With the 2023 NHL Draft in the rearview mirror, NHL teams have shifted their respective focuses towards free agency to improve rosters.
The 2023 free agent class was vastly different than the 2022 group, which included stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Claude Giroux and Nazem Kadri. Still, there were plenty of players that could help NHL franchises improve heading towards the 2023-24 campaign.
Some of the biggest names included Tyler Bertuzzi, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Dmitri Orlov. With most of the top free agents having signed deals with their new teams, let’s take a look at some of the biggest winners and losers of NHL free agency.
Winner: Carolina Hurricanes
It’s hard to argue that there’s a team more improved than the Carolina Hurricanes. Coming off a spirited run to the Eastern Conference Final despite being undermanned, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell had the burner cranked all the way up on the stove.
Carolina improved their blue line in a big way as they signed Orlov, who was one of the top free agents on the market, to a two-year, $16 million deal after he turned in a career year in which he registered 36 points (7 goals, 29 assists) splitting time between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Orlov gives the Hurricanes a top-pairing type of a defenseman that could skate with offensive-minded Brent Burns next season.
The Hurricanes also signed former Toronto Maple Leafs winger Michael Bunting to a three-year, $13.5 million contract. Bunting has scored 46 goals over the past two seasons and gives Carolina a huge boost to their top-six forwards. In addition, the Hurricanes decided to run it back in net, as they signed veteran goaltenders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta to short-term deals. It may have come as a little bit of surprise with young netminder Pyotr Kochetkov waiting in the wings, but Andersen and Raanta have a veteran presence that a team chasing a Stanley Cup can utilize.
Loser: Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins are coming off the single greatest regular season in NHL history with 135 points and 65 wins to their credit. Still, the Bruins ended up being eliminated by the Florida Panthers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after squandering a 3-1 lead.
In the early stages of free agency, the Bruins signed veterans James van Riemsdyk, Milan Lucic and Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as former Seattle Kraken forward Morgan Geekie. These moves are fine for a contending team that already has a stacked roster in place, but the Bruins failed to bring back Tyler Bertuzzi or Orlov, who they acquired at the 2023 trade deadline.
The Bruins do have depth on the blue line, so not retaining Orlov at an $8 million annual price tag is understandable to an extent. However, letting Bertuzzi walk in free agency is a gamble. His versatility on the wing had been a terrific fit in Boston, so it was a little surprising to see them make little effort to retain his services.
Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs
Free agency didn’t get off to the most stellar start for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. Just minutes into free agency, they lost veteran forward Ryan O’Reilly to the Nashville Predators. The Hurricanes also signed Bunting away from the Maple Leafs, so things were looking bleak.
But on Sunday, the Maple Leafs’ fortunes changed in a big way. The team landed Bertuzzi on a one-year, $5.5 million deal — one of the biggest prizes in free agency. The Maple Leafs also signed forward Max Domi to a one-year, $3 million contract. After losing Bunting and O’Reilly, Toronto acted swiftly in order to replace them, and did so with two of the top forwards remaining on the market.
The Maple Leafs then added defenseman John Klingberg on a one-year, $4.15 million contract. Klingberg isn’t exactly a defensive stalwart, but his offensive prowess could be a welcome addition to Toronto’s blue line.
Loser: Tampa Bay Lightning
After appearing in the Stanley Cup Final in three consecutive seasons, that streak came to an end for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning fell at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the postseason.
Much like the 2022 offseason, the Lightning were forced to make some tough financial decisions. Tampa Bay ended up trading forward Ross Colton to the Colorado Avalanche for draft pick compensation, as well as seeing forward Alex Killorn sign with the Anaheim Ducks. With very little financial space to spare, the Lightning signed forwards Conor Sheary and Luke Glendening to cap-friendly deals.
For the second consecutive offseason, the Lightning lost a key forward after they weren’t able to re-sign Ondrej Palat in 2022. Dynasties eventually get older and just aren’t able to retain everybody that made those championships possible. That is likely whar we’re witnessing with the Lightning.
Winner: Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche were hampered by injuries throughout the 2022-23 season. Being a healthier team next season, combined with some solid signing in free agency, will help the Avalanche achieve that feat.
General manager Joe Sakic inked former New Jersey Devils winger Miles Wood to a six-year deal at just $2.5 million AAV to give the Avalanche some scoring depth. Colorado wasn’t done, as the team signed Jonathan Drouin to a one-year, $825,000 deal in the hopes of reviving his career.
The Avalanche also signed defenseman Bowen Byram, who was a restricted free agent, to a two-year, $3.85 million contract extension. Byram produced a career year in which he registered 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in just 42 games. Prior to free agency beginning, Sakic also brought veteran center Ryan Johansen to Colorado for the rights to Alex Galchenyuk, and the Nashville Predators retained 50 percent of Johansen’s salary in that deal.
The Avalanche have plenty of star power in the form of Natahn MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen, but bringing in depth pieces like Wood, Drouin, and Johansen were sound moves that championship squads make.
Loser: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins had an impressive start to the offseason when they brought in Kyle Dubas as the team’s new president. However, he made one very questionable move as free agency got underway over the weekend.
Entering free agency, it appeared as though the Penguins were looking to make a change in net. Goaltender Tristan Jarry looked to be on his way out, but Pittsburgh ended up re-signing the veteran goalie to a five-year, $26.857 million contract. Jarry’s new deal will carry a $5.375 million annual cap hit, despite him being injured often and having a 3.00 career goals-against-average in the postseason.
The Penguins also added former Devils defenseman Ryan Graves to a six-year, $27 million contract to help stabilize the blue line. It’s a decent move, but that Jarry deal may end up being a huge eyesore. It would’ve made more sense for the Penguins to kick the tires on a potential trade for Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck or Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson rather than settling on a known commodity.