The 10 best moves of the 2014-15 NHL season
Even Chuck Fletcher would admit that putting his faith in Devan Dubnyk was a Hail Mary.
When the general manager of the Wild sent a third-round pick to the Coyotes for the journeyman goaltender back on Jan. 14, he was just hoping to stop the bleeding. His team had dropped six straight and lost faith in their keepers, a revolving group that was leaking an average of 3.52 goals per game, the most of any team in the league.
Fletcher was a desperate man, moved to what he admitted was an act of desperation.
Somehow, against all odds, it worked.
It’s the way that Fletcher and his cohorts always dream a trade will work out. It almost never does. Not like this, anyway.
Since Dubnyk’s arrival, Minnesota has shaved nearly two goals per game off that average. Not surprisingly, the wins have followed. The Wild has gone 21-6-2, the best record in the league since Jan. 14. And the playoff berth that seemed out of their reach in January is now firmly within their grasp.
And Fletcher looks like a genius.
Few deals work out so well for a team as this one, but the 2014–15 season has seen more than a few that have either paid strong short-term dividends or look to be very profitable down the road. Here are our 10 favorites of the past year.
The Predators were looking for a natural goal-scorer with an edge. The Penguins needed a reliable net-front presence who could finish the chances created by their pair of world-class centers. Nashville might have hoped for a little more production from Neal and Pittsburgh only wishes that Hornqvist could stay healthy, but both have delivered on expectations by bringing something fresh to their teams’ attacks.
Who says it’s hard to find a top center? For the second summer in a row, Dallas GM Jim Nill plucked one off the trade market—and he did it for pennies on the dollar. Spezza struggled with the transition to a new team/system/conference for quite some time, but during the past two months he’s demonstrated his ability to anchor a first line or provide support from the second as needed. Whether the Stars make the playoffs this year or not is immaterial. Spezza signed a long-term extension with the team this winter, giving Dallas a lethal one–two punch down the middle for years to come.
Draft-and-develop is the way to go, but at some point a general manager needs to plug the holes if he wants his team to take the next step. Former Maple Leafs linemates Grabovski and Kulemin brought depth and veteran presence to a forward corps that otherwise might have skewed too young to achieve sustainable success this season. Sure, Garth Snow overpaid to lock them up, but that’s the cost of doing business on Long Island ... a cost that won’t look so onerous if this team lives up to its potential.
When all is said and done, this may prove to be the deal that changed everything for two franchises. For Arizona, it was a chance to get younger and deeper overnight. Painful now, but the potential is there for a sizable payoff in the future. For the Rangers, though, this is all about the next 15 months. The early returns can generously be described as “mixed,” but Yandle—never a stalwart in his own zone—deserves time to figure out the responsibilities of a new system. As long as he has it down by the playoffs, he could be a big part of this year’s run and the next. An elite power play producer, he could solve the problem that tripped the Rangers up last spring, and threatens to do the same again this year.
6. Predators sign free agent Mike Ribeiro (July 15)
Always competitive thanks to a stingy defense, the Preds needed an offensive makeover if they hoped to become more than a bunch of hard-working also-rans. They took a chance on Ribeiro, believing that they could get the best out of a gifted playmaker whose off-ice indiscretions had all but bounced him out of the game. So far he’s kept his nose clean and helped reshape an attack that, while still a ways from ferocious, has more bite than this franchise has seen in years.
5. Islanders acquire Jaroslav Halak from Capitals for fourth-round pick
There were no guarantees when Snow took a flyer on Halak. First, he had to convince the pending UFA that there was no better opportunity to prove himself a legitimate No. 1 than what he would be given on Long Island. Then he had to hope that Halak, who been dumped by the Blues in favor of Brian Elliott and then bounced from Buffalo to Washington, could live up to those expectations. He’s done that and then some. Halak smashed Billy Smith’s old mark on Dec. 4 with his 11th consecutive victory, and each win now adds to the franchise’s single-season record he established on Feb. 27. More importantly though he’s brought stability to a position of chaos, giving the team a stopper who can carry them into the playoffs and beyond.
Regular-season tigers. Playoff pussycats. Tired of getting pushed around when it mattered most, Anaheim brought in Kesler to free up Ryan Getzlaf, improve their penalty kill and make them a tougher team to match up against down the middle. He’s been dynamite so far, lighting it up against the rival Kings (five goals in five games) and bringing a nasty, competitive edge to a group that needed some snarl in the bottom nine. Finally, the Ducks look like legitimate contenders.
We won’t grasp the full impact of this blockbuster for a few years yet, but in the meantime we can appreciate the vision demonstrated by a pair of GMs who were looking to refocus their franchises. Winnipeg’s Kevin Cheveldayoff deftly rid himself of problem child Kane and in return brought in immediate help for this year’s playoff bid and some impressive assets to supplement his long-term plans. Buffalo’s Tim Murray may have shaved a year off his own rebuild, parting with youth in exchange for a young, proven 30-goal scorer to complement a first line that might soon revolve around Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel or Sam Reinhart.
Two separate deals, one immediate impact. An Islanders defense that looked like a group of expansion-draft pickups coming out of training camp suddenly had two recent Cup winners as anchors, thanks to some bold work by Snow. Leddy brought the smooth-skating sweetness and Boychuk the hammer. Together they revamped the unit, taking on the toughest assignments themselves while sheltering the team’s aging veterans and inexperienced youth. Without these two, the Isles would still be John Tavares and a bunch of not ready for prime time players.
1. Wild acquires Devan Dubnyk from Coyotes for a third-round pick (Jan. 14)
A backup in Arizona to start the season, Dubnyk has morphed into a viable MVP candidate since coming to Minnesota. “We were lucky. Devan’s played great,” Fletcher said on Hockey Central. “It’s not easy to find goaltenders at that time of the year. I wish I could tell you it was a stroke of genius.
“We knew we had to bring a new guy in. We had to do something just to win one game. We were losing every night, and losing badly every night,” Fletcher continued. “Nobody could’ve predicted how well he would’ve played, so we’re very grateful for what he’s done.”
Predictable or not, it was the best deal of the year.