The word pressure means different things to different people. Sometimes it’s related to the time of year, sometimes it’s related to events. In professional sports management, it’s a constant, always lurking.
Late July, though, is normally a quiet time for NHL general managers when they can take a breath, perhaps even find a getaway vacation destination. There was a day in the not too distant past when hockey executives didn’t even attempt to do business at this time of year. They were quiet by choice.
Not so in 2021. And not so from July 21-28. It’s been loud, and it will continue to be as the pressure increases across the league. It started with the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken, continued through the weekend with the amateur draft, and will culminate Wednesday with the opening of free agency.
Locally, the pressure has increased on Maple Leafs management, and it’s what the front office hasn’t been able to do that’s turning up the heat. They haven’t been able to sign their own players. It starts with the looming departure of important and popular winger Zach Hyman, who by all accounts is on his way to join Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the two league’s top scorers and its last two MVPs. He has found new stars to support for a lot more money than the Leafs can afford. He certainly has to know how perfect everything is for him in Toronto, yet the lure of both term and dollars was too great to ignore.
Kyle Dubas’s pressure comes from the constraint of circumstance. The flat cap and his own spending on other players have taken away the option of keeping Hyman. Similar situations have changed the team dramatically since the promising group was assembled in 2018-19. While the top four scorers from that season remain, the next seven have departed — or will depart, in Hyman’s case — largely for financial reasons. Dubas spoke this week of his belief in his group, but the group has changed and will continue to change. Goaltender Freddie Anderson could very well follow Hyman, which would create another challenging situation between the pipes.
In Montreal, where smiles should abound after a strong playoff run, it was a pressure-filled week as superstar goaltender Carey Price was among the names not protected in the expansion draft. Seattle ultimately chose to pass on Price, but there were anxious moments along the way. Shea Weber’s post-season physical dictated he won’t play in the upcoming season, another source of pressure for GM Marc Bergevin, who has to replace his captain and leader.
And, on Friday, Bergevin created pressure by shockingly selecting defenceman Logan Mailloux with the 31st pick of the entry draft. Mailloux had posted a statement on Twitter asking teams not to draft him after being charged and fined for distributing a sexual photo without consent while he was on loan to a third-division team in Sweden. The questions coming Bergevin’s way were immediate and harsh.
In Vancouver, a disappointing season ratcheted up the pressure on GM Jim Benning and his group — if that was even possible — and he responded by adding star defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and effective forward Conor Garland in a deal with Arizona. The Canucks cleaned up a lot of their short-term cap issues, albeit while adding Ekman-Larson’s money longer term, and the hockey team got better.
Major changes have come in Philadelphia, where the Flyers missed the playoffs, turning the heat upon Chuck Fletcher. They added defencemen Ryan Ellis (from Nashville) and Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo) and forward Cam Atkinson (Columbus) in recent trades.
Chicago made a couple of big moves, sending future hall-of-famer Duncan Keith to Edmonton earlier this month and adding one of the off-season’s biggest prizes, defenceman Seth Jones, in a trade with Columbus on Friday. He joins Patrick Kane and, the Blackhawks hope, a healthy Jonathan Toews to try to restore the Windy City pride of the first half of the previous decade, when they won three Stanley Cups.
So teams are improving, and having to sit and watch opportunities go by can be both frustrating and dangerous for other teams’ general managers.
Surprisingly, Seattle has not been able to, or perhaps chose not to, exert the same kind of pressure that Vegas did so effectively four years ago. Through their manoeuvring and manipulation, the Golden Knights ended up with three first-round draft picks that year, plus an additional second. They also coerced Shea Theodore, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch from their respective teams in addition to choosing another player from each.
This time around things were much quieter as Seattle chose a different build. It certainly eased the pressure around the league for a moment, which was surely welcomed with all of the other pressure in play.
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