It wasn’t a free agent season for the ages in the NHL, but there sure was a lot of activity after midnight on July 1.
Canada Day was rung in by a flurry of signings, starting with bigger names like Patrick Sharp (Chicago bound), Trevor Daley (Detroit) and Karl Alzner (Montreal) all inking deals with new teams.
It continued unabated all day, with 94 players all putting their names to new deals with new teams (in most instances). That is contrasted to just five signings in the four days since.
Therefore, we can fairly accurately analyze how things have gone for about half the teams, based on the fact most of the biggest names are off the board.
Some teams, like Tampa Bay, were extremely busy, signing eight players to contracts, while others, such as the Edmonton Oilers, quietly let the free agency period pass with nary a deal done.
It isn’t too late for teams to bolster their rosters, however, the free agent window is closing quickly and it’s time to provisionally anoint winners and losers. We have also added another category — “Meh” — for teams who signed players who will neither really improve their team, nor hurt them.
We’ll start with winners, then go to “Meh” and losers.
15. Dallas Stars – Winner
We’ve spilled enough ink calling the Dallas Stars 2016-17 season a complete disaster. And now, we can rightly say that the Stars have taken bold steps to improve their lot, heading into the next campaign. We’ll begin by pointing out that before free agency even kicked in, they traded a fourth round pick in this year’s draft for elite goaltender Ben Bishop. If they were deficient anywhere, goal was the sorest spot last season. And, they let mediocre Antti Niemi walk (right to Pittsburgh), which was a good thing. The Stars have loaded up as well as can be expected with this year’s old guy heavy free agent crew, starting with the five-year deal to get Alexander Radulov from Montreal and inking 30-year-old playmaking center Martin Hanzal to a three-year pact. Their other moves, while small, give them depth. Tyler Pitlick, who scored 11 points in 31 games for Edmonton, was a good one at three years and $3 million, as was the signing of checking forward Brian Flynn to a one-year, $750,000 contract.
14. Florida Panthers – Winner
The Cats, who missed the playoffs by 14 points a year after a stellar 103-point 2015-16 campaign, didn’t sit idly by while other teams in the Eastern Conference got busy in free agency. Their first good movement was bringing back former third round pick (71st overall, 2007) Evgeny Dadonov, 28. He scored 10 goals and 10 assists in 55 games for Florida earlier this decade before bolting for the KHL, where he was better than a point per game in 2016-17 with St. Petersburg SKA (three years, $12 million). They followed that up by acquiring big time offensive producer Radim Vrbata and putting his name on a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The 36-year-old recorded 20 goals and 55 points in 81 games for Arizona last season. Depth forwards Micheal Haley (two years, $1.65 million) and Alexandre Grenier (not disclosed) replace adequately the departed Kyle Rau and Michael Sgarbossa.
13. Nashville Predators – Winner
The Predators came within a whiff of claiming the first Stanley Cup in franchise history this spring. So, what did they do to change their fortunes? First, they poached hard-working and skilled third-line center Nick Bonino from the very team that beat them, the Penguins. He scored 18 goals and 19 assist in 81 regular season games and followed it up with four goals and three assists in 21 playoff contests. Not done there, they brought back pugnacious fan favorite Scott Hartnell. He signed for a cap friendly one-year, $1 million deal and will add secondary scoring (37 points in 78 games) and toughness (1,727 career PIM) to the Nashville line-up. On a team with a great defensive corps, scoring is quite welcome.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning – Winner
We will preface this bit by saying that the recent Jonathan Drouin for promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev trade with Montreal looks like a win for the Habs, for the short term. However, the Bolts and GM Steve Yzerman took a bold step to replacing Drouin’s offence (53 points) by signing veteran forward Chris Kunitz (29 points). Kunitz, who signed a reasonable one-year, $2 million contract won’t entirely close that gap, but he brings oodles of playoff experience (11 points in 20 games this year) and three Stanley Cup rings to the Lightning. Most of what the Lightning, who should have a healthy Steve Stamkos back in the fold, did later were housekeeping moves to address their depth. They did, though, ink veteran defenceman Dan Girardi to a two year, $6 million pact to augment a defence in need of a solid two-way guy.
11. Winnipeg Jets – Winner
Let’s just say that even with good young goalie Connor Hellebuyck proving that he is ready for prime time, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff reminded Jets fans that he wants to win, now. That’s why he pulled the trigger on signing 29-year-old veteran netminder Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2 million deal that allows Hellebuyck to develop further as a back-up. Mason will benefit from a Winnipeg defensive unit that were mostly plus players with enough mobility to get pucks out of the zone quicker than those in Philadelphia. Cheveldayoff, who saw no-nonsense defenceman Paul Postma sign with Boston, more than made up for his loss by getting former Florida first-rounder Dmitry Kulikov to replace him. Kulikov will no doubt enjoy a change of scenery from the mess that was Buffalo. The capper on the Jets free agent foray was seeing over-the-hill goalie Ondrej Pavelec pack his bags for the New York Rangers.
10. Montreal Canadiens – Meh
The Canadiens would have been a straight up loser, here, if not for the fact they traded for dynamic forward Jonathan Drouin prior to free agency. And secondly, they took would-be 2018 free agent prize Carey Price off the market, re-signing him to an eight-year contract. They would have been losers after they lost Alexander Radulov to Dallas, but the Drouin trade takes some of the sting out of that bit of business. They get a “Meh” because their defence is still in flux with Andrei Markov still not signed. Inking Karl Alzner to a fat five-year contract (for a shocking $23.25 million) makes up for the loss of Alexei Emelin to Vegas in the expansion draft. But, does he make them better on the backend? Not really, we say. The “Meh” is solidified with their middle-of-the-road forward depth signings in Peter Holland, Byron Froese and Ales Hemsky.
9. Philadelphia Flyers – Meh
Out with Steve Mason (Winnipeg), in with Calgary Flames goaltender Brian Elliott. But first, prior to the draft, the Flyers dealt 25-goal scorer Brayden Schenn (55 points total) to St. Louis for checking forward Jori Lehtera and the 27th pick in the draft. Not probably what Flyers fans wanted, but the silver lining to that cloud was the team getting no. 2 pick Nolan Patrick (who should make the team) and OHL playmaking pivot Morgan Frost at no. 27. Where the Flyers and GM Ron Hextall get a “Meh” is for the fact they aren’t any better in goal (maybe worse) and they have done little else to address needed depth on defence, where they lost Michael Del Zotto to free agency (Vancouver). The two-year, $5.5 million contract Hextall handed Elliott isn’t overly bad, but the 31-year-old has been very up and down the last three seasons.
8. San Jose Sharks – Meh
What saved the Sharks from being a solid loser was the re-signing of veteran leader and UFA Joe Thornton to a one-year contract ($8 million). GM Doug Wilson was definitely under the gun to re-up Thornton, especially after Patrick Marleau got a three-year deal in Toronto. The loss of Marleau, who accounted for 27 of the Sharks 221 goals last year, is a double-edged sword. The team will get younger by allocating the 36-year-old’s ice time to a deserving youngster, but will that player score at Marleau’s pace? Most likely not. Saving Wilson’s bacon is the fact his top four scorers are all still hanging in and that top shelf goalie Martin Jones and quality defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic were both extended before they could be allowed to walk in free agency next year.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs – Meh
Speaking of Patrick Marleau, Twitter was agog with commentary on Sunday as Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello went against the grain and signed the 508-goal scorer to a big three-year, $18.75 million contract. It flew in the face of everything being said around the Big Smoke prior to July 1. With a good young nucleus fresh off a decent playoff appearance, all the rhetoric said the Leafs wouldn’t be targeting any big ticket free agents. And they were true to their word initially, replacing departed two-way center Brian Boyle with former two-way center and face-off specialist Dominic Moore at one year and $1 million. They also signed Pittsburgh veteran rearguard Ron Hainsey to a two-year, $6 million pact, which offset the loss of Matt Hunwick. The Leafs also re-signed back-up goalie Curtis McElhinney, keeping their duo together. The Leafs might have got “winner” status here, had they not waded into the unknown with the expensive Marleau. A nice addition, but the cost was steep for a player of his age.
6. Vancouver Canucks – Meh
The Canucks had so many needs in free agency, they probably didn’t know where to start. A moribund team in need of giving more ice time to youngsters had few answers from the fuzzy-faced ranks. The Canucks were the second worst offensive team in hockey (just 182 goals), so scoring needed to be addressed. Thus, GM Jim Benning rolled up his sleeves and got busy. But was he being busy for business sake? We think he got adequate scoring in the form of Sam Gagner but overpaid at three years and $9.45 million — remember, Gagner bounced back in 2016-17 making well under $1 million. We think Benning may have stretched credibility a bit, too, by signing Flyers D-man Michael Del Zotto to a two-year, $6 million deal. Forward Alex Burmistrov was tidy at one-year and $900,000 as was D Patrick Wiercioch (one year, $650,000). However, starting goalie Ryan Miller bolted for Anaheim, leaving a huge gap in net. All in all, the signings don’t hurt the Canucks, but neither do they really do a lot for the confidence of the fans.
5. Arizona Coyotes – Loser
The state of turmoil the Arizona Coyotes were in during the 2016-17 season got no better this off-season. The ‘Yotes are straight up losers for addressing none of their needs in free agency, leaking more talent than they brought back on board. They lost G Chad Johnson (Buffalo), D Jamie McBain (Tampa), F Radim Vrbata (Florida), F Alex Burmistrov (Vancouver), F Peter Holland (Montreal) and F Josh Jooris (Carolina), all who played to varying degrees last year. The only signing of any marginal impact was defenceman Adam Clendening from the Rangers, who was had for one-year at $650,000 and is a depth rearguard only. Otherwise, all other deals were for depth, mostly at the AHL level. The Coyotes are losers because they lost their top scorer in Vrbata, told their captain Shane Doan to take a hike in free agency and did nothing to get a goaltender to replace traded starter Mike Smith, other than trade for career back-up Antti Raanta (and forward Derek Stepan).
4. Calgary Flames – Loser
The Flames made the playoffs with Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson splitting goaltending duties in 2016-17. Neither was very good, or very bad, just average. Before Elliott was signed away by Philly, Calgary dealt Johnson (who has since signed with Buffalo) to Arizona for aging starter Mike Smith, who is three years older than Elliott and four years senior to Johnson. Therefore, Calgary is no better off in net than they were last year. Now, the Flames did shore up their backend by trading a first rounder and two second rounders for D Travis Hamonic, but he is no savior. Flames GM Brad Treliving didn’t make much of a splash for a team with a few holes, signing cast-offs Marek Hrivik (18 games experience with New York) and tough guy Luke Gazdic (11 games with New Jersey). They will be nip-tuck to make the playoffs in the West.
3. Colorado Avalanche – Loser
Two of the most suspect free agent signings belong to the Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic. The worst team in the NHL, by a country mile, signed mediocre goalie Jonathan Bernier to a one-year, $2.75 million contract and former no. 1 overall draft bust Nail Yakupov to a one-year, $875,000 contract. The Bernier deal looks even worse, given the Avs lost 2016-17 starter Calvin Pickard to Vegas and now have a less than stellar duo of Bernier/Semyon Varlamov. The Yakupov pact looks good only from a dollars standpoint, since the still young forward will get a chance to show his worth on a team looking for any kind of spark. Sakic’s only astute move this off-season (so far) was trading for Nashville Predators veteran center Colin Wilson. He’ll provide decent secondary scoring, if anything. All in all, though, the Avs are losers in free agency and have a lot of work to do listening in on offers for Matt Duchene and/or Gabriel Landeskog.
2. New York Rangers – Loser
We only have two words to defend our choice of the New York Rangers as a loser in free agency. Ondrej and Pavelec. After trading decent back-up Antti Raanta to Arizona, GM Jeff Gorton threw all the good will away from signing prized free agent defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk by inking a long ago washed up Pavelec to a one year, $1.3 million contract. He was awful as a back-up in Winnipeg and won’t be given much rope to hang himself in the Big Apple. And speaking of Shattenkirk, Gorton better hope that he doesn’t buckle under the weight of his monster contract (four years, $26.6 million) or the pressure of playing before the vocal faithful at Madison Square Garden. For our money, Shattenkirk isn’t elite and could as easily be a bust as a decent boon to the Rangers. Gorton and the Blueshirts also get loser status for replacing departed center Derek Stepan with journeyman pivot David Desharnais (one year, $1 million).
1. Pittsburgh Penguins – Loser
The champion Penguins, as beat up as they were in the post-season (especially on the blueline), proved that no one could take them lightly. After being pillaged in free agency, however, the Pens will be hard pressed for a three-peat. GM Jim Rutherford’s first mistake, like Jeff Gorton in New York, was signing a has-been goalie to be back-up. Rutherford did worse, actually, inking the terrible Antti Niemi to a one-year, $700,000 contract. Rutherford left Marc-Andre Fleury unprotected in the expansion draft, lost him to Vegas then anointed the unwanted Niemi as back-up. Ugh. Then, serviceable forwards Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz were allowed to bolt, which made sense only from a cap standpoint. As of Wednesday, Rutherford has signed no one to replace that offence. His other misstep was allowing Ron Hainsey to walk (he signed in Toronto), replacing him with OK defender Matt Hunwick from Toronto. The Penguins certainly aren’t better and have their work cut out for them.