Re-Grading the Biggest NHL Free-Agency Signings from the 2021 Offseason

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistApril 5, 2022

Re-Grading the Biggest NHL Free-Agency Signings from the 2021 Offseason

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    When the NHL free-agent market opened last summer on July 28, we graded the biggest unrestricted free-agent signings. With the 2021-22 regular-season set to end on Apr. 29, this is a good opportunity to revisit our evaluations.

    Several stars, such as Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin, stayed put by signing contract extensions. Among the notables to sign with new clubs was defenseman Dougie Hamilton joining the New Jersey Devils, while the Seattle Kraken landed goaltender Philipp Grubauer.

    Some of those signings appear to be working out well in the first year of their multiyear contracts. Others have not, whether it's been because of injuries or difficulty adapting to their new club.

    Here is our regrading of last summer's biggest UFA signings. We're excluding Alec Martinez's re-signing with the Vegas Golden Knights as he lost 53 games to a facial injury. Any assessment of his performance in his first season has to be considered incomplete because of his lengthy absence.

Philipp Grubauer Signs with the Seattle Kraken

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Seattle Kraken pulled off one of the biggest surprises in last summer's free-agent market by signing Philipp Grubauer to a six-year, $35.4 million contract.

    Grubauer had spent the previous three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche. In 2020-21, he recorded 30 wins, nine losses and one overtime loss with a sparkling 1.95 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and seven shutouts, finishing third in the race for the Vezina Trophy.

    It was going to be difficult for Grubauer to maintain that Vezina-level status with the first-year Kraken. Playing a career-high 49 games, the 30-year-old netminder has a 15-28-5 record with a 3.19 GAA, .888 save percentage and one shutout. Those stats rank among the worst for NHL starters this season.

    Grubauer isn't solely to blame for the Kraken's woes this season given their anemic offense and lack of star power. Still, the combined goals-against per game of Grubauer and backup Chris Driedger (3.49) is the ninth-highest in the league despite the club's shots-against per game (29.0) being the fourth-lowest in the NHL. Perhaps he'll regain his elite form as the Kraken improve over the remainder of his contract.

    Previous Grade: B+

    Current Grade: D

Edmonton Oilers Re-Sign Tyson Barrie

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Rather than risk losing Tyson Barrie on the open market, the Edmonton Oilers brought him back with a three-year, $13.5 million contract. He had finished a one-year, $3.75 million deal and opted for the security of the $4.5 million annual cap hit offered by the Oilers.

    Barrie enjoyed a solid bounce-back performance with the Oilers last season after struggling with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019-20. He was the leading scorer among defensemen with 48 points in 56 games during the pandemic-shortened regular season, finishing third among the Oilers.

    With 35 points in 61 games, the 30-year-old Barrie hasn't been horrible, but his pace of production is down compared to last season. He's dropped to 0.57 points and 19:09 of ice time per game after averaging 0.86 points per game last season while logging 21:24 of ice time per game,  

    His decline and the emergence of Evan Bouchard prompted Sportsnet's Jeff Marek on Feb. 11 to suggest that the Oilers consider shopping him in the offseason. It remains to be seen if they take Marek's advice, but it's never a good sign when a player appears in trade rumors less than a year after signing a new deal.

    Previous Grade: B+

    Current Grade: C

Seattle Kraken Sign Jaden Schwartz

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    Christopher Mast/Getty Images

    Signing Jaden Schwartz was the second significant move made by the Kraken on the opening day of last summer's free-agent market. After signing goaltender Philipp Grubauer, they inked Schwartz to a five-year, $27.5 million contract.

    At the time, Schwartz was coming off a disappointing 21-point performance in 40 games with the St. Louis Blues during last season's pandemic-shortened schedule. He'd reached or exceeded the 50-point plateau five times in his previous nine seasons in St. Louis.

    The Kraken needed a forward with Schwartz's experience, offensive skills and leadership during their formative years. The 29-year-old was off to a good start with his new club, sitting second in points with 20 points in 29 games before suffering an injured hand on Dec. 29, sidelining him for 25 games. He subsequently managed three points in eight games before being sidelined again by a lower-body injury.

    Schwartz proved to be a reliable offensive presence for the Kraken when healthy. He cannot be faulted for his absences from the lineup this season, but injuries have plagued him through most of his NHL career. This could be a troubling issue for the Kraken over the remainder of his contract.

    Previous Grade: B

    Current Grade: B-

Ryan Suter Signs with Dallas Stars

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Ryan Suter signed a four-year, $14.6 million deal with the Dallas Stars after the Minnesota Wild bought out the remaining four years of his contract. While his $3.65 million cap hit was well below the $7.5 million of his contract with the Wild, it's been offset by the two-thirds of the remaining value he's receiving from the buyout. His deal with the Stars also came with a full no-movement clause.

    Suter had garnered a reputation as a reliable big-minute defenseman during his previous 16 NHL seasons with the Wild and the Nashville Predators. He reached the 30-point plateau in 13 straight seasons between 2007-08 and 2019-20, including eight 40-plus point campaigns.

    After managing just 19 points in 56 games last season with the Wild, the 37-year-old has 27 points in 68 games with the Stars and could reach 30 points for the 14th time in his career. Skating on their second defense pairing, he's second among Stars skaters in time on ice per game (23:33), including on the power play and penalty kill.

    Those additional two years in the second half of Suter's contract could become burdensome for the Stars as the aging blueliner's skills inevitably decline. For this season, however, the Stars are getting good value for their investment.

    Previous Grade: B

    Current Grade: B+

New Jersey Devils Sign Dougie Hamilton

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Among the biggest moves in last summer's free-agent market was the New Jersey Devils signing Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract. His $9 million annual average value matched new teammate P.K. Subban's AAV as the highest on the Devils salary-cap payroll.

    A big puck-moving blueliner with six 40-plus points seasons on his resume, the 6'6", 230-pound Hamilton was expected to be a significant contributor to the Devils' offense. He filled that role well in his first 30 games, netting 20 points while averaging 21:25 of ice time per game until a broken jaw felled him on Jan. 2.

    Hamilton returned to action on Feb. 24. With eight points in 19 games, his production hasn't returned to the same level as before his injury, while his average ice time is also down slightly to 20:00 per game.

    With 28 points in 49 games, Hamilton should exceed 30 points by the end of this season, and he was playing up to expectations before his injury. That should bode well for a return to his 40-plus point form with better health next season.  

    Previous Grade: A-

    Current Grade: B+

Edmonton Oilers Sign Zach Hyman

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Edmonton Oilers signed winger Zach Hyman to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract to bolster the depth on their top-two lines. The $5.5 million annual cap hit was a substantial raise over Hyman's $2.25 million annual average value on his previous contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Hyman joined the Oilers with considerable experience as a gritty two-way winger who spent time skating alongside Leafs stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Edmonton hoped he would find similar chemistry with Oilers superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

    So far, Hyman has proven to be a worthwhile addition for the Oilers. He spent some time on the McDavid line but has moved down to the second line with Draisaitl after the club signed Evander Kane in January. Hyman sits third among the Oilers' scorers and has already reached career highs with 24 goals and 47 points. He should easily reach the 50-point plateau before the end of the regular-season schedule.

    Investing $5.5 million in a 29-year-old winger for seven seasons could provide the Oilers with a cap headache in the latter years of his contract. For this season, however, he's been worth the price.

    Previous Grade: C

    Current Grade: A-

Los Angeles Kings Sign Phillip Danault

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Despite playing a crucial role in helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, Phillip Danault could not reach an agreement with management on a contract extension. He opted to ink a six-year, $33 million deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

    Danault entered 2021-22 with a well-earned reputation as a solid two-way center despite the decline in his production in his final season in Montreal. The Canadiens' loss was the Kings' gain, as he quickly became a key player with his new club.

    Centering the Kings' second line between wingers Viktor Arvidsson and Trevor Moore, the 29-year-old has already reached a single-season personal best of 21 goals. His 42 points rank third among Kings scorers, marking the fourth time he's exceeded the 40-point plateau, and he could reach the 50-point mark for the second time in his NHL career.

    Danault has provided invaluable experienced depth at center for the Kings, taking some of the burdens from team captain Anze Kopitar. His solid two-way game has been an important factor in the club's rise into a legitimate playoff contender. Danault's $5.5 million salary-cap hit has been a solid investment thus far and could continue to pay dividends beyond this season.

    Previous Grade: B

    Current Grade: A

Colorado Avalanche Re-Sign Gabriel Landeskog

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    Jim McIsaac/Associated Press

    The Colorado Avalanche ensured they kept Gabriel Landeskog in the fold by signing him to an eight-year contract extension a day before free agency began. With an annual salary-cap hit of $7 million, Landeskog received a substantial raise over the $5.6 million annual average value of his previous contract.

    It has proved to be a worthwhile signing for this season, as Landeskog continues to provide them with physical offense. The 29-year-old Avalanche captain reached 30 goals for the second time in his 11-season career, while his 59 points marked the eighth time he's exceeded the 50-point plateau. His performance and leadership have contributed to the Avalanche sitting atop this season's overall standings.

    Landeskog was on pace to exceed his career-high 2018-19 stats (34 goals and 75 points) until a knee surgery on March 14. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar indicated they were hopeful of getting their captain back in the lineup down the stretch before the postseason.

    While injuries have plagued Landeskog throughout his career, the Avalanche felt it was worth the risk because of the difficulty of replacing a player of his caliber. He performed well for them prior to his knee injury and should remain an important part of their lineup once he returns for the postseason.

    Previous Grade: A-

    Current Grade: A

Alex Ovechkin Re-Signs with The Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    It came as no surprise when Alex Ovechkin remained with the Washington Capitals by signing a five-year, $47.5 million contract. He is the face of the franchise—the superstar who made the Capitals a hot ticket and the captain who led them to their first Stanley Cup. He didn't want to leave the only NHL club he'd ever played for, and the franchise didn't want to lose him to free agency.

    The 36-year-old has played up to his end of the bargain thus far. As usual, he's their leading scorer with 42 goals and 79 points and sits fourth among the league's top goal scorers. Thanks in part to his efforts, the Capitals hold the last wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference and appear to be a lock to clinch a playoff berth.

    This season also saw Ovechkin rise among the ranks of the NHL's all-time leading goal scorers. He overtook Hall-of-Famers Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull and future Hall-of-Famer Jaromir Jagr to move into third place with 772 goals. Ovechkin is now just 122 goals behind Wayne Gretzky's record of 894.

    Ovechkin's age and the increasing difficulty he faces maintaining his high level of performance throughout his contract factored into our original grade. For this season, however, he has been worth every penny of his $9.5 million cap hit to the Capitals. He remains their best player and continues to deliver in that role.

    Previous Grade: A-

    Current Grade: A


    Stats (as of April 3, 2022) via Salary information via CapFriendly. Additional info via Hockey Reference.