Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The main theme for this year’s free agent class was a simple one: slim pickings. Most of the potential big name free agents had either locked up to long-term deals before July 1st even came (Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Devin Setoguchi are examples), but there were still some solid players available. Brad Richards, Tomas Vokoun, and Ville Leino were all among the available players when the bidding opened on Friday afternoon, and while only Leino was signed from that group, there was still plenty of action to keep fans satisfied.
While the free agency period is far from over with some of the names still left on the board, who were the big winners and losers from the opening day of the proceedings? Which teams’ moves have their fortunes headed in the right direction, and which clubs would have been better off leaving their wallets at home for this one? Here is a quick breakdown of some of the biggest successes and failures of July 1st:
The Hurricanes did lose Erik Cole to the Montreal Canadiens (more on this move later), but they were able to make a couple of solid acquisitions anyway. They got Tim Brent from the Maple Leafs in a smart signing, signed Brian Boucher to back-up Cam Ward, and brought in well-traveled winger Alex Ponikarovsky. None of the moves were particularly splashy, but they are nice complimentary pieces for a team that is built around players like Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Cam Ward. There really weren’t any game-changers on defense available for the Canes, but they were smart not to overpay for any of the options that were out there.
Chicago has been known for the past few years as a team that is willing to make a splash on July 1st. In 2008 they signed Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet to contracts, and in 2009 they brought in Marian Hossa in a blockbuster move. Last year they were hamstrung by salary cap issues, but this year they had money available and they spent some of it wisely. They brought in a slew of veterans, including Andrew Brunette to help their power play and Sean O’Donnell to help their defensive toughness. Add in the signings of Jamal Mayers and Brett McLean, and you have a nice group of role players to complement the team’s existing pieces. To boot, they still have nearly $8 million in cap space if they want to make other moves later. A nice day overall for Stan Bowman.
*UPDATE: The Blackhawks have come to terms with Daniel Carcillo on a one-year contract. While he obviously gives the team a grittier edge, he essentially serves the same purpose as Mayers and John Scott. Not sure where he fits in with this squad, but time will tell if he’s part of the regular rotation.
Columbus Blue Jackets:
A lot of folks are appalled at the contract that the Jackets gave to defenseman James Wisniewski, but the investment was clearly made for a reason. The team felt that it needed to try to acquire a top line defenseman in order to compete for a playoff spot (especially with Jeff Carter shoring up their offense), and Wisniewski fit that bill in a weak class. He can play well on offense, and he also isn’t afraid to throw his weight around physically. He should add some good toughness to a Jackets bunch in need of it, and he could thrive if paired with Fedor Tyutin on the blue line.
A lot of mockery has occurred this afternoon as Panthers GM Dale Tallon made a slew of acquisitions, but in a weak free agent class, Tallon did what he needed to do in order to make this team into a playoff contender. He traded for Kris Versteeg, signed free agents Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, and Ed Jovanovski, and in general tried to revamp the team’s roster in a hurry. Sure, he likely overspent on players, but if teams like the Islanders have proven anything, it’s that lower-tier teams need to spend more money in order to attract free agent talent. It will be interesting to see if all of these players will gel together on South Beach.
The Penguins may have lost out on Jaromir Jagr (more on him later), but they did make a nice pick-up when they signed Steve Sullivan away from the Predators, and they also made a shrewd move in re-signing Tyler Kennedy to a very cap friendly contract. The Pens have been criticized for not spending a lot of money to obtain winger help for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but their investments on defense and in their group of centers have paid dividends for this perennial playoff contender, and Sullivan could work very well on one of the team’s top two lines.
The Canucks re-signed Kevin Bieksa before he could become a free agent, and even with the loss of Christian Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres they still look to be in good shape to compete in the West. Bringing back Sami Salo and Chris Higgins at reasonable prices helps keep their depth largely intact, and the signing of Marco Strum could prove to be one of the more underrated quality moves of this free agency cycle. Mike Gillis is the reigning GM of the Year for a reason, and he showed a lot of smarts in not overpursuing players this afternoon.
The Capitals may have slightly overpaid for Troy Brouwer at the Draft, but GM George McPhee made some great moves this afternoon. He turned goalie-on-the-outs Semyon Varlamov into a 2012 1st round pick and a potential 2nd rounder in that same Draft, and he also signed some key role players in Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, and Roman Hamerlik. Things could start to get tricky for the Caps cap-wise, but the players they added today definitely give them some more toughness in a conference that requires that trait to be successful.
The Avalanche were in desperate need of a goaltender going into today, and while they did not land Vokoun, they did pick up a couple of keepers, but at a steep price. Their first round pick in 2012, which could end up being one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, will be a valuable chip, and giving up what could be a high second rounder in that same draft could come back to bite them. Their pickups of Chuck Kobasew and Jan Hejda (although they overpaid slightly for him) could prove to be good, but giving up what could potentially be franchise-making picks for a guy who has yet to really prove himself feels desperate.
The Oilers made one of the better pick-ups of July 1st when they signed Eric Belanger to a cap-friendly contract, but they also made a couple of other questionable moves. They gave Ben Eager a three-year contract, and considering how much of a liability he was for San Jose in the 2011 playoffs, that could be a misstep for a team trying to rebuild. They also gave Cam Barker a $2.25 million contract, despite the fact that he so horribly bombed out in Minnesota. Factor in the missteps in trades they’ve made recently (both Gilbert Brule and Colin Fraser were injured, but Edmonton attempted to trade them anyway), and you have an organization that seems to be flailing a bit. They’ll have to hope that Eager and Darcy Hordichuk can behave themselves and defend their talented stable of forwards on the ice.
The Canadiens gave Peter Budaj a two-year contract (perhaps not the greatest idea), but their big move of July 1st was the signing of Erik Cole. He gives them a big-bodied forward with some scoring touch, but for the most part Cole’s success in this league has been a result of playing on the same line with Eric Staal in Carolina. Will he be able to have a talented-enough teammate to raise his game in Montreal? It seems unlikely, but only time will tell.
New York Islanders:
The Islanders’ signing of Marty Reasoner was a solid pick-up, but their relative quietness leading into the free agency period shows just how long of a way to go this franchise has. They traded a fourth round pick for an exclusive negotiating window with Christian Ehrhoff, and even pleas from his former Vancouver teammate Michael Grabner (and a lucrative contract offer) weren’t enough to lure him to Long Island. This team has made a lot of positive steps, but their reputation for lackluster play is continuing to dog them in their pursuits to get better, and that is unfortunate.
The Flyers got some really solid value when they dealt Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and they made it clear that they were trying to improve the atmosphere in their locker room. Even the trade of Kris Versteeg to Florida this afternoon was a good cap-space clearing move in their efforts to acquire Brad Richards, but they undid a lot of their work toward improving chemistry with their acquisitions today. Jaromir Jagr not only hasn’t played in the league in three years, but he also isn’t the easiest person to get along with in the dressing room. The team also gave Max Talbot a five year contract, which seems excessive for a guy who has scored 10 goals in the past two years. Mike Holmgren has taken a lot of heat for his moves in dismantling a 106-point team, but it was today that really drove the point home that he may be taking his ship in the wrong direction.
The Jets came into today with plenty of money to spend and a fanbase to try to woo, but all they did was sign Derek Meech to a contract. This team has a lot of work to do if they want to compete in the Southeast Division this season, and they will have their work cut out for them next year when they switch to the Western Conference. Winnipeg has some solid players like Ondrej Pavelec and Andrew Ladd to work with, but they need to start restocking the cupboard sooner rather than later.
*UPDATE: The Jets signed Tanner Glass to a one-year deal. Could be a savvy move by them to add depth to their forward corps.
Unquestionably one of the most active teams in recent days, the Sabres have made some major strides in re-shaping their roster, but the cost of the moves puts them in the “toss-up” category. Christian Ehrhoff may have a fair cap hit at only $4 million, but the 10-year term of the deal could be excessive. Ville Leino was also brought in by the Sabres, but is a 6-year deal for a guy who only has 30 career goals really that wise of an investment? He does have upside, but the question remains whether Buffalo will be kicking themselves over that contract in the future. If the Sabres are able to grab Brad Richards, they will certainly have to be viewed as an early season Cup contender.
Even while losing Richards, the Stars made a ton of moves on July 1st. They brought in Michael Ryder and Vernon Fiddler at reasonable rates, and while they may have overpaid for Adam Pardy, the big question mark for them is whether or not their signing of Sheldon Souray will pan out. He is only slated to make $1.65 million in his one year deal, so if he can recapture the form he showed before things went south with Edmonton, he could be an absolute steal. If he ends up being rusty and unable to contribute, he’ll be considered a huge dud. If the Stars want to make the playoffs, they will definitely need him to step up.
Detroit Red Wings:
The Red Wings overpaid for Jonathan Ericsson when they re-signed him before free agency started, but they may have made up for it on Friday. They got Patrick Eaves to re-sign for a reasonable $1.2 million cap hit for three years, and they also got Drew Miller back for just about $800K per season. The wild card for them will be the performance of Mike Commodore, a talented defenseman who ended up on the outs with Columbus. If he can regain his form, he will be well worth the $1 million flyer that the Wings took on him.
The Coyotes have lost several key players, including Bryzgalov, Jovanovski, and Belanger to free agency, but they made some decent pick-ups Friday. They brought in Raffi Torres for a fair price to give them some toughness and occasional scoring touch, and also got sniper Radim Vrbata to re-sign for a fair price of $3 million a season for three years. Their big question mark will be whether they made the right choice in bringing Mike Smith on-board to compete with Jason Labarbera to compete for the starting goaltender job. Will Smith be able to grab the reins and help this defense-first squad win, or will he back-slide into the shadows like he did with the Lightning last season? That will be a key question for Phoenix going forward.