Welcome to the NHL off-season, Penguins and Sharks fans. The rest of us have been here for weeks, and in some cases months. It’s been pretty slow, to be honest. But now that everyone’s arrived, we can finally kick this thing into high gear.
So what will the summer hold? Nobody knows, but as with most things in life, we can find some clues in what’s come before. After all, the NHL tends to be a copycat league where new fads can take hold quickly and teams can sometimes change direction on a dime. One year’s surprise might end up foreshadowing the next year’s must-have trend.
Let’s prepare for the future by looking back at the past. Here’s a look back at a half-dozen of the biggest stories from the 2015 off-season, and what they could teach us about what to expect this year.
The story: The Phil Kessel deal. In arguably the biggest trade of the off-season, the Penguins sent a first round pick, a prospect and some smaller parts to the Maple Leafs for Kessel, with Toronto retaining a chunk of his salary. It was a deal that had been rumoured for weeks, and it saw the two teams make clear their intentions for the coming season: the teardown was on in Toronto, while the Penguins were all-in on a Stanley Cup run.
The lesson: Sometimes, bold trades really do work out.
We all know how this ended for the Penguins, with the vision of Kessel skating the Stanley Cup around the rink in San Jose still fresh in our memories. The trade looked dicey as Pittsburgh tumbled off to a rough start, and even as the team turned around, Kessel's numbers never approached the sky-high expectations the deal created. But he found his groove in the playoffs, leading the team in scoring and even earning some Conn Smythe Trophy love.
While the deal was a major win for the Penguins, it worked out for Toronto too. None of the pieces it acquired in the trade had much impact during the season, but the Leafs cleared cap room and added depth to their prospect pipeline. And maybe more importantly, Kessel's absence helped contribute to a last place finish that will yield Auston Matthews next week. One year in, the Kessel trade looks like one of those deals where both teams won.
Who it could impact: Any GM who's still trotting out the "You just can't trade in today's NHL" line. Fans have been hearing that for years, from various GMs around the league. And it's undoubtedly true that making trades is more difficult under a cap system; just look at the first few months of this season, where we didn't see a single deal involving an NHL player until mid-December.
But as Jim Rutherford went out and proved, difficult doesn't mean impossible. Between the Kessel deal and other trades for Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin, Travor Daley and Justin Schultz, the veteran GM helped turn the Penguins from a top-heavy pretender into a well-balanced contender. Fans in other cities who are used to being serenaded with excuses from risk-adverse GMs may want to take note.
The story: Offer sheet worries lead to big trades. Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad both went from young franchise cornerstones to trade bait within days of the draft, with Hamilton heading from Boston to Calgary and Saad going from Chicago to Columbus. In both cases, the deals were inspired at least partly by fear that the players, who were both RFAs, could be offer sheet targets.
The lesson: NHL GMs hate having their hands forced, and would rather trade a player on their own terms than risk the threat of losing a player to an offer sheet.
The irony, of course, is that that tends to be all an offer sheet ever is: a threat. It's been over three years since one was actually signed (Ryan O'Reilly, which almost led to disaster for Calgary), and almost nine since one actually worked (Dustin Penner, which almost led to a barn fight).
And yet, GMs apparently still worry about falling victim to one. In theory, that's the sort of thing a team could use to their advantage.
Who it could impact: The list of this summer's RFAs features some decent names, including Nikita Kucherov, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jacob Trouba. It's hard to imagine any of those guys switching teams this summer. Then again, we could have said the same for Hamilton and Saad around this time last year, and we saw how that worked out. At the very least, don't be surprised if some sneaky front offices find a way to float a few rumors over the coming weeks.