July 2, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Free Agency Frenzy: Who’s Having The Most Surprising Offseason?

As the top free agents take themselves off the market one by one, report cards for every NHL team are being issued by fans, pundits and blowhards alike.

The Edmonton Oilers are certainly the most improved team with the additions of Connor McDavid, Todd McLellan and Andrej Sekera. The Pittsburgh Penguins made the biggest splash on July 1 by trading for embattled superstar Phil Kessel.

But who’s made the most unexpected moves? Which team is positioning itself as the sleeper squad of the summer?

After refusing to give up throughout the 2014-15 campaign, the Calgary Flames are finding a way to be competitive in the offseason, too.

Prior to the 2015 draft, the Flames were the team circled on most experts’ boards as the most likely to experience a Colorado Avalanche-style letdown next year.

No one expected the Flames to compete for a playoff spot last season, and after they suffered an eight-game losing streak in December, everyone assumed that Cinderella’s carriage had finally turned into pumpkin.

But the Flames stormed back.

In March, captain Mark Giordano, who was the NHL’s leading scorer among defensemen, suffered a season-ending biceps injury. Surely, the Little Engine That Could was about to run out of steam.

It didn’t.

The Flames pulled out 10 come-from-behind victories in the third period last year, won 25 one-goal game and eventually clawed their way into the second round of the playoffs.

How could they possibly replicate such a magical season?

By staying aggressive in the summer.

The offseason is usually the time of year when the rich get richer while small-market Canadian teams place bets on which role players can outperform their career averages. After all, who wants to live in Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg when Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are on the line?

The Flames let the NHL know that they aren’t willing to be small-market afterthoughts when they sent the 15th, 45th and 52nd picks in the 2015 draft to the Boston Bruins for top-pair defenseman Dougie Hamilton. They dropped an exclamation point on the league a few days later by inking Hamilton to a six-year, $34.5 million contract extension.

But the wheeling and dealing didn’t end at the draft.

The Flames continued their forward momentum on Wednesday, signing forward Michael Frolik to a five-year deal.

While Frolik wasn’t the sexiest name on the market, he’s a perfect fit for the Flames hard-hat-and-lunch-pale mentality.

With Frolik, the Flames acquired a player who’s fast, a proven winner with the Chicago Blackhawks and in the prime of his career at age 27. He’s also a guy that can be described with every cliché in the book: gritty, unsung, energetic, resilient and clutch. Sounds like he belongs on the Flames.

Despite his assuming nature, most pundits placed Frolik among the top-five forwards available in free agency this summer.

General manager Brad Treliving iced his cake by resigning goaltender Karri Ramo. While Ramo isn’t necessarily a franchise goalie, he gives the Flames a full deck alongside Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio. A team can never have too many options in net.

By adding Hamilton to a blue line that already features talents, like Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell, and bringing in Frolik to do the heavy lifting for forwards, such as Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan, the Flames ensured that they’ll be competing for a playoff spot again next year.

With the emergence of the Oilers, and expected bounce backs from the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks next year, the Flames couldn’t afford to keep the car in neutral this summer. In the Pacific Division, you’re either getting better or backsliding into mediocrity.

With these moves, the Flames showed that they’re planning to stick around for quite awhile.

Penguins Strike Gold With Kessel: The Pittsburgh Penguins are the perfect match for Kessel after a tumultuous six-year run in Toronto.

With the Penguins, Kessel will get to partner up with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the ice and undoubtedly boost his numbers. But more importantly, he will get to slide into a supporting role in the locker room, getting a first-hand view of what true leadership looks like.

When it comes to professionalism, few athletes can compete with Crosby.

Over the years, Kessel has received criticism for being sluggish and out of shape. Now, he can work out with Crosby, follow his rigorous training program and prove the talking heads wrong.

Kessel also struggled with the media in Toronto. In Pittsburgh, Crosby can show him how to be polite, accountable and accommodating without giving reporters the keys to the kingdom.

The most glaring critique of Kessel is that his best effort comes and goes throughout the course of a season. Wavering commitment isn’t going to fly with Crosby, who always seems to inspire the best out of his teammates, whether it’s in the NHL, at the Olympics or the World Championships.

Crosby will teach Kessel how to keep that fire burning on a nightly basis.

If things don’t work out for Kessel in Pittsburgh, he should probably just hang up the skates. He won’t find an environment more tailored for his success.

So long, farewell: One of hockey’s true Cinderella stories reached its conclusion on Thursday when Martin St. Louis retired.

Few expected the 5-foot-8 forward to survive in the NHL. No one saw him scoring 1,033 career points and winning a Stanley Cup, a Hart Trophy and two Art Ross Trophies ten years apart.

While St. Louis will be remembered for his speed and stature (or lack thereof), his inspiring performance for the New York Rangers in the wake of his mother’s death during the 2014 playoffs also left an indelible imprint on the hockey world.

After a subpar 2014-15 season, by his standards, St. Louis is leaving the game at the right time, on his terms.

Next stop, Toronto.

This column was sponsored by Tilden Park Golf Course. Join the Players’ Club for $39.99 a month. Daily range access. Free green fees. Free golf clinics!

  • gravy21

    this must have been written before the Caps’ deals. Maybe not the MOST improved, but they should be in the discussion. Last year they plugged their biggest holes during FA. This year they did the same. Should be exciting.

  • seandlax9

    The Pens needed to obtain grit, especially on their blue line, and solidify their goaltending. They instead got Phil Kessel.

    They are a flashy, soft team in a hard hitting division, and the league knows how to beat them.