Detroit Red Wings: Frans Nielsen
Since Mike Babcock left Michigan, the Detroit Red Wings have not been terribly impressive, notably losing in the first round of the playoffs the last three years running. It is a steep departure from the Stanley Cup winning days of the 1990s and 00s, and with franchise legend Pavel Datsyuk returning to Russia, there is not only a large void to fill, but also a good chance for the team to change their identity and tempo. This was not lost on Detroit, as they went as good as all out in free agency, signing New York Islanders centre Frans Nielsen to a six year, $31.5 million deal, presumably to come onto the second line. Apart from the 10 seasons of experience Nielsen brings, as well as the 349 goals in 606 NHL games, the 32-year-old Dane is noted as one of the better two way forwards going around, and was tabbed early on by the Red Wings as a poi going into free agency. The immense cost of doing business is lost on no one, with Nielsen hitting the Wings’ books hard through to age 38, but the style of play he brings is the perfect place to start for this side to usher in a new era of hockey.
Edmonton Oilers: Milan Lucic
It didn’t take general manager Peter Chiarelli long to divide Edmonton Oilers fans after joining the team in 2015. Apparently, all it takes is trading away team captain and golden boy Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils, for young defenseman Adam Larsson. Who would’ve thought? Moods around the team were soon improved in free agency, when Chiarelli signed Los Angeles Kings 28 year old forward Milan Lucic to replace Hall on the left wing. Save for an 80-point season recorded by Hall back in 2013-14, both share fairly similar statistics, with Lucic hanging two inches and 30 pounds on the younger man – Lucic actually now has the distinction of heaviest player on the team. There’s no doubt he has talent, and is a fine addition to the ranks at Edmonton, but this signing will be assessed solely on the trade off the Oilers made, essentially swapping Hall for Lucic in order to also gain defenseman Larsson – a move their 25th ranked defence sorely needed. Lucic will almost see a career high in usage, most likely on the first line with Connor McDavid, and is all primed for a career year.
Florida Panthers: James Reimer
It seems the team badge isn’t the only thing changing at the Florida Panthers. Off the back of a poor defensive year, where the club rated 25th in goals allowed, the Sunrise based outfit underwent a major defensive revolution, bringing in top tier offensive defenseman Keith Yandle, but most notably, goaltender James Reimer. Reimer was impressive last season for the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs, taking over the starting role when Jonathan Bernier went down, and featuring in the top 10 in the NHL in save percentage (.922) at the end of the year. Delving into advanced statistics, believe it or not, Reimer had the best five on five save percentage in the entire NHL last season, at .940. Despite Florida’s ordinary defence, it would be incorrect to say their ‘tending was “awful”. They do already boast one of the better net minders in the league in Roberto Luongo (top 10 in save percentage, wins and shutouts). In fact, together, Luongo and Reimer’s distinctions group them as the only goaltending tandem in the league to appear together in one of the four major stat categories (goals against average, save %, wins and shutouts). No team was able to achieve that last year, and with a top 10 offence and a massively improved defence, Jaromir Jagr and co my finally bring the Panthers their first Cup.
Los Angeles Kings: Teddy Purcell
Los Angeles knew they would knot be able to afford another Milan Lucic contract, and did a brilliant job in offsetting the production on day one of free agency, netting Teddy Purcell on a one year, $1.6 million deal. Taking one look at this contract, the money being paid, the length of the deal and the raw stats put up by both Purcell and Lucic, this one looks like a winner. Last season, Purcell put up 43 points in 76 games whilst Lucic netted 55 in 81. Some may criticise the Kings for holding off with around $30 million in cap space to play with, but in a free agency market with limited affordable and effective replacements, holding off may look like a far better decision later than it does now – especially given the premium paid by teams looking to reinforce their forward lines this July. Whilst Purcell does not posses the intangibles Lucic does, such as mean forecheck, in terms of a value replacement of production, LA have slam-dunked this one similar to their arena mates the Los Angeles Lakers.
Minnesota Wild: Eric Staal
Now in his 30s, Eric Staal is slowing down. There’s no escaping that. Since 2013, we have seen a slight decline in Staal’s points each season, dropping from 61 to 54, and 39 last season – his lowest since 2003, when he was an 18 year old. The dip in production culminated in the Carolina Hurricanes captain being traded to the New York Rangers in February, where he spent an equally as unproductive handful of months attempting to find a role alongside an uneasy mish mash of talent, before hitting free agency in July. He comes to the Minnesota Wild confident he will be able to gel with the parts in Minneapolis better than he did with the Rangers, and diving into advanced statistics, if new head coach Bruce Boudreau uses him correctly, there is a good chance he will be able to. Last season, Staal had just a 6.5 shot percentage, which is well down on his career mark of 10.6. But Staal himself is confident he fits into his new coaches’ uptempo offence, noting that he thinks he plays his best hockey in a fast paced style, preferably at centre. Alongside other offensive threats such as Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and personal friend of Staal, Zach Parise, Minnesota have set themselves up to succeed if they can find the correct offensive balance.
Montreal Canadiens: Shea Weber
It’s the trade all hockey fans have been talking about – the Montreal Canadiens shipping out superstar defenseman PK Subban for the older, les athletic captain of the Nashville Predators, Shea Weber. Pundits have sliced it up every which way on hockey forums and websites, and there’s not much that hasn’t been said about the trade, even by Subban himself, who still seems fairly filthy the club and city he gave his soul to didn’t even say goodbye. But purely on its’ merits, what does Weber offer Montreal? Is he more than just the heaviest shot in the league? Maybe he’s not, but does that matter? It didn’t to Nashville. Similar to Stephen Curry lining up a three pointer, or Julio Jones running a route, Weber’s shot is such a monster that it often attracts more than one defender and pulls them away from the zone, which opens up another shooting or rebound target – usually Roman Josi for the Predators, and potentially Alex Galchenyuk for the Canadiens. For a team that barely escaped the bottom five in the power play last year, this will be invaluable. It certainly is one of the more interesting trades in recent memory, and will continue to be talked about for the rest of the season, but that’s just one of the things Subban could not offer his beloved Habs that Weber can.
Nashville Predators: PK Subban
So then, what about the other side to this behemoth of a trade? Most fans around the league seem to regard Subban as the better of the two players, at the least due to being three years the junior of Weber. Either way, both have a very strong claim to being the better defenseman, and Nashville would hardly be tempted to give up their captain and best player unless they get markedly better in terms of fitting pieces together on the lines, and with Subban, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette gets a player who works better in his uptempo offensive style, and can push the puck from defence to offence, which was something we saw Weber struggle to do during his time in Tennessee. Off the ice, all NHL fans are acutely aware of Subban’s generosity of his time, in particular with the children of Montreal. Subban is not only a player, but also a person that the people of Music City can get around for a franchise that has dearly lacked a genuine character in their 20 years of existence.
New Jersey Devils: Taylor Hall
Previously in this article, I discussed how the Edmonton Oilers had effectively swapped Taylor Hall for both Milan Lucic and Adam Larsson – and depending on your perspective, that move can rank anywhere from great to poor. For New Jersey however, there is just one shade of grey to this – absolutely brilliant. There’s no doubt Adam Larsson is a “good” defenseman, but the 2011 4th overall pick was probably never going to make the jump to “great” that the Devils were looking for – not with their franchise at least. To swap good for brilliant, which Jersey gm Ray Shero has done is brilliant in itself. New Jersey ranked dead last in goals scored last year, and in three, injury shortened seasons, Hall’s 183 goals is better than the Devils’ tally last year of 182. Over that same time span, Jersey’s hottest hand has been Adam Henrique, who has registered 136 points in over 20 more games. For a team that hasn’t qualified since they lost the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, it could be the boost required to catapult back into the playoffs. Given their miracle run in that year, anything is possible.
New York Islanders: Andrew Ladd
Plenty of eyebrows raised around the Big Apple when the New York Islanders signed 30 year old Andrew Ladd to a seven year, $38.5 million contract, which will see him being paid $4 million all the way through to age 37. Given the departures of Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen as well as long time favourite Matt Martin in the same offseason, a lot of pressure is being placed on the two-time Stanley Cup champion, who registered dramatically less points than the former two ex-Islanders. However, as a former captain of the Winnipeg Jets, the Isles will hope to see a greater leadership role taken up alongside captain John Tavares, as well as returning Islander PA Parenteau and 16-season veteran Jason Chimera. Given Tavares’ free agency in two seasons time, Isles gm Garth Snow is not exactly constructing a core of players that might be primed to make a run at Lord Stanley before then. Either way, the Islanders have gotten themselves a decent two way forward who is good on special teams. But are they better off as a team than they were last year? Not at all.
New York Rangers: Mika Zibanejad
Most of the off-season heavy lifting done by the New York Rangers focused on creating line depth through additions like Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Nick Holden. But just a few weeks ago, the Rangers traded Derrick Brassard and a couple of future draft pick to the Ottawa Senators in return for promising young centre Mika Zibanejad. Despite the Rangers getting bigger, younger, faster and more physical with Zibanejad among their ranks, it is a hefty price to pay for a player who is self admittedly still waiting for his breakout year. Imaginably, the Rangers will want that to come sooner rather than later, given that they have just bet their second leading scorer from last year on a kid who comes off contract at the end of the year. But not only does he fit a number of the physical needs that Rangers gm Jeff Gorton was looking to address, but Zibanejad also proved helpful on the penalty kill last year, which the Rangers ranked in the bottom five in. It also provides the New York based outfit with cap relief, even if Zibanejad is up for an imaginably hefty extension at the end of the year. He ticks all the right boxes for the Rangers, but at the end of the day, it was Ottawa who believe they made away with the better player, with Gorton inadvertently agreeing with them, pointing to Z Bad’s upside as one of the key selling points of the trade from a Rangers perspective. They may get better in the long term – that’s if Zibanejad is extended by his new team – but as far as a Stanley Cup run this year goes, the jury is out.