Ranking the NHL's 15 best signings, trades and pickups of 2015
There aren’t many generalizations you can make about hockey fans, but this one’s as safe as it comes: We love change. Not rule changes, mind you, but pretty much anything else is game. The size of the league, the location of teams, uniform designs. The more it gets mixed up, the better.
But above and beyond all else, we love to see players change teams. Trades, waivers, free agency. If there’s even a hint of a roster shake up, we’re on it like a tattoo on Tyler Seguin.
And while this season hasn’t exactly been a hive of activity—hey, Ben Scrivens for Zack Kassian practically qualifies as a blockbuster—there has been plenty of movement to consider during the past 12 months. Here then are our top 15 moves for the calendar year 2015:
15. Penguins acquire Phil Kessel
So far, this deal’s been the Al Capone’s vault of undelivered potential, but there are signs that it might yet work out for the struggling Penguins. Hard as it is to believe, Kessel never quite found his comfort zone with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. He did, however, score twice in his first game playing on a new-look third line with center Nick Bonino on Dec. 21, and has had seven shots in Pittsburgh’s two games since. The talent is there. It seems inevitable that the results will follow ... eventually.
14. Devils sign Lee Stempniak
New Jersey made a deal based strictly on an immediate need for offense, and Stempniak has delivered. The 32-year-old winger has chipped in with 27 points through 37 games, good for third on the team and on pace for a new career high. Not a bad return for the Devils’ one-year, $850,000 investment.
13. Devils acquire Kyle Palmieri
Another surprising solution to New Jersey’s scoring needs, for the low, low cost of a second round pick and a conditional third rounder. With goals in each of his past three games, Palmieri now has a career-high 16 on the season and ranks 12th among all marksmen. Imagine if the goal-starved Ducks had someone who could light the lamp like that ...
12. Islanders sign Thomas Greiss
Sometimes the quietest free-agent signings prove to be the most beneficial. Greiss, a 29-year-old castoff from San Jose, was picked up to support Jaroslav Halak. But as New York’s No. 1 has struggled to stay healthy, Greiss has assumed a larger role than expected. He’s already started 13 games, posting a 9-5-2 mark with a 2.03 GAA, .934 save percentage and a shutout this season. Those numbers aren’t just better than Halak’s—they’re some of the best in the league. Among qualifying goaltenders, Greiss ranks third in save percentage and fifth in goals-against.
11. Kings acquire Milan Lucic
After an early trial on the Anze Kopitar line failed the chemistry test, the big-bodied Lucic finally looks like his old self while skating alongside Jeff Carter on the Kings' second line. He’s scoring again and playing the kind of nasty physical game that makes him an ideal fit in Los Angeles. He could be a dangerous force come playoff time.
10. Capitals acquire T.J. Oshie
Recognizing the need to diversify their forward corps, the Caps shipped Troy Brouwer, prospect goaltender Pheonix Copley and a 2016 third rounder to the Blues for the speedy Oshie. Although the inconsistency that plagued him with St. Louis is still a factor, he’s been largely effective skating primarily on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Oshie already has 13 goals and is on pace to smash his previous career best of 21.
9. Flyers sign Michal Neuvirth
With their goaltending situation in flux, Philly gambled that Neuvirth could rediscover the form he flashed early in his career with the Capitals. So far, that bet has paid off. The 27-year-old has been the perfect complement to starter Steve Mason, going 8-4-2 in 16 appearances for the Flyers. But his play has been even better than those numbers suggest. Neuvirth sits first in the league with a sizzling .937 save percentage and fifth with a 2.06 GAA.
8. Stars sign Antti Niemi
It seemed like an overly aggressive move at the time given his recent struggles, but the three-year, $13.5 million contract that Niemi signed as a free agent last summer doesn’t look so bad now. The 32-year-old has been the ideal partner for Kari Lehtonen, with both players well ahead of last season’s numbers. Together, they’ve helped the Stars hold the opposition to 2.5 goals-against per game. While their ranking (13th) may not stand out on its own, it sparkles compared to the 3.13 and 26th they posted last season.
7. Coyotes acquire Anthony Duclair
At the time, this swap was all about Keith Yandle, who went to the Rangers along with Chris Summers and a 2015 fourth rounder in exchange for Duclair, John Moore, a 2015 second rounder and a lottery-protected 2016 first rounder. The veteran defender added some offensive punch to the blueline of a New York team that was looking to improve on its finish as Stanley Cup runner-up the year prior. It almost worked, too—Yandle chipped in two goals and 11 points, but the Blueshirts fell one game short of returning to the final.
There’s no disappointment, though, in Arizona where Duclair already is delivering on his promise of becoming an excellent top-six winger. The 20-year-old has 10 goals and 19 points through 35 games as a rookie with the Coyotes, and looks like he’ll be a major asset in their rebuild.
6. Blue Jackets acquire Brandon Saad
Minutes after this seven player/one pick stunner went down you just know that 28 other general managers were wondering what they could have done to bring Saad on board. The 23-year-old winger has all the tools to become an elite power forward, and while he hasn’t yet found his form in Columbus, there is a widespread expectation that he’ll be a significant contributor to the Jackets’ success in years to come.
5. Flames acquire Dougie Hamilton
As ugly as the early returns have been, there is no denying the long-term potential of this swap. Hamilton is widely regarded as a player who can be counted on to play top-pairing minutes for the next decade, making the investment of their 2015 first round pick (No. 15) and two second rounders (45, 52) an easy price to pay for GM Brad Treliving. Hamilton is already showing signs of acclimating himself to both the Flames and the Western Conference. After posting an ugly –11 rating through his first nine games, he’s +12 in his 27 games since.
4. Stars acquire Patrick Sharp
Another high-scoring forward seemed like a low priority for the Stars this past off-season, but GM Jim Nill knows a bargain when he sees one. Taking advantage of Chicago’s cap crunch, he shipped Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt to the Hawks for Sharp, who has rediscovered his All-Star form in victory green. The 34-year-old winger been a natural on the league’s best line alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and has been an effective weapon from the point on the NHL’s third-rated power play. He could be the difference maker in a long playoff run.
3. Sabres acquire Ryan O’Reilly
Hyperactive Sabres GM Tim Murray made bigger deals during the past 12 months but none better than this. Taking advantage of a frayed relationship between O’Reilly and management in Colorado, Murray leveraged futures (Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, JT Compher and a 2015 second rounder) in exchange for the prospect of immediate impact. The early returns weren’t promising but once he was on the ice O'Reilly proved to be exactly what this team needed: a gritty two-way center capable of handling heavy minutes and deflecting pressure away from top pick Jack Eichel as he gets his feet wet in the NHL. Midway through the season,O’Reilly is on pace for 73 points, which would be a new career high, and he’s played his way into serious consideration for Team Canada at the upcoming World Cup.
2. Maple Leafs sign Mike Babcock
This was the move that brought integrity to Toronto’s rebuild. While keeping an eye on the long-term (in particular, by giving the kids time to develop in the minors), coach Babcock is already laying the foundation for short-term success by getting the current squad to buy in to his process. While the results aren’t there quite yet, the Leafs are clearly a smarter, more effective team. What you’re seeing now—the commitment to possession, the cycle and more shots on net—hints at the success that’s just around the corner.
1. Wild acquire Devan Dubnyk
It was the year’s ultimate Hail Mary. With his goaltending in disarray and his team melting down after seven consecutive losses, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher sent a 2015 third rounder to the Coyotes in exchange for Dubnyk, their seldom used backup. His impact was immediate. He won eight of his first 10 decisions to right the ship, then went on to finish with a 27-9-2 record, five shutouts, a 1.78 GAA and a .936 save percentage. His performance won him the Masterton Trophy and recognition as a finalist for the Vezina.
The numbers game
• Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano are now the second Massachusetts-born teammates in the 91-year history of the Boston Bruins to score hat tricks in the same season. The others: Andy Brickley, Bob Carpenter and Bob Sweeney in 1989-90.
• The Panthers, who went 11-3-0 (22 points) in December, set franchise records for wins and points in a calendar month.
• Coyotes captain Shane Doan has tied Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk for the most goals in franchise history (379).
• Even Alex Ovechkin agrees that this player has been Washington’s best this season.
• The 1990-91 Fort Wayne Komets fell just short of an IHL championship, but still found a way to affect the hockey world to this day.
• Here’s some fascinating stat work explaining why some teams take so many penalties.
• Here’s another look at the state of fighting this season in the NHL. Spoiler alert: There ain't much of it goin' on.