The long-awaited exile of Phil Kessel upstaged everything else that happened on the opening day of the NHL free-agent season, which proved to be a slightly different animal this year anyway.
Usually, it's a day when teams imagine they can turn frogs into princes with the single stroke of a pen, only to discover how quickly the clock can strike midnight on the Ville Leinos and Jeff Fingers of the world.
There was a little of that Wednesday, but generally teams spent more judiciously than in the past – offering shorter terms and fewer dollars, thereby shielding themselves from deals that immediately inspire buyer's remorse.
Just how the Maple Leafs' trade of Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a much-anticipated blockbuster deal, plays out will be fascinating to watch. Kessel provides an immediate solution to a problem that has been ailing Pittsburgh virtually since the start of the Sidney Crosby era – not enough quality wingers to support him and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins' two all-star centrepieces.
In Kessel, the Penguins get a player who spent most of the past year going through the motions, but has that rare ability to score goals in an offensively challenged league.
If Kessel can get his head on straight and be motivated by the opportunity to play with someone of Crosby or Malkin's pedigree, he could have a major bounce-back year. It will all hinge on Kessel's attitude – and on Penguins coach Mike Johnston's ability to get him out of cruise control and playing with a purpose.
Apart from Nick Spaling, the players coming Toronto's way include two former first-round picks in Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, plus a lottery-protected 2016 first-rounder. Kapanen is the son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen; he joins an organization that last year drafted William Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael Nylander. If bloodlines matter, that's a good start. But ultimately it will be up to the Leafs organization – coach Mike Babcock or the new minor-league boss, Sheldon Keefe – to turn them into productive pros.
Unlike the past two years, when close to $1-billion was committed to players on Canada Day 2013 and 2014, only a handful of teams splurged on a class of modest talent that featured just a single player who cracked the top-100 in scoring last season. That was centre Mike Ribeiro, who is returning for two additional years to the Nashville Predators for $3.5-million (U.S.) a season, a value buy on a day full of them.
Among the forwards who switched teams, the No. 1 addition was arguably Michael Frolik, a strategic add for the Calgary Flames, who liked his versatility and experience. Every coach who has had Frolik – from the Chicago Blackhawks' Joel Quenneville to the Winnipeg Jets' Paul Maurice – prized his hockey sense and commitment. He is the quintessential low-maintenance forward who can play up or down your depth chart, but to get him the Flames had to pony up $21.5-million over five years, lots of cash for a player who scored 42 points in each of the past two seasons.
Frolik's blueline equivalent was Andrej Sekera, who earned a monster six-year, $33-million contract deal with the Edmonton Oilers. Sekera is 29 and has the chance to play first-pair minutes with the Oilers, who now suddenly have a glut of defencemen in the organization after adding Eric Gryba and Griffin Reinhart at the NHL entry draft last week.
The Oilers also added depth centre Mark Letestu, who had been with the Columbus Blue Jackets most recently, but would have had a difficult time getting minutes on a team so deep up front.
The Oilers will have a vastly new look next year, from the goal out, where Cam Talbot is pencilled in as the new starter. Sekera, Gryba and Reinhart represent a 50-per-cent turnover on what was formerly a thin blueline in Edmonton.
Frolik's departure in Winnipeg opens up a roster spot for Alex Burmistrov, who returns to the Jets' organization, after playing in the Kontinental Hockey League the past two seasons for Ak Bars Kazan. Burmistrov, 23, was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft. Older, more mature, with the chance to play for a coach – Maurice – who has worked in the KHL before can only enhance Burmistrov's prospects of finally reaching his full potential.
The Vancouver Canucks ended the Zach Kassian years, sending him to the Montreal Canadiens for heart-and-soul forward Brandon Prust. At 5-foot-11, 195, Prust almost always gets the most out of his skill set. If Kassian, at 6-foot-3, 226, can find the consistency that he has never been able to achieve at the NHL level on a Canadiens team with real needs on its right side, it will be gamble worth taking – a big if.
Kassian's arrival continues the subtle youth movement under way in Montreal under general manager Marc Bergevin – a 31-year-old swapped out for a 24-year-old – as the Canadiens attempt to get both bigger and spryer.
The Flames also re-signed goaltender Karri Ramo, who was looking for a multiyear contract extension from a team on which he could challenge to be the No. 1 goaltender. Once all the open goaltending slots were filled, however, Ramo's camp circled back to his original team and settled for a one-year deal worth $3.9-million.
The thought there is that, with Jonas Hiller's contract set to expire at the end of next year, Ramo's best chance to win a starting job is probably back in Calgary, where he finished the year as the No. 1 guy.
The addition of Connor McDavid headlined the Oilers' off-season moves, while stealing Dougie Hamilton away from the Boston Bruins was Calgary's response. There is an arms race under way in Alberta that mirrors what happened in the 1980s, back when Edmonton and Calgary were among the top handful of teams in the NHL, and also illustrates how quickly perceptions can change.
Two years ago, Edmonton and Calgary were pretty much where Toronto is now – poor teams that, as destinations, ranked right at the bottom of the NHL standings. The fact that they're in there swinging – and connecting – tells you that fortunes can turn in a heartbeat.
Maybe moving Kessel starts the Leafs down the same path that began in Calgary when they swallowed hard a few years back and started trading away the likes of Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Cammalleri and Alex Tanguay.
Every turnaround has to start somewhere, right?