Columnists, Hockey, Sports

NHL off-season highlights

Every NHL fan is faced with a case of the off-season blues after the Stanley Cup is awarded and summer officially begins. The allure of beach days starts to fade at the two-week point of no hockey when watching your team’s highlight reel becomes a religious experience.

July’s free agency market creates something to talk about and offers a small taste of what the next season will bring. It’s just the right dose of hockey news to help us survive until the murmurs of pre-season surface in late August.

With training camp starting up soon and the 2022-2023 campaign starting on Oct. 7, the NHL’s 32 squads are shaping their rosters with some big summer moves and signings. Claude Giroux will sport a Senators jersey, Max Pacioretty –– albeit the torn Achilles –– will join the Hurricanes, and Patrice Bergeron and Filip Forsberg are staying put.

While some groups, like the New York Islanders, kept to themselves this off-season, and others, like the Calgary Flames, had the phones ringing off the hook.

I don’t think I’m the only one who cross-referenced their sources a couple times as word of the Johnny Gaudreau signing came out. Nine years and 609 points later, Johnny Hockey got his pay day from an unexpected organization.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, who have earned a grand total of one playoff series win in franchise history, inked a seven-year, $68.3 million contract with the coveted left wing and sent Hockey Twitter into shambles. Predictions of a New Jersey Devils or Philadelphia Flyers deal were thrown out the window as it was confirmed Gaudreau –– one of the league’s brightest stars –– is headed to one of the dullest teams.

In late July, Matthew Tkachuk, another of the Flames’ top young talents, notified the team he would not be re-signing.

In a league with cap space as tight as the NHL and the want to produce franchise players, the exchange of two big-time guys is rare. But it happened. Tkachuk was dealt to the Florida Panthers, in return for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, a first round pick and a prospect.

Huberdeau, a tried and true left winger, was a core component to the Panthers’ 2022 President Trophy win as they dominated the regular season. The team was swept in the second round, but the forward ended the year with a career-high 115 points.

Tkachuk immediately signed an extension with Florida worth $76 million over the span of eight years while Huberdeau cashed in $84 million over eight years with the Flames. The Panthers got a first-class talent, five years younger than their franchise scoring leader, for nearly $10 million less.

Logistically, both the Flames and Panthers still have a strong left wing at the end of the trade, but they are different players nonetheless. Tkachuk no doubt can put the puck in the back of the net, but he’s also a play maker, a game changer. Huberdeau is more likely the guy receiving the pass than making it. Granted, many of his shots make the buzzer sound but it’s just to say that trading a superstar for a superstar doesn’t promise a seamless transition on the ice for either squad –– there will be new systems.

Calgary didn’t stop there, though. Nazem Kadri, with the 2022 Stanley Cup Championship under his belt, signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Flames after proving himself in Colorado the past three seasons.

Kadri has had to play through a lot of noise in his career. Labeled one of the “dirtier” players in the league early in his career due to questionable hits, the center received backlash from the public. But it grew deeper than that when hockey followers showed the ugliest side of the fandom and used Kadri’s Lebanese ethnicity as something to attack.

The unacceptable and disgusting hate Kadri received on social media during the playoffs speaks to a greater issue the NHL community needs to deal with, and yet he somehow took it all in stride. Last season, he scored a career high 87 regular-season points in Colorado and 15 playoff points for the cup-winning Avalanche.

Kadri will bring more depth to Calgary’s center group and a veteran experience that’s invaluable when the postseason comes along. After years of taunts in Toronto pegging him as a playoff flop, Kadri’s last season showed the contrary and had a significant impact on his new hefty contract.

And finally –– because how could I possibly make it a whole article without mentioning the Rangers? –– we have Vincent Trocheck signing in New York. At $39.4 million over seven years, the Blueshirts have finally filled their dire need for a second-line center.

If Ryan Strome had it his way, the No. 16 jersey in New York would have his name instead of Trocheck’s on it this coming season. An integral part of the leadership group, Strome wove himself into the Ranger DNA during his four years. He exceeded expectations –– after being traded to the Big Apple –– and played with the New York passion and grit that would sometimes make you forget about the missed empty net goals.

At the end of the day, Chris Drury, his organization and the fanbase are hungry for a Cup. Strome was good, but he had a clear purpose which made his departure to Anaheim bittersweet –– yet ultimately the right move.

Following their whirlwind run to the Eastern Conference Finals last playoffs, the Rangers have a new level of confidence and desperation to reach the top of the hill. Trocheck has the edge of a Gerard Gallant player after skating for him in Florida and will likely slot in with Artemi Panarin and Kappo Kakko to add some hard-hitting flair to the New York offense.

With the 2022-2023 season inching closer and closer, there’s a handful of teams on the cusp of being very competitive, some for the first time in a while. The waiting game to October continues, but we’re in the home stretch –– hang in there everyone!

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