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The Tampa Bay Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup champs last night with a 1-0 Game 5 win over Montreal in front of a packed home crowd. The underdog Canadiens made a spirited run at becoming the first Canadian team in 28 years to win the Cup, but they were no match for a Tampa team that’s probably the closest thing to a dynasty we’ll see in the salary-cap era. Remember, the year before they won their first of back-to-back Cups, the Lightning had one of the best regular seasons of all time, tying the NHL record with 62 wins before inexplicably getting swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. Given the forces aligned against keeping great teams together these days, that’s an astonishing three-year stretch.
The champs’ front office won’t have much time to celebrate, though. The next three weeks are jam-packed with key events in what’s going to be an unusually busy off-season for the NHL’s 32 teams. Here’s the roadmap:
Saturday, July 17: Deadline for teams to submit their list of protected players for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. Seattle will be playing by the same rules Vegas parlayed into an immediate trip to the Stanley Cup final four years ago. The Kraken must take exactly one player from each team, except the Golden Knights, and end up with at least 14 forwards, nine defencemen and three goalies. Every team can protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (forwards/defencemen) and one goalie. After the lists are submitted, Seattle has an exclusive four-day window to negotiate with pending free agents who were left unprotected. If they sign a player during this window, his old team is off the hook from losing anyone in the expansion draft.
Wednesday, July 21: Expansion draft. It’ll be televised live from Seattle at 8 p.m. ET. In addition to their picks, the Kraken might choose to follow Vegas’ blueprint for building the most successful expansion team ever. The Golden Knights were willing to let capped-out or cash-poor teams dump their bad contracts on them in exchange for draft picks and/or players Vegas wanted. So expect a flurry of moves around the league before, during and after the expansion draft.
Friday, July 23: First round of the regular draft. Buffalo won the lottery for the No. 1 overall pick and is expected to take 6-foot-6 defenceman Owen Power, a Canadian who played for the University of Michigan last season. Seattle has the No. 2 pick. Rounds 2-7 of the draft take place the next day.
Wednesday, July 28: Free agency begins at noon ET. Alex Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124-million US contract is expiring, but it would be shocking if he doesn’t re-up with Washington. The biggest names expected to actually be available as unrestricted free agents include a pair of Bruins — forwards Taylor Hall and goalie Tuukka Rask — and a pair of Avalanche — forward Gabriel Landeskog and goalie Philipp Grubauer. The top defenceman on the market is Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton.
Something else to keep an eye on: the Olympics.
Four years later, the NHL’s position remains the same: pausing our season for two weeks to let our highest-paid employees go off and make money for someone else just isn’t worth it — unless you throw in some goodies. The league’s general lack of enthusiasm for the ’22 Olympics was evident in some comments made by deputy commissioner Bill Daly last week. “With the future Games in Beijing and the continued uncertainty with the virus and the Games being halfway around the world, [this is] not necessarily an ideal Games to elect to go to,” Daly said. The deputy commish also said the league has “deferred to the Players’ Association to try to work through” the “material issues” with the IOC. Translation: if the players can figure this thing out, great. If not, shrug emoji.
Not exactly what hockey fans want to hear. And there’s a deadline of sorts looming. The NHL said it will release its 2021-22 schedule between the end of the Cup final and the draft, which starts two weeks from tomorrow. So they might want to know whether there’s going to be a giant blackout period in February before doing that. “Time,” as Daly said, “is running very short.”