By Allan Muir
There’s a good reason why so many hours are spent parsing the possibilities, news and impact of the NHL’s free agent frenzy.
We all love the idea of a quick fix.
Coming hot on the heels of the draft — a day when we talk about how much better every team will be so many years down the road — free agency is a chance to fill in the cracks now, to turn a mediocre team into a good one or elevate a good team into a Stanley Cup contender.
Or lead a team into financial ruin.
Hey, the easy road is never quite as easy as it looks. That’s why most teams either stayed out of the deep end of this year’s underwhelming pool of free agents or simply made smaller moves that allowed them to tread water. In many cases, that was the right course of action. But others held their noses and jumped. Here’s how they fared:
New York Islanders: This deal slipped under the radar on Free Agent Friday, but the more I think about the seven-year, $27 million extension the Isles gave to defenseman Travis Hamonic, the more I like it. He doesn’t play the sort of game that draws national attention, but he’s so steady and, at just 22, has only started to realize his potential. At worst, this is fair compensation for what he brings to the table, but I think it’ll look a lot better than that a couple of years from now. GM Garth Snow also re-upped goaltender Evgeni Nabokov for one last go (one year, $3.25 million) and took a one-year, $2 million flyer on offensively gifted, but eternally injured, forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard. That’s the sort of low risk move that could pay big dividends.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Facing the loss of three penalty killers and a tight cap situation, GM Ray Shero defied expectations by giving defenseman Kris Letang an eight-year, $58 million extension and re-signing forwards Pascal Dupuis (four years, $15 million) and Craig Adams (two years, $1.4 million) to maintain some level of stability. He later repatriated blueliner Rob Scuderi (four years, $13.5 million), who provides a familiar and dependable presence on the back end. These might seem like small victories, but given the alternative, it was a solid weekend for the Pens, who opted to let Jarome Iginla and Matt Cooke go.
Boston Bruins: How does a GM lose six players who skated in the Stanley Cup Final a month ago and pull out a win? Simple: by staying focused and staying within his means. Peter Chiarelli’s right side needed a revamp with Jaromir Jagr and Nathan Horton out of the mix and he attacked the process boldly. The trade to acquire Loui Eriksson and several prospects cost him 2010 second-overall pick Tyler Seguin, but the deal brought in a steady, two-way winger who fits perfectly in Boston’s system and cleared some cap space to help sign RFA Tuukka Rask.
Chiarelli was in the hunt for several top free agents to finish the makeover, most prominently Daniel Alfredsson, but came up short over and over again. A failure therewould have rubbed some of the gloss off the Eriksson deal, but he managed to talk Iginla into signing a bonus-heavy one-year contract that puts him in contention for a first-line slot and keeps the Bruins under the cap while making them a more dangerous team.
Detroit Red Wings: They easily offset the loss of Valtteri Filppula to Tampa Bay with the additions of second line power-ups Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss. Both contracts were well structured, with the 40-year-old Swede getting one bonus-heavy year at $5.5 million to chase the Cup and Weiss settling at $4.9 million for five years. That’s a reasonable term and cap hit for a player who should return to the 60-65 points range while playing sheltered minutes behind Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Edmonton Oilers: Craig MacTavish didn’t exactly knock it out of the park, but by adding a veteran presence on the blueline (Andrew Ference, four years at $13 million) and a hard-nosed bottom six forward (Boyd Gordon, three years at $9 million), he took two steps in the right direction. Neither of them came cheap, but there’s an expectation that overpayment has to be factored into any FA signings that the Oilers make.
Dallas Stars: They’ve been quiet in free agency, but GM Jim Nill engineered two trades that fundamentally changed the personality and potential of this team. There were risks involved in acquiring Seguin, but he’s the sort of ultra high-end talent that the Stars were never quite bad enough to draft themselves. Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley finish a smart remodeling of the center position. Bringing in three of Detroit’s top scouts heightens expectations of the talent yet to come. No team is more fundamentally different, and none is more clearly improved, than the Stars.
New Jersey Devils: From the high of the Cory Schneider trade to this, it was a crazy week for Lou Lamoriello. He couldn’t convince top goal scorer David Clarkson to stay, then back-filled that spot by dramatically overpaying Ryane Clowe (five years, $4.85 million per). The big winger went 28 games without scoring in San Jose before tallying in just two of his 14 with the Rangers. Not what you’d call “coming in hot.” The Michael Ryder deal was a better risk (two years at $3.5 million per), but he takes nearly as big a bite out of New Jersey’s team speed as does Clowe.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Look, everyone’s excited about adding David Clarkson, and there’s no doubt he’ll bring a physical presence to the top six that’s sorely needed. But he’s also a guy who has one season of 40-plus points on his resume, and the Leafs just handed him more than $5 million per over the next seven years. The money is unnerving, but the term is absolutely frightening. Let’s go ahead and set the over/under on when the Toronto media starts questioning the wisdom of this deal at February 2014. And $4.2 million for Tyler Bozak, a player with fourth-line talent who contributes only when he’s skating alongside Phil Kessel? Bad, bad decisions.
Columbus Blue Jackets: It’s no fun raining on the Blue Jackets’ parade. I mean, they finally convinced a high-end free agent in his prime to sign in Columbus and that’s a big turning point for the franchise. Good for them. But still … isn’t anybody worried that Nathan Horton was clear about wanting to leave the pressures of playing in Boston? What does that suggest about his level of motivation as an athlete? And while his $5.3 million cap hit is reasonable, that seven-year term carries a lot of risk, especially given his injury history.
Phoenix Coyotes: GM Don Maloney needed a high-skill forward to soup up the Coyotes’ stagnant power play, but placing such a heavy bet on Mike Ribeiro is risky. Is a career second banana capable of being the prime weapon? And remember, he’s 34 now, so that five-year deal means he’ll be asked to play like a top-six forward until he’s 39. That’s probably too much to ask. His $5.5 million hit is fine now, but it’ll be hard getting value for that money two or three years down the road.
Nashville Predators: Sure, they added four useful pieces in Viktor Stalberg (four years, $12 million), Eric Nystrom (four years, $10 million), Matt Hendricks (four years, $7.4 million) and Matt Cullen (two years, $7 million), and all of them are ideally suited to play Predators hockey, which is to say they’re hard-working and defensively responsible. But they also have hands of cement, which means Nashville’s glaring need for an offensive spark went unaddressed.
Philadelphia Flyers: Vincent Lecavalier will play top-six minutes, possibly alongside Claude Giroux, and he may put up decent numbers in the process … next season. But let’s not forget why the Bolts were willing to pay him $30 million to go away. He’s an old 33 and the returns were already diminishing as his aging legs are now a liability. Committing five years and $22.5 million to him sets the Flyers on course for another early buyout. Ray Emery (one year, $1.65 million) won’t be a dressing room distraction like the departed Ilya Bryzgalov, but his signing illustrates a commitment to bargain basement goaltending that’s resulted in disaster for past Philadelphia teams.
Tampa Bay Lightning: After buying out Lecavalier, Steve Yzerman’s prime need was a second-line center. He went back to his Detroit roots to sign Filppula, but he’s hardly a sure thing. Two years ago, he set career bests with 23 goals and 66 points, but he struggled last season, scoring just nine goals and 17 points. Sure the market was inflated, but five years at $5 million per is a big risk coming off a campaign like that. Yzerman still has two forward spots to fill, and just $1.7 million left to get it done, which means a move on the blueline — not exactly a strength last season — is coming.
Los Angeles Kings: There was lots of talk suggesting that they were in on Jarome Iginla — it’s easy to imagine how well he would have fit in with that group — but losing out on that bidding is nowhere near as painful as having to replace the steady Scuderi with Jeff Schultz (one year, $700,000), a player who could scarcely crack Washington’s D corps last season.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs needed an upgrade on their blueline. Nate Guenin, Nick Holden and Andre Benoit aren’t going to do the trick.