I hope you all enjoyed your summer -- it always seems too short -- but after a few months off the NHL gets back to business Wednesday. As the 2014-15 season approaches, here are some big recent moves that have been on my mind.
THE ISLANDERS GET SERIOUS
If you looked at the New York Islanders last season, you saw a team that battled a lot of issues. John Tavares missed a big portion of the season, there were other injuries and the goaltending situation wasn't great. Yet they still were a tough team to play against. Now Tavares is healthy, Jaroslav Halak should solidify New York in net, and then this week general manager Garth Snow made two moves that really improved this team.
When you defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, whom the Islanders acquired in trades with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, respectively, you're not adding the two best defensemen in the NHL, but you're adding two defensemen who have played big roles in a team winning the Stanley Cup. These players are winners, and the Islanders need those types of players to change the culture on that team. Leddy and Boychuk know what it takes. Boychuk is very hard to play against and brings a rocket of a shot from the point, and Leddy is one of the best skating defensemen in the NHL.
What's going to be really interesting is that each played significant minutes for Stanley Cup winners and now they likely will get bigger roles on Long Island. Were they as good as they could be with Boston and Chicago? Or are they players who will get even better with more ice time? We're going to find out; either way they make the Islanders a much better team than they were a week ago.
BLUE JACKETS REACH A DEAL WITH JOHANSEN
The Columbus Blue Jackets looked like a team that had so much promise despite being knocked out of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but since then they have had to deal with injuries to key players like Nathan Horton, Boone Jenner and now Brandon Dubinsky. All of that made getting Ryan Johansen under contract something that had to get done. This is the best offensive player Columbus has, and he's the player people want to see when they come to watch the Blue Jackets. If Columbus is going to keep making strides and improve on its performance last season, Johansen will be a crucial part of the mix. It's great for the Blue Jackets that he's under contract now and it's great for anyone who likes hockey because he's a lot of fun to watch.
The one thing people need to do, though, is temper their expectations for Johansen a bit. Transitioning directly to the season is difficult when you've missed training camp and the preseason. You don't step from doing sit-ups and push-ups on your own to playing at the top of your game when the NHL season starts. The first 10 games are going to be difficult. It's tough to jump right into the fray, and Johansen probably won't look like he normally does right off the bat. Once he gets his legs under him, though, he should be an exciting offensive performer like he was last season.
Columbus has one of the most exciting young teams in the League, and Johansen is the cornerstone of that offense. Now he and the Blue Jackets have a contract that makes sense for both parties. Johansen has a deal that will pay him $6 million in the final season and set him up for a big pay day in 2017, and Columbus didn't get locked into a long-term deal with someone who has had one good season. It's as good as both sides could ask for.
RE-BIRTH FOR BRAD RICHARDS?
One of the moves that went somewhat under the radar this season was Brad Richards signing a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks for $2 million. Richards was one of the most sought-after free agents on the market when he signed a nine-year contract with the New York Rangers in 2011. That didn't work out as well as either side had hoped, and Richards was given a compliance buyout during the offseason. But there is a chance for the Richards of old to come back this season.
Barry Melrose thinks Brad Richards could flourish with a new lineup around him in Chicago. (Dave Sandford/NHLI)
Richards needs to play with good people; it's no good having him on your fourth line. This is someone who needs to play with talented linemates, and he'll get to do that in Chicago whether he's on the second line or the third line. He'll play with people who can put the puck in the net.
The other thing to note is that Richards was expected to be the guy in New York. He was the offensive star and he had the big contract. He got the attention. Chicago is so deep and talented that he's not the guy who's going to take the heat if the team struggles. He's not the guy with the huge contract. He's just a good hockey player who wants to play a few more seasons and took less money because he wants one more shot at winning the Stanley Cup. I like the situation Richards is in, and I think there's no doubt he could throw a good season at us.