Don Waddell’s expectations were so low on the chances of improving the Hurricanes roster to open NHL free agency on Saturday, Carolina’s general manager told his staff they might not even have to come into the office.
Some four hours into the signing period, Waddell came away with a big haul. Aside from retaining their starting goalie tandem of Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen and re-signing speedy forward Jesper Fast, the Hurricanes landed defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Michael Bunting.
“Things have changed here,” Waddell said, referring to the league-wide perception of the Hurricanes, who have re-established themselves as a contender.
“We used to chase players, have to overpay,” he added. “We’ve become a destination place. We’re getting those calls first. And it’s nice to be in that position.”
The same applies to the New York Rangers who, with far less salary cap space available than Carolina, still made an impressive series of signings — taking their Metropolitan Division rivalry with the Hurricanes off the ice and into free agency.
The Rangers additions were highlighted by forwards Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick, defenseman Erik Gustafsson and two-time Stanley Cup champion goalie Jonathan Quick, who’s coming off backing up when Vegas won it all.
“I’m biased. It was my life’s dream to be a Ranger, and I think it’s a pretty special place to play,” GM Chris Drury said. “We’re fortunate the players we did sign today wanted to be here and believe in what we’re trying to do.”
For a free agent class regarded as thin on high-end talent, and with teams handcuffed by a flat salary cap that’s risen just $4 million since 2018-19, NHL GMs were quick out of the gate to fill their biggest needs.
Barry Trotz opened his tenure as Predators general manager by signing one of the game’s top two-way forwards, Ryan O’Reilly, to a four-year, $18 million contract. The Predators also signed winger Gustav Nyquist to a $6.37 million, two-year deal, and defenseman Luke Schenn to a three-year, $8.25 million contract.
O’Reilly, who was playoff MVP for the Stanley Cup-wining Blues in 2019, arrives in Music City after the Predators began purging high-priced veterans. They bought out the remainder of Matt Duchene’s contract and traded Ryan Johansen to Colorado.
“I think I’m going to sleep well tonight,” said Trotz, who takes over following David Poile’s retirement and inherits a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. “This is the start of what we want to do.”
The Detroit Red Wings signed 2022 Stanley Cup-winning forward J.T. Compher to a $25.5 million, five-year contract.
In losing Compher, and after acquiring Ross Colton in a trade from Tampa Bay, the Colorado Avalanche signed former Devils forward Miles Wood to a six-year contract and former Montreal forward Jonathan Drouin to a one-year deal.
Forward Alex Killorn became the latest member of 2020 and ’21 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay to cash in, signing a $25 million, four-year contract with Anaheim.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were another busy Metropolitan team, re-signing goalie Tristan Jarry to a five-year, $26.875 million deal, while adding several free agents, headed by defenseman Ryan Graves.
In the meantime, Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin served as a mere observer, knowing he lacked the cap space to join the signing spree.
“I was bored. But I would have loved to have been more active,” Guerin said. “At certain times of the day you get frustrated. But then you look at your board and you realize that most of your team’s already intact.”
The top free agents still available are 34-year-old Patrick Kane, who will miss the start of the season after having hip resurfacing surgery. Former Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is also on the market, as are wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Bertuzzi.
Leave it to the Hurricanes and Rangers — two teams that have finished no worse than third in the Metropolitan standings the past two years, and each made an Eastern Conference final appearance over the same span — to grab much of the spotlight.
Orlov, who signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract with Carolina, is a reliable two-way player and regarded as free agency’s top available defenseman.
“I want to be on a good team who has a big goal to get in the end,” Orlov said. “I need to make a good decision for me and I want to play on a good team. So, I think I made the right decision.”
Bunting, coming off two consecutive 20-goal seasons in Toronto, signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract. The 31-year-old Fast, a reliable and speedy forward, returns for a fourth season in Carolina after signing a a two-year contract worth $4.8 million.
The Hurricanes goalie tandem, which shared the William M. Jennings Trophy in 2022 for allowing the fewest goals, returns for at least one more year. Raanta signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract before free agency began, and Andersen followed with a two-year, $6.8 million deal.
The Rangers had to work on the cheap entering free agency with about $7 million in cap space, and still having to re-sign restricted free agents Alexis Lafrenière and K’Andre Miller.
Wheeler and Quick each signed one-year deals and can make more with performance-based incentives.
— The Buffalo Sabres upgraded their blue line by signing former Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton to a three-year, $9.99 million contact and former Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson to a one-year, $3.25 million deal.
— Duchene didn’t last long in free agency. The 32-year-old center signed a deal for next season worth $3 million.
— The Toronto Maple Leafs inked defenseman John Klingberg to a $4.15 million, one-year deal and added muscle by signing forward Ryan Reaves to a three-year, $4.05 million contract.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard, and AP freelance writer Denis Gorman contributed to this report.
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