NHL Free Agency Winners, Losers: John Tavares, Maple Leafs Take Cup Leap; Islanders Left In Dust

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So rarely in the NHL does a superstar talent such as John Tavares reach free agency that, when it actually happened Sunday, it was hard to wrap your head around the sheer spectacle of Tavares Watch and all its glory, however brief.

For a fleeting hour, the hockey world held its breath with each clue, the now-former Islanders captain free to sign with any one of the 31 teams he most desired. And after more than a week of deliberating locales, line combinations and championship appeal, Tavares announced he settled on the Maple Leafs above five other finalists, joining a city and its prodigal son in their mutual pursuit of an elusive Stanley Cup.

TRACKER: Full list of 2018 free-agent signings

As much as Maple Leafs fans — Tavares among them as a boy — had been wishing for this homecoming the last two years, the Islanders were dreading it. For a while, it looked as though new hockey czar Lou Lamoriello could do no wrong, hiring a championship-winning coach and nailing last week's draft. Then it all changed in an instant.

Accordingly, the Maple Leafs and Islanders wound up on opposite sides of the isle in handing out grades for the first 24 hours of free agency. Tavares' seven-year, $77 million contract was far and away the biggest one signed, but there was actually a considerable amount of movement for a class that failed to inspire intrigue beyond its biggest fish.

In all, more than $480 million in contracts were distributed to free agents (unrestricted and restricted) Sunday — the highest total on July 1 since 2014.

Like every year, some teams proved savvier than others. Let's take a look at the winners and losers from Day 1 of NHL free agency.

MORE: > In pursuit of Cup, John Tavares puts Leafs in position to go for it

Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs

Start with the obvious. The signing of Tavares is a coup for the Maple Leafs, and the way it played out should put to rest any false pretenses Leafs fans prepared in case they were rejected again. A 27-year-old superstar is suddenly plopped into the middle of a contending roster already rife with young talent in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and the like. Granted, Tavares isn't a defensemen, so this team still will need to continue to improve. But the Leafs (on paper) seem to have that coveted blend of cheap production and veteran presence that's a must for any Stanley Cup contender these days.

That won't last in perpetuity. It's why maybe the 2018-19 season could be the Leafs' very best shot at ending Toronto's 51-year Cup drought. Next offseason, it'll be time to pony up for Matthews, Marner and Jake Gardiner. Tavares allowed for that possibility in deciding to leave money on the table and space between Toronto's cap ceiling — another win for rookie general manager Kyle Dubas and Co. The departures of unrestricted free agents James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Tomas Plekanec leaves some holes at forward, but the Leafs have stockpiled enough prospect equity to bridge those gaps internally. They'll enter next season with Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri as a center trio.

Outside of Pittsburgh, good luck finding a better group in the NHL. The pieces should fall into place from there.

MORE: 'Right opportunity, fit, time' led John Tavares home to Maple Leafs

Loser: Lou Lamoriello

The grave mistake of allowing Tavares to reach a point of no return that can be NHL free agency was committed under a previous regime. Lamoriello was given a month to assuage concerns between a franchise and its foremost star, selling him on the idea the Islanders could morph into a more stable, contending entity under "Lou's Rules" like the organization he departed. That's the greatest irony of Tavares signing with the Leafs, though. And it;s up to Lamoriello now to carry out the contingency plan.

What is it? Good question. The Isles are stocked with some young talent, too, led by NHL rookie of the year Mathew Barzal, who likely will inherit Tavares' title as face of the franchise. Except it's mostly the same core that's failed to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Lamoriello has so far whiffed on addressing glaring needs in net and on the blue line, watching the best options in free agency dry up while his attention was (understandably) elsewhere.

Still, it's reasonable to ask how long Lamoriello deserves the benefit of the doubt. There were more than a few cooks in Toronto's kitchen, and it's been a while since that 2012 Cup Final run with the Devils. In missing on Tavares, he proceeded to commit $22 million in multi-year contracts for former Leafs plugger Leo Komarov and fringe defenseman Thomas Hickey. No positive way to slice up this July 1 in Brooklyn.

MORE>John Tavares admits 'my heart was tearing apart' leaving Islanders

Loser: San Jose Sharks

Really, we could fill this article with the 30 losers from the Tavares sweepstakes. Every general manager kicks the tires, however briefly, when a superstar of this ilk reaches the open market and can only dream of adding such a talent. It's especially gut-wrenching for the five finalists who came so close. And outside of the Islanders, the only team closer to Tavares through the process was the Sharks, who made no bones about their aspirations in adding him to a Cup-caliber core that's starting to feel a now-or-never pressure.

The Sharks ultimately finished third in this dance, despite their reported offer of $91 million — a deal which would have made Tavares the highest-paid player in the NHL. Yet, he said the final decision came down to the Maple Leafs and Islanders. It must sting all the more to find out about old friend Patrick Marleau's efforts in recruiting Tavares to Toronto.

Tavares says Marleau talked to him at length about how much he enjoyed playing with the Leafs.

— James Mirtle (@mirtle) July 1, 2018

In falling short on both Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk, GM Doug Wilson (who inserted a tinge of shade in his post-signing statement) will have to make do with that he's got. The Pacific Division is still wide open and the Sharks have plenty of talent, but it won't be easy to get over the "what-if."

NHL DRAFT 2018: Team-by-team grades | Winners and losers

Winner: Buffalo Sabres

Not a bad week for the hard-luck Sabres and their fans. After formally welcoming No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill rolled up his sleeves and got to work correcting more of predecessor Tim Murray's mistakes.

The big one came Sunday night, when the Sabres finally dealt center Ryan O'Reilly to the Blues for the return Botterill had been holding out for. Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka are capable if unremarkable veterans headed back to Buffalo, but won't factor in much to the long-term plans there. The real win came in the form of three future assets, including the Blues' 2019 first-round draft pick (top-10 protected), a 2021 second and top prospect Tage Thompson, who St. Louis drafted 26th overall in 2016.

Botterill had been after a high pick in last weekend's draft — reportedly as high as No. 3 overall from the Canadiens — and was steadfast in his demands when he didn't get one. O'Reilly was not a depreciating asset. Botterill understands the value of center depth better than anyone, having cut his teeth in Pittsburgh, and having O'Reilly back for the 2018-19 season would have been just fine, allowing Buffalo's No. 1 pick in 2017, Casey Mittelstadt, time to develop properly. The Sabres will surely miss O'Reilly next year, which might be the only concern in the trade, but the long-term outlook is growing more favorable. 

The Sabres also addressed their goaltending void earlier Sunday, signing Blues backup Carter Hutton to a friendly three-year deal as an NHL shepherd to Linus Ullmark, another encouraging prospect in the system. Botterill is stockpiling impressive young talent and now owns three first-rounders in the 2019 draft. But most of all, he showed he can play hard ball in trade discussions and win — a welcomed sign, after getting off to a lame start at the 2017-18 deadline

Loser: St. Louis Blues

Meanwhile, it's difficult to look at the Blues and see an improved roster from their disappointing playoff miss last season. Armstrong promised big changes this offseason and was connected to practically every major free agent, from Tavares to Kovalchuk. He whiffed on those targets, save for overspending on a 32-year-old Tyler Bozak (three years, $15 million) and a reunion with David Perron (four years, $16 million), who was discarded in the expansion draft a year ago. 

The O'Reilly acquisition came at a steep price, too, and while the trade with the Sabres should benefit both sides, it does make you wonder what Armstrong's end game is.

Here are the Blues' major roster changes from the start of the 2017-18 season through July 1:

In: O'Reilly, Bozak, Perron, Chad Johnson

Out: Berglund, Sobotka, Hutton, Paul Stastny, Kyle Brodziak

​Remember when they were in first place in the Central last December, garnering some Stanley Cup chatter? O'Reilly is a very good player who handles significant minutes in multiple roles, often against the opposing team's top line. Presumably, leaving the Sabres for better talent around him should help O'Reilly thrive, but it's still not a course-altering transaction. Barring another trade of significance (Max Pacioretty?), the Blues come out looking spectacularly ordinary for 2018-19.

Winner: Arizona Coyotes

Quietly, Coyotes GM John Chayka is building something interesting in the desert — and the rest of the NHL ought to take notice. After making the big splash in the form of a trade for Alex Galchenyuk, the 29-year-old whiz secured perhaps the best underrated signing Sunday in bringing in Michael Grabner at a cool $3.35 million across three years. Grabner, 30, has three consecutive 27-goal seasons to his credit and that blazing speed should mesh well with the Coyotes' plan of attack.

That's in addition to locking up core defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson with extensions. Arizona, on the heels of a strong finish to last season, will be a popular pick as the 2018-19 version of the Avalanche and Devils if the offseason keeps up like this.

Loser: Jim Benning (again)

The Canucks should start taking away Jim Benning's phone this time of year. He winds up in the loser's column — an annual ritual, it seems — again this year for handing out perhaps the two worst contracts we'll see this year. First, Jay Beagle got $12 million across four years. Great guy, that Jay Beagle, a Stanley Cup champion ... but not one worth such term. Not to be outdone, Benning gave an identical deal to Antoine Roussel. Apparently, Roussel was the Canucks' top free-agent target, he of five goals in 73 games.

For those keeping score at home, that's $24 million spent on players who combined for 12 goals in 2017-18.

Aren't the Canucks supposed to be rebuilding?

Winners: Blasts from the past

What's old is new again, apparently. Four free agents rekindled previous flames on free agent day, highlighted by James van Riemsdyk's five-year, $35 million reunion with the Flyers, the team that drafted him second overall in 2007 and traded him to the Maple Leafs five years later. David Perron (Blues), discarded at the expansion draft last year, cashed in on his revival in Vegas, and Tomas Plekanec (Canadiens) and Thomas Vanek (Red Wings) also re-signed with teams that recently traded them away.

Losers: Defense-needy teams

Every year, July 1 also represents the first day teams and players entering the final year of their contracts can complete extensions. That means the following year's free agent class begins to dissipate, and the 2019 field was shaping up to be a doozy until taking a hit Sunday. Would-be free agent defensemen Drew Doughty, Ryan McDonagh and Oliver Ekman-Larsson all inked lucrative long-term deals with their current teams. Boring. The intrigue now hinges squarely on the likes of Erik Karlsson and Ryan Ellis, but it feels like those situations could be resolved — by extension or trade — well before this time next year. Quality defensemen are in high demand, and you saw how quickly the talent drops after John Carlson this year. Teams in need a year from now may find few solutions.

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NHL free agency winners, losers: John Tavares, Maple Leafs take Cup leap; Islanders left in dust