One year ago, the Washington Capitals downgraded.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, their big trade deadline acquisition, skated off to the New York Rangers. Justin Williams and Karl Alzner left as free agents. Nate Schmidt was plucked in the expansion draft. Marcus Johansson was a salary-cap casualty. Even their re-signing of forward T.J. Oshie to an eight-year contract was criticized. One of their lone acquisitions was forward Devante Smith-Pelly, bought out by the New Jersey Devils and signed for $650,000.
One year later, they were partying their way across several cities and at least two continents after hoisting the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
So let this be a lesson for some, and a beacon of hope for others: A seemingly mediocre summer doesn't always portend a disastrous regular season. Conversely, winning the summer doesn't always mean winning it all. Just ask the 2017 Dallas Stars about that.
Here's a look at the teams that improved the most since the end of the season, the ones that stood pat and the ones that seriously just want the calendar to flip to next summer.
Another strong offseason on paper from GM John Chayka. The "change in scenery" trade that sent Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens for Alex Galchenyuk gives Arizona a 24-year-old who might still blossom into the No. 1 center he was projected to become when drafted No. 3 overall. Chayka used his cap space -- annually the team's greatest asset -- to house Marian Hossa's contact while acquiring forward Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Jordan Oesterle, who played 55 games last season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He also signed Michael Grabner, who scored 54 goals over the last two seasons, for three years and $3.35 million against the cap, and inked Niklas Hjalmarsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson one year before free agency, the latter getting an eight-year deal worth $8.25 million per season to keep a franchise defenseman. Again, really strong offseason ... on paper.
First overall pick Rasmus Dahlin projects to be the kind of game-changing top-pairing defenseman who franchises spend years searching to acquire. The Ryan O'Reilly trade was celebrated by many Sabres fans for bringing five assets for one disgruntled player, three of whom are going to populate the 2018-19 roster. Carter Hutton (three years, $2.75M AAV) would appear to be a great mentor for young goalie Linus Ullmark. Buffalo didn't suddenly become a Cup contender or anything, but it's a better team overall than when it ended last season -- and that's without even mentioning a full season of Casey Mittelstadt. Guess we just did.
The first offseason of the Tom Dundon regime was remarkably good. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton was the best player in the deal that sent Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to the Calgary Flames, and factor in the potential that defensive prospect Adam Fox has, and it's a practically lopsided trade (assuming he signs in Carolina). Signing defenseman Calvin de Haan (four years, $4.55M AAV) from the New York Islanders has its risks (his health) and its upsides (his underlying numbers are solid), especially if it gives the Canes the flexibility to acquire a top-six center for one of their countless defensemen. Now, if they could just sufficiently address the goaltending situation with something more than Petr Mrazek and assure us that Dundon virtually having a desk in head coach Rod Brind'Amour's office won't be problematic.
It's not just that James van Riemsdyk (five years, $7M AAV) was one of the top scoring wingers available in free agency and a rather shrewd addition to the second line to play with sophomore center Nolan Patrick. It's that he's a known commodity, having been drafted and playing 196 games in Philly. One assumes there's still a move or two to make with 20 players under contract and $13 million in space available, but the Flyers are already improved.
I've fawned over this offseason for the Blues, but again: Bringing in back winger David Perron (four years, $4M AAV), signing center Tyler Bozak (three years, $5M AAV), goalie Chad Johnson (one year, $1.75M AAV), winger Pat Maroon (one year, $1.75M AAV) and winger Jordan Nolan (one year, $650K AAV), along with acquiring O'Reilly for what amounts to forward Tage Thompson, a first-rounder, a second and two bottom-six players to make the money work makes the Blues a better team than when the season ended.
John Tavares is a Maple Leaf, and all it cost them was $11 million in cap space annually for the next seven seasons. A franchise player from Ontario chose to accept the challenge of trying to break the 51-year drought. They now have Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri up the gut. This is a rather major improvement (even if the defense could use some TLC).
Good, if things break right
There are some question marks for the Flames, but if everything breaks right, this could be a summer they look back on quite fondly. James Neal has 102 goals since 2014 and gives them a viable scorer for the second line. Then there's the Carolina invasion: Hanifin allows them to reset the defense, pairing him with Travis Hamonic and getting Mark Giordano back with T.J. Brodie (in theory); Lindholm (who signed a six-year deal with a $4.85 AAV) is expected to add some versatility to the top line, especially on faceoffs; center Derek Ryan adds depth; and coach Bill Peters attempts to show that his analytics bring great things with a different team.
Getting goalie Philipp Grubauer (three years, $3.35M) meant devouring the remaining money on Brooks Orpik's contract. It'll be worth it if the German keeper delivers on the promise he showed in Washington last season. Defenseman Ian Cole (three years, $4.25M) is a good solider who's great in the locker room. Matt Calvert (three years, $2.8M) will help the bottom six.
The Stars added veteran defenseman Roman Polak (one year, $1.3M), goalie Anton Khudobin (two years, $2.5M AAV), forward Blake Comeau (three years, $2.4M AAV) and welcomed back forward Valeri Nichushkin (two years, $2.95M). But they're waiting out the Erik Karlsson derby and could be a frontrunner. While Dallas wasn't enticing enough for Tavares, it did manage to lure Jim Montgomery from the University of Denver as its new head coach.
The Panthers, from the players to the front office, insist that the bizarre cyberbullying scandal that hastened the departure of winger Mike Hoffman (involving his fiancée Monika Caryk and Melinda Karlsson, wife of Erik) will not follow him to South Florida. Assuming everything off the ice is quiet, the Panthers could make some noise after having acquired a player with 77 goals in his last three seasons.
Ilya Kovalchuk (three years, $6.5M AAV) could be one of the biggest impact signings of the summer if the 35-year-old winger can still bring the thunder as an elite playmaker five years after leaving the NHL. Or he could just make an old team look even older. At least defenseman Drew Doughty signed for eight years and $11 million annually, preventing the Leafs from hypnotizing him next summer as they apparently did Tavares.
Also known as "The Great Jack Johnson Debate." Did the Penguins find another perfect reclamation project on defense in the puck-moving Johnson, whose five-year contract with a $3.25M cap hit will look like a bargain in short order? Or is this like one of those house flips where they find termites in the foundation? At least Matt Cullen is back for one year. Missed ya, dad.
Paul Stastny (three years, $6.5M) gives the Knights a solid 32-year-old pro for their second line who delivers around 0.65 points per game. But they bid farewell to Perron and Neal, who delivered big numbers on that line last season, and have yet to replace that offense on the wings. Defenseman Nick Holden (two years, $2.2M AAV) is a nice add. But the three-year extension with a $7M AAV for Marc-Andre Fleury starting in 2019-20 is one of the most inexplicable overpayments in recent memory. Nice guy, though.
The "David Poile Home For Wayward NHL Players" swung its doors open for Zac Rinaldo (one year, $650K), but the Predators had a very quiet offseason thus far. However, that Juuse Saros contract is going to look incredible when he's making $1.5 million against the cap as a Vezina Trophy finalist in three years.
New York Rangers
The Rangers tried to tell you this youth movement stuff was legit, and you didn't believe them! Coach David Quinn of Boston University was basically their most significant acquisition this offseason, as New York trusts the process.
Their passive aggressive reaction to missing out on Tavares was glorious, but the real highlights of the summer were retaining their own talent: Center Joe Thornton (one year, $5M), winger Tomas Hertl (four years, $5.625M AAV), center Logan Couture (eight years, $8M AAV, starting in 2019) and winger Evander Kane (seven years, $7M AAV) are all back.
Status quo, pending resolution of the Karlsson derby. The Lightning handed significant extensions to star winger Nikita Kucherov (eight years, $9.5M AAV starting in 2019-20) and forward J.T. Miller (five years, $5.25M AAV).
Two depth moves on defense (Andrej Sustr and Luke Schenn) and adding Brian Gibbons up front, but nothing else significant happened for a team that's stuck in a purgatory between "win now" and "our second line center is 33, might miss the season and is signed through 2022 with a full no-move."
The B's added defenseman John Moore (five years, $2.75M AAV) and goalie Jaroslav Halak (two years, $2.75M AAV) in a pair of decent deals. Missing out on Tavares wasn't a crushing blow, as it would have sent several dominos toppling over to make the money work going forward. Missing out on Kovalchuk hurt more, as Boston has yet to address the hole on its second-line wings, with Rick Nash having taken his name out of the free agent marketplace.
It was a typical latter-day Stan Bowman summer. Once again, the Blackhawks move assets in order to unload money off their books. This time it was Hinostroza and Oesterle escorting Hossa's cap hit to Arizona, reacquiring a name from Stanley Cup championship past (Marcus Kruger). They added one-year veteran stop-gaps in Cam Ward ($3M AAV) and Chris Kunitz ($1M AAV), and they signed defenseman Brandon Manning for two years ($2.25M AAV). Great. They're still a team trying to climb back into championship contention with an aged core, too many no-trade clauses and the clock ticking.
Riley Nash (three years, $2.75M) is nice for depth, Anthony Duclair is worth a look and Boone Jenner's OK at four years and a $3.75 million cap hit. But GM Jarmo Kekalainen spent more time worrying about the future of Artemi Panarin than making any dramatic offseason splashes.
Curious doesn't mean bad, necessarily. Bringing forward Kyle Brodziak (two years, $1.3M AAV) is good for depth, and forward Tobias Rieder could be a bargain at $2 million if he can find his scoring touch. Based on recent results for GM Peter Chiarelli, no moves are good news for Oilers fans.
New GM Paul Fenton rolls into town and ... signs a pretty good depth defenseman (Greg Pateryn), a goalie with seven NHL games in the last two seasons (Andrew Hammond) and two Bruce Boudreau foot soldiers (Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks). Despite chatter that some franchise favorites could be on the block, nothing's gone down yet.
New Jersey Devils
GM Ray Shero sat atop his $23 million in cap space like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin. Perhaps he's waiting to be the solution to someone else's payroll problem, similar to how Marcus Johansson fell to the Devils last summer.
New York Islanders
The Islanders ended the 12-year tenure of GM Garth Show and fired Doug Weight, hiring Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, respectively, as replacements in the hopes of retaining Tavares. Alas, he never had Lamoriello and Trotz bed sheets as a child, and left for the Maple Leafs. De Haan also bolted. True to form for Lamoriello, there really wasn't a sufficient Plan B, as the Islanders went on a spending spree on centers Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov, forward Tom Kuhnhackl and goalie Robin Lehner, as well as reuniting the best fourth line of 2014 with a trade for Matt Martin. Not even the nostalgic kick of regular-season games in Nassau can ease this nausea in the coming months.
The Stanley Cup champions (yep, still weird) took defensemen John Carlson (eight years, $8M AAV) and Michal Kempny (four years, $2.5M AAV) off the market and re-signed forward Smith-Pelley (one year, $1M). The band's back, sans Jay Beagle and Orpik (for the moment). But the Capitals end up in the downgrade section for two reasons, one small and one large. On the small side, the Capitals have yet to address the loss of Grubauer. Much more significant is the loss of Trotz, who split with the Capitals over the financial terms of his contract, becoming the first active Stanley Cup-winning coach not to return to his team since Mike Keenan with the Rangers in 1994. Former associate coach Todd Reirden might end up being an excellent coach, and the Capitals might run on autopilot with so many returning players, but Trotz is a tough act to follow -- four straight seasons of the second round in the playoffs at a minimum, and the first Cup in franchise history. But the Capitals made their call; after last postseason, they can afford to be a little wrong.
They made their pitch to Stastny. They cleared out money for Stastny. And Stastny ... signed with the Golden Knights. An answer at second-line center might come internally, for now. Getting Connor Hellebuyck inked for six years and $6.176 million annually was a solid foundational move, though.
Just skip ahead to Summer 2019
The Wings brought back Mike Green (two years, $5.375) and Thomas Vanek (one year, $3M and hilariously a no-trade clause for one of the NHL's most recently traveled players), and signed goalie Jonathan Bernier (three years, $3M AAV). But this is clearly a franchise waiting on its next wave of talent ... perhaps in the lottery.
Dissertations will be written about the way Galchenyuk was mishandled by the Canadiens, culminating in the Habs trading away one of their most valuable assets for not-a-center (a.k.a. Domi). Some good little moves (defenseman Xavier Ouellet for $700K and acquiring Joel Armia from the Jets for buying out Steve Mason) can't counterbalance the absolutely gutting injury news about Shea Weber, as the defenseman had his second surgery in four months and is expected out until December. Oh, and Tavares told them they can't sit at his table.
The Sens are weighing their options on a Karlsson trade, part of an overall trend toward a considerable rebuild. Obviously, the focus should be on the 2019 draft lottery -- if the Senators had a first-round pick, which they currently do not. They also couldn't pull a second-round pick for Hoffman, despite the fact the Sharks did after they flipped him to the Panthers. A total mess with no clear path back from the abyss.
Their biggest offseason signings were Beagle and Antoine Roussel (four years, $3M AAV apiece). Grit and character are harbingers of draft lottery balls.