It took a long time for the final important domino to fall in the National Hockey League (NHL) off-season. And when it did, the team that was already a major figure in player movement this summer was once again front and centre.
Nazem Kadri — the top unrestricted free agent (UFA) centre available — inked a deal with Calgary more than one month after we all expected he’d be signed three hours into the market opening on July 13. The only sporting analogy I can come up with for the Flames’ past six weeks is they’re like a baseball team that took a one-run lead into the top of the ninth in a playoff game, gagged it up, then came back in the bottom half and walked it off for the win.
Seriously, I’m the parent of two children under four years old and I’m not sure the emotional swings in this house compare to what we witnessed in Southern Alberta in July and August.
No team experienced the lows and highs — in that order — Calgary lived through this summer.
That said, another Canadian outfit was a defining presence in the off-season, so with Kadri finally declared and training camps now, believe it or not, basically a month away from opening, we figured it's time to assign off-season grades to all seven clubs who play north of the 49th.
Calgary Flames: A+
To be clear, this grade is not a reflection of how much the Flames have improved; it’s all about how general manager (GM) Brad Treliving reacted in the face of an absolutely devastating situation.
Johnny Gaudreau earned the right to live and play wherever he wanted, and Matthew Tkachuk was in no way obliged to be a Flame for life and, at the very least, gave the team a heads up that Calgary was not going to be his long-term home. Great. None of that changes the fact this was a Joe Frazier-left-hook-level body blow to the team, which drafted both players and was more than ready to commit big-time dollars to each only to hear, “Yeah cool, no.”
A short time after Gaudreau bolted for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tkachuk indicated he’d prefer to move on, too, Treliving could have done what so many of us humans do and throw a giant pity party in the wake of things not going his way. Instead, he eschewed the cowards’ way out — which was saying this was all out of his hands and taking a bunch of futures for Tkachuk — and instead acquired Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers despite the fact they were both 12 months away from free agency themselves.
Huberdeau has already received the extension that was earmarked for Gaudreau and, with Milan Lucic’s money coming off the books next year, don’t be shocked if Weegar follows suit and puts pen to paper on a deal that will keep him in Calgary.
Now Kadri comes in and, along with Elias Lindholm, forms the best 1-2 punch down the middle Calgary has had in a long time. Attaching a first-round pick to Sean Monahan to clear space was a more than acceptable cost-of-doing-business move and, even at that, Treliving managed to keep his first-rounder in the loaded 2023 draft, as a condition-filled deal with Montreal means the Habs will wind up with a first from Calgary sometime in ’24, ’25 or ’26.
Does Kadri-Huberdeau-Weegar in and Gaudreau-Tkachuk-Monahan out equal a better Flames squad? I believe it does and even if you think it’s a saw-off, how remarkable is it that Treliving kept this team on course when it could have been reduced to rubble and conversations about prospects and draft picks? It’s just an absolute masterclass in fortitude and flexibility.
Ottawa Senators: A
No team in Canada — and perhaps the entire league — took the step forward the Sens have this summer. Adding Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux to the top-six mix is incredible, and Cam Talbot can reasonably be expected to help stabilize the goaltending.
Also, agreeing to a new, eight-year contract with 23-year-old centre Josh Norris — who scored at a 43-goal pace last season — is another wonderful development.
Questions remain on the blueline, but this team is going to be a lot of fun to watch and you don’t have to be a blind optimist to expect Ottawa to push for a playoff spot.
Edmonton Oilers: B
It was quietly a pretty strong off-season for the Oilers headlined by the arrival of Jack Campbell on a five-by-five to solidify the crease. It’s by no means a slam dunk that a 1-2 of Campbell and Stuart Skinner will thrive, but having Campbell as the number one is certainly an upgrade on what Edmonton dealt with last year.
Duncan Keith’s decision to retire and Mike Smith shuffling over to long-term injured reserve — where he’s expected to remain — created cap breathing room and GM Ken Holland did a nice job retaining Evander Kane — your co-leader for goals in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 13 — and deadline blue-liner pick-up Brett Kulak.
Montreal Canadiens: B
The off-season really started for Montreal when GM Kent Hughes had enough courage in his convictions to take Juraj Slafkovsky first overall at a 2022 NHL Draft hosted by the Habs. Will Shane Wright make them rue the day? Check back in three years.
Unfortunately, the acquisition of a first-rounder and Monahan from Calgary has to be viewed through the lens of Carey Price not being able to play. The only reason the Canadiens could take on Monahan is due to the fact Price’s $10.5-million cap hit will be on long-term injured reserve for quite likely the entire season. It’s a tough way to see a fantastic career potentially end, but the clarity does a lot to help the Canadiens right now.
Maybe Monahan is destined to be flipped before becoming a UFA next summer, but it’s fair to wonder if there’s a longer-term match here if the guy who will turn 28 just as the new season begins can put persistent injury woes behind him and find his old 30-goal form.
Hughes also accommodated Jeff Petry’s wish to skate for a different team and the return from Pittsburgh is an intriguing defenceman coming off a bounce-back season in hometown boy Mike Matheson.
Vancouver Canucks: B-
The off-season in Vancouver is really more about what hasn’t happened — specifically, a J.T. Miller trade — than what has. With each passing day, it appears more likely Miller will start the year with the Canucks and, depending on how you feel about his ability to leave as a UFA next summer, that can certainly be classified as a good thing.
Scooping up left winger Andrei Kuzmenko from the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is a solid gamble and though you could argue Vancouver made Kuzmenko’s fellow Russian Ilya Mekheyev a little too rich with a four-year deal worth $4.75 million per, the winger is a big body who skates well and scored at a 32-goal pace last season.
A new three-year pact for Brock Boeser is a good fit for both sides, too.
Toronto Maple Leafs: C+
There’s been no deal yet with restricted free agent (RFA) defenceman Rasmus Sandin and let’s just say it doesn’t seem like a resolution is imminent. In terms of what the Leafs have actually done, it’s all about the goaltending as there’s a completely new battery in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov after last fall started with Jack Campbell in front of Petr Mrazek. You have to ding Toronto for the fact there’s so little certainty around the new duo, but nobody can sit here in the dog days of summer and tell you goaltending is going to definitely sewer this squad.
Who’s to say a healthy Murray won’t get his groove back or that Samsonov — a first-rounder in 2015 — never lives up to his potential? At 25, the Russian is right at that age where some goalies take a step, especially ones with his pedigree.
The real grade is a shrug emoji until we see how things play out in the crease.
Winnipeg Jets: C
There’s just not a lot to go on here, especially since the Jets weren’t able to woo Manitoban Barry Trotz home to coach this club.
The biggest development in Winnipeg, other than that bench job going to Rick Bowness, is likely that restricted free agent Pierre-Luc Dubois agreed to a one-year contract that will grant him the same RFA status next summer. Of course, Dubois’ name is a gateway into the conversation about just how much turmoil seems to be simmering below the surface in Manitoba, where the Jets have somehow gone from a team sure to achieve big things to a club with Prairie-sized questions around some key players.
Before Dubois signed, his agent more or less said — all things being equal — the team his client would like to end up with is Montreal.
Meanwhile, Mark Scheifele recently affirmed his desire to remain with the club after there was more than a little smoke following the end of a disappointing non-playoff season for the Jets that he might be ready to move on.
Whatever the case, change in a near-future off-season is inevitable as none of Dubois, Scheifele, Blake Wheeler or Connor Hellebuyck have contracts that extend beyond 2023-24.