Roundtable: The best and worst deals in the first wave of NHL free agency

ByESPN.com via ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 3, 2018
ESPN

The first big wave of free agency is over, with the vast majority of impact players having signed a new contract. As many in the hockey world head for summer vacation -- including the requisite wedding and lakefront snaps on Instagram -- we answer the big questions on best and worst deals, Erik Karlsson's 2018-19 team and the future of the New York Islanders without John Tavares.

What was the best overall deal in the opening days of free agency?

Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: From a players-on-the-move standpoint, I rather like the Detroit Red Wings buying three prime years of Jonathan Bernier for a $3 million cap hit annually. His .923 save percentage at even strength in the past two seasons (76 games) is better than players like Matt Murray, Roberto Luongo and Tuukka Rask. It feels like he's figured out a few things as his career has progressed.

From a "staying put" standpoint, it's hard not to love the Arizona Coyotes getting an eight-year commitment from Oliver Ekman-Larsson for $8.25 million annually (beginning in 2019-20). Not only because he's borderline elite but because he chose to stay with the franchise.

Emily Kaplan, national reporter: There's nothing not to love about James van Riemsdyk signing in Philadelphia on a five-year, $35 million deal (unless, of course, you're another team in the Metropolitan Division). Van Riemsdyk was the No. 2 overall pick in 2007 by Philadelphia; then the Flyers traded him to Toronto, only to watch him blossom as a consistent scorer for the Maple Leafs. GM Ron Hextall finally feels comfortable committing to a UFA for more than two years.

Is van Riemsdyk redundant to Wayne Simmonds? Not at all. Two players of that caliber make the Flyers that much tougher, and maybe even the team to beat in their division.

Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: The obvious answer is the John Tavares deal because it makes so much sense for everyone -- even with the big cost -- but to add a little variety, I'm going to go with the Paul Stastny contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. Getting a talented veteran center who could have taken much greater advantage of a thin UFA market on a three-year term below his average annual value from his previous contract is a nice recruiting job by Vegas. I think that's a good deal for the team and the player.

Which under-the-radar deal will have a big impact?

Wyshynski: Now that John Tortorella is done spewing expletives at former players who have the gall to suggest a team that won two of the past three Stanley Cups had more of a "winning culture" than Columbus, perhaps he can sing the praises of Riley Nash. The Blue Jackets got him for three years at $2.75 million annually. He's an accomplished checking center, but showed he could hang with the skill guys when Patrice Bergeron went down for the Boston Bruins last season. This is the kind of smart, depth move the Jackets need to make.

Kaplan: Michal Kempny returning to the Capitals for a four-year deal worth $10 million. Above-average defensemen can be hard to come by at this price. Remember, Kempny was considering a return to Europe after being jostled around in Chicago's lineup to start the season. He was traded to the Capitals, which revived his NHL career as he played some terrific hockey with John Carlson (who, of course, is also sticking around long term). Carlson's cap hit might be high, but Kempny could be a bargain, and averaged out, that's a fair-priced top pairing.

Peters: One of the low-risk buys I liked was Edmonton signing Tobias Rieder for one year at a $2 million cap hit. He was originally drafted by the Oilers but was traded before ever playing within the organization. While Rieder has not lived up to his offensive potential, he plays the game fast. I think if Edmonton puts him in the right situation, he's going to have one of his best opportunities as an NHL player to make an impact.

It's not a guarantee, but I think he has the tools to be a fit with a team that was looking to add speed around Connor McDavid.

Which multiyear signing will the team or player regret within the next year?

Wyshynski: I actually think there was an injection of sanity for many teams during this summer's frenzy, in that what used to be five-year contracts were down to maybe three instead. But if there's one I'm a little worried about, it might be Michael Grabner at $3.35 million annually for three years.

This is a guy who is basically a guaranteed 27 goals per season during the past three seasons ... yet where was the bidding war? There's something that scared off other teams. Love his speed, love his personality, like a reunion with former Rangers teammate Derek Stepan ... but if 27 goals is the bar, I'm not entirely convinced he'll clear it.

Kaplan: Is it possible to pick two players here? Nothing makes sense to me about the Vancouver Canucks giving Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel identical four-year deals worth $12 million.

It's not just the players' ages (Beagle will be 36 at the deal's expiration, Roussel will be 32), as we've seen plenty of players remain productive into their 30s. Rather, it bucks any convention regarding the Canucks' long-term vision. Isn't this team supposed to be rebuilding through homegrown talent? Overpaying for fourth-liners -- a perfect spot to plug in young players -- seems counterintuitive to that plan. I'm not giving the benefit of the doubt to GM Jim Benning because he's made this mistake before.

Peters: I have a feeling that David Perron is going to regret going back to St. Louis. The third time's a charm, I suppose, but I think he's at a greater risk there of being pushed down the lineup, depending how strongly the Blues' top prospects push for NHL spots next season.

It might be fine for Perron the first season, but Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, and maybe even Klim Kostin, will be knocking on the door, and the Blues are going to want to put those players in positions to succeed. That could mean starting any of those natural centers on the wing to start things out, potentially pushing Perron down the lineup less than halfway through his four-year deal.

Does the Erik Karlsson trade get done this summer -- and with whom?

Wyshynski: With news that the Senators are allowing Karlsson's camp to negotiate terms of a new contract with suitors, he's gone daddy gone. To where? If the Bobby Ryan contract is part of the package, there are four teams that might make sense: the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, all of whom have the cap space, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who have been chasing this deal for the better part of a year.

But it's hard to shake the idea that Karlsson is now controlling his fate to some degree, and it's hard to discount the idea that he'd want to be in a situation where he can win soon. So, that established: Vegas if Ryan is included, and the Tampa Bay Lightning if it's just Karlsson on the move.

Kaplan: It's hard to imagine a world where Erik Karlsson is an Ottawa Senator next season. The team that makes the most sense is the Golden Knights. Remember, Vegas has already engaged in meaningful talks regarding Karlsson, almost snagging him at the trade deadline.

According to Cap Friendly, the Knights still have $18,750,000 in cap space (yes, hovering around the cap floor) meaning they are one of the few teams able to take on Bobby Ryan's bloated contract as well, which could be the sweetener Ottawa needs to get it done.

Peters: Considering he's being allowed to talk extensions with teams, I think a deal gets done, and I think there's reason to expect the Golden Knights will be in that mix as confidently as anyone. They have some potential rebuild-helping type of players available. Despite having only two draft classes, they've got very attractive prospects -- especially Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom and Nic Hague.

There's also a surplus of picks to play with, with two first-rounders and five second-rounders in the next two drafts. There are very few players worth taking a big bite out of your future for, but Karlsson would be one -- especially if he's yours for the next nine seasons after an extension.

What's your elevator pitch to Lou Lamoriello on how to rebuild the Isles?

Wyshynski: Retire.

Just kidding. But there's no reason the Islanders shouldn't go full tank this season in the hopes that Jack Hughes is at the end of the rainbow at the 2019 draft. He's a generational talent who would give the franchise the rebirth it needs in a post-Tavares landscape. The Islanders have a collection of young players that could amount to something, and a burgeoning star in Mathew Barzal. Take the "L" this season. Shoot your shot.

And if that fails, offer-sheet the living daylights out of Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner next summer.

Kaplan: Trust the process and remain patient, but of course Lamoriello knows that. As we see the GM resort to what looks like a desperate contingency plan to field a competitive team next season -- with a hodgepodge of band-aid signings like Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, Thomas Hickey and Tom Kuhnhackl -- we're also reminded that the Islanders have plenty of young players to be excited about.

New York does have the cap space and assets to emerge as a suitor for Karlsson, and perhaps that's all it needs. Watch one superstar walk, acquire another. But I think the Islanders are better off staying the course for a season or two, no matter how bumpy.

Peters: Brace for some significant short-term pain while building upon a decent foundation of prospects. The good news is that the Islanders have had a few solid draft years, none better than this June's haul that included a legit scoring threat in Oliver Wahlstrom and possible future top-pairing defenseman in Noah Dobson. Barzal is at the center of your core. After him and a handful of top prospects, don't get too attached to anybody on the team who could bring back a significant enough return.

There is no quick fix to losing Tavares, and the shortcuts you might be tempted to take probably won't be worth it. Lou just went through it while with the Leafs, and it didn't take long to get things headed in the right direction; but until the Tavares signing this summer, there were no shortcuts taken in Toronto. A similar course (including winning the draft lottery, as Toronto did in the Auston Matthews draft) is the prudent move.