With the ridiculously lucrative contracts handed out to NBA players this past July, it’s easy to overlook the plethora of signings and trades that marked the NHL offseason. See, hockey is a niche sport with an almost cult-like following, but that doesn’t mean the players make ‘niche’ money. Even in a salary cap league like the National Hockey League, general managers certainly didn’t hesitate to hand out hefty contracts to upgrade their respective rosters. Many top free agents stand to make at least $6 million dollars annually on their new teams.
The summer of 2016 also brought some blockbuster trades, from Taylor Hall heading south of the border to suit up for the New Jersey Devils, to Shea Weber heading north to (hopefully) shine under the bright lights of Montreal’s Bell Centre.
The Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs pursued Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos before the Lightning forward re-signed with the team for eight years. In fact, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman didn’t sign a single free agent from another team, opting instead to re-sign Stamkos and stud defensemen Victor Hedman. Yzerman’s strategy proved an anomaly in a summer filled with high priced free agent moves and trade transactions. NHL pundits filed their obligatory “Winners and Losers of Free Agency” lists, analyzing the terms and potential upside (or downside) of each deal.
Yet, as the NHL season approaches, fans are less concerned about the terms of the contracts signed, than they are about whether the players will succeed in their new surroundings. Some players thrive after donning a different-colored sweater, whereas others succumb to the pressures, distractions, and scrutiny that new surroundings provide. Here is a look at eight players who will succeed (and eight who will fail) on their new teams.
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16 Thrive - Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres shelled out a seven-year, $42 million deal for the 28-year-old Islanders’ winger. Okposo comes off a 24 goal, 64-point season, bouncing back nicely from an injury shortened 2014-15 campaign. Okposo brings solid depth on the wing, and expects to build on last year’s totals playing top minutes on the Sabres’ first or second line.
Sure, Okposo’s production may decline as he progresses into his mid 30s towards the contract’s end. Right now, though, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma will play Okposo with star center Jack Eichel or veteran pivot Ryan O’ Reilly, two of Buffalo’s biggest offensive weapons. This ensures Okposo retains solid numbers for the foreseeable future. The Sabres are building a solid young team where Okposo can provide veteran leadership to young forwards like Eichel, Evander Kane, and Sam Reinhart. I’m sure Okposo will fit right in.
15 Fail - Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild
Eric Staal would’ve been a marquee free agent signing for any team...in 2012. The longtime Carolina Hurricanes captain tallied at least 70 points each year from 2005-2012, but has struggled through the past few seasons. He mustered just 39 points last season, and just 54 the year before that. After a trade deadline move to the New York Rangers and a brief, fruitless reunion with his brother, Marc, the 31-year-old center took a 58 percent pay cut on a three-year deal with Minnesota.
It’s hard to see how Staal can improve his declining production. Sure, he could play on a line with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle, and recapture some of his former offensive glory. However, for a player who hasn’t notched 70 points since 2012, a late career resurgence doesn’t appear likely. He could have a nice bounce back year, but by his former standards, that isn’t saying much.
14 Thrive - David Backes, Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins had to replace the two-way production of talented forward Loui Eriksson after his departure to the Vancouver Canucks. The B’s may have gotten their man when they inked former St. Louis Blues captain David Backes to a five-year, $30 million deal. At 32, Backes is entering the back nine of his career, but provides great leadership and toughness to a team known for its snarl.
Some may argue his totals from last season (21 goals and 45 points) are a signal that his production is on the decline. Granted, he hasn’t scored more than 30 goals since 2011, and, with his physical style of play, is always a risk for concussion and injury. However, Backes doesn’t need to play top line minutes, and that can keep him healthy if, say, top centers David Krejci and Patrice Bergerson are the ones absorbing the best of opponents’ defenses. Backes is coming off a great playoff run for the Blues, and brings intangibles that the Bruins fans will come to love.
13 Fail - David Perron, St. Louis Blues
After losing captain David Backes to the Boston Bruins and dependable winger Troy Brouwer to the Calgary Flames, the St. Louis Blues brought back forward David Perron on a two-year $7.5 million deal. The deal was a panic move.
Perron’s injury issues and inconsistent play resulted in short stints with the Oilers, Penguins, and Ducks since his initial departure from St. Louis in 2013. Perron hasn’t scored more than 20 goals since 2014, and potted just 12 goals in 71 games last season. His meager 16 points were also a career low.
So, can he recapture his old form in St. Louis? Can he help them get back to the Western Conference Finals? We’ll see, but not having Backes and Brouwer to play with will prove a tough challenge. Then again, the Blues do have the supremely talented Vladimir Tarasenko, who could certainly help lift Perron’s floundering offensive numbers.
12 Thrive - Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers
The New York Rangers made a splash in the trade market when they dealt top-scoring forward Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators for the 23-year-old Swede. The young center comes with a $2.625 million cap hit, but more importantly, seems determined to build on a respectable 2015-16 season where he put up 21 goals and 51 points in 81 games.
“I want to take the next step,” Zibanejad told the New York media after the July 18 trade. “I feel like in this stage in my career, I’m ready for that.”
Zibanejad brings speed and penalty-killing prowess to a Rangers system built on fast breaks and solid defense. Put him on a line with emerging star and fan favorite Mats Zuccarello, and the two could prove to be a lethal pairing. Yes, there is more pressure to win in New York, but keep in mind that seven of Zibanejad’s goals last season were game-winners, so he is no stranger to coming through in the clutch. At 23 years old, he is just entering the prime of his career, and with that, his peak point production potential.
11 Fail - Matt Martin, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs expressed serious interest in acquiring Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos this summer. However, when the young scorer re-signed with the Bolts for eight years, the Leafs turned their attention to the next best option. For some reason, they thought that option was Islanders winger Matt Martin.
Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello inked Martin for four years, $10 million total. It’s an absurd deal for what is essentially a fourth line player. Martin averaged 10:33 per game last season, while scoring (drum roll please!) 10 goals and 19 points! All career highs!
At 27, Martin is still young, can kill penalties, and brings toughness to his new team. He is a nice role player, but unless he doubles his point totals from last season, he won’t live up to his contract. With the mediocre supporting cast of players in Toronto, don’t bet on an offensive explosion from Martin.
10 Thrive - Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators
The other player in the Zibanejad deal, Derick Brassard, could also succeed on his new squad. The 28-year-old center comes off a career year for the Blueshirts, potting 27 goals and 31 assists for an offensively challenged group of forwards. Brassard grew up in Hull, Quebec, which is right outside of Ottawa. Essentially, he is playing for his hometown team, and that comfort could help him acclimate to the new lineup. It also helps to have star players like Bobby Ryan and Erik Karlsson playing alongside him.
Even better, Brassard is familiar with forward Mike Hoffman and coach Guy Boucher from his time in the junior leagues. That familiarity can speak volumes in terms of learning the Senators’ system and meshing with teammates in the locker room. Brassard also comes at a reasonable $5 million per year for the next three years, so he shouldn’t feel weighed down by unrealistic expectations that an albatross contract can bring.
9 Fail - Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks dove head first into the free agent pool, signing two-way winger Loui Eriksson to a six-year $36 million deal. Initially, this deal sounds great. Eriksson comes off a 30-goal season, and will fit well alongside fellow Swedes Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The fraternal duo played with Eriksson during international competition for Team Sweden.
However, Eriksson’s age is a slight concern. At 30, Eriksson likely has two or three elite years left. Coincidentally, the Sedin twins’ contracts expire at the end of the 2017-18 season. If the Sedins don’t re-sign, or if they retire (they will both be 38 in 2018), what happens then? Who does Eriksson play with? At 32 years of age, what will his production value be? The point is, for the first two years of this deal, the prospects look favorable. After that, there are too many unknowns.
8 Thrive - Brian Campbell, Chicago Blackhawks
It may only be for one year, but Brian’s Campbell’s $2.25 million deal to return to the Chicago Blackhawks is one of the smartest of the offseason. The 37-year-old defenseman turned down a $4.75 million offer from the Florida Panthers, where he led all NHL defensemen last season with a plus 31 rating, to reunite with his brethren in the Windy City.
Even though Campbell is no spring chicken, he still has great agility and puck-moving ability, and can play either the left or right point on the power play. He also brings strong, stalwart defense to a blue line that struggled last season as they relied too heavily on young players. ‘Hawks coach Joel Quenneville will either pencil Campbell in on the first pairing with Niklas Hjalmarsson or the second pairing with Brent Seabrook. Either pairing will provide stability to Chicago’s defensive corps.
Above all, Campbell seems genuinely excited to return to Chicago, where he captured the 2010 Stanley Cup after a near 50-year drought.
"It’s where my heart is,” Campbell said of Chicago. “It’s where I want to play.” That should be music to ‘Hawks fans’ ears.
7 Fail - Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders
The Islanders needed to find a top-line winger to complement star center John Tavares after declining to re-sign Kyle Okposo. They went with Winnipeg Jets captain Andrew Ladd, signing him for seven years at roughly $5.5 million per year.
At 30 years old, Ladd is a veteran forward with championship experience, having won two Stanley Cups, one with Carolina in 2006 and one with Chicago in 2010. Ladd is coming off a 25 goal, 46-point season in Winnipeg, down from 62 points in 2014-15. While playing with Tavares could certainly rejuvenate his game, Ladd won’t have much offensive firepower to work with. The Isles have limited options given the departures of Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin. By the time Ladd’s contract ends, he will be 37 years old, and may look back on his Islander tenure with disappointment.
It's a little confusing as to why the Islanders felt Ladd was a better option than Okposo.
6 Thrive - Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers don’t usually strike gold in free agency. Yet, they stunned the hockey world when they signed tough-guy/power forward Milan Lucic to a seven-year, $42 million deal on July 1. This deal makes sense for Lucic and the Oilers for a multitude of reasons.
For one, Lucic has a relationship with Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli from their days together in Boston, where they won the 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Lucic brings a hard-nosed, championship pedigree to a team who routinely takes up residency in the cellar of the Western Conference standings.
From an on-ice perspective, Lucic can help plug a hole on the top two forward lines, created when the Oilers dealt Taylor Hall to the Devils. At only 28, Lucic still possesses the perfect mix of snarl and scoring ability. He can hit hard, fight well, and score often. Play him with emerging superstar Connor McDavid and who knows how high his offensive numbers could skyrocket?
5 Fail - Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens
Unfortunately, Habs fans will see just how bad of a decision dealing Subban will turn out to be. There is no doubt Weber can shoot the heck out of the puck; he has the hardest shot in the NHL. Montreal’s power play welcomes his heavy slapper. That is where the positives end.
Weber is 31 years old, while Subban is 27. Weber has TEN years remaining on his contract, whereas Subban has only six. Subban ranked among the NHL leaders in 5v5 plays with the puck, whereas Weber ranked 206 out of 256. Despite registering 20 goals last season, Weber was also minus seven, and ranked 202nd in loose puck recoveries.
If you think the Habs fans will be as forgiving of Shea Weber’s defensive lapses as Nashville fans were, think again. Weber himself described Montreal as the “Mecca of Hockey” and he is absolutely right. Fans expect him to step in and seamlessly replace Subban, yet it’s clear from the above comparisons that Weber isn’t the player Subban is. Weber is in for a tough ride in Montreal.
4 Thrive - Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils made perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason, dealing blue chip blueliner Adam Larsson to the Edmonton Oilers for star forward Taylor Hall. Hall, the former first overall pick in the 2010 draft, scored 132 goals and 196 assists in 328 games during his tenure with the Oilers. He brings a bonafide offensive threat that the Devils have not had since Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise donned the red, white, and black.
Hall also led the Oilers with 1,241 shots since 2010. The only two Devils players who have reached that mark in the same time period were (you guessed it) Kovalchuk and Parise. The guy can shoot, and he can score.
Expect Hall to play on a line with either Travis Zajac or Adam Henrique. Compared to the merry-go-round in Edmonton, consistent linemates will allow Hall to build chemistry with his new team, which will do wonders for his production this season.
3 Fail - Adam Larsson, Edmonton Oilers
When the Edmonton Oilers traded away Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils straight up for Adam Larsson, many Oilers fans reacted with the same question: “Who else did we get?”
Unfortunately, the Oilers didn’t get another piece in that deal. The team traded their star forward and former number one overall draft pick south of the border in exchange for the Devils 23-year old blue-chip defenseman. This deal will prove to be one-sided for New Jersey.
Sure, Larsson is an impact player. He logged a career-best 22:30 per game during the 2015-16 season, and played 3:20 shorthanded minutes per game on New Jersey’s top pair. He’ll struggle in Edmonton, though, because the team’s defense is a perpetual sieve. Edmonton surrendered the fourth most goals in the NHL last season (242) and ranked among the top ten worst teams in goals allowed every season since 2007. One defenseman can’t change that. Larsson won’t hold together the Oilers’ Swiss-cheese defense.
2 Thrive - P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
If the Larsson-Hall trade was the most consequential of this offseason, the Subban-Weber trade was definitely the most surprising. Subban, a supremely talented defenseman with a lethal slap shot, was an enormously popular player in hockey’s most manic media market.
Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin dealt the 27-year-old Toronto native to Nashville for Predators captain Shea Weber. Like Subban, Weber possesses a heavy slap shot, but that’s about where the comparisons end. Nashville hit a home run with this deal. Unlike Weber, Subban’s game has steadily improved since his entry into the league. In Subban, Nashville gets a smooth skating, puck-possessing defenseman who transitions the puck up ice better than almost any of his counterparts. He is also just two seasons removed from a 15-goal, 60-point season, and is young enough to return to that form. He will thrive in the Music City where he will have more freedom to be himself and let loose offensively.
1 Fail - Alex Radulov, Montreal Canadiens
The worst move of the Canadiens disastrous summer was the signing of enigmatic Russian winger Alex Radulov. General Manager Marc Bergevin lured Radulov away from the KHL, signing him to a one-year $5.75 million deal.
Radulov is turning 30 years old, and hasn’t played an NHL game since 2012. Radulov put up solid numbers in the KHL, but any hockey buff knows that the competition in Russia pales in comparison to the NHL. It’s unknown whether Radulov’s game, or his fragile character, can meet NHL standards. Remember, the Predators suspended Radulov for breaking curfew during the 2012 playoffs.
If the guy couldn’t keep his head on straight in Nashville, how will he handle the pressure of donning the Montreal sweater? Yes, this deal is only for one year, and Radulov has undeniable talent. It’s just that he has been out of the league for so long, and there are too many questions surrounding his mental fortitude. This is a true boom or bust signing. The latter seems a much greater possibility.
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