The 10 types of NHL offseasons, from 'The Big Swing' to 'At Least You Tried' (2024)

Did you enjoy the NHL offseason?

OK, so it’s not technically over. But it feels that way because in one week we went from crowning a champion to draft weekend to free agency day. Now the trade talk is mostly quiet, the big boards are pretty much bare and Pierre has left for the cottage. So … have a good summer, everyone?

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Well, maybe not quite yet. There are still a few names left on the trade block, a couple of jobs still to fill, and we’ll get the usual trickle of “Oh right that guy” UFA signings. But for the most part, much like your neighborhood Fourth of July party, the fireworks are already over.

So what kind of summer did your team have? Let’s look at the 10 types of NHL offseasons, why they happen and what they usually lead to. Bonus points if you can figure out which current teams I was thinking of when I wrote each summary.

The Big Swing

What it looks like: This is the kind of offseason that every fan base wants to see their team have but few get to experience. A team seems to be in on all the big names, which is exciting enough. But then they land one. Maybe even more than one. And suddenly, in some cases literally overnight, a team shoots up the rankings and starts to feel like a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite.

Why it happens: It’s hard to say. Sometimes, this sort of thing is the result of a long-term plan coming together, as a team manages its cap into the perfect position to be the front-runner on just the right players at just the right time. It could be more of a perfect storm scenario, where solid planning meets unexpected opportunity, and a team manages to make the most of it. And sure, sometimes it’s just luck, as a team happens to stumble into a dream scenario that they weren’t really planning on. Nothing wrong with that.

What (usually) comes next: A ton of excitement from the fan base, accompanied by jealous sniping from other fan bases (something about tax rates). Then comes the season, which of course never quite lives up to the hype, because nothing could. But that’s OK, because the team still ends up being better, and that’s supposed to be the whole point of an offseason.

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The Big Tinker

What it looks like: The Big Swing’s wimpy little sibling, this is the plan that sees a team make lots of moves, none of which would really qualify as major. Instead, they’re mainly focused on depth and improvement around the margins.

By the end of the summer, they’ve seen plenty of players come and go, and people are making jokes about how you’ll have to buy a program to figure out who’s who on opening night. And yet somehow, the team feels pretty much the same.

Why it happens: This one’s tricky. Sometimes, The Big Tinker is the right call, because a team is legitimately close to championship contention, and now it’s about finding those final pieces without disrupting what already works. We’ve absolutely seen teams have this sort of offseason right before a Stanley Cup — you could make the case that last year’s Panthers landing guys like Evan Rodrigues, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov would qualify.

But there are also teams that should be aiming far bigger, and end up here as a Plan B. They’ll never admit that, of course, and will swear up and down that they chose this path because “we like our group.” Nobody believes them, but the optimists can convince themselves that it’s all part of a grand strategy.

What (usually) comes next: Lots of second-guessing, which often lasts all year long, right up until the GM gets the last laugh and/or a pink slip.

The 10 types of NHL offseasons, from 'The Big Swing' to 'At Least You Tried' (1)

The Panthers acquired Evan Rodrigues in the 2023 offseason. He helped Florida win the Stanley Cup months later. (Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

Keeping The Band Together

What it looks like: A team that’s already very good is just trying to keep the pieces in place. They can’t add much, largely because of the cap but also because they just don’t have that many holes in the lineup to fill. Instead, the focus is on bringing as many players back as possible. Sometimes, that happens at a discount, because hockey players love stability and winning, and the team can offer both. Other times, they may overpay to bring someone back out of a sense of loyalty — or a fear of disrupting the mix that got them into the elite tier in the first place.

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Why it happens: First, because a team was smart enough to build a strong team in the first place. Second, because management wasn’t heartless enough to break the roster up just to chase marginal improvements. That’s getting rare these days, as we’re starting to see teams like Vegas and Tampa take the cold-hearted approach. But sometimes you just want to stick with what works, you know?

What (usually) comes next: Success, although maybe not as much as you’d hope, as the relentless pressure of parity and the hard cap does its job of pushing a great team back toward being merely good.

The Awkward Breakup

What it looks like: The opposite of Keeping The Band Together, this is the offseason that signals that it’s really over. Maybe not “over” in the sense that a team can’t make the playoffs, or even contend. But for whatever reason, the heart and soul of a team end up leaving, and it’s never quite the same ever again.

Why it happens: For any number of reasons, including ego, ambition and opportunity. But these days it’s often all about the cap, which was partly designed to force just these scenarios on teams that have stockpiled more than their fair share of talent. Is that ultimately good for the sport? Your answer probably depends on what kind of budget your favorite team has, but either way, it’s the reality we’ve all come to accept.

What (usually) comes next: Hopefully, a big ovation or two during the season when familiar faces return.

At Least You Tried

What it looks like: This team doesn’t do much. As far as major moves, they might do nothing at all. But they want you to know that it wasn’t for lack of trying. And they’ll make sure you know that, as they’ll spend the summer leaking stories about how they’re in on the big names. And when those big names go elsewhere, they’ll make sure that you hear about how they were so close.

I mean, when you think about it, being in on all the big names and then deciding not to actually seal the deal with any of them is kind of brave. Heroic, almost. Ah well, time to take the rest of the summer off, see you at camp and remember to mail in those season-ticket renewals.

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Why it happens: Sometimes, it really is as simple as teams coming close on big names and just not being able to get the deal done. Other times, a team might be strung along by a player with little interest, but who needs a plausible threat to spark a bidding war for their preferred destination. Sometimes the bidding just gets too high, and backing out might even be the smart thing.

But let’s be honest: A lot of the time, this sort of offseason is just nonsense. It’s a GM being too conservative, and then not even having the courage to stand on his convictions. He wants the credit for big moves, even without having the guts to actually make them.

What (usually) comes next: A lot of grumbling in the fan base, a miserable season, and then a new GM in a year or two who’ll probably try the exact same move.

The Total Teardown

What it looks like: A team is either just starting a rebuild, or is still in the very early stages of one, which means they still have some decent players. That’s no good, so they get to work on selling anyone with a pulse while collecting draft picks and prospects. We’re used to seeing this from a few teams every year, some more blatant than others.

Why it happens: It’s the cycle of life in the NHL, where if you’re not contending then you really want to be bottoming out. That means that smart teams know that pain is inevitable, and they embrace it. As it happens, this is also a great time to be a new GM, because The Total Teardown is the best possible way to reduce any pressure for immediate results. And it’s even kind of fun for fans, who get to bookmark Pronman and Wheeler while embracing the brighter days ahead.

What (usually) comes next: That’s the tricky part. Sometimes, this is step one toward multiple championships. Other times, it doesn’t lead anywhere at all, as a team is left spinning its wheels. It will take years to know for sure, but either way, this is both the easiest task an NHL GM can have and one of the most important. Years from now, fans will look back on this sort of summer as a turning point, one way or another.

The Retool That Should Be A Rebuild

What it looks like: A team should rebuild. They need to rebuild. Their fans want to see a rebuild. But instead of starting The Total Teardown, we watch them vow that they can just retool on the fly, at which point they make a bunch of moves that are seemingly designed to get them to eighth place with a first-round elimination, and no further.

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Why it happens: Almost always for one of two reasons. Either the GM doesn’t have the job security to bite the bullet, or the owner isn’t willing to accept the inevitable reality of what his team needs. In some cases, it’s both at the same time. Those teams are completely in trouble.

What (usually) comes next: A rebuild … a few years too late.

Pick A Lane

What it looks like: A lot like The Total Teardown. But then also The Big Tinker. And if you squint, maybe even The Big Swing, with more than a little bit of at least you tried. It’s something different each time you look, basically.

Why it happens: Because a team doesn’t have a plan, and they’re just floundering around trying to look busy.

What (usually) comes next: A lost season, followed by an actual plan, which will almost always have to be executed by a new GM.

The Summer Off

What it looks like: Uh, you did know there was an offseason, right?

Nobody ever goes an entire summer without doing anything, of course. But they may as well have, as this one makes The Big Tinker look like the 1988 Wayne Gretzky trade. It’s the “at least you tried” plan, only without any of that annoying “trying”.

Why it happens: Because the team is already perfect and you don’t mess with success. No, just kidding, it’s because the GM is bad at this job.

What (usually) comes next: An early September trade, just to shut everyone up.

OK, there’s one more type of offseason to go, and we’ve saved the best for last …

The Perfect Offseason

What it looks like: Exactly like it sounds, as the team hits on everything, big and small. They target a big-name free agent, and they land him at a reasonable price. They pull off a trade or two that everyone agrees they won. They get a few key young pieces resigned to long-term deals, add a few solid depth pieces at a discount, and even nail their draft.

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Why it happens: Because even though it’s rare, sometimes the hockey gods actually do smile on a team and its fan base, and agree to grant all their wishes for a precious few weeks of sunshine and happiness.

What (inevitably) comes next: None of the moves work and the team misses the playoffs by a mile.

(Top photo of Steven Stamkos: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

The 10 types of NHL offseasons, from 'The Big Swing' to 'At Least You Tried' (2024)
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