2019 NHL free agency

NHL Power Rankings
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NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Goalie fight (Talbot vs. Smith), Tkachuk involved in Flames-Oilers brawl

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People predicting that there would be more carnage in the second of this week’s two installments of “The Battle of Alberta” were right. Really, it’s pretty tough to top a goalie fight.

That’s right, during Saturday’s Oilers – Flames game in Calgary, goalies dropped the masks/gloves/blockers/etc. for the first netminder skirmish since Ray Emery didn’t give Braden Holtby much of a choice in 2013.

In this case, Cam Talbot fought Mike Smith. It was part of a larger skirmish, as Talbot was getting into it with some Oilers, and then the two met later on down the line during the brawl. Personally, I thought “Hmm, not sure I’d want to fight Mike Smith.” Such a thought ended up being pretty justified.

Matthew Tkachuk also fought with Ethan Bear during that larger fracas. You can watch the carnage in the video above.

Now, don’t get me wrong. While Saturday takes the cake in my opinion, Wednesday’s shootout win for the Flames was still nasty and spirited. It also involved a brief fight between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian:

Still, it’s tough to top a goalie fight. Bonus points for Smith being with the Flames last year, and Talbot with the Oilers. It adds a level of goofy weirdness that we can all get behind.

The Oilers ended up blowing out the Flames 8-3 on Saturday. The Buzzer explores another big night for Leon Draisaitl, among other topics.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers still aren’t getting money’s worth with Bobrovsky

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Few teams needed better goaltending more than the Florida Panthers last summer. So, when Sergei Bobrovsky hit the free agent market, the Panthers ignored red flags like age and a mixed 2018-19 season to snatch Bob up.

On paper, the move makes a ton of sense. The Panthers disappointed last season, yet there was a feeling of “… But what if they could just get some stops?” Then, poof here comes a seemingly perfect opportunity. Goalies of Bobrovsky’s caliber rarely hit the open market. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a two-time Vezina winner became available at least somewhat close to their prime years, yet there Bobrovsky was.

But, again, there were some red flags flashing.

During a busy Saturday afternoon in the NHL, the hockey world got a reminder that you don’t always get what you pay for when you hand $10 million per year to a goalie, even one as accomplished as Bobrovsky.

[Bobrovsky wasn’t off to a great start, in particular.]

Panthers pull Bobrovsky against Sabres

The Panthers likely already entered the first intermission vs. Buffalo with serious frustration. Despite managing an 11-5 shots on goal advantage through 20 minutes, the Sabres managed a 1-0 lead.

Things spiraled out of control for Bobrovsky and the Panthers during the middle frame, as Bob allowed two more goals. Joel Quenneville saw enough, pulling Bobrovsky after the 31-year-old gave up three goals on just seven SOG.

Blaming Bobrovsky alone is unfair, as he could only do so much. Take, for example, this Conor Sheary 2-0 goal:

 

Still, there’s only so much you can do when a goalie barely stops more than half of the attempts he faces.

Bobrovsky giving Panthers more of the same numbers

Teams who allow too many goals face chicken-and-the-egg arguments. That’s often fitting, really, because usually the problems are a mix: goalies should stop more pucks, but their teams could put them in better situations.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon either misdiagnosed the problem as mostly goalie-related, or was throwing up a Hail Mary pass that Bobrovsky could save his bacon.

Either way, it’s painful to note how similar the Panthers’ problems are despite throwing a ton of money and resources at goaltending.

Heading into Saturday, Bobrovsky sported a putrid .897 save percentage. Adjusting for context only helps so much; Bob’s -10.94 goals saved against average languishes among the worst in the NHL. By that standard at Hockey Reference, Bob has only been slightly more effective than the likes of Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, starters suffering through profoundly miserable seasons.

Such numbers parallel the season-sinking work of James Reimer and Roberto Luongo from 2018-19. Uncomfortably so.

Also uncomfortable: comparing 2018-19 Reimer with the 2019-20 version. Nestled in the Carolina Hurricanes cocoon, Reimer improved his save percentage to .914 versus last season’s rough .900 mark. Reimer’s career average is also .914, making you wonder what happened in Florida — though it’s crucial to remember that, as always, “goalies are voodoo.”

Nature versus nurture

When the Panthers hired Quenneville, they described Coach Q as “transformative.” So far, the Panthers’ overall play seems … mostly middle of the pack?

The Panthers give the impression of probably deserving a little bit better from goaltending, but by how much? What portion of the blame goes to Bobrovsky and other goalies versus the team around them?

Panthers outscore some, but not all, of their problems

Florida deserves credit for hanging around the East playoff bubble considering their troubles stopping pucks.

While allowing a third-worst 3.35 goals against per game (before Saturday) qualifies as worrisome, the Panthers also rank third-best with 3.55 goals for per game. The Panthers generate more goals than they allow, so maybe the situation isn’t so dire.

Perhaps the Panthers’ well-compensated coach can turn enough knobs to make life easier for their well-compensated goalie?

After performances like Saturday’s dud against Buffalo, it’s easy to get pessimistic about Bobrovsky. An optimist may counter that Florida isn’t that far away from finding the right balance.

Unfortunately, a realist will note that the Panthers wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they began right now, and face a significant hill to climb in an Atlantic Division that’s starting to look stacked once again — at least at the top.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Would Ilya Kovalchuk make sense for Bruins, other NHL contenders?

Ilya Kovalchuk free agent
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It’s over. The Ilya Kovalchuk era has mercifully ended for the Los Angeles Kings, as Kovalchuk cleared waivers on Tuesday. The 36-year-old is now an unrestricted free agent.

So, would and should another NHL team see if they can make it work with Kovalchuk where the Kings failed? Let’s consider questions that are almost as tricky as Kovalchuk’s peak-era shot.

Kovalchuk unlikely to cost many bucks

Sports-Express’ Igor Eronko reports a few crucial points:

For the most part, then, a Kovalchuk signing would be low-risk. It sounds like he’d sign a cheap deal, and wouldn’t cost the team assets they’d lose in a trade. That said, there is some risk, as he’d stand as a 35+ contract.

Kovalchuk might be washed

The good news is that it sounds like Kovalchuk wouldn’t cost much. The bad news is that it might be a “get what you pay for” situation.

Consider this perspective from the Boston Sports Journal’s Conor Ryan, which is especially relevant since Eronko reports that the Boston Bruins are “interested” in Kovalchuk:

Kovalchuk doesn’t really shine by many metrics, including this middling heat map from Hockey Viz:

Kovalchuk left the NHL an elite player, but just about every sign points to him being “meh” at best since returning, with 43 points in 81 games as a member of the Kings.

A team signing Kovalchuk either needs to have low expectations (“Kovalchuk could at least be better than what we have now”) or a belief that they can get more out of the once-elite sniper.

Let’s quickly consider a few potential bidders of varying likelihood.

Boston Bruins

Again, Eronko reports that the Bruins are interested, while LeBrun noted (sub required) that the Bruins and San Jose Sharks were among the top bidders for Kovalchuk when he chose Los Angeles.

So, the Bruins have been eyeing Kovalchuk for a while. One could also argue that he’d be an upgrade over, say, Brett Ritchie on the second line with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. On the other hand, Kovalchuk’s defensive lapses might not make him enough of a net positive for a Bruins team with high aspirations, and it would probably be tough for Kovalchuk to get much more than secondary power play opportunities considering Boston’s firepower.

New York Islanders

The Isles could use a little more “pop” in their offense, and Lou Lamoriello’s history with Kovalchuk is undeniable. One can only imagine the fury Kovalchuk would cause for Barry Trotz, though.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus needs to scratch and claw for everything post-Artemi Panarin. Maybe Kovalchuk could be a power play specialist for Columbus like Sam Gagner once was?

Of course, Kovalchuk might not exactly view the Blue Jackets as contenders, and John Tortorella … well, just picture Torts and Kovalchuk for a minute. Entertaining for everyone except the Blue Jackets, right?

Dallas Stars

Dallas is somewhere between the Blue Jackets and Islanders when it comes to being competitive despite meager scoring. It makes sense, then, that the Stars would face a similar Kovalchuk conundrum: they need offense, but would Kovalchuk take so much off the table defensively that he wouldn’t be worth a potential bump in skill?

Carolina Hurricanes

Adding some finish could be a big boost for Carolina, and there’s the Don Waddell Thrashers connection. LeBrun reports that the Hurricanes are still waiting on Justin Williams’ decision, however.

***

Signing Kovalchuk makes at least some sense to quite a few teams, including some who weren’t mentioned in this post. Even so, Kovalchuk also has plenty of flaws in his game, likely shrinking the list when you factor in teams that are more than merely curious.

Would Kovalchuk make your team better? That’s debatable, but it sure would be fun to see a great player author one more strong run. We’ll find out soon enough if someone decides to roll the dice.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.