(October 11, 2016) – It’s been a long time coming, but here it is… the “Thoughts From The Penalty Box” offseason review. Here, I’ll dive into some of the biggest moves of the summer, be they trades, free agent signings or otherwise. First, we start with the move of the summer with likely the longest-lasting impact: the expansion announcement.

I had the opportunity to be in Las Vegas when the NHL granted Bill Foley the 31st team in the League (starting in 2017-18), and people were excited. I grabbed a t-shirt from the ever-prepared SinBin.Vegas and wore it on my flight home, and the number of excited responses I got from airport employees was higher than I expected. With the announcement that the team is already sold out (despite not having an official name yet), I’m expecting big things to come from this organization. I really think the naysayers will be eating their words on this one.

Speaking of which…how about Scottsdale, AZ, native Auston Matthews going Number 1 overall to Toronto? The second-highest-drafted American (Matthew Tkachuk) was born in Arizona, as well, though he moved to St. Louis shortly after that. I hope to, one day, have a debate about non-traditional expansion with a Leafs fan wearing a Matthews jersey.

South Florida’s own Jakob Chychrun went 16th Overall to Arizona, by the way, and may end up making the Yotes this season. That would put two south Florida products in the NHL, along with Calder Trophy runner-up Shayne Gostisbehere (who attended the same high school I did, by the way).

Two days before the start of Free Agency, Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year deal worth $68 million to remain with the Lightning. Despite all of the rumors about Toronto being imminent (and Leafs fans were clamoring for a Stamkos signing for quite some time), Stamkos stuck with Tampa. And as someone who has had the chance to get to know a number of people in the Lightning organization over the years, I wasn’t really surprised. Stamkos and the Bolts have a good thing going in Tampa (not to mention the lack of a state income tax), and it’s good to see a talented player like Stamkos decide to commit to a team long-term. The Bolts and Nikita Kucherov (3 years, $14.3 million) came to terms on an extension just today.

On the same day that Stamkos re-signed, two massive trades were made: Nashville traded franchise cornerstone Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban, and Edmonton traded Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. In both of these situations, it seemed obvious from the moment the trades were announced that the Canadian teams (including the Canadiens) got the shorter end of the stick. Nashville got younger (and more offensive firepower, albeit with a not-as-hard slap shot) and New Jersey got a talented, young, producing forward. As someone who lived near-enough to Nashville (and was even a Predators season ticket holder one year, despite the four-hour drive), I can understand any Preds fans who will miss Weber in the lineup. He did a lot for that franchise (despite initially signing his long-term contract with the Philadelphia Flyers), but if there’s a guy in the NHL that can step right into the shoes of being the visible face of a franchise without missing a beat, it’s P.K. Subban.

The Oilers, meanwhile, continued trading away former Number 1 overall picks just recently when Nail Yakupov was sent to the St. Louis Blues. Their July 1st addition of Milan Lucic adds to the intrigue of this year’s Oilers squad, which still boasts plenty of top-end, highly-drafted offensive talent in Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and 2016’s Fourth Overall Pick, Jesse Puljujarvi.

Speaking of top-tier talent, 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey had his rights dealt to Buffalo prior to the NHL Draft, but the Sabres could not get a deal done. Vesey, instead, signed with the New York Rangers on August 19th. Vesey provides a spark of youthful talent into a roster that was the second-oldest in the League in 2015-16 (according toNHLNumbers).

Quite a few other deals were made this summer. Arizona acquired Alex Goligoski from Dallas for a mid-round draft pick (and signed him to a 5-year, $27.375 million deal), Toronto picked up Frederik Andersen for a First- and a Second-Round Pick (signing him to a 5-year deal worth $25 million), Jonathan Bernier was later shipped to Anaheim for a conditional pick, Andrew Shaw was dealt to Montreal for a pair of Second-Round Picks (where he promptly signed a new 6-year, $24.3 million contract), Calgary grabbed Brian Elliott for a Second-Round Pick and a condition pick and Derrick Brassard was sent to Ottawa by the Rangers in exchange for Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 Second-Round Pick (Ottawa also received a Seventh-Round Pick for 2018).

I left out a few trades from that list, six of which I wanted to discuss separately. Over the course of this offseason, the Florida Panthers made a lot of changes. The logo and uniforms were changed (not bad, love the way the colors work on the jerseys, but the chest half-stripe is awful and the updated leaping cat looks like its head was kicked in), and the team seems to be taking a new direction. General Manager Dale Tallon was moved out of the GM position, scouts were let go and the Cats shipped off many of the longer-tenured former Draft Picks made by that group. Defensemen Erik Gudbranson (Vancouver), Dmitry Kulikov (Buffalo) and Jonathan Racine (Montreal) were sent away for a combination of draft picks, Mark Pysyk, Jared McCann and Tim Bozon; forward Rocco Grimaldi (Colorado) was dealt for a new Number 3 goaltender (Reto Berra); and 2015 First Round Pick Lawson Crouse (Arizona) was traded just to get the Dave Bolland contract off the books (and 2017 Second- and Third-Round Picks).

The team also traded picks for the rights to Keith Yandle, promptly signing the now-30-year-old defenseman to a 7-year, $44.45 million contract. That contract is nearly identical to the deal that came off the books on July 1 between the Panthers and Brian Campbell (who went on to sign with Chicago).

On July 1, the Panthers dove into the Free Agent pool and came away with a new goalie (James Reimer – 5 years, $17 million), another new defenseman (Jason Demers – 5 years, $22.5 million) and a pair of centers (Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault – 2 years each, $3.4 million combined). Most importantly, however, they locked up Vincent Trocheck (6 years, $28.5 million), Reilly Smith (5 years, $25 million) and Aaron Ekblad (8 years, $60 million) long-term. Oh yeah, and Jaromir Jagr is returning again this fall.

The Cats are going to be a very talented team, likely even beyond that of the 2015-16 team that won the Atlantic Division (that is, unless injuries become a major factor, which looks like it could happen). That said, some of those moves are quite concerning thinking beyond 2016-17.

Kulikov and Gudbranson are both young players. With Mike Matheson on the way up, perhaps the new Panthers General Manager Tom Rowe and his staff felt they had some wiggle room on the blueline, but to ship out two young defensemen who have shown signs of growth (prior to drafting Aaron Ekblad, I had always pinned Gudbranson as the Captain of the Future for the Cats) and hand over nearly $7 million a season to Keith Yandle seems counter-productive. Heck, just taking the money saved from the expiration of Brian Campbell’s contract and signing a player comparable to Campbell (back when Campbell initially signed his deal) to comparable terms is questionable.

But when you look at the list of young talent the Panthers have traded away in the last 12 months (Brandon Pirri, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Lawson Crouse, Rocco Grimaldi, Jonathan Racine) and the ages of the non-Draft Picks acquired to replace them, the Panthers’ very deep prospect pool got a good bit shallower this summer. Plenty of talent remains (defensemen Mike Matheson and Ian McCoshen, as well as forward Jayce Hawryluk, are big ones to watch), but there isn’t as much as their was just a year ago. And with veterans Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, James Reimer and Roberto Luongo combining to take up nearly $19 million in cap space for the next handful of years, there isn’t as much cap room, either. Fortunately for Florida, they won’t have to worry about re-signing any members of their new core for many years.

July 1st had a lot to live up to after the trading and RFA happenings of June 29th (when San Jose re-signed Tomas Hertl to a two-year deal and Seth Jones re-upped with Columbus for six years, in addition to all that was mentioned above). The previously-mentioned Lucic-to-Edmonton deal was joined by a series of big signings. Andrew Ladd (7 years, $38.5 million), Jason Chimera (2 years, $4.5 million), and P.A. Parenteau (1 year, $1.25 million) landed in Brooklyn with the Islanders. New York will need those additions to help replace the production of the now-departed Kyle Okposo.

Okposo stayed in New York State, but moved towards the Great Lakes, inking a 7-year, $42 million contract with the Sabres. The Sabres, who drafted Alexander Nylander in the First Round of the Draft, could be in for a turnaround season in the near future. Even after unsuccessfully attempting to land Vesey, there is plenty of young talent in Buffalo, so don’t be surprised if they manage to finally put it together in the next year or two.

The Boston Bruins’ recent semi-rebuild continued into Free Agency, where the B’s added David Backes (5 years, $30 million) and John-Michael Liles (1 year, $2 million), as well as goalie Anton Khudobin (2 years, $2.4 million). Boston did re-sign Torey Krug (4 years, $21 million) on June 30th, as well.

Vancouver brought in Loui Eriksson (6 years, $36 million) in their only multi-year deal of the day. The 31-year-old should provide a nice boost to the Canucks, who scored the second-fewest goals in the NHL in 2015-16. Their western Canada neighbors made a splash or two, as well. The Calgary Flames, brought in Troy Brouwer (4 years, $18 million), while Edmonton grabbed Lucic and Jonas Gustavsson (1 year, $800,000). The biggest move made by a Canadian team in the Western Conference happened only recently, however, when Calgary locked up Johnny Gaudreau (finally) to a new contract (6 years, $40.5 million) just 48 hours before Opening Day.

Detroit got to work during the summer, trading the rights to retired-from-the-NHL Pavel Datsyuk to Arizona and using that newly-found cap space to sign Frans Nielsen (6 years, $5.25 million), Thomas Vanek (1 year, $2.6 million) and Steve Ott (1 year, $800,000), as well as keeping Darren Helm (5 years, $19.25 million) and Alexei Marchenko (2 years, $2.9 million) in the Motor City. Losing the talents of a player like Pavel Datsyuk certainly puts a damper on Wings’ chances to continue their incredible postseason appearance streak (which has been going on so long that my younger brother, who is three years younger than me, was born after Detroit last missed the playoffs).

St. Louis will hurt from losing Backes and Brouwer this summer, but David Perron (2 years, $7 million) did return to the team after a few seasons away. Also in the Central Division, Minnesota signed Eric Staal (3 years, $10.5 million) as their big summer piece. Staal, who has seen his production dip each year since 2011-12, will be playing his first full season with an NHL team other than the Carolina Hurricanes. The Wild will also be hoping to get more production from the soon-to-be 32-year-old than the Rangers got to close out last season, when Staal managed just 6 points in 20 regular season games and went pointless in 5 playoff games.

The Devils handed out a few big contracts to go along with their big acquisition of Taylor Hall, locking up defensemen Ben Lovejoy (3 years, $8.1 million) and Jon Merill (2 years, $2.275 million), and forwards Vern Fiddler (1 year, $1.25 million) and Devante Smith-Pelly (2 years, $2.6 million).

We’ve already talked a bit about how busy the Arizona Coyotes were this summer. They made two First Round Picks in the 2016 Draft (forward Clayton Keller 7th overall and defenseman Jakob Chychrun 16th overall), Shane Doan (1 year, $5 million) decided to return for another year, and the Coyotes gave out a July 1st contract to Jamie McGinn (3 years, $10 million), among others.

Wing Mikkel Boedker finished the 2015-16 season with over 50 points (split between Arizona and Colorado) for the second time in his career, and San Jose rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract.

Toronto’s biggest summer deal was drafting Auston Matthews first overall (with missing out on Stamkos coming in a close second), but the Leafs handed out a few contracts in Free Agency, giving Roman Polak (1 year, $2.25 million) and Matt Martin (4 years, $10 million) over $2 million a year each.

In possibly the most interesting move of the summer, the Montreal Canadiens signed former Nashville Predator Alexander Radulov (1 year, $5.75 million). This marks the second consecutive summer where the Habs have been willing to take a risk on a player during free agency, and Radulov’s contract is a lot of money to hand out to take a flier on someone. But, with the deal lasting just a single season, there won’t be any long-term damage done if things don’t work out (see: Alexander Semin).

Other re-signings of note include Jordie Benn (3 years, $3.3 million) in Dallas, Radko Gudas (4 years, $13.4 million) in Philadelphia, Sami Vatanen (4 years, $19.5 million) in Anaheim, and Philip Forsberg (6 years, $36 million) in Nashville, with the Predators’ long-term commitment to Forsberg being the biggest by far, and a huge move for the future of that team.

There were, of course, other contracts signed in Free Agency and other trades made, but those were the big ones.

 

THOUGHTS:

With the regular season now upon us and the offseason firmly planted in the rearview mirror, here are my main takeaways on the summer of 2016…

(1) Las Vegas is going to be a fun place to be next summer and fall…just make sure you have working A/C.

(2) The Panthers are really pushing to win now, but have still managed to do a great job in locking up their main young guys long-term.

(3) With nothing but positive things to say about Shea Weber, Nashville’s acquisition of P.K. Subban could put them over the top in 2016-17.

(4) The Coyotes could be on the cusp of long-term on-ice success with their crop of young talent, and that could start as soon as this season.

(5) Alexander Radulov’s impact on the Canadiens is going to be incredibly interesting. Will he provide scoring or a distraction?

 

PREDICTIONS:

Since this article is coming out right around Opening Day, I thought I’d post my own NHL predictions for this season. I’m trying not to go TOO obvious (because what's the fun in predicting the obvious?), but here we go... 

Division Winners: Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks

Two Notable/Surprise Playoff Teams: New Jersey Devils, Arizona Coyotes

Two Notable/Surprise Playoff Misses: Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers

Stanley Cup Final: Nashville Predators def. Montreal Canadiens (because wouldn’t seeing the Weber-for-Subban trade play out for the Stanley Cup just be fantastic?)

Award Winners: Tampa Bay Lightning (President’s Trophy), Evgeni Malkin (Art Ross Trophy), Patrick Kane (Hart Memorial Trophy), Aaron Ekblad (James Norris Trophy), Auston Matthews (Calder Memorial Trophy).