Photo: Sports Illustrated
Now that July 1 has come and gone and most of the big name free agents are signed, it’s time to take a look at who took a big step towards Stanley Cup contention and who failed to make progress. Here are the winners and losers from opening day of free agency. According to Sportsnet, NHL teams spent a total of $754.7 million on contracts, including $489.4 million on free agent signings.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto may have lost forwards James Van Riemsdyk (Flyers) and Tyler Bozak (Blues), who combined for 47 goals and 87 points during the regular season, but they landed the top free agent in the League when they inked franchise-center John Tavares to a seven-year contract worth $77 million ($11 million AAV). Tavares tallied 37 goals and 84 points in 82 games last season, finishing one goal and two points shy of his career-highs, which were set in 2014-15 when he was nominated for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Toronto arguably has the best center depth in the league with Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri (though the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals have a strong case with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller). All had at least 32 goals in the regular season. Tavares comes to a Leafs team that averaged 3.29 goals last season (tied for third in the NHL with the Penguins) and had a power play efficiency of 25%, which was second in the league (behind the Penguins – 26.2% power play efficiency). Toronto needs to add another defenseman over the summer, but they should be a powerhouse next year.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues signed center Tyler Bozak to a three-year contract worth $15 million ($5 million AAV), forward David Perron to a four-year contract worth $16 million ($4 million AAV), and goaltender Chad Johnson to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million. They also acquired forward Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forwards Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, and Vladimir Sobotka, a 2019 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick. They may have traded too much for O’Reilly, but they upgraded their center depth behind Brayden Schenn, who tallied 28 goals and 70 points for them last season. Their centers combined for 57 goals and 156 points last season and one of them (Paul Stastny) was traded at the trade deadline. Their centers for the upcoming season combined for 63 goals and 174 points last season. They missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point last season, part of it because of their lack of center depth. That shouldn’t be an issue next year.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights added some more depth to their lineup by signing center Paul Stastny to a three-year contract worth $19.5 million ($6.5 million AAV) and defenseman Nick Holden to a two-year contract worth $4.4 million ($2.2 million AAV). Stastny will likely slide on the second line, with William Karlsson and Erik Haula the first and third line centers, respectively. Stastny provides veteran leadership, which Vegas lost when James Neal signed a five-year contract worth $28.75 million ($5.75 million AAV) with the Calgary Flames. Stastny had 37 assists and 53 points in 2017-18, including four goals and 13 points in 19 games with the Winnipeg Jets, who acquired him from the Blues at the trade deadline. The Golden Knights needed to add a center after the Washington Capitals exposed their lack of center depth by getting production from their three top centers during the Stanley Cup Final, something Vegas did not get. Holden adds defensive depth after the Knights lost defenseman Luca Sbisa in free agency, and he is younger and faster than Sbisa. Holden played in only two playoff games but he had a nice year in 2016-17, when he tallied 11 goals, 34 points, and a +13 rating in 80 games with the New York Rangers, who traded him to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline.
New York Islanders
The Islanders lost the face of their franchise in Tavares and have no one who can replace him. Even worse, by focusing all their efforts on Tavares, the Islanders took themselves out of contention for other premier scorers who were free agents. They may still have center Matthew Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season leading all rookies with 85 points, but his production will probably dip because he will be facing tougher matchups. The Islanders signed winger Leo Komarov from the Maple Leafs and Valteri Filpulla from the Flyers but neither of the two can replace what Tavares brought in terms of offense. The Islanders do have offensive weapons like Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee, but Lee and forward Josh Bailey’s production will could dip when they lose Tavares as a linemate. They have the same defensemen and goaltenders from last season that gave up a league-leading 3.57 goals per game. The good news for the Islanders is that they have a little more than $24.5 million in cap space and could go after Ottawa Senators’ superstar Erik Karlsson (who likely brings forward Bobby Ryan with him), but Karlson is likely to cost them a first-round pick, which could possibly be a lottery pick, plus a mix of prospects and roster players. Tavares leaving really put the Islanders in a hole that is almost impossible to dig out of in the short-term.
The Canucks signed former-Capitals’ center Jay Beagle to a four-year contract worth $12 million ($3 million AAV), forward Antoine Roussel to a four-year contract worth $12 million ($3 million AAV), and forward Tim Schaller to a two-year contract worth $3.6 million ($1.9 million AAV). Beagle and Schaller each had 22 points, while Roussel had 17, and the three combined for 24 goals in 2017-18 while playing mostly on the fourth line for their respective teams. All are over the age of 27 and the Canucks spent just about 10% of their salary cap on the three fourth-liners. At the stage Vancouver is at, they need to be signing younger, faster guys after finishing the season 26th in the league with 73 points and missing the playoffs for the fourth out of the past five seasons. Of their biggest 15 contracts, 11 players are 28 or older. While the signings bring in some depth, it’s unclear why Vancouver didn’t push harder to sign some premier talent after losing the Sedin brothers to retirement.
The Penguins signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract worth $16.25 million ($3.25 million AAV) after the 31-year old defenseman’s production dropped from 23 points in 82 games during the 2016-17 season to 11 points in 77 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was also a +23 during 2016-17 but dropped to a -6 last season. The defenseman was a healthy scratch for all six games of the Blue Jackets’ first-round exit to the Capitals. Johnson has never tallied more than 12 goals in a season and has only hit that mark once, both with the Los Angeles Kings and Blue Jackets in 2011-12. He was traded to the Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Jeff Carter at the trade deadline that year. He is also expected to be on Pittsburgh’s third pair. The Penguins also signed 41-year old center Matt Cullen to a one-year contract worth $650,000, though he tallied 11 goals and 22 points in 79 games with the Minnesota Wild last season. The Johnson signing did result in one of the best news stories of the day when The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reported on John Torterella’s over the top response to what he perceived to be a cheap shot by Johnson during his press conference with the Penguins about his time with the Jackets.
By Harrison Brown