Damien Cox: Welcome to NHL free agency, where you don’t often get what you pay for

Here in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, NHL free agency was being overshadowed for the first time by NBA free agency. Waiting for Kawhi, after all, seemed a more meaningful game than daydreaming whether some misguided NHL team might toss a free-agent offer sheet at Mitch Marner for the Maple Leafs to quickly match.

Well, at least that was what was happening until the complicated and absolutely fascinating Nazem Kadri trade came down on Monday.

The Kadri trade certainly refocused the GTA on the Maple Leafs in a hurry. Until then, well, we were all just sitting back marvelling at the combination of ambitious NBA owners and powerful NBA players arranging which other players they’d prefer to play with while drawing salaries measured in nine figures, giving the entire process an out-of-control, alternative universe appearance that would make Red Auerbach throw up on his green sneakers.

NBA free agency often massively alters the league’s balance of power. Like LeBron James picking a new team. Like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving landing together in Brooklyn. Huge stars leaving huge craters behind. Kawhi Leonard, of course, also has the potential to do just that.

In the NHL, free agency rarely has that impact. Matt Duchene landed in Nashville for $56 million (all dollars U.S.) and the Predators seem no closer to a Stanley Cup. John Tavares bolted Long Island in last summer’s biggest free-agent signing. The Islanders fared better without him and the Leafs weren’t improved. The veteran centre Tavares displaced, Tyler Bozak, won a Stanley Cup ring with St. Louis.


So which team was the winner in that free-agent tree?

The Kadri trade, meanwhile, made more of an impact for both Toronto and Colorado, and in a variety of ways, than any of the Monday signings that were part of free-agent “frenzy.” Hockey trades, good ones involving multiple players, are always so much more interesting and meaningful than one team throwing a ton of money at some player, usually some undeserving player. Sergei Bobrovsky, winner of one playoff series ever, got $70 million from the Florida Panthers. Does that make the Panthers a playoff team? Vancouver made Tyler Myers the highest-paid player on the team. Why?

Remember how everybody once desperately wanted Jimmy Vesey as a college UFA? The Rangers transferred him to Buffalo on Monday for a measly third-rounder. That tells you a lot about how free agency usually works. It’s a steamy one-night stand that becomes an unhappy relationship because both sides really feel they should try to make it work. Until somebody moves out.

Montreal made its own contribution to free-agent pointlessness on Monday. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin seemed to believe he was putting the Carolina Hurricanes into an unbreakable Camel Clutch by laying down an offer sheet on Carolina centre Sebastian Aho.

The offer, however, wasn’t for a particularly large and awkward sum of money: five years, $42.27 million. The average cap hit might be less than the Canes feared they’d have to pay to keep Aho. They’ll match the offer some time in the next seven days. The idea of an offer sheet — if you really want the player, that is — is to scare the hell out of the other team, not make them thank you for helping them get their player under contract.

The Carolina organization effectively trolled one of hockey’s most famed franchises Monday afternoon by tweeting a fan poll with the question, “Will we match the offer sheet for Sebastian Aho?”

Now that’s entertainment.


The most interesting signing of the day was Artemi Panarin joining the Rangers who, after a couple of years of regrouping, are clearly back in business. Panarin left Columbus, along with Duchene and Bobrovsky, making it clear marquee NHL players won’t sign with the Blue Jackets if they have another meaningful choice. So Columbus and Ottawa now have something in common.

Remember, the Jackets didn’t trade Panarin or Bobrovsky at the winter deadline knowing they were heading for unrestricted free agency, and also sacrificed assets to get pending free-agents Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in hopes of a long playoff run. The Jackets won one round, and now all those players are bolting. Making the self-inflicted wound even deeper is the fact that John Davidson, who approved all those decisions as Columbus president, left the team after the season. For the Rangers. Who signed Panarin.

J.D. is a good guy, but he might want to stay clear of the Ohio capital for a spell.

Dallas made a couple of smart, low-risk moves, signing veterans Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski to short-term deals. The Leafs did something similar with Jason Spezza, and acquired two defencemen from Ottawa, Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur. If not for the fact the Senators had the worst blue-line corps in the NHL last season, this would be something for Leaf fans to get excited about.

Kadri, meanwhile, fetched talented defenceman Tyson Barrie from Colorado, turning a Leaf weakness — the right side of the defence — into a strength. That is something to get excited about. Barrie, however, will be a free agent next summer. Somebody will then pay him more than he’s worth. That’s what days like Monday are all about.

Trades, particularly multi-player ones, require a thorough analysis of a team’s depth chart and payroll to make all the pieces fit. With free agency, there just doesn’t seem to be much along the lines of careful and intelligent team building. Patch a hole here, plug a leak there. Spend too much on this veteran hoping it makes your fan base believe and buy tickets.

A good trade always trumps a splashy free-agent signing.

For a day, it even trumped The Kawhi Watch.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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