The first 24 hours of the NHL’s free agency period saw a lot of players settle into place after weeks of rumors swirled about the prospective future.
Many contracts, like Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky, were in place and awaiting the July 1 opening, but others came out of nowhere amidst the chaos of day one.
The biggest unrestricted free agent in this year’s class, Artemi Panarin, signed for $81.5 million over a seven-year term with the New York Rangers. It had been rumored for months that Panarin was leaving Columbus behind for an East Coast city, and he found his way to the Big Apple. Panarin was also linked to the Islanders, Panthers, and even a return to Columbus before settling down with the Rangers.
The Bread-Man left some bread on the table, as it was reported that the Islanders were willing to make Panarin the highest-AAV player in the league at $13 million per season, eclipsing Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million AAV. At the end of the day, the Rangers secured their superstar scorer who will get his chance to play under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. New York will hope that the scoring touch from Panarin as well as rookie Kaapo Kakko will be enough to lead them back into the playoffs. After all, Henrik Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger.
San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski spurned his former team as well, as the reigning President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, in order to sign a three-year contract worth $7 million annually with the Dallas Stars. Pavelski adds a second line scoring threat to the Stars, a team that was incredibly top-heavy in scoring until they added forward Mats Zuccarello at this past trade deadline. Zuccarello moved on from Dallas, but Pavelski is a proven 30-goal scorer and a leader that will demand the best from each player in the locker room and hold teammates accountable.
The Stars made a lot of good moves on day one, signing Corey Perry to a one-year deal for $1.5 million and signing Andrej Sekera to a contract of the same term and value. Perry represents a low-risk gamble that could pay off, as Perry has struggled in recent years on a declining Ducks team but was once one of the league’s premier goal-scorers. Perry also brings some grit and toughness to a highly skilled forward corps that has players like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Sekera has had injures sideline his career with the Oilers before the club ultimately bought out the rest of his contract. He could be poised to have a career resurgence with the team, but the worst case scenario is that he plays a bottom-pairing role and mentors young star defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg.
The shocking move of the day came when the Montreal Canadiens signed restricted free agent Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet of five years with an AAV just shy of $8.5 million. Whilst the Hurricanes would receive a first, second, and third-round pick for Aho if they decline to match, it makes zero sense for the Hurricanes to let the 21-year-old walk out the door. Aho is hands-down the Canes best player and embodies the culture of fun, entertaining hockey that the team became to be known for this past season. The value of the contract is also light compared to what was projected for Aho, who could have made closer to $10 million in an extension. Aho registered 83 points, including 30 goals, and led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals. Players like Aho don’t come around often, and the Hurricanes’ fan base would be up in arms if their star were to be allowed to leave.
As I mentioned earlier, some contracts had to wait until today as a formality before they could be signed. The Florida Panthers inked G Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year deal worth $70 million to be their starting net-minder. Bobrovsky is one of the top-three goaltenders in the league for sure and will be an excellent replacement for the retiring Roberto Luongo.
Signing Bobrovsky also means that they can give first-round pick Spencer Knight plenty of time to develop before thrusting him into the fire of the NHL as a starter. Florida also signed defenseman Anton Stralman to a three-year, $16.5 million contract, forward Brett Connolly to a four-year, $13 million, and forward Noel Acciari to a three-year, $5.1 million deal.
Stralman sures up the defense for the Panthers and gives Bobrovsky some help keeping the puck away from the high danger areas. He also can provide leadership and mentoring to former first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad, who has struggled a bit after a stellar rookie campaign. Brett Connolly, for the contract he was given, is risky. He put up good numbers with the Washington Capitals playing with top-end talent, but he likely won’t be playing with either Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, or Mike Hoffman –– who would take attention away from him and open up the ice for him. He has a good nose for the net and an incredible shot, so he could pan-out for the Panthers as a top-six or top-nine scoring winger.
Noel Acciari provides grit, a hard-nosed playing style and playoff experience to a team with very minimal playoff experience aside from Stralman. If Florida want to compete for the playoffs and eventually the Stanley Cup, you need players like Acciari in your lineup.
Matt Duchene was the other set-in-stone deal that became official today, signing on the dotted line for seven years at $56 million with the Nashville Predators. Duchene is hailed as a terrific offensive center with blistering speed and will likely slot in as the top-line center to play with Filip Forsberg or Viktor Arvidsson. Duchene’s $8 million AAV is a little high, especially because the Predators just whiffed on the trade that brought in Kyle Turris along with a $6 million cap hit over five more seasons. They have a lot of money tied up at the center position for a group that could flop. This contract could blow up in the Predator’s faces and leave them with two long-term deals worth $14 million combined that is wasted. Or, Duchene could keep with the form he found in Columbus and be that top center that Nashville has desperately searched for years for. This contract is high risk and high reward, but nobody will question Duchene at $8 million annually if he hoists the Stanley Cup.
The most notable names left unsigned are UFAs Marcus Johansson, who likely gets a raise and an AAV of over $5 million for a top-6 role somewhere, defenseman Jake Gardiner who is an offensive producer but can be a liability on defense, and forward Ryan Dzingel, who didn’t pan out in Columbus after the deadline but is a promising skilled forward. The only other name that intrigues me is Mitch Marner and whether or not a team takes a risk and offer sheets Marner like Montreal did with Aho. They would have to give up a ton in the form of four first-round picks, but they also could force Toronto’s hand and get them in cap trouble or make them lose their hometown superstar. The rest of the summer is shaping up to be something to keep an eye on as a hockey fan.