The same day Connor McDavid wore his Edmonton Oiler colors for the first time ever on the ice, his bosses were upstairs going about the process of giving him some legitimate NHL players to surround him.
It’s difficult, nay impossible, to declare the winners and losers of a free agent frenzy day before Canada Day has even included, but it’s difficult to not get excited about what’s going on in western Canada these days. The oil patch has been sucked dry of good hockey for so long that sometimes it looked as though neither the Oilers nor the Calgary Flames were ever going to get it right.
The kneejerk reaction to Antoine Vermette re-signing with the Arizona Coyotes might be, “He did WHAT?” After all, he was one of the best two unrestricted free agent centers available July 1, and the best considering Mike Ribeiro re-signed with Nashville early in the day. Contending teams, in theory, could’ve lined up out the door to employ a Stanley Cup-winning two-way center.
But, on second thought, Vermette returning to the Arizona Coyotes for two years and $7.5 million makes a lot of sense.
The Boston Bruins’ wild team turnover continued July 1, as GM Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely snagged the man plenty of insiders pegged as the top free agent forward on the market: Matt Beleskey, formerly of the Anaheim Ducks. Boston also traded wingers with the Florida Panthers, swapping Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes.
Beleskey, 27, is a rugged left winger who cut his teeth in the OHL and and has overachieved of late in the NHL. He earned every one of his 22 goals with hard work, and he’s a perfectly helpful complementary piece, but he’s not a natural scorer.
Sound familiar? Signing Beleskey carried the risk of signing the next David Clarkson. Beleskey has just one 20-goal season to his name. Clarkson had a Stanley Cup final and a 30-goal campaign when he signed his seven-year, $36.75-million contract. But the Beleskey money – five years and $19 million, meaning $3.8 million per – turned out to be fairly reasonable. It’s nowhere near Clarkson territory.
It’s safe to say things turned out probably better than both Brad Richards and the Chicago Blackhawks could have imagined last season and the Detroit Red Wings are banking on a repeat performance, both for Richards and the team.
Richards, who was thought to be on his last stop when he signed for just $2 million with the Blackhawks last summer, earned himself at least a $1 million dollar raise on his new deal, a deal that will escalate to a total of $4 million if the Red Wings advance to the Eastern Conference final in 2015-16. If that happens, that is a total the Red Wings will only be too happy to have to pay.
Not every KHL import works out – see Cervenka, Roman – but Jori Lehtera was a resounding success in his first season with the St. Louis Blues. He was a third-round pick with the team in 2008 and toiled in Europe for several seasons, primarily in the KHL, before joining the Blues for 2014-15.
Lehtera, a 27-year-old Finn, clicked immediately on a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, a dynamic young trio that arguably usurped the Alexander Steen/David Backes/T.J. Oshie unit for de facto No. 1 status.
The biggest free agent fish of 2015 has been caught. Defenseman Mike Green is a Detroit Red Wing. He has signed for three years and $18 million, good for a salary cap hit of $6 million.
Green was as coveted as any unrestricted free agent league-wide. He is nowhere near finished as an effective NHL defenseman. Gone are his halcyon days of 30-goal, 70-point seasons, but he remains a well-above-average point producer, having racked up 45 in 72 games this season with Washington. He’s still just 29 and capable of playing 20-plus minutes a night.
Green, however, remains an adventure defensively. He wound up fifth on the Capitals’ depth chart at defense last season. His puck-possession numbers improved under coach Barry Trotz but, as the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg notes, that was largely because Green was playing on the third pair and facing weaker competition. And it’s alarming that his 72 games in 2014-15 marked his highest total since 2009-10.
Jack Eichel is ready to take on the NHL.
The Buffalo Sabres announced Wednesday that they have signed Eichel to a three-year, entry-level contract, which means Eichel will head to professional hockey instead of returning to Boston University next season.
Eichel, who was selected second overall at the 2015 draft by the Sabres, comes to Buffalo after just one season in the NCAA. While he had been quiet about where he would be headed next season, with some believed he could head back to school for the 2015-16 campaign, but his signing makes it official that he’s turning pro.
Last season with the Terriers, Eichel was the highest scoring player in the NCAA with 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games, and led the club to a conference championship and was the MVP of the Hockey East tournament. In addition, he took home Hobey Baker Award honors as the top player in the NCAA last season. Eichel was also the NCAA Rookie of the Year, first-team All American, Hockey East Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-star.
With Eichel signed, the Sabres, who were goal starved last season, immediately become much better offensively. Add Eichel to the likes of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson, and the Buffalo offense looks vastly improved in a short span.
As for the contract, Eichel will get a pretty standard entry-level deal worth a reported $925,000 per season. That said, though, the contract will be heavily bonus laden and with Eichel likely to fight for the Calder Trophy next season, there’s a good chance his deal could earn Eichel much more than the base cap hit.
The first thing fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to get their heads around is that there’s a very good chance Phil Kessel will go to the Pittsburgh Penguins and score 40 goals a year. He might even score more. He could end up being wildly successful with the Penguins and might even win a Stanley Cup there. Kessel could end up being happier and more productive than he ever was in Toronto. And people will have to learn to be perfectly OK with that.
Because that’s very well what might happen here. But the Maple Leafs traded their franchise player on free agent day because they knew he was never, ever going to do those things for them. Kessel was a terrible fit from the day he first signed with the Leafs, cast in the role of the face of the franchise and the undisputed leader by a GM who obviously failed to do his homework on the player. And the problem was perpetuated when his successor signed Kessel to an eight-year deal worth $64 million prior to last season.