. The Canucks finished the 2014-15 season second in the Pacific Division with 101 points, but this year, they only thing keeping them out of the basement has been their somewhat impressive ability to collect six wins worth of points through overtime losses. Over the summer, they dealt Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening and a second round pick to the Penguins for Brandon Sutter, and then signed him to a five-year, $21.875 million deal, which is a pretty huge price for a guy who doesn’t produce much. They dumped Kevin Bieksa on the Ducks, which was impressive, but then they went ahead and it by signing Luca Sbisa to a three-year contract that essentially negated it. Basically, the Canucks spent the summer spending money poorly and they didn’t get better in the process. That said, there’s a silver lining here. They’re in a very good position to sell off some of their veteran assets (Hamhuis, Vrbata) which will help them add to their impressive young core and accelerate their inevitable rebuild. While it isn’t a terrible thing they’re entering a rebuild, it certainly wasn’t their goal heading into the offseason. The Ducks, on the other hand, are losers for a different reason. They did enough to be a competitive team in the short-term, but they made some puzzling moves that could hurt them in the long-term. Like, for starters, signing Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa to contract extensions worth nearly $11 million combined starting next season. Also, dealing Emerson Etem for Carl Hagelin, extending him to a four-year deal, then very quickly giving up on him and acquiring an impending UFA in David Perron (who probably won’t be signed this summer) and Adam Clendening (who was waived like a week later). In short, Anaheim’s asset management has been terrible, and they’ve done a very poor job spending money for a team who imposes a tight internal budget. Hopefully it doesn’t result in them having to give away somebody like Sami Vatanen or Rickard Rakell.
That leaves us with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. The last time I looked, I figured that each of them were clear winners based on the major additions they had made over the summer. The Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton for a pretty underwhelming collection of draft picks, and they signed Michael Frolik to a five-year contract via free agency. And of course, the Oilers draft Connor McDavid, signed Andrej Sekera, traded for Cam Talbot, and hired a new coach and general manager. While neither team is performing better in the standings, their underlying numbers suggest that they’re better teams than they were last year, which is obviously a good sign. I have a hard time maintaining my earlier position that the Albertan teams are winners because neither of them have really had any success this year, but it’s also hard to call them losers because their offseason additions make them better teams in the long run. So in terms of improvement in relation to the rest of the division, both the Flames and Oilers appear to be losers, but can we really say that teams who acquired Dougie Hamilton and Connor McDavid last summer aren’t winners?
I was skeptical of calling the Dallas Stars the winners of summer 2015 because of what happened the year before. Over the 2014 offseason, the Stars added Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza to an already potent offence and they appeared to be a team on the verge of breaking out and becoming contenders. That didn’t happen. The 2014-15 Stars were a massive disappointment thanks largely to horrible goaltending, and they ended up on the outside of the playoffs looking in. So last summer, they added three former Chicago Blackhawks in Antti Niemi, Patrick Sharp, and Johnny Oduya to help make the team stronger all around. Anyways, like I said, I was skeptical that this would work out because I didn’t want to be fooled twice. But now, six months later, the Stars have the third best record in the league, and it’s very easy to call them the winners of the offseason in the Central as nobody else has taken this huge of a step forward. Both Sharp and Oduya have been excellent additions to the depth of the team, and the seven-year contract handed out to John Klingberg deserves praise, as the Stars now have one of the league’s premier offensive defencemen locked up at a very reasonable $4.25 million.
Also in the winners category are the Chicago Blackhawks, but it isn’t quite as clear-cut as it is with Dallas. When I talked about them last summer, I said the Hawks were easily the losers of the division. They had taken the biggest hit of any team, losing Antoine Vermette, Johnny Oduya, and Brad Richards to free agency, and being forced to trade Brandon Saad all in order to squeeze under the cap as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s $10.5 million extensions were set to kick in. On top of all that, the Hawks were also faced with Kane’s legal issues, a situation that alienated a lot of the team’s (and league’s) fans and gave the organization a massive black eye. While the situation has died down, it still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many. Anyways, in terms of the moves they made over the summer, the Hawks did a really good job in remaining competitive despite going through a mass exodus in talent, as they’re currently sitting in first place in the Western Conference. That said, their financial troubles aren’t going away any time soon, and signing Brent Seabrook to a contract extension with a $6.875 million cap hit until he’s into his late 30s isn’t going to help much either. Oh well, it costs money to be good, and I think the Hawks have accepted that by now.
So with the Hawks have as successful of a season as they are, we need to look for a different team to wear the loser crown. The most obvious choice would be the Winnipeg Jets. After making the playoffs last year, the Jets have been a major disappointment this season, as they sit dead last in the division. I mean, even the Colorado Avalanche are ahead of them in the standings right now, which is certainly a sad state of affairs. Originally, I had the Jets in the middle category along with Predators, Wild, and Blues as playoff teams who didn’t do much to get better, but also did a fair job in remaining as good as they had been the year before. The Jets let Michael Frolik and Lee Stempniak walk as free agents, and the only addition they made was bringing Alexander Burmistrov back over from Russia. You’d think they would have been able to come up with the combined $5 million that it would have taken to keep both Frolik and Stempniak around, and if they did, they would certainly have a more respectable forward group than they do now. Now it looks like the Jets are heading into some kind of hybrid rebuild phase, which is unfortunate, because had they managed their assets properly, they could have capitalized on what appeared to be a pretty good looking group last year.
But if we’re going to call the Jets losers for falling so far in the standings, we really need to do the same with the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. The Wild aren’t quite as bad as the Jets, because at least they’re spending to the cap and aren’t using the “we have no money” excuse for letting good players walk as free agents, but they did literally nothing to improve their team last summer. I mean, to be fair, there was no reason to assume that Jason Pomminville and Thomas Vanek would have 20 goals combined through 54 games, but it’s hard to call Minnesota anything other than an offseason loser now that they look like a complete disaster after standing pat all summer. Same goes for the Preds, who’s only major addition was Barret Jackman. Both the Wild and Predators spent all summer housekeeping, and while they did a fair job at that, they allowed the Stars and Avs to improve and ultimately jump them in the standings. I won’t call them outright losers like Winnipeg, because they didn’t blindly let good players leave, but they belong in a somewhere in the middle category of teams who are still competing for playoff spots, but simply didn’t do enough to get better. Also, to a lesser extent, the St. Louis Blues belong in this category. After getting knocked out in the first round last season, all the Blues did to get better was trade T.J. Oshie to the Capitals for Troy Brouwer, which obviously didn’t actually make the team better. That said, they’re currently in third place in the Western Conference, but unfortunately for them, both the teams ahead of them are also in their division. So while the Blues are still a really good team, they probably didn’t do enough to improve last summer.
That leaves us with the Colorado Avalanche as a team without a category. They’ve made a massive jump in the standings and appear to be a competitive team with a fair shot at making the playoffs, so shouldn’t they just go in the winners category with Dallas or Chicago? Technically yes, they should be considered a winner. But the problem with the Avs is that while they are currently sitting in a playoff spot, they really aren’t a good team at all. In fact, they have the worst even strength possession numbers in the league, they allow 7.5 more scoring chances against per hour than they generate themselves, and nobody even comes close to touching their negative shot differential. So, yeah, I guess their offseason moves of signing Francois Beauchemin, Blake Comeau, Carl Soderberg, and trading Ryan O’Reilly for Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, and a second round pick have helped them be more successful in the standings this year, but they certainly aren’t a better team. We’ll put them somewhere in the middle as a team who, in a vacuum, was an offseason winner, but in reality is still probably just as bad as they were this time last year. The Avs are really, really good at playing the smoke and mirrors game, but they aren’t anything worth taking seriously.
At the end of the summer, I figured there were three winners in the Metropolitan Division. The biggest was the Pittsburgh Penguins because they managed to acquire Phil Kessel for not a hell of a lot, but there was also the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets. Now, with the power of hindsight, it’s clear that the big winner was in fact the Caps, the Jackets are doing everything but winning, and the Pens, while they’ve stepped it up recently, have been pretty disappointing.
Let’s start with the Washington Capitals, who deserve to be in their own category as the clear winners of summer 2015 in the Metro Division. Currently, the Capitals are second in the league in goals for, first in goals against, and they’re running away not only with first place in the Metro Division, but also the entire league. The problem for years in Washington was that they lacked legitimate scoring depth behind Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom. It was understood that if you could shut down the line that those two anchored, you could shut down the Capitals as a team. So last summer, the Caps addressed that glaring need by acquiring T.J. Oshie in a trade with the St. Louis Blues and signing Corsi god Justin Williams via free agency. Oshie has slotted into the wing opposite of Ovechkin, while Williams has played alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s enjoyed a breakout season this year. Basically, Williams and Oshie have helped solidify what is arguably the best top-six forward group in the league, as the Caps now have two potent scoring lines rather than just one. The other thing that’s impressive with the Capitals is that they’ve taken major steps forward despite losing Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and Joel Ward to free agency. It was smart of them to realize that they needed to make a change, and rather than ponying up the cash to keep around the pieces that weren’t helping to make it work, they acquired some new blood to start moving in a new direction.
So if the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t the clear winners anymore, where does that put them? While they have underachieved, it would be unfair to call them losers. Under new head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have gone 13-9-4 and Sidney Crosby is back to scoring like a Hart Trophy candidate rather than looking like somebody who’s passed their prime. I still think the Kessel trade was good, in that they acquired an elite scorer for a pretty underwhelming package and they convinced the Leafs to retain part of his salary, but the reason we can’t say the Pens are a clear winner is the fact they didn’t address their problems on defence at all. After Kris Letang, none of the Penguins defencemen have been producing any substantial amount of offence. I mean, you can only expect so much from your forwards when you don’t have anybody on the back end capable of making good breakout passes, right? So with that considered, the Penguins belong in a category somewhere in the middle as a team who did well, but could have done better last summer.
Also in the middle are the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and Carolina Hurricanes. I think you can break these five teams into two categories. First, there are the Islanders and Rangers in category of teams who didn’t really do anything to get better, but also didn’t get worse and will more than likely, barring catastrophe, maintain their status as playoff teams. They each had housekeeping to deal with, as the Rangers needed to free up some cap room to ink Derek Stepan to a new contract (they did, signing him to a six-year, $39 million deal), so they sent Carl Hagelin to the Ducks and Cam Talbot to the Oilers. The Islanders didn’t have to free up any cap room, but they signed Anders Lee, Thomas Hickey, and Brock Nelson to multi-year deals. So really, neither team looks better on paper than they were in 2014-15 based on their offseason moves, but if their goal was to have a financially responsible summer in which they kept their teams together and make the playoffs again, they both succeeded. After that, the Devils, Hurricanes, and Flyers all fit into a similar middle category of non-playoff teams who are rebuilding that didn’t do anything dumb to screw themselves over long-term this summer. I guess you can argue that the Devils should be considered a winner, since they made some really good low-key depth acquisitions in Lee Stempniak and Kyle Palmieri, but even though they’re sitting just a few points out of a playoff spot, their underlying numbers suggest they really shouldn’t even be close.
So that leaves us with the Columbus Blue Jackets who are very obviously the Metro Division’s loser of summer 2015. This is just sad, honestly. I really thought that the Blue Jackets were going to take a step forward this season. Last year, they struggled mightily with injuries and we didn’t really have the chance to see the roster playing to its full potential. Over the summer, Columbus sent a package based around Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano to the Hawks for Brandon Saad, who at just 22 years of age, had already won two Stanley Cups. But along with that, they signed Matt Calvert to a three-year $6.6 million deal and Gregory Campbell to a two-year $3 million deal. When you already employ the likes of David Clarkson at vastly inflated salaries, is that really how you want to be going around and spending money? Looking up and down the Jackets roster, there’s no way that Brandon Dubinsky, David Clarkson, Greg Campbell, Matt Calvert, Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson, and Sergei Bobrovsky are worth the combined cap hit of $31 million that they’re currently locked up for. I don’t think I really need to keep going on why the Jackets are the losers of the division, as they’re currently dead last in the division by a large margin and have a lot of soul searching to do this summer.
Last summer, I had the Boston Bruins as the clear losers of the Atlantic Division, so I’ll start with them again. Summer 2015 was a confusing time for Bruins fans. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, and they welcomed in a new general manager who essentially flipped the organization on its head. They traded Dougie Hamilton for a very underwhelming package of draft picks, which was awful, then they traded Milan Lucic, one year from free agency and rapidly declining, to the L.A. Kings of all teams for Martin Jones and a first round pick, which was amazing. So maybe it wasn’t going to be bad after all. Then, later that day, when the draft rolled around, they used their three consecutive picks to go off the board, leaving Matt Barzal, Kyle Connor, and other highly touted prospects available to be scooped up by the teams behind them. They let Carl Soderberg go (well, they moved his UFA rights for a pick), but signed Matt Beleskey to a reasonable contract in free agency. They also managed to dump Marc Savard’s cap hit on the Florida Panthers while swapping Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes in the process, which was impressive, but they also signed Adam McQuaid to a four-year deal and traded for Zac Rinaldo, which was awful. So you get the point. This offseason was all over the map, one good thing happened, then a bad thing happened, and rinse, wash, and repeat. Now, here we are in February, and the Bruins are in a playoff position thanks to the fact they’re third in the league in goals scored. So can we really call them losers? I have no idea, because quite honestly, I’m not sure exactly what they were trying to do last summer, so I can’t reasonably say whether or not they accomplished it. If a massive culture shift in which the franchise got younger and less expensive but still remained somewhat competitive in the short-term was their goal, it’s fair to say they achieved it. I guess they’ll have to go in their own shrugging emoticon category somewhere in the middle.
So then who does that make the clear loser of summer 2015 in the Atlantic Division? I guess that logic would assume that it’s the Montreal Canadiens, because they’ve taken the biggest nosedive in the standings of all the teams. But when looking at their underlying numbers, they’re actually arguably a better team than they were last season. Last year, their even strength Corsi For percentage of 49.1 was middle of the pack, and suggested that they were a team who was successful only because of their elite goaltending. This year, their Corsi For percentage has increased to 53.0, but their goaltending has been horrific. Obviously they couldn’t realistically have expected for Carey Price to get injured and miss significant time. I mean, they didn’t do a hell of a lot to get better last summer, but did anybody in this division? The Tampa Bay Lightning made one notable addition, which was signing Erik Condra to fill a vacancy left by Brenden Morrow. Besides, they’re pressed right up against the cap, and with Steven Stamkos set to his free agency this summer, they obviously didn’t want to make any major moves to make it even harder on themselves to keep him around. Then there’s the Ottawa Senators who didn’t do anything to build on their fly by night, miracle playoff run from last season. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing though, because the last thing they need to do is veer themselves off their rebuilding course to chase a dream that’s very far from being a reality. The Canadiens, Senators and Lightning were jumped in the standings by the Florida Panthers, who, like them, didn’t really do anything to make themselves better over the summer. Their breakout has been a combination of luck, amazing goaltending, the continued progression of their young core, and whatever special, magic elixir Jaromir Jagr has the team drinking before each game. I mean, it’s hard to pat the Panthers on the back because nothing they did over the summer has been critical to this breakout. It’s hard to condemn the Canadiens because their failure has been the result of bad luck and the team is actually a little better than it was last season, and you can’t really criticize the Senators for being conservative and not actively trying to improve. So I guess all of these teams belong in the middle, but for different reasons.
There’s really only one team in the Atlantic that went out and tried to get better last summer who’s actually seen an improvement in the standings. The Detroit Red Wings are probably the best choice for a winner out of this group, because after signing Mike Green and Brad Richards through free agency last summer, they’re sitting in second place in the division. I mean, their main goal is obviously to continue their 24-year payoff streak, and as of right now, it looks like that’s going to happen, so they should be considered winners in that regard.
Also winners, but for a completely different reason are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. As I mentioned earlier with the Arizona Coyotes, the Leafs and Sabres are rebuilding with the distant future in mind and both teams are in a prime position to add some nice pieces to their puzzle come draft time in June. That said, they’re going about going it in different ways. The Leafs are just getting started on their rebuild, as they’ve jettisoned Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, leaving their roster as a shell of its former self. Over the summer, they stockpiled a bunch of depth free agents (Shawn Matthias, Mark Arcobello, Brad Boyes, P.A. Parenteau, Matt Hunwick, etc.) to be dealt at the trade deadline for prospects and picks. This also allowed them to keep prized prospects like William Nylander and Mitch Marner off the big league team so they could develop in either the AHL or junior. Oh yeah, and they also added a pretty major free agent in head coach Mike Babcock, which was certainly significant to their rebuild. The Sabres, on the other hand, have been at it for a little while, and appear to be poised to take a step forward. They added Jack Eichel at the draft last year, and acquired Ryan O’Reilly from the Avalanche to help insulate him in the lineup. They also acquired Robin Lehner from the Senators and signed Cody Franson in free agency. While it hasn’t translated in the standings, the Sabres have a very attractive group of young players, and they’ll be adding to it in June. So both the Leafs and Sabres came into summer 2015 looking well into the future, and I think it’s fair to say they accomplished what they set out to do.