Roundtable: Best free agent signings; most improved teams

NHL free agent signings
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Which NHL free agent signing(s) do you like the most? Which do you like the least?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: When you think about “checking all of the boxes” in a great NHL free agent signing, the Sabres snatching Taylor Hall at one year, $8M nails it the most. Consider it free agent BINGO:

B – The Sabres got one of the biggest stars in free agency in Taylor Hall.

I – In doing so, they pacified their biggest star, Jack Eichel, at least for a while.

N – By making it just a one-year deal, you mitigate the risks of signing an aging player to too-much-term. Frankly, $8M isn’t all that bad, either.

G – That’s because, if things don’t work out, you can recoup some value in a trade. Sure, Hall gets say with his trade clause, but he’ll want to play for a contender if the Sabres … well, stay the Sabres.

O – Oh no, I’ve run out of stuff! (How about … a nice statement from new GM Kevyn Adams? Yeah, that’s the ticket.)

That said, the best pure hockey signings might end up being something like the Canadiens signing Tyler Toffoli for cheap, and getting that bargain for multiple years. But it’s not as fun as the Hall deal.

As far as worst deals … as much as I want to ding the Rangers for signing Jack Johnson in 2020, that’s at least a gaffe that goes away after a year. The Senators giving up assets for Matt Murray and then signing him for four years and $25M is a classic “Well, we like the guy!” move. Sure, Murray could work out, but he’s been brutal the last couple of years, and has had health problems to boot. Also, the Senators could be quite a way from being any good anyway, so why overextend for a goalie now?

I’m also concerned about the term handed to Christopher Tanev and Josh Anderson. While the latter player could work out, both strike me as risky.

[Blue Jackets facing delicate contract negotiation with Pierre-Luc Dubois]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: What Joe Sakic is doing in Colorado is some superhuman work. He retained Andre Burakovsky, Ryan Graves, and Tyson Jost at reasonable, shorter-term deals, and may have worked out the best contract with possible future Selke Trophy winner Valeri Nichushkin (two years, $5M). Not satisfied with that, he went out and took advantage of a cap-strapped Islanders team and improved his blue line by adding Devon Toews and locking him up for four years.

I also like the Evgenii Dadonov and Alex Pietrangelo deals, but only in the short term. Dadonov is 31, so we’ll see if his production dips at the end of his three-year pact but he will provide a veteran presence on a developing Senators team. Pietrangelo fills a need for the Stanley Cup contending Golden Knights, and while the back end of the seven-year contract might be ugly, if it gets them a title or two, it’ll have been worth it.

The term on Jacob Markstrom deal is frightening. He’ll be 31 in January and six years for a goaltender at that age will not end well. Brad Treliving‘s window in Calgary is closing, and who knows what they’ll do with Johnny Gaudreau. The pressure is on to win and short-term gains could lead to long-term pains if the salary cap ceiling doesn’t return to normal growth in a few seasons.

[To replace Pietrangelo, Blues defense should spread the wealth, specialize]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Craig Smith in Boston has been at the top of my list from the moment they put pen to paper. I just think he is a perfect fit in every way for them. He gives an already deep forward lineup another scoring option, and his contract is excellent. It is only three years so he should remain productive throughout it, and the salary cap hit is more than fair. You know he is going to give you 20-25 goals and drive possession. Just a really good all-around player that does not get a lot of attention. Think he is about to in Boston.

You also have to like Taylor Hall in Buffalo, even though I am not sure it makes a huge difference for them. But anytime you can get an elite winger and recent league MVP you have to jump at it.

Also really love Tyler Toffoli in Montreal. Like Smith, it is a fair deal, decent cap hit, and just a really good all-around player. Think getting him in a system that is not Los Angeles will do wonders for him. We already saw a glimpse of it in Vancouver (very briefly) but he should be a great pickup for the Canadiens.

[What will Alex Ovechkin’s next contract look like with Capitals?]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Toronto Maple Leafs will have to be creative as long as the “core four” of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander remain on the roster, chewing up half of their entire team’s cap hit. So I was a fan of the veteran signings they made to fill out their roster. Up front, Wayne Simmonds (from Scarborough) and Joe Thornton (from London) have returned to their home province on bargain deals, and should add important depth to a top-heavy group. On defense, T.J. Brodie (4 years, $20M) and Stanley Cup champ Zach Bogosian (1 year, $1M) seem like upgrades on paper over Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie. Has GM Kyle Dubas found the right mix this time?

I also wanted to mention Kevan Miller re-signing with Boston on a 1-year contract. He finally appears healthy and ready to hit the ice for the first time in nearly two years. I’m glad he’s getting a shot to get his career back on track.

I’m wary of the massive contract Calgary gave to Jacob Markstrom (6 years, $36M). Do not read this as a criticism of Markstrom’s ability right now; he was an elite goalie last year and helped Vancouver knock off the defending Cup champion Blues in the First Round with a .930 SV% that series. But he turns 31 in January, and with so many cheaper options on the market this offseason, this was a serious commitment. Markstrom is an upgrade in the short term; we’ll see how this one ages.

[Red Wings sign Anthony Mantha, the best part of an already bright offseason]

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I love the pickup of Taylor Hall by the Sabres. It gives them another star player and hopefully satisfies their reigning superstar, Jack Eichel, who will have a player with outstanding talent on his wing. Eichel was not at all happy with the Sabres as they have yet to make the playoffs in the any of the five seasons he has played and his frustrations were showing in the off-season as he wants to win. With Hall now aboard, that gives the Sabres one of the top lines in the NHL with Hall and Sam Reinhart on his wings and should make for a great number one power play when you add Rasmus Dahlin to quarterback.

I was not thrilled with the Canucks taking on Braden Holtby and letting Jacob Markstrom go elsewhere. Except for the 2018 playoffs when he backstopped the Capitals to the Stanley Cup, he has been a mediocre netminder the past three regular seasons. Even when Washington won the Cup, Holtby was on the bench for the first two games of the post-season as he had lost his job to Philipp Grubauer. In the last three seasons Holtby has had goals-against-averages of 2.99, 2.82 and 3.11 while his save percentage this season dipped below .900 at .897. Markstrom had been a stud in net for Vancouver and he could come back to haunt his former teammates as he inked a six-year deal with rival Calgary.

Which team improved the most by what they’ve done so far in free agency?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Some of the NHL’s worst teams got a lot better, but in certain instances, there was some “addition by subtraction.”

The Devils, meanwhile, did quite a bit to actually just add quality. Corey Crawford long deserved more credit in Chicago, and that was very much true in propping up a horrid defense in 2019-20. Ryan Murray struggles to stay on the ice, but could help the Devils’ own rather horrendous blue line. While Andreas Johnsson was a trade addition rather than a UFA, adding him accounted for some of New Jersey’s cap spending.

I’m not sure how far this actually takes the Devils. For New Jersey to be more viable, they’ll need to perform at a higher level. Maybe Jack Hughes can, uh, look more like a surefire No. 1 pick? But they made some smart moves without taking many risks.

If you want a good team that got better, the Avalanche shrewdly landing Devon Toews almost feels like cheating. Can’t other teams have good defensemen too? Hoarders.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Honestly, I really think it might be the Edmonton Oilers. Crazy, I know. But they have done an outstanding job finding three bargains in Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, and Tyson Barrie. Turris is a low-risk gamble to fill the third-line center spot, and Barrie seems like an absolutely perfect fit on that power play. Getting those two guys for as cheap as they did is wonderful work as both should be in line for bounceback seasons. Kahun is also a smart pickup. Still pretty young, and I loved the way he played in Pittsburgh and thought the Penguins made a huge mistake trading him at the trade deadline. Good two-way player. Still question Edmonton’s goalie situation, but they have done great otherwise this offseason.

[Avalanche salary cap situation is about to get a little more complicated]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: If I can also include trades in this analysis, I’m going with Montreal. Between their acquisitions prior to free agency, and then their moves on the open market, the Canadiens look much better heading into 2020-21. They addressed a serious weakness by bringing in Jake Allen (.927 SV% last season) as Carey Price’s backup. Former Cup champ Joel Edmundson will add defensive depth. GM Marc Bergevin made a considerable investment in Josh Anderson (it cost them Max Domi and a hefty 7-year deal), but if Anderson can stay healthy, this gives the Habs a size element they lacked a season ago. Add in a reasonable deal for former 30-goal scorer Tyler Toffoli, and Montreal should definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I liked what Ottawa did in the off-season. Not only did they grab two of the top-five draft picks in Tim Stuetzle and Jake Sanderson, who should star on the Senators for the next 10 years once they make it to the NHL, but they fixed their goaltending woes by trading for Matt Murray. Then they signed winger Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year deal that certainly will help their offense. It was a great job this off-season by GM Pierre Dorion.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Agree with Michael. Sure, the bar is low, but Dorion had made the most out of this offseason. Between the draft pick additions and upgrading in goal with Murray and on their top six with Dadonov, plus the Alex Galchenyuk lottery ticket, things should be brighter in Ottawa over the next few seasons.

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    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

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    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

    Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

    panthers stanley cup final
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

    The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

    Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

    The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

    “This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

    Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

    The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

    And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

    “It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

    NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

    That’ll wait for the big prize.

    “It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

    Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

    Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

    Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

    “Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

    Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

    Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

    “Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

    That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

    But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

    Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

    Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

    Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

    “It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


    Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


    Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.