Offseason Trades Leading Up To Free Agency

A lot of moving and shaking going on

We were promised a lot of player movement in the NHL this summer and with an expansion draft and a flat cap, there was reason to believe that would be true.

Heading into the start of free agency, those promises appear to be coming true, as there have been a lot of trades of significant players and Jack Eichel remains conspicuously on the trade block.

Here is a quick recap of the trades so far…

RED WINGS SURPRISE WITH DEAL FOR NEDELJKOVIC

The Red Wings Get: G Alex Nedeljkovic

Nedeljkovic, 25, had a fantastic season for the Hurricanes in 2021, posting a .932 save percentage. According to Evolving Hockey, Nedeljkovic ranked fifth in goals saved above average and third in goals saved above expected despite playing just 23 games, and therein lies the motivation from Carolina.

As great as Nedeljkovic was last season, it was a small sample and for a team with designs on contending for a Stanley Cup, it’s fair to be at least skeptical about Nedeljkovic’s chances of duplicating that performance as the No. 1 goaltender in a full season.

In Detroit, Nedeljkovic will have a chance to be the starting goaltender, ahead of veteran Thomas Greiss. Nedeljkovic was headed for restricted free agency but signed a very reasonable two-year, $6 million contract with the Red Wings.

The Hurricanes Get: G Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick

Bernier is a 32-year-old who has been a little better than average both recently and throughout his career overall. He is going to be an unrestricted free agent but there might be potential for Bernier to fill the backup role in Carlina.

A third-round pick brings with it about a one-in-four chance of yielding and NHL player. In this specific case, the Hurricanes drafted U.S. Development Program defenseman Aidan Hreschuk with the pick.

Verdict: While there is some risk in putting too much value on a sample of 23 regular-season games and nine playoff games from Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings are in good position to take that risk.

GHOST BEAR TO ARIZONA

The Coyotes Get: D Shayne Gostisbehere, a second-round pick in 2022, and a seventh-round pick

Gostisbehere, 28, has been a quality puck-moving defenseman throughout his career though he has fallen out of favor in Philadelphia in the past couple of seasons.

In Arizona, there is ample opportunity for Gostisbehere to play in a top-four role and while the main motivation for Arizona may have been to take on Gostisbehere’s contract so that they could acquire draft capital, there is a legitimate chance for Gostisbehere to resurrect his career value.

The Coyotes negotiated a good deal to take on the two years and $4.5 million cap space ($3.25 million in actual salary) per season. A second-round pick brings about a one-in-three chance of becoming an NHL player and a seventh-round pick has about a one-in-ten chance of playing 100 NHL games.

The Flyers Get: Cap space.

The motivation of this deal isn’t a secret. The Flyers did not want to commit this money to a defenseman that had fallen out of their top six last season, freeing them up to make more moves during the offseason.

Verdict: Arizona was perfectly situated to take on this deal. They had lots of cap space, were perilously thin on the blueline so Gostisbehere could fill a legitimate need, and were a rebuilding franchise that didn’t have a first-round pick in 2021 so acquiring more picks was an obvious desire.

KRAKEN MAKE A TRADE

The Flames Get: RW Tyler Pitlick

A 29-year-old checking winger, Pitlick is capable in a depth role. He did play a career-high 16:22 per game last season but his modest offensive output includes two seasons with at least 20 points.

In Calgary, Pitlick is a solid addition to the third line and has a $1.75 million cap hit but is paid $2.2 million in salary.

The Kraken Get: A fourth-round pick

For whatever expectations might have existed that the expansion team was going to make a bunch of deals to acquire draft picks, there really wasn’t much wheeling and dealing, so moving a veteran forward for a fourth-round pick is sufficiently underwhelming. A fourth-round pick generally has about a one-in-five chance of becoming an NHL player.

Verdict: Given the relative value of a fourth-round pick, it’s hard to see the upside here for Seattle. If they have hopes of competing for a playoff spot in year one, having a legitimate NHL checking winger would offer more value.

SABRES FINALLY MOVE RISTOLAINEN

The Flyers Get: D Rasmus Ristolainen

Ristolainen, 26, is a 6-foot-4 right-shot defenseman and for all of his physical gifts – he can skate well for that size, too – he has never had a favorable statistical profile in the National Hockey League. There are degrees to which he gets outshot, out-chanced, and outscored but that is the standard and Ristolainen has been outscored 430-302 during 5-on-5 play in 542 NHL games.

The hope for Philadelphia has to be that a new environment will offer a better opportunity for Ristolainen to have success. With one year and a $5.4 million cap hit remaining on his deal, it is not an egregious bet for the Flyers to make. The challenge is not investing in some massive long-term deal without having an indication that the results in Philadelphia will be materially different from what he has delivered in Buffalo.

The Sabres Get: D Robert Hagg, a first-round pick, and a 2023 second-round pick

Hagg has not had favorable results to this point in his career. The 26-year-old has settled in as a third pairing defenseman and while he has been on the wrong end of results, his shot differentials were at least slightly more respectable in 2021.

With one year left on his deal, with a $1.6 million cap hit, Hagg is a lower risk play for the Sabres but it would be at least a little surprising if he becomes a steady regular defenseman in the NHL.

The picks are the real return here for the Sabres, and perhaps a surprising amount of value given Ristolainen’s track record in the league. The first-round pick was the 14th selection in the 2021 Draft and the Sabres used it on Swedish winger Isak Rosen. Picks in that range have about a 70% chance of playing 100 NHL games. The second-round pick comes with a little better than a one-in-three chance of becoming an NHL player.

Verdict: This is a great value for the Sabres. It appeared that the Sabres might have waited too long to maximize the value on a potential trade for an underwhelming Ristolainen but this is a significant return for a player who was a high pick but has had poor results for a long time.

RANGERS PAY PREMIUM FOR GRIT

The Blues Get: RW Pavel Buchnevich

Buchnevich, 26, is a skilled winger who has broken out in the past couple of seasons, scoring a career-high 48 points (20 G, 28 A) in 54 games in 2021.

He is a restricted free agent, coming off a contract that had a $3.25 million cap hit and is likely looking at a significant raise. Buchnevich will be a nice addition in a scoring role but the long-term value for the Blues is going to be dependent on what kind of contract long-term deal Buchnevich signs.

The Rangers Get: LW Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick

Blais is a 25-year-old winger whose calling card is his physical game. In the past two seasons, Blais is averaging 32.7 hits per 60 minutes, and only four forwards are averaging more hits per minute in the past two seasons: Ryan Reaves (49.3), Matt Martin (43.5), Brett Ritchie (35.0), and William Carrier (32.7).

While Blais’ offensive game is limited, he did score on 25.6% of his shots last season, on his way to producing a respectable 15 points in 36 games. In the past two seasons, Blais has averaged 1.82 points per 60 minutes, more than Clayton Keller, Claude Giroux, and Sam Reinhart. A smaller sample of games and smaller sample of ice time but, still, he does offer some offensive value in a depth role.

Blais has a year left on his contract with a $1.5 million salary cap hit. The second-round pick offers about a one-in-three chance of yielding an NHL player.  

Verdict: The straight up value of players involved is a decisive win for St. Louis but there are some mitigating factors, including the cap hits of Buchnevich and Blais, and the aim of the Rangers to get a more physical team. Blais is definitely the more physical player, one with a penchant for delivering questionable hits, but the issue is whether or not this price was worthwhile. On its face, it seems like the Rangers have paid too much.

CANUCKS MAKE A LONG-TERM INVESTMENT

The Canucks Get: RW Conor Garland and D Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Garland, 25, is a skilled winger who does not have great size but has shown an ability to create offense. He tied a career high with 39 points last season, in just 49 games, and he was particularly adept at generating shots early in the season, averaging 3.47 shots on goal per game before averaging 2.38 shots on goal per game the rest of the way.

In the past two seasons, Garland has produced 2.21 points per 60, a higher rate than Mark Scheifele, Mathew Barzal, and Sidney Crosby (among many others).

In Vancouver, Garland will add legitimate scoring depth to the Canucks attack. If the Canucks have Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Nils Hoglander and now Conor Garland then that is some reason for optimism that this team will be able to score.

Garland is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent who is looking at a significant raise but the Canucks would probably prefer to get a long-term deal worked out if the expectation is that Garland will be a valued part of the team for years to come.

Ekman-Larsson is a more complicated case. The 30-year-old was a star at one point but his play has declined noticeably and he played 20:58 per game last season, his lowest average time on ice since his rookie season in 2010-2011.

The underlying numbers have been particularly rough for Ekman-Larsson in the past three seasons, and he has been outscored by 49 goals during 5-on-5 play in the past five seasons. These are not indicators of a prime, No. 1 defenseman.

Now, is it possible that Ekman-Larsson can bounce back, reinvigorated in a new situation? Sure, it is possible. He is going to get top pair minutes with the Canucks and they are going to be invested in making this work, but Ekman-Larsson also has a lot of money left on his contract. The Coyotes are retaining salary on $990,000 per season and that leaves Vancouver on the hook for $7.26 million per season for the next six seasons. If Ekman-Larsson isn’t a top pair defenseman, that contract has potential to be a long-term albatross of a deal.

The Coyotes Get: LW Loui Eriksson, LW Antoine Roussel, C Jay Beagle, a first-round pick, a 2022 second-round pick, and a 2023 seventh-round pick

Eriksson is a 36-year-old winger who was signed to an absurd contract by the Canucks in the summer of 2016 and that deal now has just one year remaining, with a $6 million cap hit and $4 million salary.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Coyotes play Eriksson in a depth role this season but, at this stage of his career, there is not much reason to expect any significant contributions.

Roussel is a 31-year-old agitating winger who was also overpaid for his contributions but even in decline he has passable results in a depth role.

Going into the last year of his deal, Roussel has a $3 million cap hit but is counting just $1.9 million against the cap. You can see a trend between the players acquired by the Coyotes – they cost less than their cap hit.

Beagle, 35, is a veteran checking center who may still be serviceable in a fourth-line role, yet he is a player who signed a ridiculous deal in Vancouver and has a $3 million cap hit for the last year of his contract, which pays him $2.2 million.

These guys could fill spots in the Coyotes lineup next season, but their contributions hardly matter. They are the means to an end. Taking those contracts is part of the price Arizona paid to get rid of Ekman-Larsson’s long-term contract.

The first-round pick that the Coyotes received was ninth overall and they used it on winger Dylan Guenther, a very promising forward who scored 24 points in 12 Western Hockey League games last season. That pick would have better than an 80% chance of becoming an NHL player. The second-round pick has a one-in-three chance of playing 100 NHL games and a seventh-round pick will be closer to a one-in-ten chance.

Verdict: Vancouver gets the better players in this deal, but they are making a major bet on Ekman-Larsson’s game recovering. If he bounces back and plays at a high level, the Canucks will have a chance to get into the playoff mix, but if Ekman-Larsson plays like he has for the past few seasons, this could be terrible for Vancouver. Really, if there aren’t results next season, it is probably not going to be GM Jim Benning’s problem to solve.

BLACKHAWKS MAKE A BIG BET

The Blackhawks Get: D Seth Jones

Jones, 26, is a couple of seasons removed from his best days and 2021 was not a performance becoming of a No. 1 defenseman. The idea that he could rebound next season is not unreasonable.

However, he is going to have a lot of responsibility on the Blackhawks blueline, not only next season but for the foreseeable future after Chicago signed him to an eight-year extension for $76 million which starts after next season.

The Blue Jackets Get: D Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick, second-round pick, and a 2022 first-round pick

Boqvist is a 20-year-old right-shot defenseman who was the eighth pick in the 2018 Draft. He is a skilled puck mover who can quarterback the power play and has one more season left on his entry-level deal.

In Columbus, Boqvist does not necessarily need to run the first power play unit – Zach Werenski can handle that responsibility – but there will be an opportunity for Boqvist to take on a more significant role than he has seen in his first 76 NHL games with Chicago.

The first-round pick that the Blue Jackets received was the 12th pick and the second-round selection was 44th. Columbus drafted Cole Sillinger with that first-round pick and dealt the second-round pick to Carolina for defenseman Jake Bean.

Verdict: It is certainly possible that Jones plays better with a fresh start in Chicago and if he lives up to his massive new contract that would be the absolute best-case scenario. That may not be likely but it’s not impossible to imagine. On the other hand, it is extremely easy to see this contract aging very poorly. If Jones isn’t tangibly better next season, before that eight-year extension even kicks in, whomever is the next GM in Chicago could find himself with a boat-anchor of a contract clogging his cap for a long time. From Columbus’ perspective, they got a terrific haul for a player who would not commit to staying in Columbus beyond next season.

BEAN TO THE BLUE JACKETS

The Blue Jackets Get: D Jake Bean

Bean, 23, was a first-round pick of the Hurricanes in 2016 and saw his first significant NHL action last season, dressing in 42 games for Carolina. He has some upside as a puck-mover but, at this point of his career, still needs to tighten up his play without the puck if he is going to handle more responsibility.

Going to Columbus presents a great opportunity for Bean to play regularly and show that he is a bona fide NHL defenseman. Coming out of an entry-level deal, Bean is a restricted free agent and while he will get a raise, Bean does not have arbitration eligibility nor much of a statistical case for a major increase.

The Hurricanes Get: A second round pick

The second-round pick that the Hurricanes acquired was originally Chicago’s, traded to Columbus in the Seth Jones deal, so with the 44th selection, the Hurricanes drafted defenseman Aleksi Helosalmi. A pick in that range typically brings better than a one-in-three chance of becoming an NHL player.

Verdict: This was some tidy business by Columbus, who effectively replaced the departing Seth Jones with Boqvist and Bean plus two first-round picks, the first of which they used on Cole Sillinger. Under the circumstances, a really nice pair of trades to rejuvenate the blueline.

VORACEK RETURNS TO COLUMBUS

The Blue Jackets Get: RW Jakub Voracek

Voracek, who turns 32 in August, has been a productive playmaking winger for most of his career, a career that started in Columbus when he was drafted seventh overall in 2007.

While Voracek has topped 80 points twice in his career, he is not as likely to produce at that rate but he scored 43 points in 53 games last season and that includes 35 points at even strength. His 2.38 points/60 ranked 40th among skaters that played in at least 25 games in 2021.

Stylistically, Voracek’s value to the Blue Jackets could be that he is much more of a playmaker and as a pass-first player, he could offer value as the Blue Jackets try to get sniper Patrik Laine back on track. Voracek tends to drive play and if he helps to create more chances that lead to more shots for Laine, that has to be a good thing.

Voracek has three years left on his deal, with an $8.25 million cap hit, though the cash payout is a little less ($21.25 million over three years).

The Flyers Get: RW Cam Atkinson

Atkinson is a 32-year-old scoring winger who is productive like Voracek but in a different way. While Voracek is more of a setup man, Atkinson is a finisher who has had six seasons with more than 20 goals, including seasons with 41 and 35. He is also a shorthanded goal-scoring threat with eight shorthanded markers in the past three seasons, tied for second most in the league. (Sebastian Aho leads with 11, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Anthony Cirelli also have eight.)

In Philadelphia, Atkinson will be a different stylistic fit. He is smaller than Voracek but generates more shots and goals. He also adds more speed to the lineup.

While Atkinson’s cap hit is lower, $5.875 million per season, he is under contract for four more seasons, with an actual salary of $5.275 million for each of those four seasons.

Verdict: It is rare to get a straight-up challenge trade with a 1-for-1 deal of scoring wingers. There is a decent chance that it works out for both teams but in a relative sense. They are both into the decline phase of their careers, into their 30s, and are not likely to get back to their peak production but can also both fill roles as top six offensive wingers for their new teams.

SABRES CONTINUE TO CLEAN HOUSE

The Panthers Get: C/RW Sam Reinhart

Reinhart, 25, has been a very productive player on a bad team, and is coming off a season in which he tied a career high with 25 goals in 54 games.

A five-time 20-goal scorer, Reinhart has been a strong play driver who has also been dragged down by the mess of the Sabres in recent seasons. Taking that production to a better team, in Florida, is a chance for Reinhart to bring out his best. He can play right wing or center and both options are viable for Reinhart to get set in a productive spot, either on the wing with Aleksander Barkov or on a line with Jonathan Huberdeau. Either spot is likely to be a really favorable spot for Reinhart.

Coming off a season in which he had a $5.2 million contract, Reinhart is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights so he is looking at a significant new deal. It would come as no surprise if the Panthers knew the parameters for a new long-term contract when they decided to make this deal.

The Sabres Get: G Devon Levi and a 2022 first-round pick

Levi is a 19-year-old who was a seventh-round pick but has raised his profile as a prospect, posting a .964 save percentage for Team Canada at the World Juniors last season. He is at Northeastern University, and it might be a few years before he is an NHL goaltender but is certainly a quality prospect for the Sabres to add into their pipeline.

Not knowing where the Panthers will finish in next season’s standings, the pick is Top 10 protected, which would mean that the pick would roll over to 2023 if the pick falls inside the Top 10 in 2022.

Verdict: This is not a huge return for the Sabres but they were due for separation with Reinhart and a first-round pick with a quality goaltending prospect is okay but, in general, that the Sabres are dealing Reinhart, after trading Ristolainen, and likely before they deal Eichel is a stark reminder that the Sabres’ perpetual rebuild continues.

JETS BOLSTER BLUELINE

The Jets Get: D Brenden Dillon

Dillon is a 30-year-old who has been a steady top-four defenseman for the past couple of seasons. He is 6-foot-4 and plays a physical game but, more importantly, his shot suppression has been especially strong with Washington.

In Winnipeg, they desperately need a sturdy defenseman like Dillon so he should get ample ice time and he is under contract for three more seasons, at a $3.9 million cap hit.

The Capitals Get: Two second-round picks

This is a quality return for Washington – and again an indictment of the Seattle Kraken expansion selections – that Dillon, who was left unprotected in the expansion draft, would draw two second-round picks in trade. That is a decent return, particularly for a contract that the Capitals need to move out in order to improve the club’s financial flexibility. Presumably, Michal Kempny will be able to return to the Washington lineup next season and that will help to mitigate the loss of Dillon on the ice while saving the Capitals some money.

Second-round picks typically have a little better than a one-in-three chance of playing more than 100 NHL games so the Capitals are likely to come up with an NHL player out of these two picks but it’s hardly a guarantee.

Verdict: The price might seem significant, particularly for a player that does not provide much offense, but Dillon addresses a specific need for the Jets and for a team that has a core that is built to win now, those second-round picks are the price of doing business to get immediate help. For Washington, needing to cut salary, they bring in a quality return.

COYOTES ADD ANOTHER D

The Coyotes Get: D Anton Stralman

Stralman, who turns 35 Sunday, has had a productive NHL career, including some elite seasons as a two-way defenseman, but has been in decline for a couple of seasons. He played 18:57 per game for Florida last season, his lowest average time on ice since 2011-2012.

Nevertheless, he is a veteran right-shot defenseman who joins a Coyotes team that is looking at the prospect of losing several defensemen in free agency so Stralman comes in with one year left on a deal that has a $5.5 million cap hit and gives the Coyotes a veteran to help bridge the gap with some of their prospects.

The Panthers Get: A seventh-round pick in 2023

In Florida’s case, they just needed to clear out some salary. With the acquisition of Sam Reinhart and a new contract for Sam Bennett (four years, $17.7 million), the Panthers needed the cap space and a veteran with declining performance is a prime candidate to move.

The seventh-round pick has about a 10% chance of becoming an NHL player but is hardly material to this trade. The primary reason was to clear out cap space and the Panthers did that.

Verdict: Both teams accomplished their objectives. Arizona got an NHL defenseman without having to pay big free agent money and Florida shed some salary. Maybe a touch more credit to Florida because their move was in the pursuit of making the team better next season while Arizona is still in the mode of breaking things down.

FLEURY TO THE BLACKHAWKS

The Blackhawks Get: G Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury, 36, is coming off a season in which he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. He would not have been my pick but there is no denying that he had an excellent season, probably the best of his career, though only slightly better than 2017-2018, his first season in Vegas.

In 2021, Fleury had a .928 save percentage during the regular season, then followed it up with a .918 save percentage in the playoffs, struggling to an .880 save percentage in three losses against Montreal in the semifinal.

The question is whether Fleury is prepared to move to Chicago to continue his career. There have been rumblings that he might contemplate retirement instead. Let’s presume that this moves forward and he joins a Chicago team that is committed to putting a winning team on the ice in 2021-2022. It likely means some tinkering in the crease, where they have Kevin Lankinen, Malcolm Subban, and Collin Delia all under contract for next season.

Fleury has one year left on a contract that has a $7 million cap hit. That is not an easy contract to move in the current financial climate of the National Hockey League.

The Golden Knights Get: LW Mikael Hakkarainen

Hakkarainen is 23-year-old who was a fifth-round pick in 2018. He has no points in 14 AHL games, five points in nine ECHL games; not have enough production to look like a legitimate NHL prospect. He did have a couple of decent seasons with Muskegon in the USHL but, since then, not much.

For Vegas, moving out Fleury allows them to keep Robin Lehner as their starter but will require the Golden Knights to find a reliable backup, something that can be achieved for much less than $7 million.

Verdict: This is a bold move for Chicago, taking a shot at Fleury, who can obviously still play but they weren’t just a goaltender away last season. They had the second-worst score adjusted Corsi, ahead of only Detroit, and the worst score-adjusted expected goals percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick. They will expect Jonathan Toews to return and they added Seth Jones. Does bringing in Marc-Andre Fleury get the Blackhawks to the playoffs? Seems like an uphill fight.