The start of free agency was a wild ride, wasn’t it? John Tavares dominated the conversation, but a lot of names were in the mix, from James van Riemsdyk returning to Philadelphia to Ryan McDonagh and Logan Couture inking long-term extensions with Tampa Bay and San Jose, respectively. So which teams won and which lost? Let’s take a look at the early action on 2018 free agency.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Well, no kidding, right? The Maple Leafs won the Tavares sweepstakes, convincing one of the top centers in the NHL to come back to his hometown team for the next seven years at an $11-million AAV. Tavares gives the Leafs two lethal scoring lines, with Auston Matthews centering the other and third-line pivot Nazem Kadri on shutdown duty.
Though nothing has been established yet, Tavares could very well be the next captain of the Maple Leafs, and his ability to handle pressure will do him well in the red-hot hockey market. By extension, he also takes pressure off Matthews, the first overall pick in 2016, who is making his own star in the NHL right now. Tavares makes Toronto a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and the team still has the cap space available to get a veteran defenseman if the fit is right.
Not only that, but Toronto also did some addition by subtraction by losing fading veterans Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Roman Polak.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
After a shocking appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the Golden Knights went into free agency with their heads screwed on right – just like GM George McPhee and his crew did at the 2017 expansion draft. With the lure of playing for a winner in a vibrant (and warm) market, Vegas landed center Paul Stastny, who was coveted by several other teams. With a three-year deal carrying a $6.5-million annual cap hit, the Knights didn’t break the bank on Stastny, who brings a great two-way game and proven track record. Keeping the veteran pivot away from Winnipeg was a bonus for Vegas, who will likely tangle with the Jets in the playoffs in the coming years.
The Golden Knights lost David Perron to St. Louis, but given that the veteran was a healthy scratch for the second-last game of the Cup final, they could afford it.
A low-key move made by Vegas was the signing of Nick Holden, a late bloomer who found his game with the Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers before going to Boston. He joins an already effective defense corps in Vegas and does so at a very reasonable $2.2-million cap hit.
The Flames made their big move at the draft (that’s become a specialty for GM Brad Treliving) with the Noah Hanifin/Dougie Hamilton trade, but they didn’t rest in early July. In picking up scoring winger James Neal and veteran center Derek Ryan, Calgary fortified a forward corps that already features the dynamic duo of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau and the ‘3M Line’ of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk. Neal still has plenty of goals in him, and while Ryan isn’t a gamebreaker, for a team in need of puzzle pieces, the Flames got a good one for a decent price.
Though Calgary missed the playoffs this past season, the addition of Neal, Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, coach Bill Peters and Ryan should do the trick. They may even go deep.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
There can be only small consolations for Isles fans right now. Their franchise player is gone. Tavares put up with a lot of nonsense in New York (not from the fans, mind you) and always kept his cool, but when given the chance to play for a contender in Toronto, he took it.
Sure, the Isles have the reigning Calder Trophy winner in Mathew Barzal, and the kid looks like a very fine center. But the loss of Tavares blows a massive hole in New York’s depth chart, one that can’t possibly be filled right away.
On top of that, the Isles compounded the bad vibes with an inexplicable four-year, $12-million deal for agitator Komarov, prompting a lot of snide “Tavares for Komarov” jokes on Twitter from Toronto fans who watched ‘Uncle Leo’ go from beloved gritmeister to near-dead weight this past season. Two days later, the Isles took Matt Martin back from the Leafs for prospect goalie Eamon McAdam. Sentimentality was not the best play here. They just did Toronto another favor.
The Isles did find a new goaltender in Robin Lehner, but he’s a volatile personality who could bust as easily as he booms.
The Oilers have a very clear task: get faster and get some guys Connor McDavid can play with. Oh, and improve the defense corps. So far, no luck on any front. Sure, Tobias Rieder has wheels, but he’s not a top-line guy. Kyle Brodziak is fine as a bottom-sixer, too. But how does either help McDavid? Clearly the guy to target was Neal, a proven scorer who did well on speedy Vegas, but archrival Calgary got him instead, compounding Edmonton’s folly.
On defense, the only early Edmonton signing was former Kings rearguard Kevin Gravel, but he had always been an AHL-NHL tweener for Los Angeles. The competition won’t get any easier in the Western Conference, and the Oilers need to rebound from a bad season. Surely there are more moves to come (if Milan Lucic can be dealt, for example), but the early returns were rough. Maybe the Oilers can trade for Jeff Skinner, but that will require assets going the other way.
What, pray tell, were the Canucks doing? Yes, they won the Jay Beagle derby, but why were they chasing a player whose effectiveness is in the present, not the future? Vancouver is at least another few seasons away from being a serious contender in the West, and, based on the prospects they’ve been amassing, that’s fine. But bringing in Beagle and agitator Antoine Roussel on multi-year deals doesn’t exactly fit the timeline. These are finishing moves, not pickups you grab when you want maximum roster flexibility.
Sure, Roussel can stick up for the kids if the baddies of the West start slamming them into lockers, but how necessary is that in the speed-kills game of today? And sure, Tim Schaller came cheap, but again: the Canucks now have a glut of middle-six or bottom-six veterans to contend with. Is it not preferable to see what Adam Gaudette can do right off the hop?
Having the kids battle veterans for roster spots is indeed sound logic – but not if the veterans are on multi-year contracts. Why do you think Scottie Upshall won his recent jobs on tryouts?
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.