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Top takeaways from a $500 million first day of free agency

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  • Greg WyshynskiESPN

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      Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

For months, we heard about the NHL’s pandemic economy, the flat salary cap and how difficult making deals had become. Then the 2021 free-agent market opened, and within 24 hours, teams had spent over a half-billion dollars.

Nature is healing. Second-pairing defensemen are getting $5 million against the cap again.

According to TSN, the NHL’s 32 teams spent $576,725,000 on 128 contracts on Wednesday. That includes $60.9 million in the first nine minutes of free agency, which would make Jeff Bezos blush.

There were a lot of shocking moments, trends and teachable moments on the first day of the free-agent marketplace. Here are 10 takes from yours truly. (The usual column departments will return next week.)

More: Tracker | Signing grades


Draft recap: Every pick | Takeaways

1. The Dougie Hamilton signing was the biggest of the day (seven years, $63 million) but was also the longest, as far as negotiation time goes. While 53 deals were announced within the first two hours of free agency — boy, that NHL ban on the free-agent interview period really works, eh? — the Hamilton contract wasn’t a done deal until 4 p.m. ET. And now we know why.

According to Sara Civian of The Athletic, the final offer from the Carolina Hurricanes was eight years and $50 million, for a $6.2 million average annual value. So the defenseman who is 14th in points over the last three seasons would have had the 21st-highest cap hit among defensemen next season.

How do you tell someone goodbye without saying goodbye?

While most of the conversation was centered on the Devils, there were multiple teams still in the derby for Hamilton on Wednesday afternoon. New Jersey was around $8.25 million per year during its talks with Hamilton, and wasn’t keen on giving him multitudes of bonus money. (Nico Hischier‘s contract, signed in 2019 when Ray Shero was general manager, had just $3 million in bonus money, for example.)

But Hamilton got his $9 million AAV out of the Devils. And he got nearly half of his money ($31.1 million) in bonus money. Which is a lot of bonus money. Gabriel Landeskog, also a key free agent and also 28 years old? He got $1 million in bonus money from the Avalanche.

I had a source tell me that the structure of Hamilton’s contract was going to be a doozy, and it was:

Dougie Hamilton – #NJD

$9M x 7

Breakdown

21-22: 750k + 5.55M SB

22-23: 3.3M + 3M SB

23-24: 10.6M + 2M SB

24-25: 10M + 2.6M SB

25-26: 1M + 10.55M SB

26-27: 1M + 7.4M SB

27-28: 5.25M

Trade clauses:

NMC Throughout

M-NTC in last 3 years: 10 team trade listhttps://t.co/2u8L7kFFsI

— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) July 28, 2021

OK, so you’ll notice that Hamilton makes $36.75 million of his $63 million from 2023-26. That’s because the escrow withholdings from players are just 6% from 2023-26. You’ll also notice that he has $17.95 million in signing bonuses from 2025-27.

The current CBA expires after 2025-26. That signing bonus money is guaranteed. You do the math.


2. It’s hard to imagine Dougie Hamilton not being worth this investment for the Devils. He gives them a stellar puck-moving defenseman and power-play quarterback. The thing I’ve always loved about Hamilton is his shot generation. Only Roman Josi (675) and Brent Burns (663) have more shots on goal than Hamilton in the last three seasons, and he has a much higher shooting percentage (6.9%). He’s an elite offensive defenseman who will still be one when the Devils finally have their prospects on the roster and start moving toward contention again.

To that end, this signing is like when the New York Rangers signed Artemi Panarin in 2019. They had a .476 points percentage in the standings in the previous season. They were still in a rebuild. But they had the chance to land a premier offensive star, who might not be there when they were “ready” for them. So they pounced, and I don’t think they regret it. The Devils did the same with Hamilton. These kinds of defensemen don’t come around on the open market often. Invest now, and hope the rest of the team matures fast enough to take full advantage of it.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this Devils team matures. Dougie Hamilton is a lot of things, but grizzled playoff winner or shouty locker room leader, he is not.

GM Tom Fitzgerald‘s last NHL season as a player was with the 2005-06 Boston Bruins. The next season, he saw them bring on Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, who had a palpable impact on young players like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. To take the next step, when the time is right, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the Devils add these kinds of veteran players to provide those intangibles that their free-agent prize does not.

(Of course, they could have the actual Zdeno Chara right now, if they could sell him on it …)


3. The story of the week was goaltenders. A quick list of the ‘tenders who were signed, re-signed or traded in the last 48 hours:

Marc-Andre Fleury (CHI), Philipp Grubauer (SEA), Frederik Andersen (CAR), Antti Raanta (CAR), Martin Jones (PHI), Braden Holtby (DAL), Laurent Brossoit (VGK), Jaroslav Halak (VAN), Petr Mrazek (TOR), Carter Hutton (ARI), Brian Elliott (TBL) …

[Takes breath]

Jonathan Bernier (NJD), Maxime Lagace (TBL), Linus Ullmark (BOS), David Rittich (NSH), Christopher Gibson (FLA), Garret Sparks (LAK), Hunter Shepard (WSH), Troy Grosenick (BOS), Vitek Vanecek (WSH), Dan Vladar (CGY), Calvin Pickard (DET) and Darcy Kuemper (COL).

Oh, and Craig Anderson, who signed with the Buffalo Sabres after the Washington Capitals said they anticipated he would retire this offseason. Which may not be the best reflection of this signing for the Sabres.

What the heck happened here? “Every team has different needs. They all have different situations. But then you throw in the expansion draft and some teams losing goalies, and it changed the whole market,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill.

And now some goalie free-agent frenzy superlatives:

The best move: Vitek Vanecek to the Capitals

If the Tampa Bay Lightning did this, people would be screaming about shenanigans, but the Capitals lost Vanecek in the expansion draft and then got him back from Seattle for a 2023 second-round pick previously owned by Winnipeg. But Grubauer went to the Kraken and the Capitals needed a goalie, so they bring back Vanecek to reform their battery with Ilya Samsonov. Even if it feels like goalie laundering.

The worst move: Martin Jones to the Flyers

Take a goalie who was sub-replacement over the last three seasons (minus-6.7 goals saved above average) with San Jose and put him in a market that devours goalies like they were sauced-up flats at the Wing Bowl. (Also, RIP the Wing Bowl.) After last season, Carter Hart needed a safety net. This one has a (five) hole in it.

Most curious move: Braden Holtby to the Stars

The main thrust of this signing, which was $2 million for one season, was the health of star goalie Ben Bishop. His NHL future is cloudy. Nill hopes that Bishop’s injury rehab brings him back to the team by midseason, but there are no guarantees that the 34-year-old plays again. But what makes this curious is the existence of Jake Oettinger, the 22-year-old who had a .911 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average in 2021. Nill said it was a good chance to add to their goalie depth, and mentioned that Oettinger didn’t require waivers to be sent down. So TL;DR: They don’t really trust Jake Oettinger.

Boom-or-bust move of the day: Petr Mrazek to the Leafs

In some ways, Frederik Andersen and Petr Mrazek are two goalies trending in different directions as they get older, so you could argue the Leafs got better here. But what they really got was a goalie who fits well in a tandem with Jack Campbell, can look unbeatable for about four games and then get pulled in his fifth game. A goalie who looks like the chosen one before he inexplicably falls apart? He picked the right franchise …

play

2:03

Philipp Grubauer shares what went into his decision to sign with the Kraken.


4. One of my long-standing philosophies about the NHL is that big-name free agents never really want to leave the cities in which they play because all of their stuff is there. And it’s a pain to move your stuff, or have to find new stuff. Sure, sometimes teams make it unbearable or impossible to remain with their stuff, and then they have to leave. But, if given the choice, their stuff is there, and they’ll stay with their stuff, thank you very much.

Ryan Getzlaf? His stuff is in Anaheim, so he’s a Duck again for another year. Taylor Hall? He’s always wanted to have his stuff in Boston, and once he moved it there, he wasn’t moving again, so he’s a Bruin for four years. Things went right down to the wire with Gabriel Landeskog and the Colorado Avalanche, but all of his stuff is in Denver, so I was confident he’d sign an eight-year contract to stay. Hockey can be predictable like that sometimes.


5. At this point I’m actually in awe of Canucks GM Jim Benning’s ineptitude and attempts to rectify that ineptitude.

He made a series of bad signings, including forwards Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Loui Eriksson, although the latter’s steep decline as a player was less predictable. Benning traded them all to the Arizona Coyotes for Conor Garland (which is good!) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson on his salary cap through 2026-27 with an annual cap hit of over $7.2 million (which is bad!).

He made two high-profile acquisitions last offseason: goalie Braden Holtby and defenseman Nate Schmidt. They both lasted one season, as Benning bought out Holtby and traded Schmidt to Winnipeg. (The trade, by the way, is hilarious. Schmidt was being shopped, but blocked a trade to Winnipeg. Reportedly, the Canucks then said they were OK bringing Schmidt back next season. Suddenly Winnipeg didn’t look so bad, so he waived his trade protection to facilitate a deal.)

The wildest thing about Benning’s last two weeks is that the Canucks might be better for it. He cleared out some bad contracts and opened up enough cap space to protect against an offer sheet on Elias Pettersson.

He’s the Homer Simpson of NHL general managers: an unending series of mistakes that somehow end up working out by the end of the episode. Well, except for the current state of their defense. D’oh!


6. Instead of hanging up on Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin, defenseman Ryan Suter should pick up the phone and thank the man.

The Wild bought out the final four years of his contract, which led to the hanging-up incident. Suter will earn $6,666,667 from that buyout over the next eight years. The Dallas Stars signed him to a $14.6 million, four-year contract. That’s a combined $21,266,667 that Suter is going to make over the next eight years. Had the Wild seen his contract through, he would have made $10 million over the last four years of that contract and he would have had to play his last two seasons with a $1 million salary.

Oh, and he got a full no-movement clause out of Dallas as a 36-year-old. And he’s playing in a place with no state income tax.


7. The Jack Eichel derby is going to be over at some point this offseason, and it’s not going to be pretty for the Buffalo Sabres.

Everyone knows the relationship between the star center and his team is over. That takes away a bit of leverage from GM Kevyn Adams. There are varying degrees of concern about Eichel’s health. There’s that $10 million cap hit that limits his marketplace. And now there’s a new problem, which is how that marketplace is dwindling.

The Los Angeles Kings have been out for a while. The New York Rangers remain interested, but the price tag and the fact they’re in Buffalo’s conference — let alone their state — could be hindrances. The price tag has reportedly made the Wild drop out. The Vegas Golden Knights may well surprise us with a blockbuster, but they’re capped-out at the moment and have moved on to other things.

The Anaheim Ducks have remained in the fray for Eichel throughout all of it. Would they surrender Trevor Zegras for him? Better question: Why would they if there are so few other bidders?

If the Sabres want the return they believe Eichel warrants, they’re going to have to drop their asking price. Oh, and that asking price from Vegas, according to Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News: Reilly Smith, Peyton Krebs, Nic Hague and a first-rounder.

Prediction: Vegas trades for Eichel, stashes him on long-term injured reserve until the playoffs and then “Kucherovs” its way to the Cup.

OK, not so much a prediction as a “Wouldn’t that be a blast?”


8. Speaking of the Golden Knights, you know would be the absolutely perfect move for them? The kind of move that puts them over the top for a Stanley Cup, because it addresses their need for a No. 1 center?

He makes $10 million against the salary cap like Eichel, but only for three seasons. And while Eichel is still looking for his first Stanley Cup playoff game, this guy has two Stanley Cup rings.

How perfect would Anze Kopitar be on the Vegas Golden Knights?

Obviously it’s a pipe dream, because these rivals aren’t making that kind of trade. But we can dream, can’t we?


9. My favorite signing of the frenzy, non-goalie-related: Alexander Edler for one year and $3.5 million with the Kings. Just a quality guy coming in for a cameo appearance on a team starting to turn the corner back to contention. The Kings had the cap space to accommodate a bit of a higher hit than you’d expect here, but so what? He’s a 35-year-old stopgap who can be a benefit in a depth role and mentor players like Tobias Björnfot. Really dig this.

My least favorite signing of the frenzy, non-goalie-related: Oh, Jim Benning you scamp. Tucker Poolman got a four-year contract worth $2.5 million annually from the Canucks. He was a sub-replacement level player for the Jets last season who projects to be a third-pairing defenseman. And giving a third-pairing defenseman four years is like giving Jay Beag … never mind. Benning gotta Benning.

Best GM move: Bill Armstrong, Arizona Coyotes, going for broke. He found a way to get Ekman-Larsson off his cap, expertly leveraged his cap space in a series of trades, and when the goalie carousel stopped he turned Darcy Kuemper into a first-round pick. I remember talking to him when he was hired, taking over a team that had nary a draft pick, whose head was bouncing off the salary cap ceiling. He made his bones as a draft talent evaluator with the St. Louis Blues. Now, he’s got a chance to put his stamp on the Coyotes with two first-round picks and five (!) second-rounders next summer. His starting goalie next year is Carter Hutton. The Coyotes have never been bad enough to get good. That’s about to change.

Worst GM move: It’s entirely possible that Joe Sakic serendipitously wins the Stanley Cup with Darcy Kuemper after letting his Vezina Trophy-nominated starting goaltender walk to the Seattle Kraken, and then watching two dozen goalies sign elsewhere. But it’s also possible that we’re talking about this as a fatal miscalculation if the Avalanche fail to meet expectations.

play

1:08

Jeff O’Neill and Ray Ferraro detail the Canadiens’ addition of David Savard to their blue line.


10. Finally, I want to end with the people I want to write about the least: Logan Mailloux and Tony DeAngelo.

There have been no two greater recent examples of hockey culture’s willingness to value talent over morality, or competitive advantage over everyone from the victim of a sexual assault to marginalized communities.

Watching Hurricanes GM Don Waddell attempt to say everything but the stone cold truth of his signing yesterday was painful. Here it is: Tony DeAngelo is an offensive defenseman who could help ease the loss of Dougie Hamilton, costs them only $1 million and will only be around for one season if things don’t work out. Owner Tom Dundon was willing to look past his many indiscretions for a high-risk, high-reward investment.

And Dundon had to sign off on it. DeAngelo himself mentioned that other teams’ coaches and general managers wanted to sign him, but they were overruled by owners who didn’t want to suffer the backlash that the Hurricanes are facing.

Now, I doubt the backlash there will get to the level of the backlash for the Mailloux pick in Canada, where everyone from team sponsors to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are calling out the team’s selection of the draft pick who asked not to be drafted.

It got so bad that owner Geoff Molson had to put out an open letter and follow it with a closed-invitation news conference — choosing to do so as the free-agent frenzy opened, which is like dropping a news release on Christmas morning.

He didn’t have to tell us anything we didn’t already know. “This decision, made in the context of the Draft, turned out to be instantaneously very offensive to many of you. I understand that you expect more from us and we let you down,” he said, but also added, “Logan is a young man who committed a serious transgression. He is genuinely remorseful about the pain he has caused. He is committed to becoming a better person and we will work with him through this process.”

So, to paraphrase: “Sorry you were offended, but this kid’s a 6-3 defenseman who can move the puck.”

Both Mailloux and DeAngelo are reminders that the most storied franchise can find ways to tarnish itself with one draft pick, and that the internet’s favorite team can Milkshake Duck itself with one signing.

They don’t care about you. They don’t care about me. They care about their cap space and the win column.

It’s a lesson every single player in the last two days who put pen to paper, or who watched their team say good riddance, also understands inherently.

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