NHL Free Agency 2018 winners and losers: Maple Leafs get scary, Isles and Canucks lose big

The NHL's offseason may get underway with the draft in June, but the real craziness often doesn't start until free agency opens in July. That's when teams typically really kickstart efforts to retool their rosters for the next season and beyond. 

As the free agency period opened on Sunday, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding this year's prize free agent, former New York Islanders center John Tavares. It seemed as though the wheels might turn slowly this year. Ultimately, that wasn't really the case, as Tavares and a number of other prime targets agreed to terms on new deals on the very first day of the free agency period. 

You can find a comprehensive list of this year's top free agents and their destinations here. It's still very early in the offseason, and some of the moves made in free agency may just be initial transactions for a number of teams that will continue to look at ways to improve through signings and trades, but let's take a look at who has made a strong impression -- and who raised some eyebrows -- in free agency thus far.


Toronto Maple Leafs and John Tavares

Duh, right? The Leafs scored the prize of the 2018 free agent class in John Tavares, and he took a hometown discount on top of it. (Not that an $11 million cap hit is chump change.) As a result, the second-best offensive team in the league last year adds a superstar playmaker and a guy who scored 37 goals and 84 points last season.  Now they have Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri as their top three guys down the middle, with very solid talent around them. That's scary stuff. Scary enough to make them Stanley Cup betting favorites.

For Tavares, he gets to join a true contender for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in his hometown of Toronto. They've got a very solid, young core and the Leafs will have a good shot to make a real run at a Stanley Cup immediately, and if JT helps them get their first title since 1967, then he instantly becomes a legend in the city. That's a pretty tremendous opportunity for him, and it's not difficult to see why it was hard to pass up.

Philadelphia Flyers and James van Riemsdyk

Philadelphia is a team on the rise that also managed to scoop up a big-time offensive piece in Day 1 of free agency. That piece came in James van Riemsdyk, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal to return to the Flyers on Sunday.

Sure, the price tag might seem a bit hefty, but Philly is a bubble team that is looking to keep pace in the Eastern Conference and JVR is a dynamic player that should be able to make a big difference on the front end of their offense. Van Riemsdyk, who was drafted second overall by the Flyers in 2007, netted a career-high 36 goals for the Maple Leafs last season despite averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time per game.

The Flyers are banking on that sort of output carrying beyond his contract year, and van Riemsdyk has earned the added opportunity he should see in Philadelphia.

Paul Stastny

Not only did the 32-year-old center manage to score a three-year, $19.5 million deal, he also gets to move from Winnipeg to Las Vegas!

That price tag is probably a little steep for an aging Stastny, but Vegas has money to play with and they get a versatile, veteran playmaker down the middle and Stastny gets to cash in on another big deal while staying with a winner. In fact, he goes from the Winnipeg Jets to the team that eliminated them in the Western Conference Finals this spring.

Stastny was a good fit in Winnipeg centering serious talent between Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, and it's possible that he may actually be heading for somewhat of a less ideal hockey situation in Vegas. But the Jets couldn't match the dollars offered by Vegas, and he should still have ample opportunity to succeed with the Golden Knights. The lifestyle (and wifi) upgrade is an added bonus. 

Calgary Flames and James Neal

It's been an interesting offseason for the Flames. They dealt away one of their top defensemen in Dougie Hamilton earlier this summer in a package that brought back Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, and they made a big splash on Day 2 of free agency when they landed James Neal

The Flames were in the market for more help up front, especially in the scoring department (they were 26th in the league in offense last year), and Neal is one of the better scoring forwards to hit the open market this year. The 30-year-old winger will head to Calgary on a five-year, $28.75 million ($5.75 AAV) commitment, which is a fair price for Neal's expected contributions.

He's coming off a season in which he scored 25 goals for the Vegas Golden Knights during the regular season, adding six goals and five assists over 20 playoff games during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Neal has been a very consistent force during his NHL career, scoring over 20 goals in each of his 10 seasons -- including 40 in 2011-2012, and 21 in 40 games during 2013's lockout-shortened campaign.

The deal should be a win for both Neal, who gets the long-term deal and security he was seeking (this will be his third team in three years), and the Flames get a veteran with plenty of playoff experience who will bring goals and consistency to their lineup at a palatable expense.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues clearly wanted to get stronger down the middle this offseason, and they've certainly done it. They signed Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million deal as free agency opened, and it's not a deal I'm completely in love with. However, Bozak is a solid player who can be a good depth piece.

The Bozak signing looked much better after the Blues' real blockbuster transaction, which came later on July 1 via trade. The Blues picked up Ryan O'Reilly for the Sabres for a significant package. O'Reilly is a strong, productive two-way center and one of the best face-off men in the NHL. He'll be a valuable presence up front for the Blues, who will head into next season with O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn and Bozak as their centers in the top six. 

One of the most important things a contending team can do is have talent and depth down the middle, and the Blues didn't take long to get a lot better in that department. They also shed a couple bad contracts (Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund) in the O'Reilly deal, which is an added bonus.


Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver's Day 1 of free agency was honestly staggering. The Canucks are in serious need of some big-time playmakers on the front end of their lineup and on defense. So what did they do? They gave four-year deals worth around $3 million annually to both Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, who are bottom-six role players at best.

I like Beagle, who was a solid depth piece centering the Capitals fourth line and killing penalties during their championship season last year. But he's 32 years old, and he's a fourth-liner on a complete team.

Rousell, who will turn 29 next season, is a winger coming off a year in which he scored just five goals in 73 games. He's never hit 15 goals or 30 points in a single one of his six NHL seasons.

Those are not the kind of players that you give those sort of deals to. Over-commitment to aging depth players can often be a killer for teams, especially when it comes time to lock up front-end talent.

The Canucks are trying to build depth, character and grit through free agency, but their approach is alarming. Teams often have to give a little extra on term or money to lure free agents, but Vancouver is shelling out too much on both ends, and for players who aren't major difference makers. Go make sure you lock up front-end talent before overcommitting to the back end.

New York Islanders

It's been a very tough free agency for Lou Lamoriello and the New York Islanders. Not only did Lou have to watch the Isles' captain and franchise star in Tavares walk, he had to watch him go to the Toronto Maple Leafs -- the team that Lamoriello had just departed.

Losing Tavares is a gut punch that will take a while to recover from -- especially considering Islanders fans only have their own team's failures to blame for JT's departure -- but it wasn't the only concerning transaction on Long Island. The Isles inked Leo Komarov to a four-year, $12 million deal, and that contract has bad news written all over it.

Komarov is 31 and he's coming off a season in which he only scored 7 goals and 19 points in 74 games, despite playing more than 15 minutes a night for the Maple Leafs -- the second-best offensive team in the league. He's a decent penalty killer who can get under opponents' skin, and he hit 30 points in his prior two seasons in Toronto, but he looks to be on the decline already, so giving him a four-year deal is a significant gamble.

They also inked Valtteri Filppula, for some reason. Filppula comes in on a one-year, $2.75 million deal, which isn't exactly a commitment that spells the end of the world, but it's also not one that inspires confidence in the direction of the Isles, at least in the immediate future. 

Filppula has been a productive offensive player in the past, but he's 34 and his production has dipped in recent years and can be a liability defensively. The only real positive is that he comes on a short-term deal and, if he plays well in the first half of the season, might be able to be flipped for a future asset or two at the trade deadline. 

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago is coming off a frustrating season and the Blackhawks are looking to make some big changes to their lineup in order to get back to their winning ways. Unfortunately, they don't have a ton of cap flexibility, and thus they weren't able to make a major splash in free agency.

That being said, the additions they did make on Sunday were still a bit questionable. They signed goalie Cam Ward to a one-year, $3 million deal to come in as their backup to Corey Crawford. Ward appears to be a shell of the goaltender he once was in Carolina, and $3 million is likely more than you want to give to a questionable backup goalie when money is already tight, but the one-year commitment is what makes this deal somewhat palatable.

The Blackhawks also gave a one-year deal, $1 million deal to Chris Kunitz. It's relatively low risk considering the term and money, and Kunitz frequently receives praise for his leadership qualities (he's won four Stanley Cups) but he's 38 years old and doesn't seem to have a lot left in the tank.

Finally, they added Brandon Manning on a two-year deal worth $2.25 annually. Manning is a serviceable veteran blue liner but that's about it.

Given the current state of the 'Hawks, it's really hard to feel good about their Day 1 of free agency. Spending $6.25 million on the cap for Ward, Kunitz and Manning next year isn't going to get anyone excited, and the Blackhawks aren't much better off than they were yesterday.

That being said, it seems hard to imagine they're done. They have to be planning something big via trade(s). 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Arguably the worst signing of free agency thus far goes to the Penguins, who inked Jack Johnson to a five-year, $16.25 million contract on Day 1. The Pens needed help on the defensive end and they seem to be looking for that help in the 31-year-old Johnson, who hasn't exactly been an impressive blue-line presence (he was a healthy scratch during the Blue Jackets' playoff series) and is already on the downside of his career.

Giving a five-year commitment to a player like Johnson is unnecessary and uncharacteristic for the Penguins, and it's a deal that carries a decent potential to hurt them way more than it helps them.

Even worse, the Penguins had to deal Connor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres in order to make room for Johnson. Sheary is solid contributor up front, but shedding Hunwick's problem contract seemed like a positive for Pittsburgh, until the Pens turned around and handed out a deal that actually may end up being even worse.

Ottawa Senators

They haven't signed anyone good, they're inevitably going to trade the greatest player in franchise history and the organization is still a complete mess. Let's just preemptively chalk up a loss here. 

Pete Blackburn is from Boston, so there's a good chance you don't like him already. He has been a writer at CBS Sports since 2017 and usually aims to take a humorous and light-hearted approach to the often... Full Bio

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