NHL Free Agency: Winners and losers from Day 1

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

The Maple Leafs made a big mistake bringing back Tyler Bozak. (USATSI)
The Maple Leafs made a big mistake bringing back Tyler Bozak. (USATSI)

More NHL offseason: Rumors | Top 50 Free Agents | Buyout Tracker | Trade Tracker

Yes, free agency is only one day old and the start of the season is still a few months away, so there is still time for teams to get better. The roster they have now probably won't be the roster they open the season with. Heck, they will probably look different by the end of the weekend, especially with players like Mikhail Grabovski and Jaromir Jagr still unsigned as of Friday afternoon.

But when the NHL's 30 general managers are going to throw hundreds of millions dollars around in a few short hours, you can be sure we're going to have an instant reaction to it. Especially since some of them did some really outrageous things.

I would like to simply say that the "winners" on the first day of NHL free agency were the general managers and teams that showed even the slightest bit of financial restraint and didn't throw themselves into bidding wars in what has to be one of the thinnest, weakest, and worst free-agent crops we've seen in some time.

So, congratulations Winnipeg, your inactivity was a positive for once.

The losers, for the most part, would then be the teams that opted against that approach and decided to one-up each other in the bidding for players like David Clarkson and Stephen Weiss.

But that's not really how these things work, and we have to get a little more specific.

So let's start with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that made some of the biggest moves over the past couple of days and this offseason.

And also potentially some of the worst.

Making the playoffs in 2012-13 was a huge deal for Toronto, but if this offseason has been any indicator it may have been the worst thing that could have possibly happened to that franchise for the long-term because it has given the feeling they're closer to being a contender than they really are. They spent Friday backing a truck full of money up to Clarkson's front door and giving Tyler Bozak nearly $5 million a year to continue riding on the coattails of Phil Kessel (seriously, just look at what Bozak has done in his career when Kessel isn't on the ice with him. It's fourth-line level production).

While all of that was going on, they allowed Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur to leave whether through free agency (MacArthur) or via buyout (Grabovski) while finding enough time to sign Colton Orr (last month) and Frazer McLaren (Friday) to multiyear contracts to continue taking up space on the fourth line.

I don't like it. Not one bit.

In 2012-13 the Maple Leafs were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL. Almost all of their success came from the play of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in net and a couple of fantastic seasons from Kessel, Nazem Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk. The former was perhaps the biggest reason for their success, and they're taking a huge gamble with that by bringing in Jonathan Bernier, who will potentially take playing time away from Reimer.

Few teams spent more time buried in their own end of the ice this past season than Toronto, and the Leafs managed to take three of the best possession players they had (Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, and Matt Frattin) and ship them away after doing everything they could to crush their value during the season by either playing them in the wrong role (Grabovski) or not play them anywhere near enough (MacArthur).

Are they really any better today by keeping Bozak while bringing Dave Bolland (draft-day draft with Chicago) and Clarkson? I'm not at all convinced that they are. And it's going to cost them a lot of money to perhaps make themselves a lesser team.

Clarkson's cap hit isn't awful, and not what it was speculated to be earlier in the week, but it's still a huge contract (seven years -- this is the biggest problem with it) for a 30-year-old forward who has only once topped 40 points in a season. He has had really good possession numbers the past two years, and Toronto needs guys like that, but I'm not sure how much longer he's going to be able to do that. And if Toronto wasn't happy with Grabovski making $5 million a year to produce the way he did, how long is it going to take for the city to turn on Clarkson when he's making more than $5 million and scoring 15 goals for the next seven years?

Toronto's biggest needs this offseason were to upgrade down the middle, both at center and on the blue line. So far this offseason they've either stuck with the status quo or managed to get worse at both. And given what's left in free agency it's hard to imagine either one getting any better.

The Maple Leafs finally returned to the playoffs this season, but I'm not convinced they've put themselves in a position to return in 2013-14.

Some of the other losers from Day 1

Detroit Red Wings: They didn't have a terrible day, but I'm not wild about what the Red Wings did. Daniel Alfredsson was the signing that caught everybody's attention, but he's 40 years old. How good is he going to be? The Red Wings seem to have a way of squeezing every last drop of productive hockey out of veterans, but there's still visions of Mike Modano's final NHL run fresh in my mind here. It doesn't appear that Damien Brunner will be back, and that might hurt, and five years and $25 million for Stephen Weiss also seems to be a bit much. It wasn't the worst day for an NHL team in free agency, but it wasn't one of the better ones, either. Detroit isn't going away anytime soon, and the Red Wings are still going to be a playoff team, but it's not because of the guys they brought in on Friday.

New Jersey Devils: Ryane Clowe scored three goals last season. He's 30 years old and, even at his best, was a good but unspectacular player. He apparently has had some concussion issues recently and reportedly suffered three of them during the 2012-13 season. And despite all of that he managed to get five years and nearly $25 million from the Devils. This is what free agency looks like in the summer of 2013.

Nothing else really needs to be said about this.

Michael Ryder on a two-year, $7 million deal is much better for the Devils. But the Ryane Clowe contract is just too much money for too many years.

Edmonton Oilers: Boyd Gordon is a really good player and he was one of the under-the-radar free agents that I thought could help a team. But I don't like him at $3 million per year over the next three years. That's a few million more than I figured he would get on the open market. A little too rich for me, as is the four-year $13 million contract for Andrew Ference. Losing Shawn Horcoff might hurt a little bit as well. He had a big contract and didn't score a ton, but he's been a really good defensive forward for them over the years and handled a lot of their tough minutes. Gordon will fill some of that role, of course, but again ... not a huge fan of the years or dollar ammount on that one.

The Winners

Ottawa Senators: Yeah, that's right. The Ottawa Senators.

Don't shed any tears for the Senators for losing Alfredsson in free agency to the Detroit Red Wings.

It's a PR blow for sure, and fans will probably hate seeing their team's all-time leading scorer finish his career wearing another jersey, but none of that stuff will have any impact on what happens on the ice when the puck drops in October. You know what will have an impact? Good hockey players. And make no mistake about this: The Ottawa Senators are a better team (and perhaps significantly better) on Friday than they were on Thursday. And they weren't a bad team on Thursday, either. The combination of getting MacArthur, perhaps one of the better free-agent signings of the day, and trading for Bobby Ryan is a huge boost for one of the NHL's up-and-coming teams.

Losing a fan favorite hurts. But getting better players makes up for it. Especially when that fan favorite has already given your team and city his best hockey.

Carolina Hurricanes: The bar for winners on this day is probably a little low when signing Anton Khudobin and Mike Komisarek to one-year contracts is a positive, but here we are.

But in all seriousness, Khudobin seems like a really good gamble for the Hurricanes at $800,000. He was really good in a backup role for the Bruins this past season and the price is certainly right.

Komisarek never worked out in Toronto at all, and he was a terrible value at the price they were paying him, but on a $700,000 contract there is absolutely no risk for the Hurricanes. If he has something left in the tank, you might have a veteran depth player for your blue line. If he stinks, it costs you a little more than the league minimum.

Philadelphia Flyers: I've been critical of the Flyers' recent approach to making blockbuster move after blockbuster move with no regard to the salary cap, but Ray Emery on a $1.65 million contract for one year isn't terrible. It's actually pretty decent, and Emery has played very well the past few years since returning to the NHL after his brief stopover in the KHL. After whiffing on the Ilya Bryzgalov contract, the Flyers are going back to their old strategy of loading up at forward and going cheap in goal. They actually had more success with that strategy, as have many other NHL teams.

Let's see what Emery can give them.

 
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