HARD HITS: How to spice up the NHL offseason

Let’s be honest. The NHL offseason has become boring and predictable. All the action takes place in the week leading up to July 1, which is basically the only day in free agency that’s hectic.

It reminds me of that famous line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

That’s the NHL summer every year. There aren’t too many surprises that make you go, ‘Wow.’ Shea Weber for PK Subban was one of those rare moments a few summers ago. It was stud for stud. Two elite defensemen with big contracts. That’s what made it so compelling when Montreal and Nashville pulled the trigger. Now, Subban is on his third team in New Jersey.

The disappointment is that everyone knew where the likely destinations were for top free agents Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s about as fun as watching paint dry. Only Panarin had a interesting choice by passing up more money from the Blue Jackets and Islanders to go to his favorite destination at MSG with the Rangers.

What really surprised us? Joe Pavelski was gonna move on from the Sharks due to their salary cap after going top dollar and a crazy length with Erik Karlsson. Plus they had to bump up Timo Meier. I don’t think Sharks fans are thrilled that he chose Dallas. But he wasn’t returning. Joe Thornton likely will and all-time Shark Patrick Marleau hopes to. He remains the franchise leader in goals (508) and points (1,082).

Robin Lehner not getting any respect from the Islanders was disappointing. No wonder he took the Blackhawks offer of one year for $5 million. It’ll be interesting to follow him and Chicago incumbent Corey Crawford.

The biggest story was the Canadiens giving restricted free agent center Sebastian Aho a offer sheet. The Hurricanes quickly made their intention known and matched for the point-per-game number one center who was a big part of their run to the Conference Final. I liked Aho’s statement on Twitter.

He actually thanked Montreal for giving him the offer sheet. Even though he is excited to still be in Carolina, who have a bright future, it is refreshing to see a young player that was stuck as most unsigned Group II free agents are, express appreciation for the Habs’ interest.

Considering how rare it is to see other teams signing restricted free agents to offers due to history, maybe it’s time for it to become more common. What’s the harm in chasing after a young emerging star such as Mikko Rantanen or Brayden Point if they remain unsigned? The offseason should be about improving your roster by any means necessary within the salary cap rules.

Of course, there’s always the risk one takes by inking a RFA. It puts pressure on the original team to match the offer. They get seven days. It sure didn’t take the Hurricanes long to bring back Aho. They even had some fun with it.

Social media can definitely spice things up. Especially when it comes to the Canes Twitter. They make it fun for their fans. Had they decided not to match, there would’ve been the matter of compensation. It depends on how much the player receives. It’s also important to note that the team who signs that player to an offer sheet must have all the required draft picks for compensation.

If someone decided to tender an offer to Leafs free agent forward Mitch Marner for say 11.5 million AAV over seven years, they would be risking losing four first round picks. That would only apply if Toronto didn’t match. Being that Marner is already an established star who paced the Leafs with a career high 94 points in the final year of his entry level contract, I would expect them to re-sign the 22-year old playmaking right wing.

The intriguing part of what’s now a suffocating hot summer is that you have several key RFA’s still available. While most are forwards including the trio of Marner, Point and Rantanen along with Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Brock Boeser and Matthew Tkachuk, a couple of defensemen also are unsigned. Zach Werenski should get a nice raise from Columbus. So will Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and the Flyers’ Ivan Provorov.

For a player like Jacob Trouba, he had arbitration rights. So, the former Jet filed. That gives Rangers GM Jeff Gorton a timetable to get something done with the top right pair defenseman. The issue is they only have approximately $10.5 million in cap space to get key restricted’s Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Lemieux signed. Trouba will take up most of the room if he re-signs for seven years instead of accepting a one year award in arbitration.

The Rangers aren’t the only team facing cap constraints. Somehow, the Sharks were able to get Kevin Labanc to agree to a one year, $1 million deal. The Staten Island native is betting on himself following a breakout year. They also could have a handshake agreement to sign a long-term contract after January 1 next year. San Jose is still deciding whether to bring popular future Hall of Fame center Joe Thornton back for one more year. Jumbo Joe appears to have more left than former Shark turned free agent Patrick Marleau.

Even past the midpoint of July, there haven’t been any significant moves since all the early fireworks before Independence Day. Unless you consider the Canucks giving Micheal Ferland four years at a fair amount of $3.5 million AAV, and the Canes replacing him by agreeing to a reasonable two years at $3.375 million AAV with Ryan Dzingel, there’s nothing exciting happening.

There was a swap of checking centers between Chicago and Ottawa with Artem Anisimov going to the Senators for Zack Smith. You had the Blackhawks sending defenseman Henri Jokiharju to the Sabres in exchange for forward Alex Nylander. A mystifying trade by Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who passed on Bowen Byram to select Kirby Dach when his team needed D. About as strange as banking on former Pen Olli Maatta to stay healthy. His big moves to upgrade the blueline were Maatta and Calvin de Haan. 2018 first round pick Adam Boqvist can’t be ready soon enough.

So, here we are with a dead market as NHL executives take their time figuring out their next calculated moves. Regrettably, soon to be ex-Leaf Jake Gardiner is the biggest UFA left. He can command around $6.5 million. A good skating left defenseman with offensive capability, investing in him long-term is risky. While he waits to see who comes calling, proud vets Thornton, Marleau and Justin Williams all hope to be back for one more year. Ditto former Ranger and Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi.

There are some potential bargains to be had. If you like experienced veterans with character, there’s Brian Boyle. Eric Fehr can bring a similar skill set to interested suitors. Blues hometown hero Pat Maroon is available. Without his clutch goal in sudden death to eliminate the Stars in Game Seven, St. Louis might not be celebrating.

Then, there are reclamation projects like former Ranger playoff hero Derick Brassard. Would he take a one year deal on the cheap to prove himself? Thomas Vanek is a similar player, who still has good hands. But he’s become a nomad. Other options include Oscar Lindberg, Jason Pominville, Dion Phaneuf, Drew Stafford, Devante Smith-Pelly, Markus Kruger, Adam McQuaid and Magnus Paajarvi.

Unless a trade comes down soon that isn’t predictable like the Rangers dumping Vladislav Namestnikov for a third round pick, it’s boring. Sadly, the NBA offseason has become much more interesting. With so much hoopla surrounding Kawhi Leonard, who chose the Clippers to team up with Paul George following Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving shaking things up by going to the Brooklyn Nets, basketball has become the much crazier and most discussed sport in July.

It never used to be this way. Gone are the days of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne stunning everyone by signing to play for the Avalanche in the summer of 2003. Of course, back then anything was possible. Bobby Holik got crazy money out of the Rangers, who outbid the Devils, Flyers and Leafs to land the checking pivot. It’s hard to believe what they paid him. Imagine paying $9 million a pop over five years. Yikes.

The irony is now you have the Flyers paying Kevin Hayes over $7 million some 17 years later in a escalating salary cap. However, premium superstars Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin are bargains. So too are Nathan MacKinnon and Brad Marchand. How can anyone justify what Artemi Panarin got from the Blueshirts? That $11.6 million salary is part of why they will have to subtract players. But in truth, they’re stuck with Henrik Lundqvist for another two years due to his hefty $8.5 million average. They can buyout Brendan Smith and Kevin Shattenkirk.

If you go look at where teams are against the cap, it poses a problem moving forward. As the salaries grow more out of whack, the threat of another work stoppage is a possibility. Hopefully, it won’t happen. God help us.

So, what would make the hockey offseason better? Aside from more offer sheets, the idea of sign and trades like the NBA has would make it more interesting. Teams wouldn’t just lose players for nothing. There no longer is any compensation if an unrestricted free agent leaves. If you had a sign and trade scenario, a team could get something back in return. Sorta like the interesting Durant to the Nets while the Warriors signed D’Angelo Russell and received a lottery protected first round pick.

It’s rare that you see a star for star swap like we got a few years ago between Montreal and Nashville. The Canadiens still have Shea Weber while the Predators unloaded PK Subban to the Devils. New Jersey is the same team that stole Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Hall can become unrestricted next summer. Are the additions of top pick Jack Hughes, Subban and Wayne Simmonds enough to convince the 2017-18 Hart winner to stay?

The Rangers must still decide on Chris Kreider. He enters the final year of his contract. If they intend to keep him and try to compete due to the welcome addition of second pick Kaapo Kakko, Panarin, 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov and Adam Fox, multiple players won’t be back.

True story. Following ESPN breaking the big news of Leonard and George to the Clippers, I texted my friend John and sarcastically joked that the Rockets should trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. It didn’t even take a week for that to materialize along with Oklahoma City acquiring more first round picks.

The point is these types of blockbuster trades are fun. Even if I’m old school and don’t believe in the Super Team nonsense that started with LeBron James nine years ago choosing the Heat along with Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade where they went 2-2 in four consecutive NBA Finals, if the NHL had more activity it would be better. I’m not suggesting a uneven playing field like you have in the NBA. I’d just like to see more creativity to spice things up.

Maybe there should be shorter term contracts with player and team options. That’s part of what makes baseball and basketball interesting.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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