2021 NHL Free Agency: Live Grades for All the Biggest Signings

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2021

2021 NHL Free Agency: Live Grades for All the Biggest Signings

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The NHL's annual free-agent market opened at noon ET Wednesday. Over the next several days, we can expect general managers to get into bidding wars for the best unrestricted free agents.

    This year's salary cap remains at $81.5 million, which could affect free agents' destinations and contracts.

    Several of the top would-be free agents, including Boston Bruins winger Taylor Hall and Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, signed new contracts with their clubs before Wednesday. Nevertheless, stars such as defenseman Dougie Hamilton and goaltender Philipp Grubauer drew plenty of attention from rival GMs.

    Here are our live grades for this year's biggest free-agent signings. Don't hesitate to weigh in with your comments.

    Player stats and signings from NHL.com. Salary information from CapFriendly and PuckPedia unless otherwise noted.

Alex Ovechkin Stays with the Washington Capitals

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    To no one's surprise, the Washington Capitals signed captain Alex Ovechkin to a five-year, $47.5 million contract extension Tuesday. 

    Ovechkin is the greatest player in Capitals history and the best goal scorer of his generation. He holds the franchise records for goals (730) and points (1,320). He also sits sixth on the all-time goals list and could surpass Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) to move into third place by the end of 2021-22.

    Moving up the all-time goals leaderboard is one thing, but what Ovechkin can do to keep the Capitals among the Stanley Cup contenders is more important.

    In the short term, Ovechkin will be worth that annual $9.5 million cap hit. He should remain a dangerous scorer with the ability to reach 40 goals per season over the next two or three years.

    However, the final two years of that deal could prove costly to the Capitals as his skills inevitably deteriorate as he reaches 40. It could make it difficult for them to retain or acquire younger talent.

    Grade: A-

Colorado Avalanche Re-Sign Gabriel Landeskog

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Contract negotiations between the Colorado Avalanche and left wing Gabriel Landeskog went almost down to the wire. However, the two sides reached an agreement on an eight-year, $56 million contract hours before the market opened.

    At an annual average value of $7 million, this is a significant raise for the 28-year-old Avalanche captain. He recently completed a seven-year, $39 million contract with an annual cap hit of $5.57 million. This deal makes him the third-highest-paid player on the club, behind linemate Mikko Rantanen ($9.25 million) and defenseman Cale Makar, who recently signed a six-year deal worth $9 million annually.

    Landeskog gave the Avalanche a hometown discount. According to Bally Sports Midwest's Andy Strickland, the winger intended to seek between $9 million and $10 million if he hit the open market. A model of consistency, he's tallied 20-plus goals in eight of his 10 seasons with the Avs and 52 or more points seven times. He is also among their franchise leaders with 687 games played, 218 goals and 512 points.

    Coming off a Presidents' Trophy-winning season, the Avalanche's Stanley Cup window is wide-open. Landeskog's offensive skills, leadership and physical game are key to their championship hopes in the short term.

    While the cap hit isn't unreasonable, it affected efforts to re-sign goaltender Philipp Grubauer. The length of the contract could also become a salary-cap headache should his skills decline as he reaches his mid-30s.

    Grade: A-

Dougie Hamilton Signs with the New Jersey Devils

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    TSN's Darren Dreger reported the New Jersey Devils made the biggest splash of the day, signing Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract. The $9 million annual average value is a big raise over the $5.8 million the 28-year-old defenseman earned on his previous deal.

    The Devils were in a good position to make Hamilton that big-money offer. After signing him, they still have a projected $22.2 million in cap room.

    Hamilton was the best defenseman in this year's free-agent market. He led all NHL blueliners in goals over the past three seasons with 42. During that period, he was fourth in points (121) among the Hurricanes.

    A big, smooth skater, the 6'6", 229-pounder should take some of the pressure off promising defenseman Ty Smith as well as No. 4 pick Luke Hughes when he's ready to crack the roster. Hamilton's puck-moving skills should mesh well with scoring forwards Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, especially on a power play that finished 28th overall (14.2 percent) last season.

    Hamilton benefited from skating alongside Jaccob Slavin during his tenure with the Hurricanes. There's no one with Slavin's defensive skill on the Devils, so he will have to focus more on his defensive game and shoulder the additional pressure of being their No. 1 defenseman and blue-line leader. If he struggles in that role, his contract will become an albatross.

    The Devils made their first significant free-agent signing in years by inking Hamilton. They are serving notice that they are ready to move into playoff contention after several seasons of rebuilding. If Hamilton can meet the expectations and pressures he'll face with that hefty contract, this team could take a big step forward.

    Grade: A-

Seattle Kraken Snag Philipp Grubauer

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A week after building their initial roster in the expansion draft, the Seattle Kraken landed a big free-agent fish in Philipp Grubauer. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported the 29-year-old goaltender signed a six-year, $34.5 million contract with an annual average value of $5.9 million. That's a substantial raise over the $3.33 million of his previous deal with the Colorado Avalanche.

    Grubauer spent the past three seasons as the Avalanche's starting goalie. He's coming off a career-best performance, winning 30 of 40 games played in 2020-21 with a 1.95 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and seven shutouts. That effort made him a first-time Vezina Trophy finalist and the top netminder on this year's free-agent market.

    Some might be tempted to compare this signing with the Vegas Golden Knights' selection of Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2017 expansion draft. Fleury, however, had a proven record as a winner with three Stanley Cup rings. Grubauer lacks that resume, though he did back up Braden Holtby en route to the Washington Capitals' Cup triumph in 2018.

    Going from a Cup contender in Colorado, Grubauer could find it challenging to match his stellar 2020-21 performance with the expansion Kraken. While they lack the Avalanche's scoring punch, they have assembled a big, solid defensive corps that should make his workload manageable. He'll also have a worthwhile backup in Chris Driedger, who signed a three-year deal with the Kraken.

    The Kraken are making a significant investment with this contract. While not a huge overpayment in terms of annual salary, the deal could become burdensome in its final seasons. Still, he should give this fledgling club a chance to win on most nights.

    Grade: B+

Alec Martinez Returns to the Vegas Golden Knights

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Alec Martinez's performance throughout this season and in the 2021 playoffs earned him a lucrative extension with the Vegas Golden Knights. Hours before the free-agent market opened, the 34-year-old defenseman inked a three-year contract worth an annual average value of $5.25 million, per Daily Faceoff's Frank Seravalli.

    Acquired from the Los Angeles Kings at the 2020 NHL trade deadline, Martinez quickly became an invaluable member of the Golden Knights defensive corps. Tallying 32 points in 53 games in 2020-21, he led them in blocked shots (168) and finished second in time on ice per game (22:34) and short-handed ice time (2:28).

    Martinez carried over that solid regular-season performance into the 2021 playoffs. He scored four goals and six points in 19 games. He was their blocked-shots leader with 72 and in short-handed ice time (1:48) while sitting third in time on ice per game (22:32).

    The Golden Knights will be among the Stanley Cup contenders next season. Martinez's championship experience with the Kings and his strong two-way game will be crucial in their pursuit of the Cup. The only concern is whether he can maintain his high caliber of play over the full term of his contract.

    Grade: B+

Tyson Barrie Sticks with the Edmonton Oilers

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    Darcy Finley/Getty Images

    After losing Adam Larsson to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the Edmonton Oilers moved to fill the void on their blue line. TSN's Ryan Rishaug reports they brought back defenseman Tyson Barrie on a three-year, $13.5 million contract with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million.

    Barrie, 30, joined the Oilers last season on a one-year, $3.75 million deal after struggling the previous season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Betting on himself proved worthwhile, as he regained his offensive form to lead all NHL defensemen with 48 points in 2020-21.

    A skillful puck-moving blueliner, Barrie was a good addition to the Oilers' offensive game. However, he won't replace Larsson's physical shutdown presence on their blue line. They will have to scour the trade and free-agent markets to address that issue.

    As far as contracts go, this is a sensible deal. Barrie gets a decent pay raise to stay in Edmonton and skate with high-scoring teammates Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for three more years. The Oilers, meanwhile, didn't overpay to keep their best offensive rearguard.

    Grade: B+

Jaden Schwartz Signs with Seattle Kraken

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After reeling in a big fish in goaltender Philipp Grubauer, the Seattle Kraken followed up by landing a top-six forward in Jaden Schwartz. They inked the 29-year-old winger to a five-year, $27.5 million contract with an annual average value of $5.5 million. That's a slight bump in pay from the $5.35 million he earned on a five-year deal with the St. Louis Blues.

    Schwartz tallied 22 or more goals four times and netted 55-plus points five times in his 10 seasons with the Blues. He played a big role in their march to the Stanley Cup in 2019, scoring 12 goals and 20 points during those playoffs. An aggressive, energetic forward, he's a skilled playmaker with a good two-way game. However, his production dropped last season to 21 points in 40 games.

    The Kraken didn't add much scoring punch when they put together their initial roster in the expansion draft. Bringing in Schwartz is one step in addressing that issue. He should become their top-line left wing alongside winger Jordan Eberle and recently signed center Alex Wennberg.

    Schwartz's skills, leadership and championship experience should be invaluable to the Kraken. Nevertheless, that drop in his offense last season should be concerning. He must regain his 20-goal, 50-point form for this contract to be a worthwhile long-term investment.

    Grade: B

Los Angeles Kings Ink Phillip Danault

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    After reportedly rejecting a six-year, $30 million contract offer from the Montreal Canadiens last fall, Phillip Danault found what he was looking for in Los Angeles. The Kings announced they had inked the 28-year-old center to a six-year deal worth an annual average value of $5.5 million.

    Before 2020-21, Danault had a well-earned reputation as a strong two-way center with three seasons of at least 40 points from 2016-17 to 2019-20. His production took a tumble last season to just 24 points in 53 games. However, his strong defensive play was crucial to the underdog Canadiens' march to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

    Danault made enough of an impression for the Kings to give him a big raise over the $3.08 million per season of his former three-year contract with the Canadiens. He'll likely slot into the second-line center position. That will give the Kings more time to develop promising young centers such as Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte into full-time NHL players.

    If Danault regains his offense to match his defensive game, he'll be a fine addition to the Kings' forward lines. But if his scoring touch is gone, they could have an expensive checking-line center on their hands. He would still be effective in that role, but it wouldn't be worth $5.5 million for six years.

    Grade: B

Dallas Stars Sign Ryan Suter

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Ryan Suter didn't wait for long to find a new team after the Minnesota Wild bought him out earlier this month. The 36-year-old defenseman inked a four-year, $14.6 million contract ($3.65 million annual cap hit) with the Dallas Stars.

    It's a big pay cut for Suter compared to the $7.54 million annual average value of his previous deal with the Wild. However, he's still getting two-thirds of the remaining value of his former contract on top of what he'll pull down with the Stars. He'll make just $2 million in actual salary with Dallas in 2021-22, rising to $4 million in 2022-23 and $4.3 million annually in each of the final two seasons.

    In 16 NHL campaigns, Suter has logged 1,198 games and 607 points. While he tallied just 19 points in 56 contests this year, he was third among Wild skaters in time on ice per game (22:11). The Stars brought him in to replace Jamie Oleksiak after the latter was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Suter will take Oleksiak's spot on the left side on their second-defense pairing.

    Suter isn't the All-Star he was in his youth, but he still has plenty left to be a worthwhile veteran presence. His cap hit also won't put too much of a dent into the Stars' payroll. Given his age, however, the term could become an issue if his performance declines as he moves closer to 40.

    Grade: B

Edmonton Oilers Sign Zach Hyman

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    The Edmonton Oilers hope to have bolstered the depth among their top-six forwards by signing Zach Hyman to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract, as reported by TSN's Darren Dreger. The annual average value of $5.5 million is a significant raise for the 29-year-old winger, who recently completed a four-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs worth an annual cap hit of $2.25 million.

    Hyman is a versatile, hard-working forward who can skate on either wing and plays a sound two-way game. Playing at times alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the Leafs top line, he had back-to-back 21-goal performances in 2018-19 and 2019-20. He tallied 33 points in 43 games last season.

    While Hyman should be a solid addition to the Oilers in the short term, his new contract is far too long. While the cap hit is a fair rate for a top-six winger of his skills, Hyman will be 35 during the final season of this agreement. Given his style of play, it's unlikely he will still be performing at the same level in the deal's final years.

    The Oilers also made it difficult to shed Hyman's contract if things don't work out. PuckPedia indicates the pact is structured to pay most of his actual salary between the second and sixth years. He's also got a full no-movement clause during the first five seasons and a modified no-move in the last two years, per CapFriendly.

    Grade: C

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