NHL Free Agency 2018: Grades, Winners & Losers

John Tavares plays the Maple Leafs as an Islander

John Tavares is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs

The first two days of NHL Free Agency have come and gone, and several big names have new homes.

A few moves were expected, such as the Lightning retaining their free agents, trade deadline acquisitions J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers. Some moves weren’t expected, and some were kind of expected but still stung knowing they were capable of happening – looking at you, Long Island.

Although this year’s overall free agent crop was thin, there were several big names at the top, and a few names who have exchanged addresses in a trade.

Let’s take a glance at the major moves from the first 48 hours of Free Agency:


John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs

Grade: A+

Contract Details: Seven years, $77 million (Average Annual Value: $11 million per season)

Hard to argue with any of the logic here with either party. Tavares, after spending his first nine seasons with the New York Islanders after being selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, only made the playoffs twice. The Maple Leafs’ immediate future, thanks to the stability in the organization’s infrastructure – stability the Islanders never had at any point with ownership, location and Garth Snow as general manager – is much brighter.

Adding Tavares on top of established No. 1 center Auston Matthews, former No. 4 overall pick Mitch Marner, underrated No. 2 C Nazem Kadri, defenseman Morgan Rielly and goalie Frederik Andersen, makes Toronto a legitimate Stanley Cup contender next year. The biggest question is Tavares’ linemates moving forward. Do the Maple Leafs take a chance and pair Tavares with youngsters Kasperi Kapanen or Connor Brown, or find some way to create salary cap space to extend William Nylander and play him next to JT moving forward?

Either way, the Mississauga, Ontario native is coming home, and will try to help the franchise end a 51-year Stanley Cup drought. Toronto is a no-brainer winner.


Paul Stastny to the Vegas Golden Knights

Grade: A

Contract Details: Three years, $19.5 million (Average Annual Value: $6.5 million per season)

The Golden Knights shocked the hockey world in their first year of existence by reaching the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Washington Capitals in five games. A predominantly young, but makeshift roster overachieved in their inaugural season under head coach Gerard Gallant. One priority for Vegas was to strengthen the middle of the lineup to compete more in the immediate future again.

In comes Stastny, who proved to be a key addition at the Trade Deadline for the Winnipeg Jets, who also advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time in their franchise’s history. In his combined time with the St. Louis Blues and Jets last season, Stastny had 53 points (16 goals, 37 assists) – his most since 2013-14 when he had 60 in his final season with the Colorado Avalanche – and was a steady veteran presence on the Jets’ playoff run.

Vegas, for the most part, keeps most of the roster intact from their first season. A few veterans were lost, but Stastny’s presence helps ease that burden, as well as provide a transition to give the franchise’s first-ever draft selection, Cody Glass, more time to develop in the minors. In a city of gamblers, Vegas cashes out here as a winner.


James van Riemsyk to the Philadelphia Flyers

Grade: B+

Contract Details: Five years, $35 million (Average Annual Value: $7 million per season)

On June 23, 2012, the Flyers traded van Riemsdyk to the Maple Leafs in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn. Since, Schenn has bounced around the NHL, while JVR remained an offensive staple in Toronto through some poor seasons and good seasons. With Toronto, van Riemsdyk scored 30+ goals twice, and 29 once. Although the Maple Leafs lost in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons, significant strides were made collectively for their forward group.

The 29-year old Middletown, New Jersey native comes… home? Kind of like Tavares did, only on a lesser scale. Coming full circle, the organization that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, pays a steep price to get him back in the fold, right as the organization seems to be turning a corner. His center options to play off of are juicy, Sean Couturier, who almost doubled his previous career-high in points this season and was a Selke Trophy finalist, and Nolan Patrick, a former No. 2 overall pick (2017) in his own right.

The Flyers are reshuffling their forward group a bit, and with news of Wayne Simmonds being shopped at this year’s draft, it’s likely van Riemsdyk was brought on to offset Simmonds’ potential scoring loss. The term is good, but the cap hit is questionable, and should Simmons leave and sign for less money/term next offseason, this deal would look worse. For now, Philadelphia is a loser for potentially overpaying a player who may not be needed long term.


James Neal to the Calgary Flames

Grade: B

Contract Details: Five years, $28.75 million (Average Annual Value: $5.75 million per season)

Initially, the contract looks as if it is one or two years too many, but the “Real Deal” James Neal heads north to play for a Canadian team for the first time in his career. The Flames, who have needed another scoring top-six winger who could play the right side for some time, went to the open market to fill that vacancy. Neal is one of the more prolific scorers in the last 10 years, and one of six active players with at least 10+ or more 20-goal seasons to start their NHL career.

Neal spent most of last season playing next to Erik Haula and Alex Tuch on the Golden Knights. Despite playing for an expansion team, his offensive game didn’t miss a beat, as he scored 25 goals, contributing six more in the postseason, leading Vegas to within three games of a Stanley Cup championship. The drawback to this contract is age. Neal turns 31 before the start of next season, which means the contract ends when he is 36.

If Neal can sustain his game for three of those seasons, and should the salary cap continue to rise in the coming seasons, the signing won’t nearly look as bad at the end. Three years for Neal would have been perfect. Two more years should have Calgary worrying about how they can move his cap hit down the line. For now, Calgary is a winner.


TRADE: Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues from the Buffalo Sabres

To St. Louis: Ryan O’Reilly

To Buffalo: 2019 first-round draft pick, 2021 second-round draft pick, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson

St. Louis Trade Grade: A-

The Blues’ biggest need was a top line center. Despite the organization’s strong defense core (Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn), the offense has lacked a strong presence at center for most of the group’s collective time there. While Brayden Schenn, who was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Flyers in 2017, had 72 points last season, his defensive game is, generously, fleeting and isn’t nearly up to speed as the elite centers in hockey. Most of Schenn’s offensive production came from playing next to Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

What O’Reilly gives St. Louis is a sorely needed 55-60-point, two-way center who has the raw ability to play next to talented wingers and the acumen to take on a more defensive role – think Ryan Kesler in Anaheim – and play against another team’s top players. Along with the acquisition of Tyler Bozak (three years, $15 million) for a third-line role, the Blues strengthened their center depth for next season. St. Louis is a winner.

Buffalo Trade Grade: B-

The Sabres failed to get an elite prospect, but picked up several solid secondary assets, and opened up salary cap room for the immediate future. The trade was more about changing the dynamic of the locker room, as now Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittlestadt, Rasmus Ristolainen and this year’s No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin become the backbone of the team moving forward. They’re all young, and in Ristolainen and Eichel’s case, already cost controlled.

Buffalo has potentially elite top-end talent. The organization needed young, cost-controlled depth. This trade helps accomplish that goal. In the meantime, Buffalo is a loser unless any asset acquired ends up better than O’Reilly years from now.

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