Tuesday, May 21, 2024
    HomeSportNHL free-agency winners and losers: The highlights and lowlights from Day 1

    NHL free-agency winners and losers: The highlights and lowlights from Day 1

    With Day 1 of free agency winding down in the NHL, it’s time to break down which teams have gotten off to a strong start and who is stumbling out of the gate. Let’s look at the winners and losers of the early goings.


    Colorado Avalanche

    After a pretty low-key year both in free agency and on the trade market since their Stanley Cup win, the Avalanche have been a bit more active already.

    They let J.T. Compher walk instead of extending him to what could have been too pricey of a contract. Alex Newhook was also dealt for two draft picks to Montreal, and management took one of those picks (No. 37) to add Ross Colton from the Lightning, which is a slight upgrade. And because the free-agent market wasn’t too strong on centers and probably could have gotten too expensive, Colorado added Ryan Johansen at 50 percent salary retention (only costing them cap space and no actual trade return) to round out the middle six. 

    Then, on actual free-agency day, the Avalanche made two noteworthy moves. The first is a lengthy contract to Miles Wood to add some grit and finishing talent to their bottom six. The term and cap hit, in tandem, both seem too high for a player of his caliber, but they’re not total back-breakers. The really interesting signing was a one-year contract for Jonathan Drouin at $825,000. A deal that inexpensive carries very little risk, and has a ton of reward. 

    Teams using performance bonuses

    There are a couple themes in the early goings of free agency. In some cases, like with Dmitry Orlov and even Vladislav Gavrikov, the theme is signing pricey short-term deals. Others, like Pierre Engvall and Miles Wood, are getting long-term contracts with lower cap hits. But there’s one more trend emerging: Structuring a contract to have performance bonuses. There are only specific instances where a team can even feature performance bonuses in this way, but for those who are, there’s a lower cap hit for the 2023-24 season and a potential overage for the next year. While it’s a cost that a team will still probably have to pay for, it’ll be in 2024-25 when the cap is expected to rise. 

    Take the Blake Wheeler contract: The Rangers signed him for just $800,000, but the deal could go as high as $1.1 million (and those $300,000 in performance bonuses won’t impact the cap this year even if he reaches the necessary milestones). But on a greater scale, there’s Connor Brown, which may be one of the best contracts of the day. He’s a perfect fit for Edmonton with his versatility and transitional efforts in mind, but he’s only going to count for $775,000 this year for the cap-strapped Oilers. He should be worth more and he will have the potential to make up to $4 million. But his $3.225 million in signing bonuses won’t go on the books until next year. It’s a creative way for some general managers, when the parameters allow it, to add talent without breaking the bank in a year with little cap growth. 

    1A goaltenders

    Joonas Korpisalo was able to capitalize off a career year where he saved a collective 16.72 goals above expected in 39 games. He thrived behind a disastrous defensive team in Columbus, and behind a more low-event team in Los Angeles. That career year couldn’t have come at a better time, as it led to him being signed to his biggest contract yet — in terms of term, total value and earnings per season. But the risk of the contract is that Ottawa’s betting on just one really strong year of play when he’s never had much consistency in any of his seasons prior. That’s not ideal for a team that needs strong netminding behind their defence and wants to be on the rise. But the player gets a nice payday, job security and a starting role. 

    Tristan Jarry isn’t the perfect starter. He put up really solid regular-season numbers the last two years but his playoff experience is iffy at best and there are some injury concerns. It was a little surprising to see Pittsburgh extend him and commit to him in the remaining years with the Core Three under contract. It’s even more surprising to see Jarry signed to a contract this rich in terms of cap hit, term and trade clauses. 

    There are some legitimate question marks for the teams. Maybe both are trying to take notes from the Golden Knights and think they don’t need an elite netminder to win. But neither team is built up enough in front of the net to be in a position to just rely on average goaltending. Obviously, with these contracts, they’re betting on both goalies to be more than that and maybe they will be; it’s just a big bet on each. 

    But Korpisalo and Jarry come out winners with raises and starting positions for their respective teams. 

    Carolina Hurricanes

    Carolina had an active day that features quite a few wins. 

    The Hurricanes have shown they don’t need an elite goalie to have success, and that they can provide enough support in front of the crease for balance. So running it back in goal, for reasonable prices, clicks in Carolina. 

    But their best moves came in front of the crease. Free-agent signing Michael Bunting seems like a great fit for the Hurricanes’ top six. He can keep up and complement high-end talent on a top line with his grinding play and the winger can be counted on as a play-driver in the middle six. Carolina’s gaining that on a good-value contract as well. 

    Management also tweaked their already-elite defense. Dmitry Orlov was the top defenseman on the market, and they managed to bring him in without committing long-term which is really impressive. The later years were the concern, considering his age. Plus, with the system they’ve built, Carolina doesn’t need to go too long term on anyone outside of their core; they’ve shown they can keep replacing players to stay on budget. Yes, they slightly overpaid for the two years he’s signed for, but they have the space right now. This won’t clog up their long-term picture and brings in a versatile defenseman who can play tough minutes or be counted on as an offensive puck-mover. 

    While the Hurricanes haven’t brought in a bona fide scorer that they’ve been missing just yet (their options were limited in free agency), there’s still time. Maybe management flips one of their top-four defenders on an expiring contract to address that.

    New Jersey Devils

    No one’s as big a winner as the Devils right now. It’s Hot Tom Summer in New Jersey thanks to Tom Fitzgerald’s work so far, even though the team had a pretty quiet free-agency day. Management made a few depth signings, handed out a couple of extensions, and let players like Ryan Graves and Miles Wood walk to sign lengthy deals elsewhere. 

    The Devils were able to have such a quiet day because they were so active before July 1. Most free-agent contracts tend to be regrettable for the signing team — whether it’s too expensive, too lengthy, or just at the wrong point of a player’s career. The Devils have mostly avoided that. The highlights include taking care of two key contract extensions in Jesper Bratt’s and Timo Meier’s (and Meier’s is very cost-effective for the team, relative to his worth). New Jersey found finishing talent for the top nine in Tyler Toffoli, and added him in exchange for a player they were shopping anyway; compared to a free agent, they only have to worry about one year of his contract, at a very reasonable cap hit. Plus, management moved Damon Severson proactively for a draft pick ahead of his contract expiring. 

    Honorable mention: Barry Trotz


    All of us

    RIP to the vibes of free agency, thanks to Twitter imploding. There have been some hurdles these last few weeks and months, including the lack of verification on some media sources that previously made it easier to spot fake accounts. But today’s latest addition to the mess was the ‘rate limit,’ which really challenged how to keep up with all the updates and news the free agency has to offer. It added an element of frustration to all — writers trying to cover the day and fans just trying to consume as much as possible. Of all the days for this update to kick in, free agency day was one of the worst options for all those in hockey. 

    Calgary Flames

    The Flames are in a really tricky situation, with some of their 2024 pending free agents. Management already moved Tyler Toffoli (for a somewhat underwhelming return), but until they figure out how to proceed with Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, and Mikael Backlund, it just feels like they’re in limbo. Until it’s clear which of their mainstays will absolutely be on their way out, how can the direction of the team be established? And if the answer is all three, then the returns of the trades probably will decide what this team needs afterward. The problem is that there isn’t clarity today, when management could have used free agency to address some of the openings that were left. It just is getting more and more challenging to see how the Flames can walk out of their current predicament a winner at all. 

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    It was never going to be an easy offseason for the Lightning, who were facing quite the cap crunch. Raises to Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli were going to put a squeeze on management, and it’s what caused Tampa Bay to lose both Ross Colton and Alex Killorn so far this summer. The bright side is that management did get a return for Colton in a draft pick, and it’s actually a win to not sign Killorn to the contract he got. Still, the Lightning’s day has been pretty bland because of their lack of flexibility, most notably signing Conor Sheary and Luke Glendening. Tampa Bay probably has more work to do with little cap to work with to round out this roster, let alone make actual improvements. 

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    The Brad Treliving era isn’t off to the brightest start. The David Kampf deal was an early bump because there’s really no need to overpay depth players, especially when there are going to be financial constraints elsewhere. But it really was a minor wrinkle, in the big picture. Until the new-Leafs general manager once again overspent on depth — this time, a 37-year-old Ryan Reeves who was signed to a three-year contract in a short-sighted effort to add some grit to the lineup. While he’s someone known to have a positive impact in the locker room, he doesn’t on the ice nor does he deter opponents from targeting star players. It’s a sunk cost to a player who lacks footspeed and two way upside at this point in his career. 

    Meanwhile, Ryan O’Reilly walked when Toronto could have used his help down the middle. Michael Bunting signed a contract the Maple Leafs probably could have afforded. And Noel Acciarci, an actually effective bottom-six forward, left. So did Luke Schenn, although it’s for the best that the Leafs didn’t sign him to the deal that Nashville did. Other higher-end free agents signed elsewhere, while Toronto overpaid John Klingberg who is a shell of his former self at this point (luckily it was only for a year, and won’t hurt their cap situation in 2024).

    Toronto’s obviously not finished just yet — there are internal extensions to deal with, and likely more to come via free agency or trade. But so far, money’s just been spent in the wrong places, while stronger fits walked. And those overpayments could very well add up and create trouble as management tries to work through their big contracts. 

    The Islanders’ next general manager 

    Figuring out a loser to round out this group was a bit of a challenge, until Lou Lamoriello decided to grace us all with his extensions on this free agency day.

    The Ilya Sorokin extension is a strong point. Yes, it’s a big bet, but he’s their franchise goalie, and he’s just getting started in his elite NHL career. Sorokin’s honestly worth more than what he was signed for. The rest, however… yikes. 

    Pierre Engvall stylistically fits really well on the Islanders, thanks to his ability to break the puck out of his zone and up the ice with possession on a team that often plays a dump-and-chase game. His overall two-way pop there can be worth his new $3 million cap hit, until you see the term of seven years. It’s a really long-term commitment that just clogs up the books on a team that already has quite a few lengthy contracts. 


    NHL contract grades: Islanders give lots of term to lots of players

    Adding insult to injury is the fact that he wasn’t the only seven-year contract inked. Lamoriello also extended Scott Mayfield, a bottom-four defender, for just as long. While he has defensive upside and has shown that he can absorb tough minutes, it’s pretty damning to sign a player who will be 31 just after the season starts to a seven-year contract. The $3.5 million cap hit may be cost-effective now, but it won’t be as this contract ages. 

    Now add the four-year deal to Semyon Varlamov. That’s quite the commitment to a backup goaltender who is 35 — so if he retires at any point in the contract, his $2.75 million cap hit will stay on the books for the life of the contract. It’s outright bad business. 

    As much as Lamoriello comes out as a loser after his latest lengthy contracts to three secondary players, he probably won’t still be acting as general manager in the later years of these deals. Instead, the real loser is his successor, whether it’s his son Chris, or someone outside the organization entirely. Whoever has to inherit this team’s long-term financial picture, even with expected cap growth in mind, is not going to have an easy task ahead. 

    Honorable Mention: Detroit Red Wings

    Data via Dom Luszczyszyn, Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones, CapFriendly, and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.  

    (Top photo of Lou Lamoriello: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)



    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here

    - Advertisment -
    Google search engine

    Most Popular

    Recent Comments