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Five NHL teams having sneaky-good offseasons

It’s not always the big free agent signings that pave the way to success in the NHL. Trades can be just as effective, especially in the tight confines of a hard salary cap. And five NHL franchises have really caught my eye so far this offseason.

Carolina Hurricanes

Not willing to overpay in free agency? No problem! My Christmas in July piece had Filip Forsberg listed as the best gift Carolina could receive. And you know what? I was wrong. Because there was no way the Hurricanes were going to pay open-market value, even if he was available.

Carolina needed star power up front: a sniper that it could count on to bury 30-plus goals a season. Especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So the Hurricanes perused the used car lot and found Max Pacioretty ripe for the taking. The Vegas Golden Knights had put themselves in a salary cap nightmare and he was available for pretty much nothing.

Then the Hurricanes decided to bolster their blueline after trading Tony DeAngelo’s rights to the Philadelphia Flyers. To replace his scoring output, Carolina went out and landed Brent Burns in a deal with the San Jose Sharks. Oh, and the Sharks are eating a portion of his salary from him, so Burns only counts for just over $5 million against the cap.

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wow. Job well done by Hurricanes GM Don Waddell.

Detroit Red Wings

Most of the work done so far this offseason by GM Steve Yzerman has been via free agency, but don’t discount the move to acquire goaltender Ville Husso’s rights from the St. Louis Blues. Detroit was able to sign the RFA to a four-year deal, solidifying the crease in tandem with incumbent Alex Nedeljkovic.

Then the Red Wings went to work during free agency, signing veteran defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta. Detroit gained scoring at the forward position by signing David Perron and Dominik Kubalik. Michigan native Andrew Copp came home on a five-year deal.

I’m a huge fan of Copp’s game and think an elevated role in the Motor City will be beneficial for both sides. Yzerman has been patient during his time at the helm of the Red Wings. But the rebuild was just kicked into high gear for the 2022-23 season. I think Detroit has a legitimate chance of making the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Anaheim Ducks

This might be a surprising pick, but hear me out. It’s no secret that GM Pat Verbeek is looking to overhaul the Anaheim organization in his likeness to him. And he traded away almost every player of value at the 2022 NHL trade deadline.

But that’s my point. Verbeek acquired so many draft picks that he now has flexibility in determining exactly what type of players – and people – he wants in Anaheim.

No doubt eyebrows were raised when Sonny Milano didn’t receive a qualifying offer. I was shocked by the move. But I appreciate the hard line stance Verbeek is willing to take. An NHL GM needs a strong backbone, and I think Verbeek has thus far shown some of the tenacity that made him a feared opponent on the ice.

I also like that Verbeek didn’t go scorched earth. Anaheim spent on forwards Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano. They worked well together with the New York Rangers and should keep the Ducks respectable while the team rebuilds.

Pittsburgh Penguins

When the Penguins were able to re-sign Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin this offseason, my expectation was that GM Ron Hextall was finished for the summer. Not so. Out went Mike Matheson to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Jeff Petry. And John Marino was swapped out for Ty Smith from the New Jersey Devils.

That’s a big overhaul to the Pittsburgh blueline. And it’s a gamble. Petry is 34 years old, and Smith is still finding his way in the NHL. But after several years of early successes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it was apparent that Hextall wasn’t content with the status quo.

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I don’t think either trade was made just to shake things up. Petry can hammer the puck. And Smith arrives at a low cap hit with tons of potential. But I was surprised to see Matheson go.

Up front, the Penguins were able to retain Rickard Rakell for the long haul. And Bryan Rust decided to stick around in Iron City on what I considered to be a team-friendly, six-year contract worth $5.125 million per year.

There’s no rebuilding in Pittsburgh. With Sidney Crosby under contract for three more seasons, it’s still win-now for the Penguins.

New Jersey Devils

Having salary cap room by the oodles has sure helped the Devils so far this offseason. General manager Tom Fitzgerald was able to look at several different routes to improve his team, and I think he’s done just that.

I’ve always thought that Ondrej Palat would be a star in the NHL if given the opportunity to play more top-line minutes. And while he did on occasion with the Tampa Bay Lightning – where he was a key component to winning two Stanley Cups – it wasn’t consistent. The Lighting were deep, and Palat was a secondary player. That’s about to change in New Jersey, where I think he’ll play an expanded role. And for $6 million a year, that’s a reasonable price to pay for the next five seasons.

The Devils have also been active on the trade market, bringing in goaltender Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals, Erik Haula from the Boston Bruins, and Marino from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Last season New Jersey struggled mightily in goal. And while Mackenzie Blackwood’s name has been floated in trade rumours, it appears he will team with Vanecek this coming season. That’s an upgrade. Vanecek is a solid NHL goaltender. The only caveat is that neither he nor Blackwood has taken the next step to being a true No. 1 goalie. So goaltending still might be a work in progress.

Haula can fly and should fit in well with the uptempo style preferred by head coach Lindy Ruff. But Marino might be the most intriguing deal of all for the Devils. At just 25 years old, the blueliner has five years remaining at $4.4 million. That’s a manageable cap hit for a defenseman that’s proven to be responsible and capable of chipping in offensively.

Will the Devils be Stanley Cup contenders next season? That would probably be a stretch. But they will be better. And a lot of that is thanks to the trades and signings that have taken place in recent weeks.

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