With the puck dropping on the NHL’s 2015-16 regular season, here’s a look back at the notable news of the offseason.
NHL Players Behaving Badly. A handful of NHL stars won’t have fond memories of the summer of 2015. Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane is the subject of an ongoing sexual assault investigation stemming from an incident in his home in early-August. Meanwhile, Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly is still awaiting a court hearing on a DUI charge.
Three members of the Los Angeles Kings ran afoul of the law. Center Mike Richards was released from his contract following an incident at a Canada-US border checkpoint in June involving an alleged possession of a controlled substance. Kings defenseman Slava Voynov opted to return to Russia, rather than face possible deportation, after serving a jail sentence on a domestic violence charge. And in April, now-former Kings center Jarret Stoll was busted in Las Vegas for drug possession.
The McDavid-Eichel Draft. Every NHL draft is usually overhyped, with every top prospect hailed as a potential franchise player and future league superstar. However, the 2015 NHL Draft was notable for two young centers – Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – touted as superstars-in-waiting.
McDavid was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers, while Eichel was chosen by the Buffalo Sabres with the second overall pick. Though their selections was no surprise, the hype over these two youngsters before, during and following the draft was relentless.
McDavid and Eichel certainly seem to be the genuine articles. Both will make their rookie debuts this season. If they play up to expectations, they could be the most notable young duo to hit the NHL since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in 2005-06.
A Marginal Rise in the Salary Cap. This year saw a lower-than-anticipated increase in the NHL salary cap for 2015-16. Originally projected to come in at $73 million, the cap was eventually set at $71.4 million, an increase of only $2.4 million over last season’s $69 million cap ceiling.
That created some salary-cap difficulties for several teams, notably the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, who either lost key players to free agency or were forced to make salary-dumping trades.
Worst UFA Market in Years. Thanks to teams re-signing their best players, the 2015 unrestricted free agent market was notable for its lack of big-name talent. The best available players were either past-their-prime (Mike Green and Brad Richards), aging veterans (Justin Williams and Paul Martin) or second-tier (Andrej Sekera, Cody Franson and Matt Beleskey).
As a result, the 2015 UFA market was perhaps the weakest in NHL history. Thankfully, the 2016 free-agent pool promises to be much deeper, with stars such as Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, Eric Staal, Milan Lucic, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Jiri Hudler, Kyle Okposo, David Backes and Keith Yandle potentially available. Even if most are re-signed, there should still be a few name players remaining to stir up some excitement.
PTOs. The combination of a marginal salary-cap increase and lack of depth in quality free agents resulted in a higher-than-normal number of NHL veterans forced to accept professional tryout offers (PTOs) heading into training camp.
Long-time NHLers Sergei Gonchar, Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, Lee Stempniak, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Derek Roy, Martin Havlat, Scott Gomez and Jiri Tlusty all accepted tryout offers. A few, like Boyes, Tlusty, Fleischmann and Stempniak, secured one-year contracts for this season, albeit for salaries far less than their previous contracts. Those who fail to secure new deals for the upcoming season face continuing their playing careers in Europe or retirement.
A More Active Trade Market. The marginal increase in the salary cap was a contributing factor in what was a much busier offseason trade market. Teams with limited cap space were forced to shed salary to free up cap space, or to move restricted free agents rather than risk rival clubs swooping in with unmatchable offer sheets.
Among the significant trades: the Toronto Maple Leafs dealing Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins dealing Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames and Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings, the Colorado Avalanche moving Ryan O’Reilly to the Buffalo Sabres, the Chicago Blackhawks peddling Patrick Sharp to the Dallas Stars and shipping Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a multiplayer deal and the New York Rangers trading Carl Hagelin to the Anaheim Ducks.
Hirings and Firings. Several coaches and general managers also moved on. The Toronto Maple Leafs brought in former New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello as their new GM and hired away coach Mike Babcock from the Detroit Red Wings, who in turn promoted Jeff Blashill from their farm team to replace Babcock. Lamoriello had been replaced as Devils GM earlier in the year by Ray Shero.
The Boston Bruins fired Peter Chiarelli as their GM, replacing him with Chiarelli’s former assistant Don Sweeney. Chiarelli was swiftly hired by the Edmonton Oilers, who also landed former San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan. The Sharks, meanwhile, replaced McLellan with Peter Deboer.
Other notable coaching hires included Dan Byslma joining the Buffalo Sabres, while the Philadelphia Flyers went off the beaten path by bringing in US college coach Dave Haskstol. Another GM move saw the New York Rangers promote assistant GM Jeff Gorten to replace Glen Sather.
The Stamkos Contract Watch. It took a while for the contract status of Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos to generate headlines. He is an unrestricted free agent next summer, in the final year of a contract with an annual salary cap hit of $7.5 million. It’s expected it could cost the Lightning at least $10.5 million annually on an eight-year deal to retain him.
As the summer dragged on without any indication he and the Lightning were close to a new deal, there was growing media speculation over his future plans. Much of it was stoked by the Toronto media, suggesting the Markham, Ontario native might consider “coming home” and joining the Maple Leafs as a UFA next summer. Stamkos recently denied rumors claiming he rejected trades to Buffalo and Calgary.
The longer Stamkos remains without a new contract with the Lightning, the more chatter we can expect over his future in Tampa Bay.
Expansion Process. The NHL accepted applications for expansion franchises this summer, receiving two bids from Las Vegas and Quebec City. By the end of September, both cities had gone through the various stages of the process and must now await league approval.
It’s widely believed the NHL will add at least one new franchise within the next two years, but league executives have recently downplayed that possibility, even suggesting there might not be any expansion at all. That, of course, is ridiculous. The league wouldn’t have gone through this process if it wasn’t serious about adding franchises.
The problem is the imbalance between its two conferences, with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference. Putting franchises in Las Vegas and Quebec City won’t address this issue.
It’s possible the NHL brain trust is waiting for the city of Seattle to sort out its arena construction issues in hopes of receiving a serious bid from that city. It’s no secret the league seriously explored the viability of a team in the Pacific Northwest. The assumption is the league’s preference is to place expansion teams in Las Vegas and Seattle and perhaps relocate a struggling Eastern club (like the Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricanes) in Quebec City. Another scenario could see Quebec City and Seattle getting expansion franchises while relocating the trouble Arizona Coyotes to Las Vegas.
Concussion Lawsuit. A lawsuit filed against the NHL by a growing number of former players claiming the league failed to ensure their safety from concussion injuries continued to garner its share of headlines this summer.
The league was ordered to turn over all injury and concussion data dating back to the late-1960s. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was deposed by lawyers representing the players, though his testimony currently remains sealed. A recent internal league memo claims the NHL has no intention of reaching a settlement with the players, ensuring the lawsuits will continue for some time.