The same day Connor McDavid wore his Edmonton Oiler colors for the first time ever on the ice, his bosses were upstairs going about the process of giving him some legitimate NHL players to surround him.
It’s difficult, nay impossible, to declare the winners and losers of a free agent frenzy day before Canada Day has even included, but it’s difficult to not get excited about what’s going on in western Canada these days. The oil patch has been sucked dry of good hockey for so long that sometimes it looked as though neither the Oilers nor the Calgary Flames were ever going to get it right.
But it looks as thought that has all changed, finally. Better is expected of the Oilers now, for a couple of reasons. The first is they can’t get much worse. But the second, and more important one, is they have a new lease on life on every front. Fresh new front office, brand new coach for five years, a shiny young superstar in waiting and, as of Wednesday, a couple of very good free agent additions that give them instant credibility.
The Oilers started the day with a real bang, getting defenseman Andrej Sekera on a five-year deal worth $33 million. After fruitless years of searching, the Oilers feel they have finally found the man to lead their young defense corps. Unlike many of the defensemen who have come through there over the years, Sekera can play both ends of the ice and on both special teams. He gives them a stabilizing influence and he’s only 29 years old.
In Mark Letestu, the Oilers get another thing they need, a guy up front who can win faceoffs and play special teams. They have quite enough offensive talent up front, thank you very much, but needed someone who could show them the way. That, more than anything, has been the element lacking in Edmonton in recent years and now they have it. Combine that with how they addressed their goaltending and the Oilers come out as big winners.
And the Flames are keeping up, which makes us pine for the 1980s when the two teams waged an arms race that was something to behold. The Flames followed up their Dougie Hamilton coup by signing Michal Frolik to a five-year deal worth $21.5 million. They probably overpaid, but Frolik was going to get either term or money and he ended up getting money. Like the signings of Sekera and Letestu, the Frolik signing might not be the sexiest ever, but they will help their teams win games.
If you’re picking another winner at first blush, you’d have to go with the Pittsburgh Penguins for getting Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Will Kessel make the Penguins any more of a battle-tested team for the playoffs? Will it make them more difficult to play against? Will it improve their defense corps, one that seems rather young and injury-prone? Well, no, but it will help them become an offensive juggernaut and it will maximize the talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
And while we’re on winners, let’s include the other end of that deal, not because the Leafs got any better, but because for the first time in forever, they’ve managed to chart a course for the future and stick to it. The Leafs have been on the rebuild program since the season ended and said they would be moving out core players and they’ve done that, all in the name of stockpiling prospects and young players to build for the future. And the acquisitions of P.A. Parenteau, Mark Arcobello and Daniel Winnik and the re-signing of Richard Panik will not change that outlook.
The Detroit Red Wings made a couple of very good pickups themselves, by getting Mike Green for three years at $6 million a year, they managed to pick up an elite offensive defenseman. They paid more than they would have liked, but like Frolik, Green was going to get either money or term. And he also got money. Brad Richards is a nice, low-risk acquisition that should help them at center.
Pretty difficult to identify any losers today, except for those who were looking for the usual insanity when it came to doling out contracts. So many teams being so close to the salary cap and a rather underwhelming crop of free agents conspired to bring a fair bit of sanity to the marketplace this summer. In fact, it’s hard to point to one contract that was signed on July 1 and think it was totally out of whack.
But while we’re on the subject, the Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators underwhelmed us. When you look at what those teams have done from the draft to now, it’s hard to believe either one of them is going to be better than the teams that failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs in 2014-15. The Canucks appear to be in the middle of a rebuild on the fly, putting some of their chips into the rebuild mode and some into trying to remain competitive. And if the Maple Leafs have taught the rest of the league anything, that’s indeed a recipe for disaster.