The Real Winners and Losers from the 1st Day of NHL Free Agency

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2021

The Real Winners and Losers from the 1st Day of NHL Free Agency

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    Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

    It's Day 1 of the NHL free-agency season, and it means different things to different people.

    For the transactional types, it's like Christmas in July.

    Come to think of it, it works pretty well for player agents and tax attorneys, too.

    Meanwhile, it's a day of highs and lows for fans across the league, as some cities say goodbye to established stars and favorites, while others welcome injections of high-profile hope.

    The first-day frenzy included dozens of players and hundreds of millions of dollars by the time it wound down Wednesday evening, which gave the B/R hockey team a chance to digest things and compile an authoritative list of the session's top winners and losers.

    Click through to see what we came up with, and feel free to let us know how we did—and how your team did—with a response or two in the comments section.

Winner: Goalies Getting Paid

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    Got a youngster who wants to give hockey a try?

    Fit him with a set of goalie pads. And open up a savings account.

    Netminders around the league were near the front of the line when it came to cashing in on Wednesday, with a handful of high-profile commodities switching teams.

    Tops on the list was Colorado's Philipp Grubauer, who ditched his spot as the Avalanche's No. 1 man to sign with the NHL's newest team—the Seattle Kraken—for the princely sum of $35.4 million over six seasons.

    Now 29, the German-born veteran had a 1.95 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 40 games last season, the last on a three-year deal that paid him $3.33 million annually.

    Also switching teams were Toronto No. 1 Frederik Andersen, who signed a two-year deal in Carolina worth $4.5 million per season; Carolina's Petr Mrazek, who left the Hurricanes to replace Andersen with the Maple Leafs for three years and $11.4 million; and Buffalo's Linus Ullmark, who signed a four-year deal worth $20 million to presumably become the top man with the Boston Bruins.

    Former Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby was also on the move for the second successive season, heading to the Dallas Stars on a one-year contract worth $2 million after he was bought out of the final season of a two-year, $8.6 million pact he'd signed with the Vancouver Canucks last October.

Winner: Buying In on the Kings

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    No, it's not quite time to map out a Cup parade.

    In fact, you might even want to hold off on playoff tickets.

    But if you're looking to get in on the ground floor of a Western Conference team that's building toward a bright future, you could do a lot worse than the Los Angeles Kings.

    Already in possession of the league's best farm system, the two-time champions crept a little closer to their 2011-12 and 2013-14 preeminence on Wednesday by locking up center Phillip Danault and defenseman Alexander Edler via free agency, a few weeks after acquiring winger Viktor Arvidsson in a trade.

    Danault arrives on a six-year, $33 million deal from Montreal, where he played 360 of his 392 NHL games and reached double-digit goals in three seasons. The 28-year-old also played 22 games in the Canadiens' run to the Stanley Cup Final and was sixth in leaguewide voting for the Selke Trophy.

    Edler, 35, reached the NHL in 2006-07 and played 925 games with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring 99 goals and compiling 409 points. He'll make $3.5 million in 2021-22 after finishing a two-year deal that he'd signed with Vancouver in 2019 that paid him $12 million.

    As for Arvidsson, he arrived from Nashville in a July 1 exchange that saw a second-round draft in 2021 and a third-round pick in 2022 head to the Predators. He's reached double digits in goals for five straight seasons, including a career-high 34 in 2018-19.

    "We want to get better, we want to push, we want to have a legitimate chance of getting in (the playoffs)," GM Rob Blake said, "and these were a couple of steps in the direction to go that way."

Loser: Understanding Edmonton's Plan

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    Some will point to Ken Holland's track record.

    Others will call for his job.

    Such is the chaos these days within the Edmonton Oilers fanbase.

    The reason? The general manager, he of the multiple Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, made a series of moves Wednesday that could be labeled anywhere from optimistic to misguided.

    Among them, the Oilers traded 24-year-old defenseman Ethan Bear to Carolina for third-line winger Warren Foegele, signed journeyman blueliner Cody Ceci to a four-year deal worth $13 million and re-signed high-scoring defenseman Tyson Barrie for three more years at $4.5 million apiece.

    The flurry of activity came shortly after a trade that sent another young defenseman, Caleb Jones, to the Chicago Blackhawks for 38-year-old Duncan Keith, and left the Oilers with a trio of D-men—Ceci, Barrie and Keith—who'll combine for more than $13.2 million in cap space next season.

    Edmonton also signed top-six winger Zach Hyman to a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million and veteran forward Derek Ryan for two years and $2.5 million, but it's the defensive moves—particularly the Bear trade—that reminded fans of past moves that saw young assets bloom elsewhere.

    The Oilers traded Matt Greene, then 25, to Los Angeles in 2008 and saw him win two Cups with the Kings; dealt Jeff Petry, then 27, to Montreal in 2015 and saw him emerge into one of the league's best blueliners and later help the Canadiens to the Cup Final this season; and dispatched Justin Schultz, then 25, to Pittsburgh in 2016 where he, too, went on to win a pair of Stanley Cups.

    Still, Holland insisted it was all according to plan.

    "Going into the offseason, I felt there were a couple of things I needed to do to make our team better and to make our team different," said Holland, who took over in 2019. "We were 12th overall and 11th overall the last two years. We were pretty good but not good enough. So, hopefully the moves we've made and the development with some of the young players we have will allow us to continue along that path.

    "And obviously we have an incredible core that's coming into their prime years."

Winner: The New Jersey Bandwagon

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    Don't look now, but the New Jersey Devils are gaining momentum.

    Relegated to the NHL's lower tier for several seasons, the Devils have taken long-term steps with the recent selections of Nico Hischier (first overall, 2017), Ty Smith (17th in 2018), Jack Hughes (first in 2019), Alexander Holtz (seventh in 2020) and Luke Hughes (fourth in 2021) at the NHL draft.

    As for the short-term prognosis, it got a lot better after Wednesday.

    GM Tom Fitzgerald brought in two of highest-profile free agents on the board, signing prolific defenseman Dougie Hamilton and respected veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier away from the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings, respectively.

    The 28-year-old Hamilton was the most coveted blueliner on the market thanks to his mammoth 6'6", 229-pound frame and offensive touch that's seen him score 106 goals in 607 NHL games. He's under wraps in New Jersey for seven years on a deal that'll pay him $9 million per season through 2027-28.

    Bernier, meanwhile, is in a Devils uniform for two seasons at $4.125 million apiece after compiling a 2.99 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 24 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 2020-21.

    He'll serve as a tandem-mate and mentor to 24-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood and arrive with 161 wins and 18 shutouts in 394 career NHL games, including a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12.

    "As a player and person, (Hamilton) has consistently shown a commitment to excellence and will play a leading role in our franchise's return to an elite level in the league," Fitzgerald said. "We believe that the magnitude of his contributions on the ice will be equal to his impact on our culture as we continue to position ourselves for long-term success." 

Loser: Ending the Eichel Drama

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    One of these days, it'll happen.


    Observers around the NHL have been anxiously awaiting an end to the Jack Eichel drama in Buffalo, where the prolonged disconnect between the player and the Sabres organization seems destined to yield a divorce.

    Many concluded it would come with a bevy of first-round picks at the recent NHL draft, and others opined it was destined to happen amid the flurry of activity when free agency arrived on Wednesday.

    But it didn't.

    Which means the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft—behind some guy named McDavid—is still part of a team for which he no longer wants to play, and the team has still not acquired an asset to help fill the void the former Hobey Baker Award winner when injuries scrubbed his 2020-21 season after 21 games.

    And it may not change for a while, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie.

    "You can go up and down, and around the different teams that might have interest, but right now it's on the back burner," McKenzie said (via WGR Radio's Brayton J. Wilson).

    "The Sabres are saying that's just the reality of the market right now and everybody's going to sit tight. It's not an ideal situation for the Sabres and Eichel, but as of right now it's really soft, really quiet."

Winner: Competitiveness for the Kraken

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    Will they win the Seattle Kraken a Stanley Cup this season?

    Don't count on it.

    But the moves the expansion team made on its first day of free agency won't do anything to hurt their competitiveness when opening night of the NHL schedule arrives on Oct. 12.

    Seattle made the biggest goaltending move in the league when it pried Grubauer away from Colorado with the six-year deal that'll pay him $5.9 million per season, adding him to Chris Driedger, whom it got from the Florida Panthers in the expansion draft and signed for three years at $3.5 million apiece.

    The two netminders will presumably play behind a defensive corps that includes veteran expansion-draft picks Mark Giordano from Calgary and Jamie Oleksiak from Dallas. Giordano has one season remaining on a six-year contract he signed with the Flames in 2015, and Oleksiak is signed for five years and $23 million after agreeing to the pact following his selection from the Stars.

    The Kraken also signed Adam Larsson to a four-year contract after picking him from the Edmonton Oilers, and they have the rights to Vince Dunn, a 24-year-old defenseman they selected from the St. Louis Blues as a restricted free agent.

    Also signed Wednesday from St. Louis was winger Jaden Schwartz, who'll make $27.5 million over five seasons after scoring 154 goals in 560 regular-season games with the Blues and 12 goals in 26 games during the run to the 2018-19 Stanley Cup championship.

    "Jaden plays a responsible two-way game and knows how to put the puck in the net," GM Ron Francis said. "He brings veteran leadership to our group. His knowledge of the game and what it takes to win hockey's ultimate prize will be valuable as we continue to shape our inaugural roster. We're looking forward to adding his guidance to our team."

Loser: Excitement in Midtown Manhattan

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    Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    The New York Rangers are on the verge of NHL title contention.

    They've got a proven new coach in Gerard Gallant, a handful of established NHL stars and a stockpile of recent draft picks ready to transition into successful players night in and night out.

    But the buzz in the air didn't get any louder on Wednesday.

    Though the Rangers were among the suitors for Danault and among the possible landing spots for Eichel, they came out of Day 1 with little more than what they'd started with.

    Defenseman Patrik Nemeth was the biggest addition, coming over from a 2020-21 spent with both Colorado and Detroit and signing a three-year deal worth $2.5 million per season.

    New York also inked forwards Greg McKegg and Dryden Hunt, along with defenseman Jarred Tinordi, but those waiting for big names on Broadway will have to wait.

    "I'll put it this way: We're always looking every day at ways we can be better and ways we can reach our goal next year," GM Chris Drury said. "We're going to look at every single way we can (improve)."

Winner: Boston's Immediate Future

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    This just in: The title window is still open in Boston.

    The Bruins took significant steps toward maintaining their status among the league's elite on Wednesday, signing a No. 1 goaltender, a versatile and rugged forward and a steady depth forward in separate moves.

    The goalie is ex-Buffalo Sabre Linus Ullmark, who'll make $5 million apiece for the next four seasons after spending parts of six seasons in Western New York and amassing 50 wins in 112 starts across 117 games.

    He'll be the presumed No. 1 in the net until veteran Tuukka Rask returns from injury early in 2022.

    The forwards come in the forms of Nick Foligno, a 6'0", 208-pounder who spent parts of last season in Columbus and Toronto and has scored 203 goals in 957 games, and Tomas Nosek, who's played 257 games in parts of six seasons with Detroit and Vegas.

    Foligno will make $3.8 million for two successive seasons, while Nosek is in the fold for two seasons at $1.75 million apiece.

    The newcomers are joined by former NHL MVP Taylor Hall, who was traded to Boston from Buffalo during the 2020-21 season and signed a four-year deal with the Bruins before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

    "It’s not about making the playoffs, it’s about winning the Stanley Cup," Ullmark said. "That's the first and foremost goal that everybody has from the fans to the players to the management."

Winner: Staying Relevant in Montreal

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    It's been a good summer in Montreal.

    The Canadiens finished fourth in the North Division after a tumultuous regular season, but they rebounded from the brink to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs and kick-start an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final.

    Les Habitants were unable to add the franchise's 25th championship, but it's not as if the 2021-22 season will be an automatic return to the league's scrap heap.

    Montreal added a pair of veteran players to begin the free-agency period, including defenseman David Savard, who was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning squad that beat the Canadiens for the title.

    Savard is a Quebec native and a veteran of 611 games since reaching the NHL in 2011-12 with Columbus. He stayed with the Blue Jackets until a deadline trade to the Lightning and eventually played in 20 games during Tampa Bay's run through the playoffs.

    He'll make $3.5 million for each of the next four seasons.

    Also arriving is goal-scoring winger Mike Hoffman, who's scored 189 times with three teams since debuting with the Ottawa Senators in 2011-12.

    He scored a career-high 36 goals with the Florida Panthers in 2018-19 and had 17 goals in 52 games with the St. Louis Blues last season. He's expected to be an instant jolt to the Montreal power play, thanks to his 67 career goals with the man-advantage.

    Hoffman will make $4.5 million for the next three seasons.

    "We are bringing in two Quebecers who are happy and proud to play in Montreal for the Canadiens," GM Marc Bergevin said.


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