Which NHL team won the 2023 offseason? A look at the moves that did (and didn’t) happen

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The NHL offseason’s roster machinations can sometimes be provocative and lots of fun. This past summer? Not so much. It was quiet. Eerily quiet.
Because most teams were so hobbled by salary-cap constraints, there wasn’t nearly as much money to throw around as usual in free agency. Collectively, most players rushed to get signed up early, on the grounds that they didn’t want to be the ones left standing without a home when the music stopped.
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The handful that did fall through the cracks eventually found places to play, though it took longer than anticipated. Most prominently: Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed in Ottawa on a one-year deal back on July 27. In the past, there might have been a bidding war for Tarasenko, only a year removed from a 34-goal, 82-point season. But this year, he lingered on the market, attracting only mild interest.
Among other unrestricted free agents who had real name recognizability, the last domino to fall was probably Matt Dumba, who signed with Arizona, in the hopes of jump-starting his career there the way Shayne Gostisbehere did previously.
Undeniably, Erik Karlsson, traded from San Jose to Pittsburgh, was this summer’s biggest move. The Karlsson deal was the 2023 answer to the stunning Calgary-Florida blockbuster that took place last summer, the one that saw Matthew Tkachuk land with the Panthers with four pieces going to the Flames in exchange.
Karlsson’s addition — theoretically, to maximize the Penguins’ playoff chances in the last years of the Sidney Crosby era — represented a genuine lightning strike. The rest were all mild summer showers. Mostly, any fan who spent the summer waiting for their team to have a game-changing moment did so in vain.
Erik Karlsson holds his first meeting with reporters in Pittsburgh since being traded from the Sharks. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)
Maple Leaf fans were divided as to whether Toronto’s ability to sign Auston Matthews to a four-year contract extension was a good or a bad thing. Mostly, though, it eliminated what probably would have been a daily drama in the Center of the Hockey Universe, counting down the days until Matthews was scheduled to hit free agency. What hand-wringing will Leaf Nation get up to now that Matthews’ future is secure?
But if you’re thinking bigger-picture thoughts, the main offseason narrative was probably the trades that were anticipated and then not made, beginning in Winnipeg where the expectation was the Jets could move on from up to four core pieces: Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck. Two — Dubois and Wheeler — are gone. Two remain. (Unable to trade Wheeler, Winnipeg bought him out and he subsequently signed a cheap one-year deal with the Rangers.)
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Similarly, Calgary was said to be considering offers for up to four key pieces as well: Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Noah Hanifin and Tyler Toffoli. Only Toffoli moved on (to New Jersey, for Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick). The others are still in place, though there is still time for new general manager Craig Conroy to trade one or more if the price is right. Among the three, it seems most likely that Hanifin will be the first out the door.
When Conroy originally took over the job from his predecessor, Brad Treliving, he said that philosophically he didn’t believe the organization could lose another pending unrestricted free agent without getting any asset value in return, as they did last year when Johnny Gaudreau left for Columbus.
Many people mischaracterized the departure of a player of Gaudreau’s stature as losing an asset for nothing. In the NHL’s flat-cap era, that is not completely accurate. What you do get in return is the freed-up cap space you otherwise would have allocated to that player.
In Calgary’s case, they were prepared to pay Gaudreau $9.5 million per year on an extension.
When Gaudreau chose to sign with Columbus, they had that money available and spent it on Nazem Kadri. Whether that was the correct decision, in hindsight, is beside the point.
The reality is the Flames couldn’t have afforded to pay Kadri $7 million for seven seasons if Gaudreau had come back. If Kadri had been able to duplicate his performance from that final Colorado season with the Flames, Gaudreau’s departure would have been a far easier pill to swallow.
This past summer, the transaction that kinda-sorta compared to Gaudreau leaving and Kadri arriving in Calgary was what unfolded with Tarasenko and Ottawa. The Senators had previously traded away Alex DeBrincat to Detroit, rather than risk losing him as a UFA next summer. The return on the DeBrincat trade wasn’t great, but at least they didn’t need to pay him $9 million to play for them this year. Instead, they got Tarasenko for $5 million.
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Nice bit of business if you think of the macro picture.
Every September, with training camps on the horizon, there is a desire to parse a summer’s worth of moves and declare that someone won the offseason.
In 2022, the perception was that Calgary and Ottawa did so. Unhappily for both teams, the promise of better days ahead didn’t materialize on the ice.
Instead, both had disappointing seasons. That’s a lesson to reflect on today: Winning the offseason is one thing, but translating the gains made on paper to the ice can be a far greater challenge. Chemistry can be elusive. Consider that the player who finished No. 2 in NHL scoring in 2022 — Jonathan Huberdeau for Florida — could plummet into a tie for 113th the next season, playing with Calgary, without suffering a consequential injury.
Or to put it another way, Huberdeau finished just eight points behind the league-scoring leader, Connor McDavid (115 points to 123), in 2022. One year later, he finished 98 points behind McDavid (55 compared to 153).
How is that even possible?
If results are the barometer, the team that won the 2022 offseason turned out to be the Vegas Golden Knights, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
What did Vegas do? It signed Adin Hill as the backup to the backup goaltender. It was a move that barely registered in transactions. Hill went into camp No. 3 on the depth chart behind Logan Thompson and Laurent Brossoit — or No. 4, if you wind the clock far enough back to consider Robin Lehner an option.
But when Vegas circled the ice with the Stanley Cup, that was Hill celebrating with the famous trophy.
Was there a similar, minor move in the summer of 2023 that might turn out to be the equivalent of the Hill signing? Maybe Cam Talbot joining Los Angeles to play for the Kings on a bargain-basement $1 million contract will prove to be that.
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Talbot had a mediocre, injury-filled season playing for the Senators last season. In L.A., he’ll be reunited with coach Todd McLellan. The two, working together in Edmonton in 2017, were excellent. Talbot led the NHL in wins with 42 that season. Lots of water under the bridge since then for both men, but the feeling that they could resurrect that magic was one of the reasons the Kings felt they could give up four assets to the Jets to acquire Dubois — and then sign him for big bucks.
Cam Talbot with the Senators. (Jason Mowry / USA Today)
In theory, if the Kings goaltending proves wanting, they can do what they did at the 2023 deadline and go out and get another rental. Who knows what Hellebuyck’s status will be by then? Or how motivated the Anaheim Ducks might be to move on from John Gibson? It’s hard to imagine Gibson landing with a cross-town rival, but the days of divisional rivals being off limits in the trading game are long gone.
Oddly, the most celebrated offseason movers and shakers were two members of the “one step back to take two steps forward” club.
That was San Jose’s goal in moving on from Karlsson, even after his impactful Norris Trophy-winning season. San Jose is so early in its rebuild that the Sharks probably won’t even be playoff contenders before Karlsson’s game starts to slip. That deal made sense for both teams.
But no one was more aggressive in cleaning house than the Philadelphia Flyers, who moved on from, among other core pieces, Kevin Hayes, James van Riemsdyk, Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo. Philly’s complicated three-way trade that involved both Los Angeles and Columbus — which was a way to get Ivan Provorov to the Blue Jackets — involved taking on the contract of goaltender Cal Petersen, who the Kings would otherwise have been obliged to park in the minors again.
Philadelphia also gets to test drive a year of defenseman Sean Walker and see if he’s a fit for them going forward or if he maybe leaves as a rental at the 2024 deadline. For now, the Flyers seem content to wander around the NHL wilderness, trying for a complete franchise reset. It’s what their fan base apparently wants, and the new management — primarily featuring president of hockey operations Keith Jones and general manager Daniel Briere — seem to be content to give it to them
By contrast, the Kings and Penguins controversially put their efforts into being better in the here and now.
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It’s curious how frequently that blueprint, of trying to win right now, gets criticized nowadays.
Karlsson proved conclusively a year ago that he is nowhere close to being over the hill. Crosby remains elite. Evgeni Malkin needs to stay healthy. One could argue the Penguins of 2023 look the same way the Boston Bruins did in 2022 — on paper, a team many believed was sinking fast. On the ice? The Bruins rattled off an eye-popping 65 wins. It’s unlikely Pittsburgh can match that, but if the Penguins can stay reasonably healthy, they should be a handful to defend. Karlsson’s addition helps. It doesn’t hinder.
Beyond Karlsson, the greatest scrutiny any newcomer will face may well be directed at the polarizing Dubois, whose addition back in June gives the Kings an enviable top three down the middle: Anze Kopitar, Phillip Danault and now Dubois. McLellan won’t need to pursue matchups. He’ll leave that nightmare up to opposing coaches. How Dubois integrates into the Kings’ lineup — and how consistent will his play be on a night-in and night-out basis — is a situation that will require a full season’s worth of monitoring and scrutiny.
But for now, September is the month of hope, before the reality of the NHL’s regular season comes along and deals clubs a sober dose of reality. Hope, as they say, springs eternal. May as well enjoy it while it lasts.
(Top photos of Erik Karlsson, Vladimir Tarasenko and Pierre-Luc Dubois: Mike Ehrmann, Codie McLachlan, Harry How / Getty Images)

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