The Overhyped 2017 NHL Offseason
Nearly two months ago, there was speculation the summer of 2017 could become one of the busiest in NHL history. The combination of the expansion draft, a modest increase in the salary-cap ceiling and the mention of several notable stars in trade speculation sparked anticipation of considerable player movement.
Numerous trades were expected, contract buyouts anticipated and even suggestions of offer sheets were bandied about. Instead, it turned out to be pretty much business as usual.
Late-June and the first week of free agency in July saw the usual flurry of trade activity and free-agent signings. That was followed by another unsurprising arbitration period in which all but one player (Nate Schmidt of the Vegas Golden Knights) avoided arbiter-awarded deals by re-signing with their respective clubs.
It’s now early August. Arbitration and the contract buyout period is over. As they usually do at this point in the offseason, the trade and free-agent markets have gone quiet.
Despite the factors expected to create a busier-than-normal offseason, the summer of 2017 failed to live up to the hype.
To be fair, predictions by NHL insiders of a busier than usual summer were based on what they were hearing from their sources. Several interesting spring deals – the Dallas Stars acquiring and signing goaltender Ben Bishop from Los Angeles, the Canadiens acquiring winger Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay and the Arizona Coyotes shipping netminder Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames – stoked that speculation.
The expansion draft was expected to be a wild card that would substantially shake up the summer trade market. It was thought that some clubs would be forced to make deals to ensure certain players left unprotected in that draft would remain untouched by the expansion Golden Knights. There was also talk those teams could trade those players elsewhere, rather than risk losing them for nothing to Vegas.
Several trades linked to the expansion draft did take place but few were of significant consequence. Teams that lost a quality player to Vegas quickly replaced them by trades or free agency.
Following the expansion draft came the annual NHL Draft, when moves involving veteran talent usually takes place.
Entering the opening round of the draft, three notable deals had already taken place. The Chicago Blackhawks shipped winger Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a multiplayer swap to bring back left wing Brandon Saad. The Oilers traded right wing Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders for winger Ryan Strome and the New York Rangers sent center Derek Stepan to the Coyotes.
Those trades prompted considerable anticipation of bigger deals to come during the draft weekend. Noteworthy players such as Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene, Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane and Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk were considered trade candidates.
But the opening round was a dud trade-wise, with the only significant move being the Philadelphia Flyers shipping center Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera and draft picks. In the remaining rounds the following day, the only deal of note involving an NHL veteran saw the Islanders trading defenseman Travis Hamonic to Calgary for draft picks.
To date, Duchene, Kane and Galcheyuk remain with their current clubs and could still be with them when the curtain rises on the 2017-18 regular season.
Since June 30, the most notable trades saw the Minnesota Wild sending Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Sabres for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, while the Washington Capitals sent 58-point winger Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils in a cost-cutting move.
None of these moves were comparable to those of last summer, when P.K. Subban was swapped for Shea Weber or Taylor Hall wasdealt for Adam Larsson.
Unrestricted free agency unfolded the way it always does, with almost all the top talent getting signed on July 1 and the remainder being inked within a week. The only truly surprising move was the Toronto Maple Leafs signing long-time San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau.
Among the restricted free agents, Ryan Johansen’s eight-year, $64-million contract with the Nashville Predators and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s eight-year, $62.4 million deal with the Washington Capitals garnered headline attention.
The most excitement in July came from two players who weren’t free agents this summer. The expensive contract extensions for Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price overshadowed the notable UFA signings.
This offseason did see 14 players receive contract buyouts. The notables included goaltender Antti Niemi, defenseman Dan Girardi and forwards Scott Hartnell, Mike Cammalleri and Jussi Jokinen. All, however, were either past their prime or marginal talent.
The lack of superstar talent in this summer’s unrestricted free agent market sparked anticipation that a top restricted free agent could receive an offer sheet. Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, Boston’s David Pastrnak and Columbus’ Alex Wennberg remain tempting targets. But as August approaches, there’s no indication any of them will get one.
It’s not as though nothing of consequence occurred this offseason. Some significant trades took place and there were some notable free-agent signings. But not even an expansion draft could ensure a higher volume of player movement.
So why wasn’t there considerably more player movement this summer?
The salary cap, of course, remains the biggest reason. The $2-million increase in the cap ceiling to $75 million did force some clubs, such as Washington and Chicago, to make salary-dumping deals. Most, however, seemed content to work within their limits.
The expansion draft did affect the trade market but failed to generate any jaw-dropping deals. Teams with players to protect did so without giving up a lot. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, meanwhile, eschewed chasing short-term gains through trades and instead loaded up with draft picks.
Various factors explain why some players weren’t traded. The Avalanche, for example, set an unreasonably high asking price for Duchene. The Sabres appear reluctant to part with Kane while the Canadiens opted to re-sign Galchenyuk.
Several high-profile restricted free agents became ineligible for offer sheets when they filed for salary arbitration. Those lacking arbitration rights probably weren’t interested in offers from rival clubs.
The offer sheet likely remains an unpalatable option for most general managers. Over the last decade, only one player (Dustin Penner in 2007) was successfully signed away via offer sheet. The last player to sign one was then-Colorado Avalanche center Ryan O’Reilly in February 2013 from the Calgary Flames. As with all but Penner’s, it was quickly matched.
Teams carrying tempting offer-sheet candidates always promise to match any offer. That threat, and the subsequent potential for ill will aimed at those who try that gambit, makes those proposals as rare as unicorns.