- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
NHL free agency is in full swing and teams have been taking advantage of their yearly opportunity to get better.
Well, some teams are. Others have been weirdly silent, unwilling to make moves to clear cap space, or simply aren’t doing much when more is required.
There are also teams that fall in the middle, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ve made trades and signed players, but are they truly better off? The Leafs let Jack Campbell leave for Edmonton after acquiring the often-injured (and recently struggling) Matt Murray from Ottawa. Will that equate to a lateral move? Signing Ilya Samsonov to back up Murray should provide an upgrade over Petr Mrazek (who was traded to Chicago). But there’s a lot riding on Murray rebounding into his Stanley Cup-champion form of old. That pressure will increase if Campbell gets off to a hot start and Murray doesn’t.
Then there are the Blackhawks. If the club’s top priority is a quick teardown and good positioning in the 2023 draft lottery to land Connor Bedard, they are right on track. The flurry of moves — trading away young players that could be part of the next contender like Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach, and non-qualifying fellow twentysomethings Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik — make it seem like an acknowledgment that GM Kyle Davidson wants to head in a new direction. The forwards signed — Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou and Colin Blackwell — seem more like players that will eventually be traded as opposed to filling the production gaps left with the departure of DeBrincat (41 goals, 78 points last season) or Strome (23 goals, 48 points).
The fun of free agency is dividing what we see into winners and losers. These quieter clubs might fit the loser bill, too. But mostly, we’re talking about underachievers who have needs not being met — not yet, anyway.
Is there still time? Of course. But almost a week into free agency, there are teams obviously falling behind on work to do in addressing their issues, and there’s a dwindling pool of players from which to do it.
Florida went all-in harder than anyone to load up at the 2021-22 trade deadline.
The Panthers have employed an exact opposite strategy in free agency. Given their cap situation, it’s tough to blame them.
Florida began free agency by filling in its edges, agreeing on short-term, low-money deals with forwards Colin White and Nick Cousins, defensemen Anthony Bitetto and Marc Staal and goaltender Alex Lyon. Bitetto and Lyon are on two-way contracts as well. Not a lot there to move the needle.
It’s hard for Florida to help itself with such limited resources. Aleksander Barkov’s new contract just kicked in — which nearly doubled his salary to $10 million per season — and that alone was enough to handcuff the Panthers in other ways.
Those expensive deadline acquisitions Florida made? Gone, for no return. Claude Giroux signed in Ottawa. Ben Chiarot went to Detroit.
And there’s the loss of Mason Marchment, who had a breakout season in 2021-22 and signed a four-year, $18 million contract in Dallas. That’s 47 points in 54 games last season walking out the door.
The Panthers are coming off their best regular season ever. That President’s Trophy didn’t translate into playoff success — Tampa Bay sent them packing in a second-round sweep — and now Florida is no better (and might be worse) through the early goings of free agency.
It’s the stark reality of a salary cap world. Staying on top is never easy.
Maybe the Wild aren’t done with free-agent signings. But there’s a shrinking pool of available players who can have an impact. General manager Bill Guerin certainly hasn’t brought in anyone like that yet.
The Wild’s free-agent signings thus far have been four depth additions on short-term, two-way contracts: forwards Brandon Baddock, Steven Fogarty and Nic Petan, and defenseman Andrej Sustr.
Minnesota also traded Kevin Fiala’s rights to Los Angeles in a necessary cap-related move. His contributions from last season (33 goals and 85 points) aren’t about to be replaced by any of those free-agent acquisitions. The Wild also lost Nick Bjugstad to Arizona in free agency after he had a solid season as a Swiss Army knife in Minnesota’s lineup.
Guerin said he made calls on Wednesday but nothing prompted him to use more of the Wild’s (admittedly sparse) cap space. Still, Minnesota might have targeted the likes of Strome (now signed for one season with Washington) or Domi to provide a boost up front. And what about Minnesota’s center depth? Is it strong enough to compete in the Central Division?
The Wild haven’t won a playoff round since 2014-15. Guerin made the decision to lock in Marc-Andre Fleury for the next two years because he’s a proven winner who, in theory, stabilizes their goaltending. It takes more than that to succeed, though. Perhaps Guerin still has some tricks up his sleeve.
New York Islanders
Let’s just start by saying it’s entirely possible general manager Lou Lamoriello has secretly signed a bevy of players and just isn’t telling us about it. He’s tricky that way.
From what we can tell, though, the Islanders haven’t made a single addition in free agency. Which is slightly staggering given they — like most teams — have needs to address.
New York has its core in place and is committed to that group. What the Islanders need are more dynamic, complementary players. New York has good center depth in Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, making the team’s most logical focus offensively on wingers who can elevate those guys down the middle.
To that end, there was interest from the Islanders in grabbing Johnny Gaudreau. He’s an elite-level player who could have changed the whole complexion of New York’s offense. Gaudreau didn’t bite.
There were other highly prized skaters whom Lamoriello could have potentially pitched, but most have gone on to land elsewhere.
So where does that leave the Islanders? Lamoriello has preached the importance of making “hockey trades” in the past, and that route is still an option to improve New York up front. The Islanders just have to get moving. There aren’t many top-tier players left to target. And, after New York’s 20th-place finish last season, standing completely pat going into this season isn’t an option.
How underwhelming was the Flyers’ start to free agency?
Sign-wielding fans actually traveled to the team’s practice facility in New Jersey just to heckle general manager Chuck Fletcher with “Fire Chuck” chants that matched the missives on their posters.
The Flyers promised their faithful in January that an “aggressive retool” was coming. CEO Dan Scott said “we should be in it next year” about a team that went on to finish 29th overall (25-46-11). Going from a bottom dweller to potential contender requires big swings. Fletcher, so far, has been playing small ball.
Instead of reeling in Johnny Gaudreau or Nazem Kadri, Fletcher signed two free agents last Wednesday: 31-year-old enforcer Nicolas Deslauriers and 35-year-old third-pairing defenseman Justin Braun. Done for the day.
Fletcher blamed Philadelphia’s cap issues for why the Flyers allegedly weren’t in on Gaudreau — who was long rumored to have them as his No. 1 landing spot — or other major UFAs. Yet, Fletcher did find the space to trade for and then sign polarizing defender Tony DeAngelo to a two-year, $10 million contract earlier this month after DeAngelo’s former team in Carolina wasn’t willing to go that high on a new contract.
Making DeAngelo fit required in part that Fletcher buy out Oskar Lindblom’s contract last week. And losing one of the team’s most beloved players in Lindblom didn’t equate to Philadelphia doing anything else of real note in free agency, either.
Fletcher was careful to continue stressing the Flyers are “retooling,” not “rebuilding.” That must have been the pitch to new coach John Tortorella too before he signed on last month to start turning things around. Claude Giroux is gone, leaving a hole on the ice and in the Flyers’ leadership group. Sean Couturier is coming off back surgery and Ryan Ellis’ health status remains up in the air.
It leaves serious questions — and serious potential gaps — for Philadelphia that Fletcher hasn’t addressed in free agency. He does sound confident in the organization’s prospect pool, which could yield an unexpected spark. If not, those fans could be waiting a while for their retool to yield results.
Vegas Golden Knights
Ah, Vegas. A team that loves to go big, but often ends up in a bad situation because of it.
The NHL’s (mostly) flat-cap existence has hurt a few franchises more than others, and the Golden Knights are unequivocally atop that list. Vegas is almost $1.4 million in the red for next season (before any long-term injured reserve moves). That consistent lack of real space has never stopped Vegas from going after talented players, of course. It’s just forced the Golden Knights into losing others.
While most teams have spent free agency adding to their rosters, the Golden Knights have been shedding. That technically started when Vegas traded Evgenii Dadonov to Montreal in June. The Golden Knights got nothing in return for the winger but Shea Weber’s LTIR-bound contract to bail them out of cap hell. Yay?
Then, on the opening day of free agency, Vegas sent Max Pacioretty to Carolina for “future considerations” — i.e., nothing that will actually help the team on the ice.
Pacioretty has dealt with some injury issues of late, but he’s still a perennial 20-goal scorer who had 37 points in 39 games last season. The Golden Knights had no choice but to get his $7 million cap hit off the books. Why? Because, Jack Eichel.
Vegas wanted Eichel and traded with Buffalo to get him. Eichel earns $10 million per season; Mark Stone was already in Vegas making $9.5 million per season, and Alex Pietrangelo makes $8.8 million. Paying that much to that trio has meant tough cuts must be made elsewhere. This time around, it was Dadonov and Pacioretty who were shipped out.
In the end, the Golden Knights’ major free-agent “adds” were reupping two of their own, Reilly Smith and Brett Howden. That’s good, but the Golden Knights haven’t improved themselves. If anything, the losses of Pacioretty and Dadonov make them worse.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is in an interesting spot.
He wanted to hire Barry Trotz as the team’s new head coach. Trotz ultimately decided to take this coming season off. Rick Bowness got the Jets’ job instead.
Hiring Trotz would have been a splashy move by Cheveldayoff, who hasn’t done anything of the sort in free agency. Winnipeg signed just two players after the bell rang on Wednesday: veteran netminder David Rittich and depth center Kevin Stenlund.
The Jets are at a critical juncture. There’s a strong core in place now, and keeping it that way long-term is a priority. How does Cheveldayoff do that without being more assertive in adding players who can complement Winnipeg’s top talents?
Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers are terrific players signed for several more seasons. But Pierre-Luc Dubois will be a UFA after next season, and has already indicated he wants to explore the market in 2023. Mark Scheifele has two years left on his deal, and expressed after last season’s disappointing finish that “I just have to understand where this team is going.”
That’s a good discussion topic. The Jets’ moves so far in free agency don’t provide an answer. Can Winnipeg really get back to the playoffs and be a contender by sticking with the status quo? Is the potential of this core enough for Dubois to consider sticking around for the long term?
Free agency presents an opportunity to improve. Winnipeg hasn’t done that.
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