NHL free agency winners and losers: Who came up big, and who whiffed?

NHL insider Eric Engels joins Nikki Reyes to break down Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet to Sebastian Aho, speculating on why he felt the need to strike, and whether the term and money is enough for the Hurricanes not to match.

Day 1 of NHL free agency did not disappoint in 2019.

We finally got that elusive offer sheet, and while it’s expected the Carolina Hurricanes will match the one given by the Montreal Canadiens to Sebastian Aho, that we even got one potentially opens up the door for more to follow.

The biggest names on this year’s market almost all went on Day 1 as well. Artemi Panarin signed to a somewhat surprising destination, while Sergei Bobrovsky may be the player who most singlehandedly changes the fortunes of the team that acquired him. The Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators came together for a trade ⁠— and then Toronto made an even bigger one with Colorado. And the goalie carousel was in full motion, with Semyon Varlamov (Islanders) and Robin Lehner (Blackhawks) also landing in new destinations, and Petr Mrazek staying put in Carolina.

It was wild, but it went by fast. Here are your winners and losers from the first day of NHL free agency.

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WINNERS

DALLAS STARS
Notable acquisitions: Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, Andrej Sekera

The Stars were one of the better defensive teams in the NHL last season. Though they averaged 31.6 shots against per game, ranking in the middle of the league, they did a great job of keeping a good amount of those to the outside. According to Natural Stat Trick, Dallas allowed the ninth-fewest high-danger chances against in 2018-19, which was certainly a major contributing factor for Ben Bishop to finish as a Vezina Trophy finalist.

But what kept the Stars from really breaking through this past season was a lack of depth on offence. Through most of the first half, Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were a formidable top line, but head coach Jim Montgomery had to split them up to spread out the scoring. Dallas just wasn’t consistent enough, looking like a world beater one night and a lottery team the next. But that all changed when Mats Zuccarello was added to the lineup when they acquired him at the trade deadline.

We didn’t really get proof of that until the playoffs because Zuccarello broke his arm in the very first game with Dallas, but his presence in the post-season completely changed the Stars’ outlook and they nearly reached the Western Conference final. Zuccarello may be gone to the Wild, but replacing him with Joe Pavelski is an upgrade. And where Zuccarello got five years from Minnesota, Dallas only had to commit three to Pavelski, who is a near lock for close to 30 goals and more than 60 points.

Pavelski is the slam dunk addition for Dallas, but they also made a couple of low-risk gambles coming off seasons that left behind injury/performance questions. Corey Perry is four years removed from his last 20-goal season, but on a one-year, $1.5 million contract (plus bonuses), Dallas is getting a motivated 34-year-old who at the very least will be an agitating force in the bottom six — at best he sticks in the top six and gets back to 20 goals again.

And Andrej Sekera has only played 60 games total over the past two years due to injury, but the Stars again only committed one year to the player. Sekera looked great at the world championships, scoring six points in 11 games for Slovakia, and if he hits the Stars will suddenly find another two-way blue-liner giving depth to the back end.

Dallas needed depth above all else to improve their roster this summer — with one big swing and a couple of low-cost adds, they come away big winners.

FLORIDA PANTHERS
Notable acquisitions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly

The Panthers had one clear need to address this off-season, since they’re walking out of July 1 having accomplished that, you can’t view them as anything but a winner.

Sergei Bobrovsky is coming to town and though it may not be ideal to give a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie seven years and a $10 million AAV, the Panthers had to get this one done. If they struck out here, what was Plan B for a team that finished with the 30th-ranked save percentage last season?

Remember, Florida had the NHL’s second-best power-play unit in 2018-19 and were a top-10 offence. With even league average netminding they would have made a serious push for the playoffs, so getting a Vezina Trophy candidate to step into that roster should steady the position immediately.

Panarin was on the radar and landing him would have given Florida an A+ day, but he was a luxury they ultimately couldn’t afford. Not only should the offence in place be good enough already, but there are three kids — Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett — pushing hard to also end up on the roster. Bobrovsky had to happen, but not getting Panarin doesn’t move them into the loser category.

The second-biggest need for Florida was to upgrade their blue line and they did that by landing Anton Stralman on a three-year contract with a $5.5-million cap hit. A defensive defenceman, Stralman was limited to 47 games last season to injury so there is some built-in risk. Even still, he averaged over 20 minutes a game in Tampa Bay and nearly three minutes shorthanded, so he’ll be a rock on the back end for a team that needed someone like him. Was the cap hit a little high? OK, perhaps. But the term is completely reasonable and without trade protection, Stralman could even be a candidate to leave exposed to Seattle in a couple of seasons.

ANYONE HOPING OFFER SHEETS BECOME A YEARLY THREAT
Every year the speculation is the same: Maybe this is the summer some team will toss out an offer sheet to an RFA and turn the way the NHL does business on its head. But almost every year we’re left disappointed as that part of the market is left untouched by rival GMs. The last player to get one was Ryan O’Reilly in 2013.

“Was” being the key word there, because Aho is now the last player to receive and sign an offer sheet, inking a five-year, $42.27-million one with Montreal and leaving Carolina with seven days to decide whether or not to match.

We all expected the AAV on one of these to reach into the $10 million-plus stratosphere for the big guys if it happened. That way, the attacked team would have a very difficult cap-related conundrum to deal with: let go of a high-end player for multiple first-round picks, or keep him around at an inflated value?

But Aho’s AAV is just under $8.5 million, though it was structured in a way to load up on signing bonuses. He is due $21 million in the next calendar year, so the decision facing the Canes and owner Tom Dundon has little to do with cap hit — it’s all about these huge lump sums of money he’ll be owed.

With the AAV shaking out where it is, the Canadiens also kept the compensation level down at the third tier so if Carolina does not match, Montreal will be forced to give up its first-, second- and third-round picks next year. Had they worked out an AAV a little higher, the compensation would have called for two first-round picks. Would that have given the Hurricanes any more pause?

The biggest question now is: What will this offer sheet mean to the rest of the RFA market? Does Aho, a centre, at $8.454 million now start to set the market for the likes of Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, Mitch Marner, etc.? If the Habs’ offer to Aho gets matched, will they then follow up with another offer sheet elsewhere? At the very least, the fact we finally saw one of these rare creatures has to open up the possibility that more could be in the league’s future.

NEW YORK RANGERS
Notable acquisitions: Artemi Panarin

Have to give at least a hat tip to the team that netted the biggest UFA fish. It was just 18 months ago the Rangers sent a letter to their fans, bracing them for a sell-off trade deadline and an ensuing rebuild. Now they look to be coming out of that very quickly.

What I love about the Rangers inking Panarin to a seven-year, $81.494-million deal ($11.642 million AAV) that made him the league’s highest-paid winger, is that even at that amount they still have all sorts of future cap flexibility. Only three other Rangers are signed beyond the 2020-21 season, and at that time a new, lucrative American TV deal is expected to be signed with the league, which should give a good bump to the salary cap. The Rangers can take these couple years to decide what they are and what they need before really committing to anything long-term.

New York has made six first-round picks in the past three drafts. A couple of those, Vitali Kravtsov and Kaapo Kakko, especially, should be factors as soon as next season. The Rangers got Hobey Baker finalist and big college point-producer Adam Fox for cheap from Carolina, and he’ll man their blue line in 2019-20. In Jacob Trouba they have their No. 1 defenceman and, oh yeah, that guy Henrik Lundqvist is still in net.

The Rangers will be a sleeper team come next October — and they didn’t have to melt their future cap situation to get here.

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LOSERS

MINNESOTA WILD
Notable acquisitions: Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman

I’m not entirely sure what the plan is here for this team. A couple of in-season trades seemed like they were on a trajectory to get younger and shift gears toward a different roster. With just two playoff series wins in the salary-cap era, it seemed like a prudent direction for a new GM to take.

But so far they’ve tried and been unable to find a taker for 27-year-old Jason Zucker, and GM Paul Fenton pulled in 31-year-old Mats Zuccarello with a five-year, $31-million deal Monday. Now, Zuccarello was a key trade deadline pickup for Dallas last season — even after breaking his arm in his first game — so he is an elite playmaker and nice player to have. But that’s a lot of money and, especially, term to give a 31-year-old when it seems the focus should be starting to shift away from forcing something with this roster and instead keying in on patiently reloading.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Notable acquisitions: Brandon Tanev

The Phil Kessel trade may not have happened on July 1, but we have to loop that into the picture of what’s taking place in Pittsburgh. Maybe it needed to happen, but replacing Kessel with the hope that Alex Galchenyuk can work his way back to being a 30-goal scorer leaves the Penguins in a decidedly worse position. Maybe Galchenyuk becomes that — but Kessel is that.

Now on to July 1. What the Penguins have done a great job on in the past — and what was key in reinstating themselves as Stanley Cup champs — was an ability to find cheap talent to flank their best players with. Jake Guentzel. Conor Sheary. Chris Kunitz. They all could score and did it without making a ton of money.

But on Day 1 of free agency in 2019, the Penguins sunk six years and $21 million in Tanev, who is a nice player that will help their penalty kill and all, but plays a bottom-six role that should be taken up by an interchangeable player. There is virtually no upside to him becoming a top-six forward, and it’s just another $3.5 million in cap space committed for a long term that will chip away at their ability to add difference-making talent.

Between Tanev, Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, there are starting to be too many bad contracts in Pittsburgh. The guys who were valued before are either gone or making a fair amount of money now. It was an unsuccessful lead up to free agency and a disappointing July 1 for Penguins fans.

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