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Rangers’ Accelerated Rebuild, Aho’s Offer Sheet Highlight First Day of Free Agency

The Rangers sped up their rebuild by landing the biggest free agent on the market while the Canadiens sent out the first offer sheet in more than six years.

There won’t be a reunion between a coach and his monikered protégé. The continuing bromance by the beach between two former teammates is on hold. There are no more superstars in Columbus. Instead, the New York Rangers ended several pipedreams by landing Artemi Panarin with a seven-year, $81.5 million contract—the most lucrative deal of the day. 

Jeff Gorton & Co. dropped a stick of offensive dynamite into the Rangers’ rebuild: Panarin coming off a career year, adding 28 goals to a career high 59 assists and 87 points, gives New York its most transformative winger since Jaromir Jagr. With a dynamic blend of superb vision, soft hands, and pinpoint shooting, Panarin drives, generates and crafts offense, giving a potential boost to the Rangers middling power play and bottom-10 scoring productions. 

Add that to a team that had already stockpiled Jacob Trouba, Kappo Kakko, Adam Fox and a bounty of talented Russians, and the result is a team, oozing with potential, that can provide MSG with some semblance of excitement.

Elsewhere, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky’s new destinations (the Predators and Panthers, respectively) were the worst-kept secrets of the offseason. Old hands in Joe Pavelski and Jason Spezza gained new homes. And, for some reason, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin engaged the Hurricanes in a pillow fight by tendering a soft offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. Here’s what you need to know from the free agent frenzy:

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Florida Lands Its Goalie

The Panthers made good on its commitment to spend money by making Bobrovsky the second-highest paid goaltender with a 10-year, $70 million contract, falling $500,000 shy of Carey Price’s AAV. Bobrovsky stonewalled the Lightning and played his way toward this contract by nearly stealing the postseason. At the same time, Florida fills its greatest need with a world-class goaltender: The Panthers had the league’s second-best power play, ranked ninth in goals per game, but surrendered the fourth-most goals per game. Both sides come out winners with the Panthers in a win-now mindset, even if Bobrovsky’s $10 million cap hit sours in a few years.

Nashville Finds Its Solution On Offense

GM David Poile shipped P.K. Subban to the Devils with an eye toward improving the Predators’ forward group. For good reason: Nashville’s offense was abysmal last year, shooting blanks on extra-strength opportunities in the postseason after having one of the worst power plays since the 2004–05 lockout. Following a career-high 31 goals, Duchene brings one of the league’s best shots to Nashville and should alleviate the Predators goal-scoring woes. He’ll be one half of the team’s top-flight center tandem with Ryan Johansen. Plus, Duchene, who named his dog after Brad Paisley, loves country and owns a home in Nashville. It’s a perfect fit.

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Someone (Finally) Tenders an Offer Sheet

The frontloaded, hefty signing bonuses might be enough to make Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon sweat for a second, but there’s no bite behind Montreal’s offer sheet. At five years, $42.25 million, they came in just short of the second-highest offer sheet compensation tier, proving to be to afraid to surrender draft capital, and gave the Hurricanes a gift of a contract instead. Carolina GM Don Wadell made light of it, joking "I'm actually surprised it wasn't more." The Hurricanes will match. It’s only a matter of how long Wadell wants the Canadiens to sit in torment.

Joe Pavelski Leaves the Bay Area

For the first time in his 13-year career, Pavelski will not be playing for San Jose. Erik Karlsson’s eight-year, $92 million extension and a new contract for Timo Meier left the Sharks with not enough money to retain its captain and priced out of the market as he went on to sign for three years and $21 million. Pavelski has scored at least 35 goals in four out of the last six seasons and he gives the Stars immediate depth behind its top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov. Filling out the team’s top six, Corey Perry also joined Dallas with a one-year deal.

The Wild Do … Something

Mats Zuccarello, a free agent for the first time in his career at almost 32 years old, cashed out and secured the long-term contract that the Stars were unwilling to give with a five-year, $30 million deal in Minnesota. Here’s the part that fits: The Wild finished bottom five in scoring and Zuccarello is a crafty playmaker who provides feisty forechecking. He’ll slide into the team’s top six without a problem. But, the part that doesn’t is the Wild are locked into Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s contracts through 2025 and gave an aging player a lengthy deal. GM Paul Fenton is doing something in Minnesota. Nobody is quite sure what that “something” is.

Vancouver Fills in Defense

GM Jim Benning expressed his interest in bolstering Vancouver’s blue line, but he didn’t give himself a ton of options to achieve that in earnest. Instead, he overpaid the 6’8”, 226-pound Tyler Myers to a five-year, $30 million deal. Myers makes the Canucks defense taller, but not necessarily better. He contributed average offense and flawed defense in his four-and-a-half seasons with the Jets. Myers signing gives Vancouver a right-handed defenseman and rounds out an average d-corps.

Anders Lee Cashes Out

The Islanders avoided embarrassment and saved itself from losing its captain to free agency for a second consecutive year by signing Anders Lee to a seven-year, $49 million contract. That was never a lock—the Islanders deviated from bringing back Lee and Robin Lehner as it became intertwined with Panarin and Bobrobsky rumors. That ship sailed across the East River and into Manhattan. GM Lou Lamoriello paid a premium to retain Lee and save face. After notching his first 40 goal season next to John Tavares, Lee’s production dropped in 2018–19. Still, he’s a big-bodied threat on the power play and is the team’s second-best weapon behind Mathew Barzal.

An Ultimatum on Long Island

Though Lamoriello kept Lee, he did lose Lehner to the Blackhawks with a one-year, $5 million deal, solidifying Chicago’s depth behind Corey Crawford. Lehner told reporters that the Islanders had presented him with a two-year deal to mull over and when he made up his mind, they had already moved on. Lamoriello instead signed veteran goalie Semyon Varlamov to a four-year contract. 

Maple Leafs Get Creative, Find Cap Space

Kyle Dubas came up big with a trade that gives him a bit of breathing room while trying to re-sign Mitch Marner. Toronto sent center Nazem Kadri, defenseman Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round pick to Colorado for defenseman Tyson Barrie, RFA center Alex Kerfoot and a 2020 sixth-round pick. The Avalanche is retaining half of Barrie’s salary, costing just $2.75 million against Toronto’s cap. According to CapFriendly, the Leafs now have more than $11 million in cap space, but they still three RFAs to their name, including Marner. There’s still a bit of magic left to make here, but this certainly makes it a bit easier for Toronto to execute.

Everything Else

The Sharks wrapped up RFA Timo Meier with a four-year, $24 million contract following his first 30-goal campaign. New Jersey continues to pile on the talent by signing Wayne Simmonds to a one-year, $5 million contract. Gustav Nyquist joined the Blue Jackets and the Avalanche added more forward depth by signing Joonas Donskoi. Petr Mrazek resigned while the Hurricanes while the Lightning poached Curtis McElhinney, and Jason Spezza came home to the Maple Leafs.