It is finally time to exhale after the long journey that is the NHL season.
It started what seems like a million years ago with preparation for training camp back in September. And now, thanks to new wrinkles in the collective bargaining agreement that allow free agents to discuss potential new homes with teams before the opening of the free-agency bazaar, the 2015-16 season, for all intents and purposes, ended on July 1.
Did we mention exhaling?
There still isn't much of an offseason in the traditional sense of the word. And, to be sure, plenty of teams need to get their collective houses in order before training camp rolls around in two months. Several teams, however, already find themselves in a pretty darned comfortable position heading into next season, having -- at least on paper -- assembled the deck chairs in a pleasing manner. Here's a look at some of the clubs that fall into each category as summer, true and proper, is upon us.
Teams that can take a breather
This isn't to suggest that the Devils, who have missed the playoffs every season since surprisingly advancing to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals, are a lock to finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference next season. But you have to admire the work done by general manager Ray Shero in wheeling and dealing and finessing his lineup into a position where a postseason berth is very much a possibility.
First, Shero did what is so difficult to do in the NHL: add guaranteed offense via trade. By acquiring one of the NHL's top left wingers in Taylor Hall, the 2010 first-overall draft pick who should be pretty motivated to prove the Edmonton Oilers wrong, Shero has provided a critical scoring catalyst. The Devils were dead last in goals per game last season, yet they hung around the playoff fringes until March. So if you figure in 30 goals from Hall, all of a sudden New Jersey is a different team.
The deal cost the Devils top young defenseman Adam Larsson -- and they also lost the useful David Schlemko (see below) to San Jose -- but they brought in Ben Lovejoy, whom Shero knows from their days in Pittsburgh. Lovejoy was an important cog in the Penguins' defensive machine, which helped spur them to a Stanley Cup championship in June. Add in a nice complementary player like Vernon Fiddler, and you have to like how the Devils are trending.
It's been quite the renaissance for San Jose GM Doug Wilson, who seemed to have lost control of the ship a couple of years ago after the Sharks choked up a 3-0 first-round series lead against the Los Angeles Kings and then missed the playoffs the following year.
This season, however, the Sharks reached their first Stanley Cup finals, and Wilson isn't resting on his laurels. He signed the aforementioned Schlemko to bolster a defense that wasn't quite good enough against Pittsburgh -- and did so at an affordable $8.4 million over four years. The Sharks also added a healthy dose of speed up front by signing free-agent winger Mikkel Boedker to a four-year deal that will pay the 2008 eighth-overall draft pick $4 million annually. This is a calculated risk for Wilson, as Boedker has never hit the 20-goal mark. But the native of Denmark will play with a talented forward group in San Jose, which bodes well for his goal production.
Boedker, 26, is also familiar with Sharks coach Pete DeBoer, having thrived while playing for DeBoer in the OHL. San Jose also locked up Tomas Hertl, who was injured for most of the finals. The Sharks signed the 22-year-old to a two-year bridge deal worth $2.8 million in the first year and $3.2 million in the second year, for a team-friendly $3 million cap hit. Hertl had a strong postseason before his knee injury. If, as some believed, the Sharks were vulnerable to taking a step back after their memorable run to the finals, Wilson seems to have assured that won't be the case.
The Lightning weren't among the team that waded into free-agent waters on Friday, but by the end of the day they might have accomplished as much, maybe more, than any other team in the league.
After ending months of suspense -- and more than a little angst for Lightning fans -- by signing captain Steven Stamkos to an eight-year deal worth $8.5 million annually on Wednesday, Steve Yzerman solidified his status as a GM deity by locking up defenseman Victor Hedman to an eight-year deal with a cap hit of $7.875 million per year on Friday. Both Stamkos and Hedman left millions of dollars on the table in terms of what they could have earned by becoming unrestricted free agents -- Stamkos could have hit the market on Friday, while Hedman would have become an unrestricted free agent next summer. But both committed long term to a team they believe is championship-caliber.
Then, as if he hadn't already done enough, Yzerman locked up goalie of the future (or the now?), Andrei Vasilevskiy, to a three-year extension at a very manageable $3.5 million annually. The contract does seem to suggest that the Lightning will be looking to move Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, who is entering the final year of his contract. But, regardless, the Lightning have secured the kind of building-block players that suggest more deep playoff runs are in the offing.
No vacation for you
On Friday, I took issue with the relative lack of activity by the New York Rangers as they enter a period of uncertainty regarding their lineup. Speaking of New York-area teams that don't seem to have a plan in place yet: The Islanders very early on indicated they weren't interested in keeping winger Kyle Okposo. So Okposo signed a seven-year deal worth $42 million with the Buffalo Sabres.
Center Frans Nielsen also departed, signing a six-year deal worth $5.25 million annually with the Detroit Red Wings, and forward Matt Martin signed a four-year deal to serve as mentor and protector of some sort for the young Toronto Maple Leafs.
Letting them escape was one thing, although you do hate to see your former guys stay in the same conference. Still, I'm not sure how replacing those players with 30-year-old Andrew Ladd, at $5.5 million per year for seven years, and 37-year-old Jason Chimera, who signed a two-year deal worth a total of $4.5 million, represents forward progress. I love Ladd's dressing-room presence, but he's two years older than Okposo. So at the very best it's a wash. I likewise love Chimera's ageless enthusiasm and durability, but given his advanced age, it's hard not see this as a team that's tracking sideways at a most inopportune time, considering that the Islanders are coming off their first playoff-series win since 1993.
Furthermore, are they content heading into next season with Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak as their goaltending tandem -- especially given that Greiss, who was stellar in the playoffs, has never been a full-time starter and Halak is perpetually one step away from the disabled list?
July 1 was a very quiet day for the Ducks, who saw Jamie McGinn, David Perron and Chris Stewart depart the nest, as it were, for the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues, respectively, but did little else.
That doesn't mean that GM Bob Murray, who earlier this spring rehired Randy Carlyle for a second turn as Ducks head coach, won't be busier later this summer. In fact, there's lots left on Murray's plate as he tries to figure out what to do with his glut of NHL-caliber young defensemen and looks to fill a hole or two up front.
I know that defenseman Cam Fowler has been in play for some time now as he heads into the final season of his contract. It's possible the asking price for Fowler will come down as the summer progresses. But Murray is going to have to move assets to make this all work. Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rakell need new contracts as restricted free agents, and the team is without a backup goalie after trading Frederik Andersen to Toronto earlier this spring. That leaves youngster John Gibson as Anaheim's lone, NHL-ready netminder.
The Ducks remain a team that should be considered a Western Conference power but, unfortunately for Murray, he still has work to do before he can put his feet up and take a summer break.