NHL free agency 2022 – Analysis, grades for all the big signings

The NHL free agency signing period for 2022 is underway.

For each key deal, ESPN NHL reporters Greg Wyshynski and Kristen Shilton will assess the player’s fit with his new team, weigh whether the terms of the deal make sense and hand out an overall grade for the team.

We’ll continue to grade the most notable moves through the offseason, so check back for fresh grades as deals are consummated; the newest grades will be listed first.

More: Tracker | Trade grades
Day 1 winners, losers
Draft recap: Every pick | Takeaways

Note: Advanced stats via Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Wild, unless otherwise noted.

Terms: One year, $7 million

Where does he fit: As the free agent frenzy slowed, the Ducks were still on the hunt for a veteran defenseman, as the team parted ways with Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson at the trade deadline this past season.

Enter Klingberg, who turns 30 on Aug. 14. The former Dallas Stars defenseman had 47 points in 74 games last season, his eighth in the NHL. He was expected to be one of the offseason’s top unrestricted free agents, but he was on the outside looking in as some speculated suitors — the Carolina Hurricanes and Seattle Kraken among them — looked elsewhere to bolster their blue lines.

Agent Craig Oster of Newport Sports Management confirmed to ESPN this week that he was now representing Klingberg, who was previously repped by agent Peter Wallen. Without a long-term option to his liking, Klingberg opted for the ol’ Taylor Hall plan: Signing a one-year, big-salary deal with a rebuilding team.

Does it make sense? Absolutely. The Ducks had ample cap space to bring on a $7 million defenseman, and Klingberg should bring even more scoring to a blue line that includes Cam Fowler (42 points in 76 games) and Kevin Shattenkirk (35 points in 82 games). He’ll also bolster a power play that clicked at 21.9% last season, as Klingberg can be an exceptional quarterback with the man advantage.

He makes the Ducks better. And the better the Ducks are, the better it is for its collection of young players that could benefit from a taste of a playoff race next season — or, if things go extremely well, the playoffs. If they don’t go well, Anaheim can gobble up part of his cap hit and move him at the deadline to a contender. Which was also from the Taylor Hall signing playbook, as the Buffalo Sabres flipped him to the Boston Bruins in 2020-21 for Anders Bjork and a second-round draft pick.

It also makes sense for Klingberg, who makes a million more in salary than last season ($6 million) and joins an offensively potent team to pump his numbers before another run at free agency next summer.

Grade: A. While Klingberg won’t exactly help the Ducks’ defensive issues at 5-on-5, he helps them in several other ways. It’s a short-term play but a smart one for GM Pat Verbeek. Meanwhile, Klingberg gets a chance to build up his market value again.

Terms: Two years, $4 million AAV ($8 million total)

Where does he fit: Niederreiter will be a versatile player in the Predators’ lineup.

The 29-year-old boasts a strong two-way game that makes him a dangerous top-six playmaker, or he can thrive in more of a third-line checking spot. Niederreiter put up 24 goals and 44 points in 77 games with Carolina last season, and has been a consistent threat offensively throughout his career. Where Niederreiter is traditionally underrated is his forechecking ability, and how he helps maintain possession and drive play for his teammates. Niederreiter can also log significant time on the power play, and he’s especially good as a net-front presence.

All of that should make Predators’ coach John Hynes happy. Nashville has good center depth that needed more complementary parts on the wing. Niederreiter elevates the Predators’ options there immediately. You could see him being a good fit on Nashville’s second line with Ryan Johansen and either Tanner Jeannot or Philip Tomasino on the other side. Niederreiter’s addition makes the Predators’ deeper where they were arguably weakest up front.

Does it make sense? This is a great deal for Nashville and a solid opportunity for Niederreiter.

The Predators were middle-of-the-pack in scoring last season, averaging 3.20 goals per game. In the playoffs though, their offense dried up significantly (2.25 goals per game) and that contributed to Nashville’s early exit via a first-round sweep by Colorado.

Niederreiter will boost the Predators’ offense right away. He can plug in anywhere and be successful. Plus, he can play a more physical, heavy game driving the net and getting some of those greasy goals that go a long way in tight contests.

General manager David Poile did well to wait out the market on Niederreiter and sign him for just two years at a reasonable price. Often those long-term contracts handed out to players approaching 30 don’t hold up. This deal gives Nashville a winger to help them win now, without handcuffing the team to a deal it’ll be worried about the player living up to for years to come. Fine work all around.

Grade: A. Really, there are no notes here. Nashville signed a useful player in Niederreiter to a short-term, team-friendly contract. Niederreiter in turn will have a chance to play on a good team with top talents who are hungry to improve on a strong 2021-22 season. The Predators appear to be solid at forward, defense and in goal, and pulling Niederreiter in should only make them that much more dangerous come fall. — Shilton

Terms: Five years, $6 million AAV ($30 million total)

Where does he fit: Ondrej Palat was a Swiss Army knife in Tampa Bay for the past decade. He’ll be one again for the Devils.

Palat could conceivably keep up with New Jersey’s top-six talents or could take on more of a third-line checking role. In all likelihood he’ll be called upon to do both. The 31-year-old has averaged over 17 minutes per game in his career and has logged time on the power play and penalty kill. Palat does it all, and does it well, which is how he was able to reel in this lucrative a contract even after an average regular season (18 goals, 49 points in 77 games) that ultimately gave way to a sensational postseason (21 points in 23 games).

The veteran will be expected to produce on the ice, but Palat will also be a valuable asset off of it. New Jersey is deep with burgeoning young players in Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt who will benefit from a sounding board like Palat, with two Stanley Cup championships on his résumé. New Jersey wants to be a playoff contender again, and Palat boasts 138 games of postseason experience, along with 48 goals and 94 points. His voice will carry some serious weight with the Devils.

Does it make sense? This should be a great match for player and team.

New Jersey had cap space to burn but not a great depth of veteran talent up front. It also missed out on landing Johnny Gaudreau, who passed on the Devils’ offer. The team needed to pivot, and Palat was a solid choice.

He was available because the Lightning handed out three eight-year extensions Wednesday — to Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak — that made it clear that Palat was no longer in their future plans. But that’s not a reflection on Palat’s value. His versatility playing on either wing will be an asset as New Jersey figures out how best to deploy all its (hopefully) healthy forwards, and Palat will be a reliable presence to fill in the gaps.

And if the Devils can get some consistent goaltending and find their way back to the postseason, that’s where Palat has traditionally shined. He scored more third-period goals (7) than anyone else in the playoff field this season as Tampa Bay chased a third straight Cup. Those included netting the overtime winner in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against Colorado to keep the Lightning alive as well as two game-winners in the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers. Palat comes through when it matters most. That sort of pedigree should have a genuine effect on the Devils and the confidence they carry into the coming seasons.

Grade: B. This is a rich, long-term deal for an over-30 player. Not to say Palat isn’t worth investing in now, but how will those figures hold up in a few years? We can’t blame Palat for cashing in, of course. And he should be a terrific plug-and-play skater for New Jersey who will enhance the development of the Devils’ other forwards. Those are all good things in the present. What happens down the line will be judged accordingly. Right now, New Jersey adding Palat makes it a better team than it was at season’s end. — Shilton

Terms: Seven years, $9.75 million per season ($68.25 million total)

Where does he fit: Johnny Gaudreau goes right to Columbus’ top line. As he should. And what a surprise.

There’s a reason Gaudreau was one of the most highly coveted unrestricted free agents on the market. He’s an elite winger, passer and playmaker who can single-handedly turn a game around. Gaudreau put up the best numbers of his career last season playing with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm in Calgary, generating 40 goals and 115 points in 82 games. Whomever Gaudreau is lined up with in Columbus will benefit from his expertise, and he will make the Blue Jackets a true contender in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

Does it make sense? The initial reaction is the Johnny Hockey saga having an unexpected ending. All signs pointed to Gaudreau leaving Calgary, which made an aggressive offer that was similar to Columbus’ in order to keep him, so that he could play closer to his home base on the East Coast. Gaudreau ended up taking less money than his skill set probably is worth to suit up with the Midwest-based Blue Jackets. Curious.

Columbus doesn’t have many other top-tier talents that reach Gaudreau’s heights up front. Patrik Laine is a restricted free agent who should be back after receiving a qualifying offer this week. But Gaudreau is a head above everyone else, which is why Columbus pursued him. This is the type of splashy signing that can turn a team around and put the rest of the league on notice that they are committed to bouncing back — something Columbus should be desperate to do after missing playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The Blue Jackets had money to burn; why not throw their hat in the ring?

But what’s in it for Gaudreau? Why leave Calgary for Columbus? That may not have been his original plan, granted. Philadelphia was rumored to be in the mix on their hometown product, but the Flyers didn’t have enough cap space to make it happen. The Blue Jackets haven’t been capable to attracting a free agent like Gaudreau in, well, maybe ever. There will be less pressure on Gaudreau — and less spotlight — than he would have attracted in New York or New Jersey (or even in Calgary). That could have been an incentive. Still, it will be interesting to see how Gaudreau’s addition pans out for the Blue Jackets and for the winger personally.

Grade: A. The Blue Jackets really pulled off a stunner. Having Gaudreau locked in for seven years could help general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen get something done long-term with Laine, too. And that would be another huge win for an organization that wants to make itself more appealing to free agents in the future. In the present, Gaudreau is going to be a difference-maker (and then some) that could catapult Columbus into contender status. — Shilton

Terms: Five years, $5 million average annual value ($25 million total)

Where does he fit: Edmonton needed a new No. 1 goalie when it became clear veteran Mike Smith, who gave the Oilers his all last season, was headed toward long-term injured reserve. Enter Jack Campbell, who will take over that mantle.

The 30-year-old spent the last 2½ seasons with Toronto and worked his way up to being the Leafs’ starter. Campbell had never carried the load in net full time before last season, when he produced a 31-9-6 record with .914 save percentage and 2.64 GAA. Campbell was better in the first half of the season than the second, when he battled through a COVID-19 absence and was slowed by injuries. The Michigan native’s overall body of work clearly drew Edmonton in, even if Campbell’s experience as a starter is less extensive than others they could have targeted.

Does it make sense? Yes. The Oilers had a goaltending vacancy. Toronto didn’t make Campbell an offer so he needed a job. There’s the fit. Now, how successful will this partnership be? That remains to be seen. Campbell wasn’t great in the playoffs (3-3-1, .897 SV%, 3.15 GAA) as the Leafs made another first-round exit, and he’s dealt with several injuries the last two years. The Oilers have to feel confident in Campbell’s ability to remain available and that his health won’t be a factor moving forward.

Edmonton has a solid defense for Campbell to play behind and the Oilers obviously boast a deep top-six group of forwards (led by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl & Co.) that should provide Campbell with decent goal support. All that works in Campbell’s favor and will set a foundation for his potential success in blue and orange.

Grade: B. Edmonton is making a significant investment in a veteran goalie without long-term starting experience (and a recent injury history). There is some risk involved here. However, the goaltending market was piping hot and there weren’t a ton of free agent options to choose from. Campbell has been more good than average in the last year-plus and if his health holds up — at least for most of the five-season term — Edmonton should come out feeling good about the move. — Shilton

Terms: Five years, $5.25 million average annual value ($26.25 million total)

Where does he fit: The Washington Capitals have been chasing a true starting goalie ever since moving on from Braden Holtby in 2020. They hoped either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek could become one. They attempted to bring in Henrik Lundqvist before a heart condition ended his NHL career. But after last season, when the Capitals were 23rd in team save percentage (.898), they decided to go all-in on finding a true starter, and that starter was Kuemper, who appeared in 57 games for the Colorado Avalanche last season.

The Capitals sent Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils. They walked away from restricted free agent Samsonov, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whatever they would have paid them was instead handed to Kuemper, securing the services of a goalie who is a few weeks removed from being mobbed by teammates after winning the Stanley Cup.

Does it make sense? Scanning the goalie market, it makes a lot of sense. Kuemper was the only true starting goalie on the unrestricted free agent market — Jack Campbell and Ville Husso were both tandem netminders. For what the Capitals needed, Kuemper was the guy.

Kuemper did what he needed to do in the playoffs for the Avalanche: He didn’t lose them the games they needed to win. He was also outstanding in the second half of the regular season after getting his bearings in a new market, with 30.4 goals saved above average and 5.3 wins added to the Avalanche. There’s no question that he’s in the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders — in the 96th percentile in WAR over the past three seasons — but some of his underlying numbers reveal below-average rebound control and low danger save percentage.

He’s an upgrade over what the Capitals had, but Washington is a downgrade compared to what was in front of Kuemper in Colorado. But hey, the guy used to star playing behind the Arizona Coyotes. He’ll be OK.

Grade: A-. Look around the NHL. Look at some of the scrambling, desperate moves that were made by teams hoping that a backup goalie could become a starter or that an oft-injured goalie suddenly could find stability. To find an established starter with Kuemper’s numbers — let alone one who just helped his team win the Cup — and get him without having to surrender a player or a draft pick is a coup for the Capitals.

Age is an issue. Kuemper is 32. In the short term, he’ll be able to shoulder most of the workload. Toward the end of this deal, he’ll need a little more help. But the Capitals are still a team of now rather than later, and Kuemper certainly makes them more competitive. — Wyshynski



Brian Boucher says the Capitals have more work to do in free agency and breaks down the Darcy Kuemper signing.

Terms: Seven years, $5.625 million average annual value ($39.4 million total)

Where does he fit: Right next to Artemi Panarin in the Rangers’ top six. That’s where Ryan Strome played during his four years with the Rangers before they let him walk to unrestricted free agency. That’s where New York expected Andrew Copp could play when it acquired him at the trade deadline from the Winnipeg Jets, but Copp opted to test the open market and found a new home with the Detroit Red Wings.

That opened the door at center in New York for a free agent acquisition. The Rangers were in the mix for Colorado Avalanche star Nazem Kadri, but opted for a younger (29) and more thrifty option in Trocheck, who spent the past three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Does it make sense? Committing seven years to a second-line center never really makes sense, but that’s what the Rangers needed to do to get Trocheck in at $5.625 million, making him the fourth-highest-paid forward on the team. The Rangers now have Mika Zibanejad and Trocheck both signed through 2029. Now that’s stability.

Trocheck can bring some flashy playmaking to the middle of the ice and has been a strong special teams player during his career. Strome is a better finisher than Trocheck, but Trocheck brings a bigger bag of tools to the mix.

Grade: B. The deal’s term is coin of the realm in order to get a solid cap hit for one of the more coveted centers on the open market. Coach Gerard Gallant knows him well. If he can get Trocheck back to the form he showed in Florida, when he was considered one of the NHL’s most underrated offensive players, this could look pretty good. Well, for at least the first few seasons. — Wyshynski

Terms: Five years, $5.625 million average annual value ($28.1 million total)

Where does he fit: Wherever the Red Wings need him to fit, to be honest. The true value of Andrew Copp is that he’s a Swiss Army knife of a forward. The Winnipeg Jets cast him as a defensive forward and played him up the lineup with their stars. The Rangers played him up with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.

The Red Wings likely see Copp as a second-line center behind Dylan Larkin, which could have him playing with the likes of Jakub Vrana and Filip Zadina for new head coach Derek Lalonde.

Does it make sense? Absolutely. When the Rangers acquired Copp from the Jets at the trade deadline, the assumption was that he would move into Strome’s spot next to Panarin on a new contract. But the Rangers had someone else in mind — Vincent Trocheck — and let Copp walk to free agency.

Their loss is the Red Wings’ gain. Copp’s versatility makes him an asset for a team that is still trying to see where the young pieces fit in their lineup. He’s not the strongest finisher, but he’s got a decent shot. He’s a good passer if not a great playmaker. Even if his offensive numbers fade by Year 5 of this deal, he does so much more for a team that it’s a worthy investment.

Grade: A-. Once upon a time, the Red Wings signed a free agent named Frans Nielsen to a six-year contract worth $5.25 million annually. That contract … did not work out. There are echoes of that signing in bringing on Copp, who is another underrated forward who will be asked to build on the offensive promise of his 53 points in 72 games this past season. I don’t believe history will repeat itself here, as Copp is hitting his stride as an offensive player. Plus Nielsen arrived as Detroit’s kingdom was crumbling, while Copp arrives as the Wings are trending back up. — Wyshynski

Terms: Three years, $6.5 million average annual value ($19.1 million total)

Where does he fit: Giroux can slide in just about anywhere for the Senators, one of many reasons coach D.J. Smith is going to love having him in the fold.

The 34-year-old projects to start on a line with Tim Stutzle and Ottawa’s newly acquired prize Alex DeBrincat. That’s a formidable top-six unit for the Senators to roll out. But with Giroux’s versatility, he could be used in a checking role as well if called upon. And he’s coming off a terrific season — 21 goals and 65 points in 75 games.

The veteran also will elevate Ottawa’s power play (20th overall last season at 19.3%), and he’s an excellent faceoff man (60.3% in 2021-22). He brings more than 1,000 games of NHL experience, with 294 goals and 923 points to his credit, and that alone is invaluable.

Does it make sense? Without question. And that’s on and off the ice.

Giroux grew up near Ottawa and has made his offseason home in the area. The Senators have struggled to attract — and keep — star players in the past, and now one of the most coveted free agents on the market is choosing to play the last years of his great career there. It’s a much-needed boost of confidence for Ottawa.

The Senators have a stable of young talent that will benefit from being around one of the NHL’s most respected leaders. Stutzle, Josh Norris, Shane Pinto and others will have the ultimate sounding board and mentor in Giroux (who captained the Philadelphia Flyers from 2013 until he left for Florida in free agency last spring).

Giroux’s decision to waive his no-move clause in March to chase a Stanley Cup championship with the Panthers didn’t pan out as planned. But the Senators can benefit from his nearly 100 games of postseason experience if they’re able to finally get back into the postseason picture.

Grade: B-plus. A three-year deal for a 34-year-old is a bit risky. But Giroux is worth it. He’s going into Ottawa knowing the Sens won’t compete for a Cup this season, but it’s not out of the question they’ll be back as a playoff team. Giroux will help there, having proved last season that he’s far from over the hill. Knowing how much he’ll impact the franchise’s foundational pieces only sweetens the deal. Giroux is a home run acquisition for the Senators. — Shilton

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