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Down Goes Brown's Weekend Review: Yzerman's Killing It, the Canucks Aren't, and the Inevitable 2020 Lockout

NHL free agency got off to a busy start. We look at the good and the bad, including one signing that fits both categories.
Photo by John Locher/AP

(Editor's note: Sean McIndoe looks back at recent play in the NHL and the league's biggest storylines in his weekend review. You can follow him on Twitter.)

Faceoff: Here comes the money

The NHL's annual free agent frenzy opened on Friday at noon. Within hours, most of the big names were gone. By the end of the first day, only a handful of major names were left. And by the end of days two and three… well, actually, pretty much nothing happened on days two and three. Seriously, the weekend was weird. I think everyone already went on vacation. Am I the only one left? Because I don't know how to work the coffee machine.

Anyway, the slow weekend was bad news for a handful of decent players who are still available, most notably Kris Russell, Shane Doan, Matt Cullen and James Wisniewski (a latecomer to the part after being bought out the day before bidding opened). History tells us that those guys better hope they find a home soon, because as the summer wears on and cap dollars become scarce, the market dries up quickly. Maybe it already has.


Let's skip the preamble and get right to what you came for: Instantaneous declarations of winners and losers, most of which will be proven wrong by midway through training camp. Here are the five best and five worst from a busy start to the NHL's new year, along with one signing that fits both categories.

READ MORE: The Biggest Winners, Losers, and Surprises of the NHL Draft

Top Five

The biggest winners of the market's early days.

5. Montreal signs Alexander RadulovWhat does the art of comedy have in common with infuriating the Montreal Canadiens fan base? As GM Marc Bergevin could tell you after this week, the secret is in the timing.

At any other time, signing recent KHL star and former NHL castoff Alexander Radulov to a one-year, $5.75 million deal would seem like a reasonable move, albeit a risky one. Radulov has tons of talent; he also has a history of immaturity, most famously when he was benched for a playoff game after missing curfew with the Predators in 2012. He hasn't been seen in the NHL since, heading to the KHL where he put up four solid seasons. Now he's back, and the Habs hope he's smartened up.

And maybe he has. But again, there's that issue of timing. The signing came just two days after the Canadiens shocked everyone by trading P.K. Subban, taking back an inferior, older player with a worse contract in the process. The reason, the whispers went, was character. And then the team goes out and signs the poster boy for lack of it? It's all very confusing, and Bergevin didn't do much to explain himself on Friday. You could forgive Habs fans for throwing their hands in the air and concluding that this franchise doesn't have the first clue what it actually wants.


When you search your own name on Twitter after trading PK Subban. Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

But all of that overshadows an important point: This is a great deal for Montreal. Radulov is a wild card, and even if he has his head on straight, we really have no idea what he'll be in the NHL after four years away. He might not work out. But he could also be a star, the sort of first-line talent that's virtually impossible to add during an NHL offseason. And Montreal got him on a very reasonable one-year deal.

Best case, he's a monster and the Canadiens have a massive bargain to help lead them back to the playoffs. Worst case, he's a bust and you can write him off as a failed experiment that you cut your losses with without any future exposure. That looks a lot like the sort of medium-risk, high-reward deal that any team should jump on. Bergevin deserves credit, even if his timing was awful.

4. The David Backes fake out—The Bruins signed David Backes to a five-year, $30 million deal that wasn't especially remarkable. It was a little too much money and way too much term for a 32-year-old coming off his worst season in years, but it addressed a need and looked like a good fit between player and team. For a July 1 signing, it was fine.

But for a moment, it seemed like it was much more than that. When the signing first broke, it was widely but incorrectly reported as a one-year deal. Both Canadian networks covering the day's news—why yes, just like trade deadline day, NHL free agency gets covered by two full networks up here, thanks for asking—ran with the bad info, with both panels praising the Bruins for their restraint and common sense in not overcommitting to an aging player. Finally, they all agreed, some sanity. Don Sweeney is figuring this stuff out. Hey, at least it wasn't five years, right?


And then, minutes later, we found out that it was five years, and everyone just kind of looked at each other sheepishly and then changed the subject. And I laughed for about eight solid minutes.

3. The Panthers… maybe?—I'm honestly not completely sure on this one. The Panthers locked up Aaron Ekblad with a second contract that's massive—eight years and $60 million—but still represents fair value. They plucked Keith Yandle away from the market by trading for his rights, signed Jason Demers and James Reimer to reasonable deals, and re-signed Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck. Those all seem like good moves. Are the Panthers smart now? The Panthers seem smart.

Then again, this is the same team that just came off its first ever 100-point season and started firing everyone, so it's hard to say what's really going on in Sunrise. But for the weekend, at least, the Panthers looked like a franchise that knows what its doing.

2. Veteran bargains—History tells us that almost all of the big-dollar signings from the last few days will end up being mistakes. When you make a big splash in the early days of the free-agent market, you're really looking at a best case where you get a few good years that make it less painful when the regret kicks in. The worst case is that the whole thing is a comical disaster pretty much immediately.

But some signings do work out, and they usually fall into two categories: veterans who take fair market value or less because they like the fit, and useful depth guys who sign bargain big deals well into July or August. We haven't got to that second category yet, but we did see a few signings that fell into the first.


And with apologies to Eric Staal's quasi-reasonable three-year, $10.5 million deal in Minnesota and P.A. Parenteau's annual one-year discount, this time with the Islanders, the best of this year's veteran signings is Brian Campbell's one-year, $2 million deal in Chicago. Campbell is a perfect fit for Chicago, and comes in at a price tag well under market value because at this point in his career the 37-year-old simply wants to be a Blackhawk. That's a testament to what Stan Bowman has built in Chicago, which has become the destination of choice for players looking to live in a great city, play in front of great fans, and have a shot at a championship. Campbell isn't the first player to take this sort of deal; as long as the Blackhawks can keep winning, he won't be the last.

1. Steve Yzerman—A select few NHL GMs are playing chess. Most are still playing checkers. Steve Yzerman is playing his own game that he made up in his head because chess got boring after he memorized all the moves and solved it.

Yzerman is good and having fun at whatever game he's playing. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Yzerman let Steven Stamkos hear what his free agent suitors had to offer, then watched him come running back to Tampa Bay for a much smaller deal. He locked up Victor Hedman on yet another contract that was at or below fair market value. He signed his goalie of the future—and maybe the present—to a reasonable deal. He still has Jonathan Drouin, since he refused to make a panic move involving the young forward during the season. And he didn't sign any free agents to dumb contracts, because he doesn't need to. The Lightning are stacked.


Can they stay that way? Yzerman still needs to re-sign Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn this summer and Tyler Johnson the next, and (probably) trade Ben Bishop. Can he pull it off? Probably, yeah. Compared to the week he just had, the test shouldn't be all that challenging. The guy is killing it.

Bottom Five

The worst contracts, justifications and moments of free agency's first few days.

5. The NHL's strict interview window rules—The NHL has strict rules around how teams can interact with players who are under contract elsewhere, and that extends to the five-day interview period before free agency. This is a relatively new wrinkle, one added in 2013 and after a rocky first year, the league clarified the rules to make it crystal clear that teams were allowed to talk to pending free agents, but not to actually negotiate, and certainly not to strike deals.

The league doesn't fool around on this stuff, remember. They just fined a GM $50,000 for even admitting that he might be interested in a free agent in the days leading up to the interview period. Teams are expected to follow the rules or else, you guys. The NHL means it.

Which is why it was such a weird coincidence to see all the major free agents sign within hours of Friday's noon deadline, including several deals that got done within minutes. Huh. It's almost like the NHL's decision to enforce its own rules around who can say what to you are completely arbitrary.


Either that, or the league should just drop the silly pretense around restricting offers during the interview week and just allow teams to do what they're clearly all doing already.

4. Detroit Red Wings—Frans Nielsen, Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek, huh? Well, I suppose that's almost as good as Stamkos. And hey, it's not like Ken Holland has ever done anything to make us question his judgment in free agency, so I guess we should [laptop short-circuits from flood of Red Wing fans tears]

3. The Vancouver Canucks—A team that missed the postseason last year, hasn't won a playoff round in five years, and has done everything short of having the players lay down on the ice to form the words "Please start the rebuild" went out and signed the sort of veteran free agent that you target when you think you're one or two players away from contending. This is suboptimal.

That's not to say that Loui Eriksson's six-year, $36 million deal is a mistake. Oh, it is—he'll turn 31 this month and the deal will almost certainly look awful within a few years—but there's no point saying it. In the context of July 1 signings, Eriksson wasn't the worst deal to be had.

But the Canucks should have been just about the last team willing to offer it, and the fact that they were first in line is yet more evidence that their front office can't see the writing on the wall. I suppose we knew that already, which is why I won't rank the signing any higher than this. But if you were a Canucks fan hoping for a last-minute sign of sanity, Friday wasn't a very good day for you.


2. Kris Russell—Russell may be the most divisive player in the league when it comes to the analytics vs. old school debate, and the beauty of ranking him this high is that both sides can agree with me.

If you're old school, you think it's a travesty that he's still somehow unsigned as of Monday morning. Intangibles! Heart! Character! After all, the guy is the league's king of blocking shots.

And if you're an analytics type, one who realizes that "blocks a ton of shots" is just another way of saying "always seems to be trapped in his own end," you're living in abject terror that it will be your team that signs him.

Either way, the hockey world will spend its Fourth of July hitting refresh on the transaction page to see where Russell winds up. And then they'll have very strong feelings about it, which you'll hear about for the rest of the week.

1. The 2020 lockout—We all know it's coming, because this is Gary Bettman's NHL, and the league is unique in North American pro sports in its complete and utter inability to negotiate a new CBA without at least a half-season's worth of work stoppage. But if there was any doubt at all about which way the wind is blowing, this year's free agency deals made it clear: Everyone knows we're not getting a full season of hockey in 2020.

Hmm, another lockout. Just what our sport needs. Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

This year's big trend was players signing deals in which most of the money came in the form of signing bonuses paid each year on July 1, instead of a salary paid over the course of the entire season. Everyone from Steven Stamkos to Andew Ladd to Kyle Okposo to Matt Martin (!) got the same treatment. For a player, that's attractive for a few reasons, including the fact that bonus-laden deals are basically impossible to buy out (because buyouts only touch salary, not bonuses).


But perhaps even more importantly, having as much bonus money as possible for the 2020-21 season protects a player against that year's inevitable lockout. After all, who cares about not getting paid when you already have 80 percent of your money in your pocket?

Expect to see more and more of these sort of deals over the next few years, right along with more and more stories about how all that record revenue the league is always bragging about isn't all that much after all, and it absolutely needs to shut down in order to drive the player's share down to 45 percent, or shorten contract lengths, or eliminate guaranteed contracts altogether. It's going to happen. The league knows it, the players know it, the agents know it, and any fans who've been paying attention know it, too.

But hey, at least when the lockout ends it will probably result in another round of compliance buyouts to erase Friday's worst signings, we all secretly hope.

The Mushy Middle

In which we create a special section for the one deal that was somehow both good and bad at the same time.

1. The Oilers sign Milan Lucic—Days after trading away Taylor Hall in a terrible deal, the Oilers doubled down by throwing what at the time was the biggest opening day contract in five years at his apparent replacement. That would be Lucic, who'll settle into Hall's spot in the lineup, and probably onto a line with Connor McDavid. He got seven years and $42 million on a bonus-laden deal that's designed to be just about impossible to buyout.

At his best, Lucic is a wrecking ball, a throwback power forward who can dominate a game physically. That's what makes him worth the $6 million average annual value; it's also what makes him an awful bet to hold up for anywhere near seven years. Lucic is already 28, and the history of power forwards lasting well into their 30s is sparse. For every Jarome Iginla or Brendan Shanahan story, there are many more that look like Cam Neely, Eric Lindros, Wendel Clark, David Clarkson, Ryane Clowe, Dustin Brown… you get the picture. Lucic is a decent bet to be worth the money over the first half of the deal, and a far better one to look like a mistake over the second.

You want some grit, Edmonton? You got it, for seven years and $42 million. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The contract is already being praised in some quarters, under the assumption that Lucic will come in and transform the Oilers' losing culture. That seems like an odd view; this is a guy who's won one playoff game in two years, and the last time we saw him outside of the first round he was having a temper tantrum in a handshake line. If anything, it's far more likely that the Oilers will improve on their own, thanks mostly to McDavid's emergence as the league's best player, and Lucic will get the credit because we can't resist a good intangibles success story. Or they won't improve, and next year they'll go hunting for even more heart and grit to finally tip the scales.

So yes, $42 million for Milan Lucic is almost certainly a bad deal. And yet, like the Hall trade, you can at least see why the Oilers made it. Trading Hall for Adam Larsson and handing a max-length deal to Lucic are both high-risk moves, the kind you'd normally want your team to walk away from. But for Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, standing pat was also a high-risk move. The Oilers have been so bad for so long that staying patient and trusting the process just doesn't look like an option any more. Not for their tortured fan base, and maybe not for the young core that's been losing for so long that they may not remember what the alternative feels like. Patience be damned, this is Connor McDavid's prime we're talking about here.

Moving Hall and signing Lucic may not work. It probably won't work. But the status quo wasn't working, either, and Chiarelli apparently felt that he had to do something. It's hard to say that he's wrong. And in four years, when Lucic's contract inevitably looks a lot like Dustin Brown's does today, long-suffering Oilers fans probably won't care—as long as they've seen some playoff success along the way.