The dust has settled since the NHL’s free agent frenzy at the beginning of July, so now is a good time to look at the rosters across the league and judge them mercilessly.
Sure, there are still a handful of hopeful UFAs still waiting by their telephones, but for the most part the action has taken place and now there’s not much left to do other than wait and see who picks up the spare parts along the way.
As we wait, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the moves thus far and see who’s improved its roster, and who appears to have maybe taken a step back. There are winners and losers of every free agent season, and below is your definitive list of where your favorite team ended up on the bell curve.
Of course this list only includes 16 of the league’s 31 teams, as about half of the teams every year fail to make an impactful move and therefore land on neither side of the fence. Without further ado, let’s get right into it: Here are the eight winning teams of the 2017 free agent season and the eight teams that we here at the Sportster consider the losers:
15 Regressed: San Jose Sharks
When you’re an old team that loses one of its franchise players to free agency and fails to really add a useful piece, it’s safe to say you’ve regressed. Now, I’m not slagging the Sharks for not retaining Patrick Marleau—in fact, if they were to do so at the terms he signed with in Toronto, then it would have been a bad decision. Nonetheless, the Sharks didn’t do much to improve.
They only signed one UFA of note (“of note” being a stretch) in Brandon Bollig, and of course they lost Marleau to free agency. Marleau has definitely lost a step and is getting old, but it’s tough to believe that Bollig will replace more than, say, five of the 27 goals Marleau potted last year. Bollig has scored 10 goals in the last three years combined, so, yeah.
14 Improved: Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres quietly added a few pieces so far this offseason that should help them take a few steps forward in 2017-18. They made a trade with the Minnesota Wild that sent away Buffalo mainstays Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, but they got back former Sabre Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella.
Pominville is of course an aging asset who is on an expensive contract, but there’s no question he still has skills to offer. Scandella is a key piece to this deal, as the Sabres were in great need of a stabilizing presence on the back end, and that’s exactly what Scandella brings. Expect him to anchor the left side on the top pair next to Rasmus Ristolainen. The Sabres also signed fancy-stats darling Benoit Pouliot after he was bought out by Edmonton, and he’s primed for a bounce back season.
13 Regressed: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers were able to add Kevin Shattenkirk as a UFA—which is a good add despite the hefty price tag and term—but they also lost a pretty important few pieces to Arizona in a deal they made prior to free agency. Derek Stepan and Henrik Lundqvist's backup Antti Raanta.
With Stepan gone, I’d say that leaves a huge whole up the middle, and the Rangers are now in desperate need of quality centermen. Whether or not you believe Stepan is a true number one is irrelevant to the fact that he was the best center in New York at the time of the trade. Yes, they received a solid prospect in Anthony DeAngelo in return, as well as a 1st round pick, but those pieces don’t replace what went out the door for the upcoming season.
12 Improved: New York Islanders
The Islanders were one of the teams that looked to be in trouble for the expansion draft, but in the end they were able to work out a deal with the Golden Knights and they lost Mikhail Grabovski in a trade and J.F. Berube in expansion. It cost the Islanders in assets no doubt, as they had to send Vegas a 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick to make it work, but they did.
GM Garth Snow then replenished those assets (and then some) by dealing defenseman Travis Hamonic to Calgary for a 1st and two 2nds. The kicker, however, is the trade Snow was able to swing with Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli. He sent whipping boy Ryan Strome to Edmonton for Oilers whipping own boy Jordan Eberle. Time will tell, but it looks as though the Islanders got the better whipping boy in this deal, and Eberle should make them better in 2017-18 than they were last season.
11 Regressed: Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim has been a pretty stellar team for quite a while, and as we all know success in professional sports tends to be a little cyclical. Star sniper Corey Perry’s numbers took a huge dip in 2016-17, and even if he bounces back it’s tough to find the areas where Anaheim improved in the 2017 offseason. First off, they were blessed with probably one of the best defense corps in the league in 2016-17, and they lost one of their nicest young pieces there in Shea Theodore (via expansion).
They didn’t make any big signings to boot, and their core of Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler are not getting any younger. As for the goaltending situation, they more or less stagnated. Goalie of the future John Gibson will of course have the starter’s tag off the bat, but veteran Ryan Miller comes in to replace Jonathan Bernier, who’s Colorado bound.
10 Improved: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs appear on this list as improved simply because they added a few solid pieces without taking any away. They of course nabbed the services of veteran Patrick Marleau (albeit at a hefty term and cost that could bite them down the road), but they also added a veteran center in Dominic Moore. Moore has been a reliable 3rd/4th liner for a decade now and injects some valuable experience into the roster.
The Leafs of course lost a prospect to the Vegas Golden Knights in Brandon Leipsic, but other than that nobody really jumped ship. With the additions of Marleau and Moore coupled with the natural progressions of Auston Mathews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the Leafs should be at least in the race for the Atlantic Division crown come April 2018.
9 Regressed: Florida Panthers
At the end of 2015-16, the future was looking pretty bright for the Panthers. They won their division for just the second time in franchise history, and by all accounts they were a franchise on the up-and-up. Flash forward to today, and dissension among the top ranks has diminished the Panthers roster, as well as the bright future it once represented.
2016-17 was disappointing for Florida, a team that suffered serious injuries to key players seemingly all season long. They missed the playoffs as a result, and GM Dale Tallon acted swiftly. They lost Jonathan Marchessault to expansion, who led the Panthers with 30 tallies last year. They let legend Jaromir Jagr hit free agency, who was fourth in points on the team. They traded Reilly Smith in what was a clear salary dump and bought out Jussi Jokinen, meaning they lost four of their top seven point producers. The only piece they brought in that may help replace some of that offense? Radim Vrbata.
8 Improved: Calgary Flames
Ever since Brad Treliving took the GM reins in Calgary, the club has made a lot of smart moves. I feel pretty comfortable saying Calgary has a top three D corps in the NHL, and that’s thanks in no small part to this summer’s addition of Travis Hamonic. Sure, the Flames gave up some pretty slick assets to acquire the defenseman, but that top-four in Calgary is pretty intimidating now.
There is still the issue of goaltending in Calgary; the club has struggled to fill the shoes left vacant by Miikka Kiprusoff’s retirement in 2013, and this season they’re going to give 35-year-old Mike Smith a shot. Smith had a strong season in Arizona in 2016-17, but he’s also recently had disappointing seasons as well, so Calgary’s success could depend on which Smith shows up for 2017-18.
7 Regressed: Chicago Blackhawks
When you have the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews contracts both on the books, it can be tough to build a capable supporting cast around them with the salary cap and what not. The Blackhawks have done an admirable job, but the fact remains that they probably aren’t as good this upcoming season as they were last.
First off, they sent away Artemi Panarin because they knew they weren’t going to be able to afford his next contract. They did get Brandon Saad in exchange, but that’s still a step down offensively. Add to that the fact that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the cornerstones of that blue line, are turning 34 and 33 respectively, and of course losing Marian Hossa to a mysterious equipment allergy... yeah, the Hawks probably got worse.
6 Improved: Dallas Stars
The Dallas Stars had two major issues heading into the 2017 offseason, and remedying them was key in order to return to postseason contention in 2017-18. They needed to fix their goaltending, first and foremost, and they needed to add a key piece or two on defense. They’ve accomplished both feats, and they’ve even added some punch up front with the addition of Alexander Radulov.
On the back-end they welcome Marc Methot, who’s played the last few seasons as Erik Karlsson’s partner in Ottawa. I’m not saying John Klingberg is Erik Karlsson, but Methot will surely be a step up from Esa Lindell (Klingberg’s primary partner last season), and he should complement his game well. In net they have Ben Bishop as their number one moving forward, which beats the hell out of the Antti Niemi/Kari Lehtonen two-headed monster they've been deploying.
5 Regressed: Edmonton Oilers
While their counterparts down the QE2 improved a little bit, it’s safe to say that, at first glance, the Edmonton Oilers took a bit of a step back. Entering the offseason with a need to improve its blue line, the Oilers instead chose to double down on Kris Russell for four more year (FOUR MORE YEARS!). GM Peter Chiarelli also made one of the worse trades of the summer so far, dealing favorite whipping boy Jordan Eberle to the Islanders for their whipping boy (Ryan Strome).
The Oilers have made a few admirable moves however, inking free agent Jussi Jokinen to a reasonable one-year deal. On top of that, the natural maturation of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could do wonders to cover up the mistakes and misjudgments made by Chiarelli thus far, but make no mistake about it: with one cheap year of McDavid left, the Oilers are wasting about five or six million in dead cap space—and that’s factoring in Draisaitl’s new contract (not signed at time of writing) and potential bonus overages.
4 Improved: Vegas Golden Knights
I know this is sort of stupid, but if I’m including all 31 NHL teams, how could I not say that Vegas is one of the most improved? They started with Reid Duke and Vadim Shipachyov, and now they have a roster full of decent NHL players, as well as a cupboard so stocked with draft picks that they almost guarantee themselves some good players out of the next few Entry Drafts.
Marc-Andre Fleury is probably the best piece right now, as Vegas was able to nab a true number one goalie in expansion. They lack top-end talent both up front and on the back end, but their depth is decent in both areas and could make up for the lack of elite talent. I have a hard time believing that the Knights will finish below Vancouver in the Pacific Division this season.
3 Regressed: Washington Capitals
When you have such a great team (by regular season standards) for as long as they have in Washington, it’s inevitable that you eventually fade from the top. I’m not saying Washington is already yesterday’s news, but they did lose a handful of useful pieces in Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner. It’s not like those guys were part of the core, but they will be missed nonetheless.
With the Caps under cap constraints, the club was unable to really take a run at any of the free agents available. There were rumblings that they were considering extending Shattenkirk before he became a free agent, but rumor has it the team was less than impressed with what he brought to the table in the postseason, and let’s face it, the last thing Washington needs is another regular season specialist.
2 Improved: Arizona Coyotes
I was very impressed with the Arizona Coyotes this offseason. So impressed that I feel safe saying they’re the most improved team in the league so far, and that is no small feat in a year an expansion club joined the league. The Coyotes added Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta from the Rangers, meaning they got a (borderline) number one center and starting goalie (despite his backup status in NYR) for picks and a prospect.
They also managed to grab Niklas Hjalmarsson from the Blackhawks, and it never hurts to have a three-time Cup champion on your squad. They basically improved all three positions without taking away a significant piece of the roster (Mike Smith aside), and they still have money to spend. Now, we all know the Coyotes would never spend to the cap (heaven forbid), but GM John Chayka should be lauded for his work this summer nonetheless.
1 Regressed: Pittsburgh Penguins
Look, when you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your team you will pretty much be a contender every season. That being said, when you win back to back Stanley Cups, players become more expensive and thus more difficult to retain (see: 2010-2015 Chicago Blackhawks). The latest championship squadron saw another wave of players leave town shortly after the parade ended.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s absence will leave the biggest hole. Sure, he’d been relegated to the backup role, but let’s imagine for a second how screwed the Penguins would have been without Fleury to step in in Game 1 of the playoff this year after Matt Murray got injured in warmup. The Pens also lost Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, major contributors to the last two Stanley Cup winning teams.
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