Ranking the Biggest Surprises in the 2014 NHL Offseason So Far
The Los Angeles Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup on June 14. Since then, it seems like the action has barely stopped around the NHL.
For the past month, fans have been served a steady diet of awards, coaching changes, trades, compliance buyouts, draft picks and free-agent signings all around the league.
Despite the volume of activity, much has gone as expected. Jason Spezza and Ryan Kesler each have new homes. The top picks from the draft hewed closely to their rankings. Compliance buyouts were used on hockey's most prominent underachievers.
Every so often, though, a TV or Twitter headline jumped out with something unexpected that required a bit of digging to fully understand.
Here's a look at the biggest surprises we've seen so far in the 2014 offseason.
6. Los Angeles Kings Choose Not to Buy Out Mike Richards
Though 29-year-old Mike Richards has won two Stanley Cups in the last three years, his name cropped up often as a potential compliance buyout candidate, such as in this article by Ken Campbell of The Hockey News.
Despite the fact that the Kings deploy Richards essentially as a fourth-line center even though his contract has a cap hit of $5.75 million for the next five seasons, general manager Dean Lombardi has elected to keep Richards as part of his team—at least for now.
Why It's Surprising
Though the Kings have done an impressive job of keeping their winning group together so far, they continue to knock up against the salary cap. Marian Gaborik was re-signed at a very reasonable rate, but here's what lies ahead, according to Campbell:
The Kings are faced with Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll becoming unrestricted free agents after 2014-15 and Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Jake Muzzin becoming restricted free agents in two summers. And looking even further ahead, Anze Kopitar has only two more years left on his deal. So the Kings are going to need some cap room, even if the salary cap goes up as revenues begin to climb.
Richards remains a useful player, but it's hard to imagine him justifying his contract for another five seasons.
In the short term, the impact of keeping Richards is minimal. The Kings stayed cap-compliant by parting ways with veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, instead re-signing the younger and less-expensive Matt Greene.
In 2014-15, Los Angeles will once again be the team to beat. After that, change will almost certainly have to come.
5. Vancouver Canucks Snatch New Coach Willie Desjardins from Pittsburgh Penguins
On June 17, Willie Desjardins coached the AHL Texas Stars to the 2014 Calder Cup championship. The next day, both the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins asked for permission to speak to Desjardins about their head coaching vacancies.
NHL.com covered the sequence of events. Desjardins reportedly had a phone interview with the Penguins on Thursday, then flew to Pittsburgh for a face-to-face interview. On Thursday afternoon, new Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "The process is coming to an end. I'm still checking a few points with the lead candidate, but a decision is coming real soon."
It didn't take long for everything to change. On Friday morning, Desjardins headed for Vancouver. On Saturday, Rutherford announced that he was restarting his search. On Monday, Desjardins was introduced as the new coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
Why It's Surprising
Desjardins had been assumed to be a lead candidate in Vancouver throughout his Calder Cup run, per The Globe and Mail, but the road to his destiny was a twisty one.
After missing out on candidate Bill Peters, who chose to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Penguins mounted a full-court press to land Desjardins as quickly as possible, with rumors swirling of his imminent hiring just two days after his Calder Cup win in Newfoundland.
Equally surprising after that point was the change in course—that Desjardins spurned a chance to coach Sidney Crosby and the Penguins to take over a dysfunctional situation in Vancouver.
After being rejected by Desjardins, Jim Rutherford announced on June 25 that Mike Johnston of the WHL Portland Winterhawks—a former Canucks associate coach—would become the Penguins' new bench boss.
4. Mike Ribeiro Is Bought Out by the Phoenix Coyotes
Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney announced on June 27 that the team was buying out the remainder of Mike Ribeiro's four-year, $22 million contract after just one season. Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona reported that the buyout stemmed from "behavioral issues."
Why It's Surprising
After a point-a-game season with the Washington Capitals in 2012-13, Ribeiro was one of the better offensive players available during free agency in the summer of 2013. By signing with Phoenix, Ribeiro was reunited with coach Dave Tippett, under whom he'd played some of his best hockey earlier in his career with the Dallas Stars.
Ribeiro's 47 points in 80 games with the Coyotes in 2013-14 marked his lowest offensive output in a decade, but Morgan reports that "Ribeiro was late for practices, missed meetings, missed buses and even engaged in a shouting match with Tippett in the locker room after a game in Colorado. Ribeiro had some marital issues as well and he never seemed to click with any of his linemates."
Because Ribeiro's deal was signed after the 2012-13 NHL lockout, he wasn't eligible for a compliance buyout. As a result, the Coyotes will be on the hook for a cap hit of $1.9 million per season for the next six years.
Maloney moved quickly to fill his team's void down the middle, acquiring Sam Gagner in a three-team trade just before free agency began. Ribeiro will get a chance to redeem himself after signing a one-year, $1.05 million deal with the Nashville Predators on July 15, per The Canadian Press (via TSN.ca).
3. Vladimir Sobotka Leaves St. Louis Blues for KHL
After scoring a career-best 33 points in 61 games in 2013-14, restricted free agent Vladimir Sobotka of the St. Louis Blues shut down further contract negotiations when he signed a three-year deal with Avangard Omsk of the KHL on July 11, per Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Why It's Surprising
Sobotka had become known as the "little guy with gumption" in St. Louis: a valuable faceoff man and depth center. The Blues got deeper down the middle on July 1 when they signed Paul Stastny but weren't looking to lose a key member of their forward group.
Not long after Sobotka's decision was announced, the Blues signed 2014 trade-deadline acquisition Steve Ott to a two-year, $5.2 million deal—not much different from the $3 million a season that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had offered Sobotka over two years.
Sobotka has an opt-out clause in his KHL contract that would allow him to return to the NHL at the end of any season. He also has an arbitration hearing scheduled with the Blues on July 21. That hearing will determine his one-year salary with St. Louis before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, whenever that might be.
2. Deryk Engelland Signs $8.75 Million Contract with Calgary Flames
At 32 years old, journeyman defenseman Deryk Engelland increased his average salary by 515 percent for the next three years. As an unrestricted free agent, Engelland left the Pittsburgh Penguins to sign his new contract with the Calgary Flames.
Why It's Surprising
After earning $575,000 in 2013-14, Engelland would have done well if his new deal had been for $2.9 million in total over three years—more than $960,000 per season. Jaws dropped when it was revealed that Engelland would be earning $2.9 million per season.
Other Penguins blueliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik have been top-tier players who were expected to bring in big money, but Engelland's announcement was a shocker.
Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun asserts that Engelland's value to the Flames will come from the intimidating presence that his 6'2", 215-pound frame will bring to the ice.
"These feisty Flames know they must ensure their younger — and smaller — brothers don't play in fear while developing their craft in the big leagues," writes Sportak. "Consider how much safer the likes of John Gaudreau, Sven Baertschi and newly-drafted Sam Bennett will feel knowing any shenanigans that take place on the ice won't go unpunished."
1. Montreal Canadiens Decide to Trade Josh Gorges
A few days before free agency opened, the Montreal Canadiens' heart-and-soul defenseman, Josh Gorges, was stunned to receive a call from his agent notifying him that general manager Marc Bergevin wanted to trade him.
Why It's Surprising
Montreal Gazette beat writer Dave Stubbs referred to Gorges as "the player many thought was the Habs' captain-in-waiting." Gorges was deeply committed to the Canadiens and was shocked to learn that he was no longer wanted. "You know this is possible every single day but you never expect to hear it," said Gorges. "It was shocking to hear it but again, nobody is ever safe."
The drama surrounding Gorges was amplified by his refusal to join the team he was originally destined for, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gorges had 15 clubs on his no-trade list, including all other Canadian teams. After scuttling the Toronto deal, Gorges was moved to the Buffalo Sabres on July 1 for a second-round pick in 2016.
On the blue line, the Canadiens moved 29-year-old Gorges but retained 36-year-old Mike Weaver and brought in 31-year old Tom Gilbert. The goals were to open up space for young defensemen to advance, reshuffle the team's defensive pairings and free up some cap space needed to re-sign restricted free agent P.K. Subban.
The July 1 departure of Gorges and captain Brian Gionta hands the leadership reins directly to the Canadiens' next generation of players—Subban, Max Pacioretty and Carey Price.