- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The opening hours of NHL free agency did not bring us an answer as to where Nazem Kadri and John Klingberg would be skating in 2022-23, but there was no shortage of money being doled out elsewhere. Plus, we were treated to some blockbuster trades, as the Carolina Hurricanes added Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty in separate swaps and Johnny Gaudreau landed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Whose offseason is off the best start? Which teams didn’t do so well so far? And who are the best remaining players left for teams to add before the fall?
Detroit Red Wings
General manager Steve Yzerman put in work on Wednesday, signing a haul of good players on solid contracts.
Let’s run back the list of key additions: Andrew Copp (five years, $5.625 million AAV), Ben Chiarot (four years, $4.75 million AAV), David Perron (two years, $4.75 million AAV) and Dominik Kubalik (two years, $2.5 million AAV). That’s a fine foursome of players in their own right, and Yzerman has to be pleased about how they’ll complement the Red Wings’ current group of young talent.
Chiarot has a chance to pair up with Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider, who will undoubtedly elevate Chiarot’s game. Perron had a career season with the St. Louis Blues in 2021-22 and will be a versatile middle-six piece for the Red Wings. Copp is a Michigan native excited to be joining his hometown team after a successful post-trade tenure with the New York Rangers (18 points in 16 games). And Kubalik? He’s a former 30-goal scorer who didn’t receive a qualifying offer from Chicago. The 26-year-old will be motivated to prove he’s still got it.
The newcomers up front will join Lucas Raymond, Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin to make the Red Wings look suddenly much more formidable. That could also go a long way in keeping Larkin and Bertuzzi interested in remaining with the Red Wings long term. Both players are unrestricted free agents after 2022-23 season and Yzerman is obviously showing that Detroit won’t be a pushover in the stacked Atlantic Division. Will that help get Larkin and Bertuzzi extended sooner? There’s been some rough seasons recently for the Red Wings but winning helps everything.
Yzerman’s moves on Wednesday will make Detroit far more competitive, exciting and potentially explosive for the coming season (and beyond). — Shilton
The Avalanche aren’t done winning.
On a day where most teams are scouring the open market for players to add, the reigning Stanley Cup champions went big on taking care of their own. Josh Manson is back on a four-year deal, Artturi Lehkonen got a new five-year pact and Darren Helm returns on a one-year contract. Add to that what general manager Joe Sakic did previously — inking Valeri Nichushkin for eight more seasons — and it’s been a fantastic start to free agency for Colorado.
What Sakic did so seamlessly was prioritize. He let goaltender Darcy Kuemper walk (right on into a five-year deal with the Washington Capitals) by acquiring (and signing) Alexandar Georgiev for the next three seasons. Andre Burakovsky moved on to Seattle and Nazem Kadri is likely to sign elsewhere as well, but Sakic was strategic in who to keep and how much to pay, so that Colorado can chase another Cup.
It doesn’t feel like the Avalanche took a step back at all despite the talent they will lose from their most recent playoff roster. Sakic has a great feel for his group and proved it again in how he’s worked through free agency. — Shilton
The Hurricanes came to play on free agency’s opening day. They’re a much better team for it.
First, Carolina acquired Brent Burns (and forward Lane Pederson) from San Jose in exchange for forward Steven Lorentz, goaltender Eetu Makiniemi and a conditional third-round pick in 2023 draft. They had the Sharks retain 34% of Burns salary in the swap, too.
That’s a difference-making move for the Hurricanes’ blue line. Carolina needed to replace Tony DeAngelo on the right side, and Burns is an elite offensive defenseman. He’ll add good depth and puck-moving ability to Carolina’s attack. Plus, he’s no slouch in the production department, with 10 goals and 44 assists last season.
Carolina’s other Grade-A move came later in the afternoon when they reeled in Max Pacioretty from Vegas for basically nothing (no, really … the deal was for future considerations). The Hurricanes wanted more scoring depth, especially after they struggled to generate in that respect throughout the postseason. Vegas’ cap issues forced it into moving Pacioretty’s $7 million hit, and the Hurricanes jumped at a chance to bring in a regular 20-plus goal scorer who will have an immediate impact on their team up front.
Plus, the Hurricanes got defenseman Dylan Coghlan as part of the deal and he’s a promising one to watch down the road.
Burns and Pacioretty will bring a better dimension to Carolina’s lineup, and the team didn’t have to give up much to make it happen. That’s tidy work by general manager Don Waddell. — Shilton
Columbus really, really wanted it some Erik Gudbranson.
The veteran blueliner cashed in with a four-year, $16 million contract from the Blue Jackets. That’s a large investment by Columbus in a 30-year-old defenseman that tallied a career-high 17 points in 78 games last season.
Granted, Gudbranson is not an offensive defenseman. He’s a physical, grinding player, he can kill penalties and he’s a right-handed shot who will bolster that position for the Blue Jackets. General manager Jarmo Kekäläinen said adding “size and toughness” to the blue line was a priority, which Gudbranson does. And Columbus has got some young players who may benefit from Gudbranson’s experience. These are all positive things.
But the real winner here is Gudbranson’s bank account. He made $1.95 million last season in Calgary. This is a somewhat jaw-dropping raise over that total. Will Gudbranson be worth Columbus’ stake (in dollars or terms)? Plenty of time to judge that later. Today, Gudbranson has to be feeling really good. — Shilton
Oskar Lindblom and Mason Marchment
There were some easy wins today.
One day after Lindblom was waived for the purposes of a contract buyout by Philadelphia, the cancer survivor signed a two-year, $5 million deal with the San Jose Sharks.
The Flyers donated $100,000 to a local cancer charity while parting ways with Lindblom. The reality is Lindblom’s cancer battle has slowed his play on the ice. Philadelphia needed to create cap space to have any hope of landing Johnny Gaudreau. Sometimes the NHL really is a business.
To see Lindblom land so quickly on his feet was awesome. Lindblom was a 17-goal scorer in 2018-19 and on track to be a regular top-six presence in Philadelphia.
Since has been declared cancer-free last year, Lindblom can now focus on reestablishing his game and he’ll get to do that now with the Sharks on a good deal. Love that for him.
And then there’s Marchment. Last week, Marchment lost his father Bryan when the 53-year-old died unexpectedly at the NHL draft in Montreal. While reeling from that devastating personal loss, Marchment was navigating a pivotal professional moment. The 27-year-old had a career season in Florida (47 points in 54 games) and this was his chance to capitalize as a free agent. He did that by landing a four-year, $18 million deal with Dallas. It’ll be a fresh start for Marchment and shows how far he’s come from being undrafted and appearing in just 34 NHL games total prior to last season.
There’s no question dad would be proud. — Shilton
If Flyers fans were frustrated with the direction of the team before free agency started, it’s hard to imagine how they’re feeling now.
GM Chuck Fletcher had talked about an aggressive retool of his team, rather than a rebuild. When the Flyers traded for defenseman Tony DeAngelo and signed him to a two-year deal, it looked like a harbinger of that plan. But then Wednesday arrived with the Flyers having an excellent shot at the biggest prize on the market: Winger Johnny Gaudreau, who grew up in South Jersey as a Flyers fan. There was mutual interest. What there wasn’t was cap space, and Fletcher said the price to create any more of it for the only franchise player on the market was too high.
“We don’t have the space to pursue those high-end free agents,” he said. “You’ve have to move multiple contracts. In some cases it’s hard to move players and in other cases there are players you don’t want to move.”
In the same breath, Fletcher said the Flyers have good forward depth but “we’d like to get more high-end skill.” Huh, if only there were a forward that fit that description on the open market who probably had black and orange pajamas…
From a roster perspective, there wasn’t a Plan B. The Flyers tried to improve a lackluster defense by running back Justin Braun, who was a part of it last season. They signed Nicolas Deslauriers, a punchy grit guy that new coach John Tortorella will love. But the closest thing they had to a Plan B was downshifting expectations from an aggressive retool to a “wait and see” season that will determine their timeline.
“We’ll find out this season. We’ll see how we progress,” Fletcher said. “We’ll see which players can be a part of our future. There’s a lot we need to learn about our group. Going into next offseason, we’ll have more cap space than we had this offseason.”
That’s not exactly a quote for the season ticket brochure. — Wyshynski
It’s difficult to put the Flames in this category. As GM Brad Treliving said, they did everything they could to retain Gaudreau, putting an offer on the table that was eight years long and well north of $10 million annually. They wanted him back. They thought he wanted to come back. Until about 48 hours before free agency started, it looked like they might have been right. Until they weren’t.
“We did everything possible to keep John here. It’s my strong belief that this is a family decision, and I respect that fully,” Treliving said. “He gave eight great years here, with a lot of memories. The hard part of this business is that we have to move on.”
They didn’t move on … yet. Wednesday passed without the Flames addressing the offense that walked out the door with Gaudreau. Treliving talked about not making any hasty moves in reaction to this shocking news. That’s understandable. Maybe in a week, we’re reevaluating their offseason and their not spending that money on Gaudreau ends up looking like a happy accident.
But for now, the Flames look like a team who had an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup last season, lost in five humbling games to their arch rivals from Edmonton and now could end up losing Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in consecutive offseasons. Life comes at you fast. — Wyshynski
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights traded left wing Max Pacioretty to the Hurricanes for what amounts to a bag of air. They had to clear his $7 million cap hit in order to get under the ceiling and sign forward Reilly Smith to a contract they had promised him.
That they traded Pacioretty for nothing might be understandable from a certain point of view, given that he’s an unrestricted free agent next summer. Except when this kind of move has come to define the Golden Knights, it’s almost embarrassing:
They tried to trade Evgenii Dadonov to Anaheim with a draft pick sweetener for two injured players. When that trade fell apart, they traded him to Montreal for Shea Weber’s contract.
They traded Marc-Andre Fleury for Mikael Hakkarainen, an ECHLer now playing overseas.
They traded Nate Schmidt to Vancouver for a third-round pick.
They traded Paul Stastny for a fourth-round pick and Carl Dahlstrom. And so on.
Sure, the flat cap deserves some blame, but the flat cap was there when they broke the bank for Jack Eichel’s contract. This is just atrocious asset management and it goes beyond these sell-offs. Please recall they traded a first-, second- and third-round pick for Tomas Tatar; traded him, a second-rounder and Nick Suzuki (!) in a package for Pacioretty; and then just traded Pacioretty to Carolina for nothing.
If this was a casino table game, they’d be walking away by now. — Wyshynski
Falling off the goalie carousel
There were some teams that made out well in the goaltending market. The Capitals found a legit starter in Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper. The Oilers found a good goalie in Jack Campbell. Both the Red Wings and Senators improved their tandems. Heck, the Sabres might have had one of the low key best signings of the day in Eric Comrie for two seasons.
Then there were teams that tried to get on the carousel, hit their faces on a porcelain horse and fell off the ride. It started with the Wild, who re-signed Marc-Andre Fleury and managed to anger Cam Talbot to the point where GM Bill Guerin felt the need to trade him to Ottawa to avoid “drama” next season. That came four days after praising the duo as a key to the Wild’s success. “My goal is to win. If we have Cam Talbot or Marc-Andre Fleury in the net, we have a pretty good chance,” Guerin said.
Now they have Fleury, who turns 38 in November, paired with Filip Gustavsson, who has played 27 NHL games. That’s not just a downgrade, it’s a risk.
But the roughest fall off the carousel remains the Maple Leafs. Two years ago, they had Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell. Last season, they had Campbell with an oft-injured Petr Mrazek. Now, they have an oft-injured reclamation project in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, whom the Capitals didn’t qualify as a restricted free agent despite being a 25-year-old former first-round pick.
“They’re both young enough that we’ll give them the runway here and see if they can become the long-term solution in net,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said.
As for not getting the Senators to pick up more than 25% of Murray’s contract? “We’d love to have pushed for more and done a better deal,” Dubas replied. “But it was either make that deal or move on elsewhere, and we elected to make the deal.”
It’s astounding that the Leafs are staking their Stanley Cup chances, and Dubas likely his job, on a battery of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. But that’s what happens when you can’t hop on the carousel at the right moment. They’re not the only team that couldn’t. — Wyshynski
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Seth Jones
The Chicago Blackhawks aren’t doing a rebuild. They’re doing a controlled demolition, like when they detonate a decrepit building and it falls to the ground in a cloud of debris.
The NHL hasn’t seen anything like this: It’s not aged veterans that are being shipped out, but players like Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach and Brandon Hagel that are in that “part of the solution, not part of the problem” age bracket. But the Blackhawks traded all three, while bringing on stop-gaps like Andreas Athanasiou and Max Domi on one-year deals that all but portend their getting flipped for draft picks at the trade deadline.
What are Kane, Toews and Jones thinking about all of this?
Agent Pat Brisson told TSN’s Pierre LeBrun that the three star players, who all have no-movement clauses, are waiting to make the “best decisions as it pertains to the respective careers.” But that overall “they’re not necessarily in agreement with the direction of the team.”
Toews and Kane are in the last years of their contracts. Jones, famously, has eight years on his. Do they somehow stick through this rebuild or ask out? Because the Blackhawks are in total tank mode. — Wyshynski
Shocking move of the day
Can it be anything else other than Gaudreau to the Blue Jackets?
The week began with the Flames giving Gaudreau eight-year contract proposals with average annual values of over $10 million. They thought they had a shot to keep him. But Gaudreau informed them that he was moving on.
When he hit the market on Wednesday, the Flyers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders lined up for him. Yet there were rumblings that the Blue Jackets could enter the fray as a stealth option. In the end, they won the derby with a contract that averaged $9.75 million annually — under the $10 million AAV threshold and lower than other teams’ offers.
The Blue Jackets were expected to be aggressive this offseason. They were in on Ryan McDonagh before the Lightning traded him to the Predators. They were looking around at moves during the draft. In the end, they made the biggest splash of any team in the offseason in landing Gaudreau. Suddenly, a team with a two-year playoff drought that punched above its weight last season has a legit superstar on its roster.
Columbus doesn’t usually win these derbies. But fire the canon, because they won this one. — Wyshynski
Best remaining players
Some big fish still remain in the NHL free agent seas.
Nazem Kadri and John Klingberg remained unrestricted free agents hours after the bell rang at noon that allowed them to sign anywhere.
While their final destinations are unknown, some details have emerged about where those players won’t be headed. Colorado appears to be out on Kadri after using ample cap space on other extensions. And Dallas doesn’t seem to be the front-runner to retain Klingberg.
It could be that the lack of a landing spot for the top three UFAs remaining has had a ripple effect on other players waiting to be signed. Ondrej Palat remains on the market, as do Dylan Strome, Nino Niederreiter and Phil Kessel. How quickly will deals for those skaters materialize once the other dominoes fall? Will they be connected? Those are questions we’re all waiting to be answered. — Shilton
Favorite deal of the day
Claude Giroux to Ottawa was a big one for me. The Senators have had a nice offseason so far bringing in Alex DeBrincat, moving Matt Murray and now landing Giroux.
The veteran might be 34 but he’s got so much left to offer, and he’ll inject that franchise with much-needed optimism for the future. It’s not like Giroux can immediately turn Ottawa into a Stanley Cup contender, but he will help it build toward being a playoff team. Plus, Giroux is from the area, and who doesn’t love a local-boy-makes-good story? — Shilton
Favorite under-the-radar signing
Frank Vatrano to Anaheim really didn’t get much attention, but he’ll be a great addition to the lineup.
The Ducks have a ton of highly skilled talent up front already, and Vatrano will put some weight behind them with a grittier, more physical game that also includes some goal-scoring prowess. Vatrano had a strong postseason with the Rangers (13 points in 20 games) and if he continues to channel that, then Anaheim just got a versatile player for its middle six for less than $4 million per season. — Shilton
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