The first round of NHL free agency is over and rosters across the league are starting to take shape for the upcoming season. As usual, it has led to some silly spending and some moves teams are going to be very happy with.
In no particular order, here are my five favourite deals to date.
When the Leafs were getting bounced in five games by the Florida Panthers in Round 2, the left side of their forward group was Calle Jarnkrok, Alex Kerfoot and Michael Bunting, with Zach Aston-Reese as the 12th forward or healthy scratched. In the regular season, players like Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin were part of the mix, and the team experimented with moving William Nylander to the left side.
Well, Bunting and Kerfoot are now gone, and in their place are Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi. Bunting was a great story in Toronto in his first season, and while he was still productive in his second season, he dropped from a 0.8 points per game player to 0.6. His act — constant diving and yapping at the refs — grew tired and his role deteriorated as the season went on, and Jarnkrok surpassed him on the depth chart.
It’s a little funny that Bunting’s 63-point season is higher than any single season Bertuzzi has put together, but Bertuzzi has never rode shotgun on a line with elite players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (no offense to Dylan Larkin, who is certainly a fine player). Even if Bertuzzi simply stays in the ballpark of that production range (20 goals, 60 points), he just brings a bit of a different element to the team. He’s one of the better forwards in the league in front of the net (which is why he has doubled Bunting’s playoff point total in six fewer games) and he has shown he can help drive a line, whereas Bunting has struggled when moved down, often disappearing.
Domi isn’t the two-way player or penalty killer that Kerfoot is, but he is a career 0.64 points per game player compared to Kerfoot’s career mark of 0.5 and can take over games offensively. He is, at times, a legitimate game-breaker capable of creating offense compared to Kerfoot, who is much more of a passenger offensively.
And for all of that, the Leafs simply signed both to one-year deals. There is essentially no downside here other than both players pricing themselves out of Toronto the following season. For a team that finished ninth in goals per game despite having one of the best power plays in the league, this should offer a boost offensively at a real position of need.
2. Blackhawks trade for Taylor Hall
To be clear, the Blackhawks adding Taylor Hall doesn’t vault them into playoff contention or make them a good team by any means, but they had to give Connor Bedard something and Hall is a good player. He had an up-and-down 2022-23 season amid injury but performed well in the playoffs with eight points in seven games and had 20 goals and 61 points last season.
He, rather strangely, struggles to produce on the power play (he has only eclipsed 20 power-play points once in his career), but at 5-on-5 he is still a legitimate top-six winger, which gives Bedard an established, solid player to play with.
Nothing against Andreas Athanasiou, or the last legs or Corey Perry, Nick Foligno and Tyler Johnson, but it would have been a crime if any of those players were the best winger on the team to slot beside Bedard. You have to give him a fighting chance of being good.
The bonus here is that not only is Hall still good, but it cost them basically nothing. Alec Regula and Ian Mitchell went back to Boston in the trade and neither has an inside track on an NHL gig next season.
With two seasons left on his deal at a palatable $6 million per season, Hall gives the Blackhawks all sorts of options depending on how he clicks with Bedard. Really, though, the real winner is hockey fans. It would have been criminal to watch Bedard play with essentially nobody in his rookie season.
Some 10-15 years ago, long, back-diving contracts for superstars were all the rage. It is how the Blackhawks and Kings in particular won multiple Stanley Cups. Now, with teams only being able to offer a maximum eight-year term, it has levelled the playing field when it comes to star players.
Now, we are seeing these terms being used to drive down the annual average cap hit of mid-tier players. We saw, for example, Pierre Engvall sign for seven seasons. Last season, the Leafs added extra term to Jarnkrok’s contract to drive down his price. In a flat-cap world, you have to find ways to maximize contract values and these depth-type players are benefitting at the moment.
One such contract that stood out in this range was the Colorado Avalanche signing Miles Wood to a six-year, $15-million contract, averaging $2.5 million per season. Wood had a solid campaign after missing almost the entire season before that due to hip surgery. He put up 13 goals and 27 points in 2022-23, and his speed and aggression caused problems for opponents in a bottom-six role. For the Avalanche, adding a player to their bottom six that can actually make a difference is a welcome addition.
You can put the top of the Avalanche lineup against pretty well anyone in the league and like their chances. Their bottom six, though, was nearly non-existent last season. Only their top six forwards scored in their first-round series loss to the Seattle Kraken. They badly needed to add depth, and while Wood doesn’t solve the issue all on his own, he is a good player that trends them in the right direction at a very digestible number through the rest of his 20s and early 30s (he’s 27).
His speed fits right in with the Avs, which was a big part of their 2022 Cup run. Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are beautiful skaters but they had speed throughout their lineup, all the way down to Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano. Wood plays to that identity, should chip in double-digit goals and bring a little bite along the way.
One of the most unheralded trades last season was the Blues and Oilers' October swap of Dmitri Samorukov for Klim Kostin. It wasn’t until mid-November that Kostin got into the Oilers lineup, and it wasn’t until Dec. 1 that he actually got a point. He never really looked back from there, putting up 21 points in 50 games through to the end of the season, and bringing some real physicality along the way. He fought four times during the season and once more in the playoffs and laid a number of big, heavy hits.
In the playoffs, he also put up five points in 12 games, though he wasn’t even playing eight minutes per contest. He showed he can be a physical contributor, capable of changing games with energy shifts and chipping in double-digit goal totals. Drafted 31st overall in 2017, the 24-year-old is finally looking like a player putting it together, but he was caught in a cap crunch and was packaged with Kailer Yamamoto (who later signed with Seattle), in a trade to Detroit.
The Red Wings then signed Kostin to a two-year, $4-million deal. If he stays the same — a 10-plus goal scorer that hits and fights some — he’s worth that contract. If his game continues to improve basically at all, it’s a bargain. When the contract expires, he will still be an RFA, to boot.
The Red Wings have signed a number of questionable contracts over the past two offseasons that carry all sorts of risk, but this one is relatively risk-free with really only upside here. Adding Kostin’s game to their lineup that features quite a bit of skill should be a welcome addition to the group, and gives them all sorts of options to move him around their forward lines.
5. Stars sign Matt Duchene after Predators buyout
A few years ago, the Dallas Stars took advantage of the buyout market by getting a still-good Ryan Suter on a four-year, $14.6-million contract for just $3.65 million per season. How that contract is aging is up for debate but the first year in particular was great value.
Now, the Stars are dipping into that market yet again, but on a much more team-friendly deal, signing Matt Duchene to a one-year, $3-million contract. On a fairly mediocre Nashville team, he had 22 goals and 56 points last season. That’s a far cry from the 43-goal, 86-point career year he had the season before, but it’s still very much top-six production.
That should fit in very well on a veteran Stars team that also features Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Wyatt Johnston, Mason Marchment and Evgeni Dadonov. It’s a deep, established group, which is a far better fit for Duchene at this point in his career than a Predators team trying to rebuild on the fly.
At this rate, he’s slated to essentially replace Domi as the rest of the forward group is returning. Domi had a productive playoffs for the Stars with 13 points in 19 games and Duchene is a similar type of offensive forward that can toggle between center and wing.
The Stars are in win-now mode. Players like Pavelski, Benn, Seguin and Dadonov are much closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Duchene is as well, but he’s still productive. Adding a legit 20-goal, 50-point forward at just $3 million is a good marriage between a team trying to win now and a player trying to prove his worth to angle himself for one final contract of note.