Winners and losers from Day 1 of NHL free agency

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, July 2, 2018

The opening day of 2018 NHL free agency included a seismic shift in the league's balance of power, with John Tavares signing a seven-year, $77 million deal with the ascendant Toronto Maple Leafs.

But the Leafs weren't the only winners, and the teams that lost out on Tavares aren't the only losers. Here's our rundown of both sides of the ledger after the opening hours of the free-agent frenzy:

Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs

Countless teams wanted to audition for "The Bachelor." Just six made the final cut. Only the Maple Leafs received a rose.

Toronto landed the prize of free agency in John Tavares. The future is bright in Toronto with two superstar centers (one is 27 years old, the other is 20) and a 32-year-old general manager in Kyle Dubas who apparently made such an eloquent pitch, Tavares couldn't refuse. What's more, the Maple Leafs are boasting love and peace in the locker room. "Ego? What ego?" they ask.

Auston Matthews doesn't mind sharing the spotlight -- he even helped recruit Tavares. Line combinations are irrelevant. Everything is swell. The Leafs are no longer lovable underdogs; the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook promoted Toronto to 8-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup after this deal. It's going to be difficult to keep Jake Gardiner from unrestricted free agency next summer, and the defensive group in general is pretty shaky. But for now, it's all gravy.

Loser: Lou Lamoriello

Lou Lamoriello is a stabilizer. He arrived in Toronto when they needed a veteran executive in the general manager's role, and left three years later with the Leafs as a rising Stanley Cup contender. There's no better validation of that status than the Maple Leafs being good enough to attract the premiere unrestricted free agent available.

Unfortunately, that free agent also happened to be the franchise center for Lamoriello's new team, the New York Islanders. John Tavares' leaving rips the heart of the current incarnation of the Islanders. The draw of his childhood team was far more powerful than that of Lamoriello, coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders' frequent also-ran status and arena uncertainty. A petty statement about Tavares having "achieved great individual success on the ice" was the capper for one of the most brutal days in the history of the Islanders.

Tavares joins Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez, Scott Niedermayer and Zach Parise as elite talents who left Lamoriello's teams as free agents.

Winner: Arizona Coyotes

GM John Chayka continues his tradition of strong offseasons.

First, the Coyotes flipped Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk, giving the young (hopefully) center the change in scenery he needs. They inked speedy scorer Michael Grabner at $3.35 million annually for three seasons. They re-upped Kevin Connauton for two years at $1.375 million against the cap. They also extended Niklas Hjalmarsson through 2021 at $5 million per season.

Arizona still has over $16 million cap space and has already checked off a number of boxes.

Loser: Montreal Canadiens

While the Islanders were embarrassed by the Tavares decision, no team was more humiliated by it than the Montreal Canadiens.

First, they didn't even get an invite to pitch the top free agent of the summer. Then, they watched him sign within their division and with their blood rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Factor in trading Galchenyuk for Domi, who is not a center, and then acquiring Joel Armia from the Jets, who has rarely played center, and the Canadiens remain a donut.

But hey, at least they brought back Tomas Plekanec so he can retire as a Canadien.

Winner: Shade

Plenty of teams felt jilted by the Tavares decision -- compounded by the elongated and secretive process.

The Islanders, of course, were most scorned by Tavares; they drafted the center No. 1 overall in 2009, courted him over the past 12 months and tried to appeal to him with a new GM and coach (who have both won Stanley Cups) ... then watched their captain walk away without recouping anything. Lamoriello released a curt, 56-word statement congratulating Tavares on his "individual success." Zing.

San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who cleared cap space and boasted a championship-ready roster, thanked his own "world-class players" who "have continually chosen to bypass a chance at unrestricted free agency in recent years because they want to play in San Jose." (Of course, this is the same team that lost Patrick Marleau to free agency last summer).

Loser: Winnipeg Jets

The Jets were saddled with 16 restricted free agents to take care of, including 12 for whom they made qualifying offers. They also need to figure out an extension for Patrik Laine. Even still, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff found a way to clear cap space -- via a stealth unloading of Steve Mason's bloated contract to the Canadiens -- with the goal of retaining their trade-deadline rental, Paul Stastny. After all, Stastny was terrific with the Jets, especially through the playoffs, as a complement to Laine on the second line.

The Jets offered Stastny a three-year deal (the same term he accepted with the Vegas Golden Knights) but were not able to match Vegas' $6.5 million per year. The Jets had their perfect No. 2 center within grasp -- and could do nothing but let him walk away.

Winner: Nostalgia

David Perron inked with the St. Louis Blues, James van Riemsdyk signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, Thomas Vanek with the Detroit Red Wings. Remind us, what year is this again?

If 2018 free agency reminded us of anything, it's that it is possible to go home again. And to try to do the thing that eluded you the first go-around.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by Perron, the first example of a Golden Misfit returning to the team that once exposed him. Perron has played for five teams in his career and yet somehow the Blues are the only team to sign him to a contract (he's now on his fifth with the club).

Loser: Gary Bettman

According to the New York Post, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed an edict to the NHL board of governors: To stop handing out signing bonuses for seasons around the next potential lockout in 2020-21.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik was a good soldier, foregoing any signing bonus for Ryan McDonagh during those seasons. The Toronto Maple Leafs? Not so much: Tavares will make $70.89 million of his $77 million in signing bonuses and is scheduled to make $11.09 million in bonuses during the 2020-21 season.

When the highest-profile signing by a league standard-bearer defies those wishes, Bettman takes an L.

Winner: Washington Capitals

We didn't hear the Capitals mentioned much -- if at all -- on July 1, but don't discount them as the big winners of 2018 free agency.

Remember, the big fish in this year's sea (besides Tavares) was supposed to be John Carlson. The Capitals locked in their No. 1 defenseman to an eight-year deal, worth $8 million per season. The 28-year-old likely would have commanded more money on the open market.

Washington also locked in two of its big playoff performers, Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly, while fending off other suitors. They also let somebody else overpay for Jay Beagle. Stanley Cup champions in the salary-cap era rarely get to return the virtually same roster the next season. Washington will do so, minus its backup goaltender and a fourth-liner (whose role will be filled by a homegrown youngster). Not bad.

Loser: Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks are in an awkward, post-Sedins era. There's money on the roster in veteran players, and there is a collection of great young players, such asBo Horvat and Brock Boeser.

And now, there is a pair of veteran fourth-liners in Antoine Roussel and Beagle who are signed for four years each for a combined $6 million against the cap each year. GM Jim Benning said that four years was "the market for those players," which might come as a surprise to many, as apparently there was a market for those players at all.

Winner: Ex-Leafs centers

We knew Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov were unlikely to stick around, even before Tavares' decision was announced. We didn't know just how much other teams coveted the Maple Leafs' discards.

Bozak, who is 32 years old, commanded $5 million per year from the Blues. The 31-year-old Komarov, a bottom-six forward whose best asset is his versatility, somehow picked up $3 million per year over four years with the Islanders. Of course, that was part of a desperate contingency plan for New York after it learned Tavares would take his services elsewhere.

Hey, you can say this about Tavares: A rising tide lifts all boats. Even in the harbor it abandoned.

Loser: Stars waiting to be dealt

Ryan O'Reilly remained a member of the Buffalo Sabres, as teams such as the Blues balked at the asking price. Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens remained in limbo. Erik Karlsson received a contract offer from the Ottawa Senators, but GM Pierre Dorion declined to say for how much or what Karlsson's reaction was.

So, as July 1 came and went, these veterans were still twisting in the wind, refreshing Cap Friendly to see how much room San Jose and Tampa Bay had left.

Winner: Goalies

Backup goalies got some decent money and plenty of term during the free-agent frenzy.

Carter Hutton got three years at $2.75 million per season from the Sabres, Jonathan Bernier got three years at $3 million per season from the Red Wings, and Jaroslav Halak got two years at $2.75 million from the Boston Bruins. Cam Ward, meanwhile, got $3 million out of the Chicago Blackhawks for one season, a team that's already paying Corey Crawford $6 million against the cap next season. It was a good day to be a goalie.

Loser: 2019 free-agent market ... maybe

This year's free-agency period was fun. Next year was supposed to include the most razzle dazzle we've seen in a while -- except suddenly, things aren't shaping up that way.

Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, two prized 2019 unrestricted free-agent defensemen, opted for stability and signed long-term extensions with their current clubs. Tyler Seguin will likely do the same with the Dallas Stars, and so will Marc-Andre Fleury, who revived his career with the Golden Knights, and possibly Wayne Simmonds with the Flyers, Joe Pavelski with the Sharks, Blake Wheeler with the Winnipeg Jets and ... OK, we could keep going, but we'll stop there.

There will still be some big names available. Erik Karlsson theoretically headlines the list, followed by Sergei Bobrovsky (and a half a dozen serviceable goalies), Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle and Jeff Skinner.

But we know the way these things usually go. Let's see how many of these guys are still available next July 1.

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