NHL free agency: Will this be a summer of regret for GMs?

With no true perennial stars on the market and a rising cap looming, the NHL's middle market could yield some surprising deals. Buyer beware this summer.

The Vegas Golden Knights are Stanley Cup champions, the NHL draft is over and free agency is upon us. Here are five NHL insights and observations from the past week:

Buyer beware

Who is the best UFA on the market? There are quality players, to be sure, but there is no obvious star in the group.

Players like Tyler Bertuzzi, Michael Bunting, J.T. Compher and Matt Dumba are all good players who are under 30 but they aren’t exactly All-Stars. Players like Patrick Kane, Matt Duchene, Blake Wheeler, Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jonathan Toews (if he plays) and Max Pacioretty all have strong name value but they are past their primes.

The best free agent overall is arguably Dmitry Orlov, a quality defenseman who will step in on any team in the league and make an impact, just as he did after being traded to the Boston Bruins. He’s also about to turn 32.

Last summer there was Johnny Gaudreau, the summer before that was Dougie Hamilton, the one before that was Alex Pietrangelo and a few years before that was John Tavares. Those are true All-Star talents who would play at the top of any NHL lineup. In terms of actual star power, this is one of the worst free agent classes in recent memory, so that begs the question: what ripple effect will that have?

In 2016, Steven Stamkos was the headliner in free agency but he signed right before free agency actually opened and the run of contracts that followed were… rough. Kyle Okposo and Milan Lucic signed identical seven-year, $42-million contracts, Loui Eriksson got six years and $36 million, Andrew Ladd got seven years and $38.5 million, David Backes got five years and $30 million, and Frans Nielsen got six years and $31.5 million.

You would think that a flat cap should have the opposite effect overall, but Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin recently quipped that agents are acting as if the cap just went up $10 million. With no true perennial stars on the market and a rising cap looming, the middle market could yield some surprising deals. Buyer beware this summer.

It's buyer beware this summer for NHL general mangers. (Photo via Getty)
It's buyer beware this summer for NHL general mangers. (Photo via Getty)

Jets fare well in Pierre-Luc Dubois trade

This marks the second straight offseason where a star has forced his way off a team as a restricted free agent. While entry-level contracts, restricted free agency, arbitration and teams being able to offer the extra year on max-term deals when re-signing players help, we are starting to see those mechanisms can only do so much.

Similar to the NBA, we are seeing players decide where they want to go and forcing their way there. We will see if this trend continues with players signing short-term deals to maximize their earning potential alongside a salary cap that’s supposed to go up.

For teams who have a star forcing their way out, the good news is they should be able to net reasonable value in return.

It will be popular to criticize the Flames this summer in the wake of the Dubois trade given how the Matthew Tkachuk deal netted out this season. But MacKenzie Weegar is a bonafide top four defenseman and the biggest issue with Jonathan Huberdeau is the contract they gave him afterward — a bounce back is a fair bet for next season. The Flames have a first-round pick to play with as well.

The Jets, however, didn’t target NHL players in their prime to stay competitive, which will make this a far more interesting trade to look back on.

Gabe Vilardi has always been highly regarded going back to his minor hockey days. His biggest issue has been health, particularly back issues, but this season he finally played for a prolonged period of time and showed he is more than capable if he can stay healthy, putting up 23 goals in 63 games. He is a large man out there at 6-foot-3 and has a bomb of a shot (he did shoot nearly 19% this season, though).

Going to Winnipeg with him are Alex Iafallo, a good middle-six winger who will either help the Jets remain competitive or can be flipped at the deadline, 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Kupari, who is in a bit of a now-or-never situation, and a second-round pick. Lots of futures, no long-term commitments like the Flames acquired, and plenty of opportunity to see players either emerge with them or bring back additional assets.

Good players going for pennies on the dollar

The NHL salary cap was $81.5 million in 2020, and now four years later it is finally slated to go up to a grand total of $83.5 million. When the cap is that flat for that long, it eventually puts a squeeze on teams and we’re seeing that with some of the trades that have been made of late.

The Islanders attached a second-rounder to clear Josh Bailey’s contract, the Flyers took a sixth-round pick and retained salary to trade Kevin Hayes, the Bruins shed Taylor Hall’s contract for pennies on the dollar and the Predators netted out similarly when they moved on from Ryan Johansen.

The flip side, however, is that this environment also creates opportunity.

The Blues are looking to make the playoffs next season and envision Hayes being a key piece to that. The Avalanche are looking to get back into contention next season and will feel the same about Johansen. Last offseason, the Carolina Hurricanes took advantage of the situation by essentially acquiring Brent Burns for free. He had a great season, putting up 18 goals and 61 points and another nine points in 15 playoff games. He was a legitimate game-breaker on one of the league's best teams that made it to the final four.

There are similar players still available that could potentially be had for very little. Conor Garland, Mikael Granlund, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha and John Gibson are a few names that jump to mind. Next year we're going to look back on at least a few trades this summer the way we look back on the Burns trade now. Some of it will depend on the fit and opportunity but there are good players to be had at a fraction of the price they should cost. Who will go get them?

Lack of NHL draft trades not surprising

For the first time since 2007, there were no trades in the first round of the NHL draft. It made the event incredibly dull, but teams have one objective in mind and that's simply to improve the on-ice product.

It’s understandable there was ultimately no movement at the top of the draft. It was a deep group with quality and massive upside. The Predators were breaking doors down trying to move up with a number of assets in a package deal and just couldn’t do it.

At the bottom of the first round, though, the lack of movement was a little surprising. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, did try to trade out of their pick and were clearly unsuccessful in doing so.

Analytics and draft pundits have largely argued that a late first-round pick is not much more valuable than a second- or potentially even a high third-round selection. After the first half of the first round, it's like throwing a wet paper towel against the wall and seeing if it sticks. It’s a numbers game and in order to stack the numbers, you need quantity not quality.

The opposite of that approach is to package picks in order to move up into the end of the first round. This year nobody did that and one argument is that it was such a strong draft class teams felt comfortable letting players on their draft boards fall to them.

You will always hear that each draft is different and you have to adjust accordingly. I am skeptical of that. We could be seeing a shift here where teams are far less trigger happy to package picks and move up, knowing the odds are not in their favour when they do so.

The long-term contract trend

The long-term contract extension season kicked off with Jesper Bratt signing an eight-year, $63-million contract. It falls right in line with the deal the Kings gave last year to Kevin Fiala, who signed for the same AAV as Bratt but for one fewer year. The Devils kept that train rolling by signing Timo Meier to an eight-year deal worth $8.8 million per season, while Dubois signed for eight years at $8.5 million per season. Last summer, pending UFA Filip Forsberg also signed the exact same contract as Dubois.

We are seeing this market become a bit of a trend for players who are good enough to be true All-Stars on any given year but are not quite perennial All-Stars. That market has steadily gone up from a few years ago when players like William Nylander or then David Pastrnak (he has elevated into a different tier of player since) were signing for below $7 million, with Andrei Svechnikov signing for just over $7 million.

All these players are taking up roughly 8-10% of the salary cap. Those contracts aged incredibly well over the life of them and now with the cap scheduled to steadily rise, they are almost certainly next in line to look like bargains in a few years, if not already. What stands out from a player perspective is not necessarily the AAV, but that they are locking into max term and rolling with the security despite an increasing salary cap.

It’s difficult to turn down large, guaranteed contracts. For NHL teams, it’s smart business if you believe you have a quality young player that is either in the midst of his prime or just entering it. You have to take advantage of having quality RFAs under your control. Locking them into team-friendly deals for the long-term is the best way to do that.