Have These NHL Teams Improved Via Free Agency?

A few teams made an effort to change the way they play. But it remains to be seen if these teams can improve their records.
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Over 200 new contracts worth nearly $1 billion combined were signed in the first three days of free agency. A new 32nd franchise skews things, but it’s a massive financial commitment for a league that has basically committed to a flat salary cap of $81.5 million for the next few seasons.

Free agency is a dangerous game. There’s no guarantee that teams that spend a lot, or even spend wisely, are guaranteed to have success. It’s a copycat, reactionary league, and so when the Lightning and the Canadiens made the Finals on the backs of quality depth on forward and defense, naturally every team thought it prudent to acquire and overpay every third-line forward with grit and every third-pairing defenseman with size. What was passé when the data-driven, skills-based era was ushered in is in vogue yet again, and that nostalgia has come at a premium.

Here’s a look at three teams who have undergone big makeovers though we won’t know until puck drop whether they’ve improved or not.

Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes have a price tag attached to everything and good luck if you ask for anything more than that. Sticking to a strict value system can often be misconstrued as penny-pinching, and the Canes didn’t think Dougie Hamilton was worth the $9 million cap hit, who’s been a long-time favorite of analytical models. He was undoubtedly the jewel of the 2021 free agent class, but the Canes didn’t want to pay top dollar just because he was the best offensive defenseman who was available.

There’s some truth to the Canes’ thinking. According to hockey-reference.com’s point shares model, while Hamilton’s 3.8 Offensive Point Shares puts him in elite company, he did not generate the highest score; Victor Hedman (4.0), Cale Makar (4.0), John Carlson (4.1), Jeff Petry (4.2), Tyson Barrie (4.3) and Jakob Chychrun (4.5) all ranked ahead of him. 

And if you ask who the Canes’ best defenseman was last season, you’d probably get as many votes for Jaccob Slavin, who is more well-rounded and plays in all situations. The Canes probably believe the loss of Hamilton’s offense can be stemmed by the addition of Tony DeAngelo, who generated 5.2 Offensive Point Shares in 68 games in the 2019-20 season, and defensively their depth has improved with Ian Cole and Ethan Bear.

The big question is in net, highlighted by the curious decision to trade Alex Nedeljkovic for what seemed like pennies on the dollar. Would you rather have Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek for $6.8 million or Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta for $6.5 million? The Canes saved some money, some term and perhaps a little less uncertainty given Nedeljkovic’s small sample size, but the Andersen-Raanta duo definitely carries their fair share of question marks, especially in terms of health. An injury to either would push Alex Lyon, who has appeared in just 22 games with a .893 Sv% and 3.21 GAA, into duty.

Edmonton Oilers
Everyone agrees Zach Hyman was a good addition. Contract considerations aside, he’s an excellent role player with a proven track record of being able to play with star players, and his ability to win puck battles will generate even more scoring chances for both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The question is if the addition of Hyman hides the deficiencies of a team that still lacks quality depth up front and has a ton of uncertainty on defense and in net.

So much of the Oilers defense depends on Darnell Nurse, who will find it difficult to replicate last season’s success that was buoyed by an anomalous 10.4 S%, and he’s not getting a lot of help. Adam Larsson, their most dependable defensive defenseman, left for the Kraken. 

Oscar Klefbom will likely be placed on LTIR. Tyson Barrie’s defensive deficiencies are well known. Kris Russell is really good at blocking shots, but that’s because the other team always has the puck when he’s on the ice, and Evan Bouchard remains unproven. And yet the Oilers have added only Duncan Keith, who can provide a good veteran presence but at 38 years old is unable to play top-pairing minutes every night, and Cody Ceci, a borderline second-pairing defenseman who struggles when asked to do anything more.

Mike Smith had a fantastic season but his performance is also very difficult to replicate, and the Oilers are still in search of some help with Alex Stalock, who has a career .909 Sv%, and Mikko Koskinen, who was a rumoured buyout target, as their only remaining options. Smith had a very good season, but the only other time he received Vezina Trophy votes was in the 2011-12 season and he quickly fell back to Earth after that; in the three subsequent seasons, Smith ranked 38th in Sv% (.910) and 44th in GAA (2.83) among 53 goalies who played at least 50 games.

New York Rangers
Everything the Rangers have done under new GM Chris Drury is a result of their disastrous finish to the season. It included five losses in their final six games, three of which were via shutouts, but none were more demoralizing than the throwdown by Tom Wilson. Never has one player seemed to change the trajectory of an opposing franchise and incited such change from a bruised ego.

Acquiring Barclay Goodrow was a clear sign the Rangers wanted to be a little tougher in the middle of the lineup, and opting for Samuel Blais from the Blues added more sandpaper. The cherry on top, however, was the trade for Ryan Reaves, a winger who literally only has one job: solve the Tom Wilson problem

The ultimate irony is that, if the goal is to win now – as was owner James Dolan’s directive when he cleaned house – remember that Reaves played in just 10 of the Golden Knight’s 20 playoffs games in their 2018 playoff run, and the Rangers already led the league with 23 major penalties and ranked third with 565 penalty minutes last season.

There’s no question the Rangers are a different team stylistically. They’ll be more physical and aggressive under new coach Gerard Gallant, but it cost them an excellent winger in Pavel Buchnevich and cap space that could’ve been better utilized. 

They’re still missing quality depth down the middle beyond Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome, which was arguably their biggest weakness last season and ranked last in FOW%, and currently have just three regular defensemen (Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and Patrik Nemeth) who aren’t signed to entry-level contracts. 

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