It feels like the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second consecutive Stanley Cup yesterday, but the start of the 2021-22 NHL season is already upon us like a ferocious forecheck from Ryan O'Reilly. Three months ago, the offseason appeared to be shaping up as one of the more eventful in recent memory.
That isn't the way things have shaken out, however.
Disgruntled stars remain in place in several cities, the Seattle Kraken did virtually nothing ahead of their expansion draft in late July and a static salary cap has made it difficult for contenders to shore up perceived weaknesses.
Sure, we got the Seth Jones trade. Duncan Keith was moved to the Edmonton Oilers. The Vancouver Canucks took a huge gamble in acquiring the ghost of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. These blockbusters arguably happened a year or two after they should have, though, toning down the fireworks they created.
We were promised a Jack Eichel trade, dagnabbit! Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic reported Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade out of St. Louis in July. It looked like the Calgary Flames were ready to shake up their core.
These situations still remain largely unresolved and loom large over the opening of the campaign Tuesday.
As squads across the league start to figure out what they have, they're also beginning to come to terms with what they need to do moving forward. Injuries to key players could tip one or two trade dominos, while teams like the New York Islanders and Colorado Avalanche could seek that one last piece to propel them toward an elusive Stanley Cup title.
Who could be on the move, and which teams have the capital to make it happen? Let's take a look.
New York Islanders Make a Splash
The Islanders have been one of the most divisive teams among NHL analysts since Barry Trotz took over behind the bench in 2018. Since then, they have played their own brand of hockey, proving a lot of folks in the numbers crowd wrong along the way.
That's the thing about models and analytics, of course. Sometimes they can be incorrect. For the first time in three years, the underlying digits appear to be in New York's favor, however. Over at The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn projects the Islanders to win the Metropolitan Division.
With a strong defensive backbone and top-10 goaltending, it's easy to see why.
What the Islanders appear to be missing, though, is the kind of talent that most championship-caliber squads have at forward. Mathew Barzal is an electric talent, but the team could use help on either side of him.
If they stall out of the gates, one has to wonder what general manager Lou Lamoriello would do. They aren't exactly flush with cap space and already kept Kyle Palmieri on board after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. Zach Parise could also prove to be a savvy (read: cheap but effective) add.
What if it isn't quite enough? Options like Eichel and Tarasenko are likely off the table because of their considerable cap hits and questionable health statuses, but someone like Rickard Rakell could beef up the top six enough to make a difference.
The Anaheim Ducks were taking calls on him a season ago, according to TSN's Frank Seravalli, and he might be the next-best forward available besides Tomas Hertl. Would New York be willing to move a young prospect and/or draft pick to secure Rakell's services as a rental?
Lamoriello has never shied away from taking his shots when they make sense, so there could be a fit if the Islanders don't look as good as they have over the past few seasons.
Seattle Kraken Leverage Their Cap Space
There might not be a more interestingly positioned team in the NHL than the Seattle Kraken.
During the expansion draft, they almost entirely avoided exposed veteran stars, instead opting to piece together a more win-by-committee squad. It's tough to blame them for passing on the likes of Jeff Skinner and Tarasenko, and it has left Seattle in a strong spot financially.
We haven't seen the Kraken play a regular-season game, but there's reason to believe that this is a playoff team as constructed. They have one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the league in Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, and that tandem will be backstopping a solid—if unspectacular—blue line.
General manager Ron Francis' most impressive accomplishment so far is on the salary-cap sheet. The Kraken grade out as a postseason-caliber team, but they have nearly $8.5 million in cap space to play with heading into the season.
For context, they are barely spending more than the basement-bound Arizona Coyotes and less than the San Jose Sharks, who also appear headed for a lottery pick.
How will Francis leverage this cap space as the year unfolds? Will he try to add a player like Tarasenko or Evgeny Kuznetsov on the cheap as their respective teams get desperate to move them? Could he play a role in a three-team trade, possibly eating some salary as a player gets moved through town and to a contender that is further along than the Kraken?
That's what makes Seattle such a wild card heading into 2021-22. A likely playoff team with a ton of cap space in a flat-cap world could do all kinds of things, and it will be interesting to see how Francis utilizes this incredibly valuable asset.
The next few moves the GM makes could set up the organization for years to come.