The smartest of people on this earth see things that most others don't. They find some form of treasure that other people fail to pay attention to and/or have faith in. When it comes to the NHL, a number of teams just always seem to be a step further of everyone else when it comes to capitalizing on opportunities.
We're talking about some of the biggest trades, free agent signings and coach hirings NHL teams have made over the past year-and-a-half. There were a number of moves that didn't seem monumental at the time. Well, let's just say that some of these moves are so genius, that others can only wish a time machine was being built.
Being an NHL general manager requires a lot of work. You have to push all the right buttons and win most of your chess matches. Though it's impossible for any GM to win all of his battles, some of them have found ways to win the most important ones.
Here's a look at 15 major NHL moves that didn't seem...major at the time.
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15 Troy Stecher Signs With Vancouver Canucks
The Richmond, B.C. native signed with the Canucks as an undrafted free agent this past summer. Troy Stecher had made it clear the only team he wanted to join was his hometown squad. The North Dakota standout led his NCAA squad to a national championship in 2016, but expectations weren't too high for the kid.
Stecher's been forced to play heavy minutes with Alex Edler and Chris Tanev (the Canucks top pairing) out long-term. Though he's made plenty of rookie mistakes, Stecher is like The Flash with the puck. His speed from end-to-end is something this team has lacked for years. The Canucks are getting old and stale, and don't have many young assets to build around. Stecher is one of the few bright spots on this team, and he could be an elite blueliner before long.
14 Justin Schultz Traded to Pittsburgh Penguins
Justin Schultz refused to sign with the Anaheim Ducks - the team that drafted him in 2008. With so much promise around the kid, the Edmonton Oilers signed him in the summer of 2012 to a two-year deal. Schultz wasn't able to find his ground in Edmonton and never made progress there, despite all of the young talent.
After putting up at least 30 points in both 2013-14 and 2015-15, Schultz was struggling last year and got traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Schultz became a huge part of the team's run to a championship, logging 13:01 of ice time in the playoffs and shutting down some of the opposition's top forwards. He's off to a blistering start in 2016-17, and is on pace to finish with career highs in goals (14) and points (48).
One man's trash is another man's treasure.
13 Mike Condon Traded to Ottawa Senators
Mike Condon had the impossible task of replacing Carey Price last season while the latter missed most of 2015-16 with a torn MCL. The Canadiens went from the NHL's best team to one of the worst. Condon went just 21-25-6 with a 2.71 goals against average and .903 save percentage.
It wasn't fair that the Habs threw him into the fire and expected the rookie backup to suddenly carry the team. Nonetheless, it failed. Condon joined the Pittsburgh Penguins for 2016-17 and played just one game. The Senators picked him up off waivers since Andrew Hammond was hurt and starter Craig Anderson has had to take multiple leaves as he helps his wife fight cancer.
Condon's been a bargain for the Senators with an 8-3-2 record, 2.26 goals against average and .922 save percentage with two shutouts. Condon was more than a waiver pickup - he's saved the Sens with Anderson out frequently.
12 Nick Bonino Traded to Pittsburgh Penguins
Nick Bonino scored a career-high 22 goals and 49 points with the Anaheim Ducks in 2013-14. The Ducks then packaged him in a deal with the Vancouver Canucks to land star centre Ryan Kesler. Bonino struggled in his first season with Vancouver, scoring just 15 goals and 39 points.
The Canucks packaged him in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and got Brandon Sutter in return. Bonino struggled in the regular season (nine goals, 29 points) but became a huge part of the Pens' Stanley Cup-winning team.
He scored 18 points in 24 games and formed the infamous 'HBK Line' with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. That line shut down the opposition's top line while they also carried the Pens' offence while opponents keyed in on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
11 Minnesota Wild Hire Bruce Boudreau
The Wild fired Mike Yeo during last season and replaced him with assistant coach, John Torchetti. The latter didn't do that great, but he did enough to help Minnesota reach the playoffs. The team opted to go in a new direction and replaced him with recently-fired Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Minnesota has struggled to keep up with the Central Division powerhouses (namely Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago). Not many expected the Wild to compete with the top powerhouses, but Boudreau has done just that. The Wild are allowing the least goals per game with 1.88.
The Wild are also averaging 2.94 goals per game (sixth-best in the league) after averaging just 2.60 last season. Minnesota sits second in the Central and they're right behind Chicago for first.
I think Minny did pretty good here.
10 Los Angeles Crowns Devin Setoguchi a King
Devin Setoguchi used to be a star in the making. He scored 31 goals with the San Jose Sharks in 2008-09 and never scored more than 22 in a season after that. Setoguchi played just 12 games in 2014-15 with the Calgary Flames (no points) and sat out 2015-16 as he battled alcohol addiction and depression.
Setoguchi recovered and signed with the Los Angeles Kings before 2016-17 started. The Kings, known for having problems scoring, have found a nice pickup in Setoguchi. He has four goals and four assists. Though those numbers aren't great, he's become a fan favorite in L.A. and gives the team a ton of speed - something they don't have much of.
All of that for nothing more than a one-year, two-way contract worth only $575,000.
9 Radim Vrbata Returns to the Desert
Radim Vrbata played five seasons with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes and was one of their few standouts. The speedy winger was good for 20 goals a season despite lacking talent around him. He signed with the Vancouver Canucks in 2014 on a two-year contract.
Year one was a success, as Vrbata posted 31 goals and found a nice home on a line with the Sedin twins. His second year was a disappointment, as he finished with just 13 goals and 63 points. The Coyotes brought him back on a one-year deal worth $1 million.
Despite another disappointing year for the Coyotes, Vrbata has made the most in his return. He has eight goals and 22 points in 33 games and is on pace to finish with 20 goals and 55 points. The Coyotes have gotten offence from him, but even better? He could fetch a nice return at the trade deadline.
8 Calgary Flames Hire Glen Gulutzan
Glen Gulutzan coached the Dallas Stars for two seasons but was fired after posting a mere 64-57-9 record. He found work as an assistant with the Vancouver Canucks, but the team didn't do much with John Tortorella and Willie Desjardins as their head coach.
The Calgary Flames shocked the world when they fired head coach Bob Hartley last season. He had coached them to a playoff berth the season before and appeared to have been the right man in charge for the long-run. Well, not many people thought the hire of Gulutzan was a genius move. They questioned it.
After a miserable start to the regular season, the Flames adopted to his puck possession system while focusing more on defence. They find themselves holding onto the second wild card but they're also in the running for the Pacific Division.
Did we mention Sean Monahan (22), Johnny Gaudreau (23), Dougie Hamilton (23), and Sam Bennett (2o) are only going to get a lot better? Talk about an impact hiring.
7 Eric Staal Goes Wild
Eric Staal was once one of the NHL's premier superstars. He scored 100 points in 2005-06 and led the Carolina Hurricanes to their only Stanley Cup championship that same year. Staal became a consistent 70-point man after that. However, it looked like the best years of Staal were far behind him. He had just 54 points two seasons ago and 39 all of last season.
Nonetheless, the Minnesota Wild took a chance on the fading veteran and signed him to a three-year deal worth just $10.5 million. Staal leads the team in scoring and has helped turn Minnesota into a powerhouse after barely sneaking into the playoffs the past four seasons.
It looked like a low-risk move by Minnesota, but Staal has found new life and the Wild are among the NHL's top teams this season. The only thing is that nobody saw this coming.
6 Kings Stick With Peter Budaj
The Kings lost Jonathan Quick to a lower body injury early in the season, and reports are he won't be back until March. Losing the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate would normally prompt a general manager to bring in a veteran. However, GM Dean Lombardi didn't chase any veterans. All the team did was recall career backup Peter Budaj from the minors.
And it's worked to perfection.
As of this writing, Peter Budaj is 15-8-3 with a 2.04 goals against average, .919 save percentage and four shutouts. What's more, the Kings are right in the Western Conference playoff race and have a chance to win the Pacific Division. In this case, the best move Lombardi made was not moving at all. Budaj has held the fort nicely without Quick up to this point.
5 Senators Hire Guy Boucher
Ever since reaching the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, the Senators have been like pink grapefruit juice: Not too bad, not even close to great, at times awful, and at times - above average.
A reason for that is that they just haven't been able to find the right head coach. John Paddock got fired during a miserable second half in 2008. Craig Hartsburg only lasted one season. Cory Clouston feuded with his own players and didn't last. Paul MacLean had two good years and then that was it. Dave Cameron had two good months (which got Ottawa to the playoffs) and then ran them into mediocrity.
Owner Eugene Melnyk was fed up and wanted the team to find a coach that could actually do wonders. Here lies Guy Boucher. The Senators are 20-11-3 and are second in the Atlantic Division and ninth-overall in the NHL. This is despite starter Craig Anderson missing time to be with his wife. The Senators have played excellent defence and have played like a real organized team with structure. That's a hiring if I've ever seen one.
4 Florida Panthers Sign Jonathan Marchessault
Jonathan Marchessault is one of the many players who have proven that good things do come in small and surprising packages.
Marchessault is just 5-9, 163 pounds and wasn't even drafted. Before joining the Florida Panthers this season, he had just eight goals and 19 points in 49 NHL games. Nonetheless, they gave him a two-year deal and it's safe to say they would have paid him more if they knew what they were getting.
In 28 games with the Panthers, Marchessault has 10 goals and 20 points. He is on pace to finish with 28 goals and 56 points even though he didn't appear to have much of an NHL future ahead of him. Florida didn't realize they were getting themselves a top-six forward with so much potential.
3 Paul Byron Dons Bleu, Blance, et Rouge
Paul Byron was drafted 179th-overall in 2007 by the Buffalo Sabres. He had just 28 goals in 200 NHL games coming into 2016-17. There was something the Montreal Canadiens liked in him, and they scooped him off waivers in 2015. Byron scored 11 goals in 62 games but didn't appear to be anything more than a bottom-six forward.
Fast forward to 2016-17, and we've got ourselves a nice underdog story. Byron's blazing speed has fit well on the Habs, and he has 11 goals and 19 points in 33 games. He is on pace to finish with 27 goals and 47 points right now. That's simply remarkable, given how he struggled to find a full-time roster spot for nearly a decade.
And go figure, the Habs are among the NHL's highest-scoring teams in 2016-17. Byron's impact is a reason why.
2 Columbus Blue Jackets Hire and Keep Torts
The Blue Jackets fired head coach Todd Richards after a terrible 0-7-0 start to 2015-16. In a surprise move, John Tortorella was brought in to replace him. The Jackets improved, but only went 34-33-8 under him. Many were shocked he found a job, given his ugly and disastrous 2013-14 campaign with the Vancouver Canucks.
Columbus even went more bold by keeping on Tortorella for the 2016-17 season. He had previously been the bench boss for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey and they didn't even win a game. Many wondered how he even had a job, including your's truly. Welp. Guess who the best team in the NHL is? Guess who is allowing the second-least goals per game and who's scoring the most goals per game? Yup, that would be the Tortorella-coached Blue Jackets out of all teams.
Bringing him as interim head coach seemed like a desperation move. Keeping him on seemed even more crazy. Yet, here are your 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets.
1 Chicago Blackhawks Sign Artemi Panarin
Artemi Panarin was a superstar in the KHL, but not many people made a big deal out of the Chicago Blackhawks signing him during the 2015 NHL Playoffs. They got him on a two-year deal, but nobody thought he would become a better scorer than Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Literally, nobody at all.
All Panarin did in his rookie season was score 30 goals and 77 points. That put him a tie for ninth in league scoring. So far, he's leading the Blackhawks with 15 goals and 35 points - tied for fifth in the NHL. Panarin has become a flashy sniper and playmaker playing with both Toews and Patrick Kane. Who would have thought all of this?
This was not a bonafide NHL star coming to Chicago. It was a guy in the KHL that many NHL pundits didn't know much about. We can only imagine how many teams would have chased Panarin if they knew they were getting one of the NHL's top-10 forwards. Panarin has been a remarkable story and it's only going to get longer.
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