It was quite an opening for free agency, with major stars changing addresses and even a unicorn offer sheet being signed thanks to Montreal hooking up with Carolina’s Sebastian Aho. And while it would be pretty simple to declare the Habs and Canes winners or losers because of the offer sheet – which the Hurricanes announced they would snuff out to retain Aho shortly thereafter – other teams are more worthy of the mantles. After all, in the grand scheme of things, the Canadiens didn’t lose anything in trying the offer sheet, and the Hurricanes ended up finishing a contentious RFA negotiation with their best player earlier than expected.
So who were the early winners and losers this summer? Officially, we should probably wait until actual hockey games are played, but we know you crave answers now, and we are here to serve. Let’s break it down, shall we?
> WINNER: DALLAS STARS
The Stars are in their window to win, and chasing the organization’s second Stanley Cup means definitive action was needed. To that end, GM Jim Nill went out and had himself a great opening day, headlined by the signing of former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski to a three-year, $21-million deal. In Pavelski, the Stars get a skilled, gritty performer who can do it all on the ice and be a great voice in the dressing room. Pavelski has been to a Cup final, but didn’t win, and he doesn’t have many years left in his career. But in the short term, he can bring a lot to a Dallas team that struggled to find offense behind the trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov.
By the same token, adding Corey Perry on a low-risk deal after the winger was bought out by the Anaheim Ducks also has upside. Perry will undoubtedly want to show he can still score, and another contract adds further motivation.
On the back end, Nill again went bargain hunting by grabbing Andrej Sekera. Bought out by the Oilers, Sekera nonetheless can help bolster a defense corps that already has some dynamic elements in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. With Ben Bishop in net, this team is ready to go for it.
> WINNER: NEW YORK RANGERS
Boy, GM Jeff Gorton does not mess around. New York landed the gem of the 2019 UFA class in left winger Artemi Panarin, who chose the Rangers over the Islanders and Panthers. In Panarin, the Rangers get an elite scorer who will be good for years, and that’s great, because this is just the beginning for New York.
Thanks to a successful rebuild strategy, Gorton landed Kaapo Kakko second overall in the draft (OK, there was some lottery-ball luck to thank, too), and the dynamic Finnish winger will likely be joined by 2018 first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov on the roster this coming season. New York also pulled defenseman Adam Fox away from Carolina via college free agency and traded for blueliner Jacob Trouba in a tilted deal with Winnipeg. While it may take a year or two for the Rangers to really round into form, this is going to be a fun team to watch right away. It’s pretty amazing to think where the franchise is now compared to when Gorton and Glen Sather penned their letter to the Blueshirts faithful about a rebuild just 17 months ago.
> WINNER: FLORIDA PANTHERS
Goaltending had been a soft spot for the Panthers due to Roberto Luongo’s descent, but the Panthers got their man in two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The price was steep – ‘Bob’ signed on for seven years at $70 million – but the Cats had the space, and now they’ve addressed a big need. While seven years is a long term for a goalie who turns 31 in September, keep in mind Bobrovsky came over to North America a little later, so, based on workload, he’s a “young” 31. And netminders in recent years have proven to be successful well into their mid-30s.
Elsewhere on opening day, Florida got an experienced depth defenseman in Anton Stralman, a bottom-six bang-and-crasher in Noel Acciari and a middle-six winger in Brett Connolly. Given how much talent the team already had up front – headlined by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau – it’s looking positive for the Panthers. Assuming the key guys stay healthy, this is a playoff team, particularly since GM Dale Tallon had already brought in one of the winningest coaches in NHL history in Joel Quenneville.
> LOSER: EDMONTON OILERS
There is time to rectify matters, but the fact is a non-playoff team that struggled to keep up in today’s speedy NHL didn’t get any faster on Day 1 of free agency. Not only that, but in adding 37-year-old Mike Smith to replace outgoing goaltender Cam Talbot, there is no guarantee of any upgrade between the pipes. Smith had an .898 save percentage for Calgary this past season and the Flames’ defense is much better than that of their Alberta rivals. Re-signing Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson is fine, but it’s the status quo. When will the reinforcements arrive for Connor McDavid? Does it all rest on the return in a potential Jesse Puljujarvi trade? Hopefully not, because the Oilers don’t have any leverage there.
Sure, new GM Ken Holland just got into town, but Edmonton simply cannot waste another season of prime McDavid by missing the post-season again. That’s just an affront to the hockey gods.
> LOSER: COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
While it was pretty well established the Blue Jackets were going to lose Panarin, Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene for zero return this summer, now it’s official. The fact GM Jarmo Kekalainen went for it at the trade deadline by bringing in Duchene and keeping the other two is admirable, and Columbus did win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. But now we deal with the fallout.
The acquisition of Gustav Nyquist may replace a sliver of the offense Panarin and Duchene provided, but a huge hole has been blown into the middle of the depth chart – this is obvious. And because the Blue Jackets went for it, they ended up picking just three times at the draft, with none of those selections coming in the top 100. So the future took a big hit, too.
Columbus still has some nice weapons up front and a great 1-2 punch on defense in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. But the Jackets have gone from a Vezina Trophy winner in net to a big ol’ question mark (Elvis Merzlikins has entered the building with a lot of pressure) and, in a division where the Rangers and Devils got much better over the summer, Columbus will have to scrape and claw their way just to get back into the playoffs, much less win another round.
> LOSER: MINNESOTA WILD
The plan in Minnesota just isn’t very clear right now, and the Mats Zuccarello signing furthers the confusion. Yes, of course he is a good player who can net you 50 points a year in his sleep. But his most valuable seasons on his new five-year, $30-million contract will be at the beginning, and the Wild just aren’t good enough to take advantage of that. As it stands, this is an old team that is somehow getting older, and now they’ve added another long-term contract to the books. Why not cease the free-agent spending and focus on building up the next generation? Getting Ryan Donato for Charlie Coyle was a start, but then GM Paul Fenton goes the other way and lands Zuccarello. The Wild need to shed veteran contracts, not take them on (and the less said about the prior Victor Rask trade, the better).
A non-playoff team in a hotly contested division seems to be spinning its tires, and the end result is a squad that will finish somewhere between 12th and 18th in the NHL for years to come, winning nary a playoff round in the process. No wonder college and high-school hockey are still so popular in the state.