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NHL Free Agency: Winners and Losers from Day 1

Which teams came away with the best moves on free agency day? Time will be the ultimate judge, but here's some early picks.
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The NHL’s unrestricted free agency period opened up Wednesday, and with it, scores of signings, and quite a few trades, took place right away. 

Which teams came away with the best moves on free agency day? Time will be the ultimate judge, of course, but it’s always fun to analyze winners and losers on such a crucial day. Here are one writer’s picks for the best and worst team results on free agency day.

WINNERS

Ottawa Senators: At the NHL draft, the Senators got a big offensive boost when GM Pierre Dorion acquired star winger Alex DeBnrincat in a steal of a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. But Dorion wasn’t done adding strength to Ottawa’s lineup, making one of the most notable moves of Day One of free agency when he signed Ottawa native and star forward Claude Giroux to a three-year, $19.5 million deal.

The Sens now have a fearsome first two forward lines, wIth Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk, Giroux and DeBrincat. Dorion also shored up Ottawa’s back end by trading Filip Gustavsson to Minnesota for veteran Cam Talbot, and while Talbot is up there in years – he’s 35 years old, and will turn 36 next summer – he doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his professional odometer, and can give Ottawa quality minutes.

Dorion still has $15.9-milliion left in salary cap space, but he has restricted free agent forwards Alex Forementon, Josh Norris and Mathieu Joseph, as well as defenseman Erik Brrannstrom to take care of. But if these are all the off-season moves Dorion makes, he should be strutting around like the cock of the walk. Few GMs have made as many moves of consequence as Dorion has this summer, and because of it, the Senators are now a legitimate threat to make the playoffs this coming season.

Carolina Hurricanes: The ‘Canes were already a very good squad when free agency day opened up, but by the end of the afternoon, they became one of the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season. GM Don Waddell put on his big boy pants Wednesday, and though he didn’t sign anyone to an offer sheet the way he did last summer, Waddell did use the trade market to push Carolina’s group of talent to impressive heights.

First, Waddell hooked up with new San Jose Sharks GM Mike Grier to acquire former Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns and forward Lane Pederson in exchange for forward Steven Lorentz, goalie Eeetu Makiniemi and a 2023 third-round draft pick. San Jose also will be assuming 33 percent of Burns’ $8 million cap hit for the next three seasons. The deal gives Carolina one of the best top-four defense pairings in the league, and a robust physical game the Canes didn’t have in abundance last year.

Then, late in the afternoon. Waddell made another big move, landing star forward Max Pacioretty and depth defenseman Dylan Coughlan from Vegas for future considerations. That’s a very small price to pay to acquire a high-impact player like Pacioretty, but the hockey world knew Vegas had to shed salary to be cap compliant, and it’s to Waddell’s credit that he convinced Golden Knights counterpart Kelly McCrimmon to send Pacioretty to the Eastern Conference for next to nothing in return.

The final move Waddell made late Wednesday was a relatively smaller move that could turn out to be a big one: Veteran winger Ondrej Kase, who spent last season in Toronto, was signed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. The 26-year-old Kase has had trouble staying healthy, but when he is in the lineup, he’s a crafty, defensively-responsible competitor who will help out at both ends of the rink. Depth is important for legitimate Cup contenders, and players like Kase and Coughlan will be necessary components of a deep post-season run for Carolina. The Hurricanes now have all sorts of talent and experience, and there are no excuses for them not to dominate in the regular season and do significant damage come playoff time.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts didn’t bring in anybody new to their impressive lineup, but GM Julien BriseBois did strike on Day One of free agency by signing veteran Lightning players to lengthy contract extensions. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev got an eight-year deal for $8.5 million per season; forward Anthony Cirelli got an eight-year deal for $6.25 million per year; and blueliner Cernak got an eight-year extension for $5.2 million per season.

Lightning fans were hoping to see veteran Ondrej Palat in that group, but the UFA winger has too many suitors to keep his salary at a level the Lightning could absorb in their salary structure. Unfortunately, that’s how the salary cap works. Great teams just don’t get to keep every one of their key cogs, and someone eventually moves on for monetary reasons. BriseBois did sign UFA D-man Ian Cole to deepen the blueline, but Palat’s absence will be felt.

Still, BriseBois must be commended for signing Tampa’s foundational players to solid, long-term deals. The Bolts will be Cup contenders for some time to come, and Sergachev, Cirelli and Cernak will be important pieces for them going forward.

Colorado Avalanche: Joe Sakic was a wizard at GM this past season, making all the right moves to lead the Avs to their first Cup win in 21 years, and though he’s technically been promoted to president of hockey operations while Chris McFarland is now Colorado’s GM, Sakic will remain holding the reins of power in Denver. And on free agency day, his fingerprints were all over Colorado’s moves.

The Avs didn’t re-sign star center Nazem Kadri, and aren’t likely to. However, the Avalanche did retain the services of trade deadline pickup Josh Manson, signing the 30-year-old to a four-year, $18-million deal. As a right-shot blueliner, Manson easily could’ve made more than that in another market, but he was convinced to stick around and push for another Cup win. That’s a victory for McFarland and Sakic. So too is the eight-year contract extension given to star winger Valeri Nichushkin, who’ll be earning $6.125 million a year through the 2029-30 campaign.

The Avs are gambling with their goalie situation again, saying goodbye to No,.1 netminder Darcy Kuemper in favor of former Rangers back stopper Alexander Georgiev. But Sakic et al still have $4 million in cap space to make moves during the regular season. They’ve got elite talent all over the joint in Denver, and any goalie on the trade block this coming year will jump at the chance to play for them. All in all, a first-rate series of moves by Sakic and McFarland so far this off-season.s

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets signed arguably the best UFA available in former Calgary superstar winger Johnny Gaudreau. That’s as big a win as anyone got on Free Agency day. They’re now a legitimate contender for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. Blue Jackets Gm Jarmo Kekalainen 1, Rest of the NHL, 0.

LOSERS

Chicago Blackhawks: Shortly after giving away star sniper Alex DeBrincat to Ottawa and trading young center Kirby Dach to Montreal at the NHL draft, the Blackhawks continued their off-season of destruction Wednesday by refusing to extend qualifying offers to forwards Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome, making both UFAs. Kubalik immediately signed a two-year, $5 million deal with Detroit.

Meanwhile, Hawks GM Kyle Davidson signed and traded for a slew of players that aren’t going to move the needle in a winning direction, including goalies Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock, and forwards Colin Blackwell, Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou. Davidson is willingly testing the patience of Hawks cornerstones Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of who, given their preference, would want to be Hawks for their whole Hall-of-Fame careers. But this blatant tank job might just force them into accepting a trade out of town.

Kane would bring a huge return, and Toews would get Chicago at least some high draft picks, but this awful Hawks lineup is desecrating the legacy Towes and Kane bult in the Windy City. It’s just plain painful to see Davidson take dynamite sticks to the franchise, and there’s no guarantee it will be a quick competitive turnaround.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers didn’t win the Johnny Gaudreau Sweepstakes, and they failed to convince former captain Claude Giroux to come back to Philly. They did sign a few depth players you’ve likely never heard of, as well as notorious defenseman Tony DeAngleo. And this is a team that’s going to challenge for a playoff berth in the Metro? Um, no, probably not. Tough times in Flyers land. Good luck, John Tortorella.

Calgary Flames: Flames fans’ worst fears came to pass on free agency day, when UFA superstar winger Johnny Gaudreau reportedly let Calgary GM Brad Treliving know he would not be returning to the organization. That left a massive hole in Calgary’s attack, and one that cannot be easily filled. And the fact Gaudreau chose to leave more money on the table to joing a rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets team is a negative comment on the Flames’ blueprint to win.

Treliving now has $22.2 million to play with, but unless he convinces someone like UFA Nazem Kadri – who kiboshed a trade to the Flames earlier in his career - to take a big payday to come to Calgary, the Flames are going to be significantly less potent with the puck next season.

Arizona Coyotes: If it wasn’t for the brutal Blackhawks, the Coyotes once again would be having arguably the worst off-season of any NHL team. Despite having oodles of cap space, Arizona remains a dumping ground for abysmal contracts and unproven young talent. Earlier in the off-season, they acquired Oilers bench-warmer Zack Kassian. And on free-agency day, GM Bill Armstrong continued to lower the limbo bar of competitivity, and slide under it.

The most familiar name Arizona acquired Wednesday was veteran forward Nick Bjugstad, followed by veteran defensemen Troy Stetcher and Patrik Nemeth. Before the 2022-23 season begins, Armstrong is likely to trade top D-man Jakob Chychrun, and before the regular season is through, blueliner Shayne Gostisbehere will be dealt as well. It’s going to be a tank job rivaled only by Chicago, and it’s going to get uglier from here. But make no mistake, this lineup already is about as ugly as it gets.

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