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The Most Important Moves Of The NHL’s Free-Agent Frenzy

During their free-agency period, NHL teams haven’t engaged in an all-out superpower arms race like their basketball brethren. Rather, NHL free agency has been a methodological redistribution of assets — one that can be traced to the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights and the expansion draft that ensued. All that extra movement of bodies and money, coupled with every general manager’s rush to add or retain a free-agent gem, means there will be a lot of familiar faces in unfamiliar jerseys next season.

Not every free agent has signed — in particular, this year’s rather elderly free-agent class has a few graybeards who remain without suitors — but most of the league’s big targets have decided where they’ll play next season. So without further ado, here’s our unofficial and admittedly incomplete guide to the moves that will affect the 2017-18 season.

The NHL’s top free agents of 2017

According to 2016-17 goals above replacement (GAR)*

PLAYER POS AGE 2016-17 TEAM NEW TEAM YRS $M/YR GAR
1 Justin Schultz D 27 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 3 5.5 13.9
2 Kevin Shattenkirk D 28 Washington NY Rangers 4 6.7 12.7
3 Evgeny Kuznetsov C 25 Washington Washington 8 7.8 12.0
4 Andrei Markov D 38 Montreal 11.1
5 Justin Williams RW 35 Washington Carolina 2 4.5 10.9
6 Alexander Radulov RW 31 Montreal Dallas 5 6.3 10.7
7 Sam Gagner C 27 Columbus Vancouver 3 3.2 10.6
8 Patrick Marleau C 37 San Jose Toronto 3 6.3 10.3
9 Anders Nilsson G 27 Buffalo Vancouver 2 2.5 10.2
10 Thomas Vanek LW 33 Florida 9.5
11 Philipp Grubauer G 25 Washington Washington 1 1.5 9.1
12 Jaromir Jagr RW 45 Florida 8.6
13 Radim Vrbata RW 36 Arizona Florida 1 3.8 8.5
14 Tyler Johnson C 26 Tampa Bay Tampa Bay 7 5.0 8.2
15 Scott Hartnell LW 35 Columbus Nashville 1 1.0 8.0
16 Mike Fisher C 37 Nashville 7.9
17 Ryan Miller G 36 Vancouver Anaheim 2 2.0 7.7
18 Joe Thornton C 38 San Jose San Jose 1 8.0 7.7
19 Andre Burakovsky LW 22 Washington Washington 2 3.0 7.5
20 Jonathan Bernier G 28 Anaheim Colorado 1 2.8 5.6
21 Martin Hanzal C 30 Minnesota Dallas 3 4.8 5.6
22 Nick Ritchie LW 21 Anaheim 5.5
23 Kyle Quincey D 31 Columbus Minnesota 1 1.3 5.4
24 Daniel Winnik RW 32 Washington 5.3
25 Brett Ritchie RW 24 Dallas Dallas 2 1.8 5.3
26 Karl Alzner D 28 Washington Montreal 5 4.6 5.1

*A re-formulation of Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares that measures a player’s value over a replacement-level player at the same position.

A player’s displayed salary represents his annual cap hit.

Sources: Hockey-Reference.com, ESPN

Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers

Come trade deadline time the past several seasons, Kevin Shattenkirk’s name has been linked seemingly to every team in the NHL (including the Rangers in February), and for good reason — since his rookie season in 2010-11, Shattenkirk ranks 10th among defensemen in goals scored, tied for eighth in assists and 10th in total points. His 35 power play goals are tied for fifth over that same stretch, and his power play points are good for third.

The New York Rangers ranked 10th in the league in power-play percentage last season, and that should only improve with the addition of hometown1 boy Shattenkirk. The newly minted Rangers defenseman chews up big minutes, and he’s never finished a full season with a Corsi For percentage of less than 51.2. For the uninitiated, a Corsi For score of more than 50 percent means the player’s team was controlling the puck more often than not when he was on the ice, so the addition of Shattenkirk should make the Rangers a stronger possession team from the jump.

Over the past five seasons, the bulk of the blame for each Rangers playoff ouster seems to have pointed back to the blue line. With a mishmash of overworked veteran defensemen and disappointing acquisitions, the Rangers sit roughly in the center of the pack in shots allowed per game over the past five seasons. Adding a puck-moving defenseman who is entering his prime with better-than-average possession numbers should help decrease those shot totals — and take some of the burden off the suddenly human-appearing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulders.

The Rangers’ defensive corps will look different with the retirement of Kevin Klein and longtime defenseman Dan Girardi going to Tampa Bay, but the franchise that hasn’t had a legitimate defensive star since Brian Leetch landed a big upgrade in Shattenkirk.

Justin Schultz, Pittsburgh Penguins (re-signed)

Justin Schultz’s career began with so much promise. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he scored 27 points from the blue line as a 22-year-old rookie. But in the 2.5 seasons that followed, he failed to match the impressive points-per-game numbers he put up as a rookie, and people in Edmonton began to sour on him. Oh what a difference a few seasons and some new scenery make.

Since joining the Penguins, Schultz has transformed into a top-line defenseman, and he was a key piece to their Stanley Cup-winning campaign last season. In less than two seasons with Pittsburgh, he’s scored 0.61 points per game from the back,2 and he’s driven possession at a better clip, too.

Of the free agents in the 2017 class, Schultz’s goals above replacement3 mark of 13.9 ranks at the top. Pittsburgh may have lost Trevor Daley to free agency, but a defensive core built around Schultz and a healthy Kris Letang is nothing to turn your nose up at.

Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes were pretty close to making the playoffs last season. They ended up falling eight points short of an eighth seed but were in the hunt until the last few weeks of the season — and if they make the 2018 postseason, they’ll be glad they signed Justin Williams. Williams is well-known around the league for being a playoff beast. His career playoff points per game rate of 0.67 is better than his regular-season rate of 0.63, and he’s tied for 14th among active NHL players in game-winning playoff goals — and he’ll be returning to the place where he lifted the first of his three Stanley Cups, and where he twice netted 30-plus goals.

Ten times in his career, Williams has scored 40 or more points, which should help a Carolina team that finished in the bottom third of goals scored last season. Oh, and Williams can do more than score timely playoff goals; his career Corsi For percentage of 56.9 isn’t too shabby either.

Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars

Alexander Radulov is … mercurial. The Russian winger has been on alternating stints between the NHL and Russia’s KHL for his entire professional career: two seasons in Nashville, four in Salavat, a few more weeks in Nashville, four seasons in Moscow and then one in Montreal. So after his 54-point campaign with the Canadiens last season, he was bound to go anywhere from British Columbia to Siberia. He chose Texas. He’ll be there for a while, too, signing a long-term deal with the Dallas Stars. (Radulov’s signing in Dallas can also be read as a rebuff of KHL league chairman Arkady Rotenberg — and his close friend Vladimir Putin — who hopes to pry as many Russian players away from the NHL to ensure eligibility for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.)

But Radulov is a world-class scorer — he’s tallied 156 points in 230 NHL games and scored 492 points in 391 KHL games — and was by all accounts a great teammate in Montreal, so the Stars were lucky to land the big sharp-shooting right winger. Pair Radulov’s propensity for burying the puck with an insanely talented top line of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and the Stars might have on their hands the highest-scoring top line in the NHL next season.

Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs were a formidable offensive force last season, ranking fifth in total goals scored. The Leafs got a ton of scoring — 32 percent of their 250 goals — from their three rookie sensations: Calder Trophy-winning Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Patrick Marleau will make the Leafs’ offense only more dangerous, and you could do worse as far as mentor figures go.

Marleau, 37, has been in the NHL for 19 seasons, and until now he’s never worn anything but “deep Pacific” San Jose teal. In his 19 seasons, he’s made a point of scoring at least 19 goals — he’s only failed to do so three times, and one of those seasons was shortened to 48 games by a lockout. Marleau has also played in 177 playoff games, experience that should help the upstart Leafs — who gave the mighty Washington Capitals a serious scare in the first round of last season’s playoffs — immensely.

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks (re-signed)

“Jumbo” Joe Thornton is easily one of the best passers in NHL history. And he is certainly the best passer in NHL history who has a beard that is probably sentient. One of the premier centers of his generation, Thornton trails only Jaromir Jagr — who himself remains mysteriously unsigned — on the active assists leaderboard.4 Jumbo hasn’t scored fewer than 50 points in a full season since he was a 19-year-old playing for the Boston Bruins in 1998-99.

He’s not going to score a ton of goals — never really has — but San Jose was probably smart to prioritize Thornton over his longtime teammate Marleau. (Fun fact: Thornton and Marleau went first and second, respectively, in the 1997 NHL draft.) Thornton isn’t the lights-out goal scorer Marleau is, but he creates more opportunities for his teammates than his longtime counterpart; 43 of Jumbo’s 50 points were assists, 18 of which came on the power play. For a team that struggled mightily on the power play last season — San Jose ranked 25th in the league — the Sharks will need all of the passing acumen they can muster with the man advantage next season.

Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks

Ryan Miller probably won’t play much in Anaheim — starter John Gibson is just 23 years old and had a spectacular 2016-17 season — but there aren’t many teams in the NHL that can say they’ve got a backup who was once considered among the best goalies on the planet. Miller’s numbers were down a bit last season, but you can’t really blame him — his Vancouver Canucks gave up the sixth-most shots of any team in the league. Despite his impressive résumé, Miller might have to battle with Reto Berra for the backup position in Anaheim. Still, though, the Ducks are in great shape between the pipes — there aren’t many teams in the NHL that have the luxury of choosing from three proven(ish) NHL goaltenders.

Karl Alzner, Montreal Canadiens

Andrei Markov, unsigned

The Washington Capitals probably didn’t have the cap space to re-sign longtime defenseman Karl Alzner, but they probably didn’t really care to either. No worries for Alzner, though, because the Habs delivered a pretty solid payday. But truth be told, the native of Burnaby, British Columbia, got an awful lot of money — a cap hit of $4.6 million a year, to be exact — for a guy whose Corsi For percentage ranked 184th out of 229 qualified5 defensemen in 2016-17.

Alzner actually doesn’t do a whole lot very well — in 82 games, he scored just 13 points, zero of which came on the power play. He’s still relatively young for a defenseman — he’ll turn 29 before the 2017-18 season begins — and so perhaps Les Habitants are hoping Alzner’s game has room to grow. But that doesn’t change the fact that they signed a guy whose possession stats are subpar to a lucrative deal while their longest-tenured player — Andrei Markov — remains seated on the bench, waiting to see if he’ll play in Montreal next season.

Markov is old, but if last season’s performance is any indicator, he still has some gas left in his tank. Markov was limited because of injury but put up impressive numbers in the 62 games he did play in. At 38, and still playing more than 21 minutes per game, he drove possession at the best rate of his career. He also scored 36 points from the blueline, good for .58 points per game.6

In 16 NHL seasons, Markov has only ever worn a Habs jersey. Montreal would be foolish not to re-sign their longest-tenured player.

Footnotes

  1. He’s from nearby New Rochelle.

  2. He produced 0.41 points per game during his time in Edmonton.

  3. Goals above replacement aims to estimate the number of net goals a player produces compared to a replacement-level player in the same amount of ice time. (The replacement level represents the amount of production a team could expect from a minimum-salary player at a given position.)

  4. He also ranks 13th all time and needs just 43 more to leapfrog Gordie Howe as the ninth-highest dime-disher in NHL history.

  5. With a minimum of 20 games played.

  6. Markov’s career points per game rate? .58.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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