The NHL free agency signing period for 2023 is underway.
For each key deal, ESPN NHL reporter Greg Wyshynski 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.
Where does he fit? Michael Bunting played 74 games and 736 minutes with Auston Matthews at 5-on-5. Together, they generated four goals for every 60 minutes of even-strength play. In two years playing primarily with Matthews, Bunting had 46 goals and 66 points in 161 games with the Leafs. Bunting parlayed that success into a three-year free agent deal with the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday worth $4.5 million annually against the salary cap.
Which means Auston Matthews needs a new winger. Which means Tyler Bertuzzi could be a very, very lucky player.
Bertuzzi, 28, has become known for two things in his NHL career: a grinding, agitating style of play and being a playmaking winger. Anyone who saw his brief time with David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins knows what kind of setup man Bertuzzi can be while playing with high-end talent. Whether it's Matthews and William Nylander or John Tavares and Mitchell Marner, Bertuzzi will get that chance again in Toronto.
The $5.5 million AAV for Bertuzzi comes as the Leafs still have to find money for restricted free agent goalie Ilya Samsonov and maybe add one more forward to the mix. There are ways to open up a little more cap room -- like moving out goalie Matt Murray's $4,687,500 AAV contract. But getting a player as good as Bertuzzi in for Bunting on a short-term deal is a big win for general manager Brad Treliving after a rather ignominious start to free agency. (See: Ryan Reaves' contract.)
Does it make sense? It does, especially when you understand how it happened.
Bertuzzi wanted a long-term contract as one of the top free agent wingers. The Bruins, who acquired him ahead of the trade deadline, hoped to keep him around. The money he was seeking wasn't the issue, at least for the upcoming season. Contract term, according to Boston GM Don Sweeney, was the issue. So Bertuzzi went to market, seeking a long-term deal elsewhere.
His agent, Todd Reynolds, told me that Bertuzzi quickly found the flat salary cap had made for a much different landscape than they expected. There were long-term offers on the table, some around the $5.5 million he received from the Leafs. But they weren't with contending teams or in locations where Bertuzzi wanted to commit long term. The money just wasn't there on a long-term deal from a contending team; Reynolds said some teams "were embarrassed" by how little they could offer a player like Bertuzzi due to the flat cap.
So Bertuzzi and his agent decided to pivot, seeking a one-year deal for solid money, in a place where his stats could look even better next summer when the cap rises significantly (and then again in 2025-26, when it'll spike over $90 million). Unfortunately, that pivot happened after the Bruins had already committed their cap space to a handful of players, thinking Bertuzzi was out of their range. They were out.
The Maple Leafs did have the room for a short-term deal. Thus, an impact player moves from the Atlantic Division champs to their archrivals.
This is a tremendous move for the Leafs. Bertuzzi is a better offensive player than Bunting; as good a setup man as Bertuzzi is, it also wouldn't be hard to see him hit 30 goals again, as he did in 2021-22 with the Detroit Red Wings. Bertuzzi had 10 points in seven playoff games for Boston, as well. Bunting is probably the better defensive player, but that's not what kept Toronto from winning another playoff round last season. Being unable to score more than two goals in a game against the Florida Panthers did. Bertuzzi helps much more to that end.
But the biggest winner here is Bertuzzi. He gets to play on a contender -- Reynolds joked it's "three original six teams down, three to go" for Bertuzzi -- and probably gets to dish passes to and receive them from Matthews and Nylander. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Bertuzzi enters next summer seeking a long-term deal at his desired salary with career highs in goals and assists on his ledger.
We've seen players "bet on themselves" before. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But given the landscape and the destination, it's hard not to like this bet for Bertuzzi -- and the Leafs.
Terms: Three years, $4.5 million average annual value ($13.5 million total)
Where does he fit? This is take two for the Hurricanes. Last summer, they knew they needed to add goal scoring to their forward group to finally get over the hump in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So they acquired Max Pacioretty from the Vegas Golden Knights; he had scored 43 goals in his previous 87 games. However, Pacioretty ended up playing only five games for the Hurricanes due to injury before Carolina let him leave via free agency to the Washington Capitals this summer.
Bunting is the new hotness. He scored 46 goals along with 112 points in total over the past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While he obviously benefitted from playing with Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, Bunting also produced enough to earn his ice time with the Leafs' top players. He gave them a net-front presence and created space in the offensive zone for them to operate. It's rather easy to see Bunting cast in the same role with center Sebastian Aho and winger Seth Jarvis on the Hurricanes' top line. Bunting also should help on the power play.
Does it make sense? That really depends on how much one respects Bunting as an offensive force away from the highest of high-end talent. Over the past two seasons, Bunting and Matthews combined for a 3.65 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. With Bunting on the ice without Matthews, the Leafs averaged 2.88 expected goals per 60 minutes. Again, when one is playing with a top-five NHL goal scorer, those numbers are going to look more stellar than when he's not playing with Matthews. That's obvious. The question is how much Bunting can generate on his own and in another system.
Bunting's puck-retrieval skills and play around the net are going to benefit whomever he plays with on the Hurricanes. But if he can create more space for Aho to operate, that could be a boon to their offense. What they really need from Bunting is for him to finish chances. His goal totals over the past two seasons are encouraging.
What would make this signing really work is if Bunting could cut down on the penalties. His penalty minutes per game for Toronto last season was 1:15, the highest on the Leafs. His undisciplined hit on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak last postseason earned him a three-game suspension; that's not flying under Rod Brind'Amour.
All told, it's a good signing for Carolina given the contract terms, if not necessarily the goal-scoring guarantee that their lineup could use.
Terms: One year, $3 million
Where does he fit? Under a cowboy hat. The Stars had an intrinsic advantage in courting Duchene, in that he really enjoyed his time in Nashville and saw a similar existence possible in Dallas. Hence, he is now in the Big D.
Dallas was seeking to add a veteran scorer this offseason. There was some hope that Blake Wheeler might be an option, but it became clear he wanted to play in the Eastern Conference. What the Stars might not have anticipated was having Duchene hit the market, as Nashville bought out the last three years of his contract on Friday.
That left Duchene flush with cash, which meant he could take a short-term, low-cap-hit contract with the team of his choice. Dallas afforded him a great location, on a Stanley Cup-contending team with a chance to potentially play in its top six.
Does it make sense? Absolutely. Roope Hintz has the No. 1 center spot locked down. Wyatt Johnston, off a stellar rookie season, and Radek Faksa are the other primary options in the middle. Duchene could slot in between Jamie Benn and Evgenii Dadonov. Duchene could play with the likes of Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin. He could make a very good power play -- 25% conversion rate, fifth in the NHL -- even better.
Duchene, 32, is a top-six forward who creates a bunch at 5-on-5. He is two years removed from a 43-goal campaign with the Predators. To get a player of this caliber at $3 million at just a one-year term is incredible. It's reminiscent of when the Chicago Blackhawks signed a 34-year-old Brad Richards to a one-year deal worth $2 million after the New York Rangers bought him out in July 2014. Guess what the Blackhawks did that season?
Terms: Two years, $7.75 million AAV ($15.5 million total)
Where does he fit? When one thinks of the Carolina Hurricanes, one doesn't necessarily think of a team that needed to add the top defenseman in unrestricted free agency. They were pretty loaded, with Brent Burns, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei and potentially a reunion with Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Tony DeAngelo, as their trade for him wouldn't be allowed by the NHL until after July 7.
Yet here's Orlov, the closest thing to a top-pairing defenseman one could find in unrestricted free agency. He plays the left side, as does Slavin and Skjei. One imagines it'll be Skjei who sees his ice time take a hit as Orlov comes in -- unless, of course, more moves on the back end are ahead.
Does it make sense? Within the Hurricanes' salary structure, it actually does. They have the cap space to absorb a $7.75 million cap hit even without making additional moves. The two-year term, which one imagines is a function of the flat salary cap, is perfect. The Hurricanes' front office has set up a situation where Skjei, Pesce and Jalen Chatfield all come off the cap after next season; Orlov, Slavin and Burns all have two years left on their deals. That's a remarkable amount of flexibility.
As for on the ice, Orlov makes a great, deep group even better. He is a player who can generate offense, skates well and brings it physically. He is easily a Rod Brind'Amour-style player. Orlov also offers some insurance in case the Hurricanes have to make another move on their blue line with Pesce, who hasn't been close on a contract extension with Carolina. Orlov can anchor a pairing himself.
The rich got richer here. And so did Orlov, as the 31-year-old saw his cap number go from $5.1 million to $7.75 million, the 21st-highest-paid defenseman in the NHL. Which makes this deal a little too rich, if perfect on term.
Terms: Five years, $4 million AAV ($20 million total)
Where does he fit? In 2016, the Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup as champions of the American Hockey League. In goal, they had a two-headed monster: Anton Forsberg played 10 games in their playoff run, while Joonas Korpisalo played nine games.
So this is an unexpected reunion: Forsberg is entering his fourth season with the Senators. Thanks to his free-agent signing on July 1, Korpisalo is now his creasemate with the Senators, replacing Cam Talbot in the tandem.
Does it make sense? It does, but not completely. Obviously, the history between the two goalies should lead to instant harmony in the Senators' nets. Korpisalo is also an improvement over Talbot. Even if you want to view Korpisalo's outstanding 2022-23 campaign -- 39 games, .914 save percentage and a 2.87 goals against average with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings -- as an aberration, his body of work over the past two seasons was better than the goalie he is replacing.
The cap hit is great: $4 million would have made Korpisalo the 22nd-highest-paid goalie in the league last season.
The term is not. Five years for a goalie with Korpisalo's injury history is a risky investment. When he is healthy, he can be very good. When he's not, he either doesn't play or can be quite ineffective; he had a sub-.900 save percentage in consecutive seasons with the Blue Jackets before 2022-23. Five years for any goalie is going to get a middling grade from us. That's compounded for a goalie who has been as fragile as Korpisalo.
Terms: Four years, $4.5 million AAV ($18 million total)
Where does he fit? New Predators general manager Barry Trotz went to work this summer by excavating the team's center position. He bought out the last three years of Matt Duchene's contract. He traded Ryan Johansen to the Colorado Avalanche, retaining half his salary for the next two seasons. That meant clearing $4 million of Johansen's $8 million off the cap. Hey, look at that: Ryan O'Reilly is making $4.5 million. Out goes Johansen; in comes "The Factor."
O'Reilly isn't a top-line center at this stage of his career. On a team like Nashville, he is a strong second-line center. Ideally, he'd be what he was in Toronto -- an outstanding third-line center on a deep Stanley Cup contender. But given the Predators' depth chart currently, he might need to be more than that.
Does it make sense? There are probably fans around the NHL -- certainly in Toronto -- who are wondering how their teams couldn't get O'Reilly in at $4.5 million against the cap. True, four years for a 32-year-old in offensive-production decline might have scared away some teams.
But for the Predators, I love the fit. They're a young team with a clear and immediate need for help in the middle and can use the leadership and savvy that O'Reilly brings to the table. Cast in the right role, it's a strong add for the Preds. O'Reilly is still one of the league's best two-way centers.