Dave Poulin: The Seattle Kraken are agents of change. Every NHL team is playing this game

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Times they are a-changing. It’s inevitable. Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

There’s a great chance that a number of teams will look very different the next time the skates are laced up in the NHL — some by choice, some unwillingly.

Seldom before has there been such a perfect storm brewing for change.

The usual elements that prompt action are there: expiring contracts, the upcoming amateur draft, and disappointment from underachieving teams. The unusual factors piling on include a $81.5-million (U.S.) hard salary cap that remains flat because of the pandemic pressures of the past 18 months, and a looming expansion draft that will have the newly minted Seattle Kraken looking to raid your roster and pry away one of your assets. They’re coming after one of your guys, and you have to decide who you’re going to let them have.

It’s a nervous time for players, part of the job for managers, and an exciting time for fans. The excitement comes from thinking, or at least hoping, that change is always positive. That’s not always the case.

Let’s start at the top with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who want no change at all. Their creative overspending, however, means change is inevitable, along with the increasing financial demands of some key free agents who performed so strongly.

Win, play well and you get paid by your team is the way things usually work in pro sports. That won’t be the case in Tampa, which will likely lose some combination of free-agents Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and David Savard. Contracted stalwarts including Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde can’t all fit either, so someone will be calling for moving vans. General manager Julien BriseBois’ cellphone number is high on every GM’s speed dial list right now. Teams would love to add that winning pedigree to their locker rooms.

The losing Cup finalist, the Montreal Canadiens, had a bit of a shock this past week when routine medicals revealed captain Shea Weber’s physical maladies — including foot, knee and hand ailments. The severity has put next season in jeopardy for Weber, maybe longer. The defensive cornerstone of the group that protects Carey Price in net would be greatly missed, but it’s too early for any final determination. (The immediate outcry that Weber could potentially miss the regular season and return for the playoffs free of cap encumbrance, a la Nikita Kucherov this season, have been summarily dismissed.)

Montreal’s changes will be based more on financial choice, with decisions to be made on free agents including super-defender Phillip Danault, versatile Joel Armia and the ageless Corey Perry, who looks like he still has lots to give. They also hope not to lose their goalie insurance in Jake Allen, who will be exposed in the expansion draft and attractive to the Seattle folks.

Toronto’s fans may be the most anxious about Zach Hyman, an unrestricted free agent given permission to shop his wares ahead of the July 28 start of free agency and find out whether the grass truly is greener on the other side. With cash very tight in the Leafs’ coffers, they’re hopeful that the lure of a perfect role in his hometown will lead Hyman to stay. Incumbent goalie Freddie Anderson also appears headed on a shopping trip in free agency.

The Montreal Canadiens’ game plan for next season changed with word that captain Shea Weber suffered multiple injuries in the playoffs.

Depending on how the Leafs’ protected list played out, Seattle might wind up with defenceman Travis Dermott or forward Alex Kerfoot. That decision could be a trigger point for Leaf changes to follow.

Colorado is at a similar cash-strapped standoff with pending free-agent captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose time with the Avalanche could be coming to a close after 10 seasons — before this promising group achieves its lofty championship aspirations. They’re breaking up the band before they’ve even completed the song in the Rocky Mountains.

Around the league, other avenues of change add to the intrigue.

  • Buyouts of veterans Ryan Suter and Zach Parise by the Minnesota Wild caught a number of people by surprise, apparently including the players involved. General manager Bill Guerin is putting his stamp on the club, and looks to be actively ramping up after a somewhat surprisingly successful year.
  • Two days later, the Florida Panthers followed suit, jettisoning current NHL ironman Keith Yandle, he of 922 straight games played. Yandle will be donning a different jersey if the streak is to continue, in quest of the career record of 964 set by Doug Jarvis. There will be more surprises as the wheels of change continue to churn.

With Wednesday’s expansion draft rapidly approaching, Seattle GM Ron Francis sits front and centre as the agent of change. The protection lists will emerge and anxious shoppers around the league will be looking to effectively partner with the Kraken, who will be eyeing some of those not protected. Deals will be struck, often quietly. Third parties will get involved if they sense a benefit to their team.

The icing on the cake could be the trade demands of several high-profile players with large contracts. Where they might wind up remains anyone’s guess, but with names such as Jack Eichel, Vlad Tarasenko and Seth Jones floating out there, we may have to capitalize CHANGE.

Dave Poulin is a former NHL player, executive and TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @djpoulin20

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