It is perhaps the perfect statement about the inherent flaws of NHL free agency that the team to make the biggest move up the ladder is the one that didn’t sign anyone. And generally, when a former player rises to the ranks of GM, it’s only natural to question if he’s there because he actually knows what he’s doing or the owners just wanted a name the fans know to shield themselves. Joe Sakic is most definitely not that.
The Avs were already one of the West’s best teams, and were it not for seeing two goalies go “TWANG!” in the playoff bubble it very well could have, and probably should have, been them facing the Lightning in the Final. And they certainly would have given the world a better series than the Stars trench-and-bunker-and-turtle style that they gasped to six games by some miracle (that miracle being goalie Anton Khudobin). But that doesn’t mean Sakic is just going to sit around and hope his team grows into the last half of the playoffs.
With the salary cap staying flat, a lot of teams are facing crunches and having to toss more than just ballast overboard to get under it. Play your cards right, and you can devilishly offer 50-75 cents on the dollar for really good players, and when the other side balks simply just pull the, “Well that’s a shame, it really is….” and pretend to get up to leave and watch the other side quickly realize they have no choice but to acquiesce and hang their head.
So it was with the Avalanche, who picked off Brandon Saad from whatever it is the Hawks are doing for rock-headed D-man Nikita Zadorov (the Hawks seemed to be signaling a rebuild by letting stalwart goalie Corey Crawford walk, but then moved perhaps their most valuable trade piece in Saad not for picks, prospects, or salary cap room). Saad will almost certainly form a possession-dominant and quite unpleasant line with Nazem Kadri and adds another top-six quality forward with speed to a team that already had six or seven of those.
Sakic wasn’t done, as he then replaced Zadorov with Devon Toews, whom the Islanders had to move along thanks to their cap crunch and the need to re-sign Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock. The cost of getting a pretty nifty, mobile D-man who is just 26 was merely two second-round picks. And the Avalanche still have $7 million in cap space left to re-sign Toews, Tyson Jost, and Vladislav Kamenev, if the latter two are even in the plans.
Of course, the Avs have this kind of flexibility because they have possibly the league’s best player, Nathan MacKinnon, on an insanely affordable $6.3 million cap hit for the next three seasons. When he becomes an unrestricted free agent, MacKinnon could justifiably ask for twice that. But that kind of advantage only works if you use it, which the Avs are.
It continues a mean-streak of moves for Sakic since he was freed of the shackles of placating total nutter Patrick Roy in 2016. Before last season he added Kadri for Tyson Barrie, whom the Leafs tired of about 10 games in and now is plying his trade in Edmonton. He plucked Andre Burakovsky out of D.C. for a cross-eyed mule and watched him put up a career year (admittedly thanks to an insane shooting percentage). His starting goalie, Philipp Grubauer, cost nothing but a second-rounder. Perhaps his greatest coup was acquiring blue-line linchpin Samuel Girard and the pick that became Bowen Byram, who will debut next season, for Matt Duchene in a deal that also involved Kyle Turris, and now both of them are unwanted or already bought out by the Predators.
The addition of Toews and Byram, with Girard and Cale Makar (who’s about five minutes from becoming the best defenseman in the whole league) will give the Avs the most mobile and dynamic top four on defense in the NHL. The addition of Saad might make the Avs top-nine forwards the most explosive. It is most definitely go-time in Denver. They have MacKinnon on that deal for three more seasons and they’re clearly going to try and make the most of it.
-Elsewhere, Vegas netted the most sought after defenseman on the market in Alex Pietrangelo. Strangely for a team that got to start from scratch just three years ago, the Knights are again in cap hell thanks to it, and had to lose the criminally underrated Nate Schmidt to do so. Pietrangelo is coming off one of his best seasons both points-wise and metrics-wise, but he is 30 and the Knights have just opted to pay him nearly $9 million a season until he’s 37. It’s the same logic as when they tossed $9.5 million at Mark Stone last summer. Stone is a very good player but he’s not a $9.5 million player, and Nevada also happens to be a no income tax state that the Knights just aren’t taking advantage of like the Lightning do in Florida. They threw this money at them because they wanted to. Now every important Knight save Shea Theodore is 28 or over, which means this could rot in a hurry. Vegas still needs to pawn Marc-Andre Fleury off on someone to get cap-compliant, and teams haven’t been rushing to help them out for the prize of a 35-year-old goalie.
-The biggest prize at forward was Taylor Hall, who got on the wrong plane and ended up in Buffalo and apparently just decided to stay. He signed a one-year deal for $8 million, and no one’s sure why. If Hall’s hope is that finances will rebound for the league after next season, that’s highly unlikely, as fans aren’t going to be back in full for a while yet, if at all next season. If he’s hoping the Sabres give him a chance to actually play in the playoffs, they were 13 points off the pace last season and didn’t even make the bubble. The Sabres last made the playoffs two boring-ass Radiohead albums ago. Their main star, Jack Eichel, might already be longing for the exit door. It’s an odd calculation.