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Six Takeaways from the Start of Free Agency

The NHL's annual free agency period opens with big contracts and a surprise attempt to sign one 21-year-old superstar

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Every July 1, the first few hours of NHL Free Agency produce both expected and unexpected results that thrill hockey fans around the world. Here are the top six takeaways from day one:

1. As expected, three Columbus Blue Jackets stars changed addresses. On Sunday, Columbus offered Artemi Panarin $96 million over eight years ($12 million average annual value or AAV). As the holder of Panarin's contract through June 30, the Blue Jackets were the only team that could offer eight years in term-but only if Panarin accepted the offer before 11:59 p.m. Sunday. The "Bread Man" declined, then focused on offers from the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. While the Isles offered more money over seven years, Panarin signed with the Rangers at $11.64 million AAV over seven years, reportedly fulfilling a long-time dream to play for the home team at Madison Square Garden.

Columbus teammate and fellow Russian Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers to become new coach Joel Quenneville's go-to goalie, agreeing to a $70 million over the max seven years ($10M AAV). The move places "Bob" as second-highest paid goaltender behind Montreal's Carey Price. The Panthers cycled through four goalies last season, so Bobrovsky top-tier quality and stability for the organization. The Panthers were able to make room for their new goaltender after future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Roberto Luongo announced his retirement and after backup netminder James Reimer was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes before Free Agency began.

When Nashville traded Norris-trophy winning defenseman P.K. Subban during the second day of the 2019 NHL Draft, it was widely reported center Matt Duchene was the top free-agent target for the Predators. Duchene, who was acquired by the Blue Jacket's just days before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, signed with Nashville in short order and long green: $8 millon AAV over seven years for a total of $56 million. Duchene is projected to play on Nashville's second line behind Ryan Johansen who centers the top line. The Predators covet Duchene's power play skills: His 15 PP goals and 27 PP assists over the last two seasons best all other Preds players. Plus, Duchene won a whopping 62 percent of powerplay faceoffs.

 

2. In a surprise move, the Montreal Canadiens presented a five-year, $8.45 million AAV offer sheet to young star and restricted free agent (RFA) Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes. The RFA designation refers to younger players still under an original NHL contract and basically allows the original team, in this case, Carolina, seven days to match the offer sheet. It's been six years since the last time an offer sheet was used, when Calgary made a move on Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly in 2013. The Avalanche matched the agreement rather than lose the young star. Two trades and three teams later, O'Reilly just won the Stanley Cup and earned MVP honors for the St. Louis Blues.

3. As expected, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell quickly assured Hurricanes fans his team would match the offer sheet, with the club making it official on Tuesday morning. Here are some excerpts from the GM's initial comments to the media on Monday:

"Aho is our best player and we want to keep him long-term," said Waddell. "If you go back in time I think every offer sheet but one was matched…It's certainly a surprise. It's a surprise it wasn't more… I know my summer just got better because I'm not going to spend all summer working on a contract now."

Media experts say the $8.45 salary cap hit is a relative bargain for Aho, who turns 22 later this month. The thumbs-up, in the simplest terms, is based on hockey analytics value charts plotting a player's ability to generate wins against an age curve that assumes drop off in later career seasons.

More mysterious is the Canadiens' strategy to front-load the contract. While the annual salary cap bite is digestible, Montreal offered signing bonuses of $21 million over the first two years of the five-season deal. It will pay in the first two years or more than 50 percent of the entire contract.

4. Mixing the expected and unexpected, former Sharks captain Joe Pavelski signed with the Dallas Stars. That much was unsurprising as it was reported that Pavelski visited both Dallas and Tampa Bay, and that Dallas officials felt pretty confident by Sunday afternoon. Pavelski no doubt wanted to sign with a Cup contender and deemed Dallas to be on the rise with a solid blend of young talent, veteran stars and the stellar goaltending of Ben Bishop.

The surprising part was that the 35-year-old Pavelski signed a three-year deal after former San Jose teammate Patrick Marleau just was bought out of the final year of his previous three-year, 35+ contract. The argument is that Pavelski scored 38 goals last season while taking the fewest total shots of any of his previous full seasons. Another plus: Pavelski scores about a third of his goals on tipped shots, which scouts and media members alike say will help redirect low, hard shots from young Dallas defenseman John Klingberg. One more thing, San Jose star Logan Couture, a likely candidate to be the next Sharks captain, made it clear he will miss Pavelski's "heart" most of all.

5. The first day of free agency often features a teams taking a run at goaltenders. While Bobrovsky signed earlier in the day, the sixth hour of free agency produced a trio of signings, one expected and two head-turning. Petr Mrazek stayed with Carolina for $3 million next season and $3.25 million for the 2020-21 campaign. Expected. Then the Islanders signed former Colorado netminder Semyon Varlamov to a four-year deal, while Robin Lehner, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist with the Islanders this past season, signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. Unexpected. Blackhawks fans must wonder how Lehner fits with two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford and the promising talent of Collin Delia.

6. As expected-and dreaded - by a number of vocal Canucks fans, free agent defenseman Tyler Myers moved west to Vancouver from Winnipeg. However, some Canucks fans were appeased as a five-year, $30 million ($6 million AAV) deal was announced Monday, rather than the $50 million, seven-year contract that had been speculated prior to July 1.

Benning was not fazed by what some experts think are shaky defensive metrics for Myers.

"I've watched Tyler since junior and I've followed his career in Buffalo and in Winnipeg," said Benning. "I just felt like it's a great fit for our group. . . because he can play today's style of game because of his skating. And he's six-foot-eight. He makes us a better team. We have a strong analytics department … we listen to them. But with Tyler, it's more than the analytics."

For his part, Myers, a Kelowna, B.C. native stickhandled the situation with maturity. 

"I would say if this was 10 years ago when I came in the league, I wouldn't be ready for it," said Myers. "But I feel I've grown up a lot. I've been around long enough now it doesn't faze me at all really. The thing that solves any negativity is winning, and that's the ultimate goal coming into the group. Everybody is happy when we're winning, so that's what we're going to try to do."

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