One of my favorite parts of the NHL offseason is seeing players get the chance to start fresh with a new team. Sometimes that change of scenery is enough to jumpstart their careers; other times, the free-agent frenzy gives a beloved vet a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The NHL 2021 offseason was an even greater version, as the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft threw an extra wrinkle into the plans and caused even greater player movement than in a typical year. Here are three players who changed teams this offseason with a great opportunity to impress their new clubs.
Dougie Hamilton, D, New Jersey Devils
Dougie Hamilton was one of the most coveted NHL free agents this offseason, and for good reason. He is one of the most complete defensemen in the game, and his puck-moving ability in the offensive zone is elite.
Last season, Hamilton tied for seventh in points among defensemen (10 goals, 32 assists) and finished first in shots on goal (180). He’s a high-volume shooter, and after New Jersey finished 26th in goals per game (2.56) last season, having Hamilton generate scoring opportunities is a must.
Furthermore, Hamilton will likely be paired with another newcomer to the Devils, former Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves. Graves is a true defensive defenseman, and pairing him with the more offensively-minded Hamilton will allow the two to play well off of each other and shine in tandem.
New Jersey has a tough road to the playoffs, but their new look blue line can certainly be a factor in keeping them in the postseason mix.
Darcy Kuemper, G, Colorado Avalanche
Coming off an All-Star selection in 2020, Darcy Kuemper struggled with a lower body injury in the 2021 season, and in a surprising move, the Arizona Coyotes traded Kuemper to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Conor Timmins, a 2022 first round pick, and a conditional 2024 third round pick.
While the trade may appear loaded in Arizona’s favor, Colorado is getting a star in Kuemper. In four seasons with the Coyotes, Kuemper posted a 55-48-15 record, a 2.43 GAA, a .920 save percentage, and 10 shutouts. Over that same time, all other Arizona goaltenders combined for nine shutouts and went 70-83-19.
Over the past three seasons, Kuemper ranks fourth in the league in goals saved above average (41.63) in all situations. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy, Robin Lehner, and Ben Bishop rank higher, and all three finished in the top three in Vezina Trophy voting as the league’s top goaltender in that span (Vasilevskiy won for 2018-19).
As a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, Kuemper may be the goaltender who takes Colorado to the promised land. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuemper as the Vezina winner in 2022.
Sam Reinhart, F, Florida Panthers
The Buffalo Sabres have been an absolute mess over the past 10 years, failing to qualify for the playoffs at any time in that span. Beyond how they’re botching the Jack Eichel situation in regards to his surgery and trade value, we’ve seen good players come to Buffalo and forget how to play entirely (Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, Kyle Okposo, to name a few), and we’ve seen players thrive after leaving Buffalo (Hall, Lehner, Ryan O’Reilly, and many more).
Sam Reinhart was the second overall pick in the 2014 Draft, one pick ahead of Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl. However, after Buffalo traded him to the Florida Panthers, Reinhart joined the first overall pick (Aaron Ekblad) and fourth overall pick (Sam Bennett) from the 2014 class as teammates in Florida.
Reinhart had somewhat of a breakout in 2021, leading the Sabres with 25 goals and 40 points. Perhaps more impressively, he posted those numbers without Eichel and Hall by his side for most of that production. Beyond that, Reinhart has posted 40 points or more in every season aside from his first year, wherein he only played nine games.
Going from a bottom of standings team like Buffalo to a playoff contender in Florida should only do good things for Reinhart’s game. He projects as the top pairing right wing, playing with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe; Reinhart may also play with Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau on the power play.
If he stays healthy, Reinhart could set career bests in offensive production this season.
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