NHL free agency: The Predators' bold moves, the less active Ducks and Flames and more

When it comes to NHL free agency, there’s a natural tendency to focus on the big fish. The Nashville Predators, for example. Three important additions: Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Marchessault and Brady Skjei. How could a newbie GM like Barry Trotz conduct such a master class in reloading?

Because that’s what he’s done since taking over. Moved away from the players who didn’t fit the vision. Adding players who they felt would bring back the original working-class mantra of the organization. Repeatedly trotting out the nickname ‘Smashville’ whenever Trotz or his predecessor David Poile would get in front of a microphone, just to reinforce the point of where they were heading.

And then aggressively adding two productive, if aging, forwards with championship pedigrees in Stamkos and Marchessault, along with a minute-munching defenseman in Skjei who will replace what Ryan McDonagh provided before he was traded back to the Tampa Bay Lightning. One could argue that after Jake Guentzel, Stamkos was the most attractive forward in the free-agent mix this year, and that after Brandon Montour, Skjei was the top defenseman.

The fact they were the one team that had a goalie approaching free agency, which opted to sign him to an extension rather than move him along — as Calgary did with Jacob Markstrom or Boston with Linus Ullmark — is further proof of the Predators’ intent to challenge the top teams in the Central Division next season.

Usually, in the NHL, when a team is entering a reset, the operating model is to take one step backward in order to someday, in the faraway future, take two steps forward. Nashville tweaked that model.

Instead of taking a backward step a year ago, the Predators took a sideways step, ditching a Ryan Johansen to bring in a Ryan O’Reilly and moving off Matt Duchene to add a Gus Nyqvist.

And then this summer, they took a bold step forward. How will it translate on the ice? We’ll see. But on paper, they deserve all the plaudits they’re getting.

So good for the Predators, becoming the central figures in the market for the first time ever. It’s easy to forget how different free agency was in 2024 compared to 2023. Teams were comparatively frugal a year ago, a function of the ongoing flat-cap era. This year, with the cap rising to $88 million, teams loosened the purse strings. According to CapFriendly, over $1.2 billion in contracts were signed on July 1 alone.

Of course, the problem with free agency is, historically, overspending tends to backfire on teams. The opening of free agency generally rivals the trade deadline day as the two times a year that teams make their biggest mistakes. They reach too hard to fill a hole, pay too much and only occasionally see a positive return on their investment. So we’ll see how this plays out. The thing Stamkos and Marchessault had in common is both players felt underappreciated by organizations they’d served well for a long time. If that becomes an extra level of motivation, it can only enhance Nashville’s chances of making a splash next year.

The smaller fry

Generally speaking, it’s usually been the bottom feeders — the teams that nibble around the edges of free agency — that make the smartest long-term decisions. Sometimes, an addition doesn’t seem like much. But even if it pays off only incrementally, it’s better than the buyer’s remorse that has accompanied the obvious overpays of the past. We’ll focus on a few of the less active squads, beginning with the Anaheim Ducks because they were a team that essentially sat it out and then took some heat for the decision. But let’s go back in time to understand why.

Two years ago, in what was basically GM Pat Verbeek’s first crack at free agency, he signed Ryan Strome for five years at $5 million. Last year, he added Alex Killorn for four years at $6.25 million and Radko Gudas for three years at $4 million. Gudas was an outright home run. He came in, stabilized the defense and gave it an edge it didn’t have before. Now, when they’re talking about possibly naming a captain, you hear Gudas’ name mentioned more prominently than any other. That’s good business.

But Killorn and Strome didn’t move the needle in any meaningful way. It’s hard to grade the Killorn signing completely because he missed 19 of the team’s 82 games to injury. Before he got hurt, he hadn’t made a tangible impact. After? It started to get a little better. And Strome was a betwixt-and-between sort of guy, flitting in and out of the top six but not making any real tangible difference. He’s had consecutive years of 41 points. For what he signed for, and what he contributed, it hasn’t been worth the price … yet.

On the second day of free agency, Anaheim did add a player — defenseman Brian Dumoulin from division rival Seattle — to further stabilize the blue line. That was prudent.

The Ducks acquired defenseman Brian Dumoulin from the Kraken on Day 2 of free agency. (Stephen Brashear / USA Today)

The strength of the Ducks’ prospect pipeline is on defense, but it remains to be seen how many NHL minutes the quartet of Pavel Mintyukov, Olen Zellweger, Tristan Luneau and Jackson LaCombe can handle next year. There’s a thought that longtime defenseman Cam Fowler may not be around for the completion of the rebuild; and of course, John Gibson remains in the middle of all the trade chatter, though the number of teams actually looking for a solution in goal has dwindled to next to zero.

The only possible fit I can see in the short term is a Gibson-to-Pittsburgh-for-Tristan-Jarry swap, with incentives heading Anaheim’s way. But that is complicated and may never get off the ground.

In the meantime, they took on Robby Fabbri and the final year of his $4 million AAV contract from the Detroit Red Wings and received a bonus fourth-round draft choice for their trouble. The bottom line is the Ducks were prepared to be patient, and if they didn’t have a particular target in mind, going out and throwing money at a free agent, just to say they did something, made little sense.

Other minnows in action

The Calgary Flames also flew under the radar in free agency after being in the thick of the news cycle for much of the year. When the Flames traded away Markstrom and Andrew Mangiapane ahead of the draft, it brought to seven the number of regulars Craig Conroy has shipped out since taking over as GM from Brad Treliving.

That dates to last year, just before the draft, when they traded Tyler Toffoli to New Jersey for Yegor Sharangovich. Sharangovich was a fit on the Flames, scored 30 goals and was rewarded with a five-year extension, announced on July 1. Calgary went into the offseason looking to add at least two defensemen because it had shipped out three — Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin and Nikita Zadorov.

The Flames targeted Kevin Bahl from New Jersey in the Markstrom deal, and hope that at his size (6-foot-6) and age (23), he will eventually bring the sort of presence Zadorov gave them. In free agency, they added Jake Bean, a hometown reclamation program and the son of their former president and chief operating officer, John Bean, who retired only a month before.

All the talk in Calgary, speaking of family connections ahead of the draft, was whether the Flames could land Tij Iginla, son of Jarome, with the ninth pick. Didn’t happen. The younger Iginla went sixth to Utah. Instead, they turned to Bean, who played for the WHL Hitmen, the junior team they own. Bean was chosen in the first half of the first round by Carolina in 2016 and never really found a consistent NHL stride in the six years since he’s turned pro. But the price was right on Bean ($1.75 million for two years) and now he’ll get a chance to show exactly what his NHL upside might be. 

Their other pickup was Anthony Mantha, and to explain why, you need only to parse the vital statistics. He’s 6-foot-5. The Flames have a slew of young undersized forwards coming through the pipeline, including first-rounders Jacob Pelletier and Matthew Coronato, who should be regulars next year. As gritty as he is, Blake Coleman isn’t big. Sharangovich isn’t big. It’s the other reason they were prepared to move on from Mangiapane. Too many players of the same style and skill level rarely translate to a winning formula, especially since ‘big and hard to play against’ as a philosophy is becoming increasingly popular again thanks to the Florida Panthers’ success.

The Flames do have Martin Pospisil, who established himself as a regular last season, and Samuel Honzek coming through the pipeline. But Mantha is an NHLer, one who admittedly struggled last season between Washington and Vegas. He’ll lend size in the short term and then 55 or so games into the season, they can re-evaluate. If he’s playing well, maybe he could be a rental at the deadline. If they think he’s a culture fit, maybe they could sign him to an extension. That’s the real value in getting a player — any player, really — on a one-year deal (Mantha signed for $3.5 million). They have a lot on the line.

Turning to Florida

All who were around for the Vegas Golden Knights’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season were charmed by defenseman Nate Schmidt and impressed with his game. He seemed like one of the true steals in the expansion draft; a player who came in and gobbled up 22:14 minutes per night, most of any player on the team in that inaugural Golden Misfits season. For me, there’s a direct connection between time on ice and a coach’s trust in a player. That year, Gerard Gallant trusted Schmidt unequivocally.

It’s what earned him the six-year, $35.7 million contract that eventually became a financial obstacle when the Golden Knights made those full-court presses to add the likes of Mark Stone, Robin Lehner and others. Schmidt became one of their first salary-cap casualties and things didn’t go nearly as well in his next stop, Vancouver, or his last stop, Winnipeg.

But with the Jets, Schmidt got to know and came to like playing for coach Paul Maurice, which is why he chose to go to Florida for a salary ($800,000) just over the minimum. In some ways, Schmidt’s addition looks like Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s a year ago in Florida. Vancouver jettisoned Ekman-Larsson on a buyout and he surfaced in Florida on a show-me one-year contract and ended up with a Stanley Cup. That, in turn, opened the door to a four-year deal with Toronto. Treliving, the Maple Leafs GM, was in Arizona when the Coyotes drafted Ekman-Larsson and thus has known him since the start of his NHL career.

Schmidt now steps into OEL’s spot on the Florida depth chart. The Panthers weren’t ever going to be able to replace what Montour brought to the mix, so they’re weaker overall on the blue line. But they got Dmitry Kulikov back, and if Schmidt can play a steady 17 minutes per night, well, they can re-evaluate at the trade deadline if they need reinforcements.

Chris Driedger, who backstopped the Coachella Valley Firebirds to the Calder Cup final, will be reunited with Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, where he served as Bobrovsky’s backup from 2019 to 2021. (Jay Calderon / The Desert Sun / USA Today)

Remember, the Panthers muddled along without Montour and Aaron Ekblad for the first quarter of the season and stayed nicely afloat. They’ll need to do that again in their title defense year and can adjust mid-stream if necessary.

Given they only won the Cup a week before the free-agent season opened, they moved nimbly to fill holes up front and in goal.

Chris Driedger comes back to back up Sergei Bobrovsky, which he did effectively between 2019 and 2021 (where Driedger was a combined 21-8-4 in two seasons) before leaving for Seattle as a free agent. The new bottom of the Florida roster looks pretty good — Tomas Nosek, Jesper Boqvist, MacKenzie Entwistle and AJ Greer were all added at or near the NHL minimum.

Overall, they might be better than the players they replaced (Ryan Lomberg, Kevin Stenlund, others). Patch and plug, for better or worse, is the reality of trying to defend a Stanley Cup in the NHL’s salary-cap era.

The Columbus Blue Jackets had two chances to reach back into Johnny Gaudreau’s past in the hopes of getting his career back on track. Kevin Hayes, his longtime center at Boston College, was available. In the end, Pittsburgh took Hayes off the hands of the St. Louis Blues and got a second-rounder as a sweetener to do so. Columbus chose Option 2 and signed Sean Monahan as a free agent.

Gaudreau and Monahan had success together for years on Calgary’s top line before a series of injuries saw Monahan’s play drop off. Monahan was eventually replaced on Gaudreau’s line in Calgary with Elias Lindholm and then traded to Montreal as a salary dump where he got his career back on track.

Columbus had to outbid teams — including Winnipeg, where Monahan finished last year — to secure his rights, which is why it cost them $26 million over five years. Hayes, of course, was traded by Philadelphia to St. Louis in a retained salary transaction last summer, so he counts for only half of that $7.142 million cap charge against Pittsburgh’s payroll this year.

That’s cheaper than Monahan would have been. Hayes is a center and a left shot, same as Monahan and Gaudreau. A part of me thought Columbus shouldn’t have gone after both Monahan and Hayes and maybe tried them out as a line with Gaudreau, even if someone would have had to play out of position on the right side. The new regime in Columbus probably evaluated Hayes the way the old regime in Columbus did — and didn’t like him enough to pursue him.

But you just never know with chemistry, how it can develop in the oddest of ways. And for two years in Columbus, it’s shocking how little chemistry Gaudreau has been able to develop with anyone. His final season in Calgary, Gaudreau scored 40 goals. His first year in Columbus, his production dropped to 21 goals. This past year, it sunk to 12.

The plan isn’t hard to decipher. If Monahan can deliver the way he did a year ago, and also get Gaudreau’s game out of the doldrums, it feels like a two-for-one deal and suddenly doesn’t seem like as much of an overpay as it did when the Monahan contract was first announced.

(Top photo of Steven Stamkos with Roman Josi and goalie Juuse Saros: John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images)