Free Agency: Winners and Losers on Day 1

A lot of cash and a lot of contracts were handed out on July 1, but some teams spent better than others. We rank our hits and misses as the initial wave of signings sink in.
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It was quite a first day 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 we won’t know the true results for at least half a year, the job description maintains that there must be winners and losers. So let’s take a look at some of the teams that soared and others who appeared to stumble on July 1.

Winners

Dallas: The Stars are in their window to win and chasing the organization’s second Stanley Cup means definitive action was needed right now. To that end, GM Jim Nill went out and had himself a great 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 fantastic 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 before, but never won it and he doesn’t have that many years left in his career. But in the short-term, he can bring a ton to a Dallas team that struggled to find offense behind the triumvirate of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov up front.

By the same token, bringing in Corey Perry on a low-risk deal after the veteran was bought out by the Anaheim Ducks also has upside. Perry will undoubtedly want to show he can still score in the NHL 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 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.

Florida: Goaltending had been a soft spot for the Panthers due to Roberto Luongo’s descent, but the Panthers got their man in Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The price was steep, but the Cats had the space and now they have bolstered a very big need. Elsewhere on the 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 very positive for the Panthers. Assuming the key guys stay healthy, this is a playoff team.

New York Rangers: Boy, GM Jeff Gorton does not mess around. New York landed the gem of the 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 very successful rebuild strategy, Gorton landed Kaapo Kakko in the draft and he’ll likely be joined by 2018 first-rounder Vitaly Kravtsov on the roster next season. New York also pulled defenseman Adam Fox away from Carolina in the spring via college free agency and traded for 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.

Losers

Edmonton: 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 bringing in 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 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 Jesse Puljujarvi trade? Because the Oilers don’t have any leverage there.

Minnesota: The plan is 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 years on this new five-year 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 add 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.

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.

Columbus: While it was pretty well established that the Blue Jackets were going to lose Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene for zero return this summer, now it’s official. The fact GM Jarmo Kekalainen went for it at the 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 fall-out.

The acquisition of Gustav Nyquist may replace a sliver of the offense that 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 they’ve 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, the Jackets will have to scrape and claw their way just to get back into the playoffs, much less win another round.

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