It’s been an eventful and seemingly long NHL off-season. Nazem Kadri, one of the top free agents on the market this year, didn’t sign with a new club until mid-August. Paul Stastny picked his new club in the Hurricanes just last week. Phil Kessel joined the Golden Knights after that. And there are still a handful of unsigned skaters looking for a new opportunity.
So what do Kadri and Kessel, two of the latest signings, bring to their new clubs? And what kind of impact could the remaining free agents make for a team that gives them a chance?
Let’s dive in.
Nazem Kadri, Calgary Flames
The Flames have navigated a tough off-season, losing both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, but adding Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and now Kadri.
While Huberdeau’s puck distribution skills will help fill the void left by Gaudreau, the team’s MVP last season, Kadri isn’t a one-for-one replacement of Tkachuk. His presence won’t load up the top line like another winger would. He does, however, add a scoring threat on the second line that Calgary was missing. That holds true even if Kadri can’t meet some of his career-year marks from 2021-22, and performs closer to what he did the couple of seasons prior.
Kadri’s an impactful two-way centre who plays with an edge. He generally creates a high rate of shots, both in transition and off the cycle. The newest Flame often finds himself performing close to expectations in the goal column, but isn’t a one-dimensional player offensively, either.
The 31-year-old can also move the puck up the ice and set up his teammates. That should come in handy for Calgary, now that his presence likely shifts Mikael Backlund to a fitting role on the third line with more of an emphasis on defence. So while the Flames’ winger depth may not match the heights of last season, players like Andrew Mangiapane, Tyler Toffoli, and possibly Blake Coleman as well may find themselves in better positions to get on the scoresheet at even strength now that there’s a more offensively minded centre down the middle of the second line.
While the long-term ramifications of this contract will probably get tricky, the Flames are clearly trying to contend now and Kadri could be a key part of it over the next couple of seasons.
Phil Kessel, Vegas Golden Knights
Amanda Kessel’s brother signed a one year contract with the Golden Knights last week at a very team-friendly $1.5 million. It’s a huge drop-off from his last contract that ended with an actual salary of $6 million in 2021-22.
Similar to his sister, Phil has an effective shot. His scoring totals tend to slant towards the goal column. But he fell below expectations last season. Based on the quality of his shot generation, he was expected to score around 17 goals. In the past, he’s had the finishing talent to match that more closely. In 2021-22, however, he only notched eight in a complete 82-game season. Only three skaters in the league fell below expectations worse than Kessel’s -8.61 — Brendan Gallagher, Joonas Donskoi, and Alexander Radulov. The Coyotes’ winger lowly rate of .35 goals per 60 was by far the worst of his career and a huge drop off from his 1.25 per 60 in 2020-21.
That lacklustre goal scoring, along with his past hefty cap hit and the well-documented weaknesses of his game, may be why it took free agency for his tenure in Arizona to come to an end instead of the trade deadline.
So, what will the Golden Knights be getting now from the 34-year-old?
For one, they’re getting a player who can stick in the lineup — something Vegas needed last year as they juggled numerous injuries. The Golden Knights are also getting a player who can be counted on to chip into their shot generation. That’s something that has dipped since Kessel joined the Coyotes, overall, but with more support around him it’s possible it starts trending back up. And in Vegas, that’s something Kessel should have; they have more depth which slots him in more of a secondary role than he had these past few years. And it's a position Kessel's been in before, like with Pittsburgh. So this situation is probably more fitting for the winger, especially at this phase in his career. And as that expected goal total showed, he can still create some quality chances.
Kessel just has to show that he still has the finishing talent he’s had throughout his career.
NOTABLE FREE AGENTS
While training camp is approaching in the next few weeks, there are still players who have yet to sign with their new teams.
Subban is among those unrestricted free agents yet to sign a contract. The more notable defenders remaining on the market fit into the same category: they’re all past their prime and won’t bring as much to the table at this point. But in the right role, there can be a place for them in the NHL.
What’s hurt Subban’s game is that he’s lost a step over the past few seasons. And because he’s trailing plays, he tends to take more penalties — some of which, including trips and slew foots — have been highlighted for all the wrong reasons. His scoring has taken a hit since he hasn’t been a mainstay on the power play, though he can still be counted on to rip one-timers from the point at even strength. His defensive numbers haven’t exactly shined as of late in New Jersey, but they’re not as dreadful as the scoresheet might show. The Devils had an awful goaltending situation in 2021-22.
The veteran Subban can still retrieve loose pucks back in his own zone, which can help spark an effort to exit the defensive end. Maybe in a new system, a coaching staff can find a way to maximize those skills in a third pair role.
Calvin De Haan
Like Kessel and Subban, De Haan was available at the deadline but no team opted to acquire him. And, like the aforementioned veterans, he’s been on a struggling team (Chicago). Sometimes it’s tough to isolate whether a player is part of the problem or just negatively impacted by their environment.
Regardless of whether he’s on a contender or even on a team as dismal as the Blackhawks, there is some dependability to De Haan’s game. He’s very defensively minded and can try to keep shots out of the slot, whether he’s blocking those attempts or trying to retrieve loose pucks to turn play around. He can absorb minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill. The downside is his injury history, which may be why some have looked elsewhere for depth on the blue line.
Motte’s the kind of player general managers often are quick to overspend on in the off-season. He brings a spark to a team’s bottom-six with his speedy skating and willingness to the shoot the puck. The winger’s positioning and stick plays can help change possession, whether he recovers a loose puck or blocks a shot. And he can help bring the puck up with control to turn play around, both at even strength and while short-handed.
Aston-Reese proved to be a very strong defensive forward in Pittsburgh. Very little offence is generated when he’s on the ice, and opponents tend to stay out of the inner slot. The winger will block shots and jump on loose pucks at even strength and on the penalty kill. The problem is that there isn’t much offensive generation from his team either while he’s deployed. That’s what likely keeps him in a bottom-six role, wherever he signs. General managers tend to want players they can trust back in their own zone, so it won’t be surprising if Aston-Reese is on a team’s roster by opening night.
While Aston-Reese helps teams looking for defence, Milano brings offence. The question is whether his 2021-22 season was a product of playing alongside Trevor Zegras, whose creativity and gutsy plays stood out throughout the year. Still, it could be worth an inexpensive contract to find that out. Milano is a player who showed last season that he can enter the zone with possession, set his teammates up in the scoring areas, and generate his own chances (some of which were assisted by quality passes). At the very least, there’s some depth scoring potential in the bottom-six for this 26-year-old.
It was a tale of two seasons for Rodrigues. If a player of his calibre ended the year with 29 goals and 43 points, after only having a previous high of 29 points on the season, it would seem fine at face value. The problem was that he started so hot and trended down, making the drop-off so glaring.
Still, this is a player who can fire off a high rate of shots, create scoring chances off the cycle, and set up his teammates with passes to the slot. That all could be productive in a supporting role, and could be good value depending on the cost of the contract. Expectations just have to be realistic — that he’s likely somewhere in between the player who started hot and finished as cold as possible in Pittsburgh.
Data via Sportlogiq and CapFriendly.