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Experts Analysis

UFA Frenzy Grades: Atlantic, Central

by Ryan Dadoun
Updated On: July 5, 2019, 12:32 pm ET

Although there are still some noteworthy unrestricted free agents remaining and plenty of major restricted free agents, the dust is starting to settle.  With that in mind, we’re going to take a moment to reflect on the summer moves to date by grading each team’s performance.  Today we’ll focus on the Atlantic and Central Divisions.

If you missed our Metropolitan and Pacific Division Grades, you can see them here.

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Boston Bruins

Grades: B-

Noteworthy Gains: None

Noteworthy Losses: None

Clearly Boston hasn’t had an eventful summer, but that was foreseeable.  The Bruins only have about $10 million in cap space and they need to re-sign RFAs Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Danton Heinen.  That doesn’t give them much leeway to do anything else.

Still, the same team that went to the Stanley Cup Final is largely intact and while age is getting to be a concern for some of their key players like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Tuukka Rask, there is a lot to like about this team in the near-term.


Buffalo Sabres

Grades: B

Noteworthy Gains: Jimmy Vesey, Colin Miller

Noteworthy Losses: None

The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, but it seems they’re largely going to stay the course and hope that their young core can take them to the next level.  That’s not a terrible bet as Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Rasmus Dahlin is an enviable foundation.  Signing Jeff Skinner to an eight-year, $72 million contract is a big risk given his up-and-down history, but certainly when he’s playing up to his potential, he’s a vital piece of the puzzle too.

Beyond that, the Sabres added some complimentary pieces this summer.  Vesey isn’t going to make a big impact in Buffalo, but he’s a solid young forward who might still grow into an okay second-line forward with the change of scenery.  Meanwhile, Miller fell out of favor in Vegas, but he might be a decent second-pairing blueliner with the Sabres.

Not exciting stuff, but the Sabres’ foundation was already there and now they largely need to focus on getting a good supporting cast, which is seems like they’re attempting to do.  The one knock is that their goaltending is thus far unchanged, so it looks like they’ll be going forward with the combination of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark that was okay, but not particularly good last season.


Chicago Blackhawks

Grades: A-

Noteworthy Gains: Robin Lehner, Andrew Shaw, Calvin de Haan, Olli Maatta

Noteworthy Losses: Dominik Kahun

The last two seasons have obviously been disappointing for Chicago, but there are reasons for optimism after the summer they’ve had.  In particular, signing Lehner made a lot of sense for them.  While it sparks questions about Corey Crawford’s future, the reality is that Crawford has gone through a lot over the last two seasons between serious injuries and struggles.  Having Lehner there helps solidify the Blackhawks’ goaltending.  In a best case scenario, Crawford and Lehner can be one of the best tandems in the league, but if something goes wrong for either of them, the other can step up.  The Blackhawks have done well to hedge their bets.

Beyond that, getting back Shaw gives the Blackhawks some additional secondary scoring, which of course helps, and adding de Haan and Matta helps shore up a defense that was lacking last season.

Chicago didn’t transform themselves back into a Stanley Cup contender, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them get back into the playoffs and from there, who knows.  This team certainly isn’t hurting for postseason experience, so if they do make it to that point, maybe they’ll surprise.  All-in-all, this summer has been basically what they needed.

Colorado Avalanche

Grades: B-

Noteworthy Gains: Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi

Noteworthy Losses: Semyon Varlamov, Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg

I’m a little uncertain as to how to peg Colorado.  Giving up an great defenseman like Barrie in a trade is a tough pill to swallow, but he’s on the final season of his contract and maybe the Avalanche don’t feel like they would be able to re-sign him.  It’s certainly better to trade him now than lose him for nothing and getting Kadri in the deal is nice.  He was serving as the third-line center in Toronto last year thanks to their depth up the middle, but he’s more than capable of slotting into a second-line role.  His $4.5 million cap hit over each of the next three seasons fits in nicely for Colorado’s cap situation too.

So you could argue that it was a trade that made sense for both sides.  Meanwhile, the Avalanche signed Donskoi to a four-year, $15.6 million contract.  He’ll probably end up on the third-line, but he might also get some top-six minutes.  He’s okay offensively, having scored 14 goals and 37 points in 80 games.  Between Kadri and Donskoi, the Avalanche have some secondary scoring that could more than make up for the loss of Soderberg and Kerfoot.

In goal, the Avalanche will be relying on Philipp Grubauer now that Varlamov is gone, but Grubauer looked great in the second half of the 2018-19 campaign and in the playoffs, so it’s reasonable for the Avalanche to bet on him.

I’m not in love with what Colorado did this summer, but none of it seems bad either.  I’m just uncertain about them.


Dallas Stars

Grades: A

Noteworthy Gains: Joe Pavelski, Andrej Sekera, Corey Perry

Noteworthy Losses: Jason Spezza, Mats Zuccarello

The Dallas Stars took the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to seven games in the second round.  Dallas’ goaltending and defense shined, but their offense wasn’t as good.  Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn gives the Stars a strong forward core, but after that their next highest scoring forward was Radek Faksa, who had 15 goals and 30 points in 81 games.

Adding Pavelski and Perry changes that.  Although he’s entering the twilight of his career, Pavelski is still a serious threat to score 30 goals.  Perry meanwhile is motivated to prove that he still has something left in the tank and signed a low-risk, high-reward one-year, $1.5 million contract with an additional $1.75 million locked behind potential performance bonuses.

Between the two of them, Dallas could have a pretty strong offense this season, which would make them a well-rounded squad.  They shouldn’t be underestimated going into 2019-20.


Detroit Red Wings

Grades: B-

Noteworthy Gains: Valtteri Filppula

Noteworthy Losses: None

If Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman had any urge to come into Detroit and immediately remake the team in his imagine, he’s repressed it.  Since taking over as the Red Wings’ general manager, he has largely stayed the course, not making any major trades or signings.  That makes some sense because the Red Wings were already close to the cap and need to be mindful of their young players set to become restricted free agents next summer, including Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi.

The one significant move he did make was sign Valtteri Filppula to a two-year, $6 million contract.  Yzerman and Filppula go way back and the same can be said of Filppula and the Red Wings, so it should be a good fit.  He’s strictly a bottom-six forward at this stage of his career, but a good one.


Florida Panthers

Grades: B

Noteworthy Gains: Anton Stralman, Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly

Noteworthy Losses: James Reimer, Roberto Luongo

The Panthers are another really tough one to grade.  They landed one of the big free agents on the market…but that price.  Seven-years, $70 million.  That’s a ton for a goaltender, especially one who only sometimes plays like an elite level netminder.  Ultimately, I don’t think this contract will reflect favorably on the Panthers.  Maybe in the short-term it will work out, but even there its suspect.  It’s just a very risky move and it’s going to be hard to win a championship with so much of their cap tethered to a goaltender.

They also inked Anton Stralman to a three-year, $16.5 million contract, which seems fair.  He’s not stunning, but he can be a solid top-four defenseman.

Ultimately though, how you judge the Panthers’ summer will depend on how comfortable you are with Bobrovsky’s contract.  I’m not particularly comfortable with it, but I’m sure others feel very differently.


Minnesota Wild

Grades: C+

Noteworthy Gains: Mats Zuccarello

Noteworthy Losses: None

The Wild saw their streak of six straight playoff berths come to an end last season, so what did they do this summer in response?  Not a lot so far.  To be fair, signing Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million contract is significant.  He had 12 goals and 40 points in 48 games last season and surpassed the 50-point milestone in each of the three campaigns that preceded it.  So while he’s not going to come in and single-handily address the Wild’s scoring woes, he should be part of the solution.

Beyond that though, not much really happened and that’s despite them having some cap space to work with.  There’s still plenty of time left this summer, so it’s too early to rule anything out, but as things stand, I don’t feel like the Wild have done enough to right the ship.


Montreal Canadiens

Grades: C-

Noteworthy Gains: Keith Kinkaid, Ben Chiarot

Noteworthy Losses: Jordie Benn, Andrew Shaw

The big story out of Montreal is their attempt to sign Hurricanes RFA Sebastian Aho to a signing bonus-heavy, five-year, $42.27 million contract.  The Hurricanes haven’t officially matched the contract yet, but they already announced their intentions to do so.  They’re likely just waiting the full week they’re afforded in order to keep Montreal’s resources tied for a little while longer.

It was never likely that Montreal would actually succeed in getting Aho, but you could argue that they had nothing to lose by trying.  That’s more-or-less true, but that I still see this whole Aho attempt as a smoke screen.  Montreal was hoping to land a big UFA this summer and they failed, so this is a way for people to focus on the low percentage, but bold move they did rather than what they didn’t accomplish.  The problem is, attempting to sign Aho really didn’t do anything for Montreal or change the fact that this has been a largely disappointing summer for them.

For some teams it’s reasonable to have a quiet summer, but when you have the cap space to make a bold move and the need to add significant talent to your roster and you then fail to do so, it’s a bad look.  To be fair to Montreal, their grade does come with an asterisk because I wouldn’t be surprised if they attempt to do something else this summer once Carolina officially matches Aho’s contract.


Nashville Predators

Grades: B+

Noteworthy Gains: Matt Duchene

Noteworthy Losses: Wayne Simmonds, PK Subban

I didn’t like the PK Subban trade.  He’s an elite defenseman and the trade felt like more of a contract dump than fair value for him.  Nashville wanted to create cap space to get Matt Duchene though and they succeeded in luring him to the Predators on a seven-year, $56 million contract.  So the question now is: Was moving Subban to sign Duchene worth it?

It’s certainly easy to see why Nashville would believe so.  They have a strong defense, even without Subban, but last season their offense was nothing special.  Ryan Johansen won the Predators’ scoring race with just 64 points and he was one of just two forwards with at least 50 points.  Viktor Arvidsson did have 34 goals, but he was one of just three Predators players who surpassed the 20-goal milestone.  So this shakeup helps address a need.

Duchene’s cap hit is also reasonable given that he was a UFA in a market where Artemi Panarin got an $11,642,857 cap hit just last season.  Duchene had 31 goals and 70 points in 73 games last season.

Granted consistency has been a problem for him and that was just the second time he’s reached the 70-point milestone in his career, but even still, $8 million annually seems pretty fair for him in this market.

The Predators are a better balanced team then they were when the summer started, so that’s something, but losing Subban in the process meant this summer isn’t quite a slam dunk despite their success in luring Duchene.


Ottawa Senators

Grades: C

Noteworthy Gains: Ron Hainsey, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev

Noteworthy Losses: Cody Ceci

The Ottawa Senators have a ton of cap space, but I don’t think anyone is surprised that they didn’t use it.  Ottawa posted a 29-47-6 record in 2018-19 and they aren’t looking much better going into 2019-20.

To be fair, it’s not all doom and gloom.  It will be interesting to see what Brady Tkachuk can do as a sophomore and maybe Zaitsev will respond well to the change of scenery.  Brown was also probably underutilized in Toronto and should look decent in a bigger role with the Senators.

As for the loss of Ceci, that was to be expected.  He had fallen out of favor in Ottawa and might have ended up going to arbitration had they not traded him.  As was the case with Zaitsev in Toronto, a trade made sense for both sides.

It’s hard to look at the Senators sitting at roughly the cap floor and not see this summer as a bit of a waste by the standards of nearly any other NHL team, but this summer still wasn’t a disaster for them.


St. Louis Blues

Grades: N/A

Noteworthy Gains: None

Noteworthy Losses: None

When you win the Stanley Cup, your primary goal is just to keep the squad intact.  Whether or not the Blues are able to do that remains to be seen.  Their quiet summer to date has largely been dictated by the glut of RFAs they have to re-sign. Joel Edmundson, Ivan Barbashev, Robby Fabbri, Zachary Sanford, Oskar Sandqvist, and of course Jordan Binnington are all still restricted free agents.

St. Louis can probably fit them all in, but what each player will agree to remains a major X-Factor.  Honestly, more than any other team, there really isn’t much to judge yet when it comes to St. Louis because it feels like their work hasn’t gotten started.

That’s why I’m going to give them an N/A grade.  There isn’t anything meaningful here to judge.  They haven’t made moves, but their priority should be in keeping the team together and we can’t say how successful they’ve been there yet.


Tampa Bay Lightning

Grades: B-

Noteworthy Gains: Curtis McElhinney

Noteworthy Losses: Anton Stralman, JT Miller

The Lightning’s collapse in the playoffs is an obvious source of disappointment, but they still have an amazing team.  They couldn’t really add to it though because of the salary cap.  In fact, they had to let Stralman walk and trade Miller in preparation for signing Brayden Point, who remains a restricted free agent.

Point is among the RFAs that are expected to cash in big this summer, but the Lightning should be able to squeeze him into the cap.

Tampa Bay can be counted among those teams that haven’t done a lot, but have done what they needed to.


Toronto Maple Leafs

Grades: A

Noteworthy Gains: Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza

Noteworthy Losses: Nazem Kadri, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Patrick Marleau

No one in the league has been busier than Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.  He was tasked with trying to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense while walking the tightrope that is their cap situation and should get credit for largely making it work.

Giving up a first-round pick just to clear Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit was particularly painful, but it was also largely necessary.  Between that move and trading Zaitsev, Brown, and Kadri away, the Maple Leafs should have just enough space left to fit in Mitch Marner’s as-of-yet unsigned contract after you account for the $5.3 million that will be freed at the start of the campaign by putting Nathan Horton on the LTIR.

Along the way, the Maple Leafs have replaced Kadri with Kerfoot as their third-line center, Spezza with Brown on the fourth line, and Jake Gardiner/Zaitsev with Barrie/Ceci on defense.  The obvious downgrade in all that is replacing Kadri with Kerfoot.  Kadri under the right circumstances is a 30-goal player and Kerfoot is not.  The problem is that Kadri wasn’t going to get the right circumstances in Toronto.  He was going to play as a third-line center again and last season Kadri was limited to 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games in that role.  That’s roughly what Kerfoot did last season and Kerfoot can do that with a smaller cap hit, so while Kadri is the better player, Kerfoot is the better fit for Toronto.  This is of course, ignoring the fact that Kadri got himself suspended in each of the Maple Leafs’ last two playoff runs, making him a nonfactor when Toronto needed him the most.

You could make the same argument for Brown and Spezza.  Brown might be the better player than Spezza, at least now that Spezza is 36-years-old and is a far cry from the offensive force he once was, but Spezza is far cheaper and thus a better fit for Toronto’s roster in that fourth line role then Brown was at $2 million annually.  Plus, one area where Spezza still dominates is on the draw.  Spezza won 58.2% of his faceoffs last season.  Combine him with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Kerfoot, who are all rather effective on the draw too, though not to the same extent as Spezza, and the Maple Leafs have a really good faceoff team setup for 2019-20.

On defense, getting Barrie is huge.  It’s been a long time since Toronto has had a right-handed shooting defenseman of Barrie’s caliber.  More than any other change, getting Barrie provides Toronto with fresh hope going into next season.

Toronto still needs to re-sign Marner of course and what happens with that will help shape how this summer is perceived in Toronto, but when looking at what Toronto has accomplished so far, there is a lot to like here.


Winnipeg Jets

Grades: B-

Noteworthy Gains: Neal Pionk

Noteworthy Losses: Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Kevin Hayes

In an ideal situation, the Jets would have liked to re-sign Trouba rather than trade him, but for personal reasons he didn’t want to make a long-term commitment to Winnipeg.  His fiancée is working to become a doctor in the United States and as he said, “her career is as important as my career,” so for their situation, playing in the States makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers sent the Jets Pionk and the 2019 20th overall pick (Ville Heinola) to get Trouba, so at least the Jets got a decent return.  Pionk doesn’t bring as much to the table as Trouba did offensively, but he doesn’t look out of place in a top-four defenseman role and he’s still young at 23 (24-years-old by the time the season starts).  Getting an NHL-ready defenseman back in the trade was particularly important because fellow blueliner Myers walked as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Jets still have plenty of cap space, but unfortunately they have to keep it available.  Pionk, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine are all restricted free agents and are going to get sizeable contracts.  Laine in particular is an interesting case because he was extremely hot-and-cold last season, but he has the potential to be one of the NHL’s top goal scorers for the next decade.  If the Jets intend to sign him to a long-term contract, he’ll likely demand to be paid based on his potential rather than his 2018-19 results.  If the Jets balk at that then a bridge contract might be the only solution here.  Even a bridge contract is going to be pricey though and of course the threat of an offer sheet is out there.

So the Jets aren’t having an ideal summer, but thus they’ve done what they need to under the circumstances.  What comes next for them though is even bigger than what they’ve already done.

Ryan Dadoun
Ryan Dadoun is an Associate Editor for Hockey on Rotoworld. Feel free to follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.