Is it a flat-cap environment or a no-cap environment?
Once again, the league’s 32 general managers have splurged on the opening day of free agency, handing out over 160 contracts worth nearly $800 million, per CapFriendly. It’s not as if this year’s free agent class was particularly good, even with a few surprise buyouts (ahem, Minnesota), but it certainly felt more chaotic than usual.
There were new wrinkles, such as the flat cap and the addition of a new team, but the same storylines emerged, too: cap dumps, a goalie carousel, a rat race for defensemen and a willingness to overpay for depth players on good teams.
There were some eyebrow-raising contracts but, thankfully, nothing of the Ville Leino variety, and for the most part teams did a good job of plugging holes. Whether or not the moves work out remains to be seen, but here’s a look at a few of the most improved teams after the first day of free agent frenzy:
Knowing that David Krejci’s future is still up in the air and that no free-agent center offered the same kind of playmaking ability, the Bruins opted for a committee approach by signing Nick Foligno, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek, all of whom can play either center or wing. None of them will replace Krejci’s scoring, but they’re all-purpose players who give them tons of flexibility and quality depth, and their presence may push younger players such as Jake DeBrusk to improve.
According to hockey-reference’s Point Shares system, the B’s trio of free agents combined for 5.6 Point Shares, more than enough to cover Krejci’s 4.7. If Krejci returns, they will be simply that much deeper, which also includes an extension for Mike Reilly and the addition of shot-blocker Derek Forbort.
Goaltending was another area of concern with Tuukka Rask expected to need roughly six months of recovery time following hip surgery, but they made a big splash signing Linus Ullmark to a four-year contract and promoting Jeremy Swayman to full-time NHL status after trading Daniel Vladar to the Flames. Ullmark may be a gamble, but he posted very good numbers (.917 Sv%, 2.63 GAA) on the lottery-bound Sabres and, according to Natural Stat Trick’s model, ranked seventh in the league with 9.13 goals saved above average, trailing Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury by a small margin.
Time will tell if the Bruins’ gamble on two young goalies will pay off, but the pedigree is certainly there; Ullmark was the Honken Trophy winner as the Swedish League’s best goalie in 2014 and a two-time AHL all-star, and Swayman was the Mike Richter Award winner as the best collegiate goalie with the Maine Black Bears in 2020.
Los Angeles Kings
Forget about Philip Danault’s contract for a second – how on Earth is anyone going to win a draw against him and Anze Kopitar? It may not be the Kings’ time yet but it is certainly coming, and it’s always better to have too many centers than too few. For too long, Kopitar has carried this team on his back, and even if Danault can’t score, he’s going to take a bunch of pressure off the rest of the team defensive-zone faceoff situations.
Danault’s strong underlying numbers fits in well with the Kings’ style of play, who were Corsi monsters when the fancy stats era was being ushered in. When they won their first Cup in 2012, they ranked second during the season in 5v5 CF% but entered the playoffs as the eighth seed against the heavily favored Canucks, who had reached the Finals the season before. When the Kings kept defying the odds, that’s when everyone started to pay attention.
There are parallels between the 2012 Kings and Danault’s Cinderella Habs, and he should slot in nicely behind Kopitar. It’ll also allow the Kings to move Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte or Gabe Vilardi to the wing for the time being, allowing them to grow into their roles rather than being tossed into the fire. Signing a no-frills veteran in Alex Edler to bolster the blue line was also a good move, and on a one-year contract it carries very little risk.
New Jersey Devils
No defenseman is better in transition than Dougie Hamilton, and his ability to whip passes up the ice will be a sight to behold. The Devils were a low-key fun team to watch last season because they played a fast game and Jack Hughes took an enormous leap in his development, setting career highs across the board and looking every bit like a future franchise center. With P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, Ty Smith and Hamilton, don’t be surprised if the Devils have one of the highest-scoring blue lines next season.
Jonathan Bernier was also an astute signing, a veteran 1B goalie who can help mentor Mackenzie Blackwood and keep the Devils competitive. It wasn’t easy playing for the Red Wings, but he managed to post a solid .914 Sv% and 2.99 GAA even though they allowed the seventh-most shots per game.
With over $20 million in cap space and just two RFA’s to sign – coincidentally Hughes’ linemates, Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich – there’s still plenty of opportunities to add more. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, the Devils are in the hunt for Brandon Saad. The Devils still have ways to go before they’re a contender, but they definitely have an outside shot of making the playoffs.
Finally, the ugly monster reared its head. While we continue to dissect the expansion draft and a couple of the Kraken’s eyebrow-raising picks, they had no problems flexing their cap space adding two-way winger Jaden Schwartz and playmaking center Alex Wennberg, and then surprising everyone by grabbing Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer. Injuries have robbed Schwartz of his effectiveness recently, but he fits the bill for the Kraken’s analytically-inclined front office: he ranks second among Blues forwards in 5v5 CF% over the past three seasons (min. 100 GP), trailing only Ryan O’Reilly, and ranks in the 75th percentile among the rest of the league’s forwards.
Wennberg had similarly good possession numbers, ranking in the 65th percentile and he should provide some playmaking ability in the middle, where the Kraken’s roster is particularly weak. But there’s some buyer beware with Wennberg; after he was bought out by the Blue Jackets, he rode an unsustainably high 20.7 S% to 17 goals in 56 games with the Panthers.
At his worst, he’s a low-event player and a notoriously low-volume shooter. Since entering the league, Wennberg ranks 170th out of 186 forwards (min. 400 GP) with just 538 shots. The Kraken certainly improved with Schwartz and Wennberg, but there wasn’t much quality top-six depth to begin with.
Grubauer was the biggest surprise of them all. It looked like the Kraken were set in net with Chris Driedger and Vitek Vanecek (who was later sent back to the Capitals), and there’s a lot of evidence to support the theory that teams shouldn’t spend too much on goalies because their performances are far too variable and the investments far too risky.
But now the Kraken have committed $9.4 million in net for at least the next three seasons when many contending teams, such as the Golden Knights ($7.325 million) and Maple Leafs ($5.45 million), are committing far less. The Kraken probably didn’t envision Grubauer leaving the Avs, but things change quickly and they simply couldn’t let the opportunity to acquire a Vezina finalist pass.