For those underwhelmed by the lack of transactions surrounding the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft last week, the 2021 Entry Draft represented another opportunity for general managers around the league to give their roster a facelift, and did they ever deliver.
Due to the NHL’s stagnating salary cap, which will presumably remain frozen at around $81 million for the next several seasons as the league and its franchises slowly recover from the financial losses brought upon by the pandemic, several teams were forced into clearing their books as they found themselves uncomfortably pressed up against the cap ceiling.
With the context of immeasurable financial constraint established, let’s take a look at several of the most significant trades that were completed this past weekend.
Philadelphia Flyers acquire Rasmus Ristolainen in exchange for defenseman Robert Hagg, 2021 first-round draft pick (14th overall) and 2023 second-round draft pick.
This was the first domino to fall on Saturday, as the Sabres parted ways with their longest-tenured defensemen and signalled that they are fully committing to another long rebuild in the hopes that this time, the harvest will be fruitful.
Since he entered the league, Ristolainen’s underlying metrics grade him out as one of the league’s worst defensemen in terms of driving play and the rate at which his team surrenders high-quality chances when he is on the ice, which can be partly attributed to the weight of responsibility thrust upon him as a result of the bone-thin blueline that Buffalo often iced during his rocky tenure.
Ristolainen leaves the organization as the 37th highest point scorer in franchise history, and 6th among all defensemen. He can also claim four 40+ point seasons, most of which were attained as the lone offensive option on teams bereft of any tangible attacking talent.
For Philadelphia, the hope is that the 6’4” Ristolainen can better utilize his physical gifts and approach his once sky-high potential while playing a significantly sheltered role behind Ivan Provorov and their other high-profile offseason acquisition, Ryan Ellis. If the Flyers can pair him with a defensively conscious partner while more effectively managing his ice-time, the most destructive of Ristolainen’s impulses may be deterred, but I wouldn’t wager on that happening.
His 36.58 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season was the 20th worst rate amongst all defensemen, and is emblematic of his entire Sabres career to this point. The man bleeds chances like nobody’s business.
However, Ristolainen still posseses a heavy shot that can be a threat on the power play, and doesn’t hesitate to throw his body around, but his questionable decision making and lack of defensive awareness neutralize any benefits he may offer, and makes him a liability anytime he steps onto the ice.
In the event that Ristolainen’s play continues to crater, his contract expires following this season and the Flyers could simply let him test free agency, but that would represent an unconscionably poor use of the assets they relinquished to acquire him in the first place.
The Sabres did well to unshackle themselves of Ristolainen’s almost $5 million cap hit without retention while simultaneously recouping valuable assets in a first- (used to select Isak Rosen) and second-round pick to go along with Hagg, a young but unspectacular blueliner who has posted average results on the bottom pair thus far in his career.
With the highly touted 2022 and 2023 drafts on the horizon, the Sabres are rightly stripping their roster of NHL-calibre skaters with an eye on asset accumulation, and this deal accomplishes their goals on both fronts.
The Verdict: The Sabres rid themselves of one of the most burdensome boat anchors in the league while accumulating future assets. Buffalo wins this one handily.
St. Louis Blues acquire forward Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Sammy Blais and a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Tom Wilson really broke the Rangers, eh?
The brawl-filled, late-season matchups between the Rangers and Wilson’s Capitals coupled with New York falling short of the playoffs told owner Jim Dolan all he needed to know about the direction that his franchise was headed, for better or for worse.
The notoriously hot-headed figurehead abruptly axed both of the Rangers’ front office leaders in team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, after it was reported that they disagreed on the release of a team statement regarding Tom Wilson’s behaviour in their previous games.
As such, the Rangers’ offseason moves have thus far valued truculence and pugnacity, and to not be pushed around by the likes of Wilson, which formed the impetus of their trade with the Blues.
Their first significant move of the offseason came in the form of the acquisition and subsequent signing of Barclay Goodrow, fresh off of back-to-back Cup wins with Tampa Bay, to a questionable six-year, $21.8 million extension (~$3.6 million per year) for a bottom-six forward. It’s not Buchnevich, but bear with me.
Goodrow was a strong supporting piece for the defending champions but much of his success was driven by the fact that his line was afforded the opportunity to feast on other teams’ lesser skaters, and while he was signed for a contract valued under $1 million.
If you’re going to commit a lot of money to a player, you better be doing so with skaters who are going to be meet or exceed the value expected of a large contract, something Goodrow is very unlikely to accomplish. The countless examples of franchise’s whiffing on big contracts given to role players should be warning for every general manager, but some simply never learn.
In comparison, Buchnevich is due a new contract and after agreeing to a two-year bridge deal, he would likely try to cash in on his nearly point-per-game performance last season, a deal which may have been too rich for the Rangers who are also trying to maintain flexibility for a potential blockbuster deal for Buffalo’s Jack Eichel. Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool has Buchnevich likely signing a four- or five-year deal worth around $6 million a year, which is fair for the benefit of locking Buchnevich up for the remainder of his prime years.
While the Rangers see such a projection as unfeasible given they still have to re-sign reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin to new deals, they should have used their cap space more wisely considering Buchnevich’s considerable talent.
The 2020-21 season was Buchnevich’s most productive of his career, as the Russian winger finished 23rd in the NHL in even strength scoring, and tied for 31st in primary assists at 5-on-5, playing a large part in facilitating the Rangers’ offence.
For the Blues, obtaining a strong play-driving winger who is responsible defensively while also scoring at an impressive clip for a second-round pick that might one day be as good as Buchnevich currently, is an absolute steal. Blais is a serviceable bottom-six winger who can be plugged in for his solid defensive results, but is only a makeweight in this deal.
The Verdict: The Blues get a young top-six winger for relatively little while the Rangers continue to value the wrong traits in their roster construction. Blues come out on top with this one.
Vancouver Canucks acquire defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for forwards Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel and a first-round pick (9th overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft, a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and a seventh-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
At first glance, this trade looks like a big win for Jim Benning and the Canucks. Sanitizing their books of the exorbitant deals paid out to role players immediately clears space out for Vancouver to pen their young stars in Elias Petersson and Quinn Hughes to hefty long-term extensions, while also coralling a talented young winger in Conor Garland, who is under team control for the purposes of his next contract.
However, look slightly further and you’ll discover that this transaction is another example in a long line of mismanagement by Jim Benning, who has continually misjudged his franchise’s trajectory and place in the NHL’s hierarchy and hampered their ability to assemble a competitive roster around their franchise cornerstones as they approach their peak years.
Instead of waiting another year for the contracts of Eriksson, Beagle, and Roussel to simultaneously expire and free up around $12 million in cap room, Benning willingly took on the gargantuan commitment necessitated by Ekman-Larsson, who hasn’t played at the level expected of someone on his contract for several seasons, to be able to lock up his young stars. Not to mention, Benning signed those players to the exorbitant contracts to begin with, and has resorted to cannabilizing his own supply of assets in response.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson used to be one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen, posting five seasons of at least 40 points, and one with 39. Unfortunately, those days have long passed, and the Swedish defenceman is still owed $8.25 million per year for the next 6 (six!) years, making him the 8th highest paid blueliner in the NHL. Yikes. His offensive production is still respectable, but his ability to defend has fallen off of a cliff and playing so many minutes in Arizona certainly hasn’t helped.
Yet, Benning should be given praise for managing to extract Garland in this deal, as the winger is one of the league’s most under-appreciated scorers. His 1.31 primary assists per 60 minutes at even strength places him at 15th in the NHL, just behind Toronto’s Mitch Marner, and Garland was also 41st in his shots per 60 rate, painting him as an offensive dual threat. His slight frame and elusive agility also help him evade oncoming forecheckers and draw penalties to the tune of just over 2 per 60 minutes, good enough for 3rd among all NHL skaters this past season according to Natural Stat Trick.
According to Evolving Hockey, Garland’s projected deal comes in at 4 years and just under $4.7 million per year, which would be right in line with his league-wide production and he could immediately form a frightening tandem with Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser in the Canucks top six.
Benning knows its playoffs or bust next season for Vancouver, with the failure to qualify for the postseason likely spelling the end of his lengthy tenure as general manager. The trade will likely improve the Canucks next season although Ekman-Larsson’s albatross of a contract and their relinquishing of the 9th overall pick mean the problem is only kicked further down the road.
The Verdict: While the trade gives Vancouver short-term flexibility and a talented young winger, they paid a heavy price to rid themselves of bad deals, only to take on an even worse, and much longer one in return. The Coyotes should be happiest with their haul here as they continue their rebuild.
Chicago Blackhawks acquire defenseman Seth Jones, a 2021 first-round pick (32nd overall) and a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick and a second-round selection at the 2021 NHL Draft.
While this was the most significant of the weekend’s transactions, it was the least surprising as the Blackhawks were reported to have been frontrunners for Jones from the outset of the offseason. The Blackhawks then signed Jones to a monstrous eight-year, $76 million extension that will take effect beginning in the 2022-23 season, which will give Jones the third highest cap hit among all NHL defencemen.
Jones is the latest skater to be a polarizing figure in the clash between traditional (ie. the eye test) and analytical evaluators, with his tantalizing physical gifts and draft pedigree cited as factors clouding Jones’ underwhelming underlying metrics for a player of his supposed value around the league.
Jones has been highly regarded for playing well under extreme usage under Blue Jackets’ coaches (2nd highest 5-on-5 total ice time this season) and would generally post good counting stats, with the towering blueliner on pace for at least 40 points in his past 5 seasons.
Unfortunately, goals and points can’t paper over all of Jones’ flaws, mostly being that the Blue Jackets were often hemmed in their own zone and gave up a greater number of chances with him on the ice, with his shot- and expected goals share hovering under 50% at five-on-five. When you’re playing that much, that’s a lot of time to be underwater chance-wise, and definitely not becoming of the third highest paid defenceman.
It’s not impossible that Jones can generate above-average results next season and especially when he’s somewhere he wants to be, but the subsequent extension handed out by Chicago could be a poison pill in the not-so-distant future. Ask Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic how their deals have turned out.
Once Jones indicated he was unlikely to return to Ohio once his contract expired, the Blue Jackets could have been excused for settling for a depressed trade return, but they did well to procure two early round picks and a burgeoning offensive defenceman who looks poised to take on greater responsibility within the Blue Jackets’ system.
Boqvist’s most intriguing trait is his ability to complete controlled carries of the puck into his opponent’s defensive zone, allowing his team to set up their offense with possession. According to Corey Sznajder, Boqvist’s completion rate of 61% is just above the NHL’s best defenceman in this regard (Roman Josi with 60%), albeit in only about a quarter of Josi’s workload.
Boqvist was also given some top power play time with the Hawks last season and could transition into the same role with the Blue Jackets, although Zach Werenski can claim seniority in that department. His development will be fun to watch and Columbus has found themselves a real talented prospect in Jones’ stead.
For a team who has had trouble securing their stars to long-term commitments (Bobrovsky, Panarin, Dubois, Rick Nash), filling out their depth chart with young players under team control and high draft picks seems to be their most feasible avenue to success.
The Verdict: The Blue Jackets acquired some valuable pieces for their rebuild, including a promising defenceman who can immediately be inserted into the lineup. The Blackhawks gave up a lot for a name-brand blueliner who will play a ton of minutes, but whose on-ice results might not match the hype. It’s not a part of the trade, but the astronomical contract commitment makes this deal a loss for the Blackhawks.
Philadelphia Flyers acquire forward Cam Atkinson from Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Jakub Voracek.
Philadelphia continued their thorough roster reconstruction in a straight swap of highly-paid forwards, with Cam Atkinson and former Blue Jackets’ forward Jakub Voracek, each given a much-needed change of scenery.
From the Blue Jackets’ perspective, shedding the slightly older Atkinson rids them of a contract that had an additional year remaining compared to Voracek’s, and one that was restricted by a no-trade clause which likely hampered the potential return. With Columbus’ recently parting ways with captain Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, David Savard, and Seth Jones, the franchise has clearly chosen to begin another period of retooling, with only five players under contract beyond next season.
The Flyers’ split with Voracek seemed written on the wall, as recent reports of discontent combined with trades involving Gostisbehere, Ristolainen, and Ellis signalling a new era in Philadelphia.
Even with Voracek the downslope of his career, his playmaking remains a strong suit. His 11 primary assists at 5-on-5 was tied for 31st among all NHL skaters, and he generated 1.35 high danger passes (those completed from behind the net or across the slot) per 60 minutes, third most among Flyers’ forwards.
Blue Jackets will hope that he forms an instant connection with Patrik Laine, who they acquired early last season and whose contract is up for renewal this summer. If he is to stay, he’ll need to be persuaded that GM Jarmo Kekalainen can surround him with other offensive weapons.
Atkinson is no slouch however, with the undersized winger potting 213 goals in 627 career games (a 28 goal pace over 82 games), and only being two years removed from a 41-goal season, although his production in recent seasons does stir up some concern, with only 27 goals in 100 games since 2019. His reduced cap hit and playing style offers increased flexibility on and off the ice for the Flyers, and will hope that their new mix will reap playoff success next season.
The Verdict: The Flyers and Blue Jackets exchange troublesome contracts with both players having something left in the tank despite being on the wrong side of 30. I give the Flyers the edge for the increased flexibility and cap space that Atkinson’s contract gives them.
Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick. All contract information via CapFriendly.
Top photo of Seth and Caleb Jones from @NHLBlackhawks on Twitter.