The first few hours of NHL free agency gave us the wild rush of signings that we expected as teams inked the top players from the open market. Kevin Shattenkirk joined the Rangers, Joe Thornton stuck with the Sharks, and Karl Alzner swapped out D.C. for Montreal, among others.
There weren’t any true game-changers on the open market like a Connor McDavid or Erik Karlsson, but it was still a big day for shaping next season’s rosters. There were dozens upon dozens of signings, and more are still to come with players like Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, and Patrick Marleau available.
It’ll take time before we can accurately assess all of the moves made Saturday afternoon, but it’s fair to say that some came away better than others from the initial free agent frenzy. For example, New York limiting Shattenkirk’s contract to four years is a coup when other prominent names have pushed for much lengthier terms.
Saturday was a big day for the hockey world. Here’s a look at some of the winners and losers from the past few hours.
New York didn’t just land the No. 1 defenseman on the market. The team got a nice break by limiting Shattenkirk’s deal to four years, so he’ll be just 33 years old when it’s over.
The $6.65 million cap hit is on the high side, but it seems like the Rangers might’ve gotten to that number in exchange for a lower term. When you see guys in their early 30s like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Seabrook getting eight-year extensions, it’s a massive win to be able to lock in a 28-year-old Shattenkirk for half of that.
Now the Rangers have put together a defense that could really impress next season. With Dan Girardi out of the picture and Shattenkirk in, New York can now rock a top four of Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith next season. That leaves Marc Staal, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden, and Anthony DeAngelo as options for the final pairing.
New York may lack star power with its forwards, but this defense and Henrik Lundqvist won’t be easy to take on.
Mid-tier veteran defensemen
What is it about these guys that makes teams salivate at throwing money at them? Alzner got five years and $23.2 million from Montreal. Dmitry Kulikov got three years and almost $13 million from Winnipeg. Dan Girardi, right after being bought out of his last contract, got two years and $6 million from Tampa Bay.
The list of mid-tier veteran defensemen getting multi-year deals on Saturday is staggering. Beyond those three, there’s also Ron Hainsey (Maple Leafs), Trevor Daley (Red Wings), Matt Hunwick (Penguins), and Michael Del Zotto (Canucks). An exception would be Kyle Quincey, who settled for a one-year deal with the Wild.
Not that all of those signings are equally questionable, but it’s clear that NHL general managers put a premium on these kinds of players, even though they don’t necessarily deserve these kinds of commitments. Compare them to guys like Patrick Sharp, Mike Cammalleri, Radim Vrbata, Chris Thorburn, Beau Bennett, and Dominic Moore, potentially useful forwards who all took cheap one-year deals.
If you’re hitting NHL free agency, it’s good to be a veteran defenseman.
Joe Thornton is back in San Jose, and the team got him on a reasonable one-year deal that limits risk. That was the team’s lone notable free-agent signing of the day, but they also inked defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and goalie Martin Jones to massive long-term extensions going into effect in 2018-19.
By having Thornton on a one-year deal, San Jose won’t have to sweat nearly as much about the big raises going toward Vlasic and Jones next year, when their combined cap hits jump from $7.25 million to $12.75 million. Removing Thornton’s cap hit alone would cover the increase, so the Sharks maintain some flexibility for next season.
And in the meantime, Thornton is back to help try to finally win a Stanley Cup in San Jose. Even if the Sharks ultimately lose Patrick Marleau, who remains a free agent, it was smart to re-sign Jumbo.
Brent Burns agrees:
So pumped to read I get to see this guy every morning again! Special player obviously but the best guy to be around!! pic.twitter.com/Zm89ULOwPo— Brent Burns (@Burnzie88) July 1, 2017
Players returning home, or “home”
Whether it was a beloved star returning to his former team or a player going back to his hometown, there were a lot of reunions Saturday. The Blackhawks got a taste of both by bringing back winger Patrick Sharp on a bargain deal worth up to $1 million and adding Wilmette, Ill., native Tommy Wingels, who grew up just minutes outside Chicago.
That’s not all.
Shattenkirk took less money to sign with his hometown Rangers, and said playing in New York “fulfills a lifelong dream” for the defenseman. Justin Williams returned to Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006, after eight seasons elsewhere. Scott Harnell and Anders Lindback are back in Nashville. Evgeny Dadonov in Florida, Mike Cammalleri in Los Angeles, and so on.
Sometimes returning home isn’t easy. On Saturday, a whole bunch of players did.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman is often considered one of the best in the league, but he made some questionable decisions on Saturday. For a team trying to push its way back to contender status, it’s hard to see guys like Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz moving the needle much.
Girardi may have a good reputation in some league circles, but his statistics have been brutal for years. Last season, the Rangers posted a 44-percent, even-strength Corsi with him on the ice, down from 49.5 percent without him. It’s a similar pattern for his whole career, with New York regularly posting better possession when Girardi is on the bench.
The Rangers bought him out of his contract for a reason, and it’s because he’s not all that effective. And yet, the Lightning decided to give him $3 million annually for two years.
Kunitz brings championship experience to Tampa Bay, having won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, but he’s also coming off the worst season of his career and turns 38 years old in September. Maybe there’s still something left in the tank.
This is a team that missed the playoffs last season while struggling through injuries and already lost one of its best players in Jonathan Drouin this summer. With $5 million, you’d think they’d get more than Girardi and Kunitz.
The Canucks’ lottery odds next season
Vancouver almost certainly won’t be a contender until it can add more elite talent, and its best chance of doing that soon will be landing the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL draft. Then the team could select defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has been so ridiculously good as a teenager that he could be the rare blue liner worth the top selection.
With that in mind, it was a little curious to see the Canucks go out to sign veterans Sam Gagner, Del Zotto, and Anders Nilsson to multi-year contracts. Not that any of the deals are particularly egregious, but if the team is aiming at the No. 1 pick next year, these moves could hurt their chances of finishing last in the league and getting top lottery odds.
As we learned this year, winning the lottery doesn’t always work out for the worst team (sorry Avs), but these are minor moves that could push Vancouver’s lottery odds lower without getting them any closer to meaningful success. It’s hard to see exactly what the direction is for the Canucks right now.
Yes, they signed Radim Vrbata and Egveny Dadonov, adding a nice, heaping dose of offensive talent to the lineup for next season. But then Paul Bissonnette revealed an uncomfortable truth that could destroy the Panthers’ locker room:
Great guy, true professional, awesome teammate. Only negative is he likes the show The Big Bang Theory. https://t.co/6BHr2RHK7e— Paul Bissonnette (@BizNasty2point0) July 1, 2017
Anyone hoping the Devils would make a splash
No team in the NHL entered free agency on Saturday with more cap space than New Jersey. The team had just 28 players under contract, so it came into the day with over $25 million in salary cap space.
Maybe Devils GM Ray Shero is trying to be forward-thinking by avoiding any bad contracts that could be headaches in the future, but how does a team in that situation come away from the free agent frenzy with just a single signing of a bottom six forward?
Getting Brian Boyle for two years and $5.1 million was actually a nice get for the Devils. He’s big, can score goals, and adds depth to a team badly in need of it. But what comes next? New Jersey has just seven forwards, five defensemen, and two goalies on its NHL roster now.
Maybe they’ll call up a bunch of prospects and it’ll work out on the cheap, so everyone wins, but it was surprising that the Devils weren’t really players given how much cap space they have.