The NHL's free agent scene this summer resembles a long and empty line of grocery store shelves, but there's no fear among league executives of a serene environment in the off-season. While it's true NHL GMs no longer can look to free agency as a quick and easy route to remake their roster, a number of them are expecting a slew of trades in the weeks ahead. And there's one reason why.
"The worst thing you can be seen as today is complacent," said one Eastern Conference GM, who spoke to THN in early June on condition his name not be used. "Each organization has different pressure points, but we're all dealing with pressure. And just because we no longer really have free agency to do big things with a team, that doesn't mean we can come back the next year with basically the same group of players. One team per season earns the option to do that. The rest have to find ways to improve. So I think teams won't have much of an option in the future other than using trades to change up the mix. If you're not developing new talent in-house, you don't really have any other option."
A cursory look around the NHL confirms that's true.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who have nothing to complain about at the moment, will be squeezed by a static salary cap ceiling into making trades, and very probably, significant trades. The St. Louis Blues, who finished tied with Anaheim for the best record in the Western Conference last year, can't go back to their fan base without significant alterations to their roster following another post-season disappointment. With the Sedin Twins set to turn 35 years old in September, the Vancouver Canucks are in win-now mode and desperate to improve on a first-round playoff exit. Minnesota stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are both now in their thirties, and the Wild are still looking for their first conference final appearance since 2003. The L.A. Kings don't intend to miss the playoffs for a second straight year, and the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche also need at least some tinkering this off-season.
In the East, the Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are all going to be hungry to do something to address one or more areas of concern. And of course, you have the Rangers and Flyers, whose management teams are famous for using the trade market as nine out of 10 dentists recommend you use floss.
And those are just the teams who think they've got a decent or outside shot at making the playoffs and/or winning a championship next season. We haven't even got to the NHL franchises looking for either a culture change or an all-encompassing change.
Those franchises include the Maple Leafs – who it says here will trade one of team captain Dion Phaneuf or star winger Phil Kessel at or around the time of the NHL draft, and the other no later than the 2016 trade deadline – as well as the Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks. Just about every one of those organizations has experienced extended losing and thus cannot embrace the status quo.
Now, don't expect a slew of franchises to consummate deals that completely remake their core, as it remains next to impossible for any management team to abandon elite players in which they've invested great deals of time and money. However, the trades that may be made this off-season could be much closer to the James-Neal-for-Patric-Hornqvist swap that move a B+-level star to a different city than a swapping of bottom six forwards and third-pairing defensemen. (This is why, for instance, you hear Patrick Sharp's name mentioned so often in Hawks rumors.)
The past couple seasons – in which the once-thought-untradeable contracts of Roberto Luongo and David Clarkson were actually moved – prove that longshot deals can be made. That's because the dead zone that is NHL free agency has turned trades into some of the few bullets any NHL GM has left in his holster to shoot his way out of trouble. And given that the appearance of a GM sitting on his hands is a non-starter for teams, we should all expect trades of consequence to be a regular occurrence in the future.