Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
It sure seemed like the San Jose Sharks were poised to start a rebuild just a couple weeks ago. They’d missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03. They’d fired coach Todd McLellan. Goalie Antti Niemi was set to walk as an unrestricted free agent. Former captain Joe Thornton was publicly at odds with GM Doug Wilson. The Sharks even had their first top-10 draft selection since 2007, nabbing Timo Meier ninth overall. It all screamed turning over a new leaf.
But everything Wilson has done since last week’s draft suggests otherwise. Acquiring Martin Jones and signing him to a three-year extension worked whether San Jose was rebuilding or retooling, as Jones is only 25 and someone had to start in net for them in 2015-16. That said, getting him from Boston cost the Sharks a 2016 first-round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly.
Then came July 1 and defenseman Paul Martin signing at $19.4 million over four years. Friday, the next hammer dropped: right winger Joel Ward at $9.825 million over three years. Martin earns $4.85 million per season, and Ward’s cap hit is $3.275 million.
The message is clear: the Sharks refuse to roll over. Martin and Ward are both 34 and received multi-year commitments. It’s “win now,” or Wilson at least believes this team can win now.
The Washington Capitals were a frontrunner for T.J. Oshie a week ago. It was public knowledge the St. Louis Blues were shopping the right winger and that the Capitals were in the market for a top-six winger who could score.
But after the Caps went out and got right winger Justin Williams July 1 as an unrestricted free agent, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see them land Oshie as well. They acquired him from the Blues Thursday for right winger Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick in 2016.
We know Washington wanted to add some skill to its top six or nine forwards. But losing Brouwer complicates things, especially if the Caps don’t re-sign UFA Joel Ward. What if they’re tipping the scale too far the other way?
The kneejerk reaction to Antoine Vermette re-signing with the Arizona Coyotes might be, “He did WHAT?” After all, he was one of the best two unrestricted free agent centers available July 1, and the best considering Mike Ribeiro re-signed with Nashville early in the day. Contending teams, in theory, could’ve lined up out the door to employ a Stanley Cup-winning two-way center.
But, on second thought, Vermette returning to the Arizona Coyotes for two years and $7.5 million makes a lot of sense.
The Boston Bruins’ wild team turnover continued July 1, as GM Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely snagged the man plenty of insiders pegged as the top free agent forward on the market: Matt Beleskey, formerly of the Anaheim Ducks. Boston also traded wingers with the Florida Panthers, swapping Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes.
Beleskey, 27, is a rugged left winger who cut his teeth in the OHL and and has overachieved of late in the NHL. He earned every one of his 22 goals with hard work, and he’s a perfectly helpful complementary piece, but he’s not a natural scorer.
Sound familiar? Signing Beleskey carried the risk of signing the next David Clarkson. Beleskey has just one 20-goal season to his name. Clarkson had a Stanley Cup final and a 30-goal campaign when he signed his seven-year, $36.75-million contract. But the Beleskey money – five years and $19 million, meaning $3.8 million per – turned out to be fairly reasonable. It’s nowhere near Clarkson territory.
Not every KHL import works out – see Cervenka, Roman – but Jori Lehtera was a resounding success in his first season with the St. Louis Blues. He was a third-round pick with the team in 2008 and toiled in Europe for several seasons, primarily in the KHL, before joining the Blues for 2014-15.
Lehtera, a 27-year-old Finn, clicked immediately on a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, a dynamic young trio that arguably usurped the Alexander Steen/David Backes/T.J. Oshie unit for de facto No. 1 status.
The biggest free agent fish of 2015 has been caught. Defenseman Mike Green is a Detroit Red Wing. He has signed for three years and $18 million, good for a salary cap hit of $6 million.
Green was as coveted as any unrestricted free agent league-wide. He is nowhere near finished as an effective NHL defenseman. Gone are his halcyon days of 30-goal, 70-point seasons, but he remains a well-above-average point producer, having racked up 45 in 72 games this season with Washington. He’s still just 29 and capable of playing 20-plus minutes a night.
Green, however, remains an adventure defensively. He wound up fifth on the Capitals’ depth chart at defense last season. His puck-possession numbers improved under coach Barry Trotz but, as the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg notes, that was largely because Green was playing on the third pair and facing weaker competition. And it’s alarming that his 72 games in 2014-15 marked his highest total since 2009-10.
The Montreal Canadiens knew they need to get bigger and stronger at forward, so it’s no surprise to see them trade for a massive winger on Wednesday. The fact it was Zack Kassian, however, may raise an eyebrow or two.
Kassian, 24, was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres and was dealt for Cody Hodgson at the 2012 deadline. The Canucks hoped they’d found their very own Milan Lucic, a mammoth power forward at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds who could put the puck in the net.
It just didn’t quite materialize for Kassian, though. He showed it in bursts, like when he sniped 14 goals in 2013-14, and he even saw some stretches with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. But Kassian had a penchant for taking bad penalties and didn’t click with any of his coaches, from Alain Vigneault to Willie Desjardins. Kassian was an occasional healthy scratch.
The Nashville Predators have flown relatively under the radar this off-season, re-signing their top two centers, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher. But GM David Poile’s quiet moves last summer helped the team make a surprise run to the playoffs, and it appears he’s making similar decisions this off-season.
Picking Ribeiro off the scrap heape worked wonders, and Poile will try to duplicate that feat with Cody Hodgson. The maligned center, just 25, was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres this week. Now he’ll attempt a career turnaround in Nashville on a one-year, $1.05-million contract. Hodgson scored 20 goals in 2013-14 and appeared to be a key cog for the Sabres, but he tumbled to just six goals and 13 points in 78 games this season, often criticized for his level of effort.