Free agency's early winners and losers
This is reminiscent of Christmas morning, standing knee-deep in crumpled wrapping paper, boxes torn asunder, ribbons in the hair or behind the dog's ears and the overwhelming feeling of that's it?
This is how NHL general managers must feel when they survey the free-agency landscape. Less than three days into the free-agency period and almost every top player was gone, swooped up in an orgy of spending that makes one wonder what the heck the lockout was for.
Of course, seeing the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes and other former shy, retiring franchises in the middle of the fray reminds us of exactly why, in theory, the lockout took place.
Free agency has become every team's nirvana -- whether a team takes part or not, spends the money to play or saves it for a rainy day -- the bottom line is every team that has managed itself correctly had a chance to sign Ed Jovanovski at noon ET Saturday. And if teams didn't have the wherewithal or the inclination this season, they'll have the same opportunity in a year's time to sign next summer's Jovanovski or pick up Zdeno Chara. Assuming they haven't run their franchise into the ground, never a safe assumption in the NHL.
Now, it's not so much how much you spend, but what you've learned, and with only a handful of meaningful free agents left on the market as of Wednesday, the power dynamics already have been redefined throughout the NHL.
Here's a look at where teams were when the wrappers came off Christmas morning, er, July 1.
Two big men and a new name
OK, Chris Pronger's arrival in Anaheim, where they're just "The Ducks," wasn't a free-agency deal but a trade forced by Pronger's familial needs to get out of Edmonton. But Anaheim GM Brian Burke made room for Pronger by allowing free agent Ruslan Salei to sign in Florida and giving up Joffrey Lupul and promising defensive prospect Ladislav Smid plus three draft picks. Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe noted that the Blues didn't win many (any?) championships when both Al MacInnis and Pronger were patrolling the blue line in St. Louis, but we like the idea of Pronger and Scott Niedermayer laying waste to the competition in the West next season. In fact, given the ice time both men log, it's possible coach Randy Carlyle will have to use only five defensemen, cutting down on Burke's need to bring in free-agent help.
As for the Oil
Having been dropped like a hot potato by the Pronger family, the Oilers will look to replicate the successes of Buffalo and Carolina by building a defense by committee as opposed to a defense built around a dominant force. The problem for Lowe is that only remainder-bin defensemen are left on the open market. With Brendan Witt signing with Long Island and Aaron Ward off to the New York Rangers and Jaroslav Spacek out the door after playing so well for Edmonton in the postseason, Lowe's blue line right now is going to look a lot like the Atlanta Thrashers'.
We know nothing
Hands up all the hockey prognosticators who predicted former Olympian Jovanovski would end up in the desert? Not you, Mike Barnett. All concerned in the hockey world and their trained chimps expected Jovanovski would end up in Florida with Todd Bertuzzi, but Coyotes GM Barnett made the best early strike of the offseason by showing up at the doorstep of Jovanovski's agent, Don Meehan, and signing the big puck-moving defenseman to a five-year, $32.5 million deal, thus changing the dynamics in the West.
Yes, Jovanovski is coming off an injury-plagued 2005-06 campaign in which he played just 44 games, but he is made for the new NHL. Along with the addition of big Nick Boynton, the Coyotes suddenly have one of the most interesting blue line corps in the league, with Derek Morris, young stud Keith Ballard and emerging blueliner Zbynek Michalek. The desert dogs still lack enough offensive zest to be a contender, but Barnett has taken care of the most important part of building a playoff team.
As for the addition of the hard-lobbying free agent Jeremy Roenick, there are two possibilities. Either he becomes a candidate for comeback player of the year or he becomes Brett Hull redux. As much as Roenick claims he's all about hockey and not the glamour, we encourage Hull to make room on the tee box.
Introducing John Ferguson Jr.
The McCabe thing
For many days, it looked as though McCabe was balking at signing his five-year, $28.75 million deal. Rumors persisted that McCabe's wife, who is from Long Island, did not want to return to Toronto. At an emotional news conference last week, McCabe revealed that his wife actually had been suffering a serious medical condition after childbirth. He then flayed the media (what else is new) for their reportage of the situation. Um, hello. Pick up a phone. Send an e-mail. Between the Leafs and McCabe, all this could have been put to rest in a moment with a press release saying McCabe was going to sign but had been delayed with a personal health issue. Simple. But in Toronto, notwithstanding Ferguson's yeoman work in recent days, few things are done simply and, in the end, it's always the media's fault. How convenient.
What a coincidence
Did anyone else think it a curious coincidence the most prominent defenseman available on the free market this summer, Chara, came from Ottawa, where new Boston GM Peter Chiarelli still works? Sort of? Anyone? The league is confident Chiarelli had nothing to do with the deal that saw Chara land in Boston in the first hours of free agency. OK. Whatever you say. Certainly, the fact Ottawa GM John Muckler's offer to Chara was about $1.5 million less a season than the Bruins offered is probably more a factor than Chiarelli, but the optics aren't particularly good. Of course, if Muckler and the Senators hadn't been such hard-noses about letting Chiarelli take on his new role in Boston and hadn't forced him to stick around until after the draft, maybe their karma would have been better. But karma has never been the Sens' strong suit.
Big man in Beantown
Are the Boston Bruins, as some in the business insist, finally on the right track to respectability having hired (sort of) Chiarelli away from Ottawa as GM and Dave Lewis as coach? Or are they doomed, a la Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," to repeat the same egregious errors? Evidence supports both theories early in this offseason.
First, by landing Chara, the Bruins are banking that the hulking, 6-foot-9, 260-pound defender's tepid performance in the playoffs against Buffalo was part of a team meltdown and not symptomatic of a guy not answering the bell. For $7.5 million annually, Chara has to become Pronger-like. This will be his first starring role, and it will be interesting to see how Chara adjusts to the pressure of being "the man" as opposed to a supporting member. If he becomes that player, the Bruins should be back in the playoff hunt.
The big question about Lewis is whether he has learned from his disappointing run as coach in Detroit after a long and successful tenure as Scotty Bowman's assistant there. Lewis was deemed too nice to prod the talented Wings into playoff success, and he was dumped after two seasons. Now, he has his hands full with a team that lacks cohesion and leadership.
Which brings us to Marc Savard. The talented forward enjoyed a career year in 2005-06 in Atlanta, finishing with 97 points. But he is one-dimensional and has a penchant for taking bad offensive-zone penalties, the kind that suck the life out of a club trying to make the playoffs. Can Lewis get Savard to be a leader and complete player? If he can't, the Bruins figure to be much like the Bruins of a year ago, which is not very good.
Having said that
We were among the most critical of Muckler's ham-fisted handling of his goaltending situation last year. By refusing to acquire a veteran backup when Dominik Hasek went down like a sack of potatoes at the Olympics, Muckler might have cost his team a Stanley Cup. He then compounded his shortsightedness by insisting Hasek was still the man for the Sens next season, even though coach Bryan Murray visibly blanched at the idea. Muckler did come to his senses, though, and signed Martin Gerber away from the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Swiss sensation has the tools to take the Sens where they haven't been before. Muckler also proved decisive in his decision to target Wade Redden as a priority, then sign underappreciated Joe Corvo to help balance the Sens' back end.
Memo to Larry Pleau and John Davidson: Where do we get tickets for the 1996 World Cup of Hockey reunion tour? With Keith Tkachuk already under contract, Pleau surprised no one by returning free agent Doug Weight after his Cup-winning stint in Carolina. Fair enough. Assuming his injured shoulder heals, Weight remains a skillful puck-moving forward who should complement Tkachuk's bullish style. But signing Bill Guerin, recently bought out by the Dallas Stars, makes little sense other than to occupy a dressing room stall that might otherwise have been used by a young player. Although he had three goals in five playoff games, Guerin had just 13 in 70 regular-season games last season. Surely the $2 million could have been put to better use by a team that needs to win over fans after an abysmal 2005-06 season.
On the plus side of the ledger, the Blues' acquisition of Jay McKee -- although at an inflated rate of $16 million over four years -- gives St. Louis a surprisingly solid blue line that includes Eric Brewer, former rookie of the year Barret Jackman, Christian Backman, Dennis Wideman and likely Kevin Dallman. We also love the addition of Cup winner Dan Hinote.
Apparently, the mail takes a little longer to get to Minnesota, but now that the Wild are aware there's a salary cap and the lockout is over, GM Doug Risebrough is on the job. Risebrough insists the fact the Wild essentially made no moves last season was part of the plan to assess homegrown talent and resist overspending in an unknown market. But having missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, Risebrough is helping the team move forward with the acquisition at draft day of proven, underappreciated scorer Pavol Demitra, then by adding homegrown forward Mark Parrish, smooth-skating defenseman Kim Johnsson, late of Philadelphia, and veteran rearguard stalwart Keith Carney via free agency. If Risebrough can lasso restricted free agent Marian Gaborik without a protracted holdout, the Wild should be in the mix for a playoff berth next spring.
Who are you, and what have you done with the Rangers?
Got to love the discipline shown by New York GM Glen Sather and his main man, assistant GM Don Maloney. The team did not deviate from its plan and overspend on Patrik Elias, who remained in New Jersey. Neither did the Blueshirts blow their bankroll on McKee, although they liked him immensely. Instead, they added two Cup winners from Carolina: skilled forward Matt Cullen, who brings a boatload of character, and rock-solid defender Aaron Ward. After re-signing Martin Straka, the Rangers look to build on their surprising performance of last season with discipline instead of mindless splurging. Kudos.
Less is more
You've got to love Nashville GM David Poile. A year ago, he stunned many with his acquisition of former superstar Paul Kariya. This summer, he added perhaps the best free-agent center in the market, Jason Arnott, with what might be the team's only free-agent move of the summer. Sometimes surly Arnott enjoyed a career year in Dallas last season (32 goals, 76 points) and is exactly what the well-coached, defensively sound Predators were missing last season, especially in their first-round loss to San Jose, where the Sharks' depth down the middle overpowered the Preds. Arnott is looking to step into a starring role, and he'll get that opportunity in Nashville. That Poile couldn't or wouldn't sign defenseman Witt to a new deal after giving up a first-round pick to Washington at the trade deadline in March is a bit of a blemish (Witt signed with the Islanders). But the Preds are deep along the blue line, and if Tomas Vokoun recovers from his weird blood ailment, Nashville should return to the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Wallflower Committee
Interesting to note that the teams that have been relatively silent on the free-agent front this summer were many of the teams that were overly active last summer. What's that old saying, "Once bitten, twice shy"?
Chicago GM Dale Tallon seems to have learned his lesson and is hoping his considerable war chest of young talent will carry the day for the beleaguered Blackhawks as opposed to the wild spending that crippled the team last summer. New GM Ray Shero has been largely silent in Pittsburgh, as well, but his strength likewise is in the likes of young gems Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney and newly drafted Jordan Staal. Sometimes, the best moves are the ones not made.
Still, long-suffering Washington fans might have been happier if the Caps had shown some sort of pulse, but once again, it appears they'll simply hope someone will show up to see Alexander Ovechkin skate his brains out and Olaf Kolzig get shelled with 40 shots a game.
So, who's left?
Sweep away some of that wrapping paper and string and you'll see there are some hidden gems left on the market, and more than a few fliers.
• In terms of goaltenders, Hall of Fame-bound Ed Belfour is still looking for work, but a chronically wonky back and woeful performance last season make him a huge risk for a team that is thinking of him as a starter. (Detroit is a rumored destination, but that makes absolutely no sense.) Manny Legace, who was the toast of the league early last season and who finished with a sparkling 37-8-3 record but couldn't deliver in the playoffs, is still available and would be a fine addition to any dressing room.
• There's a guy named Hasek still available, although after the fiasco of last season, when he did not play again after an injury at the Olympics, it's hard to believe there'll be many suitors.
• As we mentioned, the defensive market has all but dried up, with Brian Leetch still available, and what about Kenny Jonsson, the most valuable defenseman for the gold-medal winning Swedes at the Olympics? If Jonsson decides to end his self-imposed exile to the second division in Sweden, he could be a lovely dark horse addition.
• Michael Peca followed a disastrous regular season in Edmonton with a world-class playoffs, but he's a different cat and teams have been slow to ante up.
• Rumors abound that Brendan Shanahan is either off to Boston, Toronto or St. Louis or staying in Detroit. With Steve Yzerman retiring, there might be more room for another graybeard in Motown, but it might be better for all concerned if Shanahan went elsewhere.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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