Normally, this would be where we write a free agency “winners and losers” column praising and criticizing all activity on July 1. But we’re not doing anymore. Not after what happened last season.
Instead, from the Maple Leafs signing John Tavares and the Flames landing James Neal to the Blues trading for the Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly, this is everything that looked good, looked bad and was downright head-scratching since the free agency period opened.
Leafs are the winners (we think) of free agency
After winning the John Tavares sweepstakes (seven years, US$77 million), are the Leafs now the favourites to also win the Cup? Well, not so fast. While Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri gives them a trio of centres that combined for 103 goals last season, scoring hadn’t exactly been a problem for a team that had the third-ranked offence. As long as Tampa Bay and Boston are also in the Atlantic Division, Toronto will have its hands full — especially if general manager Kyle Dubas goes the summer without addressing the defence.
Buffalo is building a contender
The Sabres might not be good enough yet to make the playoffs next year, but even the toughest critic has to be impressed with the direction they are headed. In the last two weeks, the team selected No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, acquired speedy winger Connor Sheary to play with Jack Eichel, and replaced Robin Lehner with goals-against leader Carter Hutton. Trading unhappy centre Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues also gives them a 2019 first-rounder and cap relief to continue building for the future.
Blues add centre depth
It’s not quite the offensive punch of Tavares, Matthews and Kadri, but in acquiring O’Reilly from the Sabres and signing Tyler Bozak (three years, $15 million) to a team that already has Brayden Schenn, the Blues added significant depth to their centre position. At the very least, St. Louis will be starting with the puck a lot next season. O’Reilly led the NHL in faceoff wins last season, while Bozak had a 53.6 winning percentage.
Misfits add their Golden Knight
The “us-versus-them” mantra in Vegas might be a tougher sell after the Golden Knights won another battle against the Jets in signing Paul Stastny (three years, $19.5 million). The 32-year-old centre, who scored 16 goals for St. Louis and Winnipeg last season, is now the highest-paid player on a roster of castaways. That is, until William Karlsson negotiates a new deal this summer. Considering he scored 27 more goals than Stastny, don’t expect him to accept “misfit” money.
Flames overpay for goals
A week after trading Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and prospect Adam Fox to the Hurricanes for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, the Flames doubled-down by signing James Neal (five years, $28.75 million). It’s a risky addition. Neal has been good for 20 or more goals in each of his 10 years in the NHL, but he will be 36 when his contract expires. He last reached the 30-goal mark in 2015-16 and had his only 40-goal season seven years ago. But as long as he can hit 20 goals again, he essentially replaces Ferland’s contribution.
Canadiens miss out
Montreal, which wasn’t invited to negotiate with Tavares and then refused to pay the ransom that Buffalo received from St. Louis for O’Reilly, didn’t address their pressing need at centre. Well, that is, unless you count bringing back Tomas Plekanec, who was a fourth-line option for the Leafs in the playoffs last season. It’s a small move. But after overpaying for defenceman Karl Alzner last year, it could prove better than the alternatives.
Canucks go gritty
With the Sedins retired and Thomas Vanek signing in Detroit, the Canucks lost three of their top five scorers from last season. So it was curious that the team opted to sign physicality — rather than skill — by offering fourth-liners Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel four-year contracts. Maybe the team hopes that 2017 first-rounder Elias Pettersson and this year’s No. 7 pick Quinn Hughes will be ready to step in and help Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat. If not, we could be in for a lot of dump-and-chase hockey.
Islanders’ turn to Plan B
There really wasn’t a backup plan in losing Tavares. That being said, I’m not sure where the Islanders hope to achieve in signing Leo Komarov (four years and $12 million) and Valtteri Filppula (one year, $2.75 million). Both are on their last legs, with the 31-year-old Komarov dropping from 14 to seven goals in Toronto last season and the 34-year-old Filppula managing 14 goals with the Flyers. Maybe, like GM Lou Lamoriello’s first year in Toronto, this is part of the painful first step in landing the No. 1 overall pick.
JVR goes home
In Claude Giroux (102 points), Jakub Voracek (85 points) and Sean Couturier (76 points), the Flyers had three players who finished in the top 26 in scoring last season. To that impressive mix returns James van Riemsdyk (five years, $35 million), who scored 36 goals last season with Toronto and is a much more accomplished forward than when he started his career in Philadelphia. The area that van Riemsdyk will help the most is on the Flyers’ 16th-ranked power play, where he scored 11 of his goals.
Kings and Sharks lock up their stars
It’s no coincidence that Drew Doughty, Logan Couture and Ryan McDonagh signed long-term deals — and Ottawa offered Erik Karlsson a contract — as Tavares going through his free-agency decision. If GMs had been unafraid of losing their star players in the past, they certainly are now. The times are changing. The NBA model of picking your destination and moving to a contender could be creeping into the NHL. In other words, pay close attention to Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky, who become UFAs next summer.
Not everyone signs on July 1. While most of the best options are gone, there are still deals to be had, whether it’s forward Joe Thornton, defenceman Calvin De Haan or Lehner in goal. The most attractive name on the list might be Patrick Maroon, who had a down year of 17 goals with Edmonton and New Jersey last season, but has the potential to play on any of a team’s top three lines.
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