After a somewhat circumspect NHL summer, which saw an entirely new group of contenders enter salary cap hell, few teams will arrive at camp with the determination that this must be their year.
If anything, and even with the Vegas Golden Knights leaving talent on the table in the expansion draft process, NHL franchises are as tightly-bunched, talent-wise, as they have ever been.
Neither conference has an obvious favorite.
What has happened, however, after another round of redistributed talent, is the emergence of a few teams, for better and worse, that could make significant moves in the standings based on last season’s finish.
Here are the summer’s power shifts:
The most aggressive team of the summer, Jim Nill’s Stars seem poised to once again challenge for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference after tumbling all the way out of the postseason bracket from that perch last season.
With Jamie Benn healthy, and Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal in the fold, the Stars boast a lineup that could, on paper, exceed the explosiveness of the 2015-16 attack that finished with a league-best 265 goals.
But the addition that should have the greatest impact for a Stars team expected to play a little more of a buttoned-down brand under new head coach Ken Hitchcock is Ben Bishop. The netminder’s long-foreseen switch to Dallas finally came to fruition this summer, giving the Stars the legitimate No. 1 option in goal that they have tried to get by without.
However talented Bishop is, he’s no automatic fix. He’s shown that he can perform at Vezina-nomination level, and also struggle with inconsistency and injury. What Stars fans can bank on him providing is tremendous results, should Hitchcock employ a relatively tight structure.
One of the more unsystematic teams in recent seasons, Dallas won’t be Fort Knox overnight. But with Hitchcock’s influence (as well as Marc Methot’s), Bishop will in turn make the Stars much more difficult to score against.
For most teams, a summer spent continuing on a natural progression would involve draft prep and execution, adding to the margins and aiming to keep costs down in-house.
For Carolina, it was those things. But it was also continuing to pull talent from teams that must off-load it.
After grabbing Teuvo Teravainen from the Chicago Blackhawks a summer prior, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis included three more former Blackhawks in this summer’s haul, dealing for Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and new starting goaltender Scott Darling.
Francis also waded into the free-agent waters and fished out Justin Williams. The veteran returns to Carolina 11 years after winning a Stanley Cup with the franchise to round out an exciting and equally cost-effective top-six forward group.
The Hurricanes still have loads of cap space after ushering in their new recruits and signing two high-quality defenders in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. So expect them to be around to solve another team’s financial plight again next summer. Or just the Blackhawks’ again.
As easy as it seems for a team with few major investments to sit back and pluck players away from teams forced to shave salary, known quantities are typically the last squeezed. It’s even more rare to see established assets from essential positions like top-six center and top-four defenseman dealt.
So credit the Coyotes for grabbing one of each.
Stepan might not quite have the talent to match the $26 million he’s owed over the next four seasons, but he’s the sort of all-situations axis that Arizona seems to need. Hjalmarsson, meanwhile, remains an immensely valuable defender despite having just a single dimension. With him, suddenly the top four in Arizona appears formidable.
Unfortunately, there are severe repercussions for those who assemble superior teams. After maybe their most devastating postseason exit, the two-time Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals felt this reality in spades.
With Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk purged, the Capitals will enter this season without two top-six forwards and half of their defense from last spring.
You have to hand it to them, the Blackhawks continue to discover different methods to cope with the price of winning.
The latest strategy in the Blackhawks’ never-ending war with their own wages was to trade for term, having swapped two core pieces in Artemi Panarin and Hjalmarsson for the returning Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy. This wasn’t done to shave a little bit of salary per se, but because both incoming players are under contract longer and won’t soon need a raise.
Another tactic: they will bring back a former cap casualty in Patrick Sharp after the veteran scorer played out what was left on his excess deal with the Stars.
Ultimately, Chicago loses a truly dynamic partnership between Panarin and Kane. But considering last season’s shocking postseason exit, a downward trend may have started before brokering the deal with Columbus.
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