By Jordan Mazzara, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
When it comes to NHL free agency, struggling teams look for a saving grace while the perennial high achievers want to retain the players that got them there. It’s a game of musical chairs and nobody is immune, as even coach Barry Trotz found a new home with the Islanders just days after hoisting the Stanley Cup with Washington. These moves as well as trades impact team dynamics. Chemistry is a vital part of hockey — Patrick Maroon wouldn’t have put up 27 goals in 2016-17 if he wasn’t on a line with Connor McDavid — but it’s impossible to predict. Instead, we look at the talent of a line and project how they should perform.
For fantasy owners, examining offseason moves is a simple, albeit extremely important, way to get a leg up on the competition. Where will Ryan O’Reilly fit in with the Blues? Will the Maple Leafs really place John Tavares on the second line after he produced 84 points last season? Is Ilya Kovalchuk still an elite NHL talent? Can Carter Hutton be a worthy starting netminder?
Let’s look at how these new acquisitions may respond in their new cities this season.
Erik Karlsson – Defense – San Jose Sharks
At last, the Karlsson/Senators saga is over. The prized Swedish defender finally got shipped out of Canada’s capital to the Bay Area, where he’ll join forces with fellow stud blueliners Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The move is bound to have a ripple effect across the NHL as well as in fantasy circles, where owners will likely have a harder time than ever choosing between Karlsson and Burns on draft day. Of course, Karlsson’s upside in his new digs is arguably as high as ever given the upgrade in talent from the Sens to the Sharks, but it’s probably wise to be wary of the “too many cooks in the kitchen” theory. More specifically, could Burns’ prolific offensive output and penchant for throwing rubber on net — as well as the fact that Karlsson will no longer be counted on to do the heavy lifting in the scoring department — actually hinder the two-time Norris trophy winner’s fantasy production? Time will tell, but the fact that No. 65 is joining Team Teal is as exciting from a fantasy standpoint as John Tavares suiting up for the Leafs.
John Tavares – Center – Toronto
Easily the most anticipated move of free agency, Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Toronto. It was a well-deserved chunk of change, as the 27-year-old racked up 37 goals and 84 points in his contract season while playing on the top line with the Islanders. It’ll be an odd situation with the Maple Leafs, however, since Auston Matthews remains the face of their franchise and the team’s No. 1 center, leaving Tavares on the second line — which is a night-and-day improvement from Nazem Kadri. Still, Tavares only has so much room to grow on the second line, but his linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, who produced 69 points and 40 points last year, respectively, should see an uptick in scoring. All in all, the Tavares acquisition shook the hockey world and made the Maple Leafs a legitimate Cup contender.
Ryan O’Reilly – Center – St. Louis
O’Reilly was due a massive $7.5 million payment by the end of the day on July 1, and it was rumored he’d be virtually immovable if the Sabres had to pay that. The Blues, who missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, swooped in hours before the deadline and agreed to pay the tab by sending a pair of underperforming veterans, a prospect and draft picks to Buffalo. The 27-year-old, who has registered three straight campaigns with over 20 points with the man advantage, provides an instant boost to a Blues power-play unit that ranked 30th in the league last season with a 15.5 percent conversion rate. It’s unclear where he’ll fit in at even strength, but most signs point to a line with Vladimir Tarasenko, which could vault O’Reilly into 60-point range once again.
Ilya Kovalchuk – Right Wing – Los Angeles
Finally loopholed out of his contract with the Devils, Kovalchuk had plenty of teams vying for his services upon returning from the KHL. He opted for the Kings, as they offered three years at an average of $6.25 million. It’s a steep price to dish out for a forward that hasn’t played in the NHL since the 2012-13 campaign, but he maintained a point-per-game pace — 417 goals and 816 points in 816 games — through 11 seasons in the league, and he’s maintained that rate through five seasons in the KHL. He’s slated for top line duties in L.A., which could further solidify Anze Kopitar’s offensive output, but fantasy owners should be modest with their projections as Kovalchuk adjusts to the NHL game, which includes smaller ice and all-around better talent.
Carter Hutton – Goaltender – Buffalo
Hutton is the reason the Blues had a fighting chance at the playoffs last season, but the team reaffirmed its faith in Jake Allen. With that, Hutton headed to Buffalo on a three-year deal worth $8.25 million, which will be highway robbery if he performs at the level he did last season, when he logged league highs in save percentage (0.931) and GAA (2.09). The 32-year-old has never had a starting gig, however, so no one is sure if he can handle a 60-game workload and the pressures that come with it. The new situation is bound to create growing pains as well, since the Sabres revamped their offense and will lean on rookie Rasmus Dahlin on the blue line. Still, the squad appears to have offensive depth to support Hutton’s adjustment period, making him something of a sleeper in most fantasy settings.
Paul Stastny – Center – Vegas
The Golden Knights were relatively quiet during free agency, but they secured Stastny to quarterback the second line and secondary power-play unit. Stastny is coming off a solid season with the Blues and the Jets that featured 16 goals and 53 points through 82 games. Though he’s a reliable forward, Stastny can’t replace the production of James Neal and David Perron, who combined for 41 goals and 110 points in 2017-18 before signing elsewhere in July. Stastny’s Sin City linemates, regardless of who they are, will be downgrades compared to Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Laine, so Stastny may regress into the 40-point range once again.