While there’s still a ways to go, Saturday’s start to free agency offered some idea as to how the 31 clubs might look for the 2017-18 season.
In a particularly weaker free agency class, NHL general managers still managed to spend over $462 million in player salaries. All in hopes of adding that one piece standing in between them and a Stanley Cup. As is such on this day, some teams took gambles on players, overpaying in both term and dollars. Others though opted to bring in a familiar face or local product.
Prized-free agent defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk was the focal point of the afternoon. After scoring 56 points last season split between St. Louis and Washington, the New Rochelle, New York native had his pick of the litter. Ultimately, he decided to stay close to home signing a four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers. The same Rangers he grew up watching and rooting for, telling reporters that he recalled the team’s last Stanley Cup victory in 1994 when an offensive defenseman from Texas named Brian Leetch won the Conn Smythe as the playoff’s most valuable player–the first American to do so.
Years later, this offensive bliueliner has the chance to be exactly what the Blueshirts have needed on their back end. Shattenkirk is mobile, capable of quarterbacking a power play and eating beyond 20 minutes a night. His decision on Saturday to go to the club he believed was the best fit was a reoccurring theme throughout the day.
“I trust the New York Rangers belief in me,” Shattenkirk said via teleconference. “I know that maybe there was some term and money left on the table, but when you have the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream like this, it’s an opportunity that may only come once in my career. I felt like this was my chance.”
Though he declined to comment on other teams interest, various outlets suggested that teams including the Devils and Lightning may have had deals on the table that included more money and higher term–up to 7 years.
“I thank a lot of the other teams that were in the mix today and along the course of the week” he said. “At this point, the Rangers are the team that in my mind were where I wanted to be.”
He wasn’t the only high-profiled UFA who opted for a fit of comfort while returning to a place they once called home.
Justin Williams, owner of three Cup rings and a Conn Smythe trophy in 2014, also found himself back in familiar territory, signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Williams was part of the Canes’ 2006 team that won the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup. For the 35-year-old coming off two seasons with the Capitals, the return is exciting.
“Certainly once we were getting close to a deal there was a smile on my face and my wife’s face,” Williams said. “Excited to work with a team that I think is trending in the right direction for sure.”
Williams’ 48 points last season with Washington made him among the most coveted of free agent forwards despite being 35 years old. In the days leading up to free agency he drew interest from over half the league including several large markets. Instead, he decided to go back to Carolina and is relishing the opportunity.
“A lot goes into free agency and what you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s a fit for your family. It’s an opportunity to win. It’s familiarity with players and coaches. It’s certainly your role role on the team. Those are the big four. And Raleigh is second home.”
Elsewhere in the league, others decided to go the same path as Shattenkirk and Williams.
Patrick Sharp, who was part of all three Chicago Blackhawk cup championships, agreed to a one-year, $800,000 contract after he was traded by the club in 2015 as part of a cap-saving transaction. The noticeably-low deal includes bonuses and is a clear indicator that 35-year-old Sharp is eyeing a fourth ring over another pay day.
Just days following their buyouts from Columbus and New Jersey, Scott Hartnell and Mike Cammalleri also decided to return to familiar organizations. In both instances they returned to the team’s that drafted them on one-year deals: Hartnell signing for $1 million with the Predators; Cammalleri inking a $1 million contract with the Kings.
Brian Boyle never played for the Devils, but in signing with New Jersey he’ll return to the Greater New York Area where he lived for five years as a member of the Rangers. He recalled his time in the area fondly, but says he’s excited to be on the other end of the Hudson River Rivalry.
“I got plenty of boo’s playing for (New York),” he said. “So I don’t mind (ticking) off that crowd a bit.”
For all the free agents that opted to come home, there were two glaring names left off the list of confirmed signings in the form of Sharks’ forwards, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The duo, who have been teammates and linemates for parts of 12 seasons, each spoke with other teams on Saturday. Though there are reports that an offer from San Jose is on the table for both players, no final decision was made.
For all the July 1 homecomings, the reunion of the pair of 37-year-old’s might be the one of most intrigue league-wide. And so, as a weak free agent class begins to wind down, teams and players will shift focus back to on-ice, where the battle for supremacy takes center stage.