There will always be the end of a season. As things wound down on Wednesday’s NHL “Free Agent Frenzy” on TSN, a seven-hour marathon of live TV that goes by in a flash, I could sense the end arriving.
Falling almost a month later than the usual July 1 because of COVID-19 interruptions, it still had the same hollow feeling that it always has for me. People pack up anxiously, shouting “goodbye” and “have a good summer.” Some rush to catch flights, others just look to escape.
Somehow I’m always the last to do so; it just takes me longer.
Maybe that’s by choice. Maybe it’s just to enjoy what I’ve always loved doing a little bit more. I was often the last out of the locker room as a player, always as a coach. I’m not sure I even left the building on many nights as a manager. Now, in the world of media, I fully understand that I’ve been fortunate to have seasons to look forward to and reflect upon.
This was different in so many ways, since it feels like the last two seasons have run together. The craziness of the pandemic ensured that. Perhaps it was fitting that the same team won the last two Stanley Cups. We can just blend the Tampa Bay Lightning’s successes together.
Walking out of the studio Wednesday, thoughts of all the moves made filled my head. How it all might play out in the season ahead consumed me on the ride home.
Also, things will be close to back on track for the next regular season. That in itself is comforting. We had joked during the day about relearning the divisions, and how teams would fare after the necessary geographic challenges of the past season had restructured everything. And as always, my own thoughts went to the teams I work most closely with, and how they would be affected.
Toronto will be in tough in the Atlantic Division, after significant losses in free agency included incumbent goalie Freddie Andersen, super-forward Zach Hyman and dependable defender Zach Bogosian. Well-documented salary-cap issues dictated that change was inevitable, and the addition of note was goaltender Petr Mrazek, who will challenge Jack Campbell for the starting role in Andersen’s absence.
Tampa Bay, despite significant losses, has to be the favourite again on star power alone, but a rapidly improving Florida squad will push. The Leafs should battle in the middle with Montreal and Boston. The Canadiens suffered notable losses as well, with stalwart centre Phillip Danault exiting for Los Angeles and Shea Weber, with myriad maladies, not available. Elite depth veteran Corey Perry also opted out, joining the Lightning after losing consecutive Cup finals to them with Montreal and Dallas.
Ottawa leads the lower tier and is closing rapidly with talented youth, led by Brady Tkachuk, that’s coming together nicely. They’ll cause problems for everyone, and their rebuild is ahead of both Detroit and Buffalo. The Sabres are still trying to figure out the Jack Eichel saga.
In the Central, Winnipeg had a strong week, adding two highly regarded defenders — Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt — and re-signing veteran forward Paul Stastny. The Jets should be good enough to challenge Colorado at the top, but will have to pay attention to what’s happening in Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago and Minnesota.
The newly constructed Seattle Kraken may just be good enough to have playoff aspirations in the Pacific Division, but their expansion big brothers in Vegas will be the class of the West. Renovations in Vancouver combined with a healthy Elias Pettersson could have them playoff bound. That could be the case in Calgary, too, where the Flames appeared to shape toward coach Darryl Sutter. They added the Blake Coleman ingredient that fared so well in Tampa, along with depth grit in Tyler Pitlick and Trevor Lewis, and oversized rearguard Nikita Zadorov. Edmonton is the beneficiary of Hyman’s Toronto exit, and GM Ken Holland is hopeful that the forward will do for his two superstars what he did for Toronto’s. It’s hard to believe Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can be better, though their improvement will be measured by playoff wins. This Canadian triangle of teams could very well hold off the improving three in California, with the Kings a step ahead of both Anaheim and San Jose.
In the Metropolitan Division, I have stopped even pretending to doubt what Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz are capable of, so I’ll choose their Islanders to lead the way next season. Alex Ovechkin has re-upped for five more goal-scoring years in Washington, while Carolina, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers should all contend. Youth will have to wait to be served in Columbus and New Jersey, despite the Devils’ acquisition of highly regarded defenceman Dougie Hamilton.
With free agency mostly behind us — and sure, more signings will trickle out — hockey fans and media alike have the rest of the summer to debate who made the most gains before the start of training camps in September, and a full season of games that will truly decide who did it best.
But for now, another season ends.
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