Free agency in every professional sport presents teams with an opportunity to improve their fortunes heading into the following season without giving up valuable assets. Most of the time, however, it's an opportunity to overpay an overrated veteran. That's especially the case in the National Hockey League (NHL), where big-name stars hardly ever make it to an open market. Last year's biggest name, Steven Stamkos, re-signed in Tampa Bay just days ahead of July 1, while this year's class included aging veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jarome Iginla, and stay-at-home defensemen like Karl Alzner and Ron Hainsey. By contrast, the NBA's free-agent class included in-their-prime stars Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, and Chris Paul, not to mention other big stars getting traded.
Yet, in Canada, TSN devotes a full day of broadcast coverage to the free-agent "frenzy," as it has become part of the Canada Day celebrations. Most Americans, meanwhile, are smart enough to realize nothing really of substance happens in NHL free agency. In about a year's time, we'll be looking back at a lot of the deals handed out in the past week and assessing how they hampered the team's ability to be competitive move forward. But why wait a year when we can start right now.
16 Mistake: Toronto Signing Patrick Marleau
In theory, the acquisition of Patrick Marleau by the Toronto Maple Leafs is a positive one. Despite turning 38-years-old in September, he's still a good skater and is coming off a 27-goal season; that number might even rise playing alongside Auston Matthews.
The problem with the deal is its length. Marleau signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the team, and while it's structured so that he'll earn most of his money in the first two years, the cap hit of $6 million will remain the same in the third year, when the Leafs have to pay Matthews the big bucks, likely north of $11 million. The Leafs will also have to pay a substantial sum to Mitch Marner and William Nylander and Marleau's cap hit might affect those negotiations.
15 Should Have Done: Invest In Defense/Future
The Maple Leafs made a huge jump in the standings last season, going from a 30th place team to one that nearly knocked off the Washington Capitals in the first round of the NHL playoffs. They did so with an impressive stable of young forwards such as Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Connor Brown, and defensemen like Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nikita Zaitsev. Those players are only going to improve and get better - there was little need for the team to spend elsewhere and take away from the money that will be required to lock that core up long-term.
If there was one area the Maple Leafs needed to improve it was defense. The team signed veteran Ron Hainsey, but it lost Matt Hunwick, which is essentially a wash. Instead of signing Marleau, it could have used one of its forwards - JVR, Kasperi Kapanen, or Brown - to package with draft picks for a top-four blueliner. That still might happen, but it appears the Maple Leafs are standing pat for the time being.
14 Mistake: Chicago Trading Artemi Panarin
The Chicago Blackhawks are in cap hell. This is no secret. It's what happens when you give two players $10 million dollars and commit big money long-term to players like Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. The team solved some of its cap issues by Marian Hossa somewhat conveniently announcing that he couldn't play in 2017-18 due to a skin disease that he had been dealing with for quite some time. It opened up the necessary cap space for the team to bring back Patrick Sharp, which is a nice bonus, despite not being the player he once was.
Yet, before free agency, the Hawks opted to make a move that saved little money by dealing high-scoring winger Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad, who won a Stanley Cup with the team in 2015. Saad is a good player who scored 30 goals last season, but he's not as crafty or offensively talented as Panarin. Reports surfaced that the move was made to spark Jonathan Toews, who had chemistry with Saad two years ago. Panarin, however, was dynamic with Kane.
13 Should Have Done: Nothing
Unless management was crazy enough to withstand the backlash of trading Jonathan Toews for a minimal return due to his cap hit, the Hawks really should have done nothing this offseason, aside from scouring for the next undrafted free agent gem. Management has been crafty enough in recent years to bring in cheap, short-term options to supplement its core talent, and they should have counted on continued progression from young players like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and Gustav Forsling.
Instead, the Blackhawks made a sideways move at best to answer to a four-game sweep to the Predators that had more to do with exhaustion and inexperience than grit and toughness. They'll be a worse team next season and struggle to score on both top lines, especially if Toews doesn't rekindle his chemistry with Saad.
12 Mistake: Arizona's Handling Of Shane Doan
Shane Doan was drafted seventh overall in the 1995 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets. He played his rookie season in Winnipeg before the team moved to Arizona, where he has played the last 20 seasons of his professional career. He has been the team's captain for most of those years and has been the one player that, despite all the years of inept management, ownership, and on-ice product, has stayed loyal to the team.
It was a no-brainer to bring back Doan for 2016-17 after he had a 28-goal campaign the year prior. But his production slipped heavily this past season, as he scored just six goals in 74 games. If you get that production from any other player you cut them no question, but Doan is the heart of the franchise and exceptions need to be made, especially when you have the combination of a terrible market and terrible team. What's one more year if he truly did want to play again?
11 Should Have Done: Wait It Out
For the time being, it seems as though Doan does want to play another season. And it's hard to question his ability to play; despite his production tailing off last season, he has been steadily producing between 30-45 points in the past few seasons and can still somewhat keep up with the pace of the game, especially in a bottom-six role with power-play minutes.
There was no reason for the Coyotes to cut ties with Doan prior to free agency out of nowhere like they did. It was a bad hockey decision and an even worse public relations move. John Chyka, the youngest General Manager in the league, might have severed some ties in the process. The easy thing to do was to simply wait throughout the summer to determine how free agency goes and allow Doan time to figure out his life. Worst case you offer him a cheap one-year deal; best case he accepts a management role with the team, which is where he belongs.
10 Mistake: Dallas Signing Alex Radulov Long-Term
Was Alex Radulov's value vastly overhyped heading into free agency? Absolutely. Does his presence make the Dallas Stars a better team in the short-term? Definitely. Does that make it a good signing? Not at all. Will we stop asking and answering questions? Perhaps.
Radulov was an offensive presence in the Montreal Canadiens lineup last season, scoring 18 goals and adding 36 assists in 76 games. More than anything, his value was inflated because of the brutal free agent class and the fact he plays with Alex Ovechkin-like passion and enthusiasm. But the Russian has twice bailed on the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him, and concerns over his long-term commitment level are relevant. It'll be interesting to see how long before this contract goes sideways.
9 Should Have Done: Wait It Out
The waiting game isn't for everyone. It was Homer Simpson that once said, "The waiting game sucks. Let's play Hungry Hungry Hippos." But that's exactly what the Stars should have done in this instance. It was clear that Radulov was either going to re-sign in Montreal or join the Stars, and when the Canadiens announced a long-term extension for Carey Price, it was evident the team had no space left to make a Radulov contract work.
It's also unlikely any other team would have swooped in to make room for Radulov as most teams are already up against their budget, not to mention the amount of teams that would likely have no interest in the 31-year-old. In the end, Radulov got a five-year, $31.5 million contract from the Stars, which is four more years than most teams would feel comfortable giving him. What makes it worse is he'll be playing under Ken Hitchcock, the defensive-minded coach who wasn't much of a fan of Vladimir Tarasenko, who plays a similar style of offensive hockey.
8 Mistake: New Jersey Not Finding Trade For Kovalchuk
If you've noticed a Russian theme to the NHL offseason, you're not alone. The KHL isn't doing great financially and players are jumping ship once again. Alex Radulov came back to North America last year and longtime KHLers like Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov did so this year. Ilya Kovalchuk was poised to return to the NHL in 2017-18, but his rights were still owned by the New Jersey Devils, the team from which he bolted after finally proving himself a playoff performer en route to the team's Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Los Angeles Kings.
Kovalchuk played the last four seasons with St. Petersburg SKA and has averaged more than a point-per-game. In fact, last year, he recorded a career-best 78 points in 60 games. He made his intentions known he didn't want to return to New Jersey, but the team could have dealt him to one of the teams that had interest for a fairly significant return. Instead, he's staying in Russia for another year and coming back in 2018-19, when he'll be an unrestricted free agent and a year older at 35.
7 Should Have Done: Dealt Him for Assets
It's hard to understand why a deal couldn't have been worked out for Kovalchuk. His coming back to the league would have been great for both storylines and entertainment. Obviously, Ray Shero, the Devils General Manager, isn't concerned with either of those things, but he should be concerned with what's best for his rebuilding team. And the best thing would have been acquiring assets for the 34-year-old Russian while they had the chance.
Kovalchuk only had a select list of teams he was interested in and perhaps those teams couldn't work out a deal, but you have to believe there was interest in adding a game-changing player like Kovalchuk. If those teams were Eastern Conference teams, you could make the case that Shero didn't want to improve his competition without getting much in return, but it's not as though the Devils are Cup contenders. He should have taken a fifth round pick if that was the best offer. Kovalchuk wasn't coming to New Jersey; he had a chance to acquire a free asset and failed to do so.
6 Mistake: Washington Committing To Kuznetsov
On the surface, it's easy to understand the Capitals re-signing Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 25-year-old center is a top-flight number two center and will quite obviously assume the first-line role in the near future when Nicklas Backstrom begins to decline. However, it's hard to see value in the eight-year, $62.4 million contract he received from the Capitals, especially considering it has a modified no-trade clause which kicks in following the 2018-19 season, when the Capitals just might be on the decline.
The contract is even worse when you factor in Kuznetsov had just 59 points last season. Those are decent numbers for a second-line center, but quite the drop in production from the 77 points he recorded the season prior. He's a gifted playmaker, but the Capitals now have nearly $30 million tied up in four forwards (who haven't accomplished anything in the playoffs) for the next three years.
5 Should Have Done: Traded Kuznetsov
The Kuznetsov contract forced the Capitals to trade Marcus Johansson, who might not be as talented as Kuznetsov - though he had just one point less and six more goals last season - but is on a much better contract with two years left at a $4.6 million cap hit. Washington received a second and third round pick from the New Jersey Devils for his services, which is an absolute steal. You have to wonder if, in order to get the Kuznetsov contract locked up quickly, the team didn't play the market well enough for Johansson.
Yes, they could have got more, but what they really should have done is trade Kuznetsov. That would have saved the team significant cap space, which they need, and returned them a better haul in terms of prospects and picks. They would have still been competitive in the upcoming season, but kept an eye toward the future, which is ever important in the salary cap world.
4 Mistake: Senators Doing Nothing
The Ottawa Senators surprised everyone when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Led by captain Erik Karlsson, the team was a feel-good story, but one that almost nobody expects to replicate next season. Sure, they have the best defenseman in the league and a couple nice players up front, but on paper they are nowhere near being a Stanley Cup contender, unless you think of Mike Hoffman and Derick Brassard as franchise players.
The Senators are a budget team, which isn't a surprise given the team had trouble selling out home playoff games, but you would have to believe owner Eugene Melnyk, the "nutjob" that he is, should have been willing to fork over some cash to upgrade the team. It's not enough to stand pat and expect the same level of success next season when the reality is there's so much parity in the NHL that the Senators could miss the playoffs in 2017-18 and few would be totally shocked.
3 Should Have Done: Upgraded Offense
Realistically, the Senators should get a boost from rookie Colin White, who played sparingly with the team toward the end of last season, but beyond that the team will return much the same in 2017-18. Ottawa signed Nate Thompson, who will help its fourth line, but fourth lines don't win championships. Up front, the Senators boast a balanced attack, but there's no dominant threat.
Erik Karlsson pushes the offense for the team, and Ottawa plays a defensive style to begin with, but for a team with $10 million in cap space, it wouldn't have been difficult to upgrade its one area of weakness. Trading assets for Alex Burrows and signing him for two years last year might have hampered their ability to do so, but it wouldn't have been impossible for Ottawa to upgrade.
2 Mistake: Everything the Montreal Canadiens Did
Where to begin? We may as well praise the Montreal Canadiens for not handing Alex Radulov a long-term extension that would have come back to bite the team, because that's about the only thing Marc Bergevin did that made any sense. And even then you can rest assured that if he had the money he would have done so. The Canadiens acquired Jonathan Drouin, who is an up-and-coming star in the league, but he's a winger, which the team has an abundance of. What they need is defense and centers and to get Drouin they dealt one of the best defense prospects in the league.
As for centers? They signed Peter Holland and Byron Froese, both of whom couldn't earn consistent minutes with a 30th-place Toronto Maple Leafs team a season ago. They did add high-profile defenseman Karl Alzner in free agency, but the move baffled pundits and was cheered by fans of rival teams. The 28-year-old is signed for the next five years at a cap hit of $4.625, which would be great if he was an above-average skater who produced more than 13 points last year. It's clear there's simply no plan in Montreal.
1 Should Have Done: Opposite Of Everything
Aside from not firing Bergevin at the end of last season (or the minute he made the Shea Weber for P.K. Subban deal), the Canadiens should have literally done the opposite of everything they did this off-season. Keep your top defense prospect. Or trade him for a center, not a winger. Don't sign an overhyped, slow defenseman to a massive contract. And wait to sign Carey Price.
The last point might be a contentious one, but the timing wasn't right on the Price contract. Following this season, the goaltender is going to make $10.5 million for the next eight seasons. He'll be 39-years-old when his contract expires and, as good as he is, it's hard to see him being a top-10 goaltender at that point. Entering the 2017-18 season without him signed long-term would have been a distraction in Montreal, but let it be. There are so many holes in Montreal's roster that the upcoming season could turn disastrous quickly - at best, they're a borderline playoff team. The prospect cupboard is so bare that, if the season was a failure, you could deal Price for a boatload during the season.