Winners and losers from frenetic start to NHL free agency

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Day 1 of the NHL's free-agent frenzy is in the books, and what a day it was. According to CapFriendly, teams dished out over $900 million across 149 contracts.

Below, we dive into the winners and losers from Wednesday's festivities.


Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets pulled off the unthinkable. A franchise notorious for allowing star talent to walk out the door - or overpaying to keep it - just landed the biggest free agent available for below market value.

Yes, Johnny Gaudreau is heading to Columbus on a seven-year contract with an average annual value of $9.75 million.

Gaudreau, who finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting this past season after recording 115 points, turned down the Calgary Flames' reported offer of an eight-year deal with an AAV north of $10 million. The New Jersey native also passed up opportunities to play closer to home with the Devils or New York Islanders.

The 28-year-old not only improves the Blue Jackets on the ice - he could change the entire culture of the organization.

Many assumed prolific sniper Patrik Laine would dart as soon as possible, but playing alongside one of the game's most dynamic playmakers would surely be a dream worth sticking with. Could Gaudreau also lure future unrestricted free agents to Central Ohio?

Gaudreau won't make the Jackets a contender overnight, but he'll definitely speed up their rebuild. Columbus drafted a pair of promising centers in the top 15 last year (Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger) and two defensemen in the top 15 this year (David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk). The future is bright.

Ironically, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen also handed out arguably the worst contract of the day, signing Erik Gudbranson to a four-year, $16-million deal. But we can look past that for now. Outside of sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019, this is arguably the greatest day in Blue Jackets franchise history.

Ottawa Senators

Let's get one thing out of the way before we focus on the positives: The Senators' offseason will remain incomplete until they add a top-four defenseman. They need one more piece on the right side to complement a group that already features Thomas Chabot, the underrated Artem Zub, and the promising Jake Sanderson.

The remaining UFA options are limited, although John Klingberg is still out there. A trade route seems more likely, and Ottawa has been linked to MacKenzie Weegar.

Nonetheless, the Sens stand to be one of the league's most improved teams next season. The draft-day trade for Alex DeBrincat was a steal, and adding Claude Giroux on a three-year deal with a $6.5-million AAV is an excellent move. The Sens have historically struggled to recruit high-profile UFAs, so snagging Giroux, who grew up in the Ottawa area, is a big deal. He can still play and will provide some much-needed veteran leadership.

Trading Filip Gustavsson for Cam Talbot reinforced management's aggressive mindset and provides the club with a reliable tandem, along with Anton Forsberg, in goal.

Sens fans have every reason to be excited, but Ottawa shouldn't be considered a playoff contender until it adds another quality blue-liner to the mix. There's still plenty of time to make a move, and GM Pierre Dorion has ample trade bait at his disposal to get a deal done.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning didn't make any splashy additions on the day, but GM Julien BriseBois wisely took care of three 2023 restricted free agents, signing Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Anthony Cirelli to eight-year extensions.

Sergachev's contract ($8.5M AAV) may seem rich, but with his expanded role on the left side of the blue line following Ryan McDonagh's departure, he could've demanded more next summer. Plus, at just 24 years old, this contract will take him through the prime of his career.

The same can be said for Cirelli ($6.25M AAV) and Cernak ($5.2M AAV), who are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively. The former is already a perennial Selke Trophy candidate, so if he can find another gear offensively, this deal will be a home run. Cernak brings less upside, but he's already a rock on the back end.

Tampa Bay wasn't done there, though. It also brought back versatile winger Vladislav Namestnikov for a second stint on a team-friendly one-year, $2.5-million contract. It also added the still reliable veteran blue-liner Ian Cole on a one-year, $3-million pact to hold down the third pair.

Anyone who thinks the Bolts are past their window is sorely mistaken. Not only does BriseBois have his team built for another Cup run, but he's also set Tampa Bay up nicely for the future.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes weren't overly active on the free-agent market Wednesday - their only signing was Ondrej Kase to a low-risk, high-reward one-year, $1.5-million deal - but they used their cap space to their advantage by making a pair of blockbuster deals.

First, GM Don Waddell scooped up Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks for a depth forward, a depth goalie, and a third-round pick. Burns is 37 and has three years left on his deal, but Waddell got San Jose to retain one-third of the remaining salary, making the $5.28-million cap hit palatable.

Burns isn't the perennial Norris candidate he used to be, but he's still quite good. As one of the NHL's biggest volume shooters from the blue line, he'll be an excellent fit with a team that loves taking point shots and crashing the net.

Then, Waddell landed Max Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan from the Vegas Golden Knights for future considerations. That's right, he basically got them for free.

Pacioretty is also getting up there in age - he turns 34 in November - but there's just one year left on his deal, so the move carries little risk. The winger is one of the NHL's best goal scorers over the last decade, so he should improve a consistently strong possession team that sometimes struggles with finishing.

The Canes lost Vincent Trocheck to the New York Rangers, but Waddell was wise to not sign the 29-year-old center to a risky seven-year deal.

Honorable mention: Detroit Red Wings. We love the deals general manager Steve Yzerman made to land David Perron, Andrew Copp, and Dominik Kubalik, but the overpayment for Ben Chiarot (four years, $4.75-million AAV) takes away some of the shine from Detroit's big day.


Calgary Flames

This is low-hanging fruit, but we're taking it. Losing a homegrown superstar in his prime like Gaudreau is always detrimental, but it's the ripple effect that could make matters even worse.

Matthew Tkachuk may want out now that Gaudreau has left. While he's an RFA, he could simply accept his $9-million qualifying offer and become a UFA in 2023. The Flames certainly can't afford to let him walk for free, so a trade would be their only option if he becomes intent on leaving.

This is all just horrible timing, too. The Flames are coming off their second-best regular season in franchise history, but dark days could be ahead.

Flyers, Islanders, Devils

We're grouping these teams together because they all somehow managed to lose out to the Blue Jackets - of all teams - on Gaudreau. It's unclear why he chose Columbus over the Devils or Islanders, but here we are. The biggest losers of all, though, are the Philadelphia Flyers, who didn't even give themselves a chance.

Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher was unable or unwilling to pay the price to move off of the final year of James van Riemsdyk's deal, which would've helped clear the necessary cap space to go after Gaudreau. Growing up a Flyers fan, it's possible Gaudreau intended to sign in Philly before they told him they no longer had room for him.

Fletcher's frivolous spending in the past is the reason Philly couldn't pursue the marquee free agent. The Kevin Hayes contract from 2019 and the Rasmus Ristolainen deal from last summer, in particular, look rough.

Fletcher also made a pair of questionable signings. He gave Nic Deslauriers, a 31-year-old enforcer, a four-year deal with a $1.75-million AAV.

He also inked Justin Braun to a one-year, $1.75-million deal, which isn't bad on the surface but is puzzling considering Ristolainen, Tony DeAngelo, and Ryan Ellis (if he's healthy) are there to make up the right side of the blue line.

DeAngelo, who the Flyers acquired on Day 2 of the draft, was also a questionable addition given concerns over his character. His $5-million AAV could've gone to the Gaudreau fund, too.

The Devils, seemingly in a reactionary move to missing out on Gaudreau, overpaid for 31-year-old Ondrej Palat on a five-year, $30-million contract. Palat has a lot of mileage and plays a physical game for an average-sized winger, so this could age horribly.

But at least the Islanders and Devils - even with the Palat signing - still have the flexibility to make other moves. The Flyers don't.

Honorable mention: Florida Panthers. The Cats stand to get significantly worse next season after losing Giroux, Chiarot, and Mason Marchment. There are also whispers they could move Weegar, which would be a big loss. Still, they didn't hand out any bad deals, and we like the low-risk, high-reward bet on Colin White.