NHL offseason, Week 4. Nothing is happening. Nobody is making trades. All the good free agents are gone. We’re reduced to arguing about arbitration hearings. Some poor souls among us have gone completely mad and started covering rookie camps. And, worst of all, we still have another full month of this to go.
And that means it’s time to once again fire up Grantland’s NHL Offseason Bizarro-meter, the highly sophisticated technology that takes into account every decision a team has made during its offseason,1 weighs them against other options that were available, and then spits out a ranking that I have basically made up based on a complex and proprietary formula.
For our purposes, a team’s offseason begins the moment it plays its final game.
We took the system for a test run in 2013, using a Toronto Maple Leafs offseason that by now is widely considered one of the worst in league history. Last year, we opened it up to the entire league in an attempt to figure out which team had put together the strangest offseason. The winner: the San Jose Sharks, with an impressive score of 9.4. Can somebody beat that this year? We’re about to find out.
Before we get started, a reminder that “bizarre” doesn’t necessarily mean bad. A team can lose its mind and spend the summer doing a bunch of crazy things that somehow end up working. A team can also play it conservative, make all the expected moves and nothing more, and end up worse off because of it. A high score on the Bizarro-meter doesn’t necessarily mean your favorite team is screwed. But it might be.
Today, we’re going to start in the Western Conference, home of the reigning Stanley Cup winners, the league’s best division, and last year’s Bizarro-meter champ.
Their offseason so far: They managed to keep free agents Drew Stafford and Adam Pardy. But they lost Michael Frolik to free agency, along with midseason pickups Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak.
But their strangest move was: Bringing back Alexander Burmistrov, the young Russian forward they’d taken with the eighth overall pick in 2010 but who bolted for the KHL in 2013. There’s been bad blood between management and Burmistrov, so it was mildly surprising to see him return, but he has talent. He’s a risk, but at a cap hit of just $1.55 million, he’s a reasonable one.
Bizarro-meter reading: 3.8/10. Not much to see here, as the Jets continue their slow-but-steady ascent. The big question is whether slow but steady is going to cut it when the toughest division in hockey keeps getting better.
Their offseason so far: It’s another quiet one, although they did buy out veteran Matt Cooke and let various supporting-cast veterans walk. They also signed college free agent Mike Reilly to a deal that absolutely nobody saw coming except for everybody.2
The 2011 Columbus draft pick had become a free agent after failing to sign with the Jackets; his father is a minority owner of the Wild.
But their strangest move was: Re-signing Vezina finalist and season savior Devan Dubnyk, which wasn’t bizarre because it happened (everyone assumed it would), but because of how long it took (the deal came only a few days before Dubnyk would have hit free agency).
Bizarro-meter reading: 3.9/10. Much like the Jets, nothing jumps out as a mistake. But a veteran team that’s now lost to the Blackhawks three straight years didn’t really get any better, and that makes it tough to see a clear path out of the division for a team that spent big to become a contender.
Their offseason so far: They added a pair of Blackhawks veterans in Johnny Oduya and Patrick Sharp. The former was a free agent on a nice deal; the latter came in a trade that cost them Trevor Daley, who’d been a useful defenseman and whose skates Oduya will be expected to fill.
But their strangest move was: Signing goaltender Antti Niemi to share crease duties with Kari Lehtonen. Goaltending was an issue last season, sure, but now they’ll be spending well more than $10 million in cap space on the position, which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.
Bizarro-meter reading: 4.2/10. The moves for former Blackhawks made headlines but weren’t all that bizarre — in theory, they improved themselves and weakened the team they’re chasing. The Stars certainly seem to be in “win now” mode, which is a bit odd given that they didn’t win much last season, but at least for today they look like a playoff team.
Their offseason so far: The salary cap, like time, comes for us all, and this year it came for the Blackhawks — again. The question is how much damage it did. The defending champs lost free agents Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, and Oduya, in addition to the Sharp trade.
But their strangest move was: Trading Brandon Saad to the Blue Jackets. The 22-year-old Saad was an RFA, and it was assumed that the Blackhawks would find a way to hold on to him, even if that meant moving out veterans to clear cap room. That plan changed quickly, perhaps due to the threat of an offer sheet from an unknown team, and the Hawks sent the young power forward to Columbus for a solid package of players and prospects.
Bizarro-meter reading: 4.8/10. As expected, the Blackhawks will be a weaker team heading into this season. That’s what the salary cap is supposed to do to teams like this. The key question is how much weaker. The answer, as of right now, appears to be “not anywhere near as much as we thought.” In both the Sharp and Saad deals, the Hawks got back players who will step into the lineup immediately instead of focusing on picks and prospects in an attempt to rebuild for the future. They may regret that decision years down the road; they may also have an extra Stanley Cup banner or two to help them get over it.
Their offseason so far: They re-signed Mike Fisher and added free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson, the latter of whom represents an interesting reclamation project after washing out in Buffalo. They also got Craig Smith re-signed before his arbitration ruling could come down. They let deadline busts Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli hit free agency, then made a weird trade that sent vaguely useful forward Taylor Beck to Toronto for minor league tough guy Jamie Devane. Uh, maybe stop trading with the Maple Leafs for a while, Nashville.
But their strangest move was: Re-signing Mike Ribeiro. Yes, he was an effective addition to the Predators lineup last season. He was also involved in one of the uglier legal situations in recent league history, yet another chapter in a career full of off-ice controversy. The lawsuit has since been settled, and maybe you can argue that Ribeiro is finally making good on yet another chance. GM David Poile better hope so, or else comments like this will come back to haunt him.
Bizarro-meter reading: 5.3/10. Poile’s been around forever and has earned the respect of just about everyone in the game. If he really wants to stake that reputation on Ribeiro, then good luck to him.
Their offseason so far: They signed free agents Francois Beauchemin and Blake Comeau to three-year deals. But the big move was the long-rumored trade of Ryan O’Reilly, who was finally dealt to the Sabres for a package of young players and a pick. O’Reilly was a rare talent, but he wanted big money. Hey, it’s a salary-cap league — you can’t wildly overpay guys, right? That sentence was ironic foreshadowing.
But their strangest move was: Trading for the rights to Carl Soderberg, then giving him a five-year, $23.75 million deal. Soderberg’s a good player. He’s fine. He’s not an almost-$5-million-a-year player, and at almost 30 he’s not a guy who anyone should be committing to long term.
Bizarro-meter reading: 6.5/10. This is almost entirely for the Soderberg deal, which had everyone at the draft scratching their heads when it was announced. The Beauchemin signing is also a question mark for a team coming off a last-place finish. But the O’Reilly trade, under the circumstances, ended up bringing back a pretty decent haul.
St. Louis Blues
Their offseason so far: A team that seemed poised for major changes has been relatively quiet. It didn’t part ways with Ken Hitchcock even though his contract was up, choosing instead to give him a one-year extension that might as well have “Last chance, Ken” stamped on it in big red letters. Their biggest move was re-signing Vladimir Tarasenko to an eye-popping $60 million extension, which seemed crazy but really wasn’t.
But their strangest move was: Trading T.J. Oshie to the Capitals for Troy Brouwer, a pick, and a prospect. The instant reaction to the deal was that the Blues had lost big, trading a legitimate star for a handful of nickels. But the reality is that Oshie isn’t as good as you assume he is — legendary Olympic heroics aside, he’s had only one 20-goal season. Brouwer has outscored him each of the past three seasons, and Oshie has a reputation as a playoff guy even though his numbers say he isn’t.
Bizarro-meter reading: 6.6/10. Flaming out in the playoffs yet again, battening down for major changes, and then keeping the core mostly intact? Hey, it worked for last season’s Sharks!
Their offseason so far: Building off a surprisingly good season, the Flames’ biggest sources of improvement are likely to be another year of experience for their young players and a return to health for Mark Giordano. Adding Michael Frolik in free agency will help, too, even if his deal might represent a slight overpay.
But their strangest move was: Trading some spare change they found in the couch for Dougie Hamilton. Trust me, we’ll get to that one when we do the East tomorrow.
Bizarro-meter reading: 4.1/10. Hamilton aside, this was mostly pretty standard stuff.
Los Angeles Kings
Their offseason so far: After a disappointing season, the capped-out Kings were forced to say goodbye to free agents Justin Williams and Andrej Sekera, and they also lost Robyn Regehr to retirement. But their big move was trading for Milan Lucic. Trust me, we’ll be getting to that one tomorrow, too.
But their strangest move was: Continuing their unexpected morph into the NHL’s most disreputable franchise. With the Slava Voynov domestic violence situation still playing out, the Kings watched as Jarret Stoll was busted for a now famous incident in Las Vegas, then terminated the contract of Mike Richards after a drug incident at the U.S./Canada border. That latter situation could still be the target of an NHLPA grievance.
Bizarro-meter reading: 5.9/10. Remember when we used to think that winning breeds character?
San Jose Sharks
Their offseason so far: Last year’s Bizarro-meter champs won’t come close to defending their crown, thanks to a largely quiet offseason that was highlighted by the firing of coach Todd McLellan, a move we all knew was coming once they missed the playoffs. They also replaced Niemi by trading for Martin Jones, the former Kings backup who had a brief stop in Boston along the way.
But their strangest move was: Signing a pair of 34-year-old free agents in Joel Ward and Paul Martin. Both are good players, and their deals weren’t outrageous, but … weren’t the Sharks rebuilding? Does anyone know anymore? Do they?
Bizarro-meter reading: 6.0/10. This sure feels like Doug Wilson pushing his few remaining chips into the pot in hopes of hitting a big hand. If he busts out again, he’ll be asked to leave the table.
Their offseason so far: The rebuilding Coyotes were the big loser in the draft lottery, dropping from a coveted top-two spot down to third in a draft with two franchise players. They still wound up with Dylan Strome, who projects as a key piece, but missing out on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel after a miserable season has to sting. The good news is that after selling off most of their warm bodies at the deadline, they were able to re-sign two of them, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek, in free agency. They also signed John Scott, presumably so he could beat me up if I give them a bad rating.
But their strangest move was: Trading for Chris Pronger as part of the otherwise reasonable Sam Gagner/Nicklas Grossmann deal with the Flyers. Pronger, of course, hasn’t played in almost four years, currently works at the NHL head office, and was included only as a salary-cap consideration to free up space for Philadelphia and help Arizona reach the floor. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame two days after he was traded. Everyone was completely fine with this.
Bizarro-meter reading: 6.3/10. No word on when Pronger’s jersey retirement will be held.
Their offseason so far: In addition to making sweeping front-office changes, the Canucks parted ways with longtime defenseman Kevin Bieksa and traded Zack Kassian for Brandon Prust, who’s essentially the same player except older and with less upside.
But their strangest move was: Trading Eddie Lack to the Hurricanes and not getting much in return. Lack was a fan favorite in Vancouver and had played well, but you could understand the team feeling like it couldn’t move starter Ryan Miller just one year into a big free-agent contract. So it made sense to dangle Lack, especially in what figured to be a busy market for goaltenders. But if the best the team could do was a third- and a seventh-rounder, well, what’s the point? It would make more sense to keep Lack on the roster and try again at the trade deadline, or even to just let him play out his contract and enjoy another year of solid goaltending. Needless to say, the trade was not popular.
Bizarro-meter reading: 6.6/10. It feels safe to say that franchise legend and team president Trevor Linden’s honeymoon period is officially over in Vancouver.
Their offseason so far: They won the draft lottery, picked McDavid, fired everyone, landed a pair of top-tier candidates in Todd McLellan and Peter Chiarelli to run the show, turned over a good chunk of the roster, and acquired their latest goaltending savior in Cam Talbot. Other than that, not much.
But their strangest move was: Six years and $33 million is probably too much money for Andrej Sekera, although that’s debatable and the team was desperate for a top-pairing defenseman.
Bizarro-meter reading: 8.7/10. The Oilers are being … smart? They might actually be heading toward being … good? Their fans are … happy? I’m not sure any of this computes.
Their offseason so far: For a good team, the Ducks were fairly active, trading for Carl Hagelin, Anton Khudobin, and Bieksa, and signing veterans Chris Stewart and Shawn Horcoff. They did lose Beauchemin and Matt Beleskey to free agency, so it wasn’t all good news, but the Ducks look every bit like a contender that intends to win right now before the window starts to close.
But their strangest move was: Signing Ryan Kesler to a six-year, $41.25 million deal. We didn’t get a chance to cover this one last week, so we’re going to do it here: It’s awful. Just a terrible contract, one that will likely come to haunt the organization far before it ends.
Look, Kesler is a very good player. He’s not a big scorer anymore — he hasn’t topped 50 points since 2011 — but he does lots of other things that help a team win. He hits, he plays defense, he wins faceoffs. And he has a reputation for elevating his game when the stakes are highest, a characteristic that some Ducks fans feel is missing from the rest of the roster. Every team wants a guy like Ryan Kesler.
But this is a salary-cap league, and as we’ve said before, a good player with a bad contract is not a good player. And Kesler’s deal is awful. The cap hit is steep, but maybe if you squint real hard you can convince yourself that current-day Kesler is somehow worth nearly $7 million a season. But he’s about to turn 31, and as a physical player he has a lot of mileage on his body. History tells us that players like this don’t age well, and when the drop-off comes, it often comes devastatingly quickly.
And yet, the Ducks saw fit to give Kesler a six-year extension that doesn’t even kick in until after this season. That means he’ll be almost 38 when the deal expires. Sure, maybe he’s the exception to the rule and stops aging altogether like Teemu Selanne or Jaromir Jagr. But it’s at least as likely that he ages like Dany Heatley or Vincent Lecavalier or Mike Richards, and if he does, it’s not inconceivable that this contract will look like a disaster before it even officially kicks in next July 1.
But the Ducks felt they needed to get the deal done now because … well, nobody’s quite sure. They still had Kesler under contract for one more year, so this wasn’t a “lose him for nothing” scenario (yet). Was the deal going to get even worse if they waited? How? It’s unlikely Kesler was going to go out at the age of 31 and have a career year that suddenly made him an $8 million player. And remember, Kesler orchestrated his trade to Anaheim last summer by using his no-trade clause to force the Canucks to send him to a destination of his choosing. Now we’re supposed to believe he was going to walk if he didn’t get top dollar a year before his current deal expired? None of it makes any sense.
Ducks GM Bob Murray is a smart guy — he was named GM of the year just a season ago — so maybe there’s an angle here that everyone else is missing. And if the Ducks win the Cup this year or next, none of this matters because flags fly forever. But it sure looks like they’ve signed a deal that’s going to look like an albatross and/or a buyout candidate sooner rather than later — and maybe before it even gets started.
Bizarro-meter reading: 9.2/10. I think the Ryan Kesler contract was bad. Wasn’t sure if that really came through in that last section.
That impressive score makes the Ducks our leader heading into the clubhouse. But can an Eastern Conference team dethrone them? And if so, who? [Dropkick Murphys begin playing in the background.] Tune in tomorrow to find out!