When a day that is known for proliferate change came to an end, the landscape of the National Hockey League had once again shifted.
What that transformation means will be determined over the course of the 2015-16 season.
The first day of NHL Free Agency brought about the expected player movement, with the biggest acquisition being Pittsburgh seemingly landing an impactful scoring wing to skate alongside Sidney Crosby by trading for former Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel.
“He’s a great player with a lot of speed and scoring ability. I think he will help us a lot,” Sidney Crosby told DKonPittsburghSports.com after the deal was announced.
Along with Kessel, the Penguins received forward Tyler Biggs, defenseman Tim Erixon, and Toronto’s second round draft pick in 2016. Heading to Toronto are forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington, first and third round draft picks in 2016.
TSN subsequently reported that the Leafs will retain a portion of Kessel’s contract, which has seven years and $54 million remaining.
The blockbuster ends the trade speculation that had swirled around Kessel and defenseman Dion Phaneuf dating back to the NHL Trade Deadline.
As the Leafs nose-dived to a 30-44-8 record in the 2014-15 campaign, the wing had been criticized for his personality and leadership despite totaling25-36-61 in 82 games. He recorded 247-273-520 in668 regular season career games with Boston and Toronto, and totaled 21 points in 22 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.
“I thank him for his six years [that were] very productive for him,” Leafs President Brendan Shanahan told reporters during a late afternoon press conference at the Air Canada Centre. “[There were] a lot of talented individuals on this team, but as a core group it wasn’t working.”
While the Leafs are in the embryonic stages of an organizational rebuilding process, Pittsburgh appears to be constructing a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup next spring following a 2014-15 season in which the Penguins clinched a playoff berth on the last day before being eliminated by the Rangers in the first round.
“I am very excited about what happened. We worked on this deal with Toronto for over a month,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford told reporters in Pittsburgh.”I believe we improved our team. When you get a pure goalscorer [like Kessel], that’s going to give you a better chance to win.”
Undoubtedly, the Kessel trade was Wednesday’s centerpiece transaction. Other noteworthy deals include Mike Green (three years, $18 million) and Brad Richards (one year, $3 million) signing with Detroit; Edmonton locking up Andrej Sekera to a six-year, $33 million contract; Paul Martin agreeing to a four-year, $19.4 million deal with San Jose.
“We want to thank Mike for 10 great seasons with the Washington Capitals,” the team said in a statement. “Mike was an ultimate professional in his long tenure with our organization and had a huge impact on our community. We wish Mike all the best with the Detroit Red Wings organization.”
Locally, the Devils signed Paul Thompson, Blake Coleman and ex-Rangers defenseman John Moore. The Islanders signed backup goaltender Thomas Greiss and re-signed defenseman Thomas Hickey. The Rangers signed defenseman Raphael Diaz, forwards Jayson Megna, Matt Lindblad, Viktor Stalberg, Brian Gibbons, and traded a 2017 sixth round pick to Nashville for goaltender Magnus Hellberg.
“We want a skilled team, highly competitive team that I would say, if we are in a situation where we have a chance to to go for it, are we going to go for it? Yeah, we are,” Jeff Gortonsaid in a late afternoon conference call with reporters.”We want to win and we think we have a pretty good team and that is what we are all trying to do. We will draft well and find players and as a group we will continue to go for it.”
The biggest personnel change made by the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners occurred in the front office as Gorton was promoted to General Manager, and Jim Schoenfeld is now the Senior Vice President and Assistant General Manager, along with being the GM of the AHL Hartford Wolfpack. Former GM Glen Sather will stay on as Team President.
“Well, I would say that there is not a lot changing other than I will have the final decision on players. We have a good staff with a lot of good people in place. We have [Sather] in our corner to bounce things off on what we are thinking and it’s a benefit to me and everyone here,” Gorton said. “I think that we will work together and I don’t plan on being a one-man team. We have had success because of the people here. Good scouts, good people, good coaches, good people all over. I don’t see big changes. We have good people. I will use Glen as much as I can. We work with him every day and he will be part of it. I don’t think he will go too far and he calls me five times a day as it is.
“[Schoenfeld] runs the minor league teams, he does a lot of things, he is a big asset. I plan on using everyone. Glen will be right here with me.”
Notes: The Boston Bruins were highly active on the first day of NHL free agency as they were close to agreeing to a five-year, $19 millionwithleft wingMatt Beleske as of Wednesday night. The B’s also traded away right wingReilly Smith and the contract of Marc Savard to Florida in exchange for Hub-native and right wingJimmy Hayes.