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Roundtable: Best free agent signings; most improved teams

NHL free agent signings

Which NHL free agent signing(s) do you like the most? Which do you like the least?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: When you think about “checking all of the boxes” in a great NHL free agent signing, the Sabres snatching Taylor Hall at one year, $8M nails it the most. Consider it free agent BINGO:

B - The Sabres got one of the biggest stars in free agency in Taylor Hall.

I - In doing so, they pacified their biggest star, Jack Eichel, at least for a while.

N - By making it just a one-year deal, you mitigate the risks of signing an aging player to too-much-term. Frankly, $8M isn’t all that bad, either.

G - That’s because, if things don’t work out, you can recoup some value in a trade. Sure, Hall gets say with his trade clause, but he’ll want to play for a contender if the Sabres ... well, stay the Sabres.

O - Oh no, I’ve run out of stuff! (How about ... a nice statement from new GM Kevyn Adams? Yeah, that’s the ticket.)

That said, the best pure hockey signings might end up being something like the Canadiens signing Tyler Toffoli for cheap, and getting that bargain for multiple years. But it’s not as fun as the Hall deal.

As far as worst deals ... as much as I want to ding the Rangers for signing Jack Johnson in 2020, that’s at least a gaffe that goes away after a year. The Senators giving up assets for Matt Murray and then signing him for four years and $25M is a classic “Well, we like the guy!” move. Sure, Murray could work out, but he’s been brutal the last couple of years, and has had health problems to boot. Also, the Senators could be quite a way from being any good anyway, so why overextend for a goalie now?

I’m also concerned about the term handed to Christopher Tanev and Josh Anderson. While the latter player could work out, both strike me as risky.

[Blue Jackets facing delicate contract negotiation with Pierre-Luc Dubois]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: What Joe Sakic is doing in Colorado is some superhuman work. He retained Andre Burakovsky, Ryan Graves, and Tyson Jost at reasonable, shorter-term deals, and may have worked out the best contract with possible future Selke Trophy winner Valeri Nichushkin (two years, $5M). Not satisfied with that, he went out and took advantage of a cap-strapped Islanders team and improved his blue line by adding Devon Toews and locking him up for four years.

I also like the Evgenii Dadonov and Alex Pietrangelo deals, but only in the short term. Dadonov is 31, so we’ll see if his production dips at the end of his three-year pact but he will provide a veteran presence on a developing Senators team. Pietrangelo fills a need for the Stanley Cup contending Golden Knights, and while the back end of the seven-year contract might be ugly, if it gets them a title or two, it’ll have been worth it.

The term on Jacob Markstrom deal is frightening. He’ll be 31 in January and six years for a goaltender at that age will not end well. Brad Treliving’s window in Calgary is closing, and who knows what they’ll do with Johnny Gaudreau. The pressure is on to win and short-term gains could lead to long-term pains if the salary cap ceiling doesn’t return to normal growth in a few seasons.

[To replace Pietrangelo, Blues defense should spread the wealth, specialize]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Craig Smith in Boston has been at the top of my list from the moment they put pen to paper. I just think he is a perfect fit in every way for them. He gives an already deep forward lineup another scoring option, and his contract is excellent. It is only three years so he should remain productive throughout it, and the salary cap hit is more than fair. You know he is going to give you 20-25 goals and drive possession. Just a really good all-around player that does not get a lot of attention. Think he is about to in Boston.

You also have to like Taylor Hall in Buffalo, even though I am not sure it makes a huge difference for them. But anytime you can get an elite winger and recent league MVP you have to jump at it.

Also really love Tyler Toffoli in Montreal. Like Smith, it is a fair deal, decent cap hit, and just a really good all-around player. Think getting him in a system that is not Los Angeles will do wonders for him. We already saw a glimpse of it in Vancouver (very briefly) but he should be a great pickup for the Canadiens.

[What will Alex Ovechkin’s next contract look like with Capitals?]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Toronto Maple Leafs will have to be creative as long as the “core four” of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander remain on the roster, chewing up half of their entire team’s cap hit. So I was a fan of the veteran signings they made to fill out their roster. Up front, Wayne Simmonds (from Scarborough) and Joe Thornton (from London) have returned to their home province on bargain deals, and should add important depth to a top-heavy group. On defense, T.J. Brodie (4 years, $20M) and Stanley Cup champ Zach Bogosian (1 year, $1M) seem like upgrades on paper over Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie. Has GM Kyle Dubas found the right mix this time?

I also wanted to mention Kevan Miller re-signing with Boston on a 1-year contract. He finally appears healthy and ready to hit the ice for the first time in nearly two years. I’m glad he’s getting a shot to get his career back on track.

I’m wary of the massive contract Calgary gave to Jacob Markstrom (6 years, $36M). Do not read this as a criticism of Markstrom’s ability right now; he was an elite goalie last year and helped Vancouver knock off the defending Cup champion Blues in the First Round with a .930 SV% that series. But he turns 31 in January, and with so many cheaper options on the market this offseason, this was a serious commitment. Markstrom is an upgrade in the short term; we’ll see how this one ages.

[Red Wings sign Anthony Mantha, the best part of an already bright offseason]

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I love the pickup of Taylor Hall by the Sabres. It gives them another star player and hopefully satisfies their reigning superstar, Jack Eichel, who will have a player with outstanding talent on his wing. Eichel was not at all happy with the Sabres as they have yet to make the playoffs in the any of the five seasons he has played and his frustrations were showing in the off-season as he wants to win. With Hall now aboard, that gives the Sabres one of the top lines in the NHL with Hall and Sam Reinhart on his wings and should make for a great number one power play when you add Rasmus Dahlin to quarterback.

I was not thrilled with the Canucks taking on Braden Holtby and letting Jacob Markstrom go elsewhere. Except for the 2018 playoffs when he backstopped the Capitals to the Stanley Cup, he has been a mediocre netminder the past three regular seasons. Even when Washington won the Cup, Holtby was on the bench for the first two games of the post-season as he had lost his job to Philipp Grubauer. In the last three seasons Holtby has had goals-against-averages of 2.99, 2.82 and 3.11 while his save percentage this season dipped below .900 at .897. Markstrom had been a stud in net for Vancouver and he could come back to haunt his former teammates as he inked a six-year deal with rival Calgary.

Which team improved the most by what they’ve done so far in free agency?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Some of the NHL’s worst teams got a lot better, but in certain instances, there was some “addition by subtraction.”

The Devils, meanwhile, did quite a bit to actually just add quality. Corey Crawford long deserved more credit in Chicago, and that was very much true in propping up a horrid defense in 2019-20. Ryan Murray struggles to stay on the ice, but could help the Devils’ own rather horrendous blue line. While Andreas Johnsson was a trade addition rather than a UFA, adding him accounted for some of New Jersey’s cap spending.

I’m not sure how far this actually takes the Devils. For New Jersey to be more viable, they’ll need to perform at a higher level. Maybe Jack Hughes can, uh, look more like a surefire No. 1 pick? But they made some smart moves without taking many risks.

If you want a good team that got better, the Avalanche shrewdly landing Devon Toews almost feels like cheating. Can’t other teams have good defensemen too? Hoarders.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Honestly, I really think it might be the Edmonton Oilers. Crazy, I know. But they have done an outstanding job finding three bargains in Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, and Tyson Barrie. Turris is a low-risk gamble to fill the third-line center spot, and Barrie seems like an absolutely perfect fit on that power play. Getting those two guys for as cheap as they did is wonderful work as both should be in line for bounceback seasons. Kahun is also a smart pickup. Still pretty young, and I loved the way he played in Pittsburgh and thought the Penguins made a huge mistake trading him at the trade deadline. Good two-way player. Still question Edmonton’s goalie situation, but they have done great otherwise this offseason.

[Avalanche salary cap situation is about to get a little more complicated]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: If I can also include trades in this analysis, I’m going with Montreal. Between their acquisitions prior to free agency, and then their moves on the open market, the Canadiens look much better heading into 2020-21. They addressed a serious weakness by bringing in Jake Allen (.927 SV% last season) as Carey Price’s backup. Former Cup champ Joel Edmundson will add defensive depth. GM Marc Bergevin made a considerable investment in Josh Anderson (it cost them Max Domi and a hefty 7-year deal), but if Anderson can stay healthy, this gives the Habs a size element they lacked a season ago. Add in a reasonable deal for former 30-goal scorer Tyler Toffoli, and Montreal should definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I liked what Ottawa did in the off-season. Not only did they grab two of the top-five draft picks in Tim Stuetzle and Jake Sanderson, who should star on the Senators for the next 10 years once they make it to the NHL, but they fixed their goaltending woes by trading for Matt Murray. Then they signed winger Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year deal that certainly will help their offense. It was a great job this off-season by GM Pierre Dorion.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Agree with Michael. Sure, the bar is low, but Dorion had made the most out of this offseason. Between the draft pick additions and upgrading in goal with Murray and on their top six with Dadonov, plus the Alex Galchenyuk lottery ticket, things should be brighter in Ottawa over the next few seasons.