NHL free agency grades: Evaluating how each Canadian team did on Day 1

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Danielle Michaud on Sportsnet Central to break down a crazy first day of NHL Signing Season, with respect to the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Oilers, also makes the case for the Flames to land Jack Eichel.

Day 1 of free agency did not disappoint.

According to CapFriendly, 163 contracts were signed, totalling a whopping $785 million. General managers opened their wallets and seemingly half the goalies in the NHL changed teams. All seven Canadian teams made moves either by free agent signing, trade or both.

How did each Canadian team do? Here are our grades.

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Edmonton Oilers

Notable moves:

• Trading Ethan Bear to the Carolina Hurricanes for Warren Foegele (full details)

• Signing Zach Hyman to a seven-year deal, $5.5 million AAV (full details)

• Re-signing Tyson Barrie to a three-year deal, $4.5 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Cody Ceci to a four-year deal, $3.25 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Derek Ryan to a two-year deal, $1.25 million AAV (full details)

The worst-kept secret in free agency was made official Wednesday as Hyman officially signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Hyman is a bonafide top-six winger who is more skilled than he gets credit for. Oilers fans will find this out first-hand next season. A full profile on what Hyman brings to the table can be read here.

Edmonton added Foegele in a trade that saw Bear moved to the Hurricanes. Foegele posted 10 goals, 10 assists in 53 games last season. The 25-year old is a pain to play against and does an excellent job hunting down loose pucks and recovering dump-ins. In addition, Foegele does an excellent job of producing shots from the most high-danger area on the ice. Last season, Foegele ranked ninth in inner-slot shots on goal per 20 minutes at even-strength.

From our Insiders: Losing two of the Oilers’ top four defencemen meant Ken Holland had to come up with a new plan — and fast. Read the full story.

The Oilers solidified the right side of their defence by re-signing Barrie and adding Ceci. Barrie quarterbacked the best powerplay in the NHL last season while finishing with 48 points in 56 games. Ceci posted an expected goals for rate of 55.3 per cent with his most used defence partner, Mike Matheson last season in Pittsburgh. A four-year term for Ceci seems a little steep but as long as he’s used on a third pair and penalty kill, he should perform adequately.

The Oilers’ top-nine is much better with the additions of Hyman and Foegele, and Ryan is a good defensive forward who makes their bottom-six better. The defence is… different. A right side of Barrie, Ceci and Evan Bouchard might frighten some Oilers fans but time will tell if Ken Holland made the right moves.

Grade: B+

Winnipeg Jets

Notable moves

• Trading a 2022 third-round pick to the Canucks for Nate Schmidt (full details)

• Trading a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 second-round pick to the Washington Capitals for Brenden Dillon (full details)

The Winnipeg Jets weren’t busy on the opening day of free agency, but they did add a pair of defencemen in Schmidt and Dillon.

Schmidt struggled last season in Vancouver, playing mainly alongside Alex Edler. The duo posted an expected goals for rate of 48.4 per cent in just under 550 even-strength minutes. That’s not great but it was the best mark of any Canucks duo and Vancouver did have the worst expected goals-against average of any team. Schmidt plays all situations, skates well, and makes a great first pass. Paired with the right partner, Schmidt can be a positive impact player.

From our Insiders: Kevin Cheveldayoff upgraded his defence via trade rather than free agency. Now it’s time for the established core to reward his loyalty. Read the full story.

Dillon is signed for three more years at a cap hit of $3.9 million. Dillon is responsible with the puck, ranking in the 76th percentile in defensive zone turnover rate last season. However, Dillon struggled defending against transition plays, ranking in the 14th percentile in zone denial rate and 15th percentile recovering dump-ins and making a successful play up the ice.

While Dillon should help the Jets overall defensively, he won’t do much to address their struggles against the rush, where the Jets ranked bottom-five last season in allowing such chances.
Winnipeg has an elite goalie in Connor Hellebuyck and one of the best top-six forward groups in the NHL. The blue line is the area that needed an upgrade and the Jets did exactly that with the additions of Schmidt and Dillon.

Grade: B+

Calgary Flames

Notable moves

• Trading a 2022 third-round pick to the Boston Bruins for goaltender Dan Vladar (full details)

• Trading a 2022 third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Nikita Zadorov (full details)

• Signing Trevor Lewis to a one-year deal, $800,000 AAV (full details)

• Signing Blake Coleman to a six-year deal, $4.9 million AAV (full details)

The Calgary Flames‘ biggest move of the day was signing two-time Stanley Cup Champion Coleman.

Coleman is a versatile forward who can play all three positions. He has comfortably scored at a 20-goal pace both with Tampa Bay and New Jersey. Defensively, Coleman excels both at even-strength and on the penalty kill. Last season, Coleman’s expected goals for percentage of 56.2 at even-strength ranked 55th among forwards with at least 500 minutes. Shorthanded, Coleman is skilled at separating the puck from opponents, ranking ninth among all forwards in stick checks per 60 minutes.

Coleman should fit comfortably in the Flames’ top-six and should help a penalty kill which finished 15th last season.

From our Insiders: Blake Coleman was one of many Darryl Sutter-type additions made by the Calgary Flames on the opening day of NHL free agency — one that fills a much-needed gap. Read the full story.

While Coleman is skilled at using his stick to force a change of possession, Zadorov uses his body to do the same. The six-foot-six, 235-pound defenceman ranked fourth in body checks which force a loss of possession last season. Zadorov is a pure defensive defenceman who adds size and a physical presence on the back end following the departure of captain Mark Giordano.

Vladar was acquired from the Bruins for a third-round draft pick and will compete for the backup goalie position. Vladar appeared in five games for the Bruins last season, ranking 66th in goals saved above average among 78 qualified goalies. That said, Vladar has posted save percentages north of .920 in each of his last two seasons in the American Hockey League.

The Flames added a much-needed all-around forward in their top-six, a physical defenceman, and a backup goalie and there is no question their team is better today than it was before free agency opened.

Grade: B

Montreal Canadiens

Notable moves

• Signing David Savard to a four-year deal, $3.5 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Mike Hoffman to a three-year deal, $3.5 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Chris Wideman to a one-year deal, $750,000 AAV (full details)

• Signing Cedric Paquette to a one-year deal, $950,000 AAV (full details)

Savard isn’t a Shea Weber replacement but he’s cut from the same cloth. A bruising defender, capable of killing plays low in the defensive zone and getting in front of pucks, Savard ranked fourth among defencemen in blocked shots per game and 48th in blocked passes in the defensive zone.

Savard struggled early with Tampa Bay last season but found his game and was a valuable contributor in their Cup run. It’s one thing to play well on the third pair of an elite team. Savard will have to do the same in a top-four role for this contract to be worth it for the Montreal Canadiens.

From our Insiders: The volcanic activity of free agency opening can shift the ground underneath a franchise, and Wednesday’s eruption had seismic implications for the Canadiens. Read the full story.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum, Hoffman joins the Canadiens to score goals. A left shot, Hoffman will likely be the trigger-man on the Canadiens powerplay with Weber out of the mix. A speedy winger, Hoffman can create offence with his speed and also from the perimeter in the offensive zone. Last season, 29.4 per cent of Hoffman’s shot attempts were one-timers, the ninth highest percentage among forwards. He scored eight goals on 60 one-timer attempts.

Hoffman is not a well-rounded player — if he’s scoring, you notice him in a big way. If he’s not scoring, he won’t affect the game in many other areas. That said, Montreal has plenty of forwards capable of playing a complete or straight-up checking game. The Canadiens need goals and Hoffman should provide them.

Wideman, fresh off KHL defenceman of the year honours, will battle for a roster spot. Paquette also joins the Canadiens as a depth, checking centre.

Montreal did its best to address the loss of Weber and its goal-scoring / powerplay issues. Hoffman should live up to his contract in goal-scoring alone while Savard will need to elevate his game against tougher competition. A couple of additional depth pieces and all-in-all, a decent opening day of free agency.

Grade: B-

Toronto Maple Leafs

Notable moves:

• Signing Michael Bunting to a two-year deal, $950,000 AAV (full details)

• Signing David Kampf to a two-year deal, $1.5 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Petr Mrazek to a three-year deal, $3.8 million AAV (full details)

The Toronto Maple Leafs were limited in what they could do but they did address their biggest area of concern by signing Mrazek. Toronto needed a goalie capable of sharing minutes with Jack Campbell and Mrazek has proven he can thrive in a platoon role.

Mrazek appeared in only 12 games last season but posted a ridiculous 0.61 goals saved above expected per 60. In 80 games combined over his two prior seasons, Mrazek also posted an above-expected goals saved rate on a strong defensive Carolina team. That is reason to believe Mrazek should be an above-average goalie for the Maple Leafs.

Toronto finished last season with the eighth lowest expected goals-against average, 2.37. Carolina finished two spots ahead with a nearly identical 2.35 average. The Leafs made big strides in their defensive game last season so there shouldn’t be much of a difference in the quality of shots Mrazek faces in Toronto.

From our Insiders: The Toronto Maple Leafs wasted no time filling their No. 1 need in free agency, and will hope they struck gold elsewhere. Read the full story.

From there, the Leafs made several depth signings, Bunting and Kampf the most notable.

Bunting was signed to a reasonable 2-year deal at $950k per year. A potential undervalued signing candidate, Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games last season with Arizona. While nobody expects him to continue scoring on over a quarter of his shots, Bunting has the tools to be an effective NHL player. Bunting generates a solid amount of high-danger shots on goal and is a good net presence at even-strength and on the powerplay. Bunting wins puck battles at a high rate and recovers loose pucks well. At best, Bunting could be an effective middle-six left-winger which the Maple Leafs need after losing Hyman. At worst, it’s a contract of less than $1 million which is a low-risk, high-reward type deal.

Kampf is a defensive centre with little offensive upside. A potential fourth line fit, Kampf won nearly 53 per cent of his faceoffs last season and led all Blackhawks forwards in penalty kill ice-time.

Toronto might have found a diamond in the rough in Bunting and got the platoon goalie it needed on Wednesday. The Leafs were not able to acquire a proven top-six winger, which they still need. Is Toronto better today than it was on Tuesday? That’s debatable but they didn’t have much in terms of cap space to work with either.

Grade: C+

Ottawa Senators

Notable moves:

• Trading Evgenii Dadonov to the Vegas Golden Knights for Nick Holden and 2022 third-round pick (full details)

• Signing Michael Del Zotto to a two-year deal, $2 million AAV (full details)

Pierre Dorion was able to send Dadonov and his $5 million cap hit to Vegas for Holden and a third-round draft pick. Dadonov scored 25 or more goals in each of his three seasons with the Florida Panthers but managed just 13 goals and seven assists in 55 games with the Ottawa Senators last season.

With two years left on his contract, moving Dadonov for an impressive return was a great move for Dorion and the Senators.

From our Insiders: Pierre Dorion added some needed experience to his defence corps and, thanks to some shrewd moves during the opening day of NHL free agency, he’s also in a position to bolster his forward depth. Read the full story.

Holden appeared in 17 games for the Golden Knights last season. The 34-year old veteran is a depth option on the back end.

Ottawa further bolstered its blue line by signing Michael Del Zotto to a two-year deal worth $4 million. Del Zotto can play all situations and makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone.

The Senators also extended the contract of head coach D.J. Smith who has done an admirable job of getting his rebuilding team to give maximum effort each night.

The Sens didn’t swing for the fences in free agency, which is a wise move with all the young talent they have on their roster. Freeing up cap space, adding veteran depth on defence while locking up their head coach made for a good, albeit conservative day for the Senators.

Grade: C

Vancouver Canucks

Notable moves:

• Signing Jaroslav Halak to a one-year deal, $1.5 million AAV (full details)

• Re-signing Travis Hamonic to a two-year deal, $3 million AAV (full details)

• Signing Brent Sutter to a one-year deal, $1.125 million (full details)

• Signing Nic Petan to a two-year deal, $750,000 AAV (full details)

• Signing Luke Schenn to a two-year deal, $850,000 AAV (full details)

• Signing Tucker Poolman to a four-year deal, $2.5 million AAV (full details)

• Trading a 2022 third-round pick to the Jets for Nate Schmidt (full details)

The Vancouver Canucks were the busiest of the Canadian teams.

Vancouver signed four defencemen, a pair of forwards and a goalie. Hamonic returns on a two-year, $6 million deal. Hamonic was brought in last year to replace Chris Tanev alongside Quinn Hughes. The results were less than spectacular. In just over 500 minutes together at even-strength, the Hamonic-Hughes pairing had an expected goals for percentage of 40.1 per cent. Hughes finished the season with a minus-24 rating, seventh worst in the NHL.

The Canucks are hoping Poolman, who was inked to a four-year, $10 million contract can provide some of the defensive elements Tanev did when he was in Vancouver.

“When we talked to his agent, there were 12 teams that were in on him,” general manager Jim Benning said. “We just think he’s a good fit for our team. Losing Chris Tanev hurt us… we think Tucker Poolman has some of that in him.”

From our Insiders: The Canucks are going to be deeper, faster, and more dangerous up front next season. But the changes on defence leave more questions to be answered. Read the full story.

Poolman appeared in 39 games for the Jets last season and averaged over 18 minutes of ice time per game. Playing mostly with Josh Morrisey, the pair combined for an expected goals for rate of 42.2 per cent in just over 500 minutes of ice together. Poolman faced top competition and ranked in the 14th percentile in defensive zone turnover rate and 12th percentile in expect goal rate.

There is little evidence to suggest Poolman can be the defensive defenceman Tanev was if paired with Hughes next season. Perhaps the twelve teams who were believed to be in on Poolman helps explain the four-year term given to a 28-year old defenceman with 120 games of NHL experience. Perhaps it was simply a negotiating tactic by the agent. Either way, it’s a big, big gamble by the Canucks. The Poolman contract has the potential to be one of the most regrettable of all signed on Wednesday.

Schenn joins the Canucks after spending the past two seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Schenn performed well in a sheltered role in Tampa. A physical defenceman, Schenn is responsible with the puck, ranking seventh in defensive zone turnover rate, turning the puck over on just 10 per cent of his possessions. The Canucks had the worst expected goal rate in the league last season and, while Schenn won’t solve Vancouver’s defensive problems, he won’t compound them either.

The Canucks added plenty of new players, specifically defencemen, but the last line of defence will need to be the rock of this team. Signing Halak to play behind Thatcher Demko is a nice move. Demko led all goalies in goals saved above expected last season. He has the potential to be a star, No. 1 goalie. Halak is a veteran, capable of pulling his weight, and should compliment Demko well in the Canucks net. One thing is for sure, life will be different for Halak, going from one of the top defensive teams in the Bruins to the worst last season.

The Canucks are betting on a bounce-back season from Oliver Ekman-Larsson and hoping Poolman can not only play top-four minutes but play well in them. There has been no tangible evidence that will be the case to this point in his career. The Canucks get points for the sheer volume of work they put in but the moves they made still leave far more questions than answers heading into next season.

Grade: D+

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