Johnny Hockey moved East, though not as far as everyone thought. The champs out West couldn’t keep the entire band together. And two teams with lengthy playoff droughts made some moves hoping to change that.
Johnny Gaudreau joining Columbus headlined a busy offseason of player movement around the NHL. Darcy Kuemper left Colorado for Washington after backstopping the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup, and former teammate Nazem Kadri signed with Calgary, Gaudreau’s former team.
Toronto is often called the center of the hockey universe, but this past summer it was Calgary being part of the biggest blockbuster trade: Matthew Tkachuk to Florida for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar. Panthers division rivals Ottawa and Detroit also made substantial moves to take another step toward contending.
Despite the salary cap only going up $1 million, plenty of players changed places since the Avalanche dethroned Tampa Bay to win it all.
Gaudreau was the best free agent available, and signs pointed toward a return home to Philadelphia. But the Flyers couldn’t clear cap space to sign the South Jersey native, who chose to sign a $68.25 million, seven-year contract with the Blue Jackets.
“I thought it was a good spot for me, personally,” Gaudreau said. “I think we can have a lot of success here. It’s somewhere that I had circled on my list for a while now. It’s not only from what I’ve heard about the city and where you live, but they’ve got good players on this team, too, and I’m really looking forward to jumping in with this group.”
The Blue Jackets are still not favored to make the playoffs, but they’re closer than before with Gaudreau.
After the top eight and bottom eight in the Eastern Conference last season were separated by 16 points — the largest margin since the current format was introduced in 1993-94 — two teams on the outside of the playoff picture took major steps to try to change that.
The Red Wings, who have not made the playoffs the past six seasons, spent $61.5 million in free agency to add center Andrew Copp, wingers David Perron and Dominik Kubalik, and defenseman Ben Chiarot. They also acquired goaltender Ville Husso from St. Louis.
Ottawa, which has missed the playoffs seven of the past nine years, did not wait until free agency to add important pieces. The Senators acquired high-scoring winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and goalie Cam Talbot from Minnesota before signing longtime Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux.
After years of patience, excitement is building in Canada’s captial.
“We wanted to do it the right way,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We didn’t want to put Band-Aid solutions when we did this: try to sign free agents, make one trade and then one year you’re in, the other year you’re out. Doing it this way, we just feel like more for long-term success.”
Colorado’s biggest shakeup after winning the Cup was in net, acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and paving the way for Kuemper to depart in free agency. The Avalanche signed Georgiev to a three-year contract and will pair him with Czech veteran Pavel Francouz.
“When he was a starter, he played really well, and he wanted a bigger opportunity and he’s got that opportunity,” president of hockey operations Joe Sakic said of Georgiev. “Frankie, he’s a great backup goaltender who can come in and play 30, 40 games. I think they’re going to be a great duo.”
The Avalanche kept much of their core together and also made a potentially valuable depth free agent signing by getting forward Evan Rodrigues for $2 million.
“I love the Rodrigues signing,” top forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “We get a 45-point guy for $2 million, it’s crazy: 19 goals. I saw he shot like 7% last year and scored 19, so I think it’s hot. Who knows how many goals he’ll score?”
PANTHERS NOT STAALING
In addition to trading for Tkachuk, who adds some size and sandpaper, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning-Panthers signed defenseman Marc Staal and brought brother Eric to training camp for a tryout. The brothers were on vacation together, with the deals coming together on the back nine at Pebble Beach.
“It was crazy,” said brother Jordal Staal, who’s captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. “They’re both just super pumped. … Really cool thing.”
While much of the core that won the Cup twice with Tampa Bay remains, the salary cap crunch forced some departures. Dependable defenseman Ryan McDonagh got traded to the Nashville Predators, and standout playoff scorer Ondrej Palat signed with the New Jersey Devils.
GM Julien BriseBois did some bargain shopping to sign winger Vladislav Namestnikov and veteran defenseman Ian Cole. He also thinks defenseman Philippe Myers — the return for McDonagh — has the chance to exceed expectations after a rough couple of seasons.
“We saw a lot of potential in him not that long ago,” BriseBois said. “He’s got a really good toolbox. Hopefully in a new environment we’re able to get the most out of him, and if we can do that we’re going to have a really good defenseman on our hands who’s only 25 years old.”
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