NHL Free Agents 2017: Players Whose Situations Have Improved the Most

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJuly 11, 2017

NHL Free Agents 2017: Players Whose Situations Have Improved the Most

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Action around the National Hockey League heated up in a big way in the month of...June.

    Yes, June. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup win, the Vegas Golden Knights' expansion draft, Nico Hischier vs. Nolan Patrick at the entry draft and the run-up to free agency all contributed to a month with different rhythms than we're used to seeing—and plenty of intrigue along the way.

    By the time the dust had settled after July 1, this year's free-agent frenzy lacked the big-money contracts and long-term deals we're used to seeing. The signings didn't cause stop-the-press headlines, but plenty of teams filled roster spots—and quite a few players did well for themselves given their particular circumstances.

    Here's a look at the players from the 2017 class of unrestricted free agents who made the best moves for themselves.

    As you'll see, every player had to weigh the importance of money, job security, team role and chance of winning before deciding whether to sign on the dotted line.

7. Anders Nilsson, G, Vancouver Canucks

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Previous Situation: Anders Nilsson, 27, went 10-10-4 in a backup role behind Robin Lehner with the Buffalo Sabres last season. He was playing on a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1 million.


    New Situation: On July 1, Nilsson signed a two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, with a cap hit of $2.5 million per season.


    Why His Situation Has Improved: Nilsson moves from the team that finished 26th in the NHL standings in 2016-17 to the one that finished 29th, but he'll more than double his salary in Vancouver—and earn a little job security with his first multiyear contract since his entry-level deal.

    Additionally, Nilsson will get a chance to challenge for the No. 1 goaltending job with the Canucks. He'll be paired with compatriot Jacob Markstrom, also 27, who was his partner on Sweden's bronze-medal team at the 2010 World Junior Championship.

    "Both want to be [No. 1] goalies and are at the age when they are ready for that challenge" Canucks coach Travis Green told Rick Dhaliwal of News1130, via Twitter. "I like it."

6. Martin Hanzal, C, Dallas Stars

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Previous Situation: Martin Hanzal, 30, scored 20 goals and 39 points with the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild in 71 regular-season games last season, and he added one goal in five playoff games with the latter. He was playing out the final year of a five-year contract that carried a cap hit of $3.1 million per season.


    New Situation: On July 1, Hanzal signed a three-year contract with the Dallas Stars, with a cap hit of $4.75 million per season. The contract carries a full no-movement clause for the first year, then a modified no-trade clause for the final two seasons. 


    Why His Situation Has Improved: After winning just one playoff round during his nine full seasons with the Coyotes, big center Hanzal got his first legitimate chance to chase the Stanley Cup when he was dealt to the Minnesota Wild at the 2017 trade deadline.

    Red-hot goaltender Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues quickly squelched the Wild's championship aspirations, but Hanzal's new situation in Dallas should set him up as part of the core of a team that looks set to compete for the next few years.

    Coach Ken Hitchcock won a Stanley Cup in Dallas in 1999 and needs just two wins to move into third place in all-time coaching victories, according to Hockey Reference. New goaltender Ben Bishop is a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15.

    Not only has Hanzal's on-ice situation improved, but so has his earning power. As he slides into the back half of his career, his cap hit for the next three years rises by a tidy 54 percent.

5. Sam Gagner, C, Vancouver Canucks

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    Previous Situation: Sam Gagner, 27, was nearly out of the NHL at the end of the 2015-16 season. Riding out the tail end of a three-year contract that carried a $4.8 million cap hit, he managed just 16 points in 53 games with the Philadelphia Flyers. He also cleared waivers in December 2015 and spent nine games with the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms before being recalled by the Flyers.

    After becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time on July 1, 2016, Gagner waited until August 1 to sign a one-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets for a bargain-basement $650,000. He proved to be one of the NHL's best-value players by chipping in 18 goals and 50 points, working primarily as a power-play specialist.


    New Situation: On July 1, Gagner signed a three-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks with a cap hit of $3.15 million per season.


    Why His Situation Has Improved: For starters, Gagner has earned some security for himself and his family, with a medium-term deal at a salary level that is above the league average based on the most recently available data ($2.9 million for the 2015-16 season, according to Forbes).

    There's no guarantee Gagner will be able to replicate his success in Columbus with a Vancouver Canucks team that ranked 29th in the both the NHL's overall standings and the power play last season. But the Blue Jackets finished 27th and had a power play that ranked a relatively humble 21st overall in the year before he arrived.

    Gagner also has a pre-existing relationship with Canucks assistant coach Newell Brown, who is returning in 2017-18 to manage the power play.

    Brown spent the previous four seasons in Arizona and crossed paths with Gagner while he was a member of the Coyotes in 2014-15—a season in which he put up a respectable 15 goals and 41 points. Twelve of those points came on an impressive Coyotes power play that ranked seventh in the league, even as the team finished 29th overall.

    With Brown's guidance in Vancouver, Gagner will get a chance to show his resurgence last season was no fluke and that he has what it takes to continue making a contribution at the NHL level.

4. Karl Alzner, D, Montreal Canadiens

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Karl Alzner, 28, was drafted fifth overall by the Washington Capitals in 2007 and had spent his entire nine-year NHL career with the team. In 2016-17, he tallied 13 points in 82 regular-season games but was pointless in seven playoff games as the Capitals again failed to advance past the second round.

    Alzner completed a four-year contract with a cap hit of $2.8 million per season in 2016-17.


    New Situation: On July 1, Alzner signed a five-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens, with a cap hit of $4.625 million per season. All five years carry a modified no-trade clause. 


    Why His Situation Has Improved: As arguably the best unrestricted free-agent defenseman available in 2017, Alzner basically had a chance to write his own ticket.

    He earned a 65 percent raise by moving on from the two-time Presidents' Trophy winners in Washington and said he was looking for a change of scenery because it "was frustrating to keep getting stumped in the second round," according to Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press, via Twitter.

    Considering the Canadiens have only been past the second round twice since their most recent Stanley Cup triumph, back in 1993, it remains to be seen whether Alzner has correctly identified a future winner.

3. Nick Bonino, C, Nashville Predators

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Previous Situation: Nick Bonino, 29, scored 18 goals and tallied 37 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2016-17 regular season. He added four goals and seven points in the playoffs on the way to his second Stanley Cup win in Pittsburgh.

    Bonino completed a three-year contract with a cap hit of $1.9 million per season in 2016-17.


    New Situation: On July 1, Bonino signed a four-year contract with the Nashville Predators, with a cap hit of $4.1 million per season.


    Why His Situation Has Improved: As a bottom-six center who is best known for his excellent penalty killing, Bonino came into free agency in a strong bargaining position after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups during his two seasons with the Penguins. 

    Bonino has scored more than 40 points only once in his career, but he made his name as a big-game player when he put up 18 points in 24 playoff games with Pittsburgh's HBK Line during the 2016 playoffs. Along the way, he scored the two game-winners that gave rise to Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi's notorious "Bonino! Bonino! Bonino!" goal calls.

    To earn his big payday and comfortable four-year term, Bonino had to leave his spot with the back-to-back champions. He landed softly with a team on the rise, the up-and-coming Nashville Predators.

2. T.J. Oshie, RW, Washington Capitals

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Previous Situation: T.J. Oshie, 30, scored a career-high 33 goals and added 23 assists in just 68 games during the 2016-17 season; he then put up 12 points in 13 Washington Capitals playoff games. He was playing out the final year of a five-year deal he signed with the St. Louis Blues in 2012, which carried a cap hit of $4.175 million per season.


    New Situation: On June 23, Oshie signed a new eight-year deal with the Capitals with a cap hit of $5.75 million per year. The deal carries a modified no-trade clause through all eight seasons.


    Why His Situation Has Improved: By choosing to re-sign with the Capitals before becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Oshie was able to sign on for the maximum eight-year term—the only player with UFA status to do so this summer. He also got a healthy 38 percent raise to go along with the long-term job security that will carry him to age 38.

    Oshie may also have assumed the Capitals were in a position to continue to challenge for Presidents' Trophy wins and keep taking runs at the Stanley Cup, but after the dust settled following free agency, Washington is a different-looking team.

    Young restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov were inked to long-term deals. Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Philipp Grubauer are also coming back. But the 2017-18 Capitals will be heading into the season without Alzner, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, key players who will now be suiting up for other teams.

    More moves could still be coming—and more youngsters will likely get a chance to earn full-time jobs. CapFriendly shows the Capitals with just 17 players signed for next season and only $4 million in available cap space.

    For better or worse, Oshie will be finding himself in a different workspace when he reports for duty at training camp.

1. Alexander Radulov, RW, Dallas Stars

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Alexander Radulov, 31, scored 18 goals and tallied 54 points in his return to the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens in 2016-17. He was playing on a one-year contract with a cap hit of $5.75 million.


    New Situation: On July 3, Radulov signed a five-year contract with the Dallas Stars, with a cap hit of $6.25 million per season. The contract carries a full no-movement clause for the first three years and a modified no-trade clause for the final two seasons. 


    Why His Situation Has Improved: When Radulov rejoined the Nashville Predators in March 2012 following a four-season exile in the KHL, he lasted just 17 games before returning to Russia for another four years.

    Last season, he made his second return to North America on a one-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens that paid him a comfortable $5.75 million. He proved himself well enough to earn five years of job security, a contract worth $31.25 million and a chance to play with two of the NHL's top offensive threats in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in Dallas.


    All stats from NHL.com. Contract information from CapFriendly.


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