NHL Free Agency Winners and Losers: Days 1 and 2
In a league with a hard salary cap like the NHL, success in free agency is as much about the players you don’t sign as the ones that you do. As teams have worked harder in recent years to keep their talent on long term contracts, free agency classes have gotten grimmer and grimmer. As a result, the teams that excel in this time of the year tend to be the ones that understand how to bargain-hunt, how to draft, and how to trade. These rankings, in turn, don’t just look at the players teams signed on July 1st, but the players they traded for and traded away, the players that they drafted, and, of course, the players that they let walk away. In short, this is a ranking of the teams that have put themselves in the best position for success in the period between the end of the season and July 2nd.
I don’t think any other team in the league has done as much to improve themselves this off-season as the Calgary Flames. By trading away one first round pick and two seconds for Boston’s Dougie Hamilton, the Flames have built one of the best defensive units in the league. Mark Giordano, had he not gotten injured last season, it’s likely he would have taken home the Norris. T.J. Brodie, meanwhile, is a possession darling, and the second half of one of the most statistically productive pairings in the NHL. Now you have Hamilton to go along with Dennis Wideman (overrated but a top 4 defenseman nonetheless), Kris Russell (who definitely works as a number 5), and Derek Engellynd (not good).
While I don’t love their goaltending, they should be a significantly improved defensive team, especially with the addition of Michael Frolik from the Winnipeg Jets. He’s got offensive punch, and boasts a strong two-way game. He was a great penalty killer and defensive forward for the Blackhawks, and he can float up and down the lineup as needed. Calgary’s top six will now be some combination of Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund, and David Jones, depending on whether they feel they need to shelter Bennett, and how they want to use Backlund and Jones. It’s not exactly a Cup-winning group, but it’s a far improvement on rosters in years past.
Add in that they drafted Connor Kylington at no. 60 when he was listed as a top 10 European skater, and things are looking good for Calgary. The best part? Hamilton and Frolik cost them under 11 million dollars combined. They won’t get too far this year, but these moves should be enough to improve their abysmal possession numbers, and lay a foundation for sustainable success for the future.
As countless pundits have already said, when you add a player like Connor McDavid to your roster, you’ve had a successful off-season. Not every move GM Peter Chiarelli has made has been great though. Giving up picks no. 16 and no. 33 for Griffin Reinhart (a fourth overall pick in 2012) was a mistake. The Oilers needed NHL-ready defensemen and he has 6 games of experience. Beyond that, he could have been had for a lot less. The Isles were able to flip a player who was never going to crack their lineup for two valuable picks, one of which was Matthew Barzal, a skater not expected to be on the board at sixteen. As much as Chia may have wanted him, he should have realized he was dealing from a better position.
The Marincin trade was also strange, but Gryba does have more NHL experience than the 23-year old. He is also a righthand shot, which the Oilers were lacking. The Boyd Gordon for Korpikoski trade seemed a little strange on its face as well, but makes more sense when you consider the lack of scoring depth that has plagued the Oilers for years. Though he’s a few seasons removed from his most productive seasons, he should be a fine depth option on the third or fourth line. He had 21 points on an abysmal Coyotes team. That should hopefully translate to 30 if the Oilers can start scoring. Lastly, while we can question Cam Talbot’s abilities as a starter, Chiarelli got him for good value considering that Martin Jones and Robin Lehner both went for first round picks.
Chia’s actual free agent signings, on the other hand, were strong. Andrej Sekera was a 0.5 point per game player on a terrible Carolina team, and he has strong possession numbers. Someone was going to pay him that contract. It may as well have been them. He’s a real NHL defenseman who will be able to maintain possession and produce points. The Oilers honestly didn’t have any of those last year, save Petry whom they traded anyway. Mark Letestu will be a good replacement for Boyd Gordon on the fourth line. While he doesn’t have the same reputation for “grit” or “leadership,” he’s a fine player.
In all, the Oilers are a significantly better team now than they were a year ago, and that’s why they’re on this list. That is not to say that Chiarelli has done a great job in his time in Edmonton. He hasn’t performed poorly, but the NHL community consistently confuses luck and talent, especially when it comes to NHL GMs. McDavid fell into his lap, and he inherited Darnell Nurse. This team will be a much harder out next year, but let’s hold off on giving Chia the credit for that.
It might seem, at first, like Murray lucked into his success this off-season much like Chiarelli did. Unlike the Oilers’ GM, though, Murray was actually the driving force behind both phases of his team’s rebuild: the tank, and the retool.
The Sabres’ moves this off-season are a textbook example of the benefits of stock-piling picks and prospects. The price of the Robin Lehner trade raised a lot of eyebrows, but when you have as many prospects and picks as the Sabres have had these last two to three years, those picks come to mean a lot less. The Sabres didn’t need the 21st overall pick this year. They have enough young players. They did, however, need a goalie, and they got a good one. Many point to Lehner’s struggles last season as evidence that he isn’t a starting caliber goalie. He’s won the playoff MVP trophy at the AHL level, however, and has put up a .914 save percentage in 86 games in the NHL. That’s not a great number, but it’s serviceable, and it’s artifically deflated by his rookie season, and an injury plagued 2014–15 campaign. The guy has the pedigree to be a starter, and he’s not going to have to worry about losing his job at the drop of a hat. David Legwand was also a nice addition. While those same critics of the Lehner deal complain that Legwand was a cap dump (which he was), that’s irrelevant to the Sabres. It’s a one year deal and they’re not up against the cap. Terry Pegula does not care about money. Moreover, Legwand’s another veteran that can help teach the younger players how to be a professional.
The Ryan O’Reilly transaction is just as valuable an example. Getting O’Reilly gives the Sabres a first line center with professional experience. He’s a phenomenal two-way player, and has more offensive ability than his numbers in Colorado reflect. His presence down the middle will allow Eichel to play on the second line and play softer minutes, which should help both his confidence and his stat line. Most importantly, the Sabres didn’t have to overpay to get him. Neither Mikhail Grigorenko nor J.T. Compher were going to see real time with the Sabres given that they already had Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart, and Jack Eichel. Grigorenko especially had worn out his welcome in Buffalo given his refusal to sign a two way deal, and his alleged lack of effort. Murray managed to flip a disgruntled player to a team that wanted him (Patrick Roy was his coach in junior) and got back a first line center. The second round pick, meanwhile, was a small price to pay for a player of his caliber given the number of prospects in their system. The only real piece they gave up to get him was Nikita Zadarov, who has great size, and will probably turn into a very good defenseman. But you have to give to get. They didn’t have to toss in Rasmus Ristolainen, and that’s what counts. Jamie McGinn was also a nice addition coming back for Buffalo. While not a star by any stretch, he has 366 games of NHL experience, which should be a good addition for an organization that was practically icing an AHL roster last year.
Add in the moves made at the deadline, and Murray has done a great job of making over this team in a very short amount of time. They have a goalie that they think is their guy, and a newly retooled top six. The defense still needs work, but that’s to be expected. At the end of the day, the Sabres now boast ROR, Eichel, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, and Matt Moulson as five of their top six forwards. Three of those players are listed centers, to go with Reinhart, Legwand, and Girgensons. Dan Bylsma (another great addition to the team) will have a lot of options for this opening day lines.
Exciting stuff in Buffalo.
I didn’t have them on this list until I saw the T.J. Oshie trade. With it, they went from having Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer on the right wing, to Conn Smythe winner and three time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams and 2014 Winter Olympics hero T.J. Oshie. My biggest criticism of the Caps in recent years has been that, outside of Backstrom and Ovechkin, they essentially have a team full of third liners. Not anymore. They upgraded their offensive skill in a big way with these two moves. With the continued development of Evgeny Kuzntesov and Anrde Burakovsky, the Capitals should be an even more offensively dangerous team next year.
Letting Mike Green go hurts, but it would have hurt more to sign him for three years and 18 million dollars.
These moves haven’t suddenly transformed the Caps in the same way that Murray’s moves have transformed the Sabres. Nevertheless, they address the greatest area of need for Washington, and did so at a low cost. The Justin Williams AAV is outstanding, and they only had to give up Brouwer, a goalie prospect who wouldn’t usurp Holtby in Phoenix Copley, and a third round pick to get Oshie. That’s very good work.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs’ success this off-season has less to do with the impact of their moves and more to do with their symbolism. The Leafs have been treading water for years, and overpaying free agents in the name of “contending” was not going to solve anything. They’ve played it smart by bringing in good depth in free agency, and off-loading assets that needed to go.
Moving Phil Kessel at all was a coup in itself. Everyone knew he was available, and he has a monster contract. All thing considered, they got a very good return for him. Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington are two very good prospects to add to a pool that includes the recently drafted Mitch Marner. Both are thought to be close to NHL ready if not already there. They’ll bring valuable youth to a team that’s trying to rebuild. Nick Spaling, meanwhile, is a serviceable third line player who will be able to contribute on opening day. Add in another first round pick, and I think that this was a very good deal for Toronto. Obviously retaining salary isn’t great, but $1.2 million is not the worst it could have been.
The players they’ve brought in, meanwhile, were pretty strong. Mark Arcobello is an underrated player who has produced pretty much everywhere he’s gone, and he’s a strong possession player. It’s a one year deal, so if it doesn’t work out then fine. But he should be able to help the team be successful, and if he does, then you’ve found yourself a quality bottom six player to keep for the future.
Daniel Winnik, meanwhile, is a fantastic bottom six forward. He’s relatively productive (34 points last year), and he’s fantastic possession player. P.A. Parenteau, meanwhile, is an interesting player. He’s struggled a bit in his last two seasons, but he’s still a solid middle six option. He’s only two seasons removed from being a point per game player, and he has 227 points in 347 NHL games. Like Arcobello, if he proves productive, he might be someone to keep around. Under the same circumstances, he might also be someone to flip at the deadline for more assets for the future.
Things won’t be pretty for them this season, but the Leafs are in a better position for future success today than they were a few weeks ago. They’re getting younger, they’re jettisoning bad contracts, and they’re looking to the future. Things look bright under Shanahan and Babcock.
They traded up to get center Travis Konecny at no. 25, and they got defenseman Ivan Provorov at no. 7. They traded away Nicklas Grossmann (who is a plug) and Chris Pronger’s contract for Sam Gagner, who should add some scoring depth to a Flyers team that needs it. Best of all, they traded Zac Rinaldo for a third round pick. Ron Hextall traded a guy who averages roughly two goals a season for a third round pick. Incredible.
They still have Umberger, Lecavalier, and MacDonald on the books, but this is a start. With Coburn and Grossmann both gone, there should be room for some of the many defensemen that the Flyers have in their system like Morin and Gostisbehere. Picking up Michael Neuvirth to backup Steve Mason was also a huge upgrade over Rob Zepp and Ray Emery. It remains to be seen what Hakstoll will do in his rookie season as an NHL coach, but you’d have to think he’ll be better than Craig Berube. All in all a solid summer so far for the Flyers.
Detroit Red Wings
Brad Richards is an upgrade on Stephen Weiss given the latter’s contract and health issues, and Mike Green gives them the right-handed shot that they’ve wanted for a while now. It’s nice to see that free agents want to come to post-Babcock Detroit, considering how much trouble they’ve had with free agents in recent years. These moves should help them be more competitive this season, but it certainly doesn’t make them any younger.
They got Noah Hanifin at no.5 when many thought he would go no.3. They got Eddie Lack on the cheap for a 3rd rounder and a 7th rounder, and they got a serviceable offensive defenseman, James Wisniewski, for a backup goalie that they no longer needed, Anton Khudobin. They also got Alex Semin out of their locker room. While the cap penalty for doing so will be the largest in league history, it’s still a smart move to get him off the team given how the relationship between him and the organization had soured. For once, Carolina doesn’t seem to be a haven for terrible management.
Now that they’ve flipped Martin Jones for a first round pick, the Lucic trade is actually looking very good. For Lucic with 3 million dollars of cap hit retained, they ended up getting 2 first round picks and a prospect. That’s not too bad. Everything else, though, was horrible. The Dougie Hamilton trade was one of the worst trades I’ve seen in a very long time. They got one first rounder and two seconds for him. If he had left via offer sheet they would have gotten one first, one second, and one third. They upgraded that third to a second, and in turn watched a future franchise defenseman walk out the door. Upon trading him, GM Don Sweeney then turns around and hands a four year, eleven million dollar deal to Adam McQuaid. Unbelievable.
Given the contract that he signed in Calgary, it seems like Hamilton simply didn’t want to stay in Boston. But the issue is not that the Bruins didn’t keep him, it’s the return they got for him. The difference between shopping him and letting him walk was an extra round in the draft. That’s just not acceptable.
Worse, they misused the return. Rumors swirled that the Bruins were trying to use their three first round picks to move up and select Noah Hanifin, which did not happen. If that was indeed their goal (and it seems like it was) then that’s another failure. Worse, with the three picks they had, they didn’t draft well. All three of their picks were reaches. The Islanders only traded Reinhart to get Barzal because the Bruins let him slip away. Sweeney also, as I said before, traded a third rounder for Zac Rinaldo, a guy who scores, on average, 2 goals a season.
In free agency itself, the Bruins did not spend their money well. Matt Beleskey’s contract has a perfectly palatable AAV considering he was apparently asking for four or five million dollars a year. But you don’t give a player like that five years. The Bruins should have already learned that mistake from players like Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, and so on. You don’t lock up that much money and term in depth players. Beleskey is a third line player at best. He had one productive year playing great minutes on a very good team. His shooting percentage and goal to assist ratio say it all though. This season was a flash in the pan. While he might pan out and get you ten to fifteen goals and thirty points, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
Beyond that, they couldn’t afford to pay Soderberg that much money to be a third line center, so moving his rights for a sixth round pick was a solid move. The Jimmy Hayes for Reilly Smith trade, meanwhile, could go either way.
At the end of the day, though, the Bruins are worse right now than they were two weeks ago. More importantly, they don’t seem to have a plan as to how they’re going to get better.
San Jose Sharks
Not a great haul for the guys in teal. Paul Martin is a good player, but giving a player of his age four years is dangerous. Moreover, his offensive output has been decreasing over the last few years. It’s too much money and term for a guy who is thirty four years old. Letting Niemi walk just to trade a first round pick for Martin Jones was also not the brightest idea. Alex Stalock and Martin Jones have a combined 66 NHL starts. Martin Jones was in the bottom of the league for adjust even strength save percentage. He could very well become a good goalie, but giving up a first rounder for him was too much.
In the end, they’re not doing enough. They’re not going to win a Cup with this roster, but they seem hesitant to sell what they have and dedicate themselves to a rebuild. They should learn from Calgary’s mishandling of Jarome Iginla and avoid the inevitable. They should also fire Doug Wilson. He’s put together a lot of great rosters over the years, but he isn’t anymore. This team will probably be better just by virtue of letting Scott Hannan, John Scott, and Adam Burrish go. It will may very well be another year without the playoffs for San Jose, though.
Speaking of teams without plans, I don’t understand what the Canucks are doing. Giving up a pick and Kassian for Prust did nothing to help them on the ice. While Prust is a good locker room guy, and not at terrible hockey player, he ages an already old Canucks roster. He also has significantly less upside than Kassian. That they swapped Kassian for Prust is already surprising, that they gave up a pick of any kind to go with it is just bizarre.
Beyond that, Jim Benning only got a third rounder and a seventh rounder for Eddie Lack, while Martin Jones and Robin Lehner went for firsts, Cam Talbot went for a second, a third, and a seventh, and Anton Khudobin went for James Wisniewski. Add in the fact that his only other moves were trading Bieksa for a second round pick (a meh trade), and signing Yannick Weber and Matt Bartkowski, and things don’t look very promising for the Canucks. They didn’t do anything to get better except free up some cap space and get a few picks. They’ll be worse this year, and not to the benefit of the future. But hey, if Canucks fans need something to do in the off-season, I guess they can calculate how many dollars Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett make per minute of ice time.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings will be fine, but they’re still losers in my book just because of the cap situtation they’ve put themselves in. While they got lucky with Mike Richards’ contract termination, they should never have been in this position. Even if Richards had turned things around, that contract was an anchor, and Dean Lombardi made a big and obvious mistake in refusing to use a compliance buyout on him. On a related note, what is going on in that organization? Within a year you have three players involved in criminal investigations, one of them for domestic violence. Not good stuff.
On the topic of the team actually on the ice, I don’t like the Lucic trade at all. It’s interesting to see a team like the Ducks go for speed while the Kings seem to be doubling down on size and strength. I think they’re going to be slower this year than last, and I think that their defensive corps is going to be weaker without Sekera to replace the hole left by Voynov.
The Kings will be back in the playoffs, and but I don’t think they made the moves they should have. They’re weaker on the backend, and slower up front. Not a great combination.
Brandon Saad is not worth six years at 6.5 million dollars at this point in his career. Nevertheless, it hurts to trade him away while Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell are still on the books. It would have been one thing to choose not to pay him that contract, and it seems like they straight up couldn’t afford it. They did get a solid return from Columbus. Marko Dano played well in limited time in Columbus, and Artem Anisimov is a fine option at 2C with good size. But the psychological blow of trading Saad is serious nonetheless. No one expected that he would be the cap casualty, and his departure definitely makes the future seem more uncertain than it did a week ago. It doesn’t help that there are rumors that Saad and his agent were not communicating during contract negotiations, which led, in part, to his trade to Columbus. It stings to lose a player, and it especially stings to lose him because of an overpriced player like Bryan Bickell, and a greedy agent.
The Blackhawks were going to suffer this offseason, and they’re not losers for that. However, the failure to get rid of Bickell and Sharp, and the failure to retain Saad make them losers. While the return from the Jackets was ok, the extension for Anisimov was a bit pricey, and it was odd to take back a player that they had already gotten rid of in Jeremy Morin. They’re going to need their kids to step up in a big way next year. Given the way that a lot of them played in limited time last season, they’re going to need to do some serious growing.
A mixed bag from Bob Murray and co. this offseason. On the brighter side of things, Carl Hagelin is a nice pickup. Emerson Etem was having trouble sticking in the lineup, and Hagelin will add some speed and checking ability that will help them deal with teams like Chicago. A lot of pundits seem to say he’ll play on the top line with Perry and Getzlaf, which could work given his time in the past with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. I’m interested, however, to see what a line with Hagelin and Andrew Cogliano looks like. That’s a lot of speed, and Hagelin is much closer to a third line player than a first. Moreover, staying away from five years of Matt Beleskey was a good call.
Aside from that, there were some questionable moves. I’m not sure why there was a need to get rid of Kyle Palmieri, and replacing Beauchemin with Bieksa seems like more of a lateral move than a real upgrade. Beyond that, while they weren’t using Wisniewski, it’s bad asset management to trade a defenseman of that caliber for a team’s third string goalie, especially when you don’t really need that goalie. Though they were thin in the crease behind Gibson and Andersen, it was nothing that couldn’t be rectified with a free agent signing.
To end on a brighter note, they did add former Jack Adams winner Paul MacLean to the coaching staff as an assistant. In all I think they’re better than they were two weeks ago, but they could have made better moves to get over the hump.
They signed 1,000 year old Mike Ribeiro to a two-year deal even though he’s ancient and an alleged rapist. There was an easy excuse on the table for David Poile not to sign this guy, and he did it anyway. Losers on the ice and off.
Getting Phil Kessel at 6.8 million dollars a year is nice. That’s some serious firepower in Pittsburgh now. Kunitz and Dupuis will probably start the year playing on the third line, as they should be given the former’s decline and the latter’s injuries. They had to give up a significant amount to get him — a roster player, two of their best prospects, and a first round pick. Nevertheless, it gives them a scoring winger that they desperately needed. As surprising as it seems on paper, the Penguins were a top 10 team in goals against last year. They needed help scoring, and they got it. The biggest drawback here is probably the damage it will do to their depth. Daniel Winnik, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, and Nick Spaling all play for different teams as of today. That’s a third of their forward corps.
If Kunitz, Bennett, and Dupuis are healthy, though, they should be ok. The acquisition of Sergei Plotnikov should definitely help things. Though he’s spent the last six years playing on bigger ice in Russia’s KHL, he should be able to slot in as a middle six option for the Penguins. That would give them a top nine of Crosby, Malkin, Perron, Kessel, Hornqvist, Plotnikov, Sutter, Kunitz, Dupuis. In the case of injury (which is inevitable given Pittsburgh’s luck the last few years), Bennett would probably slot in to that group instead. That’s a much better group than it was with Comeau, Spaling, and Winnik in the mix.
Going young on defense was also a wise choice. While the Pens will kick themselves over the Despres trade for a long time — especially given Harrington’s departure — things are looking good on the backend. Letang, Maatta, Pouliot, Cole, Scuderi, Lovejoy, and Dumoulin is a solid enough group. They got the job done last year and they should this year as well. The Pens saved themselves a lot of cap space by letting Ehrhoff and Martin walk, and it paid off in landing Kessel.
If they get hit by injuries again this year, people will label this trade a failure. If they can stay healthy, though, this should be a team back atop the Metro, especially if the Rangers’ young players don’t continue to improve.
While it’s never good for your team to trade away a star player, the Avs got a solid return for Ryan O’Reilly given that everyone knew the Avs weren’t going to keep him. Grigorenko is somehow still only 21 years old. Hopefully being reunited with his junior coach, Patrick Roy, will help him rediscover his game. He, along with J.T. Compher, will help solidify some of the organization’s center depth. Nikita Zadarov, meanwhile, adds a young talent on the blue line that they desperately needed. Their top four defensemen will now most likely be Erik Johnson, Francois Beauchemin, Tyson Barrie, and Nikita Zadarov. Not the best group, but certainly not the worst. Getting the pick back in a deep draft was also a nice bonus. It wasn’t a blockbuster return, but if these pieces workout it will have been a success. At the end of the day, it was clear that ROR wasn’t going to stay, and they did well considering.
Their two biggest free agent acquisitions were center Carl Soderberg, from Boston, and Beauchemin, from Anaheim. While they gave Soderberg a bit too much term and money, he’s a good addition to their forward corps. He’s a good possession player who should thrive given increased minutes. He was a 0.5 point per game player as a third liner in Boston, and he should eclipse that if he gets consistent linemates. Nevertheless, the term and money on this contract make it a questionable move. It’s as good a replacement as you were going to get for ROR, but it’s an overpayment.
Beauchemin, meanwhile, is nothing more than a stopgap measure. Three years is a long time for a player his age, and they will probably come to regret the contract. But he averaged a lot of ice time in Anaheim and the squad will be better with him on it than it was last year.
I also like the Comeau signing. He played well in Pittsburgh (albeit with great line mates) and he should be a good third line option.
I don’t know if this team will be better next year than it was this year. It should be. Duchene and MacKinnon both produced less than they had in the past, and Varlamov was injury plagued and inconsistent. Removing the distraction that ROR posed, and adding some of these pieces should help them increase their win total next year. At the end of the day, though, O’Reilly isn’t the kind of player you just replace, and that will most likely show up on the ice and in the standings in some way.
Columbus Blue Jackets
I liked the trade for Saad. It was aggressive and, I think, smart. Saad is better than Anisimov, and will almost certainly be better than Marko Dano. Their top six now includes Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Saad, and Cam Atkinson. While it’s still a work in progress in my mind, they certainly upgraded their high end skill with this trade.
Still, I have two big questions. Firstly, what will this do to their depth? They gave up two roster players for Saad, one of whom slotted in as the 2C. While Dubinsky can play center and slot into that role, it doesn’t help them up the middle. Secondly, if Saad really is asking for six years at 6.5 million dollars, what does that mean for future negotiations with Ryan Johansen? If Saad is worth 6.5, then what is Johansen worth? As a member of the Blackhawks, Saad produced 99 points in 160 games over the last two seasons. Johansen, meanwhile, produced 134 points in 164. That’s thirty-five more points in four more games despite playing with significantly weaker line mates. Johansen only makes about $4 million a year. If Columbus gives Saad this contract, it could set them up for bruising negotiations with Johansen, and, in turn, a significantly increased payroll.
It’s a good trade at the end of the day. They got the better player. It remains to be seen, however, if Saad will live up to that price tag (if that’s what he signs for), and what that contract will mean for the cap situation of the Columbus Blue Jackets.