I posted my review of NHL 21 over the weekend, and this year I think I’m going to stick around longer than usual because I do think there’s enough here — even with somewhat minimal NHL 21 franchise mode improvements — to keep me coming back.
That being said, the NHL offseason’s free agency period began on October 9. During the initial signing period, there have been multiple big-time players changing teams. Some players have opted to sign lucrative long-term contracts with their new teams while some have signed one-year contracts.
When I play EA’s NHL series, my franchise experience consists of playing every period of all 82 games during a season. However, I always run my franchises by doing a fantasy draft to create my own unique team of talented rookies, blossoming young stars in the making and established stars. But if you are someone who each year looks to begin your franchise experience with a new franchise (and a real roster), this offseason has provided several newly reformed teams that are intriguing options.
Whether you decide to start off with an established Stanley Cup contender or rebuild and make a run with an underdog, here are some of my NHL 21 franchise mode team selections.
Stanley Cup Enthusiasts
Las Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights landed the best free agent defenseman available in Alex Pietrangelo. The big addition comes by way of a seven-year deal with an average annual value of $8.8 million. Pietrangelo comes from a career with the St. Louis Blues culminating in a 2018-19 Stanley Cup win. He served as the captain of the Blues for the past four seasons and instantly gives the Golden Knights defense and leadership groups a serious boost.
Last season, Pietrangelo recorded 16 goals and 36 assists for 52 points. He’s topped the 10-goal mark in each of his past four seasons. He’s the total package on the blue line and will take some of the load off budding superstar Shea Theodore.
Vegas had to give up something, in this case somethings, to have the cap space to sign the former Blues captain. The cap casualties ended up being trading top-four defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks, a division rival, for a third-round pick and they also moved out depth forward Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets. Additionally, another player to keep an eye on is backup goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is said to be available.
There’s no question that the Golden Knights got an elite player in Pietrangelo, the question will be was the addition worth the subtractions.
The Avalanche have been perhaps the quietest team when it comes to signing free agents. Colorado’s GM, Joe Sakic, did re-sign a couple of key players but he has been reluctant to dip his toes into the free agency pool. However, Sakic has been quite busy on the trade front pulling off two separate but big trades.
The Avalanche picked up forward Brandon Saad from Chicago and defenseman Devon Toews from the New York Islanders. In acquiring Toews, Colorado did not have to part with any players off of their current roster, instead giving up two second-round draft picks. The Saad acquisition did see the Avalanche have to part ways with a big but inconsistent defenseman Nikita Zadorov. Either way, I think the addition of Toews is a clear upgrade over Zadorov.
Now, with the two additions and no noteworthy subtractions, the Avalanche could be ready to make a deep run.
The Oilers were busy the first few days of the signing period. Their biggest signing came by way of offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie, who they signed on the cheap to a one-year deal worth just under $4 million. Edmonton also brought in veteran Kyle Turris — I think an underrated signing — to help fill the third line center role. Turris is coming off of a couple down years in Nashville, but I really like this signing a lot and think a change of scenery can rejuvenate Turris. Plus, maybe getting some power play time with McDavid and Draisaitl might be enough to get the best out of Turris.
Additionally, Edmonton re-signed veteran Tyler Ennis. He came over at last year’s trade deadline and instantly provided offense. Furthermore, another underrated move by GM Ken Holland was somehow convincing disgruntled former first-round pick Jesse Puljujarvi to leave Europe and rejoin the Oilers on a cheap contract for under $2 million.
The Edmonton Oilers currently have roughly $730,000 in cap space. The only crucial piece that still needs to be signed is restricted free agent Ethan Bear, who logged big minutes for Edmonton last season as a rookie. A bridge deal seems like the most likely option for Bear, likely coming in at just under $2 million a season.
Furthermore, in injury news, GM Ken Holland said a couple days ago that defenseman Oscar Klefbom will likely not play at all this coming season for Edmonton.
The Oilers have not upgraded their goaltending situation at all this offseason and It doesn’t look like they will since they re-signed Mike Smith. If the goaltending can hold up and provide serviceable results, their modest free agent additions might be enough.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Stop me if you have heard this before over the last couple of seasons, but could this be the year the core figures it out?
The Maple Leafs did have to trade away two forwards in Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils respectively. However, the Maple Leads were also able to sign veteran NHL players on very cheap, cap-friendly deals. Toronto got much tougher to play against with the additions of forward Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Zach Bogosian. The Maple Leafs were also able to add depth scoring in players like Jimmy Vesey and Joe Thornton. Additionally, what makes all of those signings even better is the fact that they all are just one-year deals.
Toronto’s lone multi-year free agent signing was for defenseman T.J. Brodie. He signed a four-year contract worth $5 million annually.
Under The Radar
New York Rangers
The Rangers’ only unrestricted free agent signing of note came by way of signing veteran depth defenseman Jack Johnson to a one-year contract. However, there are a few internal things that have me interested in the New York Rangers. First, is obviously drafting potential generational talent Alexis Lafreniere first overall. Lafreniere will immediately jump into New York’s lineup for this upcoming season and he will no doubt be fun to watch. Furthermore, the New York Rangers will get their first full season with superstar goaltender Igor Shestyorkin in net after parting ways with future HOF goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
The offense for the Rangers should be even better with another year of experience under their belts. Forwards like Mika Zibanejad (41-goal season last year), Artemi Panarin was an MVP contender, and Kaapo Kakko will be entering his sophomore season.
The Montreal Canadiens have a promising young core, especially up the middle with players like Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. They added to that core during free agency with winger Tyler Toffoli on a four-year contract with a modest cap hit of a little more than $4 million. Additionally, the Canadiens traded for rugged winger Josh Anderson and then locked him up to a seven-year contract. Anderson might not prove to have value later on in his contract, but it is a great signing for a team that needed that type of player. Speaking of toughness, Montreal also signed hard-nosed defenseman Joel Edmundson.
Montreal was also able to re-sign their own free agents like heart and soul Brendan Gallagher, and defensemen Jeff Petry and Victor Mete. Additionally, the acquisition of backup goalie Jake Allen should help keep starter Carey Price fresh by lessening his workload.
Anytime you land the top offensive free agent, you get attention. That is exactly what Buffalo did when they signed former league MVP Taylor Hall to a one-year contract. After the signing of Hall, it made me take a closer look at some of the under-the-radar moves Buffalo made prior to his signing.
The Sabres made two important and useful moves when they signed free agent center Cody Eakin and traded for center Eric Staal. These two additions should provide more balanced scoring, a veteran presence and help take some pressure off of first-line center Jack Eichel.
During the last couple years, Buffalo’s young roster has gotten off to hot starts only to fizzle into oblivion, so perhaps their veteran additions will cure that. Hall and Eichel, if they are not the fastest duo, will at least make for a very fun duo to watch.
Detroit Red Wings
What else needs to be said after a disastrous 39-point season where the Red Wings won only 17 games? The Red Wings are a team struggling to just reach the salary cap floor. In having said that, Detroit has a number of awfully bad contracts currently on their books. However, there are some good pieces in the midst of all the losing with young guys like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi currently on their roster. Furthermore, the Red Wings have players like Moritz Seider and the just drafted fourth overall pick Lucas Raymond who should be arriving on the scene shortly.
Prospects, prospects and more prospects. The Senators have stockpiled draft picks over the last couple years and that finally started to pay dividends with three first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft. Ottawa is looking like they could be a powerhouse filled with young exciting talent headlined by Brady Tkachuk and recent third overall pick Tim Stuetzle. Furthermore, this offseason the Senators were able to lock up two-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Matt Murray to a long-term contract giving them stability in net.
The fun and unique challenges of a franchise come down to what exactly you are looking to accomplish. Is it your goal to take a Stanley Cup favorite like the Las Vegas Golden Knights and attempt to create a dynasty? Or are you willing to take on the challenges of the Detroit Red Wings and rebuild your franchise from the bottom up and grind out every game of the season? Whichever path you choose, the grind is the exciting part of the process. Happy grinding!
What new look teams are you looking forward to playing as? Do you prefer to play as a contender or as a team looking to rebuild?