NHL Free Agency Roundup: Where’s the Value Now?

Dougie Hamilton With Zach Hyman And Philipp Grubauer NHL

NHL free agency is the busiest time of the year for front offices across the league, and Wednesday’s frenzy did not disappoint.

According to CapFriendly, Day 1 of free agency saw 163 signings, 296 contract years given out, a cap hit of $282,790,834 and total contract dollars accumulating to a whopping $785,100,000. That’s some serious cake being thrown around.

With that in mind, let’s highlight the biggest moves and discuss the value of the acquiring team!

*Odds courtesy of Bovada
**Cap numbers courtesy of CapFriendly

Kraken Open Wallet

When Ron Francis settled in on his expansion draft choices, it raised many eyebrows given the options that were on the table. That said, his goal was clear the entire time: preserve precious cap space. Cap space is king in this league — especially with the flat cap at the moment — and you didn’t have to remind Francis of that.

However, the team needed to plug some holes with proven NHL talent and that’s precisely what they did on the first day of free agency. Even with Chris Driedger locked up for three years,  Seattle went out and signed Philipp Grubauer to a six-year, $35.4M deal. It’s no surprise that they then sent Vitek Vanecek back to the Washington Capitals for a second-round pick. In Grubauer and Driedger, it would appear the Kraken will sport quite the goaltending tandem.

Francis wasn’t done there as he signed former Blues winger Jaden Schwartz to a five-year deal that carries a $5.5M cap hit while veteran center Alexander Wennberg is on his way to Seattle as well after inking a three-year, $13.5M pact with the league’s newest club.

Even at +3500, I don’t see much value in the Kraken to make a Vegas-style entry into the league. Remember, that 2017-18 Golden Knights team marched to the Cup Final out of the gate, so you just never know. That being said, while I do like their situation in goal and on the back end in general, it’s going to be tough sledding offensively.

Schwartz and Wennberg will help bring NHL skill sets to the table, but the closest thing to a pure goal-scorer the team has would be Jordan Eberle or Yanni Gourde. If Gourde can’t hold down the No. 1 center spot and become a reliable, impact scorer with an increased opportunity outside of the Tampa Bay depth chart it won’t be pretty up front with the Kraken.

Let’s give the Kraken a pass, at least for now.

Devils Get Dougie

In one of the more interesting signings of day one, the top free-agent defenseman available Dougie Hamilton chose the New Jersey Devils as his destination on a seven-year deal worth $9M annually. It will remain the richest contract handed out in free agency of 2021.

Even with fellow right-shot defender P.K. Subban making $9M a year himself on that Devils blueline, one thing they had on their side was plenty of cap space. The roster is not full yet, of course, but the Devils still sit with more than $21M in cap space at the moment.

That Hamilton landed such a big deal is not surprising. He’s one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and has developed into a strong defender as well. He’s also an analytical dream who drives play and possession for his team when he’s on the ice. What is surprising, however, is the landing spot.

Even with Hamilton aboard it appears this team has plenty of work to do to get back into contention. It appears they are building from the back out as they acquired defenseman Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche prior to the expansion draft and also traded for Christian Jaros from the San Jose Sharks.

Considering the Devils tied for 27th in overall defense last season, the strategy makes sense, especially with a quality young goaltender in Mackenzie Blackwood in tow. Still, the Devils are a low-octane offense (26th last season) and while Hamilton could help improve that end of the ice — especially on the power play — the team is going to need to get better up front.

With the Devils coming in at +5500 to win the 2022 Stanley Cup, I just don’t see it as a worthwhile risk.

Oilers Get Busy

In a day chock-full of action, it can be argued that no general manager was as busy as Ken Holland in terms of making impact moves for his club.

Holland retained the NHL’s leading defenseman scorer from last season in Tyson Barrie to get things started. He’s not the best all-round defenseman which limits his contract demands, but Holland did well to retain him on a three-year, $4.5M without sacrificing much on term or cap hit. Barrie tallied eight goals and 48 points while skating in all 56 games in his first year with the Oilers including four goals and 23 points on one of the best power plays in the league.

As was long rumored, Edmonton made it official and signed winger Zach Hyman to a lengthy seven-year deal with $5.5M per year. After skating to the left of Auston Matthews for much of his five-plus years in Toronto, Hyman is expected to fill that left wing slot alongside Connor McDavid in Edmonton. Hyman notched 15 goals and 33 points in 43 games with the Leafs last season, paces that would have shattered previous career-highs if not for the shortened season. His style of play does leave him vulnerable to injuries — he’s missed at least 11 games in each of the last three seasons — but Hyman’s puck retrieval expertise is a major win for McDavid and the Oilers.

The club also added some depth down the middle in bottom-six forward Derek Ryan on a two-year, $2.5M deal. Ryan spent the last three seasons with the rival Calgary Flames, tallying two goals and 13 points during the 2020-21 campaign.

Holland also dished out a head-scratcher by signing veteran defenseman Cody Ceci to a four-year, $13M deal. Ceci’s game had been in decline over the last few seasons, but did bounce back some with a solid season on a one-year deal worth $1M with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Still, it’s awfully questionable to dish out four years to a stay-at-home defender whose larger-picture body of work in recent years is suspect. It’s not as if the Oilers are rolling in cap space as they sit with just north of $1.2M in available space at the moment.

After the madness, the Oilers sit with +2200 odds to win it all next season. With McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on board, you can never count them out. I am, however, quite concerned about the back end.

We’ll see how the Oscar Klefbom injury plays out, but after trading for Duncan Keith it’s looking likely the Oilers second pair on the back end will be Keith and Ceci. With nearly $9M committed to that duo, they’re going to get ice time, and likely lots of it. That duo certainly leaves plenty to be desired, and it’s fair to wonder what the Oilers will get from Mike Smith at age 39 and signing a two-year extension himself recently.

You’d hate to see the Oilers’ incredibly talented top-six forward production go to waste, but they’re in danger of doing so with this back-end mix.

Leafs, ‘Canes Switch Goalies

Unintentionally, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes traded goaltenders on Wednesday. Long-time Leafs starter Frederik Andersen is headed to Carolina on a two-year, $9M deal while former ‘Cane Petr Mrazek signed on with the Leafs for three years and $3.8M in annual salary.

For the Leafs, it’s the end of an era. Toronto acquired a young Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks prior to the 2016-17 season, and he was largely the team’s MVP ever since. Despite working behind a weak Leafs blueline as they looked to transition back into a contender, Andersen was the model of consistency in Toronto, posting a save percentage between .917 and .919 in each of his first three seasons with the team.

His play slipped in the 2019-20 season and Andersen struggled this past season while battling a knee injury. He would post a 2.96 GAA and .895 Sv% in 24 outings before Jack Campbell took the starting job and ran with it down the stretch.

Mrazek and James Reimer largely manned the ‘Canes crease of late, but rookie Alex Nedeljkovic stole the show last season. Interestingly, Nedeljkovic was traded to the Red Wings prior to the expansion draft and Reimer signed with the Sharks on Wednesday. In other words, none of team’s three goaltenders from last season are with the club.

While Carolina also added Antti Raanta to a two-year deal, Mrazek bolts to Toronto on the heels of a career year, albeit a short one. A broken thumb limited him to just 12 games, but Mrazek worked to a stout 2.59 GAA and .923 Sv% in that time. The 29-year-old has largely been a productive NHL netminder in his career, posting a 2.59 GAA and .911 Sv% across 275 regular-season appearances.

We can certainly attach ‘contender’ status to both of these clubs. In fact, the Hurricanes and Leafs share the fourth-shortest 2022 Stanley Cup odds at +1200 apiece. Toronto once again failed to get over the first-round hump against the Montreal Canadiens this spring while the Hurricanes bowed out in the second round to the Tampa Bay Lighting in just five games.

With both teams, there’s certainly value. Carolina has shown more of a winning penchant when it matters most than Toronto has of late, but a futures play on either club certainly makes sense.

Habs Get Grittier, Scoring Touch

Marc Bergevin didn’t make any earth-shattering moves on Wednesday, but he did add grit, physicality and veteran leadership to his group.

One of many Lightning free agents was defenseman David Savard who returned to his home province with a four-year, $14M deal in hand. Savard is regarded as one of the league’s best shot-blocking rearguards and now he’s one with a Stanley Cup ring on his hand after Tampa Bay picked him up at the trade deadline from the Blue Jackets. Certainly a defense-first blueliner, Savard could help alleviate the loss of Shea Weber on the Montreal blueline.

As for the goal-scoring, the club signed winger Mike Hoffman to a three-year deal with $4.5M annually. Hoffman was nearly dealt at the trade deadline as he’d fallen out of favor with streaky play in St. Louis, but still tallied a healthy 17 goals in 52 games.

Here’s a guy that’s scored (or been on pace for) at least 22 goals in seven straight seasons. He tallied 36 as recently as the 2018-19 season and is a weapon on the power play where he ranks fifth with 65 goals since the 2015-16 season sandwiched in between David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. He should help an inconsistent Montreal man advantage.

Montreal’s forward group also got some sandpaper added with a one-year contract for another former Lightning player in Cedric Paquette. After spending parts of seven seasons with the Lightning, Paquette was traded to the Ottawa Senators in a salary-dump transaction. He spent just nine games with Ottawa before being dealt to the contending ‘Canes where he tallied three goals and seven points in 38 games. He’ll fill a bottom-six role for Montreal next season.

After storming back from 3-1 to the Leafs and subsequently marching all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, the Canadiens sport +2500 odds to win it all next season. I’m not sure I like those odds.

Carey Price shined bright once again this postseason, but he also just underwent knee surgery. He should be good to go for camp, but it’s tough to know what you’re going to get from him as he put forth another subpar regular season last year. The team also lost one of the game’s top defensive centers in Philip Danault to the Kings on the open market in addition to losing Weber due to injury this season and possibly for good.

The Habs should find themselves in a battle for a postseason spot to begin with so I will pass on these current odds.

Busy B’s

With just one year remaining on the contract of 36-year-old Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand nearly his own mid-30s, the time for the Bruins to win another Cup in the Bergeron era is now, and apparently GM Don Sweeney got the memo.

Sweeney was able to retain Taylor Hall on a reasonable four-year, $6M deal five days before he could have hit the open market, but he was just getting started there.

Sweeney would go on to sign multiple free agents including Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, Derek Forbort and goaltender Linus Ullmark. With Tuukka Rask a free agent himself — albeit an injured one — and Jaroslav Halak signing with the Vancouver Canucks, Ullmark is the lone goaltender with an NHL contract in Boston. They also dealt goaltender Dan Vladar to the Calgary Flames.

The signings of Haula and Nosek are depth in nature as they should find themselves in the team’s bottom six. Foligno can really play all over the place at center or wing, but at this stage of his career his production is more bottom-six than top-six.

Forbort parlayed a solid season with the Jets into a three-year, $9M deal with the B’s. Remember, Boston lost young defenseman Jeremy Lauzon in the Kraken expansion draft, so it’s not surprising to see Sweeney go out and get a defenseman that can play somewhere in their bottom four.

The prize is all of this is Ullmark. The 27-year-old should be able to thrive in Boston’s defensive structure after playing behind a weak Sabres team for parts of six seasons. He’s coming off a big year for the last-place Sabres, however, as Ullmark turned in a 2.63 GAA and .917 Sv% across 20 games while missing time with injuries himself. There is plenty of upside during the four years he signed on for in Boston.

With +1500 odds to win the Cup, I’d suggest there’s more value in Boston than there is with the Hurricanes or Maple Leafs before them. Perhaps they bring Rask back, but Ullmark is going to do well in Boston if he can stay healthy which has been a little but of an issue so far in his career. His career-high in games played is just 37, so he shouldn’t be expected to carry the whole load for a Bruins team that was using a 1A/1B goaltending option in net earlier than most teams.

Nonetheless, the veteran core is still wildly productive and the Bruins are largely one of the best special teams clubs in the league. Their defensive structure is their backbone, and there’s plenty of goal-scoring up front, especially with Hall back. I like these odds.

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NHL, NHL Futures
Brenton Kemp / Author

Brenton is a lifelong sports fan who resides in Ontario, Canada. Brenton is a fan of most all sports but specializes in hockey, baseball, football, basketball, and golf. He’s a fierce researcher with a strong appetite to deliver accurate and relevant facts that in turn have led to past success with picks and DFS advice across the board. Brenton’s biggest goal is to deliver readers with the picks and advice that can build their bankroll. He takes great pride in his success and loves nothing more than to share that success for the benefit of everyone involved.

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