Seven big winners as sanity prevails on Day 1 of NHL free agency

0:40 | NHL
Toronto Maple Leafs trade winger Phil Kessel to Penguins
Thursday July 2nd, 2015

Here's something we never expected from the NHL’s general managers on the opening day of free agency: clear-headed rationality.

Sure, some deals made at the onset of the annual talent grab came off better than others, but there wasn’t a single one that stuck out as being even mildly crippling, let alone disastrous. For whatever reason, sanity prevailed.

There were no obvious losers since teams like the Stars, the Canucks and the Hurricanes still have time to address some glaring needs. But there were some clear winners. Here’s a look at the clubs that did the most to improve themselves on Wednesday.

Live blog: NHL free agent frenzy 2015 signings, rumors and more

Penguins: They landed the day’s biggest fish in a blockbuster swap that’s set to shake up the power structure in the Eastern Conference. Is there risk involved with taking on enigmatic sniper Phil Kessel and all the baggage that comes with him? Sure. But it would have been a bigger risk for Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford to do nothing and waste another prime year in the careers of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Kessel is a game-breaking finisher who will help turn around an offense that was in a deep funk much of last season. And he came so cheaply, costing the team neither Derrick Pouliot nor Olli Maatta. Just an amazing deal for the Pens, who may have found another top-six winger in KHL free agent Sergei Plotnikov. The 25-year-old had 36 points in 56 games last season and plays a style that makes him a natural fit for the puck-hungry Malkin.

Red Wings: The Wings entered free agency with a crowded roster and a stated need to retain cap flexibility for next summer and still managed to come away with Mike Green and Brad Richards. Neither player is a star at this point of his career although Green (three years, $18 million) is being paid like one. Too much? For a guy destined to play on the second or third pair, probably. But the right-shooting defenseman is an offensive wizard who can help Detroit maintain a superior power play and there’s always a chance he enjoys a late-career renaissance like so many veteran blueliners who have come to Detroit before him. Richards (one year, $3 million) will provide quiet leadership and a veteran presence on a team that’s skewing young next season. If he chips in 35-40 points and bridges the gap while Pavel Datsyuk recovers from offseason surgery, this is a clear win.

Oilers: New GM Peter Chiarelli hasn’t solved all the problems that led to a 29th place finish for the Oilers last season, but he’s getting to them as fast as he can. Edmonton moved two steps closer to respectability yesterday with the signings of Andrej Sekera and Mark Letestu. Sekera required a bit of an overpayment (six years, $33 million) but that’s hardly outrageous for a proven top-four puck mover. He’ll play 20-plus minutes per night, most of which will be spent outside Edmonton’s zone. That will help. Letestu (three years, $5.4 million) is an underrated add, a true pro who can replace Boyd Gordon in the bottom six. He’ll win his share of draws and set an example for the kids.

Flames: GM Brad Treliving complemented his brilliant acquisition of Dougie Hamilton at the draft by signing Michael Frolik (five years, $21.5 million) on Wednesday. There’s nothing splashy about the versatile forward, but as Treliving says, “he plays in the guts of the game. He’s going to do a lot of the heavy lifting in some of the areas that aren’t so sexy that help you win games.” He also re-signed goalie Karri Ramo (one year, $3.8 million). That’s a bit hefty on the surface, but Treliving made it clear that the Flames will be a two-goalie team this year. If Ramo plays 30-plus games, that’s a reasonable hit.

NHL's 2015 NHL free agent tracker

Maple Leafs: No, they didn’t come close to getting full (or even decent) value out of the Kessel deal but given his contract and the fact that there was only one serious bidder, they might have been lucky to land as much talent as they did. More to the point, though, they managed to excise a player who was widely seen as an impediment to moving forward and that’s a huge win. So was the stockpiling of a truckload of viable NHL players at bargain prices, such as Mark Arcobello, Daniel Winnik, Matt Hunwick and P-A Parenteau. Not only will they help smooth the process as the Leafs transition to youth, but all are on short-term deals that make them attractive trade targets that could be flipped for draft picks at the deadline.

Interesting also to see the team’s Twitter feed cranking out #fancystats for each of these players Wednesday afternoon. Analytics clearly played a role in their acquisition. Fair to say the numbers nerds are on the clock this season.

Coyotes: Bringing back center Antoine Vermette (two years, $7.5 million) two months after swapping him to Chicago for a first-round pick (Nick Merkley) and Klas Dahlback is the epitome of asset management. His return not only means a popular and productive pivot is back in the lineup but negates the need to rush their top 2015 pick Dylan Strome. Zbynek Michalek (two years, $6.4 million) is another former 'Yote who found his way home. He’ll solidify the top-four. Brad Richardson and Steve Downie add veteran presence and grit to the bottom-six. Anders Lindback could be a nice quiet pickup. He finished the season strong in Buffalo. If he continues down that path, he could be an interesting trade chip at the deadline.

Bruins: One good day won’t mask the stink of the Hamilton trade fail, but this really was a pretty solid effort for embattled Bruins GM Don Sweeney. Sure, there’s a very real chance that Matt Beleskey (five years, $19 million) will prove to be the second coming of Martin Lapointe, but an AAV of under $4 million for a potential 20-goal man is a reasonable gamble. He also acquired local boy Jimmy Hayes in a trade with Florida for frustrating forward Reilly Smith and managed to dump the dead-weight contract of Marc Savard (career-ending concussion) in the process. That’s impressive. So’s the fact that the two wingers combined will earn less than Milan Lucic would have under a new deal. Still not sold on a return to the Big, Bad Bruins philosophy, but at least Sweeney’s direction is apparent after Wednesday. That’s something.

Hot links

• Your morning must-read: NHL enforce Rich Clune opens up about his battles with drugs and alcohol. This one will leave a mark.

• Finally, the Buffalo Sabres have something to celebrate on July 1.

• Bruce Arthur says the Leafs had to dig out the rotted core of the team and made the best deal they could in shipping Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.

• Don't know how it took me so long to discover the Hockey Time Machine tumblr page but there's all kinds of awesome here. Well worth a bookmark.

• Frank Seravelli takes a in-depth look at how taxes eat away at an NHL contract.


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