Free agency winners and losers: Senators, Blue Jackets come up big

Newest Ottawa Senators forward Claude Giroux discusses all the factors that went into his decision to sign with them, and how GM Pierre Dorion's recent moves helped play into his decision.

How much of a shocker was Johnny Gaudreau’s decision to bolt Southern Alberta for Central Ohio? Well, Sportsnet’s Sonny Sachdeva put together a list of “wildly intriguing longshot landing spots” for ‘Johnny Hockey’ back when we were still in the speculation stage of this journey and, even when our man let his man let his imagination run wild, the Columbus Blue Jackets did not enter the conversation.

Maybe it’s only fitting that a guy whose NHL career itself once seemed like an unlikely proposition made what — to put it lightly — was an unanticipated decision to sign a seven-year, $68.25-million deal with the Jackets.

If Taylor Hall raised eyebrows signing a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres two years ago, Gaudreau melted faces by full on walking down the aisle with Columbus.

Whatever your perspective on Gaudreau’s call, it was clearly the headliner on the opening day of NHL free agency. But there was still plenty else to chew on while we waited for that 165-pound chip to fall. With that in mind, let’s examine some winners, losers and situations that fall somewhere in between now that the ink on some of those big contracts is starting to dry.

Winners

Columbus Blue Jackets

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We can’t start anywhere else and we also can’t help but be a little happy for a club that’s been spurned in the recent past by big-name players either bolting town or opting to never come there at all. Columbus knew it would be hard-pressed to re-sign any of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene or Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer of 2019, but opted to go all in anyway and wound up registering the first playoff series win in franchise history before all three did, in fact, ink elsewhere.

What’s interesting about this Gaudreau scenario is, in the past, Columbus attempted to woo stars by offering the heftiest contracts. Whether it was trying to get Panarin to stay with a larger deal than he inked with the New York Rangers or flirting with an RFA offer sheet for Mitch Marner later that summer, GM Jarmo Kekalainen seemed to embrace the idea he might have to knock a star’s socks off to get him to commit to Columbus.

While we knew Gaudreau would be leaving money on the table the moment he opted to depart Calgary — about $15 million, as it turns out — for what we all assumed would be a team in the Eastern Conference, it’s not like Columbus had to blow other teams like the New Jersey Devils or New York Islanders out of the water with the $9.75 AAV they got Gaudreau to agree to.

Whatever the case, it’s a done deal now. Fire the cannon.

Ottawa Senators

Even when they were at their best, the Sens were never really a win-the-summer type of organization. In 2022, however, I’m not sure anybody is having a better off-season than Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion because signing Claude Giroux to a three-year deal with an AAV of $6.5 million was just the latest in a series of strong and sensible moves.

Giroux may turn 35 halfway through next season, but this is about far more than someone with ties to the area coming “home” to play out the stretch. With 23 points in 18 games as a Florida Panther following the deadline deal that sent him there from Philly, Giroux showed exactly what he can do on a good team. Is Ottawa “Panthers good” right now? No. But that top six is getting awfully stacked with Giroux joining a group that includes Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson and the guy who started this summer winning streak for Dorion, Alex DeBrincat.

Throw in Cam Talbot — acquired via trade just before the free agent market opened — and it’s very easy to see how an Ottawa squad that hasn’t made the playoffs since coming within one goal of a Stanley Cup Final berth in 2017 could jump up and push for a post-season position in 2022-23.

Carolina Hurricanes

Who needs signings when you can acquire top-tier talent in trades without giving up, well, basically anything? Adding Brent Burns — still a minute-munching monster at 37 — from the re-tooling San Jose Sharks and Max Pacioretty from the cap-crunched Vegas Golden Knights were wonderful moves for a fantastic squad that’s trying to clear those final championship hurdles. Pacioretty has one year to go on his deal and, if it’s a healthy one, it’s easy to envision a 40-goal season for him.

Edmonton Oilers

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Retaining Evander Kane and Brett Kulak were really nice momentum-sustaining developments for a team that made the final four this past season. It would have been pretty excruciating to see Kane, in particular, walk out the door after we all saw what a fit he is beside Connor McDavid.

Goaltending questions have plagued this franchise for some time and while it would be foolhardy to simply assume that’s ancient history now with the signing of Jack Campbell — the 30-year-old late-bloomer’s sample size as a No. 1 is still relatively small — it’s still a very reasonable play by GM Ken Holland to give Campbell five-by-five and hope it dramatically upgrades what he was getting in the crease. If Campbell truly is the long-term solution, this will go down as a watershed day in Oil Country.

Charlie Lindgren, Washington Capitals

We’re always talking about big numbers at the outset of free agency, so here’s a modest one for you: 28. That’s how many career starts 28-year-old Charlie Lindgren has made. In the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, that number was zero, meaning he’s played five games in the past two NHL campaigns. All of those outings, though, came during a 10-day stretch with the St. Louis Blues last December and Lindgren stopped 113 of the 118 shots he faced for a .958 save percentage. Other than that, he had strong AHL regular season numbers last year for, really, the first time in his career and a decent playoff performance in that league with the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Still, that was enough to entice the Washington Capitals — who made Darcy Kuemper their starter earlier in the day — to offer the southpaw goalie a three-year deal worth $3.3 million. That number that, according to Cap Friendly, is slightly larger than Lindgren’s estimated career earnings to date.

I See What You Did There

Detroit Red Wings

It’s not that any one thing Steve Yzerman did was a stroke of genius, it’s just that brining in the likes of Michigan boy Andrew Copp, hardnosed D-man Ben Chiarot and veteran scorer David Perron is an unmistakable sign Yzerman is ready to kick this rebuild into a new gear. If the Ville Husso play works out in goal, the Red Wings figure to be much more competitive this season.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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Picture the scene; you’re in some Tampa joint overlooking the bay enjoying a happy-hour beverage when in walks $159.6 million worth of freshly extended Lightning talent. Talk about a round for the house!

Okay, so Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak may not have actually all been in Tampa right now to celebrate, but you get the point. By inking the trio to eight-year extensions one year before they were all eligible to become RFAs, Tampa locked up core players with all kinds of great hockey ahead of them to the fairly team-friendly Florida numbers we’ve grown accustomed to. That takes the sting out of having to deal Ryan McDonagh away and knowing you won’t be able to bring Ondrej Palat back.

Colorado Avalanche

You knew there were going to be some losses, but bringing back Josh Manson on the blue line is a huge win and it’s easy to see the freshly extended Artturi Lehkonen scoring several more critical playoff goals for this club over the next half-decade. Keeping Valeri Nichushkin’s huge frame around for another eight years means fans of the defending champs are definitely going to have the party going all summer.

Pittsburgh Penguins

For a while there, it felt like there was a real chance Evgeni Malkin could walk out the door. But his decision to re-sign right before the market opened means both he and Kris Letang — after a season’s worth of speculation — will be back with the club for what is likely to be the final good years of their careers. I don’t know how these deals will look in Year 4, but that’s not the point for Pittsburgh; by keeping both, GM Ron Hextall wedged a crowbar in his team’s Stanley Cup window and kept that thing open for at least another spring or two.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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What the new goalie battery of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov lacks in security, it might make up for with upside. Murray has championship pedigree and lost his way in Ottawa; Samsonov was a first-round pick who looked like a surefire No. 1 in the early stages of his development. The latter is just 25 and more than one guy at his position only began to find himself at that age. Signing 1998 Curtis Joseph wasn’t an option for the Leafs and GM Kyle Dubas did a decent job navigating the situation in front of him.

Losers

Every Team Flattened By The Gaudreau Shockwaves

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Nothing about how the Calgary Flames played this should actually leave them labelled as “losers.” They selected Gaudreau in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft, showing faith on a tiny player nobody else stepped up to take. Gaudreau scored a goal in his very first game with Calgary and netted his final tally as a Flame in what turned out to be his last contest with the club, the overtime affair Edmonton won to claim the Battle of Alberta in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In between those events, Gaudreau did enough for Calgary and GM Brad Treliving to put forth a max-term eight-year offer that various reports said came in with an AAV of $10.5 million. It’s not Calgary’s fault he didn’t take it, but it leaves the Flames hurting.

If he wasn’t going to sign in Calgary, it seemed certain close-to-home places like Jersey, Long Island or Philadelphia would be the top options. The Devils, in particular, appeared to be a natural landing spot with an on-the-rise core headlined by centres Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. Adding Palat takes some of the sting out, but that’s not what Devils supporters were dreaming of when they woke up on Wednesday morning.

For all the fist-pumping going on in Columbus, there’s surely some head-shaking going on elsewhere.

Vegas Golden Knights

Have we entered the hangover phase of this team’s spend-like-drunken-sailors approach? If you’re going to celebrate acquiring Jack Eichel and landing UFAs like Alex Pietrangelo, you have to mourn seeing top-tier talent kicked out the door for nothing but a little breathing room in return. Clearing cap hits is an annual summer tradition for Vegas now and, 12 months after shipping out Marc-Andre Fleury for peanuts, the Knights had to move Pacioretty and his $7-million hit for future considerations. The left winger might be coming off an injury-ravaged season, but he’s produced 154 points in 158 outings for Vegas the past three years. Seeing a player like that leave town for nothing goes beyond the “cost of doing business.”

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