NHL Free Agency 2021 – Winners and Losers

Marc-Andre Fleury has swapped Vegas for Chicago Blackhawks (PHOTO: The Athletic)

by Georgia McCann

We are now almost a week removed from the start of free agency and things are are now starting to wind down, so lets take a look at how some of the teams did this year.

Note – not all teams have made much in the way of signings, due to the squad they have or have concentrated on maintaining cap space for their restricted free agents. These teams will not be mentioned.

WINNERS

Seattle Kraken – Seattle didn’t exactly make a splash in the expansion draft but their early free agency window bore two solid defencemen in Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson, plus impressive goalie Chris Dreidger. Rumours swirled that the Kraken had eyes on Jaden Schwartz of the St Louis Blues and these were proved correct, with the winger putting pen to paper on a five year, $27 million deal. Dreidger’s Florida teammate, Alexander Wennberg, joined him in the Emerald City, but the biggest surprise was yet to come. Philipp Grubauer was announced as their new goaltender and although there were initial contract issues between Seattle and the NHL, the pairing of Dreidger and Grubauer could be one of the top in the league.

Chicago Blackhawks – Well it’s been a very interesting time in the Windy City. After acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury, concerns were raised that he may not even pull on the famous red jersey. Fleury has now decided to play for his new team and it now seems the Blackhawks have just landed themselves a very interesting tandem in goal. After getting shipping off Duncan Keith for defenceman Caleb Jones, the Hawks promptly traded for his big brother Seth and signed him to a monster 8 year, $76 million contract. Chicago also brought in underrated defenceman Jake McCabe on a four year deal and awarded Jujhar Khaira a two year, $1.95 million contract after Edmonton did not give him a qualifying offer. One head scratcher was Pius Suter. Despite a promising rookie season, the forward did not receive his own qualifying offer and has since moved on to Detroit.

Los Angeles Kings – On the first day, LA nabbed Phillip Danault and I personally think this is a great signing. Captain Anze Kopitar is one of the finest defensive forwards in the NHL, having the won the Selke Trophy on multiple occasions. He is now joined by Danault, another top tier defensive forward and the pair can now share the responsibilities, potentially allowing Kopitar to increase his offense production. The younger, less experienced centres the Kings have like Quinton Byfield and Gabe Vilardi to get minutes in the bottom six, against less difficult opposition. Along with Danualt, the Kings signed former Vancouver Cancuks defenceman Alexander Edler on a low risk one year deal. Both provide strong leadership to a team full of elite young prospects, which is key for a rebuild. Could the Kings be sleepers for a Pacific playoff spot?

Boston Bruins – Just before free agency opened, Boston gave Taylor Hall his sought after long term team, signing him to a relatively team-friendly four year, £24 million deal. Unfortunately, Hall’s linemate David Krejci left the NHL to return to Czechia, but the Bruins have managed to bring in Eric Haula who will provide solid centre depth. An excellent acquisition was Nick Foligno, who will oozes leadership and gives middle six scoring. One interesting storyline was the signing of goalie Linus Ullmark on a four year, $20 million deal. With Ullmark a capable starter and Jeremy Swayman ready to make the next step after an excellent NHL debut seson, could this mean Tuuka Rask, who remains unsigned, may be contemplating retirement?

Toronto Maple Leafs – Once again, Kyle Dubas has been a busy bee. After letting Frederik Anderson switch Toronto for Raleigh, Petr Mrazek did the opposite and will look to back-up Jack Campbell in net. Ondrej Kase had a frustrating time in Boston, but now has the opportunity for a fresh start on Ontario on a one year deal. Dubas also stacked up on short term depth, bringing in Kase’s fellow former Boston winger Nick Ritchie, centre David Kampf and underrated winger Michael Bunting. Expect all to have an impact.

Dougie Hamilton has joined New Jersey Devils (PHOTO: Carolina Hurricanes)

TWEENERS

Tampa Bay Lightning – Tampa were always going to struggle with players saying their goodbyes, after notoriously winning the Stanley Cup whilst £18 million over the cap and the expansion draft. They lost Yanni Gourde to Seattle, traded Tyler Johnson and Barclay Goodrow and saw Blake Coleman, David Savard and Luke Schenn all leave as UFAs. Undeterred, Tampa were still able to reinforce depth relatively cheaply. Defenceman Zach Bogosian has returned from Toronto for three years. Forward Corey Perry has decided if you can’t beat them, join them for two years and $2 million – fellow winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has signed the same deal. Depth goaltending has been reinforced by Brian Elliot and Maxime Legace. Perhaps the squad is no longer what it once was, but a three-peat surely can’t be ruled out.

New Jersey Devils – On the first day of free agency, the Devils snagged the big ticket player in defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who provides stability to a leaky defence and leadership to a young squad. Hamilton isn’t the answer to all of the Devils problems, but he will contribute to potential playoff push, especially with the recent addition of Ryan Graves from Colorado. The Devils also signed back-up for Mackenzie Blackwood, by bringing in veteran Jonathan Bernier and have just recently taken in one of the top remaining players in Tomas Tatar.

Montreal Canadiens – What the Kings gained, Montreal lost. Danault, a native to Quebec, leaves a hole at centre and within the leadership group, which general Marc Bergevin will struggle to replace. However, the Canadiens have addressed a similar Shea Weber shaped hole by signing another Quebec native in Stanley Cup winner, David Savard, who should fit very well on the blueline. Additionally, Montreal signed Mike Hoffman to a three year deal. Hoffman is coming off the back of a down year in St Louis, but was a solid 35+ goal sniper at right wing for Florida and Ottawa, so the potential reward outweighs the risk.

Dallas Stars – The Stars used free agency to strength their already deep squad and I love the pieces they signed. Defenceman Ryan Suter, will bring experience and leadership to a squad full of young players. As a Stanley Cup winner goaltender, Braden Holtby will be a good mentor for the young Jake Oettinger and is on a low risk one year, $2 million deal. Alex Petrovic, Michael Raffl and Andreas Borgman were all brought in for a year and signed for £1.1 million or league minimum. Not bad business at all.

Carolina Hurricanes – After letting Calder finalist Alex Nedeljkovic in a very confusing trade for Jonathan Bernier’s rights (who went on to sign in New Jersey), the Canes moved onwards and upwards, signing Frederik Anderson and Antti Raanta. The pair will be able to provide sound goaltending and are on low risk-high reward two year contracts. Centre and bottom pairing defence depth was brought in with the signings of Derek Stepan, Ian Cole and Brendan Smith, with again, low risk deals signed. Nifty bits of business all round. The reason Carolina aren’t ranked as Winners? Tony DeAngelo. He is of course a talented defenseman and claims to to have changed his ways. But if Carolina sees a repeat of what happened in New York (a serious altercation with possibly more than one teammate), Arizona (assault of an official) and in junior hockey (racial slurs directed at a teammate and abuse of an official), this could be devastating for the team. Well I guess they have him signed for only a year. 

Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has had better days (PHOTO: Colorado Avalanche)

LOSERS

Colorado Avalanche – After signing captain Gabriel Landeskog and young defenceman Cale Makar, general manager Joe Sakic had just one piece of business left: sign Philipp Grubauer. Instead, in what must be a huge blow to the Avalanche, the Vezina-finalist headed to the Seattle Kraken. Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper has since been brought in, but a trade was required and it is hard to see Kuemper meeting the high standard Grubauer set last season. 

Pittsburgh Penguins – Well free agency must have been disappointing for Pens fans. After losing Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann in the expansion draft, signings were required and many felt goaltending needed to be addressed. Forward Brock McGinn was brought in and he is a solid, cheaper choice to replace Tanev. New GM Ron Hextall made a number of depth and AHL signings afterwards, but the only one of real note was Danton Heinen, most recently of the Anaheim Ducks. Hextall is known for his conservative approach and the general message is the Penguins intend to promote prospects from within. However, you can’t help wonder who will be able to immediately fill McCann’s skates and the lingering concerns over the goaltending will not go away.

Vegas Golden Knights – The trade of Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago was understandable, especially as the Golden Knights were heavily linked to Jack Eichel and needed the cap space. What nobody expected was Vegas’ mishandling of the trade and the recruitment that followed. Vegas’ most notably brought in Laurent Broissoit for back up in goal, forward Sven Baertschi and traded for Evgenii Dadonov. Not exactly the elite number one centre they crave.

Edmonton Oilers – Oh Edmonton. After being swept in the playoffs last season, the Oilers then lost defencemen Adam Larsson (signed with the Seattle Kraken) and Oskar Klefbom (out for the season with a ongoing shoulder injury, so needed to get some reinforcements on the blueline. Bizarrely, they traded away young talents Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, acquiring Duncan Keith and his lead weight of a contract. Cody Ceci, who had a vastly improved year with Pittsburgh, was signed for four years ($3.25 AAV) but that deal is not exactly favourable considering Ceci’s recent tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tyson Barrie returned for three years and is a useful asset and provides decent depth, but $4.5 million per year is a slight overpay. Speaking of overpays, depth forward Zach Hyman signed for seven years, at  $5.5 million a year. Of course, Hyman was a solid top six forward in Toronto and his production could definitely increase with service from the likes of Connor McDavid, but it will take a lot to justify the price paid. 

Philadelphia Flyers – With the trades for Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen, there is the argument Philly don’t belong here. But goaltending was a major issue and the Flyers only brought in Martin Jones. Not exactly the best available. Further blueline back-up was signed in the form of Keith Yandle, but Yandle was a healthy scratch on occasions last season and is 35, so questions are there over what his performances in orange and black will be like. 

St Louis Blues – Out of the door went Vince Dunn and Jaden Schwartz to Seattle. Their replacements? Brandon Saad, Tommy Cross and Calle Rosen. Saad is a good signing of course, bringing grit and leadership. But apologies to Cross and Rosen – they do not make up what the Blues lost with Dunn’s departure. It is also interesting that only Saad has been brought into the forwards group – star winger Vladimir Tarasenko is vying for a trade and although Mike Hoffman didn’t have a huge impact, that is goals lost.

New York Islanders – Nobody. Literally nobody has been signed. The Islanders were close to getting to the Stanley Cup final but fell short, so recruitment is needed. But right now, there are players needing new contracts and the team are in a tough spot.

Nashville Predators – It was tough to wave goodbye to Pekka Rinne, a loyal servant in goal, but it helps to Jusse Saros signed who has been outstanding in recent seasons. The problem? The Preds opted to sign David Rittich to back him up this year. The deal is only $1.25 million for a year, but Rittich is coming of a season to forget, split between Calgary and Toronto. That said, Rittich could prove me very wrong if he returns to his peak.

Free agency still can throw up some surprises and there are a number of notable players, such as Zdeno Chara, Casey Cizikas, Devan Dubnyk, James Neal, Kyle Palmieri and Joe Thornton still left to sign. You’ll note a number are greybeards who may be considering retirement, but Palmieri would definitely be a key contributor for the majority of teams and Dubnyk could still work on a team desperate for an experience in between the pipes. So keep an eye out for trades clearing cap space for more signings.

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