30 teams, 30 grades through two days of free agency
Stastny (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
30 teams, 30 grades through two days of free agency
Two days of free agency is in the books and though there are some decent UFAs left, most of the movement here on out will be through trades. So where does your team stack up through the early stages of free agency?
Two days of free agency is in the books and though there are some decent UFAs left (Radim Vrbata, Dustin Penner), most of the movement here on out will be through trades. So where does your team stack up through the early stages of free agency? We grade all 30 NHL squads, based on July 1 and 2 activity only.
Anaheim: The Ducks got veteran netminder Jason LaBarbera on a one-year deal, which is a minor signing. He’ll either backup Frederik Andersson, or play in the AHL if John Gibson hangs around. Their “big” splash was giving Clayton Stoner a four-year deal. Stoner is a 29-year-old, big blueliner who plays a physical game, but who wasn’t trusted with a lot of minutes in Minnesota. This season, his ice time average was lower than Keith Ballard’s. The Ducks don’t lack blueliners and have a couple physical options as well, so it was surprising to see them hand out so much for a depth player. However, the Ducks have three older defensemen up for contract after next season and lost Stephane Robidas July 1, so Stoner provides them with some security in that regard. GRADE: C.
Arizona: The Coyotes’ biggest moves came just before free agency, buying out Mike Ribeiro and replacing him with Sam Gagner in a cheap trade. But that doesn’t count here. What counts here is Joe Vitale filling a center spot on the third or fourth line, which is an upgrade over Jeff Halpern. The 5-foot-11 Vitale was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh and didn’t cost the Coyotes much at all. They also got Devan Dubnyk as a cheap backup, which is a pee-yew move. On one hand, he’s a buy-low candidate that doesn’t come with much risk, but on the other, Dubnyk went from NHL starter to AHL hanger-on in one season. Here’s betting that if Mike Smith gets injured again, it’ll be Mark Visentin stepping on to play and not Dubnyk. GRADE: C-
Boston: The Bruins didn’t sign anyone, but they lost a backup goalie and a guy who scored 30 goals for them. So while you can’t say the Bruins won anything in early free agency, they can move Reilly Smith up in the lineup and feel pretty good about it. This team doesn’t have many holes, which is good, since it doesn’t have much cap space either. Don’t want to fail a team that doesn’t need to spend, but not having cap space to keep a prolific scorer around would hurt any team. GRADE: C-
Buffalo: The Sabres needed to spend big money just to get to the cap floor, but they didn’t just throw it around willy-nilly: GM Tim Murray added players who will be useful to his rebuild. Matt Moulson, a team guy, will be the veteran goal scorer; Josh Gorges will be a calming leader on the blueline; Brian Gionta will be a dressing room leader to all the early-20s players breaking into the NHL; and Andrej Meszaros will fill a hole so the team doesn’t have to rush anyone in. the Sabres might get slightly better because of all this, but these moves weren’t made to get infinitely better – they were made to guard against developing a losing culture that becomes acceptable to the newbies. GRADE: A
Calgary: The Flames shored up their goaltending position by bringing in Jonas Hiller. Right now, he’s the likely No. 1, but the team also likes Karri Ramo, who played pretty well for them last season. At the very least, the two will become a platoon that brings a little stability to the Flames’ net. Because as difficult as the rebuild process is, it’s made much harder and longer if you don’t have a reliable goalie. The Flames also acquired Mason Raymond for OK value at $3.15 million for three years. He was underpaid by the Leafs and should be a good 20-goal man for the Flames. Both of those signings fit and make sense for the Flames. But Deryk Engelland? Brian Burke’s fingerprints are all over this truculent signing, but a $2.9 million cap hit for this guy is outrageous. That contract brings Calgary’s grade down by a full letter grade. GRADE: B-
Carolina: Well, they didn’t overpay anyone. The Hurricanes didn’t do anything on July 1, other than watch Manny Malhotra leave for Montreal, but that’s fine. This team’s problems won’t be solved by a free agent or two. The Staals and Cam Ward have been trade rumor fixtures recently and you get the sense that this team needs to make a splash via trade to get out of its current rut. So while they didn’t punish themselves by taking on an unruly cap hit on July 1, they also didn’t do anything to improve a roster that missed the playoffs by 10 points. GRADE: C-
Chicago: Brad Richards for one year and $2 million? Sure Richards is on the downhill side of his career, but this is a steal for the third, or even fourth, line. We’ll happily give the Hawks a solid grade for adding an experienced and effective player to their Stanley Cup contending lineup. But with the Ricjards signing, the Hawks went $2.2 million over the cap, which is fine for right now. But how to they get back down? Patrick Sharp has been menionted in rumors, but here’s betting GM Stan Bowman didn’t sign Richards just to trade out Sharp. GRADE: A-
Colorado: Really, getting Jarome Iginla at a $5.3 million cap hit isn’t bad at all – it’s the lowest cap hit of his career. But it was a bit puzzling that was the player they targeted after losing Paul Stastny earlier in the day. Nathan MacKinnon is great and will be greater in coming years, but how is this team supposed to improve with Stastny leaving such a big hole down the middle? Remember, the possession stats are against Colorado and it’s hard to imagine Semyon Varlamov putting up the same totals next season as he did in 2013-14. Not as long as their defense – which allowed the sixth-most shots against – stays the same. GRADE: C.
Columbus: No signings, no trades, no big deal. The Blue Jackets’ biggest concern this off-season is how they handled Ryan Johansen. He wants a long-term deal, they want a bridge contract like what P.K. Subban did with Montreal. Other than that, this team is in a pretty good zone where they can play with patience. Next summer, Sergei Bobrovsky will be an RFA, while Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno can become UFAs, so this team can’t be spending like crazy on Kuly 1. Especially since they’re already paying Nathan Horton and Scott Hartnell a combined $10-plus million against the cap. Those are there big spends right now. Status quo sometimes counts for something. GRADE: B+
Dallas: I thought Dallas signed the best value contract of July 1, getting Ales Hemsky under contract for a short three-year term and very acceptable $4 million cap hit (which is $1 million lower than his previous contract). We can grade the Stars for that signing, and also the Jason Spezza trade, which was made official just before noon on Tuesday. The two playmakers shore up what will be a good-looking top two lines from an emerging Stars team. GM Jim Nill has been hitting homeruns since arriving in Dallas and did a great job pushing his team further along, without losing anything much. GRADE: A+
Detroit: The Golden Age of Detroit hockey is over. The Wings had a few targets in mind heading into July 1 and struck out on all but one of them. So you get the feeling the one signing they did make was their third, fourth, or even fifth choice. Getting Kyle Quincey for a $4.25 million cap hit and two years is quite a lot for a depth defenseman, but the Wings were desperate to add something to the blueline and couldn’t convince Matt Niskanen or Christian Ehrhoff to come aboard. If the Wings were still in the West, they likely would have missed the playoffs last season – but because they are having a hard time filling their needs, it’s going to get tougher to hang on even in the East. GRADE: D
Edmonton: Benoit Pouliot at $4 million seems a bit much. Sure he has good possession numbers and brings a “winning experience” to the dressing room, but my god, five years at that price for a guy who’s never scored 20 goals? Defense was this team’s biggest concern and after they paid an exorbitant amount for Nikita Nikitin earlier, they paid Mark Fayne $3.625 million for four years. He’s useful, if unassuming, so the Fayne deal isn’t bad – but was the Oilers plan to head into next season with Fayne and Nikitin pulling in the most money along the blueline? Yeesh. GRADE: C-
Florida: The Panthers needed to spend – and spend a lot – to get to the cap floor, so we’re not going to knock them for overpaying Dave Bolland at $5.5 million per year. Is it high? Yes. But will the Panthers be bumping against the cap anytime soon? No. Bolland fills a role as the third line center with the Panthers, which is where he should slot into an NHL depth chart. Jussi Jokinen gives them some decent scoring on the wing. Willie Mitchell is a head-scratcher, since he’s a slow stay-at-home defender, the kind that doesn’t fit into the NHL very well anymore. Shawn Thornton was cheap and inconsequential. The last time the Panthers spent like this on July 1 was in 2011 and they made the playoffs the following spring. May be a bit of a stretch to expect the same from this group, but at least they spent the money on areas they needed help in. For a team under the floor, it doesn’t matter if they overpaid anyone. GRADE: B-
Los Angeles: The Kings’ decisions were made before July 1. We knew Willie Mitchell was leaving after Matt Greene re-signed and Marian Gaborik was retained. So, the Kings didn’t need to do anything. So they didn’t. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And definitely don’t take on any unnecessary cap space. GRADE: A
Minnesota: For the past two, or even three, years Thomas Vanek was rumored to be headed to Minnesota when he came up to free agency. And though that feeling waned as he struggled in the playoffs, the Wild ended up getting him in the end. And the commitment wasn’t bad at all. Usually for a big-name, big scoring free agent, a team would have to pay a crazy amount of money over a full seven-year term allowed under the current CBA. But the Wild signed Vanek up for $6.5 million, making him the third-highest paid forward on the team, and only three years. Good fit for player and team. They lost Matt Moulson and Clayton Stoner, but both of them signed for much more than the Wild should have had to spend and as Minnesota’s younger players get better, they won’t miss those two anyway. GRADE: B+
Montreal: The Habs lost Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges on July 1, but kept Mike Weaver at a good price. Tom Gilbert will fill a hole left by Gorges, though not necessarily by playing the same role. Manny Malhotra is a good, effective and cheap checker. And then there’s mystery man Jiri Sekac. It feels like there’s a “mystery door” aspect to their free agency grade. GRADE: C
Nashville: This is confusing. The Predators could have picked Mikhail Grabovski up off waivers last year, but decided to pass. So what did they do on Day 2 of free agency? Why, they signed Olli “still in the NHL no jokin’ ” Jokinen for $2.5 million on a one-year deal. They whiffed on trying to acquire Jason Spezza via trade so didn’t get the upgrade they were after – not yet at least. Nashville sounds like such a nice place to live and play hockey – if more players saw it that way, David Poile could construct something to see. GRADE: D
New Jersey: The Devils paid $5 million for five years to 32-year-old Mike Cammalleri, which in most cases I would scoff at. But Lou Lamoriello just makes things work with veteran acquisitions. To balance Cammalleri’s expensive pickup, the Devils bought low on Martin Havlat, who was very much overpaid in San Jose, but was well worth the $1.5 million investment from the Devils. Health is Havlat’s biggest hurdle, but if he can score 20, that’s A1 for New Jersey. The Devils did lose Mark Fayne, but will probably fill that spot by promoting a player from within. GRADE: C+
New York Islanders: The big splash for Garth Snow came on Day 2, when he signed Mikhail Grabovski for $5 million and Nik Kulemin for $4.1 million. Like the Panthers, these may have been slight overpayments, but it’s not like the Isles are going to bump up to the cap – they just need players. And both of these guys are decent possession players; Grabovski especially was something of a diamond in the rough on the market. What this means is either a move to the wing for Ryan Strome, or some kind of trade is in the works. Goaltending is sewn up, the forward lines look to be mostly in order – now to work on that wretched defense. Anything to stay out of the lottery and risk surrendering a very high draft pick to Buffalo next summer. GRADE: B-
New York Rangers: So the Rangers lost Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Anton Stralman off the championship team, but managed to keep Dominic Moore and replace Stralman with Dan Boyle, who reportedly took less to join up with Martin St-Louis. But think about this for a second. Boyle took less and the Rangers still will pay him the same amount as the Lightning will pay Stralman. Huh? Why pay a soon-to-be 38-year-old that much and not the guy who just played a key role in your Cup final run? So Sather. So Rangers. GRADE: C-
Ottawa: The Senators lost the moment they made the inevitable Jason Spezza trade. Ottawa was never going to win that deal and is going to have a hell of a time trying to make up that ground again. While losing Spezza calls into question Bobby Ryan’s future with the team (he becomes a UFA next summer), at least the Sens kept Milan Michalek, who signed a pay cut after a miserable season for him. But they didn’t, and perhaps didn't need to, do anything else. No matter what management says, this is still a work in progress – the Sens caught lightning in a bottle during 2013’s 48-game season. GRADE: D+
Philadelphia: It was a quiet July 1 for Philadelphia, who just played it safe in signing backup Ray Emery for one more season. You get the sense Vincent Lecavalier will be on the move and, really, anyone in Philadelphia could be traded at anytime. The Scott Hartnell trade was a loss (though it doesn’t factor into this grade), and July 1 and 2 were quiet. It can’t stay this way. This is Flip-Flip-Flip-adelphia. GRADE: C
Pittsburgh: The most important thing for the Penguins this summer is to improve the defense. With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik now being vastly overpaid in Washington, the Penguins waddled under the radar by signing Christian Ehrhoff to a low-risk, one-year deal. He was logging lots of minutes in Buffalo, doesn’t hurt the cap structure and provides a good puck-moving presence. So that’s a good start – but more still needs to be done there. Also, the backup goalie position is more important in Pittsburgh than most places and they did a good job there, too, by signing Thomas Greiss, who posted a .920 save percentage with Phoenix. On July 2, the Penguins got Steve Downie for a cheap $1 million to fill the hole left by Matt Cooke, I guess. The James Neal trade performed on June 27 doesn’t factor in to this grade. GRADE: B-
San Jose: Signed John Scott. Re-signed Mike Brown. This amongst Joe Thornton trade rumors and management’s apparent appetite to change up. GRADE: F.
St. Louis: The Blues got the top-line center they needed by grabbing Paul Statsny for $7 million. If you think that’s an overpayment, it’s cancelled out by the fact the Blues didn’t need to commit the full seven years allowable to the biggest UFA center available. In St. Louis, it’s all about going for it now and keeping up with Chicago and Los Angeles. They needed that center and they got him. That’s a huge win, no matter how you look at it. GRADE: A+
Tampa Bay: Before July 1, the Lightning added Jason Garrison to their defense and then bolstered in further by signing Anton Stralman on the first day of free agency. They also acquired hulking center Brian Boyle, another Ranger, to take care of some depth up front. The Lightning are going full-out in their bid to take down a weak Eastern Conference. I’m loving this. GRADE: A
Toronto: The Leafs refused the urge to overpay in money and term for Dave Bolland and instead re-acquired Matt Frattin and signed Stephane Robidas for defensive leadership. Robidas is getting older and coming off a broken leg suffered in the playoffs, but he’s still got some good years left in the tank. But not very much was done to improve this team. They didn’t overpay, which is good, but it feels like they’re getting backed into a corner and not reacting fast enough to get off the ropes. GRADE: C
Vancouver: Really liked the Ryan Miller signing. It was the most logical destination for a guy who said he wanted to move West and even in a retool, you need a good starting goalie to keep you on track. These Canucks deserve at least one year outside of the John Tortorella system before the entire roster is damned and Miller gives them the veteran, reliable goalie they used to have. This team isn’t as bad as they were in 2013-14. But they’re also no Cup finalists anymore. GRADE: B
Washington: The Capitals needed to improve a few areas this summer, especially the blueline. But why oh why did they decide to cherry pick off the Penguins’ horrendous blueline – and vastly overpay Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen? Sure, the defense is better just by having these two NHLers in the lineup, but they’re getting paid more than $11 million against the cap combined. That’s close to what Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith get. And these two aren’t coming off the books anytime soon. Bad term and worse money on a day when teams generally didn’t overpay in years. GRADE: D-
Winnipeg: I like Mathieu Perrault as a player and the Jets did need to pick up another center, so they did well there. But this is still a team that hasn’t really come close to a playoff spot and hasn’t really shown tons of improvement. There’s a big problem hanging around in net and constant trade rumors around a few of their players. The Jets need to make a splash. July 1 was OK, but Winnipeg needs a little hot sauce these days. GRADE: C+