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NHL Free Agency: Teams With Top High-Risk, High-Reward Moves

Adam Proteau looks at four teams that are hoping their off-season decisions will pay off in a big way when the NHL season kicks off.
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On Wednesday, the NHL’s unrestricted free agency period opened up, and there was an immediate surge of signings and trades that have remade the rosters of many, if not most league lineups. 

THN.com posted our picks for winning and losing teams on Day One of unrestricted free agency, but there were teams whose moves put them somewhere in the middle of the winners/losers spectrum – teams that made signings or trades that could give them excellent results, but just as easily could blow up in their faces. Today, we’re looking at who those high-risk/high-reward teams are so far this off-season.

QUESTION-MARK TEAMS

Toronto Maple Leafs: There’s always heat on the Leafs, and this summer, it all has to do with their goaltending. In some ways, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas should be commended for not giving goaltender Jack Campbell the number of years he eventually got from Edmonton on the UFA market, but the bottom line is the goalies Dubas has brought in for 2022-23 are goalies (Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov) whose teams willingly walked away from.

Dubas did acquire some low-cost, decent-reward UFAs in former Avalanche winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette (who bounced between three teams in the past two years) to fill out their depth at forward, but at the position that matters most, the Leafs are putting major pressure on Samsonov and Murray, and there’s no assurance they’ll deliver. Can’t really call them “winners” or “losers” just yet.

Washington Capitals: Like two of the other three teams on this list, the Capitals put all their chips behind a goalie this summer, and who may come to regret it. In Washington’s case, it’s Darcy Kuemper, who was the starting goalie for the Colorado Avalanche in the Avs’ Stanley Cup-winning season this past year, who got a big-money, long-term contract that Washington may come to regret sooner than later.

The Caps gave the 32-year-old Kuemper an annual salary of $5.25-million for the next five seasons. That’s a lot of term for a goalie whose SP in the most recent post-season was a pedestrian .902 and whose regular-season record was 37-12-4 – and that’s on a team that was significantly better than Washington is. The Capitals will be without star forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson for a significant period of time to start the 2022-23 campaign, putting immediate pressure on Kuemper to begin the year.

Should Kuemper slump in any way, the Caps will slide down the Metropolitan Division standings, and an upstart team like Columbus or the New Jersey Devils could leapfrog Washington and put them in a catch-up position the remainder of the season. Missing the playoffs in his first year with the Capitals would be an awful way for Kuemper to begin his tenure in D.C., but that’s a distinct possibility now. Caps GM Brian MacLellan didn't do anything else on free agency kickoff day, but the Kuemper contract alone could make Washington “losers” in the big picture.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers made two big moves on free agency day, and both of them very well could end up giving them cause to regret it. The first move was a four-year, $20.5-million contract extension for star winger Evander Kane, who excelled with Edmonton after being acquired mid-season. The 30-year-old scored 22 goals and 39 points in 43 games as an Oiler, numbers that gave Edmonton GM Ken Holland enough reason to want to keep him around.

That said, Kane has a reputation as a me-first player not well-liked in the dressing room, and we’ll be interested to see in the long run what vibe he brings to the Oilers. There’s a reason why Winnipeg and San Jose, his most recent former employers, eventually wanted to move on from him, and Edmonton may find themselves wanting a break from Kane before his contract ends in 2026.

The second big deal Holland made Wednesday was a five-year, $25-million contract he gave to former Leafs goalie Jack Campbell. While Leafs fans and Toronto media saw and liked the high-quality minutes he gave to the Buds in two-and-a-half seasons, they also saw that Campbell struggled in stretches, and understood why Leafs GM Kyle Dubas would be wary of giving so much contractual term to a goalie who still only has 135 regular-season games and 14 playoff games to his credit. It’s possible Campbell has his best years in the NHL in an Oilers jersey, but it’s also possible that Campbell can’t play very well consistently enough to justify his new contract.

Both Kane and Campbell could be part of an Oilers team that takes the next compeitive step and push Edmonton into the Cup Final and beyond, but there’s also a possibility they stumble, and Oilers fans rue the day these new contracts were signed.

Vegas Golden Knights: Though the Golden Knights have been one of the most successful expansion teams in the modern age, their recent roster transactions have been a whirlwind that has resulted in the trading of veteran talents with a lot left in the tank. And on Day One of free agency this year. Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon made one of the biggest head-scratcher moves of any team in the league – the clear salary-dump trading of star forward Max Pacioretty and D-man Dylan Coughlan to Carolina in return for …um, nobody.

Officially, the deal was made when Carolina sent “future considerations” to Vegas in return for the two players, and that makes sense only when you recognize that the Golden Knights were well over the salary cap’s upper limit, and moving Pacioretty’s $7-million annual salary (as well as Coughlan’s $762,500 salary) gave the Hurricanes the cap relief they desperately needed. Technically, the ‘Canes still have three RFAs to deal with this summer, so McCrimmon has more work to do to fit them in. But shipping out Pacioretty for nothing feels like a big loss, and new head coach Bruce Cassidy is going to be working with a team whose talent base has been depleted.

The Pacific Division remains one of the lesser divisions in the NHL, but there will be more competition from teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks for the Golden Knights to deal with. Missing the playoffs for the second straight season isn’t at all out of the question for Vegas, and nothing McCrimmon has done in this off-season to make life easier for the Golden Knights.

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